Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress (2011) & the Crisis of Subscendence

Damsels in Distress CD COVER

Filmmaker Whit Stillman has managed with considerable aplomb to avoid the clichés of the romantic comedy, a genre within whose parameters he nevertheless works, not least in his fourth film of five, Damsels in Distress (2011).  In addition to being a romantic comedy, to the extent of transforming itself in its denouement into a 1930s guy-gets-girl musical number, with Fred Astaire’s voice patched into the soundtrack, Damsels in Distress is a college film.  Because Stillman understands the meaning and function of college, his college film is also a film about civilization – or rather about the current degeneracy of what used to be Western Civilization, as made manifest by the decline of higher education.  In Damsels in Distress, Stillman has undertaken to represent what I once, in a casual essay, half-jokingly called subscendence, a kind of active anti-transcendence that seeks the lowest level in everything; but Stillman has also created a set of characters, in his eponymous damsels, who, discerning subscendence and judging it repellent, rally themselves to mount resistance against it.

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Tenured Astronomy Professor Fired after Discovering Trans-Neptunian Object: Women’s and Minorities’ Grievance Committee Says Object Insufficiently Diverse

Ugnas

L: Ugna (Planetesimal); R: Ugna (Provost)

A hard-working, well-liked, and professionally productive Associate Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Science at Upstate Consolation University has hired a law firm to help him in his fight to have his recent summary termination of employment overturned and is promising to take his complaint to civil court.  Brainerd Feta-Stilton’s firing came astonishingly enough just after he had generated major publicity for his institution by discovering a new Trans-Neptunian object.  Even more surprisingly, Feta-Stilton had tentatively named the object Ugna, in honor of Dr. Edwima Ugna, the very same university official who subsequently terminated him.  Ugna, who has served as Upstate Consolation University’s Provost since 2006, had in the past praised Feta-Stilton for his scientific achievements, which have brought many grants and endowments to the institution, as well as much positive exposure.

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When Nothing Changes

Zola Paradise

In case my tendency to allude to the classroom might strike anyone as tedious or repetitive, I offer an apology in advance and invite the uninterested to skip the following.  The classroom is nevertheless a consistently renewed sample of the contemporary cohorts as they advance up the ladder of what remains of actual social initiation hoping to join the ranks of the accredited when testing the job market for the first time as prospective adults.  In my classroom, a mid-tier state-college classroom, I therefore have the opportunity (and I take it) to observe the diminishing returns of the near-criminal enterprise of North America’s public primary and secondary instruction, especially where it concerns the inculcation of literacy of both the strict and cultural varieties.

In the just-completed semester, my department chair had asked me, as she regularly does, to supervise the graduate-level “Business in Literature” course that English teaches at the behest of and as a favor to the School of Business’s five-year accountancy program.  I like teaching this course because over the years the five-year accountancy students have demonstrated themselves to be cooperative and disciplined in degree sufficient to distinguish them from the general run of students.  In any given semester, I ask the students to read a short anthropological study – The Gift  (1925) by Marcel Mauss – and three or four novels that take as their setting a recognizably “business” milieu.  This semester’s syllabus obliged the enrollment to read the two “Vinland” sagas, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) by William Dean Howells, Tono-Bungay (1909) by H. G. Wells, and The Paradise of Women (1883) by Emile Zola, the last the basis of two recent television serials and a forgotten French sound-film from 1932.  As a means of putting moral pressure on students to complete the reading, I require them to turn in reading-notes, documenting in detail their progress through the chapters, on a regular basis.  I am fairly certain that most of the accountancy enrollment in the just-completed semester did ninety percent of the reading.  (By contrast, in most of my classes, I would estimate that only sixty per cent of students do as much as sixty per cent of the reading.)

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Contract Hits on Babies

If abortion is murder, then to procure the services of an abortionist is to hire a hit man. It is to take out a contract on another human life. Who signs such contracts, or pays for them, is then as much a murderer as the knife man who does the cutting.

This is hard, but that’s how truth is.

