What we have lost, and what remains: Why you should read David Foster Wallace
I would wager that 80-90 percent of the American public has never heard of David Foster Wallace, and that still more have never read one of his books. Those who have heard of him are probably aware that on September 12, 2008, he took his own life. DFW was, in this writer’s humble opinion, one of the truly great contemporary American artists. The real tragedy is that I feel like one of a handful of people in the US who understands what we lost that day. The good news is that he did not die in utter obscurity. He left behind two novels, three collections of short stories, and two collections of essays.
One of the reasons why DFW is not widely known and read is that his writing is difficult. In the age of the internet, of youtube, of the 30 second sound byte, of the 140 character Tweet, of the text message, few adult Americans have the patience to read a 1000-plus page novel (unless it has vampires or wizards), like Wallace’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest.
Of those who have attempted to read IJ, like some of my friends, a common reaction is, “What the fuck is this?” Reading IJ is comparable to reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, a major accomplishment, even for an English major. I first read IJ when I was 25, and I have to admit that I understood maybe 1/3 of it, and I have a Master’s degree in English.
One of the wonderfully frustrating things about IJ is that it includes over 200 pages of end notes. Who uses end notes in a novel? DFW does, that’s who. It’s as if he was trying to make things difficult for us, like Joyce throwing French and Latin into Ulysses, or T.S. Eliot throwing Greek, German, and other languages into his masterpiece “The Waste Land.” IJ is not an easy book to read. It takes time and patience. But if we can agree that the purpose of great art is not to be easy, but rather to challenge us, to rattle us out of complacency, then we can begin to accept and understand what DFW was up to. The purpose of this essay will be to convince you that reading DFW is worth the effort, that it is actually funny and moving and tremendously inspiring. It’s a difficult task, I know, but I’m gonna give it a shot.
Like I said before, I read IJ in my mid-20s, along with some of his short stories, and while I enjoyed some of it, I often felt baffled and frustrated. It wasn’t until a couple years ago, on a road trip with my brother, that I really began to “get” DFW.
I was helping my brother move from Washington to California, basically just keeping him company on the 1200-mile drive. My brother, Seth, has always been an avid reader, and he is a fine writer. While we are different in a lot of ways, we share a love for good books.
Before the trip, I picked up a copy of Consider the Lobster, a collection of essays by DFW. I had read one or two before we left, and was pleasantly surprised to find that they were a bit easier to understand than his fiction. This might have to do with the fact that most of the essays began as journalistic assignments from major US magazines, like Rolling Stone, Gourmet, Premiere and even Tennis magazine. The first essay I read is called “Big Red Son,” which was an assignment from Premiere magazine to attend and write about the AVN (Adult Video Network) Awards show in Las Vegas. This event is sometimes called the Academy Awards of porn films. If you have read anything by Wallace, you know the hilarity of asking a writer of Wallace’s intelligence and sensitivity to write about something as crass and ridiculous as the AVN awards. It would be akin to asking Noam Chomsky to attend a taping of the Glenn Beck show, and write about it. (Actually, that would be pretty awesome).
But what Wallace does in this essay, and what he does in most of the other essays, is take something that most people would either dismiss or not really think much about, and look very carefully at it, and think very deeply about what it means—much more than the average American is willing to think about it. So, for example, in the essay “Consider the Lobster,” Wallace goes on assignment to the Maine Lobster festival and an essay about a relatively boring event becomes a thoughtful moral treatise about the ethics of boiling lobsters alive and eating them. Herein lies the humor of what Wallace is all about--describing often-overlooked but pervasive aspects of American culture with a scientist’s eye for detail, with a philosopher’s intelligence, and with a novelist’s ear for language. In Consider the Lobster, he takes a close look at such subjects as sports autobiographies, John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, and talk radio. The result is both hilarious and moving.
So, on the long drive from Seattle to Orange County, I read most of the essays from Consider the Lobster aloud to my brother as he drove, and it was an experience I will never forget. We often found ourselves laughing aloud at the awkward humor Wallace draws out of the ridiculous situations he finds himself in on these assignments. After reading each essay, we found ourselves wanting to talk about the ideas he brings up, and eager to read the next essay.
And it wasn’t all funny stuff. An essay about (Russian novelist) Dostoyevsky led to a discussion about religion, a subject we had avoided talking about for years. Our dad was a protestant pastor, and after college, my brother continued attending church and kept his faith. I stopped going to church and became more of a skeptic. But reading this book allowed us to talk about things we had not talked about in a long time.
Reading Consider the Lobster with my brother renewed my interest in Wallace, and made me think that maybe he wasn’t so inaccessible. Maybe I just didn’t understand what he was trying to do, until then. It was an epiphany similar to one I had maybe five years ago, when I re-read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time since high school. Re-reading that book, I realized for the first time that Salinger is incredibly funny. The smartass, no-bullshit Holden Caulfield reminded me of myself and some of my friends, baffled by the post-collegiate dilemma of finding jobs and being adults in a world that seemed largely phony and ironically absurd. Holden, straddling the line between boyhood and adulthood, is torn between the idealistic vision he has of his dead brother Allie, who represents all that is good and pure and honest in the world, and the fake, selfish, cruel, perverse world he finds himself in. His insights are funny and sad at the same time. So it is with DFW.
Thus, I picked up his other collection of essays, A Supposedly Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and had the same experience. In these essays, Wallace writes about junior tennis, the Illinois State Fair, going on a luxury cruise, and other subjects, all with the same intensity of awareness and depth of thought. I began to realize that DFW wasn’t interested in baffling his readers or trying to be esoteric and confusing. Rather, he was about looking closer at things we take for granted, at being aware of the sometimes absurd culture that surrounds us, at thinking deeply about the ideology behind the things we Americans take for granted, like going on a cruise, or going to the state fair, or watching television, or listening to the radio.
And so I have recently begun re-reading Infinite Jest, and it has been an immensely rewarding experience. The language that once baffled and frustrated me I now find interesting and often very funny, because I sort of understand what Wallace is up to. In his essays, he’s about looking very closely at aspects of American culture, and depicting them with all their mind-numbing boredom and ugliness and absurdity. In his fiction, he’s doing the same thing, but with the added creativity of imagined characters and settings that often parody and comment on American culture. Also, his fiction contains an element of deep humanity, of pathos, of sympathy with these characters who are caught up in usually awful circumstances. In an interview, Wallace once said that his “goal” as a contemporary writer was to use postmodern aesthetics (fragmentation, irony, a loss of stable meaning) to explore very old, traditional themes of love, relationships, community, etc. And so, beneath the weird wordplay and suffering in Wallace’s fiction, there beats a human heart. In the case of Infinite Jest, this human heart is best represented by the character Mario Incandenzza, the disabled brother of the main character Hal.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me try to sum up what that book is about, because having a framework of the world of the book helps you make sense of all the fragmented parts. It takes place in the near future, a time in which the US, Canada, and Mexico have been combined into the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN) . In the world of the novel, corporations buy naming rights for each year. So, instead of 2010, 2011, etc, we get The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, Year of the Tucks Medicted Pad, Year of the Whopper, etc. It’s a hilarious commentary on the growing power of corporations over most aspects of contemporary life.
