Sunday, December 31, 2017

About 2017

Possibly because I wanted to blot out the increasing ghastliness of the real world, this was the year I rediscovered the joy of blogging, which in 2017 feels a bit like expressing a fondness for CB radio or meerschaum pipes. There’s a different vibe about it now; the happy little virtual posse that collected here a decade or so ago, some of whom have become real-life friends, is no more. Occasionally this feels like a private diary for my own amusement rather than The Conversation that Patroclus of blessed memory posited. Nevertheless, in the past two months I’ve posted more than I did in 2015 and 2016 combined, which must mean something or other.

Anyway, this is the last post of the year, so I guess that means the inevitable cultural best-of. My favourite book was Laurent Binet’s The 7th Function of Language, a postmodern caper about postmodernism and its adherents, many of whom are tormented with gleeful savagery in the course of a bizarre plot that begins with the death of Roland Barthes and then turns into something like The Da Vinci Code for people who’ve read far more books than is good for them. Binet endured a late challenge from Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers, a collection of deadpan potted biographies of Australian writers, all of whom are, the reader quickly deduces, are entirely invented; I was especially taken by the arch-plagiarist Frederick Stafford, author of Odysseus, Mrs Galloway and The Prodigious Gatsby. Fiction about people who exist; or non-fiction about people who don’t? Meh, I don’t have to choose because the O’Neill was either published last year (in Australia) or won’t be until next year (in the UK), so they can co-exist, defiantly elitist (if one believes that it’s elitist to appeal to readers with a pretty good grasp of the 20th-century literary canon) but with a delicious sense of silliness as well.

Elsewhere, the musical event of my year should have been Brian Wilson in concert in Hammersmith, although his evident discomfort and the decline in his vocal abilities made it feel more like a final gathering of the faithful to honour an elderly Pope than a gig per se. So let’s set that aside and give the gong to the Magnetic Fields for 50 Song Memoir; as the titles suggests, a year-by-year autobiography of the band’s leader, Stephin Merritt, spread across five discs. It doesn’t quite hit the astonishing heights of their 69 Love Songs, but, hey, what does? I did also enjoy the antics of Leo Pellegrino at the Mingus Prom, but I only saw it on telly so it probably doesn’t count.

In other categories, my favourite evening at the theatre was Patrick Marber’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (more cerebral daftness for people who aren’t ashamed of knowing stuff) and in a gallery it was James Ensor at the Royal Academy. The TV adaptation of Decline and Fall was huge fun, especially the performance of Douglas Hodge as the reprehensible Grimes. (Moreover, it was on old-fashioned sit-up-and-beg on-at-a-certain-time telly, rather than Netflix or Amazon, so there.) And in the cinema? A dead heat between mother! and Paddington 2. There’s a double bill to be cherished.

But just as my finger hovers over the Publish button, I realise that everything I’ve selected was essentially the work of white men. Which isn’t a good look, is it? OK, here’s your job for today: if you can be bothered to find your way into Blogger’s arcane comment set-up, recommend something from 2017 that wasn’t made by someone who looks like me.

See you on the other side...

Friday, December 29, 2017

About editing

I’ve seen the editing process from both sides and I’ve been brutal and I’ve been brutalised. (It toughens you up for the reviews, they say.) But the annotated manuscript of the aborted book by tiresome alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos takes things to new levels. My favourite, albeit not the harshest: “The use of phrases like ‘two-faced backstabbing bitches’ diminishes your overall point.”

Thursday, December 28, 2017

About that four-storey phallus

The street artist Carolina Falkholt doubtless expected to provoke a reaction when she painted a large phallus on the outside of a building on New York’s Lower East Side, and she got it, much of it expressed as sincere worries for the tender sensibilities of children. (Just read some Freud, people.) But I was rather fond of the response of local resident Sal Balvo: “I’m walking down the street and I see a genital. That’s what I came to New York for.”

