The Century of the Fugitive and the Secret of the Detainee

The 21st century will be the century of the fugitive. Not because fugitives are proliferating, but because they are disappearing. And not disappearing in the way that fugitives like to disappear, but disappearing because they simply won’t exist. Technology won’t allow it.

A manhunt summons forth the great machinery of the state: scores of armed agents, ballistic tests and DNA samples, barking dogs, helicopters, infrared flybys. There is no evading it. It’s nearly impossible now to become a fugitive. And the more difficult fugitive life becomes, the more legendary fugitive figures become. As Peter Stallybrass and Allon White put it in their classic study of the grotesque and carnivalesque, “…what is socially peripheral is so frequently symbolically central.” The more marginalized and rare fugitives become, the greater the role they will play in our symbolic repertoire. In film, literature, music, art, videogames—in all these arenas, the fugitive will play a central role. Fugitives will come to occupy the same place in our collective consciousness as cowboys or pirates. And just as the Western film genre dominated the mid-20th century—while agribusiness was at the same time industrializing the west, making the cowboy superfluous—the 21st century will be dominated by the symbolic figure of the fugitive. Continue reading “The Century of the Fugitive and the Secret of the Detainee”

On the Predominance of Cupcakes as a Cultural Form

One cannot help but observe the predominance of cupcakes in modern America. Why the cupcake, and why now, at this particular historical moment?

What the fuck is up with all the cupcakes?

Within five minutes of my home there are two bakeries specializing in cupcakes. Two bakeries two hundred yards from each other. They sell cupcakes, and that’s about it. Cupcakes.

Go to a kid’s birthday party and if you survive the bowling or the bouncy castle or the laser tag with the mewling mess of Other People’s Children shouting and screaming, you and your kid will be rewarded with a cupcake. No cake, maybe not even any candles. Cupcakes, that’s it.

Theoretically they come frosted or plain, but plain is such an outright disappointment to everyone, it’s almost embarrassing, so frosted it is. Topped with swirling piles of sugar and fat, the cupcakes come bearing equally saccharine names like Red Velvet Elvis and Cloud 9 and, no shitting you, Blueberry Bikini Buster.

My friends, my very smart friends in academia who study the latest trends in culture and technology, I have a question. You can talk about the spatial turn and the computational turn all you want, but can someone fucking explain the cupcake turn to me?

I have my own theory, and it goes like this: cupcakes match—and attempt to assuage—our cultural anxieties of the moment.

Cupcakes are models of…

AUSTERITY

It’s not a whole cake. It’s a miniature cake. A cake in a fucking cup. A cupcake is a model of modesty. And it’s the best kind of modesty, because it paradoxically suggests extravagance. Cupcakes are rich. And expensive. You could buy two dozen Twinkies for the price of a single caramel apple spice gourmet cupcake.

SERIALITY

By the very nature of their production, cupcakes are made in multiples. A 3×3 tray of 9 cupcakes or 4×4 tray of 16 cupcakes, it doesn’t matter. Cupcakes are serial cakes. Mass produced but conveying a sense of homestyle goodness. Cupcakes are the perfect homeopathic antidote for the industrially-produced food we mostly consume. Fordism never tasted so sickly sweet.

ARTISTRY

On the surface, gourmet cupcakes are artisanal desserts. For all their seriality, cupcakes still contain minute variations in flavor and toppings. Yet underneath, the base model remains the same. Cupcakes embody the postmodern ideal of the manufactured good that has been injected with artificial difference, in order to conjure a sense of individuality. Cupcakes are indie desserts. And like hipsters, cupcakes are pretty much all the same. Cupcake sprinkles and hipster scarves serve the same purpose, turning the plainly ordinary into the veiled ordinary.

HYBRIDITY

Ontologically speaking, just what the hell are cupcakes anyway? A cupcake’s not really a cake. A distant cousin to the muffin, maybe. Is it a pastry for the 21st century United States, a kind of American croissant, full of gooey American exceptionalism? The cupcake itself doesn’t even know what it is. It’s a hybrid form, a Frankencaken. But in a culture frightened by change, blurred borders, and boundary crossings, the cupcake makes all those scary things palatable. As long as it comes in little accordion-pleated paper cup.

