In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

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  9. How Structuralist Is Your Fantasy Life?

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Saturday, January 17, 2004

Dear Friedrich -- * Sean Hackbarth's reaction to the plan for a WTC memorial couldn't be briefer or more to the point, here. * SYAffolee (here) pointed this out: a be-Flash'd essay/demo about fashion photography by Karen Lehrman for Slate, here. I think I like the form Lehrman's piece takes better than her fuddy-duddyish points. It's certainly a promising way of discussing the visual world. Brian Micklethwait comments here. * The filmmaker Robert Benton tells the Telegraph why he likes Sam Peckinpah's "Ride the High Country," here. * Despite having visited Canada many times, I've never been able to puzzle out Canadian politics. Colby Cosh's posting here got me started. * I forget who pointed out this charmingly bizarre Japanese Flash whatjamajig, here. Thanks! * I've been remiss in not highlighting, here, where Franklin Einspruch discusses art in an informed and up-to-the-minute way, and where he shows off his own classy paintings. A few are fresh out of the oven today. * The times are certainly changing. Here's a USA Today editorial by Yale's Sally Shaywitz arguing that schools, especially grammar schools, may be biased against boys. * James Russell has some tough talk for Britney Spears, here. * Fun with IMDB: Joe ("Basic Instinct") Eszterhas has earned $20 million from his sold-but-as-yet-unproduced screenplays alone, here. Scroll about halfway down and find out how much he's made from the produced scripts. * Greg Ransom figures out his family's share of the national debt, here, and points out that, according to the WSJournal, "Republicans had a 28-point lead over Democrats as party best able to 'control government spending' in 1996. Now, their lead is just 2 points." * Tim Hulsey loves George Axelrod's flakily brilliant SoCal comedy "Lord Love a Duck," here. The Wife is a SoCal native, and it's one of her favorite movies too. * Our Girl in Chicago and Terry Teachout are comparing notes about movies and words, as well as movies about words, here and here. * I followed up on a referral and discovered this good Bill Brown posting about dads, parents, daughters, clothing styles and sexiness, here. * People who are fond of Arts and Crafts, bungalow-style houses should enjoy the well-done magazine American Bungalow, whose website (here) is a generous one. * Can writing be taught? Alan Sullivan has some sensible thoughts, here. "Few adults need to write creatively; but many need to write competently," he points out. * I enjoyed browsing through this comics encyclopedia, here. What a resource: 4500 artists from many different countries, with biographies and art samples. * John Derbyshire thinks that too much has been made of Lenny Bruce, here. Fab passage: "Bruce was one of those annoying people who do not see the point of the kind of mild, harmless hypocrisy that allows us to get through life without having to think about unpleasant things too much." * Evo-bio types won't want to miss Godless Capitalist's essential reading list, here. Oops: I've got some catching up to... posted by Michael at January 17, 2004 | perma-link | (7) comments

Friday, January 16, 2004

Person A and Person B
Dear Friedrich -- A question for you (as well as anyone else who's moved to pitch in here, of course): Imagine Person A and Person B. Person A goes to a Black Sabbath concert and reports afterwards that he had a "great" experience. (Is Black Sabbath still in existence, by the way?) Person B goes to a concert of Pollini playing Chopin (I don't much about classical music, but I do know that Pollini does Chopin well) and comes back afterwards to report that he too had a "great" experience. Knowing nothing else about these two people, would you feel capable of saying that one of them had a "greater" experience than the other? I guess what the puzzle boils down to is: let's suppose we can agree that the music of Pollini/Chopin is greater than the music/theater of Black Sabbath. Even so, does it automatically follow that Person B's experience was therefore greater than Person A's? I'm prone to say "No," and mostly because I'm prone to taking people at their word. (Seems like a basic gesture of respect to do so.) Since there's no better authority on the subject of Person A's experience than Person A himself, I accept his description of his experience. Likewise where Person B is concerned. But other questions do claw at my brain a bit. I tend, for example, to feel that my own involvement in culture has made me a deeper person, and I often (not always) find that "greater" art moves me (reaches me, excites me, whatever) more "deeply" than less-great art. So I'm prone to think that Cultured-Me's "great" experiences are more substantial than the "great" experiences that Uncultured-Me had, say, 35 years ago. But that's not comparing two different people, that's comparing two different Me's. And, not to get too caught up in fancypants po-mo-ism, let's face it: people experience the same thing in many different ways. I've attended many plays, movies and concerts that I were thought were godawful, even while the people around me were obviously having a "great" experience. I couldn't question the fact: there they were, being deeply moved. And I've been to art-things that have deeply moved (and/or excited) me, but which other people in attendance were bored or at least untouched by. My excitement was genuine, but so was their boredom. And, despite my (perhaps self-deluded) conviction that I'm a deeper person today than I once was thanks in part to my decades of cultural adventures, do I really feel that I can say that I'm a deeper person than the kids I grew up with who didn't leave town, who didn't devote themselves to the arts, and who still, as middle-aged creatures, have smalltown tastes? No, I don't think I'd care to say that. I like and respect many of my hometown buddies too much, for one thing. For another, they've had their own lives, at least as rich as mine, and if they tell me they had a "great" experience at,... posted by Michael at January 16, 2004 | perma-link | (30) comments

