Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for SEK

rss feed

Visit SEK's Website

Against Springsteen

[ 129 ] December 11, 2012 |

According to Rolling Stone, Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball is the best album released this year. Why? Because of lyrics like:

Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bill.
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill.

They “rage at corporate oligarchy and economic injustice,” things at which I’m raging too, so I completely understand why Rolling Stone would think they’re good: it agrees with them. There’s only one problem: they’re not. The state of political rhetoric is such that feeble statements of solidarity pass for insight. We’ve traded genius for blandished agreement, resulting in a situation in which we praise people for writing:

There ain’t no help.
The cavalry stayed home.

I wouldn’t be complaining were it not for the fact that, of all people, it’s Springsteen they’re praising for rehashing tired polemic. Because part of the reason I’m lefter than I’ve any right to be is that this same Springsteen fellow once made me feel the anger and hopelessness to which he only here alludes. If you’ve never seen the debut performance of “The River,” do yourself a favor and do so right now. I can wait.

Granted, “The River” isn’t an explicitly political song–it’s decidedly lacking in policy statements–but it’s a far more compelling vision of what lives are like “on account of the economy” than the broadsides found on Wrecking Ball. Let’s start with the titular and abiding image: a river. What are rivers like? To trade one bard for another, here’s John McPhee on the Mississippi in his “Atchafalaya“:

Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand—frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions. Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient. As the mouth advances southward and the river lengthens, the gradient declines, the current slows, and sediment builds up the bed. Eventually, it builds up so much that the river spills to one side. Major shifts of that nature have tended to occur roughly once a millennium. The Mississippi’s main channel of three thousand years ago is now the quiet water of Bayou Teche, which mimics the shape of the Mississippi. Along Bayou Teche, on the high ground of ancient natural levees, are Jeanerette, Breaux Bridge, Broussard, Olivier—arcuate strings of Cajun towns. Eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, the channel was captured from the east. It shifted abruptly and flowed in that direction for about a thousand years. In the second century a.d., it was captured again, and taken south, by the now unprepossessing Bayou Lafourche, which, by the year 1000, was losing its hegemony to the river’s present course, through the region that would be known as Plaquemines. By the nineteen-fifties, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the Gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it.

The point being that rivers are forces of nature that even the Army Corps of Engineers can only control until the occasional Katrina. Going “down to the river,” as Springsteen’s narrator and compatriots do, is the contemporary equivalent of worshiping a mountain on account of its orogeny. It’s there and demands homage and besides where else are you going to go when that thing is there? The song begins with an idyllic, if limited, vision of life in America:

Read more…

Except “Rafalca Style” would actually involve riding a horse

[ 44 ] December 11, 2012 |

I know I’m supposed to be covering the conservative insanity beat, but I’m not sure I can do it anymore. I just don’t know what to do with arguments like Jeannie DeAngelis’s, in which she claims that:

  • “Gangnam Style,” which all the kids are doing, is dumb because the kids are doing it
  • Obama won the election in 2008 because all the kids were doing “Obama Style,” which is dumb, because the kids were doing it
  • The man responsible for “Gangnam Style” wrote terrible things about America that the kids didn’t know about then, but should have, but didn’t, because they were dumb and hate America, which is why they fell for “Obama Style,” which has nothing to do with anything because DeAngelis just made it up
  • Except that “Gangnam Style” is a horse-dance, which looks like exercise, which could be called “Michelle Obama Style,” which would be an “Obama Style”
  • Moreover, horse-dances are associated with the wealthy, which is bad because it is, never mind who was atop the Republican ticket a little over a month ago
  • Also, “Gangnam Style” makes money for the man who wrote terrible things about America, which isn’t capitalist initiative in a global market because that’s not the point, he made money
  • And he did it in America, with “Gangnam Style,” which is popular with the kids, who are doing it, because it is dumb, and so are they

At this point, I feel like most conservative writers have resorted to digging out their old Culture War Mad Libs and “spicing it up” with topical subjects like “exercise is good” and “Obama isn’t.” It’s disheartening.

