Tag Archives: TV

Two Mute Girls: TV shows better without the sound

Dateline: A few minutes ago this evening.

Am currently watching “Two Broke Girls” with my TV’s sound on mute. Am enjoying this show far more as a series of absurd mime-tableaux than I ever liked it as dialogued sitcom. My wife said she’d like to know what’s going on, but there’s no way that knowing what these clichéd characters are doing would be more fun than my guesses of what they’re doing.

“It’s worse than being naked; I’m wearing polyester,” said the tall actress. My wife has turned on the sound and now the weirdest thing is the fake laffing at the nonjoke jokes.

Links: TV stories replace novels, etc.

1. This post at The Dish about people having their need for stories fulfilled by watching TV rather than by reading books reminds me of a similar thing Kurt Vonnegut said about why short stories aren’t purchased by and read in magazines during the age of TV as they were before TV. (I can’t seem to find this particular quote online.)

2. But I did find these collections of wonderful KVJ quotes here and here.

3. Fiction as moral, and writing fiction as a process of inquiry. See also my recent posting on fiction-as-morality here.

4. Tolstoy on meaning and death, from a recent review excerpted here:

And by accepting existence as it was they accepted its cessation too.

5. Secular societies and spiritual experiences.

6. A sarcastic-but-excellent column about why guns don’t belong on any campus.

7. We study philosophy to have our own perspectives challenged. Some great bits in this interview with philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, starting with philosophy and kids:

How early do you think children can, or should, start learning about philosophy?

I started really early with my daughters. They said the most interesting things that if you’re trained in philosophy you realize are big philosophical statements. The wonderful thing about kids is that the normal way of thinking, the conceptual schemes we get locked up in, haven’t gelled yet with them. When my daughter was a toddler, I’d say “Danielle!” she would very assuredly, almost indignantly, say, “I’m not Danielle! I’m this!” I’d think, What is she trying to express? This is going to sound ridiculous, but she was trying to express what Immanuel Kant calls the transcendental ego. You’re not a thing in the world the way there are other things in the world, you’re the thing experiencing other things—putting it all together. This is what this toddler was trying to tell me. Or when my other daughter, six at the time, was talking with her hands and knocked over a glass of juice. She said, “Look at what my body did!” I said, “Oh, you didn’t do that?” And she said, “No! My body did that!” I thought, Oh! Cartesian dualism! She meant that she didn’t intend to do that, and she identified herself with her intentional self. It was fascinating to me.

And kids love to argue.

They could argue with me about anything. If it were a good argument I would take it seriously. See if you can change my mind. It teaches them to be self-critical, to look at their own opinions and see what the weak spots are. This is also important in getting them to defend their own positions, to take other people’s positions seriously, to be able to self-correct, to be tolerant, to be good citizens and not to be taken in by demagoguery. The other thing is to get them to think about moral views. Kids have a natural egotistical morality. Every kid by age three is saying, “That’s not fair!” Well, use that to get them to think about fairness. Yes, they feel a certain sense of entitlement, but what is special about them? What gives them such a strong sense of fairness? They’re natural philosophers. And they’re still so flexible.

There’s a peer pressure that sets in at a certain age. They so much want to be like everybody else. But what I’ve found is that if you instill this joy of thinking, the sheer intellectual fun, it will survive even the adolescent years and come back in fighting form. It’s empowering.

and on philosophical progress:

There is, among some scientists, a real anti-philosophical bias. The sense that philosophy will eventually disappear. But there’s a lot of philosophical progress, it’s just a progress that’s very hard to see. It’s very hard to see because we see with it. We incorporate philosophical progress into our own way of viewing the world. … It’s amazing how long it takes us, but we do make progress. And it’s usually philosophical arguments that first introduce the very outlandish idea that we need to extend rights. And it takes more, it takes a movement, and activism, and emotions, to affect real social change. It starts with an argument, but then it becomes obvious. The tracks of philosophy’s work are erased because it becomes intuitively obvious. The arguments against slavery, against cruel and unusual punishment, against unjust wars, against treating children cruelly—these all took arguments.

and

What was intuition two generations ago is no longer intuition; and it’s arguments that change it. We are very inertial creatures. We do not like to change our thinking, especially if it’s inconvenient for us. And certainly the people in power never want to wonder whether they should hold power. So it really takes hard, hard work to overcome that.

and on how to teach philosophy:

How do you think philosophy is best taught?

