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You're just like I was... - click opera
February 2010
 
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Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 11:01 am
You're just like I was...

There's a scene in Happy Days. Richie Cunningham has to take a test, but someone has given him the answers in advance. He decides to come clean to his father. "Dad, I have something to tell you. I have all the answers." Howard, his father, isn't too concerned. "That's okay, son, at your age I thought I had all the answers too."

Howard, here, is failing to take on board the new information his son is trying to give him because he's too busy projecting himself -- affectionately enough, but also patronizingly and narcissistically -- into the situation. He's insisting on mapping his own experiences, his own former delusions, onto his son. He wants to help Richie overcome old mistakes that Howard made thirty years before. It's classic parent stuff. They never understand.

Tellingly enough, the Howard-mistake Howard mistakenly projects onto Richie is the delusion of omniscience: having all the answers. And although his answer seems to suggest he's over it, Howard still clearly thinks he has all the answers. About his son and what he's going through, anyway. Howard is still talking as if he's up on the high hill, that spot from which other people's errors can be seen, if only because they're your own. Sitting up on that high hill, Howard sees Richie as a little carbon copy of himself, thirty years down the line. "Oh look, here he comes, struggling up the same hillside path I came up, dealing with the same delusions and pitfalls. Thinking he's already sitting at the top, when in fact it's only me who's sitting at the top. He'll find out soon enough, I guess. And then wish he'd listened to his father."

Anyone with parents knows how infuriating this kind of assumption is. It's all the more infuriating when we look in the mirror and see fresher-faced versions of our parents looking back. In other words, when we suspect that there might be some truth in it. But the main thing that makes it wrong is context. In the twenty or thirty years that separate two generations, a lot has changed. Lessons learned in Howard's slumped 1930s are probably not particularly applicable to life in Richie's affluent 1950s. Imagine the Waltons trying to tell the Jetsons how to live.



Projecting yourself too much onto something inherently different from you -- even if it's only different because the context has changed -- is a bit like anthropomorphism; projecting human attributes onto animals. Contemporary Western culture is incredibly anthropomorphic. I was in the Post Office queue yesterday, examining Easter cards featuring rabbits. While all the cards based on photographs were forced to show the rabbit's eyes on either side of its head, looking out sideways, ever-vigilant for predators, the cards which used drawings of rabbits "corrected" this, putting the eyes on the front of the face, as they would be if rabbits were a predator species like humans, not a prey species. As a result, the rabbits looked like long-eared bears. Presumably this alteration was to make rabbits more like us, and therefore more loveable. But why must we only love things on the condition that we can project our own features onto them? The "modern Stone Age family" in The Flintstones is funny because of all the anachronism, all the projection of ourselves onto a different time. But would you want an Anthropology Museum, or a foreign policy, based on the idea that Stone Age people are just like us?

The problem is, that's exactly what we have. Every day we read the opinion that radical Islam is reproducing Medieval Europe, or that Japanese women are just about to go through a stage Western women went through in the 1960s. We invade Iraq thinking that they'll thank us for giving them the political apparatus we already have. Thinking that if it works for us, it'll work for them. We are perhaps the most narcissistic culture that has ever existed. We really think we're sitting on top of the hill, the pinnacle and culimation of all history and all progress. The fact that we have to kill so many people to help them see how they're just like us, really, doesn't seem to convince us that this view might be mistaken.

To say that an animal is like a human, or one culture is like another culture at a different phase in its history, is a metaphor, nothing more. It cannot be the case, non-metaphorically. Even when different calendars co-exist -- and they do; for the West this is 2007 years after the birth of Jesus Christ, for the Japanese it's Heisei 19, for Muslims it's Hijrah year 1428 -- we're all living in the same moment. And we're all living with each other, changing each other's context, redefining each other. Today's postmodernism has been influenced by Islamism, as Islamism has been influenced by postmodernism. Even if the Islamic 1428 resembled the Christian 1428 in every way, the fact that we were around would change the situation utterly. Context changes everything. Imagine a 1428 in which Christendom lived alongside a postmodern culture with TV stations, pop stars and the internet. It would be an utterly different 1428, one which defined itself (probably negatively) against the postmodern culture next door.

Think, too, of how insulting it is to say "They're living our 1428. They're just like we were." What would we think of a Japanese writer who said the West had just about reached Japan's Meiji 18? He'd be dismissed as an incredibly arrogant nationalist.

