Pop Culture As A Value System

Posted in ideas, pop culture on July 26th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Pop Culture As A Value System

Sometimes what is called pop culture seems to be clearly stating what it is: commercial culture. The pop movies, tv shows, best sellers, are the lagniappe, the small gift given by a shop owner when a customer makes a purchase, with the buzz not the substance being the true nature of the purchase. The movie which accompanies the marketing campaign, where the coming attraction is often all the movie really is. It’s well, high concept, after all. Simple ideas designed to be approved in the form of movies.

Pop culture is best viewed as its first word indicates: it is a popularity contest. It is a top ten list, a marker of consensus, which, in circular fashion, is created by the true pop culture, which is advertising. Pop culture is merchandizing by another name.

The biggest problem with this is that this popularity, this media constructed affirmation, is then stated as a value. That is, the value system espoused by pop culture is that of public opinion: convention and consensus and conformity. That isn’t a value system.

Gore Vidal about public opinion:

At any given moment, public opinion is a chaos of superstition, misinformation, and prejudice.

Mailer On The Spiritual and Writing

Posted in ideas, writers-poetry on May 30th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Mailer On The Spiritual and Writing

Another quote from Norman Mailer, this time describing the foundationalist struggles we all have in understanding our existence:

It’s very hard to describe the complexities of human nature having emerged ex nihilo. If you have God as a creator doing the best that he or she can do there’s a perfect explanation for why we’re here. We’re God’s creation, and God has great respect for us, the way a father, a good father, has respect for children because the father wants the children to be more interesting than himself. And ditto for the mother. And in that sense we are, you might say, the avant-garde for God. The notion of heaven as Club Med or hell as an overheated boiler room makes no sense to me.

[from the second Paris Review Interview]

Adam Grant on Charlie Rose

Posted in ideas, pop culture on May 9th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Adam Grant on Charlie Rose

Adam Grant was on Charlie Rose recently talking about his new social science idea book, “Give and Take”; the takeaway, so to speak, is give and you shall receive. Win-win.

As he presented on Charlie Rose, Grant reminded me of a local critic’s remark about the performer Michael Feinstein, “you shouldn’t sing and smile at the same time”. But, smiles or no, Grant is upbeat and it is pleasant to listen to such people, if sometimes slightly mind-numbing. Grant is, after all, affirming the received notions of decent behavior, which are as usual, more violated than adhered to. But can it hurt to affirm virtue again?

Grant’s advising giving (helpfulness really) rather than taking, flies in the face of capitalism’s / politics’ winning (getting rich, victory in elections) at any cost – it has a social utility. You approve of Grant’s social science idea, because, why not? Grant does affirm that his acceptance by the business community is predicated on his ideas earning more money for the company store. And Grant accepts those standards…hmmm.

Too often though, niceness is something worn on the sleeve, an extension of ego, and generates cynicism when it is announced – often self-righteously. Remember Larry David’s character on his cable show outraged that Ted Danson ran around telling everyone that he had contributed to the building of a hospital wing anonymously, while Larry gave anonymously as well, but told no one?

If Gordon Gecko was a villain for saying, “greed is good,” Adam Grant must be the guru of what used to be called niceness; lately, like “liberal”, the word “nice” has become vitiated with…other things, most painfully instantiated by condescending media / journalist types, who want us to know they are nice but don’t much care if they are objective – they are above all that.

These days niceness more often than not refers to giving special favor and understanding to one group perceived as a victim group and pretty much ignoring other groups that might be the direct bill payers; and the niceness does not extend to an expectation of the recipients – no generosity is expected of them. So you have bigots who deplore bigotry. And nice folk who denigrate with virulence, and what they feel is impunity, because they are nice.

The best thing about Grant’s emphasis on helpfulness is that it breaks the paradigm of the status obsessed hierarchy, where those who have received conventional status markers disdain anyone they determine as being on a lower rung – status for such people is seen as a value marker for another human being; Grant’s ideas firmly reject those who are only interested in colleagues they feel are equal in rank. Grant says: help everyone and stop sniffing for social position before you extend your generosity.

I remember reading about a small town in France which saved more Jews during WWII than any other, in that anti-Semitic country. It was because the religious leader in the town led the group to their courage, at existential risk of the whole town’s lives, to do the right thing. They themselves were immigrants, from, I believe, Belgium; they had known great suffering and discrimination. They learned from their experience. It is the character of those who lead groups which finally most influences the behaviour of their fellows.

Downton Abbey: Season 3 Finale

Posted in ideas, pop culture on February 17th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Downton Abbey: Season 3 Finale

The Downton Abbey episode last week left us questioning what we had done with two hours of our life. It seemed to be rolling to a full halt before it was over.

