Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What's Your Number?


"There's even a whole article in Marie Claire about it..." says Anna Faris in this romantic comedy. In the same scene, a female friend tells Faris that a study at Harvard found that once a female has had more than 20 sexual partners, she will likely never marry. These two sentences that I have typed out say more about contemporary society than I have ever typed before. Instead of a review of the film, I am going to work out some of the things implied in these two sentences.

In its awkward and unfunny way, What's Your Number? is working out a particular type of tension within society. This tension? The emergence of the sexually liberated and promiscuous young female professional, a single lady, living on her own, having casual sex. How do I know this is a tension? If you reversed the genders of this film, it wouldn't even exist. We are still having problems with the double standard that permeates our society, that a woman who has sex freely is a slut whereas a man who has sex freely is a stud. Ignorant Social Darwinists argue that men are biologically determined to spread their seed as best as possible whereas women are designed to stay with one partner in order to maintain the paternity of the child. This is ridiculous and tends to ignore all the complex facets of psychology that drive us.

In Nina Power's book, One Dimensional Woman, which I have been pointing to a lot on this blog recently, she points to the postcapitalist system's tendency to ruthlessly colonize markets in order to create further profit. Specifically, the market has colonized the concept of feminism, turning it into something to be exploited. In a previous post, I pointed to the idea that advertising is asking women to buy into a sisterhood of inclusion that respects all body shapes and types. By purchasing this product, the consumer is literally buying into feminism. The consumer can feel good about themselves by consoling themselves that the product feeds into positive aspects of feminism. You are a feminist by purchasing this sex toy, this candle, this whatever.

The specific market that is being colonized is the young single urban professional female. In What's Your Number, Anna Faris' character is young, single, working for a corporate system (and denying her artistic individual dreams) and lives alone in a giant apartment in what appears to be either Chicago or Boston. She is the perfect demographic for this particular market. The emergence of the young working female is not specifically new. The typist or the secretary of the 50s and 60s is a good example of this. The appearance of this particular single female in the previously male dominated workforce heralded a slight shift in the sexual dynamics of the workplace. The same is happening now, but concurrently with the acceleration of the colonization of the marketplace specific to feminism.

Young single women are having sex. It's a fact. I wish I had the stats to back up this claim, but I think we can totally agree that the rise of the hookup culture, the decrease in marriage, the relaxing of particular social/sexual taboos and the overall improvement in wealth has led to a culture in which single people of both sexes are engaging in sexual relationships that do not extend to a marriage. Of course, there exists a long term committed relationship without the marriage, but the very definition of this term is nebulous and highly subjective.

If we agree that single people are having sex, then we must agree that young women are having sex (as it takes partners of both sexes to have heterosexual intercourse). If this is true, then why do I think that we are uncomfortable with it? Again, I put to readers that if the genders were reversed in this film, the audience reaction would be entirely different. In fact, the film wouldn't exist.

Chris Evans plays the romantic lead in this film. He helps Anna Faris track down her exes so that she might possibly try again with them, in an attempt not to increase her number. They spend most of the movie together, he does cute things for her, they have a lot of fun, and inevitably, they fall in love. He demonstrates his opinion of her by changing a fundamental part of his behaviour which symbolizes value in the protagonist's perception of him. This is a cynical reading of a common trope in romantic comedies, but it's interesting nonetheless in respect to my previous paragraph.

Evans' character is a classic lothario, bedding different women nightly, but is unable to make any emotional connection with them beyond the physical. He attempts to sleep with Faris' character multiple times. At first, in the context of simple conquest. Later, in the natural progression of their relationship. His worth in the film grows as he stops mindlessly sleeping with women and becomes more of a friend. At the beginning of the film, his worth is only pragmatic; he helps find the exes. His worth increases as Faris comes to see that her exes are crazy and that Evans is the only man who understands her. This comes around when he demonstrates that he engages with her highly specific and highly individual method of artistic expression. By appreciating her quirkiness, he has shown he is unlike the other men. Again, this is common in the language of romantic comedies. I'm not pointing out anything revelatory.

But, What's Your Number is working through this classic themes of love and marriage in the context of relationship-less sex. Instead of simply being Faris choosing one guy over another, she is attempting to fight back against her own history, her own sexual history. It is entirely okay if Evans beds different women every night, but it is abnormal if Faris does - and in fact, detrimental to Faris' odds of marriage if she continues.

Therefore, the film is positioning marriage as an end goal, something to be attained and acquired as if it were any other product to be purchased off the shelf. What's Your Number plays into the language of romantic comedies by positioning the marriage as goal rather than simply a product of romantic relationship (or as social construct, but that's another post).

Faris' character has her own apartment, her own life, her own friends, her own career, her own art, but she must work through her own past as a person in relation to a man in order to find comfort in the future. The film is saying to its audience that women should have a particular quantity of fun before doing the right thing and settling down into marriage. The wild portion of the past is to be set aside as one grows into adulthood.

But she's already an adult! She has an adult job and an adult apartment. So what's the issue? That's the inherent problem with the film, or rather, that's the problem that the film is trying to work out. The film sees a problem with the idea that the young urban single professional female (YUSPF) has a desire to be sexually active beyond what is socially acceptable, as symbolized by both Marie Claire and a hazy reference to a study done by Harvard. Of course, it's ludicrous to imagine that there exists a sexual partner limit, or that a woman having more than twenty previous partners is not marriage material. All of these things are patently ridiculous. That doesn't stop What's Your Number from seeing a problem there. The film is merely articulating an unconscious anxiety in contemporary society that these YUSPFs are having sex and that society should somehow adjust to this idea.

It's easy for me to say that women should own their sexual histories and not feel self-conscious about the numbers. It's easy for me to say that feminism has succeeded to a point where YUSPFs can have this casual sex without ruining their careers or their social currency. The reality is that there exists a disparity in how women are treated in terms of their sexual histories. The idiotic and frustrating double standard of "stud" vs "slut" will exist for a long time. But, what I can point to is that What's Your Number isn't helping things. No matter what number the film had arbitrarily selected as the limit for sexual partners, the very idea of effecting a limit in partners represents the very failure of feminism to combat movies such as What's Your Number.

I'm willing to bet that Hollywood thinks it's being feminist in releasing a film in which a female has casual sex. I'm also willing to bet that if Hollywood wanted to be more aggressively feminist, the end result would have been a film in which Anna Faris actualizes her feminism by the purchase of products that accentuate her femininity such as shoes or dildos or clothes. There's something inherently disturbing that Hollywood cannot produce a film that portrays a YUSPF engaging in modern everyday life without making a big to-do about the sexual politics therein. A movie about a man who has sex with multiple women and learns a lesson is a film without a plot or a "message". A movie about a woman who has sex with multiple men is a movie with a specific intended "message" otherwise known as a message movie. That disparity infuriates me.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Brown M&M Character...



... represents the death knell of conventional feminist rhetoric. For further proof of this, see Nina Power's One Dimensional Woman.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Things I like right now

In an attempt to stay positive, I am going to list 10 things that I am happy with.

1. My job

I like my job. It's stress-relieving, it's fun, I love the people I work with, and work enables me to make people laugh and to laugh with them. It's low-responsibility and I am given copious amounts of freedom. Nobody bosses me around and nobody treats me like shit. Plus, summer is coming and that means patio season!

2. My size

I am lean and I fit in all sorts or awesome clothes. I really like my wardrobe and I like dressing nice. I have been slowly purchasing summer shoes over the course of winter when summer shoes are cheap and on sale so when the season arrives, I can retire my dirty winter shoes. I am excited to wear my white jeans again.

