Tuesday, February 26, 2013


                           Did Jennifer Lawrence trip, or is she mourning the death of humor?

"We saw your boobs!”*  “The only guy who really got inside Lincoln’s head was John Wilkes Booth.”  “It’ll be sixteen years before Quvenzhane Wallis is too old for Clooney.” Other targets included Jews, Latinos, gays and rape victims.  With these and other tasteless and misgynistic bon mots did Seth MacFarlane regale the billion or so people watching the Oscar presentations the other night, prompting a backlash in both directions:  The Onion tried to get into the spirit of the evening by saying of Ms. Wallis, “that Quvenzhane Wallis is kind of a c**t, right?” But most people who have offered commentary, in the press or on the social media, expressed indignation, even outrage, at the whole unseemly spectacle.  Perhaps the most eloquent criticism was the look of disgust on Charlize Theron’s face when MacFarlane exulted in having glimpsed her breasts onscreen. (It’s possible, however, that this moment was pre-recorded, which interestingly complicates Theron’s take on the joke.)  It’s kind of surprising that when Jennifer Lawrence tripped over her dress on the way to the podium, there weren’t at least isolated peals of mirth.

            I have a particular interest in this cultural moment because, as it happens, I’m teaching a course at NYU this semester in bad taste and misogyny.  That’s not how it’s labelled, of course; its title is “English Literature in the Earlier 17th Century,” but as it happens, the years between the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 and the Puritan takeover of the country in 1642 saw the birth and flowering of an esthetic of bad taste and contempt for women, a kind of wholesale reaction against the decorum of conventional thought and image that had governed the world of letters until then.

            Consider this epigram by Sir John Suckling, who, in his short lifetime served as James I’s secretary of state, invented the civilized game of cribbage, and was a trusted advisor to James’ son and successor Charles I:

            Love is the fart
            Of every heart.
            It pains a man when ‘tis kept close
            And others doth offend, when ‘tis let loose.

            The first fart joke of the early modern era!  Aside from the literary merits of this ditty (at best it’s clever, though it tops any of MacFarlane’s sallies hands down), it served as an announcement that a new kind of joke was permissible.  The body and all its various sounds, sights, smells, and secretions was no longer off-limits to poets – particularly the female body.  Where the previous generation of sonneteers (Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Phillip Sidney, Shakespeare) dwelt on their mistresses’ golden hair, alabaster foreheads and coral lips, John Donne wrote avidly of his mistress undressing before him, saluting “the hairy diadem which on you doth grow” and begging her to “License my roving hands, and let them go / Before, behind, between, above, below.”   But women were just disposable toys to the misogynistic Donne, who will “swear / No where / Lives a woman true and fair.”  In his poem “The Indifferent,”  he views female constancy as a vice, asking those few women who still practice such abberant behavior, “Will it not serve your turn to do as did your mothers?”  Low blow!  In one of what he problematically called his “Holy Sonnets,” Donne (who was not only a priest but Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral), entertains a fantasy of being raped by God:  “O’erthrow me, and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new. . . . for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”  Suversive enough for ya?

            In the light of this rather short-lived fad (when the Puritans seized control, decorum returned, sharpened to a razor’s edge that resulted in the beheading of Charles I), the gross-out humor of our own time, and its vast appeal, may be more explicable. Perhaps it started with Bill Osco’s 1980 film Gross Out, whose premise was that a woman threatens to withold her children’s inheritance unless they produce a movie so disgusting it makes her vomit. It caught on. To millions, it’s funny to watch Cameron Diaz rub semen into her hair in There’s Something About Mary.  The food fights and fart jokes of Animal House are hilarious not only to frat boys but to much wider audiences as well. Judd Apatow’s This is 40 is a gross-out movie for the mildly middle-aged.  Beavis and Butthead speak for themselves.

The precondition for the esthetic of bad taste, I think, is an ironic outlook on life – the outlook of Seinfeld’s cast, of Chris Rock, of the Farrelly Brothers.  Irony turns everything on its head, so that a joke, or a movie, or a routine such as MacFarlane’s can be so bad it’s good, outrageousness for its own sake is worthwhile, airing in public what used to be private is nothing but liberating.  The more literate apologists for all this cite the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the “grotesque body” – the body we all have and used to deny or attempt to ignore, a hairy, squelchy bag of flesh enclosing sacs of urine, feces, semen, mucus, pus and snot.  Such, seen from the reductive, grossly physical point of view, is your body and mine, John Belushi’s and Elizabeth Bennet’s.  Even George Orwell, though he never grossed anybody out, provided a rationale in his essay “The Art of Donald McGill” for pictorial obscenity:  “It is the voice of the belly protesting agains the soul,” he wrote. 