Exploitation Movies
Dear Friedrich -- For some reason I'm feeling moved to make an obvious point. I'm hoping it's one of those so-obvious-it-gets-overlooked points that needs occasional restating, but I may be wrong. Nonetheless ... The subject of my point is "exploitation movies." Movie history 101: there used to be something called "the exploitation movie." What distinguished exploitation movies from the usual fare was that exploitation movies were made (often by indie hustlers) with a carny's shrewd nose for a fast buck. What this usually meant was that the movie's angle (its "hook") and its marketing campaign were paramount; they were, in fact, often come up with first, with the movie itself being made as an afterthought. Here's the definition of "exploitation films" from Ephraim Katz's beyond-first-class Film Encyclopedia (buyable here): Films made with little or no attention to quality or artistic merit but with an eye to a quick profit, usually via high-pressure sales and promotion techniques emphasizing some sensational aspect of the product. Whatever the virtues of some of these movies (and some did have virtues), there's been a huge shift in the culture. These days, many if not most mainstream movies are conceived of in the "exploitation movie" way. It's become such a commonplace way of going about things that it can seem almost inconceivable that "smart" people ever behaved otherwise. But they did. A few ramblings: This reminds me of pop music. Not so many decades ago, pop music (not as in "popular music" but as in "music for teens") was an irreverent alternative to adult music, which was the dominant, mainstream thing. These days, pop music is just about all-devouring. In a world where exploitation and pop are the mainstream, what becomes of adult fare? Doesn't it seem that the old hustling-carny zing is absent from nearly all of the new, conglomerate-driven, exploitation-style movies? (The one exception I can come up with offhand is "The Fast and the Furious," which I loved. But there must be others, no?) They seem to me too respectable, and probably too expensive. You can sense the respectable mainstream committee meetings behind them, and you can feel the respectable mainstream careers hanging in the balance. Anxiety of that straightfaced kind doesn't often seem to result in the kind of cheap thrills and tawdry pleasures that old-style exploitation movies sometimes delivered. In a world where exploitation fare has become the mainstream, what becomes of youthful eroticism and irreverence? After all, the mainstream itself now consists of a churning mass of shrewdly-calculated appeals to youthful lustiness and irreverence. So where does the real youthful energy go? (My own suspicion? That it's turned into exhaustion and impotence, which together have become the new taboo: "I just don't feel like taking part." What could be more verboten than admitting that you just don't feel dynamic today, thank you very much? More on that hunch in some other posting, or so I hope.) A cultureworld gone topsy-turvy-mad, in other words. At least from this adult's point of... posted by Michael at January 16, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Elvgren--Ahead of His Time?
Michael: As you know, Gil Elvgren is today considered primarily as a notable figure among American pin-up artists of the 1940s and 1950s. However, recent shocking developments suggest that his importance to 20th century art far transcends the narrow genre of the pin-up. The recent discovery of a number of his paintings from a brief early foray into fine art has deeply unsettled the theories of art historians who have been allowed to view his revolutionary work. For example, Glenn D. Lowry, director of the New York Museum of Modern Art remarked after visiting the Elvgren paintings: “Holy s**t!” Jeremy Strick of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art could only manage: “Heavy, dude.” A few of these blockbuster images are being reproduced for the first time publicly on this blog. By the late 1930s, Elvgren (1914-1980) had established a budding career as an illustrator and calendar artist. However, it appears that his artistic ambitions weren’t satisfied by this type of work, and, in a dramatic move he gave up illustration for six months at the height of the Depression and focused on easel paintings. Apparently he first decided to come to grips with the advanced art of the 20th century, and painted works in the style of a variety of artists, including Braque and Kandinsky. G. Elvgren, Hommages to Braque and Kandinsky, 1938 However, he soon left such derivative works behind and struck out boldly in the direction he felt sure that art would (eventually) evolve. Skipping past such landmark styles as Abstract Expressionism, Elvgren landed, astonishingly, on styles that anticipate such later masters as Frank Stella and Gerhardt Richter. G. Elvgren, Untitled #23 and #64, 1938 Apparently he even abandoned painting altogether near the end of this sabbatical, noting in his journal that: Painting is Eurocentric and foregrounds the masculine cult of genius. Moreover, the celebrity of artists like Picasso and the high prices paid for certain works of art suggest that art is becoming nothing more than a commodity. I predict that someday a literary theorist named Roland Barthes will declare the “death of the author” and will emphasize that the reader, not the author, creates meaning. Likewise, the only way forward that I can see for the visual arts will be to turn to modes of expression that will be more ephemeral and conceptual. How far this visionary genius might have advanced the visual arts is, regrettably, unknown. A heavy snowstorm in 1938 caused the roof of his attic studio to collapse, giving him a severe concussion. When he was released from the hospital, he immediately returned to pin-up illustration and refused to have anything to do with fine art for the remainder of his life, except to occasionally paint portraits of motorboats for his drinking buddies. He apparently destroyed most of his paintings from 1938, but fortunately overlooked several that he had stored in the basement of a neighbor (whose recent death put them on the market.) How could a young pin-up artist and illustrator have... posted by Friedrich at January 15, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Bookpeople Moviepeople Redux
Dear Friedrich -- It's been fun to see the comments pile up on my posting about the differences between the way moviepeople and bookpeople see things (here). Many fab observations, lots of fun admissions of book pleasure, tons of provocative book suggestions, scads of well-made points, and pleasingly little prissiness. Since what I was complaining about in my posting was the prissiness of the bookpeople view, I couldn't be more pleased: hey, a rowdy, enthusiastic, open-minded conversation about books -- cool! Something you'll run into at 2Blowhards, by the way, but won't often find if your idea of the books life comes from following, say, The New York Times Book Review Section. Which was kinda my point: why aren't more bookchat sessions like this? Being co-proprietor of this blog, I can't resist treating myself to a return to the topic, as well as to an epic wallow in navel-gazing. Be warned. First: the question of qualifications. I notice that some commenters seemed to think that I wrote my posting out of ignorance, whether of the academic or of the professional sort. It's funny, as you and I have often noted, the way some people seem to believe that if they disagree with you, it must be because they know something you don't. The presumption evidently being that disagreement between knowledgeable people is impossible. Patooie on that, especially where the arts are concerned. First, I've got a couple of fancy-enough English degrees from a couple of fancy-enough colleges. Second, I've spent more than a couple of decades in the thick of the arts and writing worlds -- as a nonentity, you betcha, but a nonentity who was taking note. Third, I'm familiar with the business of movies and the business of publishing in ways that many academic sorts aren't. (You'd think it would occur to them -- occasionally, at least -- to shut up and learn. But then maybe they wouldn't be academics.) Fourth, though I enjoy presenting postings in a whimsical and open-ended way, some of them have oomph and weight behind them -- some thought and a lot of experience. This posting was one. It's a discussion that took form in my head over decades, and it's one that I've road-tested with many people in both the bookworld and the movieworld. It may have its flaws, but its tires have been kicked plenty, and by experts. Fifth, I hear fairly regularly from people in the bookworld and the movieworld -- authors, screenwriters, editors, agents -- who write in to let me know that they're glad someone's finally saying these things out loud. So: qualifications? Yup. To be candid (something I generally avoid), I wonder how many of the people who see fit to take a lecturing, you-don't-know-anything tone come close to having my qualifications. But that's falling for the I've-got-a-fancier-degree-than- you-do-and-thus-I'm-right approach to a discussion. And patooie on that too. Let's agree that the case I made in my posting is one that can indeed be made by a... posted by Michael at January 14, 2004 | perma-link | (25) comments

