Tw-Oscar Night

Oscar night has finally descended upon us, friends, and with that, we can all heave a gigantic sigh of relief.  There will be a final riotous outcry of “I can’t believe X won,” (Argo) “X was robbed,” (Zero Dark Thirty) and “OMG, did you see what she was wearing?!” (J. Lo) and then a delightful nine month surcease until the awards season Rube Goldberg machine cranks into high gear again.  But in these final hours before what we know will be an interminable live-telecast, I find myself reflecting on the ways that participation has shifted the experience of awards shows, and the distinctive pleasures (and a few losses) that are incurred.

As I noted a few months ago, I’ve only recently made a return to television, after a two-year break.  My, how the world has changed!  Last year at this time, I would have gone along my merry way today, paying no attention to the official Eastern Standard kickoff time, blissfully unaware of the calculus needed to reckon the best window for red carpet coverage on multiple networks.  I would have gone to bed as happy as a clam this evening, knowing that, come morning, someone(s) (a heady combination of The Daily Beast, E! Online, and The Fug Girls) would have provided a just-meaty-enough curation of the evening’s bests and worsts for me to get the general idea.  Thus, I’d be informed; I’d get the goods.  My, wasn’t I efficient.

What I’d neglected to consider, however, were the manifold ways that participation in social networks expands the experience of “events” like The Oscars.  It’s fair to say, I think, that for all of the attempts at entertainment and concision that the showrunners produce, these shows D-R-A-G.  Four hours of nominees, speeches, musical numbers, montages, held together by an ever-diminishing thread of anticipation—it’s a recipe for disappointment and frustration.  It’s no wonder that the show is shedding its audience at an alarming rate, particularly in the all-important “younger” demographic (18-49?  Really?  Younger than what, exactly?).  In contrast to the boredom/rising-annoyance-fest, however, stands the never-silent mob on Twitter and Facebook, a field of voices processing images, statements, and affects in real time. There is a frenetic kind of energy that pervades this participation, for sure, and an intense competitive motivation to say something first and best.  In terms of resuscitating the Oscars (and award shows in general), I’d say there’s nothing like it.  (In fact, a month or so ago, the brilliant writer and effervescent Twitterer Alexander Chee noted something to the effect that Twitter may be the only thing maintaining appointment television viewing, anymore.  I think he’s nailed it.)

There’s no question that this approach, and in particular, the way that it privileges speed over reflection, can allow for some of the worst kinds of responses.  (Self-censorship, self-preservation, and etiquette are apparently second-level instincts.)  I can’t help but wonder, however, if these events—in their online milieu—function as high-stakes training camps for wit: the equivalent of an improv class, where your spontaneous extemporanaeity blasts out to the ends of the ‘Verse.  At its best, event participation fosters a network that rewards the insightful, the funny, the pithy—all linguistic skills that I’m happy to see rise to the top of a discursive community’s values.  And this says nothing of the associated participatory skills of selection and curation via retweets—a analytical and socially generous investment in sharing things that delight you with your own network of followers.

Smarter scholars than I (Jean BurgessJason MittellKelli Marshall?) could say volumes, I sure, about the ways that social networks perform, and the histories of participation in television viewing, and the connections among these trajectories.  While I go look up what they have to say, however, I’ll be flexing my thumbs in anticipation of this evening’s event, more so for its commentary than for its content.

The “Real” and the “True”

I’m currently in the sixth week, or a third of the way (!) through, my contemporary narrative class.  I’ve drafted my students into the service of my current obsessions, and so we’re tracking the ways that a select set of contemporary narratives thematize reading/interpretive processes as methods of evaluating truth.  My intrepid students are going great guns, of course, and are finding all sorts of examples and avenues that never would have occurred to me.  Case in point: how to do we articulate the complex relationship between realism and the truth in any given narrative?  How does the former shape our expectations of the latter, and to what extend does the ambiguity of the latter force us to question the former?