So was Seth MacFarlane’s the voice of the belly?  Perhaps he’d like to put himself in the august company of Rabelais and Donne.  But it’s one thing to smash the icons of a repressive, prudish society in the name of freedom, and another to pick on nine-year-olds.  In truth, are there any icons left?  Lincoln, maybe.  But except for one (big) Oscar, Spielberg’s reverent epic was largely ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

*This has already inspired a parody titled "We Saw Your Junk," at http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/02/we-saw-your-junk-a-boob-song-parody.html

Monday, February 18, 2013


I love signage.  Those of you (all three of you) who have remained my constant readers throughout the years know that I've written on signs and their sign(ificance) a lot -- there was the article in the East Hampton Star, titled "The Semiotics of Springs," that almost got my house firebombed twenty years ago, just because it traced the ongoing conflict between townies and weekenders to the unconscious ways in which they marked their territories.  I wrote on the unintelligibility of NYC parking signs on this blog a couple of years ago, and now they're being reworded (obviously Bloomberg is a fan).  And later, I took the town of Southampton to task for displaying mammoth billboards depicting a cop in combat stance aiming a pistol-like radar detector at motorists, which I found less than subtle.

But the above falls into the category of mere whimsy.  The device is attached to the wall of the room in NYU's Skirball Center where they give flu shots, though I'm sure it's used many other purposes than that, none of them obvious but perhaps known causes of panic -- doctoral orals?  Job interviews?  Theatrical auditions?

What, exactly, might the sign mean?

1) If you're in a panic, activate this alarm (and a doctor will come and give you a thorazine shot?).

2) If you're not in a panic but there's panic around you, and you want to put a stop to it, activate this alarm (and paramedics will rush in and slap everyone's face, the way they do in the movies to people having hysterics?).

3) If you want to cause a panic, activate this alarm (and snakes will start slithering out of the heating ducts?).

The most interesting thing is that none of these could conceivably be the real answer, yet I can't imagine what it is.   "Panic," in this or any context, would seem to be a bad thing, but is "alarm" a good thing?  An antidote to panic, not a synonym for it?  The sign itself is obviously home-made, stuck above the switch that it fails to identify, and urge to pull that switch, just to see what would transpire, was hard to fight down -- though I wouldn't say it alarmed me.

Friday, February 15, 2013


This is a photograph of a typical hole at the Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego, where the Farmer's Insurance Open was played in January.

And this is a photograph of a typical hole on the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship was played a week earlier.

Notice any difference?

Abu Dhabi, which is perhaps the richest country in the world per capita, wants a seat at the golf table, and is prepared to spend whatever it takes.  Apparently, they paid Tiger Woods and Rory McElroy, ranked second and first in the world, over a million dollars apiece to buzz in on their private jets and participate in the tournament. (Both of them played miserably and weren't around for the last two days of the four-day event.)

But the Emirates don't get golf.  One of the most appealing things about that much-maligned sport is the beauty of the courses themselves, oases of green and gold, mountains and pastures, lakes and rivers and oceans.  Golf courses are the formal gardens of the modern era; if you were a landscape architect, wouldn't you want someone to give you 300 acres of virgin land and a blank check?  In the United States, in the UK, in Spain, in Australia and New Zealand, there are stunning courses, many of them with seaside vistas that are so gorgeous it's impossible to keep your mind on the little white ball.   This is the 17th hole at Pebble Beach, on the Monterrey Peninsula of northern California:

You can see pods of migrating whales from the course itself.  The Abu Dhabi course is right on the Persian Gulf, but you'd never know it, at least from the TV coverage.  All you can see is advertising (and those signs, by the way, interfere with play, as you might imagine).