Friday, December 22, 2017

About Peaky Blinders

I’ve been in love with Peaky Blinders since it started; it’s the swagger, the postmodernism, the defiantly wrong music, the idea that someone awoke one day with the idea of mashing up Bugsy Malone and The Brothers, then stealing a shedload of tricks from Tarantino to paper over the cracks. But I’ve fallen out of love and it’s not for the reasons that others have cited regarding the just-finished fourth series (Arthur coming back from the dead, Alfie not coming back from the dead, Adrien Brody chewing the scenery almost as much as he chews that toothpick), but something else. The buggers have insulted my intelligence.

Here’s what went wrong. The Peaky Blinders, represented by cool-as-ice anti-hero Tommy Shelby and Brummie Boudicca Aunt Pol, are confronted by the Sicilian-American gangster Luca Changretta, who declares that if they don’t sign over all their assets, he will kill them. But the Blinders turn the tables, advising Changretta that other forces have been working against him while his back was turned:
Aunt Pol: We also contacted a businessman in Chicago. He’s also interested in moving into the liquor business in New York.
Which is fine as it stands. Peaky Blinders is a fiction with one toe in reality; Winston Churchill and other historical figures have made fleeting appearances. A little nod to historical gangsterism, a reference even to the US box set with which the show has most in common, Boardwalk Empire, does no harm at all. But we could’t leave it there, could we?
Tommy: His name is Alphonse Capone.
CLANG! Listen, anyone who watches an exchange between three dodgy dealers in the mid-1920s referring to a fourth person of equally dubious repute and doesn’t think “probably Capone”, probably doesn’t know who Capone is. It’s like a Hollywood version of Victorian Britain, with people saying things like, “Good Lord, that’s Mr Dickens (1812-1870), the celebrated author who wrote that book about an orphan, what was it called again?” “Oh, Oliver Twist, wasn’t it?” but worse because this is 2017 and we should be smarter than that by now, shouldn’t we? Tommy’s line is trying to be a clever nod/wink but in fact it’s a prompt to the mouth-breathers in the back row, the ones who go on Pointless and complain that “it was before my time” when any subject other than Premiership football comes up. I’m out.

The clothes are still nice, though. And Cyril’s a sound name for a dog.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

About Twitter

I first tweeted 11 years ago today, which means I’ve been using this much-maligned service almost as long as I’ve been blogging. Still the same self-pitying drivel.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

About art and its world

Howard Becker:
Wherever an art world exists, it defines the boundaries of acceptable art, recognizing those who produce the work it can assimilate as artists entitled to full membership, and denying membership and benefits to those whose work it cannot assimilate. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

About Mastermind

If you’ve nothing better to do on January 5 at 8pm, BBC2 could prompt a wry smile or two. That is all.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

About reality (again)

Via the lovely Hegemony Jones: a heretofore obscure governmenty-type chap announces that Baudrillard is dead, we’re not in The Matrix and, er, that’s it. (I paraphrase.) He’ll do Nietzsche vs God next, but he’s having his tea right now.

Monday, December 11, 2017

About blogging (yet again)

Back in the glory days, the story was that blogging was going to destroy print media, provided the underpants gnomes could work out a way to monetise it. Imagine my surprise, when ambling through the WH Smith at Euston station...

Thursday, December 07, 2017

About not having a light

“Excuse me, mate, do you smoke?”

I’ll admit, I judged. She was painfully thin, with a sunken face, blotchy skin and all manner of nervous twitches. And we were just round the corner from a drop-in centre for people with substance abuse issues. But she’d done me no harm so I just assumed she wanted a light for the unlit cigarette hanging from her barely-there lips. So I said sorry, no, wondering whether she was then going to ask whether I had a couple of quid so she could get a bed for the night. Except...

“Oh, that’s a pity. It’s just I’ve got hold of a few hundred fags – don’t ask how – so I’m handing them out to people. Feeling generous. Maybe it’s a Christmas thing. Never mind, mate, you have a good day.”

