All I need is a rhythm divine

In 1941, Desi Arnaz was an up-and-coming performer, with some Broadway and Hollywood credits, looking to become a headliner. He had married Lucille Ball the previous year, after they met on the set of Too Many Girls.

But when he premiered his song "Babalu" at Newburgh’s Ritz Theater, few in the audience would have known the significance of the date: December 17.

Babalú, first a Yoruba deity, crossed the Atlantic with his adherents when they were transported as slaves. As Santeria emerged in Cuba as a syncretism of African spirit worship and Catholic rituals, Babalú became one of the most popular of the Cuban Lucumí Santería orishas. He has been linked with Saint Lazarus, and now shares that Saint’s feast day of December 17.

The name Babalú-Ayé translates as “Father, lord of the Earth”. He is believed to be associated with epidemics—curing them, as well as bringing them down upon communities when displeased. In Cuba, thousands of devotees gather each December at the Church and Leprosorium of Saint Lazarus in El Rincón.

The Spanish version of the song, written by Margarita Lecuona and performed by Arnaz, describes invoking the god with offerings of tobacco and alcohol, and lighting seventeen candles in the shape of a cross. He asks Babalú for protection.

Ta empezando lo velorio
Que le hacemo a Babalu
Dame diez y siete velas
Pa ponerle en cruz.
Dame un cabo de tabaco mayenye
Y un jarrito de aguardiente,
Dame un poco de dinero mayenye
Pa' que me de la suerte.

However, the English version published that year (lyrics by S. K. Russell) doesn't translate the story, but change it completely. The lyrics set the piece back in Africa, making the (implicitly white) singer an observer, not a participant in the worship of Babalú. It also refers to Babalú as a "Voodoo" god of love.

Jungle drums were madly beating
In the glare of eerie lights:
While the natives kept repeating
Ancient jungle rites.
All at once the dusky warriors began to
Raise their arms to skies above
A a native stepped forward to chant to
his Voodoo Godess of love.

Of course in December 1941, just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, audiences were also looking for a distraction. Arnaz’s music, and his long conga solo, would have been a welcome source of entertainment. A few years later “Babalú” became the signature song of his character, Ricky Ricardo, on I Love Lucy. That he chose to perform it first on December 17 shows that perhaps he was hoping for some protection, and luck, too.

I am the words, you are the tune

I like Regina Spektor's music. But when I heard "On The Radio" the other day—being sung along to by a couple of girls—I was struck by the line "everyone must breathe, until their dying breath". Well, yes, I suppose they must. But where does this pseudoprofundity come from? (or rather who decided this was an ok line to go ahead and record? Cole Porter wouldn't have gone near it, Jimmy Webb might have but regretted it the next morning). But there seems to be a lot more of this kind of nonsense in music these days.

The popular singer-songwriter is a modern creature, dating only from the availability of sheet music and recorded music. Earlier singer-songwriters were troubadours, who adjusted their ballads to suit the audience, or related recent events—and what they performed generally wasn't written down.

Folk songs, which everyone knew, weren't written down either, and were probably written collaboratively over generations by Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

There were also people who wrote down songs that aspired to universal themes, about life, death, and God. Those songs are called hymns. "Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away".... more affecting than something about breathing until you stop breathing.

Once we got into the twentieth century though, people wrote (and recorded) songs typically on the themes of:

1. I'm in love!
2. The person I love doesn't love me, and it's a bummer.
3. My whole life's a bummer. Dead dog, no job.
4. Everyone's life's a bummer. Try to look on the bright side. (a popular theme in the Great Depression).
5. Commentary on blue-collar life and/or prison.
6. The apparent suicide of Billie Joe McAllister.

But songs that include the singer's (banal) pronouncements on the meaning of life started increasing since the 1960s (with the arrival of a new theme: 7. Stick it to the Man), and seem to have really proliferated today. It's one thing to get musings on life from people who've really clocked up some city miles, like Tammy Wynette, or Johnny Cash, or Neil Young, or Edith Piaf. But learning that "If the light is off, then it isn't on" (Hilary Duff), brings to mind the all-time-stupid of Des'ree's preference for toast over ghosts.

