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Saturday, October 23, 2004

Disraeli on Change
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It isn't often that I run across a political quote I can get entirely behind, but I think I may have found one today. I'm still kicking it around, but the more I do the solider the thinking in this quote feels. Benjamin Disraeli: In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, the traditions of the people, or in deference to abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines. Now, if only one of our presidential candidates genuinely represented one of these approaches, and our other presidential candidate genuinely represented the other approach ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 23, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

Sex Fantasies
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Forgive me for treating myself to an E-Z posting. I was taking part in one of those irresistable commentsfests over at GNXP, and I wound up feeling pleased with what I was typing. So I've copied and pasted my comment here, cleaning up a bit of bad grammar. But I'm truly curious to learn what others' impressions and thoughts on the topic are. Here it is. Since the ever-interesting subject of sex fantasies has been raised ... How much -- and/or what kind - of a relationship would you guess there is between a person's sex fantasies and who and what that person really is and wants? I mean, in real life. My impression is that the answer is "not much, at least not in many cases." We get overfascinated by our sex fantasies, or maybe it'd be better (since it's in the nature of "our sex fantasies" to fascinate us) to say that we too often look to them for significance or meaning. As though what turns us on (at a given moment) really, really means something about us. I'm not sure it does. In a basic and obvious way, yeah, sure. Women will tend to have more getting-raped fantasies than men will, and maybe something like a hint of masochism comes as part of being physically female -- "Story of O," Catherine Breillat's movies, and Toni Bentley's new book all more or less say as much. After all, women aren't running around with a mighty sword in hand that makes them want to slay dragons and make off with distressed maidens. However awe-inspiringly dynamic women may be, they're also hormonally and emotionally tricky creatures with fascinating secrets tucked away inside. And a big part of their lives is deciding who they're going to admit into their magical palace. It makes simple sense that the fantasy -- the fantasy! -- of having someone make that decision for them would have its appeal. But, aside from the biologically obvious, do our sex fantasies mean much about what we as individuals want or are looking for in real life? And is it wise to consult with our sex fantasies for real-life guidance? I read a recent Dan Savage column where Dan was urging someone to take his fantasies seriously, as indicators of what this reader really wants, sexually speaking. And back in the '70s, books like "My Secret Garden" were telling women not just that it was OK to indulge in sex fantasies, but that it was a Good, even a Politically Good, Thing. Something wonderful, god only knows what, was supposed to result from total immersion in sex-fantasy-ville. Me, I wonder. I think we often drive ourselves a little nuts when we tell ourselves that our sex fantasies are like tea-leaf indicators to our souls and our desires. We're often just letting self-absorption sweep us away. In my experience, a woman's quite capable of, for example, enjoying violent fantasies but really wanting (back in... posted by Michael at October 23, 2004 | perma-link | (16) comments

