NYT Book Review – The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey

Bettany Hughes writes a great review for Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. I knew I’d be interested in the book before I read Hughes’ review, but I’m so glad I was able to find a few interesting quotes:

…Nixey makes the fundamental point that while we lionize Christian culture for preserving works of learning, sponsoring exquisite art and adhering to an ethos of “love thy neighbor,” the early church was in fact a master of anti-intellectualism, iconoclasm and mortal prejudice.

And the following…

Nixey delivers this ballista-bolt of a book with her eyes wide open and in an attempt to bring light as well as heat to the sad story of intellectual monoculture and religious intolerance.

I love “ballista-bolt of a book.” I’m looking forward to grabbing this from the library when it comes out.

HOW to MRI…in some number of steps

Frens.

I have been through the Stargate and back and will now divulge the secret to having a pleasant experience inside the MRI machine.

Feel free to use this, unless you already have a process. This requires good brain muscles. Your mileage may vary.

FIRST! Do not, I repeat, do not open your eyes. When they push you into the magnetic womb, keep those peepers unpeeped. There is a nice flow of cool air spraying near your face and you can delude yourself into thinking you’re lying in an open area. That’s fine. NO PEEKING.

SECOND! Do not accept the gift of music. I have no idea what kind of playlists MRI technicians have available, but for this plan to work, you must not allow competing beats into your muffled earholes. NO COMPETING BEATS!

C! There will be some alarm sounds. That’s fine. That’s your signal to start the show in your mind theater. Take a deep breath. You are ready.

NEXT! There will be some thumping. Rhythmic thumping that once in a while will be paired with a second, deeper thumping. This is good. Don’t jig with it – you can’t – but move with the beat in your brain. This beat is permeating the depths of the earth, the only part of the EDM coming from a hedonistic celebration in your honor many miles above. You hear it. Your embrace it. Soon it will stop, for the ritual will be complete. For you are the…

VAMPIRE QUEEN!!!

(Now, I’m not the Aaliyah “Queen of the Damned” type, more of the Brienne-of-Tarth-as-a-Vampire type, which, let’s be honest, would have ended that show in Season four. ALL HAIL THE BLOODY QUEEN OF THE SEVEN * crash * SIX KINGDOMS!!)

So, you, the Vampire Queen, lying in your coffin in the depths of hell, awaiting your resurrection. Your most dedicated followers are engaged in a deadly disco (picture the “Bloodbath” scene from “Blade”) and you hear them calling you from your black soul.

The beat stops. For a moment, silence.

Suddenly an insistent “rat-tat-tat-tat-tat” echoes overhead. You know that the forces of good have come to break up your ceremony. These are the machine guns, silver bullets blazing, mowing down the weakest of your kin. Fine, you think, safe in your sunken cocoon. Their flesh will be the centerpiece of a celebration feast. Two more short rounds of “rat-tat-tat” are heard – then a long, nearly insufferable staccato of noise. You try to shift, but the long centuries of sleep have left you stiff and sluggish. And as you begin to think of the loss of your brethren, a feeling of peace diffuses through your blood. Of course, you realize, the tables have been turned and the human interlopers are now the ones staring down those metal missiles of misery.

FOURTH!…FIFTH! It is quiet again, for a moment, and then the EDM returns. Here, your brain projector switches from the crimsons and whites of the previous disco to the browns and tans of the overlong, sweat-stained dance frenzy of that one Matrix movie. You forget which one.

YOU HAVE EXISTED FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS AND IT IS DIFFICULT TO RETAIN FILM FACTS.
I AM THE ULTIMATE PREDATOR BUT BAD AT BAR TRIVIA.

The beats are not as insistent now and then more “rat-tat-tats.” But these have a distinct sound, as of a long heavy chain being pulled through an infinite chasm.

SIX! As your chained coffin is being pulled upwards through an infinite chasm, you begin to sense an end to your stillness, the bulbous stress ball some smarty-pants buried you with in 1987, now feels like the soft completion of a promise. You rise….RISE, noticing for the first time, a cool breeze across your face and you hope, desperately hope, that these dancing morons timed this right. No one likes being resurrected at dawn.

SEVENTEENTH!! In your ears a kind voice says, “okay, you’re all done” and you smile, knowing that you’ve successfully passed through the gate from undead to, well, technically you’re still undead, but now you’re ANIMATED UNDEAD and hey, lady, you said that like ten minutes ago. It’s time to release me from my IMMORTAL PRISON and let me out. Seriously, how far away are the operators from this thing? And if they’re that far away, should I even be in here?