3. Friday Night Tradition

About six weeks ago, five of us sat at the bar at work from about 2 pm to 2 am on a Friday night. We had a lot of fun, told a lot of jokes and got really drunk. The next week we repeated it, but with more people (and instead of 12 hours, we started at about 8 or 9). And the next week we repeated it. Last Friday, there were over 30 people that we had brought down for the Friday Night Tradition. It shapes our week in that come Thursday, we start talking about it and come Saturday, we work hungover! This week I am going hard because last week I didn't participate at all.

4. Cultural Studies

I am deeply invested in analysis of culture right now, as you can tell from the past month's postings. I am interested in analyzing what makes us tick, and I don't mean "culture" as in high art or whatever. Culture is everything and it is deeply complicit with psychology. I am finding it really rewarding to engage with culture on a different level, higher, so that I can see the entire picture and make tentative conclusions on why we do the things we do.

5. Happy Endings

Yes, the TV show. I didn't think that I had the time or the desire to invest in another sitcom, but there you have it. It's a show that works because of its actors and quality of writing, rather than plot or situation. The premise is intensely boring, but it's where the actors have taken it that makes the show good. With Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the plot is paramount and the characters are simply caricatures. Happy Endings uses the characters to shape the narrative and how they interact. Sort of similar to How I Met Your Mother (which I stopped watching a while ago). Plus, as Happy Endings continues, the jokes become deeper but still superficially satisfying. I can't really explain without referencing a specific joke. Anyways, the show is good.

6. M83

I have been listening to M83 for the past couple weeks on repeat. I started with their newest album, Hurry Up We're Dreaming, but I've now extended it to their other albums. There's something about their large canvas and ethereal and oneiric style. It's beautiful and compelling.

7. The Venture Brothers

Despite my love affair with the second and third season of Venture Bros, I never really got around to watching the fourth season, which starts out fairly weak. But I purchased the complete fourth season on Blu-Ray (because I couldn't download any good copies) and watched it fairly quickly over the course of a week. It's not as good as the third season, but it is quite funny and quite complex. I love that the show never holds the viewer's hand. If you don't remember what happened to Billy the Quiz-Boy's eye and hand, that's too bad for you. There are many examples in the show where you must simply remember everything in order to stay on top of things. Plus, the show is increasingly successful in providing emotional change over more than one episode. Arcs tend to develop now, and that's a good thing. Too bad the show isn't as prolific, but that might be in its favour.

8. Certain classes

I admit to not loving a couple of my classes, due to the prof, or the subject matter or both. But in three of my classes, I am having a great time and I don't want to skip, and if I do it is due to wanting to sleep. My Victorian class is fantastic, as is my Critical Theory class. I don't love my Canadian lit class, but the prof is fantastic. It's the students in the class that make the Can Lit class irritating - but I want to stay positive in this post. I absolutely adore two of my profs, even if one of them is rude to me.

9. Sushi

God I can't get enough sushi to be honest. I buy it often. It's such a delicious meal or snack. I love all kinds of sushi.

10. The League

When I asked, "hey what's The League about" and I was told it was about a fantasy football league, I immediately said "no thanks". Luckily, I gave the show a try. It's less about sports than it is about the dynamics of friendship, especially in the competition that men put each other through. The show is absolutely hilarious, in part due to the semi-improvisational format and the cast is stellar. I love The League. It's a consistently funnier sitcom than even It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I can't wait for Season 4!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why schools are destroying creativity



The RSAnimate series, a bunch of speeches and talks given by academics with well-drawn animated visual aids, are fucking fantastic. Pinker has one on euphemistic language and Zizek has one on the ethics of charity. They're utterly compelling, entertaining and often lead the viewer to think critically about the world.

This particular one that I am linking to regards the industrialization of the education system. This is something I have been thinking about a lot in light of the economic and cultural situation that we have found ourselves in. Sir Ken Robinson remarks on this, saying that the illusion that a college degree guarantees a job is justifiably being ignored in light of the lack of job permanence. Robinson provides no solutions in this 11 minute video, but he does ask a lot of questions and asks us to ask those questions of the world. Very fascinating stuff. Well worth the 11 minutes.

The feminization of advertisement

[Here's a short paper I wrote for a critical theory class. I'm not sure if I love it, but I'm thinking of expanding it into a larger research paper for end of term]


Unconsciously, the great nebulous market of the world realized that there are young single urban professionals who are mostly single and most importantly are female. Once the market came to this realization, the single female with disposable income was seen as a new frontier to be ruthlessly colonized. In order to sell previously available products, advertising focused on the products as being tools or extensions of feminism. The word “feminism” became a tool to validate the people's desire to purchase the product. The feminist-angled advertising focuses on the benefits of the product as promoting feminism and individuality, using words such as “celebration” and “honour” in order to sell the product. The advertisements promote inclusion and sisterhood in order to sell a product that is paradoxically designed for the individual.

Feminist critics argue that advertising focuses on an ideal female body shape, one that is entirely unrealistic. Models used by companies such as American Apparel or The Gap are skinny and in The Gap's case, are branded as “Always Skinny” in order to sell skinny jeans. The logic of the advertisement is that if one purchases the product, one cannot appear like the model, but can become the model. The clothes accent the assets of the body, in order for the owner of the clothes to present the best version of themselves that they can “sell themselves”, to “have the female body circulate as part of the strategy of employability” (Power 15). The logic in advertising is similar to the assertion that “there is nothing subjective, nothing left, hidden behind the appearance.... You are your breasts” (24). The advertisements capitalize on the blurring of the interior and the exterior.

However, there are ad campaigns that seek to ruthlessly colonize the criticisms of the ads themselves. These are the ads and slogans that seek to capitalize on the young single female urban professional, a media savvy individual who realizes that models have unrealistic body types. These are the young females who have been raised in an image-saturated world, a world where feminism has been expanded and elasticized to include everything that refers to a female. The women with disposable income are also educated and are bombarded by moral hand-wringing by lobbyist and political groups such as Parents Television Council, who are announcing that women are being objectified. It is commonly accepted in the media that women are being objectified through sexualized portraits or magazine covers. It is the genius of the market to realize this and begin to advertise an oppositional view, one in which women are to be celebrated for their individuality – as long as they purchase the products being sold to them.

Dove, a skin-care company, created a series of advertisements called the Dove Real Beauty Campaign. The television commercials explicitly pointed to the inequality of female body types in the media, and explicitly called the viewer's attention to the unfairness of the lack of representation of “curvy” women in the public sphere. The campaign hired plus-sized models and women with cellulite in order to sell a series of products designed for “real women” with “real beauty”. The use of the word “real” implies that Dove's is the only product that is made and suited for the realistic woman who is not a model, but rather a young urban professional. Also, employing “real” serves to separate the product from other beauty products, implying that the competition is complicit in promoting unrealistic body shapes.

However, what Dove does not admit in its advertising is that despite the superficial altruism of promoting a wide spectrum of body shapes, they are still advertising a product. What is being promoted implicitly in the advertising is that by purchasing the Dove Real Beauty products, the consumer is entering into a sisterhood of equality and celebration, whereby each individual with specially tailored products (dry skin, oily skin, blotchy skin) is rejecting the unrealistic beauty standards demanded by the media. The rejection of the overly thin model body shape is the success of feminism. By purchasing these products, the consumer is celebrating the success of feminism. In this instance, feminism is being manipulated in order to promote the emancipation of young women from the hegemony of specific body shapes. As Power writes, it is the “remarkable similarity between liberating feminism and liberating capitalism, and the way in which the desire for emancipation starts to look like something wholly changeable with the desire simply to buy more things” (27-8).