Friday, October 22, 2004

What's a College?
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, Over at University Diaries, Margaret Soltan continues a spirited debate with the world, and with herself, over what it means for an institution to be a college, and for a person to go to college. Check out the two most recent posts. They make for a nice contrast--a paradox, even. In the first, Soltan reprints an anguished letter from a Middlebury student, who is upset over that college's large tuition and fee increases in the recent past. The student writes that big increases leading to better educational outcomes might be tolerable, but that he thinks all they've done is fuel unneccessary building programs. Good point: recall last year's New York Times article on the spread of "Jacuzzi U.." There's definitely an arms race out there. Soltan's second post goes on to mock the University of Phoenix. That semi-august for-profit institution recently agreed to a large fine from the Feds, who were concerned that its "admissions practices" amounted to heavy-handed razz-ma-tazz worthy of David Mamet--get da butts inna seats. (Cut to Glengarry Glen Ross: "What the fuck, what bus did you get off of, we're here to fucking sell. Fuck marshaling the leads. What the fuck talk is that? What the fuck talk is that? Where did you learn that? In school? (pause) That's "talk," my friend, that's "talk." Our job is to sell. I'm the man to sell.") Well, for the record, Phoenix admitted no wrongdoing. But they'll be scrutinized closely going forward. But here's the rub: is it fair to criticize Middlebury on the one hand for pushing up tuition by pampering the upper-middle class, and to criticize Phoenix on the other for offering a convenient, low-cost educational alternative for its lower-end customers? In one respect, Phoenix represents all that Middlebury is not. It doesn't do rock-climbing walls. It barely does campuses. Rather, it often rents space, using it for instructional programs, not campus fun and games. And it offers programs at times convenient to its customer/students (like after work), irrespective of whether faculty would prefer to teach in the middle of the day. Of course, in a different respect, Middlebury and Phoenix do not represent polar opposites but flip sides of the same coin: higher education responding to market forces. It's fine to complain about rock-climbing walls and luxury dorms--I do it myself as an administrator--but it's hard to argue that these accoutrements are not a response to the market. Ditto Phoenix. While non-profit educators often turn their noses up at Phoenix, and at the concept of for-profit in the first instance, my understanding is that what Phoenix does it does rather well. Phoenix believes it can handle education-as-transmission-of-information (as in accounting) and does not aspire to education-as-transformative-experience-through-critical-exchange (as in studio art, or literary theory). All well and good to disparage that, but the world needs accountants, too. I daresay it needs more of them than it needs literary theorists--indeed the surplus of the latter is one of higher education's current complaints. Timothy... posted by Fenster at October 22, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Political Elsewhere
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- My motto for this election season comes from my alltime fave novelist, the great Stendhal: Politics in a literary work is a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore. But, vast as my admiration for Stendhal is, I modify his wonderful phrase a bit: where Stendhal is talking about the role of politics in a "literary work," I'm thinking about politics' place in life. I'm prone to such feelings as, "Sheesh, if only we could do without." And the people I'm temperamentally prone to be most suspicious of are those who approach politics with gusto. What's the matter with them? In any case, as far as I'm concerned, politics is best viewed as a dirty necessity that, sadly, does require some attending-to. In that "patooie" spirit, here are some interesting political pieces I've run across recently. I had a satisfying roar at this classic opening line in an Edmund Andrews piece for the NYTimes. Sometimes even journalists earn their paychecks: Less than a day after President Bush implied that Senator John Kerry lacked "fiscal sanity," the Bush administration said on Thursday that the federal government had hit the debt ceiling set by Congress and would have to borrow from the civil service retirement system until after the elections. Slate's Michael Hastings suspects -- with what seems like good reason -- that FoxNews bloviator Bill O'Reilly may have a porn problem. Randall Parker runs across evidence that -- contrary to the usual picture -- Republicans may be sexually happier than Democrats are. Gene Expression's contributors yak about who they're going to vote for. Interesting to note that both Razib and Godless will be pulling the Kerry lever. Razib seems to think Kerry's the lesser of two evils, while Godless is one of those rooting-for-gridlock guys. [UPDATE: Razib tells me he's in fact a pro-gridlock guy himself.] By the way, sci-fi fans should have a field day exploring a blog the GNXPers have started up to cover their other main passion, Gene Expression Science-Fiction. A trenchant line from Razib, in a surprisingly post-modern mood: My overall point is that there will never be any good literary science fiction, because if it is acceptable to the English major, it is by definition not science fiction. Disconcerting news from the Center for Immigration Studies: All of the job losses during the current economic downturn have been absorbed by native-born workers. In contrast, the number of immigrants holding jobs actually increased dramatically between 2000 and 2004. Remind me again whose benefit, exactly, the country is being run for? As we get close to the wire, Steve Sailer's got the pedal to the metal. He reviews the candidates' stands on immigration, and he suspects that, IQ-wise anyway, Kerry doesn't offer much of an alternative to Bush. An immortal Steve wisecrack: Liberals tend to believe two things about IQ: First, that IQ is a meaningless, utterly discredited concept. Second, that liberals are better... posted by Michael at October 22, 2004 | perma-link | (19) comments