To fully understand that question, you’d need to have an idea of the kind of texts that I’ve been asking them to endure.  To some extent, whether they are novels or television serials, they have largely cohered, thus far, to the genre pithily described as “mind-fuck,” or, in more genteel language, what Thomas Elsaesser calls the “mind-game.”  In essence, I’ve asked students to dig into narratives (Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut, Heidi Julavits’s The Uses of Enchantment, and now Moffatt and Gatiss’s Sherlock) that actively present a series of internal questions about which of many narratives or perspectives is true, OR real, or both.  Still confused?  (So are we.)  In Mr. Peanut, for example, we begin with a compelling and horrifyingly ambiguous image of a woman who has died from anaphylactic shock: death by peanut.  Her husband is present, with a bloody hand.  The question: did he shove the peanut down her throat, or did he try to prevent her from swallowing it?   The novel goes on to consider the complexities of married life, the emotional weight of a desire for freedom, and along the way, retells one of the famous American uxoricide cases, that of the Sheppard murder made famous in the television series and film The Fugitive.  Thus, the details of the protagonist’s daily life and the “ripped from the headlines,” crime scene evidence of the Sheppard case accumulate, attempting to verify these tales of matrimonial mayhem. It doesn’t take much to see how the status “the real” serves to support “the true,” until the processes of interpretation and abstraction are brought to bear: how do law enforcement officials assess guilt?; to what extent does the desire to kill one’s wife differ from the actual act?; in what ways does the indecipherability of one case reflect on another?  (And just when you think you’ve got a handle on those in this novel, we move on to the next one.)

The class, thus far, has enthusiastically assessed these narrative strands in each text, weighing them against each other in order to argue for the one that seems believable (we also like the word “possible,” along with “plausible”).   We marshal our evidence to make claims about where we stand as readers when we close the covers; we integrate the evidence that others provide to alter our own readings.  What we have yet to be able to do, however, is to consider the ways that the conventions of realism enter into the conversation.  Or to put this another way: it’s all we can do to get a handle on what is “the real story” of the text; identifying the mechanisms that get us there is beyond the pale.  Who designed this class, anyway?

And yet, the question remains.  For all of the retro-postmodern ambiguity these narratives possess, they also rest on a 200 year history (give or take) of a realist tradition: a painstakingly-constructed, historically and culturally situated, ideologically-rife set of conventions that registers to readers as “real.”  Where does our current cultural fascination with reality—our own dissonant belief, for instance, that “reality tv” is both a constructed falsity, and yet somehow also true—stand in relation to that history?

Stay tuned, true believers.  We’ve still got 12 weeks to figure this stuff out.

The Times on “Teaching”

Reading the New York Times Magazine’s College Life issue this morning was nothing if not a reminder that representations of cultures are seldom analogous to the material realities of those who live in them.  I’ve written here before about popular representations of professors (and how those resemble approximately 2% of my colleagues), but the Times today expands its reach to include not just professors, but teaching and writing as well.

It begins with an article titled “Those Who Write, Teach.”  The title suggested to me, as it would to many in the profession (particularly those of us at teaching institutions), the long-standing conversation about the connections between scholarly work and teaching.  In essence, how does your research inform what you do in the classroom, and vice versa?  How might you address the very real difficulties of carving out time to stay current in your field while attending to your students’ learning processes?

Instead, “Those Who Write” is a first person piece by David Gessner, in which he describes the plight of the writer “in captivity”—i.e., trapped by an academic job that slowly sucks the wildness out of him and his writing.  To be fair to Gessner, there’s not a teacher alive who doesn’t fantasize about what she could be doing if she weren’t grading papers, fielding student questions, preparing for class.  But I can’t help getting my feathers ruffled by two things here: first, the ambivalence of the title worries me.  Is it referencing the old inspiring saw “those who CAN, teach,” and thus making writing (here strictly defined as creative writing) the equivalent of ability?  Or is it more insidious, calling to mind instead the insult “those who CAN’T, teach” and thereby insinuating that writing within the confines of the academy eventually leads to a lack of ability?

Second, Gessner’s image of the work of teaching troubles me.  Even as he critiques an earlier era of creative writing pedagogy (“learn by osmosis” from the “great man or woman”), he cites his love for teaching as one that’s grounded in sharing his work, in being a great entertainer, in being surrounded by people committed to writing.  On top of this, the job provides a stable daily structure, a “badge” of legitimacy, and the aggregate of all of this moves toward balancing the ways in which he must trade “reading great literature and communing with writers of the past” for “apprentice writing.”

There’s something crucial that’s missing from Gessner’s description of teaching, and that is arguably it’s most important characteristic: the one where you learn from your students, and learn to teach them to learn.  I’m in deep cliched water here, I have no doubt, but it’s very simply true: there is great joy and daily reward from the surprise of what students see that you’ve missed; in experimenting with various approaches to connect what they already know with what you hope they’ll take away from any given text.

The innate reciprocity of teaching is also missing from the Times’ second article: Virginia Heffernan’s study of professors on YouTube.  I’ll spare you the close textual analysis here, but suffice to say that as she ranks and assesses the available videos, she constructs a very particular equation:  virtuoso teaching=charismatic lecture=box-office gold.  I have no interest in rehashing ye olde lecture vs. seminar debate.  A great lecture is all of the things that Heffernan so closely observes in the videos she cites.  Yet I can’t help but flinch at such a medieval definition of teaching.  A “sage on the stage” is still that, even if the stage has become an international and digital one.  There’s a special irony here too, of using one of the most popular forms of Web 2.0 technology—a designation that highlights the interactivity of the medium—to relay content without reciprocity.

The “college life” issue is one of many recent representations of college life (see Smart People, Elegy, the movie College for god’s sakes).  Any more, and a careful cultural critic might begin to suspect that we’re hell-bent on representing a single professor and his/her well-wraught pedagogical urn in order to distract ourselves from all of the other types of college experiences out there.

Twitter-pated

I know people who simply lurve twitter.  It’s the new cool thing!  It’s a microblog!  Follow your friends!  It’s internet poetry!  I wanted to get it, really, but it wasn’t quite working for me.  What would be the circumstance wherein I’d want to read such short, of the minute posts?  I like the lengthy, meandering blog post, after all.  Preferably with pictures!!

But then (and you knew this was coming, right?), I happened upon Slate’s Olympic coverage via Twitter.  You would think that there’s nothing else to be said about the Olympics right now.  I love me some televised competitive swimming, but this is just getting ridiculous.  The whole world knows Michael Phelps’ torso measurement, as well as what he has for breakfast—because it’s on CNN.  Fashion magazines are covering beach volleyball; Perez Hilton is tracking medals and opening ceremony cover-ups, for crying out loud.  In this climate of neverending sports-cum-nationalism information flow, what kind of coverage could we possibly be missing?

Enter the fabulous one-liner.  A few choice quotes:

Slate’s coverage of Dara Torres informing the judges to wait for the Swedish swimmer to change her torn swimsuit; an event heralded as the apotheosis of sports ethics on NBC, merits this tweet: “Torres pointing out the Swede’s torn swimsuit is the greatest act of Olympic sportsmanship since Lochte gave Phelps half his sandwich.”

On the controversial win for Michael Phelps’, wherein he touched the wall 1/100 of a second before the Serbian swimmer.  Some cry conspiracy, and Slate’s tweet reads: “No conspiracy, Phelps just has the ability to alter space-time. That’s what he’s doing with that dolphin kick.”

Suddenly, Twitter makes perfect sense to me.  It’s the transcendental medium for the one-liner, and I prefer the ones that are sarcastic shots over the bow, capable of puncturing the balloon of teary-eyed national sentiment and/or athletic fetishism.  In feed form, the tweets are reminiscent of those magical conversations with your smartest friends, whose reactions to absurd events reduce you to tears of laughter.

The Twitter folk position their application as one in which users answer the question “What are you doing?”  I can help but wonder whether a better use might be to answer the question “What are you seeing?”

Cho, Round Two

I was delighted to see that Margaret Cho is returning to television with a new show on VH1.  It doesn’t take a deep knowledge of tv history to know about Cho’s first sitcom (and notably, the first Asian American sitcom), All-American Girl and the debacle it became (all of which she chronicles, with a characteristic synthesis of pathos and humor, in I’m the One that I Want).

The LA Times article above features this description of the new show:

“It’s kind of a cross between Madonna’s ‘Truth or Dare,’ ‘Joy Luck Club’ and ‘Little People, Big World,’” she said. In truth, the series follows Cho and her family as they improv their way through scripted situations. During the first episode, Cho tells her parents that a magazine has named her Korean of the Year, and the show follows the family’s trip to San Francisco, where she’ll accept it.

