An excerpt of a new book appearedin Salon this week, provocatively titled “Why Most Narrative History is Wrong. The book is similarly provocative, alleging in the subtitle to reveal “the neuroscience of our addiction to stories.” Naturally this caused a series of knee-jerk reactions that spawned long Twitter threads. I had a similarly impulsive response to the chapter, but also wanted to response to it in good faith before returning to a point the author and I actually agree on, that narratives—the stories we tell ourselves—are fundamental to human societies, because my distaste with this piece emerges from the consequences of this point.
More than once this afternoon I’ve had to wipe tears from my eyes over the death of a rich man I’ve never met. I’ve mourned the passing of celebrities before, but never to this degree, which rivals the emotional reaction I have had to family members passing.
I am, of course, reflecting on the the death of Tony Bourdain and trying to articulate why this one hit me so hard.
I have been travelling the world vicariously with him for a long time, revisiting places I’ve been fortunate enough to see myself and getting to travel to places I haven’t been able to go, whether for lack of time or money.
I was hooked by Kitchen Confidential and sucked into the craft of No Reservations. I’ve had some of my favorite episodes of Parts Unknown on in the background today, including the Punjab, Sichuan, where he force-feeds eminent chef Eric Ripert spicy peppers and alcohol, Massachusetts, with its powerful look at the narcotics epidemic, and now Charleston just so that I can chuckle at the Chef’s Table music played over B-roll of a Waffle House meal being prepared. Each episode is different, but they are all approached with sincerity, curiosity, and humor, as well as an attention to the craft of film-making and even literary stylings that I find particularly appealing. The shows are approachable, but not stupid, smart but not arrogant—that is, unless you are a vegetarian watching anything but his shows on India.
Tony Bourdain reminded me that success is not something that is the sole purview of the young. Tony was not perfect, but neither did he pretend that he was.
But with rare exceptions, it isn’t so much what Bourdain produced that I have found so moving, but the outpouring of anecdotes and stories online from friends, professional acquaintances, and random people who happened to meet him once. The people who have said that Tony’s enthusiasm convinced them as picky eaters to go try something else; the people who related anecdotes about a passing conversation with him in line to get food at some food stall; his hatred of Henry Kissinger; stories about his unwillingness to tolerate people who don’t treat waitstaff with respect or for food waste or for Harvey Weinstein. Above all: the sheer number of people who posted about how his show about a place or people who were theirs, including Arabs, West Virginians, Louisianians (to name a very small few), did right by them. How this aging white Yankee from New York working for multi-million dollar companies came to their place and embraced their food, their traditions, and them in a way that allowed their stories to be told.
As many people pointed out on Twitter, Tony Bourdain pushed a product that encouraged Americans not to be afraid of the world and all that it contains. Without trivializing the Tony’s loss to his loved ones, the supreme tragedy as I see it is that this message of curiosity, openness and enthusiasm stood opposite the dominant political narrative in the United States, which has been hijacked by people who peddle fear and who exploit position of power for selfish ends. It isn’t that he was the only person carrying this standard, but a picture is worth a thousand words and Parts Unknown every week delivered warmth and humanity from some small pocket of the world .
We are fortunate there is such a catalog of Tony’s voice already available, but that doesn’t diminish the sadness at his passing at a time when the relentless cacophony from the other side threatens to drown out the basic decency that he stood for. That voice will be missed.
Despite how exhausting the 2016 election cycle was in this regard, I continue to be fascinated by the effect of social media on interpersonal relations, something I wrote about a little bit in 2012 when I deleted my Facebook account, in 2014 about the intimidation of professional Twitter, with respect to activism in 2015.
I stand by most of what I wrote before, about the ways in which social media is performative (there is an entire genre of Instagram posts comparing posed and “natural” pictures), is intimidating even when interacting with well-meaning enthusiasts, and isolating. I would revise my assessment of its role on friendship, something I was reminded of this week in light of a thread on Twitter. The general point, since this is not my main focus here, is that when there is a reciprocal interest, social media and other forms of digital communication are an immense boon to friendship. The catch is that reciprocity is foundational, so while it has allowed me to maintain several friendships with people who I have only seen in person once or twice in a decade, many others have withered as one or both sides in the relationship have lapsed. This is not explicitly the fault of social media—people have busy lives and many other responsibilities—but I think Facebook and other social media sites that give the appearance of intimacy make it easier for people to not put in the work to maintain relationships.
