Monday, October 3, 2016

Weird Illusions of Recency

The big problem with this post, opining that Stephen King basically invented cultural weirdness, is that the only comparison this writer is REALLY making is their own assumptions about, say, their own experiences growing up (and how King seems weird to HIM based on what he’d seen before) or perhaps some idea that the Eisenhower era really was what it looked like on Happy Days or something and that the whole world before it was a drab and colorless fantasy of Victorian purity and boredom.

Stephen King’s breakthrough was Carrie, in 1973.

Life and the pop cultural landscape before 1973 just were not a bounteous, homogenized world of normalcy. Sorry, folks.

Colin Smith linked this piece, and here is my comment from his blog:

Looking at the article, I am just not persuaded he’s that *fundamental* a force, culturally speaking. A great force, yes – but this writer clearly hasn’t sampled a wide variety of entertainment before the 1980s. The name Rod Serling leaps nimbly, if not actually aggressively, to mind here. The Outer Limits. Heck, even The Monkees, Lost in Space, and the Batman television show were cradles of pop cultural weirdness, and even a certain kind of horror, especially the latter. Torture was the order of the day in that cartoonish, camp outing. Even in the article itself, King’s own citations of his inspirations – which the writer clearly has not actually read – display plentiful weirdness and off-kilter obsessions.

I’m always annoyed at the idea that any given cultural/social construct was invented recently. The 20th century is particularly rife with illusions of recency, and it’s all predicated on the idea that (a) humanity actually changes and (b) evolution itself is heading toward some sort of Whig-historical idea of greatness.


People have been bizarre since we’ve been people. The weirdness of our psyches is plain to see going back thousands of years, with even a casual acquaintance with history and the arts.

It's hard to think of anyone who has injected so much strangeness into the pop culture consciousness, and no one else has done it this long.

Again: Rod Serling.

Noël Carroll writes that for King, "the horror story is always a contest between the normal and the abnormal such that the normal is reinstated and, therefore, affirmed."

So: anti-weird, in the end?

The truth is, if we look at pop culture and weirdness, frankly we’re a lot LESS weird now, especially in cinema and in music, than 40 years ago. Some of what came out of Hollywood before I was even born, and through the 1970s, would never be made today, because: corporatization and money. Take a look at major studio productions like Tommy (you want weird? Two words: baked beans), Myra Breckenridge, Zardoz … even 2001, which was not presented as any sort of oddity, features as its centerpiece an extended, trippy stretch of special effects and curious philosophical imagery the like of which really has not been matched since. Kubrick’s first film, by the way, came in 1951, and he wasn’t waiting around on Stephen King to get weird.

The literature inspiring many films predates them by decades, in some cases. Some literature, too, going back to the eighteenth century, easily gives King a run for his money. Oh wait, and did I mention millennia? Yeah, read some ancient mythology for human eyes on death in the most stunningly … hey, *human* way.

In music, the 1960s gave birth to progressive rock, an experimental form borrowing from its own predecessor, jazz, and frankly from a lot of heavy drug use (also not invented in the 20th century; read a little bit of Louisa May Alcott’s lesser-known ouvre for some serious looks into tripped-out drug use and supreme weirdness

Ever heard of the Grand Guignol? Look it up, kids.

Sensation novels? Well, see above; their seeds go back three centuries previous to this one. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus was an eye-popper in the weird and horror departments, both (and Julie Taymor’s adaptation is a shocker featuring Alan Cumming AND Harry Lennix, whom I admire to little bits all over the floor. Greek and Roman drama are filled with the most stunning human behavior.

“We live in increasingly bizarre times,” the blogger says.

Only if you have never studied anything about the past.


Jeff said...

I clicked through to the article you based this post around and didn't find anything resembling an argument, just assertions. You make a far better argument to the contrary.

A book-blogger I know who's in his seventies is always infuriated when younger people write off the 1950s as a decade of stifling conformity and boredom. He's pointed out in the past that it's the decade that gave us the Beats and other experimental poets, rock-and-roll, satirists like Tom Lehrer, experimental art, an explosion of pulp magazines, and a host of other cultural phenomena that defy the sitcom stereotypes.

