tempora cum causis (3)

Ancient. This week at BU we had an incredible visit from the Martha Graham Dance company. Artistic director, Janet Eilber, lectured on Martha Graham‘s innovations in dance, showing clips of past productions, as well as bringing on stage two dancers, Charlotte Landreau and Lloyd Mayor, who performed parts of works by Graham which draw from Greek mythology, Night Journey and Errand Into the MazeNight Journey dramatizes Jocasta in the moment of devastating self-knowledge, Errand Into the Maze has Ariadne encounter the Minotaur. Eilber vividly described the Graham dance technique as one focused on the effortful physicality of contraction and release, coiling; how the body behaves when it experiences intense pleasure or pain. This effortful physicality was brought before our eyes by the dancers themselves in their demonstration. It was an incredible thing to witness. Up close, in an intimate environment. 

This week I also took a trip to the University of Toronto Mississauga to speak in the UTM-JHI annual seminar series, this year on Fragments. I spoke about the fragments of Latin verse in the Ciceronian corpus (the topic of my book), as well as on the theory of the “fragment” more abstractly; here’s the handout and the slides.

 

Modern. I find myself with a large appetite for personal essays about the internet. A lot of them are ultimately negative. Famously, there’s Lindy West’s account of the troll who pretended to be her dead father to harass her online; also told in Shrill (2016) and on This American Life. West eventually quit twitter, though not because of that; plus, she has a happy life on instagram. Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror (2019) starts with an essay — “The I in the Internet” — describing how the performative construction of the self is pushed to the limits when faced with an ever present, internalized, and usually hostile audience. Not to mention, as Tolentino notes, the fact that internet hostility is deliberately manufactured to make money; we seem not to be drawn so much “to the puddles and blossoms of other people’s curiosity and expertise” (pp4-5) but choose instead to engage in an economy designed to thrive on the heightened emotional state of its users.

Maeve Higgins is more optimistic. In the final essay — “The Golden Record” — of her most recent book, Maeve in America (2018), she describes the phonograph records carried by the Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977. These 12-inch gold-plated copper disks hold sights and sounds carefully chosen to represent life on earth at that moment by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan. Voyager 1 and 2 have reached interstellar space; the images and sounds on the Golden Record can be played, as Sagan said, “only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space.” For Higgens, instagram stories, which show videos and images on a feed that disappears after 24h, have something in common with the golden record. Hope, for one thing. Hope that someone will encounter the message and understand it: the golden records are inscribed with instructions on how to play the media contained within. Higgens writes (p239): “Today, with these images I get to share with anyone who cares to look, I am asking the question: Do you understand me now? Here is what I’m trying to tell you.

An optimistic view of the internet is hard for many reasons. In classics, we have to reckon with the ways toxic online communities use ancient material for malicious ends, as Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men (2018) so vividly describes. We also seem unable to escape the idea so often repeated that social media is inherently superficial, vain, vapid; and that it is these qualities in particular which harm us. The first episode of Broad City season 5 (“Stories”) presents itself as an instagram story, documenting a day in the life of Abbi and Ilana, coopting the forms of the medium to undercut and satirize it. In the last scene, Abbi says: “because we were filming it, it’s not even our ‘story’ anymore.” With these final words (of the premier of the final season), Abbi and Ilana ask their audience to contemplate how a comedy act between two friends, developed out of the sparkling chemistry of their private intimacy, has grown beyond itself into a stage play for a massive audience. Real life performativity is amplified when we make ourselves public: via “publication,” art no longer belongs just to you, and on the internet your image takes part in more than just your own selfhood. 

Internet.

Excerpt. Sarah Ahmed 2017: 15-16: “My citation policy has given me more room to attend to those feminists who came before me. Citation is feminist memory. Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our [p16] way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow.”

Daily Life. In Toronto the autumn leaves were just nuts! 

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tempora cum causis (2)

Ancient. In the Greco-Roman world there is a persistent idea that the people of the past were better than those who are alive today and that, as time passes, humanity only continues to degrade more and more. Hesiod’s metallic ages of mankind is an early (and very famous) example of this. A passage of Horace which expresses this idea nicely and particularly cynically is Odes 3.6.45-58 (here comes the Loeb):

damnosa quid non imminuit dies?
aetas parentum peior auis tulit
nos nequiores, mox daturos
progeniem vitiosiorem.

Iniquitous time! What does it not impair? Our fathers’ age, worse than our grandfathers’, gave birth to us, an inferior breed, who will in due course produce still more degenerate offspring.”

The Romans were deeply invested in the idea that an individual was a living reinstantiation of his forebears (a classic example of this is the Barberini Togatus statue). Yet, no one, no matter how hard they try, can be an exact “copy” of a precursor. Simply by being a distinct iteration, we introduce differences, breaking points. Such breakages with a recursive path are, in the Roman formulation, an opportunity for corruption to take place. Like so many who are alive today, I find these cracks in the iterative veneer to be the space where creativity and originality live. And I’m wondering, too, whether it is the case that in 2019 the youngest generation is, in reality, worse than those who have come before.

