On literary interpretation and “authorial intent” May 30, 2006Posted by Evil Bender in arts and culture, language and lit.
There's an interesting post (and incredibly hostile response) over at Majikthise
on whether we should interpret literature through so-called "authorial intent": that is, that every work has one (and only one) meaning, and that meaning is the one the author placed there, presumably intentionally.
I find Jeff Goldstein's argument incredibly silly and ill-informed. He seems to make passing reference to various theories (most of which he does not address in any meaningful way) to arrive at the idea that "to believe in malleability of interpretation does not mean you must likewise believe in instability of meaning."
One might wonder why anyone would stake their whole claim to the idea that there is a single meaning to a text (read Ulysses and tell me "the meaning" Mr. Goldstein, please: and make sure you explain exactly what Joyce would have wanted us to take away, leaving nothing out).
An answer begins to emerge as he argues that all "schools of thought" have "embraced the idea of authorial intention," and extends the argument to suggest that a non-essentialist interpretation of race would make race meaningless, because there is "no such thing as black blood…than the project of race cannot be argued."
At the heart of this silly argument is a silly idea: that something must exist in some essential capacity to be relevant. The four "humors" never existed, but that didn't stop them from being essential to the practice of medicine for hundreds of years. And race, while essential to any understanding of contemporary society, as I have argued before is not a biological reality: there is no absolute way to determine race.
What Goldstein has, then, is a gripe with identity politics masquerading as a legitimate argument. He objects to centering the understanding of "meaning" with the reader, arguing that we should locate it with the author instead.
What he misses in his haste to find a logic for his particular political layout is that there is an alternate way of going about this: rather than locate meaning with author or reader, one can locate meaning in the text itself, a locus in which the author's intent, the author's unintended inclusions, and the reader's understanding merge. In so doing , neither writer nor reader is privileged, and instead a constructive act emerges that allows us to see a text as open to a multiplicity of "meanings," not all of which are equally valid, but any of which can be defended with a persuasive critical deployment and an appropriate close reading of the text and related materials.
Even if you don't by the above, the larger issue is that meaning as authorial intention is a useless standard: it requires one to interpret the "intent" of the author via the text and related texts, but each speech-act of the author itself requires interpretation to understand its intent. Therefore no intent can ever be fully established, for to do so you must first decode other intents, themselves requiring interpretation of their own.
As a writer, I understand Goldstein's problems with the de-centering of meaning from intent, and I would be sympathetic did the whole screed not seem to have as its real goal attacking identity politics* and establishing essentialist ideals that are, perhaps, necessary to sustain the implied world-view expressed in Goldstein's paper.
Regardless of his intentions, though (and note I am reading what I perceive to be an underlying message in the text, not a conscious choice by Goldstein), Goldstein's argument does not hold up. Its biggest problem is that it fails to recognize that categories can be useful without being "absolute." Race (and idea he keeps returning to) is something we study not because of its absolute value, but because its constructed meanings are important to understanding our world.
De-centering meaning from intent (which is our only option, given that no one has perfect control over their own text) is the only way to approach literature and account for its complexity. The best works are beautiful precisely because they are complex, able to speak to people across years and cultures, able to be read by many and interpreted by many any gain richness through these interactions.
Goldstein fails to understand that there is no way to read intent apart from interpretation, and that the text may exist beyond intent (is it possible to watch pre 9/11 movies set in New York the same way anymore?), for it has its own existence as a locus between author and audience.
[*There are difficulties with Identity politics, but those difficulties do not undercut the necessity of the project: if nothing else, understanding how identity is constructed is essential to combating destructive constructions.]
100 funniest movies of all time? May 29, 2006Posted by Evil Bender in arts and culture, Humor.
I'm done with my serious posts for the day, promise. Ed Brayton has a post on Bravo's 50 funniest movies of all time. The list is criminal. Examples:
#69 The Blues Brothers
#65 Office Space (seriously? there are 64 better comedies)
#56 Young Frankenstein
#53 Dr. Strangelove (one of the funniest movies of all time, and the only one that made fun of atomic warfare during the cold war)
#50 The Princess Bride (49 better? Really?)
#43 What About Bob? (fairly funny, really, but not better than any of the above, and not an all-time great, is it? At best, its good performances proping up a lousy script).
#39 Mrs. Doutfire (gag)
#30 The Big Lebowski
#29 Legally Blonde (yeah, its MUCH better than Lebowski–sigh)
#14 Napoleon Dynamite (I know I wasn't its biggest fan, but doesn't this strike EVERYONE as too high?)