I get very upset when I’m giving a lecture and I’m not interrupted every few sentences by questions. My style is such that that happens very rarely. That’s my technique. I’m really trying to draw the students out, make them think for themselves. The more they challenge me, the more successful I feel as a teacher. It has to be very active. Plato used the metaphor that in teaching philosophy, there needs to be a fire in the teacher, and the sheer heat will help the fire grow in the student. It’s something that’s kindled because of the proximity to the heat.

and

How the Grinch Stole Christmas to Overcome Crushing Loneliness

grinch_upshotWatching “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” the other night, my wife and I wondered why, the morning after the titular Grinch had stolen their Christmas presents, decorations, and food, the Whos all came out to sing their traditional Christmas song without seeming to acknowledge that they had been robbed.

As my wife characterized it, “All their shit got taken — ‘Let’s go sing.'”

The Who tradition, as described early in the story, is to play and make noise with their new toys, to eat a dinner, and then to sing in the central open space of Whoville. Having lost their toys and foods to the Grinch, the Whos still carry out the singing part of the tradition. Seeing this display of good cheer even in the face of loss, the Grinch returns the pilfered goods and the Whos invite the Grinch to their meal.

This story warms the heart (well, literally enlarges the heart) of the Grinch, and it warms the audience’s hearts too, because we all see that the Whos have not succumbed to ill-will at the loss of their goods. According to some commentors, that’s the main message here — this story “criticizes the commercialization of Christmas.”

This is an interesting take on “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” because our main (and only dynamic) character, the Grinch, learns a lesson only out of his attempt to teach a lesson. Dude hates Christmas, and we don’t find out why — the text says “no one quite knows the reason” — the narrator speculates that his “heart was two sizes too small.” Perhaps he was feeling alienated from the society of the Whos and their “warm lighted windows,” but the only specifics he states for his scheme to punish the Whos is that they annoy him by celebrating too loudly (“Oh the noise!“). Perhaps the Grinch is not self-reflective or self-aware enough to see that he was just lonely and wanted to strike out at the Whos because he wanted them to be as miserable as he was.

grinch_caveOf course, some of the blame for the Grinch’s alienation must lie with him — living at the top of a mountain far above town, it’s not likely he’s gonna get a lot of visitors — and this line of thought brings up questions of economics and sociology: How does the Grinch relate to the Whos? Does he conduct commerce with them? Have they ever seen him before? Do they even know he exists? Oddly enough, this reminds me a of childhood fantasy I had of living hermit-style myself — so that the Grinch’s cave-dwelling has long seemed kinda neat to me. Sure, a real cave at mountain-top would be a pain to get to, would be drafty, etc., but the idea of a cave at the top of a mountain seemed fun. Maybe that thought was a function of my own introversion and felt-alienation?

grinch_townWhether or not the Whos know of the Grinch, he is certainly aware of them, as he watches them in the valley below his hovel. The Whos draw the Grinch’s ire because they are too jovial, basically. The Grinch decides to rid himself of the annoyance of the noise — as he blames the noise problem on Christmas (rather than on the Whos themselves), he decides to “stop Christmas from coming.” But did he really think this would work? Or was this whole Grinchy scheme a cry for help, for attention, from the Whos? Is Seuss making an ostensibly anti-commercial story in which the true message is about recognizing and overcoming loneliness? If so, that’s kinda sweet.

