Saturday, December 29, 2012

huxley on debauchery

The real charm about debauchery . . . is its total pointlessness, futility, and above all its incredible tediousness. If it really were all roses and exhilaration, as these poor children seem to imagine, it would be no better than going to church or studying the higher mathematics. I should never touch a drop of wine or another harlot again. It would be against my principles.

[This little speech by Coleman is followed by the line "I told you it was an emetic" after a young man vomits after drinking whiskey (Coleman had early called gin an aphrodisiac, white wine a diuretic, and whiskey an emetic).]

~ Aldous Huxley in Antic Hay, 1923

Thursday, December 27, 2012

huxley on irrelevance

[M]an's greatest strength lies in his capacity for irrelevance. In the midst of pestilences, wars and famines, he builds cathedrals; and a slave, he can think the irrelevant and unsuitable thoughts of a free man. The spirit is slave to fever and beating blood, at the mercy of an obscure and tyrannous misfortune. But irrelevantly, it elects to dance in triple measure—a mounting skip, a patter of descending feet.

~ Aldous Huxley in Antic Hay, 1923

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

orange zipper

orange zipper cocktail:

fill a tall chilled champagne glass half full with champagne, add a healthy couple of dashes of absinthe; fill almost to the top with orange juice and garnish with a small ice cube. serve.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Monday, December 10, 2012

on parallel fifths

One of the classic rules of counterpoint is the prohibition against parallel fifths, intervals of a fifth (a fortiori an octave) which occur consecutively, though changing in pitch. Although the prohibition has antecedents, its propagation was likely intensified when it was made the fundamental rule of counterpoint in the single most influential textbook of music theory, Johann Joseph Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum (1725—the textbook used by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and many succeeding generations of musicians).

Here's a puzzle, though: parallel fifths became perhaps the dominant type of chord transition in the 80s and 90s with the rise of hard rock, punk, and grunge, all of which heavily featured the "power chord," i.e. fundamental, fifth, and octave. How can the popularity of the power chord be reconciled with the prohibition against parallel fifths?

The easy answer: parallel fifths have always appeared in low-brow, "popular" music, and they are just a sign of the general incompetence / lack of complexity of such music.

But this answer is not satisfying. If we reject the possibility of widespread poor taste / ignorance, then we should look for a more interesting answer, one which addresses the reasons for the prohibition against parallel fifths, and how or whether power chords violate these reasons.

The exact reason for the prohibition is unclear. Wikipedia gives several:

1. It interferes with the independence of voices in counterpoint.

2. It reduces the number of voices.

3. It throws the key into doubt.

None of these reasons seems especially deep, however: they depend either (1 and 2) on the assumption that one is concerned only with the integrity of one's counterpoint, or (3) ambiguity of key is undesirable. Both doubtful assumptions for harmonic music in general.

Going back to the most influential source, Fux's translator, Alfred Mann, draws our attention to a particularly important passage:

The purpose of harmony is to give pleasure. Pleasure is awakened by variety of sounds. This variety is the result of progression from one interval to another, and progression, finally, is achieved by motion.

"Direct motion" is that here called parallel, and it is in the following discussion of motion which Fux introduces the prohibition against parallel fifths or octaves. These are the perfect consonances. Direct motion between imperfect consonances, the third and sixth, is permitted. The remaining intervals (including the fourth!) are classified as dissonances.

Mann offers an enlightening gloss in a footnote to the quoted passage:

The statements, which introduce the following fundamental rules, may at the same time be considered an explanation of the principles of voice leading which they embody. The "variety of sound" is the basis from which all further rules are derived: first, the prohibition of parallel successions of perfect consonances, as depriving the voices of their independence. . .

Here, we see again the mention of independent voices, but now we are given a reason for the importance of that independence which transcends a mere commitment to x-voice harmony. Rather, we are given an explanation for the function of harmony (to give pleasure) and a theory about how it does this (through variety). Parallel fifths (perfect consonances) do not present enough variety to fully fulfill the function of harmony (while moving imperfect consonances do).

But this explanation sheds light on the popularity of power chords. The parallel power chord arose as a technique on the distorted electric guitar. Distortion adds new (potentially dissonant) overtones to a sound. This increase in overtones makes Fux's imperfect dissonances (e.g. the third, which usually complete a major chord) more dissonant than with a clean sound. This provides a negative explanation for why they are dropped in the power chord.

But Fux via Mann has now given us a positive explanation as well: parallel fifths are permitted as distorted power chords because the distortion adds the necessary degree of imperfection to the otherwise perfect consonance of the fifth / octave, thereby introducing enough variety to allow their successive appearance to give pleasure.

In fact, arguably, this deeper (psychological) analysis of Fux's principles mandates the switch to power chords in the context of distortion. If Fux classifies a clean fourth as a dissonance, he would certainly classify a distorted third as one! If we allow the analysis of intervals into dissonances and consonances to change with the overtones generated by the addition of distortion, then Fux may be interpreted as demanding the abolition of all but the octave and fifth in a distorted context.

[Further motivation for this interpretation can be found in the analysis of musical traditions which use instruments with very different overtone profiles than those encountered in classical Western music, e.g. Javanese Gamelan music.]

Of course, there is an unhappy consequence of this analysis. Music performed on distorted instruments is limited in its harmonic / counterpoint complexity. Of course de facto this is what we observe, but it is striking to discover that it might be a limitation on the cognitive effects of particular timbres, rather than merely a limit on the sophistication of popular musicians. In fact, on this interpretation, it is not a limitation on the side of the musicians (what they can conceive, etc.), but on the side of the listener (what they can hear as pleasurable) which motivates the use of powerchords rather than more complex counterpoint in the various flavors of "hard rock."

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

liberty and leisure

Political liberty's a swindle because a man doesn't spend his time being political. He spends it sleeping, eating, amusing himself a little and working—mostly working. . . . How can there ever be liberty under any system? No amount of profit-sharing or self-government by the workers, no amount of hyjeenic conditions or cocoa villages or recreation grounds can get rid of the fundamental slavery—the necessity of working. Liberty? Why, it doesn't exist. There's no liberty in the world; only gilded caiges. . . . even suppose you could somehow get rid of the necessity of working, suppose a man's time were all leisure. Would he be free then? . . . would a man with unlimited leisure be free[?] I say he would not. Not unless he 'appened to be be a man like you or me . . . a man of sense, a man of independent judgment. An ordinary man would not be free. Because he wouldn't know how to occupy his leisure except in some way that would be forced on 'im by other people. People don't know 'ow to entertain themselves now; they leave it to other people to do it for them. They swallow what's given them. They 'ave to swallow it, whether they like it or not. Cinemas, newspapers, magazines, gramophones, football matches, wireless telephones—take them or leave them, if you want to amuse yourself. The ordinary man can't leave them. He takes; and what's that but slavery?

Mr. Bojanus' speech from Aldous Huxley's Antic Hay, 1923.

[It concludes on the topic of "sexual freedom—what's that? . . . It's an 'orrible, 'ideous slavery. That's what it is."]

Monday, December 3, 2012

bmx bandits

End credits: "Ready to Fly" by The Papers

(My first bike was a Diamondback)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

jake on women

. . . their concern with the surface of things, with objects and appearances, with their surroundings and how they looked and sounded in them, with seeming to be better and to be right while getting everything wrong, their automatic assumption of the role of the injured party in any clash of wills, their certainty that a view is the more credible and useful for the fact that they hold it, their use of misunderstanding and misrepresentation as weapons of debate, their selective sensitivity to tones of voice, their unawareness of the difference in themselves between sincerity and insincerity, their interest in importance (together with noticeable inability to discriminate in that sphere), their fondness for general conversation and directionless discussion, their pre-emption of the major share of feeling, their exaggerated estimate of their own plausibility, their never listening and lots of other things like that . . .

~ Kingsley Amis (1978) Jake's Thing

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Friday, November 2, 2012

seen in philadelphia

A woman in a Niqab in a liquor store buying a 1.75 liter bottle of cheap white wine.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

content as commodity

This transaction combines a world-class portfolio of content including Star Wars, one of the greatest family entertainment franchises of all time, with Disney’s unique and unparalleled creativity across multiple platforms, businesses, and markets to generate sustained growth and drive significant long-term value.

~ Bob Iger on Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm, quoted here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

step backward for uncertainty

Reuters reports that six Italian earthquake scientists have been jailed for manslaughter for "failing to give adequate warning of the 2009 earthquake in the city of L'Aquila."

Prediction of events with some component of randomness is necessarily uncertain—to think otherwise is to misunderstand the whole endeavor. The fault here is not with the scientists, for predicting incorrectly, but with the public for believing this prediction came with certainty. To suppress predictors of random events for predicting incorrectly is to court ignorance and block progress, as it discourages the very research which will one day improve our ability to predict such events.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

mach on academia

Similarly, esprit de corps, class bias, national pride, and even the narrowest minded local patriotism may have high value, for certain purposes. But such attitudes will not be shared by the broad-minded inquirer, at least not in moments of research. All such egoistic views are adequate only for practical purposes. Of course, even the inquirer may succumb to habit. Trifling pedantries and nonsensical discussions, the cunning appropriation of others' thoughts, with perfidious silence as to the sources, the metaphorical dysphagia suffered when recognition must be given, and the crooked illumination of others' performances when this is done, abundantly show that the scientist and scholar have also the battle of existence to fight, that the ways of science still lead to the mouth, and that the pure quest of knowledge in our present social conditions is still an ideal.

~ Ernst Mach (1885) Contributiosn to the Analysis of the Sensations

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

gegen gedankenexperimente

[Another vow aimed at improving the discipline]


Dealing with logical (rather than physical) possibility, the only plausible purpose of thought experiments is conceptual clarification through appeal to intuition;

Intuitions by their very nature may only be used to investigate intuitive concepts; yet

Firstly, there is no guarantee either that intuitive concepts may be made sufficiently precise, nor even if they can be, made sufficiently relevant for the problems of philosophy; and

Secondly, the assertion that intuitive concepts are indeed so relevant begs a mere statistical survey of "folk" intuitions on their content, a procedure widely reviled yet nevertheless the inevitable consequence of the practice of appeals to intuition in general and thought experiments in particular;

Consequently, thought experiments can serve no purpose in philosophical discourse other than to distract from and avoid real philosophical issues, and to block, misdirect from, and otherwise frustrate the precise definition of concepts constructive for clarifying philosophical problems through the red herring of intuition;


I vow never to utilize thought experiments in my philosophy, nor to succumb to the temptation to appeal merely to intuition, when considerations of philosophical work may direct my conceptual clarification in a more constructive direction than that of mere intuitive appeal.

[signed, dated]

Monday, October 1, 2012

darkness, light

The first film I ever saw by Jan Švankmajer—shown as part of a late night, public access TV program from Rice University in the early 90s which showcased avant garde animation.

Monday, September 24, 2012

a rainbow (and a shadow)

We all (should) know that rainbows are actually circular, although due to the angle at which we typically see them, and their enormous size, we rarely see the entire circle. Usually, just a fragment, a curved portion of a circle is visible.

[nota bene: one way to tell if an artist's illustration of a rainbow is taken from his imagination or "drawn from life" is to examine the angle of curvature. If the curvature of the rainbow is different from that of a segment of a circle, it's evidence that the rainbow is part of the artist's fantasy (or poor memory) and not an observed occurrence.]

My one prior (especially vivid) experience with a circular rainbow was on the Argentinian side of the Iguaçu Falls. The path for viewing the falls included a platform which allowed you to walk out over the basin of a particularly nice fall midway along it's height. Looking directly down into the spray of the water recoiling from its fall, with the sun high in the sky, a perfectly circular rainbow was visible below me in the spray.

Recently, however, I witnessed a circular rainbow in a new form. Flying over the British Isles, starting to come in low for our landing, but still above the intermittently thick (also low) cloud cover, I noticed a circular rainbow tracking our progress below us in the clouds. Against the background of the cloud, the rainbow looked quite tiny, bobbing up and down with each ripple in the cloud's surface.

Of course, the "movement" of the rainbow was really the movement of my perspective. The early morning sun was essentially behind me, shining along my line of sight (c.f. the midday sun shining behind me along my line of sight as I looked down into the spray of the Argentinian fall). Presumably, it was the water vapor of the clouds themselves (?) creating the appropriate refractive effect to send the rays of light back to me at slightly different angles for each wavelength.

As gaps in the clouds appeared, the rainbow would disappear, only to reemerge, apparently projected again against the clouds surface when they returned. I soon noticed the shadow of the plane—also tracking our progress and in my line of sight, of course—visible in the center of the rainbow's circle, approximately the same length as the rainbow's diameter.

Of course, the airplane's shadow didn't disappear during gaps in the cloud cover, but simply transferred itself to the surface of the earth. This fluctuation in the shadow's position nicely illustrated the phenomenon of size-distance invariance.

Since the respective positions of the sun, the plane, and me all stayed relatively fixed, and only the distance of the background against which the plane's shadow was projected changed, the shadow occupied the same visual angle on my retina in both positions. Yet, the plane's shadow on the ground appeared enormous compared to the tiny shadow within the circle of the traveling rainbow. This is because I perceived it as being more distant (since the ground appeared more distant than the surface of the crowd). Same visual angle, but greater distance means the "object" is larger (cover the head of your friend across the room with your thumb—same visual angle, but you perceive the thumb as small and the head as large), hence the changing size of the shadow.

The whole thing was rather magnificent.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

some call it academia . . .

. . . others call it S&M.

art from politics

. . . well, maybe not art, but a damn fine piece of writing. Almost makes the whole thing bearable.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

some kinda sucker

I must look like some kinda sucker.

I'm walking to work around 7am this morning, and a guy ambles towards me. Of course the streets are practically deserted at that hour on a holiday and he makes a beeline for me and asks for some change. I give him all I've got (not much) plus a septa token.

Then, around 3 in the afternoon, I'm walking home, same guy asks me for change.

"I gave you all of it this morning."

"Not me. Must have been some guy who looks like me."


I guess I must look like some kinda sucker.

Friday, August 3, 2012

the evolving language of film

Film is a means of communication—I assemble a set of images and sounds; you view them and interpret them as significant.  As such, we can consider film as something like a language, a system of rules which allow us to communicate complex ideas.

