Pop Culture Preview

November 17, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

This book review was originally published in the November 2017 issue of HMU: Dialogues.

Tube Talk, Double Features, and Sound Bites, three new publications from the Great Books Foundation.

In February, Harrison Middleton University will cohost the inaugural Southwest Great Books Weekend  which will focus on a new popular culture series from the Great Books Foundation. We will discuss essays about television (Tube Talk), film (Double Features) and music (Sound Bites). Their focus on popular culture offers some timely and important readings worthy of discussion. I was fortunate to grab a sneak preview, and so I wanted to express my enthusiasm for February's event. These essays offer any number of interesting discussions. More than that, however, I think it is vital to take a better look at the culture that we are currently making, promoting and consuming.

First of all, these three genres unite in the fact that each medium is meant to be shared. We follow television shows and films on social media, we pick favorite characters, dress in character and create intricate fandoms. We talk about our favorite media at work, in school, on the phone or at coffee shops. Clearly, we want to share our opinions or questions with others. What better opportunity, then, to share our ideas with a group of open-minded individuals interested in the same topics!? The three volumes look at what these personas might tell us about ourselves as individuals, or as cultures. In addition, they include articles of events of such originality that there is literally no word or phrase yet adequate to describe the intricate relationship between show writers, on-screen character and impersonations.

An article from Tube Talk discusses one unnamed phenomenon that has been generated by fans of Mad Men. As technology continues to evolve, it increases our avenues to connect, but also blurs the lines surrounding reality. For example, Twitter accounts impersonating Mad Men characters quickly arose, and though the show stopped after seven seasons, the Twitter accounts continue – in character. I wonder, what enjoyment do we get from assuming the voice of characters in something like Mad Men? One blogger says “I try and think like [Roger Sterling], tweet what he might say. It’s creative, and a lot of fun.” This requires a serious engagement with the time period, an understanding of cultural constraints in that society and, of course, a thorough study of the character. The Twitter-author-voice must thoroughly know the character to presuppose what they would do. And of course, in creating an alter-ego, there is the question of losing the alter-ego. 

The rise of Twitter in tandem with shows like Newsroom and Mad Men, which relate to a relatively recent time of American history, has created a different kind of fandom than that of, say, Star Trek. Yet the urge to become or live in a fictional skin continues. The introduction to Tube Talk claims that “[Television] is the greatest mirror that our global society has ever held up to itself, and even though sometimes we may not like what we see, it is impossible to look away.” I would further say that, not only is it impossible to look away, we should not look away. Rather, we should attempt to understand the underlying culture as a way to change what we do not like, or to better understand that which we do not know. For example, in the introduction to Double Features, Nick Clement writes, “The collective practice of gathering with a group of strangers in a darkened theater to watch images moving on a screen represents one of the more unusual agreements that human beings can reach.” Funny, but his comment also opens up a number of different questions regarding film culture, human connection and historic trends.

These books offer some excellent insight into current culture. They are an essential reminder that, for better or worse, we actively participate in a dynamic era filled with mixed media and art forms. It is essential that we realize our involvement in these forms if we have any intention to understand ourselves and our society. If we intend to create the best future for ourselves, our children and our communities, then it is worth our time to understand contemporary art forms. I look forward to discussing these books in February!

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It's Back and Better Than Ever

June 3, 2016

Thanks to Sue Durkin, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

The Great Books Chicago weekend, advertised as “a weekend of conversations and culture,” is back and its return was glorious. I was fortunate enough to be one of the seventy participants spanning from California to Toronto who converged in the Windy City to discuss the benefits and detriments of living in utopian societies. The texts used to prompt the discussions were the quintessential dystopian novel, Orwell’s 1984, and the Great Books anthology, Imperfect Ideal: Utopian and Dystopian Visions.

The weekend started with a Thursday evening flight from my warm-weather home of Arizona to beautiful, chilly Chicago. At the Phoenix airport I dutifully waited my turn to present my documents and submit to x-rays of my belongings and my sock-shod body. Cameras and security personnel watched and followed as I moved along. I understand and accept that each of my encounters and interactions in the airport was for my own good and for the safety of all. But my utopian-soaked mind couldn’t help but think, “What are we willing to give up personally for the benefit/betterment of society? Do all of these measures make a better, happier society?”

