Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Comedy And The Implied Author As Window-Dressing

I don't know if you read Emily Nussbaum's piece in the New Yorker a few months ago about comedy and modern politics, but one of the things she talks about is how the distinction between acting like a Nazi for "lulz" and and being an actual Nazi is breaking down, and how crucial the idea of "but it's just a joke!" has become to our cultural interactions.

Though her focus is more on politics, one of the things her analysis made me think of was the idea of an "implied author." I know this concept from reading about it in Martha Nussbaum's work on objectification, but it's really an idea from literary theory. The idea is that while the story or the narrator might present a certain thing one way, the normative stance toward that thing conveyed by the work of art might be something else entirely. For example, in Henry James's work, the characters use and "objectify" one another for various things like status and money. But the book as a whole seems to subject those actions to critical scrutiny rather than celebrating them.

It's obviously not an idea without complexities, since saying anything about an implied author requires interpretation and and interpretations can vary. But I'd also say that some texts are better suited to the idea of an implied author than others. And, of course, you can intentionally try to subvert the idea through ambiguity, and that's something that's gone on for a long time.

But I feel like there's a thing now that isn't ambiguity but that's more like a cynical attempt to allow people to enjoy and participate in something bad while holding on to the soothing cover of an "implied author" -- to kind of hold in reserve that the point isn't to celebrate something but rather to mock it or "comment" on it.

One example in the New Yorker piece is a story line from South Park, in which a megalomaniac presidential candidate goes on stage as a standup comedian intending to offend his fans. He starts with a joke about how awful it is to have to stand in line because of "all the freakin' Muslims," and then he moves on to how all the black TSA agents look like "thugs" from the inner city, and when he just gets bigger and bigger laughs, he finally starts talking about putting his fingers into women's butts and pussies. Finally, some white women walk out, and the candidate says "You’ve been O.K. with the ‘Fuck ’Em All to Death’ and all the Mexican and Muslim shit, but fingers in the ass did it for you. Cool. Just wanted to see where your line was."

"I just wanted to see where your line was." It's easy to make an argument that the implied author of this bit is making a joke about the entrenched racism of American culture -- that a large bunch of people are happy to tolerate and engage in offensive racist remarks and attitudes.

But I couldn't help but wonder if there was also an audience was that was enjoying those very same jokes, and perhaps inattentive to the possibility of this other implied author. In fact, you could read the whole thing the other way around, that the candidate is making a fearlessly politically incorrect speech (hey, free speech everyone!) and then making fun of the women who walk out for being "unable to take a joke."

The bit can work on both levels. In fact, the more outrageous the candidate's speech is, the more it's likely to work on both levels: the person wants to engage in racism can enjoy the speech and ignore any complexities.

And where I think the whole thing gets maximally creepy is that because of the way the entertainment industry works, shows almost have to work on multiple levels: shows cost a fortune to make, and they have to appeal to a massively wide range of people, sometimes a globally massively wide range of people.

You can do that by being action-adventure-bland, of course. But if you're going to be funny or edgy or whatever, you can only do it by working all the levels. Islamophobic and racist jokes that work for the islamphobes and racists, and an "implied author" the creators can point to to justify that they're not really doing the thing, they're not really participating in it. But, of course, in a sense they are.

If this is right, the whole breakdown of distinctions like "Nazi-for-lulz" and "actual Nazi" isn't really a bug, but more of a feature. It may have started with 4chan or whatever. But it's a great move, capitalism-wise. Working all the levels at the same time makes for bigger audiences, more money, all the things a complex and hyper-competitive industry needs to keep going.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The New Myers-Briggs

I've always thought that the Myers-Briggs test -- like most psychological classification tests -- had a kind of bullshitty aspect to it. But for some reason. the human urge to develop acronyms and short quizzes to unlock the mysteries of our inner lives seems unsatisfiable. So, in that spirit, here are some other categories I like to use to understand other people.

1. "Straight Man" Versus "Funny Man."

We live in a very fucked up world. As I see it, you can either laugh at the ridiculous of the world directly, or you can take up the quieter, more subtle, implicit side-eye approach. In defining "straight man," Wikipedia says "The ability to maintain a serious demeanor in the face of even the most preposterous comedy is crucial to a successful straight man." But this is a bit narrow. How about "in the face of even them most preposterous .. well, anything?"

Personally, I wish I'd learned about the whole straight man concept at a younger age. When I was around eight years old, I had a friend named Katie who was not only a creative genius but also a classic "funny man." We wrote and performed for our parents a serious of comedy sketches based on two characters: I was the stern and angry school principal (Mr. Valteman), and she was the carefree, rebellious teen (I had an awesome purple vinyl jacket that worked perfectly for her costume). Over and over, she'd call me "Mr. V," and flash the peace sign or whatever, and over and over I'd bring down on her head all the impotent rage that principals have brought down all through the centuries.

At the time, I thought she was the star of the show and I was kind of an also-ran. What I didn't know is that the straight man is a crucial ingredient. Now, I get it: you actually don't even need a funny man to be a great straight man. All you need is to live among absurdity (check), show that you know you do, and say your piece with a straight face. 