The "language" of film bears much similarity to the grammatical rules which govern natural language, yet it also exhibits some striking dissimilarities.  In particular, the language of film is evolving at a tremendous rate, and this fact has interesting consequences for how we understand the history of cinema.

Some Similarities.

Natural language is governed by syntactic rules, rules about how its primitive elements combine in order to create meaning. In the language of film, there are many similar rules, although just as in poetry, syntactic rules can be broken in ways which enhance rather than detract from meaning.

For example, consider the 180° rule—this rule states that when editing a scene, all shots should stay on one side of an imaginary line drawn through the middle of the action. In the case of a conversation between two people, the line is typically drawn through the center of their two heads. The scene is then created out of three shots: 1. an establishing shot from the distance including both speakers; 2. a shot over the right shoulder of the lefthand speaker at the right one; 3. a shot over the left shoulder of the righthand speaker at the left one. Shots 2 and 3 show each speaker in close up, but from a vantage on the same side of the imaginary line as the establishing shot.

Just as in a line of poetry, the rules of word order can be violated in order to create rhythmic or rhyming effects, the 180° rule can be violated in order to create disorienting effects, or in order to preserve some especially interesting performance or angle. Likewise, a moving camera can "violate" the rule in a more organic manner, changing the orientation of the audience's perspective in real time.

Also as in the case of poetry, however, rule violation presupposes a savvy audience. A director who decides to violate the 180° rule succeeds in his aesthetic choice only if the audience can follow along, and interpret the spatial arrangement of the action despite it being presented in a more complex manner.

Some Dissimilarities.

And this brings us to some dissimilarities with natural language. It is a fundamental tenet of contemporary linguistics that all natural languages are equally expressive. Of course, a newly discovered aboriginal tribe in the jungles of Papua New Guinea will most likely not have a word for "microwave" (say)—but they can always stipulate a new one. Where their language will be equally expressively powerful is in its syntactic structures. There is no arrangement of stuff which can be described in one language but not in another. In this sense, all natural languages are equal.

Not so the languages of cinema! The language of film has evolved over its short history in ways which have increased its expressive power.

Consider, for example, a camera motion which fluidly crosses the imaginary line of the 180° rule. Such a camera motion was not technically possible in the early days of film, when cameras were enormous and fixed in place. The addition of a new technical possibility expands the language of film syntactically. This is not like adding the word "micorwave" to the aboriginal lexicon, it's like handing them a new grammatical structure, one which can express ideas which could never before be voiced!

But it is not just the technical possibilities which have evolved, so also the expectations and "savvy" of the audience. Long gone are the days of an audience so naïve they could not be expected to distinguish moving image from reality. Today's audience has been educated by the fast cutting of MTV and the shaky cameras and jumpcuts of "reality" television. Along with a more sophisticated palette for expression on the side of the filmmaker goes a more sophisticated means of interpretation on the side of the audience.

Why should the language of film be so different from natural language in this regard? A simple answer is just time. While natural languages (even those of the isolated aboriginal variety) have evolved for tens of thousands of years, the language of cinema has been around a mere 120. Furthermore, this past century has witnessed the most dramatic simultaneous technological and cultural change of any period in human history, and film is right there in the thick of it, evolving at an exponential rate with human culture itself.

A Moral / The Future.

A moral here for the history of cinema is one of apples and oranges. Comparing the films of the 1920s with those of the 1990s is arguably more difficult than comparing Tang court poetry with e. e. cummings. In the latter case there are merely vast cultural divides, but in the former the issue of technological possibility—expressive power—looms large as well.

Will the language of film stop evolving? Will it reach a fixed state? When will film see its first Shakespeare, its first Goethe, its Da Vinci or Michelangelo? Who knows, but the most likely answers are: not anytime soon.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"mr. president"

"Don't vote for those who want to take us back in time" . . . i.e. everyone actually on the ballot?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

science and conduct

To primitive man each thing says what it is and what he ought to do with it: a fruit says "Eat me"; water says, "Drink me"; thunder says, "Fear me," and woman says, "Love me." . . . [but] man slowly discovered the errors in his original world. . . [H]e developed a new activity which he called thinking. . . By thinking he created knowledge in the sense of scientific knowledge, knowledge which was no longer a knowledge of individual things, but of universals. Knowledge thereby becomes more and more indirect, and action, to the extent that it loses its direct guidance by the world of things, more and more intellectualized . . . Thought had developed categories or classes . . . Concrete situations which demand decisions and prompt actions do not, however, fall into only one such class. And so action, if it were to be directed by scientific knowledge, had to be subjected to a complex thought process, and often enough such a process failed to give a clear decision.

In other words, whereas the world of primitive man had directly determined his conduct, had told him what was good, what bad, the scientific world proved all too often a failure when it came to answering such questions. Reason seemed to reveal truth, but a truth that would give no guidance to conduct; but the demand for such guidance remained and had to be filled. Thus arose eventually the dualism of science and religion, with its various phases of double-truth theory, bitter enmity, and sentimentalization of science, one as unsatisfactory as the other.

~ Kurt Koffka (1935) Principles of Gestalt Psychology

baby's on fire

die antwoord

Monday, June 18, 2012

Thursday, June 14, 2012

the necessities of the struggle

The necessities of the struggle impel the workers to support one another across political boundaries and professions. The more active the struggle becomes, therefore, the stronger and more extensive this federation of proletarians must become. And some narrow-minded economists accuse this federation of workers, represented by the International, of instigating strikes and creating anarchy! This, very simply, is to mistake the effect for the cause: the International has not created the war between the exploiter and the exploited; rather, the requirements of that war have created the International.

~ Bakunin, 1869


What is life, if not lived?

Monday, June 11, 2012

discovery of photosynthesis

Flowchart of the history of developments in our understanding of the relationship between plants and the atmosphere from 1600 to 1804, from case 5 of the Harvard Case Histories in Experimental Science, 1952, by Leonard K. Nash.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

ray bradbury, rip

Ray Bradbury was the first major literary influence in my life. His stories captured my nascent imagination, and I obsessively read the 100 stories collected in The Stories of Ray Bradbury repeatedly (in addition of course, to numerous stand alone anthologies and novels—my collection is extensive). There's not much to say about the passing of someone who has spread their influence through text—one doesn't know much of what went on beyond the page. Luckily, the pages are still here, and Bradbury lives on through his stories, and I look forward to enjoying that life as long as I can see to read.

Other obituaries will mention Fahrenheit 451 and The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles and even Something Wicked This Way Comes; but these by no means exhaust the genius of Bradbury's output. For the uninitiated, I want to emphasize the poetic beauty of "The Anthem Sprinters" and "The Big Black and White Game"; my introduction to chaos theory through "A Sound of Thunder"; the colorful portrait of childhood in Dandelion Wine . . . but really, there are too many to mention, too many for adequate words.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

boring on hara-kiri

At this point the unpopular teleological argument usually slips in to increase assurance about the thermal insensitivity of the intestines. The esophagus and stomach can easily be stimulated thermally and might therefore be endowed with means for thermal perception; but why should the intestines have thermal receptors, when from birth to death they meet with almost no thermal change except from enemas, surgery, accidents or conceivably hara-kiri?

