Archive for October, 2006|Monthly archive page

Mid-Term Mid-tellectualism

Whoring oneself out to Karl Marx.

… think about it …!!!


Academic Life Skills

I could say a great deal about this particular concept, but for now, briefly:

“Academic life skills,” a term coined by myself and L., refers to the paradoxical lack of common sense, knowledge, and skills that allows one to get through the ordinary tasks of life. This lack is a common trait of the “academic” type – scholars, tenured professors, graduate students … anyone who hasn’t (either figuratively or literally) seen the light of day in a long time. It can manifest itself in wearing black shoes with brown pants, missing buttons on jackets, inability to use office equipment (e.g. Xerox and fax machines), and most poignantly, attempting to “reason” one’s way to a practical, not theoretical solution – although I’m drawing a blank on an example of this one.

Academic life skills also implies, however, a great deal of skill and knowledge in a particular scholarly field. So it’s not simply “sucking at life,” but “sucking at everyday life,” if you will.

To that end, I spent a few minutes reflecting on may own development of “academic life skills,” that is, the increasing distance between myself and ‘the real world’ due to graduate school:

– I have probably read at least 1,500 pages this week – and by “read” I mean “go between actually reading, skimming for argument, and ignoring as pointless evidence”;
– I’ve started looking forward to my few hours of work in an office because I can photocopy entire books that I will never have to read;
– I haven’t had time to watch a Masterpiece Theatre/BBC TV classic adaptation that’s been on this week, so I went and got the book to find out what happens;
– I spent a few hours in the pub tonight in which Foucault, Chomsky, and the racial/gender/ethnic/colonial biases of the Playmobil figurines and playsets;
– I had a really good day yesterday, the sole mark of which was having a million research questions as a result of my advisor meeting and starting to find ways to follow them up;
– I spent this morning reading the paper – the London and New York Times from 1914-1919;
– And finally… I consider these things to be moves in a positive direction, not in themselves cause for concern.

If I start saying things like, “How do people shop?” or “What does ‘back by popular demand’ really mean? What is ‘popular’?” … intervention time.


I have to admit, I find celebrity very attractive.  Not that I want to be a celebrity; not that I necessarily like individual celebrities; but that power over the public – the cult of personality – knowing about the life of someone you have, and probably will, never meet.  The very idea of “celebrity news” is like media-condoned mass stalking.

Perhaps one of my favorite things regarding celebrities (one could also say “public personalities”) is a moment when their private and public selves collide.  This is not to be confused with the paparazzi style invasion of privacy.  The moment I have in mind is perhaps best seen in the comedian’s “break-down,” when even they cannot maintain themselves within whatever ridiculous situation or character they’ve created.  Eddie Izzard does this marvellously in “Dress to Kill,” especially in reaction to his audience’s responses.  Movie out-takes do this to a certain extent, although they are less interesting 1) because they are separate from the finished product; 2) they often take the form of “inside jokes” or simply a forgotten line; and 3) watching a lot of them in a row is frankly a bit boring.  The best kind are those that happen live – Jimmy Fallon’s excepted, just for the frequency of his break-downs – because they are forced at once to recover; no out-takes, no cut scenes.

Stephen Colbert has some great ones, perhaps in part due to the nature of his character on The Colbert Report.  The best recent one was an exchange between him and Jon Stewart regarding Columbus Day:

(It’s the video clip labelled “Merry Columbus.”)

Generation X-ed

(from Xanga)

Laurie Anderson. Talking Heads. REM. Douglas Coupland. Bloom County. DOS. Star Trek: Next Generation.
… how am I not somehow 40? Or maybe closer to 45-46, depending on where you count the trends peaking.

New vellum in the Tome…

(from Xanga)

So, I haven’t updated this in a while … and although I was considering just shutting it down, I had second thoughts (and a friend’s encouragement) to keep it around.  So, we’ll see how that goes … even if it just degenerates into copying bits of papers since that will be the only thing I’m writing, i.e. putting creative energy into, in the near future.

