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Wednesday Weltanschauung in a Box

What I've Finished Reading

Nature, it seemed, was as huge as Gormenghast

Titus Groan, at long last! I'm going to miss you, you weird stony bramble-garden of a book! Also, props to Baby Titus for developing a personality in the last ten pages or so, even if that personality is just "fussy baby who doesn't want to stand on a raft in the rain." Poor little guy!

Spoilers, sort of: [Time Ruins Everything]the Earl's library has been burned, the Earl and a couple of important officials have disappeared into the woods, and baby Titus has been Earled. The ceremony requires the new Earl to stand on a raft in the middle of a lake, holding a stone and a branch of ivy, but Titus is one year old, so he drops them both in the water, and his ceremonial necklace with them.

Talking about 80s animation last week made me think that Titus Groan could make an excellent animated series. Everyone is already grotesque. The massive Countess and her cats could fill an entire room; the twins could be crooked and crane-like and uncanny -- the architecture already reads as a combination of Dr. Seuss and Disney's Sleeping Beauty. Poor old Nannie Slagg is essentially a literary version of that unbelievably annoying nanny cat in Thundercats (I watched the pilot episode of Thundercats last week; it was disappointing). It's even curiously sexless despite its overbearing carnality? I think some kids would love it. I mean, the lack of a clear hero, and the fact that the manipulative amoral schemer keeps winning, might be a problem for studio execs and parents' groups, but you can't have everything all the time, can you?

What I'm Reading Now

[Watching Television] "Even as it flatters us for our powers of discernment, TV struggles to enforce our constant half-attention by assaulting us relentlessly with violent distractions. . . TV is violent not only in its literal images of carnage and collision, but in its automatic overuse of every possible method of astonishment. Here we might mention the extreme close-ups, high contrasts, flaring colors, rapid cutting, the stark New Wave vistas, simulations of inhuman speed, sudden riots of break dancing. Yet such a catalog of tricks alone would miss the point, because TV's true violence consists not so much in the spectacle's techniques or content, but rather in the very density and speed of TV overall, the very multiplicity and pace of stimuli; for it is by overloading, overdriving both itself and us that TV disables us, making it hard to think about or even feel what TV shows us -- making it hard, perhaps, to think or feel at all."

Well, ok. Watching Television was an interesting read, but I feel about it a little the way Mark Crispin Miller (author of the above) feels about sitcom irony. There's a distancing sameness that covers it like a layer of cling film, and a final impression that very little has been said. Car commercials, children's cartoons, sitcom dads, music videos, and news programs are all, it turns out, magnifying mirrors for Reaganism (a complex phenomenon made up of nostalgic sentimentality, political and economic cynicism, knee-jerk patriotism, and the use of marketable material goods as identity markers). What else are they? We just don't know. Watching Television seems like a good guide to how writers for The Nation felt about being alive in the 80s, but a very incomplete picture of what watching TV might have been like, for Nation writers or anyone else.

Which is all right, I think? I was just expecting something a little more multifaceted.

"Everybody watches [television], but no one really likes it," Miller claims, but I doubt that was any more true (on either side of the comma) in 1987 than it is today. Even I can think of TV from this period that I wouldn't hesitate to say I really like. Columbo and Quantum Leap are both genuinely charming and fun, whatever neoconservative and corporatist subtexts might be lurking. But what Miller means, and what the other authors of Watching Television mean when they say "no one really likes it" isn't quite that no one really likes it. I'm not completely sure what he does mean. Probably that we shouldn't like it, or that we are either ashamed of liking it or not worth considering, or that things with certain qualities (mass appeal or corporate sponsorship or association with novel technologies) are "liked" in a different way, somehow (shallower, more regrettable, more ironic, more numb), than things that no longer have those qualities.

Well, Watching Television was worth reading and it made me think, and it was only a dollar, so I'm calling it a bargain.

Plus, lots of diaries from No Place Like Home. I liked this anecdote from Margaret Dickie Michener (on March 21, 1850):

"Friday afternoon a company of Sons of Temperance cadets from Windsor came down and formed a society of Cadets here.They marched through the village with their regalia on and banners flying. Silas Hibbert was frightened when he saw them and told his mother there was war. I suppose he thought they were soldiers."

I didn't realize the Sons of Temperance were that early! I'd mentally lumped them in with the 1870s temperance scene. Well, shame on them for scaring little boys with their pseudo-soldiery. Margaret Michener is a newlywed and then a very young widow; soon after this incident her diary becomes a record of grief.