E. G. Boring (1942) Sensation and Perception in the History of Experimental Psychology, remarking on the lack of adequate experimental investigation of the ability of the intestine to sense heat.

Monday, May 21, 2012

let the people go!

Penn on Obama's drug policy.

1. Yes, beyond hypocrisy.

2. Yes, class and race warfare against African Americans and the poor.


Tickle may thus be finally defined as an intensely vivid complex of unsteady, ill-localized and ill-analyzed sensation, with attention distributed over the immediate sensory contents and the concomitant sensations reflexly evoked. Its immediate sensory contents is not qualitatively different from contact, but in actual experience tickle is distinguishable from the ordinary contact complex in its character of a 'feeling' rather than a perception.

~ Elsie Murray (1908) A Qualitative Analysis of Tickling: Its Relation to Cutaneous and Organic Sensation

Thursday, May 17, 2012

contempt vs. love: versus

Can love survive contempt?

Or, perhaps, does love depend on contempt?

Andrzej Żuławski's (1975) L'important c'est d'aimer ("The Most Important Thing is To Love", we'll call it "Love" for short) can be read as a commentary on and response to Jean-Luc Godard's (1963) Le mépris ("Contempt")—a commentary which holds up a funhouse mirror to Godard's film and inverts all its basic themes.

Although L'important c'est d'aimer is clearly a commentary on many French films, its special relationship to Contempt is signaled early on by its strikingly similar use of music. Not only are the scores of both films by the same composer, Georges Delerue, but the themes are strikingly similar, and used in very similar ways, i.e. sharply inserted over relatively mundane scenes between long stretches of unscored dialogue.

[Much as Cannibal Holocaust's use of a score by Jacopetti and Prosperi's composer Riz Ortolani signals it as a commentary on their documentary style.]

Additionally, there are further thematic overlaps: both films are stories of infidelity, in the entertainment world (theater; film), with a bizarre commentary on a famous earlier work thematically interwoven (Contempt: The Odyssey; Love: Richard III).

And both movies are about the relationship between love and contempt.

But the relationship between love and contempt is strangely reversed in the two movies.

In Contempt, a young(ish) writer allows / encourages his young and beautiful wife (Brigitte Bardot!) to spend time unchaperoned with his potential employer, the producer (Jack Palance!) of an exploitation film version of The Odyssey directed by Fritz Lang (Fritz Lang!). When he refuses to acknowledge he's done something morally suspect, Bardot describes herself as feeling only "contempt" toward him. Although it is never revealed what happened between Bardot and Palance during the initial incident, she eventually leaves her husband for Palance, her love having evaporated due to her contempt.

The critical scene, in which the writer encourages his wife into the potential for infidelity.

So: for Godard, contempt is the antithesis of love.

re: The Odyssey, Palance pushes on the writer his personal interpretation of Homer's epic, namely that Ulysses is in fact reluctant to return home and deliberately prolongs his voyage because he no longer loves his wife.

In L'important c'est d'aimer a young photographer / admirer becomes enthralled with an "aging" (well, thirty) actress. Her husband allows them unchaperoned situations together, wherein she makes sexual advances, but the photographer never takes advantage of them. Her husband at one point confronts the photographer, saying he's offended the man won't even fuck his wife, and that he "needs a reprieve" from his 6 years of waking up next to her.

Upon overhearing the romantic conversation between his wife and the photographer, the husband literally puts on clown makeup before confronting them, and inviting the photographer to dinner.

In a crucial late scene, the actress and her husband meet at a cafe of personal significance in the history of their relationship. He says that she feels only pity for him and that this manifests as contempt. He tells her that despite his desire for a reprieve, he loves her, at which point she yells in tears that "I don't even know what that means." Throughout, there is implication that, despite his buffoonery, her husband has somehow supported her through emotionally difficult times, prevented from slipping into a career of prostitution, etc.

Later, the husband commits suicide, and finally the photographer commits to a physical relationship with the actress. In the final scene, the photographer is beaten violently by gangsters whom he owes money. The actress arrives at their home, discovering him beaten, bloody, and helpless on the floor, runs to embrace him, sobbing "I love you."

re: Richard III, as the famous scene between Richard and Lady Anne is rehearsed in the play within a film in Love, the director of the play asks the actress's actual husband to lay in the coffin while she speaks her lines. Later, the scene is recreated when her husband indeed lies dead and she seeks comfort in the "murderer" of her husband, the photographer.

Ian McKellen and Kristin Scott Thomas in a classic version of this scene from 1995.

"Was ever woman in this humor wooed? Was ever woman in this humor won!"

The topsy-turvy recreation of the Richard III deathbed wooing scene, in which the photographer asks why the husband killed himself, before being beaten, and then kissed, by the actress.

So, in both films, the woman feels contempt for her husband—in Contempt, this is why she leaves, in Love, this is why he leaves.

Godard's is a conservative view of marriage—the man fails to assert his protection / sexual ownership of his wife, consequently, she leaves him for one more forceful.

Żuławski's is a bizarre looking-glass version of the control relationship in marriage: by perceiving her man as weak, the actress gains strength herself, but correspondingly drives him to suicide. She replaces him with another whom, only once she sees in him a similarly pathetic and powerless position, is she able to assert that she loves. Here, pity breeds contempt breeds (for her) love. A position which kills her husband and traps the photographer into a twisted, self-sacrificial role.

Inverted also is what we see. In Godard's film, we never see the moments where indiscretion is possible, and this ambiguity is essential in order to understand the emotional tension between Bardot and her husband.

In Żuławski's film, we see all the chances for potential infidelity in excruciating detail, and also the failure of any consummation.

But this decision is crucially tied to the inversion of the message. For Godard's heroine, it is her husband's attitude which offends her; her actions are irrelevant for that dynamic. For Żuławski's heroine, it is her own behavior towards the men around her that drives their madness. This corruptive influence is all the more interesting precisely because her character is so compelling and sympathetic. What is unseen here are not the incidents of the current love triangle, but the 6 years of marriage prior to these events, defining these characters, but elided from what we, initiates into their surface but not their secrets (as is the photographer), are directly able to witness.

Żuławski shows Godard up as a fake progressive. The supposed cynicism of Contempt is unmasked as traditionalism against the strangely believable inverted chaos of Love's romantic entanglements. True cynicism is revealed in the movie's very title, an implicit answer to an implicit question.

Le mépris?

Non, L'important c'est d'aimer.


L'important c'est d'aimer also happens to feature the greatest Klaus Kinski scene of all time. Kinski plays the actor protraying Richard III, and it's indeed a pleasure to see him deliver the "now" speech, and seduce Anne over her husband's coffin. On opening night, though, at a restaurant afterwards, the players receive the evening edition of the paper and read a scathing review. This is Kinski's reaction:

(The two lines essential to understand this scene. First, Kinski accuses the passing drunks of "touching his coat," asserting "Since I am a well-bred homosexual, I care a lot about my things." After the beating, he remarks to the women, "If you're as vulgar as he, it will be perfect." Before leaving with them. Awe inspiring.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Saturday, May 12, 2012

bad lieutenant: versus

The relationship between Abel Ferrara's (1992) Bad Lieutenant and Werner Herzog's (2009) Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is highly ambiguous. Reportedly, Ferrara hated the 2009 version, and Herzog didn't even see the original.