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Our Vaunted Loveliness, Alas

You may have noticed a recent news item reporting that mankind stands on the threshold of a new era, in which his most intimate relations will increasingly be transacted with robots. Pandering to human prurience, the report dwells upon the impressive possibilities for carnal knowledge of automatons, but it does not limit itself to the automation of solitary vice. Apparently one can already purchase a “chatbot” that will simulate interest in whatever maundering drivel one cares to type into one’s keyboard, and it is only a matter of time before these apps that simulate interest in our yakety-yack (or, rather, tapety-tap) receive a voice, a face and a body.

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Letter from Zeboim 1

The modern American university does not appear to best advantage when viewed from the Right. Viewed from the Left, it appears as a glistening City on a Hill. From the Right, it appears as one of the seedier Cities of the Plain. If not Sodom itself, perhaps Zeboim.

Zeboim came in for rough treatment in Genesis, but recovered and was back in business by the time of 1 Samuel. In fact, I find my ancestors hard at work in Zeboim, for it was to that city that the Israelites took themselves when they needed to sharpen an ax or a mattock, as in their own country “there was no Smith to be found” (1 Samuel 13: 19-20).

This is a letter from Zeboim, where this Smith has been hammering young scholars on the anvil of knowledge for twenty-five years. The sign outside my shop says I am a geographer, but as you are about to see, this advertisement tells you less than you may imagine, since a man who tells you he is a geographer doesn’t tell you much at all.

Consider the items that follow. They are précises of “calls for papers” (CFPs) that I recently received from geographers in my sub-specialty (cultural-historical geography). These geographers are assembling “sessions” of papers to be read at the big geography shindig in San Francisco next spring, and they sent these CFPs to various list-serves in order to round up participants. My précises are intended to highlight the ludicrous, but they are not misleading and all the titles and quotes are real. I have not cherry-picked weird CFPs.

Welcome to Zeboim!

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The Duty of the Adult to the Child

How does homosexuality – so obviously lethal to reproductive success – keep propagating? It’s really quite simple.

When I read Moira Greyland’s horrifying account of her repeated sexual molestation as a child at the hands of her homosexual parents, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Walter Breen, everything suddenly clicked into place. It’s not so much that there’s a gay gene (although there might be); or a gay virus (ditto); or a preconscious nisus among gays to spread their perversion through predation upon the young, “waking up the natural homosexual feelings that all people have,” so that they themselves can feel that they are somewhat more normal and unobjectionable (seems not unlikely); or that homosexuality is a search for the approval of an absent or distant or mad parent (a reasonable theory, prima facie). All these factors might be at work. But they are not needed to secure the propagation of homosexual behavior down through the generations.

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The Disastrous Recusal of the Western Patriarchate

When white males do wrong these days, everyone takes them to be responsible, and so culpable. Other sorts of perpetrators are almost always treated as themselves somehow victims, devoid of effective moral agency or ratiocination, unable to act rationally in service of the good, and thus essentially insane, chaotic, like a storm or a flood. Their crimes are wholly adventitious, “random attacks” that hurt someone “in the wrong place at the wrong time” because of essentially harmless youthful hijinks or a “botched crime” that would otherwise have been carried forward to a successful and unobjectionable conclusion. The crime then does not generate any moral guilt, but only the legal sort. Thus the sense among liberals of the injustice involved in incarcerating felons: they didn’t really do it, their environments did.

This is our clue to the fact that, despite the ruin of the ancient patriarchal system in the modern West, everyone still subconsciously thinks that only white males possess full moral agency. They feel that their own moral agency is derivative of the agency of white males, and as derivate is therefore but partial. Whatever their failures, then, or the defects in their lives, they blame on white males, whom they still apprehend as fundamentally in charge of the way things work. You can blame him only who has himself done wrong; and in the modern West only white males are understood as thus quite fully competent, and therefore culpable. The less that white males actually do, the more are they blamed for what happens. And lots of white males agree with this analysis; they hate and blame their own ilk just as much as everyone else does.

Almost everyone feels, in other words, that patriarchy is still in full effect. And they are hot with resentment at the patriarchs. They insist that the patriarchy must be overthrown, when they themselves have been in charge of things for fifty years or so, and the patriarchs have (almost) all recused the office of patriarch. Why?

