Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Lost in a Good Book

Kenneth Branagh as Henry V
I remember my first encounter with Shakespeare. It was Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 big-screen adaptation of Henry V. The local newspaper reviewer lavished lengthy praise upon its complexity, its nuance, and its almost-complete thematic reversal from Laurence Olivier’s 1944 paean to conquest. I knew little about Shakespeare, beyond his reputation, and a few oft-quoted lines (“To be or not to be,”) so I decided to give Branagh a try.

So I rented the VHS, sat down to watch, and greeted the production with… complete incomprehension. Who was this strange person in modern dress, played by Derek Jacobi, who introduced the film, and kept recurring throughout? Who are these various courtiers who appear for only one scene to speak Delphic riddles? And are these characters even speaking English? I could answer none of these questions with any confidence.

I call this my first encounter with Shakespeare, even though my 9th Grade English teacher had us read Julius Caesar several months earlier. But I have difficulty crediting that initial reading. This teacher had us perform weird exercises too hasty and premature for first-time Shakespeare readers, like designing the set, or translating the dialog into vernacular English. But several months later, this same teacher insisted we could tell Ernest Hemingway was profound because we couldn’t understand him, so I have difficulty taking her seriously anyway.

So Branagh’s Henry was my first direct Shakespeare, unmediated by interpreters or state-credentialed Cicerones. I leapt headlong into Henry and immediately got lost. I found the experience so unsettling that I didn’t repeat it for nearly two years, studiously sidling away from the Bard, except a mandatory 10th-Grade sojourn with King Lear. Again, officially mandated curriculum confused more than it clarified.

David Tennant as Hamlet
However, when Zeferelli’s Hamlet hit home video, the one with Mel Gibson, I heard the hype, swallowed my doubts, and tried again. The experience was totally different. I can’t say I completely understood everything, but I certainly followed events more clearly. I sometimes had to pick meaning from context, and many outdated words or high-flown phrases evaded me altogether. But I had a real experience this time, one I’d willingly repeat.

I figured the director might’ve made the difference, or perhaps the performers, or even the visual design. For whatever reason, it never creased my brain that I myself might’ve changed. That perhaps having thrown myself into King Henry, and even being dragged unwillingly through Caesar or Lear, might’ve changed my perspective. Only after I purchased paperback editions of several plays, and read them myself, did I realize: Shakespeare had rewired my brain.

This realization hit me like a cold slap several years later when, browsing my local bookstore, I encountered something called No Fear Shakespeare. Available for all Shakespeare’s major plays, and most of his minor ones, it offers the full Shakespearean text, with a facing-page translation into vernacular English prose. Rather than providing useful definitions of individual words and phrases, as the Folger editions I read did, it simply restates everything, with the poetry taken out.

Similar editions exist, under series titles like Shakespeare Made Easy, Shakespeare Side-by-Side, and Shakespeare ReTold. Each promises frustrated students that they needn’t strain their already overtaxed brains understanding Shakespeare; some expert somewhere, who doesn’t get title-page billing, has done the understanding already. You need only memorize the plot points likely to appear on a pop quiz, and you’re golden!

Jon Finch as Macbeth
This isn’t the place to expound on overloaded students and their teachers, suffering budget cuts and staffing shortages, aiming not for deeper thought but to ace standardized tests. We all have opinions. Rather, I mean only to state that, if students have the difficulty sanded off difficult books, I question whether they’re truly learning. By which I mean, are they truly having their brains rewired by exposure to unfamiliar ideas?

For me, the difficulty understanding Shakespeare wasn’t a bug in the system. The difficulty was the system. By forcing me to adjust my mental rhythms to match Shakespeare’s, I needed to step outside myself, to encounter new ways of thinking. I emerged transformed, better able to handle sophisticated questions and empathize with unfamiliar people, because I did the work of understanding Shakespeare myself, not outsourcing it to designated experts.

I’ve read pundits recently extolling the virtues of boredom or failure, traits putatively missing from modern education. But what about the virtue of confusion? If I’d understood Shakespeare like reading a paperback novel, I would’ve missed the joy of dawning awareness. And I fear that’s a pleasure today’s students will scarcely know.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Wisdom of Crowds, and the Money to Do It

Michael J. Epstein, Crowdfunding Basics in 30 Minutes

The rise of crowdfunding websites has traveled hand-in-glove with spreading social media. Savvy media customers use their web presence to solicit support for their entrepreneurial ventures, artistic experiments, medical bills, and more. A young couple I know is crowdfunding their fertility treatments. But not every crowdfunding venture succeeds. What makes some triumphant, and others sputter on the launch pad?

Los Angeles-based renaissance man Michael J. Epstein has used crowdfunding to support himself as an independent filmmaker and indie musician. His familiarity with crowdfunding shows a mix of academic research and practical experience. As a writer, he shows a careful balance of raconteur and scholar that most working journalists should aspire to emulate. And he explains the crowdfunding principle in ways naifs and part-timers, like me, can really understand.

Novice crowdfunders may mistake the process for the online equivalent of passing the hat. An earnest appeal, backed with some concrete example of your plans, should get at least a few people to crack their wallets, right? Not so, says Epstein. This book, longer than a pamphlet but shorter than, say, a Malcolm Gladwell treatise, delves into crowdfunding without bogging down in details. Because not everything about crowdfunding is obvious.

First, not all crowdfunding platforms are equal. Epstein doesn’t have a thorough list of all crowdfunding websites, since in today’s economy, individual sites come and go; he name-checks a few popular sites, but only as examples. For instance, Kickstarter, targeted at for-profit entrepreneurs, has an all-or-nothing mentality that encourages a certain urgent mindset. GoFundMe aims to buoy struggling individuals, while Patreon subsidizes artists and other creative professionals.

Michael J. Epstein
But even beyond finding the right platform, Epstein says, certain habits of businesslike thinking apply across multiple models. In a media-saturated digital marketplace, simply having an earnest, factual appeal isn’t enough. Serious operators need a professional logo, well-made video, concise but informative text statement, and at least a few good audio or video clips. That’s just for a minimum. This means having a good professional network; guerilla operators get overwhelmed quickly.

Finally, Epstein repeatedly returns to the idea that crowdfunders aren’t merely making a dispassionate business pitch, we’re building relationships. Which makes sense, on consideration. I favor my local grocery for convenience, selection, and value, but also because I know and trust the workers. How much more does that apply online, where we’re bombarded by appeals daily, unmoored from the urgency of needing fresh produce close to where I live?

Epstein’s pitch is detailed enough to inform readers, but brief enough to prevent discouragement. He makes generous use of screen captures, infographics, charts, and other goofballs designed for visual thinkers. Essentially, this book is laid out like a webpage, appropriately enough, since it’s designed for web semi-professionals accustomed to the Internet’s multimedia format. This makes for smooth reading for multiple audiences, without dense, discouraging blocks of text.

This encourages me to say something I don’t believe I’ve ever written in a review: maybe you’re better off getting the Kindle version. Since we read books like this for information rather than pleasure, and since you probably need the data sooner rather than later if you’re drafting a crowdfunding campaign, and since it comes conveniently pre-formatted for online reading, and hey, since it’s four bucks cheaper, having the physical book probably doesn’t help much.

Having the information contained herein, however, helps a great deal. Like many self-starting entrepreneurs, you’re probably throwing yourself against your project with more brute force than professional polish. Having a mentor like Epstein to guide you away from the most common pitfalls can save you long-term heartache, and bring more money into your project. Epstein can’t solve all your problems, but he’ll prevent worse ones.

