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I still haven't read Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good for You, so I can't speak to all the arguments Christine Rosen raises against it in "Playgrounds of the Self," her sometimes insightful, sometimes infuriating essay in the current New Atlantis. But she commits at least two fouls in her critique.

Here's the first:

Johnson is not, as he repeatedly claims, challenging the conventional wisdom; he is reaffirming it. In a democratic culture, people want to be told that fulfilling their desires is actually good for them, that self-interest is also self-improvement, that the most time-consuming habit is also time well-spent. Attacking popular culture, which is the underpinning of so much of our conventional wisdom, usually earns one the sobriquet of Puritan or crank. Praising popular culture, which few people can resist, can give any modern-day guru a temporary following.

The problem here is that pop culture is not a single, unitary thing. You can always find an appreciative audience by reaffirming its taste for certain entertainments. You can also find an appreciative audience by reaffirming its distaste for certain entertainments. There are a lot of people out there who hate or fear video games and reality TV shows—or, same thing, hate or fear the people who play and watch them—and Johnson is challenging their assumptions as surely as Rosen is flattering the cultural conservatives who read journals like The New Atlantis. Johnson, to his credit, has tried to take his message both to his natural supporters and to people outside his home turf.

Which leads us to foul number two:

Quacks are also notoriously disingenuous, altering their message to suit their audience. In his book, Johnson says, "The television shows and video games and movies that we'll look at in the coming pages are not, for the most part, Great Works of Art," later adding, "I want to be clear about one thing: The Sleeper Curve does not mean that Survivor will someday be viewed as our Heart of Darkness, or Finding Nemo our Moby Dick." But writing on his personal blog the week after his book was released, Johnson argued just that: "We don't have a lot of opportunities in culture to tell a story that lasts a hundred hours, but that's exactly what we're taking in on The Sopranos or Lost or Six Feet Under. I feel totally confident that those shows will stack up very nicely against Madame Bovary a hundred years from now, if not sooner." Like all good mountebanks, Johnson, aiming to please as broad an audience as possible, finds consistency a crutch.

Rosen apparently thinks it inconsistent to believe both that Survivor is not great art and that The Sopranos is. I trust the reader can see why this is not a contradiction.

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  1. If carrying out your best self-interest is not self-improvement, you kinda are left with no definition for self-improvement.

  2. She also seems not to be able to grasp the very clear distinction between “The Sleeper Curve does not mean that…” and “I feel totally confident that…”.

  3. [P]opular culture…is the underpinning of so much of our conventional wisdom….

    What conventional wisdom is based on popular culture? I want to live on that planet.

  4. The body of literature that comdemns pop culture (whatever that may be) seems to me to have taken on a pornographic quality in recent years; the opinions of people like Rosen (not to mention the plethora of like-minded commentators and talk hosts) certainly appeal to the sociocons (and their desire to re-shape the world) in a manner that’s, well, prurient….

  5. Walker’s a ‘mats fan. Who’da thunk it.

  6. She really seems to be missing the book’s point. We were already watching TV, so isn’t it an improvement that the TV is better than before and that interactive activities have to a large degree supplanted television? The problem is that her starting place, a Nirvana of reading and family conversation, has been dead for 60 years, to the extent that it was ever real at all, since most people 50 years ago were too tied from a day’s manual labor to do much of anything intellectual.

  7. I agree that Rosen’s failure to distinguish `Survivor’ from `The Sopranos’ undermines her credibility. And the sense that she cares about the truth.

    `Six feet under’ IMO, *is* great art. And I’m an intellectual snob, not a connoisseur of kitsch. Either Rosen is an anti-TV bigot who hasn’t seen the show, or she just didn’t get it.

  8. Will future art historians think better of “Survivor” or “The Sopranos”? I say neither one. A hundred years from now, historians will describe this as the era of the soap opera.

    It’s a single play, performed an hour a day for decades on end, featuring the work of dozens of writers and hundreds of actors, following story arcs that stretch for generations, in real time, and all made feasible by the unique economics of the emerging broadcast media.

    Nothing else like it ever before. Flaubert, eat your heart out.

  9. Madame Bovary can blow me.

  10. I don’t get the unbridled praise for 6 feet under. It started out great, and then, pardon the choice of denigration, degenerated into a soap opera. Our friends would still gather to watch it, but it was more the same mocking atmosphere as getting together to watch the awful final season of Friends, or “Armless Thursday” ER. 6 Feet Under might be striking at the moment because in some ways it was very different than anything on TV, I don’t think it’s lasting art. A century from now, audiences will still be cheering for Lisa to be dead and find Nate’s mid-life crisis drama schtick to get tiresome.

