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second-best since Cantor

Category: archival

‘Pitch me, baby!’ or: David Pogue’s ego blocks our view of a much deeper, much scarier cultural problem.

From the archives: July 2011. The last of today’s batch. My contempt for gadgetbloggers (also ‘Apple pundits’) is limitless, as you can guess. I used to love venting my spleen like this. Now I tend to feel bad about it, though obviously not bad enough to keep this to myself. –wa.

David Pogue, a freelance gadget columnist best known for his work at the NYTimes, recently spoke (for pay) to an audience of PR professionals. The talk was entitled ‘Pitch Me, Baby.’ Last week the NYTimes ombudsman described Pogue exhorting the publicity men to suggest column material to him:

In the presentation, Pogue jumps out of the gate with a Power Point page inviting the audience to “Pitch me, Baby!”” The presentation goes on to offer do’s and don’ts and emphasizes his own close reliance on pitches that come his way from professional public relations people.

On a later slide, he displays eight recent New York Times columns and identifies five as having come from public relations people. Pogue explains that, as a reviewer of new gadgets, there is no comprehensive database he can rely on to learn about new stuff. Hence he relies on companies and their hired pitchmen to tell him about new products.

Pogue’s basic advice boils down to two imperatives: 1) “Save me time,” and 2) “Don’t be a robot.” This means that public relations people should tailor the pitch to its audience (avoid spamming, in particular) and avoid jargon and other extraneous matter.

This strikes me as a violation of journalistic ethics, not to mention good taste. The NYT agreed; Pogue has been forced to curb his appearances at such little get-togethers. But I don’t care at all about that aspect of the article; my disgust at Pogue’s behaviour isn’t new, nor is it unique; nor is he different in that regard from, say, Judith Miller pawning off Cheney/Rove PR as reportage. We don’t use the term ‘corporate media’ for nothing.

The deeper issue, which doesn’t seem to be getting talked about this week, is this:

Pogue’s job consists of advocating for the business interests of large corporations. That’s it. Like so many other ‘tech columnists,’ he masquerades as an advocate for better living with/through technology, but it’s easy to see that he’s always been a paid shill, nothing more: he’s only capable of talking about technology on a corporate PR timeline, within a logic of consumption rather than creation. He’s an advertiser for The New (and Expensive).

If Pogue mattered, he’d be writing about amazing! new! corporate! technology! with an eye toward an actual alternative: i.e. instead of saying ‘Should we buy the new iPhone or the new “iPhone-killer?”‘ a serious critic would ask, ‘Should we buy this new tech at all?’

A simple thought experiment: if you’ve bought a new computer in the last five years, why did you do so? If you’re a grownup, chances are you didn’t do it in order to play the latest video games. So ask yourself: what does your new computer enable you to do that your last computer didn’t? If your last computer was less than four years old, the answer is probably nothing.

My first iPhone altered the way I traveled (thank you location-aware computing) and used email (thank you 3G data service). My new one lets me shoot video, take better pictures, and run the old apps faster. I can imagine needing to replace it when it breaks, but what in the world could I possibly want from a ‘better’ phone?

Pogue and his fellow tech writers would answer by listing the features of next-gen phones. But ‘Why should I buy this phone?’ isn’t a question about a phone, it’s a question about me; and Pogue and his ilk should know it. Their defense is always the same: Well, you don’t have to buy what we recommend. And that’s true, of course. But these idiots then turn around and write about ‘tech’ from the perspective of collectors, ‘early adopters,’ fetishists. And they orient the culture toward these perverse logics.

Pogue isn’t a commentator on the ‘gadget industry,’ he’s part of it. He’s a servant of his corporate masters, who provide him with free shit in exchange for free publicity. But in his capacity as an NYTimes columnist, he’s presented as something else: a servant of his readers.

The only thing he creates in this world is a misperception of the need to buy new things.

So no, David Pogue’s recent bout of new-money tackiness isn’t a ‘journalism story.’ It’s not a ‘tech industry story.’ A paid advertiser got spanked by his bosses, who rely on paid advertising for their livelihoods. So what.

The actual story is that at this point, we can’t imagine ‘modern life’ without people like David Pogue. We are fucked.


Trouble online, trouble behind.

From the archives: August 2011. I’m not proud of this one but ‘as writing,’ but it was important to write it, and it hurts me to read it. So here it is. –wa.

I don’t get along with people online, and that’s the plain fact. It’s taken me a while to be matter-of-fact about it, but there it is. I spent a bunch of time discussing the situation in therapy a couple years ago, but never did arrive at a satisfactory solution.

OK. The the problem goes deeper than incivility.