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

About street art

I’ve been thinking about graffiti/street art lately, so was intrigued when Annie flagged this up, because it raises two interlocking questions; not just the inevitable “but is it art?” but also the equally pertinent “but is it street?”

Monday, December 04, 2017

About Forster

Sunday, December 03, 2017

About Flake

I’ve just found out that Jonathan Glazer, creator of Guinness ads, Radiohead promos and movies in which Scarlet Johanssen and/or Ray Winstone don’t wear very much, was once asked by those nice people at Cadbury’s to make a commercial for the Flake bar.

Flake - Jonathan Glazer from David Nichols on Vimeo.

But they didn’t like it.

Friday, December 01, 2017

About Derrida

Lifted from Kevin Jackson’s Facebook. Best. Marginalia. Ever.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

About Sarah Huckabee Sanders

White House press spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said it doesn’t matter whether the videos tweeted by Donald Trump were real; what’s important is that “the threat is real”. If only Jean Baudrillard were with us today.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

About Godwin and Streisand

Went on an interesting diversion in class yesterday about memes, touching on the idea they have to start somewhere, even if the originator is anonymous, maybe even blissfully unaware of what s/he spawned. That said, when there is a definitive patient zero for a digital phenomenon, the rewards tend to be a wee bit abstract, as witnessed by this encounter between the man who identified The Streisand Effect and the man who gave his name to Godwin’s Law.

Monday, November 27, 2017

About loss

The late Mark Fisher, on the relatively new experience of being able to reconnect with your childhood gaze through the wonders of technology:
By then, thanks to VHS, DVD and YouTube, it seemed that practically everything was available for rewatching. In conditions of digital recall, loss is itself lost. 
I think I know what he means; an extended episode of gentle melancholy, for me extending from about eight to 28, during which we thought we might never see that particular episode of The Herbs, or Ludwig, or Crystal Tipps and Alistair, again. Now they’re available wherever we look and all we have left to miss is the melancholy. But I pity kids today who’ve always been able to have Peppa Pig on tap and don’t know what missing even means.

PS: Flashback to the time I went to Tokyo and whole swathes of childhood that I thought I’d imagined opened up before me.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

About tattoos

I’ve occasionally toyed with the idea of getting a tattoo but was never able to decide on a design, which is probably why I live out my midlife crisis through this blog instead. But I saw this on Kingsland Road and... well, what do you think?

Thursday, November 23, 2017

About knowing capitals

From an otherwise rather sensible article in The Spectator about the uselessness of CVs:
Charles said his own trick was to conduct interviews, normally amiable chats about nonsense, and then at the end ask the applicant to name the capital of Nicaragua. He marked their answers out of ten. Saying: ‘Oh, it’s on the tip of my tongue… Santa something?’ got zero points. A laugh, followed by silence, got three points. Anyone who actually knew the answer (Managua) was eliminated on the grounds of being scary. The correct, ten-point answer was: ‘No, but I could look it up in a moment.’
Scary? Really? Well, that’s me screwed. 

(Also, remember that the current Foreign Secretary used to edit The Spectator.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

About intersectionality and things

From Susan Hekman, ‘Identity Crises: Identity, Identity Politics and Beyond’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 1999:
Political necessity has thrown together ethnic groups who, at best, have little in common and, at worst, have a history of ethnic hatred. Groups categorised as, for example, ‘Asian’ or ‘Hispanic’ are made up of diverse peoples; their designation is a result of the dominant group’s inability or unwillingness to recognise their differences.
...but lumping diverse peoples together as “the dominant group” is OK, I guess.

Monday, November 20, 2017

About anti-elitism

Everybody’s a curator these days, it seems — which probably means that nobody is. Including those who really should be curators, like Jamie Sterns and Andrew Edlin, who offered to show absolutely anything that anyone submitted for their New York show, irrespective of quality, provenance, whatever. The only restriction was size.

(Thanks, Emma.)

Sunday, November 19, 2017

About preferred pronouns

Oh dear, this one has the potential to get me into all sorts of trouble, so I should state at the outset that I fully support the right of trans people to be accepted as whatever gender (or none) they present and, er, that’s it.