Tonight’s Season 3 finale stirred the pot sufficiently to make it an interesting show again; a phenomenon of sorts. I wondered after it was over if PBS saw this as ingratiating itself with conservatives with money. If it was an outlier meant to generate funding.

From what I’ve read, ideologues don’t approve the show as it could be seen to affirm traditional values and a class system. It humanizes people stuck in a social structure that appears oppressive.

Can’t really argue with that completely. But are corporate employees really not in a forced servitude themselves, if not as outwardly apparent? Economics is a harsh taskmaster.

At any rate, this last two hours of Season 3 was almost transgressive in its rejection of irony, its affirmation of sentimentality. Downton’s romanticism reminds us of another time and its worth. They do a good job of affirming the values of honor, of personal consideration, of social structure and enduring relationships. For a contemporary, their lives would feel stultifying and false. But that would always be true of people looking at another time. It’s an archaeology of another realm; a sociology that is as unavailable to the contemporary imagination as dark matter.

What more harmonizes with Downton Abbey than the prissiness of political correctness and the herd mind of our own so very superior age?

Einstein, Beethoven, Dog Joke

Posted in ideas, miscellaneous on January 25th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Einstein, Beethoven, Dog Joke

In the eternal battle, not between good and evil, but between smooth and foamy, smooth wins. Einstein wins.

Space-time is smooth rather than foamy, a new study suggests, scoring a possible victory for Einstein over some quantum theorists who came after him.

Not a good idea, betting against Einstein.


There ought to be but one large art warehouse in the world, to which the artist
could carry his art-works and from which he could carry away whatever he needed…
– Beethoven

It’s called the internets, Ludwig.


Dog Joke

Why did the cowboy buy a dachshund?
He wanted to get a long, little doggy.

Longfellow’s Music

Posted in art, ideas, writers-poetry on January 22nd, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Longfellow’s Music

From The Children’s Hour …about his daughters,

I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.

And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!

A beautiful, melancholy refrain.

Longfellow is often disdained as sentimental. The music of his language discounted as derivative.

Like Vivaldi, Longfellow’s music will live on, despite fashions, and contemporary ideological affectations.

Longfellow said,

…what a writer asks of his reader is not so much to like as to listen.

What an artist asks of his audience is not so much to like, or, characteristic of our age, “approve” an image, but that the audience stop and see with mind and heart.

Verbal Mistakes

Posted in ideas, writers-poetry on December 15th, 2012 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Verbal Mistakes

spoonerism |ˈspo͞onəˌrizəm|
a verbal error in which a speaker accidentally transposes the initial sounds or letters of two or more words, often to humorous effect, as in the sentence you have hissed the mystery lectures, accidentally spoken instead of the intended sentence you have missed the history lectures.


There were no answers at the time, but at, someone asked:

Please hope us to find a remote controlled helicopter?

It’s not a spoonerism, as you can see from the above definition of spoonerism, but I wonder if there is a term for this common error, where the emotional intent is transposed with a similar sounding, intended verb?


Related, interesting errors in speech:

A malapropism is just an incorrect word, unrelated to content:

A malapropism (also called a Dogberryism) is the substitution of an incorrect word for a word with a similar sound, especially with humorous results. An example is Yogi Berra’s statement: “Texas has a lot of electrical votes,” rather than “electoral votes”.

Speech disfluency is:

“Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”


Language is so rich with the foibles of humanity. Poetry and great fiction often play with these variances for their suggestive power.

McEwan’s Words

Posted in art, ideas, writers-poetry on December 9th, 2012 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on McEwan’s Words

Ian McEwan is a member of the triumvirate which includes Martin Amis and the late Chris Hitchens. All three of them give great interview. It’s their feeling for language. Just a pleasure reading the way they frame their ideas. Of the three I agree(d) most with Hitchens.

Politically, McEwan, more than the others, suffers from a sometimes seen English affliction — a subtextual disdain for America.

But McEwan is still amazing when in his wheelhouse — speaking of writers :

Of jurist Stephen Sedley, McEwan says, “…read his book for pure intellectual delight, for the exquisite, finely balanced prose, the prickly humor, the knack of artful quotation and an astonishing historical grasp.”

Of the genius of “Hamlet”: “I believe the play really did represent a world historical moment — when there leapt into being a sustained depiction of a fully realized and doubting human being whose inner life is turned outward for our consideration.”

Of the depth of poetry and its difficulties for contemporary sensibility,

…it takes an effort to step out of the daily narrative of existence, draw that neglected cloak of stillness around you — and concentrate, if only for three or four minutes. Perhaps the greatest reading pleasure has an element of self-annihilation. To be so engrossed that you barely know you exist… What is it precisely, that feeling of “returning” from a poem? Something is lighter, softer, larger — then it fades, but never completely.