The summer after 10th grade (1995) I spent five weeks at Johns Hopkins, taking classes in the Pre-College Program. (It’s different from the well-known precocious-child program, CTY.) I got my first C (in a molecular biology lecture) and worked hard to get a life-changing A (in a small, prescient ‘Explorations in Text-Based Virtual Reality’ humanities seminar). Both grades were portents, but I didn’t understand them.

The focus of the seminar was MUD/MOO/MUSH culture — ‘A Rape in Cyberspace,’ Barlow’s ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,’ Neuromancer, some Bukatman, some Dery, that kind of thing. One of the requirements was to spend a bunch of time exploring the Diversity University MOO (moo.du.org:8888). I did. I also signed up for LambdaMOO (lambda.moo.mud.org:8888).

I’d never used the Internet before.

Some days I would get up, read the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog or my newly-purchased Principia Discordia for a while, then head over to the computer lab for a 12-hour stint in Lambda. I missed meals. I even missed class (see above re: ‘my first C’). Tuition for the program came to $3,600 for five weeks. My dad mowed lawns to raise a few hundred dollars. A wonderful man in my hometown lent us the balance of the tuition and it took us a long while to pay him back; or else we never did.

I got some sun but not as much as I needed. I fell hard for a girl in the next dorm, who didn’t notice me. Then I fell for someone with the username ‘Sirena,’ and that’s one of the weirdest stories of my whole life, I think.

I learned to ‘speak in public’ on LambdaMOO but I learned plenty of other things as well; and I came to rely on it. When I went home at summer’s end I felt totally disconnected from my hometown. I told myself and my family and even my couple of close friends that I just missed Baltimore, had a great time ‘at college,’ had never been around people who shared so many of my interests, just needed a little time to adjust. Junior year ahead, yay. That kind of thing. All of which was true, I suppose —

— but it occurs to me today, for the very first time, that as much as I missed the people and the school and the freedom, I was also going through withdrawal from the online world where my new self was being born. I mean that literally.

The term we’re looking for is addiction, of course, more specifically a form of ‘Internet addiction,’ which in the late 90’s was a subject of no small concern in the press and in academia.

You never hear about it now. Once everyone does some activity all day every day it’s not an addiction, it’s just ‘part of life.’ Like TV, or worrying about work, or hating the government.

I check my email several dozen times a day, yet I fail to respond in a timely fashion to friends and acquaintances. I may in fact be the worst correspondent I know. Yet I don’t immediately forget about the ‘need to respond’: indeed, waves of anxiety about my Inbox full of unanswered emails continue to ripple for weeks and weeks. I am never, ever free of anxiety about these communications — but I avoid responding.

I’ve destroyed friendships — and strained family relationships — this way.

When I have spare time, I read websites and occasionally comment on them. Sometimes I do this even when I don’t have spare time. Altogether I spend hours (hours!) a day looking at webpages and retaining almost nothing. I take no great pleasure from this activity. Indeed it has the dry sterility of pure compulsion, like pulling the arm of the slot machine.

I’ve posted to this blog more than 3,100 times since 29 September 2003. In that time I’ve been banned from one website, slunk away from several others, and stormed off several more. I get into fewer ‘flame wars’ than I used to, but it still happens. I still feel anxiety about websites I’ve ‘stopped reading’; indeed, at the site where I’ve been banned, I continue to comment under a different name.

I feel contempt for such behaviour but haven’t found a way to stop it, as yet.

Since 2009 I’ve posted upwards of 150 reviews to the phish.net — but I’ve only posted one or two since June, during which time I’ve posted 50 comments in discussion threads and in response to the admins’ blog posts. I consciously avoided any such discussions until this summer. This correlation between ‘chatting’ online and posting more thought-out frontline pieces (reviews and articles) has held, in my case, for many years.

After building a (very very minor) reputation as a thoughtful writer at whedonesque.com, I’ve all but scuttled it by turning into a persnickety, ill-tempered commenter. Unsurprisingly, none of my posts have been featured there since I started commenting more regularly.

The term isn’t brand dilution, but then what’s the term? Would I be happier if I knew?

A longtime netizen (remember that term?) told me this when I was banned from phishthoughts.com (for ‘trolling’):

You are a highly intelligent, very cerebral and I believe well meaning person but it seems that you have some form of internet Asperger’s which makes it impossible for you to determine what is and is not socially acceptable in many circumstances online.

I wrote him a long email telling him, essentially, that he had no idea what he was talking about and I was perfectly justified in what I said about the site’s owner and EVERYONE NEEDS TO THICKEN THE OLD SKIN, ETC., ETC. But I didn’t send it. My wife approvingly refers to this kind of thing as de-escalation and always looks so relieved when I choose not to carry on such exchanges. The look on her face breaks my heart. I realize, at such moments, that I don’t actually know how much damage I do to myself — or I won’t acknowledge it, or (worst of all, and most likely) I’ve decided I need to hurt myself ‘socially’ in order to continue living as I am.