Just barely started The Light and the Dark. C. P. Snow's YA-esque televisual style couldn't be more different from Peake's, which is all right -- this will be my crisp and refreshing sorbet of mild interpersonal intrigue in well-lit modern buildings. Roy and Lewis are friends; Roy is some kind of prodigy; Lewis has a wife who is unwell and might not love him. Roy is up for a fellowship, but will a passionate indiscretion in his past prevent his election? Maybe!

What I'm Going to Read Next

When I went to the library, Denis Johnson's new book was in the "New Fiction" section. I thought, "guess I should read that". It's a GIGANTIC PRINT edition that is actually a little hard to read because of how large the print is. I asked at the desk if they had a non-large print edition -- I didn't want to take it away from the large print readers if there was another option -- but they didn't. So, large-print edition of The Laughing Monsters, plus more stuff from my bookshelf.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 20th, 2016 02:10 pm (UTC)
My impression is that until 1998 or so, everyone who wrote about television considered it mental junk food. It's not good for you but you can't stop because it's so addictive. It's not even potato chips, because potato chips are at least delicious, and these writers never seem to see anything good on TV, it's a totally subpar snack food that no one really likes but people keep mindlessly eating anyway because it's there.

I'm not sure if TV got better in the 90s or if writers just became less embarrassed about admitting that they actually enjoyed their favorite shows. Maybe now that writers could start decrying the internet, complaining about television seemed passe.

Or maybe the rampant consumerism and violent distractingness of television has finally numbed us all into loving Big Brother.
Jan. 21st, 2016 04:58 am (UTC)
I get the impression that TV did get a little better in the 90s on the whole, though I have no way of knowing how accurate that is. Maybe American TV got more flexible, in terms of story structures and subject matter, because of the rise of cable?

Maybe now that writers could start decrying the internet, complaining about television seemed passe.

I suspect that is what happens with a lot of novel forms: something else comes along to distract the curmudgeons and the former worst thing ever gets bumped into the "culture" category with all the rest of the ex-death knells of culture as we know it.

Video games came in for a lot of blanket dismissal too until a certain point (probably a little later than TV?) even though there were imaginative, likeable, complex, even thoughtful & melancholy games to be had from at least the mid-late 80s on.

Edited at 2016-01-21 05:20 am (UTC)
Jan. 21st, 2016 01:37 pm (UTC)
I know that the 90s were when complex arc story-telling became popular on television - I think because it became easier for people to catch up on episodes they missed, because they could record TV on their VCRs, whereas before if you missed an episode that was pretty much it, that episode was gone.

I think episodic TV can actually be pretty high quality, but that is perhaps easier for critics to ignore than a show with a complicated story arc, during which characters grow and change. It makes TV more like a novel, and therefore perhaps easier for nostalgic critics to appreciate?
Jan. 21st, 2016 03:42 pm (UTC)
Oh! That makes sense, yes. In my family growing up, we sometimes taped movies directly from the TV but never TV shows -- I never saw a "long-arc" TV plot until much later, probably Battlestar Galactica was the first for me, and that was on DVD in 2008.

(Quantum Leap was extremely episodic, but it also sort of had an arc? Though I didn't see that until 2008, either. It was a big year for me and TV).

Edited at 2016-01-21 03:43 pm (UTC)
Jan. 20th, 2016 02:45 pm (UTC)
Does Miller mean TV is like moving desktop wallpaper, which is why no on likes it/cares? That's one old theory. In the 80's and 90's they were concerned about MTV and everything becoming like MTV and destroying the kids concentration, maybe they should have been locked in a room with 'Dark Shadows' to calm down.

'Titus Groan' for The Jim Henderson Workshop? The massive Countess does sound idea for anime though.
Jan. 21st, 2016 05:13 am (UTC)
Hi, Porco Rosso!

I don't know if moving desktop wallpaper was available as a reference point yet in 1987! It might have been, but I didn't see it until 1992 or 93, in the form of a flying toaster animation. The flying toasters were a huge delight to everyone in my family when we first got the new computer -- we would show them to guests! so. . .I've come off the subject.

The picture of TV throughout this book is a little more active and insidious than desktop wallpaper; it's background noise that also shapes and limits our fantasy life and view of the world, which I don't think anyone ever accused those toasters of doing. (I could be wrong).

Jim Henderson Workshop Titus Groan would be amazing, and animated Titus Groan would be, too. I want them both to exist! In the puppet version, the Countess' perpetual escort of white cats would have to be a whole lot of discrete puppets (or live cats?) but in the animation, they would sometimes appear as an almost liquid living mass, a rippling, yowling feline sea.

