The Literary Salon

A free salon wherein patrons and passers-by may view or contribute ideas on literary and generally intellectual matters. The blog will strive to maintain its commitment to wit, humour and perspicuous analysis.

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Location: Toronto, now Ottawa, Ont, Canada

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Olympian thoughts

As most of my friends know, I don't (and can't) really care about the Olympics anymore. I find that I lost interest after the cold war, since back then there was a sense of East versus West. The one exception to this is Men's hockey during the winter olympics: I actually prefer olympic hockey to the NHL since it's cleaner and more graceful.

One thing about the Olympics that makes no sense to me, among other things, is the medal count. China and the USA are invariably the top two finishers, maybe alongside Russia, but this should come as no surprise since they are also the most populous, with 1 billion and 300 million people respectively. If China were to win a thousand medals, would that really be impressive? Not if you ask me.

I think the medal count should reflect populations: a medal count that was done per capita would be far more illuminating. So, if the US were to win 30 medals, that means they won one medal per ten million people. If Canada won 10, that would mean a medal per every three million, which sounds more impressive. Make sense?


A very entertaining, informative, and witty post from for those who need a reminder of just how insane the Old Testament is. I have to say that, apart from some of the more brutally boring books (Numbers, Leviticus, etc), the OT is actually a fairly entertaining work of literature. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that the entire porn industry was influenced by the Bible (in fact, I just found out that the first porno film ever made, El Sartorio, a silent Argentine film from about 1907, features the Devil!)

It reminds me of something my pious grandma said: she reads the New Testament, but says "what's the deal with the OT? Everyone sleeps with everyone!"

There is no shortage of Christian/Jewish apologists who, like their Muslim counterparts, try to justify the really bizarre or even offensive sections of their holy texts. I think most intelligent people in these religions freely admit that these texts do indeed have some fu$%ed up parts, and say that the times in which these books were written were very different from ours. Of course, this starts a slippery slope: if some parts of a holy text you believe in are clearly wrong or corrupt, why isn't all of it? Just a thought.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Sit-coms, laughing, and all that

I remember having a brief discussion with a fairly intelligent classmate of mine in my final year of undergraduate studies (about 4 years ago). We were both English students, but being the omnivores that we were, we discussed other matters as well, including media studies.

My peer brought up the issue of what I would call, for lack of a better term, heterodoxical loopholes. Simply put, it is a technique used by sit-coms writers for at least the past 25 years. Writers, for whatever reason, often wished to include social commentary in some episodes. However, the way in which they did this is ambiguous at best. This is best explained through the use of some examples.

My friend used an example from the classic sit-com Cheers, during an episode of which one character (I believe the one portrayed by the then attractive Kirstie Alley) utters enlightened remarks on the rights of homosexuals, which, given that this was the early 1980s, would have been heterodoxy. Such remarks on a popular sit-com would be perceived as progressive and enlightened. However, there is a catch: the character uttering such sentiments is often of questionable constitution. The character is often a likeable member of the regular cast, but one whom we, the audience, never take very seriously.

I have culled but two more examples, the second of which I saw last night:

On the popular kids/teen show Saved by the Bell, we have the militant feminist Jessie Spanos, who is portrayed as undoubtedly the most intelligent of the group. Especially in later episodes, she is often seen advancing a feminist agenda bemoaning sexist attitudes in just about everything--in other words, a hyperfeminist. Keep in mind that this program aired during the very early 1990s, when feminism was only beginning to enter the mainstream. Though the writers might be lauded for including socially relevant commentary in a program, especially one aimed at viewers ages 10-16, the viewpoint of the show itself is ambiguous. Though Jessie champions women's rights, etc, her character is not one we take very seriously: she is portrayed, despite her native intelligence, as somewhat extreme and crazy. Thus, we never really take her very seriously. The question, then, is: what is the program actually promoting? Is it genuinely espousing feminist ideas, or, given the questionable character of their mouthpiece, is it subtly mocking those very ideas?

Last night I watched an old episode of Seinfeld (online, of course), called "The Bris." In it, distant friends of Jerry and Elaine have a baby, and they wish to have him circumcised. The only voice of dissent on the matter is Kramer, whose arguments against circumcision are, to any reasonable person, irrefragable. He argues that it is a barbaric practice, and that the argument that "it's tradition" simply does not hold water: after all, sacrificing virgins to appease a god used to be tradition, but we do not do that anymore (this is Kramer's actual example, though one can easily think of dozens more).

Kramer's arguments are sound, but it is not a little curious that the mouthpiece of these ideas is not Jerry, not Elaine, not even George, but the likeable yet kooky and unstable neighbour, Kramer. Does this compromise the otherwise sound arguments against circumcision? That is a matter of debate, but it is a very clever way of creating an heterodoxial loophole. One can argue that the character who utters such ideas is irrelevant, that the ideas stand on their own. Conversely, one can argue that, by pretending to advance such ideas, the program (given the context) actually implicitly mocks such arguments. Thus, dissent, no matter how intelligent, is always already compromised.

One can invoke Mikhail Bakhtin here: are these sitcoms genuinely polyphonic or monologic disguised as polyphony?


This brings me to another related idea I have been thinking of for some time: the laugh track. I haven't done much research apart from quickly searching some databases, so I cannot say whether this has been written on, though I would be genuinely surprised if no one had already done so.

