Monday, October 29, 2007

Saying the F word in class

In M. Buttefly, David Henry Hwang shows how stereotypes/fantasies about race, gender, and sex conflate with stereotypes/fantasies about nationality, culture, and imperialism. Today in lit class, I wished to highlight how flawed sexual attitudes/beliefs leads to flawed politics/foreign policy in the play. The key passage is Song's speech on "international rape mentality:"

"The West thinks of itself as masculine--big guns, big industry, big money--so the East is feminine-- [...] Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated--because a woman can't think for herself. [...] You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men."

To illustrate the point, I noted how in our everday language, we often use terms for sex, violent sex, or rape to express something bad happening to us. I gave three examples: "I'm screwed," "You're really fucking me over," and "I'm not going to just bend over and take it." It made sense, contextually, to use the F word itself, as we were explicitly discussing language. To illustrate how common expressions we use include disturbing allusions, it did not seem useful to avoid the word itself.

Later in comp class, we were discussing advertising. We talked about advertising pushing limits, and a student brought up an ad that used words/letters to sound like swear words (to shock, get attention, etc.). I referred to one commercial that used a word and said it sounds like "fucking." In this case, the context made the usage less necessary, yet realizing I had said it earlier made me feel there was no reason to skirt the subject when teaching adults. There was a reason to say it, but it was entirely possible to discuss the matter without actually saying the word.

It's not that I see a reason as a teacher (or as a person) to use the word often, and I'm not up in front of class just flinging profanity about--when discussing it explicitly, in context, it seems acceptable. I've said other swear words in normal lecture/discussion in class ("hell" and "shit" come out very rarely), but the F word seems something different (which is what inspires me to write about it here.

Anyway, it appears I've become the stereotype I always aspired to be: the liberal long-haired anti-war vegetarian professor that says "fuck" in class.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Twin Cities Theater

The Star Tribune reports on Travel + Leisure and CNN Headline News rating the Twin Cities #2 nationwide in theater (behind New York, of course). Gosh, in October Ian McKellen was at the Guthrie starring in King Lear (MPR), and it was also announced that Tony Kushner would debut a new play at the Guthrie in 2009 (Star Tribune).

Friday, October 26, 2007

What does this say?

The college I teach at is currently facing a health insurance crisis affecting faculty and staff (the details of which I needn't address here). We've received numerous communications from several sources (including the chancellor), and we've had to try make sense of the situation by gathering what we can from all sorts of partial messages. It's difficult to get anybody to give us clear answers (somewhat understandably), and we're scrambling rather quickly to figure out what we are supposed to do (collectively and individually).

But what does it say when the student newspaper article on the situation provides the clearest and simplest explanation of the problem that I've read?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Simple request for some of my students

I know you don't think anything of it. I know for you, a pen is just a cheap utilitarian tool, and that a Paper Mate Write Bros. is not anything to be obsessive about. Hey, I've got seemingly dozens of them scattered about my house (literally dozens in unopened bags, but all sorts of individual pens in different locations in the house where I can easily access them), so an unknowing observer might think they mean nothing to me. And when you come to the front table and have forgotten to put your name on your assignment, and you see a pen (my pen) sitting there, I'm sure it's just instinct that makes you grab for it.

But I have one simple request.



Monday, October 22, 2007


"Some fashions (tongue piercings, perhaps?) flower once and then disappear, hopefully forever. Others swing in and out of style, as if fastened to the end of a pendulum. Two foibles of human life strongly promote this oscillatory mode. First, our need to create order in a complex world begets our worst mental habit: dichotomy, or our tendency to reduce an intricate set of subtle shadings to a choice between two diametrically opposed alternatives (each with moral weight and therefore ripe for bombast and pontification, if not outright warfare): religion versus science, liberal versus conservative, plain versus fancy, Roll Over Beethoven versus the Moonlight Sonata. Second, many deep questions about our livelihoods, and the fates of nations, truly have no answers -- so we cycle the presumed alternatives of our dichotomies, one after the other, always hoping that, this time, we will find the nonexistent key."