A song relating personal feelings, performed in the first person, can be one of the most moving art forms we have. "Love Me Tender" and "Cry Me a River" are aimed at specific, second-person recipients. But any listeners can imagine themselves either as the singer or the recipient. These songs paradoxically achieve universality by being personal. Many of us have acquired our emotional vocabulary through such songs.

However, when songwriters strive for universal observations on the human condition, they wind up sounding like fortune cookies. We don't experience life in general, but in specifics.

If you think I'm being harsh towards Spektor (and before anyone tells me that English isn't her first language, I'm pretty sure that "dying breath" stuff doesn't sound any better in Russian), she is clearly innovative musically, and this kind of lousy lyric lets her down.

That same song has the far more evocative passage:

And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else's heart
pumping someone else's blood

This reminds me of another form of songwriting, the factory-like production of pop and dance songs by Ester Dean to be performed by the likes of Rihanna. The astonishingly talented Dean's feelings, her words, are put into someone else's heart, filling someone else's album. In fact, she is able to step into another performer's persona, in creating a song to suit their image.

Of course, it remains to be seen which of today's singles become part of tomorrow's songbook. As Van Halen said, "Only time will tell if we stand the test of time."

Going in for the kill

Today I visited the Museum of Crime in Vienna, a wonderfully old-school museum. No interactivity here, or apologies to the squeamish. Tracing the history of criminal policing in Vienna since the early modern period, there are displays on numerous celebrated crimes for each period.

These are illustrated by (for the earlier periods), woodcuts, then newspaper illustrations (themselves entertaining, showing people being variously shot, stabbed, or thrown out of carriages in the best traditions of the sensational press).

But they also have various artifacts from some of the crimes. These include a mummified head, the skull of a multiple murderer which was said to demonstrate "abnormalities", plus fragments of clothing, murder weapons, and a guillotine. There are death masks, life masks, and wax models made of victims' chests showing stab or bullet wounds. There are even the skulls of two small children who were murdered by their father.

They have a photocopied leaflet giving some information (to call it a guide would be generous) - but the displays themselves are abundantly textual, albeit all auf Deutsch. Their English leaflet is itself an adventure in linguistic crime, which includes the sentence "Lively bloodcurdling ballads were distributed in ancient Vienna until the end of public executions in 1868, bringing a farewell to the idyll of the Biedermeier period". I've always found public hangings idyllic, haven't you?

What the museum does remind us are the graphic ways crime was reported in the past. Today, even as we hunger for more crime-focused stories (look at CSI, and murder mystery novels, many today with levels of gruesome detail that would have given Agatha Christie the vapours), the reporting of actual crime is ever more sanitised. At least in Western countries, we don't normally see photos of corpses or crime scenes in the paper.

One of the museum's displays relates to a crime in 1685, when the dismembered body of a woman was found (piece by piece, over successive days), and it was put back together and put on public display in the hopes that someone would identify the woman. Nobody did, however the tactic of displaying the bodies of unknown victims seems to have continued (we see both photos and newspaper illustrations of looky-loos lining up to gawp at the corpse).

The idea of putting a corpse on public display to aid identification seems unpalatable now, Even the Doe Network, dedicated to helping identify unknown (or "John Doe") victims, has identikit sketches of the deceased; not photos.

The museum also shows the evolution of police uniforms, and its displays cover celebrated crimes up til the 1980s. Towards the end, there is more about the development of forensics which is also interesting. The pictures here show a criminal's skull and a display relating to a couterfeiting case.

If you're in Vienna, and willing to look at this kind of thing, worth a visit. If you're of a gentle disposition, skip it and go to the art museum.

Transient
Transient

Bells will ring

Last week I was back in Cambridge to attend a friend's wedding. As I watched this marriage in a college chapel, I was staying in a guest room that had that Cambridge smell. The chapel was beautiful, and kneeling on that hard pillow with my back straining reminded me of so many evensongs.

I felt oddly nostalgic but reminded too of the reasons living in England again would be difficult. Cambridge remains as it ever was, a contradictory place. A short stroll will show you, by turns, elegant and trashy, beautiful and stark, crowded and still.

