Friday, April 17, 2009

Link Proliferation: You don't need money with a face like that, do you honey?

Let the Right Poem In?

Was the Academy of American Poets' new National Poetry Month poster inspired by the film poster for everybody's favorite vampire Lolita import?

For Serious Though

Over a the Conceptual Fiction site, Ted Gioia argues that the emphasis on realism in fiction is temporary trend and that the fantastic, from Gulliver's Travels to The Road, represents the norm of Western lit.

From the post:

Is it possible that the idea of "realism" as a guiding principle for
fiction is itself unrealistic? After all, there are no Newtonian laws
in stories—an apple can just as easily fly upward from a tree as
drop to the ground. Characters can ride a magic carpet as easily
as walk. Any restrictions are imposed by the author, not by any
external "reality," however defined.

The first storytellers understood this intuitively. That is why
myths, legends, folk tales and other traditional stories recognize
no Newtonian (or other) limitations on their narrative accounts.
These were the first examples of what I call "conceptual fiction"—
in other words stories that delight in the freedom from "reality"
that storytelling allows. Conceptual fiction plays with our
conception of reality, rather than defers to it.

In the past, conceptual fiction existed at the center of our literary
(and even pre-literary) culture. Nowadays it is dismissed by
critics and typically shuffled off into "genre" categories such as
science fiction and fantasy. Realism gained preeminence as a
supposedly rock hard foundation for fiction. From that moment
on, Newton's laws (and a million other laws) gave orders to the
imagination, with the stamp of approval of the literary

But here is the more interesting question. Is it possible that this
trend is reversing, and that conceptual fiction is now moving back
from the periphery into the center of our literary culture?

While there's a bit too much of the tired old "I'm a genre man and I'm bein' oppressed" boo-hooing in the article, it’s a nicely wide-ranging discussion of the topic.

Collect 'Em All

Light in the Attic, the re-issue specialists responsible for the critically praised re-release of the Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson as well revived interest in the works of forgotten disco genius Betty Davis (no relation) and psych-out ghetto groove oddity Rodriguez, have put out a set of the Monks trading cards.

Now you can follow the history pf these proto-punk pioneers, from their start as the Torquays in 1964 to their chaotic collapse in 1967, in a pocket-sized and tradable format!

Portrait of the artist as a teenage cave man.

It is, perhaps, the longest running shell game in horror analysis: the idea that horror-themed art connects to the antiquity of humanity, an expression of a primal emotion that has been part of the human experience as long as our particular varietal of naked ape has been bold enough to claim the brand name.

If you've been around the horror blog-and-twit pro am circuit long enough, you've seen the claims. Critics claim that horror of one brand or another touches "primal" fears, either evoking Freud's zombie-like unkillable Poe-swipe "the Id" or his rebellious student's slovenly creation, the hero-with-a-thousand elisions: the archetype. Fans of this sloppy trope like conjuring up images of "cave men around a campfire" telling scary stories or they allude pseudo-scientifically to the deep survival functionality of the subgenre, advancing the notion that humans are specifically evolved to consume fright-industry product.

All this theorizing runs into the same problem: We really don't know anything about the inner life of our most-distant ancestors. And what little data we do have comes to us context-free, giving us very little clue as to its meaning.

Case in point, cave paintings and the problem of taphonony.

From the Culture and Cognition blog on the work of paleozoologist Dale Guthrie:

Guthrie’s no-nonsense, scientifically rigorous study shatters our most cherished and deeply entrenched beliefs about rock art, demonstrating for instance that most of it was not terribly good, that it was probably not very important to Paleolithic people and to top it off that these awesomne paintings had less to do with metaphysics than with testosterone-fuelled young men’s feverish imaginations . . .

The most important thing to keep in mind when discussing Paleolithic art is the dog that did not (and will not) bark, namely the overwhelming majority of artistic productions for which there is no trace whatsoever. A cardinal sin of cave art interpretation is to ignore taphonony, in other words to mistake the record for the fact - to think that what is central, important and interesting in the available record was the central, important and interesting part of the activity studied. Knowing that Cro-Magnons had the same brains as we do, and assuming that same causes produce similar effects, we can be confident that these people (who dwelt in ingeniously built shelters - emphatically not in caves) wore elaborate clothes, used make up and jewellery, danced, sang, played musical instruments and enjoyed well-crafted narratives. Of all these artistic achievements nothing survives, except a few drawings and paintings in the confines of a few deep caves. We know of rock art because caves preserved pigments - not because it was of any special importance to European Stone Age people.

In short, making claims regarding the mindset prehistoric humanity on the basis of what we currently know is like trying to mentally model the mindset of all of modern humanity on the basis of a collection of Frazetta paintings and a handful of vandal's tags (fun as that might be). You can try it, but you're revealing more about you than you are about the culture you're explicating.

At best, we can make some careful claims that certain social traits would be consistent with what we know about evolution. But even this gets tricky. Recently, for the first time since accurate records on the issue have been kept, infidelity rates for married women have equaled the rates for men. Why is this such an important detail? Because, for several decades now, people have been spinning elaborate theories regarding the biological basis of male infidelity. In their broad outlines, all theories went something like "men cheat more because it helps them spread their genes, while women cheat less because a stable domestic situation is the best way to ensure healthy off-spring." Only, well, women cheat just as much as men. Either all this theory spinning was assigning biological determinants to cultural factors (making these determinants useless as predictors in cross-cultural situations – including the study of past cultures) or the evolution of major social adaptations can occur over an incredibly short time span, meaning that the presumed continuity between us and ancient man is somewhat dubious.

What's the take home? It's time to put horror's just-so origin story to rest.

"Cute Beats Smart"

Skynet, you devious bastard!

Welcome your new, painfully cute robot overlords.


LukeBuckham said...

Realism is okay, but being realistic is no fun at all.

spacejack said...

Ha, everyone wants to interpret prehistoric cave art to fit their agenda. I've been seeing a lot of attempts recently to classify it as "graffiti", in an attempt to beef up the image of contemporary street art.

Anyway, maybe a lot of it wasn't terribly good, but put me in the camp that thinks some cave art is as good as anything that came after it.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

I don't think he's dismissing it all. He's just suggesting the Sturgeon's Law (90% of all creative endeavors suck) seems to be the only constant we can depend on.