History, Because We Made It

This day in history, exactly one year ago, a plate of food was put before me at a restaurant, and it was so beautifully presented that I absolutely had to snap a photo and post it to Facebook. #foodporn #omg #goingtomyhips #bejealous #howmanymorehashtagscanIthinkof

Not really. But I expect this sort of notification comes about on a Facebook timeline once every few hours across the world.

We have Timehop and On This Day to thank for commemorating the mundane. What used to be a collective effort–history–has become increasingly selfish, says Sarah Senk in Slate.com. I agree. I could go on in the echo chamber re: selfies and increasing eye-to-screen time, adding more volume to the already overpacked “we are too selfish” chant. However, I suggest that Senk’s take is different enough to talk about. In fact, I may share it on my timeline.

By replacing events of broad cultural significance with mundane “events” of little to no relevance to anyone else, Facebook seems to be transforming our understanding of commemorative practice in two ways: It hastens the process through which events get treated as “historical,” and it lowers the bar regarding which past events get to count as “history.”

Imagine someone wandering down to Dealey Plaza in November 1963, taking a selfie in front of the Depository, and captioning: “Just woke up. Need coffee. Oh, and the Prez is here today.”

By privileging an anniversary regardless of the content, Facebook urges people to go through the motions of retrospection, to have feelings of nostalgia generated more by the automatic action of marking time than by any specific event or experience. In this way, On This Day risks transforming commemoration into a meaningless gesture, in which all one really reflects upon is a potentially empty process of reflection itself. Look at me being pensive and nostalgic and caring about the past, the user gets to feel while contemplating how something happened “one year ago today.”

I remember when my sense of history went from planar to linear. I sat at home with my family watching videos of my childhood that they decided to bring out on my 21st birthday. Until that point, I’d looked back on memories as these random things I could pluck from an array of life events, and vaguely thought of myself as disassociated from that person in the recollection. Watching those films, though, I realized that same kid was me, and everything between that point in time and the present was the sum of who I was at that point.

It was a genuine action of marking time and realizing how it impacted me. Says Senk: “In place of a shared object, we have a shared process of remembering something, anything.” I sat there and shared the object with my family on that birthday evening. In contrast, Timehopping only requires me to acknowledge that a commemoration is necessary, and I should share/post/tweet with a witty or nostalgic comment. The plate of food is, and was, all about me; the old home movies were about us.

There are, of course, arguments for histories of the mundane. I have done enough literary research through journals and letters to understand this. I don’t disagree. But the difference is real. What separates an artist’s journals on daily food intake with a random #foodporn Instagram shot? Time. If I become famous and important, perhaps in a hundred years my digital minutiae will be of some consequence to researchers. But there’s the rub: deeming who or what is important enough for such recognition usually takes a collective effort. Even histories of local communities are done by way of a collective effort.

I think the arguments are dual and parallel here: (1) empty commemoration for commemoration’s sake; and (2) importance of self vs importance of collective experience.

Of course, this is only my individual assessment. Time will tell.

Mad Men and Colonel Sanders

Mad Men has wrapped up, and with the closing of this beautifully executed AMC series, we say goodbye to the wave of nostalgia that has gripped the cable networks for most of recent memory. However, just as Don left on a commercial note–Coke, in this case–the fast food chains have filled the vacuum with characters from their golden days. Colonel Sanders and the Hamburglar are back at KFC and McDonald’s.

I don’t know the rationale behind it, and Darrell Hammond isn’t exactly a clone of the Colonel, but it’s schtick that should at least turn some heads. I remember Chicken Littles from the Colonel Sanders era of KFC. I remember playing on the McDonald’s playground where the plastic Hamburglar lurked over in the corner.

One company’s dealings with nostalgia did not go as planned. Last year, Hardee’s quietly did away with the Cinnamon Raisin Biscuit. Those had been around ever since I was a child, and I have fond memories of getting ready for school early enough so that my dad would take me to Hardee’s on our way and we would share an order of those. It didn’t happen often, but it was fun. Many have similar memories, and when those biscuits were replaced by an inferior Cinnamon Pull Apart, all hell broke loose. Even the clerks at the register admitted the company made a mistake. At last check, Hardee’s had put things back to normal and acted like the ill-advised move never happened.