2. Lolcat Versus Doge


I know these are dated memes. But philosophy moves slowly.

I am a cat person along any available dimension you can outline, so it's not surprising that I love looking at pictures of cats in different poses, pictures of cats with captions, and pictures of cats with words printed on them.


What is a bit surprising -- or, at least, it surprised me -- was the degree to which I was left cold by the Doge meme. You know, where there's a picture of that Shiba Inu and there are words around it. I am left so cold by this meme that I don't even know the sense in which it is meant to be charming. Is it supposed to be funny? cute? meta?

There is something deep being shared and communicated by people who love this meme that is utterly and completely lost on me.

3. The Terror of Activity Versus the Terror of Inactivity

Rationally enough, some people's anxieties are triggered by things. They have to do something, or be somewhere. They have to talk on the phone, or organize some papers, or meet a deadline. They become anxious, and they dream of a world where all of that fades away: things are taken care of, there's nothing else they have to do, and they can rest quietly on a sofa in a softly lit room.

While I share the normal human tendency toward dread and fear of doing things, I'm actually more likely to be reduced to despair by a quiet and empty day. Time to think means  ... time to think. And thinking leads me nowhere good. You start by asking yourself what to do, you move on to asking what the point of various activities are, and before long you're either 1) wasting the whole day looking at the internet or 2) staring down the existential crisis that life is, actually, totally pointless.

This is the terror of inactivity.

Unlike the old Myers-Briggs proponents, I don't claim that psychological insight into these types will help you figure out, as we would have said in the 70s, the "color of your parachute." But isn't it more interesting and fun to know you're a straight man, than, say, an INTJ? 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

No Post Today Because The Blogger Is Sick - Again!!

Just a really bad cold, but I'm kind of incapacitated for the moment. Looking forward to meeting you all here next Tuesday and as always, thank for reading!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Consumer Micromanagement

One of the things I don't like about modern life is what I think of as "consumer micromanagement" -- by which I mean the way people who are selling me things are able track my choices and alter their goods and content in response. While it may seem to them like profit management and capitalism business as usual, the effect I feel in my life is to make me into a worse version of myself.


Before your individual choices were tracked, it was possible for your consumer dollar to express an interest in a bundle of things, appropriately bundled. A bundle of things that might range from the easy to the challenging, or the stupid to the complex, or the childish to the sophisticated, or the bad to the good. And even if you sometimes lapsed into choosing the easy, the stupid, the childish, and the bad, you could feel like in the larger scheme of things you were at least supporting something that was, on balance, OK.

Now that choices are tracked, it's no longer like that. Now if you choose the easy, the stupid, the childish, and the bad, the goods or content provider you are dealing with will take that as a sign that they should be providing -- and providing only -- the easy, the stupid, the childish, and the bad.

Here are a few examples.

1. In the news

I like to read the news. When I'm tired or depressed, I often click on what is easy and the stupid. But that doesn't mean I want my newspaper to stop providing the challenging and the complex. On the contrary.

It used to be that I could buy the New York Times or the local paper -- and know that I was, in a sense, throwing my consumer dollar toward the mix of things they had. 

If I was feeling low energy, I might head immediately to the comics, or study the "boldface names," or peruse the letters to the editor. I might not study the long article about the what's going on in Egypt or Syria. But I was happy to know it was there, glad to feel I could read it later or read a relevantly similar story some other day, and satisfied to know that in purchasing the paper I had expressed this full range of preferences.

Well, those halcyon days are over. If you read the news online, everyone knows immediately whether you clicked on the comics and whether you failed to inform yourself about something complicated or sophisticated. News providers being part of capitalism, they draw the obvious inference: they should run more comics -- or, in the modern situation, more listicles -- and less of all that other boring stuff.

2. In the bookstore

Bookstores used to go out of their way to stock a range of things, perhaps with the intelligent thought that people shopping for mystery stories might still enjoy the experience of being around books about Milton or quantum physics or the history of Mesopotamia.

Now, I realize that for a long time a store might know which books it's selling more of. But before the tracking mania, book industry people actually went out of their way to craft an audience. They didn't assume that a person, having bought seventeen light mystery-reading books in a row, would just want to read more like mystery-reading. They assumed, correctly, that people who read books could be interested in anything. Now, it's more like "Oh, we know what to print and stock -- we'll print and stock things like the things people have already bought!"

3. At the grocery store

Sometimes I buy tofu and yogurt and cashews. Sometimes I buy candy. I'm always paranoid that if I don't buy expensive blueberries or my preferred kind of feta cheese, that next time it won't be there. In a paranoid way, I have to shop for what I think I might want to shop for later. It's exhausting. If the store just had some vague sense that the things they were buying were the things their customers were purchasing, at least I wouldn't to worry in such a fine-grained kind of way.

I know we can't go back to the days when my dollar just expressed a general approval of some general range of things and not some specific version of myself at a specific time and place. But maybe we can just chill a little with the specificity.