As far as I can tell, Port of Call is the first produced feature script by a TV writer, although on imdb they've credited all four writers of the original as well, perhaps because there are so many plot / thematic similarities between the two movies.

Both "bad lieutenants" (i) take drugs; (ii) gamble; (iii) abuse their authority to obtain drugs; (iv) abuse their authority to obtain sexual favors; but also (v) do actually care about their role as homicide investigators and pursue it vigorously.

Additionally, the arc of both movies is similar, with a traumatic event haunting the lieutenant (original: massive gambling debt accruing as the Mets come from behind to beat the Dodgers in a seven game series; Port of Call: constant pain due to an injury suffered during Hurricane Katrina) as he relentlessly investigates a horrendous case (original: Nun raped in a church by young hoodlums; Port of Call: immigrant family slaughtered by drug lords).

Both films bear the distinctive stylistic marks of their respective directors.

But one can see the origins of Ferrara's hatred of the Herzog not-really-a-sequel, perhaps, in the radically different messages of the two films.

Ferrara's is a complex Catholic passion play. In his quest to solve the rape / desecration case, the lieutenant (re)discovers the significance of sacrifice and forgiveness in the attitude of the nun, who refuses to identifier her assailants because she has already forgiven them. Ultimately, promising her the justice she wants, he discovers their identities, but helps them escape, thereby sacrificing his own life in the process. Redemption through sacrifice and forgiveness.

Herzog's version is completely stripped of religious imagery or significance. Instead we see the images of violent nature and chaotic forces common in so many other Herzog films. Where Ferrara's lieutenant sees images of Christ's suffering on the cross, Herzog's sees phantom iguanas and break-dancing Japanese. Where Ferrara's lieutenant "solves" his case by helping the criminals escape and sacrificing his own life, Herzog's sees a bizarre twist in fortune, and arrests his criminals on phony evidence, though preventing his partner from slaughtering them on the spot, instead trusting the due process of law to see right. There is redemption here, but redemption through a combination of chance, diligence, and assistance from others.

So, Ferrara's message is quintessentially Catholic, while Herzog's is resolutely humanistic. Unsurprising, perhaps, given Ferrara's Catholic upbringing and Herzog's chaotic youth during World War II.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

protest as prayer

Today is May Day, a holiday which used to involve virgin sacrifices, wicker men, and maypoles; now it involves waving signs, interrupting traffic, and chanting slogans about "change" and "revolution" and how everything wrong with the world is someone else's fault.

This exercise is an instance of "prayer"—therapy through supplication to an imaginary entity. Protests as practiced in the contemporary United States do not affect government policy, they are not appeals to the president, they do not affect the opinions of individuals in any positive way, they do not generate any measurable, positive effect on the socio-economic status of the underprivileged or of those who engage in particularly onerous and under-remunerated brands of labor.

We can see they are not appeals to the president, since he himself is held up as an instigator and supporter of protests:

But who is the president exhorting the occupy movement to appeal to? Who are they protesting against?

It is the imaginary "other"—he who is responsible for all my travails, whoever it may be, that one.

Of course, protests in the US are directed against this imaginary other, while prayer in the Judeo-Christian sense is usually directed toward an imaginary other. In both cases, however, the primary function served is catharsis an inner relief from stress, depression, and pain by the foisting off onto an omnipotent other of one's problems, and, crucially, one's blame and responsibility for those problems.

And just as blameless is the retreat from the pain of this modern world into impotent prayer, so also is the retreat into impotent protest—protest free of conscience and clear of blame, but also closed of eyes and crippled of agency.

[This is not to say the practice of gathering in the streets has not, at any time, had political effect—many times it has; but in those times, there was purpose, focus, and unanimity, not ignorance, selfishness, and inconsistency.]

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

ode to torture porn

"Torture porn" is a derogatory term recently in vogue for describing the genre of cinema which is exploitative and centers upon the graphic depiction of torture.

What is the appeal of such a genre? Why would anyone, presumably with enjoyment, watch a movie valued (solely) for its depiction of torture?

The answer is the human condition.

Torture porn is rightly compared to porn, for both are instance of "exploitation" cinema, where exploitation here is characterized by a value measured solely in the depiction of some particular subject, not by more abstract measures of cinematic value (story, acting, dialog, etc.).

Shakespeare, for example, is the sheer antithesis of "exploitation" in this sense precisely because, even during his most ludicrous comedies, bloody tragedies, or ass-kissing historical plays, the value of the play (as we cherish it today) does not depend upon the depiction of farcical situations / violence / fawning political commentary, but upon the clever dialog and subtle characterization.

Porn is the most famous exploitation genre, exploiting the act of sex, but it depends no less single-mindedly upon the mere depiction of sex than, say, martial arts movies depend upon the depiction of a certain style of violence, westerns on a certain setting and aesthetic, horror upon creation of a certain type of suspense, etc.

So, "torture porn" is justly named, it is indeed the valuing of the mere depiction of violent acts of torture against other human beings over and above plot / dialog / characterization / production value / etc.

But why? What is the appeal, and, empirically, given its existence as a profitable genre for decades, there is appeal, of torture porn? What drives people to watch it? In what sense do they enjoy it?

Here, a compelling answer is found in the culture which is perhaps the greatest consumer (and producer) of torture porn: Japan. The 1976 film Shogun's Sadism, also called The Joy of Torture 2: Oxen Split Torturing begins with this quote:

'The weak become the victim of the strong,' is a rule of mankind. Cruelties have been inflicted everywhere since time began.

How true this observation is! But let us be careful. Let us not be swayed by utopian dreams of an equal society, where every individual is equivalent in power to another and there are no "weak" and "strong." Politically, such a situation has never been realized. Even attempts (one thinks: Soviet Union, North Korea, China, Cuba) to establish a communal society universally fail. No matter what, strong and weak separate, communities organize themselves into a hierarchy on the basis of power.

This is no less true at smaller or larger scales. Just as nations economically bully each other into engaging in particular international policies, so smaller groups (a class in elementary school, a university department, a band, a pair of lovers) inevitably establish structures of power, control, and thus hierarchy. Of course, at smaller scales, there is much more room for give and take, for the possibility of some kind of equivalence, even if it is only represented by a regular alteration in the relative positions of power.

As Baudelaire observed:

[L]ove is very like a torture or a surgical operation. But this idea can still be more bitterly expressed. Even though a pair of lovers may be deeply devoted, full of mutual desires, one of them will always be calmer, or less obsessed, than the other. He or she must be the surgeon or torturer; the other the patient or victim.

No accident that he characterized love as a "[d]readful game, in which one of the players must lose his or her self-government," for "government" in every sense is a position of power, of control. And the inherently hierarchical structure of human interactions necessitates the abandonment of (self-)government.

Torture is the purest realization of that aspect of love which mirrors the general structure of society as a whole; the necessary preconditions of the organized interaction amongst those who, without interaction, would otherwise be equals.

So, the existence of torture is the fundamental precondition for human society.

(Surely, this has already been remarked upon by Bataille?)