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Staring Into the Light
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- What's with all the backlighting? Not since the 1970s -- when movie directors and cinematographers decided that lens flare, glowiness, dust, and haze could be exploited rather than fought -- have I found myself gazing woozily into light sources quite so frequently. A few samples from the many I've noticed recently: How to account for this vogue for backlighting? (My genius scans, by the way, don't convey just how backlight-y these images really are.) I'm going to assume for a sec that I'm not making too much out of a fashion blip. Debatable, I know, but what the heck. In any case, my theory is that it has to do with computers and television, and the switchover from traditional values to electronic-media-age values. The people making photos, ads, and layouts are in a phase where they're determined to turn all media experiences into something akin to surfing cable or the web. And along with everything else we're doing when we're looking at a computer or a TV is the simple fact that we're looking at something that's lit from behind. So that's my explanation for this mini-epidemic of backlighting: designers are doing their best to recreate the subjective experience of looking at something lit from behind even when they're working on paper, which reflects rather than transmits light. It's a kind of digital-electronic fundamentalism, isn't it -- a constant bringing-us-back to the most basic constant of life in the digital age: staring at a backlit screen. Does anyone have any alternative hunches about how to explain this epidemic of backlighting? By the way, is anyone else as startled as I am by how much time many of us spend these days peering into glowing screens? Digital cameras, Palm Pilots, cellphones ... We're spending an amazing amount of our lives staring at backlit screens -- we're like a nation of people transfixed by gods-in-the-form-of-lightbulbs. It's as though we're expecting to find something in our backlit screens that's really significant, something more than a mere phone number or spreadsheet. What do you suppose we're hoping to find in there? Perhaps with just one more click, we'll find Meaning Itself. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 21, 2004 | perma-link | (7) comments

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Moneyball in the Bronx
Francis Morrone writes: Dear Blowhards, I realize that not every Blowhards reader is a baseball fan, and that even those who are may not care less about the Yankees and Red Sox. But for those who do care, tonight's game is what it's all about. This has been an amazing series. I have been so busy lately that I missed seeing any of the Yankees' three wins to open this American League Championship Series. But I've been privileged to see the last three games, all won by the Red Sox, two of the wins in extra-inning classics that have left me sleep-deprived. Notwithstanding the Cardinals' win total, the Yankees and the Red Sox are the two best teams in baseball. They have beautifully composed lineups, put together by two of the three best general managers in baseball. Both teams are run-producing machines of a sort that is actually fairly rare in the history of baseball. The series includes delightful subplots. The most obvious is the intense Yankees-Red Sox rivalry over the years. There's also such a difference in demeanor. The Yankees, in a kind of throwback to the 1950s, require their players to be clean-cut. The Red Sox don't, and in fact seem to do the opposite, given some of their players' interesting hairdos and facial hair. Then there is the saga of Curt Schilling, the brilliant Red Sox pitcher who won 21 games in the regular season. He started game one for the Sox, but got shelled. He had a severe right ankle injury that not only caused his ineffective game one performance and his early exit from that game, but that also seemed to doom him for the remainder of the ALCS--a crushing blow to the Red Sox, whose pitching staff was relatively thin to begin with. But Schilling started game six, and pitched magnificently--seven innings, four hits, one run, no walks, four strikeouts. In other words, a sterling performance, made all the more amazing as it came from a pitcher enduring intense pain. In sports, we call this "heroic," which seems a stupid word to use when the nation is at war. Let's just call it remarkable. I'm not a particular fan of either of these teams. I grew up in Chicago, so I'm one of those hapless, diehard Cubs fans. (Yes, last year sent me into a month-long depression.) But I've lived in New York for more than twenty years, and have enjoyed following the Yankees, and even rooting for them. I'm a bit tired of Yankees haters. True, this year's team is stocked with pricey acquisitions (Rodriguez, Matsui, Sheffield, the woebegone Giambi). But in recent years, the Yankees succeeded with home-grown talent. Jeter, Williams, Posada, Rivera, and Pettitte formed a home-grown nucleus that no other team matched. For several years, George Steinbrenner used his seemingly endless financial resources not to loot other teams' stars, but to retain his own. The Yankees' recent pennant-winners weren't bought. They were, rather, the product of baseball smarts. And there's... posted by Francis at October 20, 2004 | perma-link | (17) comments

