Saturday, September 27, 2008

On Polymaths

Several months ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of the encyclopedia in our culture, and argued that the decline in prominence of a bound collection of knowledge indicates that we are transitioning from an era which emphasized accumulation of knowledge to an era in which knowledge is categorized and organized.

I see further evidence of this trend in the decline of the "polymath." In fact, this concept has declined so far that not only is one hard pressed to identity polymaths alive today, but the very word has all but slipped out of our lexicon. (And what better way to illustrate the passing of a concept than to observe that the word that permits conception has been elided).

A polymath is, by definition, someone who has exceptional knowledge in more than one field. Classic examples are Aristotle, who wrote seminal treatises in both the sciences and humanities; Da Vinci, who created some of the world's most enduring artwork when he wasn't postulating human flight and figuring out secrets of anatomy; Newton, who was studying astronomy and geometry when he wasn't authoring modern physics; and Ben Franklin, who was busy channeling electricity when he wasn't helping to start countries.

As recently as the first half of the 20th Century there were people who might be considered polymaths, such as the somewhat obscure Harry Smith, who as an ethnomusicologist paved the way for the "folk revival" which produced Bob Dylan, as a film-maker pioneered the avant-garde movement, and who also practiced magic and collected tens of thousands of Ukrainian Easter eggs, among the many, many, other collections he accumulated. But in actuality, Smith also represents the passing of the polymath tradition. His work in film notwithstanding, most of his contributions to culture came about because of his archival skills, his ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. The fact that he applied this skill in such diverse areas might be a throwback to a previous ideal. But those that came after him would be forced to limit their archival impulse to a specific area of specialization.

And "specialization" would be the best way to describe the way people now pursue knowledge. While one can acquire multiple degrees in academia, you don't hear about anyone holding entirely unrelated ph.D.s. And a single ph.D. in say, themes in the plays of Shakespeare seems an unlikely proposition (largely because this has already been considered, tagged, and archived in various publications). Best to focus on how animals are represented in the tragedies, or something equally narrowing. And while you may have the occasional magazine editor try to buck the trend of specialization by reading the whole of the Encyclopedia Britannica, I'd like to see him try to read the whole of Wikipedia.

For a pop culture example of the passing of the polymath, consider the most popular movie of 2008. The Christian Bale Batman is considered to be an improvement over the Adam West 1960s version because the camp has been removed, substituted with verisimilitude. Yet this involved more than simply distilling the corniness. The Adam West Batman was a polymath- he had an invention for every problem, he had a breadth of knowledge that enabled him to solve any of Frank Gorshen's riddles, and in the King Tut episode he ran a three minute mile. The Bale Batman requires Morgan Freeman's Lucious Fox to help him with his inventions and the running of his company, and while a tactical genius, his knowledge base is more in line with a 21st Century man than a Renaissance Man.

So while every indication is that our culture has accepted the polymath as a relic of a previous era, there is curiously one area in which we still demand a perhaps unrealistic level of competence. Barack Obama has seized upon a statement that John McCain once made that “the issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should."
Even as recent events have revealed that those paid to understand economics have also come up short in this category, this quotation leads to the larger question of whether any one person today can be expected to have a level of expertise in all the various facets that the presidency oversees. If the polymath is a dated concept, should we also re-consider the nature of presidential campaigns? For example, should the party nominees announce cabinet nominees before they are elected? Should there be debates between each party's Secretary of the Treasury nominee?

I'm not sure what the answers to these questions are, but I'm concerned that we are getting to the point where it will take a polymath just to determine who is most qualified to run a country.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

If All the World Becomes a Stage...

Although the popularity of professional wrestling in America has ebbed and flowed over the years, one particular aspect of the "sport" has never seeped into culture-at-large. I am referring to the practice of projecting theme music to accompany an entrance. An entire generation of Hulkamaniacs can still, years later and with no hesitation, hum Hulk Hogan's theme song: "I Am a Real American." Personally, I always got a kick out of Ted DiBiase's theme.

