This is the fourth poem of Conversations with Viral Media, a series of publicly posted broadsheets that contain poems written in response to viral video, stills from those videos, and QR codes linking to the videos themselves. They are intended to comment on the way that viral videos can function as symptoms of our cultural dysfunction. They will be released periodically until I get bored. Links to all of the poems with their videos can be found on the Conversations with Viral Media page.
This is the third poem of Conversations with Viral Media, a series of publicly posted broadsheets that contain poems written in response to viral video, stills from those videos, and QR codes linking to the videos themselves. They are intended to comment on the way that viral videos can function as symptoms of our cultural dysfunction. They will be released periodically until I get bored. Links to all of the poems with their videos can be found on the Conversations with Viral Media page.
This is the second poem of Conversations with Viral Media, a series of publicly posted broadsheets that contain poems written in response to viral video, stills from those videos, and QR codes linking to the videos themselves. They are intended to comment on the way that viral videos can function as symptoms of our cultural dysfunction. They will be released periodically until I get bored. Links to all of the poems with their videos can be found on the Conversations with Viral Media page.
This is the first poem of Conversations with Viral Media, a series of publicly posted broadsheets that contain poems written in response to viral video, stills from those videos, and QR codes linking to the videos themselves. They are intended to comment on the way that viral videos can function as symptoms of our cultural dysfunction. They will be released periodically until I get bored. Links to all of the poems with their videos can be found on the Conversations with Viral Media page.
I watched Sunset Limited a few months ago, jotted down some thoughts the next morning, but then forgot about it until I was going back through my notebooks, which is why I’m only posting it now. The film is written by Cormac Mccarthy, directed by Tommy Lee Jones, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones. It’s comprised of a single conversation in a small apartment — ninety minutes of dialogue relieved by only the most inconsequential action, like taking a piss or putting soup on the stove.
The premise of the film is that BLack (played by Samuel L. Jackson) has prevented White (played by Tommy Lee Jones) from jumping in front of a train. Black, who is a former convict and a deeply religious man, tries to rescue White, who is a deeply atheist professor, from his emotional and spiritual crisis.
The starkness of the film is profound. Not only is is strictly limited in place and time, but the set is sparse, almost rudimentary. There is no music or sound effects, only ambient sound, except for an eerie sort of noise that sounds when each of the men come to the crisis of his argument.
In this sense, Sunset Limited directly contrasts popular movie making, which constantly overwhelms the viewer with audio and video excess, with relentless action, and with an ever-cutting camera, to the point where dialogue and character development are almost irrelevant. Without these distractions, the script of Sunset Limited must stand entirely on its own, for ninety minutes, without relief, a task that it usually accomplishes.
The staging sometimes feels a little forced, with the characters changing locations on the set more frequently and with less motivation than would be normal for a real conversation, but the dialogue is generally natural and free, a serious accomplishment, especially considering that the conversation takes up topics — religion, morality, death, personal responsibility, and so on — that can quickly feel heavy and awkward.
The discomfort of the film is precisely in this contrast between its visual starkness and its conversational depth, in the sparseness of the space that it uses to confront the profoundness of its moral questions. In this sense the film does what McCarthy always does, relentlessly, in every book and film he writes — he present us with the moral question of what we are in ways that are difficult to avoid.
A friend of mine once said to me, “I don’t like McCarthy. He always makes me uncomfortable.” And that’s true. His work is often uncomfortable because of its intensely moral character, in the sense that it confronts us with the nature of our inhumanity, which is always an uncomfortable experience.
This is why McCarthy’s voice is such an important one in American culture, because he insists that his work perform this moral function, no matter the genre, whether he is writing westerns, or cop dramas, or gangster films. He contradicts the assumption, now thoroughly ingrained in us, that art should be merely entertainment, should leave us feeling content and comfortable, should leave our understanding of ourselves largely unchallenged. What his writing does is make us sit with the questions we would rather ignore.
In the case of Sunset Limited, he makes us sit with questions of faith, morality, meaning, death, and human responsibility, makes us sit in close proximity to them, in a cramped apartment, with no other distraction, until we are forced (like his protagonists) either to flee the room or remain and be broken by them.
I just finished reading Nickel Mountain by John Gardner. I’m restricting myself to one Gardner novel a year, just to make them last longer, and this one was (as almost all of them are) well worth the wait. It has all his capacity for creating a sense of the uncanny in the everyday, for revealing the profound in the common, for creating human-impossibly-human characters. It’s a beautiful book.