This specific strategy of pointing out the flaws of advertising has been copied variously in the years that the Dove Real Beauty Campaign has been established. Many companies selling products such as jeans will use the congratulating language of self-actualization to sell their products. Levis currently has a line of jeans called Curve ID. These are skinny jeans designed for different types of body shapes. The advertisement uses phrases such as “celebrating slight curves” in order to sell the “Slight Curve” jeans or “honors real curves” to sell the “Bold Curve” jeans.

The success in these advertisements is two-fold. Firstly, there are different body shapes out there, which translates to different markets to be colonized. The fact that there is a spectrum of body shapes for females means that there are simply more types of products to be sold. The need (curvy, slightly curvy, thin, plus-sized) is there, and the market moves to exploit that diversity of body types.

Secondly, and most importantly, by using the “self-help” style language of celebration, the products are asking the consumer to reject the notion that there is a body shape to attain. Their promotion of inclusion – that all women are beautiful no matter their shape – is indicative of the manipulation of feminism in order to sell the product. Through the celebration of inclusion, all woman should purchase this product in order to become part of a sisterhood that rejects traditional beauty products and clothes. The consumers feel good about purchasing a more altruistic and feminist product but that is the exact point of the advertising used by Dove and Levis.

The panoply of products to purchase feed into the mentality not knowing which product is right for the individual, so therefore purchase them all. By offering a wide spectrum of beauty products or different sub-styles of skinny jeans, the advertisements create the “right kind of anxiety appropriate to a form of shopping frenzy that will buy as many and as varied kinds of shoes etc.” (31). The advertisements play into the confusion of not knowing which trend to follow or which fashion to emulate. The Dove Real Beauty products offer the illusion that each product is tailored for that individual's skin, but the vagueness of “oily skin” or “blotchy skin” feeds into that confusion, so that the consumer is meant is purchase a variety of products, both to enforce the “success of feminism” by buying anti-objectification products and to figure out which fits the individual best.

In conclusion, feminism has been manipulated by advertisement, changing the word from a political ideology with specific goals into a meme relating to self-actualization and self-improvement, asking each consumer to buy into a sisterhood of inclusion and celebration on a large scale. The “success” of feminism is ensured when the consumer purchases the products that reject the patriarchal objectification of females.


Works Cited
Power, Nina. One Dimensional Woman. Winchester: O Books, 2009. Print.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

More proof of Pinker's hypothesis

Read this article from the Winnipeg Sun about a teen who beheaded a dog. What's extremely fascinating to me is that the reader's reaction is invariably "oh my god that's horrible". Although I've heard a few people claim that this kid should be imprisoned. I've even heard one person say that this kid will end up a serial killer (as if we're all experts of psychopaths thanks to omnipresence of serial killers in culture).

My reaction was thus: Pinker's hypothesis is proven once again. In the physical newspaper, this story was on page 3. That means that the paper thinks this is news-worthy enough to put it in front of other stories. It speaks to Pinker's hypothesis that we are overly sensitive to any type of cruelty that this story finds its way as close as possible to the front page.

Of course, over a hundred years ago, what we deem animal cruelty now was simply entertainment or part of life. Now, thanks to empathizing of everything, we can't imagine killing or eating a dog. Dogs have become so humanized as to be privileged over humans. For proof of that, notice that barely any dogs are killed on screen in movies. When they are, again, the audience reaction is visceral and immediate.

We discussed the eating of dogs at work, which was thoroughly fascinating for the range of responses that were reported. Many people were disgusted and morally outraged. One guy was mad, even furious that we would come up with such an idea. My answer, which was shared by a few, is that dogs are animals and there is nothing stopped us from eating them other than cultural taboo. I think this might be the rational answer, but it's also rather cold and emotionless. I put to people that if I was starving, I would eat anything, whether the animal was cuddly or not.

This anecdotal evidence helps to prove Pinker's hypothesis that we are less violent than ever. We are morally outraged that a teen would behead a dog. Even though, like I say, the torture of people and animals isn't that far away historically speaking. The fact that this story made the third page in the newspaper is a new phenomenon.

Since I started reading Pinker's book I have been unable to see the world in the same light. Everything I see, I start to recontextualize. I cannot see things the same way. It helps that I am also taking a course in cultural studies (which is why the past month's postings have been academic rather than book reviews). The world is fascinating even in its ugliness and stupidity. As Raymond Williams says, culture is ordinary.

Personal Update

It has been approximately a year since I became single, started eating right and exercising. I think it's time to an update to see if I have managed to maintain my healthy lifestyle.

As of this morning, I weigh just under 175 pounds. Which means that despite my attempts to get fat (candy, pasta, beer, lack of exercise), I didn't. I'm quite lean! The problems I was having in the summertime, where clothes didn't fit me, continues. I had to buy a suit for a work Christmas party because the blazer I bought in the summer doesn't fit. The major problem? I'm too lean.

I need to pack on the muscle and get broad again. I used to be intimidating. Now I am just skinny. I know this is a bizarre problem to have, but people don't seem to like the lean, they prefer the muscular. Unfortunately, packing on the muscle and maintaining it is a very time-consuming thing. One has to be determined and committed and I'm not sure if I am. I don't like weight-training. It's boring and I don't feel as good as when I finish a run.

However, my arms and upper body are starting to tighten thanks to hot yoga, which I started this week. It's hot but not hot enough to be honest. This is the first time I've done yoga since last year and while I didn't remember much, the leanness of my body means that I am particularly adept at yoga. Within a week I have become quite proficient in the "beginner" yoga that I am taught. Within a month or two, I expect to be fully bored with yoga. It will no longer be challenging. Which is unfortunate because it burns a ton of calories and relaxes me.

I plan on riding my bike to work next week depending on the weather, which is predicted to be around -3 or thereabouts. I have been riding on my bike stand here and there for most of winter, so I don't think I will have great difficulty with the first ride. Leading up to the date, I plan to ride a couple more times, more intensely.

In terms of my life, I am whatever. I feel very meh about things right now, and I am not quite sure why. However, my overly self-reflexive brain is analyzing everything and putting things into perspective. Without going too deep into my feelings (gross), I can say that I am somewhat depressed but I balance that out with days of manic happiness. I'm not sure what is going on with my brain. I am showing some symptoms of bipolar disorder, but it's not extreme on either end. It's intensely dangerous to self-diagnose especially off information gleaned from the Internet, but I know enough psychology and my own personality that my current swings between euphoria and depression aren't healthy. Whether this means I need medication, therapy, sex, love, a vacation, or a dose of reality remains to be seen.

I keep thinking I need sex and/or a girlfriend, but again, I feel ambivalent about both of these things to be honest. While I think sex itself needs to be liquidated of all the sociocultural things attached to it, my own anxieties about it (which are taught behavior - thanks society!) stop me from accomplishing any meaningless sex. It's fascinating as a self-reflexive person, but frustrating in that I know sex is deeply cathartic. I would feel better about myself if I could have sex or have a girlfriend. However, as I have shown, I'm not interested in either thanks to economic and emotional factors.

I'm just not interested in anything cultural at the moment, which is a definite sign of depression, or at least, my own manifestations of depression. This is not the first time I have developed delayed depression after a breakup, but what's interesting to me is that it doesn't seem to be related to the breakup. I barely think of my ex. In my less rational moments, I tend to be depressed about the burden of the future, and the impossibility of achieving any semblance of happiness and economic stability.