In case you wonder what I write about on Facebook

[ 41 ] December 5, 2012 |

CAT limps meekly up to SEK, who is sitting at his desk grading.

CAT: Hi.

SEK: Hello.

CAT: Legs no work.

SEK: You don’t say.

CAT: Wrestled packing tape.

SEK: I can see that.

CAT: Won.

SEK: Not sure about that.

CAT: Help.

SEK: Fine, let me just pull that off–

CAT produces a noise unheard on Earth outside of H.P. Lovecraft’s nightmares. POLICE are likely to arrive soon. CAT also now sports hilarious bald spots.

Beats telling people that you’re Jewish

[ 75 ] December 3, 2012 |

SEK spies an OLD LADY being crushed by the Christmas tree she’s trying to remove from the roof of her car.

SEK: Do you need some help with that?

OLD LADY: Yes, some would be nice.

SEK: Let me take that.

SEK accepts far more weight than this tiny muscles can bear but whatever.

OLD LADY: Thank you. It’s good to know someone has the Christmas spirit.

SEK: I’m not a—

OLD LADY: You have the spirit, whatever you are.

SEK: (well-nigh collapsing) I’m not anything.

OLD LADY: Everyone is something.

SEK: Nope.

OLD LADY: Everyone.

SEK: So I get to choose?

OLD LADY: Everyone gets to choose.

SEK: Then I’m Batman.

OLD LADY: Excuse me?

SEK: If I get to choose, I’m Batman.

Game of Thrones: Swords! Swords! Swords! in “Baelor”

[ 16 ] November 28, 2012 |

Earlier in the quarter, I introduced my students to the anything-that’s-longer-than-it-is-wide mode of psychoanalytic criticism. Not very sophisticated, I know, but it helps explain the historical context of certain rhetorical tropes.* Given that this class is based on Game of Thrones, the discussion inevitably landed on the subject of swords as phallic symbols, and I noted that while there’s nothing necessary or natural about that connection, it is one of long-standing and therefore might have influenced how George R.R. Martin employed them in his narrative. Which the students took to mean “SWORDS EQUAL PENISES,” a not altogether unfortunate development given how the Arya and Needle string undermines conventional gender assumptions. It did, however, make teaching the ninth episode, “Baelor,” a little difficult. The episode opens with Lord Commander Mormont gifting a sword, Longclaw, meant for his son, Jorah Mormont, to Jon Snow. Snow proceeds down the stairs and is immediately accosted by his Wall-fellows:

Game of thrones - baelor00006

Keeping in mind what my students think swords equal, consider the eyeline match in this shot. Not explicit enough? Fine:

Game of thrones - baelor00007

That man seems a little too excited to see Jon’s sword.

Game of thrones - baelor00010

They all seem a little too excited to see Jon’s sword.

Read more…

Money is racist [NOTE: This counts as my version of the apparently mandated Wednesday Lincoln post.]

[ 21 ] November 28, 2012 |

Mine is, at least. The woman at the toll booth said she couldn’t accept it because it’s been “defaced.” Now, it’s racist, obviously, but it clearly hasn’t been defaced so much as refaced:

Of course, I received this unacceptable bill at the previous toll booth. Money that Jeff Goldstein didn’t de- or reface can be found here. I’m particularly fond of this envisioning of Andrew Jackson:

Seems like a natural fit.

More gloriously awful student ideas*

[ 15 ] November 27, 2012 |

SEK’S STUDENTS: So we had this idea for our project, like a live-action, flash mob reenactment of “LEEROY JENKINS!” where we find like some random students studying or in the park and—

SEK: Let me stop you there. You’re going to surprise random students—

SEK’S STUDENTS: We have the costumes and everything. We’ll just walk up to them, stand around, then I’ll yell—

SEK: I don’t think this is a good idea.