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

1000 Words: The Scottish Enlightenment
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Enlightenment, eh? What a mixed legacy. On the one hand: clarity and progress. On the other: arrogance and the evaporation of meaning. Spin the Enlightenment's implications out, and you wind up in a tangle, wrapped up in the bind we're told we necessarily struggle with today: po-mo, deconstruction, the crisis of "liberalism," bizarre buildings ... And we're led to believe that all this is inevitable -- that we can't have the blessings of Reason without the curses and agonies that follow in its wake. My hunch about why we feel the post-Enlightenment pinch as acutely as we do is that the Enlightenment most of us know is the French Enlightenment. And those French, forever pushing things to absurd extremes. A Frenchman is apparently incapable of saying, "Hey, cool: Reason!" and then adding it to his repertory. No, he has to believe in it, make a substitute religion of it, live it out to its logical conclusions ... And what does Reason lead to when it's pushed fanatically out as far as it can go? Barrenness, cafe existentialism, suicide, bizarre buildings, Catherine Breillat movies. (A small joke: I love many of Breillat's movies.) But there was another Enlightenment altogether, one that had its feet well-planted on the ground -- the Scottish Englightenment. In 50ish years, from circa 1700 to the mid-1700s, Edinburgh transformed itself from a religion-oppressed backwater into one of the happening-ist cities in Europe. Giants walked Edinburgh's streets: Thomas Reid, Frances Hutcheson, Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, many others. Most of these men were "natural philosophers," taking on economics, science, aesthetics, psychology, politics, and philosophy itself. These weren't wacko poseurs or radical theorists. They were practical men who were respectful of everyday experience (even religion); many were in close contact with the great Scottish scientists of the era. The Scots also maintained close connections with the French, but Scotland's Enlightenment had a very different tone than France's did. It was grounded in common sense and history, and had a modest and empirical spirit. And the Scotsmen's attitude towards Reason was very different than the froggy attitude. The Scots seemed to consider Reason to be a marvelous tool, and nothing more. Sharpen it; respect it; make much use of it -- but don't look to Reason to deliver any Final Truth. And don't expect to turn up anything of much use or interest by investigating the nature of Reason itself. What does a tool have to tell you about life? A tool's a tool. It's up to you to put it to work. What the Scotsmen lack in radical-chic they more than make up for (IMHO) in solidity and usefulness. They keep Reason in perspective, always remembering that life itself is far more important. No surprise, then, that this was by all accounts a cheery, social, sunny-spirited, outgoing scene, one that brings to mind such convivial 18th century novels as "Tom Jones." Bizarrely, this era began being thought of as "the Scottish... posted by Michael at October 19, 2004 | perma-link | (16) comments

