Archive by Author

Giving Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell a Place to Call Home

28 Apr

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is an interesting conglomeration by Susanne Clarke. Containing many elements of magic, it is often referred to as an adaptation of the pop culture phenomenon that is the Harry Potter series, except catering more to the adult age demographic. More interesting is while maintaining such characteristics of fantasy, the novel also rather historic with a setting of early 19th century England, Wellington.  This collision of both fantasy and history bring about an interesting question. Where in our culture do novels like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell belong? Is it in popular culture, along with Harry potter? Or is it perhaps in high culture, along with a textbook of English history?

Though not so much in its beginning pages, the novel is riddled with magic, lending itself to quite a fantastical taste.  The magic is an exciting blend of human and faerie with such a complex and realistic taste to it, such that it almost maintains a level of academia about itself. Having a defining characteristic as such, on might want to place Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on the same end of the cultural spectrum of works such as Avatar: The Last Airbender and the previously mentioned Harry Potter series. I would like to maintain, however; that while it maintains its aspects of fantasy and fiction, the book also has its fair share of high culture elements to consider.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is also referred to by many as a historical novel. It is blatantly apparent from the incredibly believable setting that Clarke spent much time meticulously researching early 19th century England to develop such a detailed and accurate setting. Featuring among many things historical figures and carriages, the novel provides readers with a very much Victorian Era feel. In addition, the novel itself is over one thousand pages long—and discursive, too; both of which reflect how many writings of its ‘time’ were produced. It reminds me of works of Mark Twain, intentionally drawn out as he and other writers of his time were paid by the word.

The tone of the characters and the novel as a whole was also developed in such a way to provide them all with some outstanding sense of ego. It is as though everyone throughout the novel caries with them a form of elitism you would expect from English royalty of the time; supporting the aforementioned Victorian taste. These historical characteristics do their share to push the novel towards the more high culture end of our previously referenced cultural spectrum. So where does it lie?

Somewhere in between, that’s where. Clarke does a splendid job in presenting a conflicting magical yet historical England. She has effectively created a bridge between popular (also referred to as low) and high culture. The more magical and fantastical elements of the novel lend itself to popular culture, while the historical context and accuracy qualify it as an artifact of high culture. The result is not black and white, but instead a nice shade of gray lying somewhere in between.

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Hunger Games and Popular Culture

28 Apr

The Hunger Games by Susan Collins is part of a three part series and has already claimed its place on the New York Times list of best selling novels. Some say the Hunger Games phenomenon is sure to find itself setting sales records above even the Harry Potter series. Quickly finding itself a part of popular culture, a more in depth analysis of the novel reveals that it has more to offer than one might originally suspect. The dystopian nature of the fictional Panem and how familiar it is to the real world is all too chilling. It is this predicative characteristic of the novel that has forever altered the way I view artifacts of popular culture.

Popular culture carries with it a broad spectrum of elements. For a work to be considered a part of popular culture, a wide audience must first appreciate it. That is to effectively say that, in its most simple definition, popular culture is the culture of the masses, including popular music, television shows, commercials, brand names, advertisements, sports, the Internet, movies, fashion, etc. This is opposed to high culture, which is considered to be the culture of the more elitist and educated members of a given society. With popular culture clearly defined, it can easily be declared a home for The Hunger Games.

The novel has something for everyone. Rue and her struggles appeal to the younger populous, while Katniss and her more romantic hardships cater to young adults struggling to discover themselves and love, and finally the more political nature and adult elements can be appreciated by the more adult audience. These elements are what allow for all members of society to find some form of appreciation and appeal within the text. Effectively, the novel can claim to be a part of the culture belonging to the masses, which happily meets our definition of popular culture. This is further reflected by the latest numbers claiming there are thirty-six and a half million scheduled to print in the United States alone.