In some ways, the format sounds more like Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm to me.

Cho’s return makes me contemplate the significant changes that television has undergone since All American Girl aired in ’94-’95.  In many ways, the sitcom seems like such a dead and deadening form, while the advent of reality television has pushed audiences and performers alike to explore new ways of including live footage into shows.  Meanwhile, the scrum of channels fighting for niche markets has apparently turned VH1 into the home for nostalgia, forgotten celebrities (hello, two Coreys!), and subcultural icons.  Having said that, I’m surprised that Cho isn’t airing on Bravo—can you imagine a Margaret Cho/Kathy Griffin lineup?  Perhaps an end of the season smackdown?  [Cho has already appeared on an episode of Life on the D List, where she joins Griffin and Cyndi Lauper for the Gay Pride Parade in Australia.  If Cho rates a float there, doesn’t she seem to belong to the Bravo family?]

Regardless, I have high but cautious hopes for the success of Cho’s new show.  In part, it’s personal: I have such a soft spot for her, and am so ready to see Asian Americans on television that aren’t pretending to be from another country (see Lost, Heroes, etc.).  Better yet, I think Cho may have a better chance outside the confines of the sitcom structure (which, I speculate, may have been more of the problem of the show than America’s unwillingness to see Asian Americans on television.  But perhaps I’m too optimistic).

So let’s hear it for the move beyond the sitcom, and look forward to the August 21st airing.  Keep your fingers crossed…

Confronting the Gap

Courtesy of PopCandy this morning comes a link to a short video interview with Ira Glass, host of the transcendent This American Life on NPR.  In it, he talks about initial artistic endeavors, and the “gap” between our excellent taste in a medium and our not-yet-up-to-par ability to create something that satisfies our taste level.  Take a listen:

Now, admittedly, I don’t read many interviews with writers and creative types, so feel free to confront me on my ignorance.  However, this is one of the first times that I’ve seen someone articulate the major impediment to creative work so clearly.  Once Glass has said it, of course, it all seems so clear: we want to make the thing that we love, but we love that thing for its best possible representative pieces, to which our own early attempts bear no resemblance.  This makes me think of the deep pain of learning a musical instrument.  You know, you only want to learn to play the piano because you love Glenn Gould, or Diana Krall, or Chris Martin.  But when you first learn to play, you’re of course butchering “The Entertainer” or some such crap, and you’re nowhere near whipping through Mozart concertos with deep pathos.  And thus, the temptation is to abandon it forever.

Glass does a beautiful job here not only explaining the need to soldier on, but does so with such compassion for the beginner, and a good deal of gentle mocking of his early self.  I love the fact that he pulls out his own early efforts, and is willing to share it.  What’s more convincing than hearing the less-than-perfect early attempts of those who have mastered the medium?

Good on you, Ira.

Fluff on Spoon

When you spend a good couple of hours in the morning searching for fan videos on YouTube, it’s almost unbelievable what you’ll happen upon.  Somehow, this morning, I ended up watching a video of the Keepon rhythmic robot dancing to a song by Spoon.

According to this article on the PBS site (courtesy of Wired Science), the video was a viral YouTube hit in 2007.  So sue me; I’m a year behind.  Regardless, see if you aren’t mesmerized by his little yellow groove.  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself unconsciously imitating his moves, either.

Fantastic, no?  I find that I think I’m done about 30 seconds in, but then I keep coming back to it.  Is it the blank stare?  the mellow, spongy rump-shakin’?  [There’s something in the Keepon’s motions and expression that bear a faint resemblance to audience members at a Phish show.]  Apparently, the little guy was designed to work with autistic kids.  But what about his little, unacknowledged friend, the Peepon?  Oh god do I love a good video response.  Take a look-see for yourself:

Equally as mesmerizing, but somehow also a bit nauseating, no?  All of that gelatinized sugar.  To quote one of the best comments about the video from RustiSwordz, “Its Jabba the Hutt’s funky cousin.”  Hi-Larious.

This is now the second post I’ve written about Peeps in the last two years, and I’m a bit disturbed by that.

Back to work now.  Get out and get your groove on.