Last summer I wrote this:

I think we should purge the books and sell them, to alleviate my guilt (not a writer, not a devoted enough reader, nothing special…) and maybe recoup a bit of money. My wife thinks we should keep the books around[…] And dust them. I try to explain that life will stop and start over, better, if she’ll just allow this one gesture; I mistake my self-indulgence for patience.

She evidently believes — insists — that life can’t start or stop, can only continue, so we might allow ourselves to do the same. I imagine that our future must resemble my past. The books, I’m certain, are signs of my…well, my irresponsibility, profligacy, compulsions, status-consciousness. My individual failings, you might say. Don’t I get the future I darkly deserve?

But what comes next is ours, not mine. `Mine’ is just for comfort — like the books. In our future[…]I’m glad my wife[…]made me keep the dreadful damned books way back when, and frustrated my urge to reduce our life to my story.

In grad school I went to a conference and met a young professor from some college out of sight/mind, and over the course of several joyful drunkening hours it became clear that we wanted to fuck each other, quite, but I was dating someone and she had to get back to her friends’ house where she was staying, and in any case it would have been an absolutely colossal mistake, quite, but unforgivable? Who knows? Probably yes and deservedly so I’d say (were the situation reversed). Well. One of those stories I hold onto in which I ‘miss an opportunity’ to have a conventional ‘good story’ but still come close enough to some inner horizon that the light goes strange and new (or very old) things are revealed. So how bad a story can it really be, what I’ve got now? She was a Buffy fan too and I definitely should have called her when I was single, later. But I wasn’t ever really single.

I mention it because, though I can’t find the email she sent a few days later in response to my own message, I’ve memorized these phrases:

  • ‘maybe too smart for your own good’
  • ‘extremely socially awkward’

I’ve used ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ as a term of derision.

I am ashamed. This is inappropriate and callous.

It would be, even if I were Oprah Winfrey.

Everyone wants his favourite band to also be The Very Best Band. This is really important to teenagers, who in this country have nothing else to do, but it stays important to nominal adults. Like me. Same for books/films of course. (Phish, Coltrane, James Joyce, Fight Club, etc.) Same for people, though I wouldn’t know. I can’t imagine what I’d be like if I didn’t map my tastes on to the cosmic quality scale.

The point being that there are two problems compounding one another: I compulsively fiddle about on the Internet, either getting into arguments or zoning out pretending to be interested in what Ezra Klein and Arthur Silber have to say about anything, but at the same time I have very serious trouble maintaining a civil tone and spirit of congeniality in online fora. I tend to monologue at people — ever notice how rarely I respond to the wonderful comments around here? When the conversation gets two-sided I lose control of something (maybe just the conversation), and I end up saying things I regret. ‘Being misunderstood,’ HORROR!, but more than that: no longer trying to understand the people I talking to. Not reaching out.

And that’s where I am this morning. Worried, if you’re wondering, that I’ll slowly lose friends and alienate readers and never stop doing the things I most hate about myself. And — you must know this is deeply related — worried, too, that I’ll never write freely because it will always be about me.

You want 100% employment? Assign every single citizen to border patrol. The true meaning of the nation-state right there, the geographic Self. OK, hold one guy back to make dinner I guess. One guy for laundry. And someone to make sure the cable bill gets paid.

My son will probably wake up soon, and my wife with him. The day will start. Real life will start. This…this is the shadow. If you walk toward the light it’ll hide from your sight, but not as a favour: your shadow will follow you wherever you go.

Twaddler/toppler: morning notes starring our 11-and-a-half-month-old baby.

From the archives: August 2011. I hope posts like this bring you even a fraction of the joy they brought (and bring) me. –wa.

  • I lie on the ground pretending to be unconscious because I’m a good and caring father. He crawls over to me and begins to poke me in the face with one of his wooden drumsticks. I get up before he has a chance to begin whacking me on the skull.

  • He mounts a low Amazon.com box in order to climb to a slightly higher one; falling backward off the low box, he lands on one knee, then rises up en pointe (without the benefit of e.g. ballet shoes or professional dance training) and executes a sly leaping maneuver to get back on the low box. I grab him before he has a chance to mount the coffee table and destroy all our possessions.

  • I challenge him to a duel, i.e. I grab one of his drumsticks and start whacking the drumstick he’s holding. At first he is confused by the obvious stupidity of this activity. Then he shifts his drumstick from right hand to left and closes on me with a series of attacks learned from the master Thibault. I am driven back nearly to the edge of the Cliffs before realizing I can, in fact, simply reach over and pick him up or crush him like a grape. Sobered, exhilarated, flushed with battle, I surrender manfully.

