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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Hal's Education in Henry IV

January 20, 2017

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

In our recent film discussion on Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, Gary Schoepfel, HMU Tutor and discussion leader, asked whether Hal (also known as Prince Harry) could have received his education in any setting – did Hal have to visit the tavern to learn as much? Originally, I answered no, believing that he could have received this information about people (commoners) anywhere. I thought that the tavern added color making it better for a drama (which it does). Upon reflection, however, I must change my answer. The tavern allows for a level of baseness that does not exist in day to day drudgery of job life. It offers place and sustenance to whet all appetites. This enables man to show his lowest, meanest self openly. Tavern life also allows for humor and emotion. It welcomes freedom which is the exact opposite of Prince Harry's true home among royalty.

In the play's opening scence, King Henry mentions his dissatisfaction with his son Prince Harry. The King wishes that his son resembled someone like Hotspur, fiery and ambitious, rather than the tavern-seeker and prankster known as Hal. He says, “In envy that my Lord Northumberland/ Should be the father to so blest a son,/ A son who is the theme of Honour's tongue;...Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,/ See riot and dishonour stain the brow/ Of my young Harry.” (Act I, Scene i, lines 79-86) This introduction allows the reader to expect the upcoming behavior of Prince Hal and his friends, which is riotous and bawdy. Juxtapose this introduction from his father to the actual scene which introduces Hal and Falstaff. In this environment, Hal is very much himself. He is free, witty, relaxed with all defenses down. The film accentuates their lack of propriety by having Hal wake Falstaff with a naked woman in the room. Falstaff then gets up and pees into the urinal, all the while demanding that his debts are an abuse against him. The two are hilarious, inappropriate and witty.

This relationship, between Falstaff and Hal, is irregular and out of the normal order. Being a prince, Hal's formal education took place among nobility, lords and kings. However, Falstaff, and the tavern life, has allowed Hal to connect with emotions and people in a way that is impossible to access through the crown. In fact, in Act III, King Henry confronts Hal about his behavior and even accuses him of treasonous thinking. The King gives Harry a history lesson, explaining how arduous and hard-fought was his path to the crown. In this lecture, he even asks why he has not seen more of his own son. But then, he accuses Harry of thinking to fight in Hotspur's army rather than the King's. He says to the prince, “Thou that art like enough, through vassal fear,/ Base inclination, and the start of a spleen,/ To fight against me under Percy's pay” (Act III, Scene ii, lines 124-6). This scene makes clear the fact that King Henry IV avoids emotions that could be perceived as weak. He does not allow for indulgences and, in his age, has become fearful of many people. This history leads him into trouble among his own friends and family. Prince Harry, though, responds that he will fight a duel with Hotspur in order to prove himself to the King. In other words, Hal's tavern education is complete and it is time for him to find a purpose.

Unlike the complex characters of Hal and Falstaff, Hotspur is blind to his own faults – pride, arrogance, passion. He sees these only as assets. Falstaff is clearly not blind to his own faults, but he just chooses not to see them as faults. Falstaff's character is complicated, whereas Hotspur is much more straightforward. Hal, who loves Falstaff partly because of his flaws, learns a great deal from watching a flawed character navigate through life. He sees the raw moments that no one else allows others to see. Falstaff weeps openly, laughs loudly and snores heavily. He indulges in his desires, allows others to see this and comforts himself that thieves are not evil, just needy. In all this fancy dialogue, however, Falstaff knows his baseness. He admits his folly while at the same time being incapable of change. Hal sees this too, and makes note of it as an essential ingredient in his education. Without Falstaff's example, Prince Harry would be like cardboard, a figure cut out of paper. But Falstaff adds depth, which is only achieved in the bawdy, open, free environment of the tavern life.

We will continue the discussion with Henry IV, Part 2 in March. If you are interested, email All are welcome and we would love to hear from you.

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Honor in Richard II

December 9, 2016

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

Last week was the first of four scheduled discussions of Harrison Middleton University's film course on The Hollow Crown series. Ben Whishaw portrays Richard II in Shakespeare's play by the same name. In it, Bolingbroke (Henry IV) steals the throne from Richard II. Shakespeare grants beautifully sad speeches of longing to Richard as he falls from grace. Whishaw delivers these lines with excellence. As the play progresses, the viewer comes to understand Richard's fragility and gentle nature. The movie reinforces his character while brilliantly adhering to the text. It also delivers a host of excellent actors, rich landscapes, costumes and settings.

More than all of these excellent traits, however, the viewer sees the development of Richard's complex character. The struggle for honor begins from the very first scene when Richard's path undeniably intertwines with Bolingbroke's (the future Henry IV). As soon as Richard banishes Bolingbroke, their honors are joined. It seems clear that from this point forward neither can be totally honorable, but also that they must gain honor only at the other's expense. Cleary, Richard does not understand the meaning of honor at the beginning of the play. When Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of treason, Richard does not fully grasp the severity of the situation. Further, when Bolinbroke and Mowbray agree to settle the dispute via joust, King Richard intervenes at the last possible moment. In other words, in their moment of glory (or death), Richard has stolen their ability to attain honor. It is unclear from the play and the movie, why exactly he stops the fight. When he speaks to them in his private tent, Richard decides that banishment is the best course of action. Richard's behavior thus far is highly irregular for a king. It is not until the third act, after Bolingbroke returns with an army, that Richard begins to understand the frailty of his position.

It is true that Richard was unconventional, and by all accounts, not a very good king. He was a bit amoral, proven by the fact that he wished for Gaunt's death (his own uncle), in order to take his money and land without a fight. Furthermore, he drained all of England's funds without replenishing the source of money. At the very least, people were dismayed at his leadership, but until Bolingbroke returned with an army, Richard was the unquestioned, divinely appointed king. One could say that Richard's lack of honor was his undoing.

Ironically, then, Bolingbroke's intense desire to maintain his reputation and honor, causes destruction of another kind. It is nearly the inverse of Richard's lack of care regarding reputation. For one, reputation has been maintained via integrity and struggle. For the other, divine rights have always granted him position, title, money and prestige. Richard did not struggle and therefore, does not understand the cost of its loss. And yet, with his fall, Richard fully grasps what he could not previously understand. In that fall, then, Richard attains a kind of honor only possible through a struggle of this kind.

In beginning to comprehend his loss, Richard claims that the grasp for honor reaches through a hollow crown and cycles endlessly. Richard says,

“For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings:/ How some have been deposed; some slain in war;/ Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed; / Some poison'd by their wives; some sleeping kill'd;/ All murder'd: for within the hollow crown/ That rounds the mortal temples of a king/ Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits/ Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,/ Allowing him a breath, a little scene,/ To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks,/ Infusing him with self and vain conceit,/ As if this flesh which walls about our life/ Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus/ Comes at the last and with a little pin/ Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!”

A little too late, Richard realizes power's fragility and his own mortality. Richard mistakenly assumed that honor was his without the need to grasp at it. Death sits atop this crown, no matter who wears it. As he fully comprehends the weakness of his situation, he understands the shame that he is to bear and in bearing it, gains a bit of honor.

In a later scene, Richard is forced to publicly crown Bolingbroke. Here, the viewer sees Bolingbroke's hand grasp the metallic crown in the same way that it grasps a sword or lance. He fights and in fighting gains reputation and prestige. This honor is different from Richard's, yet bound up in the same name, in the same hollow circle, adorned and empty, death lurking. King Henry IV comes to find that he cannot trust others and that fighting now defines him. In handing the crown to Bolingbroke, Richard says,

“Here, cousin, seize the crown;/ Here cousin;/ On this side my hand, and on that side yours/ Now is this golden crown like a deep well/ That owes two buckets, filling one another,/ The emptier ever dancing in the air,/ The other down, unseen, and full of water:/ That bucket down and full of tears am I,/ Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.”

This image of a bucket balancing in the air can be filled by anyone, as Richard now knows. Bolingbroke believes that honorable leadership will grant him peace and stability. He does not envision the damage that he has caused by unnaturally usurping the throne and, moreover, by causing such a rift within his own bloodline. And yet, if Bolingbroke had not tried to reclaim his lands and possessions, he would be bound by dishonor and poverty. All this because Richard did not see the repercussions of an argument of treason, and because he could not stomach the fight between two kinsmen.

These two characters, these two opposites, beautifully demonstrate honor's fluid nature. To be human is to err. Shakespeare uncovers an important truth in the comparison of Bolingbroke and Richard: that our fortunes are bound inexorably with one another's. Bolingbroke's path is set in motion by an unthinking Richard. And Richard gains honor only in his fall at the hands of Bolingbroke.

You will not regret dedicating some study to these plays. If you have the time, please join us for our next discussion of Henry IV, Part 1, on January 12, 2017. Email for more information.

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Groot, The Metaphor

June 19, 2015

Whether or not we realize it, metaphor pervades all speech. Look no further than 'head of lettuce' or 'ear of corn' to find a common example. Expressions like these often make learning a new language fun and challenging. Today's blog ventures into figurative language from the 2014 film Guardians of the Galaxy as seen through the lens of Augustine. It may seem a bit irreverent to apply Augustine to this film, but the reasons are simple. First, the film offers two fun examples of figurative speech that can be discussed in the short blog format. Second, while Augustine would clearly not have applied his rules for reading Christian doctrine to a Marvel comic, he does state, “[H]uman institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life – we must take and turn to a Christian use". And comics have certainly saturated the film market of late, which may mean that they are somewhat indispensable...or at least worthy of a few notes. Therefore, with a sort of blessing, we will venture into the types of metaphor provided by Groot and Drax (Guardians of the Galaxy) as discussed in On Christian Doctrine by St. Augustine.

Augustine discusses unknown signs as one of the problems in understanding scripture. So, in the Bible, stories can be literal and straightforward, or they can be figurative. The reader must decide which type of speech applies to each passage. Even though we understand the word for sheep, for example, the author may compare an aspect of sheep to a human condition, using the sheep as a metaphor. However, the Bible weaves back and forth switching without warning – in much the same way that we speak, and perhaps think. Add to that the mystery of translation, and honest understanding can get very complex very quickly. Augustine states, “Some of these [words], although they could have been translated, have been preserved in their original form on account of the more sacred authority that attaches to it, as for example, Amen and Halleluia. Some of them, again, are said to be untranslatable into another tongue”. As a way around the struggle of interpreting signs, Augustine suggests being “meek and lowly at heart”. He suggests that we listen, learn and not impose our thoughts on new ideas. Or, as Montaigne would say, “we shall find that it is rather familiarity than knowledge that takes away strangeness.” Free your mind of preconceived notions in order to familiarize yourself with an outside view or opinion. Accordingly, science fiction is a genre that, at times, challenges our perspective and boundaries. Enter Marvel's 2014 film, Guardians of the Galaxy.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a humorous and entertaining tale of misfits. Groot (Vin Diesel) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are a pair of misfit, petty thieves. Groot is an oversized tree trunk that can rapidly grow branches as his main line of defense. His speech (yes, the tree talks!) is limited to three words: I am Groot. The second character, Rocket, is a giant raccoon: overly-bossy, overly-talkative, egotistical but also, an electronic whizz. Amazingly, these two unnatural beings somehow communicate effectively. Their unique communication and combined skill-sets actually make them a very effective team. Rocket has learned to understand Groot's intonation and the way that he applies the three words: “I am Groot” to different situations. Those three words relay a lot of information if one is actually listening.

When the hero of the story, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), meets Groot, he quickly becomes disgusted at the inability to communicate. Quill asks a few different questions and gets the same answer: “I am Groot.” When Quill complains about Groot's lack of language, Rocket shrugs and replies, “Well. He don't know talking good like me and you. So his vocabulistics is limited to 'I' and 'am' and 'Groot.' Exclusively in that order.” Annoyed, Quill does not understand Groot's actual capabilities. What Quill does not understand is that Groot is answering his questions, he simply has not listened. They do not speak the same language. (The question of why a tree understands humans, but humans do not understand a tree, I leave to you).

Augustine warns of a scenario similar to this miscommunication between Quill and Groot. Augustine asks that we disregard preconceived notions in an attempt to understand difficult and foreign language. In other words, look for meaning from as many angles as possible in order to derive the best possible meaning. It is important to know when speech is literal and when it is figurative. He states, “He, however, who does not understand what a sign signifies, but yet knows that it is a sign, is not in bondage”. Therefore, in our movie analogy, Rocket, the oversized, egotistical raccoon is light years ahead of the human Quill. Ironic.

But Quill is a bit better off than some other characters in the movie, namely, Drax (Dave Buatista). We meet Drax while he is in prison. He finds Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and intends to kill her to revenge the death of his wife and daughters. Quill convinces Drax to stop until they all kill their main target. During this scene, Quill draws a finger across his throat to indicate a slit throat. Puzzled, Drax replies, “Why would I put my finger on his throat?” Quill, obviously dumbfounded, repeats what he believes to be a universal symbol for murder. It becomes more absurd as they argue and Quill says, “It's a symbol. This is a symbol for you slicing his throat.” To which Drax quickly replies, “I would not slice his throat. I would cut his head clean off.” At this point, the audience laughs because the misunderstanding cannot be breached. But the point is interesting. In this scenario, both speak English, but clearly, they have not communicated well. Therefore, the movie hosts a character who speaks only figuratively (as far as we can tell) in Groot, and a completely literal character, Drax.

This kind of troubled communication leads to the audience's enjoyment within the frame of a movie, but you can see how it would be less than fun in a real-life scenario. As Augustine stated, we can see how a little patience and humility might have led to a less difficult relationship. Of course, much to audience satisfaction, these characters do grow and learn. At the end of the movie, instead of “I am Groot,” Groot says, “We are Groot.” And, Drax uses an actual metaphor. Better yet, Rocket has become just a shade more charitable and humble and Quill learned to love someone besides himself. It is as Augustine says, “[L]et you back to benevolence, and interpret the coals of fire as the burning groans of penitence by which a man's pride is cured who bewails that he has been the enemy of one who came to his assistance in distress”. Pride often colors communication, whether we know it or not. While far-fetched (for many reasons), Guardians of the Galaxy, offers an interesting dialogue regarding communication styles and the translation of metaphor. And, of course, many thanks to St. Augustine for adding humility.

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