Upon arrival at the downtown Chicago hotel, I was immediately struck by the similarities between the look of the hotel and the images described in the utopian writings I came to Chicago specifically to discuss. Looking up at the building’s interior, I was struck by the uniformity; each floor and each room seemed the same. Each room had a perfect view of other doors on all other floors; perfect for knowing when your neighboring occupants were coming and going. The impression was beautiful, yet industrial, with a dash of familiarity. People were enjoying adult beverages in an area on the main level, the same area where my fellow participants and I had our communal breakfasts each morning. Again, through the filter of 1984 and the other readings, I pondered, “Does sameness increase satisfaction? Why do we feel more at ease when we can keep an eye on everyone else?” Indeed, the simple, routine flight and lovely, comfortable hotel provided a perfect prime for the conversation pump.

As advertised, this weekend was equally about culture. Participants were treated to a sampling of the culture that is interwoven throughout Chicago. On Friday, the clouds lifted and we took a river cruise to observe and appreciate Chicago’s amazing architecture. An evening at the Pinstripes restaurant followed, where engaging conversations and delicious food were enjoyed by all. On Saturday, participants were offered a glimpse into the Gilded Age (a utopian age for some) with a tour of the Dreihaus Museum. This grand former residence brought our imaginations back to the turn of the century, especially with its current exhibit featuring the costumes of Downton Abbey. These costumes served to transport us to the early 1900s in a way that was truly unique. But wait, there’s more! Saturday was capped off by an evening with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert of works by Mozart and Strauss. Beautiful music delivered in an equally beautiful turn of the century building. It was truly an ideal evening.

Throughout the weekend, the discussion participants met in the historical building on Wacker Drive that is home to the Great Books Foundation. After registering and receiving our assigned groups for the weekend, we gathered for an introduction and outline of what participants should expect for the weekend from Joe Coulson, President of the Great Books Foundation, and a memorable rendition of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” by the incomparable Gary Schoepfel. These gatherings, sans the dulcet tones of maestro Gary, were repeated prior to each session and served to focus our attention on the upcoming discussion. The ability to conduct our discussions in the Wacker building provided a perfect, nay ideal, setting. Unlike previous years, discussion groups were comprised of the same participants and leaders for every discussion. This change enabled participants to get to know each other better, make better cross-discussion connections, and to dig a little deeper with each other as the weekend progressed.

As with all Great Books Council discussion weekends, the stories take center stage and this weekend was no exception. We gathered two times to discuss six selections taken from the anthology, Imperfect Ideal: Utopian and Dystopian Visions and one time to discuss Orwell’s 1984. The pieces from the anthology ranged from Dostoevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” to “Utopia” by Wislawa Szymborska. The authors challenged our ideas regarding what we consider perfection to be… Is it more appealing to live an unknown, unsure, but free life? Or is the safe, known, secure, but costly life a better option? What are you willing to sacrifice for your happiness? Is the happiness of the whole worth the misery of the one? Can a utopian society tolerate individual thought and expression? As we walked through these selections, and one path led to another path, the three days of discussions prompted more questions. Good literature coupled with good discussions can be life altering. At the end of the weekend, I was left with some questions that will inform and shape future decisions... Are we resigned to giving away our power and as a result losing touch with our potential to be truly happy? What am I willing to give away of myself, my freedom, my potential, my talent, and my curiosity for what someone calls the greater good? Hmmm...

Yes, Great Books Chicago is back. Suffice it to say, the impact that the readings, discussions, culture, art, and comradery that makes up the sum total of Great Books Chicago, left this participant richer for having attended. No, TSA did not wave me through the line with a wink and a nod as I returned home to Phoenix, but I came away from the weekend appreciating the entire experience and looking forward to what next year will bring.

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The Darkest Novel

May 6, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

I recently attended Great Books Chicago 2016 to discuss utopias and dystopias. One of our readings for this event was George Orwell's 1984. At the end of the session, someone asked me whether I believed 1984 to be the darkest novel I have ever read. My immediate response was no, but I have been thinking about this question ever since. I typically enjoy 'dark' literature, and so I have read a number of different novels that would fall into this category. After thinking over the question some more, I am going to stick with my previous answer for a few reasons. While 1984 is certainly not shining a ray of sunshine on me, I do not think it is the darkest novel I have ever read. Here are some reasons for my decision. I welcome other ideas and comments on my reasoning or on the novels themselves.

First, Big Brother allows the proles to exist in a semi-catatonic, but also, semi-autonomous state. Since there are so many proles, I have hope that a future resistance is not impossible.