END!! Not a moment before, but when you feel the table move out, out of the area, then, and only then, should you open your eyes, dismissing the previous twenty minutes and returning to a certain reality. Pluck out those ear plugs, thank the staff for their kindness and professionalism and emerge into the sunlight, ready to take on the day.

You squint at the sun. “Idiots!”

Facebook and the Discontinuity of Narrative

I find Facebook frustrating. As storyteller, the Facebook algorithm creates a logistical dilemma. In some cases, I like to use the first comment as a, for lack of a better term, the punchline, or, in most cases, a secondary punchline. Sometimes it is to give further comment to what I’m posting, other times it is to beat my readers to the obvious joke. I am not always successful, but narratively I find that first comment area gives me the necessary “beat” before a nice aside. It’s is the “Ching” to my “Ba-dum, dum.”

Unfortunately, when enough comments appear, Facebook shifts the order around, placing the “Top Comment” in this coveted spot, erasing any of my intended narrative flow—a small example of the Facebook news feed as a whole—shifting the narrative flow from a temporal progression of my Facebook feed to one decidedly non-temporal. Were I to view my feed in the default view, I would find posts from the day before at the top of the list because that one friend is a particularly prolific poster, or due to the apparent closeness of our “relationship.” As one who developed her online narrative style on bulletin boards, forums and IRC chat rooms, this presents a neverending mish-mash of content. More importantly, from a reader’s perspective, it completely undermines the immediacy of social media. This is also why I find Twitter much more useful, though not without its own narrative obstacles. (Snapchat, for what it’s worth, is useless to me, since I was never comfortable with the app’s user interface. Snapchat understands this and has been working on redesigns, but that ship has sailed for me.) The immediacy that social media promises is rendered moot within the confines of Facebook, a platform that was never interested in keeping its users in touch with their friends, but only interested in keeping its users on Facebook. A high-walled garden where all your friends play is still a prison. Yet Facebook’s greatest illusion is how it has completely obfuscated the temporality of human storytelling.

Typically, our narrative history progressed from one white man to another, creating a canonical trajectory. The present is easier to deal with if one can see a straight line leading up to a moment. Yet we have been and will continue to expand that canon, introducing and recovering new voices adding breadth to that timeline, or, more accurately, adding parallel lines of narrative, creating a multiverse of voices and stories. Though parallel may not be the accurate description, because these narrative lines dip and cross and intersect, changing the vectors of other stories, shifting perspectives and, in the worst instances, ending narrative lines altogether. How then do we find the time (in a tactical sense) to make sense of all the intersecting twists and turns that make up our present? What is the defining feature common among this tangled mess of narrative?

We are temporal beings, therefore the stories as we write them tend to flow forward, not necessarily from one action to another, but in enough of a recognizably linear fashion that we, as reader, find some sort of progression in narrative. Even stories that break timeline rules still follow a version of linear progression even if that movement is not past to present to future. So our stories are created and consumed temporally, by necessity of the mortal time boundaries of their creators. Yet, the stories as entities do not. They exist out of time, in a sense, from the first moment we were able to record an idea in a semi-permanent manner. Our stories exist as delineated moments along a our timeline, if not reflective in the narrative itself, then reflective of the fact that it was created at a particular time by a temporally-bound being.

Facebook essentially shifts our narrative from time-based to topic-based, disallowing users to see stories develop from one moment to the next in favor of feeding users similar stories hoping to keep users on the site and deliver sponsored content. By creating these new lines of narrative, Facebook (and those that use a similar method) disrupt not only our natural ways of telling stories, but our natural ways of consuming stories, creating less of a network of ideas that touch and influence each other, but a sticky web of stories that envelope a perceived desired narrative. The news feed does not damage us by hiding stories that are in political opposition to our own worldview, it damages us by disappearing the existence of other worldviews entirely. Our ignorance is actively curated.

For all of our discussions about Facebook and politics, we sometimes forget that we are creator ourselves. Facebook should be approached as just another publishing platform, one with its own rules and quirks, yet something that should be manipulated by us instead of the other way around. While many of us create with a rhetorical mindset, we must learn to consume in the same way: looking at dates of publication, looking at sources, reading critically even the most innocuous post. We must remember that we are temporal beings, stuck in a mortal timeline, all with the same end. Only our stories survive, unless the algorithm pushes it off the page.

Keep your Woodstock.

Warning: contains Zizek.

I would like to offer this screenshot as a visual representation of how GenX was raised in the most disillusioned cultural environment, while continually doused with the marketing of Baby-Boomer nostalgia. (That nostalgia leaned markedly white and middle class.)

