Saturday, June 30, 2007

Einstein=myth+archetype squared

A recent biography of Albert Einstein discusses, as a point of interest, the scientist's friendship with Charlie Chaplin. In 1973, one Edwin Schlossberg wrote a book that was comprised entirely of an imaginary dialogue between Einstein and absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett. Back in 1965, Bob Dylan sang about Einstein disguised as Robin Hood.

Leaving these juxtapositions aside for a moment, the appeal of Einstein himself is obvious. He couldn't have planned his celebrity any better. He was a living archetype of the eccentric genius. His crazy hair made him a type of proto hippie, and his ability to straddle the line between conservative academia and liberal bohemia made him a type of embodiment of the relativity that he discovered (and in this he in fact prefigured a collapsing of this binary--the long-haired hippy professor archetype may not have been possible without him).

As a measure of Einstein's purity as a signifier, consider that Time magazine's man of the century is known by no nickname. Almost all real-life turned mythological figures are given nicknames to build their legend. No such need for Einstein. The name itself is self-mythologizing.

What should we make then of the connections to Chaplin, Beckett, and Robin Hood? Or of the fact that he was allegedly the model for E.T.'s eyes and Yoda's forehead? Pure archetypes are just asking to be sullied. Or, to put it less negatively, we are compelled to mix archetypes in order to generate different ideas. To think about Einstein interacting with the archetypal comedic actor, to think about the great relativist scientist interacting with the great relativist artist, to think about an archetypal scientist as an archetypal trickster, to think about the penetrating insight of a scientist as the penetrating insight of an alien, to give in to the temptation to regard scientist as sage...all dizzying possibilities. I'm no Einstein, but I'd be surprised if the trend of appropriating Einstein into other mythological constructions doesn't play out for generations to come.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Zen Master for a Buck

I lose sunglasses with alarming regularity, so a couple years ago I decided to never spend more than $1 on a pair. With my latest pair likely in a Florida landfill somewhere, I trotted off to the Dollar Store to acquire yet another pair. While there, I swooped past the book aisle and noticed that Laker's coach Phil Jackson's 2004 book The Last Season was available.

I remembered the hype this book got when it came out, and I couldn't pass up getting a $25 hardback for a buck. In a few short days, I've breezed through most of it, and I can see why it got attention when it was released. Jackson is remarkably candid. I can also see why it is on the dollar rack; it is already quite dated. It's hard to believe that only three years ago, Shaq and Kobe were teammates and Jackson was contemplating leaving the game for good.

It is a bit odd to contextualize Jackson's harsh portrayals of Kobe Bryant with the current media attention Kobe is gathering. On one level, Kobe's recent headlines are a completely logical, almost too convenient, sequel to the book. On the other hand, it strains credulity to contemplate how long this soap opera has continued. In 2004, Phil seemed fed up with Kobe (and vice versa). After several years, he seemed at the end of the rope, going so far as to proclaim at one point that he wouldn't return to the team if Kobe were expected to be back. The fact that it was Phil who supposedly talked Kobe down off the metaphorical ledge this month makes me quite curious to know how their relationship has evolved since then, particularly in light of Phil's candor in the book (which included his accounts of Kobe's oversensitivity).

Some amusing and or interesting things I learned from the book:
1) Shaq never warms up. He wants to save his energy for the game. Maybe that is the right approach, since he tends to get tired at the end of games.
2) Players are quite sensitive to what is written about them in the papers. Given the decline in newspaper readership, I'm inclined to believe that they put way too much stock in what is being written on a daily basis. (Despite the overwhelming crush of attention Kobe's rape trial got, how often do people even think about it anymore? I actually had an "Oh, yeah" moment when I started reading the book and realized that the Laker dynasty's last season coincided with the year of the trial).
3) George Karl should have been fined for trading Ray Allen for Gary Payton. (I know he wasn't the GM, but that deal had his name written all over it).
4) Jackson for the most part quit arguing with officials in Chicago because he noticed that it egged on Dennis Rodman to start arguing with officials and lose focus.
5) Jackson and Jeanie Buss went to a Travis concert.

Jackson said his rep as a counter culture figure is overblown. I'd have to agree with him. So many coaches (and players for that matter) are so alike in how they approach life that anyone who slightly breaks the mold gets a label. Bill Walton is a true counter culture figure, but probably the only one in basketball (Dock Ellis and Bill Lee being a few in baseball). Jackson's practice of Zen Buddhism is also overblown. His "Zen master" nickname comes from his devotion to Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Ironically, Pirsig didn't become a practicing Zen Buddhist until after the book became a hit.

Finally, I took something instructive from Jackson's teaching philosophy. He occasionally asked his team to meditate together. Here's a quote from the book:

Did the players achieve peace, a oneness of thought? Were they able to let go, to open their consciousness to a new level of trust? Probably not.