The novel has three settings/story lines that intersect in interesting ways. The first setting is a prestigious junior tennis academy, in which students struggle with the intense pressure put on them to succeed and join the “Show”, aka professional tennis. The main character Hal is a tennis prodigy and super intelligent young man, who takes drugs to deal with the borderline abusive emotional, mental, and physical strain he his forced to undergo to reach his “full potential.” The novel begins with a meeting between Hal, the director of the tennis academy, his coach, and various Deans from a college who is considering giving Hal a full scholarship. This meeting ends with Hal undergoing a full-blown mental/emotional breakdown. Hal’s father, James, the founder of the Tennis Academy, committed suicide by putting his head in a microwave before the novel begins. Before he died, James (an experimental filmmaker) made a film entitled “Infinite Jest” which was so entertaining that it put its viewers into a kind of comatose state, where all they wanted to do was watch the “Entertainment.” The action of the novel centers around a missing cartridge of this film, which several interested parties want to get their hands on.
Another setting of the novel is The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, and the weird lives of the inhabitants, who are tragically broken people. Many of the guests of Ennet House work at the Tennis Academy. The reader gets the sense that some of the tennis academy students, Hal included, will end up at Ennet House. One of the major themes of Infinite Jest is addiction, and the novel contains some of the most brutally honest depictions of addiction and desperation that I have ever read.
The third setting/story line has to do with US/Canada relations. In the novel, the US has “given” a large parcel of land that used to be the Northeastern US to Canada. This land is now a large radioactive dump, where giant feral hamsters roam like buffalo. This area of land is called “The Great Concavity” by Americans, and “The Great Convexity” by Canadians. Needless to say, US/Canada relations are strained. The main action of this part of the novel consists of meetings between a double agent from a Quebec separatist group called “The Wheelchair Assassins” and a crossdressing agent of the US Office of Unspecified Services. The Canadian separatists are trying to get their hands on a copy of “Infinite Jest” to use for terrorist purposes. Doesn’t this sound awesome and hilarious? It is.
The strange dystopian North America Wallace creates in Infinite Jest is both funny and poignant, and contains dead-on commentary about contemporary America. The book is a brilliant work of satire, of social/cultural commentary on par with anything Aldous Huxley or George Orwell ever wrote. It’s one of those masterpieces like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, that is really about everything: love, death, family dysfunction, addiction, entertainment, politics, depression, etc etc, ad infinitum.
And Wallace’s use of language is astonishing. The novel is a patchwork of wildly diverse voices, writing styles, and points of view. We get inside the heads of a child prodigy, a professional football player, a transvestite junkie prostitute, a government agent, a school administrator, and many others. The way he can switch between street slang and high-level academic language is simply genius.
And but so I hope I have convinced you that reading David Foster Wallace is a worthwhile activity. Yes, it is difficult. Yes, it takes time and effort. But I promise you that the rewards are worth it. He will make you laugh, make you think, he will move you and inspire you. I would suggest beginning with some of his essays, to get a sense of his style . Then move on to perhaps a collection of stories. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is a good one. Then, my friend, tackle Infinite Jest. Just read it. When David Foster Wallace killed himself, America lost a great artist. But we can be thankful that he left behind a solid collection of work that will be read and studied for years to come.
Why I Ran for City Council
Some people were surprised by my choice to run for Fullerton City Council in 2010. I suppose I didn’t fit the stereotype of a City Council candidate. I was relatively young (30 at the time), I didn’t own a suit, I had long hair and a beard, and I was not wealthy.
My decision to run wasn’t motivated by a desire for money or status. Rather, I was motivated by the sincere belief that I could make a positive change in my community. So, in July, I paid the city clerk $25, filled out the appropriate forms, got 30 signatures, and voila, I was on the ballot.
Let me give a little back story. I have lived in Fulleton, CA for over 20 years. I teach English composition at Fullerton College and Cal State University, Fullerton. I live downtown on Wilshire Avenue above Mulberry St. Ristorante.
In 2008, some friends and I decided to open an art gallery downtown. At the time, the downtown area was dominated by bars, restaurants, and tattoo parlors. Our decision to open the gallery (which we decided to call Hibbleton) was motivated by a desire to shine a light on local creativity and to introduce something different to the downtown area—culture. Maybe that sounds snooty, and maybe it is. But if you lived in downtown Fullerton in 2008, you would know what I’m talking about.
The gallery turned out to be a huge success, not financially, but in other ways. Every month, crowds of people would come to our little gallery downtown for our art openings. We got some good press from OC Weekly and ended up receiving their award for Best Art Gallery in Orange County in 2009. After we opened, other galleries and coffee shops started popping up downtown.
Slowly, very slowly, I started to notice a positive change in me, like, personally. I had spent most of my 20s in a haze of depression. I was a pretty solitary, lonely person. I busied myself with school, painting, and writing (I was working on a novel that I thought might be the Great American Novel. It remains unfinished and unpublished).
But the work I was doing at the gallery (organizing art shows, poetry readings, music events, film screenings) was not just for me. I was becoming a part of something larger than myself. I started to care, to really care, about my community. I was a catalyst of something that just felt good.
In early 2010, I got the idea to try to start a Downtown Fullerton Art Walk. I started walking around downtown with a clipboard and a pen, talking to local business owners (not just galleries, but coffee shops, retails stores, etc.) about the idea of putting art on their walls once a month. The response was overwhelmingly positive and confirmed a growing conviction in me—that people were hungry for this, for what a local art walk represents: community, creativity, and dialogue. I got about 20 venues to be a part of the art walk, and in the Spring of 2010, it debuted. It was a big success. For the first time in years, there were families walking around downtown Fullerton on a Friday night. I walked around that night in a haze of euphoria. I helped do this.
With the success of the art walk, some friends suggested, half-jokingly, that I should run for City Council. I thought—maybe someday. But things happened that greatly accelerated my decision to actually run that year—2010.
The first thing was the local community newspaper, The Fullerton Observer, a family owned and operated publication that had existed since the 1970s. I was aware of the Fullerton Observer—it was free to pick up at a variety of businesses and locations in Fullerton. As I became more involved in the community with the art walk, I started to actually read The Observer. I wanted to understand the goings-on of my city and to learn about the city council.
What I discovered shocked and angered me. I discovered that the Fullerton City Council, with the exception of its two female members, had values that were antithetical to my values and what I had come to love about Fullerton.
Two of the City Council members (Don Bankhead and Dick Jones) had been in office for over 20 years (there were no term limits at the time), and they were these really old, conservative dudes who clearly did not share my vision or that of the growing art community I was a part of.