SEK’S STUDENTS: Really? ‘Cause we’ve already made like four or five.

*I really didn’t intend for this to become a series. I think they may just be messing with me at this point.

Black People Can’t Swim

[ 120 ] November 26, 2012 |

In the summer of 1968, Charles Schulz—born today in 1922—decided not to take the path of least resistance.  In the first months of the Presidential race, the politics of Peanuts were as inscrutable as ever:

244071zoom244072zoom244075zoom

The political positions of the birds—one of whom Schulz would christen “Woodstock” two years later—are literally cryptic.  (Snoopy later embraced of identity politics via a nifty collapse of signifier into signified, but let’s not lit-crit these panels quite yet.)  For Schulz, the campaigns of Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace were less important than baseball:

244093zoom244094zoom244095zoom244096zoom

This dead-pan surrealism here is Peanuts at its artistic best, but at a time when America was at war and a segregationist was a viable Presidential candidate, dead-pan surrealism wasn’t the order of the day.  So Schulz sent Charlie Brown to the beach:

244100zoom

This strip’s a fairly typical example of Charlie Brown’s half-hearted exasperation with an unfair world.  The next?

244101zoom

Not only does the world cease its relentless, playful torment of Charlie Brown, but the boy who tamps it down is black and can swim.  Because on 31 July 1968, Schulz introduced the world to Franklin.  May not seem like much, but it’s as explicitly political as Peanuts ever ventures.  Until, that is, 1 August 1968:

244102zoom

The father of Franklin, the black boy who swims, is over in Vietnam.  That second panel neatly illustrates how far Schulz strayed from his comfort zone.  Charlie Brown’s father “was in a war, but [he doesn't] know which one.”  That’s the extent to which contemporary politics typically intruded the most popular daily comic in America.  But for some reason, Schulz felt the need to contradict conventional racist wisdom that summer.

The racists responded in the manner befitting Wallace-backers: “I don’t mind you having a black character, but please don’t show them in school together.”

244641zoom

It must’ve sucked to be a racist.  Unless, that is, you’re a fan of Dennis the Menace:

dennis

That’s from 13 May 1970, two years after Schulz quietly integrated public schools.  There’s much to admire in the matter-of-factness of Schulz’s racial politics.  Not only is there no meta- to it, there’s no mention of it—Franklin arrives, befriends Peppermint Patty, and plays football.

(Re-posted in honor of Schulz’s birthday. If you want to zoom on the images or save them, you’ll have to click over to that link because WordPress is doing something wonky with the images here.)

Impersonating someone can be a federal offense

[ 40 ] November 25, 2012 |

SEK is inside his apartment being forced (by proximity) to listen to children playing basketball on the court adjacent to his porch.

CHILD #1: Pass the ball!

CHILD #2: I’M RAY ALLEN!

CHILD #1: Pass the damn ball!

CHILD #2: I’M RAY ALLEN!

SEK’S PORCH: I’VE BEEN HIT!

SEK: What the—

SEK exits his apartment and looks at his porch. On the ground is a shattered pot and another plant that will inevitably not survive re-potting at this time of year. There is also a basketball. SEK picks up the basketball and looks at the children on the court.

SEK: Which one of you is “RAY ALLEN”?

CHILD #1: What do you mean?

SEK: I mean, which one of you is “RAY ALLEN”?

CHILD #2: Not us.

SEK: Have a good night then.

CHILD #1: What about our ball? Can we have it back?

SEK: This isn’t your ball.

CHILD #1: It is.

SEK: So you’re “RAY ALLEN”?

CHILD #2: No one’s “RAY ALLEN”! Now give us back our ball!

SEK: This ball belongs to “RAY ALLEN.” If you’re not “RAY ALLEN,” this isn’t your ball.

SEK enters his apartment with “RAY ALLEN”‘s ball. Ten minutes pass. His doorbell rings. Standing at the door is an OLDER WOMAN with a firm grip on CHILD #2′s arm.