Seeing friends who have stayed on in academe—and those who have not—raised the usual contemplations of my career and what graduate school really does to people. But one of the things it has done for a number of my friends, including the one just married, is bring them together with their life partner.

The intellectual atmosphere and forced proximity of graduate school is the ideal venue for academic over-achievers to pair off. This is such a recent phenomenon (in terms of when many top universities got around to admitting women), it remains to be seen what effect this will have on academe long-term. Perhaps the notion of the social spaces within academia will change. We have already moved on from the—once common—acknowledgment of gratitude in book or thesis to the "wife who typed my manuscript".

Strange days indeed, to still be at the very tail end, generationally, of the bachelor dons who once filled Oxbridge colleges.

How's my restoration?

In Newburgh, where I am now working for the Newburgh Historical Society, there are many people fixing up old houses.

Just across the street from the Crawford House (the society's HQ), the owner put up this sign, asking for input on paint choice.

Which paint color do you prefer? (I chose maroon).

It shows the kind of community spirit often demonstrated in places like Newburgh by those involved in restoration. It invites neighbours to feel invested in what's going on in their environment. Those improving a house are not just fixing up their own home, but adding something to the area.

Transient
Transient

Bravery, and historical pursuits

Recently on twitter,  Maureen Ogle  suggested that we historians have "ceded the field" of writing history for a mainstream audience. Journalists, novelists, and others, have filled the gap. I don't entirely disagree, but I'm not sure I'd characterise it as "ceding". Many historians just don't have the access to the popular media and trade publishers that established journalists do.        Vida's study of the under-representation of women  in many literary venues—and the editorial responses to it—show that editors might not be consciously trying to keep women out, but they tend to stick with the (male) writers they already know. The same situation is probably true for academics trying to break into the mainstream market. If  Harpers  wants to run a historically themed piece, they're likely to give that assignment to a writer they already work with, not start looking for an academic. Indeed, an academic is probably the last person they'd ask. Far from serving as a qualification to get one's foot in the door, I've found that having a PhD in the subject area makes magazine editors very wary. One admitted as much to me, saying academics tend to be bad writers. I do want to engage a popular audience, I'm trying very hard to do so. So it's not a case of my ceding anything, but not having the platform.    But are we, the experts, the best at communicating our knowledge of the past? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. William Cronon (President of the American Historical Association),  rekindled the debate on whether academic writing is too dull to appeal  to a wide audience, which  prompted a range of replies , including that not everyone in academe wants to appeal to popular readers.    I tweeted recently about trying to peel the sticky resin of academese from my writing. Writing a PhD and various other academic works has made my writing worse than it was before. Mark Twain may have said that "Education is the path from cocky ignorance to miserable certainty", but a PhD program is the path to miserable  uncertainty . We use the passive voice, we equivocate, we acknowledge multiple interpretations of the the events of the past. Partly this is to pre-emptively fend off critiques from fellow academics, who will nail us for not addressing various sub-issues and tangential debates. We lack confidence. There's an acquired style in academe, and I acquired it.     This confidence is partly why journalists and other non-academics can produce more readable, arresting, historical texts. Dan Snow (who has not passed through the confidence-eradication process of graduate school) has a twitter account, "Dan's History Fact", in which he posts various nuggets of historical information, frequently incorrect. He's been called out on this many times, but doesn't seem to care. I mention this because any academic historian would have curled up dead from embarrassment at having posted so many things as historic "facts" that were urban legends or just plain wrong. But why should Snow care? He still has a large number of followers.    I'm struggling right now to regain some confidence and authority in my  writing. I received comments on a recent piece which could be summed up as "be less dull". I have to remember how to write  as myself , not as the platonic academic ideal.



Recently on twitter, Maureen Ogle suggested that we historians have "ceded the field" of writing history for a mainstream audience. Journalists, novelists, and others, have filled the gap. I don't entirely disagree, but I'm not sure I'd characterise it as "ceding". Many historians just don't have the access to the popular media and trade publishers that established journalists do.