It may, sometimes, be necessary to separate Epstein’s content from his person. A director of small-budget vampire films, he cultivates a quirky, slightly dangerous image, a sort of off-Sunset John Waters. Many photos, including one inside this book, emphasize his wide, staring eyes and uncultivated beard. Don’t be fooled by his appearance, though. Epstein writes with a cool hand, a mind for thorough detail, and an eye toward diverse audiences.

The title notwithstanding, don’t expect to really understand crowdfunding in thirty minutes. At 73 pages plus back matter, this isn’t lunch break reading. And that’s before the necessary time spent planning and practicing the principles Epstein lays forth here. This book requires readers to think and plan conscientiously. But if it gets us thinking like business professionals, planning with a long horizon, we’re already a step ahead, right?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Dying to Get Into Aleppo

Elliot Ackerman, Dark at the Crossing: A Novel

Haris Abadi wants to die. He lost his passion for living while interpreting for American army interrogators during the Iraq war, though his loyalty earned him American citizenship. Now he has bribed a few officials, made his way to Turkey, and wants to cross into Syria to join the Free Syrian Army. Unfortunately, as he learns, borders exist for a reason, to keep people like him out.

Author Elliot Ackerman’s résumé reads like a mid-Twentieth-Century British author’s, a man absurdly overqualified for everything, who nevertheless dedicates himself to telling stories. A former Marine and CIA adjunct, White House staffer and NGO executive, he now lives in Istanbul, working as a stringer on Middle East issues for American audiences. He’s also won accolades for his short fiction, and this is his second novel.

Though an American citizen, Haris is essentially a man without a country. His pronouncements on wanting to enter Syria and overthrow Assad sound idealistic at first. But, beaten and robbed at the border, penniless in Turkey where he doesn’t speak the language, his ideals prove disposable. He bounces between some half-generous street kids and a Syrian expat who has connections. But he still keeps trying to enter the war zone.

Stranded in Antep, Turkey, Haris washes up with Amir and Daphne, an unhappily married couple who crossed the border the opposite direction. They lost everything when the Free Syrian Army mishandled a weapons cache in their building. Daphne still carries the scars after being dug from the rubble. Amir is disillusioned, ghosting through Turkey’s rich refugee life, but Daphne wants to return to Aleppo and find their daughter.

Elliot Ackerman
Like Ackerman, Haris is a renaissance man, a highly educated world traveller with multiple languages and a dramatic backstory. Unlike Ackerman, he’s fallen hard in life. Landing in Detroit following his army hitch, he paid his sister’s college tuition working as a janitor. She repaid his generosity by marrying an Emiriti millionaire and leaving America. Left alone, an unwanted foreigner in a dying economy, Haris has little to live for.

Ackerman writes with a slow voice, more interested in Haris’s inner turmoil than deep pronouncements on world affairs. Readers expecting a wild ride through Syria’s active war zone will find this novel a jolt. Fundamentally, this is a literary novel, a book not about actions or events, but about us, the readers. Like Jane Austen or Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ackerman doesn’t write about a specific time, he holds a mirror to his audience.

Syria offers Haris the sacramental garb of martyrdom he seeks. He proclaims loyalty to the Free Syrian Army’s professed ideals, but seems largely unaware what those ideas are. He ballyhoos his inside contacts, primarily a man he’s only met through e-mail, a Nigerian Prince of Syrian nationalism. If he paused, he’d realize he’s probably getting scammed. But if he paused, he’d also realize he’s trapped alone with himself.

In Daphne, Haris finds a kindred soul, somebody equally trapped in the past and unable to comprehend the present. Both want something they’ll only find in Syria. Haris will regain the purpose that war once provided him; Daphne will find her daughter. Both have pinned their hopes on vapor, but that’s only because they don’t really want what they want. Syria gives them a chance to die.

Americans like to romanticize the expatriate experience. We think citizens living abroad all crowd into one apartment and dance relentlessly, like Hemingway, Baldwin, and Gertrude Stein in Paris. Ackerman throws up a glamorless contrast to that mythology, a colony of Arabic-speakers in Turkey drifting through life, no longer alive but unwilling to die. These are people without a homeland, without an anchor, without souls.

In early chapters, Haris inveighs against the evils of both Daesh and Assad. He uses Islamic language, but has no particular personal religion. When the Free Syrian Army proves as morally corruptible as the enemies he seeks, Haris quickly shifts allegiances, even seeking partnership with the Daesh operative who robbed him. He still attempts to present himself as morally upright, but readers will realize, he fools himself because he must.

This isn’t a war novel about violence and heroism. Ackerman provides a literary insight into the workings of one human mind seeking to imbue life with meaning by finding something worth dying for. This proves a frustrating and ultimately chilling journey, one signposted with all the frailties of human morals and justification. But it’s a deeply humane story. It’s about the war, but again, it’s also ultimately about us.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Things Sean Spicer is Sorry For Today

First, I’d like to apologize to Greta Van Susteren for dragging her into this. I know you already look like a waffler for jumping ship from Fox News to MSNBC, almost like you don't really stand for anything but the next paycheck. Same for your networks. So having my sad mansplaining ass on your show probably didn't help much. If it's any comfort, when they fire you and you have to move to Russia Today right behind Ed Schultz, I’ll probably be looking for work too. Hey, maybe we could set up shop together? I could be your Ed McMahon! Think about it: “HEEEEEEERE’S Greta!” No, really, think about it. Please. I’ll leave my card with your people.

To Adolph Hitler: I know we keep dragging you out of the metaphor closet like an old coat. All the crap you’ve been through, you deserve the same chance at being consigned to oblivion that we gave Genghis Khan and the guy who thought Blunt Talk would be a step forward for Patrick Stewart. If it's any comfort, we may soon have a new gold standard for awful people doing obnoxious things. Just sayin’, we may get to retire your name soon. Sleep well, Adolph.

Also, to the Jews offended I mentioned Adolph during Passover: Mazel tov. I guess I was meshuggeneh. What a schlemiel, eh? Is okay, I go through desert with you. We all one people now. Is good, right?

My sincerest apologies to the camera guy who had to watch me flail. I slipped a C-note, so now your whiplash treatment is covered by Trumpcare. But let's just let that stay between you and me. We don't want everyone thinking they can get that kind of treatment.

To the UPI pool reporter, who asked about the tax returns, and I replied “Are you high?”: I had no idea that Jeff Sessions would order a spot drug test. Also, I had no idea about your Medical Marijuana card, or your debilitating pancreatitis, or the meds you can’t swallow without your dope. I truly am sorry, and though your lifeless remains can’t appreciate my sincere contrition, I did send your wife and your boyfriend fruit baskets, so it's okay. Right?

Fort Sumter. Not really me but, y’know, I knew people. So just, I’m sorry in general for that one. While we're being honest.

My regular cabbie, Sadiq, has become the one guy I can trust. He listens to my frustrations, and his old family hummus recipe belongs in the National Archives. Seriously. So Sadiq, if you’re watching this, I’m sorry for all the things I’ve had to say about your country, your family, and your people. That Instagram you showed me of your mother is really, really… well… I shouldn’t have asked for her number, that was inappropriate. You know I don’t have the connections to get her a green card, sorry. Do they have fruit baskets in your country?

To my agent: I know I said this would be a good way to kick-start my stand-up career, but in the spirit of full disclosure, I hadn’t really figured out how to get free stage time yet. And in fairness, hey, free publicity, right? It’s the Madonna principle: if people are talking smack about you, at least they’re talking. Okay, I admit, Madonna never had to make excuses for a guy who tried to stage-manage World War III. But I never tried to dry-hump a nun in four-four time. Which is a pretty good trade-off. I hope.