History of Math
Michael: I have a question. This is supposed to be a culture blog; why don't we ever talk about what may be the most significant, or at least most accomplished, field of human intellectual endeavor: mathematics? I’ve been reading Carl B. Boyer’s “A History of Mathematics” and it’s been quite an eye-opener. Granted, just following along with the examples is, to put it mildly, stretching my brain a good deal. (Before I go any farther, let me freely admit to being a math lightweight. I never went beyond calculus. I like to think I could do more advanced math, but realistically I know that it would only happen if someone was holding a gun to my head to give me the, uh, necessary motivation.) So keeping in mind that I’m a highly superficial kind of guy, math wise, I thought I’d share some observations from the first few chapters. Does it ever strike you as weird that you read about a lot of guys like Steven Pinker, who study how people acquire language, but nobody who studies how you (or the rest of humanity, for that matter) acquired the ability to do math? They may exist, I grant you, but I don’t run across them. What’s with that? And in evo-bio theory, is it culturally or biologically significant that symbolic representations of numbers came so much earlier than symbolic representations of speech? ‘Cause they sure did: …in Czechoslovokia a bone from a young wolf was found which is deeply incised with fifty-five notches. These are arranged in two series, with twenty-five in the first and thirty in the second; within each series the notches are arranged in groups of five… Such archaeological discoveries provide evidence that the idea of number…antedates civilization and writing…for artifacts with numerical significance, such as the bone described above, have survived from a period of some 30,000 years ago. Regrettably, the discussion of the fascinating prehistory of math is quite short, as either so little is known or, possibly, Mr. Boyer has so much ground to cover in one book that he can’t dilly-dally in the Stone Age. So we move rather quickly to ancient Egypt. I was immensely gratified to learn that Egyptian mathematical ideas were, to put it kindly, sort of idiosyncratic. I remember in high school thinking that the most intimidating thing about math is how logical and systematic it all is. I mean, just about any math textbook makes me feel like a scatterbrained moron as it carefully works its way from one topic to another, in an unbroken flow of tight logic. So when I realized that the Egyptians wanted to take one-third of a number, they first found what two-thirds of the number was and then divided it in half, I was tickled pink. Also, for reasons known chiefly to themselves, Egyptians seem to have taken a dislike to any fractions (except, oddly, 2/3) that weren’t inverses of whole numbers, i.e., 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, etc.: Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions have a... posted by Friedrich at January 14, 2004 | perma-link | (40) comments

