Category Archives: theory of everything

Hipsters and Kid Art

The obituary for hipsters by Mark Greif in New York magazine (excerpted from this) is interesting enough that you should probably read the whole thing. But I want to highlight one paragraph. Here’s the lead-in:

Contemporary hipsterism has been defined by an obsessive interest in the conflict between knowingness and naïveté, guilty self-awareness and absolved self-absorption.

Greif’s main examples are Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, McSweeney’s) and Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums).

The tensions of this art revolved around the very old dyad of adulthood and a child-centered world, but landed heavily on the side of the child. Formally, there was an aestheticization of the mode of pastiche, which Fredric Jameson identified in the early eighties as a characteristic mode of postmodern narrative. Here, however, “blank parody” gave way to a reconstruction of past techniques more perfect than the originals, in an irony without sarcasm, bitterness, or critique. Reflexivity was used as a means to get back to sentimental emotion.

Keep in mind that, for an art critic, to call something “sentimental” is about the same as calling it “worthless.”

This observation – that much of what is “hip” in art today is overly concerned with the stuff of childhood – has been running through my posts on this blog for a while. There was the skepticism I showed for people like Neil Gaiman (Coraline) and Dave Eggers, again, with Spike Jonze (Where the While Things Are) who translate kids’ stories into big movies that are supposed to appeal to adults. There was a takedown of superhero comics (like Kick-Ass), which have become a huge industry, even though they almost never rise above their adolescent premise. And there was a whole post about the trend of adults reading YA books that was so inflammatory I had to remove it from the blog.

Lately it’s been hip for adults to make and consume art that’s essentially for children. I don’t know if the hipster is dead, as Greif says, but I hope this part of hipsterism is dead.



Filed under a motion picture is worth a couple of words, Bad Fiction, theory of everything

Two Challenges to the ‘Everything is a Remix’ Argument

As we try to convince ourselves, rather arrogantly, that we live in an unprecedented era of human history (and really, doesn’t every generation want to think so?), it has become popular to say that everything is a remix. This sounds like a defeatist attitude at first, like we’re just poor players on a well-trod stage, doomed to re-enact the dramas of our elders. But the idea has caught on because it serves as a rallying cry for increased democracy in the arts; as a justification for tearing down copyright restrictions; and as an easy way for fusty critics to seem cool by coming out “boldly” in favor of, say, Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album. So we’re going through a cycle where everyone wants to be the loudest person in the room shouting the old, old maxim that “art is theft.”

(For background, see here and here.)

Possibly without meaning to, David Orr offers a very tangible critique of this rather abstract notion, by covering a rare subject: the overabundance of epigraphs in contemporary poetry. It seems few of today’s poets can even begin a poem without quoting a handful of their favorite writers first. And while the epigraph has a long tradition in poetry, today’s poets may be going overboard.

“Very often,” he says of the epigraph, “the main thing is not what it says but who its author is, plus the sense of indirect backing that its presence at the edge of a text gives rise to.” The point, then, isn’t Karl Marx’s wisdom, it’s “Karl Marx.”

[O]nce a symbol of ambition, the epigraph is now more likely to be an indication of community. It tells us less about whom a poet hopes to equal and more about where he’d like to hang out.

When poets quote Stevens but not Eliot (or Frost, for that matter), the implication is they expect a potential reader to be the sort of person who considers Stevens the Acceptable Name.

The implication (if you ask me) is that a cut-and-paste approach to art doesn’t create much of anything; it mostly reinforces existing tastes and identifies social in-groups. In other words, David Shields can suck it.

So… what to say about this?

Aside from the accidental hilariousness of a young, amateur historian making a huge claim about “how the world works” based on a close reading of the Sugar Hill Gang?

We’ll say this. Everything is a remix in the same way that Tiger Woods is black. He’s actually half Asian, one quarter black, one eighth Native American, and one eight Dutch. If you’re saying that anyone with a drop of African American blood is black, then sure, Tiger Woods belongs in the category of things that are (at least partially) black. By that reasoning, “Stairway to Heaven” and Harry Potter and Will Smith’s rapping oeuvre can be considered remixes. Because they include parts that are borrowed from other things. If that’s what the maker of this little film was trying to prove, then congratulations, guy. You’ve just demonstrated something so obvious and so impossible to quantify that it’s functionally meaningless.

Black is not the only thing Tiger Woods is. You can’t separate his black parts from the rest of him. It’s the same for “everything” that is a remix: these works of art contain an element of something that came before them. Plus a bunch of other stuff. In quantities and arrangements that are unique to each work. It’s those quantities and arrangements that define the artwork—not their inclusion in some umbrella category of “things that borrow from other things.” As David Orr suggests, the borrowed elements are often the least important, artistically, since they serve mostly to establish the work’s pedigree among fans and insiders.

What about the other 3/4 of Tiger Woods?


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Filed under "Non-fiction", how fiction explains the world, theory of everything

INTERVIEW(ed): Publishing School at The Awl

In what I hope will become a regular column, Matthew Gallaway polled four working writers (including me) about how they manage to get anything done.

Now you know all my secrets!


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Filed under theory of everything

I’ll Blast You into Outer Mongolia!

Ever see a cartoon where Bugs Bunny shows up in the wrong place (a medieval castle, a bullfighting ring, the South Pole) and says, “Eh, I should have turned left at Albuquerque?”

