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This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Friday
Oct282011

In Which We Make Life Decisions Based On Media Archetypes

The Dastardly and the Dopey

by SARAH HIRSCHMAN

Around the third day of architecture school, you realize things are not quite what you expected. Your friend's architect father, when he took you to lunch the previous spring, told you over matzoh ball soup and a grilled cheese not to become an architect if there was any way you could avoid it. You read the blogs and heard from the disgruntled parties. You worked with some of those disgruntled parties, even, but none of this flagged your faith. But here, at a desk, in a city you don't know, among people who seem already to have been to architecture school, it becomes clear that something is amiss, you did not see this coming. But you can't have been the only one…

The thing is that while architecture is really good at marketing itself, the campaign is not all that accurate. There remains a gaping trench between what people think architects do, what they are trained to do, and what actually goes on to get a building built. The discipline at large aimed to create an image of something unobjectionable the witty well-shod culturephile in the room and in the process created a bunch of bizarre spin-offs.

One of the things you do when you are in architecture school is you watch a ton of movies and TV shows. You have Hulu or Netflix or whatever playing in a background pane on your laptop, or on a totally separate laptop used exclusively for viewing video content, and you have company. You have a less disorienting way to mark the hours between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. than playing Animal Collective on hallucinatory repeat.

You fly through whole seasons of Caroline in the City and both the original and the recent Battlestars because the culture-producing machine just can’t keep up with the number of hours you are awake, and you are hungry to consume anything. Because while design is really exciting and interesting, the production of the drawings that communicate the intricacies of your design to everybody who does not inhabit your head can be very tedious.

That is why the lights were always on in the architecture building at whatever college you went to. There are people inside of it, all of the time. And so while you are browsing Hulu, if something even remotely related to architecture pops up, or better yet you just type in "architecture," you have guilt-free viewing running alongside you while you accidentally glue your fingers to the roof of a plexi model or live paint a plan into a fiction of order. The illusion that you might ingest an accurate depiction of your hard-won profession is moot at this point: you're just looking for some noise to keep you awake.

Why exactly does architecture put up such a cool front? Why is the lack of remuneration and control so seamlessly offset by a faith in fonts and rigor? How does it make a strange kind of sense that someone would want to pretend to be an architect?

Art VandelayI decided to become an architect for a bunch of reasons, but the one that got me here now, the one that got me from daydreaming to portfolio-making to all-nighter-doing, was that it seemed like a really cool thing to be. "I’m an architect!" I imagined myself declaring, and as architecture school wore on, that particular self-important declaration seemed that much more consequential. It deteriorated into a mantra that I was all but rocking myself to sleep repeating, imagining my nonchalant facebook update at the end of it all ("Architecture school? I did that.").

The thing is that architects are taught that they’re a bunch of different things, and you can select among the ones that most apply at any given moment, and there’s one that serves you very well at every stage in the game. There is Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, a character that really spoke to the (probably not-so) secret pretentions of my sixteen-year-old self. Who needs grassroots activism and community organizing when you know what is right and good and you have faith in your self? Who needs to form a consensus when the only opinion you need to know is your own?

H. Roark

Architects are people who direct things, the idea goes, people who are pulling strings behind the scenes to realize their plans, the point to which the great fanning out of places and spaces can be drawn back. The Architect in The Matrix wasn’t even an architect, he was a computer program and he is cold, calculating, risk managing, in control.

The number one usage of the word "architect" on the front page of the Times in all of the last decade was in this sense. "Architect of destruction," "architect of terror," even “architect of 9/11” all appear more frequently than just plain old “architect,” the person who draws up plans to build things. It is as though the image of the architect is more powerful than the architect herself.

But, of course, and this is a big 'of course’ because I was raised in a world of weekly self esteem workshops and throwing yarn-ball-warm-fuzzies to girls about whom I felt, on a good day, ambivalent, it comes as no surprise that the perception business is all just a question of quieting the rest of the world.

Sure, I don’t expect to make a ton of money, and that’s a particular type of blow, considering how much money it takes to first get the education and then maintain some kind of culturally engaged life, but who needs a pile of cash when you’ve got big ideas, when you’re in control? And that’s where the other axis comes in – the dopes.