I'm guessing that I am not alone in this fear of the future. I assume that there are millions of middle class people who are slowly realizing that their dreams are unattainable in our economic climate and the postcapitalist system whereby the debt you bring on will always be bigger than the funds you bring in.

What am I going to do about this? Well, right now I am simply monitoring the swings and attempting to use inductive reasoning to determine the root causes or my depression, and I guess using deductive reasoning to determine triggers of general depression within (rather than without). I think any further dips into either end of the extremes will result in visiting a physician to medicate. I've been on antidepressants before. They help maintain an even balance for me. I could use that right now.

Why am I writing this all down? Why am I using my blog as a method of confession? Well, the answer is personal and cultural at the same time. Personally speaking, I like doing these personal updates as a way to temporalize my progress. It's interesting going back and seeing that my weight loss was -40 pounds or -50 pounds and seeing that progress as a timescale. On the other hand, culturally speaking, we are often compelled to confess on a massive scale. We're obsessed with doling out the personal info. Some of that might be due to the over-empathizing of Western civilization. Some of that might be due to the technologization of our lives and the removal of anonymity through Facebook.

I am not embarrassed about my own feelings or even my own self-reflection. Part of the stigma of mental illness is culture's oversensitivity. It's uncomfortable for people to discuss mental illness. I suspect that it is uncomfortable because people do not like to be reminded that it's fairly easy for the brain to lose control. We sleep easy thinking our mind has control over the rest of the body. Of course, this control is an illusion. We just don't like to be reminded of it.

On a lighter note, I am determined to go on vacation this summer. I have to go to Vancouver for my cousin's wedding (who is five years younger than I) which will be cool, but it's not really a vacation. At least I already have the suit ready to go. I want to go to Montreal again. I've been thinking about this for a few months and inspired by a girl I've been talking to, I am going to go. Or, when I am in Vancouver, I will stay a few extra days and go to Victoria or something - anything. I just want to travel. Nothing in Winnipeg is keeping me anymore. I am ready to move on. The excitement I felt about the possibility of the future has been minimized over the course of a year, but there exists a small glimmer of it within when I think about the size of the world and the things I haven't seen. Maybe this is what will help be out of my funk: getting out of Winnipeg. A psychotherapist recommended it to me 6 years ago. I have no excuse to follow up on that advice.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

M83 - "Skin of the Night"


Like a moth she moves to the red light
Her blood warms and boils there
She skims the sweat like a new milk
As pops the buttons off her wet blouse

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

On teachers and sexual abuse

Here is a Jezebel article that details the sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated by two teachers, Mark Berndt and Martin Bernard Springer, were spoon-feeding semen to and/or "fondling" their elementary school students over the years 2005 to 2010. From the article:
As bad as these new allegations are, there might still be more to come for Miramonte. Superintendent John Deasy said that he wants to fire Springer as soon as Tuesday, when the Board of Education will discuss the case in a closed session, and that he'll also urge the Board to fire Miramonte music teacher Vance Miller after two former students (now adults) have come forward with allegations that Miller had sexual relationships with them when they attended the school.
and
He added, however, that though he's "appalled" by the allegations of sexual abuse, "We must never lose sight of the fact that the great majority of the teachers in this district are caring, nurturing and understanding toward their students."
This last quote is what I would like to discuss in further detail. Obviously this school has some major problems in regards to hiring teachers, but - and I am about to say something extremely controversial - this is probably a case of pure coincidence. 3 teachers in one school, Miramonte Elementary School in Florence-Firestone California, have attracted and employed three male teachers who have allegedly sexually abused children. If this isn't a simple case of coincidence, the alternative is even more chilling, ie two pedophiles conspiring! But it is most likely that the two teachers figured out that they share sexual proclivities and then went on joint field trips (chilling enough!). No matter how these teachers got together, the problem facing this school and its future is one of media scrutiny. The school will come under intense observation over the next decade or two and when each teacher is hired to replace the next, that teacher and the school will suffer from protective parents, the eagle-eyed local media, and even the state government. There will be no escape from the horror that these two teachers and possibly a third allegedly did.

Now, I am not going to defend the accused teachers, nor am I going to minimize the trauma experienced by the victims and their families, which will unfortunately shape their lives for a long long long time. This is imminently regrettable and I wish it had never happened.

What I am also not going to do is complain about the hiring process of the administration. There is no way that the people who hired these teachers in the 70s and 80s could have possibly known their sexual proclivities. Nor could the hiring agent have predicted the seemingly epidemic of sexual abuse in schools. So I am not going to criticize them.

The day after the article at the top was posted, the elementary school announced that they would replace all the teachers. This might be gratuitous, but again, I am not going to criticize them.

What I am going to do is explore two things: the fact that the "good" teachers will suffer the fallout from this, and the fact that the media is reporting sexual abuse is seemingly on the rise, though I thoroughly suspect it is not. I am going to work on these points in reverse.

David Finkelhor and Lisa Jones of the University of New Hampshire have compiled data from numerous sources and have reported that
Various forms of child maltreatment and child victimization declined as much as 40–70% from 1993 until 2004, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, sexual assault, homicide, aggravated assault, robbery, and larceny.
Of course, regular data collection has not occurred over the past 40 years so our data is only for 15 years, really. This is a corollary to my initial point however.

The media reports these cases, and everybody is in shock. For many people, their reaction is to say that this never happened before. Because when Baby Boomers were growing up, sexual abuse between teachers and students was not as prevalent. My thesis is that it wasn't that abuse was less prevalent, it was simply not reported as widely as today.

We can essentially thank the modern education system for this perceived uptick in statistics and then its obvious and logical decline.

In The epidemic of rape and child sexual abuse in the United States, authors Diana E. H. Russell and Rebecca Morris Bolen report that the rape rate among females was 12 per 100,000 females in 1932 and 70 per 100,000 in 1997, which is of course a 483% increase. The authors admit that part of the increase is due to the change in methodology concerning reporting of rape and even the definition of rape (ie is it rape within a marriage? Short answer: yes). However, they contend that despite numerous sources claiming rape is declining, it is instead rising astronomically. The National Crime Victimization Survey or NCVS is reporting that rape is declining, but the authors claim this isn't true.

However, my point is that rape is being reported more but there is little evidence to support that rape is happening more. And again, circling back, we can thank the education system for making this happen.

When I was a child in elementary, there was a huge focus put on individuation, something I spoke of and will forever mention as it is a fascinating subject (pun related!). That is to say that individual space was prioritized and we were asked to imagine an invisible force-field around our bodies. Anybody who trespassed this space without permission was ethically in the wrong. We were asked to report any violation of the force-field. Watch this video that I was forced to watch over and over again in school:



If you didn't watch it, the song is called "My Body's Nobody's Body But Mine" by Peter Alsop. The best information I can find about this song is that it possibly came out in 1993, but I suspect it was slightly earlier than that. The lyrics, which you can guess, involve a simplified version of what I just said. My body deserves its own space and no one shall touch it without my permission.

Of course, this is Foucauldian in its panopticism, but it is also integral to teaching children about the power dynamic that occurs in the teacher-student discourse (discourse in the Foucauldian sense of the word). My point, if you haven't already figured it out, is that education such as this, in which the student is asked to report any violation of the power-dynamic, has been omnipresent since at least the late Eighties or the early Nineties. The education system has to be an integral factor in the rise of rape reporting thanks to its efforts in promoting reportage.

Again, this is totally anecdotal but after speaking with my parents and a few other people of the same age, I have determined that at least in Western Canada, this type of education did not exist in the 60s or 70s. Again, not totally scientific, but then again, neither is the media's reportage on this type of abuse.