OK, the current series of the venerable TV quiz show Mastermind is trundling merrily along and until now the only real controversy it’s spawned is whether creaky old sitcoms should be allowed as specialised subjects alongside such solemn, improving material as Mussorgsky’s Paradiddles and Endangered Invertebrates Of The Isle Of Wight.

But a few days ago (well, it was broadcast a few days ago, would have been recorded a few months ago, but you get my point), one of the contestants made an unusual request — and here’s where things get particularly awkward because it’s very difficult to describe what happened without effectively taking sides. Charley Hasted (specialised subject Sherlock Holmes) is a non-binary person who prefers to have the pronouns they/them applied to them. (See what I mean?) The occasionally-irascible host John Humphrys apparently didn’t accede to this request on the show. As the respected archivist of all things British and gameshowy, Iain Weaver described it:
Extreme discourtesy from host John Humphries [sic], who refused to address Charley Hasted by their preferred pronoun. “It would be confusing,” fumed the question-asker off screen. No, it’s not confusing. It’s terribly simple, it’s basic manners.
It seems to be an open-and-shut case of a curmudgeonly septuagenerian stick-in-the-mud refusing to acknowledge that traditional gender roles and identities are merely arbitrary social constructs and he ought to check his cis privilege, right? Well, yes and no. It is indeed polite to use address people as they wish to be addressed (and I’m not sure whether Weaver’s misspelling of Humphrys’ name is passive-aggressive snark or just a goof) but it can also sometimes be confusing. While Charley may prefer to be addressed as “they”, there are reasons this isn’t such a great idea that are nothing to do with stomping all over anyone’s gender identity. “They” has a very specific grammatical meaning, as a third-person plural pronoun. It refers to more than one person or thing, none/neither of whom is either the person speaking or the person being addressed. If it’s used in other ways, it gets very confusing. Consider this extract from an article about record shopping:
I spoke with Glenna of Gramaphone Records about dealing with the woes of “bros being bros” over plates of shrimp in a small mariscos restaurant. They perform under the name Sold and serves as techno buyer for the Lakeview shop that’s been providing DJs dance music since 1969.
OK, so we start with Glenna, singular; one infers (from the name) female, but that may not be the case. Then suddenly “They” throws us into the plural world, especially as it’s followed by “perform” which implies plurality; but “under the name Sold” could denote either be a solo or group identity; but then, retrospectively, so could Glenna. And then “serves”, which suggests third person singular. It’s a grammatical car crash, leaving the casual reader to worry more about how many people are talking than what’s being said. Maybe Humphrys has a point after all.

There are two potential objections to my (and JH’s) objections. One is that the third-person plural has long been accepted as a way of creating a gender-neutral third person singular; for example, “if you call for a plumber, they’ll come within the hour”. Well, to be honest, I’ve always hated that, while applauding the core sentiment behind it. There are multiple ways to construct a sentence that avoids both the implication that all plumbers are male, and the implication that plumbers always work in groups. “A plumber will come within an hour of your call.” There, not that difficult, was it?

Others might infer that my objection to the use of “they” in this way is something akin to the response of reactionaries who grumbled about the hijacking of the honest, innocent word “gay” to describe all sorts of frightfulness. Well, no, because there are any number of synonyms for “gay”; “they” and “them” and “their” mean what they say and are pretty much irreplaceable, unless you’re going to avoid pronouns altogether, which would sound a bit like:
Charley took Charley’s place on the black chair and did very well on Charley’s specialist subject, although Charley’s general knowledge round let Charley down a bit, as Charley would be first to admit.
But, as I said, I fully endorse Charley’s right to live as Charley likes and be treated as Charley likes. Language changes, evolves, sure, but it can only do that successfully if it allows people to keep up, otherwise a move that aims to encourage acceptance and inclusiveness will only breed resistance and hostility, not to mention unnecessary confusion and ambiguity.

