Saturday, December 31, 2011

Things To Read On The Internet

The last few weeks of term sent me a little wild. I hadn't managed my time too well, and I had a huge amount of work to pull off in not very much time. Because I have only two registers of discourse – dry understatement and wild exaggeration – I lamented my plight in grandiose terms, wishing only for some free time in which to sleep and watch TV to my heart's content.

Well, I got what I wished for, and in true Aesop fashion, it's biting me in the ass. I've had two weeks of hols so far, and I'm bored as shit.

I'm spending about half my time with some of the only friends who are still around, and as long as I'm with them – watching NewsRadio and Futurama, playing an assortment of zombie-related games, even doing their damn dishes – I feel okay. But then I go back to my ghostly quiet dorm building, and it gets to me. Part of me wants to laugh maniacally and turn cartwheels naked in the corridors, because I HAVE THE WHOLE PLACE TO MYSELF; part of me wants to just crawl into bed and hibernate until everyone's back, because I have the whole place to myself. This ambivalence is doing strange things to my head, and I'm afraid I might find myself doing something drastic to alleviate the boredom.

So, as always in times of crisis, I turn to my best friend: the internet.

Perhaps you too, dear reader, find that at two AM you are still awake, cursing the ceiling, wondering if that odd noise in the walls is a monster in your walk-in closet or a monster in someone else's walk-in closet, talking out loud to the spider in the corner. If so, may I recommend to you some of my favorite things to read on the internet of late.

Mark Does Stuff began a couple years ago as a little Buzznet community with a simple premise: Mark would read the Twilight books, chapter by chapter, and review them. What none of us knew going in was that the Twilight books would make Mark very, very angry. His reviews were funny, they were furious, and they were heartbreaking, pouring out the bitter memories of his abusive childhood.

Then Mark read Harry Potter, and we learned that the only thing better than angry Mark was squeeing fanperson Mark. Now there's a whole Mark Does Stuff community, based around Mark's chapter-by-chapter reviews of books and episode-by-episode reviews of TV shows. He's done a ton of stuff, including Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, The Hunger Games, His Dark Materials, and A Song of Ice and Fire, but at the moment he's reading Lord of the Rings and watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The hook is, he's never been exposed to either and has no idea what he's in for. He makes wild predictions, he makes snap judgments as he goes along, and it's all incredibly entertaining for the fan of this stuff who knows what's in store for him.

Actually the whole Slacktiverse blogging community is a goldmine of interesting things to read, but the Left Behind deconstructions are the undisputed highlight. If you're unfamiliar with the Left Behind books, Fred Clark the Slacktivist is happy to explain to you precisely why they are the Worst Books in the World – in excruciating detail. He reads them with a fine-tooth comb, picking apart each agonizing page to demonstrate exactly why these evangelical bestsellers are (in his words) “evil, anti-Christian crap.”

Fred's been at it on a weekly basis for eight years now, and he's only just finished the second book. At this rate, his deconstructions of the full series should keep us entertained through 2067. If he can continue to be as viciously insightful and witty as he has been so far, I'm content to keep reading him for the next half-century. (The best part is, he's spawned some top-notch emulation of the obsessively-detailed-deconstruction format, especially from Ana Mardoll, who's doing a terrific job on both Twilight and Narnia.)

Don't be fooled by the rather off-putting design. FerretBrain is a hell of a lot of fun. The “Random” button in the sidebar is your best friend. On more than one occasion, I've been up past three in the morning, hitting that button over and over, skipping past the articles that don't interest me (mostly the ones on videogames) and reading with fascination the ones that do. The FB crew review a lot of fantasy novels, but also movies, TV, comic books, theater, and sometimes just whatever is on their desks. The site's selling point is that the reviews are just so damn good. They're detailed, thought-provoking, concerned with combating -isms, unafraid to express very strong opinions, and quite likely to challenge some of your warmest and fuzziest feelings about the things you love.

