Saturday, November 26, 2011

What's in Two Names?

Lately, I've been watching the 1948 Superman movie serial (a series of 15 episodes that were shown weekly in theaters prior to full-length movies). I could probably do a series of blog posts on how media from the post-World War II era compares to media today and how shifts in media reflect societal shifts. But today I will limit myself to one observation.

Consider this list of characters from the 1948 serial: Brock, Conrad, Hackett, Graham, Leeds, and Morgan. By way of comparison, here is a list of characters from three consecutive episodes from season three of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, a TV series from the 1990s: Lucille Newtrich, Leigh-Anne Stipanovic, Donald Rafferty, Steve Law, Hank West, Lisa Rockford, and Skip Wallace. A subtle change, but it says a lot about how society changed in a half century.

Having read a lot of 19th Century (and prior) literature, I can clearly see that the '48 iteration of Superman's adventures are rooted in a then-longstanding literary tradition. The titular characters of novels may have been afforded special treatment, but by what name do we know the sidekick of Sherlock Holmes? Who did Elizabeth Bennett fall in love with? And in The Scarlet Letter, I don't think Dimmesdale was the character's first name.

Never mind heroes, it's interesting to also consider the nomenclature of villains. Dimmesdale had Chillingworth to cotend with. When Lex Luthor was first introduced in comic books, his first couple appearances he was known simply as "Luthor." Think of the most iconic cinematic villains of the last 30 years: Freddy Krueger and Hannibal Lecter are referenced by their first names.

Female characters, usually not as prominent as males in the older narratives, are another interesting case. As supporting characters they tended to be affixed with last names and a prefix (think of Mrs. Olsen in Little House on the Prairie), while main characters were usually afforded either first name status, or full name references (Elizabeth Bennett, Hester Prynne, Lois Lane). To fully examine the implications of these practices would require a separate post, but suffice it to say that at the same time women were attempting to carve out identities separate from men, their status in narratives was curiously both conforming to and resisting societal norms.

And also of interest, children were the one demographic group that was completely free of the burdens of a family name. Tom Sawyer famously clung to his childhood fantasies in Mark Twain's portrayals. But why should we grow up and face reality as long as people were still calling him "Tom"? Only when he became "Sawyer" to his peers would he feel the expectation to act accordingly.

Fascinatingly, the situation today, particularly among males, is completely reversed. When one first makes an acquaintance in adulthood, unless the situation dictates a high level of formality, the principles are most likely to address each other by first names. But among children and particularly among adolescents and young adults, the last name is usually the preferred means of address. What does this mean?

First, we need to consider why the general shift occurred, why in 1948 Superman interacted with people known exclusively by their surnames and in 1995 he was dealing with people with two names. It may be an easy, knee-jerk reaction to blame solipsism, to claim that society has shifted from the mindset of filial obligation and self-denial to an era of me-first entitlement. But given that this shift in narrative practice occurred at precisely the same time that the Baby Boomers came of age--I'm not going to overthink things and I'll go with the easy, knee-jerk reaction.

But aren't young people particularly solipsistic? Why would their cohort be the last to hold to an outward identification with a family identity? Here, the simple answer may not be the best one. At the same time that anyone is seeking to assert independence, there is always a part of themselves, sometimes a large part, that is scared of striking out on their own. The practice of surname identification has a foot in both worlds--in the world at large (or school playground, as the case may be), one is leaving behind the name the name they are known by within their family circle, but at the same time retrenching with a name that is safely connected and rooted to a comfortable identity.

Now, if only teen-agers were in charge of writing our stories today, it would be a whole lot easier to keep character's names straight.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Best of Times and Worst of Times

A few weeks ago, my brother randomly posted on Facebook "What was the best year of the '90s?" I had two reactions to this posting. First, I was impressed that he managed to put the apostrophe in the right place (almost everybody incorrectly puts it before the "s"). Second, I was struck by how divided the responses were. By this I don't mean that the favored years were evenly parsed (though they actually were), but that the criteria for naming a favored year was split between people who based their response on some kind of personal history ("my kids were born") and people who were looking at broad cultural events, often pop culture ("Actung Baby came out").

Whenever we study or consider history in a broad cultural sense, we are exposed to narratives that seek to reduce and distill the essence of what it meant to be alive at a certain time. But obviously, one's personal history might have little to nothing to do with these cultural narratives. When I learned in school about the Great Depression, I went home and asked my parents how my ancestors coped with such hardship. They didn't really know, but hypothesized that the life of a Wisconsin farmer was always hard, whatever the general state of the economy. When I learned about the 1960s and the turmoil that enveloped the nation, I asked my parents what it was like to grow up during a time of such radical chaos, they responded that at least in small town Wisconsin, they didn't know they were growing up during a time of such radical chaos.

I'm old enough to have now lived through a few cycles of prosperity and difficulty. The general cultural consensus is that the bulk of the 1990s could be classified as the former, while the last five years have been a difficult time to be alive. But I daresay that for the majority of all people who have lived through these times, their relative state of happiness has been more contingent on whatever personal choices they have made rather than the general vicissitudes pertaining to a particular era.

But when we evaluate our personal histories and try to, in hindsight, determine our level of relative happiness, we are probably condemned to overestimate the cultural narratives. After all, that is what we are exposed to in media, perhaps even in textbooks. In effect, culture applies a retroactive peer pressure. If you were alive during the Carter administration, you might find yourself manufacturing a sense of unhappiness about that era, just because nobody talks about that time frame in a positive way.