And speaking of the near future, let’s talk about the near past:  since graduating from Denison I spent the summer at home, working and reading Paul Fussell (I’ve become more of a curmudgeon already!), and am now working toward a master’s at the University of Chicago.  Being a one-year program (in the social sciences), I’m effectively a freshman and a senior at the same time.  An interesting contradiction in identity, yes, but in practical terms it also involves writing a master’s thesis by the end of March (with the possibility of revisions until May) and basically starting within the first two months of the academic year.  And no topic as yet.  Good times!

Other than that, it’s just me and Lucy on the south side of Chicago.  And some plants – one of which perks up pretty substantially at night, while the leaves practical hug the pot it’s in during the day.

Oh, and a few of the current-running commercials I’m current enamored with:
* The Snickers commercial with the guy singing a song about the candy bar to an employee in a carpet store:  “… prancing nougat in the meadow, sings a song of satisfaction to the world …”  The employee, amazed by the power of the Snickers he’s currently eating:  “… the world!”
* The Dunkin Donuts commercial with people singing at their TV, specifically the woman singing “That beard of bees, it has no power over me.”
* The Gap commercial where Audrey Hepburn, in her famous interpretive-dance scene in “Funny Face,” dances to “Back in Black” to advertise their “skinny black pants.”  I’ve heard mixed reviews of this from other people, particularly using a dead celebrity for commercial purposes, but I have to admit I was taken in.
* This one is dated now, but I still love it:  the Verizon V-Cast commercial that featured a guy on a street corner singing to “Urgent,” and demonstrating that you got a two-for-one deal if you signed up for their plan that included a phone.  I haven’t been able to find that one anywhere now, probably because no one else cares about it, but I already look on it with nostalgia.
* The teasers for Mr. T’s “I Pity the Fool.”  “In every city, there’s fools to pity!”  This technically isn’t a commercial for a product like the others, but since I don’t get TV Land it’s the closest I’ll get to the amazing phenomenon that is this show, other than the online spots.  I’m not sure whether it’s Mr. T himself, or the idea of Mr. T having a self-help (or rather him-help) reality TV show, that has really quantifiably made my life better.  I say “quantifiably” because Mom sent me the cover of the TV Guide, which features Mr. T promoting his new show and standing by a caution/warning roadsign that reads FOOLS with a “no” sign over it.  I know such a sign doesn’t actually exist, but I’m not entirely convinced that it shouldn’t.
* Okay now I’m going to cheat entirely and invalidate the integrity of this list by including anything involving John Hodgman, including his recent appearances on “The Daily Show” (though to my knowledge, not yet on “The Colbert Report”).  All personal feelings aside, I have to respect him as the leading authority on nonsense and bizarre fictions.  Plural.

In place of thoughts on letter-writing and academia (which I will hopefully get to in future posts, the former probably still in letter form to C and J), I’ll include a few thoughts on 80s (more precisely, late 80s to mid 90s) television.  After E and C left, which included a lovely dinner and a couple of episodes of “Scrubs” (first season; considering investing in a copy myself), I turned on the television for some background while I cleaned up and started thinking about what to do for tomorrow.  On Nick at Nite was a show that I hadn’t thought about for a very long time, “Designing Women” (Dixie Carter et al, late 80s).  Having had only standard network TV when I was growing up, I remember distinctly watching certain shows back when they were on ABC, NBC, whatever, though not really anticipating the “next” episode.  I guess I’ve never really become attached to a serial show (i.e. making a point to watch episodes in order, or see them as they come out), with the most recent exception of “The Daily Show”/”The Colbert Report,” which should really only half-count because it’s not a show with a plot, per se.  Although Colbert is building his own continuities and changes – the stained glass window, the portrait featuring his previous portrait which featured a portrait, the 435 part series about Congress … constructed to keep us watching?  Or just for the hell of it?

