Category Archives: 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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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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“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!

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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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The Last Holy Book

Hawkpanther (a guerilla marketing campaign from EA Games) is a parody of a self-help program for romantically frustrated men. In video clips, Hawkpanther’s “creator” and spokesman, Les Singer, pads around his penthouse apartment, sipping wine and promoting his modern, douchebag approach to love.

What if we combine the freedom and majesty of the hawk with the strength and the instincts of the panther to overcome society’s stranglehold on our institution of mating? Then everyone would become available—your friend’s girlfriend, your coworkers’ fiancees… your brother’s wife.

What’s he driving at? A book, of course. The Hawkpanther philosophy is laid out in a fictional book by the fictional Les Singer, as if the only thing more hilarious and gratifying than his spiel is the thought of owning it in hardcover.

On the TV show How I Met Your Mother, Neil Patrick Harris plays Barney Stinson—basically a younger, besuited version of Les Singer. For every conceivable situation in the dating life of a heterosexual male, Barney has already thought of a rule, a strategy, and/or a credo. Although he’s tech-savvy, Barney writes down his wisdom in old-fashioned books—like his (not so little) little black book of phone numbers, and his playbook of dating maneuvers. For most of us, the “little black book” and the “playbook” have passed into the realm of metaphor. But on How I Met Your Mother they’re still physical objects. And Barney’s association with printed books extends to real-life bookstores. Two of “Barney Stinson’s” books (The Bro Code and The Playbook) have been published, and a third (Bro on the Go) is forthcoming in November.

The tradition of the book as a mystical repository of sex knowledge goes back as far as the Kama Sutra and Song of Songs. But for today’s young men it probably starts with American Pie, the 1999 coming-of-age movie and its seven (seven!) sequels. In the original movie, Kevin receives a gift from  his older brother in the form of a sex “Bible” that describes a new technique that Kevin needs to master in the quest to lose his virginity. Ten years later, in the sequel Book of Love, the next generation of would-be-Lotharios has to trace the origins of the sex Bible, which has been handed down since time immemorial by the men at their high school.

 

In the American Pie series, a book is the key to understanding sex, but sex is never the goal itself. The goal is to pass from boyhood to manhood, with sex acting as cinematic shorthand for coming of age.

Real young men don’t really need a book to teach them about sex. They have the internet. But in fiction—online, on TV, and in the movies—the book remains a symbol of the shared, forbidden knowledge that sex education represents. The fictional sex guide for men is our last holy book. And it has to be fictional, since the real books that purport to “educate” men about sex and dating—like the Tucker Max oeuvre and The Complete A**hole’s Guide to Handling Chicks—are so deliberately gimmicky and trashy. It’s only the imaginary books that we still believe in.

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Facebook and the Opposite of Solipsism

Solipsism is the view or theory that self is the only object of real knowledge, or the only thing that really exists.

(Thanks, Dungeons & Dragons, for teaching me this at a young age, by depicting a group of adventurers called the “Sign of One” who believe that each of them, individually, have the power to shape the universe with their minds. That’s a “Signer” in the illustration above.)

Criticisms of Facebook include the notion that it encourages users to be self-absorbed, or to surround themselves with like-minded people who reiterate similar opinions, like what happened in the George W. Bush administration. In that sense, maybe Facebook is turning us into solipsists.

But I’m inclined to think Facebook promotes the opposite of solipsism — whatever that is. As you grow accustomed to putting every passing thought, announcement, and photo online for your friends to witness and validate, you start to feel like nothing in your life really exists until it’s been reflected by an Other.

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Real vs. Authentic

 

This is a response to a conversation with my friend Matt.

Matt, I think you’re right to start with reality TV as the prime example of our present understanding of the real. Initially reality TV was like documentary filmmaking—the camera took a neutral perspective on real-life events, and we assumed the creators were being neutral, too. But as reality TV evolved to compete for viewers, its creators’ neutrality eroded, and now its defining characteristic is simply that “this happened.” We acknowledge that the camera, being a neutral machine, isn’t quite lying to us, even though it’s being used to depict something that is partially contrived. No matter how scripted or deceptive it may be, reality TV shows you something that really happened. That’s the real. We can define the real as anything that happens, regardless of how it was created, so long as we are presented with evidence of it. OK Go’s music videos are a good example. They’re not necessarily artistic or valuable or even suited to the music, but you watch them and have this overwhelming sense of, “Damn. That happened.”

We’re talking about cultural products—music, movies, fashion, celebrity gossip, video games, culinary trends, etc., and we encounter these primarily through media. We read about them online, watch them on video, or listen to them on headphones. Since they are mediated, real things are not always equal to each other. A funny YouTube video with 1,000 hits is real, because it really happened and you can see it for yourself. But a funny YouTube video with 3,000,000 hits is even more real. It has somehow “happened” more. With the real, value correlates to ubiquity. The more a thing happens, via Facebook or Last Night’s Party or Us Weekly, the more real it is. In advanced states, the real becomes tautological. Kate Gosselin is Kate Gosselin because she is Kate Gosselin.