Beautifully said. I know what he means. There is a reason society turns to poetry in moments of great import.

Of the astonishing novella, Joyce’s “The Dead,”

An annual winter party; afterwards, a scene of marital misunderstanding and revelation in a hotel room; a closing reflection on mortality as sleep closes in and snow begins to fall — I’d swap the last dozen pages of “The Dead” for any dozen in “Ulysses.”

The deeply moving last words of “The Dead,” arguably one of the greatest prose poems in all literature:

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

The words expand outwards, overlowing the confines of the story into the sea of our shared human experience.

Robert Rauschenberg Quotes

Posted in art, ideas on November 16th, 2012 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Robert Rauschenberg Quotes

Rauschenberg was a true creative spirit. His statements about art migrate from the trendy (of the times) to the heartfelt and exploratory. The latter qualities are to be treasured in an artist. In a human being.

His focus is, for me, more convivial than interior. More surface than reflective. Those traits, of conviviality and surface reactiveness, can be thought shallow, and would be in some. But the miracle of art is in its transformative powers; that wherever one starts, if the path if followed truly, as he did, you arrive at something of value.

He had trouble reading – dyslexic. Probably attention deficit as well, if some of his statement’s can be fairly so interpreted.

I sometimes wonder if anyone outside of specialists in art much attend to the protean artist anymore.

I love the suggestive, energetic openness of his work. He takes things in and doesn’t try to smooth the edges.

Here are a few quotes of Rauschenberg’s that I like:

Work is my joy.. ..Work is my therapy, I don’t know anybody who loves work as much as I do.
Rauschenberg / Art and Live, Mary Lynn Kotz, H. N. Abrams, New York, 1990, p. 265

This was my first encounter with art as art (he saw ‘Pinky’ painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence and ‘The Blue Boy” painted by Thomas Gainborough).. ..somebody actually MADE those paintings.. ..(it) was the first time I realized you could be an artist.
Rauschenberg / Art and Live, Mary Lynn Kotz, H. N. Abrams, New York, 1990, p. 60

For the first time, I wasn’t embarrassed by the look of beauty, of elegance, because when you see someone who has only one rag as their property, but it happens to be beautiful and pink and silk, beauty doesn’t have to be separated.. ..I have always said that you shouldn’t have biases, you shouldn’t have prejudices. But before that (his trip to India around 1975, fh) I’d never been able to use purple, because it was too beautiful.
Rauschenberg / Art and Live, Mary Lynn Kotz, H. N. Abrams, New York, 1990, p. 206

There was a whole language that I could never make function for myself; it revolved around words like ‘tortured’, ‘struggle’. ‘pain’’.. ..I could never see these qualities in paint – I could see them in life and art that illustrates life. But I could not see such conflicts in the materials and I knew that it had to be in the attitude of the painter.
Robert Rauschenberg, Works, Writings and Interviews, Sam Hunter, Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, Spain, 2006, p. 37

Chabrol, Auden, Life

Posted in art, ideas on November 11th, 2012 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Chabrol, Auden, Life

A few days ago we watched the movie, “Inspector Bellamy” @Netflix. It was a curiously relaxing movie for a murder mystery. Very French, not in its cerebral quality as you might think, but in its languorous, equisite lifelessness. It was pleasant and diverting. A tone poem, which seems enough for many French movies. Especially for New Wavey director, Claude Chabrol.

At the end of the movie there is a great Auden quote. Here is an extract from “At Last the Secret is Out,” of which the last line was used,

Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,
Behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks,
Under the look of fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.
― W.H. Auden

Indeed, in life, there is always another story. If you don’t get ambiguity, you don’t get art. You don’t get life.

The Intelligent Crow

Posted in ideas on November 11th, 2012 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on The Intelligent Crow

We see crows everyday on our runs and they see us. They clearly are aware. I heard a science writer say that he had a large bird rescue cage on his property. He said that his kids would feed the injured birds and then latch the doors when they left.

One day his kids went to feed the birds and, once inside, a crow flew over and closed the cage door. Closed the latch too. The crow had been watching all along.

Now, observing crows, scientists discovered something about the working of certain aspects of intelligence:

In certain situations animals can spontaneously solve problems without planning their actions…

I think everyone recognizes many forms of intelligence in people. The well-spoken can be challenged in their logic, their judgment, their character. Sometimes the latter seems the lynchpin for intelligence. And some people seem to be so physically oriented that they think with their bodies – working things out as they go.

Instead of the crows using sophisticated cognitive software to model the world, it appears their neural hardware is sufficiently well connected and/or specialised for them to react to the effect of their actions immediately. This allows them to solve problems that other bird species cannot.