Marshall Darling with awesome completed building

Marshall Darling is a great example of this because his sincerity and earnestness dovetail nicely with a pitiable sensitivity to what’s going on in his own house. Frequently surprised, he’s a loopy benevolent presence in the life of Clarissa as she Explains it All. He actually gets distinction because it's his weird creative permissiveness that allows Clarissa to have the life all Nickelodeon subscribers circa 1992 wanted.

it's not really that complicated

There is that Steve Martin character in It’s Complicated, a pathetic shmo who is interesting and cultured, but somehow just won’t ever be as dangerous or exciting as the Alec Baldwin jerk. He’s safe, he’s expected, he respects and listens to his client and perpetually verklemt love interest, but he just can’t take the heat, and so the fire goes away.

Ted Mosby not getting the girl

And there's Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother, and he presents a completely nutso idea of what it means to be an architect, because clearly nobody involved with that show has any idea about anything architecture, though he still hews to the sensitive-good-guy mold. I don’t necessarily want to complain about this one, because I enjoy participating in the fantasy that you can just one day choose to quit designing buildings and become a professor, as though anyone does one or the other of those things exclusively, because there are just universities out there that are desperate to hire a run-of-the-mill young architect with seemingly few qualifications to teach their history courses.

No, I definitely do not want to complain about that. But even he is this dopey romantic type who believes in things and is too sensitive to keep the girl.

I got into this because I had held on to a really self-serving idea of what it meant to be an architect that I thought I could tailor to my self, I didn’t look really at all the clues that media outlets everywhere were sending me – the losers and the whiners and the meek but well-read nerds that populate television and movies with indications of how I might be perceived in the future.

Ryan Atwood forsakes his life of crime for a life of checked button-down shirts.

The Ryan Atwoods of the world forsake a life of crime to pursue a long-dormant interest in architecture that manifested itself on a drafting table and t-square in the pool house. Architects are good for you, they are funny and self-effacing and powerless, they have feelings because they make spaces, or else they’re dastardly and controlling and evil!

Coming out of a video art and semiotics program, I had an idea that the only place to find better shoes and glasses was in design school. That said, architecture might not actually be the best kind of design school for cool hunting, since the exigencies of all-nighters and model-making don’t exactly permit careful accessory maintenance. Sure, architects like shoes and glasses, and sure an asymmetrical caftan and Wonder Woman belt-combo are the only things I ever felt comfortable presenting my projects in, but accessories do not a profession make. If they did, we’d all be one trip to the Piperlime Accessories Wall away from professional accreditation. Which would be rad.

Just some fun pals palling around like they always do

Within the discipline, there’s all sorts of rumbling, now that the pillars of modernism have been resolutely cast down for about the fifth time. We're not going to have truths anymore, and whether that’s a function of some new spirit or just the huge variety and diversity of people now studying and practicing architecture is for a social scientist to determine. But it remains that a really large strain within intellectual architectural output focuses on the question of who we are and what we do. I doubt the same kinds of fears and preoccupations haunt other disciplines.

The real work is preferable to self-analysis. You get to design things and build them and use power tools well into the night. You get to buy gallons of expanding foamed polyurethane liquid and dye it hot pink because you think that instead of representing water as blue in your giant model, that it might look cool with a fleshier texture, and that your reviewers might be down with that. You get to put macaroni and oatmeal into your models to show how a bulk foods supermarket might store its products. You get to go as far off your rocker as you want, as long as you show up for the review the next day. You snag an hour’s rest under your desk and get back to working on something that could either get you laughed out of the room or hailed a visionary, or both, because the parts of design that are least apparent to the rest of the world actually might be the best.

Sarah Hirschman is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. You can find her website here.