So here’s my suggestion: think up a new set of pronouns, applicable specifically to people who’d rather not be stuck in either of the boring old “male”/“female” boxes. There are plenty of monosyllables that don’t have any particular meaning. “Zoy”, maybe. “Zoy” as subject, “zom” as object, “zor” as possessive. It really doesn’t matter, so long as everyone knows what it means.

Essentially, it’s perfectly OK to ask to be excused from petty rules and restrictions, especially because it might wake people up to the fact that such rules are rather outmoded and needn’t be applied to anyone. But every now and then, we find out that such rules do actually serve a purpose, which is nothing to do with forcing non-binary people into restrictive cis boxes, just ensuring that we can all say what we mean. Anyway, this:

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

About my non-existent book

I’ve long been fascinated by the saga of Jim Crace’s Useless America, a book that never existed but, thanks to a typing error or a misheard phone call or something, came to life within the Amazon hive mind. In fact, such occurrences aren’t that unusual. A few years ago, I was supposed to be writing a book about Lady Gaga, but after a few thousand words, the publisher decided the market was glutted with such products and elected not to go ahead with it. (This sort of thing is also fairly normal practice.) However, the title, cover and provisional release date had been released to the online and high-street retailers, so the book now had a virtual existence that would never be realised. And it’s still there, hovering amidst the ones and zeroes; as I type this, it’s the 10,363,298th best-selling book on Amazon.

Over at GoodReads, though, things have progressed to the next level. Not only does my non-book exist, but you can find out how good or bad it is; three people have bestowed upon it an impressive five stars. Which makes me wonder how well it would have done if I’d actually written the bloody thing.

(One of the people who was so nice about my masterwork is called Miley Cyrus, although I assume she isn’t really. Which adds another level of postmodern wonder to the whole thing.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

About Schiele

Yesterday’s Evening Standard featured an advertising wraparound that makes a virtue of society’s prim and proper attitude to the naked body. But I suspect many people would be more shocked by the pubes on the original than the nudity per se. (See here, here and here for past musings on the subject.)

Monday, November 13, 2017

About clever

Now, I’m not one of those bleating, entitled lefties who thinks that every supporter of Trump and Brexit is by definition thick as a pound of economy mince, notwithstanding the Pennyslvanian supporter of The Orange Toddler who explained his choice thus: “When he speaks you can understand what he’s saying, you don’t have to look up the big words that he’s trying to use to confuse you.” But the antipathy towards education on the populist right almost goes without saying. It’s most forcibly expressed by those, like Trump and Farage, who have experienced high-quality, expensive schooling and clearly failed to benefit from it; I wonder, were they bullied for their inability to grasp the second law of thermodynamics, maybe forced to stand on a chair and conjugate Latin verbs in their vests and pants?

Whatever the deep-seated motivations of the leadership, though, it’s a statistical fact that the higher up the educational ladder you’ve travelled, the less likely you were to vote for Trump or Brexit. And as far as I can see, only in the Anglo-Saxon world can “clever” be used as a pejorative.

Friday, November 10, 2017

About Billy Joel and that sort of thing

Something I wrote for Rock’s Back Pages in 2003 is available for free for the next week. I believe you need only cough up an email address to read it. Contains dead white men, guitar solos, swears.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

About myth

Am proceeding crisply through Laurent Binet’s excellent  The 7th Function of Language, which starts off with the death of Roland Barthes and then turns into The Da Vinci Code for people who can read without moving their lips: he describes Barthes’s most famous book as being about “the contemporary myths erected by the middle classes to their own glory.”

