Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

North Tarrytown

Ichabod Crane has undergone many incarnations since Washington Irving conjured him. Not very sympathetically described in the original “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” he was gangly and somewhat clumsy and full of self-importance. The story of which he is forever a part, however, has become iconic of American myth-making. A deep symbolism runs through the story of the headless horseman, and for those who’ve actually been to Tarrytown, the modern incarnation of Sleepy Hollow, there may be a disconnect between the urbanity of a town so near to New York City and a rustic school teacher in a rural setting. Still, there seems to be quite a bit of buzz about the current television series “Sleepy Hollow” that I decided to see for myself what was happening. The conceit of Ichabod Crane reawakening, in a kind of Rip Van Winkle twist, in the present day is engaging. He is now a professor at Oxford University turned patriot to the American cause, which brings him to the point of actually beheading the horseman in the first place. But this literate, witty, and moody retelling involves more than Irving. The Bible is pretty much central to the series, at least as far as I’ve seen.

The headless horseman is none other than Death, the final of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, according to holy writ. Although the characters all refer to the Apocalypse as “Revelations,” something that causes premature baldness in biblical scholars, the program places the town of Sleepy Hollow at the crux of the oncoming end of the world, with the other three horsemen to be summoned along the way (Pestilence or Conquest, War, and Famine, for those who are keeping score). Also, witches, hearkening back to Salem, have a prominent place in the narrative, and the forces of rational law seem to be at their collective wits’ end to make any sense of religion breaking into a secular world. Without the Bible’s final book, Sleepy Hollow would have no legs (as well as no head).

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In Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane came through as a detective plotting science against superstition. At the end, however, even the most rational had to admit there was more going on than the science of the day could explain. That is part of the appeal of the Sleepy Hollow legend. No matter how strong the light we shed on them may be, our psyches reach out for the immaterial, the ghostly, the supernatural. We like to believe in sacred books and spells to protect from evil. Even the Twilight Zone episode “The Jungle” plays on how in even the most advanced cultures we still build skyscrapers with no thirteenth floor, as if our towers represent an unknown hubris for which we may be held accountable. Irrational? Perhaps. But Sleepy Hollow is not so somnolent these days when the Bible once again takes center stage and hoofbeats are heard once again in the night.

Empire State

Hegemony is a funny word. In studies of antiquity it is commonly found since it denotes the “Leadership or dominance, especially by one country or social group over others,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Today it has a vaguely imperialist taint, although it doesn’t necessarily require that one nation actually pillage another’s wealth or resources. The idea that people are, and should be, free is pretty much assumed in developed nations. Or so at least our rhetoric dictates. The word hegemony came to mind, however, as I saw an interview with a corporate leader. He was discussing how his company had budgeted for technology development on an increasing scale, to catch up with current developments, and then leveled the tech expenses off after that so that the business could move into its prime objectives. The reality was vastly different, however. Each year’s budget saw increasing technology costs and it shows no signs of slowing down. Every industry, it seems, will have to keep devoting larger and larger shares of its budget to technology. Hegemony.

It’s not that any one company is solely responsible for our obeisance to technology, so this hegemony has no head. It is the idea of progress gone wild. Last year as I set out for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, a notice popped up on my laptop that a software upgrade was available. Since I file that I required was no longer accessible unless I updated, I clicked through all the agreements and provisos that I can’t understand and began the upgrade. Download and installation time measured in hours rather than minutes and I soon had to interrupt the process to get to the conference. This had consequences that nearly led me to becoming utterly lost in a part of Baltimore I’d been warned to avoid. The gods of technology demand their due. Now, less than a year later, I can’t access certain files unless I upgrade again.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not a complete Luddite. I enjoy the instant gratification of finding information in seconds through a web search, but I’m not always sure that I can believe what I read. Technology means photos can be manipulated, sounds can be fabricated, facts can be created, all with no basis in reality. I used to have students ask me if such-and-such a fact they’d read online was true. Facts, it appears, are now negotiable. Nobody’s really in charge, it seems. Instead we are lead by the vague idea of progress, a new god with technology as its prophet. Even now I know people who think they never use computers but they drive without realizing their car is full of them, and turn on the television not realizing that the tech is no longer chip-free. Meanwhile those in the technology industry seem to have plenty of extra cash around, while those of us in the humanities ponder whether the ancient hegemonies have really changed at all. Let me look that up on the internet, once this upgrade is through.

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Monsters of Science

ScienceOfMonstersMaybe it’s the ebola in the air, or perhaps the gas from all the midterm elections verbiage, but I’ve been on a monster run this October. I just finished Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters: The Origins of the Creatures We Love to Fear. It is a charmingly written book, at parts approaching the finesse of Mary Roach. Beginning with the ancient Greeks (and sometimes stepping back into the world of the Bible or the Mesopotamians) Kaplan examines the major categories of monsters and tries to offer scientific explanations for why people came up with them. It is a keen conceit and it is deftly handled. Noting that animals sometimes got jumbled in the fossilization process, he offers explanations for creatures such as the Chimera, Griffon, and perhaps even the Sphinx. Some of the unlikely episodes are quite fun to visualize as well, as when a snake slithers over a tar pit where a goat got stuck and was eaten by a lion that also got stuck. Beast after hideous beast he brings down to analytical size, sometimes convincing even this old monster lover.