I always laugh at those. Probably because Albuquerque is so incredibly dull compared to wherever Bugs is. In a world where rabbits talk, anvils fall out of the sky, and everyone is trailed by a little cloud of dust when they run, the only thing that really can surprise me is something awfully plain. Something like… Albuquerque. It’s so tedious and real that it seems, in this context, hilariously fake.

The same reversal of the fantastic and the mundane happens in any Coneheads sketch. “We are from France,” they say. But we know the Coneheads are from outer space. The idea that they could pass as residents of a very real European country feels startling and incompatible. It makes France seem more unlikely than the distant reaches of the galaxy.

You may also recall that Paddington Bear is from “Darkest Peru.” But we never see him there. (In fact, Bugs never goes to Albuquerque, and the Coneheads never go to France, either. These places must remain unseen and exotic in order to be funny.) Paddington makes his first appearance at Paddington Station, where he wears a tag that says “Please look after this bear.” It makes no difference where he comes from, as long as it’s somewhere unfathomably far away. “Darkest Peru” is as good a place – meaning as random and mysterious a place – as any.

I seem to remember a cartoon where people who misbehaved were blasted into “Outer Mongolia.” Does anyone know what that show was? As a kid, I thought, “What do they say instead of ‘Outer Mongolia’ when they air this cartoon in Outer Mongolia? Maybe they use the name of my town. Mongolians would probably find my town more unbelievable than Bugs Bunny on the moon.

Fiction triangulates us. There I was, a real kid in California, entering the imaginary world of Bugs Bunny, who was trying to burrow into the real world at Albuquerque.


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Filed under a motion picture is worth a couple of words, how fiction explains the world, theory of everything

“I Am Such a Geek!”

Are people still using the rhetorical device “[X] is such a [geek/nerd/dork]?” Yes, they are. WHY ARE THEY DOING THAT? God damn it! They should really stop.

A NYTBR review of Rob Sheffield’s new book shows why no one should ever say this again. Let’s look at the first paragraph and see what’s going on.

Rob Sheffield is a geek.

The opening line is meant to be a doozy. Rob Sheffield, the rock & roll journalist, is a geek! OMG CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? Well, you probably can. He’s part of a whole tradition of rock & roll “geekdom” that includes Chuck Klosterman and every scene in the movie Almost Famous.

Most rock critics are, but Sheffield, a columnist for Rolling Stone, takes it to a whole new level.

Whoa. Whoa. After dropping the bomb that Rob Sheffield is a geek, the writer downplays her own scoop… then re-up-plays it all over again. It’s a double reversal! I don’t even know what’s going on anymore. I don’t think she does, either.

In “Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut,” he lays bare the tortured soul of a music geek coming of age in New England in the 1980s.

Suddenly we learn exactly what kind of geek Rob Sheffield is supposed to be. He’s a A) young, B) New England, C) music, D) geek E) in the 1980s.

Were you starting to identify with Rob Sheffield, as the writer hoped you would? Were you thinking, “I sometimes feel like a geek, too. Perhaps this geek and I have something in common?” Well, now you don’t have anything in common with him. Unless you, too, happen to be a young New England music geek in the 1980s. Which you probably aren’t. So the writer’s whole gambit of asking you to identify with a fellow geek isn’t working, is it?

And make no mistake about it, his soul is tortured.

Um… padding the word count because you know this is a shallow rhetorical device?

Blame liberal doses of Catholicism, Morrissey, and John Hughes. Sheffield is Duckie without the fashion sense, or the girl.

The last two sentences severely narrow the playing field. If you caught all of these cultural references—and not only caught them, but find them both A) amusing, and B) worthy of a serious critique—then you are welcome to enjoy the rest of this discussion. If not, then fuck off. Or you can sit on the sidelines while the REAL geeks talk about what REALLY matters—namely, Pretty in Pink.

A stench of hypocrisy hangs around the phrase “I am such a [geek/nerd/dork].” It pretends to say: “Pity me, because no one appreciates the things I love!” But it really says: “Admire me, because I care more about [X] than you do!”

Worse, it’s a hollow phrase. No one is a geek in the same way that anyone else is a geek. One geek may be a young New England music geek in the 1980s, while another geek is a middle-aged Pakistani fashion geek with a pet snake. There’s no common bond. Anyone, if you describe them carefully enough, becomes a unique person with a seemingly bizarre set of interests—a geek. At the end of the Rob Sheffield review, the writer says, about geeks, that “we are all this way at some level.” If each of us is equally uniquely geeky—just like each of us is a unique snowflake—then it’s meaningless to boast about being a geek!



Filed under language, theory of everything

Random Awesomeness

The paintings of Todd Schorr (above).

“The ‘bad seed’ narrative—genetically sociopathic child commits atrocities—was much more newsworthy…”

“I spent twenty minutes moonwalking the carpet and singing Andy Gibb’s ‘I Just Want to Be Your Everything’ before collapsing on the bed, where I lay awake until dawn, quaking with the conviction that every decision I’ve made since birth has been corrupt, selfish, and wrong.”—Wells Tower

“In order to speak a language like Guugu Yimithirr, you need to know where the cardinal directions are at each and every moment of your waking life. You need to have a compass in your mind that operates all the time…”

“For those of you who don’t know, you’ll presume ‘fraggle rock’ was an extremely powerful type of crystal meth.”

“Knowledge, far from limiting imagination, enables it to serve its central function.”


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Filed under how fiction explains the world, theory of everything