Some of my very favorite FerretBrain articles:

Harry Potter and the Doctrine of the Calvinists is possibly the crowning achievement of an extensive series of highly critical and really very excellent articles on the most popular books in the world. In fact, why don't you read them all.
Don't They Shine Beautiful? is a very long and absolutely brilliant essay on Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (as filmed by Tim Burton). You'll probably need to be a bit of a musical theater geek to appreciate this one, but if you are it's well worth reading.
It's Not Easy Being Green reviews a book I've never heard of and do not intend to read, and by “reviews” I mean “completely shreds”. Actually any article categorized as “Minority Warrior” or “Fantasy Rape Watch” is likely to be golden.

Gosh, just writing this up has made me feel a lot better. See you sometime in 2012 – assuming I ever manage to extricate myself from TV Tropes...

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My First Christmas

I hadn't really been thinking about it until the end of term, when suddenly everyone was going home for the holidays and I wasn't. That was when I realized I was thinking of my Lonely Christmas almost as a rite of passage: as something necessary, something I had to do.

Partly it's because my older brother spent Christmas away from the family two years ago – the first time we weren't all together – and so it seemed natural to follow in his steps.

Partly it's because I have some friends who are quite open about how much they hate Christmas – how tense and miserable it is to bring unhappy families together under the immense pressure of knowing it's supposed to be The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year – and I've always wondered how it feels to be unhappy on Christmas.

And I think there's a theological reason too. I think that, as everything I learn about God convinces me more that God stands with the poor, the outcast, the lonely, the oppressed, it just doesn't seem right to mark God's coming into the world by being all warm and happy with my family.

Christmas isn't supposed to be warm and fuzzy.

The first 22 Christmases of my life couldn't have been warmer or fuzzier. I gathered with my parents and brothers, ate and drank gluttonously, tore open an abundance of presents (none of which, casting my mind back, I can even remember), and sang about the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

On my 23rd Christmas, I actually thought seriously about the little Lord Jesus.

Like most people with a Classics degree, I am unconvinced by the nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke. They're riddled with historical implausibilities, and are probably somewhat tortured back-formations designed to make Jesus fulfill the messianic prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures as translated into the Septuagint. The Christmas story is not convincing as historical truth (which is not to say it must be historically false, just that it probably is); but as aesthetic truth, as theological truth, it shines a great light in the darkness.

Read as a narrative affirming God's presence, God's total identification, with the poor and the outcast, the Christmas story is a purveyor of profound theological truth.

God in the form of a newborn baby: God is with the helpless.

God born in a stable, laid in a manger: God is with the homeless.

God born in an occupied territory of a mighty empire: God is with the oppressed.

God on the run from a murderous tyrant: God is with the refugee.

Compared to the suffering of most people in this world, my Lonely Christmas was hardly lonely. I have a family that loves and misses me, though it is 5000 miles away. I have friends who welcomed me into their home. I have more friends who let me know they were thinking of me.

But I am still a stranger in a strange land, and in that small way I feel an abiding kinship with the God who took on human form, with its weaknesses and sorrows and limitations, in order to bring the constant and unfailing word of hope to me and to all humankind: you are not alone.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Alternative Seasonally Depressing Playlist of Sadness

'Tis the season to be jolly and joyous, and all that, but for some of us it's actually rather melancholy. Maybe it brings up painful memories, maybe the family gathering's full of tension and misery, maybe the family gathering's taking place 5000 miles away from you, or maybe you just get really bad SAD. Regardless of why (or even whether) we're glum, we can all agree that cheesy holiday songs are the absolute last thing we need. So I've knocked together a little playlist for an hour or so of anti-festive wallowing: Anna's Alternative Seasonally Depressing Playlist of Sadness.

Over the Rhine, “Latter Days
A friend who's had an unbelievably awful year introduced me to this song recently, and no wonder. It's five and a half minutes of pure aural heartbreak. Hardened sociopaths have been made to tearily beg their victims' forgiveness by this song. Cthulhu himself weeps when he hears this song. “Latter Days” reduces me to a quivering ball of jelly, bawling on the floor under my desk as I clutch my knees to my chest and rock back and forth.

Roxy Music, “Avalon

Diana Ross, “If We Hold On Together
Oh my God, Littlefoot's mom.

XTC, “This World Over
My family's Christmas letter this year began: “Although the world sometimes seems to be in imminent danger of falling apart economically, climatically, and developmentally...” We're all a little obsessed with the end of the world, and as we enter 2012 it seems entirely appropriate to get emotional about it. (Any song that reduces my beloved London to “a sea of rubble” is hitting me where it hurts.)

