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Posts Tagged ‘cliches’

Western Culture Claustrophobia, and Other News

October 23, 2015 | by

Performance view of Ragnar Kjartansson’s Bonjour, 2015.

  • The artist Ragnar Kjartansson lives in fear (and bemused disgust) of what he’s dubbed “Western culture claustrophobia.” “It’s everywhere!” he’s said: “The same desire for this Western properness is everywhere—it’s like a big block of marble that is hanging all over the world and it’s getting bigger and bigger.” He’s doing his part to chip away at that marble sky with the most radical force of destruction known to man: performance art. His new piece, Bonjour, “takes place on a faux-outdoor set conceived to be as generically French as possible … Real-life actors play two characters, a man and a woman who live near one another and are brought together by a chance encounter at a fountain … The man and the woman say the only word of dialogue, ‘Bonjour,’ to each other … After their greeting, they return to their respective homes and go to sleep, and the piece, which will be on repeat during the duration of the exhibition, begins again.”
  • Proust had his madeleine. Nell Zink has her Friskies: “It had been a long while since I’d seen cat food up close. I opened the bag and crouched to pour it into a bowl on the floor. Instantly I was transported back to my earliest youth. The pantry floor in our house in Corona. My face close to the cats’ food dish. My hand in the dish. The sharply disappointing flavor. Greasy dust integral to crumbly, salmon-pink x shapes, crosses faintly reminiscent of a game of jacks … I knew the brand very, very intimately.”
  • Mind-body dualism: like, is there any bigger drag in all of philosophy? Most analytic philosophers subscribe to some version of physicalism—the theory that the mind is made of the same stuff as the body, and that indeed everything in the universe is made of physical stuff—but dualism remains dismayingly prevalent out among laymen. Where did it come from? “The idea of separation between soul and body may have assumed cultural dominance because of the new importance of political rhetoric within the large urbanized city-states that were formed in fifth-century Greece. The rhetorician and philosopher Gorgias, who was a generation older than Plato, wrote a virtuosic essay arguing that Helen was not to blame for the Trojan War because she was the victim of rhetorical persuasion. This piece … is the earliest surviving evidence of a Greek author making a systematic distinction between body and soul. Gorgias argues that the soul may be powerless against the body—an argument developed in awareness that people often act against their own best interests.”
  • You’ve probably been reading the old, unannotated Bartleby, the Scrivener, haven’t you? That’s why everyone’s laughing at you. They’re all reading the slick new annotated version, which features glosses of criticism by everyone from J. Hillis Miller to Gilles Deleuze—and which airs, on at least one occasion, the theory that Bartelby may be dead for the entire novel, in a kind of Sixth Sense­–ish way.
  • In which Chen Li talks to an old Chinese blacksmith about his working life: “One year, a typhoon blew a foreign ship from the inner to the outer bay, slashing it in half and leading to the death of several foreigners. The coffin shop sent for him and had him deliver some thicker iron nails to the shop to fasten the coffins. Two weeks later, he returned to collect his due. While he was walking into that dark, long, and narrow shop—Oh my, what the heck—someone climbed out of a coffin! Turned out that was the master of the shop; he said it was a cool place to take his midday nap.”

Climate Change

February 19, 2015 | by


From the cover of Cartoons Magazine, January 1916.

Like everyone else, I am weary of talking about the weather. But it’s not the banality of the talk that bothers me. Talking about weather is as endlessly fascinating as weather itself—even if, nowadays, conversations about the weather are no longer guaranteed to offer refuge from discussions of religion or politics. I’m just sick of how babyish everyone’s being.

Yes, much of the country is experiencing a cold snap. It’s been very chilly for the past few weeks. Because it’s winter. People react with indignant surprise to learn that they’ve somehow woken up in a temperate climate that gets cold every year, and that they, personally, are being forced to deal with it. It’s not just that everyone is displaying an unbecoming lack of stoicism—I am not referring here to the denizens of The Paris Review office, who closed the Spring issue without heat or hot water, in their coats.) Rather, I hate that it leaves us open to the inevitable taunts of people in sunny climates, or the tiresome one-upmanship of those in Canada and Minnesota, who just love an excuse love to show off their thermometers and scoff at our softness. Read More »


November 5, 2014 | by


An anonymous nineteenth-century painting.

The hard truth is that not everyone has a novel in them. “I have no gift for invention,” I say to anyone who ever asks after my own ambitions—and why do people ask? For that matter, is my response even appropriate? I’m not sure what that means, “a gift for invention”: certainly I’ve never visited the Genius Bar without concocting some elaborate and gratuitous lie to explain the condition of my computer. 