Edited at 2016-01-21 05:18 am (UTC)
Jan. 21st, 2016 03:36 pm (UTC)
*waves back* :D

The flying toaster sounds way cooler than the TV!

Explains how Henry Jenkins came up with 'Textual Poachers' in the 90's about fan culture and how watching naff TV wasn't passive and didn't limit people's views. He reckoned women wrote slash (even when George Lucas told them not to) to create a non-sexist world where gender didn't matter, hmm, I have slightly different views on that. My fave fan study though was the one where the researcher got a load of Morse fans drunk on red wine and recorded their views!

The animated cat sea would be amazing, like Nausicaa! Henson would have to use cat puppets. I don't hold high hopes for real cats co-operating with trainers for long...
Jan. 20th, 2016 07:24 pm (UTC)
Even if you got nothing else out of it, I'd have to love "Watching Television" for bringing the phrase "sudden riots of break dancing" into existence.
Jan. 21st, 2016 05:17 am (UTC)
There are a lot of great turns of phrase! It's a great book to curl up with if you feel like being acid and knowing about pop culture for a little while, which maybe we all do sometimes? (I know I do).
Jan. 20th, 2016 08:58 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think someone who writing about TV assuming no one could like it is enough to give you pause about whether or not they should be allowed to write about TV.

(I think also, while TV was considered the most ephemeral medium here - hence all the junking - and always lesser than theatre, I don't think you'd have found that particular attitude, because the BBC had those Reithian values embedded in it - to entertain, educate and inform - and all of it was essential mini-theatre, whereas in the US TV seems to have been pretty commercial and the 'small screen' - i.e. small cinema in the home. So, bashing certain kinds of TV - and *cough* 100% bashing of American TV might happen, I'd be very surprised to find a similar UK comment. Although you never know. Academics are by and large even weirder than the rest of us. And I just wrote most of this comment in parentheses.)
Jan. 21st, 2016 05:35 am (UTC)
That is an interesting point! The essays in this book are entirely about American TV and its relationship to American culture as viewed by American critics through a thick lens of pessimism; you wouldn't necessarily know from reading most of them that any other countries were producing TV at all, with the exception of Japanese car commercials.
Jan. 21st, 2016 09:26 am (UTC)
I once did Media Studies in the mid 90s. I have thoughted about TV, even if you can't tell from my constant lack of brain these days.

(I actually got to make my friends and relations watch Doctor Who and then write an assignment about it. It is still the most fun I ever had in school, college or uni.)

Basically, you TV book sounds as if it inclines to what must surely even then have been the outdated and over-simplistic hypodermic needle audience theory. Media Studies people everywhere would shake their heads, but also they had not (as of the 90s) ever been able to come up with a fully complex and working model of audience theory, other than it's complicated and how you can go some way to demonstrating this by making all your friends and relations watch DW and then answer questions about it.
Jan. 21st, 2016 03:17 pm (UTC)
Media Studies! That doesn't surprise me, given your interests. I wish now that someone had made me watch Doctor Who and answer questions back in the 90s, but there was no one around to do it. (What episodes did you select as representative? Or did they have to choose on their own?)
Jan. 21st, 2016 05:21 pm (UTC)
Oh, it wasn't specifically about watching Doctor Who, I just used a DW story for my final audience project. I chose a Sixth Doctor serial (Vengeance on Varos) that was about video nasties (criticising them, although these days it looks scarily prescient about reality TV) but which fans felt was too violent, so I knew I had a dividing issue to write about. But as I now know, you don't need a dividing issue because audience theory is right about everyone watching things differently and how important context and experience is, and I could have chosen any DW serial I wanted. But still I have a project somewhere full of the answers questions about violence, some general comprehension questions and any other thoughts. Some of them were pretty hilarious. (The best being my sister's friend who, it turned out, thought she was watching Star Trek.)

However, the best bit was that the college bought the DW video and then my teacher let me keep it (which, knowing him, he probably shouldn't have done, but I suspect he felt no one else would ever use it again there) and after writing and discussing DW, my media studies teacher went from 'there are no unique shows' to 'doctor who is a unique show'. I thought he was pulling my leg, but he wasn't.
Jan. 22nd, 2016 05:47 am (UTC)
:D :D :D :D

and after writing and discussing DW, my media studies teacher went from 'there are no unique shows' to 'doctor who is a unique show'. I thought he was pulling my leg, but he wasn't.

:D :D :D :D

( 15 comments — Leave a comment )


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