Containing other artifacts such as “The Jersey Shore”, popular culture is quick to be disregarded by societies more elite members. However, the novel contains fundamental elements of literary classics. For example, 1984 (belonging to high culture, mind you) by Georgia Orwell also features a dystopian society. Also carrying this predicative element, popular culture gains weight. Panem and the districts have much to say about some of societies most sensitive topics: racism, religion, and an overpowering government to name a few.

Overall, it can be said that The Hunger Games has forever altered my perception of popular culture. The novel’s ability to challenge societies toughest issues and predict where we are headed as a nation gives it a weight I never would have considered before. Analogous to even elements of high culture, the novel has much to say and deserves a more serious and in depth analysis before being brought down to other artifacts in the neighborhood of popular culture.

A Historical Deconstruction of Assassin’s Creed 2

30 Mar

Exploring the vastness of Italy in Assassin’s Creed 2, players find themselves noticing various famous landmarks riddling the landscape. In Florence, you are greeted by the Ponte Vecchio, the Santa Maria Novella, the magnificent Santa Maria del Fiore, the unforgettable Piazza della Signoria, however; the mind-blowingly accurate architecture is not limited to Fierenze. Taking Ezio through Tuscany and Venice, San Gimignano and Forli, you will find that many of the in-game structures are real-world architectural masterpieces.  As incredible as this may seem, the precision of these landscapes is only one facet of Assassin’s Creed 2 that maintains some sense of historical accuracy for not only is Renaissance Italy remembered by its architecture, but also the family feuds of the time—most notably of them being between the Medici and the Pazzi.

Detest between the Madici and Pazzi families were the result of the power struggle for dominant influence in Florentine politics. To understand this struggle, one must first recognize the two families for what they were. The Medici family was relatively new to the Florentine society and politics, yet they had money to lend, alliances through marriage, and a vast social network. These factors allowed for the family to become the dominating banking powerhouse of Tuscany and gain influence within the Roman Catholic Church which, during the Renaissance era, played a major role in politics itself. This newfound power gave rise to a natural rivalry between them and the Pazzi family, whose roots were deeply entrenched in Florence well before the presence of the Medici.

This rivalry would later reach its apogee when the Pazzi and Salviati families manufactured a conspiracy for the assassination of Lorenzo di Medici and his brother, Giuliano Medici. Their plan was to be carried out on April 26, 1478 while High Mass was taking place at the Duomo. Overall the attempt failed and resulted with the death of Giuliano, the execution of the conspirators, and the banishment of the Pazzi family from the city of Florence.  With that banishment, all Pazzi family assets were seized and all remaining traces of the family were both forbidden and destroyed. It is with this conspiracy the developers of Assassin’s Creed 2 created such a brilliant adaptation of Italian history.

Throughout the game, the Pazzi conspiracy is reenacted with identical characters from real-world history, however; in order to provide a more complete story and gaming experience, the developers of Assassin’s Creed 2 allowed for a few historical inaccuracies. For instance, the game allows for the plotters to seek refuge in Tuscan. Furthermore, in the game Baroncelli is killed by Ezio in the city of San Gimignario after a failed escape from Constantinople whereas in reality he did attempt escape but was caught and hanged in Florence. Following the Pazzi conspiracy in Assassin’s Creed 2, the game tends more towards fiction and consequently becomes less concerned with historical accuracy. It is an adaptation, after all, not a textbook.

Evaluating Assassin’s Creed 2 as such, the developers of the game have done a magnificent job meshing history and fiction into a virtual medium, effectively creating something that gamers have never experienced before. The game is truly a staple of pop culture, justifying its value with its rich historical flavors. It is in my hopes that Ubisoft will continue to release titles like Assassin’s Creed 2 so that society may begin to appreciate all that video games have to offer; an interactive and immersifying experience that, in this case, allows the player to relive history.          

