Downton Abbey’s unfulfilled potential

I gave up on Downton Abbey after two episodes this season: it was contrived and ludicrous, and when it wasn’t being silly, it was boring. And that’s coming from someone who has read more contrived and silly nineteenth-century novels than I can count.

But the other problem with Downton, a problem it’s had since the end of the first season, is that all of that fascinating revolutionary potential disappeared completely with the start of WWI. It was a very British sort of development–the Great War brings everyone together in British solidarity. I might even have bought that, if it hadn’t been quite so permanent. All the restlessness and class solidarity that seemed to be emerging downstairs in season one evaporated, never to return.

Over at the New Republic, Lili Loofbourow examines the ways the third season of Downton ran off the rails:

It lacks [Upstairs Downstairs’s] darkness, and if once upon a time Julian Fellowes’s decision to humanize the downstairs help seemed aimed at making viewers question an aristocratic institution, the show is now fully committed to making us root for Downton. Any notion that the estate is not a benevolent employer gainfully supporting hundreds of people—and an overall social good, if badly managed—is only acknowledged in passing. Back in the first season, Gwen the maid’s departure to be a typist seemed to herald broader horizons for the staff in a changing world. Gwen’s life was hard. We saw her getting up in the cold and struggling; life downstairs was unpleasant. That’s no longer the case. We don’t see the servants rising in the dark, or cleaning, or scrubbing. Instead, they’re waiting at table and doing ladies’ hair and eating together and having tea. Even their rooms seem less drab. When it comes to preserving Downton and the social order it represents, the servants and the family are literally on the same cricket team.

I might be able to forgive the politics and the melodrama if only it was fun melodrama. But I reached my limit for moping Bates and Matthew’s inexhaustible inheritance luck. And, though I haven’t seen the finale, I understand that likeable Irish revolutionary and former chauffeur Branson is now on his way to becoming a respectable capitalist. I give up.

More on Chinese SF

Science Fiction Studies has a special issue on Chinese science fiction, with several articles available online. In “‘Great Wall Planet’: Introducting Chinese Science Fiction,” Yan Wu expands on some of the issues raised in this Global Times article:

What makes Chinese sf unique? In the wake of these historical frustrations and reforms, it is becoming possible to identify some of the features that are unique to Chinese science fiction. In my judgment, its most significant characteristic is the frequent exploration of themes of liberation and release from old cultural, political, and institutional systems. Another significant element is to be found in the reactions of Chinese writers to Western science and culture in their pursuit of themes of liberation. This raises a series of key questions: what is science? is science specifically Western or is it a universal human pursuit? how can writers integrate scientific and local cultural traditions into new and vital forms? These are compelling questions for Chinese authors—and for Chinese readers as well. A third key element in Chinese sf is its concern for the future of China and of Chinese culture, which is among the oldest surviving human cultures. Can it be revived in the postmodern scientific age? Finally, we might argue that, whereas Western sf is focused on the opportunities and losses of technoscientific development, Chinese sf, although it examines similar ideas, is more focused on anxieties about cultural decline and the potential for revitalization.

Emotional labor and the future of the service industry

The New Republic has an absolutely fascinating article on the sandwich shop Pret a Manger and the increasing importance of “emotional” or “affective labor.” Convincing customers you care deeply for them may be, it seems, the future of the service industry.

Pret keeps its sales clerks in a state of enforced rapture through policies vaguely reminiscent of the old East German Stasi. A “mystery shopper” visits every Pret outlet once a week. If the employee who rings up the sale is appropriately ebullient, then everyone in the shop gets a bonus. If not, nobody does. This system turns peers into enthusiasm cops, further constricting any space for a reserved and private self.


MOOCs and the humanities

Maria Bustillos at the Awl has written a sort of primer on the MOOC debate for those outside of academia. I have to admit to being continually stunned that people–lots of people–seem to think MOOCs are anything other than a money-grabbing gimmick by people trying to get a piece of the ever-shrinking higher ed pie. Bustillos’s piece is worth reading in its entirety, so I won’t quote from it, but I do want to note that the case she lays out, and that the commenters further explore, seems to be resting on a couple of incompletely-examined assumptions.

The first is the equivocation between humanities and STEM instruction, which is to say, an equivocation between content and skills as the primary deliverables of a course. I’m certain there are a lot of good reasons that MOOCs are insufficient for science and math courses–primarily the absence of labs in which to put concepts into practice. But the fact remains that STEM courses, particularly entry-level courses, are in the content business, since students require a certain baseline of knowledge before they can move on.

I can teach wildly different content in my intro-level English class each semester, and students should still leave with the same set of skills. Skills they develop because I respond to their writing several times a week, help them strengthen their arguments over the course of multiple revisions, and engage with them and each other during discussion. We might not need to be sharing the same physical space to do all that, but it’s absolutely essential that my class be the opposite of “massive” so that I can provide the sort of attention necessary for students to make real gains in thinking and writing.