Borges has two short stories which have a lot to tell us here. One is about a poet who's writing an epic poem describing everything in the world using an Aleph in his basement -- a wondrous little model which makes the whole universe simultaneously visible in a space just a few centimeters across. The West really seems to think it's the Aleph, the model, the place from which everything can be seen, and in which everything is contained. We really act as if we're up on the hilltop, and have the answers. The trouble is that in our Aleph, everything looks suspiciously like us. The rabbits in there all have eyes on the front of their heads. Maybe we haven't kept it clean. Maybe it's a mirror.

The other story is Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote, in which a 20th century man attempts to rewrite Cervantes' 16th century novel from memory. Borges makes clear that even if Menard had succeeded (and of course he can't, just like the famous monkeys with their typewriters and their infinite bits of paper containing close-but-no-cigar versions of "Hamlet"), he would still have been an utterly original writer, doing something Cervantes wouldn't have dreamed of: reproducing Cervantes word-for-word.

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stanleylieber
stanleylieber
Stanley Lieber
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 12:20 pm (UTC)

This is good metaphor. The problem with metaphors is mapping them to specifics. The Cunningham Problem exists but doesn't tell us anything about putting food on the table.


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freesurfboards
freesurfboards
freesurfboards
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 11:04 pm (UTC)

It's quite intresting though. Metaphors work because they explain something that can't be explained statistically - and sometimes do so by ignoring statistics.

I have many theories on things that don't quite map to reality, or just map to a single portion of it, that I like because they create a new interpretation of something. And anyway I've got food on my table.


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mcgazz
mcgazz
McGazz
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 12:28 pm (UTC)

"We invade Iraq thinking that they'll thank us for giving them the political apparatus we already have. Thinking that if it works for us, it'll work for them. We are perhaps the most narcissistic culture that has ever existed. We really think we're sitting on top of the hill, the pinnacle and culimation of all history and all progress. The fact that we have to kill so many people to help them see how they're just like us, really, doesn't seem to convince us that this view might be mistaken."

I couldn't agree more. Best thing you've written in ages.

Crooked Timber also reckoned narcissism was at the heart of neo-imperialism: http://crookedtimber.org/2005/10/01/narcissism-and-the-pro-war-left/ (short post, long coment thread).


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geeveecatullus
geeveecatullus
clodia pulchra
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 12:55 pm (UTC)

I'll get so mad when people give advice using their experience thinking what worked for them just HAS to work for me. (nothing wrong with that but people tend to be pushy about it, thinking their way is the only way.)
I also get mad at myself whenever I catch myself doing this.

I am for the right of everyone to find their own way via their own experiences and (potential) mistakes. It so just so much more enjoyable.


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rroland
rroland
rroland
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 05:04 pm (UTC)

nothing worse than a 'friend' with whom you want to share something painful, and instead of just listening they try and fix it. *that is the model of behavoir the west models it's international policies on*


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fishwithissues
fishwithissues
jordan fish
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 01:34 pm (UTC)

The problem with anthropomorphism is what you're talking about, the greeting card version of it that makes it seem like these images are "natural"--"just what we do" to sell cards, or sell anything. Miyazaki has a lot of humans-as-animals and animals-as-humans in his films, but, compared to a Disney film, his imagery and stories tend to problematize the transformation.

Disney made a version of Robin Hood in which all the characters are "played by" animals, but the film never talks about this fact. The message: see animals, think humans--deep down they are the same. In Miyazaki's The Cat Returns, The Cat has a human body, a cat face, and is the physical size of a cat. Whoah!!!! I don't even know what that makes me think of!!!!!!

It's this kind of liminal anthropomorphism that I find a lot more interesting and multi-purpose than just a non-human thing acting like a human. And it's still hellof cute!


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niddrie_edge
niddrie_edge
raymond
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 03:14 pm (UTC)

Wait till it becomes a ritualistic totemic familiarity.
I think living like a pig should be taken as a compliment if a wild boar is the example. Mind you one could show solidarity with the farm intensive pig.

Lone Wolf


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 01:37 pm (UTC)

it was the best of times, it was the blurst of times?!!


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vertigoranger
vertigoranger
VERTIGORANGER.REKAY
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 03:44 pm (UTC)

You stupid monkeys!


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 02:22 pm (UTC)

So how does postmodernism affect islamism? I'm not sure what you are saying there and can't think of any examples myself.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 03:01 pm (UTC)

A point indeed, how can a still not fully defined cultural movement affect the unmoving edifice of an organised religion?
Taking a complete diversion: as this blog so often acts as a blank wall for the unskeptical bill stickers of environmentalism, I was curious did any of your UK posters see CH 4's interrogation of this new conservativism/myth based religion on Thursday night 'The Great Global Warming Swindle'.
Thomas Scott.