Historical Context of Sandman: Fables and Reflections

2 Mar

The Sandman: Fables and Reflections is an interesting tale of tales from Neil Gaiman.  What I find to be so encapsulating about the stories is their incorporation of history throughout accompanied with a hint of mythology every so often. Specifically in the story of “Thermidor”, we get a glimpse of the French Revolution when dream proposes a business arrangement with Johanna Constantine at her manor in Wych Cross, England 1979. July 30th that very same year, Johanna finds herself in the attempt to liberate Orpheus’ severed head from post-Revolution Paris. “Thermidor”, taken from a month marked by the calendar of the French Revolution, is rich in history and more in depth than most give it credit for.

Both St. Just and Robespierre are real life characters associated with the French revolution. The illustrators based drawings of those two characters on likenesses found in paintings of the two men. Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just, regularly called St. Just, was a military and political leader during the French revolution while Robespierre was perhaps one of the most influential people of the revolution before being sent to the guillotine. Having an slight affinity for history, I found Gaimain’s incorporation of these two figures into the text particularly appealing. There’s even more to be said for Gaimain’s abilities to throw mythology into the mix, giving the story one of its more unique characteristics among many.

After extensive research, I could turn up no evidence to suggest that Orpheus’ unknown lineage has been attributed to any sort of dream god in Greek mythology. It was interesting to see that Gaiman granted Orpheus with the power to woo anyone with song; a power not so far outside those that dream possesses. I suppose it isn’t too much of a stretch considering older story tells have before considered Apollo responsible for the life of Orpheus. “Thermidor” does well in illustrating the danger of a society driven by a demagogue, the lengths to which people will go in the name of “the people” or “the nation.” — abandoning rationality for support. I believe this story has an ever increasing relevance to society today, particularly the more Americanized societies. Think Rick Perry before he dropped from the 2012 presidential race.

While “Thermidor” may initially seem to be nothing more than a mere horror story of a misplaced head, it actually goes much deeper than that. Not only is it about Orpheus and his father, but moreover the Reign of Terror and how those in power justify their atrocities. “Thermidor” provides us with a more supernatural scenario for the end of The Terror and by such trivialized the actual history. It is by no mistake, for instance, that we are introduced to the imprisoned Thomas Paine, a man who sought residence in France throughout the 1790’s, becoming a deeply involved and pivotal figure in the French Revolution.  Johanna is found on the final page of “Thermidor” saying, “What we obtain too cheep, we esteem too lightly”. A statement taken directly from Thomas Paine’s pamphlet series “The Crisis”, which he published in late 1776. Johanna attempts to calm  Orpheus for, no matter is immortality, his heart still finds itself haunted by the unanswered question of his father’s love. This microcosmic drama of history is what makes ”Thermidor” and moreover Fables and Reflections, such an interesting read.

Its this way of retelling the stories of the past that we find appreciation in the gravity of history — its precedence will forever be repeated, bringing some sense of order to the present. History contains a past of corrupted rulers, shattered hopes and dreams, and lessons learned. But with “Thermidor” and a little imagination, the ancient world can be transformed into a place for a lost head to long for a father’s love. History is but a dream, and the extent of its unanswered questions is what makes Sandman such an inviting and compelling read.

— Will Herren

Neil Stephenson’s Quicksilver: A Hard Novel to Pin

11 Feb

Neil Stephenson’s Quicksilver provides readers with an interesting conglomeration of history and fiction. Rich in ‘old-timey’ literary elements and stylistic techniques yet clinging onto aspects of the 21st century, one might find it difficult to place the novel within our culture. Is it an artifact only to be appreciated by the higher ups of society? Or instead to appreciated by the common man? Containing elements of both popular culture and high culture it is my hope to distinguish the differences between the two cultures, and secure Quicksilver a place somehwhere between the two.

Popular culture can be simply defined as the culture of the masses. Alternatively, it may be considered the culture of the many as opposed to the culture of the few. Any idea, activity, perspective, etc. that is shared by the masses may be considered a part of popular culture. For instance, the idea that a supernatural being or ‘god’ created and set the universe into motion. Or, for the American audience, the activity of playing football. It is important to understand how this popular (also called “low”) culture differs from high culture.