Second, Winston's journal exists only because there was a shred of doubt (hope?) in Winston himself. He mentions that he writes the journal for O'Brien, in fact to O'Brien. Of course, this is before he understands who O'Brien truly is. The gesture can also be interpreted in the sense that at some point Winston may influence O'Brien. If minds can change, I saw no evidence to tell me that O'Brien's mind is not also susceptible to that struggle.

Third, the clearing where Julia and Winston first meet gives me hope. If this green, pristine and edenic spot physically exists, then a chance for someone else to desire Eden also exists. As long as an Eden exists in this world, then the idea of redemption exists.

In my mind, a novel like William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is much darker. The shame, degredation and deprivation of this world is unavoidable. As the Bundren family travels it literally carries death to all the neighbors and towns, even the reader. Not only do they influence minds and opinions, they introduce futility into each characters' life. For example, the shop-keeper clearly does not want to sell cement to Darl as a cheap form of cast for his brother's shattered leg. However, the shop-keeper gives in and from this experience learns of regret, of disgust and helplessness in the face of an uncontrollable force. The family persists in the utterly ridiculous, dark narrative of finding a burial spot for Addie Bundren. Therefore, I would list a novel by William Faulkner or perhaps Cormac McCarthy as the darkest I have read. I am sure, however, that there are many opinions that would disagree with mine and I appreciate any thoughts on the novels listed in today's blog.

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BOOK REVIEW: Imperfect Ideal

November 20, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for the following book review. This was first published in the HMU fall newsletter.

Alquist, Denise, et al., eds. Imperfect Ideal: Utopian and Dystopian Visions. Chicago: Great Books Foundation, 2015. Print.

In his essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”, Oscar Wilde says, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.” The complexities involved in crafting an ideal state are immeasurable. Likewise, printing a book about utopia can be a daunting task. However, The Great Books Foundation (GBF) recently printed a new text attempting just that.

In classic GBF style, the book includes all genres, from poetry to essay, science fiction and political treatises. Imperfect Ideal places texts of different formats creatively. For example, “The Economic Basis of the Withering Away of the State” by Vladimir Lenin falls in between the essay by Oscar Wilde and a selection from the science-fiction novel We by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin.

In addition, the selections in Imperfect Ideal stretch across a long history, beginning with early treatises by authors such as Mencius and Aristotle. There are also more modern-day essays, such as Robert Owen's “A New View of Society”. Each of these authors approaches the idea of utopia from two standpoints. First, each one speaks with a specific historical reference point and, second, each has a precise form of government that they address. GBF has creatively selected pieces that can be specific to a region and time, yet they also address similar issues found in other times and places. This tactic enriches the dialogue of utopia itself. As Oscar Wilde says, utopia is a dream that exists in every culture, yet there is no singular approach.

The idea of utopia inherently involves human desire, which further complicates the argument. Wandering through the full text demonstrates the fact that man has a few basic requirements and, yet, an infinite possibility of desires. As a sort of answer to the great variety of landscapes encompassed by the idea of utopia, GBF separated Imperfect Ideal into sections. These sections discuss questions such as what is 'best', what is missing, and the map of internal, specific human desires. Under each subheading, then, falls three or four texts that really represent the main idea of that section. Each of these selections, however, is also larger than its subheading. The ideas and questions overlap.

One idea that runs throughout these texts is that perfect peace and perfect perfection does not satisfy man. In the science-fiction texts, these elements lead to an unstable, disintegrating world. In the political treatises, these elements are controlled by some force who claims perfection, at the expense of an other. There is an ever-present element of discord that also, ironically, unites man. For example, Dostoyevsky's “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is an example of a fight against culturally-accepted barriers and imposed values. At the end, the narrator declares that he will continue to fight and this purpose drives him to live a better life. In some way, the fight is as necessary as the goal.

This text highlights many of the Great Ideas, but one pleasant surprise was the interplay of the idea of One and Many. One person has the power to affect the happiness of the many and vice versa. For example, in “Black Box” by Jennifer Egan, the narrator states, “In the new heroism, the goal is to transcend individual life, with its petty pains and loves, in favor of the dazzling collective.” This idea is also present in Lenin's essay, and he notes that the state will pass through trouble before arriving at the ideal. However, the reverse is important in Ursula Le Guin's and George Saunders' short stories, which focus on the importance of providing a community which allow for individual growth. For this reason, Imperfect Ideal succeeds in raising important questions about an idealized world. Many of these experiments involve some form of enthusiasm, some strife, personal ideals, all of which stem from individual desires.

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