But this does not explain the appeal of "torture porn" the movie genre. For if it is indeed a precondition of social interaction, if it does indeed permeate every moment of our human existence, what pleasure then is to be derived from the single-minded fictional depiction of torture? What pleasure derived from the externalization, the graphical and physiological depiction, of an inherently internal and counterfactual social dynamic. "Torture porn" makes that which exists at the level of possibility, of control, of what can be achieved, visible, visceral, and ineluctable.

Here, the crucial answer is to be found in the attitude of the cinema goer to his or her positions within the many overlapping social hierarchies in which she / he participates.

Those who are resigned to their position or those who are satisfied with it, will not enjoy "torture porn."

"Torture porn" is a genre of the disenfranchised, the dissatisfied, those who desire a change (a radical, violent change) in social position. Furthermore, this desire for change must be intimately intertwined with some (subconscious? / conscious?) understanding of their social standing and a realization (even mere gut "grasping") of the relationship between their state of mind (happiness, or lack thereof, etc.) and their position within this social hierarchy.

And here, the ostensibly value-neutral flavor of this essay must end.

For, desiring a position of greater power precisely so that one might wield that power is surely morally reprehensible. To wish to dominate in principle, so one might also dominate in practice, is to succumb to sadism, evil, and the very corrupting influences of power which motivate the drive towards equality as a regulative ideal in the first place.

So, yes, the lover of torture porn may be evil.

(A Japanese example, one picked at random amongst many: Tsutomu Miyazaki.)

But this is not the only human drive which might motivate an "enjoyment" of "torture porn." And this precisely is the point, and why "torture porn" as a derogatory term is indeed unjustified, why the assumption that those who do "enjoy" it are necessarily monsters is, in fact, the true position of evil. The position assumed by the sadist, the torturer, the pervert.

For the desire to be a part of hierarchical change may be motivated not by inherent cruelty, but by pain, victimization, the realization that the lack of power one holds over one's life, that impotence, is an unfair and undesirable state. One might identify in torture porn not with the torturer, but the torturee. And not out of some misplaced (masochistic) sexual dynamic, but out of pure empathy.

For we all are tortured in this life, and to see a graphic analogical depiction of the that very whimsical "torture" to which we are every moment subject may have a profound power of catharsis.

Thus, so-called "torture porn" may be a positive force for healing, for self-realization, for release, understanding, acceptance, but also a constructive release of tension.

And this is why the critiques of Mel Gibson's Passion as mere "torture porn" are so ignorant and woefully misplaced. For this is indeed the role that the story of the passion of Christ as a mythology has always played—a role of catharsis for those subjugated by the (inevitable and universal) power structure of society. This is precisely why the story achieved the religious power it has, why it continues to be spread amongst oppressed peoples, why we see it as a positive and uplifting story. To focus on the pain of Christ is to focus on the plight of those who are not at the top of the hierarchy, of those who are subjugated, controlled, "tortured" by those with more power. That just is the religious significance of the story. That just is why it is a story about love and faith and healing and positive change for a better world.

Christ without the sacrifice would be Marx, Stalin, Castro—he would be the faux-torturee, a mere fascist, a dictator, a torturer.

What about those who identify with the torturer because they long for social change? Those who wish not to be subjugated, not merely so they can subjugate (as the serial killer or the sociopath), but so they can reap justice. Should we condone—must we condemn—those who revel in the possibility of retribution when they watch "torture porn"?

This is in many respects the predicament of Alex, who identifies with the Romans when hearing bible stories, yet whose apparently nihilistic rampages are clearly motivated to some large degree by his position of soci-economic impotence within society. His sadism amongst his droogs is precisely mirrored by the ease with which the larger political structure of society bends and controls him. Howsoevermuch we may revile him for his deeds, what are we to think of the casual manner in which his very personhood is violated against his will by grander, and indifferent social forces. Alex's cruelty is a faint reflection of that cruelty and control to which he is potentially subject by his very place within society and to which he becomes actually subject in the conceit of A Clockwork Orange.

Insofar as retribution may be just, the viewer of torture porn may identify with the torturer in clear conscience. And you, who are resigned, complicit, or who yourself inflict that social torture which he thereby escapes, have no moral standing for criticism.

But insofar as the justice of retribution depends upon a constructive drive towards the regulative ideal of equality, the identification with torturer should be tempered by an identification with torturee, for otherwise the pendulum will swing too far, the desire to supplant the inherent injustice of the hierarchical structure of social interactions will be replaced by a mere lust to occupy the domineering position in such interactions, and the altrustic communistic ideal will curdle into fascism, as it always has in political practice.

"Torture porn" then is indeed technically porn. But it is also religious text, a potential for catharsis and for the recognition of and rebellion against that very order of society which itself ensures, institutes, and institutionalizes torture.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

the youth of today

. . . are morally despicable, intellectually lazy, and willfully ignorant.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

apple / google conspiracy?

On sheer whim one day, I look up Seven Nation Army on youtube. I was thinking about Wichita and got a hankerin to see it live. I'm not in general a White Stripes fan, I have no White Stripes tracks on my computer, I do not usually, perhaps ever, reference the White Stripes, or the words "white" and "stripes" in close proximity at any threshold above random.

I logged off and opened quicktime to play a video I'd downloaded (*not* a White Stripes video) and the new annoying online-all-the-time quicktime screen prompted me to buy the new album by Jack White, of the White Stripes.

Now, my first reaction was—more fallout from the new google "privacy" policy. But then I realized, wait a minute, this is quicktime, an apple product, running off my harddrive.

So, did Google share with Apple my Youtube browsing habits? Or is Apple tracking my keystrokes while I browse in order to prime it's app ad machines? Or some third unimagined option, presumably in its being unimagined that much worse in its invasion of privacy?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

from sheckley into pinkwater

It's hard not to imagine that Daniel M. Pinkwater's classic "young adult" novel Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars (1979) wasn't heavily influenced by Robert Sheckley's Mindswap (1966).

Sheckley's novel involves a bizarre and disorienting trip across first planets, then the hero's hallucinations, and finally a "Twisted World" in which the laws of physics themselves are topsy-turvy; along the way, a sequence of intelligentsia and gurus mislead and confuse our befuddled hero. Pinkwater's novel involves first bizarre telekinetic experimentation, then interdimensional travel by intrepid highschoolers, all following the accidentally successful guidance of a weird guru named Samuel Klugarsh.

Sheckley's novel begins and ends with a character Kraggash, who steals our main character's body (inspiring a flight of his mind through a sequence of replacement bodies), and returns at the end, leading him into the Twisted World and a disorienting battle of wits.

Kraggash and Klugarsh are both mystical anarchists who lead our heroes through layers of self knowledge and surreal disorientation. The multiple worlds in Mindswap and multiple dimensions in Alan Mendelsohn play for very different effects, but they both combine the familiar with the alien in a manner sensitive to the inherently imagined and created aspects of our reality.

Not at all to belittle Pinkwater's novel, which, I think, over all is more effective and a greater achievement. (Though my long history with it perhaps biases me. . . )

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

decolorized iodine

Decolorized iodine, who'da thunk? When I was a kid, the way you knew the iodine hit was the way it stained your skin. No more. Sometime in the last 25 years, someone figured out how to take the color, and thence staining power, out of iodine. Who? The interwebs stand moot.