Let me give an example. One of the last, large, natural open spaces in north Orange County is Coyote Hills—a 510-acre patch of land in Fullerton. It is currently owned by Chevron, because they used to drill oil there. They stopped drilling years ago, and have spent the last 20-30 years trying to get Fullerton City Council to approve a massive housing/retail development.
Having lived in Fullerton for most of my life, I have watched as development companies (often subsidiaries of big oil) have developed nearly every inch of natural open space. The story of Orange County land use in the past 50 years is one of massive development of open space.
Anyhow, Chevron wanted to develop Coyote Hills, and there was a community group, Friends of Coyote Hills, that was trying to protect it from development, to preserve it as a natural open space. I began following this issue in the Fullerton Observer. I began attending City Council meetings, listening to Chevron’s proposals, listening to the Friends of Coyote Hills, listening to Don Bankhead and Dick Jones, who presided over those meetings with a kind of Godfather-esque condescending attitude that was, frankly, repellent to me. They did not seem sympathetic to the Friends of Coyote Hills.
And so, when the meeting came when the City Council was to vote on the Coyote Hills development, I invited my friends to show up in support of the Friends of Coyote Hills. I prepared a speech. As part of my preparation, I visited the city clerk’s office to look at who had made large campaign contributions to the city council members’ campaigns. I found what I expected. Every member of City Council had taken large campaign contributions from development companies.
When my turn came to give my speech, I was shaking like a leaf. But I stood up and read what I had prepared. I pointed out that the only folks who seemed to support the development were those with a vested financial interest, including City Council. I pointed out the obvious—that the vast majority of those present at the meeting were opposed to the development, ordinary residents of Fullerton who cared enough about their community to show up in protest. I urged the council to do what was best for Fullerton, and not for the developers. I closed with this question, “Will the fact that you have taken large campaign contributions from developers affect your decision on this issue?” There was an awkward silence, which Don Bankhead finally broke with, “We’re not here to answer your questions.” When I finished my speech, the crowd cheered. I felt a calling.
I was pleasantly shocked when the City Council voted down the development proposal 3-2.
About a week later, after an Art Walk meeting, I was talking too Mike Magoski, a fellow gallery owner, and he said, “A lot of people want you to run for City Council.”
The next day, I went to City Hall and filed my papers. I felt ill-prepared, ill-equipped, but I was compelled by a passion I could not deny.
There have been a few times in my life when I made bold decisions like that one, common sense be damned. In graduate school, when I decided to be a teacher, despite the fact that I was painfully shy, I was afraid, but resolved. When we decided to open the art gallery, I was afraid, yet inspired. When I decided to take a cross-country train trip by myself for a month, I was afraid yet eager. And when I decided to run for City Council, it was the same. I was afraid yet resolved. I have learned, in my life, not to be motivated by fear. Instead, I have tried to follow my heart.
I’d never run for public office before, I was not wealthy, and I was not “well-connected” with local politics. But I had passion, I had creativity, I had a community of supporters, and I had conviction that I could make a positive difference, even if I lost. I was inspired by figures like Harvey Milk, who showed me that, with passion and persistence, you can change the world.
I was actually on unemployment when I filed my paperwork to run for City Council. Such is life for adjunct (part-time) faculty in California—you rarely get health benefits, and often don’t get paid over the summer, so many of us go on unemployment for a few months, so we can pay our bills. Suffice it to say that I did not have a big budget for my campaign. I figured I could afford to spend $1000 on my campaign. A typical City Council candidate in Fullerton spends between $15,000 and $50,000, most of which comes from contributions.
I decided not to take campaign contributions from corporations because I was disgusted with the shady relationship between big business and politics, even at the local level. I wanted to be a true independent, in nobody’s pocket, beholden to no one except my conscience and my constituents.
At first, I didn’t want to take any contributions, but when some of my friends offered to kick in a hundred bucks here, fifty bucks there, I took it. I needed it.
Because I did not have much money, I had to get creative with my campaigning. My friend Brian Prince designed me a web site and taught me how to manage it. My friend Casey McCann silkscreened t-shirts for me that my friend Christie Noh, a local artist, designed. The shirts were a hit. I wanted to make t-shirts that people would actually want to wear, even after the election. Christie did a line drawing of my face with my big beard. Inside the beard, it read “Jesse La Tour Fullerton City Council.” I probably gave away 200 shirts. I also drew inspiration from street artists like Shepard Fairey (who designed the Obama poster) and Banksy. I hosted poster-making parties at Hibbleton where I invited people to make their own posters from stencils, markers, whatever. I knew that if I was going to stand any kind of chance, I was going to have to get lots of people to help me, and they did.
Like Obama, I used Facebook as a free campaigning tool. I made videos of campaign events, of my friends and I making posters. I made little infomercials and posted them online. It was a lot of work, but it was fun. I enlisted photographer friends to document my campaign and post the pictures online.
After a month or so, people started stopping on the street and saying things like, “Hey, you’re running for City Council.” People I barely knew would see me and say, “I’m voting for you.” It felt like a true, grassoots-type thing. This made me really happy because I felt like I was making people of my generation care about local politics. Young people don’t usually pay much attention to a City Council election, but they were starting to pay attention. Some of my friends who had never voted in a national election, let alone a local one, began to get excited about the Fullerton City Council race.
Again, I felt like a part of something larger than myself. It was scary and exhilarating. No longer was I the bookish loner. I was a part, a leader, in a growing community movement.
Through my campaign, I met a lot of other community leaders. I attended “Meet and Greets.” I met the Friends of Coyote Hills, the airport manager, the City Council and other city staff. I met groups like Neighbors United for Fullerton (NUFF), The Chamber of Commerce, etc. At these meetings, I always felt like a bit of an oddball, with my beard and thrift store clothes. The other candidates were clean-cut guys in suits, usually decades older than me. But there I was. I showed up and talked to people about the art walk, about Coyote Hills, about affordable housing, about my vision for downtown. For the most part, people were receptive to my ideas. I loved talking to people and breaking down generational and cultural barriers, exchanging ideas. For me, that is the heart of democracy—people from different walks of life sharing ideas, concerns, hopes, and dreams.
I took part in candidate forums, which were informative and fun. A candidate forum is sort of like a debate at City Hall, where each candidate is given the chance to answer questions form the community. These forums were great because I was given the same amount of time as everyone, including Don Bankhead, to voice my ideas. I did my homework on local issues, and presented my ideas in a way that I thought made sense, and people seemed to respond well.
I also had the chance, at these forums, to call out Bankhead on some bad decisions he made. For example, I pointed out that, in 2009, he voted to spend six million dollars of Redevelopment funds (taxpayer dollars) to move a McDonalds 150 east. I also called him out on his vote for the Coyote Hills development, pointing out the negative environmental impact it would have on Fullerton. I was also able to hi-light the issue of campaign contributions. I was the only candidate who could claim he hadn’t taken contributions from corporations. At the end of one of the forums, I overheard an elderly woman say, “Let’s give the young guy a chance.”