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Dear Friedrich -- I was about to begin this linkathon with "I still haven't caught entirely up since we took our holiday break." But then I realized there's never any catching up with the web, or even with the blogosphere. They're such rich, ever-in-flux environments that all you can ever really do is plunge in and take a little note of what you encounter. Herewith, just a little of what I've enjoyed recently. * The immigration debates rumble on. The Hayekian Greg Ransom (of the excellent Prestopundit, here) thinks that the combo of high legal immigration rates and high tolerance for illegals represents class warfare -- war, that is, on the part of the American elites against the American working class and poor. His posting is here. Greg also points to a hilarious Mark Steyn column about the differences in attitudes between American elites and regular people, here. On his blog (the right-hand column here) and in this first-rate piece here, Steve Sailer has been giving the subject a thorough going-over too. Gene Expression's Godless Capitalist, fearless and informative in our comments section some postings ago, takes his ideas and facts further, here and here. Vinod surprises by approving of Bush's plan, here. This story (here) by Jim Motavalli for the leftish-environmentalist (hey, I was one of those once!) E magazine lays out some population numbers you'll probably find interesting, and that I certainly find cause for concern. Example: "The [American] population could double by 2100, with two-thirds of that growth attributed to immigration." As Godless points out, the two sides in the immigration debate have nothing to do with Right and Left. * I notice that Steve Sailer subscribes, as I do, to the email journal of the Post-Autistic Economics Network. (You can subscribe too, here.) Like Steve, I got a lot out of Robert Locke's discussion of how Japan's economy works, here. "Post-Autistic" -- what the hell does that mean? My guess is that the group, a loose collection of heterodox brainiacs, wants to suggest that it's time to move beyond fundamentalist economic doctrines. (I hope those who know better will correct me if I'm wrong.) The Post-Autistics seem to view one-size-fits-all approaches with horror, and to do their best to understand economic questions as part of the more general scene. I find a lot of their stuff dull, but Locke's piece demonstrates how beautifully the group's approach is capable of paying off. Here's a good quick interview with another interesting Post-Autistic, the Aussie Steve Keen. Thanks to Jimbo for introducing me to the PA scene. * IMHO, one of the most important things Webheads can do is trade tips about good-quality culture and education resources. I try to do my bit with, for instance, occasional raves about some of the Teaching Company's audiotaped lecture series. (Here's the Teaching Company's website.) Many thanks to 2Blowhards visitor Bill Rouse, who has written in to point out that MIT has put a lot of its course materials online for free... posted by Michael at January 13, 2004 | perma-link | (14) comments