Like a lot of people, I have been impressed with the high school students from Florida and elsewhere in the country organizing marches and keeping up the pressure on issues such as gun control. Their ability to sustain pressure online is the one thing that gives me hope that this time, in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting might result in change. Not immediately, and probably not enough, but something.
On the other side of the equation is this:
Justy a sample of what NRA supporters are doing to teenagers who survived a massacre (real picture on the right). pic.twitter.com/czX7IHD8ur
— Don Moynihan (@donmoyn) March 25, 2018
As the Twitter user mentions in subsequent tweets, the origin of this photoshopped image could well be a Russian troll farm, but it still has its intended effect. This and the issue of privacy, brought again into public discourse by the revelations about Cambridge Analytica, are the legacies of the first two decades of social networking.
The features of the internet that were meant to bring about an enlightened, educated populace and connect people have done that. There is more information on many more topics on Wikipedia than there ever were in the old, lacunate collection of hardbound Encyclopedia Britannica’s I pored through as a child. Sure, it might not have the same specific figures for the size of the East German army as in EB, but in terms of breadth, depth, and (if you know how to look) granularity of the information online, even just counting the content that isn’t behind paywalls, is astounding. News travels at an incredible pace, though rumor still travels faster. The diversity of voices and ability to communicate online is remarkable.
And yet, these same features have their perversions. Falsehood, rumor, myth, and propaganda abound, reinforced and socialized in niche communities. The intersection of the intimate and the impersonal are particularly insidious in this respect. Beyond even the fact that it is easy to attack someone anonymously, the tools of the internet make it easier to attack someone for several reasons.
1. It is possible to see someone like David Hogg as a social media avatar rather than as an individual. He is a face to an issue, not a person expressing one. Besides, if everyone is performing to some extent online, then who is to say that school shooting victims aren’t actors?
2. There is the impersonal nature of the internet. Not only is it easier to attack someone who you will never meet, but it is also easier to caricature or otherwise other them.
3. It is easier to engage with a partial or corrupted versions of ideas rather than their entirety. This happens on all sides; I know I have been guilty of falling for fake Twitter accounts or buying a misleading headline of an article that I didn’t read.
4. This is always the case, but the acceptance of a truth is the responsibility of the beholder. Some facts are more verifiable than others, but accepted truth is just that: a social consensus that is usually based on a deference to authority. With an abundance of information and misinformation online, anything and everything might be regarded as “Fake News.”
Here is the thing: none of this is new. Each of these forms of slander and misinformation has been used against people for as long as there has been communication. For instance, portraying your opponent as an “other” (the more grotesque the better) is a common feature of anti-Jewish, Bolshevik, Irish, and German iconography. Partial truths and outlandish fabrications fill the pages of ancient texts. Some of these come from cultural misunderstandings and curiosities, some from deliberate propaganda, and some out of simple malice. These stories have been the justification for slavery and the cause of wars.
What has changed, in my opinion, is how easy the internet has made the transmission of information. In other words, hate in the digital age is not new. It a cancerous mutation of old problem.
I saw The Last Jedi. As a friend put it on Twitter, this is, to date, the best Star Wars film of the twenty-first century. (Look at my excitement!) Like with The Force Awakens and Rogue One, my review is going to be a list of things I liked and didn’t like about the movie, a format shamelessly adapted from ESPN’s Zach Lowe. My usual caveats apply: I have read few reviews, almost none of the background on making of the film and it is possible I am mistaken about some aspects. These are things that stood out to me and may not be the same issues other people had.
While still in graduate school I took a class on the Latin author Seneca, who lived in the first century CE. We dedicated one unit to his plays, during which we read the Phaedra, a play about Theseus’ wife Phaedra’s consuming lust for her step-son Hippolytus who has no interest in her. Phaedra accuses Hippolytus of raping her and Theseus uses a boon to summon a monstrous beast from the sea to kill his son. Seneca infuses the play with contemporary themes, but the play is functionally just Euripides’ Hippolytus, with some new bits. No where is this more notable than in his description of the the sea monster, which more terrifyingly monstrous in his version. In short, this is what is happening in the new Star Wars movies.
One review that floated by me on Twitter argued that the success of The Last Jedi is in its willingness to discard The Star Wars you know. I disagree. This is an Empire supercut, with dedicated homages to episodes IV, VI, and VII. The new movies are doing some things differently in terms of what story elements are driving plot, which I found problematic for other reasons, but the pieces are basically the same. When I pointed this out for the first movie, I was told to be patient because JJ Abrams was on board to reestablish Star Wars as a franchise and thus his agenda was to do exactly that. Wait for the next installment, they said. The good news, having seen the next installment, is that they are (probably) out of source material to work with now; the bad news is that this movie did basically the same thing.