My wife says I should probably apologize for rendering up our firstborn as a hostage to The Donald and his diabolical plans. Because I used to believe in him, I really did. But you and I both know he’s gone batshit crazy off the rails, and I really want to get out of this train wreck. But he has my son. So until I get my family out of this, I guess my only hope is to grip my chair arms, make peace with my Lord, and await the sweet release of death.

And finally, I apologize for always wearing the same grey suit whenever I leave the house. There’s no excuse for that shit. I had the guy at Men’s Wearhouse take my measurements this morning, and I have my eyes on a debonair pinstripe number on the closeout rack. I hope they take EBT, because once I bust my son out, you know they ain't gonna pay me the big bucks anymore.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Rule of Law in a Monopoly Society

Cell phone image of a bleeding passenger, since
identified as Dr. David Dao, being dragged off
a United Airlines flight
The great British critic GK Chesterton wrote, between the World Wars, that for most people, most times, there is no difference between Communist and Capitalist regimes. In the aggregate, no matter the system, we work for someone else, under conditions we didn't choose. We don't own our own tools, and therefore lack leverage to negotiate for better work. And in both systems, bureaucrats control our lives. Whether corporate or state bureaucrats makes little practical difference.

On Monday, we witnessed two examples of American bureaucrats so high-handed, they unified Right and Left in outrage against the corporate state. You’ve already seen cell-phone footage of United Airlines “security officers” forcibly ejecting a medical doctor from a flight he’d already legally boarded. The crew arbitrarily selected him to relinquish his seat, but citing his waiting patients, he refused. So security slammed him bodily against the bulkhead and dragged him, bleeding, down the aisle.

Almost simultaneously, the Lake County, Florida, sheriff’s department released a PR video in which the sheriff threatens imminent crackdowns on heroin dealers. Surrounded by four armed and armored deputies with balaclavas over their faces, he cast an image many viewers found eerily similar to Daesh (ISIS) propaganda videos. Sheriff Grinnell’s aggressive rhetoric sounds exactly like Jihadi John threatening vengeance on journalists, Christians, apostates, and the kitchen sink. Turn the sound off, the illusion becomes complete.

Frustratingly, both actions are completely legal. Courts have ruled that any orders given by airline pilots, however capricious, however illegal on land, have force of law. United is facing PR blowback, but they’ve destroyed baggage and killed pets before. Their overwhelming market dominance exempts them from consequences. And legal precedent permits sheriffs to threaten, lie, coerce, and bully with relative impunity. Sheriff Grinnell's video looks terrible, but is nevertheless protected by existing Supreme Court precedent.

Smarter commentators than I struggle to create meaningful definitions of the word “bureaucracy.” I won’t attempt to settle all debates here. For our purposes, let’s define a bureaucracy as a hierarchical institution that deputizes some people to enforce rules, but doesn’t accord them discretion to interpret those rules. Law officers, like Sheriff Grinnell, or their civilian analogues, like the United security officers, have rules to enforce. Only their superiors (judges, bosses) can amend those rules.

Bureaucracies require a functional monopoly. Sheriff Grinnell has complete authority to enforce law in Lake County, Florida, endowed with this authority by the civil government, and elected by the county’s citizens. Despite the myths of unarmed civilian crimefighters like Batman or Phoenix Jones, real authority to combat lawlessness is vested in the government. Even private security officers, like United’s, or real-life civilian crimefighters, like the Guardian Angels, eventually turn their arrests over to the police.

Likewise, United basically has a similar monopoly in commercial flight. Thought other airlines exist, economists will mention something called the 3-30 Rule: when three suppliers control thirty percent of a market, that market is no longer free. United, American, and Southwest Airlines, though nominal competitors, functionally have monopoly authority. They can do anything, because we cannot go elsewhere. That’s why United successfully shrugs off bad publicity, like United Breaks Guitar, because we cannot stop them.

Sheriff Peyton Grinnell
(Orlando Sentinel photo)
As always, whenever people who posess power exercise it over the powerless, apologists have come out defending the actions others consider deplorable. Without authority over their county, or their plane, how can these authorities do their jobs? This claim isn’t without merit, from the powerful side of the spectrum. This centralization of authority—commercial authority, legal authority, or whatever—certainly benefits whoever controls that authority. Americans believe only time stands between us and becoming powerful.

Except that transit of power never quite happens. According to the National Sheriffs’ Association, there are 3,081 sheriff's’ offices in America. Even if each elected sheriff served one term and retired, there aren’t enough offices for every qualified law officer in America, much less every person living under the law. And even if even if every qualified pilot owned an airliner personally, who would do booking? Publicity? Serve drinks? Power is, by nature, distributed unequally.

Our answer to this abuse isn’t fighting power with power. As Chairman Mao demonstrated, when power models reverse, the names change, but structures remain steadfast. Our society’s opponent isn’t a militarized police force or a monopolistic airline. It’s the power they represent, the domination of citizens by massive bureaucratic organizations. Our solution isn’t installing new bureaucrats, it’s empowering ordinary citizens. I don’t know how to do that yet. But the time has come to try.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Usual Australian Suspects

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 18
Craig Monahan (writer/director), The Interview

When a police raid busts down Eddie Rodney Fleming’s (Hugo Weaving) door and arrests him for a stolen car, Fleming’s first reaction is to piss himself. Hardly the reaction of a street-hardened car thief. Also hardly the reaction, as the story unfolds, of a serial killer stalking the Australian outback, a predator stalking young students for the thrill of sport. But he may not be that either, as an excessively aggressive interrogator starts pulling contradictory stories loose.

Despite a brief flirtation with international fame following 1994’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Weaving had essentially returned to anonymity outside Australia by this movie’s release. His debut as a staple of high-dollar American science fiction wouldn’t come until the next year, with The Matrix. This relative obscurity limited Weaving to smaller paychecks, but it permitted him artistic liberty to pursue intellectually adventurous art-house fare like this.

Most of this movie takes place within the confines of one urban police station, mainly a single interview room. It has, somewhat, the conventions of a single-set play, with dialog-driven scenes, revelations driven primarily by claustrophobia, and no clear act divisions. The aptly named Detective Sergeant (Tony Martin) grills Fleming for hours, demanding information on crimes so grisly, Fleming visibly shrinks when asked about them. Steele rains down like God’s own vengeance.

Tony Martin (top, armed) arrests Hugo
Weaving in The Interview
Most of the movie turns on two questions: did he or didn’t he? And, do the ends justify the means? Fleming engages in surprisingly strategic horse-trades around his confessions. In exchange for a hot meal and dry shorts, he begins spilling details about crimes so gruesome that the tables turn, and Steele flees the room to regain his composure. But when Steele’s superiors ask follow-ups, Fleming insists his confessions were lies, calculated to end the humiliating interview.

Behind Fleming’s ambiguity, lies Steele’s. Fairly early on, as Steele sounds out Fleming, we discover somebody else is observing this interview. Apparently, Steele has a history of ethics violations, which his direct supervisors have overlooked because he gets results. But we watch Steele feed Fleming information, ask questions off the record, and directly threaten his suspect, all of which directly contravene Australian justice procedures. Steele is as rotten as the criminals he busts.

Writer-director Craig Monahan unabashedly plays with audiences’ loyalties. Fleming comes across initially as a shapeless nebbish: unemployed, divorced, living in a mold-stained flat with stacks of magazines and a pathetic goldfish. We wonder why Steele persecutes this poor sap so mercilessly. But Fleming’s confessions are too specific and detailed to have been invented spontaneously. Or are they? Even Steele realizes they’re contradictory and coincidence-driven. Who’s fooling who?

