Blog Archives

Do It Again! Pop Culture Prologue

This is the very much belated first installment in my series on sequels and repetition in pop culture.  In the brief essay on the index page for this series, I said:

My basic thesis, which I’ll be examining in posts to come is this:  Repetition, in the form of series, serials, remakes, and quotation of various tropes is at one and the same time the most characteristic feature of modern pop culture (all genres) and also the sign of its decadence and creative decline.

In order to do that, I’ll need to lay a bit of background, starting with this post.

In his classic book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton makes this interesting observation:

The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life.

The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.

It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.

This rings true.  As humans, we love repetition.  As Chesterton notes, “Do it again!” is indeed the refrain, the battle cry of the young child.  We adults, having “sinned and grown old”, are not nearly as capable of infinite repetition without being wearied.  Still, even adults like things that are familiar and reliable.  Few enough things in life are, so it is small wonder that we cling to those things the we perceive as being so.  I think this is a big factor in human material and intellectual culture.  Nature is as it is, and is all to mutable for our taste.  When we build a building or paint a picture or sculpt statues or spin tales, we are trying, by our art, to make something permanent out of the impermanence of the cosmos we find ourselves in.  Aristotle noted that poetry (by which he could be taken as meaning more or less what we call “fiction”) is more philosophical than history (“nonfiction”) because while history tells us only what happened, poetry tells us what could happen or might happen or ought to happen.  In short, it gives us lasting structure in an ephemeral world.

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Fandom

Last time we looked at the rise of mass media and the resultant birth of pop culture as we know it.  Over time, as even cheaper forms of print came into being (penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and pulps) and new media were developed (movies, radio, and television), there came into being the phenomenon we know as fandom.

“Fan”, of course, is originally an abbreviation of “fanatic”.  A fan is fanatic about his favorite books, TV show, band, or whatever.  The term originated in America in the late 19th Century–not surprising, since America at that time was rapidly becoming the epicenter for all the various media that made fans and fandom possible.  “Fandom” appears around the same time, but is very rarely seen until the second half of the 20th Century, becoming more and more common from the 1970’s onward.  “Fandom” is the subculture of fans of a given franchise, property, or other media entity.  Such subculture includes, but is not limited to, networking among fans, fan clubs and societies of various sorts, fan-produced magazines (“‘zines”, often produced on the cheap with mimeograph machines in decades past), fan-written fiction (“fan fiction” or “fanfic”–with modern technology, fan films have become common, too), fan conventions (“cons”), cosplay, and various forums, discussion boards, and zones on the Internet.

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Einstein and the Millennium Falcon–the Timeline of The Empire Strikes Back

After forty-one years and counting of the Star Wars franchise, which has brought us ten movies, seven television series, and God knows how many books, comics, works-in-progress, and various other media artifacts, I still maintain that the pinnacle of them all was the second movie (Episode V), The Empire Strikes Back.  I will take that statement as self-evident 🙂 and thus I don’t intend to make that argument here.  Rather, I recently wrote a post about space in which I mentioned time dilation in The Empire Strikes Back, and said that that would be material for another post.  This is that post.

I watched The Empire Strikes Back when it came out in 1980, the summer after my junior year in high school.  It was long-anticipated, and as I’ve mentioned before, some loud-mouthed acquaintances, having read the book before the movie came out, spoiled the big reveal about Darth Vader being Luke’s father.  Despite this, I found I enjoyed the movie enormously, more even than I had the first.  I think this is a good demonstration of an argument made by the Plaid Adder, a blogger I follow.  She says that if a reveal is properly done, then a spoiler–finding out about it ahead of time–doesn’t, in fact, spoil the show.  This was definitely the case with me and Empire.

Anyway, I don’t know when I got to thinking about the specific issue I want to discuss today, but it gradually presented itself to me over the course of a few years.  I don’t think I was aware of it at the time I watched the movie for the first time; but I think I had the matter articulated by the time I was in college.  To make it clear just what I’m talking about, let’s have a quick recap of the relevant events of the movie.

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The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?

