Thursday, January 21, 2010


I got an email his morning that began "Just a quick reminder..." about a report that I was supposed to have submitted last week. I get a lot of emails like this, and I send a lot of them too, usually in the summer to people on my softball team - "Just wanted to remind you that I haven't been paid for registration..." - or during the rest of the year to my students - "Just wanted to let you know that there was no document attached to your email..."

There's something very passive-aggressive about the "just". Ostensibly, it's supposed to indicate that you're not angry or annoyed - the email is "just" about this or that, even if the reader might have immediately assumed otherwise. But it's never "just" about the topic and the fact that the sender has to deny being annoyed right off the bat is usually a good indication s/he is, in fact, even more annoyed than you initially thought.

The only worse and even more passive-aggressive opening to this kind of email? "Just a friendly reminder..."

Sunday, January 10, 2010

...of the decade

On any given day, I'm sure that at least half of these would still appear on each 'favorite' list. So this is hardly definitive, but I'm kind of wishy-washy that way.

I'm also not offering any rationale - lists like these seem self-indulgent enough already. So just imagine that I've written 'because i say so!' beside each one.

'My Girls' - Animal Collective (2009)
'Golden Age' - TV On The Radio (2008)
'I'm Not Going To Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You' - Black Kids (2007)
'Lovestoned/I Think That She Knows' - Justin Timberlake (2006)
'John Wayne Gacy, Jr.' - Sufjan Stevens (2005)
'What You Waiting For?' - Gwen Stefani (2004)
'Lover's Spit' (Bee Hives version) - Broken Social Scene (2004)
'Take Me Out' - Franz Ferdinand (2004)
'Danger! High Voltage' - Electric Six (2003)
'Maps' - The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (2003)
'B.O.B' - OutKast (2000)

Sound of Silver - LCD Soundsystem (2008)
In Rainbows - Radiohead (2007)
Silent Shout - The Knife (2006)
Supernature - Goldfrapp (2005)
Let It Die - Feist (2004)
Thunder, Lightning, Strike - The Go! Team (2004)
The Slow Wonder - A.C. Newman (2004)
Funeral - Arcade Fire (2004)
Your Blues - Destroyer (2004)
Is This It - The Strokes (2001)

Wall-E (2008)
The Wrestler (2008)
Children of Men (2006)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Lost in Translation (2003)
Adaptation (2002)
Ocean trilogy (2001-07)
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
High Fidelity (2001)
Almost Famous (2001)

I would do TV, too, but I think I would end up listing at least 6 or 7 shows that end up on every other list I've seen. (Lost, Mad Men, even Survivor...)

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Last post on Avatar (maybe?)

Saw this on Facebook - it's pretty damn funny, so I'll let it speak for itself.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Ke$ha and white trash aesthetic

I don't have cable TV, so I was late to the game in being exposed to Ke$ha, the latest pop-tart-of-the-moment. (I'm sure that some would be tempted to give this title to Lady Gaga, but I have a feeling that Gaga's career will actually have some longevity and/or artistic relevance.) She's notable, thus far, for two things: providing the female vocals to Flo Rida's embarrassingly awful "Right Round" and her own painfully annoying debut single, "TiK ToK". Which you can see right here:

So when I saw this, my immediate reaction was that someone - or some company- has discovered that a white trash aesthetic is commercially viable. (I didn't realize that there's a 'white-girl rap' scene, which I suspect plays up this look.) And so the video struck me as hugely exploitative - some label found a trashy girl with whiny vocals and is mocking her while appearing to celebrate her. (As opposed to, say, Britney or LiLo, whose trashiness the label tried to hide.)

And then I looked Ke$ha up on Wikipedia and visited her website. She calls her style "garbage chic" and explains that the dollar sign in her name is ironic, and describes the album to Maxim as "a cross between Beastie Boys and a tranny with a hangover". (What that actually means, I'm not sure.) And the website with all the howling wolves and web 1.0 design quirks? That simultaneous celebration/revulsion for white trash culture is pretty much the calling card of more-clever-than-thou hipster humor. So it's not some evil corporation that's (wholly) appropriating the white trash aesthetic - it's Ke$ha herself.

A slightly related note: When I first started reading the sociocultural lit on white trash, I picked up the rather obviously titled White Trash. One of the rather interesting things that emerged from it was that none of the authors actually laid claim to the identification, nor did they really comment on their personal aversion to the topic - most of them said that they either were white trash or feared being white trash, but all of them distanced themselves from it to a large extent. (One article seems to be an exception, in which the author lauds country music, but it's also an exception in that she's possibly the only author in the collection that doesn't feel/fear that she was white trash.) It led me to remark to some friends, in a play on subaltern politics, that 'white trash can't speak' - that only reformed white trash can speak of white trash in an academically meaningful sense. Even in pop music, it seems, it can only be ironic.