The lesson here? Nostalgia is a tricky thing. Mad Men seemed to have run its course, as had the viewing audience’s appetite for a midcentury modern drama. However, where food is concerned, appeals to the past are timeless. Now, go get yourself some home cooking at a restaurant nearby….”just like Mom used to make.”

Edward Said’s Orientialism

Orientalism was itself  a product of certain political forces and activities.

Said wrote this in 1978, but fast-forward to 2015 and we can easily substitute Orient for Middle East or Islam or Arab. None of these terms point to an objective Truth; rather, they are the subjective signifiers of some “other” culture, whose only common definition among a random sampling of 10 people might be that they “aren’t us.” In the context of the humanities, Oriental art and literature are not some imperfect versions of European or American works produced people who are imperfect versions of “us” and need some kind of rescue.

It is an intellectual, rather than political, colonization of regions of the world we aren’t ready to admit we know a whole heck of a lot about. Said Said: “My contention is that Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided [associated] the Orient’s difference with its weakness” (61).

Consider Nietzsche’s version of truth: ideas “which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people…illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are” (60). In this case, it’s not a matter of forgetting, but never knowing. Students in world literature or art classes never knew a time in which Middle East or Islam or Arab didn’t have a mountain of obligatory ideas surrounding the terms.

In essence, it’s a system in which the identities of ours/us is always opposite theirs/them. Foucault contends that there is no normal without an abnormal; if we settle upon Orientalism being a way to comfortably label an “Other” culture, then we place ourselves in the realm of the normal. It is a refusal (whether intentional or not) to identify this culture with our own—to reduce a group of human beings to an idea that can be studied and dissected, rather than seeing individuals who do share common bonds with us.

Source: Said, Edward. (1995). Extracts from Orientalism. In A. Easthope & K. McGowan (Eds.), A critical and cultural theory reader (pp. 55-61). Toronto, ON: Toronto University Press. (Reprinted from Orientalism, by E. Said, 1978, New York: Random House.)

Rivalry Week: Clemson Football

This is the week that most residents of South Carolina will spend their time talking trash about either Carolina or Clemson, depending on their allegiances.

Rather than say anything negative about USC, I’d like to draw attention to one of the greatest entrances in college football. Last year’s home opener against Georgia featured a pregame segment on ESPN that documented the bus ride the players and coaches take from one end of the stadium to the other. It’s a tradition that began when the team dressed in the old Fike Fieldhouse then walked to the stadium and ran down The Hill. The facilities are now on the other end of the stadium, under the West End Zone, but the tradition remains. It’s part of the pregame pageantry that makes Clemson’s entrance “The Most Exciting 25 Seconds in College Football,” to quote Brent Musberger. I have to say, as a Clemson alumnus and football fan, there is nothing like this. Being in the stadium while this is going down, after singing the Clemson Alma Mater with my dad and 80,000 others, is a memory I get to relive every year for all the home games.

Plath at 82: A Life Rearranged

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Sylvia Plath would have turned 82 last month, and this article in The Atlantic makes some observations on Ted Hughes’ editorial contributions to Ariel‘s arrangement.

After her death, Plath’s husband Ted Hughes rearranged her manuscript to reflect his wife’s biographical arc: Placing her strongest, most outwardly masochistic poems (“Ariel”) at the beginning, Hughes filled the middle in with optimistic work, then punched up the end with poems about female death and a writer’s obsession (“Contusion,” “Edge,” and “Words”). After his editorial contributions, the oven was the logical conclusion to the collection’s tale of downward spiral, the final defeat in its losing battle.

In 2006, I had an article published in Lifewriting about the inevitable difficulties biographers had, and would continue to experience, with the Hughes estate. It was based on one central thesis:

Regardless, with respect to her suicide, Plath and Hughes are not two separate individuals. They are one concept, fused together by their mutual experiences and held in an infinite moment.