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urbanknight
Ben
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 03:02 pm (UTC)

That was one of the most enlightening things I think I have ever read precoffee on a sat..


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niddrie_edge
niddrie_edge
raymond
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 03:16 pm (UTC)

love that pre-coffee
"I sometimes think of dropping it all and joining a Zen Buddhist monastery, then I have another coffee and a cigarette" David Bowie 1978


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cheapsurrealist
cheapsurrealist
Dave Nold
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 03:09 pm (UTC)

I prefer ritcie's other dad


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cheapsurrealist
cheapsurrealist
Dave Nold
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 05:20 pm (UTC)

How many f's are in richie?


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niddrie_edge
niddrie_edge
raymond
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 03:24 pm (UTC)

That was a great little journey in thinking through an idea.
Can I sense the preview of The Trap has borne fruit already?

Artist formally known as Ludus


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 03:36 pm (UTC)

I think the pierre menard story is supposed to be a satire..

Borges' tongue deep in cheek about the 'utter originality' of the project.

P. Menard is a bit like R. Mutt, maybe, re. the unsynthesised manifold, etc.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 04:03 pm (UTC)

I wouldn't say Borges is satirical. I think he's speculative. And a lot of the things he speculated were very prescient and very influential on the current cultural-historical period we're in (and, some say, now leaving): postmodernism.

But more on that tomorrow, when I talk about Baudrillard, who was very influenced by some of Borges' ideas about simulation, 1:1 mapping and the Aleph.


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zzberlin
zzberlin
hh
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 04:47 pm (UTC)
The fabric of Click Opera

Hi momus, I love what you've done with Click Opera's decor! That nice beige/green weave is does much for my aesthetic sense; the raw burlap was unrefined.

Are you actually scanning fabrics to make these backdrops? I have a dresser-ful of unused, ignored fabric. You've given me some ideas.

Funny, I think I am so unencumbered because I only own a handful of books, but those fabrics weigh me down every time I move! Time to scan them and give them away!


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zzberlin
zzberlin
hh
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 04:48 pm (UTC)
Re: The fabric of Click Opera

Hey do you mind if I steal CO's backdrop for my own LJ backdrop? I'm tired of spartan white.


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 04:51 pm (UTC)

Damn you, now I desperately want to watch Happy Days.


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rroland
rroland
rroland
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 04:58 pm (UTC)

when i was very young my father gave me the facts of life speech, i was prepared for something about girls etc...instead "everything you do in life, plan for it to fail"...either a)he assumed i was a loser or b)he was giving pearls of wisdom for the business world. i assumed at the time it was a. therapy is 60.00 for 55mins. i'm making her rich.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 05:33 pm (UTC)

I think it's reasonable to say "Everything you do in life, make contingency plans in case it fails". Is that what he meant?


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 06:23 pm (UTC)

Way to totally miss the point of Pierre Menard. Sounds like you're projecting your own ideologies into the story.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 07:02 pm (UTC)

There's a huge amount packed into this very short story. Borges might well say "everything". Certainly, I am using a part of its meaning here to support my argument about how context (in this case century) changes everything, even if everything else stays the same (the actual words used by Cervantes' masterpiece, for instance).

But I think you'd find it very hard to say that monkeys with typewriters and contextual shifts are not in this story.

"He did not want to compose another Quixote --which is easy-- but the Quixote itself . Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide--word for word and line for line--with those of Miguel de Cervantes."

Is this not like those famous monkeys generating Shakespeare all over again, but by a totally different means (randomness and infinity, in their case)?

As for the claim that Borges (or his narrator) is interested in Menard's originality, how about this desrciption of a work both "impossible" and "unfinished"?

"I turn now to his other work: the subterranean, the interminably heroic, the peerless. And--such are the capacities of man!--the unfinished. This work, perhaps the most significant of our time, consists of the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two. I know such an affirmation seems an absurdity; to justify this "absurdity" is the primordial object of this note."

Big claims for something so fragmentary, no? Borges admires Menard's "new technique... of the deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution". Surely you can see that my essay today is about deliberate anachronism and erroneous attribution (as well as other forms of attribution, like anthropomorphism)?

But feel free to tell me the real point of this story of a "technique whose applications are infinite"!


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runawaytoday
runawaytoday
XX
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 07:58 pm (UTC)

a new mat background, looking snazzy momasu


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