--Stephen Jay Gould, "Dolly's Fashion and Louis' Passion"

This FreeDarko post explores some ideas on "the collective" and "the individual." Reading it, I was forced to discover yet another dichotomy I fundamentally reject, another dichotomy I replace with "Both/And."

My values have been moving (slowing, and with purpose) toward the communal, and yet my attitude toward the community is largely viewed in individual terms. I still demand that as an individual I can freely choose my community; participation in a community of choice is in many ways an individual act, still firmly based on existential freedom. And I still demand to be allowed to be an individual within the community: a community should be a collective of individuals, and any community which requires individuals to subsume themselves into it is not a community I want to belong to in this world (the next? who knows).

So for me, a community should be freely chosen (as an individual), and should allow individual identities, values, and needs to participate openly within it. It is no less the collective, and power and meaning can come from the collective. And yet it is no less the individual, an existence created by and allowing for individual choice and being.

I reject the dichotomy, what Stephen Jay Gould calls "our tendency to reduce an intricate set of subtle shadings to a choice between two diametrically opposed alternatives." In this post-modern existence, I again choose Both/And, the reality of both individual and community.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Frame Stories

I just rewatched Moulin Rouge, and to be clear, here is the frame for the story.

On screen, we see a red curtain open up and images start to flicker on a screen; this is frame one, an audience watching a film.

In the image, we see Toulouse singing about Christian; this is frame one, Toulouse singing about the story.

We then flash to Christian, writing on his typewriter; this is frame three, Christian writing his story.

We're at least three steps removed from the actual story: we're watching a movie about a movie about a guy telling the story about a guy telling a story. There's a sketch in The Kids in the Hall about two guys sitting in a bar talking about a movie one of the guys watched the night before, and then we see the movie, and in the movie, two characters are talking about a movie one saw where two guys were sitting in a bar discussing a movie. There's an episode of The Simpsons in which characters share stories and read notes that bring us into stories within stories within stories to an absurd degree. That's what this seems like, but it's for real. And then, of course, Christian's story is about writing a play that reflected his own life story. I'm getting tired.

Other famous frame stories? There's Heart of Darkness, where a guy tells the story about hearing Marlowe tell a story. There's The Turn of the Screw, which if I remember correctly, a guy tells a story about another guy telling a story he heard (there may have been somebody writing the story down). There's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a very famous frame story. There's Frankenstein, where Frankenstein tells his story to a particular ship captain. Of course Don Quixote may have started this all: the narrator describes reading and translating from a particular chronicler or Quixote's adventures. The frame story is a very old function and convention of Western literature.

The benefits of a frame story? Sometimes the frame itself can add thematic meaning. Sometimes it places the audience into the story. Sometimes it renders the narrative unreliable.

Think about frame stories.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Magus

The Magus, by John Fowles, is one of my favorite books. Here's why.

In The French Lietenant's Woman, Fowles writes a conventional plot with a contrived narrative form. In The Magus, Fowles writes in a conventional narrative form with a contrived plot. I explored the metafiction of each novel more fully in my Master's Essay at St. Thomas, "Playing God: the Reader and Author in John Fowles' The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman," where I used reader-response criticism to illuminate the metafiction. Fowles never just straight writes--he's always playing with narrative, always aware that he's writing fiction, always inviting his reader in on the game.

Existential Freedom and Responsibility
Conchis' dilemma at the execution is the greatest illustration of existential freedom in all of literature: Conchis makes a deliberate decision to assert his freedom at the expense of utilitarian practicality.

It is not only that decision that illustrates existential freedom and responsibility, but the entire lesson Nicholas is forced to learn. Nicholas, Conchis, Fowles, and the reader explore the themes of post-modern existentialist humanity and dilemma.

Inspired Writing
There are many breathtaking passages in the novel. Each autobiographical story that Conchis shares is captivating. The final chapter is brilliant. Fowles is a masterful writer, capable of beauty and inspiration.

