le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Monday, December 07, 2009

Magic Kingdom in miniature, OR how my inside mind sees the world

Since one of my dissertation "texts" is Disneyland, I spend a fair bit of time thinking about/reading about/looking at images of Disney parks.  Disney (big corporate monster) launched a blog of their own this fall, and one of the earlier posts on it was this amazing little video of the Magic Kingdom in Florida. It's done using tilt-shift photography, which I have researched and still don't quite understand (my technical cognition skills are terrible). I don't really need to know how they do it, though; the result is awesome. What tilt-shift does is create the illusion of miniaturization - the scenes shot through the day look like they are happening inside a model Magic Kingdom, a tiny, miniaturized version of the real thing. 

The tilt-shift world basically looks like an elaborate dollhouse or model train set come to life. It's amazing and neat and fun, and is worth the two or three minutes of your life it takes to watch the video. Obviously, it's a promotional tool for CorporateDisney, but it's also a very interesting and accurate reflection, I think, of what the Magic Kingdom really is.

Walt Disney was heavily influenced, in his invention and planning of Disneyland, by miniatures: model train sets (he was an avid train nerd), dollhouses and other miniature sets from various fairs and expositions, Colleen Moore's famous dollhouse. He commissioned Disney Productions artists to craft him a series of small miniature dioramas, and at one point contemplated a kind of peep-wall for his park, in which guests would look through a peephole into one of his elaborate miniature sets.

When the park was constructed, it was built to a reduced scale; the buildings are all something like 4/5 of "real" buildings. Walt Disney even describes Main Street as specifically toylike, and goes on to say:
"the imagination can play more freely with a toy"

I've been interested in toys and play worlds, academically, for some time now (and I've been interested in toys and play world personally for my entire life). The rendering of the Magic Kingdom in tilt-shift photography transforms the park back into its originary form: the miniature. It's a lovely visual way of encapsulating my Magic-Kingdom-related dissertation ideas, as well.

and - hmmmm. I detect a paper (conference paper? or dissertation smidgen?) in the works here.

The mysterious misogyny of King Dork

In between all the other things I'm doing (or supposed to be doing) right now, I keep mulling over KING DORK. This semester of teaching is almost over - this is the final week - and while I cannot say it was my best semester ever (I've been far too distracted), I find that I'm thinking a lot more about the books we've read, post-class-discussion, than I normally do. Students make remarks, observations, suggestions that get my brain going, and then I end up trying to unknot the textual problems presented by their comments, rather than simply saying "good class, time for laundry/dissertation/vacuuming/etc."

King Dork is high on my list this term of Problem/Puzzlers. It's always been problematic - Portman's humming along nicely until a little more than halfway in, when suddenly, Deanna Schumacher appears with her unbelievable offer of a blowjob.

Once Deanna Schumacher shows up, the book slides headfirst into some seriously troubling misogyny - because there's no other way, really, to describe it. The only female in the book who really gets away unscathed is Chi-Mo's younger sister Amanda, and even she seems to be caught in a kind of Madonna/whore complex which, for Chi-Mo, is organized more as a guru/Mean Girl dichotomy.

Chi-Mo's system of classifying the girls at his school doesn't bother me very much; it's a bit cold, but it also does - I think - reflect a kind of realistic anthropology of the high school. HE doesn't see the girls as just numbers in a system; he is observing a pattern he sees repeat itself throughout groups of his female classmates. He IS guilty of dismissing Yasmynne Schmick, who "genuinely seems happy" to see him but is a #3, dressed in velvet, in a "perfectly spherical" body. Yasmynne is the one girl who never manipulates Chi-Mo (his mother, his sister, maybe even Doctor Hexstrom are guilty of manipulation), and yet - she is the least remarked-upon girl in the book.

The proliferation of blowjobs at the book's end is just plain creepy. It's like some teenage boy's fantasy-fulfillment via fiction, except it doesn't fit with the rest of the book, not really. WHY these girls are suddenly eager to "give [him] a little head" is beyond me, and much to his discredit, Chi-Mo never attempts to figure this out. He doesn't even puzzle over it, just tries not to disturb the balance of free blowjobs (these are entirely non-reciprocal events - I'll be damned if I can see what the girls get out of this, unless they are - as per the fantasy - girls who just really love giving blowjobs).
What's worse is the spitefulness of the cliques, the borderline-insane mood swings of Deanna, the Dud Chart, even Chi-Mo's mom, who is immature and spiteful about her husband's first wife (always calls her "Smellanie"), and moreover, is distant, sad and dishonest with her children.
The women in this book are out of control - except poor old Yasmynne Schmick, and maybe Doctor Hexstrom. The real puzzler is:
Is this Chi-Mo's failing, or Portman's?