  • Places his drumstick gets caught during his solitaire game of ‘Whack the puree-pouch lid around on the ground, hockey-puck-style, with my drumsticks while dad watches’: his diaper, my underpants leg, folds in the blanket, eddies in the spacetime continuum.

  • My, that is an enormous quantity of vomit, isn’t it.

  • My friend Farhad once proposed to write a rock opera setting the water-stealing backstory of Chinatown in outer space. Among the songs he listed ‘Love Song of a Dying Robot.’ What he does not know is that I’ve actually written and even recorded several versions of the song (and other songs from the cycle, including ‘Space Ace’ and a variety of asteroid-miner shanties) in the intervening years. I’ve never been happy with any of it. Sample lines:

it takes these words ten minutes to reach you
a million miles away
longer still when you were in my arms
dear, that’s why today
feels much like yesterday

and of course

oh, row, the sailor sings
of polycarbon starship wings
oh, row, the solar winds
carry me across the galaxy

  • now i’m going nowhere
    but there’s nowhere else that i would rather be*

That sort of thing.

  • We listen to parts of DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… and my son’s actions take on a somewhat louche character. He plays with his outlandish Sassy foam-grippy-rattle-ball object, possibly the most psychedelic/seizure-inducing item I have ever seen in real earth life, with a kind of fin de siècle dissipation, as if biding time in the unlit corner of some cabaret waiting for the secret police to cancel not just the performance nor the fun, but the very idea of progress or continuance; as if aware that he can’t stay a twaddler/toppler forever. His cynicism, if that’s what it is, is elliptical. Or is it resolve? Or does he need a diaper change? I put on some Duran Duran to lighten the mood but it all feels very, very several-years-too-late…

  • He attempts to climb onto the futon/couch. Mercifully, it’s too high for him. He contents himself instead playing with my hospital ID bracelet, which I take away because it’s probably the single least sanitary object in this impressively unsanitary apartment. Then he reaches for the nightmare toy, about which I will say nothing more at this time in case it reads my blog and decides, in retaliation, to steal my eyes while I sleep.

  • He engages in good old fill’n’spill behaviour with his colour/shape blocks, with a twist – he only pulls the blocks out of their little pail in matching pairs (two orange stars, two green squares, two red triangles). I encourage this racist behaviour because of how I was brought up, in a rural area.

  • Yay! Stackers!

  • Yay! Affectlessly throwing all the stackers over the side of the playpen over and over and over again!

  • I would do anything for him. Indeed, I suspect I will: the scariest thing about parenthood, which is to say in the right light the most joyful, is that twenty or forty years from now I’ll remember sacrifices and transformations that today, 20 August 2011 in Cambridge, I couldn’t possibly have imagined. I have no idea what he’s becoming. I have no idea what I’m becoming.

Meanwhile my wife catches up on sleep just offstage, which she desperately needs because as hard as I feel like I work, she works ten times harder, dies a thousand times when our son cries, is lifted up and lifts me up with each stumbling advance or strange detour he takes. She is the molten core; she’s his light, and mine.

  • Duran Duran do not have a limitless supply of great songs.

Oh Sunday.

From the archives: December 2011.

Pain of the past in its pastness. Today I’m thinking about…I don’t know what. Nothing really. In the car with my son sleeping in the backseat and inside the apartment (a few feet away) my wife and the organizer lady, Erin, just a couple years out of college, are getting the place ready for deleading. I miss my parents. My mom is nine years dead. My dad is old, alive, warm, slowing down, far away, a good man I’ve never known quite how to emulate. He feels in a language I don’t know. Mystery to me since I was young though I’ve long known I was meant (meant!) to come up like him, good and strong and sure. A straight-backed man bent only by time and care. He hasn’t lied or wormed his way around, ever. Nothing to hide. He is a good man and I worry that we’ve never understood each other; or not worry: I mourn. Early to be mourning. He is a living man and good and true, wants nothing but love for his sons. But I fall into the solecism — or I mean solipsism, I guess — of mourning.

Meanwhile we’re all sick. I feel old. But small and young — old, I mean, before my time, unearned. Which is to say weak. I mean I’m sorry I’ve never undertaken to make myself into the strong straightforward man I was to have been. Wheels spinning against inner wheels. I have to go indirect to get to things. To what I think I want (am ‘meant’) to say.

I got a fine education but I suppose it’s done now, in the formal sense. Though learning continues thank god. My brother asked me, back in middle school or high school, to exchange books with him. I suggested ‘Dune’ and he gave me ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ More than 15 years ago. And I never did read it. Never did read a single word of Dickens in my whole life.

All the ways I’ve hidden from my family. Meeting them always far less than halfway.