All of which brought me to wonder, however, why Gardner has largely been forgotten by literary posterity. After all, he was famous during his lifetime, not only as a novelist, but also as a critic and as a creative writing instructor. He also wrote children’s stories (strange and beautiful), translations, poetry, and biography. One of his books on writing, On Moral Fiction, is among my favourites in the genre. Of the novels I have read — Mickelsson’s Ghosts, The Sunlight Dialogues, Nickel Mountain, October Light, and Grendel — I would rank all but October Light (because it seems a failed experiment to me) and Grendel (because it is great in a far different way) as the best novels in the Faulknerian tradition between when Faulkner himself died and Cormac McCarthy published Suttree (though I concede that there might be more than a few who would dispute this evaluation). Still, his work was influential enough while he was alive and is of a caliber even still that it deserves far better recognition than the occasional inclusion of Grendel on some university syllabus to serve as a modern comparison to Beowulf.
The reason for this neglect, I think (and I do absolutely mean to cast some shade here), is that readers, even those who read so-called literary books, are too often unwilling to read books that take work. I have been told over and over again, by otherwise “good readers”, that certain writers — like Faulkner and Lowry and Bolano and Pynchon and Llossa and McCarthy (his Suttree and The Orchard Keeper especially) and yes, Gardner — are too difficult. They move slowly. Their sentences are unwieldy. Their formal experimentation is off-putting. Their description is excessive. Their plots are ambiguous. And so on.
What most readers want, even in their literary books, is something easy on the palette. They want to be able to say, “It was a real page-turner. I couldn’t put it down. Stayed up half the night to finish it.” They want obvious motivation and character. They want easily recognizable plot structures. They want minimal description and reflection, maximum action and snappy dialogue. In other words, they want the print version of a Hollywood film.
All of which is fine, I guess, but it means that most readers are missing out on some of literature’s great books. A little patience, a little effort, would open up some truly wonderful literary experiences. You might be okay with that, but you shouldn’t be. You should read Gardner, at least once a year, and savor each one until there are no more.
I was reading boingboing today and followed a link to an article by Elizabeth Minkel in the NewStatesman that compares the media response to different sorts of fandom. Minkel notes that the emotional reaction from young girls to Zayn Malik leaving One Direction was roundly mocked, but that a similarly emotional reaction from middle-aged men to Jeremy Clarkson leaving Top Gear was mostly met with sympathy. She argues that this disparity in treatment of the two sets of fans is directly tied to gender, a conclusion that I think is accurate (although I would add that it is probably also related to age). To this extent, I agree with Minkel. The way the media responded to these two situations reveals, once again, that our culture still has a profound gender-bias.
I disagree, however, with the underlying implication that we should treat Zayn Milik’s fans with the same sympathy as Jeremy Clarkson’s. Quite the opposite. We should treat them both with the same apprehension and alarm. We need to realize, not with mockery but with concern, that it is in fact ridiculous for young girls to invest themselves so deeply in the members of a boy band, and that it is just as ridiculous for middle-aged men to invest themselves so deeply in the host of a car show. The strange bit isn’t that we mock Zayn Malik’s fans. The strange bit is that we don’t mock Jeremy Clarkson’s fans just as much, or even more, considering that they might be expected to have matured a little by their age. The problem isn’t that we criticize the fans of boy bands. The problem is that we don’t equally criticize fans of other actors, musicians, athletes, and every other kind of celebrity that gets trotted out across our media consciousness.
The fact that grown men pay huge amounts of money to gather in the thousands at sporting events, drink too much, paint their naked bellies, scream at the top of their lungs, and sometimes do violence to each other is without doubt bizarre in the extreme. The fact that young girls exhibit similar behaviours at pop concerts is equally bizarre. The obvious gender-bias in their media portrayal should not obscure the fact that both are deeply problematic symptoms of a culture that has been distracted from anything resembling a significant issue by the worship of celebrities.
Now, I have no interest in cars. I don’t even own one. I’ve never seen an episode of Top Gear, and I wouldn’t recognize Jeremy Clarkson if he was right next to me having a fit about his lunch. But I do like to play sports, even watch them occasionally. I also like music of many different kinds (even if One Direction isn’t one of those kinds). Despite my interest in these things, however, I can’t imagine being invested enough in their celebrity culture to be considered a fan. I might have an opinion as to the skill of these celebrities (I might think that Daniel Day Lewis is an excellent actor, for example, and that Tosin Abasi is an excellent guitarist, and that Tim Duncan is an excellent basketball player), but I have nothing invested in them. Their retirements, even their deaths, would have almost no effect on my life.