Modern. Steven Universe is so beautifully written and touching that there is a good chance I’ll get misty-eyed as I watch. The training montage between Connie and Pearl and the song Do It for Her always makes me cry, for some reason. There is so much to love about Steven Universe: the concerted recuperation of the colour pink, the secret behind Garnet (no spoilers), Sadie’s journey to self-acceptance, and, of course, Stevonnie — an experience. When the Steven Universe movie came out, I held off on watching it at first because I knew I had to be in the right frame of mind, emotionally speaking. Animation has always held the power to elicit deep emotions from its audience, even if at times there has been a perception that it is childish or superficial (“it’s just a cartoon” — same thing goes for video games). But especially now, with so many examples of emotionally complex and affecting animation flooding the market, we can break with that perception. Recently, I did watch the Steven Universe movie (The Tale of Steven). One of the standout moments for me was the reappearance of Opal and her duet with the Steven-Greg fusion (Steg), included below. I hadn’t realized that Opal was voiced by Aimee Mann! And Steg in the movie is voiced by her bandmate, Ted Leo. The creator of Steven Universe, Rebecca Sugar, has said that Aimee Mann’s It’s Not (from the album Lost in Space) is her favourite song of all time; there’s a video (I also include it below) of her covering It’s Not, and introducing her performance with: “it’s probably the reason I like to do comics and stories about space, and also it keeps having new meaning for me now; it starts to feel like it’s about television animation.”

Internet.

Excerpt. Jia Tolentino 2019: 14: “The self is not a fixed, organic thing, but a dramatic effect that emerges from a performance. This effect can be believed or disbelieved at will. Online — assuming you buy this framework — the system metastasizes into a wreck. The presentation of self in everyday internet still corresponds to Goffman’s playacting metaphor: there are stages, there is an audience. But the internet adds a host of other, nightmarish metaphorical structures: the mirror, the echo, the panopticon.”

Jia Tolentino illustrated by Joanna Neborsky, from Jacqueline Rose’s review of Trick Mirror.

Jia Tolentino; illustration by Joanna Neborsky

Daily life. Austin started painting again, and now our shed is an art studio!

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tempora cum causis (1)

Ancient. De Senectute 24-25 is one of my favourite passages of Cicero (here’s the Loeb): 

nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse uiuere; sed idem in eis elaborant, quae sciunt nihil ad se omnino pertinere: serit arbores, quae alteri saeclo prosint, [25] ut ait Statius noster in Synephebis. nec uero dubitat agricola, quamuis sit senex, quaerenti cui serat respondere: dis immortalibus, qui me non accipere modo haec a maioribus uoluerunt, sed etiam posteris prodere.

“No one is so old as to think that he cannot live one more year—yet these same men labour at things which they know will not profit them in the least. ‘He plants the trees to serve another age,’ as our Caecilius Statius says in his Young Comrades. And if you ask a farmer, however old, for whom he is planting, he will unhesitatingly reply: for the immortal gods, who have willed not only that I should receive these blessings from my ancestors, but also that I should hand them on to posterity.”

Not just because the passage contains a lovely and proverbial fragment of the 2nd century BCE comic playwright, Caecilius Statius. I want to hold on to this idea that what we do here during our lifetime will not only be for ourselves. And I like the idea that preserving and building resources for people yet to come can be something we value and take pride in. 

Modern. For the last year or so I’ve been listening to the Talking Simpsons podcast network with Bob Mackey and Henry Gilbert. This week they discussed the new episodes of Disenchantment that dropped on Netflix. I’ve been enjoying this show a lot. Futurama is one of my all time favourites, and it’s exciting to me to feel like I’m observing another potential Futurama happen right before my eyes. Bob and Henry discuss an interesting problem, though, which is this: if you watched the Simpsons as it aired in the 90s, you probably saw some episodes a number of times in reruns (or by choice). I had a box set with seasons 1-4 of Futurama that I rewatched a lot when I was young, way before streaming media. But now the same creators of the Simpsons are making a show which most people will watch in more or less one sitting (or, say, over a weekend). And you might not rewatch it, given that there is such an overabundance of content right now. It’s interesting to think about: you’re a seasoned tv writer for one of the most famous and long lasting franchises of the modern era, and you have a certain way of doing things. But tv is now consumed in a profoundly different way. Trained by this institution, this creative machine, you now face an audience with different expectations. There is enormous competition for the attention space, and there is no guarantee of securing a captive audience via the power of syndication or otherwise. Watching and rewatching, reading and rereading — this is something that is built in to our experience of culture, especially the things we really love. Our favourite book. Our favourite film. I have basically been listening to the same music since about 2007. Recursiveness is part of cultural work. But we might not return to Disenchantment much. (Btw I do enjoy this new role for Abbi Jacobson, and all The Mighty Boosh alumni are *chef’s kiss*) 

Internet. 

Excerpt. Anthony Grafton 1997: 124: “In the modern world, fragments and revolutions have gone together. From 1789 to 1989, the politics of the street have always involved iconoclasm. Symbols of previous authorities have been smashed, the colossal heads of dictators separated from their even more outsized torsos, stately lines of busts and statues transformed into politically charged rubble. Tsar and Stalin in turn become Ozymandias.” 

Daily life. Speaking of trees, Max found one which is without a doubt a portal to another dimension.