Vida's study of the under-representation of women in many literary venues—and the editorial responses to it—show that editors might not be consciously trying to keep women out, but they tend to stick with the (male) writers they already know. The same situation is probably true for academics trying to break into the mainstream market. If Harpers wants to run a historically themed piece, they're likely to give that assignment to a writer they already work with, not start looking for an academic. Indeed, an academic is probably the last person they'd ask. Far from serving as a qualification to get one's foot in the door, I've found that having a PhD in the subject area makes magazine editors very wary. One admitted as much to me, saying academics tend to be bad writers. I do want to engage a popular audience, I'm trying very hard to do so. So it's not a case of my ceding anything, but not having the platform.

But are we, the experts, the best at communicating our knowledge of the past? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. William Cronon (President of the American Historical Association),  rekindled the debate on whether academic writing is too dull to appeal  to a wide audience, which prompted a range of replies, including that not everyone in academe wants to appeal to popular readers.

I tweeted recently about trying to peel the sticky resin of academese from my writing. Writing a PhD and various other academic works has made my writing worse than it was before. Mark Twain may have said that "Education is the path from cocky ignorance to miserable certainty", but a PhD program is the path to miserable uncertainty. We use the passive voice, we equivocate, we acknowledge multiple interpretations of the the events of the past. Partly this is to pre-emptively fend off critiques from fellow academics, who will nail us for not addressing various sub-issues and tangential debates. We lack confidence. There's an acquired style in academe, and I acquired it.

This confidence is partly why journalists and other non-academics can produce more readable, arresting, historical texts. Dan Snow (who has not passed through the confidence-eradication process of graduate school) has a twitter account, "Dan's History Fact", in which he posts various nuggets of historical information, frequently incorrect. He's been called out on this many times, but doesn't seem to care. I mention this because any academic historian would have curled up dead from embarrassment at having posted so many things as historic "facts" that were urban legends or just plain wrong. But why should Snow care? He still has a large number of followers.

I'm struggling right now to regain some confidence and authority in my  writing. I received comments on a recent piece which could be summed up as "be less dull". I have to remember how to write as myself, not as the platonic academic ideal.

In which I muse upon the domestic arts...

Those of you who knit may be familar with two common styles: English (aka "throwing") and Continental. Recently, I encountered an interesting theory: that "English" knitting style was encouraged (I suppose at least in the UK) because of its palms-down, "ladylike" pose. This may be partly true, but I would also suggest that the technique is easy to learn, and produces even results, making it a good option for those who were only going to knit as a hobby, and for whom speed was not important. My historian's ear also perked up at the discussion, because of the implication that a ladylike posture was not valued in continental Europe, or indeed in Portugal (where they have a different style again).

My own knitting frustrations led me to the discussion. I have knitted since I was a child (sporadically), but with no great results. While I am an even knitter, I am so abysmally slow that I lose interest long before the project is done. To put it into perspective: championship speed knitters run at 100+ stitches per minute. Competent quick knitters are at 50+. I manage about 15-20. So everything takes forever.

Which brings me back to my curiosity about the speeds of knitting production, and particularly that Continental knitting is reputed to be faster than English. The "fast" option in the British Isles in fact seems to be "cottage" or lever style, in which the movement is streamlined by anchoring the right needle, in the knitter's armpit, in an attachment to a belt, or in the knitter's crotch (it's obvious why such a pose would not have caught on with Victorian ladies). Graceful it isn't, but damn quick. And for women in the Aran islands and elsewhere knitting for a living it was probably the fastest way to hand knit anything.

A couple of years ago, I discovered crochet (well, ok, I didn't "discover" it, I'm not the Christopher Columbus of textile arts). I taught myself (thank you, threadbanger!) and since then that's what I've mostly stuck to. Although it is the same basic concept: creating a fabric by looping and threading yarn together, it seems quicker than knitting.

Some beautiful crochet from the mid-19th century onwards have been digitised, showing some of the beautiful designs women used to make bags or cushions. As crochet, like knitting, shifted from being a manufacturing skill to a decorative hobby, it also became more generalised. Previously, different regions specialised in different crafts, and particular decorative motifs (part of the culturogenesis I research in urban spaces relates to the development of distinctive local costumes). The arrival of printed patterns made designs more general: you too can make an "Aran" or "Fairisle" sweater.