Lying on the other end of the sociological spectrum is high culture. Definitively speaking, high culture are those aspects of a culture like opera, theatre, or art that are not reproduced, but are often enjoyed more by the elite members of a culture. Where football is considered pop culture, polo is high culture. While Twilight (belonging to pop culture) may be one of the most appreciated sagas of our decade, the multi-century old works of Homer and Shakespeare (high culture) would be more liked by a literary scholar who has developed a rightfully acquired elitism as per their education on the material. This reference of what one might consider popular culture and high culture allows the argument that Quicksilver belongs at neither extreme, but instead between the two.

Quicksilver, published in 2003, cannot stand up to a work of Shakespeare composed during the late 1500’s. Romeo and Juliet still finds itself relevant to our culture even today; the story has passed the test of time. Not to be cast into popular culture, however; Quicksilver contains many instances in which Stephenson finds archaic language useful. Correlating with the setting of 1713 Boston, the diction is well deserved. One excerpt from the novel provides us with a particularly splendid example: “Flotillas of shavings from some carpenter’s block-plane sail down the stream like ships going off to war. Underneath them the weak current nudges turds and bits of slaughtered animals down towards the harbor. It smells accordingly. No denying there is a tallow chandlery not far upwind, where beast-grease not fit for eating is made into candles and soap.” Words such as ‘flotillas’, ‘tallow’ and ‘chandlery’ all belong to high culture.

Will Quicksilver one day be strictly considered high culture? More likely than not. The archaic diction riddling the text is nothing but a catalyst in the matter. Time, however, still stands in its way along with perhaps a few additional traces of the 21st century. Until the novel can show relevancy centuries from now, it will have to settle for not pop culture, not high culture, but somewhere in between.

Donald Glover – A Comedian to Take Seriously

27 Jan

Nerds in American society are associated with the out of style, strange, and ostracized individuals who fail to conform to the standards of the popular crowd. Many of these nerds fail to be recognized by others despite success, as they are incapable of obtaining respect due to behaviors that are found out of the ordinary. Growing up in the heart of the traditionally racist Deep South, a young African-American was faced with a life of misplacement and obscurity as a result of his “nerdy” behaviors. It is these simple downfalls that propelled Donald Glover to the power he know holds and works to develop. The young comedian embodies a past that is unlike most of the entertainment profession. Rather than face an economically deprived childhood, Glover was able to live a suburban life that did not require an extra effort to lead to a safe future. However, it was his wish to escape from the normality of this life that led the young comedian to exert a higher effort and establish himself as a figure of popular modern culture. Donald Glover uses his comedic talents to obtain success despite his eccentric and abnormal tendencies. Stand up is not the only avenue of success for Glover as he applies his many talented assets in order to achieve greatness. Writing, acting, and even rapping serve as the pedestal that works to deliver Donald Glover’s comedic message. As a result, the comedian, artist, actor, all collaborate to define the laughs we all seek through his multiple facets of comedy. While many would write him off for becoming a pop culture icon, Glover ‘s work can teach us something about pop culture and why in some cases it deserves further analysis.

Glover’s ability to establish a connection with his fan base began from his early days as a writer for the nationally televised 30 Rock. Behind closed doors, the young comedian’s potential was continuing to grow and he was able to receive help from entertainment giants Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin. However, it wasn’t until Glover walked away from the show that he began establishing his own style and purpose for comedic work. Employing the use of the Internet, Donald established an online sketch comedy show and rekindled his childhood love of music creating a band under the name “Childish Gambino.” By opening these avenues of entertainment for himself, Glover became recognized by major media outlets. His acting career was continued on the NBC comedyCommunity and he grew as a popular face to many throughout the country. However, Comedy Central opened the door for him to reveal his talents through stand up and his work on stage worked as the avenue for Glover to deliver his message to a wide and captivated audience.