Joy Division, “Eternal
Call a friend before you listen to this, the apex of a brief, talented, and incredibly depressing musical career. Seriously, buddy system.

Coil, “Broccoli
I don't even listen to this song. I almost didn't link to it, because it's just too cruel. When I hear it, I'm reminded of listening to it on the London Underground after watching Grave of the Fireflies, and nobody needs to be reminded of that.

Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now

Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, “Praying Is A Heartache
Cut from the same cloth as “Latter Days”, “Praying Is A Heartache” is SYGC's most beautiful song and the highlight of their 2009 album ...And the Horse You Rode In On. Yeah, I'm going to keep shamelessly plugging SYGC until somebody agrees with me that they are just the tops.

Peter Gabriel, “A Different Drum
This song doesn't even have words. The lyrics are all, “oh-whoa-whoa-whoooooa...” If music can evoke the transcendent, “A Different Drum” definitely does.

Ever suffered a distance-enforced break-up? If you're someone I know, probably – we all seem to have done it. Relive that pain. Wallow.

House of Love, “Man To Child
Stop it. Just stop it. The world doesn't need more emotions, House of Love; it needs fewer, so quit trying to create them.

Antony & the Johnsons, “You Are My Sister
You don't need to have a sister to be moved by this song. You don't even need to be a sister. As long as you have a friend close enough to be considered an honorary sibling, I defy you to listen to this song without at least getting a little something in your eye.

Adele, “Turning Tables
Forget the sappy, overexposed, overrated “Someone Like You”. “Turning Tables” is the Adele song with the most raw feeling behind it.

Wicked cast, “For Good
This is, like, the song for our jet-setting generation. If you've ever cursed the very existence of friendship because one party or the other always leaves, give this song a spin and shed a tear or two. Nobody's judging. Even those tedious people who say they hate musicals get verklempt at this song.

Dixie Chicks, “Wide Open Spaces
Ever had a mother? Ever left her? Yeeah, good luck keeping those eyes dry, buddy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bacon-Flavored Strawberries: Gene Marks Is Socially Constructed, And So Are You

So the latest face-melting jackassery doing the Tour de Shame on the SJ blogosphere is this prize putrescence, “If I Were A Poor Black Kid”. It's exactly as skull-crushingly awful as you'd expect: a rich white dude bragging about how he would be way better at poorblackkid-ing than poor black kids are, and if only people who actually are poor black kids would be as good at poorblackkid-ing as this rich white dude would totally be, then they could all be rich white dudes too. Or: “If I hadn't been born at the top of the heap, I'd've pulled myself up here by my own bootstraps!”

Obviously this is pukatronic, in more ways than I can possibly enumerate, but I think the thing that frustrates me most about Poorblackkidgate is the utter lack of self-awareness. Postmodernism is older than the Beatles; it should be old hat by now, and yet apparently people – people who are given a platform and are listened to – are still unwilling or unable to acknowledge that they are socially constructed. A rich white dude cannot say, “If I were a poor black kid...”, because it is meaningless. If he were a poor black kid, he would not be the person he is. He would have different opinions, different personality traits, different ways of expressing himself. In writing his article, he envisions Himself – Gene Marks, rich white dude – transplanted into the body of a poor black child, all his beliefs and morals and experiences and viewpoints intact. It's a breathtaking failure of imagination.

Ours is a very individualistic, libertarian, self-determinative society. We all like to think that our Self is this essential inner truth which simply is. Time and time again, though, it's been proved that most (if not all) of our identity is socially constructed.


Born this way” seems like a nice sentiment at first. Don't discriminate against me, because I didn't choose to be gay any more than I chose to have big feet. Well, that's problematic of itself (it smacks of apology: if I could choose, I'd totally be straight!), but “born this way”? Demonstrably not. Ancient Rome didn't have Pride parades, because Ancient Romans didn't have the cultural category of “gay”. They had gay sex, just like every human society, but they had no concept of “gay” as an identity. If I'd been born in Ancient Rome, I would not be gay, because the categorization of sexual orientation did not exist. My sexual desires might be the same as they are now, but they would not be framed as ontological gayness. I would not be gay.

What frightens people, and makes them reluctant to admit to their social construction, is that they think this would make their identity/selfhood somehow less valid. It doesn't. My being gay isn't any less real for being a social construct. President Obama's blackness isn't any made less significant by race being a scientifically nonsensical category. Social realities are still realities.

Saying, “If I were a poor black kid, I'd pull myself up by my bootstraps to reach the position I'm in today” ignores social realities. It's pure fantasy. It's like saying, “If this piece of bacon were a strawberry, it would be a bacon-flavored strawberry.” You're imputing the properties of bacon to something that is not bacon, and thus what you are saying is nonsense. If this piece of bacon were a strawberry, chances are very good it would taste like a fucking strawberry.

This is why I got so angry back in August at the rhetoric demonizing the rioters in London. To dismiss criminals as sub-human “scum” is to completely overlook the social construction that makes breaking the law unthinkable for you but quite doable for them. To say, “If I were a poor black kid I'd work really hard and get good grades” is to utterly ignore the social construction that makes bootstraps seem like the solution to you but unrealistic for, you know, actual poor black kids. It's the Enlightenment fallacy I wrote about last time: assuming that your (probably straight/white/rich/cis/male) reality is everyone's reality.

Recognizing that you are socially constructed does not make you not socially constructed, any more than recognizing your privilege makes you not privileged. What it does do is give you the critical tools to identify the way specific aspects of yourself are socially constructed, to understand therefore that other people are constructed differently, and to sympathize therefore with their point of view. It confers on you the epistemological humility to see that yours is not the only, nor even the definitive, reality. It empowers you to question everything you've always been told about how the world works, both explicitly and implicitly, and to see in what ways power differentials and systemic injustices are shored up by cultural reification.

It's arguably the most important tool you can have, and – unlike BOOTSTRAPS!!1eleventy – it doesn't require you to begin from a particular social location. If Gene Marks were self-aware, he wouldn't be talking about bacon-flavored strawberries.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Bad Science, Bad Hermeneutics

In light of Joel's excellent piece on Dawkins et al., and Echidne's smackdown of the latest pseudoscience from professional troll Sacha Simon Baron-Cohen, I think it's time for me to rearticulate my problems with Enlightenment-style rationality.

Don't think I'm in any way an enemy of reason. I adore logic, reason, systematics, scientific principles (there's a reason my brother calls me The Spock). Unfortunately, the Enlightenment pursuit of pure reason, though I'm sure thoroughly noble in intent, gave rise to the most pernicious evil to plague modernist thought: the myth of objectivity.

For example, my own interest in debunking bad science is intricately entwined with my feminism, anti-racism, etc. I freely admit that it's agenda-driven, because it stems from my most basic, deeply-held convictions about the world (the personhood, equality, dignity, and rights of every human individual).

Every act of the intellect, whether it's science or a reading of the Bible, has as its foundations certain assumptions about the world. It couldn't exist otherwise. Any claim to a value-free, unbiased, objective study of anything is at worst totally mendacious and at best coming from a place of unexamined privilege. Hell, if there's one incontrovertible sign of unexamined privilege, it's a belief in your own objectivity.

Think about some of the things that have been considered Totally Objective Reason-Based Agenda-Free Science:
  • That women's delicate ladybrains were inherently inferior to men's
  • That black people were biologically inferior to white people
  • That trans people were only really trans if they conformed to very rigid gender roles – otherwise they were just confused
And many, many more, many of which still sadly have a grip on the fevered imaginations of certain privilege-denying populations, and all of which have been thoroughly debunked by rigorous deconstruction of their agendas.

This is the true value of postmodernism: that it debunks the myth of objectivity by acknowledging that the observer is also an actor. Meaning, we say in postmodern lit theory, is constructed at the moment of interaction between reader and text; which means that any interpretation is as much a product of the reader as of the text, and any honest reading has to acknowledge what it is the reader is bringing to the table. There's no such thing as “just what's there” – there's only what you see.

The same is absolutely true of scientific inquiry. I'm not saying the methods of rationality aren't sound – I'm saying that, as commonly applied, they don't go far enough. Even as you turn that laser-like judgment and doubt onto the subject under critical inquiry, turn it also onto yourself.