Which leads to the second problematic assumption of the piece–that humanities courses are largely useless because they don’t credential for specific, desirable jobs. The personalized attention my students receive, then, is a luxury having nothing to do with the necessary process of credentialing oneself for the marketplace. And I can see how someone could get to that assumptions, because a MOOC in which a student simply absorbed information about nineteenth-century American literature and culture probably wouldn’t be of much use on the job market. It would be all content, and that’s not content employers are all that eager to have access to.

I’m not going to get into the value of literary study from a content perspective, though there’s certainly an argument to be made. But what I teach are skills. Valuable skills that prepare students for higher-level thinking, difficult writing tasks, and the ability to consider and respond to a variety of positions. The humanities teaches the sort of skills that employers consistently rank high in their list of desirable traits. We in the humanities need to be more forceful about reminding people of that. And that’s why MOOCs are so dangerous for the humanities in particular: they imply that the important part of an education is content, and that the content delivered in the humanities is trivial.

MOOCs may not be going anywhere, but the humanities should not just make the most of what little MOOCs offer us. We should be looking for alternatives that democratize access to education while emphasizing the essential and tangible skills a humanities education provides.

Dean Young, “Poem Without Forgiveness”

Go read Dean Young’s “Poem Without Forgiveness” in the Paris Review. A few lines:

The husband wants to be taken back
into the family after behaving terribly,
but nothing can be taken back,
not the leaves by the trees, the rain
by the clouds. You want to take back
the ugly thing you said, but some shrapnel
remains in the wound, some mud.

Spambots are getting smarter (or at least better)

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Above is a screenshot of one of the comments in my spam filter (click to embiggen). Sometimes real comments get lodged there, so I check periodically to make sure nothing needs rescuing, and initially, that seemed to be what had happened here. Citing Wayne Booth is usually pretty convincing evidence that you’re a real person.

A second look, though, draws attention to the link that redirects to some sort shady online “nutrition supplement” operation. Clearly, the spambot culled a few sentences about unreliable narrators from Google Books or an academic website. Still, the precision of that targeting is a bit eerie. If the spambots read enough narrative theory, will they become self-aware?

More on “Girls” and race

Judy Berman at The Atlantic argues that Girls’ race problem is both currently insoluble and indicative of a much larger systemic issue:

The solution isn’t to prohibit white writers from depicting non-white characters, or to require them to do so. Along with holding these famous names accountable for offensive representations, the US cultural mainstream desperately needs to make more space for writers and directors of color. Arguably more troubling than any of Django’s content is the convincing case David Sirota made that a black director would not even have been allowed to make a big-budget film about a former slave slaughtering slave owners.

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently argued that Dunham would be better off sticking to her “authentic self” than adding non-white characters that aren’t true to her life. He may be right, and in a world where the wealthy, white, well-connected Lena Dunhams always seem to end up in the spotlight, those who aren’t part of her elite world shouldn’t have to rely on her for representation. They need the same platform to be their authentic selves that she’s been afforded. Until the divisions between races in America truly become meaningless, it’s the only way our pop culture will ever reflect our particular patchwork of people and experiences.

Berman’s point is particularly important because it applies to many of our national conversations about race. While it’s much easier to treat racism as an issue addressed in individual situations, governed by the particulars of any given scenario, problems of racial representation and misrepresentation are nearly always related to the broader systemic and institutional forces governing race in America. And questions of privilege and access are ultimately much more significant than individual instances like Dunham, but those conversations don’t make for the sort of easily debated controversy that comes from focusing Dunham in isolation from the system that enabled her limited viewpoint.

Cornel West on Dr. King’s legacy and the Obama inauguration

Cornel West gives a moving, impassioned defense of Dr. King’s legacy as much bigger than the political theater of the inauguration. He notes that Dr. King worked tirelessly for the poor and for an end to the Vietnam War, not just for desegregation. Today, when America still has a great and growing wealth gap, and when American drones are dropping bombs on civilians, West reminds us that Dr. King would likely still be speaking truth to power if he could. And, while West supports President Obama and is happy to see him inaugurated for a second time, he questions whether the use of Dr. King’s Bible is truly in keeping with the values King himself worked so tirelessly for.