Hitchens died at the Anderson center in Houston. My mom went there for examinations when she first found out — was finding out? was living with the discovery that? — she had cancer. Today we go to a bed & breakfast up the street where we’ll stay for a few days. Then to see my in-laws near Denver. The apartment will be full of poison dust for a few days. I wrote maybe 47,000 words worth of a new manuscript in November. I had to stop writing just before the 30th, and haven’t taken it up since.

I’m never able to talk about my family, or death, or my friends, or even just time’s passage, without talking too about writing.

It is not my job, I realize. It’s how I think. Wasn’t always but there you have it.

I don’t know what I did before I wrote.

I might have a job for spring semester after all. Then we’ll be able to afford day care for my son. I’m unusually well-suited to this job and would be happy to have it. All the more reason for things not to work out: I haven’t earned that kind of happiness, have I? It’s a ‘writing job’: actually, I’d be teaching writing to bright technically-minded college students. Almost a dream.

I am preoccupied with the people I’ve been.

I never say ‘men.’

Well what sort of man am I. Sitting here in the car sickly and my boy is sleeping in the backseat. I don’t know that I respect myself. I used to piss in the kitchen sink so as not to wake our son walking up the stairs. After a while it stopped being a problem — walking noise I mean — but I took a while longer to stop pissing in the sink. I’d gotten used to it. So much easier than going all the way to the bathroom upstairs. Now we live in a one-story apartment and the floor outside the bedroom is squeaky all over again, but I’ve unlearned my shortcut. I thought of it as generous. But I walk on by him now and feel civilized pissing in the toilet. I didn’t used to think of it as any big thing. Maybe that’s a small win. For me, I guess? Or Western civilization?

I quite like it, you know. The West. Absolutely devastating to authentic self-knowledge, but it’s alright.

This week my brother finally disposed of a gigantic sombrero he bought in Texas. He took a long train trip with my mom. I was in college, or maybe grad school. Perhaps they were going to the Anderson center even then. Maybe she was given a schedule at that time, pertaining to the order in which her internal organs would be crippled and destroyed by cancer. First your DNA turns against you, as I understand it, babbling in a new language, mutated — apoptosis undone too — so that the logomaniacal babble can no longer be stopped even by death; and your immortal cells band together and grow into a tight-knit community which eats you. Maybe they put the schedule on a nicely-formatted spreadsheet for my mom to peruse while she died by degrees. Your colon, charmingly, to begin; and later on your lungs. Quiet your beautiful voice and steal your cultured appetite. All your learning. No sleep and no rest. Forget how to read. Here is a sombrero for your boy to wear at the train station while carrying all the suitcases. He looks so small surrounded by those bags and you will die long before your time.

Your eldest son will not watch every moment of your collapse and disintegration because he will be ‘living it up’ in Boston. Too far to quickly drive. Please do not again ask what he plans to do with his graduate degree in video games. He will later fly home on a ‘bereavement fare,’ though, saving a substantial amount of money on that one-way plane ticket. The world revolves around a dying star. He isn’t thrifty but he’s not the fool he seems. He’ll know he’s failed.

If I could only tell you how much I hate myself for not being part of my mom’s last years on earth, for not working to preserve and restore and join our shared family body. If I could quiet down long enough to breathe in simple facts like All Things Pass.

The first time I meditated I nearly cried at the realization that I wasn’t alone in the office building where I sat. Think of that so tiny thing. That it could mean so much to a man. Not to be alone in a city of millions!

I could be a better friend to my brother. Really I could. We disagree on so much. I told him to ‘piss off’ two days ago on the phone and he hung up on me. No talking since.

I guess I’m saying this to him. Hello Come back. Or to her, I guess. Come back hello I love you in spite of myself.

Probably spelled ‘library’ with one L again, poor bastard.

From the Archives, April 2012: a brief celebration of the extraordinary darkness at the heart of my favourite funny books. –wa.

The quite good joke that leads off the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — in which Arthur Dent’s house is destroyed to make way for a bypass, but he’s not around to see it because he’s fleeing Earth, which is being destroyed to make way for a (hyperspace) bypass — deepens by degrees throughout the first four volumes of the series, until it attains a kind of comic grandeur. A quick overview:

