Monday, January 04, 2010

Music For Your Monday

I have joined the downloading generation! A decade after the heyday of free downloads via Napster, and with my daughters' being gifted iPods for Christmas, I have started what I am sure will be a very long process of setting up a huge iTunes playlist on my computer. So far, I have 35 songs on my own playlist; my goal is to purchase music that is an adjunct to my already far-too-large CD collection. With it becoming increasingly difficult to find music in the real world, I guess that my late-entry in to this particular form of musical commerce is all to the good. Without further ado, some samples from my playlist.

First, Steven Wilson, leader of Porcupine Tree, from a solo album Insurgentes, this is "Salvaging":

An oldy but definitely a goody, Mahogany Rush's "Dragonfly":

IQ's "Closer" - the sound quality on this is really poor, but the song is pretty enough to make up for it (mostly):

Sex And The American Male Novelist

I don't like Katie Roiphe. Let's start with that up front. Even less do I like the way she frames her discussion of the way contemporary male novelists write about sex. To be honest, I'm not even sure what her point is.

Let's back up. Feodor (not his real name, but you all know who I mean) sent me a message on Facebook on the article linked above. He wanted my take on it, so I took a gander, and I have to say that, as someone who teaches literature, she offers to her readers no sense that contemporary authors, writing in a different time, a different social and cultural setting - postfeminist? hardly - might have a different agenda, including presenting male sexuality as more ambivalent.

She has sense enough to frame an earlier generation of male novelists in the context of their times. The three men she references the most - John Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer - were, indeed writing at a time when the literary floodgates were only beginning to open, thanks in part to the 1960 court decision that D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was not obscene. These men also were writing for and from a generation of men living in the midst of changing mores, changing cultural values. The kind of uber-virility they describe - the notion of sex as an adventure of personal discovery, or its opposite, just a way to pass the time - certainly captures what was, even then, a dying ethos. I am unimpressed with her claim that the sex in Roth's later novels is a failure of writing and nerve; perhaps it is a confession that the older "set" or "frame" just doesn't work anymore. Foster Wallace's confession that he just doesn't "get" Updike's approach to male sexuality should be a clue that the whole frame of reference has shifted.

I find nothing wrong with contemporary male novelists showing a bit more ambivalence toward sexual subject matter. Of course, one problem with the idea that this is, indeed, happening is the survey of contemporary novelists is not only incomplete, but precisely for this reason it fails to take all sorts of expressions of male sexuality in to account. T. C. Boyle, for example, isn't shy about writing about sex in a fun, if somewhat idiosyncratic, style. He is conspicuously absent from her survey of contemporary authors, probably for that reasons.

Even if she is correct that contemporary American male authors are more ambivalent in their descriptions of male sexuality, there are several questions one needs to ask. First, would a more direct, old-fashioned, "virile" approach serve the literary needs of the story, the character, the overall effect the author wants to present? In Mailer, Updike, and Roth, we have men writing at a certain time, presenting characters whose many obsessions, including sexual obsessions, they tackle with a kind of vengeance. They drink in all life has to offer, or at least try to, dealing with the emotional consequences either much later or not at all, depending on both author and story.

I think a scene from my favorite Roth novella, "Goodbye, Columbus" makes my point. In it, the lead character, a middle-class recent college graduate Neil Klugman, falls for a wealthy Radcliffe student. In the course of their romance, they struggle to find a way to connect, including sexually. At the end, their most satisfying coupling, at least for Neil, comes on a ratty, dirty couch that is hidden away in the attic of Brenda's house. Now, this could mean that, for Neil (and perhaps, by extension, Roth) thinks the only sex that is good is sex that is something hidden away, dirty. Or, it might be possible that this is a narrative point Roth is making - about class, about the unbridgeable gulf that even sexual intimacy cannot close - rather than something about sex itself. That was my take when I read it.

In any event, the presentation of sex by contemporary American male novelists might just be the result of changing times. The kind of sexual adventurism celebrated by the older novelists in question was a part of that time. Yet, the fruits of that adventurism have proved to be far less liberating than used to be imagined. A new generation of men might just consider a more thoughtful approach to sexuality something worth exploring. All the same, this flight from (descriptive) sex in some contemporary novelists might also be seen as a flight from real intimacy as the kind of detached, occasionally humorous, definitely ribald descriptions of hyper-sexuality in older male novelists.

A recent commenter claimed that sex is nothing more than lust. I couldn't disagree more, and find such a truncated, limited view of the possibilities of human sexuality to be silly. While the kind of madonna/whore syndrome Roiphe assigns to Mailer certainly creates its own set of issues, one can detect the same neurosis in her description of characters who would prefer not to be sexually intimate. A healthy sexuality includes a willingness to open oneself to all sorts of emotional connections with one's partner; sexual adventurism, including adultery, troism, even masturbation, if it is worth anything at all, creates emotional dangers as much as it does physical pleasure. Characters unwilling to take that risk are fleeing from real human intimacy as much as Zuckerman sitting and watching in a detached way as a young woman masturbates with a vegetable.