This book takes the reader on a journey, a journey that is always a game. But the reader may come away from the game altered, seeing the world forever differently.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Moulin Rouge!

I would like to write occasional posts about my favorite films and books exploring why they are my favorites. We can start with my favorite movie, Moulin Rouge. Why is this my favorite film?

Realism is thrown out.
When I'm watching a movie, I know I'm watching a movie; I don't need anybody to try give me a sense of realism. Moulin Rouge knows it is a movie and lets it be a movie. That's why we can enjoy anachronistic songs. We know it's fake, so let's not pretend it's fake: let's enjoy people from a century ago singing songs from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Amazingly fun things can keep happening, and it's OK because we're just along to have fun, not to believe it.

The visual achievement is astounding.
The colors, the sets, the costumes, the movement, the choreography, is all a delight. The constantly shifting camera shows incredible technical ability (watch how quickly the camera shot and angle keeps shifting--rarely is the camera ever left to linger in one shot). It's a constant, living, energetic flourish. The first 25 minutes of the film is just magical.

It's metafictional.
There's a writer writing a play, and the play is based on his real life. But the events in the play end up impacting his real life--which of course effects the play. And at the end, the real life story and the play story come together in a way that cannot even be distinguished: Christian is the citar player and Satin is courtesan, and the relationships and the plots and the characters all come together as one.

Archetypal characters and worthwhile themes.
Beauty, freedom, truth, and love. The idealism of youth.

It's a musical, stupid.
How could this not be fun? I love musicals; little makes me happier than seeing people sing what they're supposed to be saying. Seeing familiar songs set into a plot with characters singing their emotions to each other is a gorgeously creative move.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Jacket

George: We'll say we're frightened and we have to go home.
Jerry: Yeah, that's good. He'll clunk our heads together like Moe.

Alton Benes: Pendant? Those bastards.

Comment: There's a lot to like about this episode. In Jerry's opening monologue, he says he hates picking out outfits for himself every day (me too--and now I pick out outfits for a kid). George gets "Master of the House" from Les Miserables stuck in his head, and who among us hasn't seen that scenario played out? The awkwardness when George and Jerry are trying to talk to Alton Benes is wonderful and real.

Stupid Summer Project: The Baby Shower

Jerry: What you're suggesting is illegal.
Kramer: It's not illegal.
Jerry: It's against the law.
Kramer: Well, yeah.

Kramer: Cable Boy! Cable Boy! What have you done to my little Cable Boy?

Comment: I'm so sad when George, planning on standing up to a woman who wronged him, weakly caves to her and gets pushed around again. I know, it's part of his character, his destiny: it has to happen as such. But I personally feel wronged when George is wronged; I want greatly for him to win.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"Tell me what you don't like about yourself."

When I watched the first two seasons of Nip/Tuck, I wrote (back on xanga--oh how far we've come) that the show made me want to change my life, that it made me want to be something better than what I am. In the trademark line, in the shifting desires of Sean and Christian, in the desires of patients for transformation, there is the the constant urge toward change, improvement, regeneration, evolution.

But there was another aspect of the show that stands out: the constant need to top itself. It just keeps going and going and going, until you think there is no possible way to carry the extremes further. And now I watch the show grinning, even laughing, at the excesses of plot and subject (my experience of the show is through DVD, so I'm on season four). After surprise transsexuals, a serial killer plot line, murders, affairs, every sort of sexual debauchery imaginable, what next? And yet it continues: incredibly, unbelievable, the show tops itself with the over-the-top, the absurd, the excessive, the perverse, the strange. I didn't think it could do it, but it does.

But the desire to change my life? Since I watched it, I've bought a house, had a child, become a vegetarian (and even tried an extended bout of veganism), and started new and better blogs. I won't pretend the show inspired any of these life changes--but I won't pretend the desire for transformation and rebirth isn't at the heart of the show's appeal for me.