"Poor in Love" - Destroyer (mp3)

"Savage Night at the Opera" - Destroyer (mp3)

"Suicide Demo for Kara Walker" - Destroyer (mp3)

Thursday
Oct272011

In Which We Know Nothing Of His Work

Streamlined

All of the critic Marshall McLuhan's work is about communication, so taking stock of his rhetorical inventory in his letters is dizzying work. He appears to have an easy facility with faking the truth it is a means to an end, like any editorial workaround, or smash cut. He was capable of expressing himself facily in a variety of situations, but he often worked hard to obscure the point. His casual correspondence comprises a complete theoretical gesture on behalf of a person you're never sure exists. In letters to Hubert Humphrey, Tom Wolfe, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, and Woody Allen among others, he demonstrates a panacea for the disconnected.

Ashley Montagu was a British-American anthropologist born Israel Ehrenberg.

August 10th, 1964

to ASHLEY MONTAGU

Dear Ashley:

Good of you to ask me to contribute to your volume. Perhaps if you had a look at my Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man you would have some ideas of what you would like me to do.

One thing that comes to mind that is not in that volume concerns the habit of new media in swallowing older media, transforming them strangely. Perhaps the latest example is the swallowing of film by TV. The press had swallowed the book, and film had swallowed the press earlier. This had gone on since the origin of script, as is magnificently illustrated by Eric Havelock in his Preface to Plato. When swallowed, the older media tend to become high-class art forms. The new medium is never considered an art form, but only a degradation of the older form. This piece could be called "Inside the Whale."

Regards,

Marshall McLuhan

with wife Corinne

September 17th, 1964

to BUCKMINSTER FULLER

Dear Bucky:

I was not at all happy about missing the seminar this summer. There was too much on the plate here.

Have a good deal of luck in analyzing various problems lately. I enclose a note on one of these. If one says that any new technology creates a new environment, that is better than saying the medium is the message. The content of the new environment is always the old one. The content is greatly transformed by the new technology.

Supersonic flight will create a new environment which makes our present cities somewhat useless. In fact, if they are to be approached within any convenient distance at all, they will have to be "roofed over." Supersonic take-off and landing alike blow the glass out of a city, so your Dymaxion Dome becomes a necessity, just as much as the road is a necessity for the wheel. One environment creates another.

Would appreciate your suggestions about readings in the matter of technology as creator of environment. Today the environment itself becomes the artefact. The consequences for learning are quite extraordinary. The prepared environment separates the old curriculum.

Warm regards,

Marshall McLuhan

with buckminster fuller

Tom Wolfe had written a profile of McLuhan that appeared in New York magazine, entitled, "What If He's Right?"

November 22nd, 1965

to TOM WOLFE

Dear Tom:

I am very happy about your portrait of me. Sitters are not supposed to enjoy their portraits. So when I say I am pleased with your portrait of me, I mean that I can recognize its power and fidelity, but like hearing one's own voice for the first time, or seeing one's self for the first time on video, or film, there is a considerable mood of disillusionment that is both deserved and salutary.

Corinne, by the way, is convinced that we should send you a sample of my neckties. It was a clip-tie that I was wearing in San Francisco. She feels that you implied that there was some mysterious plastic band that went all the way around the neck! Rhetorically, I understand full well the usefulness of that ploy. Your success in elucidating my approaches to various problems is really considerable. The only serious disadvantage of your article may develop in the internal revenue quarter. They may begin to demand a bank statement!

Corinne is only now getting into your Tangerine book. She is finding it quite exhilarating.

Please advise the circulation department to send a dozen copies of your article, and to bill me for the same. I am sure we will need more copies than that before long. It is sure to prove a major asset to McLuhan Inc.

Lots of new developments here. When our sensory threshold study is completed, it may be possible for you to do a story on it. It is really quite a unique and exciting study that is developing.

Marshall McLuhan

high school graduation

February 9th, 1967

to HUBERT HUMPHREY 

Dear Mr. Vice-President:

I did much appreciate your sending me that splendid photograph of us both.

When seated with you I had jokingly explained the advantages of living in a backward country like Canada. Now I am to have an opportunity to expand that theme in a series of lectures here that are given annually on a Foundation basis.

One other theme that had risen at that same dinner concerned the difficulty of covering a hot war like Viet on a cool medium like television. Viet is our first TV war. TV creates an audience involvement in depth that automatically creates alienation of the public. The same news covered by the old hot media like press has a very different effect.

