Before I get on with the points I want to make in this new series, I want to point to a couple of essays that set the stage.
The first is from the old Beliefnet blog, “Kingdom of Priests”, by author and (ugh) supporter of Intelligent Design, David Klinghoffer. I disagree with him on many points, Intelligent Design being but one, but his comparison of a convert to radical Islam and a fantasy fan is interesting. An excerpt:
An item by Marissa Brostoff at Tablet directs our attention to a fascinating and very thorough profile of the former Adam Pearlman [the young man who converted and joined Al-Qaeda] in The New Yorker, which in turns notes the peculiarly elaborate and archaic rhetorical style of Gadahn’s work as an Al-Qaeda spokesman: ”Sometimes his syntax is so baroque, his sentiment so earnest, that he sounds like a character from the Lord of the Rings.”
The Tolkien allusion caught my attention. I hadn’t previously given much thought to young Mr. Pearlman’s spiritual journey — born in Oregon, raised on a goat farm in Southern California, shy teenager, converted to Islam at age 17 — but that line about the Lord of the Rings struck me as telling. Did you ever notice the way with some converts, not just converts to any given religion but to all kinds of thought systems, ideologies, and other enthusiasms, there’s often a heavy element of fantasy role playing?
When I was a Southern California youth myself, we’d play Dungeons & Dragons, and everyone got to pick his Tolkienesque fantasy identity — wizard, warrior, hobbit, elf, whatever you like. Nerdy kids, or momma’s boys like me (there is a difference!), reveled in the chance to pretend to be someone else, a person much more exotic, interesting, and powerful. It sure strikes me that young Pearlman has been on such a trip of his own these past 13 years or more. The rest of the New Yorker profile bears this out. Fantasy role playing ran in the family.
Relatedly, in this essay Julian Sanchez theorizes about the mindset of many believers:
Fundamentalists of every sect are, pretty much by definition, strongly committed to the literal truth of all of their scripture. But the garden variety “believer,” I suspect, may often be more accurately thought of as a “suspension-of-disbeliever.”
When you think about the actual functions that religious narratives serve in people’s lives, literal truth or falsity is often rather beside the point, and yet suspension of disbelief is a necessary condition of immersion in the story. On this view, Richard Dawkins is a little like that guy who keeps pointing out that all the ways superhero physics don’t really make sense. (Wouldn’t characters with “super strength” would really need super speed as well to do stuff like punching through concrete? Shouldn’t Cyclops be propelled backwards when he unleashes those concussive eye beams?”) It’s not annoying because we literally believed the stories, but because our enjoyment depends on our not attending too explicitly to their unreality. People can, on one level, be powerfully committed to the idea that Han Solo shot first, dammit—while on another being perfectly aware that, really, nobody shot anybody, and it’s actually just Harrison Ford and a dude in a green rubber suit with some laser effects added in post production.
Fanboys, of course, know their cherished fantasy worlds are fantasy, and will admit as much readily if you press them. For many ordinary believers, I suspect the situation is closer to what I think my initial view of Sherlock Holmes probably was: I knew that Watson “was” Holmes’ faithful sidekick, and that Moriarty “was” his archenemy, but if you asked me whether I meant this “was” in the sense of a historical truth claim or only as a “truth” about a fictional narrative, I suspect I would have initially been surprised by the question, because nothing about my relationship to the narrative or my reasons for enjoying it turned essentially on whether the events it depicted had really happened.
Now as a religious person myself, I don’t think these insights invalidate religion in general or specific religions in particular. I do think they make valid points, though, and often cut closer to home than many of us would like to think. In the next post I want to look at cultural factors that set the stage for this, and then I want to look at ramifications. And by the way, Han did shoot first!
Update: A fascinating if disturbing article along much the same lines I’m discussing.
I posed the question, “Could Joel or Mike on MST3K have been a chick?” (to be flip) over here, and answered, “No.” On the way to justifying that answer I looked at the archetypes of the Trickster and the Holy Fool. Now let’s bring it back to pop culture and apply it.