And they shouldn’t. My time and my energy and my money and my passion need to be invested in the real people around me, in the real lives that they live, in the real issues that they face. Think of what we could accomplish with even a fraction of the resources that we dedicate to our celebrity culture. Think of the changes that could be made to real lives if we weren’t so distracted by our ridiculous fandoms.
Religion is no longer the opiate of the masses. Sports and entertainment now play that role, and whether it’s young girls crying about One Direction or middle-aged men crying about Top Gear, we have to stop pretending that any of these obsessions are worthy of sympathy.
One of the most dangerous ideas afflicting our culture today is that of balance. We talk about balancing career and family, or having a balanced diet, or keeping a balanced perspective, but when we live like this, constantly afraid to do anything that might upset the carefully constructed balance of our lives, we also fail to believe and to do the things that are truly important. Living a balanced life permits no great loves, no great deeds, no great passions.
Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone should run out and throw themselves into some craziness or another just to add spice to their lives. What I’m suggesting is that we forgo a life of cautious balance in favour of the tension that lies between great and driving passions.
Let me be clear here. Being passionate in this way does not mean following your bliss. It does not mean dancing like no one is watching. It means loving things worth loving, and loving them so much that you are willing to do and to be and to sacrifice whatever they require of you. It means loving family and community, friendship and conviviality, justice and hospitality, mercy and forgiveness. It means loving them enough to do the things that bring them about.
Too many people stay with a spouse for fear of upsetting their lives. Too few stay because they have fostered a great and encompassing love.
Too many people have children to satisfy social expectations of what the family should look like. Too few have children because they love what the family can be.
Too many people volunteer their time out of duty. Too few volunteer their time because they love to see justice and mercy done.
Too many people are looking for balance. Too few are willing to live in the tension of great passion.
I am almost certainly not the first person to have noted this phenomenon, but it struck me the other night, as John Jantunen and I were having beers at The Albion, that perhaps our society’s recent obsession with infectious monstrosity, our love affair with zombies, vampires, and werewolves, is a symptom of a culture that is itself infectious.
As our watching and reading and listening is increasingly dominated by the viral, and as our relation to others is increasingly dominated by the exchange of this viral culture, we have become little more than hosts for cultural infection. We exist more and more only to be infected and to infect others, not by accident, but by decision, as the degree of our exposure to the viral and our capacity to infect others becomes a mark of social stature. We are a community of the infected, and our status is determined by the degree of our infection.
This is perhaps why our representation of infectious monstrosity has grown so sympathetic. As we recognize ourselves and our behaviour in that of vampires and werewolves, we humanize these creatures in order to justify our own infection. In this sense, the zombie apocalypse has already come and left us as mindless spreaders of infection, with only just enough humanity remaining that we still try to humanize our monstrosity.
I have been reflecting on the multiple levels of meaning that lie in the word ‘device’ and that are unconsciously invoked every time we speak of our devices, of our phones and tablets and computers, though we usually intend only the dominant meaning of a contrivance or an invention, especially a machine.
The first of these unconscious meanings, or the first constellation of meanings to be more accurate, has to with device as technique, where a device is a plan or a scheme or a means to an end, most often with the implication that the end is not entirely savory. This sense of the word also relates to a more archaic sense where a device is the power, state, or act of devising. In both senses, a device is the means or the power, usually sinister, to bring about a particular end.
The second of constellation of meanings circulate around ideas of signification, where a device is a decorative design (especially in embroidery or manuscript illumination), a graphic symbol or motto (especially in heraldry), or a literary contrivance (such as parallelism or personification), used to achieve a particular effect. In each of these senses, a device occupies a symbolic or imagistic role, functioning variously to illustrate, to represent identity, or to deepen and clarify the words of a text.
All this symbolic subtext relates in interesting ways to the devices on which we increasingly rely. While we keep telling each other that our devices are merely technological, merely inventions and machines, they are also quite obviously the technique or the means through which we arrive at our ends, and if these end are not necessarily malign, our use of the word ‘device’ perhaps implies a certain amount of concern about the kinds of ends that are being achieved through our technologies. This ambiguously malign character that is invoked when we refer to our devices is all the more interesting as our gadgets come to represent us more and more, come to be the dominant symbols and images through which we produce our identities. It is as though our very language is suspicious of how our technologies are recreating us, how they are recreating our ways of being and understanding, how they are leaving us to our own devices.