Saturday, 24 January 2009

Unbridled optimism (about cultural ephemera). I typically don't respond to BoingBoing, but that's because machinima furry porn convention photos posted under a Creative Commons share-alike license are not my bag. But Steven Johnson's post on Lost is bag-worthy, because it inspired an analogy for why I still watch the show that possesses actual explanative power. It maybe even convinces me. Johnson writes: Lost has the unique opportunity of proving you can build a narrative of mesmerizing implausibility that ultimately turns out to be entirely plausible simply by changing one elemental rule of the universe--and then not telling your audience about the rule change until the third act. Mainstream entertainment toys with the conventions of reality constantly (see Back to the Future, or pretty much every Jim Carrey movie) but invariably it lets the audience in on the rule changes early in the story. Johnson claims that, narratively, Lost opens in what would be the third act of Back to the Future. Consider: A boy with a head injury wakes up in a bedroom circa 1955. In his hands is a picture. An attractive young woman who's hot for him enters. He eats an awkward dinner with strangers he seems to know then leaves. A short while later, he meets a professor. The boy tells him about the thing the professor had invented that very morning. After a confused conversation, the scene shifts and viewers catch their first glimpse of a modded DeLorean DMC-12 clearly not of 1955 vintage. In this car is a damaged model of the device the professor had invented that morning. The film skips back to the besotted young woman. The boy is trying to set her up with someone else. His motivations are unclear. He stares at the picture and redoubles his efforts . . . Keep spinning that yarn out—slowly revealing the purpose of the flux capacitor, the odd rules governing the DeLorean, and the relation of the boy to the young man and woman—and you end up with the narrative equivalent of Lost. Or so I hope. As much as I slag faith in politicians, I actively cultivate faith in show-runners: "Buffy will improve on its sixth season," I insisted. "Because Joss Whedon knows from narrative." "Alias will one day make sense," I insisted. "Because J.J. Abrams is being paid good money not to make it up as he goes along." "J.J. Abrams already tried to make it up as he went along with Alias," I insist. "Because he's not going to make the same disastrous mistake twice."
Tell me it is, so that I might panic. (x-posted.) Doing some quick searches in response to our co-blogger’s co-blogger’s post about the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, I came across the following chart detailing the ratio of reported cases to deaths in San Fransisco. Not only is it a priceless statistical representation of panic, it also captures the malleability of even professional opinion. To wit: I’ve highlighted the number of cases in red because blood is the color of riot—and for legibility. With certainty, we can say the author of this study, W.H. Kellogg, captured something of cultural significance when he rocketed his data up and off the y-axis. But the convergence of the incidence and death rates between the 23rd and 30th of November may be even more interesting. How do we account for the fact that, for one short week, everyone who caught the disease died from it? Easy: According to the 21 November article, because public health officials claimed that “the influenza epidemic had been stamped out,” at noon “[t]he shrieking of every siren in San Fransisco, blowing of whistles, clanging of gongs and the ringing of bells will . . . signal for throwing away the gauze face coverings” (9). Why were there no more new cases reported than there were deaths the next week? Because someone said there wouldn’t be. So there weren’t. People caught colds and had the sniffles, but it wasn’t Spanish flu. Couldn’t be. The epidemic was over. Did you somehow sleep through the infernal cacophany last Tuesday? The city has no more need for mass-prophylaxis. Everyone who catches the bug now brought it with them on the boat, and everyone knows you can’t catch flu from boat-people. Wait—what do you mean, “How do I think it got here in the first place?” What? How come nobody told us—quick! Everyone! En masque en masse! So said the San Fransisco Chronicle on 4 December, and back up the panic-axis we go . . .

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