Along with the romanticisation of domestic arts that arose among middle-class Victorians, the low cost of labour (which meant an increasing proportion of the population could afford to employ the rest of the population as domestic servants), gave ladies free time to sew, knit, etc, as a hobby.

Domestic sewing machines (the Smithsonian has a fabulous booklet from 1929 online explaining the history of the sewing machine) and commercial dress patterns appeared in the mid nineteenth century, which made making one's own clothes (for the untrained seamstress) feasible. Although then as now, the amateur stitcher only made the occasional garment, not an entire wardrobe.

It's a romantic image of the woman sewing by candlelight to clothe her children, but before the machines arrived and sewing was by hand, most women did not make their own or their families' clothes. Rich women had no need (they used dressmakers) and poor women did not have the time. They repaired or altered clothes, and they bought second-hand or acquired hand-me-downs.Only professional seamstresses are likely to have made their own clothes.

I sew, but to make all my own clothes (let alone those for a husband and children) would take pretty much all my time. As in, it would only be possible if I didn't have to work. And it would still be more expensive than just buying them at a department store. (for me to buy the fabric, retail, for an outfit, can work out more expensive than getting the outfit when it's already been sewn together in a factory in some other country, where another woman's labour is being valued at much less than mine).

Perhaps because these are traditionally female crafts, the engineering skill is overlooked.

"I felt overwhelmed by the masses of circular creations that seemed to represent womankind's challenge to answer the riddle of pi in neverending cotton lace. It seemed odd to me that so many women could say that they are no good at math when they could create a perfect flat circle, or hexagon, or octagon, in lace pattern, no less.

Lace is a way of suspending holes within a stable fabric. So making a doily means a person creates pleasing, repeating geometrical pattterns with these holes, while at the same time making the number of stitches inrease by pi (3.14+) every time the diameter of the doily increases by the height of the average stitch's width.
― Sigrid Arnott

The mathematical and spatial ability in devising patterns can be quite high, as shown in the work of mathematician Daina Taimina, using crochet to model hyperbolic space.

The hours of work involved in making anything by hand mean those of us who do it (when it would be cheaper to just buy a machine-knitted sweater), are doing it for recreation - and perhaps to make something unique. But if anyone gives you a sweater they knitted this Christmas, remember that it probably took them hours each evening for weeks to make it.

For those of you on craftster or ravelry, you'll find me scampering round there as squirrelbythesea.

Every you, every me

I was struck by something Timothy Burke wrote at Easily Distracted, as a comment on one of his own posts, which was progressively threadjacked.

He was writing in relation to the discussions of rioters in London, vs. the bankers responsible for the economic meltdown. The contrast between those scrambling to make excuses or find cultural explanation for rioting, while not looking at financial practices in the same way, reveals a blind spot in a lot of people's thinking. As Professor Burke wrote:

But you’re singing my song on a point that I frequently harp on (including in classes, to my poor students) which is that for a very long time much qualitative social science has shown very little interest in elites or powerful social groups like soldiers or bureaucrats in the same terms that it takes an interest in many other social groups, e.g., as groups that have “cultures”, that are the products of social conditions, and so on. Lazy or simple versions of the social-conditions-produce-and-justify-practices ought to be just as forgiving of neoconservative bombing of Iraq. Admittedly, part of the reason that there are very few ethnographic studies of military or security force cultures of torture (for one example) is methodological: the powerful have very little interest in welcoming ethnographic inquiry into their habitus, even when that’s not strictly secret in some sense. But part of it is also the assumption by a lot of people on the left that the elite are already fully understood in this sense. Which I don’t really see: if I had to teach a class on the everyday cultural world of the most elite financial capitalists, I would have very few studies to put on the syllabus that would compare with what I can offer in a course on everyday life in rural southern Africa. I’d have to use memoirs, novels, and journalism, which is fine, but it’s still a notable gap. Unless what people mean by assuming that these worlds are already known to inquiry is because academics or leftists typically believe that they themselves are part of or known personally about such elite social contexts or that the self-representations of elites in the public sphere are accurate or useful guides to their everyday practices.