Which is not to say I’ve never written any fiction. I have, under duress. It was a requirement for my degree. The instructor was an older lady in caftans and arty jewelry with pumpkin-colored hair who had at one point written an epic women’s best seller with a lurid, seventies-style jacket. She’d also written a book of cat poetry. I didn’t mind any of that; the problem was that every detail of the class was as lazy and clichéd as that constellation of characteristics. 

A few people in the class were predictably pretentious. They turned out derivative takes on macho writers and they were unnecessarily confrontational when discussing others’ submissions. One guy’s work was disturbing, but tritely disturbing. A few in the class spoke and wrote poor English. One girl was writing a fantasy novel; she was my favorite. Read More »

Walking and Talking

September 3, 2014 | by


“Hot enough for ya?” Detail from Florine Stettheimer’s Heat, 1919.

Growing up around wisecracking old relatives, you learn early how to craft a comeback. It doesn’t need to be that witty. It doesn’t even need to make sense. It just needs to be kind of sassy and really fast, to show you’re wise to the game or something.

“Just who do you think you are?” an elderly uncle might demand, inexplicably. Or, “I bet you think you deserve some candy!” In such situations, you can show no fear. When you’re a small child, this kind of obligatory badinage is awful. But it’s a skill—if you can call it a skill—that stands you in good stead as an adult.

However, even those of us trained to keep our cool in the face of faux-belligerent idiocy are occasionally stumped. Despite my years of experience and calibration, there are, specifically, three situations that leave me mute and baffled. Read More »

Bad Call

August 4, 2014 | by

The growing redundancy of sports commentary.


Photo via Wikimedia Commons

You’re gonna have to learn your clichés. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends. Write this down: ‘We gotta play it one day at a time.’
Bull Durham

They smelled the jugular.
—Sportscaster Chris Berman, during the 2002 NFL playoffs

In 1945, George Orwell’s “The Sporting Spirit” appeared in the leftist weekly Tribune. The essay argued that large-scale athletic competition, rather than creating a “healthy rivalry” between opponents, is more likely to rouse humanity’s “savage passions.” Thus: “There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism—that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.”

To a contemporary reader, Orwell’s assessment of the “sporting spirit” may feel exaggerated, if not slightly paranoid. Then again, in an age of rampant merchandising, zealous fandom feels more pervasive than ever. Not long ago, riding the subway, I saw an infant with a San Francisco 49ers pacifier; in the same car, there was a man wearing an Ohio State football sweater bearing the laconic slogan, “Fuck Michigan.” What Orwell might have thought of such displays of allegiance is anyone’s guess.

But what he would find troublesome is sports culture’s continued abasement of the English language. Professional sports jargon has become so vacuous that TV interviews with athletes are increasingly farcical—and tremendously boring. An interview with LeBron James, after a botched play at the end of a quarter:

INTERVIEWER: Lebron, what happened with you and Norris on that inbounds pass?
JAMES: We didn’t execute.
INTERVIEWER: You were talking to him as you guys walked off the floor. What did you say?
JAMES: That we need to execute better.

Perhaps such vagueness is intentional: if LeBron James had, in fact, just told his teammate that if he makes the same mistake again he’s going to rip his face off, he’d be disinclined to share it with a national audience. For similar reasons, a coach interviewed at halftime isn’t going to be too forthcoming when asked to reveal his strategy for the remainder of the game: “Well, Chris, we’ve just gotta keep pressuring their quarterback and not make any unnecessary mistakes.” Read More »


Knausgaard Truthers, and Other News

July 21, 2014 | by


Just where does the hype end and the man begin?

  • Fact-checking the Knausgaard craze: Have Norwegian workplaces really instituted “Knausgaard-free days” in response to the success of My Struggle? The people demand the truth!
  • On clichés and their complications: “An expression is much more likely to be regarded as a cliché if it has typical or frequent use in contexts where it doesn’t apply very well (by being imprecise, misleading, or inaccurate, for example). Take the noun phrase best-kept secret … As a few examples will show, things that are dubbed best-kept secrets are in fact often not secret at all, and it is rarely specified, sometimes not even implied, in what sense they are ‘kept.’ ”
  • Remembering James Garner: “Garner wasn’t an actor who ‘reached,’ per se. He wasn’t doing accents or putting on prosthetics or trying to make himself over into someone he wasn’t. Movie and TV producers hired him to be James Garner.”
  • Is Amazon killing writing, or is it the market? “We are witnessing a bad Hollywood remake of a bad Hollywood remake of the Content Wars of the 1990s and 2000s … The plot remains the same: The traditional publishers of content defend their business models against the assault of the Internet. There’s some suspense, and then the Internet wins.”
  • Weird Al’s usage wars: “I purposely left a split infinitive at the end of my song … to be ironic, and also to see how many online grammar pedants it would annoy.” But then he didn’t realize that spastic is a slur in the UK …