My argument is GenX was disallowed its own cultural validation while standing in the shadow of the perceived greatness of its parents’ generation. While the argument of eternal generational comparison may be made, I offer that this was right after the birth of marketing and the onslaught of nostalgia-based culturalization found its birthplace in the 1980s. From music to film to literature, our desires, interests, and ideals were continually compared to the 1960s and fell short, just as those idealists voted for Ronald Reagan and began purchasing McMansions in droves.

And this is why, when we speak to Millennials, we speak to them as equals, as leaders, not followers. I will correct people when they have historical or cultural things wrong from my era – we are all subject to the marketing machine – but I hope I do not deny them their voice, or their process, or render them invalid because my generation was “more important.” I’m GenX. I never learned that generational self-importance.

The vast majority of Baby Boomers took no part in any revolution, but damn if they don’t want you to buy into that.

“If you know what’s good…”: Justin Timberlake’s warning in “Filthy”

I’ve been wanting to do close readings of things other than books and film for a while and when I spied Justin Timberlake’s video for his new single, “Filthy,” I thought, “yes, let’s do this.” The song itself is catchy and, while there are only about six or seven different lines in the whole song, the video packs a whole lot of meaning into those lyrics. Let’s try to unpack it.

“Haters gonna say it’s fake…so real.”

Timberlake appears in a Steve-Jobs-like fashion on stage at a technology conference ten years in the future. He seems to be premiering his latest creation. The robot walks down the stairs in a stilted fashion, non-threatening and mechanical. It is easily pushed around by the female dancers, but shows it is willing to do manual labor and service to its human masters. It can even bend it like Beckham. “What you gonna do with all that meat…” The robot is skeletal, determinedly not meat-like. “What are you going to do with all that meat” is a good question for the human audience because even removing the phallic nature of the statement, here is a robot who can do everything we can do, without all that meat.

The robot is literally tied to the creators mainframe and supposedly receiving orders from the original program. It is a creation, an animate object but one without what, sentience? Free will? A soul? What part of the animated being moving and thrusting about on stage is signaling that it can be handled, fondled, manipulated, molested without impunity? The fact that it is a machine, not an organic being? Can it express its own desire to be handled or is that desire merely programmed into it? The robot moves human-like (well, Timberlake-like) across the stage for the audience’s pleasure and amusement while Timberlake grunts “put your filthy hands all over me.” The creator is giving consent; does the robot have a say?

“No questions…”

The puppet’s strings detach during this line, symbolizing the disconnect between the robot and the mainframe. Now, appearing autonomous, the robot has to heed its last orders, “no questions” as it proceeds. Without the visual representation of guidance by the mainframe cables, the robot may delude itself with the notion of free will. Yet, Timberlake is the puppet master in the beginning of the video, the robot mimicking all his moves as the creator dances from the sideline. This is the hands-on creator idea, all the moves and machinations guided by a superior being. However, is Timberlake the benevolent creator, or the stage-mom on the sidelines motivating her performer. Is this how Timberlake wants us to see god? The more difficult moves, spinning and tumbling, are taken up by the robot itself, breaking away from the direction of Timberlake backstage, while everyone, even the stage crew become slowly entranced by Timberlake’s sick beats. (Note: I genuinely like most of Timberlake’s music).

The breakdown moves into strange territory. The robot lights up, red turning the white lights pulse from its chest (heart) area and flow in a pattern across its body. Is it the heat of simulated desire that is represented or merely an illuminated choreography of that desire that is being induced in the audience? The swell of music, the breakdown and insistent chord-mashing of this section, along with the dimming house lights, all point to a moment of becoming. The robot at this moment, is leveling up, infused with Timberlake’s funkiness, the glowing display of LEDs not unlike the Quickening in Highlander. Or, for a more [hysical analogy: foreplay. The crowd cheers and the cordless puppetmastery of Timberlake ceases as the robot appears to achieve a new sentience.

“Come on, break it down”

After the breakdown, the robot spins and then, in the most obvious evidence of a new sentience, mimics breathing, heavy breathing. The house lights are still low, the female dancers are returning, losing their fetishized, young-girl dresses, preferring a black, strappy, bondage look. Timberlake still sings, but his dancing has stopped and he gives the robot what can only be described as “the side-eye.”