The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones was the great “This or That” of the 60’s.  Despite the unsurpassed creativity and variety of pop music in those days, it sometimes seemed as if the Beatles and the Stones divided the world between them, with there being no third.  Certainly, they appeared to be the yin and yang of the rock world.  There were the smiling, relatively clean-cut, boyish Beatles, who managed not only to make music for the kids, but to put out what John Lennon later disparagingly referred to as “granny music”, and who even made cartoons for kids (see below).  On the other hand, there were the more brooding and snarly Stones, who were definitely not granny or kid-friendly, and who put out such anthems as “Sympathy for the Devil”.  Of course, in the real world, the dichotomy was less stark–the Beatles had their dark side, and Charlie Watts, the drummer of the Rolling Stones, was and is into Big Band music.  Still, the images and the public perception was there.  I was too young to be aware of all this at the time, of course; so I’m going to approach this from another direction.

There has never been a time in my life that the Beatles weren’t in the cultural atmosphere.  Their first album, Please Please Me, was released in March 1963, four months before I was born.  Beatlemania ensued in the United Kingdom.  They came to America and played on the Ed Sullivan Show in February of 1964.  Beatlemania ensued in the United States.  Thus, throughout my earliest years, there was always something by the Beatles on the air.

My first clear memory of them is of the cartoon TV series, The Beatles, which aired in first run and then in reruns from 1965 to 1969.  I watched it regularly and could still remember bits and pieces of it by my forties, at which time I showed episodes to my then-young daughter on YouTube.  As far as 60’s cartoons aimed at kids go, it still held up.  And what a soundtrack!  Going back to my youth, I was vaguely aware when the movie Yellow Submarine came out in 1968, but I never had the opportunity to watch it until it played on network television sometime in the early 70’s.  It was very different, to say the least, from the TV series; but I found it oddly fascinating.  Several years ago, I bought it on DVD for my daughter, around eight at the time; and she, too liked it.

As I said, the Beatles were always there.  I listened to relatively little pop music as a kid, though.  The records (yes, it was pre-CD and MP3) I bought were all classical.  I heard what was on the airwaves, of course; and there was always Beatles, and later, Paul McCartney, and to a lesser extent, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, as solo acts, on the radio.  Still, it was more background music than anything else.

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Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Trek, of course–what kind of question is that?  Actually, if I’m going to write an essay, I should have more to say….

Star Trek, in its original incarnation (which I will henceforth refer to by the standard fan abbreviation TOS for “The Original Series”) began its prime-time network run on NBC in 1966, at which time I was three years old.  Its last season ended in 1969, at which time I was six, and about to begin the first grade.  I know Mom and Dad watched it, so I no doubt did, as well.  I’ve seen every episode multiple times since, and given that, it’s hard to sort out any genuine memories of the series’s original airing.

It doesn’t really matter, though.  Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, TOS was more or less constantly in syndication somewhere on one channel or another.  Every time it was available on any of the channels we got, I always watched it.  For reasons that are obscure, certain episodes (e.g. “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “A Piece of the Action”) were in very heavy rotation, whereas others (such as “Errand of Mercy” and the insanely elusive “The Mark of Gideon”) were rarely if ever aired.  I made it my goal to watch every one of the original seventy-nine episodes at least once.  I set this goal at the age of around twelve or thirteen, and it took into my mid-twenties to complete it, but complete it I did.  In the meantime, my involvement with Star Trek was expanding far beyond watching reruns.

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A Slight Side Excursion on Fanfic

Someone I follow on Tumblr  had a post recently discussing what makes for good writing in a fan fiction context.  The conclusion was “good technical skills”.  The idea is that, while writers and readers of fanfic may have different criteria of what makes a fic “good” than do the gatekeepers of “mainstream” fiction, and while those differing criteria are valid, good technical skills are universal, allowing you to develop the story you want to tell and to say what you need to say.  Technical skills may not be the end-all and be-all; but you have to be able to control what you’re saying if you want to get anything across to the reader.  I totally agree with this.

Anyway, I reblogged and added a response dealing with an aspect of fanfic that I think isn’t often realized or understood.  It occurred to me that it might be worth putting up here, too, especially since I’ve been discussing pop culture–which of course includes fanfic–in the course of writing my series “Religion, Role-playing, and Reality“.  I have edited it very lightly for publication here, but it’s substantially the same as the original form.  Enjoy!