One of the problems, however, is that science often doesn’t comprehend the symbolic nature of mythical thought. Quite apart from sheer creativity—and it does exist!—some of the material in Kaplan’s analysis would have benefited from having a mythographer’s look. For example, demons do not suddenly appear as monsters in the Middle Ages. Kaplan knows this, but that’s where he starts. The ancient Mesopotamians knew of them very, perhaps, too, well. And Lilith isn’t even mentioned when discussing succubi. Still, there’s a great deal of interesting conjecture here, and some scientifically, if not mythographically, viable suggestions on whence vampires and werewolves. As expected, modern sightings of cryptids are simply swept off the table, but I almost shouted aloud when I read that he gave credence to Wade Davis’s work on Haitian zombies.

The larger question here is one of approach. Do monsters lend themselves to scientific explanations at all? The case that elephant/mammoth skulls might suggest a cyclops seems reasonable enough, and the occasional dinosaur bone that represented a giant in ancient times is entirely possible. (Who can tell one femur from another anyway?) But the monster is primarily a creature inhabiting the shadowy realms of religion and psychology. Our fears are seldom directed toward science, although, now that I’ve read his chapter on “The Created” I’m not so sure. Constructing backward toward the unknown is always a dicey proposition, as those of us who’ve studied history of religions know. We may be able to find the genesis of modern monsters, but, admittedly, the fun for most of our scary friends is that they are mysterious. Impervious, as it were, even to science.

Gothic American

AmericanGothAmerican Gothic, the painting by Grant Wood, caused me trouble at Routledge. An author wanted to use the image on the cover of his book (we eventually managed it) but the choice was contested at every step. Along the way editors, editorial assistants, and marketers all told me what the painting represented and how it was inappropriate. I’ve learned, however, a few things from the post-modernist movement: nobody can say what an artwork means definitively. So when I read American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative by Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy, I was ready for a combination of po-mo and the macabre. Like post-modernism, Gothic is a difficult term to define. Indeed, the first set of essays in this collection struggle with definitions. Being literary criticism, the book points out that the novel and Gothic more or less developed together. When people read to be entertained, as early as the eighteenth century, they wanted to read Gothic tales.

Being a life-long fan of Poe, I was pleased to see that he made a good showing in the pieces contained in the book. What makes it appropriate to this blog—other than it being October, a comment that requires no explanation in the northern hemisphere—is a notion I found early in the book. People read horror literature for healing. Anthropologically, the wounded healer is a well-recognized figure. In a world where we expect opposites to go together health comes from disease and healing from being wounded. The gothic is a wounding of the mind to lend it healing. To be sure, many of us who read gothic literature do not relish scenes of violence or hurt. We do, however, find a kind of therapy within such darkness. In the darkness light is best appreciated. Who uses a flashlight outdoors on a sunny day?

As with most books from multiple authors, there’s some unevenness to the contributions here, yet more often than not, I found deep insight throughout its pages. Religion makes occasional appearances. Indeed, the figures of the monk and the debased church are stock images for early gothic literature. The sacred, if we’re honest, is a bit creepy. Having spent many nights in churches on retreats or for hospitality when youth groups couldn’t afford a hotel, I know that fewer places are scarier at night than an unlit, empty sanctuary. The gothic, following culture, has tended to move away from monasteries and churches into the more scientific spaces of the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, ravens and haunted houses still evoke the age-old fears of a coming period of darkness, the Halloween of the soul. And for those who want to know how a post-modern crowd scans the darkness, this book will not disappoint.

Autumn Music

It is an experience as old as humanity itself. At least humanity that started to realize that age, as remote as it may seem, will always eventually catch up with you. This past weekend was Family Weekend at my daughter’s college. Since her school does things up right, there were a variety of events on offer, one of which was an a cappella group concert. A cappella has come a long way since my college days, with students able to use their voices to sound like a band, professionally mixed, and full of energy. Somehow, I don’t recall that much energy from when I was a student. In any case, the inevitable group doing “oldies” took the stage an opened with a song from 1987. Wait. What? Since when was a song of which I remember the first release an oldie? The kids did a great cover, and I suspect in their minds it was really an old song. I was only 25 when it was given to the world. Can I really be an oldie? Outside the leaves on the trees were brilliant, as if on cue for the tuition payers to have their heartstrings wrung. Trees become their most alluring as they are about to die.

Songs, however, have a way of becoming part of you. Back when we were young(er) and idealistic, my wife had thought to study music therapy. Nashotah House, however, decided to change the career trajectories of an entire family in the name of orthodoxy. One of the things she learned in her classwork, prior to being sent back to the work-a-day world, was that patients suffering from dementia can often sing a song from their youth, even if they can’t speak a word. Music gets into our brains in a way that language learning doesn’t, and when we hear that song we are, to borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan (which another of the groups sang), forever young. It is a beautiful wish, endlessly covered and recovered. Watching those kids on stage, I recalled being on the cusp of adulthood myself. Everything seemed possible then. Then a world that others constructed imposed its constraints on me. My hair began to grow gray even as the leaves lit up yellow and scarlet and fire orange.

