Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jaya Saxena

Life in four dimensions

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Yesterday, I happened to stumble across a review that the pianist Glenn Gould gave to the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Gould had performed on the soundtrack of George Roy Hill’s movie—which I haven’t seen—but he had mixed feelings about both the result and its source material, and he wasn’t shy about expressing them in public:

Slaughterhouse-Five has been brought to the screen with such fidelity that if you happen to be one of that black-humored author’s legion of fans, an outing at your neighborhood cinema will probably provide one of the cinematic highlights of the season…Vonnegut, of course, is to the current crop of college frosh as J.D. Salinger was to the youth of my day—a dispenser of those too-easily accessible home truths that one somehow never does get at home. And precisely because he quite ruthlessly exploits certain aspects of the generation gap—especially those widened by an inability to agree on forms of humor appropriate to the articulation of the human situation—I suspect that much of his work will date quickly and reveal that supposed profundities of an opus like Slaughterhouse-Five as the inevitable clichés of an overgeneralized, underparticularized view of humanity.

This is a little harsh, and in retrospect, Gould underestimated Vonnegut’s staying power, which turned out to be considerable indeed. I’ve occasionally resisted Vonnegut for some of the same reasons that he gives here, but I don’t think there’s any denying his skill and intelligence, even if his great talent was to put just the right words to feelings that his core group of fans already wanted to believe.

It isn’t clear what drew Gould to work on the movie version, for which he provided about fifteen minutes of music. In his review, he places particular emphasis on the novel’s treatment of time, which is what readers tend to remember best:

[The protagonist Billy Pilgrim] becomes, as Vonnegut puts it, “unstuck in time” and thereafter meanders back and forth across the expanse of his quite unexceptional life and finally uncovers an ability to project himself fourth-dimensionally as well. When going on Earth gets tough, Billy simply fantasizes an extraterrestrial existence [and] shacks up in a geodesic dome with the woman of his dreams.

The inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore, who resemble sentient plumber’s helpers, exist in the fourth dimension, as Vonnegut explains through one of Billy Pilgrim’s letters:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was what when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

Purely by coincidence, I read Gould’s review on the same day that I saw an article in the journal Electric Lit titled “What Kurt Vonnegut Can Teach Us About Coping with the Internet.” Once you get past the obligatory clickbait headline, Jaya Saxena’s essay is a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on one of the unavoidable facts about our online lives, which is that all of our past selves exist on it simultaneously. Saxena writes:

On Earth, I am always quoting an article about health care in America. I am always calling someone “retarded” as a term of endearment. I am always telling people that I am safe and nowhere near Mumbai. I am always defending the concept of “Steak and Blowjob” day. I am always hugging a friend I see every day and never see anymore, bragging about stealing rum from a frat house, performatively announcing that I will be using Twitter to amplify other voices, telling someone I’ve cut out of my life that I love them…Anyone scrolling through my Facebook feed, which has existed since 2004, or who Googles enough to unearth my awful old blog, can see everything I’ve posted — every misguided opinion, every drunk photo and inside joke — with the clarity and presence of the moment I posted it. I am 17 and 24 and 31, forever.

But Saxena resists the solution presented by the Tralfamadorians, which is to focus on the good moments in life and ignore the rest, as “irresponsible,” proposing instead that we do the opposite: “We can remember that between one post a decade ago and now, there were endless versions of ourselves and others, changing and choosing. And that we will continue to do so in ways we can’t see until we look back.”

Gould was also critical of what he saw as “Vonnegut’s favorite message, [which] is that we must concentrate on the good moments and ignore the bad ones.” But by the early seventies, when his review of the movie appeared, Gould had come “unstuck in time” himself. He had retired from live performance nearly a decade earlier, preferring to concentrate on recording. In the studio, he could literally focus on the good moments and ignore the rest, splicing together performances out of the best parts of multiple takes—and you could even see the physical album itself as a representation, like the Rocky Mountains, of a work of art that an audience could only experience “like beads on a string.” Unlike a listener at a concert, I can drop the needle on my vinyl copy of Two and Three Part Inventions wherever I like. (I’m reminded of the character in Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach who hangs a record album on his living room wall so that he can enjoy the music all at once.) Gould also welcomed the chance to engage in a dialogue with his past selves in a way that would have been impossible before the advent of recording. He recorded The Goldberg Variations twice, a quarter of a century apart, and I’ve always wondered what a third version would have sounded like, if he hadn’t died at the age of fifty. And he might have had some useful insights into our online lives. In “The Prospects of Recording,” which he published shortly after his retirement from touring, Gould quoted a character from Jean-Luc Godard’s A Married Woman: “The first thing we require of a machine is to have a memory.” And he hinted obliquely at a way in which we can cope in a world that exists in four dimensions, whether we’re talking about all of history or simply about our own lives:

In the electronic age a caretaking comprehension of those encompassing chronicles of universal knowledge which were tended by the medieval scholastics—an encumbrance as well as an impossibility since the early Middle Ages—can be consigned to computer repositories that file away the memories of mankind and leave us free to be inventive in spite of them.

Jokes against inanity

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Yesterday, Harvard University made headlines by withdrawing acceptances for ten high school students who had posted “sexually explicit memes and messages” on a private Facebook group. Here’s how The Crimson describes the situation:

A handful of admitted students formed the messaging group—titled, at one point, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens”—on Facebook in late December…In the group, students sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children, according to screenshots of the chat obtained by The Crimson. Some of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups. One called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “piñata time.”

