Thursday, March 22, 2012

Like the Commissar the TV Show Disappears...

I have been buying DVD's for some ten years now. Sometimes the DVD's one buys bring with them annoyance. DVD companies, save for Criterion and Masters of Cinema, seem to have a problem buying or manufacturing keepcases that keep the DVD's safely on their spindles and as a result they arrive loose in the case and damaged. The annoyance this causes and the seeming Ph.D. in that proverbial Rocket Science making a DVD keepcase that actually does what it is supposed to do seems to require is nothing compared with another problem I have with DVD's and DVD corporations, their manipulation of history.

Rather like the powers that be in the Stalinist Soviet Union of the past, powers who, when the political times required it, wrote and imaged certain commissars out of Soviet and World Communist history, entertainment conglomerates and their DVD companies have, though less for political and more for economic reasons, imaged and audioed music, scenes, and recording style out of history.

NBC Universal and Lionsgate, for instance, released DVDs of "Will and Grace" that contain, in some cases, the syndicated rather than full original broadcast versions of that show. Universal and E One Entertainment released a DVD set of "It Takes a Thief" that contains, in some cases, the syndicated versions of episodes of that show (in mediocre transfers) rather than the original full broadcast versions. Universal released seasons two through six of "Northern Exposure" without, in many cases, its original music. CBS/Paramount warns those who are thinking about purchasing its DVD's of "The Fugitive" and "Holocaust" that "[s]ome episodes may be edited from their original broadcast version" and that [s]ome music may be changed from their original home version entertainment release in very small print that is barely readable on the back of the DVD box. ITV released a transfer of "Raffles" in which the original broadcast version of the show, a show that was largely videotaped, seems to have been replaced with a version in which the videotape seems to have been transferred onto film. As a result "Raffles's" inside scenes appear much darker than those on the original version. We can, by the way, compare the original and the ITV versions, because the wonderful Acorn has released the original version of "Raffles" in the US market in an excellent transfer.

So what is the historian to make of all of these corporate manipulations? Well, first, there is the obvious. Entertainment giants like Universal, Fox, and Warner's, only and understandably got broadcast rights for the popular music they began to use in the 1950s and used extensively after the 1970s as the age 14 to 26 demographic became the obsession of the "new" Hollywood (an odd phrase to use to describe post-studio system Hollywood since so much of "new" Hollywood is remakes or regurgitations of the "old"). Now, in the world of DVD's and whatever will take their place in the future, these, fighting media giants cannot come to an agreement on music rights in those cases when the music in the TV show isn't owned by the same media giant that made the film or television show in the first place. Fights over music rights was the reason "Ally McBeal" was given a delayed release in the US and why the wonderful "Wonder Years" is not likely to appear on DVD in my life time. Second, media conglomerates don't really care about historical accuracy or their customers, particularly those of their customers who want the original version of TV shows. They appear, if the release of syndicated versions of TV shows and poor quality transfers of TV shows, like Warner Brothers "The Waltons" (ironically the WB is a usually reliable purveyor of quality DVD's), is a guide, to, by and large, make the least expenditure of energy for something they think has limited sales potential route. And the sad thing is that most customers don't seem to care because they continue to buy the poor quality crap Hollywood conglomerates continue to put out. Bread and Circuses? Bread and Circuses.

Weirdly, I feel like I should praise CBS/Paramount for telling us what they might have done to their television shows in their DVD transfers. At least they are being honest, a rare pearl of great price in corporations indeed these days. Most entertainment conglomerates don't, as CBS/Paramount has, tell consumers that scenes and music from the show may be missing from their home entertainment release of a TV show for "contractual" reasons, doublespeak for media conglomerate infighting over money and hence profits. This preference of entertainment corporations for uninformed customers, by the way, tells us much, much not particularly good, about the economic world and those who control this economic world in which all of us live in, an economic world in which many of us in the US don't even have a right to know what is in our milk, butter, or yoghurt.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

No Well Trodden Path for You...