Anyway, I remember shows like “Designing Women,” “Roseanne,” “Perfect Strangers,” “Family Matters,” “Doogie Howser,” and of course the one whose place last in the list should be considered a place of honor, “Star Trek:  the Next Generation.”  (Children’s and animated shows, which definitely have their own place in my personal nostalgic reminisces and current tastes, will not be treated here; also, I would include “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” which I adore, but have only come to this taste recently, thus it doesn’t exactly fit with the particular list of show I’m remembering.)  And I started thinking about how much more I enjoyed these shows than most shows on TV today – I wondered, is that because I haven’t “gotten into” any, like the phenomenon of “Gray’s Anatomy”?  Is it because I have a tendency to remember fondly when I do remember things of childhood, so I’m projecting a gloss of charm onto these old shows?  Or because they simply were better than most things that currently air today?

Then I thought, that last one’s a bit too nebulous to handle, so I focused instead on what I liked about these shows.  And I think the thing I have to conclude is, I just like the characters.  With the possible exception of “Perfect Strangers,” which is the most purely farcical of the ones I mentioned above, these shows are considered “sit coms” but might be more properly labelled “problem comedies.”  That is, in recent exposure to these shows I’ve come to realize although not in every episode, the shows dealt with genuine social problems or issues of the day.  The episode of DW, for example, was one involving Mary Jo’s being sexually harassed by a shady male client, ending with an almost-rape in which she defends herself and manages to knock him out in time to escape.  When I browsed the IMDB episode list, I was further struck by how many episodes dealt with divorce, AIDS, homosexuality, cancer, death, etc. etc.  The “Big Issues.”  Even TNG, which I’m not sure would be classified as a “sit-com” (or really, what it would be called at all on the drama-comedy spectrum, sci-fi-ness aside), deals with such issues.  Then, in contrast, I can’t help but think of shows like “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “King of Queens,” or the other 5,000 varieties of the “dumb guy, hot wife” Ralph Kramden “Honeymooners” set-up.  I used to just think they were awful, but more accurately, I realized 1) I’m not married, and don’t have kids, so I can’t relate; 2) they don’t go anywhere, really.  The same set-up of funny abuse and family conflict has its place, but not on my television.

My statement above would seem to put “Roseanne” above the other family comedies I listed as being inadequate; and for the most part, there might not be much difference.  One thing to be said about the Connors, however, is that their dysfunction seemed to always border on a socioeconomic, peculiarly Midwest reality – the “average, working-class family.”  The show, unapologetically prole (in Fussell’s sense of the word), was somehow always thought-provoking to me.  Perhaps I had associated it with what I knew outside of Columbus:  northwest Indiana and the Upper Peninsula, both decidedly working-class regions.  If I couldn’t relate to it on an individual level, I could at least by observation.  (If that sounds hopelessly snobbish, it is not intended; I was just unable to express myself more clearly at 1AM).

It also gave me respect for “Seinfeld,” however, in light of this idea of “issue-related” comedies – which, admittedly, have just as much farce and absurdity layered on top of such commentary – being “a show about nothing,” it places itself in opposition to this idea that a television show has to be relevant, be contemporary, be aware.  It became “contemporary” in itself, but only insofar as it portrayed the neuroses of everyday life.

Social awareness aside, however, I suppose I still enjoy these shows because I’ve become attached to the characters – I remember their personalities, their histories (to a varying degree), and to some extent, what’s going to happen to them.  Even if I can’t relate to them, I think I’ve come to look on seeing these old episodes as reminiscing about them, or being reminded of the particular episodes (in the other sense) in their lives to which I, the viewer, was privy – I still have an image of Charlene, the blonde on DW, thinking of her (husband? boyfriend at the time?) Bill at Christmas, when he was overseas, ostensibly before Gulf I.  I did a quick internet search and can’t even find which episode I was thinking of, but the emotional response still comes (even if the actual memory is hazy).  I’m always one who claims to not watch television (or at least, not much), but for all the negative things to be said about the place of television in our society, its power as a storyteller is no less for its lack of interaction among character/narrator and audience.  Even TNG – enthusiasm for which is seen as a good social indicator of geekhood – is more than battle-and-stars science fiction; the characters, their adventures and foibles and amusing behaviors and moments of vulnerability, keep me coming back.

