Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Are You Being Meta?" A Sketch Toward Community

All I've been watching lately is the two seasons of Community. I love it more than any show I've discovered in a while, and we've been watching it in big batches--all the first season in a weekend, the second as fast as we could while still going to our jobs, and now we're working through it a second time, but just doing a few a night. I hadn't thought to write about it at first. It so compulsively watchable that it seems like a confection. Perfectly delightful, but no real substance. Not that I want to be the one who always explains what things mean (and is wrong about it half the time), but I think there's more to Community than a brilliant series of TV and movie homages. I think that the fairly regular but seemingly glib gestures toward "community," that the crazy study group must somehow become a family, actually indicates the significant substance of the show.

The show obviously appeals to pop culture aficionados. Spotting the references would be an obvious drinking game, and any research into the show would soon lead you to a site like TV Tropes. The existence of such a show proves that we've reached mass teleliteracy, just as technological changes starts to drain television audiences away. But despite episodes that ape My Dinner with Andre, Goodfellas, The Right Stuff, Bass and Rankin Claymation, and many other sources, Community is more than a parade of parodies. Instead, this shared imaginarium is a tool for the focal character, Abed, to understand the world. We, whether we admit it or not, are a lot like Abed. The savvy audience knows, with the characters on the show, that we don't want the telegenic leads Jeff and Britta to be together, because we've see Ross and Rachel and we've seen Sam and Diane. Instead of avoiding the romance, the show seems at war with it. They "hooked up" at the end of the first season, but the show explicitly disfavors this relationship in the first episode of the next season, declaring its attention for more stand alone shows, like Paintball. Abed wants to make life conform to TV. He tells Jeff, on one of his more despicable days,  that "TV makes sense. It has logic, structure, rules. And likable leading men... We have you." It's the inclusion of imperfect matches with its sources that show us that TV can and does help us understand the world. Even as the televisual fires die down, we still gather around them, to listen to stories together, to puzzle out the world together, and to become community.

Shirley, a blessedly non-sophisticated character, at one point asks Abed, with complete sincerity, "Are you being meta?" We get the sense that she only knows the word from having to understand her new friend's odd approach. The answer is always yes, but not only yes. In Community, we're being meta, but we're also being human.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

STL #98: An Assay Into the Nature of the Fantastic

I haven't written an academic article in some time. In fact, I have on occasion wondered if I'll ever write one again. But I've had for some time in my mind a theory that would best be explored in such a setting (if it's not too banal).  My theory is as follows: "Science fiction and fantasy" is an umbrella term that yokes together two large genre groups that are radically different politically. Science fiction is inherently politically progressive while fantasy is by nature reactionary. This theory of mine obviously has two propositions, one about science fiction and one about fantasy, so in actuality would be best explored in two separate articles. I thought I might use this space to start to articulate my thoughts on the fantasy half  of the equation, in recognition of my recent reading.

My current obsession is George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, but I'm not ready to write about Martin's work yet. I tore through Game of Thrones and am a few hundred pages into the second book, A Clash of Kings. Being only 1,000 pages in to the yet-to-be-completed series, I can't actually make a judgement. I have the better part three fat paperbacks yet to read, not to mention a new hardcover of equivalent length and at least one unwritten volume. Among the many virtues I've found so far, though, is the political intrigue of the apparent dissolution of a kingdom. The characters, fantastic yet utterly believable, act as the participants of any court of any era might. The plot and storytelling is handled well in what I've read so far. Martin, a former television story editor, balance many strands and character viewpoints. We see the action from the shifting perspectives of a small number of key characters,  each, in the fashion of the classic screenplay, with desires and obstacles. As a result, he balances a number of character strands.  In Game of Thrones, the endings to these strands were thrilling. Because of the multi-volume format, each ending had to conclude the character's arc and start them out on a new one. Each marked a sudden but suddenly inevitable turn in character development. The first of the four endings was a pleasant surprise, the second a grand gesture. In response to the third, I pumped my fist in the air (an unusual maneuver to make while reading). As I read the fourth and final ending, I had a mild epileptic fit. On finishing the novel, I did a shamanic dance on one foot.

But back to my basic theory, that sf is inherently progressive and fantasy is reactionary. I'll begin by saying that I don't intend any value judgement.  Though in my personal politics I am a progressive and feel stern antipathy to reactionary politics, as a reader I rather prefer the fantasy genre (being quite taken with Martin, for instance. I may be somewhat old-fashioned in the belief that one can separate aesthetic response from political facts (and, for what it's worth, I fancied myself a scholar of Pound's work some years back.) For another disclaimer,  I do not think my theory will describe the whole terrain in absolute terms. Some science fiction writers no doubt have been personally conservative and set out to write pronouncedly conservative books. Robert A. Heinlein comes to mind.  The reverse is no doubt true too. Rather, I mean to argue that each genre has developed a set of qualities that tend toward one political pole or the other. Science fiction is predicated on change: a story is not considered to be science fiction unless its world can be differentiated from our own. Fantasy postulates worlds without change: Elric of Melnibone is the 976th of the name. Change that does occur is either the coming of evil or a reversion to an older order; vide Return of the King.  Science fiction strives to explain change in lifestyle and technological development, sometimes to its detriment. Fantasy is under the obligation to explain nothing, having the option to mystify power into magic. Power is thereby festishized in a familiar fascistic manner. Finally, and I'm on shakier ground here, fantasy may tend to be racially essentialist in a way that sf is not. Alien races if sf can be symbols of humanity manifesting itself in myriad forms. First contact fiction generally ends with new understandings or accommodation of newness. The traditional races in fantasy realms (elves, dwarves, orcs) have essential natures that are less than the (often implicitly white) human race. This last point is problematic, because it compares shoddy examples of one camp with sophisticated examples of the other. One could select examples to make the opposite point.  If I don't think of some structural reason for this difference, I may cut it.