In the weeks leading up to the election, my mailbox was flooded with glossy mass mailers from the other candidates—physical evidence of their big bucks. One of the other candidates even bought commercial time on Fox News, during the Glenn Beck Show.
Signs for my opponents sprouted like flowers all over Fullerton. What my friends and I lacked in mailers and number of signs, we tried to make up with creativity. My hand-painted signs stood out, and were physical evidence that my campaign was not corporate-funded, but grassroots.
The Fullerton Observer did a good job of following and publicizing the City Council race, including campaign contributions, which every candidate is required by law to file with the city clerk and the state. One of the lessons I learned from this experience is that an informed voter must pay attention not only to a candidate’s professed views (talk is cheap), but to who is bankrolling their campaign, as this will likely influence the decisions they make in office. The issue of campaign contributions doesn’t get discussed as much as it deserves. In my view, it should be at the forefront of every voter’s mind, and every candidate debate.
As expected, Chevron and other developers contributed thousands to Bankhead and the other front-runner, another former police chief in his mid to late 70s named Pat McKinley.
I was also shocked and disappointed to learn that Political Action Committees (PACs) were spending thousands of dollars on negative attack ads and mailers against the only other “liberal” candidate, Doug Chaffee. I learned that politics, even at the local level, can be a dirty business, especially with the involvement of some of the more aggressive PACs.
Before running for City Council, I did not know what a Political Action Committee was. Shortly after I filed my papers to run, I received a succession of e-mails and letters from various PACs. These usually contained a questionnaire meant to determine if my political views matched with their financial interests, and if they would give me money/endorsement or if they would vilify me. Thankfully, I was enough of an unknown that I sort of flew under the radar of the PACs. Doug Chaffee, however, did not. He was ruthlessly attached with mud-slinging mailers and robo-calls.
I did not receive any money or endorsements from PACs. In Orange County, they are, for the most part, frighteningly conservative entities. However, the PAC questionnaires gave me insight into their values, and consequently into the values of the candidates they endorsed and contributed to.
Here’s a good question: If local politicians like Don Bankhead and Pat McKinley take thousands of dollars from PACs and corporations, whose interests will they represent in office: their constituents or the corporations and PACs? (That is a rhetorical question). It is an established fact that there is a direct correlation between campaign contributions and how these men have voted on issues in Fullerton.
My intention here is not to vilify Don Bankhead or Dick Jones or Pat McKinley, but to shine a light on the (frankly) fucked up way politics works in Fullerton. And I don’t think this situation is unique. In fact, I know it’s not. This is, I think, basically how politics works in America. Money talks.
This is another reason I chose to run for office. I chose to put my faith in the ordinary voters of Fullerton and not in the corporations and PACs. I chose to still believe in democracy, in government of, by, and for the people, not the highest bidder. I chose to view the job of a city council member as a public servant, and not as a status symbol or a cash machine. I chose, despite everything, to believe in the people of Fullerton, in the community I had grown to love.
On the day of the election, I recruited a group of volunteers to stand at the busy intersection of Harbor and Chapman downtown, waving signs and wearing t-shirts.
On election night, I hosted a party at Mulberry St. to follow the election online at www.ocvote.com. I had put together a few “Thank You” videos for my supporters. It was a nice culmination of a great community effort.
When the results came in, I had not won the election. The usually suspects won: Don Bankhead and Pat McKinley. However, I did receive almost 5,000 votes.
The Orange County Register ran a story on money spent per vote. The winners spent almost six dollars per vote. I had spent about 20 cents.
I was not disheartened by my loss. Rather, I was inspired. I had made a statement. You don’t need corporate bankrollers or PACs or high-level endorsements to make a good showing in a local election. You just need good ideas, passion, and community support. If I could get 5,000 votes with so little money and resources, what could I do with more planning and organization and resources?
There is another City Council election in two years. I will be on the ballot.
March Madness and Civilization
I think it's interesting that people in America, in general, get way more excited about a college's sports teams than their actual educational achievements.
I remember when I was applying to graduate schools, I was looking into different universities' literature programs. I was over at a friend's house, watching a football game between Notre Dame and another school. I said, rather excitedly, "Did you know that Notre Dame has one of the best medieval literature programs in the country?!" My friends gave me weird, quizzical looks.
It was at that point that I realized there was something wrong with the way higher education is viewed in this country. People know the starting lineup of a university's basketball team, but have no clue or interest in the actual academic work being done at those universities. Gues what, America? Universities are, first and foremost, for learning, not sports.
I remember another time, when some friends were going to a UCI sports game, and I said, "Hey, did you know that Jacques Derrida, the pioneering postmodern literary theorist, lectures at UCI?" More blank stares.
This obsession with sports, and indifference to academics, speaks volumes about American culture.
So here is my solution. During March Madness, I would propose a non-sports related competition. Professors from different schools will enter a no-holds-barred academic debate tournament! Princeton vs. Harvard on contemporary philosophy! NYU vs. Yale on cultural history! UCI vs. Berkeley on literary theory!
Are We Becoming Illiterate?
A student in my English 101 class today told me she had never checked out a library book before. I was floored. She is a freshman in college and she’s never checked out a library book before. How is this possible? It made me so angry and depressed that I made my next class write for 20 minutes on the following prompt:
Mark Twain wrote, “A person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read.” What was the last library book you checked out that you were not required to check out? Why do you think people might not check out library books? Is there a problem with this?
Then we talked about reading. Another student acknowledged that she had never checked out a library book, but she had purchased books online, and read e-books on a kindle. Other students reinforced this idea that computer technology has replaced libraries. Another student said, “We’re Americans. We’re lazy as hell.”
On Monday there was a power outage in downtown Fullerton. I was talking to a friend, and he said, “When the power went out, I almost read a book.”
Are we becoming a society of functional illiterates? We know how to read, but we choose not to? I decided to do a little reading on this topic. In his essay “Computers Cannot Teach Children Basic Skills,” David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale argues that multimedia like the internet has seriously crippled students’ ability to think in a logical and linear fashion. Speaking of hypermedia (like the internet), he says, “Dynamiting documents into disjointed paragraphs is one more expression of the sorry fact that sustained argument is not our style.”
But Andrea Lunsford, a professor of writing at Stanford University, disagrees. She organized a project called the Stanford Study of Writing. From 2001-2006, she collected and studied 14,672 student writing samples. She concluded, “I think we’re in the midst of a literary revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization.” To borrow a current expression, WTF? She believes that, with the advent of social networking and blogging, students today are reading and writing way more than previous generations, and with a captive audience.
In his article “The New Literacy,” Clive Thompson, a science and technology writer for The New York Times Magazine, writes, “Before the internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they’d leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.”
Now young people are writing and reading every day, online. Thompson adds, “Of course, good teaching is always going to be crucial, as is the mastering of formal academic prose. But it’s also becoming clear that online media are pushing literacy in cool new directions.”