I saw Blade Runner 2049 last night and though I would write some thoughts in the form of things I did and didn’t like about the film. This post will contain spoilers, particularly after the first point.
- Blade Runner 2049 is absolutely worth seeing on the big screen. Unlike some blockbusters that entice viewers to lay out cash with explosions, though, this film does with scale and attention to detail. This film clearly works from the same template as its predecessor and the overwhelming immensity of its world is a perfect match for for the theater. Most of the fight scenes are subdued, but it makes wonderful use of camera work, including an imaginative sense of scale, use of light and darkness, sound and silence, and an all-around immersive experience that conveyed depth. The same goes for small allusions where, for instance, Gaff (Edward James Olmos) makes an origami ram and Deckard (Harrison Ford) dreams of cheese. The run time is long, but all of that time is used.
Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.
This week: the T.V. show The Good Place, created by Michael Schur (just put out on Netflix).
Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is dead and in the afterlife, greeted by Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of the community, and introduced to her soul mate Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), and her new neighbors Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto). This is “The Good Place,” heaven, she is told, where she will be rewarded for all the good deeds she did while alive. The problem, of course, is that Eleanor Shellstrop wasn’t a good person while alive. In fact, she was a prickly, callous narcissist. There are reasons for this, including a dysfunctional childhood, but by wanting no part of genuine relationships, Eleanor went through life as an amoral jerk. Now, surrounded by “good” people, Eleanor wants to change, and so her ethics-professor soulmate Chidi takes her back to school even though the situation causes a constant ethical dilemma.
Then there are Tahani and Jianyu, also soul mates. Tahani is the less-accomplished child of a wealthy and influential family, with famous “friends,” while Jianyu is a Buddhist monk who took a vow of silence….or possibly a not-yet-successful amateur DJ from Jacksonville. Really, this pair is no more perfectly matched than are Eleanor and Chidi.
I’ve been a fan of Michael Schur for some time, and while I’ve not seen Brooklyn 99 and am not that fond of The Office, I am hugely fond of Parks and Recreation. On a joke-for-joke level I still prefer Parks and Rec, but in terms of an overall show—characters, plot, pacing, feel—The Good Place is spectacularly good. Organized into chapters, the first season builds upon itself in a clear narrative arc guided by a singular question: will Eleanor be allowed to stay in the good place?, but with a conclusion that perfectly sets up a second season.
Beyond an avalanche of jokes, visual and verbal, highbrow and simplistic, is the warmth of The Good Place. The main characters bond over the course of the thirteen episodes, developing genuine emotional connections that become their own form of torture in turn. More than that, though, basic premise of “The Good Place” is a sort of gamification of life crossed with an eternal Match (dot) com, with points accrued or deducted for most every action, but the demerit system in particular is meant to be its own layer of jokes. There is no malice intended for any of the listed items, but the overall message about living a life that helps other people is most welcome. The viewer is invited to ask whether people can improve themselves, and while it may not be of much use within the immediate context of the show, the answer it gives is an unambiguous yes.
All in all, The Good Place is a warm, funny, clever show, and easily one of my favorite things I’ve seen this year. With season one binged in less than a week, I’m excited to see where season two goes.
I am hardly alone when I say that recent politics has been a major drag on my mental and emotional energy. I don’t know what is going to happen in the near future, but the current direction scares me in more ways than I care to mention. Still, I find myself thinking a lot about politics and doing my best to stay informed because, as difficult as it might be, that remains a civic duty. I also remain problematically addicted to checking my Twitter feed, albeit recently in shorter and less-comprehensive bursts.
These moments of checking Twitter have led me to a realization about the current superficial maelstrom, as epitomized and led by the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That realization is this:
There is nothing that President Trump could post to his Twitter account that would change my opinion of him.
Sure, there are things that he could post that would change the trajectory of the country and do good in the world, but that would mean one of three things: 1) the account was hacked; 2) someone else was managing the account; or 3) that President Trump decided to make an about-face in order to be more popular. None of those three options would change my opinion of him, while what he does post simply digs deeper. I still see people retweeting (usually with sarcastic comment) what he says or dredging up past posts looking for inconsistency. Neither genre of tweet does much for me and in many cases both distract from the substance of issues—not to mention that feeding the ego of someone who fundamentally wants to be the center of attention, whose interests run toward habitual misinformation and complaining about media coverage.