Throughout most of my life and throughout most of my intellectual and academic life (they are different species, by the way) I have almost always strayed off the beaten path. I have never been a yes man, I have never wanted to be a yes man, and I have almost always been forthright throughout my life. I was, after all, raised in Anabaptist country. I suspect that all of this is why almost all bureaucracies I have had the fortune and misfortune to interact with, including educational ones, have not really provided me with a "career" (a good bourgeois term if ever there was one) path.

So how now have I strayed off the beaten academic path? When I was a Religious Studies student I strayed away from Biblical Studies in the direction of Hermeneutics and Social Theory. When I was an American Studies student I strayed away from the well trod path of academic primary source analysis into the thick and beautiful forests of ideological analysis. When I was a Sociology student I strayed from sociological statistics into Social Theory and Comparative History. Max Weber was my guide. When I was a Cultural Anthropology student I strayed into Sociological Theory and Comparative History and had little interest in finding my own little Trobriand Island that I could exploit for career advancement. And when I was a History student I left the hermetic confines of primary source analysis and area specialisation for interdisciplinary Social Theory and Comparative Analysis both highly suspect in the inherently conservative "discipline" of History.

My taste in music has reflected my penchant for straying off well trodden paths as well. I am, after all, one of the 2% or so of Americans who really love classical music. While most casual listeners of art music rarely venture beyond the classics like Mozart and Beethoven I began to explore minor Soviet and Russian composers, composers like Borodin, Balakirev, Gliere, Vainberg, Glinka, Glazunov, Popov, Kabalevsky, Lyapunov, and Liadov. Recently I have been listening to a number of "minor" Nordic, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Finnish composers, composers like Gade, Svendsen, Atterberg, and Nielsen (assuming that the sadly far too little known Nielsen is a "minor" composer), and I have to say that I find them much more interesting, in general, than most of the Russian and Soviet composers beyond the Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky pantheon I had been exploring earlier (exploring is the key metaphor in my life, by the way; I have always been an explorer of things intellectual). I really enjoyed Atterberg's Cello and Violin Concerti. I loved Svendsen's two symphonies. I loved Gade's and Nielsen's wonderful choral works. I adored Nielsen's symphonies and concerti.

After listening to a number of wonderful works by little known Nordic composers, the Nordic classical music tradition, by the way, a tradition is one of the most vibrant today, I have to say I am glad, at least in part, that I have not chosen to meander along the less well trodden paths most people never venture off. I wouldn't have wanted to miss Nielsen, Atterberg, Svensen, and others. So thank you to whoever and whatever (the Sixties?) made me into the "weirdo" I am today.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Best Man? Ideology and the Miss President of the United States Pageant

Recently a ballot appeared on one of the Linkedin history discussion sites asking subscribers, historians and those interested in history one presumes, who they thought the "best" American president ever was. In this history version of Miss America and Miss American Congeniality Pageant subscribers are asked to chose whether they thought FDR, Woodrow Wilson, or Abraham Lincoln, or two others, were the "best" president of the United States ever?

There is, of course, a fundamental problem with asking a question about the presidents of the United States in this way. The notion "best" is ideological not empirical. It is grounded in notions of cultural "value", much like ideas of beauty and truth, of notions of good and bad, best and worse, not in notions of theoretical or empirical significance. As such what people value in their choices of who they think the "best" president of the US was tells us as much about the cultural contexts and ideological ways of seeing of those making these choices and what they value ideologically as they do about the person they consider to be the "best" president America ever had.

It is this confusion of value with significance that I think is one of the fundamental problems with so much historical analysis. History, with its aversion to theory and reflexivity, tends to confuse cultural and ideological speculation with empirical analysis and empirical significance. I would argue that judgements about American presidents should be based not on notions of value, of notions of "best" but rather on notions of significance. LBJ, for instance, is, to me, one of the most significant of twentieth century American presidents because of his impact on legislation and the impact of his legislation on America's political, economic, cultural, and environmental landscapes from 1964 to today. Needless to say LBJ isn't even on the Linkedin ballot of who was America's "best" president. Blame it on Vietnam?

