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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Future names for things that are not cats also adapted from the past

While we're on the subject, I should add that early modernity supplies good names for a great many things in addition to cats, like political pamphlets. Here, for example, is one that can be used for any occasion at all: The Best Answer Ever Was Made and To Which No Answer Will be Made (1706). This was not, unfortunately, truth in advertising, because an answer to it was indeed made, and had to be followed by another sally by the same author: The Finishing Stroke (1711). As far as I know though, that one really was conclusive.

I also failed to note in the previous post that the English of the seventeenth century were no less disposed to naming their children Pineapple than we are, as evidenced by a winning name I came across today: Offspring Blackall. I'm not English or a social historian, so it's hard for me to say whether this was actually as bizarre a name in its context as it now appears to be, but...Offspring?

Nonetheless, a decent name for a cat.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Early modern cats

Professor Mondo offers a near-convergence of mah interests - cats and early modernity (though really the cat poem is earlier than early modernity). A tip to my future self who owns a cat farm - names for future cats: Tibert, Meone. (It's a big question, what to name your cat. You have the panoply of real person names to choose from, but there are additionally names of philosophers, statesmen, and literary heroes to consider. Plus fruits, vegetables, and other animals. So a much bigger set of options than children's names, unless you are of the view that children can be named things like Pineapple, or Hobbes.)

Friday, June 14, 2013

Huck Finn and democratic self-making

Once upon a time (really last October, but it seems like a long time to me), when I was still thinking about what to propose for a dissertation, I considered the link between con-men, or the more optimistically phrased "self-made men," and democratic childhood and authority. These are not obviously related, but if you think briefly about two important American books - Franklin's Autobiography and Huck Finn, you may begin to see a relationship between childhood, adult authority (or lack thereof), self-making and democracy. Unfortunately, this would be a lot like writing a dissertation, or part of a dissertation, on my favorite real life topic: frauds and impostors. More importantly, it didn't seem like the kind of thing that would interest many political theorists, and it would cause many other logistical problems for me on top of that. So, it was dropped.

But Paul Cantor has a nice essay on Huck Finn in the CRB that captures many of these points:
A Mississippi River pilot named Samuel Clemens reconfigured himself as a writer named Mark Twain, and the rest is literary history. Clemens was in fact one of the first to understand that in a democratic society a man might use the modern media to invent himself as a celebrity. In Twain's presentation, America is a land of disguises. As a runaway slave, Jim in particular must continually be kept under wraps. In a bizarre development—of whose irony Twain must have been aware—Jim ends up dressed in the theatrical costume of King Lear. One of the central motifs of Huckleberry Finn is the theatricality of democratic America. People are constantly playing roles in public, and changing their identities seems no more difficult than changing their costumes.
...
That is why nobody knows for sure anymore who anybody is in Huckleberry Finn. In the aristocratic world of the old regime in Europe, most people were immobile, tied to the land. That is what it meant to be a serf... But Twain's America is a land of wide-open spaces and that makes it much easier to become an impostor, a stranger in a strange land. This is perhaps the best example of how all the criminality in Huckleberry Finn is linked to the new democratic freedom and mobility. This explains why the con man has been such a central American theme. Before Twain, Herman Melville had chosen to title a novel about America The Confidence-Man. And con men have been a mainstay of American popular culture, especially its comedies, as the films of W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers attest.
...
At least in democracy there is a chance of unmasking the imposture. The king and the duke are not really convincing in their aristocratic roles, largely because they were not born to them. As Huck explains to Jim, men born as kings make the most successful impostors. In Twain's view, aristocracy simply is fraud; it is all an illusion, based on mere externals, based on show, as again Huck explains to Jim: "I read considerable to Jim about kings, and dukes, and earls, and such, and how gaudy they dressed, and how much style they put on, and called each other your majesty, and your grace, and your lordship, and so on, ‘stead of mister." For Twain, aristocracy is by its very nature imposture, some men claiming falsely that they are born to rule over others. But people bred to rule seem to do a better job of convincing others to accept their slavery. That is why, in the debate between aristocracy and democracy, Twain ultimately comes down on the side of democracy. Democratic life enables certain forms of imposture, but these are an aberration and can be exposed. As we see in the case of the king and the duke, in a democracy the inferiority of those with aristocratic pretensions is more obvious. But, in an aristocracy imposture is a way of life; it is the foundation of the regime. America does pay a price for building a new nation, but for Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn that price is worth paying for the sake of leaving the old regime of slavery in Europe behind.
I'm increasingly skeptical of the "immobile aristocracy of ye olden days" trope, which never seems to point to any particular moment in time when Europeans were strapped down to their villages. For one thing, it seems to me that few humanist writers between 1400-1700 stayed at home, and some ranged quite widely. We might say these were some kind of elite, which is true, but they didn't necessarily have to be born into the nobility to become such, they only needed to pursue a university education, which seems to be the impetus for much of their wandering. Consider, for example, the life of Thomas Platter, or John Comenius. Aristocracy persisted long after the decline of serfdom in England and France, so is it an age of powerful nobility to which we refer, or an age of feudalism, or just any age where social hierarchy is visible and unchallenged?