Not surprisingly, the decision has been a divisive one, with critics of the college making the argument—which can’t be dismissed out of hand—that Harvard overreached in policing statements that were made essentially in private. But there’s another line of reasoning that I find increasingly hard to take seriously. The Washington Post quotes Erica Goldberg, an assistant professor at Ohio Northern Law School, who compares the humor in question to the party game Cards Against Humanity:

It’s an unabashedly irreverent game whose purpose is to be as cleverly offensive as possible. The game uses cards to create inappropriate associations, on topics we are generally not socially permitted to mock—such as AIDS, the Holocaust, and dead babies. Even many good liberals love the game, precisely because the humor is so wrong, so contrary to our values. There is something appealing about the freedom to be irreverent and dark.

I might have agreed with this once, but I don’t think I do anymore. The catalyst, oddly, was a passage in Jon Ronson’s otherwise very good book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which was evidently intended to make the opposite point. Ronson discusses the notorious case of Justine Sacco, the public relations executive who inspired a torrent of online outrage after tweeting before a flight to Cape Town: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Sacco then switched off her phone, which meant that she spent the next eleven hours oblivious to the fact that her life had effectively been ruined. Ronson writes of the firestorm:

I could understand why some people found it offensive. Read literally, she said that white people don’t get AIDS, but it seems doubtful many interpreted it that way. More likely it was her apparently gleeful flaunting of her privilege that angered people. But after thinking about her tweet for a few seconds more, I began to suspect that it wasn’t racist but a reflexive critique of white privilege—on our tendency to naïvely imagine ourselves immune from life’s horrors.

He concludes: “Justine’s crime had been a badly worded joke mocking privilege. To see the catastrophe as her fault felt, to me, a little like ‘Don’t wear short skirts.’ It felt like victim-blaming.” And there’s no question that Sacco, who was fired from her job, paid a disproportionately harsh price for her actions. But it also feels like an overstatement to repeatedly insist, as Ronson does, that Sacco “didn’t do anything wrong.” To say that her tweet was “a badly worded joke” implies that there was an alternative wording that would have made it funny and acceptable. I have trouble imagining one. And the implicit assumption that this was a problem of phrasing or context strikes me as the slipperiest slope of all.

This brings us to Cards Against Humanity, a kind of analog computer for generating offensive jokes, which, revealingly, often evokes the specter of “white privilege” to justify itself. When asked to explain its expansion pack “Ten Days or Whatever of Kwanzaa,” one of the game’s designers told the Daily Dot: “It’s a joke that we meant to poke fun at white privilege, ignorance, and laziness.” This amounts to a defense of the entire game, in which players theoretically interrogate their privilege by forcing one another to make what Goldberg calls “irreverent and dark jokes.” In the same article, Jaya Saxena neatly sums up the company’s position:

The Cards Against Humanity team is stalled in the middle of that narrative: understanding that there is a cultural hierarchy that disenfranchises people, making it clear they’re aware of the privilege they hold, attempting to use their humor to separate themselves from those who don’t get it, and apologizing for their mistakes when they’re called out.

This raises two related issues. One is whether this kind of scrutiny is, in fact, what most players of the game think they’re doing. The other is whether this activity is worthwhile. I would argue that the answer to both questions is “probably not.” This isn’t a matter of political correctness, but of a logical and comedic inconsistency—and, frankly, of “privilege, ignorance, and laziness”—in the sort of humor involved. Let’s say that you’ve made a “transgressive” joke of the type that got these prospective Harvard freshmen in trouble. Now imagine how you’d react if it had been said by Milo Yiannopoulos or posted as a meme on the alt-right. If it bothers you, then the only conclusion is that your identity as a progressive somehow justifies statements that would be horrifyingly racist in the mouth of someone of whom you disapprove. You can make the joke because you, as a “horny bourgeois teen,” know better.

This sounds a lot like privilege to me. I won’t say that it’s worse or more insidious than other forms of racism, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t problematic, especially if you believe that transgressive humor is something to be celebrated. As Dan Brooks writes in an excellent essay in the New York Times Magazine: “The whole architecture of the game is designed to provide the thrill of transgression with none of the responsibility—to let players feel horrible, if you will, without feeling bad.” It’s a mechanical simulation of transgression, and, like bad art that allows for an emotional release that absolves the viewer from other kinds of empathy, it can numb us to the real thing, leaving us unable to make the distinction. Just because you were smart enough to get into Harvard—and believe me, I know—doesn’t make you Michael O’Donoghue. On that level, the college made the right call. It has the right to withdraw admission if “an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character,” and even if these teenagers share their assumptions with millions of other “good liberals,” that doesn’t make them any less wrong. Max Temkin, the primary creative force behind Cards Against Humanity, has impeccably progressive credentials and has done a lot of admirable things, but he has also said “We removed all of the ‘rape’ jokes from Cards Against Humanity years ago,” as if this were commendable in itself. They cull the cards that they’ve personally outgrown, as if objective standards of acceptability have changed simply because they’re no longer in their early twenties, and I’m not even sure if this strikes them as problematic. As a profile of the company in Fusion notes:

As part of their job, [the creators] periodically pull cards that seemed funny to college seniors in their parents’ basement, but are a little less funny now…Meanwhile some [cards], like “passable transvestites” and “date rape,” were pulled when the guys realized that kind of “humor” wasn’t actually very humorous.

The reference to “the guys” speaks volumes. But this kind of culling is something that we all do, as we leave behind our adolescent selves, and it has one inevitable conclusion. Speaking of the “passable transvestites” card, Temkin said: “It’s embarrassing to me that there was a time in my life that that was funny.” And for a lot of us, that includes the game as a whole.

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