I think what often gets lost in discussion of RB is that he wasn’t celebrating the elevation of such phenomena as steak-frites or wrestling to mythological status; he’s (at least trying to be) an iconoclast. But his tactics have been recuperated into a sort of wistful pop culture nostalgia; and Binet’s book, in a way, makes a dangerously entertaining myth of Barthes himself.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

About a word

I’ve just used the word “ouroborically” in a piece of academic writing and I think I need a lie-down.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

About Benjamin (again)

More classroom antics. We’ve been nosing around the lower reaches of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a massive, unfinished tome that’s superficially about Paris in the 19th century but manages to pull in Marxism, surrealism, postmodernism, flânerie and more; I’m tracing lines from here to Borges, Perec and more. It’s delightful and frustrating in equal parts that what we have left is a vast selection of fragments, but it does occasionally give a hint of the average writer’s working method. For example:
Play on words with “-rama” (on the model of “diorama”) in Balzac at the beginning of Pere Goriot.
which is essentially a placeholder, a comedian’s [INSERT JOKE HERE]. Another particularly appealed to me with my restaurant reviewer’s hat on, although this is one I’m almost glad he didn’t finish:
There is, to speak once more of restaurants, a nearly infallible criterion for determining their rank. This is not, as one might readily assume, their price range. We find this unexpected criterion in the color of the sound that greets us when [broken off]

Friday, October 20, 2017

About Adorno’s friends

And in the space of a few days, I change my mind. Way back in the mists of last week, I mused over some people’s lack of curiosity when confronted by something they don’t know or don’t understand. But then, as part of my coursework, I read a piece by Adorno that made passing references to Karl Kraus and Paul Valéry and I was all at sea. In fact, I’d heard of both of them, although only vaguely: Kraus, I seemed to recall, had some connection with Frank Wedekind, the creator of Lulu (not the singer); Valéry I knew because Pierre Bayard had described his hilarious tribute to Anatole France, his predecessor at the Academie Francaise, which he delivered despite clearly not having read a word of France’s work. And if I hadn’t been aware of these molecules of fact, I could have Googled them, right?

But it’s not that straightforward. Adorno refers to “The strictures of Karl Kraus against freedom of the press”. What strictures? When? Where? Then: “If cultural criticism, even at its best with Valéry, sides with conservatism...” Well, that’s all very well, but could you give some examples, Theo? Of course, Adorno simply assumed his readers would know what he was talking about and in his time and place that was probably a valid assumption. There would have been a comfortable fuzz of connotations about Kraus and Valéry so that simply mentioning their names would have triggered the relevant context. And that’s not something that can be replicated by a mere search engine; not a search engine I've ever used, at least.

One thought though; if I’m expected to follow accurate MHRA-style reference guidelines when I’m writing about Adorno, wouldn’t it be nice if Adorno reciprocated?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

About Weinstein

Slightly off-topic in the context of all the decades-old pus oozing from the freshly-lanced boils in Hollywood and beyond, but this passing comment, from a New Yorker article by Molly Ringwald, makes a lot of sense.
I was always a little mystified that Harvey had a reputation as a great tastemaker when he seemed so noticeably lacking in taste himself. But he did have a knack for hiring people who had it, and I figured that’s what passes for taste in Hollywood.
I think we’ve all seen more than enough of Mr Weinstein’s face in the past few days, so here’s lovely, wise Molly instead.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

About Ophelia etc

Storm/Hurricane Ophelia has battered Ireland, but in its slipstream yesterday came a shower of meteorological weirdness over parts of England. The morning was strangely warm for October; and in the afternoon Saharan sand in the wind turned the sun and sky various shades of red and yellow.

It was one of those moments when you had to be there. From inside at about 3pm, it looked as if storm clouds were gathering; stepping outside, everything was suffused with a weird, tawny light; the closest thing I can compare it to was when I was in Stockholm at the height of summer and it was still light past 10pm, but the city was starting to fall asleep anyway. Inevitably, many people took photographs but this was one phenomenon to which mere smartphones could not do justice. For some reason (sorry, ask someone more tech-savvy than me), the odd ambience wouldn’t translate to ones and zeroes and pixels. So, rather than commit the ultimate 21st-century solecism and leave an event unrecorded, many people tweaked their images with various filters so as to give the pictures the appropriate hue. Despite the fact that many of the people who saw those images were looking at the real thing themselves. The simulacrum was momentarily imperfect and had to be nudged back to perfection, especially because the original was still there for comparison.

