What even is literature?

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Back a few years ago, the Nobel committee created a minor furore for awarding Bob Dylan – known for his performances in Hearts of Fire* and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – a Nobel Prize in Literature. At the time, PBS Ideas Channel had an interesting take on this contentious topic. And as is always the case, it isn’t really that simple.

I’m near the front of the queue to criticise literature for being a dry and dreary form of art that sucks the life out of its audience. But of course, as Mike discusses in the video, literature isn’t as easily defined as my dismissive rhetoric would imply. What defines literature isn’t arbitrary, but it is often about who is defining or classifying a work as such.

My criticisms of literature stem from who performs this classifying, as they will often be people like Jonathan Jones – who said Terry Pratchett sucked – who will criticise the literary merits of works they haven’t read. These arbiters of artistic merit (i.e. snobs) like certain things, thus those certain things are worthy. They create lists of these worthy things and tell us we need to read them at school, study them at university, and expound on how much better these works are… until they actually read one of the unworthy ones and have to eat humble pie.

As I pointed out recently, the origins of what we call literature versus genre have their origins in the class divide during the Industrial Revolution. Workers got to read one type of magazine, whilst richer managers (but not the capitalists) got a fancier magazine. The stories that were published in the fancier magazines became literary, whilst the rest was genre. So when I say that literature is based on snobbery, it is quite literally the snobbery of class divides in “Western culture”.

So the literary and artistic merit we often operate under in society is more about what a certain group of people like. But as Mike points out, that isn’t a good definition and literature, and “good” art in general, are harder to define. Essentially anything can be literature. And even then the status of a work being literary may be revoked or instated, as tastes change.

Thus, having the Nobel committee awarding Dylan’s lyrics a literary prize might actually be about them trying to bridge the divide. They could possibly be about making us all think of lyrics as an art-form, something that has social defamiliarization. Lyrics are, after all, a form of poetry that are no less artful. Maybe this award will help us acknowledge that art/literature is all around us.

I look forward to future Nobel Prizes for Literature being handed to Dan Brown and James Patterson. Because they are certainly pushing literature in an interesting direction.

* This is a great reference. Seriously. Check for yourself.

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Book review: Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass MediaManufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Noam Chomsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Don’t believe everything you see in the news… but which bits?

There is a narrative we hold to be true: that the news media are trying to inform us of the facts; that they search high and low for the truth; that they are honest and hardworking; and that they hold truth to power. Manufacturing Consent presents the argument that they often don’t do that at all but instead operate under the Propaganda Model of media.

Almost a decade ago, I attended a panel session about news journalism that billed itself as to how award-winning journalists hunted down and exposed the truth. I walked out about half-way through from disgust. You see, these award-winning journalists had been patting themselves on the back for having done what I regard as the bare minimum of fact-checking on a story and had managed to discover something. These were the people we relied upon for our information.

While that wasn’t the first time (nor the last) that I’d run up against the failings of the media, it was the moment that has come to summarise my view of the media. I think that is why Chomsky and Herman’s thesis in the book feels familiar.* The way media act to perpetuate the status quo and the interests of power and influence is well articulated if unsurprising.

There were a few issues I had with Manufacturing Consent. The first was that the introductory chapters, including the preface written in the early 2000s, and the final chapter were excellent, but the middle case study chapters erred on the side of exhaustively labouring the point. I mean, the history of various conflicts was fascinating, but not exactly what I signed up for when I started reading.

The second issue I had was that this book feels somewhat out-of-date. The examples were from a previous generation of media. While it appears that much of the propaganda model still holds, you have to question if it isn’t far more nuanced now. Media ownership has become even more consolidated, the diversified online media landscape has made attention seeking and funded agenda pushing the norm, partisanship is leveraged for audience retention, media owners and management are more overtly pushing agendas, and lobbyists and other bad faith actors exist in all aspects of public discourse driving narratives. Power is Feeding the Chooks** now more than ever. It feels like the propaganda model and the 5 filters are still highly relevant but in need of an update to capture the new realities.

Another issue was one that was briefly touched upon in the final chapter. The propaganda model tends to assume a level of competence and diligence to journalism and the media. I often use Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. A lot of the reporting being attributed to a propaganda model may actually fall under the lazy, incompetent, and uninterested model instead. Although, that could be seen as part of the 5 filters of media selection – or to paraphrase Chomsky: if they were actually good at journalism they wouldn’t be working there.

My final issue was around solutions: what are they? There aren’t any solutions posed, both from the point of view of a media consumer trying to be well informed and from the point of view of a society wanting a reliable media. Some ideas are alluded to, such as the reports from independent groups covering an issue (e.g. Amnesty and America Watch were mentioned), which also requires an active audience who seek out information (i.e. lateral reading and fact-checking). But I feel as though this was an important set of recommendations to explicitly state.

A very interesting and insightful book that is well worth a read. Be warned that the case studies are more of a history lesson than you’d probably be expecting.

The 5 Filters of the Mass Media Machine

* Although, it may feel familiar because this text has been in the “mainstream” for decades, so much of it will have found its way to me without having read it directly.

** For the non-Aussies, Feeding the Chooks was a term for Press Conferences from one of Australia’s most corrupt politicians. Sir Joh would wait until journalists were desperate for information and then feed them timed propaganda that they wouldn’t question due to deadlines – hence, feeding the chooks. He was an authoritarian who rigged elections (sorry, gerrymandered…), essentially ran a police state, held the press in disdain, was generally racist and homophobic (although, kinda standard for an Aussie conservative from Queensland), and marginalised workers and unions.