The robot, arms and legs glowing orange, now proceeds to dance more sexually, interacting more physically with the female dancers, becoming more suggestive with each cut. The music skips in the background, similar to a scratched CD or a well-worn cassette tape that has been recorded over time and again. There are two transformations taking place at this point in the video: 1) the severing of the robot from the mainframe, controlling its (should we start calling him “he” now, as he presents, even basically as hetero-male), and 2) the disturbing of the audience as it tries to tie together its obvious arousal by the display. Flickering lights and music, scantily clad women strapped in black and glowing skeletal robot thrusting all create a cacophony of stimuli representative of our current and future relationships with technology. One can only Google “flesh light” to see we are closer to this than we want to admit.

The end result of our aforementioned foreplay appears at the 4:25 mark, when the robot, fulfilled with its/his simulated sexual encounter, stands center stage, arms splayed like the Vitruvian Man and releases laser light from its/his hands and chest. Not from its/his head, no sex ray emanates from the robot’s head. Why? Is it perhaps that this robot’s becoming (or cumming) is related to its emergence as a physical being and not an intellectual one? Like Data’s Emotion Chip, has this robot traded logarithms for libido?

Even Timberlake has to wipe off the metaphysical semen off his nice sweater.

This is also the time when we start to see the video artifacts surrounding Timberlake, as if he is the older version about to be replaced. Of course, this is the upper level narrative of the video, as the artifacts become more apparent and Timberlake ultimately disappears while the crowd cheers the light-spraying robot. The connection between creator and creation goes both ways.

Technology and humanity are no longer closed systems; in fact, they never were. As we became more reliant upon the processing power of computers and the transmission of data through those connections, we have created a vast neural network that exists outside of each individual person. While Timberlake’s video suggests his robot could ultimately replace him, it begs the question of why would we want it to? Do we each desire our own personal Timberlake to move boxes, serve tea, and gyrate around the house? (I refuse to answer this question publicly.) Or is the video suggesting that we have yet to come to terms with our actual technological wants, poised somewhere between needing technology and desiring it. Our desires have always been the drivers of technology. When 2028 actually rolls around, the world will be a direct reflection of our desires of 2018. What does that world look like?

At least it’ll still be a bit funky.

Post-Ac-Life: Sleeplessness and Productivity

Last night a friend and I texted back and forth about the “waiting game.” All of our PhD applications are in and now it’s just a matter of sitting by while committees of people decide our fate. While texting, I was also checking out thegradcafe.com for information about wait times, acceptance/rejection ratios and general conversations about applying to graduate schools for Literature, Composition, and Rhetoric.

I had made the conscious decision not to check these forums before getting my applications together. That was both a wise and unwise decision.

Had I known that one of my schools only accepts one student with an outside M.A. I would have saved the money on the application. (A similar realization for my friend was what spurred our conversation in the first place.) Also, had I known about the terribly low stipend from another school (information not easily found on their website) I may have skipped that one as well. Foreknowledge is forewarned, I suppose, but at the time I was adamant to keep outside influence out of my decision process. Sometimes I forget that some influence is helpful. Lesson learned.

I’m not sure if that realization led to my sleeplessness last night. I can’t remember anything other than the general self-loathing and self-doubt that normally invades the bookends of my nightly unconsciousness, but dang if I didn’t have a heck of a time getting to sleepytown. I woke up at the usual “stupid-early” o’clock to the smell of coffee being brewed by the programmable coffee machine (my life, my love) and am strangely lacking in the normal exhaustion that would accompany a short bout of sleeplessness. I’m sure this will catch up with me later today.

In the meantime, I will be productive. I have freelance work to do, thankfully, and I’ve decided to create a bibliography of my own work over the last four years. Time and again I will come across a paper I wrote and think, “when did I do this?” Moving forward with other research interests is my priority, but I think it will be beneficial to take a look back on what interested me in the past. Perhaps I’m hoping to rekindle an old flame. Perhaps I’m just procrastinating.

Either way, I need to get words on the page today; different words on different pages. Let’s hope the coffee holds out.

Algorithms are not editors

A friend shared this Huff Post article about a photographer using Disney princesses to highlight some of humanity’s ills. What the article fails to do is think about the automatic “related story” link that comes after:

 

Disney Princesses: the epitome of femininity and so easily molded into anything. Purchase yours today!

The State of English Studies: Scatalogical Addendum

I occasionally wonder if I take my work seriously. Sometimes, when I’m researching or writing, I find the thread of a theme and I grab on for dear life, pulling, stretching, and, ultimately, tying myself up in knots. Then (and it always happens) I get a big “shit-eating” grin on my face and slice through everything like I’m Alexander the Great and my paper idea is the whole fucking world.