I could never bring myself to follow Trump’s twitter account, but, for months, I would regularly check in, caught up in whatever the latest utterance was. No longer. The campaign is over and I don’t need to actually see the latest bout of internet logorrhea in order to know what he said, at least in reasonable facsimile. I can’t live isolated from the news, but that doesn’t mean that I have to partake in online farce.
I did this same sort of recap last year for The Force Awakens and figured I should just go ahead and do it again for Rogue One. Even though I am a book person and have read a lot of Star Wars books, I have read basically none of the novels set during the time of the movies. Still some caveats apply: I have read few reviews and almost none of the background on the reshoots, so it is possible I am mistaken about some aspects. Similarly, I these are things that stood out to me and may not be the same issues other people had. Overall: I enjoyed the experience of watching the film a great deal, but only if I didn’t think about it too much.
Fair warning: the rest of this post will contain spoilers for the movie, at least such that they exist. Anyone familiar with Star Wars is familiar with the ending writ large.
I’ve consumed most of the recent Marvel content, mostly because it is available and easily watched. Calling it a drug would be too dramatic, but as far as televisual media goes, there are parallels. Some of it is good, some is pretty bad, but there is something that bothers me about the entire extended universe project: there is too much emphasis on the cataclysmic event.
Other people have written on this topic and accurately noted both that the movies are pivoting from this trope and that the material has often been strongest when dealing with the fallout from the events rather than dealing with the events themselves. However, my specific complaint has more to do with the TV show Agents of Shield. The show essentially deals with the relationship between normal people and mutated people. This season’s arc had to do with the unleashing of “Hive,” a being that can control people with mutations–and is the powerful being associated with the Devil that Hydra had been trying to bring to earth. His scheme involves a massive bio-weapon that would destroy humanity. The scrappy heroes have to fight against this thing that is much more powerful than they are. As one would expect, this leads to all sorts of tension and human stories, which, in a vacuum, work. But this narrative isn’t taking place in a vacuum. It is taking place within a larger cinematic universe.
Agents of Shield as a show about the events taking place in the shadow of the ECU movies works. It is a universe that has to grapple with increasing numbers of super-powered individuals and there are many more stories to be told there than simply reducing it to an “imminent doom” arc, but, after a season of doing just that, Agents doubled back down on the action, while nominally being a step down from the movie stories in terms of both resources (for production) and power level (resources and powers to apply within the story). The movies and the shows are doing different things, but still professing to overlap, which, in turn, leads to a dissonance and strains credulity.
One of my favorite weeks when teaching US History since 1865 is when we get to discuss the 1950s and the American family. One of the exercises I have the students do is to analyze the Simpsons from the perspective that the eponymous family is a representation of the 1950s nuclear family. I ask the students leading questions in order to reach this point, dad (works), mom (stays home), two and a half kids, etc., etc., and one of the final issues we come to is what the show considers to be the central room of the house. There is often a bit of hesitation on this point until I ask how the credit sequence ends, to which there is an immediate chorus of “in front of the tv!”
This semester I gave a lecture on the topic of the ancient Greek family. Along with the delineation (and gendering) of space, one of the traditional talking points on this issue is that the household is defined by its hearth. This is borne out in myth with the representations of Hestia and the ideologically charged declarations in literature about the sacredness of the hearth. And yet the sources for burning in the archeological record vary and there is rarely unambiguous evidence for a stationary or permanent hearth. Similarly, lease agreements from Olynthus indicate that buildings were not disposed of as complete units, but individual rooms could be leased out for domestic use. I don’t find this revelation to be particularly surprising, but it is notable that some of the rooms allocated for domestic use show no evidence of a hearth. Thus the hearth that makes the home may be symbolic rather than actual.
I offer the television as the object that has this same ideological potency in the modern American household. One extreme example is illustrative. In the pilot of the AMC show Madmen, Don Draper taunts his mistress for having purchased a television despite her insistence that she didn’t need one, with the result that she throws the offending device out the window of her apartment in the Village. Draper is mollified by the exchange, but his return home at the end of the episode (as it is meant to) offers a striking contrast. Not only does he return to a house where there is a wife and kids, but they kids are watching TV and Draper settles in with them—-because a television is something that you have with your family, not with your mistress.
As an addendum, I still think even in our decentralized media environment there is something to the television holding symbolic weight as a place for family, whether that is an actual place in a household or something that can be alluded to in fiction. The range of portable devices on which one can watch the shows themselves signify something else, but the television as a place and object continue to carry this weight. In turn, the violation of this communal aesthetic, such as the image of a single person repeatedly watching shows heightens the sense of obsession, perversity, or trauma.