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Digital, and Prestidigital
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, A while back, you (Michael) wrote about the impact of digital technologies on culture. This is a delayed and lengthened response to your post, though I expect to wander off-topic from time to time (which reminds me of a comment of Archie's concerning Jughead: "his mind wanders but it never gets very far. . . . ") Is Digital a Big Deal? I spent a number of years at a well-regarded art school. My role as an administrator rather than as an artist or professor distanced me from the issues, but at the same time allowed me to consider them at a certain, potentially useful, remove. I remember asking various high-level academics some years ago whether digital photography would essentially supplant film in the academy, or whether the darkroom would live on. The answer at that time was that film would indeed live on, at least as a pedagogic device, much the way drawing continues to serve as a foundation. I was skeptical, concluding was that academics were the true conservatives (a proposition which, while surprising some academics, should come as no surprise to people who deal with them). But the impact of digital could be delayed but not denied. When I asked some of the same folks recently, they acknowledged that film might indeed go the way of the dodo and the daguerreotype. So, in answer to your question: sure, yeah, digital is a big deal. And mostly, I think, that's because of Moore's Law. As long as the power of digital increases at the rate Moore postulated, it's the better bet in the long run. Picture pictures fifty or a hundred years hence, digital vesus film . . . which medium will offer more in the way of visual chops? [note: film people invited to chime in here and call me a moron . . . ] But here's my caveat, and my segue. Caveat The caveat: my conservative art school pals also maintained that digital in the final analysis is "just another medium" and, at the risk of sounding like a conservative myself, on this I think I agree with them. To choose one application, digital photography may well make many new things possible, but in what way is it likely to be deeply transformative? I don't know. Will narrative be affected? Maybe, but is Sky Captain anything really new, even with the actors emoting in front of a blue screen? I don't mean to suggest that Sky Captain isn't a breakthough in any number of dimensions . . . I'm just not sure anything really deep has occured in this digital achievement. Segue And here's the segue: if you ask me, the more profound effects on culture will be felt from the genetic revolution, not the digital one. Digital technologies provide for new tools; genetic technologies for new toolmakers--that's a big difference. It seems to me that when the promise of digital was new, we were prone to think it would... posted by Fenster at October 17, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Guest Posting -- Andre Vera
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Andre Vera, a visitor from Brazil, left a wonderful and informative (if over-generous) comment on a recent posting. I'm reprinting it here because I'd hate it if other visitors missed it. Greetings from Brasil! I need to tell you right away that I use your texts (and sometimes the blogs you link) in my English classes here in Brasil. Being Brazilian, I find in them, both “food” for my own spiritual / critical appetite, and challenging stuff for my English students. Nevertheless, I have to say that being an English teacher is not a bad job even when you consider the money. It leaves you time to do your own stuff, it allows you to meet interesting etc. But please don’t consider the “not bad money” in American terms, which are positively different from Brazilian. My relationship with this blog site dates back to the repercussions of the bookpeople moviepeople posting which caused flak among some of your Brazilian counterparts. Since then, curiosity and interest has led me to check out what has been going on in some other American blogs (to be honest, this blog has been my no.1 portal to all the others, followed by While our own native blogs seem to be more concerned with pale idiosyncrasies and black humor, I have indulged my ambition for more reasonable and intelligent discussions with your writings and some of the blogs you link. Thank you very much for that. Discussions here in our native blogs, I strongly believe, occur at a very sad and down-to-earth, somewhat uneducated level. For instance, when it comes to discussions of politics, they are usually either about “spitting on the Mercedes-Benzes” or “defending driving Mercedes-Benzes” (variations on Dumb and Dumber!). It is really sad to see how we keep wallowing in such simplistic, violent and even misleading concepts of what people think of “the other” side. It is sad, but at the same time we here are all to blame for it. I sometimes ask myself if the investment in such discussions is worth the effort. I usually keep my mouth shut, but that makes me feel hopeless. It is obviously all part of our “lousy” educational system and political propaganda (remember that not so long ago, here in Brasil, we were in a long and dark age of military dictatorship). Democracy and the democratic spirit are not things people are used to. Actually, in a way, they are yet to be created. On the other hand I should add that photoblogs are very popular. Of course they are mostly about people’s daily lives, parties and narcissistic contemplations of each other’s faces and body parts, for subjects, like politics, remain far beyond their reach. Well, it couldn’t be otherwise, in a country of illiterates (no matter what the “statistics” say – to hell with those numbers – people do have a hard time understanding texts, and the majority of the population, albeit able to pronounce the words... posted by Michael at October 17, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments