Friday, December 28, 2007

Polar Bears

"And now Edgar's gone...something's going on around here."

(A "re-enactment" of the Gary Larson cartoon, because I couldn't find the original online.)

Let's get one thing straight. You know that Coke commercial where the family of polar bears is on a hillside, and the cub slips down the slope to land amongst the astonished flock of penguins? Yes, those penguins well might be astonished, because polar bears live in the Arctic and penguins in the Antarctic (except, of course, when they go on vacation). But never mind, I had a sort of inadvertent vengeance in that I was quite certain, until my friend Shauna proved me wrong, that this was a Pepsi commercial. Oddly, this branding error of mine seemed to offend her more than the zoological faux pas of the advertising folks. But I suspect that the polar bears would be with me on this one.

And, of course, I'm perfectly willing to let the notion pass when Gary Larson uses it. Because he's funny, see?

At any rate, the real reason I am making this post is because I just spent most of the morning figuring out how to download a video from YouTube and put a new soundtrack to it. My reasons for wanting to do this have to do with using film clips in the classroom, but the video I chose to teach myself with was one I was altering on behalf of a friend, and it features a polar bear cub called Knut in the Berlin zoo who was raised by a zookeeper after his mother had rejected him. Honestly, the soundtrack really HAD to be changed. The original video had possibly the most annoying, cloying song I've ever heard attached to it, which seemed a shame because when I was not put into a homicidal state, the cub was undeniably... Well, I only wish it didn't rhyme with "Knut."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Information R/evolution

The title is not mine; rather it belongs to the video at the bottom of the post. But it's a phrase that makes me think immediately of the great Canadian scholar, Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980). The height of McLuhan's career was in the 1960s when most of his important works --- The Gutenberg Galaxy(1962), Understanding Media (1964) and War and Peace in the Global Village(1968) --- were all published, although his celebrity would really peak in 1977 with his cameo in Woody Allen's Annie Hall.

I think that perhaps the most important thing that Marshall McLuhan left us was not any single work, nor any single observation, but rather a particular approach to seeing the world. McLuhan looked at all media as technological extensions of the individual body, and he considered that the use of these extensions would change not only the world but us. Although people once had difficulty accepting such ideas, McLuhan's approach now seems like so much common sense. As W.H. Auden said of Sigmund Freud, "he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion." Most of us now accept that we are being changed by the media and the technology we use; although to say exactly how, and to what degree the benefits are in balance with the disadvantages is naturally more difficult.

One of the things I have been thinking of lately is the traditional association between architecture and thought. For example, Cicero used to memorize speeches by associating each section with a room, or hallway, or stairway, so that his process of thought would have a sort of architectural solidity (v. Frances Yates, The Art of Memory). But is there a means of memorizing, of assimilating information that would be more effective for us in an age in which the model for information exchange is no longer rooted in location, but in the internet, wherein the free exchange of ideas in all directions at once has delivered an information revolution with hints of evolutionary consequences? The internet certainly has immense advantages as a means of assimilating information over the traditional structural model, but to what degree can such a system of association convey meaning? Is it (not the content, not the individual sites and pages, but the system itself) perhaps just too close to the way we already think to bestow a meaningful structure upon our thoughts for repackaging and delivery to others? Is Cicero's architecture, or the idea of shelves, somehow still necessary as a foreign structure to impose on our thinking? Can we really, as the cliche has it, "think outside the box"? Or will boxes---however external to our favourite boxes the new, more innovative boxes may be---always be necessary to us?

At any rate, the point about the difference between the traditional structural basis for organizing information and the new non-located network approach is illustrated beautifully in the following video, Information R/evolutionwhich was made by Mike Wesch as part of the Digital Ethnography project.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Academy of Snivelling

God give me patience, but I am sick to death of hearing academics snivel about how hard their jobs are. Sure, there are occasional frustrations, but the bitter, hard-done-by moaning and kvetching about being exploited that I hear in some quarters is just totally incommensurate with a considered, measured view of reality.