I am thinking here of what I would call the ideology of the laugh track. The laugh track's main purpose is, of course, to tell the audience when to laugh, which seems fairly innocent. I don't want to sound like a neo-Marxist, but I can't help but think of Althusser's ideological state apparatuses. To simplify my argument, I claim that the laugh tracks, by telling you when to laugh, also tell you implicitly to accept or reject certain ideas/ideologies. Thus, to use the previous example: if Kramer's cogent remarks are followed by a laugh track, that signals the audience to follow the collective laughter and ridicule the ideas just presented. If you happen to disagree, then you are immediately considered an outcast. It seems odd that the laugh track was a capitalist, not a communist, invention.

The question of whether or not media influences behaviour remains hotly contested. However, I find myself agreeing with the findings of Gerbner et al from (if memory serves) the late 1980s. They did not believe for one second that if a child witnessed a murder on TV that he would then go and kill his friend. However, Gerbner's study, the first and so far only longitudinal one on the subject, found that exposure to certain programming over a long period of time, especially during one's formative years, can indeed influence ideology, if not behaviour.

These are just scraps of ideas I thought I would jot down. Maybe I will turn them into something one day.

By the way, it's funny how odd sit-coms can be without the laugh track. I remember seeing some episodes of MASH when I was younger that didn't, for whatever reason, include the laugh track. It seemed palpably eerie, much like walking down a deserted downtown street that is usually bustling.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

On Libs and Cons

The previous post reminded me of yet another pet peeve I have, and that is perceived levels of ignorance among people espousing certain political ideologies.

Typically, at least among the socially conscious, conservatives are branded as ignorant hicks, which they usually are. However, liberals can be just as ignorant, often irritatingly so. The only difference is, and this is what kills me, that liberal ignorance is politically correct and therefore ok, whereas when a conservative is so, he's just another ignorant conservative. Liberals will often defend religions or ideologies they know nothing about.

I find the distinction between liberal and conservative is somewhat passe: nowadays, liberals can seem conservative, and vice versa. The distinction is perhaps less moribund in the US, but even there one can see it: McCain is (or was) a leftist Republican, whereas Hilary Clinton is a right of centre Democrat.

Chris Rock was right: it makes no sense to call oneself a liberal, or democract, or whatever. In my opinion, any person who brands him/herself a liberal or a conservative, or what have you, is clearly not a thinking person.


Last night, against my better judgment, I watched a very interesting debate that aired on British television concerning faith-based schools and their role (if any) in free, secular societies. It is an hour long piece, the first part of which you can see here. One of the speakers against faith based schools is none other than Richard Dawkins, who earned more of my respect, but more on that later.

The totalitarian logic of Catholics and Muslims has really bothered me for some time, and I'm amazed that I haven't written on it yet. Lest I ramble on for countless pages, I will attempt to offer my pithy proof that their logic is twisted and absurd.

A Catholic will say that his religion teaches that life is precious, and is therefore against abortion; a Muslim will argue that Islam forbids representations of Muhammad. No problems there (forgetting for the moment that Muslims have always had their own representations of Muhammad. Take a look at Ottoman manuscripts or a marketplace in Tehran and you'll see what I'm talking about).

The problem is when these religious people take their individual beliefs and attempt thrust them into the public sphere, universalizing them. It is not enough for a Catholic to say that abortion is wrong, in their eyes, but that this is what everyone, including legislators, should believe, and the same goes for the above mentioned Muslims.

Not only is this problematic for its own sake, but their logic is selective and absurd. Isn't it odd that you never hear Muslims (or Jews) telling non-Muslims (or Gentiles) that they shouldn't eat pork, or Catholics telling non-Catholics that they shouldn't eat meat on Fridays? However, when it comes to bigger issues, such as abortion, this is exactly what they are doing! When a Catholic tells you that you should not believe in abortion and that it should be illegal, or when a Muslims tells you that you, a non-Muslim, are forbidden to make any depictions of Muhammad, they might as well tell you not to eat meat on Fridays or pork, respectively. They are taking one aspect of their own faith, however small, and thrusting it on non-believers. This is what pisses me off.

On this note, I suggest that C.S. Lewis's Mere Christiantity become required reading for ALL religious people. Among other things, Lewis's book deals with the role of religion in a modern, secular society. He makes the very clear point that one's individual religious beliefs needs not always be reconciled to the laws of the land. Lewis offers the example of divorce (though today, one could use gay marriage, abortion, etc), and says that, if you are a Catholic who believes divorce is wrong, there is no reason why a state law legalizing should make you lose any sleep. If it bothers you, then you don't get divorced, but don't stop anyone else from doing so! Here too is the same problem as above. Thus, if your faith forbids eating pork, drawing Muhammad, or getting divorced, then don't do any of those things, but don't expect everyone else to follow you.
Richard Dawkins earned my further respect by taking on a (rather poor) Muslim apologist on the program. Dawkins several times asked the cleric/educator "What is the penalty for apostasy in your faith", which interlocutor refrained from answering until the end of the program when he was put on the spot. He was talking out of his ass and being a little cocky until Dawkins pretty much shut him up with this one question.

People, usually ignorant yet well-intentioned liberals, ignoring the elephant in the room really piss me off!

Note: the title of this post is taken from the title of Bill Maher's upcoming documentary. It was slated to come out this month, but I just found out that it probably won't be released until October. I seriously doubt the doc will teach me anything I don't already know, but it should be entertaining, so I will probably watch it for free.