Statistics will show an uptick in sexual abuse accusations once the education of reportage begins. It will also show a leveling out of accusations followed by a slow decline. However, counter-intuitively, I am willing to predict a rise in accusations due to numerous factors. First, population has increased around the world. Secondly, there are more people living in urban situations now than pastoral, which leads to the obvious conclusion that there are more children in public school systems now than before.

The third reason for my predicted rise in sexual abuse accusations? It's the second major point that I'd like to discuss: the media's representation of the education system.

Look, it's a fact that teachers are underpaid for a job in which they are responsible for the health, well-being and education of future generations, of the future ruling class. According to this website, the average salary for K-12 teachers is just above 40K. The "living wage" calculator at a couple different sites is telling me that the absolute minimum salary that one could live on is 25K. I can provide all sorts of numbers, but I think common sense will show us that the 15K "extra" on top of the living wage will go to debt reduction (student loans), car payments, mortgages, vacations, and other things guaranteed in the right to life, liberty and happiness.

Despite the fact that teachers are underpaid, they are totally demonized in the news. Read this polemic on "sorry state of education in the United States" or check out these stats at Wikipedia. Both of these claim that despite the US's 99% literary rate the country is woefully behind "third world countries". One of the articles claims that a high school diploma 50 years ago is equivalent to today's college degree.

That sounds mighty impressive and damning of the education system, doesn't it? But let's unpack that notion and see if we can't tease out the specious logic here. 50 years, the classroom wasn't chock full of technology. 50 years, there were no MRIs, no Internet, no word processors, no MP3 players, no cellphones. Television wasn't as ubiquitous and students walked to school in a blizzard, in their father's pajamas, uphill. Both ways.

Again, we're running into one of my most loathsome elements of human nature: nostalgia. As if the past was some Golden Age, as if there even existed a Golden Age at some point. The claim that high school diploma is equivalent to a college degree completely disregards how much there is to learn nowadays. Students are expected to be math whizzes and technological geniuses plus play every sport and engage in every extracurricular activity and volunteer work in order to get into a college that nobody can afford.

Helicopter parenting, or hyperparenting as I was taught the term, is a definite thing happening in school nowadays. It is indicative of the change in society that children are no longer left unsupervised. Why would they when the media is reporting rapists and abductors on every street corner? Instead of letting children go out and play, parents are attempting to organize and systematize their lives in order to a) guarantee a future and b) protect their lives. There is nothing inherently wrong about hyperparenting. It simply is. What is wrong is the media's focus on how this is wrong, but at the same time, are scaring parents into believing that the world is totally unsafe. Of course it is, but learning that it is unsafe is part of growing up.

The education system is not totally screwed up. The US boasts a 99% literary rate, and a 77% rate of graduating high school. Sure, that might be slightly lower than developing countries, but think of the fact that despite its comparison to other countries, over three quarters of our children are still graduating. Not only that, but most of them aren't being shipped off to meaningless wars in order to die for their country. The unemployment rate among high school graduates is a measly 10.4%. The rate for college graduates? Below 5%! Obviously high school is preparing students for university and thus, college grads are prepared for the real world if the national average is 8 and the college rate is less than 5!

Let us return to the main point of this post. If we agree that teachers are underpaid, but are on the whole providing a successful workforce, and are protecting our most valuable asset (future workers), then we must agree then the media is unfairly demonizing them and will continue to do so in light of the allegations of sexual abuse.

If sexual abuse is declining, thanks to in part the education system, then we cannot possibly blame them for the aberrations in statistics, such as three teachers in one school abusing children.

Can something be done about this in the future? Probably not. There is little way of screening applicants for pedophilia and one is legally barred from simply asking point blank or monitoring the teacher 24/7. Though that is what the media is going to clamor for. Watch! In a week's time, Dateline or 60 Minutes or a similar news magazine show will do a story on the evil lurking behind every classroom door. Expect to see lots of scary stats being trotted out and manipulated in favor of their point. The effect? Further moral panic regarding education systems.

A long term possibility thanks to the media's scare-tactics is the rise of home-schooled students. I don't know enough about home-schooling that I can make any value judgment on the efficacy of such a system, but I instinctively question the abilities of someone not trained to teach. Of course, this begs the logical opposition that the system in which someone is trained to teach can be fallible. Of course it can. That's facetious if only because that system of training teachers is still transitional. The education department in my University is less than 60 years old. It is still growing up and figuring out how to teach teaching. Despite this, I have faith, thanks to stats and my own education, that within twenty years, our graduating teachers will be able to teach math (despite claims of a math professor at U of M, who said that our future teachers do not know how to perform basic algebra).

Look, humans are incredibly smart and incredibly stupid at the same time. We've colonized most of the globe and most of our atmosphere. We've created unbelievable technological gadgets over hundreds of years and yet, we still manage to function as blithering idiots when faced with the same situations the Ancient Greeks did. Human nature is repetitious and paradigmatic. The media only reports the worst things because we respond to the worst things, especially in our overly humanist, overly sensitive era of the twentieth century, when even the robbing of an old lady causes our blood to boil. We respond to the bad news more strongly than the good so the media otherwise known as the market responds in turn. They provide what we want to hear: that the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

WHEN IT FACT IT IS NOT.

Just look at the stats.

EDIT 07/08/12

Steven Pinker quotes the very same Finkelhor/Jones study as I do on paage 439 of The Better Angels of our Nature. He writes
They corroborated the declining numbers with sanity checks such as victimization surveys, homicide data, offender confessions, and rates of sexually transmitted diseases, all of which are in decline. In fact over the past two decades the lives of children and adolescents improved in just about every way you can measure.
It's nice to have my hypothesis confirmed and expanded upon by a noted scientist. As well, both this study and Pinker's book (along with my theory) posit that this decline is due to changing social mores. They also hypothesize that it might also be due to increases in the availability of prescription drugs. Adults become less depressed and less likely to commit violence as well as help children control impulses. I'm rather ambivalent about this particular hypothesis, but that's another post for another day.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

On being single part two

So the day after, I stumble across an infographic from Pew Research about the status of marriage in America and the money spent on Valentine's Day. Click here for the giant infographic.

The most pertinent information that we can extract is that the average age for marriage is at an all time high: 26.5 for women and 28.7 for men. 39 percent of Americans surveyed say that marriage is becoming obsolete. In 1960, 72% of Americans were married. In 2010, only 50% were married. Quite a precipitous drop, no?

I met a girl for a drink yesterday evening (despite my desire to go home and catch up on my sleepies) and we got to talking about flexibility and the future. She is a busy independent traveler who has a lot going for her. I am a busy student who has no idea where school will take me (geographically speaking). We spoke about the excitement of the future and how not knowing what will happen is somehow freeing. The ability to simply walk away and not have a mortgage or children is exhilarating. She asked me point blank if I could ever see myself getting married.

My short answer was "I don't know" and then I launched into a sketchy version of the thesis that I laid out in the previous post. I merely mentioned the "hooking up due to economics" thesis and focused more on how marriage is slowly dying on the vine. I said that I am not opposed to getting married, but I just can't see myself doing it.

She is sort of in a similar space as I am in relation to marriage. She also responded "I don't know" and then proceeded to give me reasons for her ambivalence that I had already mapped out. Everything she said correlated to points I had made regarding marriage.

As much as the conversation validated my theories (or at least for one other real person) it was fascinating to get a different viewpoint, one that isn't so cold and rational (of which she accused me a couple times). It seems that the world is changing, and I am not the only person to notice this.