My own view, having been a professor for fifteen years, is that this is the best job in the world. I love it at least 95% of the time, and I earnestly wish that those who disagree would move on and let just one of the many, many people who would like to replace them do so: because being a professor is a job for those who are inspired and driven from within, not for those who arrive at work sullen and resentful, feeling the lash of the administration upon their backs. But before anyone accuses me of being a Pollyanna, let me describe what I think is the realistic view I alluded to above and which I believe should temper all of our opinions.

Before I earned my PhD (but, in some cases, after I earned my M.A.), I worked at some truly horrific jobs. I did these jobs for the same reason that the vast majority of the world works: because I needed the money, and because these jobs represented the best chance of making honest money that I could find at the time. Now, thankfully, in my case, the jobs were temporary rather than permanent necessities. I was struggling to pay off my tuition and just stay alive while not deviating from the important life goals I had set myself; and this perhaps made it a little easier for me to struggle through. But the more important point is that, temporary or not, as is the case with most people, I did these jobs not because I had any delusions that they would be fulfilling, but simply because I felt that I had no better choices available. Three jobs which were certainly among the worst were: (1) cleaning up the site of a burnt building---prying valuable hardware away from charred remains and, over the course of a couple of weeks, gradually filling several large dumpsters with burnt junk, and a couple of oil drums with valuable stuff; (2) working for several weekends in the laundry room of an enormous hotel, where the piles of often disgustingly filthy sheets and towels were filled with all manner of imaginable refuse, including vermin and insects, and were, I assure you, even for a fairly strong young man, unimaginably heavy once they had been put in the huge laundry bags which had to be hoisted onto hooks to go in the automatic washers; (3) playing a "leprechaun" at a zoo around St Patrick's Day, in a totally ridiculous costume and make-up, without having been given any script, nor even any specific instructions but to entertain people, though I received plenty of abuse and mockery both from officials of the zoo and from the customers. At each of these jobs I worked for pay that was at or very slightly above minimum wage.

Now, truly, these are the conditions in which many, perhaps most people the world over, reguarly work: filth, physical trauma and humiliation. It is even worth considering that---pace Karl Marx, a great thinker to be sure, but a man, it must be said, who seems to have never worked a regular job, instead sponging shamelessly off his industrious buddy Engels, even while Marx mocked him for his bourgeois preoccupations---this may be the natural state of most human labour: filth, physical trauma and humiliation. For example: anyone care to try hunting down and killing a woolly mammoth? Or digging for roots and grubs? At any rate, the jobs I worked at certainly made me see quite clearly that, in terms of being exploited for one's body or lesser skills, and enduring degrading health and safety risks, prostitution probably falls well short of the very worst possibility one might be forced to consider---if nothing else, the work of the prostitute takes less time and is generally much better paid, considered as an hourly wage.

So the occasional unpleasantness in academia to do with tedium or lack of appreciation hardly seems so much to bear, does it? Moreover, even if marking or teaching or attending committee meetings could be compared to menial labour in any way, it has to be said that the hours at which we are actually responsible for being at a certain place and doing a certain thing are miniscule compared to other jobs: the rest of the time, we drive ourselves to fulfill our responsibilities in the way which seems most appropriate.

Still, I imagine that some people will object that, given the sort of extremity I have complained of, no one would last more than a couple of weeks in the jobs I have described: although that would be refuted by the reality of the indefatigably cheerful Columbian immigrant I worked with in the hotel laundry, who had been there eight years by that time, and from whom I learned the true meaning of stoicism. But even were that so, let me offer you what remains the more poignant touchstone of moral perspective for me: the thought of my late father, a steel-worker who, for the thirteen years that I knew him, on at least five and more usually six days out of the week, would rise at 5:30am and not return home until after 6:00pm, often with cuts and burns on his hands and legs, and always with parts of his body still a little dirty, despite having washed thoroughly. And that went on day after day for years on end. Yet I never heard him complain. So I imagine that, to him, for me to complain of my job would be completely absurd and even inconceivable.