Okay, maybe today’s students are not illiterate. They are just literate in a different way than previous generations. Ever since I started my blog, I have actually become a more prolific (and perhaps better) writer than when I was just an emo kid scribbling in my journal every day. Having said that, I love going to the library. I go there at least twice a week, just to read. I suppose I try to strike a balance between this new online literacy and good old-fashioned book literacy.
Maybe I’ll take my students on a field trip to the library.
Some Un-Cynical Thoughts on Dating
I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting into my 30s, maturing a little, but I’ve noticed myself taking a slightly different attitude toward dating lately than I did in my turbulent 20s.
When I was a younger man, dating caused me great anxiety and suffering. If it wasn’t guilt over hooking up with someone I wasn’t that into, it was fear and insecurity over fucking things up with someone I was into, which I usually managed to do pretty successfully.
So, for many years, those have been the emotions I associate with dating: guilt, fear, and insecurity.
But lately things are different. Maybe it’s because I have more self-esteem now, but I find myself less inclined to hook up with someone I’m not really into. Sometimes I still do, but less often.
And if there is someone I am interested in, I find myself more inclined to take things slowly. To not get wasted and try to hook up on the first date. To actually spend time with the person. To not feel like an unreturned text message is the end of my world.
Maybe the girl is into me, maybe she isn’t. I’m happy with myself either way, and I’m willing to at least try to respect myself enough to wait for someone who feels the same way.
And I will respect her enough not to try to exploit her sexually as fast as I can. That sounds awful, but it was kind of how I operated for a while.
My emotional health, at this point, is less dependent on my need for approval from a girl I happen to be dating, and more dependent on my friends and family. And if a girl I date makes it into that support group, and I into hers, I realize that (like all meaningful relationships) it will take time, and patience, and forgiveness. First, I must forgive myself.
Another insight I’ve had lately is that dating is not about instant gratification. Everything that means anything in my life (my education, my writing, my friendships, my community involvement) has taken time and work and slow nurturing. Why would love be any different?
Maybe this stuff is common knowledge, maybe I’m a slow learner, but there are different kinds of knowledge. There is knowledge as information and knowledge as learned experience. I suppose this stuff would fall into the “learned experience” category.
Lately, the emotions I associate with dating are changing from guilt, fear, and insecurity to wonder, curiosity, and even hope. A hesitant hope, but hope nonetheless. This is new territory for me.
Working for the Man
Before settling in on my career as an English teacher, I worked a lot of different jobs, most of which I hated. The ones I hated most were ones that were highly regulated, where I was told what to do and how, exactly, to do it.
I used to work at Borders Books + Music in Brea. When I first started, the manager was a guy in his mid-30s who wore plaid shorts a lot and was very friendly. He was, for lack of a better word, “cool.” His laid-back attitude filtered down to the employees and made for a very interesting and pleasant work environment. I liked going to work there. I liked my co-workers and the customers and it was fun. I was encouraged to be myself, and I think that attitude made Borders a “cool” place to work.
But then that “cool” manager got transferred to another store and we got another manager who was definitely not “cool.” She came in with a laundry list of corporate-mandated things we had to do, like asking every single fucking customer if they wanted to join our e-mail list, and “upselling.” Upselling was a big deal for this manager. Whenever a customer asked for help finding a book or CD, we had to suggest that they buy something in addition to the thing they wanted. If, for example, someone wanted the new John Grisham novel, I might suggest that they also buy a book light, because that book was really going to keep them up at night, it was so thrilling.
I would joke with my fellow employees about trying to “upsell” customers things that were totally unrelated to the thing they wanted. If, for example, someone wanted How To Win Friends and Influence People, I might say, “If you like that, you might also like this book on self-mutilation.”
I never did this, however. The fact is, I could not bring myself to “upsell.” It felt sleazy and impersonal. I got written up like three times for refusing to upsell, which led to a series of conflicts with that manager that resulted in me quitting.
What made that job unbearable (for me) was the lack of freedom. I was not encouraged to innovate, to be myself. I was encouraged to fit a certain corporate-mandated mold, like a robot.
One summer, I had a job where I was actually asked to perform tasks very similar to those of a robot. I worked the graveyard shift for a company called First American Real Estate Solutions. I worked in a big black office building. My shift consisted of me sitting for eight hours in a cold room surrounded by big super-computers. I sat in front of a monitor, waiting for seven-digit numbers to pop up. When one such number popped up, I had to write it on a piece of paper and then go into this huge warehouse containing millions of numbered cartridges. I had to find the cartridge with the corresponding number and place it in one of seven “drives.”
I know it sounds like I am making this up, like it’s something out of Brave New World, but I swear I’m not. I remember sitting in front of that monitor in my hooded sweatshirt, coughing from a chronic cold, and reading Crime and Punishment. It was a pretty depressing time in my life, actually.
So, what is my point? I suppose what I’m saying is that, at least for me, work must have meaning. I stayed in school way longer than most of my friends because, after having worked for corporations, I could not bear the idea of working a corporate job. The thought was painful. So, after college, I endured three more years of poverty, while earning my Master’s degree, so I could get a job teaching at a community college, which seemed like the thing I would most like to do, aside from being a famous writer. I love being a teacher.
We give so much of our lives to our jobs. I had a teacher in college once describe this transaction as “time” for “money.” But, given the fact that our lives are so short, why settle for a job that doesn’t allow us to use our full potential as human beings? Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Peace Prize winner, said, “Search and see if there is not some place where you may invest your humanity.”
I understand that people need money to survive and provide for themselves and their families. But I don’t think that is an excuse to settle for a boring, mind-numbing job. At the community college, I have taught single mothers on welfare, who were going to school because they didn’t want to work in a factory or retail. They wanted to follow their dreams, even though it meant being kind of poor, at least for a while. In my experience, being poor is not nearly so bad as being unhappy.
Certainty and Uncertainty
"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."
--F. Scott Fitzgerald
I had an interesting discussion in my English 100 class this morning. We were discussing an essay called "The High Cost of Manliness," which basically argued that current cultural ideas about masculinity are toxic and destructive. The author, Robert Jensen (a different Robert Jensen than the one who works at Fullerton College) describes the current idea of masculinity like this: "men are assumed to be naturally competitive and aggressive, and being a real man is therefore marked by the struggle for control, conquest, and domination." He goes on to argue that this idea of masculinity leads to sexism, rape, war, and lots of the problems that beset society.
I thought it was an interesting article, and was expecting a lively discussion. What I got instead were students being pretty defensive about their ideas of masculinity. Even some of the women in the class disagreed with the author, arguing that masculinity is generally a good and natural thing. It surprised me a little. I played devil's advocate, arguing on the author's behalf, trying to drum up some good discussion, but instead I felt like I was offending people and even hurting their feelings. Who was I to question their ideas of masculinity, or femininity for that matter?