The two most significant plays in American history

"Death of a Salesman," Arthur Miller
"You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away--a man is not a piece of fruit!" Willy Loman cries as he's getting fired. And in this line we see the dehumanization of capitalism. In "Death of a Salesman," Miller explores the marketplace value of humanity, where all that matters is what a man can produce and acquire, where the economic value of the man is seen as the whole value of the man...and what is lost in such a value system.

In various places, I get to see how economists and capitalists think. And I wish for them all to read "Death of a Salesman." I wish for us to see that human dignity matters more than marketplace capitalism, and that humans have value beyond their economic value. In a country where more and more economics define the value of a human, "Death of a Salesman" is the most necessary--and the most tragic--of American plays.

"M. Butterfly," David Henry Hwang
Everything is explored here. Race. Gender. Sex. Nationality. Stereotypes. Assumptions. Image. Perception. Power. No matter how many times I teach it, I still look forward to teaching it again. At one time I was asked what book every college student should read, and I said To Kill a Mockingbird. Today I say "M. Butterfly." There are ideas in this play that simply must be considered.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Free Will

"this the old habit, the old blood which he had not been permitted to choose for himself, which had been bequeathed him willy nilly and which had run for so long (and who knew where, battening on what of outrage and savagery and lust) before it came to him. I could keep on, he thought."

--William Faulkner, "Barn Burning"

"But testosterone is also one of my favorite examples of how responsive biology is, how attuned it is to the way we live our lives. Testosterone, it turns out, rises in response to competition and threat. In the days of our ancestors, this might have been hand-to-hand combat or high-risk hunting endeavors."

--Deborah Blum, "The Gender Blur"

"n one study, for example, men with lower amounts of testosterone were willing to hold baby dolls for a longer period of time than those with a higher count. In another, the very act of holding dolls lowered testosterone."

--Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, Lev Grossman, "Fatherhood 2.0"

We are fated to many things beyond our control. We cannot control the family we are born into, the body we are born into, the environment we are born into, the socio-economic status we are born into. And yet, like Sarty, we can make choices. We can choose. There is much in my world I cannot control, but I can still make choices about my own behavior in this world I did not create. I am not, as Dostoevsky calls it in "Notes from the Underground," a sprig in a barrel organ.

Our biochemistry dictates so much of our behavior. But let us not forget something else: our behavior can change our biochemistry. We are not victims nor slaves of our biochemistry: we can choose our behavior. Our biochemistry changes from different environments and different activities--sometimes from those activities we choose to participate in (or, if you prefer, how we choose to act). Again, I am not a sprig in a barrel organ--even my biochemistry, which I am so beholden to, is partly beholden to me and my conscious choices of action.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


The twin concepts of redemption and forgiveness are more and more driving my ethics. They are the values of much of the literature I'm drawn to (all of Fyodor Dostoevsky, what I know of Hugo, the best of Stephen King). It is belief in redemption which leads me to oppose capital punishment: the murderer on death row is not beyond the scope of redemption and forgiveness, and should be given a chance to find them. It is the belief which leads me to forgive athletes their off-the-field crimes when others would label them forever tainted. It is in part this belief which is leading me to search for a new church (and at the one I attended today, the pastor used a passage about faith to talk about the need to forgive everybody, including enemies, and he was specific and concrete in the lesson--this is what I'm looking for in a church).

This is becoming the guiding idea of my life, and it is both personal and social: it is amnesty, mutual forgiveness, that can heal some of the hard rifts of our society. Let there be healing. Let there be peace among us.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Sex and Death

When I was an undergrad, there was a professor about whom many undergrads said, "All he talks about is sex and death." When I took this professor, I found this wasn't the case: he talked about the literature. A lot of great literature is about sex and death. And a lot of the greatest of human themes involve sex and death.

Now as a teacher, I find it possible that some of my students think I obsess on sex and death (though perhaps not in that order). But I think I'm just dealing with the literature and presenting important themes.