  • In the first volume, we start with the aforementioned good (but simple) joke on mindless bureaucracy. The planet is blown up, and the earthlings’ protests come too late — the plans have been on display at Alpha Centauri for decades. But it gets better: Earth wasn’t even a planet, it was a computer designed to find the Ultimate Question, destroyed at the moment of readout. Life on Earth was just part of a computer program.
  • In the second volume (Restaurant) we find out that (1) Arthur has the Question in his brain, (2) it’s not even the right question, and (3) the reason for this cockup is that the simple peaceful cave-mammals populating prehistoric Earth were killed off by a bunch of idiot telephone sanitizers and management executives judged too stupid for their own planet. Earth was, it turns out, a backwater’s backwater. And by the way, the Vogons were actually hired by Zaphod’s analyst — who didn’t want the Ultimate Question interfering with his business. Even that cosmic conspiracy is absolutely petty in motivation. (And the whole thing might take place in Zarniwoop’s literal ‘pocket’ universe anyhow. Adams was fearless about tossing out his premises…)
  • Then we get to Life &c. — in which we revisit Earth but just twenty pages or so at the beginning and another five or ten at the end, where we encounter one bloody clusterfuck after another, mostly revolving around the Ashes, which (I’m told) are something to do with cricket, which is what Englishmen play when they find baseball too fast-moving and stress-inducing. Earth — basically a floating calculator populated by stumbling morons, our hero included — is a bit player in the great drama of Krikkit. Arthur and Ford hang around long enough to be annoyed, and Arthur asks to be dropped off elsewhere.
  • But in So Long and Thanks, he comes back — and meets Fenchurch, the crazy woman who figured out the answer to the Earth’s many problems on the first page of the first volume. They have a bit of sex on the wing of a plane and end up leaving Earth anyway. The series’s recurring nostalgia object isn’t, in the end, worth the trouble. There are other matters to attend to anyhow — the laughing truth-teller and God’s last message to His creation among them.
  • I can’t remember Mostly Harmless but I’m sure it’s nice. There’s food in it, and some jokes about TV.

One extraordinary thing about this series of increasingly Weird treatments of Earth and its fate — too big to be a comic ‘runner’ but so lightly handled that it’s easy to miss its centrality to the (ahem) trilogy’s (ahem) philosophy — is that Douglas Adams kept finding new ways to tell grand jokes about the true nature of the human race and its beautiful, broken planet. The bit about the mice would’ve been a fine topper to the initial gag, but the Golgafrincham sequence manages to strip away its sentimentality while achieving real emotional resonance — we killed what was true and good about the Earth long before the Vogons justifiably did us in.

The contemptuous ease with which various beings (mice, Vogons, Halfrunt, the galactic judiciary, Disaster Area’s stage crew) kill off or otherwise terrorize various other beings (usually Arthur and his companions, but also the entire population of Earth, the telepathy-stricken inhabitants of Belcerebon, Prostetnic Jeltz’s crew, the billiards-ball planet in Ford’s story, et al.) is the blackest joke in the whole series. Of course in Adams’s ass-over-other-bits Darwinian cosmos, this is the nature of life, universe, everything. Which makes his ‘true’-nature-of-Earth revelations all the more bleak: they follow an emotional line straight toward dissipation and despair, and Arthur can only respond with an exhausted shrug.

Here’s one of Adams’s bleakest interpolated narratives, in full:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an indispensable companion to all those who are keen to make sense of life in an infinitely complex and confusing Universe, for though it cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters, it does at least make the reassuring claim, that where it is inaccurate it is at least definitively inaccurate. In cases of major discrepancy it’s always reality that’s got it wrong.

This was the gist of the notice. It said ‘The Guide is definitive. Reality is frequently inaccurate.’

This has led to some interesting consequences. For instance, when the Editors of the Guide were sued by the families of those who had died as a result of taking the entry on the planet Tralal literally (it said ‘Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts often make a very good meal for visiting tourists’ instead of ‘Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts often make a very good meal of visiting tourists’), they claimed that the first version of the sentence was the more aesthetically pleasing, summoned a qualified poet to testify under oath that beauty was truth, truth beauty and hoped thereby to prove that the guilty party in this case was Life itself for failing to be either beautiful or true. The judges concurred, and in a moving speech held that Life itself was in contempt of court, and duly confiscated it from all those there present before going off to enjoy a pleasant evening’s ultragolf.

The entire Hitchhiker’s Guide universe runs just like that. The destruction of Earth in chapter 1 of the first book fits this pitch-black comic mood perfectly, but it’s also a comfortingly benign event at the time, because it seems so utterly out of measure with readers’ expectations. After all, England runs more or less the same way, is the obvious satiric point, but it’s all more civilized in a way, isn’t it? There’s contempt and then there’s contempt, right?

Well. By the end of the series, in an ironic ‘triumph’ of worldbuilding, Adams has lifted up Earth — or rather the various mutually-contradictory Earths — to the status of full participation in the carnival of malice and cruelty and offhand, even accidental, genocide which is his (nonetheless quite funny) titular Galaxy.

The only consistently nice, earnest, curious creature in the whole series is a mattress, which flollops around in a swamp.

From the Archives: ‘Sweepstakes’ TV fandom.

Wrote this in 2011 for my now-defunct Typepad blog — much the best site on the entire Internet, everybody knew it — and on rereading it seems to’ve held up, more or less. So here you go. Huh: I really liked Dexter for the first four seasons, didn’t I. But so’s you know, I gave up on it after Rita’s death in the S4 finale. There seemed no point to continuing. My wife kept up with it, and liked S5 and S6 a lot. I haven’t changed the original text at all.

