Thursday, November 20, 2008


He's all my exercise, my mirth, my matter;
Now my sworn friend, and then mine enemy;
My parasite, my soldier, statesman, all.
He makes a July's day short as December,
And with his varying childness cures in me
Thoughts that would thick my blood.

--William Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ideological Critique

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn uses the word "nigger" over 200 times. The Merchant of Venice depicts the humiliation and ruin of a Jewish villain at the hands of a Christian majority; Othello, a negro who strangles his perfectly innocent wife. The famous first line of Pride and Prejudice can be read as a blatant formula for prostitution, if one so chooses. The women of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight inspire and manipulate their men, but don't engage in any decapitating contests themselves.

It's relatively easy to point one's finger at a work of art, especially challenging art, and denounce it as ideologically unsavory in some way. Anyone can (re)apply this or that political formula (e.g. the "Woman in the Refrigerator," or any of the dozens of other ways to reduce a story to who's-doing-what-to-whom) and bandy about the -isms of the day in a denunciatory fashion. There are people with tenure right now who have made entire careers out of little else. It's a lot harder, however, to make a sincere effort to participate in an artist's world view, to try to give him or her the benefit of the doubt, to make an honest and uncompromising critique that nonetheless adds value to the world rather than merely taking it away.

I'm talking about imaginative generosity, not apologia. And I'm not always great at taking my own advice--I talk more lazy, cheap, snide, cynical shit than a lot of people I know. I'm just saying I'd rather watch Othello than Gothika.

(Image from

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Yahoos on Yahoo

So I was reading this news story about a fat man who killed his wife on Yahoo news today, and I impulsively clicked on the "comments" section. What I found there was worthy of part 4 of Gulliver's Travels:

"Throw the fat prick in jail!"


"These people are a threat and menace to our society!"

"U FAT FK" (my favorite)

I was so inspired by this sparkling commentary that I decided to leave one of my own:
When I want quality conversation, I go to the comments section of Yahoo news. Where else could I find so many people willing to share their informed, measured and enlightening opinions? Keep up the great work, folks!

When I tried to post it, however, I got the following message: "Oops! The comment you entered contained abusive language. Please re-enter and try again."

I can't tell if Yahoo's abuse filter is stupid or really smart.

(Image from

Monday, November 3, 2008

I Like Starbucks

A lot of people hate Starbucks. They've been accused of using anti-competitive business strategies, like allowing certain locations to operate at a loss in order to run smaller, independent competitors out of business. They're also often disparaged, at home and abroad, as representing the metastasis of American-style consumerism--an aesthetically repulsive, morally dubious, homogeneous, tacky and inauthentic update on the same old mercantile "bourgeois" culture that populists and aristocrats alike have been hating on, in one form or another, since feudalism ended.

Permit me to digress for a moment: I have 2 coffeeshops in my hometown. One (let's call it "Rim Rorton's") has plastic booths and stools bolted to the floor, a 30 minute time limit in their seating area, and miserable employees who make minimum wage and wear humiliating fast food-style uniforms. The other ("B***** Street Cafe") is an independent establishment wherein a staff of slouching, moody undergraduate hipsters (who also make minimum wage) complete orders at their leisure, get stoned at work, and generally act like their customers should be grateful to get their coffee at all.

I like Starbucks. They're friendly, professional, relatively consistent, and not too expensive. Sure, they're only asking, "How are you today?" because they want my money, but that's better than a "Fuck you, Jack" from people who are still taking my money. If Naomi Klein and Kalle Lasn wanted to serve me better coffee for cheaper, and maybe throw in a heartfelt hug or handshake and a hot meal for the homeless in the bargain, then I'd happily throw my $1.70 their way. In the meantime, I'll get my morning coffee at Starbucks, and I won't feel guilty about it.

(Image from

Hipsters Hatin' on Hipsters

I just finished reading Adbusters' July 2008 article, "Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization", and I think Douglas Haddow got it mostly wrong--the counterculture hasn't lost its values at all. The beatniks, the hippies, the punks, the hip-hoppers, the ravers, the anti-consumer movement, etc. all concern(ed) themselves with an elaborate system of in-group fashion semiotics and justifications for having a good time (i.e. looking good and having fun) couched in contemporary political terms. Today's kids may just want to party without feeling as obliged to justify it as "subversive" or "revolutionary," but if they still want to be different from (i.e. cooler than) the kids across the street, then the aforementioned "countercultural" values are intact, minus some of the political pretension. I say good for them. Posers will always be posers, but posers who think they're activists are worse.

I can sympathize with Mr. Haddow's disappointment that the hipsters of 2008 aren't into the same militant anti-consumer pseudo-activism that the hipsters of 2000 were. Before too long, there might not be anyone left to buy Adbusters.

(Image from Read Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's book for a better discussion of this subject.)