(An unused alternate ending, available on the DVD, sadly resolves this ambiguity. Skip it if you can.)

This movie is, essentially, an ongoing power struggle. DS Steele has the power to threaten, cajole, and coerce Fleming, confident he has the entire Australian justice system behind him. Falsely confident, as it happens. Fleming has only his stories to assuage the hot-tempered detective, but his words giveth, and his words taketh away. As Steele’s administrative support dwindles, Fleming manages to save his hide by playing both sides against one another.

Tony Martin, as Steele, is almost completely unknown outside Australia. He’s mainly done television and theatre at home, and hasn’t cultivated Weaving’s international audience base. That actually helps him with global audiences here: we have no baggage in seeing his performance. At times, he resembles Tim Roth or Harvey Keitel, actors whose characters are known for disregarding ethical norms in pursuit of their goals. Martin, as Steele, proves you can be right and still be wrong.

Monahan’s movie asks its audiences difficult questions about moral authority. Are people in power ever justified in lying to citizens who can’t fight back? Is it right to hang a suspect with rope he spun himself? When we have only verbal testimony, how can we be sure objective reality even exists? More important, this movie avoids the temptation to offer elementary solutions to these puzzles. To watch this film is to buy into its invitation to doubt the nature of reality.

This isn’t a crime movie. There’s no physical violence, no gunplay, no hard-bitten detective antics. Half police procedural, half psychological thriller, this movie forces audiences to adjust their rhythms to the pace presented, almost like a religious experience. Watching the movie, we, like Fleming, find ourselves transported to a world where words like “truth” and “time” have little meaning. And we return to our world changed by the experience.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Freedom, Anarchy, and the Immortal Soul

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 80
Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom and Anarchy and Christianity

Jacques Ellul became a committed Marxist during his membership in the French Resistance during World War II. Sometime following the war, he underwent a mystical experience (he left no record of exactly what happened) and converted to Christianity. These two forces, often presented as antagonistic, steered his thinking thereafter. He became a noted scholar of society, technology, and law. His pointed criticisms shaped global policy during the Cold War. But throughout, he remained his generation’s most visible Christian Marxist.

Written at the beginning of his career, The Presence of the Kingdom addresses the unique problems Christians face in the modern world. Ours is a singularly hostile age, stripping the tools we need to communicate with people as humans. Why do we allow technology to write our daily agendas? Why does communication become so muddled as our ways of speaking become clearer? This harsh world doesn't just threaten people; it jeopardizes Christians' mission to spread healing to a darkened world.

This book is basically five linked essays, in which Ellul addresses some of the most important threats to community and Christian theology. Do social philosophies help humankind, or do they add to our suffering? What does it mean for Christians to join in politics? Written during Europe’s postwar reconstruction, some of Ellul's specific references are three generations out of date, but his points remain as harrowing and poignant as they were then. This book provides a thumbnail introduction to his later, vastly complicated work.

Ellul's stark Calvinism offers a needed jolt to many American Christians, who lapse into comfy non-confrontation. His prose is  massively complex. He asks hard questions and requires his readers to think, to challenge their own dogmas. Great minds could spend years unpacking Ellul’s implications; in fact, Ellul himself did just that, devoting his career to expanding, revising, and clarifying points he first addresses here. His Christianity may seem harsh. But his point of view forces us out of the complacency we have enjoyed for far too long.

Jacques Ellul
Near the conclusion of his career, Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity condenses his lifelong philosophic theses into a concise format that provides a good overview and primer for possible future thought. Little more than a pamphlet, this volume restates Ellul’s most timeless thoughts, providing a handy summary of the logic by which he believes the Christian Scripture reveals an anti-statist bent at odds with the tendency of formal Christianity to make common cause with the powers of the earth.

Throughout this volume Ellul insists he is not trying to proselytize anyone for a point of view. Like Luther or Bonhoeffer, he mainly exhorts Christians back to their origins; he vocally insists he would make no converts. The repetition makes me suspect he protests too much, but this book is too short and introductory to change many minds. What it is likely to do is start lively, productive discussions that may allow two camps, often regarded as incompatible, to find commonalities and stop the feud that divides them both.

As a strict Calvinist in a nation losing its spiritual heritage, Ellul expresses disdain for anyone exercising dominion over others. He insists we must be cautious and selective in reading Calvin and Luther. There are some places, particularly in his exegesis of 1 Peter and of Paul, that he must perform interesting verbal gymnastics to reconcile his thesis with Scripture. He might have been better served here to take a bold approach and admit there are some things he just doesn't know.

These two volumes bracket a massively complex and inclusive career. Across nearly five decades, Ellul challenged social mores that devalued and abased human dignity. A survivor of Vichy, he wrote on the corrosive influence of propaganda; a legal historian, he expounded on the consequences of what he called The Technological Society and The Political Illusion. Throughout his career, though, Ellul remained grounded on the one moral foundation he believed Marx and Christ shared, that when one human exercises power over another, that person claims a role belonging exclusively to God.

Jacques Ellul didn't write for dabblers or dilettantes. His prose is ponderous and allusive, citing prior writings by himself and others. His prose aims to engage true believers, activists, and thinkers. Be willing to reserve a healthy measure of time before reading this book. But if you apportion that time wisely, Ellul opens up a new way of regarding our Christian mission on earth. Highly recommended for Christians, for conscientious resisters, and for intellectuals on both sides of the theological divide.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

John Sibley Williams in the Wilderness of Home

John Sibley Williams, disinheritance: poems

Veteran Portland, Oregon, poet John Sibley Williams writes like somebody carrying the weight of his ancestry in a backpack. You know, the big frame backpacks that excessively manful men wear while spending a long weekend getting lost up Mount Hood. The sprawling metaphor makes sense when reading his poetry, because Williams mixes liberal doses of nature imagery with deep feelings to coax meanings across the breadth of his book.

And what meanings they are. Williams explores themes of bone, ash, ghost: whatever traces the dead leave among the living. This may involve dark autumns along “Bone River,” a single poem Williams disarticulates into four segments throughout his book. This may involve a Dead Boy, a mysterious figure Williams has perform various enigmatic tasks, like Martyr His Mother or Fashion the Grand Canyon From His Body.

Like the best poets, Williams doesn’t permit simplistic, literal-minded interpretations of his verse. Overworked English teachers cannot (or shouldn’t) simply ask, what is the poet trying to tell us here. But as his themes develop across the range of his book, we realize there is nevertheless a current running, riparian, through his verse. Consider this representative passage from “The Cultural Narrative of Clouds”:
The sky is a girl abandoned naked by the river,
clouds swollen and purple
by light’s unthinkable angle.
Too young to spell moon
or her mother’s name.
Born ghosted. An offered fig
at the foot of the temple.
John Sibley Williams
In early poems, readers could be forgiven for thinking Williams places emphasis on river, clouds, light. His use of wilderness imagery looms so large, I initially believed Williams had written a love song for the Cascadian forests. But it doesn’t take long to realize a parallel river permeates Williams’ forest. The forlorn child, lost, abandoned, or dead, leads these verses from behind. Clearly something personal, something not obvious, dominates Williams’ thinking.

One should resist the desire to impute too much signifigance to individual titles. Especially in today’s narrow poetry-reading world, the ironic contradiction between title and content is a beloved device. Yet besides Dead Boy and Bone River, which between them constitute nearly a quarter of Williams’ titles, we have exemplars like “Miscarriage,” “Mother’s Day,” “Teething,” and one particular favorite, “Postpartum”:
He doesn’t know the consonants of our waste.
He can’t yet speak the vowels of ruin.
Perhaps it would be better if he never broke
from the frail bars of the cradle
into this vaguer cage.