Judging from the Internet discourse surrounding the show, most (male) Sopranos fans viewed that show through the lens of one or another adolescent ‘sweepstakes’: Will this be the year Tony gets it? Who will be killed next? Will the Russian come back? Will Carmela find out all Tony’s secrets? And most obnoxiously: WHEN WILL THE GANG WAR WITH NEW YORK GO OFF?!

It’s important to understand that this kind of scorekeeping nonsense, this fixation on violence and sensational plot devices, really does seem to dominate popular discourse on even the best TV shows. But that’s not an accident. Without question, this has been a golden age of American television, but the desire-structure of scripted TV – its endlessly restated/regenerated premises mounting resistance to radical change at any level – makes for an uncomfortably constrained art form. The sitcom has always been a maddeningly repetitive, limited dramatic form, but the need to welcome new viewers and start from an instantly-understandable premise also afflicts our hourlong dramas, not just episodic schlock like CSI or Law & Order but more thoughtful serial works as well.

Even in our Golden Age, examples abound. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer moved off its initial premise (‘High school is hell’) to a tale of young adulthood in its fourth season, viewers resented the change despite the writers directly addressing that resentment in the text. Lost came totally unmoored as it incorporated off-island events and ‘mythology’ into its goofy puzzlebox mystery, alienating more casual viewers. Twin Peaks imploded, rapidly shedding its audience and falling into nonsensical supernaturalism, when its own premise question (‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’) was answered and set aside. Veronica Mars could barely sustain a rickety third season, having addressed every one of its first/second season premise questions.

The Sopranos pissed off millions of viewers by refusing to reward their prurient interest in gang violence and theatrical sexual escapades; by Season Four, David Chase and his fellow writers had made it clear that they saw the season-long plots as structural devices, choosing to focus instead on the minute mundanities that made up its central characters’ lives. The audience moaned about the long stretches of quiet contemplation and stasis in later seasons, unable to integrate them with the show’s violent moments into a cohesive human universe. Chase’s ‘perverse’ refusal to provide simple satisfaction – ‘closure,’ as they say – is sensible, indeed unexceptionable, in the context of The Sopranos‘s actual story, i.e. continuance: human inertia, the maintenance of those private lies that let us Live As We Are. But viewers had the audacity to ‘demand’ answers to mere plot questions: ‘Do they get Tony? Does he get away with it all?’

As if refusing to kill the man onscreen amounted to ‘letting him get away with it.’ What a stupid, barbaric notion.

But then we’re trained to watch TV that way. The premise is unassailable; it’s the calling card, the point of return, and no matter how audacious a show’s ‘plot twists’ might get, the premise can never be too complicated for a ‘Previously on…’ segment. That’s the horizon of complexity: even a complicated mystery plot can never get so thorny or suggestive that it can’t be summed up for the rubes in two minutes of clips from the last few episodes. The main reason for this banality is money: viewers won’t watch TV that makes them work too hard, and commercial TV exists to deliver viewers to corporations and politicians who wish to sell them shit.

Even a masterwork like Mad Men gets talked about – and sold – in the language of simple mystery: Will Betty find out about Don? Will Pete find out about Peggy’s baby? Of course the fans want to know these things, but they don’t need to; when the information is delivered, the story’s over. The story, you see, is living despite not knowing, and the inaccessible knowledge is always a proxy for the very horizon of knowability, namely the bright nothing which is Death. If you’re in a hurry to find out what happens after death, go die; it’s your funeral, as they say. But in the meantime you have to accommodate the mystery. Life is that unknowing, in essence. Drama provides an illusion otherwise. But the bliss that drama provides is the illusion’s maintenance, not its ultimate dispelling – the climax might be the loudest part of the story, yay, but it’s also (tragically) the last bit.

What’s your hurry?

The impatience and myopia of The Viewer, who mistakes desire for need, is part of the magic of fiction; but eventually you start to know better. When you’re not so afraid of death, maybe you’re not so obsessed with endings. Things change. So what?

Which brings us to Dexter, a genuinely unique long-form drama that’s pilloried by critics and viewers for ‘hitting the reset button’ and ‘returning to the status quo’ and generally failing to deliver, er, something or other. It’s hard to say what’s missing, actually. The show’s never short on smartly-paced thrills; as a mystery/procedural it’s quiet well done. The dialogue ranges from decent to superb, though Michael C. Hall’s comically menacing voiceover is overused to an embarrassing degree. (The final monologue of Season Four is unforgivable in this regard, a cowardly mistake by the writers, and poorly worded to boot.) And the acting is uniformly good, particularly the women and of course Dexter himself.