This relates to the kind of problem I bump up against regularly in my research, which involves assessing the cultures of colonialism at different sites. I don't often see scholars finding culturally determinist explanations for European empires. However, at the the high point of European expansion, we could easily say it was a longstanding part of European culture to beat people up and take their land. The defeated either sucked it up and learned to bow to a new king, or they rallied their friends and pushed the invaders out. (see Spain, reconquest of). And pretty well every part of Europe had been on both sides of that equation (conqueror and conquered) at some point in their history.

Historians, whether we like it or not, tend to vew the colonialist elites of the past as our equals, to be judged on our terms, while the subaltern groups are condescended to and excuses are made for their culture-bound hopelessness. I'm reminded of this response to the Aztec exhibition at the British Museum, which said a lot of what I was thinking at the time. If an exhibition of the history of the slave trade showed shackles and whips and did not say "look at this evidence of human cruelty" but "look at the fine workmanship on that!" most of us would be horrified and outraged. Why wasn't the Aztec show seen in the same way?

If Europe’s explorers and conquerors are condemned as invaders, pillagers and exploiters (which means judging them by our contemporary standards of morality), then we have to hold other groups to the same standard. Otherwise it’s like saying “oh, those poor benighted tribal people, with their simple understanding of the world, we can’t condemn them for their child sacrifice/cannibalism/cruelty. But those white Europeans, we can condemn them for witch hunts/slavery/torture, because they should have known better.”

Evil people and nasty practices have existed everywhere, at all times. So have good people. I am certain there would have been some Aztecs who thought the murder of children was wrong, and who tried to stop it. Diversity of opinion within a group isn’t something we in the educated West have exclusive claim to, either. “People of [group], believed x....”. Really? All of them? Can you think of one thing today that “everyone believes”?

Either we're all trapped by our cultures, or nobody is. I'm frequently annoyed with people who describe themselves as "very spiritual". This irks me because I regard "spirituality"—in the sense of having an interior life, rather than adhering to any particular religion or philosophy—as an essential element of being human. To say one is "very spiritual" is like saying one is "very human".

Which brings me back to Professor Burke’s useful point about rioters and bankers: if we’re to excuse the rioters for their culturally determined behaviour, the same excuses have to apply to the bankers. Or conversely, theft is theft. If you expect better from someone because they wear a suit and work on Wall St than you do from a teenager in a hooded sweatshirt, what kind of class snobbery is that?

 

Black interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg

This is a great film from Mondo Black about the role of African American interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg. Starting with considering what people will do for employment in the recession, this documentary asks: would you be willing to play a slave? 

I've written about Williamsburg before, and it has wrestled in the past with how to present the history of slavery for visitors.

Hat tip to Larry Cebula of Northwest History for posting this video.

International Women's Day: in numbers too big to ignore

This month is the 100th anniversary of the first International Women’s Day. The day was commemorated for the first time on 19 March, 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, following its establishment during the Socialist International meeting the prior year.

Helen Reddy's I Am Woman was the official theme song when the United Nations declared 1975 International Women's Year. Since then, International Women's Day has been celebrated on March 8. (International Men's Day is celebrated the other 364 days).

 

Irregular verbs: I'm untidy, you're cluttered, he should be on "Hoarders"

The other day, a post at Tenured Radical discussed a book about "Decluttering". It got me thinking about my relationship with messiness. I find the "clutter" rhetoric interesting - there are quite a few of these books around, there was a NYTimes profile the other day of a woman who people pay thousands of dollars to in order to help them declutter, and I've seen tv shows like Hoarders.

I'm conflicted about it because yes, I buy crap I don't need, but there are scales to judge household clutter and apparently I don't even rate as problematic! There is actually a National Study Group on Chronic Disorganisation, you can download their clutter scale and test yourself (hint: apparently if you don't have appliances piled up outside your house and pet faeces on the floor, you're doing ok).

Of course there's a gender dimension here. My lousy housekeeping is a negative reflection on me, in the way that it would not be of a man. Through commodification (and fetishisation) of "nest" culture - and the Martha Stewartisation of domestic culture, this has become another area in which women compete with one another. Of course, it always was, among houseproud housewives. But it seems like there was a period in which feminism to some meant abandoning household drudge work, throwing that apron on the floor, saying "to hell with this" and ordering a pizza. Now I feel under pressure to not only perform but enjoy various domestic tasks.