This brings me to the question of texts. In fantasy, I must at least address Tolkein's  foundational text and I will be thinking about this as reading Martin. While something like Norman's Gor series is a sitting target, Tolkein, which can be read as an anti-Nazi book is not a ready candidate for a fascist text, nor is Martin on the surface of it. Reading Martin, I do not feel myself to be in the company of a Tea Party zealot or even necessarily a Republican. (Nor is he patently liberal or progressive.) After finishing Martin, I hope to read further in the field to see if my theory will bear out. Then I'll return to sf, specifically the progressive novels of the 60's and 70's that inspired my theory in the first place.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

STL #97: No Dylanologist I

I feel the need to note another huge gap in posting. Since I've again determined to begin a daily writing habit on my birthday last, I should resume a regular schedule on my lead up to STL #100.

Looking at a few of the many "10 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs" lists that appeared in recognition of the old man's 70th birthday, it is easy to discern the rules that govern them. You need one from early on, during his pure folk-singer incarnation; one from his Born Again or later, wizened minstrel, days; one or two from the decade prior to that (his first inward turn from John Wesley Harding through Blood on the Tracks (technically Street Legal)); and the lion's share from his major creative period from Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, including one that wasn't on an album (but may have shown up later on The Basement Tapes). In the broadest terms, then, you can think of his career in three stages, each stage lasting longer than the last: the folk period, the major period, and the late period. While the arc of his career is fascinating, especially his penchant for recreating himself contrary to his audience's expectations or desires, I don't particularly respond to either his folk days or his long bizarre descent. If his major period was wiped away, I don't think I'd pay much attention at all to the young singer or the older one.

My list, then, is as follows (in chronological order):

1. "Like a Rolling Stone":  I'm not including this because it's his most important song, defining and shaping a generation, but because of its complex structure and richness of meaning. I'm not crazy about his word collage explosions that really came to fore on Bringing It All Back Home. Like so many of those songs, it's hard to say exactly what this means, but that doesn't mean it means nothing. But beyond the words, this song's sound lets us know that it's creating a zeitgeist.
2. "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"- My favorite first line, perhaps of any song ever: "When you're lost in the rain in Juarez and it's Easter-time too." It makes me eager to listen to the song everytime. Who's in Juarez, why are they there? Why is the fact of it being Easter time a complicating factor? The sense of the words evoke both a detailed personal story but also the sweep of a mythic one. The  sound of it alone states that this is a song that will have beautiful language, but the narcotic liquids (ells and arrs)  and long vowels of the first half of line are snapped awake by the sudden tees and short vowels of the second half tell us it won't be an insipid beauty.
3."One of Us Must Know"--I went into Blonde on Blonde for "Stuck Inside of Mobile..." and "Visions" but came out with this song. Dylan has so many songs that it's easy to forget or overlook one that didn't particularly shake things up, like this. I include it on this list as a marker of the provisionality of any list like this. While #1 and #6 will always be on my list, the whole 10 could take many different forms.
4. "Visions of Johanna"-- Maybe the most obscure song lyrically on this list.
5. "Lay Lady Lay"--Maybe the most straightforward song lyrically on this list
6. "Tangled Up In Blue"-- My favorite Dylan song and one of my all time favorites. No Dylanologist I, but there must be a ton of exegesis on this one. Every time I listen to it I hear something a little bit different-I just realized this time how the directions invoked in the go from heading back east to the memory of coming west and then going north and drifting south to New Orleans. Quite honestly, I could compose a top ten only of songs from Blood on the Tracks and Desire. "Idiot Wind," "Shelter From the Storm," "Sara," almost every song on either album. The other one on Blood on the Tracks that really gets me though is
7. "If You See Her Say Hello"-- Pretty much each song is the embodiment of the same open sound, the same lost-love theme, and the same swirling through time.  "Sun down, yellow moon/ I replay the past" might be a simplified statement of the album's theme, and this song has a beautiful and simple arrangement and one of his finest, most emotive vocal performances.
8. "Hurricane"--So the last song, chronologically, is actually the most like his early work. It's nothing if not a protest song. It's the long story of an injustice that ends with a call to action ("This is the story of the Hurricane/It won't be over until they clear his name"--which they did.) Again, I could pick other songs from Desire, but this first song captures the sound of the album and a number of images ("Ruben sits like Buddha in his ten foot cell") remain burned in my brain. Like its predecessor, Desire has a unified sound, but where Blood on the Tracks is like a novel or a set of finely wrought interlocking stories, Desire is an anthology of pulp fiction genre stories: crime, the boxer, the gangster, adventure in a foreign land, romance.

The final two that I am throwing in are songs of BD sung by others:
9. "I Shall Be Released" as performed by The Band.  I can't say definitively that this is his first real gospel song. But listening to it now, it's no surprise that he'd later identify himself as born again.
10. "Si Tu Dois Partir" (aka "If You've Got To Go, Go Now") as performed by Fairport Convention. This is a good one to go out on, methinks, if for now other reason than the simple lyric has been translated to French and the folk rock idiom transposed into a cajun reel. It reminds us that Dylan was a musician, not a poet. One thing he did was write a lot of great rock songs, not all of which changed the world.