Of course, this practice did not originate with pro wrestling. Although wrestling theme music dates at least all the way back to Gorgeous George in the '50s, theme music in movies dates back to at least the Wizard of Oz. And I suspect that lost to history was "Odysseus's theme" as performed by Greek harpists. It is likely that the inextricable association of theme music with the theatrical makes it somewhat taboo in "real life." Since pro wrestling has no pretensions of anything but theatrics, the marriage was inevitable. But it is interesting to observe the tension that has emerged as the concept of individual theme music attempts ever so subtly to insinuate itself into other avenues, which are also playing out a larger tension between "the theatrical" and "the dignified".

The history of professional sports in America is a history of a struggle for respectability. Now that respectability has been more or less attained in the ESPN era, we forget that at one time sports were considered the province of a boorish, uncultured underclass. To combat that, sports leagues instituted a business model built on decorum. As memories of the fragile beginnings of these leagues begin to erode, theatrics and showmanship gradually enter the games' lexicon. But the impulse to censor touchdown celebrations (and yes, names on jerseys as I wrote about a few weeks ago) can be traced to the insecurity that still exists in every professional sports league's DNA. And that is also my explanation for why individual theme songs have been much slower to catch on in "legitimate" sports, even as an entire genre referred to as "jock rock" has emerged. Baseball closers are an exception to the rule, as they are granted an extra dose of indulgence due to the extra dose of theatricality commensurate in what some call their "high wire acts."

Another arena in which the subtle creep of theme music is fascinating to observe is political campaigning. Particularly at the highest levels of politics, contestants must find a way to strike the perfect balance between a theater that will energize potential voters and a dignity that will assure them. Bill Clinton famously found that balance in Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop." Alan Keyes infamously lost that balance when he jumped in a mosh pit accompanied by the sounds of Rage Against The Machine.

Yet I wonder if Keyes wasn't ahead of his time. My prediction for the future is that as postmodernism continues to creep into everyday life, theatricality becomes more legitimized, and technology allows more power of individual expression, the theme song will become a trend not just on grand stages, but in everyday interaction. Already the cell phone ringtone presages this direction. There now exists such a thing as an mp3 playing taser. In due time, I think it will be a matter of course for anyone making an entrance in a social setting to project a song. Maybe we'll get to the point where composers can make a living just selling people original theme songs. And the first person that recognizes this market gets DiBiase's song.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A New Geography: A Proposal

I can tell you with absolute certainty the date that I learned that Germans refer to the nation that is home to the Eiffel Tower as "Frankreich." It was January 4, 1993. The reason I know this to be true is that it was the day after the Buffalo Bills engineered the greatest comeback in NFL history, rallying from a 35-3 deficit to the Houston Oilers in a play-off game to win in overtime 41-38. The Bills starting quarterback at the time was future Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, but he was not the one who led the comeback. Kelly was hurt, so his back-up stepped in, a fellow by the name of Frank Reich.

When I learned in German class the next day that Frank Reich was also a sovereign nation, my first reaction was sheer amusement. What next, Germans referring to Canada as "Brettfavre"? My second reaction was bewilderment. Why don't they just call it France like we do? I wondered. My third reaction was also a bit of a shock, as I realized that I never questioned why we didn't just refer to their country as "Deutschland." Despite studying "Deutsch" for a couple years at that point (in theory anyway), I had just accepted as axiomatic that "Germany" was our translation of the word "Deutschland." But now I had a question: what would be so hard about just referring to that nation as "Deutschland"?

And I'm afraid that question is still largely unanswered. I know there are legitimate linguistic explanations for why we say "Japan" instead of "Nippon," "India" instead of "Bharat," or "Spain" instead of "Espana." But I think it is rather obvious that underlying the linguistic explanations are cultural reasons. It used to be common practice to force immigrants into this country to Anglicize their names. That impulse doesn't exist anymore. Even Lou Dobbs wouldn't dare to suggest that anyone named "Juan" should change their name to "John."