As I walked home from class, I thought: Did I do something wrong? Isn't my job to challenge students, to help them consider alternative points of view, and to think critically? I thought back to my early college days. How did I feel when professors challenged my strongly-held beliefs? If I am honest, I remember getting pretty defensive. I don't remember talking about masculinity, but I do remember talking about religion and faith. I remember arguing with professors, and sometimes getting angry when they challenged my beliefs. When I finally began to question my beliefs, it was a long and painful process. It is disorienting to re-consider long-held beliefs.
I believe one of the chief benefits of college is that it teaches you to re-evaluate long-held beliefs. But today I remembered something I had forgotten--this process can be difficult and painful. As an academic now, I relish arguing with people about religion, politics, culture. But for your average college freshman, such arguments can be new and, in fact, scary. They were for me.
I remember, somewhere in the middle of my college career, being introduced to William Perry's model of intellectual and ethical development, and totally relating to it. Perry's scheme suggests that students' intellectual development, generally speaking, follows four stages:
1.) Dualistic Thinking: Students generally believe knowledge is certain and unambiguous: black/white, right/wrong, questions have immutable, objective answers, and authorities possess valuable wisdom that contains eternal truths.
2.) Multiplicity: Students come to believe that where uncertainty exists, knowledge and truth are essentially subjective and personal.
3.) Contextual-Relativism: Students come to believe that even where uncertainty exists, people must make choices about premises, frameworks, hypotheses, and theories to apply; conclusions are not self-evident.
4.) Context-Appropriate Decisions: Students may come to acknowledge that choices require analysis and values. Knowledge, theories, and methods are imperfect and uncertain, thus personal choices require acknowledging personal responsibility that follows from personal values.
Socrates suggested that the beginning of education is admitting that you do not know something. Higher education is about seeking to understand, but also being okay with uncertainty. After college, you can no longer believe something "just because." All beliefs must be evaluated, thought about, carefully considered. I understand, from personal experience, that this process is hard and disorienting.
People who approach college with the idea that they will simply be memorizing lots of information miss the point, I think. As a teacher, I see my chief function as teaching students not WHAT to think, but HOW to think--how to analyze, compare, research, discuss, dissect, and decide for themselves.
Let's transition now to post-college. It's one thing to talk about this stuff in the classroom, but what is even more interesting is how these ideas play out in real life, in the real world. I ask myself: Is this critical method the way that most adults come to their strongly-held beliefs and conclusions, about religion, culture, masculinity, politics? I'm not so sure. I would suggest that most adults adopt beliefs that are convenient to their lives and leave it at that.
I am no exception. Let's use political beliefs as an example. Growing up, I would have identified myself as a conservative Republican. This wasn't because I had carefully studied the works of conservative political philosophers like Edmund Burke. I knew very little about the Republican party. I was a conservative Republican because that's what my family and my church community seemed to suggest was the "right" position.
As I got along in my college career, I noticed that most academics seemed to be the opposite of what my family and church was. Most academics were liberal Democrats. I learned a little about what "liberal" and "Democrat" meant, and soon found myself adopting those beliefs, partly, I suppose, to fit in.
When I got out of college, I broadened my political horizons, read a little about communism, socialism, anarachism. At various times, I would have defined myself as a socialist, a communist, even possibly some form of anarchist (for a while I called myself an "anarcho-syndicalist"). Now, I have difficulty identifying with any political party or belief system. I take things issue-by-issue.
So what's my point? Critical thinking about long-held beliefs is not just something for college. It ought to be a life-long process. I am always a little startled when I see adults aligning themselves so strongly, so full of certainty, with a particular political party, or religion, or belief, which is how a lot of adults are. Some people are so passionately libertarian or republican or democrat. My exhortation to these people is the same exhortation I give to my students: think critically. Yes, uncertainty can be scary...but certainty can be even scarier.
Weezer: Say It Ain't So
With their 1995 self-titled debut album (Usually called “The Blue Album”), Weezer introduced something wholly unique to the 90s rock scene. Their music was hard rockin’ and nerdy at the same time. Just look at those nerds on the cover, standing there awkwardly in thrift store clothes. This was before “vintage style” was cool. They helped make it cool. Is it a coincidence that I stopped shopping for my clothes at the mall, and started shopping at Good Will around 1995? No, it was (partly) because of Weezer. With songs about Buddy Holly, Night Crawler (of the X-Men), Surf Wax, and sweaters, they offered a welcome contrast to 90s grunge, which was so serious and heavy and angst-ridden. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots were writing testosterone-filled anthems of male aggression. By contrast, Weezer’s music was catchy and poppy and reminiscent of infectious songs of the 50s and 80s. The lead singer of The Cars produced this album, and you can hear it. Their music manages to be silly without being cheesy. They embraced their pop sensibilities and their weirdness at the same time, and the result was a brilliant album that is timeless in its appeal. Some of their songs were sad, and a bit angst-ridden (What 90s rock band didn’t have angst?), but even these songs are catchy, like “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here,” “My Name is Jonas” (Still one of my top 5 rock songs. My brother actually named his son Jonas, after this song.), and “The Sweater Song.” The Blue Album skyrocketed this band of outsiders to mainstream stardom, and this was the beginning of the end.
Weezer’s sophomore album, Pinkerton, is a good album, but not great. You can hear the band losing some of their pop-whimsy and exploring darker themes, not unlike their grunge counterparts. To me, Pinkerton is one of the first “emo” albums. Most of the choruses are catchy enough, but the songs are about loneliness and sex and angst which, to me, was not what drew people to their first album. Perhaps they had lost their youthful playfulness and were writing about more “adult” themes. The irony is that, when Weezer made nerdiness cool, and actually became successful and cool, they didn’t know what to do with it. They became famous as anti-rock stars, and when they became actual rock stars, they started to fall apart. Pinkerton is a sincere album, delving deeply into this quagmire of rock success, but it is ultimately a cry of despair, the last gasp of artists who were losing their inspiration. It’s as if Kafka’s Hunger Artist were to become a national sensation, and financially successful. Would he still be able to maintain his artistic integrity? I don’t claim to have the answer to this question. Certainly there have been bands (like Radiohead) who have managed to become successful and maintain their artistic integrity, but sadly these bands are few and far between, as we shall explore in the following pages.
After Pinkerton, Weezer fell off the map, musically, for a few years. Between the years 1997-2000, they released no new material. It is rumored that Rivers Cuomo, the band’s front man and main song writer, went into some kind of deep depression, which is totally understandable if you have ever listened to Pinkerton. That album is a cry for help.
In 2001, Weezer made a much-anticipated comeback with anther self-titled album (Usually referred to as “The Green Album”). If the color-choices of their album covers are symbolic, I would venture to suggest that green, in this case, represents money, or greed, or both (Weezer got huge financial backing for this album, and massive MTV and KROQ play time). Green certainly does not, in this case, represent creativity. The Green Album is a total piece of shit, musically. It’s a hyper-produced, lyrically shallow, unoriginal parody of their former selves, which pretty much sums up every album since (and there have been, shockingly, FIVE albums since, each more mind-numbingly bad than that last). I stopped following Weezer after I heard the first single from The Green Album, “Hash Pipe.” I am amazed that the same man who wrote “My Name is Jonas” wrote something so utterly shitty. Here’s the chorus:
“Oh, Come on and kick me,
Oh, Come on and kick me,
Come on and kick me,
You got your problems,
I got my ass wipe,
You got your big jeans,
I got my hash pipe.