Giving Big Boi (and genre) his due

Brian Gresko over at The Atlantic has a nice look at Big Boi and André 3000 six years after Idlewild, OutKast’s last album. Like most of us, Gresko expected André, source of OutKast’s most innovative and eccentric stylistic and musical experiments, to be the one to blow us away with his solo career. Instead, André has spent his time acting and working in fashion, while Big Boi has released several solid solo albums. Gresko notes, too, that in retrospect, Big Boi brought more to the OutKast partnership than critics initially recognized:

I had assumed that André, a multi-instrumentalist, piloted OutKast not just lyrically but also in sound, on tracks that married disparate styles (funk, gospel, drum and bass, rock) to dirty beats studded with keyboards. Yet in 2003, when the duo released two solo albums under the OutKast name—Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx and André 3000’s The Love Below—this turned out to not be the case. André’s album ranged far and wide musically, for sure. A chameleon, he changed appearance from song to song, leaving the restraints of hip-hop behind in favor of jazz and funk, crooning far more than he rapped. Though, as the title suggests, André unified The Love Below around lust and romance, his peripatetic approach made for a sprawling, disjointed mess of an album. Aside from the infectious “Hey Ya!” and a handful of other tracks—”Spread,” “Roses”—the songs were forgettable, overly long, and sometimes even corny.

Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx sounded more like an OutKast album, if one a bit heavier on the gospel and soul samples. The first single, “The Way You Move,” was almost as big a hit as “Hey Ya!” though being a hip-hop track, it lacked the ubiquity of Dre’s three-minute masterpiece. Over the years, I’ve often returned to Speakerboxxx, while The Love Below, which on its release captivated many critics with its bold vision of a post-genre pop future, I rarely revisit.

I have to admit to gravitating toward Speakerboxxx even when it first came out, and feeling a bit like a philistine because the critical attention was all on André and The Love Below. But then, I grew up in Atlanta and will always have a special place in my heart for southern hip hop. Big Boi’s tracks serve as a sort of musical comfort food in a way that André’s don’t.

Gresko connects Big Boi’s post-OutKast success to the shifting status of genre in our critical assessment of pop culture:

With these albums, Big Boi has come out from André’s shadow, not by doing anything different, but by doing what he does really well. The film critic Manny Farber’s essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” comes to mind, as André and Big Boi seem to epitomize these two styles of art. White Elephant Art is big, made up of grandiose gestures, meant to be taken by others as a masterwork. Think of the self-important Hollywood blockbusters on serious topics (Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan or Lincoln), or the fat tomes of “literary” novels that deal with heavy issues (Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom)—works that, no matter how well done, become “a yawning production of overripe technique shrieking with preciosity, fame, ambition,” and collapse under their own weight—just like André’s The Love Below

In recent years, termite artists have garnered greater attention and acclaim. Genre has stopped being a bad word, as we’ve recognized that not only is there nothing wrong with entertainment, but that these works of art can tell us important things about ourselves, our culture, and our world without being self-conscious about doing so. Critically acclaimed filmmakers helm James Bond flicks—most recently Sam Mendes on Skyfall—or take on superhero films, like Chris Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies. In the writing world, the master of horror, Stephen King, received the Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters from the National Book Foundation, and now lands short stories in the literary-minded New Yorker. So, too, has Big Boi risen in estimation. He is now recognized as a dexterous, clever rapper who distills a wide array of musical styles into catchy dance tunes and hip-hop anthems. His reputation has caught up with André’s.

I think there’s also something to be said about the relationship of New Yorker-type critics to hip hop–the assumption that Big Boi is clearly lagging behind André in the reputation department implies a fairly limited engagement with the broader field of hip hop. The critical realization that genre works can be interesting, transformative, and culturally important seems a bit slow on the uptake, but at least we’re finally getting somewhere.

I’ve got Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city on repeat right now (I nearly always binge on new things–I’ve been accused of having the media-consumption habits of an 8-year-old), but I think I’ll add Big Boi’s Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors to the rotation.

Narrative and fragmentation, part 2

More from the Times on the significance of narrative. Unlike Steve Almond’s grandiose account, Alissa Quart’s analysis of cable dramas emphasizes the individual, escapist benefits of narrative:

By pulling us away from Twitter, texts, e-mails, pointless videos and all the other technological distractions demanding attention, “Homeland,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” provide a coherent (albeit sometimes disturbing) refuge from our fragmented lives. I, for one, find a sense of narrative order, however fleeting, from these shows…

For many among today’s intelligentsia, television serials like “Homeland,” “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” with their continuing fables of Alicia Florrick and Walter White, Don Draper and Carrie Mathison, occupy the cultural position of the Dickens tales that were famously doled out in monthly installments. (Except that spoilers are possible now in a way they were not in the age of Pip or Little Nell.) Narrative shows have become the entertainment of choice. And that’s because stories, not algorithms, give order to our hectic world.

In Quart’s account, narrative is pleasurable, rather than moral. Unfortunately, that description of the pleasures of narrative is accompanied by an elitism that makes it tough to take what’s she’s saying seriously. “Today’s intelligentsia” may find a comforting pleasure in narrative, but so, too, does everybody else. That’s why narrative is so powerful: because it provides comfort and entertainment to nearly everybody. To treat the cultural power of narrative as a function of intelligence or education is to misunderstand much of narrative’s attraction.