Therefore, I don't believe there would be a lot of theoretical opposition to referring to nations by the names nations use for themselves (for lack of a better term, let's refer to this proposal as the "Defence of Cultural Pluralism in Nomenclature Movement"). The problem is more practical; specifically, the challenge is to overcome inertia. Once you've printed maps a certain way for centuries, that way becomes pretty entrenched. The effort to downgrade Pluto from planet-status drew such a popular uprising that it seems possible that the effort to re-write geography maps may lead to armed revolt.

But then again, maybe not. Geography is one of the areas in which U.S. students tend to test rather poorly. Supposedly a fifth of Americans can't identify America on a map. If we never learned geography correctly in the first place, how about we all go back to school, and embark on a national resolution to re-learn it, but with the intention of re-naming countries to more accurately reflect what they call themselves? And should we need more inspiration to get this done, I propose that whoever wins the presidential election nominate a "Geography Czar" to oversee the process. And I have the candidate in mind-- someone known for overcoming long odds, and someone who in recent years has carved out a niche in the motivational speaker circuit. Frank Reich, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Future Purple Haze

I spent about six hours today watching television today, emotionally investing myself in athletic contests in which my rooting interest was solely determined by my geographical proximity to the teams. Or, more accurately, by happenstance of being born in the same political terrain as the participants (if geography were the main consideration, there would be more Bear fans in the south suburbs of Milwaukee than Packer fans). I am certainly not the first person to notice the absurdity of this phenomena, as evidenced by a now several-years-old Onion article with the headline: "You Will Suffer Humiliation When the Sports Team From My Area Defeats the Sports Team From Your Area." But no matter how ridiculous it might be, major league sports teams continue to enjoy home field advantage.

And this mentality certainly extends beyond sports. I went to college with people from Illinois who I believe liked the Smashing Pumpkins solely because the band was from Chicago. I am somewhat chagrined to encounter Minnesotans who swear to be superior Bob Dylan fans because their birth certificates are on file in the same state as his. Similarly, though prophets may not be appreciated in their home towns, authors are more likely to sell books close to home.

However, I have also noticed a counter-trend in the years that I have been a sports fan. It is no longer a given that someone from a certain geographical plane necessarily has allegiance for sports teams from that area. Thanks to ESPN, satellite TV and radio, and the Internet, it is possible for a fan to not only root for teams from afar, but to do so passionately. I know people who more or less arbitrarily root for teams from multiple cities scattered throughout the country. I also know quite a few people who are avid sports fans, but have no particular rooting interest for any team: they are more likely to root for their fantasy team than an actual real-live squad of players.

And I think this is actually indicative of a larger trend in American society, that is simply more manifest in sports. It is a cliche that technology "shrinks our world," but in another sense it has enlarged our borders, to the point where it means less to be a citizen of any given U.S. state, perhaps to the point where a woman vice-presidential candidate from a previously isolated outpost of a state can now be seen an American "everywoman."

And consequently there is less "pride" attached with being a native of any particular state. Again, this is most readily apparent in sports fans choosing to forgo support for the "home team," but I think this was also apparent as far back as the 2000 presidential election, when Al Gore failed to carry his home state.

To be sure, I think it will take awhile for these trends to fully materialize into status quo upheaval, but I think that time is coming. Right now, our nation is still split along demographic lines, and we still have preconceptions and prejudices about those who come from other geographical areas. But my guess is that in the decades to come these differences will be spread across demographic populations no longer bound by geography. In other words, the culture wars won't be decisively won, but will diffuse to the point that every state is "purple," and every state becomes a battleground in presidential elections. At that point, Congress may have no choice but to end the Electoral College system. And maybe professional sports teams will go back to barnstorming, with no team tied down to one specific home base.

But until then, I'll continue to enjoy it when sports teams from my area humiliate sports teams from your area.