But Cantor's is an intriguing conclusion about the greater ability of democrats to detect impostors, and I think very much in line with my own view, frequently repeated here, that we should not rush to make impermeable whatever barrier has been breached by the most recent revelations of impostordom. We should not run background checks on all applicants to college, or call up the universities from which every job candidate claims to have a degree. This is the first impulse of victims of a con - tighten security so it never happens again! But if the very quality of the regime that creates impostors is also the one which unmasks them, then we ought to feel less paranoid about the dangers of letting a few slip through our fingers.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The very small number of decent movies streaming on Netflix: an incomplete list

Occasionally, I get free month-long trials for Netflix, which usually extend to two months because I forget to cancel them until I see the charge on my credit card, and then promptly kill that money-sucker. This month a free trial was occasioned by the release of the disappointing fourth season of Arrested Development. But usually, the free trial is activated so that I can re-watch the first five seasons of Buffy for the eleventyeth time. Whatever the initial purpose however, I use these free trials to watch as many movies as possible, in a storing up acorns for winter kind of way, since I normally see about three movies a year.

The problem with this strategy is that Netflix has a worse selection of instantly streaming movies than a small-town public library in Wyoming. I have watched the first 20 minutes of so many terrible movies, I can't even count them. Practically the only public service Netflix streaming performs beyond allowing you to watch all the episodes of Buffy in one surreal weekend is hosting the first movies of some subsequently good directors (Wes Anderson, Whit Stillman), some Monty Python movies, and the (incomplete) library of classic high school flicks of the 1980s.

So, as a service to others like me (should any such exist), here is a list of non-terrible movies available on Netflix instant, rated according to James Bowman's extremely useful simplified system of see/don't see, except there are no zero star films here because "don't see" is the Netflix baseline, so there are only 2 stars (good movie), and 1 star (decent movie). These are mostly limited-release movies, but since anything released before about 1995 is limited to me on account of my having been either unborn or pre-conscious then, you will have to pardon some older but more popular inclusions as well.

1. Metropolitan **
2. Lust, Caution **
3. Heathers *
4. Tiny Furniture **
5. Ping Pong Playa * (** for simple but effective jokes though)
6. Jesus Henry Christ *
7. Bottle Rocket *
8. The Lost Embrace * (there used to also be other Burman movies available, but apparently no longer)

If you can think of more, let me know. Because I will probably watch them.

ADDENDUM: Commenters and emailers reminded me of/suggested to me some more:
Paper Chase **
Life in a Day*

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Observations on the very small number of decent movies Netflix streams

Heathers is not a movie that could be made in the present. First there is the bullying and rampant classmate-killing. Then there is the use of suicide for satire. And as if that all weren't bad enough, all the teachers are shown smoking, indoors.

And I think it goes without saying that this exquisite funeral garb doesn't help: