Category Archives: Cultural Criticism

Life Without Principle

There is a coarse and boisterous money-making fellow in the outskirts of our town, who is going to build a bank-wall under the hill along the edge of his meadow. The powers have put this into his head to keep him out of mischief, and he wishes me to spend three weeks digging there with him. The result will be that he will perhaps get some more money to board, and leave for his heirs to spend foolishly. If I do this, most will commend me as an industrious and hard-working man; but if I choose to devote myself to certain labors which yield more real profit, though but little money, they may be inclined to look on me as an idler. Nevertheless, as I do not need the police of meaningless labor to regulate me, and do not see anything absolutely praiseworthy in this fellow’s undertaking any more than in many an enterprise of our own or foreign governments, however amusing it may be to him or them, I prefer to finish my education at a different school.

— HD Thoreau

Enter Title Here (HUM415)

Leisure is like work: in this cultural and economic environment consumption operates according to the same logic as production.

Scrolling through all the information-detritus of the internet, looking for the next hit of amusement, or outrage, or faux-edifying factoid. This kind of activity is essentially what we do for an employer. We navigate the data to extract a momentarily engaging triviality. Divorced from any meaningful context (depth), these superficies (surfaces) solicit our attention, directing it away from reflection and toward the ephemeral sugar-buzz of sensation.

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An essay by Colson Whitehead (Zone One, John Henry Days, etc.) published in the NY Times.

You will recall the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog. The Scorpion needs a ride across the river. The waters are rising on account of climate change, or perhaps he has been priced out of his burrow, who knows? The exact reason is lost in the fog of pre-­modernity. The Frog is afraid that the Scorpion will sting him, but his would-­be passenger reassures him that they would both die if that happened. That would be crazy. Sure enough, halfway across, the Scorpion stings the Frog. Just before they drown, the Scorpion says, “Aren’t you going ask why I did that?” And the Frog croaks, “You do you.”

We don’t all partake of the same slang menu — you say “pop,” I say “soda,” and we’ll all get properly sorted on Judgment Day. Wherever you hail from, you’ll recognize “You do you” and “Do you” as contemporary versions of that life-­affirming chestnut “Just be yourself.” It’s the gift of encouragement from one person to another, what we tell children on the first day of kindergarten, how we reassure buddies as they primp for a blind date or rehearse asking for a raise. You do you, as if we could be anyone else. Depending on your essential qualities, this song of oneself is cause for joy or tragedy.

You’ve also come across that expression’s siblings, like the defensive, arms-­crossed “Haters gonna hate” or the perpetually shrugging “It is what it is.” Like black holes, they are inviolable. All criticism is destroyed when it hits the horizon of their circular logic, and not even light can escape their immense gravity. In a world where the selfie has become our dominant art form, tautological phrases like “You do you” and its tribe provide a philosophical scaffolding for our ever-­evolving, ever more complicated narcissism.

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Pan’s Labyrinth (HUM425)

Heart of Summer

Here’s a rough commentary on Pan’s Labyrinth. If I were writing a paper, I’d consider it a first draft and look to re-draft twice. We’ll discuss PL in class on Tuesday and work on Kalpa Imperial. Come prepared.

Ofelia finds the stone eye of a statue, one that resembles a piece of ritual art or a totem. She places the eye into the statue’s empty socket. (The statue can now “see”.) A large insect (which O refers to as a fairy– is this a misrecognition?) immediately emerges from its mouth. (Is this a kind of speech? If so it is a material signifier, yet one that, at least in O’s eyes, can mutate.)

The fairy/bug signifies alterity, a fantasy world. We see it as grotesque, while to O it symbolizes fantasy/mystery/magic. This is the first instance, perhaps, of a disconnect between appearance and essence. That gap will be reformulated in the figures of the Captain (a father who is not a father) and the Faun (the threatening aspect of this creature misdirects our reading of him).

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Reading Fatale (HUM415)

Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette



Do you play bridge?

Vomiting/ wanting to vomit.

Historical references:

1871: Bléville chamber of commerce commissions the market hall. Paris Commune.

Various street names, some of which represent reactionary figures while others represent revolutionary figures.

The etchings in Aimee’s apartment and the historical references in the guidebook.

The novel’s last lines, in all caps:


To those sensual and philosophical women in the class, then, this novel is for you. Fatale is a message. Can we interpret it? At what level will this act of interpretation be most effective? Are we to content ourselves with simply examining the story-content? Or does the novel’s narrative discourse—its form—constitute a message as well?

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Common Sense 2 (HUM303/HUM415/HUM425/HUM470)

“It is precisely its ‘spontaneous’ quality, its transparency, its ‘naturalness,’ its refusal to be made to examine the premises on which it is founded, its resistance to change and to correction, its effect of instant recognition, and the closed circle in which it moves which makes common sense, at one and the same time, ‘spontaneous,’ ideological and unconscious. You cannot learn, through common sense, how things are: you can only discover where they fit into the existing scheme of things. In this way, its very taken-for-grantedness is what establishes it as a medium in which its own premises and presuppositions are being rendered invisible by its apparent transparency.”

— Stuart Hall, “Culture, the Media, and the ‘Ideological Effect'” (pdf)