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Mass Media and Lifestyle Fantasy

Last time we looked at the effects of the Enlightenment and the final disenchantment of the world, as both organized religion and everything perceived as being “irrational” were banished from polite society; or at least from the worldview of the elite.  The perfectly rational, logical man of the Enlightenment who would shake off the superstitions of his ancestors and move confidently into a Utopian future of reason and humanism never materialized, though.  Human nature being what it is, the loss of the transcendent and the supernatural left a void that needed to be filled.  Nietzsche expressed this poetically in his famous writing about the “death of God” (the quote below is from Walter Kaufmann’s translation of The Gay Science):

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Nietzsche’s answer–that we must become gods–foreshadows his idea of the Übermensch, the “superman”.  As we’ve seen over the last century and a quarter since Nietzsche’s death, that didn’t work out so well.  The void remained unfilled.  What could fill it?  At this point, we must leave that question hanging for a bit while we look at another of the great societal changes to come out of the Enlightenment.  In the last post, we looked at the religious and philosophical changes brought on by the Enlightenment.  Here I want to look at a change that was partly technological, partly educational, and partly cultural–the rise of mass media.

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Where Have You Gone, Carl Sagan?

Sagan and Carson

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?  A nation turns its lonely eyes to you–Simon and Garfunkel, “Mrs. Robinson”

Sometimes I feel that way about Carl Sagan.  Carl Sagan, for those of my readers who may be too young to know of him, was probably the greatest and most familiar science popularizer of the last century.  He was especially visible throughout the 1970’s, which was a partial inspiration of this series, of which this is the long-delayed first post. Sagan was more than just a 70’s icon, though.  I think he is a symbol of a bygone–and in some ways, better–time.

Carl Sagan had an M.S. in physics and a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics.  At various times, he worked closely with NASA (he conceived the idea for the plaque placed on the space probes Pioneer10 and Pioneer 11) , had Top Secret clearance at the U.S. Air Force and Secret clearance with NASA, was a consultant to the RAND Corporation, published research on the atmosphere of Venus, and researched the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  For nearly the last thirty years of his life, he was associated with Cornell University.  Beyond his professional and scientific accomplishments, substantial as they were, Sagan was best known for his extraordinary effectiveness in bringing science to the masses through all the available media of the day:  print (magazines, newspapers, and books), film, and TV.  Had he survived to today (he died, tragically, of complications related to myelodysplasia at the age of sixty-two in 1996), I don’t doubt he would have had a substantial social media presence.

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Mystery Science Theater 3000: Index

Awhile back I wrote four posts on the series Mystery Science Theater 3000.  I’ve recently decided to writer another post, and more may follow in the future.  Therefore, I’ve decided to make an index page to get them all together in one place.  Enjoy!

Tricksters, Fools, and MST3K

Holy Fools

Pop Culture Tricksters

Joining MST3K Fandom and a Little About Joel and Mike

MST3K:  The Return

Legends of the Fall: Let’s Get This Party Started!

‘Cause it can’t always be Gaga–forgive me, Mama Monster!  😉

My series “Legends of the Fall” has been on hiatus for a considerable time.  Finding time and motivation, as well as deciding where I wanted to go with it, have slowed me down.  Moreover, the blog itself has been on semi-hiatus for about a year as life has gotten in the way.  Fiddling around on it and musing a bit today, I had a few ideas as to what I can do.  I won’t say I have a definitive conclusion to the series–what human can claim to understand the Fall?  I do think I have a direction in which I want to go with the series, though, and now is as good a time as any to start hashing it out.

In the next few posts I want to restart the series by asking the following questions:

  1. Could God have made beings incapable of sin?
  2. If not 1, could He have made beings capable of sin but who would never sin in actuality?
  3. Given the assumption (which I accept) that God made the spiritual world and the incorporeal intelligences (what we call angels, etc.), why did He make embodied intelligences–i.e. us, as well as any other intelligent species that may exist here on Earth or elsewhere in the cosmos?

I think that important conclusions can be drawn from number 3 especially.  We’ll get to that in time.  Some of the issues involved in these questions have been touched on before in the course of this very long series, but I think it will be useful to visit them afresh, as well as looking at new angles.

Thus, get ready for new posts, and let’s get the party started!

Part of the series “Legends of the Fall