But the fans bitch, bitch, bitch. They bitch about Rita, Deb, the charmingly inevitable LaGuerta/Angel romance; about Dexter’s ‘neutering’ and ‘lack of character development’; about the fact that every season ends with a big meaningful killing and the narrow avoidance of the law. They desperately want the show to continue, but complain that it needs an endpoint; they applaud familiar mystery ‘twists’ while moaning about the show’s predictability’; most of all, they cry out (on testosterone-drenched message boards all across the Web) for the catharsis of righteous violence, even against Dexter himself, without ever commenting on the irony of that desire in the context of the story itself, which (after all) is centrally concerned with whether we are anything more than our compulsions…

The sweepstakes is always the same with Dexter as with The Sopranos: Is this the year Dexter gets caught? Does Rita find out about him? Does Deb? Which cop will die next? How can these improbabilities keep piling up?

But the show has nothing whatsoever to do with any of these questions.

It’s not really about a murderer.

The plot of Dexter is a variation on the familiar: guy scarred by childhood trauma loses access to his emotions except grief; he’s raised to be a vigilante, channeling his dark urges into hypercompetent criminality in the name of the law (i.e. he ritually murders Bad Guys).

It’s Batman with a married serial murderer in the lead role, but be careful with that analogy.

The story of Dexter is in no way dependent on his forbidden desires being murderous. If the sensational premise is stripped away, we’re left with something equally interesting: traumatized orphan is raised by his adoptive father to believe that his remaining feelings/desires are monstrous, but the same father trains him to effectively ‘hide’ in society by faking normality. Now the kid’s grown up, still living by his dad’s Code, but he’s gone too far undercover into society, ‘gone native’ you might say: now that he’s living with a girlfriend and helping raise her kids, he’s starting to develop emotional responses to the world, some of them deeply surprising to him – and he’s got to integrate these feelings into a new self-conception. He doesn’t know what ‘love’ is, but he might be feeling it. Along with his sister (a different sort of mess), he starts to become a functional human adult. He marries, has a baby of his own. The weight of hiding his pathology wears on him, and on those around him, those he loves: the lies are poisonous. He wishes to be rid of them. He wants to be a whole person – to be free of his social ‘disease,’ his wrongness, the side of himself that he thinks no one else can understand. To help him make this transition he becomes close to a series of people who enable or relate to his condition (other killers and lunatics), but none of those relationships are healthy; all end badly (in blood).

He finds true humanity by giving himself to the chaos of human feeling, of community, of connection. He gives in to the madness and complexity of love. The cost of this giving is incalculable, the pain at times unbearable, but it makes him, finally, a human being. He is ready to give up what he thinks of as his identity, his perversion.

That’s where Season Four ends: Dexter declares himself ready to be a ‘normal’ man. A father, husband, brother, friend.

Then his wife is killed, leaving behind their three kids.

Incredibly, many fans cheered this ‘plot twist’: Back to the bloodthirsty Dexter of Season One! Those who fancied themselves ‘savvy’ or ‘critical’ viewers expressed the hope that the show would now be ‘bolder,’ more innovative, take more risks.

These people evidently didn’t consider the story of a psychopath learning to empathize with other human beings and resolving to enter joyfully into community and communion to be a bold, risky tale. They evidently didn’t recognize the astonishing depth of the character’s transformation over the show’s first four years.

Rita’s murder in the Season Four finale was hailed as a ‘bold’ move by the writers. But I disagree. New stories to tell in Season Five, I suppose, but that only matters if you’re committed above all to the premise, which is a business concern not a creative one: ‘Dexter is a show about a serial killer.’ Which it isn’t, of course. It’s a story about a wounded boy becoming a healthy man.

The real bravery would have been to let Rita live, and to tell a story about a man who did terrible things resolving to do good things, which is to say, to create for himself a new language and world of goodness, and thereby to seek peace.

But the same juvenile assholes who clamored for Andy Sipowicz to fall off the wagon onscreen now wail that Dexter doesn’t do enough clever onscreen murdering of clearly-marked Bad Guys. Actually, no – 20 years have passed since NYPD Blue. It’s their asshole children who are doing the clamoring. Which, if you’ve been watching Dexter closely, you’ll recognize as one of that show’s truest inner stories (each generations painful inheritance of its parents’ ‘sin,’ which is to say mere humanness).

If you feel you were owed a definitive explanation of whether Tony Soprano lived or died, then you’ve so completely missed the point – not just of that show but of storytelling itself – that I feel real pity for you. If you feel that the most authentic thing an episode of Dexter can portray is Neat Murder Adventures, then we may all be better off if you find a high cliff to dramatically, beautifully, tragically, joyfully throw yourself the fuck off of. Make sure to log out first.