Finally, I want to add that to my mind, the worst offenders of all are those academics who complain about the lack of time they have to do their jobs, and yet waste a good half hour making exactly that complaint. There are too many outside the university who automatically think of academics as being lazy, spoiled, impractical, self-indulgent, carping, pretentious flakes. Let's try not to prove them right

Monday, December 10, 2007

Bob Dylan's Huck

“Huck’s Tune” is yet another great Bob Dylan song that has not been released on any of his own albums, nor anywhere the average person would ordinarily look for it. Rather, it’s on the soundtrack to Lucky You, a rather forgettable minor film (a knock off of The Cincinnati Kid, it would seem) by a good director, Curtis Hanson, who is responsible for L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys amongst others.

This, however perverse it seems, is Dylan’s wont. Take “I’ll Keep it With Mine,” “George Jackson,” “Things Have Changed,” “Blind Willie McTell,” “Abandoned Love,” and “Dignity,” all of which are among Dylan’s best songs, and none of which he cared to release on a regular album. Instead, they tend to show up years after the fact on some compilation or other. And don’t even get me started about the great songs which he couldn’t be bothered with recording through to the end, such as “You Need a New Lover Now” or finishing writing, such as “To Fall in Love With You.” For me, these latter works are like those unfinished Michelangelo statues (and anyone who thinks that’s an extravagant comparison is just a snob), which gain a kind of fascination because one compulsively finishes them in one’s imagination. Or at least I do. But as for the finished works that are allowed to sit in obscurity? I don’t know: maybe that’s Dylan’s version of the fresco painted by a great master on the wall of a private home; or maybe he simply doesn’t give a damn. Who knows? Probably not even Dylan himself. In any case, I suppose when you’ve got talent at the highest level, there’s a kind of honour in squandering it rather than over-valuing it and hoarding it in a miserly fashion, which bespeaks an unseemly sort of vanity.

Of course, this is not to argue that Dylan’s career has consisted purely of masterpieces, the acknowledged and the unacknowledged. There is certainly chaff amongst the wheat (e.g., most of Self Portrait to begin with). My point, rather, is that although, from a bourgeois standpoint, there have been many times when watching Dylan’s management of his own career has been as frightening as watching a drunk behind the wheel of a transport truck, from a strictly artistic point of view, he has simply done what he has felt like doing without respect to profit or prudence, and whether motivated by inspiration or irritation (e.g., again, Self Portrait, which, as the title implies, was simply his expanded truculent response to those he had complained of in “Maggie’s Farm”: “Well, I try my best / To be just like I am / But everybody wants you /To be just like them. / They say: ‘Sing while you slave!’ and I just get bored. / I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.”) So, chaff there may be, but, if “the word of God is,” as Northrop Frye suggested, “the aggregate of inspired words of art,” then the uninspired works don’t necessarily come from somewhere else, because, as Tom Waits said, “There ain’t no Devil; that’s just God when he’s drunk.”

At any rate, here is an amateur video of "Huck's Tune" which someone has posted on YouTube. The video is sweet, I suppose, although it makes me sigh a little because of its literal mindedness; but regardless, it's a handy way of hearing the song. I've transcribed the lyrics immediately below the video, and you may want to read those as you listen instead of watching the video. (By the way, those looking for seasonal content in this posting may find it in the first line of the fifth verse.)

Huck’s Tune
by Bob Dylan

Well I wandered alone through a desert of stone
And I dreamt of my future wife
My sword's in my hand and I'm next in command
In this vision of death called life
My plate and my cup are right straight up
I took a rose from the hand of a child
When I kiss your lips, the honey drips
I'm gonna have to put you down for a while

Every day we meet on any old street
And you're in your girlish prime
The short and the tall are coming to the ball
I go there all of the time
Behind every tree there's something to see
The river is wider than a mile
I tried you twice; you can't be nice
I'm gonna have to put you down for a while