Friday, January 01, 2010

More on Avatar

  1. I found myself thinking at one point that the make-up was fantastic. It takes some pretty impressive effects work to make you forget that it's computer-generated.
  2. I hated the story, for so many reasons. It's incredibly generic, as far as the mechanical details are concerned. There's the grizzled war-veteran lead-baddie, who is obsessed with killing stuff for no clear reason; the amoral CEO who explicitly notes that he's answerable to the shareholders, not his conscience; the angry young prince who needs to learn that his rage will destroy him; the romantic interest who is at one with nature and must nurture the lead; the main character who is damaged and needs someone to help him put it all back together, but has to find that help in the wrong places before finding it in the right one. And the actors are serviceable - Col. Quaritch is fantastically camp as the villain, though I'm not sure that this should qualify as a 'good' thing, necessarily.
  3. The two most popular ways to interpret the film are as environmentalist fable (this seems to be how Cameron is pushing it and what most mainstream critics privilege) or a neocolonial narrative, those who seize on the former often doing so to the exclusion, implicitly or explicitly, of the latter. But it's not necessary to separate them out like this - ostensibly primitive people have always been associated with nature and their comparative lack of technology with environmentalism, even if the associations don't hold upon closer examination. But the point is that the two themes have been so entirely conflated that one always implies the other.
  4. The fact that whole groups of people can be given a symbolic weight that doesn't necessarily coincide with their lived reality is not a new argument, but it's one worth reiterating here. Jan Pieterse's collection of European images of black people over the past 500+ years is particularly good at illustrating how the representation of alien people says more about "us" than it does about "them". He traces how representational strategies of Africa, to focus on a tiny section of the larger book, change dramatically to reflect tensions at home - the 'noble savage' was popular among reformists who wanted to critique their peers indirectly, while the ignoble or devilish savage gained currency in advance of and during periods of imperial expansion. But accurate or not, those representations are read as truthful in some sense, and romanticizing the noble savage is just as problematic as demonizing them.
  5. Which strikes some people as counter-intuitive, I know. The 'good' stereotype is preferable to the 'bad' one, right? Not so much. Among people who think they know better, the bad stereotype at least has the advantage of being obviously false. But the romantic noble savage, of which the Na'vi in Avatar are a perfect example, is not so obviously fake. Worse, in reality the people who are idealized as noble savages tend to be punished for failing to live up to these impossible expectations. Again, Pieterse notes how the transformation in representations of Africa was also due to the disappointment of the Europeans who failed to find the characters they expected, and so came to assume that the people they did encounter had fallen from a prior grace like Biblical devils.
  6. I should also add how annoying it is that these native vs. conqueror stories always feature a parallel romantic story. It ends up making it unclear whether the hero has actually came to sympathize/empathize with the natives or whether that's only a secondary result of having fallen in love with the female lead. And it only contributes to the whole romanticization/exoticization of the natives on the whole - they would be less sympathetic if they weren't also worth lusting after. (And this is another way to think about how their depiction reflects us rather than some other, how they exist for us as viewers looking to be entertained rather than for oppressed peoples striving for liberation.)
  7. On Facebook, someone asked me whether the native vs. conqueror narrative could have a happy ending and not be problematic. I suspect that it can, though nothing that I've seen comes to mind. A poetry professor during my undergrad once said that he hated how the Toronto Transit Commission placed poems on the subway, suggesting that they weren't invitations to read poetry but, rather, were inoculations against poetry. I have the same feeling about the happy ending in these sorts of movies. Rather than motivate people to action, they console us - rather than encouraging white people to confront their guilt, they forgive it. Avatar is especially egregious insofar as it goes a step further and tries to erase race altogether - unlike the male leads in Pocahontas or The Last Samurai, Jake is literally transformed into one of Na'vi. Similarly, while the return of the Europeans and the industrialization of Japan hang over the endings of those other films like a dark cloud, there's no suggestion that the humans will come back with more soldiers and bigger guns to start what they've finished. Because massive corporations are known for having a conscience, no doubt, and people who fancy themselves civilized have always backed down when the indigenous populationthreatens to revolt. Right. You have a problem when even Pocahontas could be said to be more politically progressive.