I also questioned Hughes’ dual roles as both widower and what appeared to be puppeteer. Despite passing the executor role to his sister Olwyn, there was little doubt that he was still acting by proxy. His actions, detailed in the Atlantic article, certainly suggest a certain level of manipulation.

Sinatra at the Sands: “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”

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This version is the definitive reading of the song. Period.

I’ve heard both the studio and concert versions of this song, plus the Reprise version, and I always come back to this one. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is the third track of the 1966 album Sinatra At The Sands with Count Basie and his Orchestra. In 1966, Sinatra had been through enough to sing most any song with authority. He’d been to the top, bottomed out, and back up again – and that’s just professionally. Personally, one might argue that he had a tendency to get someone under his skin. I always think this song could be applied at any point during his life.

The original recording in 1956 (Songs for Swingin’ Lovers) with the Capitol orchestra and trombonist Milt Bernhart is a standard, but lacks the intense emotion of the concert performance. Bernhart’s solo there is fantastic. Don’t get me wrong. But Basie’s trombonist really puts raw emotion into it.

The music is in keeping with the album’s mood…breezy but focused. Basie’s signature sound is there. The orchestra is at ease with the chart but adds an underlying sense of urgency not present in the ’56 version. This is important, given the song’s subject matter.

Sinatra starts with a simple declaration, matter-of-factly but with what I imagine as a knowing smile on his face. Basie’s brass punctuates the admission that the song’s muse is “really a part” of the singer. From “I’ve tried so, not to give in” to “never will go so well” grows in urgency slowly, but is resolved with “But why…” — as though he is giving up, but will enjoy giving in. Sinatra drags the next line, emphasizing “skin” with a warm, sensual tone that leads to the first run of the repeat verse.

Now we’re to acknowledging the pangs of sacrificing anything to have one near, and Sinatra sounds almost joyfully complacent in his anguish. He’s okay with being led. But the “warning voice” comes after the orchestra builds–a small crescendo for what’s coming, the pounding heart, the futile attempts. The orchestra drops back to a basic riff as Sinatra, as the warning voice, forcefully orders to “use your mentality,” as he “never can win.” His voice softens and the woodwinds transition us as he again acknowledges the recurring thoughts of his muse. Basie’s orchestra throws in a perfect punctuation after “stop.”

A major transition occurs here. Sinatra’s voice decrescendos and warms as he sings “’cause I’ve got you / under my skinnn” — holding the last syllable for several beats and diminishing. The orchestra builds, this time the woodwinds stepping aside for the solo trombone, other brass, and rhythm.

The trombone solo itself seems to channel what the singer couldn’t form into words. Of Bernhart’s studio performance, Will Friedwald (Sinatra! The Song Is You) writes, “the trombonist plumbs the depths of emotion that, at the end of his sixteen bars, we tell ourselves that no mere words could ever reach.” Basie’s trombonist outshines Bernhart in this regard.

Sinatra outdoes his studio performance as well. He comes in after the orchestra resolves the angst of the solo, but it’s not fully put to rest. The orchestra ups the tempo and dynamic and Sinatra dives in. His catharsis comes at the last “But you know” and “wake up, step up” — again, the warning voice, but now spoken as the singer being warned. You can hear the pain and heartache, and the logic. He continues in the singer’s voice, bridging the line with a long “and,” as though he’s taking time to think–or emphasize his own resolve.

Either way, his fate is set. A percussion emphasis is made at “each time” as though to make clear this is how it’s going to be. A pause after “just the thought of you,” then a quick run through “makes me stop” — it’s time to stop deliberation and let things be. The orchestra rests long enough for FS to breathe (just as his vocals on the collaboration with Antonio Carlos Jobim) “because I’ve got you” — a drastic shift from the high emotions of just a few measures ago. He’s wrestled with it, thought it over, and now turns to his muse to surrender. The remainder of the phrase is accompanied by soft rhythm and instrumentation. A quick bass run and a piano chord to say, “That’s all,” and the song is over.

It is swing, longing, machismo, turmoil, acceptance, and resignation.