I’m increasingly aware that the logic in this rambling is at best, fraying as I continue, so I’ll add thoughts on two more shows I’ve come to enjoy, one “ancient” and one “modern”:  “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and “Scrubs.”  FP, I have to say, is a great show, not only for its comedy but for its moral ambiguity.  This is not to say the show itself does not have a sense of right and wrong; indeed, many of Will’s antics and choices run up against more than Uncle Phil, but that special kind of “TV morality” implicit in the telling of the story and its consequences.  Unlike many shows of that kind (family-centered comedies), however, a number of episodes end with Will’s (or another’s) choices either unaddressed or unresolved.  The most striking example was Will’s confrontation with his father, who had left him at a young age and who does so again when Will is prepared to live and travel with him.  Will’s anger and disappointment is met by the support of Uncle Phil, but there the episode ends:  no reconciliation, no resolution of the tension, not even an answer to Will’s question, “Why did he leave?”  After seeing that episode, I was left affected, not because it had a “good message” but because in that case, it very consciously had no good one to send.

In a similar vein, among the amusing fantasies and ironies in “Scrubs” (many of which are structured around the classic joke of a rhetorical statement or question, followed by an answer – e.g. “How bad can it be?”), there is an underlying desire for realism, as absurd as the idea seems, given the episodic nature of J.D.’s narrative of life in the hospital.  It is in this narrative that surprising insight can be found – structured as it is around J.D.’s accounts of “what he learns” in each episode, humorously played out in the story itself, it seeks (and sometimes finds) personal, and less often social, truth.  The ever-presence of death, in particular, seems to be a recurring theme, and in the show (as in any hospital) not all of the patients end up “okay.”  In one episode a small child dies; in another, Brendan Fraser’s character (too lazy to look up who he was, but he knew Dr. Cox) dies, and the show ends with a funeral.  Though the show is generally absurd, its moments of comedic silence – a still shot of the characters, a focus on a concluding scene or image – are all the more effective when they do occur, especially if you’re not expecting them.  And I think this is what I have come to appreciate most in “Scrubs.”  The general structure of the show’s comedy is fun in itself, but it is those moments of tragedy that really give it something more than simple farce.  That, to me, is good story-telling:  when, like in life, something deeper comes up into everyday life and really arrests you, even for a moment, and makes you think.

And now I’ve definitely reached a low, getting that choked-up feeling thinking about the serious moments of “Scrubs” and then moving on to the more emotional parts of TNG.  Time for bed.

I wish I had brought my copy of “Teleliteracy” (Bianculli), but the link below is the next best thing.  The book is a bit dated in terms of what television it covers, but it definitely gives (at least it gave me) a new appreciation for television in culture.  We may not like the crap on the tube, but the medium is here to stay.

Preface to Volume II?

Greetings all:

That is, all 3 of you (including me) who might read this.

I have officially decided to move the Tome of Zozer to WordPress, especially because it allows non-users to leave comments.  I have moved over the two most recent posts on my old Xanga site (because I can) and will leave it up for a while (because I will forget about it), but consider this the new home of the Tome.  Heh.

I don’t know how useful or navigable the “categories” function is on this site, but we’ll find out – I’ll try to put them in one category or another, with implied distinctions that may or may not ever become clear.  If I start waxing philosophical, I’ll put it under “Ramble”; if merely personal information or speculations, “Personal”; if I find some fact or observation worth posting (and there are several), I will call it “Nonsense” or “Hall of Fame,” depending on how amazing it is.

Right.  Onward.