Recent trends of comedy reveal that comics resort two three methods in order to achieve laughs and supply a message. The superiority, incongruity, and release theories all apply to many works of Donald Glover. It is his emphasis on the superiority in jokes that leads to his largest impact on the audience. His work is based on putting others, including himself, down for the benefit of the crowd leading to a high success rate. One of the main targets for Glover was one of his own weaknesses, which was the inability to be popular or fit in. Donald Glover attacks those who can be considered “nerds” and he as well as other entertainment stars fit into this stereotype. During his comedy central special, Glover states, If you like strange, specific stuff — that’s a nerd. Kanye West is a black nerd. He likes strange, specific stuff. If you go up to Kanye West and say, ‘Hey, what are your favorite things?’ He’ll be like, ‘Robots and teddy bears.’ That’s a nerd.” It is clear through the joke that Glover’s play on the definition of a nerd is enough to insight laughs as he is segregating the obsessions of those who are considered outsiders. His play on the idea of a “black nerd” allows the audience to feel superior not on a basis of race, but on a basis of acceptance. African-Americans attempting to be nerdy is not socially common as the more normal association for black culture is to follow the lead of athletes or rappers. In response, Donald Glover’s music and stand up routine are effective in playing off this and earns laughs from his attack on those who are different. Ironically, the entertainer himself embodies the exact qualities of his “black nerd” allowing him to communicate his comedy by playing off his own weaknesses. Glover’s message effectively alienates others, including himself, in order to promote laughter as a result of imperfections.

Glover utilizes past and modern culture to construct his comedic insults leading his audiences to fall in line with the bullying approach taken by many comedians. Disregarding his own personal feelings or the emotions of those the jokes are aimed at, Donald is effective in distributing criticism to appeal to his crowd. Attacking not only actual entertainers, but also fictional characters is the approach Glover employs throughout his acts. The jokes are pointed in the direction of the “Uncle Tom” view of African-Americans as if he is almost celebrating the unruly behavior of the common thug or rapper. However, Glover is putting the “black nerd” in the spotlight by pointing out their downfalls. Through refusing to offend or emulate the “cool” black culture, Donald is able to put the actions of an unknown side of African- American culture to the forefront.  Insulting the likes of a famous African-American Sitcom figure Steve Urkel is one of the many techniques the comedian uses to both poke fun at and spotlight “black nerds.” Glover jokes “Urkel was retarded, let’s be honest. No, he was. If there was a kid named Steve Urkel who went to your school — dressed like Steve Urkel, eating cheese all the time, always asking this girl named Laura to marry him — you’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, Steve. His brother hit him in the head with a brick when he was five. Very sad situation at the Urkel house.”  Once again Donald Glover relates to the crowd through establishing a connection in the fact that this famous symbol from the past was clearly a misfit with complete imperfection. A majority of the reason Glover attains his laughs is found in his ability to highlight the obvious and, sometimes, hidden defects of those in society. Through this play on others failures, the comedian is able to obtain power over the audience and keep them on edge as they gain a false sense of superiority over those insulted during the act.

The irony found behind the comedic style of Donald Glover is palpable.  The comedian’s main focus and intent through his work as an entertainer is to promote the idea of being a “nerd” over fitting into stereotypes. Despite his ability to continuously put down others in his act, it is the simple fact that he, a black nerd, has taken over the spotlight that contributes to Glover’s purpose as a performer. His collaboration as an actor, writer, musician, and comedian have worked to prove that refusing to assimilate to fit in with others can lead to high levels of success. Rather than continue to force himself to mesh with the black stereotype or establish a strong connection the popular kids, Glover provides evidence that success does not hinge on the opinions of others. Its this belief that has lead Glover into a business that requires him to constantly face the opinions of others.

Glover’s work allows us to conclude that, through utilizing the superiority complex to point out imperfections; you can effectively build the confidence of your audience and deliver a deeper message. His message being that no matter the societal pressures and circumstances of life, one should never surrender the right to being themselves. This message is something one might not expect from a pop culture icon, but it is this that requires us to take people like Donald Glover seriously. Glover is just one of many artists that give pop culture its value and shows that a much more extensive analysis of pop culture might lead to unexpected depths.