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Dear Friedrich -- Have you found it as startling as I have how quickly the health-tip establishment has changed its advice about carbs and fats? It seems like only five minutes ago that we were being told that fats are bad and carbs are good. Now we're being told the reverse. Not that I pay much attention -- does anyone besides the managers of school cafeterias take the FDA's "Food Pyramid" seriously? But I'm still feeling a little disconcerted. Does the shift date back to that NYTimes Magazine section cover story "What If It's All a Big, Fat Lie?," where Robert Atkins, who'd always been portrayed by responsible types as a crackpot, was taken seriously? These days, the same dignified authorities who five minutes ago were calling Atkins a nutcase are lining up, eager to to deliver their diginified, well-considered opinion that maybe he was half-right after all. I'm also feeling a little disconcerted by the way that no one else seems to be talking about feeling disconcerted. Where's the outrage? Perhaps we're meant not to have noticed that the ocean liner we're all passengers on is now pointed in a different direction? Oopsie, says a crewmember when you bring it up. So sorry! Just a wee mistake! So why aren't more people throwing spitballs at the health establishment? Anyway, a few questions: Given how quickly the doctors have flip-flopped, how can there be any real science behind any of this? Where are the apologies? I haven't heard a lot of mea culpas yet, whether from the institutions, the scientists and the docs who were evidently mistaken, or from the health editors and journalists who propagandized their mistakes. Given that lots of people put on weight -- and that some probably developed serious problems -- because they were eating a high-carb/low-fat diet, shouldn't some apologies be forthcoming? Shouldn't the health establishment be subjecting itself to some serious soul-searching about now? How could they have gone so wrong? Aren't they worried about losing the public's trust? When the NYTimes discovered that Jayson Blair was a problem, it wasn't as if they managed to shrug it off. Why is the health-tip industry not being made to endure agonies at least as severe? Why are we supposed to take their current, low-carb advice seriously? And why would the health-advice industry ever expect us to pay them any attention, ever again? Eastcoast Blowhard prediction: someday soon, someone with diabetes will file a lawsuit against the FDA, claiming that its advice made him fat and unhealthy. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at January 11, 2004 | perma-link | (33) comments

How Structuralist Is Your Fantasy Life?
Michael: I don’t know if you agree with me, but consulting myself, I guess I would have considered sexual fantasies to be the most personal mental activity a person could engage in, and thus almost certain to be wildly individualistic. I mean, on the face of it I would think such fantasies should be as individual as snowflakes or fingerprints or DNA. As a result, it always strikes me as odd that the truth seems to be exactly the opposite. Although there are certainly a large number of such fantasies, the number seems oddly finite. If someone is intrigued by some erotic element, say ‘X,’ then it is almost certain that he or she will not be alone in this interest. In fact, it is likely that there will be whole websites devoted to ‘X’ no matter how arcane or ‘specialized’ a taste it might be. Given that these websites are mostly financial ventures with up-front costs to recoup, the existence of a sufficiently large group of consumers devoted to ‘X’ is an obvious assumption being made by the businesspeople behind them. The very existence of these websites, or any other commercial vehicles (books, magazines, etc.) offering what is presumably arousing content, suggests the shared nature of such fantasies. So what could the fact that our erotic fantasies appear to be shared, rather than individual, mean? I obviously don’t have a definitive answer to this incredibly important question, but I can list a few hypotheses: The structuralist hypothesis: It’s possible that erotic fantasies are made up of a finite number of building blocks, so to speak. A limited number of sexes, a limited number of primary and secondary sexual characteristics, etc., a limited number of relationships that seem to attract sexual fantasies (e.g., authoritarian relationships, relationships with some type of ‘other,’ etc., etc.) and voila—grid them all out into a multidimensional matrix and you have a large-but-finite universe of sex fantasies, with a larger or smaller number of individuals clustering at each of the intersections. Of course, this hypothesis doesn’t explain why some intersections would be so much more populous than others. The viral hypothesis: Perhaps a large-but-finite number of sex fantasies have a sort of underground life of their own, and ‘infect’ our brains, using ‘culture’ as a transmission vector. Maybe we catch sex fantasies from books, movies, T.V. shows, slutty girls who wear too much eye shadow, etc. Again, this doesn’t explain why each of us is resistant to most—probably the vast majority—of these mental viruses. The strategy hypothesis: Sex fantasies might be practice, so to speak, for different ways to play the game of sex. Since sex is in many respects a competitive activity, different fantasies might correspond to different competitive strategies. As in many games where there isn’t a single ‘best’ strategy, with sex it might often be best to adopt a contrarian one; hence, there would be a large number of sexual fantasies corresponding to a number of sexual strategies. But because there could be... posted by Friedrich at January 11, 2004 | perma-link | (11) comments