About Reilly Cundiff

Senior. I work at Riverby Books downtown; come say hello.

Susan Sontag on How the False Divide Between Pop Culture and “High” Culture Limits Us

From brainpickings:

“If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then — of course — I’d choose Dostoyevsky,” Susan Sontag wrote in the preface to the 30th-anniversary edition of her cultural classic Against Interpretation, then mischievously asked, “But do I have to choose? … Happenings did not make me care less about Aristotle and Shakespeare. I was — I am — for a pluralistic, polymorphous culture.”

More at the website.

Split Personalities

When we discussed Part II of Passion Play, it was mentioned that suspicions we had of certain characters from Part I seemed to be confirmed in the latter. John’s willingness to enter into a sexless relationship with Mary 1 in Part I read a little less “martyr” and more “in the closet” when we discover Eric is in a homosexual relationship. Both men share the role of playing Jesus in their respective Passion Plays, and both roles are played by the same actor in Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play, so the theory seems to go that they might share more in common than we think.

Have you found this to be true for other characters? Was your initial reading of Pontius the Fish Gutter confirmed as you moved throughout the arc? Or have you found the impressions you get from a character change wildly in each act? For example, does J in Part III ring true to your interpretation of John from Part I, or are they in contrast?

Do John, Eric, and J simply share a common role in a small-time production, or should we view them as parts of a whole, each informing the other?

Reilly’s Bridge to the Blog

I’ve had a harder time understanding Tyson’s explanation of reader-response theory than the other modes of analysis, and I wonder if I’m the only one! In class we covered some associated concepts and key terms (like implied reader and implied author), but I still have questions.

I still don’t understand exactly why or how reader-response theory is used: Who benefits? What’s the product? Are we using it to better understand the text, or our relationship with it? For example, a Marxist analysis of Gatsby provides a rich and almost timeless reading which can be used to undermine the “American dream”. Similarly, feminist or lesbian, gay, and queer theory readings are able to interpret increasingly relevant issues in our society. And maybe that’s what I don’t get about reader-response: on it’s own, it seems a little too meta.

In Tyson’s analysis of Gatsby, she seems to mostly outline how the structure and events of the text mirror our own responses. As facts (or grandiose rumors) about Gatsby are revealed to us (and the narrator), our perception of him and our amount of sympathy for him fluctuates, as does Nick’s.

It reminds me of watching a scary movie: how successfully does the heart-pounding music and disorienting absence of light prepare you to be just as frightened as the girl about to get stabbed? An author’s word choice, line breaks, and other stylistic choices can have the same effect.

This idea, that “a literary text is an event that occurs in time”, and not an object, stuck out to me most, from both our reading and our class discussion. As the events of Gatsby unfold, how does Nick’s wavering feelings about Gatsby mimic our own changing minds? We are constantly diverted from reaching a firm conclusion. Again, this is perhaps easier to understand if you think of how a movie – using colors, music, setting, etc. – will lead you to coming to a certain conclusion only to have a twist, or will build a comforting setting of domesticity before unleashing the zombies.

‘Text as event’ can also be illustrated through the exercise we participated in as groups at the end of class. I likened the experience of reading Gertrude Stein’s “A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass” to having our own personal “Yellow Wallpaper”. Although I cannot claim that we started out completely confident in our interpretation, as we moved from phrase to phrase, line to line, we found it increasingly hard to find meaning – meaning we could feel sure of, anyway. Meanwhile, the prose itself begins with “a kind in glass and a cousin”, and ends “The difference is spreading.” We’re deftly taken on a ride – I’m just not the most equipped reader to decide where we started.. or where I got off.

Does anyone share my doubts regarding the applications of reader-response theory? Or have different ones? What concepts stood out to you? Have you seen those concepts used in other theories we have covered so far?

Reilly’s Marxist Analysis of “Shoes”

Liam Kyle Sullivan is an actor and comedian whose YouTube channel boasts over 300,000 subscribed users and over 150 million views. He portrays a number of different characters in his videos but perhaps his most notable performance is as the moody and materialistic teenaged Kelly.

When Kelly’s music video “Shoes” first started making its way around the internet in 2007, my friends and I enjoyed it on a purely superficial level. It’s highly ridiculous, from the embarrassingly catchy electronic beat, to Sullivan’s exaggerated interpretation of a vapid teenage girl. Six years later – during which Liam Kyle Sullivan has continued to make videos – I never thought I’d be listening to this song again, much less listening for subtext.

Today, I’ll be arguing that “Shoes” actually functions as fairly well-crafted satire of an out-of-control, capitalistic society. The song and accompanying music video critique the conspicuous consumption and consumerism among Kelly and her peers.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCF3ywukQYA[/youtube]

At the beginning of the video a short skit depicts Kelly and her twin-brother celebrating their birthday with their parents. While her twin brother, Chris, receives gifts of a computer and car, Kelly gets an over-sized purple dinosaur. Kelly does not get what she wants, and this is a problem. The dramatic blow-out that follows, complete with name-calling and slut-shaming, sets us up for Kelly’s performance

With music, Kelly makes it explicitly clear that what she had wanted, was shoes. A giant stuffed dinosaur does little for Kelly’s self-worth: not only does it have no functional use, but it carries no monetary value, and shoving the monstrosity into a corner on her bed does little to improve her social standing. Kelly’s wardrobe, however – carefully selected with an ever watchful eye for trends – confers her much more status using the sign exchange value of the items she buys.