While we are Westernizing the East by our old technology, we are Easternizing ourselves by the new technology. TV is an orientalizing force, taking us all on an "inner trip" that blurs the old idea of private identity altogether.

Again, thanks, and very best wishes.

Sincerely yours,

Marshall McLuhan

January 15th, 1969

to JAMES TAYLOR

Dear Mr. Taylor:

I find myself unable to fill in the questionnaire simply because it calls for much more meditation than I can provide at present. I can say that I do not think of God as a concept, but as an immediate and ever-present fact an occasion for continuous dialogue.

Yours in Xto,

Marshall McLuhan

Jonathan Miller's slam of McLuhan in his McLuhan led to this letter addressed to the editor of the series, the legendary critic Frank Kermode. McLuhan was harshly criticized by people who purported to be his friends and he was very upset by it.

March 4th, 1971

to FRANK KERMODE

Dear Kermode:

My colleague, Barry Nevitt, concurs with me in wishing that the enclosed letter get to somebody who has reviewed Miller's McLuhan. Perhaps it should be the editor of The Listener, or the Times Literary Supplement. Please feel free to copy this for trial distribution. I don't know what your attitude toward my work is, nor do I know what your thought about Miller's book is.

Miller is debating at a juvenile level. He is not inquiring nor discussing along the lines I have opened up. He assumes that our sensory order is not violatable by new technologies. This is a universal assumption of our entire Establishments, humanist and scientific alike.

Merely to challenge it creates panic, for it means that we have polluted not just the physical but the psychic and perceptual order of our societies without questioning our procedures. To argue whether there is any quantitative proof of this, is part of the panic. Nobody wants any proof. Most people desperately don't want it.

Herbert Krugman, of General Electric Research Laboratories, recently provided ample proof of the validity of the hypothesis, using encephalographic and head camera means of testing the responses to various media. Being an ordinary run-of-the-mill psychologist, he was flabbergasted to discover that there was no brain-wave response to the content of these media, but a very large and diversified response to the diverse media themselves. The last thing in the world that anybody wants is proof of anything I am saying. The evidence is plentiful for those who are interested. The poetry of the Symbolists, from Baudelaire until now, is massive and explicit testimony to sensory change.

As you know from many sources (e.g. Linus Pauling's The Nature of the Chemical Bond), there are no connections in matter, only resonant intervals. Such is the nature of touch. It is like the space between the wheel and the axle. The very scientists who hold to this quantum theory of matter refuse to admit its relevance in the handling of evidence. In discussing these things, they are themselves completely non-tactile people. The scientific establishment is literate in the sense of being unconscious of the effects of a visual culture in imposing visual standards of evidence Othello's "ocular" proof. Having established the resonant discontinuity of the material world, they still cling to the old pattern of continuous and connected or logical processing.

Speaking of processing, it is impossible to have a point of view while following or discerning a process. It would be like trying to have a point of view while swimming. Yet, most people still try to achieve static positions and concept patterns as a basis for study. Naturally, this method dictates what shall be studied. If I have a point of view about the human condition as a result of investigating the effects of media, it is simply that people are somnambulist. They seem to be happily hypnotized by their own extensions of themselves. I suppose the traditional word for this is idolatry: "They became what they beheld and bowed the knee to themselves."

Sincerely yours,

Marshall McLuhan

wedding day with Corinne McLuhan

Kermode would argue back that Miller "underwent a sort of conversion in the process of reading for the book, and the outcome was something that neither he nor I expected. Why he doesn't want to tell you about this himself I can't say."

The feud played out in the pages of The Listener.

August 11th, 1971

To THE LISTENER

Sir:

For those interested in exploration and discovery rather than in debating and classifying, the study of media technologies begins with their effects. Jonathan Miller charges me with "the peculiar notion that television, in spite of its name is not a visual medium at all but what he calls an audio-tactile medium." Miller's confusion begins with his assumption that I have "notions" and theories, concepts rather than percepts. His difficulties with media study are entirely conventional hang-ups of the average person imbued with a nineteenth century outlook and attitude.

It is not possible to modify such a huge cultural back-log by the mere introduction of new percepts arising from new environmental structures.