I fear his sudden humanity.

So he won’t dream too far from things
I tear north from every map,
then I tear off the center. I take
down the photographs, sew shut the curtains,
go about eyes closed so he cannot see himself
in my mirror.
According to Facebook, Williams has young ’uns at home. This morbid taste of ash is paradoxical, but not wholly contradictory. It is, of course, dangerous to apply strict, one-to-one interpretations to poetry, especially non-objective poetry like Williams’. Poetry isn’t about a thing so much as the language experience. But Williams’ leitmotifs of Dead Boy, Miscarriage, and Mother surely bear consideration.

As a technical poet, Williams uses many popular motifs that readers have grown to expect. His expressionistic metaphors (“the consonants of our waste”) seem obvious once somebody voices them, but nobody did until Williams. Like many recent poets, he considers the left margin optional, and salts his poems with lacunae, which become more prominent as the book progresses, suggesting a mind caught in the frenzy of creative grief.

By the end, Williams’ themes have altered completely. Rather than getting lost in nature, the natural world becomes something he visits, a tourist destination with family on vacation (Grand Canyon). Rather than getting lost in the forest, trees become resources he consumes to shelter and protect his family. But sometimes, the resources he consumes in turn consume him, as in this passage from “Fertility”:
Can I say that a child died inside us
when all we have conceived is a name
for what could be?

We’ve built a cradle of nails and wood
to house a body too busy dying
to rest, a trophy of grief
we polish in case of tomorrow.
Williams basically invites us on a rugged journey into the heart of his pervasive melancholy. As George Bernard Shaw wrote, only the completely personal is truly universal, so as we venture into Williams’ struggles, we recognize ourselves, even we without children. His grief is ours, his glimpses of optimism between thunderheads our own. It isn’t easy. But it’s profoundly worth it.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Why We Need Liberal Arts in the Business World

Christian Madsbjerg, Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm

It’s become dogmatic in certain circles to insist that only STEM subjects matter; disciplines like English, Sociology, and Music have become passé. Danish-American strategy consultant Christian Madsbjerg disagrees. Traditional humanities disciplines are not backward or vestigial; in his experience, business professionals and forward-planning capitalists need these fields to function. We’re not all plugged into an algorithm, Madsbjerg writes. Humane arts are necessary in a wealthy society.

We’ve all grown bored with the repetitive claims. America need more welders and fewer philosophers, Marco Rubio said. Madsbjerg quotes Jeb Bush that psychology majors are headed for jobs at Chik-fil-A. Today’s data-driven world gives us all important answers, and we can accurately predict outcomes if we simply have sufficient information. Businesses run on data, and we need more number crunchers, more code writers. The numbers speak for themselves.

Not so, Madsbjerg writes. Numbers almost never speak for themselves; they need humans to interpret them. In his early chapters, Madsbjerg details several high-profile incidents where numbers, adrift from human context, proved the exact opposite of reality. Software failed to predict movements in population, economy, even disease epidemiology. Only a well-informed human could restore the context these numbers lacked, giving them power to mean anything in the real world.

From this foundation, Madsbjerg builds five formal bromides about how humanities make American business possible. I could list them: statements like “Culture—Not Individuals,” or “The North Star—Not GPS.” But unlike too many business writers, who dispense fortune cookie platitudes with casual disregard, the real joy in reading Madsbjerg comes from his explanations. A schooled philosopher himself, Madsbjerg coaches readers through a thought process, not memorized “skillz drillz.”

Christian Madsbjerg
Why, for instance, does the Ford Motor Company struggle to sell cars in India to people who are, demographically, almost identical to their core business in America? The answer, which Madsbjerg teases out across several chapters, has roots in cultural circumstances unrelated to cars. Running the bare statistics, middle-class Indian urbanites seemingly resemble their American peers. Understanding the difference requires pausing big data and unpacking respective cultural contexts.

This doesn’t mean abandoning technical skills. In my favorite illustration, Madsbjerg describes a Danish architect scouting a location for a prospective Swiss bid. Important aspects of architecture, like engineering properties of glass, steel, and masonry, apply everywhere. But aspects of designing this building, to fit into this business and regional culture, involve understandings not taught in design classrooms. These require understanding language and industry and art—in short, understanding humans.

Madsbjerg, to his credit, does not produce another crinkum-crankum encomium to why liberal arts education makes us better people. I could’ve written that; I probably have. As a business consultant, Madsbjerg maintains focus on economic implications. Liberally educated professionals make better business executives, he insists, because their diverse education allows them to face difficult situations, sift conflicting evidence, and make decisions that improve everyone’s condition.

This requires a complex relationship with information. Business executives who turn data into outcomes don’t simply receive their information; they run it through filters that, for lack of better terminology, resemble anthropology, literature, and art. Business history, and Madsbjerg’s prose, is replete with examples of people, well-trained to do one thing (spreadsheets, double-entry bookkeeping), who stumbled altogether when confronted with the larger picture. Liberally educated professionals can simply adapt better.

And Madsbjerg himself is actually a good example of this. I’ve had several books cross my desk recently, offering to make readers into billionaire business icons; most either bury the audience in source notes and statistics, or tell long, rambling anecdotes that seem largely irrelevant. Madsbjerg, by contrast, creates the kind of balance that makes his advice practical: numbers where they’re necessary, stories where they’re relevant, always couched in comprehensible context.

Humans are sensemaking creatures, Madsbjerg writes, thus his title. Increases in data collection and statistical analysis have made sensemaking more powerful, nuanced, and worthwhile. But data never simply exists as-is; it always comes from somewhere, and requires human intelligence to make it applicable. Without that human intelligence, which comes from understanding literature, social science, and other humanities disciplines, numbers mean nothing, or even create more confusion than they solve.

I’ve read and reviewed several business books recently, and hated more than I care to recount. The worst are often mere billboards for the authors’ consultancies, comprehensible only if a Harvard MBA or the author is present. Madsbjerg has instead created a manifesto. Businesses, money, and data all serve people, he writes, not vice versa. Understanding this makes the difference between success and failure.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Poor-Shaming in the Self-Help Industry

Earlier this week, New York-based MSW Melody Wilding published a column declaring people prone to poor decision-making could improve their choices, and their lives, using the HALT method. This approach requires people making any particular choice to first take care that they aren’t choosing while Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. I reached the end and wondered: does this author realize she just described the experience of being poor?

I don’t mean the experience of being destitute. Of course people living in illegal squats or sleeping on sidewalks make poor choices. Living day by day, hour by hour, they lack freedom and security enough to even make long-term decisions; they’re more focused on ensuring the few possessions they still have don’t get pilfered while they’re chasing the next meal. We expect the truly indigent to make bad decisions.

Rather, I mean ordinary working poor. People like me, living paycheck to paycheck, spend much of our time Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. I’ve sometimes punted meals onto the next pay cycle, banking on the reality well-known to survivalists, that the sensation of hunger dissipates after two to three days. I’ve postponed sleep to dedicate time and energy looking for other jobs, hoping to improve my material situation to rise above a constant HALT state.

And the job conditions absolutely require a tolerance for both loneliness and fatigue. I know, writing this, that by the time you read it, I’ll probably be at my job, working under solitary or near-solitary conditions. The equipment I use is too loud to permit me plugging earbuds into my phone, much less conversing with whatever co-workers might wander past. Even in a crowd, work conditions are intensely isolating.