I had intended to make another point here about how the Grinch changes his mind about what the punishment’s about — from noise-abatement to anti-materialism (“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store”) — but now that I am interpreting the whole story as the actions of a lonely hermit looking for attention, I’m starting to see how the Grinch’s punishment-motive shift could happen — the text seems to point out that the Grinch doesn’t know quite why he’s doing what he’s doing, and taking away their toys doesn’t shut the Whos up at all — they still sing, which singing should annoy the Grinch more, but it doesn’t.

However, there’s still the problem of why the Whos don’t seem to react to having their stuff stolen. If the Whos are supposed to resemble humans, their nonreactive behavior seems unlikely.  I begin to speculate: Maybe the Whos are not supposed to be human — maybe they are Buddhist types who accept reality just as they find it, moment to moment. Or maybe the Whos are beings who can see the future and they know that the Grinch will bring back their stuff. My wife suggested “maybe they’re just simpletons” who aren’t aware of their loss. All are possibilities.

Except, if we take the interpretation that the Grinch is just lonely, and maybe the Whos know, or at least suspect, this loneliness about their neighbor who has “put up with” their Christmas celebrations for “fifty-three years,” maybe the Whos saw their houses emptied, and suspected the Grinch, but didn’t get mad about it, and figured that if they just seemed good spirited about it, the Grinch would return their stuff. Maybe the Whos figured out that the worst thing they could do in that situation was to get angry about it (in which case the Grinch wouldn’t feel compelled to return their things).

(And what happened “fifty-three years” ago: Was that when the Grinch moved to the area? Was that when the Whos moved to Whoville? Or maybe the Whos were always there, but began celebrating Christmas — at least, in the contemporary fashion, only 53 years ago? Or was the Grinch formerly a Who himself who left the company of the Whos and transformed physically, as Smeagol did by becoming Gollum?)

The Grinch and Cindy Lou: Two genetic Whos?

The Grinch and Cindy Lou: Two genetic Whos?

Perhaps the Whos even have regular contact with the Grinch, and know he’s just an ornery ol’ cuss who is actually a softie at heart (we know his heart is prone to significant volumetric expansions and contractions which seem to correlate to his positive and negative moods), so that they know not to get upset by his antics.

I had started this post prepared to make fun of how weirdly the Whos act in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” but as I wrote, I began to see a sweet story of alienation and acceptance. In this way, the Grinch is a little like that other famous Christmas character, Scrooge, in that both live outside their societies (literally for the Grinch; figuratively for Scrooge) and both have Christmastime experiences that bring them back into the company of their fellow beings. In this way, the Grinch and Scrooge stories are picking up both on how simple emotional demands can drive more complex behavior, and both stories touch on the necessity of the social life for human consciousness.

Note: Images above were taken, via PrintScreen, from the cartoon.

‘Word World’ and the problem of plurals

“It’s time to build a word. Let’s build it. Let’s build it now.”

So incant the various animals-made-of-letters-that-spell-out-the-English-word-that-names-the-animal in the PBS animated show “Word World,” and upon that incantation, familiar-looking 3-D sans serif letters morph into the new shape of the thing the letters spell. In the clip below, the letters P,I, and E form a pie.

So, OK, I can accept the operating principle of this fictional world, even if it has some metaphysical problems (see “Notes” below). What concerns and interests me philosophically is the problem of plurals.

When there is one pie, it can be accurately labeled pie. However, Pig needs multiple pies. Ant advises, “when you add the letter ‘S’ to the end of a word, it makes more than one,” which is sorta backwards as to how we use the language, but OK, I’ll play along. So Pig adds an “S”:

word world pies1And the transmogrification happens and results in this monstrosity,word world pies2which can never be. This is a lie. There is clearly one pie here, not multiple pies.

Here’s the thing: any plural is an abstraction. It is a grouping together of things that of the same category. Declaring a plural is drawing an invisible tether around several things and labeling that grouping.

For example, on a bookshelf, there are many elements of the set named “books.” But each physical book may have different title and text and size, etc. And even if there are two copies of the same title, these are unique, particular entities: one book may have underlining or tears that the other doesn’t. So we can call all these objects together “books” only by ignoring their particularities.

And this is what we do when we label 20 students in a classroom “a class.” There is no class, I tell my students. There are 20 individual people, each with their own minds and concepts, and I can teach them all as a class by, more or less, ignoring their individual differences and teaching to what I imagine as some abstract “average student” — or teaching to particular students in class and hoping that if they understand, others do, too.  Of course, we teachers are often told to “differentiate instruction” to every particular student, a lovely idea but a practical impossibility in a classroom setting.

(Of course, there’s a further issue with identifying and labeling any given entity by comparing the given particular thing against one’s abstract concepts, and so there may not be any particular necessary term for anything: For instance, what is a chair? How define it? At the edges of the definition, we will likely be judging, essentially arbitrarily, what is and what isn’t a chair.)

And perhaps this is the biggest misconception we teachers see in the entire endeavor of having a common curriculum and standardized testing. We work with individual students as best we can, and we see the frustration of asking every student to be able to do the same exact skills as every other student. We know that not all students have the same interests, abilities, motivations, etc. It may be admirable to suggest that every student can achieve great things, but surely not every high school senior needs to write narratives with “multiple plot lines, to develop experiences.”

(There are those who have said that the standards movement should have been implemented as individual goals set for each particular student rather than universal dictates for all, but there was never enough time to make the former happen, and the latter is way too convenient to those who wish to make all the students standardized so the entire function of education can be quantified. This urge to quantify, and teach only what can be quantified, is a problem, as Stanley Fish recently pointed out.)

By the way, after Pig makes the singularity of the “pies” pie, the instability of the situation leads to a modest explosion into individual pies

word world pies3and we viewers are left to group each individual pie into “pies” — which is what we abstract thinkers do to our physical reality all the time.

Notes on metaphysical ambiguities of “Word World”:

There would seem to be three categories of physical reality in “Word World.” One, there are characters and objects made of letters that approximate the shape of the entity named. The character Pig has ears and a snouted face sticking out of a puffily drawn “P,” and the “I” and “G” follow as the thorax and hindquarters, respectively.  But these letters spell “PIG” only if Pig is viewed from its left side — from the right, it’s one letter short of playing for Notre Dame.

Two, there are three-dimensional letters, such as “S” in the video clip and image above, which can transform into something that absorbs the qualities of the word it spells. (And in some other episodes, the objects will break apart, returning the letters to initial sans-serif form, and the object’s physical properties (like the ability of Duck’s “BAT” to confer momentum on a ball) are gone. Thus, somehow the complete spelling of a word makes the letters more than just letters, more than the sum of their parts, like adding the magician’s hat to Frosty turns him alive. In this way, correct spelling is a way of conjuring, or perhaps even giving life. One wonders what would happen to the physical incarnation of things spelled incorrectly — would terrible things be given existence — as when Bart Simpson created the creature who said his every moment of existence is torture (here)?

Third, not all objects are made from letters. In the video above, the window frame isn’t made out of “window frame,” nor is glass “glass,” nor is the table “table.” This suggests some kind of horrifying arbitrariness to the whole physical realm. Are only important things spelled out, so that if I awoke in that realm and found out that I was not spelled out, I would know that I was not a Main Character, not one of the Chosen Ones?  Such a world would make the picking of leaders laughably easy, but then such a world would imply the existence of an involved, caretaking Creator, no? And so the characters in “Word World” turn out to not have free will — as we who are aware of the show AS a show know that they do not? Thus, it’s perhaps not possible to watch “Word World” as a show, but only as a meta-show?

So perhaps an animated, metaphysically ornate show about spelling reveals something foundational about the nature of representation?

UPDATE: See also this post.

Link: ‘Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls’

A show is coming in July. Here’s its page, and here’s a preview. I’ll be posting more later about this.