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“Madame Secretary of State has been drunk a while, correct. What the fuck is that to you?”

[ 47 ] August 20, 2013 |

At the Corner, Andrew Johnson thinks it’s great news for Hillary that CNN’s film division hired Courtney Sexton:

After the RNC voted the network from hosting future presidential debates if it follows through on plans to produce a Hillary Clinton documentary, the network’s films division has announced it will bring on film executive Courtney Sexton, who has a long history of working on left-leaning flicks.

Deadline details that Sexton’s past works include Al Gore’s climate-change documentary An Inconvenient Truth, as well as 2010’s Climate of Change, which “focused on the efforts of everyday people all over the world who are making a difference in the fight against global warming” …

“Any concerns the Clinton team had are all gone,” RNC communications director Sean Spicer told Politico in an email in reaction to the announcement. “This puts the ‘p’ in ‘puff piece.’”

Talk about punting the story. Sexton worked on Deadwood. If we use Johnson and Spicer’s deterministic logic, that means we’ll soon be seeing a completely different side of Hillary:

ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: BE BRIEFED!

HILLARY: BE FUCKED!

Or:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Hillary, your presence at the UN Commission on –

HILLARY: I don’t drink where I’m the only fucking one with balls.

Can’t say I’m not looking forward to this.

Some interpretations are fascinatingly wrong, others just plain.

[ 74 ] August 18, 2013 |

Grant Morrison went on Kevin Smith’s radio show and, as he dedicates his life to doing, blew your mind with his wholly original interpretation of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke:

No one gets the end, because Batman kills The Joker. […] That’s why it’s called The Killing Joke. The Joker tells the ‘Killing Joke’ at the end, Batman reaches out and breaks his neck, and that’s why the laughter stops and the light goes out, ’cause that was the last chance at crossing that bridge. And Alan Moore wrote the ultimate Batman/Joker story [because] he finished it.

Putting aside the fact that Morrison is the perpetually whining junior party in a feud with Moore, the idea that Moore “finished” the story of Batman and the Joker in The Killing Joke requires you misunderstand not only the structure of the book itself, but of the entirety of Moore’s structurally obsessed early work. Consider, as proof, a single page from Watchmen in which Moore accomplishes in nine panels more than Morrison did in all the pages of his magical masturbatory experiment in narcissism combined. But we need not even go there, because The Killing Joke fundamentally refutes Morrison’s contrarianism: the point is not that the story is “finished” but that it never can be. Even the dialogue circles back on itself:

That’s not the Joker, but a substitute with a painted face; the dialogue, however, is the Joker’s. After twenty-three silent panels, we have words. Moore frames The Killing Joke by floating the premise without the punchline in the first non-standard panel in the book, but it’s actually uttered in the last non-standard panel in the book:

This is because the books folds in on itself. The conflict between the Batman and the Joker is circular: it begins and ends in a “lunatic asylum,” and the non-diegetic words in that first panel are actually spoken aloud by the Joker in the second. Also significant is that they’re about the place they’re not spoken in, which happens to be the place the Joker will eternally recur inevitably be returned. But it’s not just the Joker whose words are eating their own tail:

As demonstrated in the post I linked to earlier, the central panels in Moore’s work at this time are inherently important, and this is the central panel of the fourth page of The Killing Joke. But it’s not just its placement in the structure of the page that’s significant — the structure of the panel itself is. The Batman and the Joker are presented here, center-page, as mirrors images of each other. Their faces are identically shadowed, their hands identically held. The slight perspectival asymmetry chops Batman’s fingers off at the knuckles and introduces a hint of uncertainty into an otherwise impassive panel. The only problem is that that’s not actually the Joker, but the Batman doesn’t know that yet, so he’s delivering an obviously prepared soliloquy in which all the dialogue is doubled: “Perhaps you’ll kill me. Perhaps I’ll kill you.” And it’s doubled in a way that makes literary critics swoon: in the service of overcoming a tired binary. The point of all those doublings is singular, because the Batman wants to avoid the inevitable “just once.”

Just once he would like what cannot happen to happen, so it’s not without a little irony that this dialogue reappears later:

Minus the “just once.” Just as the Joker’s words from the end of the book are superimposed on the beginning, the Batman’s speech — which the Joker’s never heard, because that wasn’t him in Arkham — so too are the Batman’s words from the beginning of the book superimposed on the end. The absence of “just once” is a self-undermining irony. That the caption bubble is a box indicates that they’re not the Batman’s thoughts. He’s not thinking about the speech he gave, Moore is re-presenting them as an echo. He’s reminding the reader that Batman’s trying to escape the cycle of violence, incarceration and escape in which the pair are locked. Only they can’t escape each other, because they’re damaged in the same way.

This should be a familiar argument to anyone who watched The Dark Knight, but Christopher Nolan castrated the pathos of Moore’s argument. In The Killing Joke, the Joker has a definitive origin that — go figure – mirrors the Batman’s: the accidental deaths of his wife and newborn child break him just as the murder of Wayne’s parents broke him. They both had what the Joker wants to impose on Gordon when he shoots his daughter Barbara: “one bad day” centered around the loss of family members. The whole book is a reflection upon the damage done by “one bad day,” and in the end it valorizes Gordon for not responding to his bad day by dressing like a flying rat or serially poisoning the water supply. But the point is that this book is about the relation of past to future, a chance …

I’m not going to harp on the language, visual and actual, of mirrors and reflections and doublings in the b —

– ook. But it sorta won’t let me n —

— ot. It’s just asshole like tha —

— t. Like that. I mean, the final fight takes place in a fun house in front of mirrors that distort their respective reflections, which means that in that second panel above, they’re not only distorted reflections of each other, their reflections are distorted reflections of their distorted reflections of each other. (Moore clearly values structure over subtlety at this point in his career.) For one to kill the other would be a kind of suicide neither are willing to commit.

They’re both the damaged products of “one bad day,” endlessly reflected in the fun house mirrors they stand between. That each reflection further distorts the other into infinity is kind of the point of the book.

The man in the fetish bat costume isn’t any healthier than the clown in the purple suit, and the more they interact, the sicker they become. Each reflection is a further distortion. Their interlocking stories always begin and end the same way, but along the way they inflict a little more damage on each other. You’d think one of them would snap eventually, but the point of Moore’s exercise is that neither ever will. Both responded to their “one bad day” with an excessive commitment to the willed necessity of their new identities: they differ from ordinary men only in their strength of will.

Morrison’s brilliant and wholly original idea — which has been floating around so long it’s been addressed in the introduction of one reprint and the conclusion of another — is an ignorant misreading that cuts against all the other grains in the book. It only seems plausible if you ignore the abundant evidence of its wrongness, including the first three panels of the book:

And the last:

Which combine in way that summarizes the story of the Batman and the Joker: on a dark night and rainy night, the Joker does something the police can’t handle. The Batman is required. His headlights in the book’s third panel announce his arrival. The Batman subdues the Joker, who can then be contained by the police again, hence the sirens announcing their arrival in the third-to-last panel of the book.

On a dark and rainy night.

Don’t make me mention that those panels are distorted mirrors of each other.

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so very, very heavy

[ 26 ] August 15, 2013 |

SEK is drives to HIS IN-LAW’S to check something on the Internet before heading to Baton Rouge to reclaim all his worldly possessions from THE AWESOME HISPANIC MOVERS.

THE ROAD: I AM FULL OF DEER!

SEK: !?!

THE ROAD: FULL OF DEER!

SEK: !?!

THE ROAD: DEER DEER DEER!

SEK: SHIT SHIT SHIT! [slams on brakes] You could’ve said something.

THE ROAD: !?!

Having survived THE ROAD, SEK arrives in Baton Rouge. However, somewhere between California and Louisiana, the AWESOME HISPANIC MOVERS became GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS.

SEK: You can just put all my worldly possessions in this perfectly normally storage unit on my friend’s property.

GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: We cannot do that.

SEK: Why not?

GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: We do not do that.

SEK: !?!

GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: Here is what you do, I tell you. You rent U-Haul, we meet in parking lot. You move your stuff to U-Haul, drive to home and costs you only one hundred.

SEK: To rent a U-Haul for a day?

GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: For us to unload alone. Fifty if you help.

SEK: Am I not already paying you a —

GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: You pay company, we are here. You want us unload, you pay us.

SEK: Just so I have this right: I pay for a U-Haul, we meet in a parking lot, I hand you cash, and then I have to unload everything myself later?

GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: Fifty you help, hundred you don’t.

SEK: I’ll help.

GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: Please to be sure. For two hundred we walk on grass even.

SEK: I WILL HELP.

SEK then is to be unloading a U-Haul by his lonesome, waiting for VERY STRONG GODCHILD and HIS VERY STRONG GODCHILD’S BROTHER to make finish with swim practice and become UNPAID CHILD LABORERS.

I’m a fraud!

[ 172 ] August 13, 2013 |

I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder or appear to be piling on, but one aspect of Hugo Schyzer’s “confession” strikes me as especially problematic, especially at a time in which the humanities are under assault from well-funded conservative forces: his claim of academic fraudulence.

He’s clearly not a fraud in the traditional sense, i.e. he didn’t falsify his credentials or publish papers on data he knew to be cooked. He claims that when he was in graduate school, “there was no such thing as porn studies,” so he lacked the credentials to teach it. Which, I suppose, is technically true. But he also claims to have “do[ne] the reading,” which in practice is all that’s required of scholars who work in a field that didn’t exist when they earned their doctorates.

The other “fraud” he believes he committed is that he spoke about feminism but “never published in any serious academic journal [because he] wanted to write for a popular audience.” Anyone familiar with the current state of academic journals knows about the incestuous nature of “blind” review: your name’s not on your submission, but if you’ve spoken at a conference or to another scholar in the field, you’re a known quantity. Your work whispers your name to the person who reviews it and that, as much as any independent factors, determines whether it’ll be published. (Why yes, I am that cynical.) But I haven’t come here to bury humanities journals—their “style” secures them a place in the deepest recesses of empty libraries—only to note that failure to publish in a discipline or subdiscipline doesn’t disqualify a person from teaching in it if they’ve done the reading. That’s all that’s required. If Schwyzer convinced his colleagues that he’d done the reading, he was qualified to teach a course in whatever it was he’d read.

Does this system require trust and lend itself to abuse? I suppose. But as someone who spent 13 years teaching at one of the best universities in the country, I can assure you that when you stand in front of a classroom of bright, motivated students you always feel like a fraud. You’ve never read enough, and you never will have. Your shelves will always be lined with books you should’ve already read. You feel like a fraud because you’ve only read thirty books on X, but your students consider you an authority for the very same reason.

Was I a hypocrite when I taught a literary journalism course after only having casually read Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and John McPhee? What if I told you I’d also had a subscription to The New Yorker for a decade? How much literary journalism did I need to read to be able to teach it? How familiar with its style and conventions did I need to be? I can’t answer those questions, so instead I’ll say what every teacher knows to be true: I wasn’t qualified to teach the material until I’d already taught it a few times.

That doesn’t make me a fraud—it makes me a teacher.

Here’s a hypothetical: an academic writes a dissertation about, say, evolutionary theory in fin de siècle American popular culture, but later starts reading and writing about a subject in which he’d received absolutely no graduate level training. I don’t know, like film theory. He reads the seminal texts, then writes about it online, for a popular audience instead of an academic one, for the better part of six years. Would this academic be qualified to open an “Internet Film School” at the Onion A.V. Club? Would he be a fraud if he did?

First impression

[ 42 ] August 9, 2013 |

I wonder what people’s is of me, as on my first day of work I wrote about puppies, the Cato Institute, the Holocaust, and penises. What kind of person would do such a thing?

No, I’m not sure either.

In his defense, anything that interrupts Transformers by not being Transformers improves the film.

[ 174 ] August 8, 2013 |

But that’s about the only item worth defending in Anil Dash’s anti-shushing manifesto. To Matt Zoller Seitz’s excellent demolition of Dash’s argument I will add this: the idea that behaving like an asshole justifies the normalization of said behavior is preposterous. Just because you can’t put down the iPhone and concentrate on something other than yourself for two hours doesn’t mean I’m similarly defective.

I’m not going to ask you to turn of your iPhone during a film because it’s distracting, but because your narcissism is fucking with my head. Your tiny light is making my dilated eyes constrict, which means I can’t see the movie the director — otherwise known as the person I paid good money to fuck with my head — intended me to. Your vanity transforms the film I wanted to see into one co-directed by you, and while I understand that that likely thrills you, know that I have no idea who you are and no interest in anything about you. I am reducing the complex social construct that is you to its essence which is asshole.

Your body is asshole.

Your mind is asshole.

Your life is asshole.

If you cured cancer, then the cure for cancer is asshole.

If you stopped war, then peace is asshole.

You are assholes all the way down.

I never realized England was a Jewish grandmother

[ 49 ] August 8, 2013 |

Because it’s about time for another Doctor Who post, here’s England reminding Matt Smith that he’s going to be miserable when she’s gone and we all die alone. The caption to the above photograph, for example, reads “[a]fter his lunch Matt wandered around, ending up sitting on someone’s front step,” which is essentially a Yiddish insult. (My grandmother never actually said “you should wander around and end up sitting on some stranger’s stoop,” but I can easily imagine her doing so.) The Jewish futility doesn’t end there:

Matt seemed to blend into the crowd as he spent a relaxed day on his own, as passers by seemed oblivious to who he was. [“You relax like a nobody” or “You and nine men don’t make a minyan.”]

Matt didn’t seem bothered by the fact that he was spending the day by himself, wanting to work on his own. [“As you work so will you die.”]

Reading over the script, Matt seemed to be considering the new part, as he tried to make a name for himself in Hollywood. [“Try to make a name for yourself different from mine.”]

The 30-year-old chomped away on his sandwich outside the eatery, obviously not worried about being spotted. [“When you slobber away, only God’s watching.”]

The star seemed happy as he spent alone, moving on with his career in the US. [“May you grow up and live in Los Angeles.”]

Which means that, yes, I may be the first person ever to pass time in Mississippi writing ersatz Yiddish insults.

Has neoliberalism made geeks of us all?

[ 154 ] August 7, 2013 |

Original image by Paul Hadsall

In “On Geek Culture,” Ian Williams collapses geek and sport cultures into each other by claiming both are tribal manifestations of brand loyalty:

In my beloved roleplaying game circles, doxing and threats of violence over the internet occur regularly over which edition of Dungeons and Dragons people prefer. Go to any video game forum and one can see pages of arguments about which console is the “right” one to enjoy. On and on it goes, across intellectual properties and hobbies, right down to nearly breaking out in actual physical violence.

This is remarkably similar to diehard sports fan culture. It’s not merely that a disagreement exists over which consumed product is superior; it’s that the fan of the other team is an Other. This, again, blurs the lines between what we think of as geek fandom and non-geek.

On its face, the idea that geek-love for a particular franchise is the psychological equivalent of devotion to a particular athletic team makes sense: both are characterized by an over-identification with the central figures in an ongoing drama, be it the trials of a fictional protagonist or the tribulations of a team seemingly committed to never cracking .500. And in both cases, these figures are representatives of corporate media, such that it doesn’t matter to the BBC who plays the Doctor, so long as the show itself is successful, anymore than it matters to the NFL who wins the Super Bowl, so long as the game itself is an obscene encomium to American capitalism.

For Williams, the corporate nature of the objects of fandom overrides the differences between how those objects are related to. “Neoliberalism,” he claims, “has made geeks of us all: jocks, nerds, and dweebs alike,” and so he suggests that we make “a concerted effort to free the media being consumed from the corporate realm.” As sentiments go, that’s a lovely one; but as statements about reality go, it indicates that Williams isn’t remotely familiar with geek culture. That should’ve been apparent when he linked to a fight at a Star Wars club and claimed “[t]his is remarkably similar to diehard sports fan culture.”

His entire argument relies on that analogy, but his diction betrays that he lacks confidence in it. Depending on how remarkable you prefer your similarities, a honey badger is “remarkably similar” to the least chipmunk. They share a kingdom, phylum, and class, which any 19th Century naturalist will tell you means that they’re more similar than not. Ask the same 19th Century naturalist which one he’d rather be locked in a small box with, however, and you’d quickly learn that the differences between them are more significant than their similarities are remarkable. (Only one, for example, is a vainglorious carnivore.) Point being, the rare instance of verbal arguments leading to physical altercations in geek culture shouldn’t be the basis of an analogy to a sport culture in which such an escalation is common.

So, Williams’s argument on the corporate nature of geek culture relies on an analogy that only works from a logical remove so distant as to be useless. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a corporate component to geek culture, as there certainly is, but that component operates in a vastly different way than its correlate in sport culture. If you’re a Mets fan, you watch them play on SNY or at Citifield and you purchase uniforms and gear from officially licensed MLB manufacturers. With a few notable exceptions — homemade posters or creepy homespun Mr. Met costumes — your participation in the team culture is mediated through corporate entities. You don’t often witness the melting visage of a paper-mache Mr. Met roaming the stands of Citifield, but you can’t attend a comic conference without seeing twenty Wolverines sporting alarmingly sharp-looking claws. That’s because the participatory nature of geek culture is expansive — the object originates in a corporate entity but isn’t limited to it — whereas the more you participate in sport culture, the more money you deposit in the pockets of the corporations that own it.

This is a basic fact of geek culture: while a person can participate it by buying a Batman costume officially licensed by DC Comics, he or she can also — and for the most part does — participate in it by purchasing ceramic plates and blackout drapes and transforming them into something resembling a Batsuit. I understand the desire to vilify corporations for their pernicious effect on contemporary culture, but I don’t think such condemnations require us to minimize the differences between subcultures in what, to my eyes, seems like an attempt to create a monolithic subculture. I’m not sure what good a united front of geeks and sport fans would have on American society at large, especially if the bond between them is a weak analogy based on violent tribalist tendencies.

“That his first article concerned alcohol is no accident of history”

[ 18 ] August 6, 2013 |

Is a line that can now appear in my obituary. (And the article’s about vodka no less.) In addition to writing articles, my duties at The Raw Story will include pulling and titling links to wire stories. They won’t be under my byline, but I have a feeling you’ll be able to tell which ones are mine.

I’ll still be writing here, though, as my job doesn’t entail the kind of editorializing I’m incapable of not doing. As a matter of fact, I’ll still be here when my other other gig starts on the 15th. (But more on that later.)

The New Doctor

[ 247 ] August 5, 2013 |

As anyone who cares enough to be reading this already knows, yesterday the BBC announced that it had cast the new Doctor, and to the shock of absolutely no one paying attention, he looks like this:

I confess to being disappointed: I’d hoped to see Idris Elba fulfil the Doctor’s wish of regenerating ginger—yes, you read that correctly—because a show whose operative principles are any thing, any where, any time shouldn’t limit its protagonist to white men from the British Isles. Endlessly doing so constitutes a failure of imagination on the part of a show predicated on imaginative possibility. I’m not claiming the new Doctor had to be a black man. Neil Gaiman introduced into canon the concept of regenerating into another gender in “The Doctor’s Wife,” so I would’ve been satisfied with a white woman.*

Essentially, I wanted Steven Moffat to make a selection as outrageously ambitious as the show itself can be, and Peter Capaldi is more of the same. Which isn’t to say he’ll be a terrible Doctor, as Capaldi’s a fine actor and will bring to the role a gravitas it’s lacked since the end of David Tennant’s run. But as heroes go, the Doctor’s just “a madman with a box” whose power, such as it is, is the ability to bluff his way out of a war. And as powers go, “intelligence” is limitless in its potential appeal because everyone likes to think they’re smart. Having him embodied by an endless parade of white British males creates an unwholesome and unnecessary connection between intelligence, acts of extreme whiteness and penises.

Why does that matter? I’ll tell you the same story I told my Doctor Who class when trying to explain its cultural significance to the British people:

One evening while I was trapped in North London by an Icelandic volcano, I noticed the streets were unusually empty. The hundreds of Pakistani children usually found playing in the street had vanished, so I decided to take advantage of the quiet and read on the front porch. About five minutes later, the Pakistani family that lived next door returned home from wherever they’d been and went inside. Five minutes after that, another Pakistani family from down the street walked up to and in my neighbor’s house. Five minutes after that, another Pakistani family, this one completely unfamiliar to me, did the same. This continued for about an hour, until the house was packed well beyond capacity.** I had no idea what was going on, so when one of the children I recognized was walking up, I asked.

“What’s going on?”

“The Doctor,” he said.

Imagine what the atmosphere in that house would be like if Matt Smith regenerated into someone who resembled them. Because that’s all you can do, imagine, for the time being.

*I’ve read that some are disappointed that the Doctor will be straight again. I sympathize—though the series deserves credit on that front for Captain Jack—but unless they have access to scripts Moffat hasn’t written yet, I’m not sure why anyone would conclude from Capaldi’s casting that the Doctor will be straight.

**Writing this story down is, believe it or not, the first time I’ve ever realized that the house was bigger on the inside. I’ve always worried people would think I was making some sort of derogatory statement about the living conditions of Pakistanis, when I should’ve been making it clear that they have a TARDIS and we don’t.

Hello, I’m SEK and I live in Mississippi.

[ 141 ] August 4, 2013 |

At least until I find a place in Baton Rouge. I feel obligated to write this post because of the concern espoused in a previous one about my travels in Texas. I attribute making it through unscathed to the gigantic Lincoln Navigator I was piloting: I looked far too wealthy and American to be pulled over.  Now here are some completely random notes:

  • Texas is too big. I’m familiar with its eastern bits — my parents live in Houston and my wife studied at UT — but that stretch between El Paso and San Antonio has no business existing.
  • It doesn’t matter how large your vehicle is when you share it with two howling cats who don’t even have the decency to harmonize. It just doesn’t.
  • The In Our Time podcast is as good as advertised. Given that I can attest to the quality of the material on matters I’m expert in — Joyce, Yeats, Alfred Russel Wallace, the history of evolutionary theory, etc. — I’m going to be quick to flash my vast store of new-found knowledge. (“Did you know there’s no solid evidence Marco Polo existed?” is something I will be saying at a dinner-party in the near future.)
  • Southern California produces better Mexican food than Texas and no cuisine in the world is comparable to Louisiana’s. These are facts that cannot be disputed.

The asemic style of conservative politics

[ 61 ] July 29, 2013 |

As outlined in the book of the same name, the paranoid style of American politics requires a philosophical rigor that contemporary conservatives simply lack. There’s a baroque grandeur to the pattern of perceived slights that’s admirable in its own way — as if a master archer decided to “paint” a pointillist self-portrait one arrow at a time. The style of contemporary conservatives is equally absurd, but it lacks the pointless beauty of paranoia — it’s akin to child who tosses a handful of bird shot into a lake and finds in the resulting ripples a fair resemblance of himself. By insisting his reflection is the result of his “artistry,” he communicates that he fundamentally misunderstands the nature of causality.

Put differently: if he pissed on a mirror he’d crow about the transmogrifying powers of his urine.

Because he’s not paranoid — he’s an idiot. He’s out there kicking a watch to prove to David Hume that God designed the world to exist. At The National Review, for example, Stanley Kurtz recounts reading a book by James Kloppenberg in which Mike Kruglik “recalls that Obama had a special interest in the work of the radical historian Howard Zinn” in 1985. I had to add the date because Kurtz didn’t want to sully Kloppenberg’s account of Kruglik’s twenty-eight year old recollection of Obama’s “special interest” with its proper context. Had he done so, Paul Mirengoff of Powerline wouldn’t have been able to draw attention to “The Obama-Zinn Connection,” nor would he have been able to transform Obama’s “special interest” into overt “fan[dom],” and if he couldn’t call Obama a “fan” of Zinn, he couldn’t link to The National Review‘s “summar[y]” of “Zinn’s errors and distortions.”

This isn’t paranoia — grandiose or otherwise — it’s the self-fulfilling stupidity of three kids kicking a turtle they’ve mistaken for a watch who think they’re proving God and Samuel Johnson right. They’re not exactly sure how they’ve done so, but they’re damn sure that they have because it looks just like them.

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