Adhering to the declutter ideal means that in fact we churn through an ever more rapid acquisition/use/disposal cycle - is it any wonder some of us are stuck in the middle? Just throwing perfectly good things away seems wasteful. At the same time, things are built to be expendable. Repair a household appliance? Given that I can buy a new toaster for $20, I'm not spending more than that to get someone else to fix it. So in the trash it goes.

It's not very environmental, either. I currently have two old laptops sitting in my office. They don't work, but I'm not sure about just slinging them in the skip at the back of my building. Is that what people do? I suppose so (I've never thrown away a mobile phone either...)

The declutter culture reduces items to their utility, rather than sentimental or other value. Of course, consumerism compels us to acquire so much stuff. But is it also something to do with social atomisation, that as we live more transitory lives (are you living in the same town where you were born?), are separated from older forms of community, that we imbue greater value to - and derive more of our identity from - the items we own, the things we can keep. Even the concept of self-storage is something that has emerged within the last 30 years. We have SO MUCH STUFF that it no longer fits in our houses, so we have to pay rent for our possessions to have their own space somewhere else.

The decluttered house, its austerely ascetic image featured in various nest magazines, is in fact a false image if it is only provided by rapid filling and emptying of trash cans, and the space to have a huge attic, or off-site warehouse space. It is in this way that clutter is also a class issue. Overconsumption of junk (or rather HOLDING onto that junk) is viewed in the same way as holding onto a few extra pounds around the hips, with the same sanctimonious pathologising.

Women in Literature: Fighting against the tide?

The women's literary organisation, Vida, recently published statistics on the representation of women writers in a range of magazines. The results range from disappointing to appalling.

Literature, as with other creative endeavours - and humanities academia - has a severe bottle-neck of those wishing to pursue it and those succeeding in gaining entrance to the profession. If gender disparity is there at admission, it will only perpetuate the situation.

As with this assessment in the New Republic,

Of the new writing published in Tin House, Granta,and The Paris Review, around one-third of it was by women. For many fiction writers and poets, publishing in these journals is a first step to getting a book contract.

If you don't get your foot in the door, it's not as though the situation will be rectified some other way.

Jessa Crispin has followed the situation with a long discussion at Bookslut, which will continue in the days to come. I wrote her an email, some of which I'll quote here:

I have over the years submitted pieces and pitches (without success) to the Atlantic, The Nation, The New Yorker, and various others I can't recall.

...I have no reason to think anything I've written has been rejected for my gender. But I'd be curious how many "cold-call" submissions these magazines even take. How many articles per year do we see in the Atlantic by a new writer who just sent in a speculative proposal? (I'm going to guess it's pretty close to NONE). Which makes me wonder how much this is a chicken/egg situation. You described feeling more comfortable sending things to editors with whom you already have a relationship: editors also prefer commissioning pieces from writers they already know.

If the stable of writers for a publication is already gender-skewed (and most well-known magazines have both staff writers and freelancers they use on a regular basis) this isn't going to be rectified easily.

Interestingly, Peter Stothard (editor of the TLS) responsed to the Vida count - that women are represented in fluffy chick-lit, which wouldn't be reviewed in the TLS anyway. But when I've written to inquire about review books for journals like the TLS, I was interested in reviewing history books: so while I'm not saying that I deserved to be invited to write for them, I'm sure I'm not the only woman who has applied to review serious non-fiction (and not received a reply).

I wonder though how much (mis)perceptions about readership influence such editorial choices. The assumption that men are more interested in non-fiction reviews than women, is this true? The New Yorker has a higher female readership than male, and I'd be interested to know if this is true for other literary magazines. Is it a case of women not being pushy enough, sending out enough submissions to achieve representation? What is the answer?

So I just watched the A*Team

I've watched a lot of generic action flicks, and am quite a fan of the genre - call it a guilty pleasure. But I'm also pretty cheap, so I only just got around to renting this from itunes.