In any event, I find it ridiculous to compare authors from a different time - and American forty years ago, even twenty, was a far different place than it has since become - and comparing any art form from one period to another, even on the kind of flimsy criteria Roiphe sets up in this essay, is a fools game. The article in question reveals far more about the author's mind-set than it does anything about sex and American novelists.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

I Hope INTERPOL Finds Me And Whisks Me Away To The South Of France

I usually don't pay attention to the darker, murkier, and stupider side of the right-wing internet. I let various others do that for me, and laugh at the results. Discovering this tidbit, however, is far too priceless to pass up. Unlike Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds' attempted exegesis of a photo of Pres. Obama, the stuff on the Executive Order granting diplomatic immunity to INTERPOL agents in the US should become the stuff of legend, as far as I'm concerned. The following paragraph points up how stupid and clueless Breitbart really is:
This story has begun to make the rounds at some other blogs and web sites. Some scream about the on-set of the New World Order, some merely question the timing, motives and logic behind such a move while we are still fighting foreign wars and under threat of attack from Al Qaeda and other international terrorist bodies. I certainly don’t walk down the New World Order/One World Government path, I don’t look good in tin-foil hats… but, I do wonder why this move was made so quietly and why the White House Press Corps has not made any hay about it.

Yes, indeed, it is odd that the United States would grant certain privileges to the International Criminal Police Agency at a time we are engaged in fighting both a war and police action against an international criminal conspiracy against the United States. Definitely one of the things that makes you go, "Hmm . . ."

The comment thread at Tbogg's post on this is a gold mine.

Does Human Life Have Value?

Every time I hear a right-winger talk about the sanctity of human life, I want to barf. Truth is, they don't care one bit about real human life, except perhaps their own, or that of those who look just like them. If one needs any more evidence - besides their fondness for the death penalty, their love for extra-legal murder, their fondness for Bush's wars without purpose or end - I will just cite this (h/t Think Progress):
A Bipartisan Proposal [Cliff May]

Step (1): Return all Gitmo detainees to Yemen.

Step (2): Use Predator missiles to strike the baggage-claim area 20 minutes after they arrive.

Just an idea.

I know someone somewhere will claim this was "just a joke". A willingness to joke about mass-murder is evidence of serious mental illness, or at the very least a kind of moral vacuousness.

Please don't try to make a case for this, because I just bought this laptop and I don't want to get sick all over it trying to read an "argument" supporting sociopathology like this.

Getting The Word Out

There are many errors and problems with the Washington Post Outlook piece on the necessity of scientists to be better public communicators of their findings, theories, and their impact on public discourse and policy. Not the least of these problems can be found, easily enough, in a lead sentence of a paragraph buried about midway through the article.
With the media distracted by the food fight, scientists weren't leading the public discussion, and other important findings that ought to have received attention in Katrina's wake -- for instance, that we had better tend to our overdeveloped coastlines, which are dangerously exposed to future storms -- were drowned out.(italics added)

That highlighted clause at the opening conditions not only the rest of the paragraph - which concerns itself with the way the public reacted to discussions of the role of climate change and natural disasters in the wake of Hurricane Katrina - but the entire article. The entire piece, written by a fellow in science journalism at MIT, simply ignores the role the media has played in continuing to pretend there isn't a working theory of global warming that works as a good model for all sorts of scientific research.

"Climategate" was a manufactured controversy, the purloined emails evidence of nothing more than scientists' back-and-forth on the impact of research on public discussions of global warming. That's all. Since the deniers - whether scientists, politicians, or ordinary folk - are either in the direct pay of petroleum corporations, indirect pay (think Oklahoma's two Senators), or folk confused about the way the science works thanks in large part to a journalistic predilection for insisting on more than one side to any issue, we are left with the conundrum that a well-established scientific theory is claimed to be erroneous by those who have a vested interest in refusing to accept it, and a public too busy making sure they don't lose their jobs, their homes, and their sense of well-being to take the time to consider the reality. Of course, a scientifically-literate science journalism might help matters; there are such, and NPR's Talk of the Nation: Science Fridays is a good template for that, but that audience is relatively small, and the contributors exceptions rather than the rule.

Another problem, related to evolution, is exposed readily enough, a bit toward the end of the article.
"Many Christians, including fundamentalists, can accept evolution as long as it is not attached to the view that life has no purpose," Karl Giberson, a Christian physicist and the author of "Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution," told me recently. "Human life has value, and any scientific theory that even appears to deny this central religious affirmation will alienate people of faith and create opportunity for those who would rally believers against evolution."

Does human life have value? How is this relevant to the issue of evolution? This entire paragraph is chock full of either debatable points or red herrings that have nothing at all to do with how evolution is, or should be, taught. Those who deny the reality of evolution through natural selection (in its modified, synthesized, form) will not be satisfied with any attempt to address these concerns outside a very limited, sectarian-Christian insistence that the entire theory is wrong. Even conceding that "human life has value" will not rescue evolution from criticisms from those who, for reasons known only to them, think it a pernicious threat to religion, ethics, and social well-being. On this issue, not one step backward. Give the ignorant and demagogues nothing.

In all, while it might be necessary for the run-of-the-mill biologist, climate scientist, or whomever, to give the public good, solid information that is also accessible, it seems to me this entire piece ignores one important piece of the media puzzle - scientifically literate journalists who eschew simplistic ideas of public controversy in order to get information to the public. While it might be true that, for example, legislation that is intended to address global warming will be met with all sorts of opposition, journalists should present the data to the public, including the role of industry-sponsored counter-factuals and propaganda presented as such rather than present the latter as good-faith, legitimate science. We do need scientists who are a bit more media-savvy, to be sure. We also need journalists who are science-savvy as well, and understand how science works, how scientists come to the conclusions they do, and offer that information to the public intelligently.

Virtual Tin Cup

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