Just last week, my boss assigned me a side task, “when you need a break.” So I assumed the task was low-priority, and continued my main assignment. The next morning, I found the parts I’d been assigned to locate and collect, when I needed a break, jammed atop my regular tools so precariously that, if I moved one piece, the others would collapse, possibly breaking my tools. My boss admitted pulling this passive-aggressive move out of pure petty spite.

So yeah, I’m Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired most of the time. Nor is this unique to any particular job. My blue-collar career has consisted of both construction and assembly line work, jobs that pay poorly because they’re considered low-skill and unimportant, and leave workers constantly surrounded by people but unable to talk. Before that, I was a university adjunct, a job that left me socially stimulated, but chronically broke and overextended.

These conditions are complicated by issues that seem incidental, but prove very important. For instance, the poorer you are in America, the further you live from work, statistically speaking. And probably, the further you live from access to public transportation, too. So you’re economically dependent upon your car, in which you probably spend a significant portion of your non-work hours. That’s time not spent with family, friends, or doing anything constructive or ennobling.

Also, a growing body of evidence indicates that most addictive behaviors, including substance abuse and certain other addictions, like gambling or risky sex, originate from some form of pain. This may include physical pain, or the psychological pain induced by loneliness. As the 1990s song indicates, Common People “dance and drink and screw, because there’s nothing else to do.” Put concisely, despite the common wisdom addictions don’t cause poverty; poverty causes addictions.

America’s elected officials prefer to invest resources in expanding what’s already Earth’s biggest military, offsetting costs by cutting half-invisible programs like Meals on Wheels. Why, these officials ask, can’t the elderly get their children to provide food and other protections against economic freefall? But these same officials do nothing to prevent the concentration of wealth in a few major cities, forcing young adults to move to New York, Chicago, and San Francisco in pursuit of work.

So yeah, America’s poor are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired most of the time. This forces us into cycles of lousy decision-making that prevent us improving our own lot. We recognize our own situation; we don’t need Gothamite experts reminding us. Yet self-help writers, from Jack Canfield to Suze Orton, constantly invent new ways to imply the poor are poor only because they lack Wall Street’s well-worn methods of saving, investing, and other good decisions.

I believe Melody Wilding means well. I certainly attempt to improve myself and my decision-making constantly. But when my job sometimes requires me to work thirteen days on, one day off, telling me that I’m making bad decisions because I’m tired isn’t just insulting. It’s a sign of deep-rooted ignorance in today’s economic atmosphere.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Who Is This Jon Ronson Person Anyway?

Jon Ronson, The Elephant in the Room: A Journey into the Trump Campaign and the “Alt-Right” and The Amazing Adventures of Phoenix Jones: And the Less Amazing Adventures of Some Other Real-Life Superheroes

Welsh journalist Jon Ronson probably came closest to hitting the big time when Ewan McGregor played him in the 2009 film The Men Who Stare At Goats. He lacks Hunter S. Thompson’s name recognition, despite being visibly influenced by Thompson’s gonzo style, but continues producing prolifically. Having recently discovered Ronson’s work, I decided to investigate him further by reading some of his standalone digital essays. Sadly, I emerged more confused than when I went in.

I cannot dispassionately consider Ronson’s essay about the Alt-right, in largest part because he published it before the 2016 general election. Like me, he considered Clinton's victory a foregone conclusion, and treats Donald Trump as a nine-days wonder, bound to blow over quickly. Interactions with actual conservatives present as low comedy. Thus he doesn't so much unpack Trump, as mock Trump's various hangers-on, especially Alex Jones, to whom Ronson has a personal and professional connection.

More important, for an essay whose title promises to go "Into the Trump Campaign and the Alt-Right," it offers precious few inside views. Ronson wanders into Alex Jones' studio a few times, where he's greeted with polite distrust. But he never meets Trump, Steve Bannon, Paul Manafort, or Kellyanne Conway. His Trump campaign reports originate in the press gallery way above the Republican National Convention. He’s one among the crowd; there's no insidership on display.

Completing this essay, I feel no better informed about the Alt-Right than going in. Who are they? What is their unifying position? When did they uncouple from the mainstream right? Are they more than PR jargon? For a term that's gotten ballyhooed widely in the last six months, I realize I know little about them. I undertook this essay, partly, hoping it would clarify my confusion. Instead I feel as flummoxed and adrift as ever.

This essay doesn't know what it wants to be about, probably because its author doesn't know what he wants to accomplish. We're I grading this whirlwind in my classroom, I'd say it lacks a thesis statement. Without that, the author lacks focus, and the reader lacks grounding. Ronson apparently expected a message to emerge from this stream of consciousness. But it's just a mélànge of liberal journalist buzzwords opportunistically grabbing a waiting, but confused, audience.

Jon Ronson
Ronson’s essay about the Real-Life Superhero Movement has the opposite problem: where he analyzes the Alt-Right he never meets, he meets the Superheroes he barely analyzes. Fluke Internet publicity made Phoenix Jones a viral sensation in the late 2000s, despite being hardly the only unarmed, costumed crimefighter in America, or even Seattle. Equipped with a press agent and a theatrical flair, Jones made civilian street patrols, formerly a fringe area, suddenly visible, if still unpopular.

Late-night patrols with Jones’s Rain City Superhero Movement reveal a strikingly banal truth: they don’t do much. Though Jones claims he’s been shot on patrol, his principal activity apparently involves making people stare, turning public gaze on unsavory people doing unsavory things, until they back down. They’re less crime-fighters, more public spectacle. In many ways, mostly unspoken but once briefly acknowledged, these “superheroes” channel the existential malaise inherent in Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel Watchmen.

Though the Rain City Superheroes have garnered media attention, they’re hardly America’s only self-proclaimed superheroes. Ronson visits other cities, only to find himself deeply disappointed. New York’s organized “superheroes” are effective at dispersing criminals, but have little flair; Ronson calls them bullies. San Diego’s superheroes make good PR, but patrol safe, gentrified downtown streets. Only the Rain City Superheroes combine theatre with (sadly paltry) results.  Despite many fine-sounding promises, this ain’t the Justice League, folks.

Unfortunately, Ronson only makes these “heroes” into punch lines. He observes them only one or two nights, which, combined with cursory interviews, denies them any reliable long view. He makes no attempt to get viewpoints from police, policy experts, psychologists, or basically anyone outside the movement. He simply contrasts the superheroes’ high-minded rhetoric with their banal results and rolls his eyes. Fans of pop psychology will see avenues for deeper investigation, which Ronson basically ignores.

These essays don’t instill confidence in Ronson’s journalism. The one trait they share is Ronson himself. Like P.J. O’Rourke and other Rolling Stone alumni, his “journalism” involves reporting what happened to him, and assuming it’s representative. If a student presented such content to me, I’d explain the Fallacy of Composition and suggest avenues for rewrite. But maybe that’s why I’m still slaving in the salt mines, while Ronson gets movie resales and TED Talk invites.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The “Gig Economy” and the American Work Ethic

Wages, insurance, guaranteed work? Screw you, who needs 'em?

Here’s a riddle for you: how can we call somebody “manager” of a facility if we never see him? I wondered that when the titular factory floor manager visited our shift one night. And when I say “one night,” I mean for forty-five minutes at the beginning of the shift. In over three years working third shift, I never saw our supposed factory manager before or after that all-crew meeting. Third shift was organizationally disconnected from the rest of the company.

Halfway through that meeting, a virtual monologue of bromides reheated from Stephen Covey and Kenneth Blanchard, the “manager” asked the assembled workers: “How many of you have second jobs outside this company?” About a quarter of workers raised a hand. “See there? That’s what I call initiative. When my son asks for a bigger allowance, I tell him to be more like the workers at [Company Name] and get a job. Take responsibility for yourself.”