I got my hash pipe”
Granted, some of the lyrics from The Blue Album and Pinkerton are silly and funny, but “Hash Pipe” is neither silly nor funny. It’s just bad. The guitar sounds are standard corporate rock licks, interchangeable with bands like Foo Fighters and Green Day (who I will deal with later), and Cuomo’s voice lacks the irony and depth of his former self. It is as if he emerged from his depression a shell of his former self, a piece of clay that record companies and A&R people could mold into something sellable, the very worst kind of music, music that is carefully calculated to appeal to the largest number people as possible, to sell the most product, artistic integrity be damned. This kind of music can be heard on the major corporate radio stations, most notably KROQ.
Thus, I have had no interest in Weezer albums post-Pinkerton. However, I would feel like a bad writer if I didn’t at least give these albums a fair listen. Thus, I have spent the evening listening to the singles from each of Weezer’s post-Pinkerton albums: Maladroit, Make Believe, another self-titled album (This one called The Red Album), and Raditude. Let me tell you, it has been a long evening, and I feel dumber for having listened to this shit. To my credit, I did not pay money for this music. I listened to it on www.grooveshark.com, which is actually a pretty cool site (thanks Landon).
I have nothing constructive to say about Maladroit or Make Believe. These albums are tragically unlistenable.
The Red album is terrible, but it offers some insights into Weezer’s descent into corporate rockdom, and even offers insights into some of the more depressing parts of popular culture in America. Two songs on the album, “Troublemaker,” and “Pork and Beans,” are similar thematically. Both songs assert a position of rebellion, of going against “the norm,” while ironically completely conforming to musical expectations. “Troublemaker” asserts:
“I’m a troublemaker,
never been a faker,
Doing things my own way,
Never giving up…”
While “Pork and Beans” boasts:
“I’m gonna do the things that I wanna do,
I ain’t got a thing to prove to you…
I don’t give a hoot about what you think.”
Both songs were huge successes commercially; “Pork and Beans” topped the Billboard charts for 11 weeks, and the music video won a Grammy. The fact that there was nothing especially new or original about these songs did not seem to matter. They are both shallow parodies of the band’s former sound. But what is especially interesting about these songs is that they represent the ultimate irony of corporate “alternative” rock—this music adopts a stance of rebellion, while achieving enormous commercial success and popularity, situating it firmly in the realm of “normal” or “popular.” Anything but rebellious or original. It’s like Sarah Palin calling herself a “maverick”, while proclaiming frighteningly conservative political values. It’s like how the corporation Hot Topic has taken “punk” or “alternative” fashion, and turned it into a huge commercial market (There is a Hot Topic store in most American malls). Or like how expensive designer brands like Diesel now make clothes that look like something you could buy in a thrift store, but charge hundreds of dollars. It’s that classic capitalist value of taking something good or meaningful, commodifying it, and turning it to meaningless bullshit, emptying it of all original value.
I will conclude this admittedly depressing analysis of Weezer with a semi-funny factoid. On the album Raditude, Weezer collaborates with Lil Wayne (aka Lil Wheezy) on a laughable song called “Can’t Stop Partying.” Presumbaly because they are both commercially successful musicians who have similar-sounding names.
Thus, the tragic rise and fall of Weezer. I feel a special sadness when I listen to them, a sadness similar to what I felt when I visited Graceland and saw a video of an aging Elvis, a little fat, wearing his white jump suit, singing his old classics, his eyes a little dead, his face sweating, a shell of his former self.
Why, at age 30, I started a hard-core punk band
an essay by Jesse La Tour
Some of my friends and family thought it strange that, at age 30, I decided to start an old school, hard-core punk band. Punk, it is commonly thought, is a genre of the young—angry teenagers rebelling against their parents, against school, and whatnot. Also, I am a pretty mild-mannered guy. I like Simon and Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, Belle and Sebastian. I was never really a “punk” kind of a guy. Once, in high school, my friend Matt played me a Dead Kennedys album and, frankly, I couldn’t relate. All that anger, that frantic, abrasive sound. Who would want to voluntarily listen to that? Not me. But something happened around age 30, actually a lot of somethings, that plunged me deep into a genre I had avoided like I avoided horror films.
I started hanging out at The Continental Room (hands down the coolest bar in Fullerton), where DJs would play old school punk records—bands like Stiff Little Fingers, The Misfits, The Cramps, The Dead Kennedys. Plus, local punk bands would play there—not washed-up drug addicts—but young, cool kids in bands with names like The Audacity, Death Hymn #9, The Cosmonauts, and Cum Stain. A lot of these bands are on Fullerton’s own Burger Records label (hands down the coolest record label in Orange County). The music was wild and abrasive and frantic and, frankly, exhilarating. There I was, a 30-year-old English teacher, finally “getting” punk music. It was as if a curtain had been rolled back, and I was astonished.
So I dove in head-first, loading my ipod up with both old school and new school punk. It was an education, and my teacher was Casey, a DJ from The Continental Room, a college dropout who could easily teach a graduate-level seminar on garage, punk, and soul music. I began with the classics: The Clash, Dead Kennedys, Sex Pistols, The Ramones, and then moved on to the more obscure (or, at least, obscure to me)—Cock Sparrer, The Gun Club, X, Flux of Pink Indians, The Screamers, The Germs, The Weirdos, and on and on and on. There is so much amazing underground punk music that it is literally impossible to know it all. I absorbed this music like a sponge.
So what was the appeal of punk? For me, good punk is about things. In the 60s, music was about things that mattered. Artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger used music as protest and inspired social change. After the 60s, music that meant things seemed to go away, and was almost thoroughly replaced by mindless pop. Or so I thought.
When I discovered underground punk, I was like “Aha! This music is actually about stuff!” The Dead Kennedys, The Clash, and a host of other underground punks, used their music to speak against injustice, against war, against oppression. It was loud and abrasive because they were angry, they were outraged, and they wanted to change the world. It was art as protest, against Reagan—era economics, against religious hypocrisy, against American imperialism. The Dead Kennedys were Bob Dylan on steroids.
Don’t get me wrong. Not all punk music was serious. Some of it was downright silly, even gross. GG Allin is a good example of “gross-out” punk. But even the silly and gross stuff seemed meaningful. It was part of a lifestyle of rebellion, of saying “fuck you” to corporate pop culture sameness, and making a culture of freedom and unfettered expression.