This premium on ubiquity means that some things can grow monstrously real even though everyone finds them distasteful or undeserving. Donald Trump is a loathsome prick. But he’s on a TV show, he has scads of money, and people are compelled to talk about him. He happens a lot. He is very real. So is Lady Gaga, even though every move she makes is contrived. So is the cast of Jersey Shore. Since all publicity is good publicity, it follows that all ratings are good ratings (even if viewers are tuning in to be appalled) and all money is good money (even if it’s acquired in a distasteful way). The real is pretty straightforward.

Authenticity, on the other hand, is like a hate crime. We all agree on the nature of the crime, and we all know who committed the crime, but we argue about the accused’s emotional and psychological state when he committed it. When we judge authenticity, we can agree that you’re standing in a divey-looking bar with a broken mirror and $3 cans of Bud Light. But we might argue about whether the bar intends to be divey-looking, or whether it’s just naturally a dive. In both cases we have to weigh a mountain’s worth of complicated backstories, contradictory interpretations, and hidden agendas. There is something almost naively noble about trying to evaluate a thing’s authenticity. You have to ask whether it’s being true to its essential nature—without necessarily knowing what its essential nature is, because how are we supposed to know a thing like that? The notion of authenticity is simple, but once you begin to investigate, it becomes terribly complex. Authenticity is frustrating.

I’m actually in favor of the real. As a means of evaluating cultural products, I think it works better than authenticity—in large part because of what I said earlier about monstrously real things. Nobody loves the very real stuff. We don’t praise the real automatically. It’s just a statement about where a thing stands in our cultural hierarchy. Because people are willing to both elevate it (by acknowledging its cultural importance) and denigrate it (by constantly talking shit), the real provides a fairly objective spectrum along which we can situate our opinions and identities as cultural consumers, relative to each other.

Authenticity, by contrast, was treated like a universal virtue. It became oppressive when small groups of people stamped a thing as “authentic” and expected everyone else to revere it accordingly. Authenticity was all-consuming: if you wore authentic clothes, you started down a slippery slope where you also had to watch authentic movies and eat authentic food. And if you were ever tainted by something inauthentic, it called into question the authenticity of everything else you did. But we all partake of the real to varying degrees. We’re all compromised by it, and we’re allowed to recoil from it when it becomes too much for us. The real is just a massive set of crude ideas about what counts. Each of us is encouraged to agree or disagree in our own way.

There’s a YouTube phenomenon where amateur bands play cover versions of hugely popular songs, like Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” in a style that matches the band’s own  obscure niche, whether it’s death metal or a cappella. The phenomenon is a tacit admission that Beyonce is bigger than the cover band will ever be. But it’s also a critique of Beyonce’s version and an aggressive demonstration of the cover band’s own identity. We don’t necessarily cheer for the real. We just start thinking about what our remix will sound like.

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Allergies and Possessive Adjectives

Until three years ago I didn’t have any allergies. Peanuts, strawberries, bee stings, pollen, dust – bring ‘em on. Then I spent my first spring in New York City, and something about the dandelions in Central Park (or maybe it was the cherry blossoms in Brooklyn, the magnolias in Washington Square, or the pear flowers on Broadway) kicked me right in the sinuses.

The dry, stuffy feeling in my throat is only a minor nuisance. What really bothers me is that now I’m a dork. Because allergies are for dorks. That’s what I was raised to believe. Kids who stay indoors, kids who wear glasses, kids who inherited weak genetic material, kids who need an excuse not to try out for soccer – they’re the ones who have allergies.

Allergies seem to reflect a personal weakness on the part of those who suffer them, and it’s not just because of a social stigma. It’s also a linguistic convention. We talk about allergies using possessive adjectives – “my allergies,” “her allergies,” “your allergies,” but never “an allergy,” or “the allergies.” (Sometimes it’s appropriate to just say “allergies.”) If you catch a cold, it’s “a cold”—anyone else might have caught it instead. Even the most personal afflictions are described in impersonal terms—“a broken ankle,” “cancer,” “the clap.”

But we usually pair allergies with a possessive adjective. Allergies are attributed to the victim, as if it’s their own fault, their own personal weakness. In this way allergies belong to a special category of things that we assign to people who haven’t really earned them (yet), like a fifteen-year-old studying for “her” driver’s license, or a grad student explaining the requirements for “his” PhD.

I would much rather talk about “my” PhD than “my” allergies. But I guess that would make me a dork, too.

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