Let’s be clear. In a room entirely comprised of adults working full time, with frequent mandatory overtime shifts, this manager considered it an indicator of high ethical character that roughly one in four workers cannot make ends meet. These workers, the majority of whom have spouses, partners, and/or minor children at home, spend half their waking hours inside this man’s facility, then decamp to another entire job to cover their bills.

Earlier this week, New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino published a short article, “The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death.” Tolentino quotes PR from inside “sharing economy” companies like Lyft, which praises a pregnant contract driver who picked up another fare after labor began, and Fiverr, which encourages freelancers to forego sleep. The images are pretty terrifying, especially if you amortize actual pay across work done.

But frankly, it isn’t surprising to anybody who’s worked jobs with little growth potential recently. Readers may recall the notorious McDonald's Employee Budget, which assumed workers had two jobs, while including no money for groceries or childcare. The jobs available to people lacking skills or connections, or who simply cannot reconcile their skillset with local economic demands, literally assume you can’t make ends meet on full-time employment.

Companies like Fiverr, which charges five bucks for skilled actions, are merely the culmination of economic trends, since the 1970s, that have progressively separated work from reward. They literally invite workers to charge five dollars for services like graphic design, a field that often charges in the hundreds, if not tens of thousands, of dollars for services rendered. These costs aren’t unreasonable, because buyers often reap rewards disproportionate to the value of actual performed labor.

Political cartoonist Ted Rall. Click to see source.

If you pay five dollars for, say, the cover design on your next self-published book, you’re either getting a substandard product done hastily in Microsoft Paint, or you’re profiting off somebody else’s desperation. The latter option, to the current economy, isn’t so bad. Thing is, when Tolentino associates this trend exclusively with the “gig economy,” she’s arguably missing the larger point. This isn’t a niche flaw; it has become characteristic of our entire working economy.

White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney last week defended President Trump’s proposed budget, which controversially cuts block grants to school lunch programs and Meals on Wheels to near-zero, by calling it “compassionate.” This is common reasoning in conservative circles: refusing to protect the poor gives them incentives to work. If there isn’t a floor through which people are prevented from falling, the logic goes, people will work even harder to prevent their own total economic collapse.

Yet at that same factory where I worked, where the absentee manager praised employees who needed second jobs to feed their children, I watched one young woman forced to quit a job she actually loved. She received a merit-based pay raise, which gave her just enough money to no longer qualify for protected childcare subsidies. Forced to choose between paying more out-of-pocket or leave her kids home alone unsupervised, she had only one choice: find another job that paid either more or less.

The gig economy makes visible something that’s been real but concealed for two generations now: Americans no longer value work. We give lip service to the American work ethic, to myths of self-reliance and bootstrapping. But our structural refusal to pay for the things we buy reveals our actual core values. My manager, and the PR flack who praised a Lyft driver working through birth pains, couldn’t have been clearer: If you’re poor, go fuck yourself. That’s all you deserve.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

In Praise of Fanfiction

Margery Kempe, history's first
fanfiction writer
As an undergraduate, I once had a creative writing class with a guy who wrote science fiction. I have no complaints about genre writing; of the three manuscripts I workshopped that semester, two of mine were also science fiction. But this guy’s stories were based on video games. This was easy to tell with one story, where the entire plot turned on monsters jumping out from behind furniture and yelling “Boo.” He admitted the second manuscript was the backstory for his online role-playing game character.

Ordinarily, I’d pay such people no mind, besides warning then to recognize the difference between differing media while writing. First-person shooter games reward simple, repetitive action, while RPGs favor exploration and exposition over action and dialog. Pick your medium, and stick with it. But I spoke with our teacher later, who informed me that, because this one student had serious problems with what she called “fanfiction,” she forbid any genre writing in future semesters.

That’s where I have a problem. Because fundamentally, I understand what this guy wanted to do. He had joined what USC professor Henry Jenkins calls “participatory culture,” a niche that includes not only fan fiction, but fan conventions, cosplaying, RPGs based on popular franchises, and other reciprocal creation. Audiences have never been entirely satisfied simply, passively receiving their favorite stories from the dream factories that create them. They’ve always wanted to join the creation.

In my pre-internet youth, I usually had no idea such participatory culture existed. Sure, I played with action figures, and schoolyard games involved adding to the canon of TV shows. We kids loved recreating Voltron episodes, and sometimes came near blows over who played the Black Lion. Looking back, it’s funny how the kids wearing football jerseys and recreating Monday night’s scrimmage lines were considered school heroes, but students trading hand-drawn Star Wars comics were “losers.”

But dedicated fan culture went much further. Mimeographed fan magazines, including fiction based around popular franchises like Star Trek, were frequently hand-distributed at conventions and circulated among friends. Burgeoning digital technologies made distribution of fan-made works more practical, and formerly narrow fan networks began trading stories globally. Continuing stories like James Cawley’s Star Trek: New Voyages, or Nicholas Briggs’ Doctor Who spinoff Auton received international distribution.

It’s easy for cultural snobs and university professors to dismiss fan creations as “mere” juvenilia. Better writers would naturally create original works, duh. But this hasn’t always been so. Well-respected writers have long attached their creations to existing works. Some have called English Christian mystic Margery Kempe a writer of fanfiction for inserting herself into New Testament narratives. Surely the tradition is older, as many scholars consider certain New Testament epistles later imitations of Saint Paul.

Promo poster from James Cawley's
Star Trek: New Voyages
Only with the rise of affordable print technology and widespread literacy did originality become something desirable in literature. When only limited resources existed for distribution of written material, originality was regarded as theft from the common store. Why bother creating something new, when you could better spend your time hand-copying the important works of bygone masters? Until the Industrial Revolution, works like “innovation” and “newfangledness” were deployed as insults.

Fanfiction writers don’t merely derive from existing works. They attempt to join an ongoing discussion, adding to the experience. And certainly, James Cawley’s episodes will never have the arching influence the original Star Trek had, particularly as his distribution license with Paramount forbids him showing a profit. But for an intimate circle of fans, such new content deepens the experience, particularly because in creating, they more wholly immerse themselves in the act of sharing.

In graduate school, I read research indicating that teachers could broaden students’ subject understanding by having them write new material within the subject. In sciences, this could mean creative writing about a discipline: deepening students’ grasp of sociology, for instance, by having them write from the perspective of someone from another race, sex, and nationality. In literature, writing “continuations” brings students into the process. I didn’t understand A Raisin in the Sun until writing a scene where Beneatha packs her belongings.

I remember telling a Freshman Comp student that art becomes art, not because we appreciate it, but because we have a relationship with it. And when we have a relationship with something, we want to return our feelings. We want that give-and-take with friends, spouses, children. Art is no different. If we passively receive it, and create new work only at right angles, we have missed the opportunity for true reciprocation with what we love.

Monday, March 20, 2017

One Day In an IKEA Showroom

Notice the arrow on the floor so that, like a theme park, you
experience IKEA in the sequence its designers intended

Entering an IKEA showroom distinctly resembles entering an airport. After finding parking in the subterranean garage, so huge that you have to remember alphanumeric codes if you ever hope to find your car again, you have to ascend two different escalators just to reach the front door. These escalators pass multiple displays of featured product, lovingly arranged just like airports arrange displays from local history and tourist attractions.

This demonstrates just one way IKEA attempts to structure its store like a full-immersion experience. The faux-Scandinavian place names (the children’s playground is called Småland) and the notorious free meatballs remind customers we’re entering an embassy from another nation. And quite an embassy it is, too: if you don’t claim your free map at the door, you’ll certainly get lost. And also forget your intended purchases.