Austerity, seriality, artistry, hybridity, that’s what cupcakes are all about. The perfect food for our post-industrial, indie vibe Great Recession. Enjoy them while they last.

Crimson Velveteen photograph courtesy of Flickr user Gina Guillotine / Creative Commons Licensed

30 Days of Night, Again, and Again, and Again

One midnight a short time ago I picked up 30 Days of Night, a vampire graphic novel I was looking forward to, after having read some great reviews. (In 500 Essential Graphic Novels, for example, Gene Kannenberg calls 30 Days of Night a “livid, modern-gothic triumph.”)

I finished the first volume by 1am. Was I too scared to sleep afterward? No way. The only thing that kept me up was trying to figure out why I was so underwhelmed by the comic.

The series begins with a great premise—vampires go on a thirty day feeding spree in Barrow, Alaska, during the darkest part of winter, when the sun will not rise for another thirty days—and at first glance Ben Templesmith’s graphics look stunning, crowded with expressionistic Nosferatu vampires against brushed and splattered grey-black backgrounds.

But on both levels—narratively and visually—30 Days of Night is unrewarding.

The problem with Steve Niles’s writing is its flatness. Aside from a few pages early in the book (when the sheriff spots the vampire swarm approaching, each panel a closer shot than the one before, ending with a horrific close-up of the vampires looking like Edward Gorey’s creatures on steroids)—aside from a few sequences like that, the pacing is flat. There is no rising tension, no build-up of suspense. We know everything we need to know by the end of the first few pages.

The graphics likewise have a plodding sense of sameness about them. However vivid, frenzied, and edgy they are, it’s the same panel, over and over and over. There’s no sense of motion. Even when a panel depicts a vampire in the act of gutting a human, blood splattering all over the page, there’s a still-life sense about the scene. Visually, it’s beautiful, the fast strokes and scribbled outlines recalling the Muromachi Period in Japanese painting in the 14th and 15th centuries. But such dark beauty fails to create visual tension between panels. The images are too frantic, too much of the time, and the effect is a grinding repetition that, however much it may resemble the bleak sameness of the northern wastes of Alaska, sacrifices storytelling for the sake of artistry.

Where Have All the Princesses Gone?

Ian Bogost has a theory about Every Computer Animated Film Ever that boils down every plot into a universal structure, not too dissimilar from the monomythic Hero’s Journey. I don’t have much to add about the narrative conventions of the genre, other than to seize upon one point Bogost makes in passing and to expand upon it. The hero of nearly every computer animated film ever is, as Bogost puts it, an “anthropomorphized creature protagonist.”

As I commented on Bogost’s post, I’d argue that the “anthropomorphized creature protagonist” is a technical effect of what we might call the platform of CG films: for at least twelve of the last fourteen years (going back to Toy Story in 1995), humans, especially their faces, were simply too difficult to render in CG. So Pixar and Dreamworks had to make do with anthropomorphizing Potato Heads, cars, rats, bugs, fish, and so on.

What I find fascinating about the genre is how the technical limitations of CG transformed the more standard Disney princess story. From the late eighties to mid nineties we had Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan. And suddenly, nothing. No more princesses.

The animated princess is a thing of the past.

A final thought: is it a coincindence that post-Toy Story we find the most “othered” princesses: Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998)? Is it a sign of multiculturalism or some sort of reaction to CG, the death rattle of pen and paper animators?

Facebook, Intellectual Property, and Why am I not richer than I am?

I am glad to see that Facebook relented and reverted back to its old Terms of Service. Having had my likeness used without my permission (you know who you are, Kirk Cameron), my songs stolen from me repeatedly (yes, I’m looking at you Beyoncé), and even movie ideas ripped off (see below), I was appalled that Facebook would own my intellectual property in perpetuity. Now I may rest easy and continue to pour my abundant creative energies into the production of easily digestible and ransackable culture.

Leaves of Clover
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