#11 Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
#9 Ace Ventura (WHAT?)
#4 There's Something About Mary (no, there really isn't).
Of course there will always be disagreement about these things, but this isn't close. For the sake of debate, I give you my top ten (in no particular order) with a quote from each (because it's my blog and I can, dammit):
The Big Lebowski– "This aggression will not stand, man."
Dr Strangelove– "You can't fight here. This is the war room!"
A Fish Called Wanda–"Oh know, K-k-ken is coming to kill me!"
Office Space–"I don't really like my job, and I'm not going to go any more."
Monty Python's Life of Brian–"Always look on the bright side of life."
The Princess Bride–"As you wish!"
Blazing Saddles–"Sorry about the 'up yours, n—–.'"
Ghostbusters–"It's true: this man has no nuts."
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Because the Cohen Brothers earned it)–"I appear to be the only one who remains unaffiliated."
The Royal Tenenbaums (not as laugh-out-loud funny as the rest of the list, but whitty and with a great cast, this deserves a mention)– "I never thought you were an asshole, Royal. I always figured you were more of a sonuvabitch."
That's my list. What say you?
This list isn't perfect. For one thing, where's Vince Vaughan? But it's far better than Bravo's, I'd argue.
Hardball’s “balance” May 29, 2006Posted by Evil Bender in News and politics, Religion, Right-wingers, sex, wingnuts.
Chris Matthews is discussing Billy Graham today, and how he brought many people together. It's an interesting segment, completely undercut by his choice of guest: Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council, and one of the most extreme and devisive right-wingers in the country.
Perkins even suggested that Graham was remiss in not using his influence with US Presidents to deal with "key issues" of the day, including "gay marriage" and "abortion." Perkins indicated that he would prefer that Graham was more like his son, who speaks out on such issues, and who called Islam "a whicked religion."
Graham brought people together, even many who disagreed with him on religious issues, because he seemed to just about everyone to care deeply for everyone, while Perkins would have him be more devisively, the way his group, the one that preaches intolerance and bigotry, does.
Today is absolutely filled with irony.
In praise of William Penn: a history lesson May 29, 2006Posted by Evil Bender in constiutional issues, Religion.
I know there are a couple of history buffs who read this blog, and I hope I've done justice to the following subject matter.
Of all the men and women whose example helped found America, I admire none more than William Penn, who wrote the charter for Pennsylvania, and who insisted on democracy and freedom in the province. A Quaker, Penn believed strongly in the principle of religious freedom and in treating his fellow people with respect. He welcomed those of all religious beliefs to Pennsylvania, and for some time it was one of the few safe places in the English-speaking world where one could practice Catholicism.
Among his notable accomplishments were his dealings with the local Native Americans (especially the Leni Lenape). Penn believed in honest dealings with and respect for the Native Americans, and while his actions were not beyond fault, he went much farther than most of his time to treat others fairly.
Unfortunately, the Leni Lenape's respect for Penn would be used against them, by none other than Penn's sons, who were corrupt, immoral men who abused the trust of the Native Americans and ran roughshod over the territory.
For me, this is the great tragedy of Penn's life: despite his hard work, good intentions, and belief in liberty and justice, much of Penn's work was undone within a single generation, undone by his sons, and by others. We would do well to remember it: freedom is incredibly difficult to earn, and far too easy to undermine.
On this Memorial Day, let us remember the good that Penn did, and how quickly it was undone. The principles we believe in are too easily co-opted, too easily set aside for the benefit of the few. Democracy is still on as shaky ground as it was in Penn's day, and only our vigilance will see it sustained.
The Pope on the Holocaust May 29, 2006Posted by Evil Bender in News and politics, Religion.
Benedict said it was almost impossible, particularly for a German Pope, to speak at "the place of the Shoah." "In a place like this, words fail. In the end, there can only be a dread silence, a silence which is a heartfelt cry to God — Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?"
At least two things stand out to me here: he refers to the Holocaust as Shoah, using Jewish terminology; and this is an ironic statement from the head of the Catholic church, given that the church never did speak out against the evils of Nazi Germany until the war was over.
I think the Pope's question is fair, and I think that most of us do wonder why a loving God would let this happen. But I also think that we should see to our own faults first: the Holocaust did not happen because God refused to step in. It happened because of human actions. While we refuse to make this world a better place, blaming God is too often a convienent way of refusing to blame ourselves.
We should ask where God was during the Holocaust. But let us not forget to ask where we have been during the great evils of our time.