I think the host/captive on MST3K is really just a specific example of an archetype that occurs very commonly in pop culture. Two other exemplars are Pee Wee Herman and Weird Al Yankovic. There are others that spring to mind–for example, Rob Schneider, Chris Farley, and Ringo Starr have embodied aspects of the Trickster/Fool persona in movies and music–but the four I’m considering here are the best examples. They are all about the same age and were at their peaks at approximately the same time. More importantly, they all have embodied the archetypes more fully and consistently, and as a bigger part of their public persona, than the other actors and singers mentioned or for that matter than almost anyone else in pop culture. There are also interesting parallels in their careers that I want to look at.
As one important proviso, I want to point out that when I speak of these worthies, I am speaking of their public personas, not their private lives, unless otherwise specified. Thus, I’m not particularly interested in Paul Reubens or Joel Hodgson, but I’m very much interested in Pee Wee Herman and Joel Robinson, their on-screen characters. Mike Nelson and Weird Al used their real names, but I am equally interested in their personas, not in them as individuals.
In my last post, which deals with the archetype of the Trickster in pop culture, having been prompted by a discussion of who should host MST3K, I mentioned, in addition to the Trickster, the Holy Fool. I didn’t describe the Holy Fool beyond merely mentioning the term, so I’m using this post as a brief detour to discuss the Fool archetype.
The Holy Fool or Fool is in a sense the Trickster in a religious context. What one might call the spiritual-but-not-religious form of the Holy Fool is the Fool. We’ll distinguish the nuances soon. In any case, the Holy Fool emerges from the very definition of religion. Religion–from the Latin re-ligio, or “binding back” (to the Absolute)–ultimately seeks to connect us to the Absolute, however we may conceive of that (God, Brahman, the Universe, etc.). In short, it seeks to take us beyond the realm of day-to-day existence; it seeks, in short, transcendence. The question is, how does one describe transcendence in the language of the day-to-day world? Mystics–those who claim to have had experience of that transcendent level of reality–are in an even more difficult position. Having experienced the transcendent, how to you convey that experience to those who have not had it? It’s like trying to describe color to the blind or music to the deaf. It is like the man in the Plato’s cave who, having experienced the exterior world, is looked at as insane by his fellows still locked in darkness. Not surprisingly, the mystic is indeed often looked at as insane by larger society.
Last time we looked at the changes in technology related to television in the 90’s and early 2000’s. The sum total of these changes gave us much more control over what we watched. This in turn had effects on the content itself. How did this happen, exactly? Read on.
The first increases in control were cable TV (more different channels serving more niche interests) and home video (VHS). With the first, the content was still provider-driven–you had more channels, but each one decided what it was going to air. The second gave more control–you could watch a video anywhere, anytime–but the content was even more limited. This followed from the mechanism itself.
A VHS tape is relatively large and clunky. It can record up to six hours of material, but at the speed that gives optimal picture quality and resolution, it can store only two hours. This is the perfect length for most movies, but it is not good for TV series. A VHS tape could hold two hour-long episodes (typical for dramas) or four half-hour episodes (as with sitcoms) at optimal resolution. This means that a typical 22 episode season would require eleven tapes for an hour-long drama, or six for a half-hour sitcom. A single season, therefore, would fill up nearly one entire row of a media center stand. For long-running series, one’s available space would fill up rapidly. Sufficiently avid videophiles could tape episodes themselves, but for most of us it’s not worth the effort.
It’s been awhile since I’ve posted in my “Decline and Fall of Television” series. In the fourth installment, I had proposed to look individually at the various “junk genres”, as I called them, but ended up posting specifically only on reality television. Upon rereading the posts and thinking about where I want to go with the series, I think I no longer want to examine the junk genres individually. What I wrote regarding bandwidth, junk genres, and reality TV applies, mutatis mutandis, to the other genres. It’s too depressing and boring to have to think about such things as infomercials, anyway, let alone to write about them. I do have three final reflections with which to complete the DAFOTV series, though. In this one I want to look at the technological changes that laid the groundwork for these changes.
In the third installment of this series, I discussed the radical difference in the programming schedule of a typical broadcast day in the 70’s of my youth as opposed to now. In that vein, I want to look more broadly at the differences in the content thus delivered, and in how we watched it. Some content hasn’t changed that much, of course–sports are sports, news is news, and so on. Now there are networks completely dedicated to sports, news, and so on, but the delivery isn’t that much different: baseball in the summer, football in the fall and winter, and so on. The changes I’m interested in are in television drama and comedy series and general entertainment.