I'm coming to see Chi-Mo as more and more of an unreliable narrator with every re-read. Obviously, he's unreliable - but the extent of that unreliability grows, for me, with each new reading. And I'm also coming to see the novel as a very carefully crafted pseudo-puzzler on the lines of The Crying of Lot 49, a book which is in fact referenced as part of the CEH library. The endless iterations of meaning, the promise of meaning and connection where there is (maybe) none - it's got Pynchon all over it, channeled via ex-dork Portman. It takes a certain level of smartness to construct anything that seems Pynchonesque, and so Portman's got some brains. He's also got some skills; there is so much in King Dork that feels very right to me - the voice of Chi-Mo, for example, is dead on.

But then - in perhaps classic Pynchonian behavior - I start to doubt the connectedness of the two novels. Maybe the reference to Lot 49 is a fluke; it gets mentioned once, and never again; Chi-Mo doesn't mention reading it; it's absent from Portman's amazon.com list of the CEH library. But are these intentional lacunae? Is this by indirection we'll find direction out? Or am I simply suffering from a kind of literary paranoia?

But what in Pynchon can help with the misogyny of King Dork?

Nothing that I can come up with. Possibly reading Gravitys Rainbow (the Grail, the Grail!) would help, but it isn't going to happen any time soon.

So again: what do I do with this book? Is King Dork a halfway - but only halfway - decent book? Or is it a paean to misogyny like its predecessor Catcher in the Rye? Is the Catcher connection also the explanation for the crummy (or rather, crumby) way women appear in King Dork?

I'm seriously tempted to email Frank Portman and just ASK him. But then - I resist the intentional fallacy. I refuse to take the author's word for it - because what does he know? He only knows what he can know, and to mix every damn kind of critical theory in here, Freud tells us that none of us (except Freud) can know very much about our own minds.

I'd love to write a brilliant, illuminating paper on King Dork, where I wield the critical scalpel with unparalleled precision and skill, dissecting, labelling and displaying all the inner guts of that novel. But I'm afraid I'd run into that ever-so-postmodern problem of multiplying meanings, and slippages, and the everlasting, sneaking suspicion that the center is not the center.

Then again, what would the book be - ANY book? - if I could pin it down to a specimen card neatly, tidily labelled, and then seal it behind glass for all time? If it was that easy to get my brain around a book, it wouldn't be worth my time.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

how to bring your kids up gay

I plan to revisit Eve Sedgwick's excellent essay soon - "How to bring your kids up gay" - but I know that, as awesome as it is, it won't answer my ongoing dissertation dilemma: how to think about/read/imagine gayness or queerness in a young child.

I hate to go to psychology for answers, though I imagine all kinds of studies have been done. Young children play at heterosexuality all the time -in all kinds of pretending games like playing "house" and the far more risque playing "doctor," or that old standby "i'll show you mine if  you show me yours" (both of these latter experiments at straightness I know only through rumors that assume the quality of urban legend, though I have no doubt millions of little kids are doing both, probably right this second).

Freud tells us a fair bit about the sexuality of children, though he does let them (and us) off the hook with that whole "latency" thing, but even Freud has his limits of usefulness.

I wonder about the frequency of same-sex/gender pretend-play; how often do two little boys play "house"? When I personally was a small child, I was friends with twin boys who used to LOVE coming to my house to play "house" with our toy kitchen and play food. But since I was the girl in the mix, it wasn't "house" with two daddies. Now that I think about it, I have NO IDEA how that triad arranged itself, and it probably doesn't bear thinking about too closely. Fortunately, I refuse to use myself as an informant; my own memory - everyone's memory - of childhood is simply too unreliable.

The "doctor" and reciprocal exhibitionism is, I think, more a sign of curiosity about sex difference, rather than a sign of sexual interest. Two little boys don't have much need to do a reciprocal show and tell; they already know what's what. It's the anatomical difference that's interesting, not the promise of some kind of voyeuristic pleasure.

There are plenty of anecdotes from gay men, reflecting on their early recollections of their own gayness; many report knowing that something was queer at a very young age. But what that queerness is seems to vary, or to be vague and unspecified.

So how to think/talk/write about queerness in the young child? I'm not even sure I know how to do a search for that kind of material without running smack into a whole lot of psychology work, which I really, really want to avoid. I need a model of talking about the unknown, which makes me think I need to go back to things like David Halperin's How to do the History of Homosexuality
I don't need evidence to write about queer children watching television; this much I know.
But beyond that?
It's a puzzle, but a directed and fairly specific puzzle, which is relief in this dissertation wilderness, where I am having to slog through the vast unknown of a very large, under-utilized archive and a severely undertheorized set of texts.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

choose your own adventure books

My book order for spring is almost complete, only a month late!!

I need to fill two more weeks - four classes total. the theme - a vague, broad theme - is adventure. I have books like Treasure Island, The Magic City, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Un Lun Dun, The Lightning Thief. For a surprise (even to myself) twist I have The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.

But I need two more weeks' worth - two novels, probably. but which ones?