However, despite my gross generalizations with some stats to back up the claim, there is some anecdotal evidence that supports the idea that my generation is still holding onto marriage. If you went onto my Facebook, you'll see numerous couples my age who are getting engaged or entering into marriage. I can say with confidence that the ones getting married are the ones who have already graduated from school and are working full time. They post pictures of the house they just bought and post statuses about how excited they are to fill the house with a new couch they just picked up. I am invited to socials, which if you are not from Manitoba, you won't understand. A social is a fundraiser for one's wedding. One invites everybody they've ever met, charge them for a ticket, sell them cheap booze, and somehow this pays for one's wedding or at least puts a dent into the debt. As mentioned, the average cost of a wedding in Canada is almost 25K.

Sometimes I become depressed when I see everybody I went to high school with has started their lives and are on their way to stability. They go to Mexico seemingly every year, or Vegas. They have dogs and sometimes they post pictures of their ultrasounds.

[Here's an awkward aside. You post your ultrasound picture on Facebook. Later, you lose the baby. Do you take down the picture? Do you leave it up? What if somebody comments on it a year later and opens up the emotional wound again? This is the shit I think of]

While I get somewhat depressed, I also temper my self-criticisms with the knowledge that I am not alone. There are people on Facebook with whom I went to high school who are also still living in apartments, living paycheck to paycheck, not ready to settle down. They are living alone and seemingly happy. I am not alone in my excitement for the freedom that being single has to offer.

What an interesting world we live in. A world in which a whole new set of protocols must be established thanks to technology or the precariousness of our careers. I find this shit endlessly fascinating. Hopefully you do too because I am thinking about this stuff all the time.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

On being single

I have been thinking a lot about being single at 27 in the context of my friends, my acquaintances, and even in the greater society. This article from Time kind of shows that I am not alone in my ambivalence towards marriage and commitment.

The article states that in a large survey of Americans, 40% said that they weren't sure about getting married with another 27% saying "a wedding is not in their future". This means that over 50% of the respondents, Americans 21 years and older, are not intending of going into a marriage.

However, since we are a rational and logical blog, I think we can make some conclusions based on what the article is telling us. Firstly, this survey doesn't necessarily mean that people are "happier" as single and they don't want to enter a relationship at all. Secondly, 5,000 Americans is not a very large study. Thirdly, the survey was done unscientifically by Match.com.

However, in the sister article at US Weekly, one young gentleman has this to say:
Jeremy Klein, 26, of Fort Lauderdale says he's not seeking a relationship but may try online dating. "I am thinking about it now that I'm out of school and working a lot more," he says, because he doesn't have the "time and energy" to meet new people.
This is fascinating to me for a number of reasons. Firstly, Jeremy doesn't have the time and energy to meet people. I think this is very representative of contemporary society right now. Thanks to the sheer onslaught of work that people are subjecting themselves to in order to afford all of the ridiculous debt that we have incurred, relationships are taking a backseat. We are more focused on our careers than we are on our interpersonal relationships. We have replaced many face to face interactions with online or text or what have you. This is due partly because of time and because of ease of communication. There is not enough time in the day to see all of the friends that we want to see, so we compromise by using less effective and less emotionally consuming methods of interaction.

The other reason that this is fascinating to me (the article, not just Jeremy and his online dating) is that this ambivalence towards marriage is merely symptomatic of greater changes in human interaction. I don't think it is crazy to say that we are delaying the onset of adulthood to a greater extent more and more. The bigger trend seems to be that we are waiting longer and longer to vote, have kids, leave our parents' homes, get married, finish school, get a career, buy a house, etc etc etc. I don't quite have the numbers, but the age at which young people are leaving their parents' home is increasing. I think it's somewhere in the mid to late twenties at this point. Here is an article that says one third of UK men in their 20s are still living with their parents. The reasons given are mostly financial.

So we have two things happening in society on a large scale: the delaying of adulthood and the increasing debt load individuals are asked to carry. Is one affecting the other? Of course. We look at marriage with skepticism because of the financial problems that could occur, such as the wedding itself (average cost in Canada: 23,330) or the inevitable divorce, which is sometimes ruinous for one of the participants.

To bring this back to myself for a second, I will show that I am a perfect representative of the current North American male. I am 27 years old and I live with my parents. I am soon to be in graduate school because you cannot get a job with simply a Bachelor's Degree. I have a car loan and a car that is slowly falling apart. I am single and at this point, I see no reason to get into a relationship.

This warrants further examination, I think. Why do I want to stay single? Number one is pragmatics. There's no point falling in love with somebody when I know that I will have to move across the country for school and eventually for a job. I can't afford to date somebody because dating is ultimately costly. Also, it is increasingly hard to meet new people and maintain those friendships when I can't even maintain the ones I have right now thanks to work and school.

Another reason is because of fear. Fear of the inevitable break up, emotionally and financially speaking. I don't want to go through that so I avoid getting emotionally attached.

Alright, so let's extrapolate further. If we agree that I am a good representative of North American males, then I have sketched out the motives for the rise of the "hook up" culture. Fundamentally, the reason why hooking up has become the primary form of relationships is economical. This is a bold statement, I know (get it?) but I think this is true. Young people today are ambivalent about marriage because of economic reasons and emotional reasons. They see hooking up as an easier thing to do.

Hence, the rise of the "friends with benefits" situation. For proof that this is a tension being worked out on a national scale, look no further than two competing Hollywood films exploring this phenomenon. The FWB situation is often seen as mutually beneficial. Both parties engage in sexual intercourse, ultimately for the pleasure, but agree not to partake in the negative aspects of a relationship such as fights, breakups, meeting parents, living together.

There we have another proof for my thesis. People are increasingly living alone. There is a nonfiction book coming out this year that attempts to explore the rise of the single domicile. In this article at the Huffington Post, the author of the book lists the reasons why people are living alone. This will sound familiar: "it's hard to live with roommates" "freedom" "solitude" "rite of passage" and "flexibility" among others. The idea of flexibility is rising in valuation among young people. Not only because of society's increasing individuation, but because of economic reasons. It is more important to stay flexible for our careers than with our relationships.

A friend with benefits is easier to "break up" with than somebody that you are a) living with (an end goal in relationships) and b) emotionally attached to. We are shifting the balance of relying on our hearts to relying on our wallets in order to guide our life decisions. This means that macrocosmically speaking, as a society, we are moving further away from long term monogamy and into some sort of more mammalian "free for all".

This makes sense. Marriage is an artificial institution. Life long monogamy occurs minimally in species other than humans. We have created marriage as some sort of patriarchal safety system in order to keep an eye on our errant spouses. The whole idea was to protect your spouse from procreating with other people. Social Darwinism tells us that we enter monogamous relationships so that we can always be sure of the paternity of our child. Ambiguous paternity in a smaller community can lead to the greatest genetic crime of all, incest. Therefore, we get married to make sure our wives are having our children and not the mailman's.

But this is ridiculous. With the rise of birth control and access to abortion, there is less procreation in North America and more fucking for the pleasure of it. Therefore the need to be stuck with somebody in order to protect the paternity of your child is not useful anymore. We are less likely to have multiple children, or even one kid, than before. If we aren't having kids (the whole point of life) then why are we forcing ourselves to stick with the same person for the rest of our lives?

Now this makes me sound like I am some sort of anti-marriage anti-monogamy nutter. Far from it. I want to be in a loving long term relationship with somebody, but not until I am financially secure. Those are my prerequisites for engaging in anything resembling a marriage and I am not alone in requiring this. There's a logical outcome to this, of course. As we live alone more and more, and we become more and more financially stable, we will like being alone more and more. We will become less enamored of the sacrificing that freedom and flexibility for another person, which is another proof of my thesis and another reason why people are ambivalent about marriage.