He also describes his practice of inserting movie clips into game video:

Yesterday, by showing Shrek, I was trying to compare the story of an ogre winning the heart of a princess to the challenge we face in the playoffs. Can this team, by embracing the basketball gods, turn an ugly season into a championship? Did the players pick up on the message? I doubt it, just like I doubt they learned much from our meditation session...Yet I feel an obligation to put the possibility out there.
Though I'd question some of these actions (particularly his qualification to lead a meditation session), I admire his philosophy. His choice of the word "obligation," strikes me as something that many professionals in many fields should embrace. Even in the event that odds of success are as low as Shaq's free throw percentage, the individual is not absolved from giving the best shot possible.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Writing Teacher's "Vacation"

I now feel pretty up to speed on the topic of how emissions restrictions affect the market for the sale of diesel engines (and by extension, tractor-trailer rigs). I also have personal insight into what businessman and race car owner Roger Penske is like. This is what I acquired from a diesel engine salesman on my flight from Orlando back to Louisville. In return, I bestowed upon him the information that I had recently read and "scored" (not "graded") over 1,000 essays. Upon receiving the information, he asked me how many I had really done, and I had to get a fellow "reader" to vouch for me that, yes, over the course of about 40 hours, I had really read that many essays, all about the same topic--the effects of advertising on America.

Students were given the same set of six documents to aid in their essay construction, which greatly restricted the variety of the finished products. Here is a skelaton of the type of thing I read over and over again:

No matter if you watch TV, listen to the radio, read magazines or newspapers, surf the Internet, or even look at billboards, advertising is everywhere. [This is more or less verbatim from the prompt, and showed up more or less in about a quarter of the papers]. Advertising has had both good and bad effects on the American people.

On the negative side, advertising makes us want what we don't need. Before advertising, who told us that we needed air fresheners and toilet cleaners? [This was from one of the supplied sources. However, some students mis-interpreted the point and used this as an argument for the positive effects of advertising]. Another bad effect of advertising is that it promotes unhealthy products, such as cigarettes. Also, advertising promotes materialism and makes people feel inferior by giving them unrealistic ideas about things such as body image.

On the positive side, we need advertising to keep a strong economy. Also, advertisements for things such as the Red Cross encourage helpful ideas. Finally, advertising in its purest form is teaching, pure and simple. Nobody complains when teachers put up maps in their classrooms; why should people complain about advertising?

Some of my favorite thoughts I ran across: "Without commercials, what would people put on TV during breaks?" "Without late night infomercials, what would they put on TV?" "If it wasn't for a commercial for toothpaste, I might not have remembered to brush my teeth this morning." "Without commercials, how would we know where to buy any products?" "The Red Cross advertisement doesn't look like propaganda to me, but then again Castro didn't seem like the dictator type either."

I had three "dashes" or off-topic essays: one completely blank, one essay about how bad his teacher was (which was actually a pretty well-supported thesis), and a surreal short story with martial artists and water fountains that turn into pickles.

I don't want to give the impression that the experience was completely negative. There were many fine essays, including one particularly memorable one that deconstructed advertising as an entity that reduces competition by encouraging narrow brand loyalties. Another student managed to correctly use the term "sublimation." These students were given less than an hour for the task, something we were told to keep in mind when evaluating grammar and spelling mistakes.

I found the process of evaluation interesting. It was scored "holistically", rather than with the rubric-based grading in vogue in secondary education. In other words, the essay was graded as one entity, rather than breaking it up into component parts. The term that best describes what evaluators are looking for is a "mind at work." They want to see students make an argument, but to do so in a way that indicates that they are consciously thinking through the complexities of an issue. I think there are two major barrier to getting students to produce something of this caliber.

The first is that students themselves are often apathetic about anything that doesn't directly affect them. Unfortunately, I think this is a learned behavior. We live in a pretty apathetic culture. The second problem shifts the blame to the educational system. Too often, essay writing is thought of as an exercise in giving the teacher what they want to hear (or in educational jargon, an "assessment tool"). Thinking of writing as an academic exercise rather than an opportunity to assert one's one voice will likely lead to a lack of success when writing in higher education (or in Advanced Placement exams). It can also make for some pretty rough stretches for the poor guy who has to read over a thousand essays.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Complexity Behind a Simple Life

A re-occurring archetype: A person is raised up by a society. The person is then vilified and torn down. Then, in death, the person is canonized. This formula has been repeated in both fiction and in history. Shakespeare's tragedies and history plays often follow the format. Freud was so convinced in the universality of this phenomenon that he wrote a revisionist history of the Old Testament, claiming that Moses must have been actually killed by the Israelites (who then became the world's first monotheistic people out of some kind of guilt complex).

More recently, Princess Diana is a good example of someone who fits the pattern. However, there is something different about her narrative. It is singularly remarkable that, even given the long, sordid, and bloody history of the British monarchy, that a Royal would essentially be killed by the media. The modern contribution to the archetype is the insertion of a powerful media, which can quickly accomplish the work of building up, tearing down, and canonizing. The Diana story is made even more remarkable by the very literal role the paparazzi played in her destruction. The media is often demonized (and personified) as an amoral, out of control entity. Ironically, the media itself is most responsible for this portrayal. Almost all criticism of the media is made or at least reflected by the media itself, where endlessly repeated platitudes about the shallowness of contemporary culture are churned out ad infinitum, while nothing changes in the way media is actually produced or consumed. It's almost as if the media is sustained by this cycle of canonization and vilification, with the self-criticism serving as a perpetual fuel, a constant confession without the requisite penance which would close the cycle.