VA and Wiccan Funerals May 28, 2006Posted by Evil Bender in News and politics, Religion, wingnuts.
Over at Dispatches, Ed Brayton looks at the VA refusing to allow Wiccan soldiers to be buried with a symbol appropriate to their faith. This isn't the first time it's been an issue, and the reason it is appears to be that the Religious Right is deeply offended by the idea that other people should also have freedom of religion:
"The official approval of satanism and witchcraft by the Army is a direct assault on the Christian faith that generations of American soldiers have fought and died for," Paul Weyrich added.
No, Mr. Weyrich. Thoes soldiers died defending this country and it's Constitution. They died defending the values that all Americans hold in common, or at least, should hold in common. Those values include Religious freedom.
I am disgusted by the ignorance, lies, and bigotry expressed by these people. I know they don't speak for all Christians, and that they don't even represent the views of everyone one the Religious Right, but this is a logic I hear increasingly often: most people (or most of the founders, or whatever) are Christian, and therefore should have special priviliges.
Of course, our founding documents were designed specifically to combat the "tyrrany of the majority," but that hasn't stopped Weyrich and his like from attempting to ban other people's religious beliefs.
Top 50 conservative rock songs May 28, 2006Posted by Evil Bender in Humor, Right-wingers.
…according to the National Review, which is apparently afraid that rock isn't right-wing enough (gasp).
This really has to be seen to be believed. Let's look at some examples:
7. “Revolution,” by The Beatles.
“You say you want a revolution / Well you know / We all want to change the world . . . Don’t you know you can count me out?” What’s more, Communism isn’t even cool: “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.” (Someone tell the Che Guevara crowd.)
Yeah, very conservative. Consider: You say you'll change the constitution/Well, you know/We all want to change your head/You tell me it's the institution/Well, you know/
You better free you mind instead." Oh yeah, feel the power of the conservativism!
20. “Rock the Casbah,” by The Clash.
After 9/11, American radio stations were urged not to play this 1982 song, one of the biggest hits by a seminal punk band, because it was seen as too provocative. Meanwhile, British Forces Broadcasting Service (the radio station for British troops serving in Iraq) has said that this is one of its most requested tunes.
Oh, yeah: the attack on fundamentalism and those afraid of change is clearly conservative.
33. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” by The Rolling Stones.
You can “[go] down to the demonstration” and vent your frustration, but you must understand that there’s no such thing as a perfect society — there are merely decent and free ones.
Huh? I'm sure that's exactly what the stones were singing about. And when they sang "I can't get no satisfaction" it was about high taxes, right?
I'll stop there, but there's plenty more from such bastions of conservatism as Bob Dylan, Iron Maiden, and, ahem, Kid Rock. Even assuming all these songs are conservative, they had room on the list for KID ROCK? Ouch…maybe they should have gone for 25. How embarrassing.
X-Men 3 Discussion May 26, 2006Posted by Evil Bender in arts and culture, bigotry.
WARNING: Spoilers below
I saw X-3 tonight, and was unimpressed. The general problem with the movie is that it's cluttered. In less than two hours, the film kills three major characters, and three others lose their powers. Besides that there is a rebirth of sorts, a huge fight, and a significant number of undeveloped threads. It's my view that there was the raw material here for a pretty good movie and less silly script plus a better director would have greatly helped.
But I also have a political complaint about the film. As many have noted, the central metaphor of the X-Men comic, and of the first two movies, is a metaphor of civil rights and tolerance. In this movie Ratner inverts the metaphor in ugly ways.
I knew I was in trouble when Mystique refuses to respond to "Raven Darkholm," which she refers to as her "slave name." The reference is not by accident: even vaguely militant mutants here become terrorists and their position is dismissed without the kind of thought and reflection that characterized Singer's hand in the first two films.
In X-3, the Brotherhood are universally bad and the X-men good. Early on we're led to believe Professor X may have done some unethical things, but this matter is dropped without discussion.
The real problems emerge at the end of the film. Magneto has correctly predicted that the "cure" will be used as a weapon, and it grows increasingly obvious that the government is willing to use the mutant cure as a means of dealing with any "terrorist" mutant–their weapon is to make sure mutants are no longer mutants.
By the end of the film, with the Brotherhood defeated, the human soldiers, apparently thinking all the mutants fighting there are bad guys, indescriminantly turn their weapons even on those who have saved their cure.
Then we're back to a word where the cure exists, and where Rogue is one of the mutants who has used it. So the cure is still out there, the potential for it to be used to de-power every mutant on the planet is still out there, and the X-Men are unquestioningly on the side of the government who has done this.