Another reason is the secularization of society. It's fair to say that the role of the Church is diminishing in Western society. This is not 1950s Montreal. This is a world where even the largest institutions of religion are regarded as dangerous and even farcical. The Catholic Church is forever tainted thanks to the sex scandals and the increasing irrelevancy in our technologically minded outlook. Previously, the Church (in general, not Catholic) had a vested economic interest in marriages. Plus, they tend to feel that they are the arbiters of morality. If our morals are changing on a macrocosmic scale independent of the Church, then their particular view of morality needs to either adapt or die. We are becoming more and more humanistic as a society. We tend to value the individual above all things (cf above my remarks on individuation) and we look at the Leviathan as a necessary evil. Therefore our viewpoint on morality is increasingly specific to the individual and not to society. We get upset when an old lady is beaten up in our neighborhood but thanks to the prevalence of rational skepticism (due to secularization) we understand that this is a symptom of crime and harsh economic situations, not angry deities. We no longer need the Church to tell us what is right and wrong because we are already doing it among ourselves. Therefore, we are free to enjoy commitment free sexual relationships with whoever we feel without the Church telling us it is wrong.

So where are we going then? I lazily pointed at some sort of utopian fuckfest where nobody is married and everybody is hooking up, but that's merely a piece of the overall puzzle. I am not 100% sure where society is going in terms of marriage. We are already seeing the trends of fewer children, fewer marriages, and fewer divorces. If the divorce rate is over 50%, won't people just eventually stop getting married?

What does this mean for me? Rationally, I understand that the odds of me getting married are getting smaller and smaller with each year. I understand that the odds of me even getting a girlfriend are getting smaller. Again, this is due to economic reasons and greater changes in social interactivity.

What do I think about this ambivalence to marriage as a moral thing? I'm glad you asked. One of my most popular refrains (which I learned from Barbelith.com posters) is that it is neither a good thing or a bad thing - it is simply a thing that is happening. There is no judgment on my part for the rise of the hook up or the rise of the HPV (50% of sexually active adults with have it). It is simply happening and the best we can is investigate and attempt to understand it. If we agree that our sense of morality is becoming more humanistic and secular, then we agree that there is no moral danger in people having sex freely and without commitment. There is physical danger, thanks to STDs and date-rape drugs, but there is no moral danger. People who are engaged in hand-wringing and pearl-clutching regarding this trend are wasting their time. Unless they have an economic solution for the load of debt we all share, then they should put up and shut up. They won't though. There always has to be arbiters of morals, which is why they won't shut up about pornography.

Is there a link between ambivalence to marriage and pornography? Possibly a correlation but certainly not causation. Some studies have attempted to analyze the brain's chemistry when confronted with endless porn and they have found a chemical dependence on it after awhile. Take a look around the Internet and you will find countless people claiming that porn has ruined marriages because one spouse ends up preferring the fantasy of sex to real sex. The pearl-clutchers then conclude that porn leads men to cheat because they will want to act out that fantasy.

Here's an interesting but anecdotal tidbit. On 4chan, there are a lot of informal surveys. List your age, sex, favourite book, whatever and then sometimes it's list your fetish. I participated, I listed my age, my favourite book, and my fetish. I was initially surprised when I began reading other respondents. You could graph it: the younger the respondent, the more "extreme" and highly specific their fetish was. Of course, in this "survey" we can substitute the word "fetish" for "sexual proclivity". 16, 17 and 18 year olds were posting rape fantasies, bestiality, foot fetishes, a desire to be peed on, all sorts of things. I said I was initially surprised but I can sort of work out why this is.

No, it is not due to pornography. It is due to the rise of moral inclusivity. We are more secular and more humanist. We focus on the individual. We then begin to accept the difference in people a lot more. Niche pornography doesn't create the fetishes in people. No, they provide the outlet for those with the fetishes to see it happening. To say that an 18 year old is aroused by feet due to porn is like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It implies that the fetish wasn't already there in the first place. The porn is simply capitalizing on the fact that this fetish already exists within people.

Alright, so what does this mean? We can agree that porn isn't corrupting or fundamentally shaping the sexual identities of individuals (although there must be some sort of effect, but I'm not sure how much of one). Porn becomes an outlet for the individual who doesn't want the burden of a relationship. It is morally the same as the hook up, which is to say that it isn't immoral.

I think it is time to wrap this up. Society is changing and there is nothing the individual can do about it other than attempt to understand it and explain. I think in the future, we are going to notice this tension of ambivalence to marriage get played out in mass culture on a bigger scale. Romantic comedies will no longer end with marriages but some sort of tentative hope that the couple will make it. I think we will also see the return of body-horror as a genre, but specific to STDs. As STDs reach epidemic proportions (this is not hyperbole, look at the CDC's stats page), this anxiety will get played out in films and television as horror. What is pop culture but a terrain to work out tensions within society?

What is this blog but a terrain for me to work out tensions I see within society?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The future of bookstores

I will start with a disclaimer. Despite the grandiose title of this post, I don't think that I am fully qualified to prognosticate on the future of bookstores in North America. However, this will not stop me from making wild generalizations and speculations about the position of the book within our contemporary society.

There is a fascinating article in Macleans Magazine titled "Heather's Fix" which you can read by clicking here. In the article, the titular Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo, is shifting the brand of Indigo from "Books and More" to mostly "More". In the near future, in Indigo stores across N. America, books will account for about 50% of available product within the store itself. The other 50% being made up mostly of "lifestyle" products, a nebulous and unhelpful term that we can essentially conclude to be material goods such as pots, pans, throw rugs, candles and other such knick knacks.

The article, well-written and informative, provides context. From the article:
Big booksellers able to evolve are the fortunate few. In February 2011, Borders Group Inc., the second-largest book chain in the U.S., filed for bankruptcy protection, and Australia’s major bookselling network, REDgroup Retail Inc., collapsed; Barnes & Noble Inc, the world’s biggest book retailer, has been searching for a buyer since last summer.
Some credit Indigo's survival to above par management, while some pessimistically point to government interference in the early 2000s. Regardless of Indigo's previous survival, the relevant fact is how the CEO hopes to maintain the long term profitability of the company.

In addition to context and to bare bones sketches of the long term plan, the article provides a bit of philosophy in the form of hand-wringing regarding the corporatization of books, an essential art form that has been around near the dawn of linguistic ability. One anonymous publisher is quoted as saying that books are different than any other material good. They attract a different type of consumer. Books are not ephemeral and are meant to be cherished. The publishing industry is apparently anathema to corporatization. Part of this is due to the fact that books sell better by word-of-mouth than by near-omnipresent advertising such as movies or television. Therefore, books take a bit longer to sell as word disseminates through the media and Internet. On top of this is the pragmatic aspect. Books take longer to consume than a two hour film. Therefore it is more likely that people are more likely to respond positively to something they can ingest in totality in one sitting.

Of course, this article does the job of good journalism by implying rather than over simplifying. The larger questions, merely hinted at, are questions of a society's taste for culture and art, something many many many cultural studies departments are picking up on in an increasing attempt a) to be relevant and b) to self-analyze.

Why are bookstores dying? Is it because of the widespread adoption of e-books as the form in which books come in? The numbers would suggest that this is only part of the answer. Or is it because of our society's decreasing desire for the abstract and increasing need for the visual?

The answer to that question is an entire book that I might write one day, after spending a year researching instead of sitting down after reading one article and busting out a thousand words on the topic. That is to say, the question of where our society is headed, as symbolized by the decay of bookstores is a much larger question.