So why does AD, dripping with money, visually pollute what could be a major attraction?  Because money is what they know about and what everything in the Emirates comes down to, from the tallest building in the world to the so-called "souks" where, instead of interesting examples local artisanship (as in, say, Morocco) you're confronted with shlock.  The first thing you see in the biggest souk in Dubai (which is even more commercialized than Abu Dhabi, despite or because it's poorer) is rack after rack of T-shirts:

I spent a week in Abu Dhabi last year, courtesy of NYU's new humanities college there, and I was both fascinated and repelled by the place. Their path to Westernization seems to be the fastest of any country in the world; where fifty years ago there was nothing but desert, there's a city -- if a city is a place with enormous skyscrapers all built at the same time, and no neighborhoods.  Golf may not be the most important feature of a country's cultural life, but it's a handy barometer of the extent to which a society's values bypass esthetics and art in favor of money.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


This font is Courier.  I've left two spaces after the period.  This font is Times. I've left one space after the period.  

Who cares?

Farhat Mamjoo, that’s who.

My friend Amanda Gibson posted a fascinating Slate piece on FB earlier today – fascinating, at least to her, to me, and to an apparently enormous cohort of grammar fanatics who feel passionately about a conflict so apparently trivial that it will probably bore you to tears or make you laugh out loud.

Ready for this?  When typing, should you leave one or two blank spaces after a period at the end of a sentence.

I kid you not.  You can read the piece – “Space Invaders” by Farhat Manjoo -- at http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2011/01/space_invaders.html

There’s a generational divide here:  many of us who learned to type on typewriters rather than keyboards were taught to leave two spaces, which several of the authorities quoted find deeply offensive because it’s, well, a waste of space, and also esthetically unpleasing. 

There was once, Manjoo admits, a good reason for this practice:  before they disappeared, typewriters evolved from using monospaced fonts to proportional ones.  If a font is monospaced, each character – whether an ‘l’ or a ‘w’ – takes up the same amount of space.  Proportional fonts allocate more space to wider letters, less to narrower ones.  In the earlier mode, the spacing in sentences looked a little weird.  (You can check this out for yourself by typing a few sentences in the font called Courier, which is disproportional. I’d do it here, but Google won’t let me.)  Two spaces after the period made it clearer that the kind of full stop represented by the end of a sentence had occurred.

What galls me about Manjoo, who says what galls him about the two-spacers is “their certainty that they’re right,” is his certainty that he’s right.   He should know that there is no right and wrong when it comes to usage.  There was no such thing as English grammar until the 18th century, and it’s been changing ever since, like all living languages.  It’s no more “right” to use one space than it is to leave out or put in the final comma in a series (like “red, white, and blue”). The one-space rule “is one of the canonical rules of the profession, in the same way that waiters know that the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork,” says Manjoo.  Canonical rules were made to be broken; they’re silly and arbitrary. Another “canonical rule” is that you’re supposed to put colons and semicolons outside of quotation marks, but commas and periods inside.  Why?  Who in God’s name cares? (Manjoo, probably.)

Manjoo cites as his authority typographers – the people who turn typed manuscripts into type for printing.  But in these days of self-publishing, typographers are a dying breed, made increasingly irrelevant by the practice of self-publishing.  And they certainly aren’t the arbiters of usage that they and Manjoo think they are.  All they have a right to do is come before us like some Dickensian child, and in a small voice humbly and politely request that we drop the two-space rule –which was their idea in the first place! So, the convention has changed?  It’s still just a convention, an arbitrary way of doing something that could as easily have been done differently.

If you want to get overexcited over writing conventions, I have a few more worthwhile ones to consider.  I get emails from my NYU students in which nothing is capitalized, commas are non-existent, and emoticons appear.  Want to talk about esthetically offensive?  Here’s what I think about that:  : (

Tuesday, February 12, 2013



What alarms me most about the rhetoric of the NRA-worshipping far right when it comes to guns is their taxonomy:  everyone is either a "good guy" or a "bad guy," and it follows, as Wayne LaPierre put it, "The only thing that stops a bad buy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."  

But where does Osakarose of San Antonio fit in?  She wrote, "The whole point of being a registered owner is: #1 to own the gun legally and be trained in its use, #2 to protect myself and my property from criminals.  I do not want them to know I own a gun; I want it to come as a complete surprise to them when they break into my home and I blow them away."

Rose, do you sit up all night in your darkened living room, locked and loaded, waiting for the doorknob to turn?  Is it protection you want, or the thrill of shooting to kill?  Are you, in short, a good guy or a bad guy?  Isn't a good guy a gun owner who hasn't committed a crime with his gun -- until he ambushes someone (maybe a family member who forgot his keys), or feels threatened by an innocent passerby in states that permit an armed, violent response, or experiences an ungovernable fit of road rage while wearing a Sig Sauer on his hip -- in which case, doesn't he cross that boundary and become a bad guy?