OLDER WOMAN: My son has something to say to you. (OLDER WOMAN elbows CHILD #2)

CHILD #2: I’m—

OLDER WOMAN: Say it!

CHILD #2: I’M RAY ALLEN!

Who knows more about football than Rex Ryan? Who does? Who?

[ 60 ] November 23, 2012 |

My cat Sigmund:

Between swatting at Sanchez (0:27) and turning his head in disgust at the image of Tebow (0:56), I think he’s at least earned himself an interview.

Game of Thrones: Learning to use “The Pointy End”

[ 52 ] November 19, 2012 |

As I noted in my first post about this course, one of the signal elements of high fantasy as a genre is the presence of a coming-of-age narrative, and Game of Thrones is clearly no exception. “The Pointy End,” in fact, delivers three distinct moments in which a character is provided an opportunity to take a significant step in his or her maturation process. (It actually contains more than three, but only three of the characters take advantage of the opportunity provided and I want to focus on them.) We’ll begin with Arya Stark, who as the episode opens is literally practicing at life:

Game of thrones - the pointy end00008

The balanced long shot employed by director Daniel Minihan has the effect of bringing a sense of calm to this fencing lesson. Arya and her instructor, Syrio Forel, are playing at combat in a manner as elegant as this shot is composed. Note that Arya moves between the third arch from frame-left, while Syrio strikes at her from the third arch from frame-right. If this is fighting, it is unlike the brutal art being performed outside this very room at this very point in time:

Read more…

Game of Thrones: Table-setting and brain-burning in “You Win or You Die”

[ 52 ] November 16, 2012 |

My close-reading instincts typically compel me to focus on scenes more than structure, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. So let’s talk about structure from the point of view of someone who went to film school before the advent of DVDs and Netflix, by which I mean before we could finish one episode and jet right into the next. Traditional dramatic structure in serial narratives involves table-setting and brain-burning. In “You Win or You Die,” here’s how the table’s set:

Game of thrones - you win or you die00009

Jaime Lannister enters the tent of his father, Tywin, but he does so out of focus and in the midground. In the foreground, shot in shallow focus, is a big dead stag-looking beast, which creates a connection in our heads between whatever it is Jaime’s talking about and big dead beasts. (That stags are affiliated with House Baratheon isn’t immaterial either. Especially when you consider that when introduced to Tywin, he’s elbow deep in a dead stag, suggesting his role in Baratheon’s demise.) This is significant because it’s not just that beast is big and dead—as we’re fine with that when such heads are hung on walls—but that it’s in the process of being broken down:

Game of thrones - you win or you die00017

As everyone knows, if you want to make the majority of Americans uncomfortable, ask them where their meat comes from. Tell them that it wasn’t born shrink-wrapped on a styrofoam plate and that it had a sad face when it was dispatched. Point out that the meat department in their favorite grocery store is a literal wall of death befitting of a serial killer’s trophy closet. Or not. You don’t have to do that: seeing Tywin going to town on that beast has already made them uncomfortable enough. The writers and directors know this, which is why they shot this conversation, which could have occurred anywhere, in a room in which Tywin Lannister was butchering his kill. Moreover, it’s significant that Twyin is butchering the beast himself, because as is noted in the “Prologue,” being suckled at your mother’s teat is a sign of being low-born, so surely he has someone in his employ who could butcher this beast for him. The fact that he’s doing it himself is somewhat admirable, in that hunterly way, but it also suggests that he enjoys it, i.e. he enjoys doing something that the majority of Americans can’t even bear thinking about, which makes them dislike him.

Not that they didn’t already, mind you, because the show has long since marshaled our sympathies against the Lannisters, but this is the opening scene in the episode—the lens through which all the events that occur in it will be seen. And there’s a lot going on there. There’s not just the beast on the table, there’s the deliberate arrangement of dialogue and imagery, e.g.

Read more…