Culture postsFriday August 02, 2013
The Enormous Mass of Facts
I read this today in George W.S. Trow's book, “My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998,” which was published in 1999:
The man of today is a citizen of the world. He seems to be ubiquitous. It is as though he had a thousand eyes and ears and, alas, only one mind. Thought has two conditions. First, knowledge as food and stimulus, second, time for distributing and digesting that knowledge. But the first is so superabundantly fulfilled that it completely obliterates the second. Knowledge comes pouring in from all quarters so rapidly that the man can hardly receive, much less arrange and think out, the enormous mass of facts daily accumulating upon him.
Yeah yeah yeah, you say. We know all that already. Move on already.
Except that's not Trow writing in 1999. That's John A. French writing in Continental Monthly in March 1864.
Here's part of the rest of his paragraph:
The boasted age of printing presses and newspapers, of penny magazines and penny encyclopedias is not necessarily the age of thought. There is a worldwide difference between knowledge and wisdom. The one consists of facts as they are, the other of facts as they may be. The one sees events, the other relations.
1864. Not only before the internet, but before television, radio, movies, the automobile. Before James Joyce. Hell, it was written, or at least published, a mere 20 years after the first telegraph message was sent in the U.S. That message: “What hath God wrought?” But even then, even in 1864, the complaint was that we had too much information besotting our brains. We had too many facts and too little wisdom.
You can take this two ways:
- Each age speeds things up enough so that the rush of information will feel overwhelming to any mind developed during the slower times of 20, 40, 60 years previous.
- We're fucked.
Calvin and Hobbes Explains FOX-News 10 Years Before FOX-News
I remember seeing this particular strip when it was first published back in the 1980s. It's only gotten more relevant.
'Negroes Oppose Film': A 1921 NAACP Protest of 'Birth of a Nation'
I love the stuff you find in The New York Times archive. It's our history written in stilted language.
I was recently looking into D.W. Griffith's “Birth of a Nation,” for example, and came across this from May 7, 1921:
It's not just a world before the civil rights movement; it's a world before acronyms. (Five of the protesters were arrested, including three women and two ex-servicemen.)
The full article is available here. If you subscribe already. Which you totally should.
How Roger Ebert is Wrong in that Sundance Clip
The clip below has been making the rounds in the wake of Roger Ebert's death last week.
At Sundance in 2003, during the Q&A after a screening of Justin Lin's “Better Luck Tomorrow,” an audience member stands up, talks about the talent on screen and on the stage, then asks, or demands, “But why, with the talent up there, and yourself, make a movie that's so empty and amoral for Asian-Americans and for Americans?”
Then Roger Ebert stands up. Among other things he says is this: “What I find very offensive and condescending about your statement is that nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, 'How could you do this to your people?' ... Asian-American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be!”
Everybody loves this clip. The presumption of the one guy, the lusty defense by the other. It's a Hollywood movie in microcosm. We have our villain (the presumptuous bastard), our hero (Roger Ebert, RIP), our stance (moral).
Question: In what way is the villain right? And in what way is the hero wrong?
Roger asks why white filmmakers don't have to justify their choices. They do, but not as white filmmakers. Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese had to defend their choices as Italian-American filmmakers. Philip Roth spent a career defending his choices as a Jewish writer. Of course Coppola and Scorsese had to defend themselves from other Italian-Americans, or at least Italian-American groups, while Roth had to defend himself from Jewish groups. That's the presumption in the above clip. The questioner steps outside the racial lines we've all drawn. He's a chastising outsider in what, at best, is an internecine affair.
In a perfect world, yes, no artist, no person, is asked to embody their race, even though, in other contexts, such as the big screen on Friday (Jackie Robinson in “42”), and in the book I'm currently reading (“Hank Greenberg: Hero of Heroes”), we celebrate this. But we don't live in a perfect world.
I grew up in Minneapolis, Minn., Scandinavian descent. After college I lived for two years in Taipei, Taiwan, where I quickly realized that if I acted in such a way it wouldn't just be me acting this way. I wouldn't just be an asshole, in other words, I would be an American asshole.
Or would I? I suppose the greater question is this: Do majorities suffer from this type of myopia (seeing the one as representative of the whole) or do minorities only fear that they do? And is this fear its own form of myopia (seeing the majority as one entity) or merely common sense (people are the way they are)? This conversation isn't limited to racial matters, by the way. See: Cars/bicyclists, for example. See anything.
In the above, Roger is mostly correct. Asian-American characters do have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be. But the other dude is right, too. Justin Lin made his characters shallow and empty in a world that's already full of the shallow and empty. For that, Lin has been rewarded mightily by Hollywood. His new movie, “Fast & Furious 6,” opens in May.
Want to Be Taken Seriously?
In my InBox this morning...
The key word, the word that prevents argument, is “better.” Become a good writer? I am a good writer. Become a better writer? Well, even James Joyce can't argue.
You can argue with the enticement: to be taken seriously. Is that something to be desired in a less-than-serious country? And, if desired, would becoming a better writer achieve that goal? Most writers, who work in the dark and do what we can and give what we have, assume writing is a great path to not be taken seriously. Being taken seriously involves mostly one thing; one weird trick, as they say: how much do you make?
My friend and fellow writer Andy on all the failure that goes into writing. “To get it wrong so many times,” as E.I. Lonoff said.
My favorite part of the email? “Tailored For You.”