So I found myself dusting off my old electric guitar and starting to write music again. When I was younger, in high school, I always had great difficulty writing songs. I was beset by perfectionism, which led to constant frustration and “writer’s block.” Punk music set me free, creatively. I could write a song with three or four chords, played super fast. I could write about the things in the world that made me angry—corporate greed, health care, mega-churches. I found myself writing lots of songs. It was cathartic and fun.
I convinced a couple friends to start a punk band with me: my roommate Landon borrowed a bass guitar from a friend, my friend Christie (who had never played drums before), bought a drum set. We started practicing once a week in my apartment. We called ourselves Chicken or Fish. At first, we were terrible. But we kept practicing, writing songs that were angry and funny and fast and sloppy. After a few months of practicing, I convinced my friends at The Continental Room to let us play a show. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. We have been together for over a year now, we still practice every week, play a couple shows a month, and we just self-released our first EP. None of us have quit our day jobs. That’s not why we do it. We do it because it is cathartic and fun. We do it because we love it. We do it because we still believe music can be meaningful.
I think punk music, and the punk mindset, has a lot to say to this generation, to this time and place in modern America. The economy sucks. We are involved in three wars. Corporations have most of the power. Politicians suck. Punk rock still speaks to these horrors, speaks truth to power, gets angry at injustice, beckons us to question authority, to rebel, to not accept things as they are, to make our voices heard, to do it ourselves, to be badasses.
Is punk dead? Hell no.
The Serious and the Frivolous
“The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relationship to the ‘serious.’ One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.”
--Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp”
People of my generation have an ironic relationship with the “truth.” Here is an example. Rather than getting my news from “serious” news sources like CNN, BBC, Fox?, MSNBC, I prefer to get news from The Onion, The Daily Show, the Colbert Report. These are, of course, comedy shows that present the “news” in a playful or ironic way. In the information age, in the age of corporatized media, of facebook and google, and blogs, the only “truth” that I can really digest is news that presents itself ironically, playfully.
This is a sad, but often true, feature of my generation. We have a shaky relationship with the “serious” and the “true” because we are intensely aware of the way people, corporations, and groups spin the “truth” to suit their fancy or bias. In this environment, is it any wonder that the only news I will take seriously is “comedic” news?
This ironic distance is one of the things that separates my generation from previous generations. While they see the world “seriously,” I see the world “playfully.” For example, while an older generation might be offended by shows like South Park or even The Simpsons, I see them as hilarious examples of social commentary and parody. In a sense, I take these shows “seriously.”
By contrast, many of the things older generations take “seriously” I can’t help but laugh at. For example, I know that the now-defunct Glenn Beck show was not meant to be funny, but I would often watch it because I found its over-strained patriotic fervor hilarious. I’m sure there were older generation who took the Glenn Beck show very seriously.
I don’t know if there is a way to bridge this generational gap between the ironic sensibility of my peers and the serious sensibility of our elders. I suppose the first step might be for us to try to understand the root of their seriousness, and for them to try to develop an ear for irony.
What Lessons Do We Learn From the Game Monopoly?
When I was growing up, one of my favorite board games was Monopoly. I usually went for the coveted Boardwalk and Park Place properties. I relished taking thousands of “dollars” from my opponents, forcing them to mortgage their properties, forcing them into bankruptcy and defeat with one or two rolls of the dice. My brother liked to go for the railroad and utility monopolies, to slowly chip away at his opponents’ assets with ever-increasing prices, and sometimes this worked.
I think toys and games (like Monopoly) offer a kind of window into the cultural values we are teaching our children. G.I. Joes and other “boys” toys often teach kids that war, fighting, and physical strength are what make for a “real” man. Barbies, Bratz, and other “girls” toys teach girls that material possessions, clothes, and domestic savvy are what make for a “real” woman. Often, it turns out that these toys end up teaching children lessons that, if analyzed carefully, are not so good.
So what does Monopoly teach children? Let’s look at the structure and object of the game. To win, you must accumulate a series of properties and gain a “monopoly” in a particular area. Where you buy your properties determines how much you will get for them. For example, if you buy "Oriental Avenue" you will not make as much money because minorities drive down property values. You become, in essence, the landlord of these properties. Before you have the monopoly, when people visit your property, they pay a relatively low rent. But once you have a monopoly, and are able to build houses and hotels, you can charge people incredibly high prices.
The same goes for the utilities and railroads. Once you own one electric company, or waterworks, or railroad, you get a relatively small amount when people land on your utility or railroad. But once you own all of the electric companies or water works or railroads, you get to really stick it to people, because there is no competition.
So what values does the game teach? Basically, it teaches that it is good to gain a monopoly on properties and public services, because then you can exploit your tenants and customers, and hopefully take all their money. The game is not about fairness or compassion or sharing. It is about cut-throat exploitation of people for money.
You might be thinking, so what? It’s just a game. But, it turns out that this core value, that it is good to exploit people for money, is a pervasive part of American society. In California, where I live, I don’t get to shop around and choose who I buy electricity from. I have to buy it from Edison, because they basically have a monopoly. If I cannot afford to pay rent on my property, I get kicked out, I might declare bankruptcy, and the owner, the bank (or my landlord), “wins.” On a more personal level, I take a medication that is only available through one manufacturer, so they charge around $300 a month because they can, because they have a monopoly.
It turns out that the board game Monopoly, as fun as it can be, actually celebrates and rewards the very worst tendency in human beings—the tendency to exploit and ruin our fellow humans.
Art in a Capitalist Society
"The artist walks alone
Someone says behind his back,
"He's got his gall to call himself that!
He doesn't even know where he's at!"
The artist walks among the flowers
Appreciating the sun
He does this all his waking hours
But is it really so wrong?"
--Daniel Johnston, "The Story of an Artist"
No one asks a child, when he is busy working on a drawing or painting: Why are you doing that? But for an adult, the question is more complex: Why, amidst all your responsibilities and adult concerns, are you spending time drawing or painting or writing?
For the fortunate few who are able to make a real living from their art, the answer is fairly easy: this is my job.
But what about the vast majority of artists who cannot make a living from their art? As a gallery owner, I would say, of all the artists we show, maybe 1-5% make their living exclusively from their fine art. Some work as "graphic designers" for corporations, but that is different from making fine art. For the 95-99% of artists who must work other jobs to pay the bills, myself included, the question is worth considering: Why do we do it?
If asked, I would say I make art because it is fun, it it stimulating, it allows me to express my thoughts and feelings and share them with others. For me, that is reward enough.
In a capitalist society like America, however, this goes against the prevailing mindset. In a capitalist society, the primary goal of any citizen must be to make money. I have had conversations with successful business people who, when I explain that my art gallery makes me no money, give me quizzical looks.
From a purely capitalist perspective, it makes no sense for me to make art, write, or own an art gallery. Thankfully, I have not bought in, entirely, to the capitalist mindset that purpose is tied up in material wealth.
I'm not saying that we do away with capitalism. That isn't going to happen any time soon. What I am saying is that, in a capitalist society, it is very difficult to be an artist, and this is unfortunate.