Ratner seems to think that this is a lesson in tolerance (good X-Men who want to work with humans versus evil Brotherhood who want to exterminate humans), but he doesn't understand his metaphor. The "cure" exists, and the film endorses those mutants who seek it out: simply let the government make you like regular people–that seems to be the metaphor here.
Surely Ratner believes that he's being sypathetic by having most mutants remain mutants, but he most certainly is not. Keeping in mind the mutants-as-oppressed groups metaphor established in the series, and the mutant "cure" becomes a vehicle for normalization, for making mutants like "regular folks."
While early in the film Beast asks if it is weakness to wish to avoid discrimination, that is not the point. The point is that this movie assumes that the majority population–humans–are the "normal" ones, and that mutants can be fixed.
Imagine this metaphor in reverse: say the mutants have a weapon that will turn ordinary humans into mutants: one can chose to become a member of an oppressed group, rather than the majority (oppressing) group. Would this metaphor be more tolerable? Perhaps…but neither is really appropriate.
The powerful message of the first two films is that people, no matter how different, can work together, can be unified. The message of the third (while muddled) seems to be that people can chose to be normal: that is, they can chose to become people of privilige, giving up who they are in order to become what it is more acceptable to be.
I might be accused of reading too far into the film, but I believe I'm addressing it on its own term, and that those terms suggest that such a change is appropriate.
That is not a message of tolerance, it is a message of assimilation.
But what do you think?
Christian love May 26, 2006Posted by Evil Bender in bigotry, constiutional issues, News and politics, sex, wingnuts.
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In the "highly ironic" category, "Agape Press," a Christian publication named after the greek word for unconditional love–you know, the kind Christians are supposed to have–has this to say in regard to the ruling that Oklahoma cannot ignore adoptions sanctioned in other states simply because they're afraid of gay people:
…"Another example of judicial activism at its worst." That's how the head of the Family Research Council is reacting to the latest court ruling favoring homosexuals. A U.S. district court judge has declared that Oklahoma's law that prohibits state officials from recognizing same-sex adoptions from other states is unconstitutional. Judge Robin Cauthron declared that the Sooner State had denied due process to two women who were raising twin seven-year-old girls born to one of the women, but adopted in New Jersey by the mother's lesbian partner. Oklahoma lawmakers had passed the law to prevent their state from being forced to abide by the decisions of other states with respect to legal marriage. Judge Cauthron proceeded to order the Oklahoma Health Department to issue birth certificates listing the two women as parents of the girls. FRC president Tony Perkins says this "stunning case" is just the latest example of why Congress must pass a constitutional amendment to prevent activist judges from destroying marriage in America.
Yes, that's right. We must protect marriage by denying legal rights to a child's parent, to treat them as if they were no different from a complete stranger without even visitation rights.
This sickens me. It is nothing but bigotry given a state sanction, and the court was right to overturn the law. But what I really wonder is whether there are really Christians out there who think denying adoption to couples who want to adopt is what Jesus would do?
The rhythm method! May 25, 2006Posted by Evil Bender in reproductive rights, Right-wingers, sex, wingnuts.
The blogosphere's abuzz about a paper which argues that, if life begins at conception, then the rythm method of birth control is particularly immoral, because, unlike, say, contraception, it leads to a large number of fertalized eggs lost to failed implantation. If those eggs are humans with souls, then a good estimate is that half of all fertilizations end without implantation.
While the argument is, I think, meant to be somewhat rediculous, it is entertaining. While Evil Bender is on record as saying that God, as he is concieved by many of the anti-abortion crowd, has a lot to answer for if he created a world in which half of all lives end before the egg is implanted on the uteran wall.
I realize I've been over this before, and that the argument is unlikely to convince anyone either way. So I'll keep it brief–an observation, and a retelling of a good (I think) story about the rhythm method:
Observation: this moral objection becomes much easier to deal with if God created the world through evolution, for such a model does not require God to actively intervene in every aspect of our lives, the way He is often described as doing. If God set the world in motion, then let it be, then it seems much easier to take the good of natural laws along with the bad. If He is in active control of everything, then he aborts a hell of a lot of babys.
Story: I'm off the soap-box now, I promise. I was once in a class where two women were talking about about birth control.
Woman #1: we use the rhythm method, and it works great.
Woman #2: you just had unplanned twins!
I think there's a rule that when more than half of your five kids were unplanned because of the failed rhythm method, you should stop recommending it!