Why? So you don't have to worry about staining your clothes? Maybe sometimes additional factors inspiring more safety when handling a dangerous substance are a good thing . . .

Friday, March 23, 2012

campbell's beef barley

Campbell's "Hearty Beef Barley," exp. Nov. 06, 2013

Campbell's "Vegetable Beef with Barley," exp. Oct. 31, 2013

"Hearty Beef Barley" detail

"Vegetable Beef with Barley" detail

(Note difference in "Labels for Education" points!)

"Hearty Beef Barley" (left) is official soup of the NFL while "Vegetable Beef with Barley" involves "Select Harvest" "real ingredients"

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Monday, March 12, 2012

the only prayer

I am limited, finite, and fixed. I am in terror of the infinity before me, having come through the one behind bringing no knowledge I can take on. I commend myself up to what is greater than I, and try to be good. That is wrestling with what I have been given. Do I rage at what I have not? (Is infinity some illusion generated by the way in which time is perceived?) I try to end this pride and rage and commend myself to what is there, instead of illusion. But the veil is the juncture of the perceived and perception. And what in life can rip that? Is the only prayer, then, to live steadily and dully, doing and doubting what the mind demands? I am limited, finite, and fixed. I rage for reasons, cry for pity. Do with me what way you will.

~ Samuel R. Delany (1974) Dhalgren

Sunday, March 4, 2012

how to merge

In the modern world, the proliferation of automobiles as a means of transportation has given rise for the need of a special type of technique: a technique which will allow two paths of automobiles to join together, creating a single path. Especially difficult is the situation where the two paths are of automobiles traveling at different speeds—how can they safely and efficiently be combined?

In the South, we've developed a solution to this problem we call "merging." The basic idea behind merging is that drivers on the slower path and those on the faster work together to maximize their safety and their efficiency.

Step 1: drivers on the slower road who are "merging" onto the faster road accelerate as they approach that road until their speed closely approximates that of the faster road.

Step 2: now that these drivers are traveling at roughly the same speed as the faster road, they can insert themselves smoothly in between two autos on the faster road.

Step 3: in order for this to occur smoothly, both the merging driver and drivers on the faster road must be sensitive to the vehicles to their left and right, the respective speeds of those vehicles, and, crucially, the lines of sight of those vehicles. In particular, slight tweaking up or down of the speed of either the merging car or the car on the main road may be necessary in order for merging to occur with maximum smoothness. Of course, this sensitivity and cooperation is needed anyway in order for drivers on a multi-lane highway to interact safely. So, merging requires no techniques other than those required for safe driving anyway.

The great thing about "merging" is that is both safe and efficient. These two facts follow from a basic property of the relation between speed and distance: the relative distance a car travels in a given period of time is directly proportional to its speed. More speed, more distance covered; less speed, less distance covered.

When a merging auto is close in speed to the road on which it will merge, the procedure is maximally efficient because it necessitates at worst only minor changes in the speed of autos already on that road and, at best, no changes at all. The procedure is maximally safe because it ensures that the distance on the road required for cars to tweak their relative speeds in order to converge is minimal, so there is maximal flexibility in the avoidance of accidents between merging cars and those they merge with.

Contrast this with the suboptimal solution to this coordination problem which is apparently implemented in the northeast. This solution requires the driver from the slower road and the driver from the faster road to play very different roles. The slower driver plays a role called yielding while the faster driver plays a role called being an asshole.

Yielding just means "slowing down dangerously before moving into a faster stream of traffic." Because the yielding auto increases the difference between its speed and that of cars traveling on the road it wishes to join, it increases the distance needed for either itself or for those cars to adjust their speed enough to intermingle. This means both that the process is more dangerous (since there are greater distances on the road during the process at which there is risk of a collision), and less efficient (since it creates a greater risk the auto will enter the faster road at a less than average speed, necessitating the slowing down of the faster road).

These effects are exacerbated by the role played by drivers on the faster road of being an asshole. Being an asshole just means that whenever a slight tweak up or down in speed would allow the slower auto to merge smoothly, you instead accelerate into the space the slower auto would most naturally take, necessitating that they slam on their brakes, increasing the risk of accident to all parties and, crucially, trading off a risky gain in speed for one driver against maximizing the overall average speed of the road as a whole.

Of course, there are two situations under which the yielding + being an asshole would be safer and more efficient than merging. To find these situations, we simply apply our basic rule of the relationship between speed and distance again. Since we know that the combining of two streams is efficient if autos on the faster stream apply minimal breaking when a slower stream is combined, then one way to ensure that the yielding + being an asshole is relatively efficient is if distances on average between cars on the faster road were extremely long. This would ensure lots and lots of leeway for the converging auto to increase speed without danger of accident or slow down.

A second way to ensure that yielding + being an asshole were safer and more efficient than merging would be if the yield points both a) had a very long ramp before combining with the faster stream of traffic; and b) had very good visibility behind the yielding car so its driver could actually judge the distances and speeds of cars on the faster road before ending its yield. If this situation obtained, then one could ensure all the benefits of merging without the necessity of the cars on the fast road cooperating rather than being assholes.

As a matter of fact, neither of these situations obtains in the northeast. In fact, quite the opposite: highways are in general very very crowded, and on ramps are in general very very short.

I find this situation bizarre and confusing.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

dutch book by dutch architect

Finally, a "Dutch book" style argument (against bulk discounts, no less) from an honest-to-God Dutchman, architect and cartoonist Joost Swarte. Finally available in English for the first time.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Thursday, February 9, 2012

on feta

Note to major grocery store chains: "Feta" is not another word for "styrofoam." Look it up.

Note to consumers: There is no such thing as "Fat free feta." Anything with that label is lying to you and is most likely (not so) cleverly disguised styrofoam.


On rewatching Heathers recently, I was shocked / dismayed / pleasantly surprised (?) that I seemed to have missed (?) / forgotten (?) the monocle. In the words of Ferris, the monocle is "so choice."

Monday, January 30, 2012

snoop on paul

Snoop Dogg has endorsed Ron Paul.

Question 1: is the assumption that it must be (or that it is solely) due to Paul's stance on drug legalization legitimate?

Question 2: does this help or hurt Paul?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

müller on mary

If, moreover, we imagine a man to be from his birth surrounded merely by external objects destitute of all variety of colours, so that he could never receive the impressions of colours from without, it is evident that the sense of vision might nevertheless have been no less perfect in him than in other men; for light and colours are innate endowments of his nature, and require merely a stimulus to render them manifest.

~ Joh. Müller (1840) Elements of Physiology

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

manga editorial techniques

[This is a response of sorts to musings by The League on the abysmal relationship between creators and editors in the US comic book industry.]

In the summer of 1997, I spent six weeks in Tokyo interning at the publisher Kodansha. For the second half of that period, I worked in the non-fiction translated straight-to-paperback department. In the first half, however, I spent each week interning at a different "Magajin," or manga magazine.

One of the most interesting of these was Weekly Shonen Magazine, or 週刊少年マガジン. "Shonen" here means something like "young men's" (literally = "few years"), and I believe the readership was largely young men ranging in age from 15 to 30 or so. This experience was interesting partly because, at the time, Weekly Shonen Magazine was the best selling manga publication in Japan, selling significantly over 2 million copies every single week. Each issue of the magazine was something like 300 pages long, comprising 20 page episodes in serials by a different creative teams.

