Monday, 12 October 2009

The increasingly forgettable work of Malcolm Gladwell G.D. pointed out the latest Gladwell article to me, and now that I’ve read it, I’m at a loss for words: rarely in the history of long-form journalism has the pitch been more obvious or the product more strained. Gladwell decided to write an article on violence in the National Football Leauge, went to his editor with his Vick-topical article and was told to run with it. The problem, of course, is that the entire article boils down to this question: Is [football] dogfighting or is it stock-car racing? And that question, I think we can agree, makes little sense for the simple reason that its analogy isn’t analogous. I know that blunt counterintuitive statements are a hallmark of literary journalism, but they need to be founded on something more substantial than this: [I]s the kind of [tau deposit-induced dementia] being uncovered by McKee and Omalu [in former NFL players] incidental to the game of football or inherent in it? Part of what makes dogfighting so repulsive is the understanding that violence and injury cannot be removed from the sport. It’s a feature of the sport that dogs almost always get hurt. Something like stock-car racing, by contrast, is dangerous, but not unavoidably so. The relevant analogy is right there—preventable injuries in Nascar versus the NFL—but had Gladwell went with that, he would have to ditch the dogfighting angle.* The problem, then, is that the once venerable New Yorker would rather be clever and topical than deeply informative. Consider, for example, the career of the go-to literary journalist for me and Ari, John McPhee. His first book was about A Sense of Where You Are, was about the professional basketball player, long-tenured Senator and former Presidential candidate Bill Bradley, but was written before Bradley graduated from Princeton. McPhee did a superlative job outlining what would make Bradley successful, but he didn’t write about him because the New Yorker wanted an article about the Senatorial or Presidential candidate. Similarly, after Katrina the magazine saw fit to print McPhee’s brilliant (and to my students, hilariously unpronounceable) essay “Atchafalaya,” which was first published in in 1987, long before most people outside of Louisiana cared about the state of the levees. My point, as you probably guessed, is that the odds of the New Yorker dipping into their archives and pulling out a Gladwell essay on the strength of its reporting or the depth of its intelligence decrease with every superficially clever, patently topical article they allow him to write and consent to publish. This isn’t to say that Gladwell is incapable of strong reportage or intellectual depth—only that that people can’t seem to convince him to slow down and write something with heft enough to be as relevant twenty years down the line as it is this week. *I have nothing against clever analogies when they actually, you know, work. My friend Barry Siegel combined a thrilling narrative of a crashing B29 and a legal case that led to . . . something...
By request: my visual rhetoric course As requested in the comments to my last post and via a couple of emails, here's a general outline of the course I teach on visual rhetoric. (If you find it interesting or just want to give me money, the book I'm co-writing with my course director should be available early next summer.) I'm more than happy to debate the merits of teaching rhetoric and argument through popular culture or the validity of any of the particular readings I put forward; however, keep in mind that those readings are presented in the classroom and, as such, are designed to be arguable instead of definitive. I want them to argue with particular statements because I'm teaching them how to argue, so there are moments (particularly in the readings of the films) that I'm deliberately wrong. Those moments will likely be obvious to you, but you're not an 18-year-old undergraduate on the short end of an institutional power imbalance who's afraid that, should they contradict me, they will fail the class, lose their scholarship and spend their days toiling away in the service industries. That said, here are links to the analytic portion of the course: I introduce them to the idea of the overdetermined image, because nothing is accidental in an Alan Moore script.* Nor, for that matter, is anything accidental when it costs $80,000 per second to film it, which is why we then discuss how Christopher Nolan turns Batman into classic horror monster in Batman Begins. The point here is get them fluent in the language of film, so that they might make arguments about how directors manipulate the camera in order to appeal to the audience. (We also discuss what is and isn't in the diegetic space, e.g. music, which is heard by the audience but not the characters.) Then it's on to The Dark Knight. That link goes to a reading of the interrogation scene; this one leads you to a similarly thorough analysis dedicated to proving the controversial thesis that Batman is really fast—because demonstrating that even the simplest of claims require evidence and careful argument to be taken seriously is the point of the course. Now that they're relatively fluent in the language of film, we try to prove something a little more complex; namely, that Superman Returns is very much about 9/11. First, I take them back to September morning; then we analyze the action sequence that's about planes slamming into NYC landmarks, lest they think I'm reading too much into the anxieties the film taps into. Now that they're comfortable with film, I get them to apply that knowledge to comics via the comic that's about the conventions of comics and is therefore utterly unfilmable, Watchmen. I begin by reminding them of the overdetermined nature of the image, then we discuss panel transitions and word-picture relation, move on layout and narrative flow, then I try to prove what I stated in the second sentence about Watchmen being a meta-comic. My argument's deliberately argumentative,...

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