However, in the interest of those who may be less burdened and overlaid by the middenheap of our immediate sensory past, I recently undertook to read Miller's McLuhan in which he peers at me uneasily as an undercover agent for Rome. At the very beginning of his squib he reads me backwards: "McLuhan also claims that the channel of hearing itself is intrinsically richer, or as he puts it 'hotter', than that of sight, say." Not a very promising or helpful start.

Let me apologise for Miller's obtuseness at once. If he does not dig "hot" and "cool", there is an historical excuse for Miller in that the first age of radio regarded itself as "hot." The 20's were the period of hot jazz, hot mommas, hot lips and hot tips. The "cool" age came with TV. But that which was called "hot" in the 20's was called "cool" in the fifties. Today "hot pants" are real cool and "far out." "Hot" meant involved in the 20's as "cool" did in the fifties. What had been called a "cool head" before radio, meant detached and disinterested and uninvolved. That is, in 1900 "cool" meant what would now be regarded "hot", in the sense of permitting specialized and fragmentary awareness to the individual. When one is "with it" one is "cool", sharing a corporate awareness. The private point of view is "hot" because it is detached and non-corporate. The great variety of paradoxical patterns of "hot" and "cool" point to a complex new process that resists mere classification. Understanding is not a point of view.

Any of our senses can be projected in modes that are either "hot" or "cool", involving or non-involving. Since "hot" and "cool" are not classifications but processes, not concepts but percepts, it may be possible to explore the matter of media a bit further by noting the effect of the deprivation of sight on the other senses.

Alec Leighton observes "to the blind all things are sudden." There is not the same degree of continuity or connectedness in touch or hearing as in sight. Jacques Lusseyran's classic, And There Was Light, records the alteration of his total sensibility resulting from his sudden blindness. He confronts the prevalent Miller attitudes to sense and experience, and laughs at those locked into the conventional attitudes of the bureaucratic Establishment:

When I came upon the myth of objectivity in certain modern thinkers, it made me angry. So there was only one world for these people, the same for everyone. And all the other worlds were to be counted as illusions left over from the past. Or why not call them by their namehallucinations? I had learned to my cost how wrong they were.

From my own experience I knew very well that it was enough to take from a man a memory here, an association there, to deprive him of hearing or sight, for the world to undergo immediate transformation, and for another world, entirely different but entirely coherent, to be born. Another world? Not really. The same world rather, but seen from another angle, and counted in entirely new measures. When this happened, all the hierarchies they called objective were turned upside down, scattered to the four winds, not even theories but like whims.

What Lusseyran ascribes to the physical fate of sudden blindness, has in the electric age of instant information and new man-made environments, become a universal experience of sudden re-orientations and lost goals and identities.

In effect it matters little whether Miller gets with "hot" or "cool", since he cannot but project me through his nineteenth century mechanism of sensibility. If the medium is the message, the user is the content. That is the sense of Baudelaire's "Hypocrite lecteur." The reader puts on the mask of the poem, the book, the language, the medium, and imbues them with the "sobsconscious inklings" of his own inadequacies. Media piggy-back on other media, so that when TV uses the film, the content is TV, not film.

When Miller puts on or uses McLuhan, the content is the user, i.e. pure Miller. Projected through his bureaucratic categories, McLuhan is transmogrified into a nineteenth century bundle of exploded pretensions. Naturally, the electric surround exasperates Miller's sensibilities. Grievance is the ever-fruitful matrix of the comic which is one of Miller's more successful manifestations.

Apropos Mr. Miller's hang-up on the properties of the TV image, he has the conventional stereotypical problem of the 19th century sensibility. The avant garde of the 19th century arts were the pre-Raphaelites with their stress on synaesthesia, and Pater's "the arts aspire to the condition of music." The pre-Raphaelite concern with medieval crafts and total human involvement in work sustained the ideals of Carlyle, and Ruskin, and William Morris, carrying over into the Omega workshops of Roger Fry. As with the work of Maria Montessori, the pre-Raphaelite stress on the multi-sensuous was opposed to the merely visual culture of the bureaucracies, whether in education or politics or commerce. In 1893 Adolf Hildebrand's Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture summed up the pre-Raphaelite enterprise, as it were. As a sculptor, Hildebrand was very conscious of the "two functions of the eye":

The artist's activity consists, then, in further developing such of his faculties as provide him with spatial perception, namely his faculties of sight and touch. These two different means of perceiving the same phenomenon not only have separate existence in our faculties for sight and touch, but are united in the eye.