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Thirty Steps from Honest Uncertainty to Christian Faith

When he finished his setting of the Credo, Stravinsky remarked to a friend that, “it is much to believe.” Indeed. If you start with the banquet of the Creed, you hardly know how to begin, and the whole mass of doctrines it encodes can be pretty hard to swallow at one bite. But there are only about thirty steps, more or less, from complete agnosticism to a profession of Christianity. Many are truisms, that if understood could hardly be denied by anyone; those that depend on knowledge of facts might require a fair bit of (absolutely fascinating) background research (e.g., especially, the Shroud). Each step is of course open to quibble, but such quibbles as I have so far encountered at each step are easily settled. Taken seriatim and in the proper order, none of the steps are as incredible as all of them seem taken at once.

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Just for Fun: Into Plutonian Depths

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950).  Cover by Allen Anderson

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950). Cover by Allen Anderson

A peculiarity of popular culture, which is also commercial culture, is that it dislikes competing with its own earlier iterations. Commercial culture therefore tends to be dismissive or even hostile in respect of its past, emphasizing its ever-renewed, up-to-date, and often cloyingly topical relevance, as its chief sales point. This state of affairs means that the consumers of popular culture, while they are aficionados of genre, often know little about the history of genre, what we might call the archive. Science fiction – which established its market in mass-circulation “pulp” magazines in the 1930s, and then prolonged its appeal in the form of the mass-circulation paperback in the 1950s – offers a case in point. One has only to compare Amazing Stories, Astounding, and Planet Stories, whose heyday was the 1930s and 40s, with the magazines that succeeded them during the Eisenhower presidency and into the 1960s: Galaxy, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the revamped Astounding that now called itself, perhaps a bit pretentiously, Analogue. The pulps were bulky in format, with three-color covers depicting space-dreadnaughts in combat, bug-eyed monsters assaulting human beings, and buxom women breasting the cosmos in metallic vacuum-proof bikinis. The “slicks” responded to a changing market, or to a changing and sometimes rather snooty notion of propriety, by shrinking themselves down to digest size and offering visually a more austere internal appearance. The magazine covers became solemn, satirical, or abstract, but as a rule they avoided sensationalism, and occasionally they bade fair, as in Ed Emshwiller’s many fine covers for Galaxy, to be artistic.

The pulps filled their pages with scientifically insouciant forays into interplanetary space, Suetonius-like pseudo-histories of galactic empires, and extraterrestrial hero-sagas that might well be described under the formula of Beowulf on Mars. The slicks, by contrast, bound their contributors to the rule of plausibility and preferred them to submit material that eschewed the motifs of grand invention and hero-quest in order to focus on sociological trends and dystopian speculation. When the mass-market science-fiction paperback appeared in the early 1950s, it mainly republished material that had originally appeared in the older periodical venues, but by the mid-1960s the character of the content had altered. Whereas the Ace paperback list corresponded largely to the pulps, the Ballantine, Avon, and Signet lists corresponded largely to the slicks. The slick disposition considered itself as representative of positive progress beyond the pulps in the direction of intellectual sophistication, political sagacity, and aesthetic refinement. Historians of the genre mainly endorse that self-evaluation. But is it so?

Even when they suffered from hasty writing, the pulp stories displayed a myth-like vitality and a powerful moral, if not exactly ethical, impulse that to some degree went missing from the genre about the time that the hyperbolically Romantic Planet Stories ceased publication in 1952, and when Galaxy and Analogue rose to the forefront of the genre. This longstanding suspicion – that the naïve phase of science fiction, superseded by the sophisticated phase right down to the present, often excelled its successor-phase in richness of imagery and narrative muscularity – has recently found happy confirmation in the entrepreneurial intuition of Gregory Luce, a well-known broadcaster on San Francisco area radio and television. Luce’s Oregon-based, web-mediated publishing enterprise, Armchair Fiction, in cooperation with online megastore Amazon’s publish-on-demand service, has undertaken since 2011 to return to print lost items of genre fiction, mainly science fiction, from the mid-Twentieth Century that have been out of print and hard to find for decades. The result is an enormous boon for fans and students of Pulp-Era stories of planetary adventure. That there is a market for such things is also, in its modest way, a sign that cultural amnesia, while prevalent, is not total.

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