So how have those who asked and have answered this question about who is America's "best" president defended this question and their answers to it when pushed to do so? Largely by recourse to fetishisation, festishisation of values and fetishisation of grammar. For the defenders of the history is value faith the term "best" is a valid approach to the analysis of the American presidency because the term, though "subjective", is a "superlative" and as such is an aspect of normative English grammar.

It is, of course, this fetishisation of values and grammars and the ideology inherent in these notions that is one of the problems with this type of "historical analysis". Notions of value, of what is best versus what is worse, of what is beautiful versus what is ugly, vary, as an immense amount of empirical evidence has long shown, across time and space. So unless one can produce a wild child who has never experienced the "joys" of language, a language which is inherently cultural and ideological, and grammar, which, as part of language is cultural and ideological, and who can telepathically "orate" on the universal nature of "best", "truth", "beauty", and "the American way" we have to admit that what we value is, empirically speaking, cultural, intersubjective, and ideological. That so many historians don't recognise this can perhaps be chalked up to the discipline's general aversion to reflexivity and theory and its focus on trees rather than the forest that the trees are a part of. Such aversions and such obsessions, however, do not excuse the tendency of such "historians" to ignore the criticisms aimed at the it is alright to ask value laden questions faith. Believing, like faith in general, never gets us anywhere near the neighbourhood of empirical understanding.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Melancholy of a Critical Mind

Call me Nihilist. Once I became aware of hermeneutics thanks to my undergraduate major in Religious Studies with an emphasis in Biblical Studies, my romanticisation of, my belief in, and my attachment and devotion to academic disciplines has never been the same.

When I began seeking out a graduate programme to enter I looked for a programme that would allow me to be the interdisciplinary scholar of cultural studies and ideology I wanted to be. I tried American Studies. It didn't work out. The head of the programme was pretty much a standard historian and really didn't have much time for the interdisciplinary research I wanted to do. I tried sociology. It didn't work out. It was much too disciplinary and quantitative and far too historically anemic while I was interdisciplinary and qualitative and thought a historical sensitivity essential to an understanding of humans and those things humans had created. I tried anthropology. It didn't work. It was much to disciplinary, historically anemic, and holistic in orientation forcing every student to take courses in bioanthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology while I was focused on culture and symbols and was interdisciplinary in orientation. Finally I tried history and while it was difficult to complete my doctorate in that discipline for a number of reasons, primary amongst them was that I have read too much Max Weber, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, and Michel Foucault all of whom made it difficult for me to put aside my reflexive and critical mind, a reflexive and critical mind which made me see academic disciplines and their practitioners as little more than social and cultural constructions which fetishsed their ideologies themselves--I did manage to finally graduate with a Ph.D. in history.

The fact that I have a Ph.D. in history, however, doesn't mean that I give history an intellectual pass or that I am a true believer in what history does and how it does it anymore than I was a true believer in sociology or anthropology because I am not. In fact, as someone who knows a bit about and has a lot of experience with a number of academic disciplines, history may be the most dismal social science and humanities discipline of them all.

So why do I find history particularly dismal? I think it is because of a number of things. First, its aversion to theory. Far too many historians think that it is acceptable to do studies of divorce, something that has been studied extensively before, in a group about whom the researcher knew nothing about their ethnic backgrounds, their sectarian background, or their class backgrounds, studies which, in the final analysis, don't tell us anything we don't already know, i.e., people divorce. Second, its general lack of theoretical reflexivity and its attendant difficulty specifying significance. Historians too often have little if any conception of what is significant to study and what is not as I learn again and again when I listen to historians tell me about yet another study of a workers movement that tells us nothing different from studies of labour movements that preceded the one they are doing. Third, its often unvocalised utopian belief, a belief rather like that which underlay the wholism that dominated anthropology into the 1970s, a belief that is related to its inability to discern significance, a belief in the inductive process of collecting research on every aspect of every human group (intellectual and academic totalism), a process which, it is believed, will result in the "true" science of human life and human history. Fourth, its inaccurate belief that history is unique because of its study of primary source material. All disciplines, including physics, biology, film, television, and music have a domain that constitutes their primary source material. Fifth, its sacralisation of primary source material itself, a totem so sacred that every historian has to partake of it as though it were a Eucharist wafer. Sixth, its belief that history simply reveals to a waiting intellectual public what is in those primary source materials, the historical version of automaton positivism. And seventh, the tendency for history to be a kind of vanity practise in which the history of Jews is written by Jewish historians, the history of Mennonites is written by Mennonite historians, and the history of the left is written by leftist historians. Max Weber was clearly right when he noted that intellectuals tend to do research on and write about things they value, things they value ideologically. All this, by the way, is how one academic discipline, it is not the only one, fetishises (in all senses) the objects of its desire.