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Religion is the business of those who are old. Even as a religion major in college I was classed among those old before my time. We think of the hereafter on our deathbeds, not when we’re twenty. For those who teach their children to ponder eternity at a young age, however, that portal is never far from view. My fellow students were looking ahead to careers in all kinds of fields that would make their fortunes and reputations. My modest attempt to bring a younger generation to a more mature outlook faltered at the hands of Fundamentalists, and it was music that helped me through that terrible shock. Little do we think that that song we like so much is marking us indelibly as a child of our age. Time will not relent. We will be the ones, like the trees, showing our signs of age as our children show us where the future lies. And the attitude of that song from 1987 will be, for any who truly listen, forever young.

The Joy of Tech

In the age of Steampunk, New Jersey is among the world capitals. Indeed, today is the second day that the International Steampunk City will be inhabited in Speedwell, home of the telegraph. For yours truly, Steampunk is an escape. Alternate realities often look better than the pedestrian one we’ve inherited, so we like to look at the world through steamy lenses and imagine how it might have turned out differently. New Jersey, in the spring, also hosts the Steampunk World’s Fair. Perhaps we have more pressures to escape here in the Garden State. Imagination is certainly in no short supply. I attended the International Steampunk City last year and decided that I’d like to be a part of it. Knowing a thing or two about ancient technology, I thought I might share a bit with the Steampunk crowd. What is Steampunk without tech? Some ancient technology, although not very well known, is perhaps of even greater influence than we might imagine.

One of the connections that is easily misplaced in this era of purely scientific advance, is that technology was devised in the service of religion. At least in the early days. The greatest architectural achievements came under the aegis of temple building. Domes, arches, and eventually flying buttresses that could hold tons of stone high over your head—these were to please the gods. We can’t imagine Stonehenge as anything other than a capitalist venture these days, a way of drawing in the money. Of course, ancient builders knew of the financial benefits as well; temples were often the equivalent of ancient banks. Still, beneath all the pride of accomplishment there was the belief that the gods were somehow pleased with our innovation. Perhaps we’ve just done away with the convenient myth. Steampunk often has a religious underpinning. Many of the stories I’ve read touch on our ancient mythologies. Only, in fantasy, there are different possible permutations.

We sometimes think that technology is a modern phenomenon. Actually, it is quite ancient, as far as human culture goes. The first “computer” was invented around about the first century. Since it didn’t have an obvious benefit to the control of the masses, however, no technological revolution took place. The steam engine was, in nascent stages, invented also in ancient times. Until we learned, however, that it could be enslaved to make certain industrialists rich, we had no need for it beyond a diverting toy. Technology does not take hold without a deeper purpose. Every now and again I get a little paranoid knowing that I carry a telephone that knows my exact location at all times. As if I were important enough for anyone to care. Then the feeling passes and I open my iBooks app and turn to my latest Steampunk novel. I am a slave. I wonder what innovations there will be at International Steampunk City this year that might change the world. Only the imagination will limit the possibilities.

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De Profundis

IMG_1591In a grocery store last week a friend pointed out how many magazines had pictures of Robin Williams on the cover. Although his suicide two months ago was tragic, I wonder about the message we send to young people (and maybe some older ones as well) about this fixation. As we probe, attempting to understand the sad clown (and they generally all are), are we inadvertently telling our kids that suicide will make you an icon? We often hear accusations that extremist Muslims “brainwash” their youth into thinking that a righteous suicide will lead to glory. Perhaps the glory we perceive is somewhat different here in the post-Christian west than it is in the post-Christian east, yet I wonder what the essential difference really is. Why can’t we see that the cult of celebrity seldom ends well? The worship of the successful does not really grant them eternal life, as much as we may think otherwise.

Call me a curmudgeon—I probably deserve that—but when I overhear office mates in their cubicles or young people on campuses talking about stars I feel not a little like Rip van Winkle. Most of the names I do not recognize, and even showing me a picture doesn’t really help. Of course, I enjoy movies as much as the next dinosaur, but apart from the bargain bin and the occasional indulgence in Amazon Prime I really can’t much afford them anymore. I walk into a bookstore (where they can still be found) and the authors I want to read are not on the shelves. They are gone and all but forgotten. Many of them having left profound ideas in their wake. I guess I could pick up a magazine. Robin Williams looks happy on the cover.

I used to watch some late-night television before my job required waking between three and four a.m. One of the things I quickly noticed is that those stars our society worships had little of substance to say. That’s not to say all actors and media darlings are shallow, but I often wondered why their interviews always seemed to come down to the lowest common denominators. Have we lost our interest in probing beneath the surface? Isn’t there some profundity left to explore? Don’t get me wrong—I find Robin Williams’s death a tragedy. He may have been a deep and philosophical man. Who really knew him? Nevertheless, I wonder if perhaps, if we challenged ourselves a bit more, we might just consider the messages that our media broadcast. After all, they have to turn a profit. Do we really mean what our magazine covers seem to imply?