The TV image, with its light through, in the manner of a stained glass window, a Roualt painting, were adumbrated by Seurat in the technique of pointillisme. It a technique which Stockhausen later claimed as descriptive of his own work in music. Quantum mechanics has shown us in this century that touch, like the chemical bond itself, is characterized by the resonant interval. Hildebrand's insistence upon touch as essential in visual life anticipated the spatial character quantum mechanics and of electric phenomena.

The TV image is not a photograph; nor does it, any more than Seurat, offer a visually connected space. Linus Pauling's Nature of the Chemical Bond provides a sufficient introduction to the theme of discontinuity in physical structures for those less interested in debating an in elucidation.

In the same way that Lusseyran observed the effect of loss of sight on the transformation of his other senses, the media student will study the effects of media on one another, as well as on the changing patterns of our sensory references. That is why the changes in all the arts, and sciences can illuminate the effects of new media. To specialize attention in any one medium or sensory ode is to fall into the habit of matching, classifying and quantifying that are posed by the dominant visual faculty. E.H. Gombrich's Art and Illusion studies the peculiar habits of matching and "realistic" correspondence that arise in a culture visually dominated. A handy demonstration of the power of sight to affect hearing and the other senses can be illustrated by reading aloud the following words:

Un petit d'un petit
S'etonne aux Hailes
Un petit d'un petit
Ah! degres te fallent
Indolent qui ne sort cesse
Indolent qui ne se mene
Qu'importe un petit d'un petit
Tout Gai de Reguennes.

Let Miller take two groups of people and show them the same movie, but let one group see it by front projection and one see it by rear projection through a silk screen. Each group will be unaware that the other has seen the movie at all. Then let each group write an essay on the experience. The resulting essays will show wide divergence in approach to the experience. One group will describe a "hot" experience, and one a "cool" experience.

Not even ad agencies "believe" that the same program of images seen by front and rear projection provides two totally different experiences. Movie and TV vary much more widely than mere front and rear projection of the same movie. (This experiment has been performed several times by my students in different countries.)

The study of media begins with the observation of their effects. Effects cannot be observed by concepts nor hypotheses as in conventional quantitative testing, for media are environments and inclusive processes, not products and packages. If the hot radio medium were turned off for a month in the oral cultures of the Near-East, there would be an instant cooling of the political climate. You cannot gnash your teeth on TV. If TV could be substituted, a mass revulsion for their "hot" attitudes would occur. The TV generation feels a revulsion for all centralist bureaucratic organization whether in education or politics, or in urban life.

Marshall McLuhan

September 13th, 1972

to JOHN CAGE

Dear John:

It was good to have even a brief visit with you, but we didn't have a chance to talk about the matter I am going to mention now. During the past year or so, I have been trying to work out the relation between jazz and rock in the English language. For various reasons, which we can discuss at length sometime, it is impossible to have a music that is not based on the rhythms of a particular tongue or speech. Speech is the "hidden" ground for the music as figure in any culture whatever. There are specific and complex reasons why the oral tradition of American Southern speech constitute the only possible ground for jazz and rock. Some of these reasons include the fact that English is almost the only language in the world that has actual feet and not mere syllables.

Equally basic is the relation of English to the metropolitan patterns of industrial sound. New technological sounds and patterns are processed through the speech in order to become "music". To people who do not understand this complex of speech technology factors, it must seem very mysterious that Chinese and Norwegian alike are compelled to sing Rock in English rather than in their own tongues.

I have been doing a good deal of work on this subject, and hope to do a great deal more. That is why I am asking for any help or suggestions you can offer. For example, in your own music, have you employed speech rhythms and intervals, consciously or unconsciously? Do you know anybody who has ever worked on these lines?

The fact of "feet" in English relates to the power of English to incorporate complex dance rhythms which are excluded by the languages that have only syllables. The fact that only English has prosody among modern languages, whereas all the rest have only separate syllables, was mentioned to me by a Professor of Italian here when I asked him what was Dante's prosody. He said at once: "There is no prosody in Italian."

Since then, I have checked this out. It is absolutely staggering to realize that one has been a Professor of English for decades without knowing this unique fact about the English language. It is even more appalling to realize that everybody else appears to be as ignorant as I am. I feel that you and Merce Cunningham might have discovered some things in this area, and I am most eager to learn about them.

Most cordial good wishes,

yours,

Marshall

In reply to the following letter, Margaret Atwood wrote to McLuhan that "One wonders about the Eskimos especially in mid-winter but I suppose they do not go outside to be alone but rather to hunt which is quite different."

November 22th, 1972

To Margaret Atwood

Dear Miss Atwood:

It is good to know that you are on the University of Toronto campus as our resident writer this year. Lately, I have had the luck to read Survival where I found at once the answer to a question which I have been asking for some years:

"Why do North Americans, unlike all other people on this planet, go outside to be alone and inside to be with people?" I knew that the answer would be massive, since if it were anything else, it would be easy to spot. You provide the answer in Survival when you indicate the North American crash program for conquering nature. Surely no other continent was ever ripped off so quickly or completely, but then Renaissance man, and afterwards, had unsurpassed technology for doing just that. Less well-equipped cultures were inclined to make a truce with nature quite early. Perhaps Western man was not prepared for the sudden capitulation of nature with Sputnik in 1957. When the planet went inside a man-made environment, nature had to yield to art and ecology.

Sometime I hope we can chat about the ways in which going outside to be alone and inside to be folksy have shaped North American genre. Meantime, congratulations on Survival.

August 25, 1976

to WOODY ALLEN

Dear "Alvy",

It was fun getting into the new (for me) medium. You made me aware of the phenomenal amount of work and skill that is involved in making a film. Naturally it was delightful meeting you and working with you.

The preliminary precaution concerning mention of my being in one of your films just didn't register adequately with me. Of course, I did not mention the matter to any publication source. One's friends pass the word quickly among themselves, so that I cannot imagine it remaining a secret. Of course, I would never dream of having an interview about it, or making a statement at any time, so that the most that could possibly come out would be a passing gossip reference. Most probably, however, this will not occur.

With heartiest good wishes for the future of this film.

Marshall McLuhan

"Plainclothes" - Cymbals Eat Guitars (mp3)

"Keep Me Waiting" - Cymbals Eat Guitars (mp3)

"Shore Points" - Cymbals Eat Guitars (mp3)

Wednesday
Oct262011

In Which We Mandate A Reverse Bechdel Test

How to Be a Gentleman

by DANIEL D'ADDARIO

In order to pass the so-called Bechdel Test, a work of art must contain two women discussing a subject other than a man. Black Swan and All About Eve — films about female envy — pass, and so does Bridesmaids if you are willing to accept fighting over a wedding as distinct from fighting over the groom. New Girl fails, because there’s really only one girl and she’s either talking about her ex or her male roommates.

The Rachel Zoe Project is the first work of art (if you will) that merits a reverse-Bechdel Test. Every conversation the male cast members have stems back to Rachel Zoe herself, the stylist whose travails build a dreamlike Los Angeles about work, in senses of the word pertaining to one’s labors (work) and a drag-queeny desire to serve up a vogue look (werrrrrrrk).

The debt The Rachel Zoe Project, currently in its fourth season on Bravo, owes to The Hills is obvious. The Hills, secretly the most influential TV show of the 2000s, at first depicted four young women working menial jobs; the subtext became text in the pages of Us Weekly, where the stupid internships transmogrified, as though by magic, into brand-building exercises. Men were accessories like Lauren Conrad's absurd season-one kukui-nut necklace.

Unlike the ladies of The Hills, though (save for Laguna Beach refugee L.C.), Rachel Zoe was already famous when her show began. As a stylist, she pioneered the big-bag big-rings big-sunglasses big-Chanel-schmatte look that dominated the mid-2000s, paid for by the likes of Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan and imitated by L.C. and her crew. There was that horrifying-perfect Lynn Hirschberg profile in which Rachel Zoe claimed she was more influential than Anna Wintour, and whose smoking gun was not a plate of truffle fries but a plate of steamed veggies. Her personality didn’t come out in the profile any more than it does in the show, unless a set of aesthetic tastes and claims about how hard one works count as a personality.

The climb continues for a stylist who determined the sartorial look of reality TV then saw no further outlet for her talents than playing on the same turf. As season four begins, Rachel has been abandoned by her assistant, Brad, who wanted stardom of his own: Rachel sees this as a betrayal. She is acutely aware of loyalty. This, in the absence of conversation about anything but her job (she also discusses what she’ll wear in her off-time, but this counts, one could argue, as brand-building), is her defining trait.

Rachel hires a new assistant, the sallow outdoorsman Jeremiah, and brings to Los Angeles a desperate acolyte, the lanky makeup artist Joey, but neither one’s names get featured in the credits. The Hills always found an opposite-if-not-equal replacement for its departed stars; The Rachel Zoe Project has winnowed its credits down to Rachel and her husband Rodger.

Rachel and Rodger

Rodger has undefined responsibilities by what is often referred to as “the Zoe organization” or “Team Zoe”; he complains to other staffers, largely, about how stressed Rachel is, now that she is pregnant and still working (both working as a stylist and werrrrrking as she tests the seams of vintage Halston. That he is stressed is subtext: he is portrayed as a very average fellow who loves Vegas and the big game, who cares about his wife enough to do everything she says but not enough to disallow himself from snidely commenting on the shallowness of the fashion world. Heavy is the wrist that wears the stylist-selected Tibetan prayer beads.

It’s fortunate for Rachel, in the nonchalance of her husband towards everything save for her relative ability to deliver both a son and a paycheck, that she has gay men to deliver to her adoration. Joey, a minor character throughout the series, has returned to Los Angeles at Rodger’s behest with a loosely defined portfolio. (Rodger summons him with the most farcical of gravity, promising him a car and limited responsibilities.) Joey must make Rachel happy, and his flattery would seem like something out of one of Shakespeare’s histories did it not seem so earnest. “I love your job,” he says, preparing a model’s togs for a photoshoot.

Though they are coworkers, his only conversation with Jeremiah is about how Rachel likes things done — four years into the series, Joey has some idea. His flattery has by this point allowed him to supplant Jeremiah as Rachel’s most important fashion assistant, a development that prompted a mini-freakout when Joey gets to dress Kim Kardashian. “I get to treat people like Barbies.”

Maybe so, but he is one of many Kens. He and Rachel play dress-up, planning which Chanel sweaters she will wear to the delivery room; this stands out among the many, many scenes of Joey and Rachel standing in front of racks of clothes debriefing. (“Pulling clothes is really fun for me, I just feel like I’m in a dollhouse and I can pick out as many clothes as I want to put on a Barbie or something,” says Joey on another occasion.) That Joey Barbie-ing Rachel is done for the camera’s benefit seems obvious, but that Rachel Zoe thinks the image she ought to send out to the world is of a woman unhappy without the presence of someone to say yes to it all is disconcerting.

Jeremiah, though, has been fired, a task delegated to Rodger, for nebulous reasons pertaining to his inability to “find a place” within the Zoe organization. That he is later called back to decorate Rachel’s nursery, and that he says yes, is obvious within the diegetic world of Rachel Zoe’s universe, one in which every request is easily fulfilled. 

What Rachel Zoe has built is less an empire (the scenes of actual work have gone, through the seasons, from legitimately glamorous occasions featuring big stars to sad little showrooms where Rachel assembles look books for unknown Scandinavian brands) than a multi-layer dollhouse in which every level believes they are dressing one another. Her baby is a son, one for whom Jeremiah lays out baby Gucci sandals in the nursery. Every man can find nothing to talk about save for Rachel’s whims, but that is a measure of the influence for which she has worked so hard.

Daniel D'Addario is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. You can find his website here.

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