I could do the horrible and assign an actual Choose Your Own Adventure book. I'm not sure any of us could actually handle reading one of those, though - but then again, from a narrational/structural point of view (not to mention the reader-response point of view), it could be AWESOME.  Those are the ultimate in reader-response. I'd have to brush up on reader-response criticism, but that might be a good thing - it could help with my dissertation. Stanley Fish just waits for me, lurking in my critical theory textbooks.....

but what else?
I've kicked around The Westing Game, The 21 Balloons, Larklight, The Amulet of Samarkand. There's also Mary Poppins, or The Wind in the Willows, if I want to go canonical. I have several fairly contemporary dystopias on the list, so I won't add in anything like The Giver, and A Wrinkle in Time is just kind of a crummy irritating book after awhile, so I'd like to avoid that as well.
The Book of Three is really tempting, especially now that I know about the Mabinogi.  Or something by E.L. Konigsberg - The Mixed-Up Files, or Up From Jericho Tel.

In my tireless yet perpetually fruitless efforts to please everyone, I'm dithering way too much over these last couple of titles. I've only ever had one class - one - that went mostly cheerfully along with me on every book on the syllabus, and that was an extraordinary class that I hope I never forget (they gave me a card on the last day! who does that in college? only truly awesome students, which I had).

decisions, decisions! what two books will I pick??????

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

the medium is the message (?)

I taught FEED for the first time this week; it's a book I'm especially fond of, and is obviously both readily and richly loaded with material for discussion. I also know, from past students who have read the book for other classes, that it goes over pretty well: a good book for the second-to-last week of the semester.

The class discussion ended in a way that surprised me, although maybe it shouldn't have. A number of people made the claim that the book is about materialism and consumerism, that a warning about the perils of too much consumerism is the "message" of the book. Aside from my personal belief (which is more of a conviction, bordering on a fact) that there is no one message in anything, this one surprised me. To me, for me, FEED is so clearly about the perils of a technocentric culture. The feed is the mechanism driving the consumerism, it's true, but it's also a consumer good itself; Violet tells Titus that she didn't get her feed for so long in part because her family couldn't afford it, and she goes on to tell him that something like 28% of Americans don't have the feed at all.
The argument propounded by my students seemed to be that technology - the feed - isn't a bad thing, in and of itself; it's the way it's used that's the problem.

I'm skeptical of this argument. Class ended before I had time to really think or talk it through in the way I would have liked, but I felt uneasy, thinking of the book as primarily addressing the evils of a consumer culture.

As one student said, the book tells us that technology kills; another student countered that technology has always killed.

Both of these arguments seem true. It's hard to look back at the history of human invention and not see a whole lot of violence and ugliness based on technological advancements - gunpowder as maybe an obvious one. Then you get examples like the Enfield repeating rifle, which sits at the heart of the 1857 Mutiny/sepoy/Indian rebellion against the colonial British. You get the automobile, which is the mechanism for thousands of deaths yearly.  Various forms of medical technology across the history of medicine have caused all manner of deaths, or at least failed to save lives.

But I think FEED is saying more than this. Anderson is so clearly engaged with language - with the devaluation, the devolution of language, of the ability to communicate in any meaningful way: the feed is responsible for this. References to things like the English-to-English wordbook, all the many moments when Titus can't think of a word and the feed supplies him with one, the horribly awkward, if not fractured, speech of Titus's father and of the President (whose speech sounds remarkably like Sarah Palin's), Violet's ability to read and write, Titus's inability to read and write - they all point to a larger issue of language and communication.
Communication, and a sophisticated linguistic system (written and spoke), are allegedly markers of civilization. It's what separates humans from animals, at least in popular mythology (never mind, for now, the language of primates and whales and dolphins and birds). The loss of the capacity of language production and usage through dependence on the feed marks a step back in human evolution, doesn't it?

And the feed shutters its user from the rest of the world. Titus and his friends can easily ignore the global unrest that the novel hints at, because their feed will protect them. He doesn't always interact with the others smoothly; the first instance is when the one female friend avoids the hacker in the beginning, comes to visit them in the hospital, and is lost in her own feed, "watching" a reality show. The telepathic messaging, the ability to screen out certain images, users, ideas - the feed is an isolating device. In some ways, it mimics the weirdly anonymous communal experience of theatre-going; it isn't my specialty enough to know much about it, but there is a fair bit of work done on the movie theatre as place/space, of the anonymity of the darkened theatre, of the individual yet shared experience of filmgoing. An audience is together in one room, but in the dark, not readily conspicuous even to one's neighbors; everyone is individually absorbed in the images on the screen; there is no communication between the humans present in the space. In some ways, it seems like the feed works in the same way.

I could just be reading the novel through my own techno-anxious lens; though I don't go in much for reader-response criticism, I'm perfectly willing to recognize that our own subjectivity affects the meaning we're able to discern from a text. And since I find the many kinds of portable electronics on market now to be very isolating, to be the illusion of communication and experience when they in fact devalue communication and experience, it's very easy for me to see the feed as a substantial problem in FEED.

The feed isn't just the vehicle for the insane consumerism of the book's dystopic America; the feed - the medium - is the message, in that (rather tired) old formulation.

OR ???


am I just a stubborn, vaguely reactionary technophobe?

then again: do these two need to be mutually exclusive?