I'm pretty familiar with the action genre conventions. But there were a couple of points in this one where the misogyny was striking - because it was so gratuitous, in that there were no female villains, so the woman being primarily demeaned was a character we were supposed to respect. There were four women in the film by my count:

  • Wife of a corrupt Mexican military officer. We see her briefly, one of the team has been sleeping with her and said he plans to save her. We never see her again. He does not save her (or apparently care what has happened to her). 
  • A prison guard. Who sleeps with the same guy while he is incarcerated. 
  • The assistant to a CIA officer. At least when her boss says he hired her for her looks she gives him the finger - which is about as much female assertiveness as we get here.
  • The main female character, played by Jessica Biel. Also an army officer, she seems competent and smart. But when she issues an order to some men, one of them remarks that if they fail to carry out that order they will "be on bitch duty". None of the men face this kind of insubordinate remark. Although given how women in authority get treated, maybe this film is more like a documentary. UGH. 

I don't really mind when there's an action film that only features women as bimbos and bunnies. Because all the men are pretty much cartoon characters too. But if you're going to give us a strong woman character in a major role: treat her with the same respect as you do the men. Seriously.

 

Grit for Girls

[minor spoilers, if it is a spoiler to give away the plot of a film based on a book published 50+ years ago] 

I was intrigued by one thing when I saw True Grit (aside from thinking it was a wonderful film), and that was the way the issue of sexual menace/attraction/risk for this young girl was handled (or ignored).

Sexual violence is something that is never mentioned as a danger for Mattie Ross. Whereas for a fourteen year old heading off with strange men in a film set in today's world, that would be an inescapable issue. Perhaps in a situation in which death from bullets or exposure were very real risks, stumbling into the path of a paedophile becomes a secondary concern. But I did notice, that while of course the two lead male characters were not going to take advantage of her (being the "good guys"), protecting her from such an outcome isn't something they mentioned either. Even when she was left alone - briefly - with the actual bad guys, who showed no interest in her in that regard either.

The Coen brothers mentioned in an interview the difficulties of dealing with the sexuality of the character, without sexualising her or the plot. On this week's NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour, Linda Holmes looked at this from the other side: focusing on the subtlety this demanded of Matt Damon's performance, in displaying as she put it "a hint of attraction" to this girl without seeming predatory. As Holmes rightly pointed out, if he had actually leered at the girl, he would have lost the audience completely.

But he was walking a finer line that that. Our main introduction to the character is when he has snuck into her bedroom while she is asleep, and tells her when she awakes that he thought of stealing a kiss, but that she was too young and not all that attractive. (some early version of neg-hitting? Telling her he didn't find her pretty in an attempt to make her more attracted to him?)

However, the scene that stuck with me as the strongest demonstration of the dilemma was when LaBoeuf (Matt Damon's character) tackles Mattie to the ground and starts caning her with a switch. While this is to demonstrate to her that she is a child, and subject to the discipline of the adults around, her response proves the opposite. She appeals to Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to stop this, which he does. She makes that appeal as a woman, who it is completely inappropriate to treat in that way. A younger child would not have had such authority (imagine a similar plea from an 8 year old boy, who would have been told the punishment was well-deserved). This underlines the liminality of her adolescent state, and there is something inescapably sexual about a grown man spanking a teenaged girl.

Indeed, while negotiating the issues of the male characters' responses to Mattie, far more interesting was her responses to them. Such a precocious girl, in terms of her intelligence, doesn't seem to try to use female charm to persuade. But her asexuality is maintained when we see her as an adult. She has never married, not "having time" for such things. Her purity in this masculine world is the one element that stays.

Stanley Fish's review of the film in the New York Times emphasises its religious tropes, and its Biblical allegories are wonderfully layered. Indeed, the randomness of fate that is demonstrated is rather Old Testament in its ideas. He mentions that it succeeds more than the John Wayne version to be truly a film about faith: I think it also presents a different view. Whereas John Wayne was often figured as the saviour in such films (see how many times his character's initials are J.C. - including this film). I don't think the Coen brothers put Cogburn as the saviour. He is redeemed - perhaps - by saving Mattie Ross. But she is the one who leads him, and perhaps LaBoeuf, to salvation. At the same time she is the instrument of punishment for the bad guys. As Fish puts it, she has "faith in the righteousness of her path".

The Coen brothers have taken the child lead/narrator of a Western, and made her a feminist hero.