I propose, in this space, not to make judgements on the prioritization of the visual, but rather, attempt to show that it is neither a good thing or a bad thing. It is simply a thing that is happening.

Books are not dying in any way shape or form. To say such a thing is facetious and ignores the cyclical nature of societies. At some point, books will return in a much larger fashion, but perhaps not in the physical sense. Perhaps they will be beamed into our brains via a WiFi connection installed in the cranium. However, at this time, books are not dying. For absolute proof of this, look no further than the two twin pillars of modern publishing: Oprah's Bookclub and Harry Potter.

Oprah's Bookclub is perfect corporate synergy. The primary market for books includes middle class women. To see proof of this statement, look at how Indigo is marketing the "lifestyle" products: yoga accessories, candles, sweaters, etc (the gender stereotyping that Indigo is guilty of is an entirely different blog post). Oprah's Bookclub merges the tastes of middle class women with the publishing industry. Whether or not Oprah personally chooses the novels is irrelevant. The books she is choosing are being sold to middle class women, who are already more inclined to purchase books in the first place. By having a national bookclub, Oprah creates a sense of community around the books. People are more likely to buy the books if only to stay "in the loop", or to keep up with discussions on the show.

On top of this, there is the increased individuation of modern society. As our lives become overwhelmingly individual (see Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature among other books), we search for tenuous connections. What better connection than an artificial and self-consciously non-online connection in the form of a bookclub? The bookclub affords individuals a way to avoid the time-trap of online anonymous activity. Humans require face to face communication. If we have to discuss something, why not discuss something to make us feel smarter? There's always an element of class aspiration when it comes to Oprah (she's just like us, she was poor and now look at her) and there's a sense of class aspiration when it comes to "higher brow" forms of culture such as novels. Certainly there are fewer "television clubs" than "bookclubs".

If Oprah's Bookclub is perfect corporate synergy, Harry Potter is a monster of synchronicity. The same elements that I spoke of (eg desiring of human connection beyond online interaction, class aspirations, wanting to stay in the loop) are applied directly to Harry Potter except with one special addition that makes Harry Potter a bigger deal: young people. That's the key difference. Young people, tweens, specifically, are the ultimate niche market. Their income is wholly disposable and their appetite for consumption of culture is insatiable. For proof of this, simply pop onto Tumblr for five minutes to get a sense of the recycling and consumption and remixing of mass amounts of culture on an epic scale. Tweens have a ravenous desire for culture and the ability to share that culture amongst themselves. There's another blog post or even book to be written about the compulsion to remix in our society, but this isn't the place.

Harry Potter capitalizes on everything that I have mentioned. I mean really, let's be honest. This isn't a judgement against Harry Potter, but the whole thing is essentially one big mashup of archetypes and class aspirations, isn't it? It's a gigantic Hero's Journey, which for some psychological reason resonates with audiences far more than any other story (according to Campbell and Jung et al). Plus, it's serial fiction, a form that cries out for sustained attention. Serial fiction manages to survive much longer even when it should die if only because of the all-too human compulsion for closure.

So, to sum up, this mini-argument, Harry Potter, in cold analytical terms, is capitalizing and exploiting many elements of human psychology not just in the story that is being told, but how to story is told and to whom.

Of course, to prove that Harry Potter is an essential element of modern day publishing, look no further than the "teen fiction" department in any bookstore. It's massive and it is full to the brim with clones of Harry Potter and Twilight. Most of which, and I mean most, are serial fictions with sustained narratives over multiple entries that are drawn out Hero's Journeys. And they are selling like gangbusters. Simply search "the rise of teen fiction" for a taste of how much this is selling. (I don't have numbers specifically. I don't need to; this is my blog, after all.)

So books are not dying, to conclude this section of the post. Books are selling well, but (and here's the important part) not in every case. Obviously, literary fiction is not selling well. And by literary fiction, I mean authors similar to Eugenides and Franzen and whatnot. Unless you are a huge name on Oprah, such as Franzen, your "Great American Novel" is sure to fail.

There are two (and a half) reasons for this, in my mind. One, if we agree that the primary audience for books are middle class women, then rich white dudes writing about rich white dudes is not speaking the experiences of the audience. Now, this is a total generalization and is anecdotal, but if you read much of the discussion on Goodreads for novels, you'll immediately notice that most of the users are female, and most of the users are critiquing novels in the form of either how well it entertains or how believable the characters are. This tells me that many readers are searching for identification within stories. They seek to make parallels between what they see and what they read. Therefore, a long 500 page novel about the plight of a rich American married couple who are involved in the environment and their rich musician friend is not going to resonate with the primary audience members. Of course, the feminist in me is already pointing out the fallibility of claiming there is such a thing as a homogenous experience that "all" females could possibly connect with. Likewise, white middle class women are buying books about the experiences of the other, such as Memoirs of a Geisha or The Help or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or whatever the hell it's called. So obviously, despite what I just said, there is a desire for a different viewpoint, but it is not the rich white male's viewpoint they want anymore.

The second reason why I think the "Great American Novel" is failing is because of the primacy of genre fiction. Literary fiction is dying within the past twenty years because of the last paragraph and because of times of recession. When people are in a recession, look no further than pop culture in order to escape. Science fiction, horror and fantasy, if I can arbitrarily make three categories to encompass them all, attempt to work through the problems in our society in an allegorical way, along with the attempt to escape from the harshness of realism. The rise of genre fiction can be seen in the domination of dystopian teen fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction (even Cormac McCarthy tried his hand at that), the meteoric rise of the vampire and other such monsters (paradoxically naturalized and humanized, robbing them of their original fear factor, ie working through anxieties through monsters).

A third, but not entirely big reason, is the impossibility of filming the "Great American Novel". The Corrections, despite its National Book Award and omnipresence on "best of" lists remains only a book as of 2012. HBO is casting a TV series, but I remain skeptical that it will eventually appear. Freedom, Franzen's newest novel, is so specifically "Russian" in form and scale that no single two hour film will do it justice. Add to that, there are a cultural relativism at work within "literary fiction" a type of elitism that proposes books are inherently better for you than film. Which is rubbish, but again, another blog post to figure this out.

Therefore, if we can bring the entire argument together, if bookstores are dying and trying to market both e-books and physical books, then they are going about it the wrong way. Instead of bookstores selling copies of Franzen-clones in stores, they should be selling copies of Harry Potter/Twilight clones in stores. The people who are reading "literary fiction" are probably doing so on their Kindle or iPad anyway. Tweens are buying books by the truckloads; stock the shelves with them. Middle class women are buying physical books and movie tie-ins; stock the shelves with them. Oprah needs to bring back the bookclub if only to inject a little life in the publishing world.

Personally? I'm a white middle class male. I enjoy reading both Franzen and about "the other" through genre fiction. I want to see the revitalization of the publishing industry if only because I read so much and because I prefer to read. I would never say one medium is superior to another because that's wholly facetious, but I can say what I prefer. I just think that the book industry is going about things in the wrong way. Instead of implicitly comparing books to consumable lifestyle objects, I think publishers should be focusing on the permanence of the books. Stop selling yoga shit and start selling bookshelves and way to display books, and lavish looking books. Barnes and Noble do this, as when I was in Mall of America, I found an entire section of high end hardcovers collecting public domain stuff. What a brilliant idea. Too bad this section was pushed away in favor of selling chocolates and yoga mats and exercise books. Put more confidence in the taste of the reading public, and you might be able to sell them on the permanence of books in our increasingly ephemeral lifestyle.