Here come the nurse with money in her purse
Here come the ladies in red
You push it all in and you've no chance to win
You play 'em on down to the end
I'm laying in the sand getting a sunshine tan
Moving along riding in style
From my toes to my head you knock me dead
I'm gonna have to put you down for a while

I count the years and I shed no tears
I'm blinded to what might have been
Nature's voice makes my heart rejoice
Play me the wild song of the wind
I found hopeless love in the room above
When the sun and the weather were mild
You're as fine as wine, I ain't handing you no line
I'm gonna have to put you down for a while

All the merry little elves can go hang themselves
My faith is as cold as can be
I'm stacked high to the roof and I'm not without proof
If you don't believe me, come see
You think I'm blue? I think so too
In my words you'll find no guile
The game's gotten old
The deck's gone cold
And I'm gonna have to put you down for a while
The game's gotten old
The deck's gone cold
I'm gonna have to put you down for a while

Now “Huck’s Tune” is interesting to me beyond its inherent merits because of the way in which it seems to be set in a landscape of immanent apocalypse (and I do mean immanent: inherent in and subjective to the mind, and not imminent: likely to happen any moment) that is similar to the overtones of his last record, Modern Times. In Chronicles, Dylan writes about how, in the first years of his career, he regularly read Civil War-era newspapers, not for specific stories, but to glean a sense of the era for its ethical and mythological dimensions. In Modern Times, Dylan seems to be doing something similar, although his focus is on a different era. To a degree, it is related to what Ry Cooder has done in his latest, My Name is Buddy: Cooder went back for inspiration to the 1930s, when Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Leadbelly and others were offering a sort of existential portrait of the individual worker cut loose from any firm social structure. Like Cooder, Dylan uses this frame of reference as an ominous precursor to the social conditions of the United States today, when the reckless capitalism of the right wing has systematically eroded any sense of common weal and therefore any confidence in a firm social morality. But Dylan has pushed the idea much further than this historical context, in that while he embraces various forms of American music from that time (including not only folk ballads and blues, but even crooner tunes and jaunty fox-trots), he also intimates that the songs are set not in the past or present or even in the future, but in a sort of parallel world that resembles the apparently post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. And he is interested in the idea of being on a journey without apparent destination, and without the benefit of moral compass ⎯ listen carefully to “Ain’t Talkin’,” the closing song on Modern Times, in which, as the song progresses, the title seems more and more related to the refusal of speech (“ask me not what I know”) from King Lear. There seems little question that he is after something of a universal sort. To compare it to another play, it is as if Beckett’s tramps were forced, not to sit in one place to wait for Godot, but having given up on his arrival, to make their way, perpetually, and without pause, along the road in search of something unknown.

Bob Dylan considers what should be done when the wheels come off of Western civilization

“Huck’s Tune” seems to partake of this same context. Now, it may have been written expressly for the movie Lucky You, although it seems equally likely that Curtis Hanson was offered the unreleased song and then decided to name the character, a gambler, accordingly. But in either case, I think that Dylan surely (and Hanson probably) also had in mind Mark Twain’s boy hero, Huckleberry Finn, whose journey into moral maturity has come, through repeated allusion, to represent the American soul. Of course, that idea of Huck as the American soul comes with a sort of daunting baggage when one considers the end of the book, where the arrival of Tom Sawyer takes what had become an increasingly profound and earnest quest for a new moral code, and allows it to drift back into a puerile denouement that suggests a failed struggle (Twain’s failed struggle, if you ask me) to wrest spiritual destiny out of the hands of selfishness and ignorance. For the Huck of Dylan’s song, the quest seems to be for a redemptive love, but it’s confused by the gambling addiction. The woman in question seems as though she may be a bad gamble; but the irony is that the alternative is gambling for an empty reward (more money, which will only lead to more gambling). In the contemporary world, Dylan apparently sees a lot of confused and corrupted Parisfals on quests with no clear directions. As always, Dylan doesn’t pretend to offer any answers; he’s just thinking out loud about the dilemma.