That Diana's death is part of a cycle was perhaps inadvertently emphasized by Elton John performing a recycled song at her funeral. The original "Candle in the Wind" was about Marilyn Monroe and the media's role in her rise and fall. The idea of Marilyn Monroe being recycled was recently observed by one Paris Hilton, who was more sagacious than she got credit for when she told the British UK Sunday Times last summer: ""I think every decade has an iconic blonde, like Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana. And right now, I'm that icon."

Of course, one key difference between Paris and Diana is that Diana was automatically an icon by virtue of a pre-existent aristocracy. Paris may have been born into a de facto aristocratic background, but by no means are Americans compelled to recognize her as "special." I can't help but wonder if her prominence in pop culture is in order to serve as a kind of scapegoat onto which Americans can project their own jealousies. According to, in the brief time in which she was released from jail, L.A. government officials were flooded with thousands of e-mails from angry people from all over the country. The website posted several of them. A representative example can be found here.

What strikes me most in the example above (aside from the atrocious grammar) is the final sentence: "Such a great example for our kids, dont worry son if your rich you can [expletive] on people it doesnt matter." What causes one to have a persecution complex about Paris Hilton? How did her jail release fiasco represent an instance of [expletive] on people? The only explanation that makes sense to me is that she is a projection of an archetype, or, as she put it in the same interview in which she compared herself to iconic blondes: "I've become a cartoon."

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Anxiety of Being Influenced

I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that I used to look for wisdom in interviews with rock musicians. I've long since adopted the attitude that Socrates acquired after he tried to learn wisdom from the poets:

Then I knew that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. The poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise.

However, I'll have to admit that I ran across a quote in an interview with the Arcade Fire's Win Butler, that I found to be nothing short of profound. It may be profound in its simplicity, but it did give me pause: don't listen to Queen and say, "Oh, why did they have to have 100 tracks on the vocals!" That's just what they sound like. People can be like, "Oh man, they're so overblown, they use all these vocals." It's like yeah, but that's why Queen are Queen, that's what they sound like. When I hear a record, that's what it is.

There's this weird thing where people think they can change records. "Oh, if only this were there and this were here, it would be a super record." But that's the record, that's the way it sounds! You can't change the record; you didn't make the record. I didn't make "We Are the Champions", Queen did, and that's the way it sounds. It's almost like people think they can control something. It never even occurred to me that I could change the way something sounds.

I'm skeptical that Butler actually practices this theory, for two reasons. The first reason is that it is antithetical to our critical culture. Part of the reason that distinctions between high and low art are minimal today is that everyone is a critic. Spider-Man 3 set worldwide box office records last month, and I heard and participated in many conversations about the film both in person and on-line. I can't think of anyone taking Butler's position in relation to the movie. Almost everyone who enjoyed the film had some caveat, some piece of advice for the directors, producers, and writers, about what could have been done differently.

The second reason I am skeptical about Butler's claim is that it is antithetical to the attitude of an artist in the Western world. Scholar Harold Bloom is famous for the theory of the "Anxiety of Influence," the idea that all great art comes about as a result of an artist being hyper-aware of the successes of previous artists, and the desire to exceed them. To be completely at peace with the art that has come before you is more indicative of an Eastern mindset, where a desire to emulate the old masters has led to relatively little evolution in art through centuries.

Actually, the philosophy Butler expounds sounds like an Eastern approach not only to production of art, but consumption as well. Would art be more entertaining, would it be more pacifying, perhaps even more edifying, if we were to evaluate it for what it is rather than what it could be? I don't think Butler's approach necessarily forces us to turn off our critical faculties. In fact, I think it can be argued that by reigning in our desire to create, we can be better critics.

However, before completely jumping on board with Butler's approach to consumption, I have to question the veracity of his assumption that people truly lack control in the creative process. Assuming Freddie Mercury hadn't died, would it really be too late to change "We Are the Champions?" After all, Jimi Hendrix changed "All Along the Watchtower." Bob Dylan, the original writer of the song, has literally performed it live thousands of times, but never once has it sounded more like his original version than the Hendrix version.

One may argue that few of us are Jimi Hendrix, that although Butler's assertion may not be valid for the few, but still applies to the many. To that, I would respond with a recent quote from Tim Story, director of the "Fantastic Four" movies. Story told the Comics Continuum website that he paid attention to fan reaction to the first film when working on the sequel:

In the early parts of, through pre-production and the early parts of filming, I continued to read things on the web and just anything that I can use and kinda bring to the screen, I would
It almost makes me wonder if Win Butler ever logs on the Internet to see what his fans are saying.