Kelly’s case of conspicuous consumption is especially overt due to her strained position in her family. Kelly is not only struggling to be seen as “just as good as” the numerous wealthy – she is struggling to compete with her brother who actually has his worth affirmed by his parent’s obnoxiously expensive gifts. At the height of the video, Kelly covets a pair of high-end heels priced at $300. “Let’s get ’em!” she declares, tantalized by all the promises she sees represented in the pair of shoes.

Instead of seeing a $300 pair of shoes and understanding the plight of the factory worker, Kelly continues to want to identify with those wealthier than her. The promise of the American dream distracts Kelly from questioning how the capitalistic society she lives in supports her obsessive need to shop, competition with her sibling, and her own insecurities.

Though we often feel encouraged to laugh at Kelly’s gross displays of consumerism, the music video makes it clear that she is ultimately ridiculous. When Kelly is denied opportunities to dress herself in the finest money has to offer, she and her cohort become violent and the screen is filled with the fiery red heat of her rage. The video becomes surreal and seemingly devoid of meaning, not unlike Kelly’s life when she is unable to realize or denounce the forces that trap her in an inescapable cycle of consumption.

Kelly’s antics reveal to us the damning effects of capitalism, and just how futile ideologies like the American dream are. Ultimately, “Shoes” proves itself to be an effective tool of the Marxist critic and leaves us with one additional lesson: If you have the energy to take on a mall cop, for God’s sake, do it for the right cause.

Why Cultural Studies?

If enough people think studying the media is a waste of time, then the media themselves can seem less influential than they really are. Then they get off the hook for doing what they do best: promoting a white, upper-middle-class, male view of the world that urges the rest of us to sit passively on our sofas and fantasize about consumer goods while they handle the important stuff, like the economy, the environment, or child care.

-Susan Douglas, Where the Girls Are

This quote opens a chapter in the book I’m reading (“Radio On” by Sarah Vowell) and I thought it was worthwhile to share! A strong argument for why it’s important to study all texts, and not just “great literature”.

Is Honesty a Virtue in “Gatsby”?

During the last few minutes of class today (11:00 am section), a student prompted a poll on the general likeability of Tom Buchanan’s character. Unsurprisingly, most of us found him unsympathetic and didn’t appreciate various ugly aspects of his personality. A few, however, voiced the opinion that even when Tom was being offensive and bigoted, he was at least being honest, which is hard to say for other characters. They appreciated his direct and matter-of-fact manner.

If honesty is the yardstick we use to measure the basic “goodness” or worth of a character in The Great Gatsby, haven’t we chosen the wrong tool? Are we doing a disservice to other characters by writing them off as dishonest?

Jordan

Jordan Baker is described by Nick Carraway as being “incurably dishonest”. As an example, he cites a lie she uses at a party, and an incident at her first big golf tournament where she was suspected of cheating (p. 19). The lie at the party is told to us readers second-hand, and the other Nick doesn’t believe himself. If we dismiss Nick as a reliable narrator, what other ways are we told Jordan “deal[s] in subterfuge”?

Many have argued that not only Nick, but Jordan, are homosexual (or are, at least, fluid in their sexuality) and struggling to “pass” among their peers. Jordan succeeds quite successfully: unlike Daisy, she is financially independent and typically holds the power in the relationships she chooses, but through simple acts like dressing and her cool affectations, she is able to disappear into the background of women indistinguishable from another. She seems to have escaped notice even in our class discussions.

If you can accept that Jordan’s dishonesty is integral to her ability to lead the life of her choosing – a life that offers her freedom and mobility – should she be subjected to a harsher treatment than men like Tom? Contrast her desire to that of Tom’s: his desire to uphold the status quo he participates in enables him to speak so boldly and derisively of perceived threats to his privilege and whiteness. He loses nothing, risks nothing, by being “honest”. What is so admirable about that?

Resource: Jordan Baker, Gender Dissent, and Homosexual Passing in The Great Gatsby

To Forgive and Gloze Over

In “What We Read”, Richter introduces us to the term “glozed over” through Barbara Herrnstein Smith:

… features that would, in a noncanonical work, be found alienating – for example, technically crude, philosophically naive, or narrowly topical – will be glozed over or backgrounded.

 

As Richter continues to elaborate, this means that when a work is found to be of literary significance despite a strand of racism, sexism, or other prejudice woven throughout, those who are in place to judge the work can also find the room to forgive the author’s transgressions due to the ultimately redeeming qualities of the whole. (125) Doing so protects the work from entering a “trajectory of extinction.” (Quote attributed to Smith via Richter, 125)

Tom Buchanan is a Very Important (White) Person.

What drives the academic, critic, or any individual reading canonical works, to forgive or gloze over such uncomfortable passages? In The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan stands out as a bigot in more ways than one. When we are first introduced to Daisy’s husband, he goes on a tirade inspired by a book he had recently read (located on p. 12 of the class edition):

The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be- will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved…

 

You don’t say!

The book Tom’s so passionate about is real: The Rising Tide of Color Against White-World Supremacy was published by Lothrop Stoddard in 1920. Most of us are familiar with the fear-based “science” of the time that sought to prove the superiority of whites. If we understand, then, the context the book is placed in, are racist remarks such as Tom’s easier to explain away? Is it just as easy for any of the minorities targeted in the book, as it is for whites, to appreciate the more obvious themes and concede the overall “literary value” of the book?

When do we stop making excuses for works that would be, if published in our time, considered grossly inappropriate and culturally insensitive?