But I suppose there is no great harm in such a phenomenon. And after all, when we study history we don't have time to go through and study every individual on a case-by-case basis. And when we agree to share history, it makes for easier Facebook conversations.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Short Story

English majors study a lot of things en route to a degree in English, but one somewhat odd component of the study of English is the study of English studies. (And paradoxically, perhaps only an English major would think the previous sentence is not only well-written, but clever). In other words, English majors spend a fair amount of time discussing why certain literary works are discussed. And a fair amount of time is spent debating what genres are favored by various audiences, why the genres are favored, and how that changes over time. And sometimes time is spent lamenting all of the above. In particular, the "death of poetry" is proclaimed, analyzed, and despaired over. At one time the dominant mode of literary expression and consumption, it's commonly held that now the only people who read poetry are poets.

I don't think we need to over analyze why poetry is not terribly popular in the commercial market. Poetry is not widely discussed for the same reason that paintings, sculpture, and symphonic compositions are not widely discussed. People are hard-wired to consume and discuss narratives, and most contemporary poems don't relate coherent and satisfying narratives.

Of greater interest to me is why the "short story" is not a more dominant genre in our culture, why there is not more demand for them. I'm guessing that almost everybody who has a trace of literary appreciation can cite a few memorable short stories they read during their schooldays. Given the convenience with which they can be covered in a high school curriculum, short stories still thrive in those environments. I fondly remember "The Monkey's Paw," "Contents of a Dead Man's Pocket," and selections from Bradbury, O'Henry, and Poe. One explanation is that demand is conditioned by supply--and supplying novels is more obviously lucrative than supplying a short story, perhaps even a collection of them. Also, when people are looking for a narrative they are looking to get lost in the narrative, to suspend their reality to enter another, and a full-length novel allows for a more satisfying field trip.

But on the other hand, there is much about contemporary culture that would suggest that there should be more demand for a short story. The Internet and social media are fostering a culture where short, bite-sized morsels of content are being shared, consumed, and discarded. With a proliferation of entertainment options, the less demanding of one's time, the more likely that any particular option will be chosen. Also, technology has made distribution ideal. The rise of e-readers and the ease of downloading digital units are perfect for the consumption of short stories. The iTunes store sells albums but makes the bulk of its revenue from selling short, individual songs. Wouldn't an iTunes of short stories be logical and lucrative?

But it's not just in the literary arena where it would seem that we should be poised for a golden age of short narratives. Youtube has conditioned us to watch videos for a few minutes at a time. But TV shows are actually moving away from the self-contained narrative. People now consume entire seasons of TV shows in a span of days, hooked on the serial nature of many of today's shows. But does it have to be that way? Just as most people remember specific stories from high school literary anthologies, people of a certain age can likely recall a particular Twilight Zone story that has stayed with them over the years.

So given that we demand and consume narratives, and given that we live in a culture that would seem to make the dissemination of short narratives ideal, where are the short stories? I have a theory. I think they are everywhere being consumed by everybody all the time. It's just that they are not based in fiction. I came to this realization this week when I ran across a national news story about a man who allegedly killed a woman, stole her ring, and used it to propose to his girlfriend. This story had absolutely no redeeming social value. There is nothing to be gained by becoming aware that this happened. And the same could be said every day and every week. We are fed stories about freak occurrences, about vile actions committed by villains, about cruel and unusual twists of fate, even about the heartwarming actions of unlikely heroes. And although out lives aren't overtly affected by being exposed to these narratives, they continue to pour forth.

Maybe someday they will even be studied in English classes.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

One Step to Improving Your Life

I've read more than a few books in my life, but I've fastidiously avoided anything that is labelled "self-help." I'd always thought that "self-help" literature is mislabeled, that true self-help doesn't require somebody else's thoughts and directions written, bound, and sold. But given that a 2001 book labeled "self-help" is required reading for a class I'm taking, I've found myself exploring some new territory.

Because I've been vigilant to the point of not even surveying this type of literature in the past, I don't know to what extent this book is representative of the genre, but I've come away impressed. The author, John Gottman, is a researcher who has decades of first-hand observational data that he uses as a basis for his theories and suggestions in the area of interpersonal communication and relationships. Wikipedia tells me that he has been profiled and interviewed by many media outlets over the years (and I came to realize that I've previously read about his work in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink).

So in short, I've become convinced that this guy has knowledge and suggestions that everybody can benefit from knowing about--and I'm inclined to think that there are some marriages that could be saved and relationships that could be salvaged if only people were exposed to Gottman's ideas. But there is no guarantee that any person, much less the people who most need to access these ideas, will discover this book. Particularly as bookstores keep cycling new books through and discarding old ones and broadcasters mine for novel content, even legitimately meaningful ideas get lost in the shuffle.

Meanwhile, a study was publicized this week linking prolonged sitting to cancer. While I suppose you could make the case that this information is not Earth-shattering, that it is well known that a sedentary lifestyle leads to greater health concerns, I would still assert that this is important information, that it has far-reaching implications in the fields of business, entertainment, and education. And I'm sure there was some casual discussion and attention paid to this study on Twitter this week, perhaps on a few talk shows, and maybe a few people seriously thought about making life changes. But I predict that five years from now, almost nobody outside of medical researchers, including the people who talked or thought about it this week, will remember this study.

We may be living in the information age, but we are nowhere near perfecting information flow, ensuring that the right information reaches the right people. Government, education, and media are probably the most prominent institutions we've tasked with figuring out how to achieve this, but government is tied down by bureaucracy and inertia, schools are doing all they can to meet baselines, benchmarks, and standards, and the media is beholden to the new and the sensational. Ideally, there would be some kind of national clearinghouse to vet and distribute information, but in practice such an agency would probably perpetuate a distopia.

So until Google comes up with the right algorithm to somehow match existing but obscure theories with the people who would most benefit from examining and applying them, we're on our own. And until then, I've learned that it helps to be a little open-minded about where to look for them.