In reality, history is as theoretically oriented as any other social science and humanities discipline. Many historians just don't know it. Historians interpret primary source materials economically, politically, culturally, geographically, and demographically. They read primary sources, in other words, through the theoretical lenses which arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, lenses which regard economics, politics, culture, geography, and demography as central causal factors impacting human life and human history. Additionally, the narrative tales historians write about primary documents are themselves selected by the teller of those tales. It is this amnesia, intentional or not, this amnesia about how history really works that I dislike the most about the discipline. And it is this lack of reflexivity which is why I would argue, at least on some occasions, history is the most dismal of all the social science and humanities disciplines.

'Stupid is as Stupid Does'

I have been thinking a lot about stupidity recently. It probably has something to do with the prevalence of media coverage of the Republican presidential primaries and the attempts by Republican lawmakers to do stupid things across the United States, stupid things like trying to ban abortion by mandating that an invasive procedures be performed before an abortion can take place as in Virginia, by trying to undermine unions by cutting back on union activity and instituting right to work laws as in Indiana or cutting back on the rights of unionised public workers as in Wisconsin, or by allowing religious institutions and those of religious conscience to opt out of providing contraception to female workers and customers all across the United States (note that they are not allowing religious pacifists to opt out of paying federal war taxes, however). Sometimes it seems that the levels of stupidity in the US are higher than they have ever been in my lifetime thanks to these Republicans and those who support them.

I am not sure that my perception that idiocy is at its highest levels in the United States in my lifetime will hold water. And in my best Rod Serling online voice let me offer the following idiocies from my academic past for your consideration. Exhibit A, I heard a graduate student at a second or third level research university in the Northeast wonder aloud why anyone or why any historian should pay any attention to Mormon perceptions of persecution. Ideological prejudices creating reality perhaps? The moral of this story, perhaps the real reason is because, as with Anabaptists and Jews, persecution leaves its mark on a groups cultural DNA. Exhibit B, I heard an undergraduate student at the same university say she didn't like the Coen Brothers though, upon questioning, she admitted she had never seen a Coen Brothers film in her life. They were not "independent" enough for her. Ideology creating "reality"? The moral of this story, if you are going to criticise something it helps to know something about what you are criticising. Exhibit C, I heard yet another undergraduate student at the same Northeastern university say that he hated Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When asked why he admitted he had never seen the show and couldn't offer a reasonable reason why he hated Buffy. Ideology creating "reality"? And again, moral of this tale, ye should know empirically what you are critiquing before you critique it.

What I have long found incredible about these instances of stupidity is that they occurred within the hallowed ivy, well concrete, halls of a university, within the very place where reason and intelligence is supposed to be a sacred duty. I guess I really shouldn't be surprised about this. Universities are, after all, human institutions and humans invariably do and say stupid and idiotic things. I, an educated person, for instance, have done a lot of stupid things in my life one of which was matriculating at a Northeastern university that I assumed, wrongly it turns out, would be just like the great state research universities such as Indiana University, the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Texas, the University of California, and the University of Iowa. It wasn't. I guess I should have followed the advice of my Dad and Mum: look before you leap, or to put it in intellectual terms, do your empirical research before you assume anything and be wary of romanticising.