  11. A hundred years from now, historians will describe this as the era of the soap opera.

    But look how much classic, “elegant” literature can be described the same way! Shakespeare wrote smutty, violent plays designed to pander to the masses–an intellectual of the Elizabethan era wouldn’t have been caught dead admitting he liked Shakespeare. He would have preferred the plays of an elegant Shakesperean contemporary like George Chapman. Chaucer’s stuff–smut. Greeks like Aristophanes or Romans like Ovid–smut, smut, smut.

    Even novels were considered a vulgar waste of time back in the day–if you MUST read something, read something educational or spiritual, not stupid escapist fiction, people thought. Offhand, the only piece of literary art I can think of that was considered worthwhile back in the day was Dante’s Divine Comedy–and even then, a lot of people thought ill of Dante for writing it in a vulgar everyday language like Italian, rather than stick with Latin for the intellectual classes. I’m sure you guys can think of a few more examples, but they’d be in the minority.

  12. I can only surmise that gaius marius is now a father. Otherwise he would have been all over this thread by now.

    Congratulations to gaius marius, Mrs. marius, and babius marius!!!!

  13. Thoreau–

    Did Gaius ever say whether he was expecting Babius Marius or Babia Maria?

  14. Uh, that last post was mine. Forgot to change my name from a joke on another thread.

  15. AWESOME Replacements reference, Jesse. off of “Let it Be”, right?

    awesome.

    anyhow, Jennifer: yes – Mr Marius is expecting a Gaius Minimus any day now. That’s why he won’t be attending the Chicago event. Which is tonight. Will let you know how it went.

    cheers,
    drf

  16. Jennifer, that was sort of my point. Well, not my point but an underlying assumption. The enduring art of any period is often something considered vulgar at the time. Soap operas seemed like a good guess.

    Actually, now that I’ve had time to think about it, soaps will probably be more of an academic study. Doesn’t cataloging and annotating digital video of eight thousand hours of Days of Our Lives sound like something grad students would be doing to earn research credit?

  17. “What conventional wisdom is based on popular culture?”

    Actually, I would say, IMHO, most “conventional wisdom” about crime and law enforcement is driven by pop culture.

  18. I can (potentially) see Rosen’s point up to a (very limited) point. There’s something banal about saying that what’s popular is good, or especially that it’s inherently good because it’s popular. What’s popular hardly needs boosting. That said, I really have no idea if that’s anything at all like what Johnson said, plus it’s equally true that reflexively going in the opposite direction can be just as banal, if it really seems to come down to pure reflex. But I guess this whole conversation reflects the inherent paradox and ugliness to criticism as a profession in general. There’s a certain claim to priestliness inherent in the very act of telling people what is or isn’t good from the standpoint of being some sort of “expert.” THAT said, there’s also a distinction that can be made between dealing with art purely as art and dealing with it in terms of its supposed “good” or lack thereof for society, and it seems it’s the latter area that Rosen has no qualms about traipsing into. THAT said, the line between the two can often become inevitably blurred, which raises the perennial question of if it’s hard to say when you’ve crossed a line, does that mean you should dispense with worrying about crossing it altogether. Well, like I said, it’s a paradox….

    BTW, FWIW, the episode and a half of Six Feet Under I could get through distinctly underwhelmed me. Yeah, there were some interesting artistic and satirical things going on, but far too much of the dialogue was mere juvenile acting-out, as if all these adults had no more social skills than an eight year old. Maybe it was supposed to be a surreal look at the eight-year-old within or something, but I found it way too annoying to sit through because of that. And even the more interesting aspects had a bit too much of the heavy-handed wink-wink for my taste. But then again, that’s just my taste.

  19. I should add that part of what makes the whole issue of criticism (of any sort) a paradox is that people certainly do have the right to tell someone else, “That’s not good for you!” And if we’re being told that by someone whose opinion we value or who just seems to make sense, we may choose to listen. There’s just something insidious about those who set themselves up in such an advisory role. And yet we keep listening to and reading them and arguing about what they say, as if it matters. Must be something about human nature….

  20. Drf-

    Yes, I know Gaius was having a baby; I was wondering, though if he knew if it would be a boy or a girl.

  21. What conventional wisdom is based on popular culture? I want to live on that planet.

    • “May the Force be with you.”
    • Real women look like Barbie.
    • The way to shoot a handgun is to flop it on its side.
    • Everyone needs to drink six gallons of water a day.
    • “Provided free by the government.”

    I remember a short story set after civilization had fallen. The local community was mining the library trying to rebuild. They found a book about wagons, and built some. They found a book about steam locomotives, and built some. They found a book about automobiles, and built some. They found a book about airplanes, and built some. They found a Star Trek technical manual, and built some.

  22. The thoughtless, immature, inexperienced, sheltered, self-involved, spoiled LA douche-bag 6-feet under characters mirrors most of the commenters at H&R.

    “Self-improvement is masturbation” Tyler Durdan

    IMO The Wire and Deadwood are head and shoulders above the other crap listed, sopranos included.

    I am still blown away at the decline of libertarianism. How many of you pukes actually sign your own paycheck??

  23. One of the many pukes who has never signed he own paycheck has just returned from a paid vacation tanned, rested and ready, not for leadership, nor for followship… from up near Traverse City.
    Now in the heart of Sinincincinnati, all was just as we left it. Our old (younger than we, actually) hippy friends next door even watered the flowers on our patio.
    Life be good.
    What was the kwerstion?
    And can we resolve the sub-kwerstion as to the sex of the fruit of the loins of gaius marius, or not?
    In Latin, if we just knew the name, we’d know.

  24. Horst, if you hate us so much, why do you come here?

  25. i puked on my paycheck once. does that count?

  26. Horst,

    Your kind words touched me deeply. No, my mistake, it was just gas.

  27. “Self-improvement is masturbation” Tyler Durdan

    So you’re saying that self-improvement is gloriously satisfying and feels great?

  28. SFU was a soap opera. An extremely well produced, well acted and well written soap opera that dealt with compelling themes in inventive ways. Why does soap opera have to be a derogatory description? By that logic The Godfather was just a gangster movie, The Maltese Falcon was just a detective novel, The Searchers was just a western and The Beatles just made pop music.

  29. Horst:

    Tyler Durden, whom you approvingly quote, was a figment of Ed Norton’s character’s imagination, purely intent on the destruction of himself and everyone else, because they (or their lives) didn’t meet his narrow definition of worth.

    So, what does that say about you? And how much room does that leave you to comment on the supposed decline of libertarianism? Not much, I’d venture.

    Though, I’d have to agree with your opinions re: The Wire & Deadwood. I’m giddy about tonight’s premier of “Rome”.

  30. If it was in latin, wouldn’t it be Primus or Prima Marius? Assuming it is their first child, of course.

    Either way, congrats to the Marii!

  31. Native NYer,
    I was thinking more of Maria, star of “Sound of Music.”

  32. Results of entering “child” in an english-latin online translator:

    Meaning:
    compater: the godfather of a man ‘ s child.
    liber: child, offspring.
    free, independent, unrestricted.
    book.
    parvulus: child, infant, young, little; very small, tiny

    Interesting that the word for child is the same as free, independent, and unrestricted! An ancient language has validated our notions of being born with inherent liberty.

  33. Why does soap opera have to be a derogatory description?

    Because traditional soap operas have vapid plots, bad acting, bad directing, and sugary melodrama. Saying that a show is a good soap opera is like complimenting a steaming pile of crap for being not quite so stinky.

  34. since the baby’s father is a Roman, why not “Brian” for a name?

  35. You’re kidding me right? How do you consume any entertainment? I can make the same arguments about most generas.

  36. ralphus/dead elvis,

    You’re arguing semantics. The question largely boils down to what “soap opera” is generally understood to mean. Is it a genre, or is it an insult?

    dictionary.com calls soap opera:

    A drama, typically performed as a serial on daytime television or radio, characterized by stock characters and situations, sentimentality, and melodrama.

    Melodrama, in turn:

    A drama, such as a play, film, or television program, characterized by exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts

    I would personally conclude that while most folks who consider themselves upholders of “good taste” would consider some of these attributes to be inherently bad, it’s not beyond reason to consider the possibility of there being good examples of such technique.

    All that said, one might reasonably expect that calling a TV drama a “soap opera” would not likely be the most effective way to laud it as the term generally carries negative connotations with it.

    Personally, I didn’t find SFU too sentimental, and any exaggeratedness I noticed was not of the kind that might turn me off of a typical soap opera but rather of the self-conciously arty kind that seems to contain a (not-so?) hidden communication between auteur and audience that “we” are the smart ones.

  37. Apologies for feeding the troll, but anyone who quotes “Fight Club” as some sort of paragon of philosophical insight immediately pegs themselves as a lukewarmed-IQ, pseudointellectual fuckwit.

  38. Having said that, I readily agree that much pop culture is far more wonderful, insightful, and most importantly accesible due to it’s obvious relation to modern-day life than just about 95% of highbrow culture. (Not that the highbrow stuff can’t offer insight, it’s just usually exceedingly clich? about how it does it.)

    Today’s pop drek is tomorrow’s or next millenium’s high art. As has been already pointed out, Shakespeare wasn’t high art in his day. He was very much the Quentin Tarantino of his era.

    (How’s that for pop-cult pomposity!)

  39. The market does a pretty good job of deciding this stuff. All that bad TV out there–someone’s watching it.

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