I never wonder if I take myself seriously. I do not, and sometimes, that comes through in my academic work. I worry that eventually someone will ask me, “are you making fun of what we do?”

Not really, but I can’t deny, that occasionally, I like to, as the French say, take a piss.

See, what we do in English studies is terribly important. The critical thinking necessary to navigate the sheer volume of rhetoric attacking our faces every day is mind numbing. From Twitter feeds to car commercials, the ability to evaluate intent and disregard manipulation has never been more important that it is today. Our current political environment is the result of two generations of voters ignorant of the psychological projection of half of our governing body.

I blame Freud, because fuck that guy.

But our job isn’t just deconstructing the morning news. Our job runs the breadth of human history. It is the job of telling a story, the entire story. We read, write, evaluate, deconstruct, disassemble, disrupt the full volume of narratives; from the first cave painting and the epic of Gilgamesh (the sexiest bromance ever told) to the latest fanfiction on Tumblr. And if we do our job, if we collect and combine and coalesce all the words, from all the worlds, and compress them into one knowable text, we must come to only one conclusion:

Humanity is ridiculous.

We expend huge amounts of labor in order to tell a story, to amuse each other, to fall in love, to gain something from another human being and those efforts pile up in papyrus and prints and still we haven’t learned how so silly we are. Innovation and invention have brought us to the brink of total destruction (and for many cultures, complete annihilation) and yet our greatest accomplishments accumulated over time add up to little more than a babbling of slightly intelligent monkeys shitslinging with words instead of actual shit.

Most of us.

So yes, what we do in English studies is important, and while we carry that responsibility let’s not forget we are a subset of those smart, shitty monkeys. We should not take ourselves so seriously we forget to turn our critical eye self-ward. We need to take a piss occasionally. Otherwise we will be standing on the edge of discourse, hopping like a juice-filled toddler, our intellectual filters slowly filling with poison before failing altogether.

Maybe that’s my role. Maybe I am the designated English Studies Piss Taker. I gladly wear that golden crown while I peruse the stacks for some great story to completely destroy with my mishandling of theory. Let it be me, monkeys, cause I’m good at it. And perhaps what I write will be a good story, and maybe it will entertain you.

Perhaps you’ll even fall in love.

Enyaraya!

While I was in Seattle, I got a chance to do a little research at the University of Washington. Their library is huge and intimidating, yet everyone was wonderfully accommodating. In their Special Collection area I was able to go through two volumes of Japanese school readers from 1908 and 1903. Near the end of my browsing, with unlimited enthusiasm but limited Japanese, I came across this scene (pictured above) from “Momotaro” in one of the katakana readers:

 

I reads (if I translated correctly):

The cart had treasure.
The dog pulled enyaraya.
The monkey pushed from behind enyaraya.
The pheasant pulled the rope enyaraya.

It’s a simple stanza that uses a familiar scene from a popular story to help children learn katakana (the syllabary used for foreign words or emphasis, as opposed to hiragana). And while I am a definite neophyte in translating, I came up against the phrase “enyaraya” and had no idea what to do with it. Was it an onomatopoeia? Was it an exclamation? What the heck (一体!)

Quick searching showed that it appears to be part of the Momotaro folk song, sort of a repetitive phrase at the end of the sentence. I liken it, in this instance, to a “heave ho” or “Let’s go.” Yet there’s still more research to do. Even in this four-sentence grade-school lesson, there is so much to learn. This story uses “enyaraya” in a way that I imagine is being depicted above in the illustration: “Upon the signal shout of “Enyaraya” by the float leader, the Naginata-hoko float, which is traditionally exempted from the ticket-drawing and fixed to the lead position of the parade, started from Shijo-dori Karasuma.

A good part of my thesis talks about this story, how it parallels events in history, how it was packaged specifically as children’s literature during the Meiji Restoration and how easily it was used as propaganda in an up-and-coming empire. I also discovered how “Momotaro” was one of the stories children had to rip out of their school readers during the Allied occupation after World War II.

As with many versions of the story, Momotaro, himself, doesn’t do much of the work here. With the help of his faithful dog, monkey, and pheasant pals, he is able to conquer the Island of Demons and return with all of their treasure. In some version the inhabitants are all killed, in others they merely promise to remain lawful. Sometimes the demons (oni) are cannibals, sometimes merely pillagers. Like all folk and fairy tales, their innocuous nature and proliferation allows for a myriad of reboots, each generation adding or subtracting what elements suit their current society. The details of Momotaro’s quest may change, but the Peach Boy persists.