Update: I’ve learned that Matt Taibbi wrote a book called Hate Inc. that was originally intended to be a modernising of Manufacturing Consent with Chomsky’s approval. It changed a bit, but addresses some of the issues I raised above.

Framing a viewpoint
Media descriptions summarised by Tom Gauld.

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Book vs Movie: Johnny Mnemonic – What’s the Difference?

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This month’s What’s the Difference? from CineFix looks at a not-so-classic movie starring the indomitable John Wick  Neo  Keanu Reeves.

Woah, the 90s were, like, 25 years ago. So long ago that the movie is set 2 years from now.

And that is also how long it has been since I’ve read the short story and watched the movie. I barely remember the story – but it was the reason I’d had Neuromancer on my TBR list for decades – and only recall a handful of scenes from the movie (e.g. Dr Allcome).

Does that mean a nostalgia trip is in order? Around the time of Johnny Mnemonic, there were several cyber-themed movies that would be interesting to watch now in The Future™. Seeing Keanu or Sandra Bullock talk tech could be a lot of fun or as cringy as those 60s and 70s movies with futuristic reel-to-reel computers.

Maybe not.

One of the advantages of books is that descriptions spur imagination whereas visuals (movies) tell you what you should be imagining. As a result, they don’t tend to date as badly as the visual medium*. So it is probably time to dust off some more Gibson.

Johnny Mnemonic, Keanu Reeves’ second best character named John, may not be the high water mark of his career, but it’s a significant piece of sci-fi nonetheless. Cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson’s original short story about a data trafficker with a time bomb in his headset the stage for decades worth of movie tropes you know and love. So how does a Sci-Fi classic turn into a great piece of mid-90’s guilty pleasure cinema? It’s time to ask What’s the Difference?

* Except for all of those pesky social changes that tend to date fiction badly.

Subverting a story and falling on your face

When I sat down at my desk to start work the other day, one of my colleagues came to my cubicle to tell me how disappointed they were with the finale of Game of Thrones. They were soon joined by another colleague. And then another. And then another.

It should be noted that I haven’t watched the show since about two-thirds of the way through the first season. But such is the importance of good storytelling to fans. At least my computer was able to install the updates while I heard about a season of TV I might never watch.

So, what did Game of Thrones do wrong?

How should I know? I don’t watch the show.

What I have managed to glean from several writer channels (see below) and from my disgusted work colleagues is that the show painted itself into a corner. The entire series was meant to be a subversion of the usual fantasy narratives and characters. Our archetypal protagonist was killed off. The archetypal antagonist was removed from power. Our ominous threat that drives the overarching plot… actually, that one appears to have been relatively normal. This makes things interesting but it also creates problems.

At some point, you have to try and make this subversive story have a narrative cohesion that feels rewarding. Otherwise, why are you watching other than to see who gets naked and/or dies this week? Many of the complaints come as a result of the show trying to make that switch to a narrative that could give the Game of Thrones a rewarding payoff.

Clearly, the showrunners weren’t able to do this to the satisfaction of the fans.

Non-fans? Meh.

Update: This post wouldn’t be complete without Lindsay Ellis’ take on things. She raises several points that the other videos don’t, especially the “Fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy” – or more accurately “Hot Fantasy That F**KS” – aspects of the series.

Rex Jameson’s musings on GoTs.

Book review: Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get ThereUtopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There by Rutger Bregman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.”

Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists starts with a simple premise: since we are already living in the utopia imagined by previous generations, what’s the utopia we’re aiming for now? We need big ideas to strive toward in order to keep progressing forward.

I have been meaning to read Utopia for Realists for several years now. Prior to the book’s publication, I read the sections Bregman had made available from two of his chapters on Medium. Those were my first introduction to the concept of a Universal Basic Income and how there was some fairly compelling, if limited, evidence for just giving people money to fix just about every problem. Poverty, it seems, isn’t a moral failing or a lack of work ethic, it’s a lack of cash. Since then I have watched several of his interviews and discussions (yes, including the Davos inequality panel) and still managed to gain more insights from his book.

It seems odd to note that we’ve stopped thinking about our future utopia. Outside of Star Trek*, most of our future visions are of dystopias which warn us of our mistakes, but also underline what happens when we stop thinking of a utopia to strive for. We can only see the negative futures, not the potentially great futures.

Bregman spends a lot of Utopia for Realists outlining several of our current societal problems and then introduces some of the evidence for his utopian vision of a Universal Basic Income, lower inequality, and a shorter working week as solutions. These are not new ideas – Mill, Russell, and Keynes have all written on these topics – but they are the utopia that Bregman thinks we need to be aiming for. In outlining the evidence in favour of this vision, he also shows how close we have come on several occasions to implementing some of these reforms and how easy it is for naysayers to win the day.

Utopia for Realists is very well written**, is easy to read, and not particularly long. The only reason I didn’t finish this quickly was that I kept tracking down the extensive references and surrounding literature for further reading. My own fault for being a giant nerd. One of my favourite references was this one on the value created by various professions, which suggests that we are rewarding some who are actively bad for the economy, whilst under-paying those who are good for the economy.

This book is highly recommended reading.

See also: https://tysonadams.com/2019/04/05/book-review-austerity-the-history-of-a-dangerous-idea-by-mark-blyth/
https://tysonadams.com/2019/03/19/book-review-winners-take-all-by-anand-giridharadas/

* Although, how much of a utopia is Star Trek, what with the wars, the planet of hats, and Borg collectives? Discussed further here.
** Not sure whether to credit this to Bregman or his translator – Elizabeth Manton.

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