Because the IKEA showroom isn’t, fundamentally, a store. Within the first few displays, it becomes clear you’ve entered a museum. The massive, intricately curated displays of furniture, arranged to recreate examples of how you could arrange your room, don’t involve any stock you’d actually buy. IKEA doesn’t invite you into their store to shop, they invite you in to witness their multiple lush displays of simple-colored middle-class aspiration.

One display near the door, in the Living Room area, features a fake-leather couch facing a wall-mounted media center. The wood veneer on the media center is color-coordinated with the couch, with doors and sliding drawer pulls in contrasting colors. Upon the media center, a 70-inch television is running cupcake competitions from the Food Network, that orgy of bourgeois pretension. IKEA hopes to sell you a lifestyle.

A life completely free of clutter. Or, y'know, windows.
So you don't have to see the messy world outside.

In today’s economy, this makes their approach particularly insidious. Where Target or Walmart assumes their customers already have intended purchases in mind, and permit customers to create their own itinerary for picking their product, IKEA requires you to pass through their showroom in a particular sequence, Living Room to Workspaces to Dining Room to Bedroom, before making any purchases. You have to immerse yourself in the IKEA experience.

The furniture is all arranged to mimic how you’d arrange your house, in a perfect world free from children or pets or workaday fatigue. Beds are carefully made, with fluffy comforters and hospital corners. Dining chairs are pushed in. TVs are turned on, but not loud. Perfect people who don’t get tired or frustrated or take their surroundings for granted could live here. It jibes perfectly with progressive Americans’ idealized Scandinavia.

Despite what I said previously, the showroom has occasional items for purchase. Displays of small items—paper napkins, macramé accessory hangers, collapsible storage boxes—serve to occasionally remind guests they’re here to purchase lifestyle aspirations, not merely drool over them. I never saw anybody carrying anything from these displays, merely picking them up and examining them. But they aren’t really there for purchase, just as reminders.

At points, the showroom includes homages to the Tiny Home movement. Areas walled off from the showroom floor, but with open doors inviting exploration, show customers how to organize a bachelor pad in 270 square feet, or a young couple’s first home in 370 feet, using design elements available in-store. They advertize a beautiful world, completely free from laundry on the floor or dishes in the sink, a world we’d live in if we didn’t have, y’know, stuff.

Designers try to make IKEA shopping as much about life
as possible, down to the family photos on the headboard

After the showcases, you pass into a restaurant area. Like an airport, or Disneyland, IKEA expects customers to dedicate most of their day to experiencing the showcase, and recognizes that you’ll need sustenance. Unfortunately, my brain was already in shutdown mode, overwhelmed by crowds and colors and constant sensory input. I’d already found the floating shelves I wanted; I longed only to buy and escape.

So down the escalator, to the actual shopping space. Only after the halfway mark does the company even provide shopping carts. The shopping happens below the showroom, as though filthy lucre is closer to earth. And unlike the lavishly appointed showroom, the shopping space is remarkably sparse. The weekend I shopped, heavy weather had isolated distribution centers in the Northeast from retail spaces nationwide.

We emerge, blinking, into the sunlight, clutching most of our intended purchases, full of meatballs and lingonberry soda. IKEA has eaten an entire day. We’re bleary-eyed and confused, as the clutter-free showroom surrenders to the dirty, carbon monoxide-choked parking garage. We must leave the aspirations behind and return to life. But we have the map, and can return any time. IKEA, like Disney, is more real than mere reality.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Living the Latin American Nightmare

Mariana Enriquez, Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories

A driftless young woman finds an abandoned skull in a Buenos Aires park, and becomes obsessed with reassembling the body. An apparently abandoned house turns out to be full of arcane artifacts and ethereal light, and an unhappy young girl wanders within, never to return. An angry urban husband mocks his wife, scorns the hickish truck driver who rescued them, and apparently packs his bags and wanders into an urban legend.

I can find precious little prior information on Mariana Enriquez. Though she’s apparently a well-respected journalist and novelist in her native Argentina, this is apparently her first book-length publication in English. She comes to Anglophonic readers a virtually blank slate provided we can avoid the temptation to make her resemble Jorge Luis Borges. Her short stories more resemble Edgar Allan Poe or Thomas Ligotti anyway.

Like Poe or Ligotti, Enriquez’s fiction uses foundations in the real world, incidents of the massively commonplace, as entry points into moments of overarching dread. When a woman, a sort of Argentinian do-gooder hipster, reaches out to a starving street child, we recognize a social justice warrior in action. When that child mentions a gripping fear of the monsters living across the railroad tracks, we wonder what monstrosities this child has experienced. And when that child disappears, we start seeking the real monsters.

This sense of creeping dread dominates Enriquez’s storytelling. As we read, we adjust our mental rhythms to Enriquez’s slow, sometimes soporific pace, and enter a sort of dreamland. As in our own dreams, this guided tour of somebody else’s phantasmagoria dwells more on mood than content. We start conjuring images of what could be, and our anticipations drip with creeping dread. We wonder: am I worse than the pending monster?

Mariana Enriquez
Some stories include actual monsters. “An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt” features a local tour guide having visions of an historic Buenos Aires murderer (an actual person, though English speakers will need to Google this). In “The Neighbor’s Courtyard,” a disgraced social worker looking to redeem herself breaks into a house where she suspects abuse is happening, only to find a cave of horrors worse than her frequently vivid imagination.

But many stories involve no literal monster, or something glimpsed only in passing. Three young girls on self-destructive benders watch an anonymous woman get off a bus in the wilderness, in “The Intoxicated Years,” only to see her years later, untouched by time, luring them into the forest. Another girl, in “End of Term,” mutilates her own body to appease an invisible man behind the mirror. Is she merely schizophrenic, or is her illness somehow contagious?

Two themes emerge as the stories mount up. In some stories, young women on the cusp of adulthood do something vindictive and ruinous, to themselves or others, and suffer consequences they never anticipated. Or an unhappy wife’s inability to express her gloom leads herself or her husband into a death spiral. Either way, a woman’s inner turmoil manifests itself upon the outside world, often at great cost to human life.

At her best, Enriquez couples this inner violence with Argentina’s history of literal violence. In my favorite story, “The Inn,” two teenage girls, one a closeted lesbian, attempt to gaslight a local hotelier. But the hotel they target was a police academy—read, “torture chamber”—during the Peronist years. When the ghosts of Argentina’s bloody past chase the girls through the present hallways, it’s impossible to not wonder who’s passing judgment upon whom?

Parapsychologists like Joe Nickell and William G. Roll have long noted the apparent correlation between deep emotional turmoil and seemingly supernatural occurrences. This seems especially prevalent with poltergeists; seems the movies weren’t wrong associating this phenomenon with an emotionally high-strung adolescent girl. Enriquez simply assumes these correlations are real, and asks herself: how would they manifest in my homeland today?

As in the best horror fiction, Enriquez conjures the most powerful scares, the most lasting nightmare fuel, by withholding information. She creates rich mindscapes, certainly; her storytelling is resplendent with small but telling details that immerse us in her world. But she conceals the Big Evil. Stephen King this ain’t, and anybody expecting the big reveal moment American horror writers savor waits in vain.

But audiences willing to suspend their Anglophonic expectations will find Enriquez rife with crawling disquiet, the kind that gets under your skin. Like Borges, Enriquez creates an interstitial world on the borderline between reality and dreams. Unlike Borges, she reminds us that our dreams are something to fear.