That's right, contributors to Weekly Shonen Magazine generated 20 pages of a story every single week.

At the time, the chief editor for Weekly Shonen Magazine was Ishii-sensei (I believe, I hope my memory isn't going out on me here, but if anyone knows differently, please correct me). Ishii-sensei had previously edited Monthly Shonen Magazine, and his particular editorial style had succeed in pulling that magazine out of a long term slump and rocketing it to relative popularity. This success prompted his promotion to editor-in-chief-ship of Weekly Shonen Magazine, and it was under his direction that the magazine moved into the most popular slot, against its long time competitor, Weekly Shonen Jump.

Now, what was Ishii-sensei's strategy for extracting 20 pages of story each from a large number of creative teams such that the combined product would be read by millions of young men every single week? The answer is of interest in the context of the present state of US comics as it involved intrusive and overbearing editorial oversight.

Of course, I didn't see Ishii-sensei himself engage in this process, but I witnessed it multiple times by his underlings in various meetings with manga artists.

First, the basic schedule. My understanding is that scripts were worked out one week in advance, and I assume editorial intervention worked the same way during that stage of the process, although I never witnessed it. The artists received the script at the start of their week. Two days later, they met with the editor assigned to their story. On the basis of these meetings, they'd spend the next couple days finalizing pencils, then perhaps go through a final meeting before spending the rest of the week inking.

(Yes, these artists worked hard! I remember talking to one who worked at home, but still complained he never got to see his kids. Editorial meetings with artists might happen any time of day or night, as needed to meet the deadline.)

OK, so what happened in an initial meeting? The editorial intervention was complete and domineering. Change the shape of the panels on this page; show an event from this angle, not that one; give us more of this kind of feeling (usually: excitement, urgency, passion, whatever). No aspect of what the artist had done was immune to editorial intervention. The 20 pages generated at the end of that 2 week period (one for writing, the other for drawing) was very much a team effort, as much the product of the editors' tastes and vision as of the writer and illustrator.

So, why is this interesting? Well, as The League has pointed out, a similar kind of editorial interventionism has been having a disastrous effect on US comics. Titles have been killed, good ideas shelved, bad ideas promoted—all because the editors put their decisions about comic book writing / illustrating on a higher plane than that of the creators.

OK, so what was different in the Weekly Shonen Magazine case, as opposed to (oh, I don't know, say) the current state of DC comics?

Well, the answer is really very simple. One thing which was patently obvious from observing the editors under Ishii-sensei at Weekly Shonen Magazine is that they were all themselves ultra hardcore manga fans.

I mean, these guys were hardcore. If not ultra-otaku, then some kind of refined badass version of the comic fan, high on his power. Not because it was mere power, but because it was power over comics.

I remember, for example, one afternoon, I was traveling around with an editor, and we had an hour to kill before a meeting with an artist. What did we do? Stop at a nearby toy and model store, so he could browse through large scale robot / godzilla / ultraman models. Here, work and play coincided.

Another incident, an editor (much less otaku, more badass) meeting with an artist at midnight in a cafe, then talking to her for hours about the comic, pushing her to improve the art, layout, the "kanji," or "feeling," conveyed by every single page.

Do you think Dan DiDio spends his spare time buying Giant Robot toys? Does he meet with creators in the middle of the night for as long as it takes?

So, I think the difference here is attitude. Interest. Caring.

The interventionist editors for Weekly Shonen Magazine didn't intervene on the basis of some idea about what would sell, or imagination about what goes on in the mind of a teenager. They intervened on the basis of their own fandom, on the basis of what they wanted to read personally, themselves, for real.

This does not seem to be the case for some of the "Big Two" editorial horror stories we've heard in the US.

Not that I'm entirely in favor of interventionism—I'm in general very much a fan of creator control, and letting the idea man (or woman) follow his (or her) vision.

But I also think editorial oversight can be good. Editors can make a novel—or a comicbook!—better . . . so long as their feedback comes from the right place (genuine knowledge and caring) rather than mere fantasy and greed.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

seen in philly

A large African American man selling girl scout cookies out of the trunk of a pristine black Lincoln town car.

oh, america

You bitch:
"The role of government is to secure for citizens the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In that order. It's like a filter. If the government wants to do something that makes us a little unhappy, or takes away some of our liberty, it's okay, providing they're doing it to save our lives. That's why the cops can lock you up if they think you're a danger to yourself or others. You lose your liberty and happiness to protect life. If you've got life, you might get liberty and happiness later."
~ more disturbingly realistic "irony" (= documentary) from Doctorow's Little Brother.

I bolded the naughty parts to help you out if you've drunk the koolaid. God help us all you fuckers if you don't see that this fiction has come true and we live in a fucking police state.

The most important point, though, is to notice where the flag waving happens: if you're pro Obama's shit-on-the-public-and-spend-their-money-in-Africa-beating-up-on-random-dictators-and-replacing-them-with-America-hating-Islamists stance OR you think beating up on foreigners is a higher priority than helping / feeding / employing American citizens in this hemorrhaging economy then you are equally anti-American in my books. Don't believe the Republican v. Democrat hype but look at actual differences (or lack thereof!) in policy.

The good Lord said, "first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye." We'd better get our own backyard in order before we get back to telling the rest of the world how to mow theirs.

Vote Ron Paul.

good news at last

Some evidence that God still exists. Now those shystering, crap-producing, freedom-hating, audience-cheating fucks in LA can join the poor, the lovers of peace, the African-Americans, and everyone else Obama made promises to during his campaign but whom he has since let down. Of course, unlike those groups, the producers of excrement like Jack and Jill don't have a legitimate complaint, but it's hard to see how this isn't good news.

If both SOPA and Obama lose, we might wake up in a slightly better (i.e. more American) country. I'm in a patriotic mood tonight:

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

lawyers for sopa

Guess who supports SOPA? In addition to the obvious suspects (e.g. Time Warner or the Screen Actors Guild), there appear to be a large number of law firms. I guess that tells you who's really going to benefit. The culprits:

Baker & Hostetler LLP
Covington & Burling LLP
Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP
Cowan, Liebowitz & Latman, P.C.
Davis Wright Tremaine LLP
Irell & Manella LLP
Jenner & Block LLP
Kelley Drye & Warren LLP
Kendall Brill & Klieger LLP
Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert LLP
Lathrop & Gage LLP
Loeb & Loeb LLP
Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP
Morrison & Foerster LLP
Phillips Nizer, LLP
Proskauer Rose LLP
Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi LLP
Shearman & Sterling LLP
Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP
White & Case LLP

Do what you can to stop SOPA, however insignificant.

Monday, January 16, 2012

sane approach to terrorism

I'd never really believed in terrorists before—I mean, I knew that in the abstract there were terrorists somewhere in the world, but they didn't really represent any risk to me. There were millions of ways that the world could kill me—starting with getting run down by a drunk burning his way down Valencia—that were infinitely more likely and immediate than terrorists. Terrorists kill a lot fewer people than bathroom falls and accidental electrocutions. Worry about them always struck me as about as useful as worrying about getting hit by lightning.

~ Cory Doctorow (2008) Little Brother

Sunday, January 15, 2012