And then, because it was so difficult to communicate in words or images exactly what was happening, even to people who were experiencing exactly the same thing, we all started talking about Ragnarok and the Book of Revelation, which is much easier.

(John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851-53)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

About criticism

Walter Benjamin died in 1940, so I guess we should excuse his tendency to gender-specific pronouns:
Regarding the terrible misconception that the quality indispensable to the true critic is “his own opinion”: it is quite meaningless to learn the opinion of someone about something when you do not even know who he is. The more important the critic, the more he will avoid baldly asserting his own opinion. And the more his insights will absorb his opinions. Instead of giving his own opinion, a great critic enables others to form their opinion on the basis of his critical analysis.

Friday, October 13, 2017

About Austin Rogers and knowing

A successful contestant on the game show Jeopardy is apparently getting attention because of his on-camera gurning but he also says something that rather chimes with my own thoughts about knowing stuff:
I like reading and consuming knowledge; it’s almost irrelevant to my education. If I don’t know something, it visibly perturbs me and I have to find out. Back in the day, that meant dropping everything and finding a newspaper to find out exactly what I was looking for. But now, we have supercomputers in our pockets, which confuses me when people don’t know something and they go, “Well, I guess I’ll never know!” I’m like, “You have a supercomputer in your pocket, you can know right now.” You have all of mankind’s knowledge in your pocket. If you don’t know something, why not find it out immediately and close that chapter? I don’t know, people are weird. They’re not curious.
PS: Vaguely connected: Quentin Letts (the theatre critic for the Daily Mail) has been annoying again, which is as good a reason as any to resuscitate the moment he referred to “the death of Banquo’s children” in Macbeth; and Will Gompertz (the arts editor for the BBC) announced on a recent episode of Pointless Celebrities that Vivaldi wrote La Traviata. Now, it’s always a bit awkward bringing up solecisms such as these in polite society because there’s no fixed cultural canon any more and you have no idea whether someone else may or may not see anything wrong. (For the record, it was Macduff’s children who were murdered; and Verdi wrote La Traviata.) But even if you don’t know (or care), surely you’d expect the theatre critic of a high-profile newspaper or the arts editor the national broadcasting organisation to be better informed. Wouldn’t you?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

About making stuff

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

About Miffy and Tom

In class yesterday, we had a sort of cultural studies show-and-tell, where we each brought in an object and got a bit theoretical on its arse. My piece was a Chinese pencil case that I picked up in Bangkok in 2001. The main design revolves around iterations of Miffy (aka Nijntje), the rabbit character created by the late Dick Bruna in 1955 and (to his chagrin) something of an inspiration to the Japanese Hello Kitty.

But what’s special about this slab of turn-of-the-millennium cross-cultural kitsch is the slab of text on the right; some very slightly mis-spelled lines from the last section of TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. Now, I have no idea why these two elements were juxtaposed. I’d guess that whoever designed the piece wasn’t a devoted fan of Modernist poetry; it was just a chunk of the English language and could just as well have been the Shipping Forecast or a recipe for pesto. Serendipitously, though, it tied in with one of the readings we’d been assigned for the class, Andreas Huyssen’s plea for students of culture to get beyond notions of “high” and “low” art and become aware of more significant distinctions (geographical, political, economic, etc). Here were two manifestations of culture, which most people in the room (and reading this) would define as “high” (Eliot) and “low” (or, less pejoratively, “mass” – Miffy); but to the anonymous individual who actually created the thing, there was probably no such distinction.

So, in one piece, high meets low and east meets west. But it gets better. One of my classmates turned the case over and pointed to a few Chinese characters, explaining that they were a reference to the scholars who passed the rigorous civil service exams in imperial times, the only way for poor, unconnected people to make any kind of social advance. So, in addition to high/low and east/west we had ancient/modern. And crucially, in these death-of-the-author days, all of these connections/collisions were pretty much accidental.

And you can even keep pencils in it.