We're certainly in a weird-ish place right now, because so many things that used to be countercultural or niche activities have become the mainstream culture. (As a Star Trek fan, you probably have an interesting take on this.) As I think I've said in your comments before, I find it disorienting, because I'm still trying to figure out how it happened, and how it happened so quickly. You say our pop culture is less weird now, and I agree. The mainstreaming of certain safe "weird" things has left little room for the truly, independently, fearlessly weird to prosper.

DLM said...

Haha - as a RuPaul's Drag Race fan, I have all *sorts* of takes on this. :) As he recently put it, I marketed subversive drag to hundreds of thousands across the world. I am a f***ing maarketing GENIUS. (Paraphrased somewhat.)

Your final sentence is perfectly put.

Who's the book blogger? Sounds like someone I would love to read.

The thing I have learned about apparently conservative people is that they become so, almost without exception, AFTER participation in and exposure to those things we consider to be subversive. My maternal family history is an object lesson in this, and my mom's own early life is a fascinating study indeed. That is one driven woman, and I have come to admire exactly those things about her I once found so stifling (well, and still do at times!) because at just this time of year, some twelve years ago, I took a trip with her literally down memory lane. Highly instructive.

We are poised on a fulcrum, or so it feels to me - will we tip and tumble down the path of Trumpism? Or will we definitively reject the racism, sexism, heedlessness and anti-intellectualism, and shame those who have become emboldened? I look to history, but it keeps its secrets as goes the future. It could go either way. I have never understood yet the way moments like these have gone, in my paltry lifetime.

I want to get a t-shirt that says truly, independently, fearlessly weird ... but, honest truth, I may be too ordinary to live up to it!

DLM said...

"maarketing" ... either I just made RuPaul Dutch, or I just got a job writing titles for Monty Python ...

Jeff said...

I think that Ru Paul quote is a useful key to what's happened in recent years, and why so many people don't know what to make of things these days. I see it this way: when there was no Internet and our media were more limited, we had a mainstream culture, with so many of these other, independent and "weird" subcultures and countercultures orbiting it and overlapping it, and each other, in small ways—the drag scene, role-playing games, sci-fi and comics, body piercing, computer geekery, you name it. As more of these subcultures have moved into the mainstream, nobody seems to know if we have a "mainstream" anymore, if the former countercultures *are* the mainstream, or if our culture now consists of an infinite assortment of decentralized, overlapping cultural bubbles. I'm increasingly convinced that that confusion accounts for a fair amount of the unease and conflict we're dealing with now: we no longer have even an artificial "normal" against which to understand and measure ourselves.

(I wish more people in publishing would understand how this cultural fragmentation requires a whole new way of looking at book marketing, but that's a different rabbit hole.)

Sounds like your mother's story would be an interesting one to tell someday, perhaps disguised as fiction. As the stodgy one in my household, I totally get it: I am the way I am, in part, because of the trouble I narrowly avoided and the traps that the people around me fell into. Civilizations, families, individual lives—they're all more fragile than we realize, and my conservative streak is, I suppose, a desire to tread carefully at all of those levels until we assess what we're truly getting ourselves into. (I explored a couple of my own pitfalls allusively in the July installment of my calendar poem; it was not easy material to face.)

DLM said...

There are still people in my orbit - probably the majority - who entirely believe in and depend upon normality, whose lives are not touched at all by these things, even with dissemination. The thing is, we all choose what we expose ourselves to - as choice increases, so do the firewalls we build in our own lives. My mom is somewhat exposed to offensive things like Miley Cyrus, but it is mostly because she sometimes likes to be offended, and so she makes the choice to be aware of Miley's various undulations and nudities. Whereas I would scarcely know MC existed, if it were not for my mom complaining about her.

Most of the people I know are like this. It may be easier to live conservatively, the region I come from being what it is, but my observation is that FEW people choose to experience drag or Trek or various nerdlerys or marginal scenes. There may be a bit less judgmentalism about these things than once there was, but it's still there. (Mom's reaction upon my telling her I was going to see Drag Race live - laughter, at first; and then lingering "sadness" ... she didn't quite rise to the level of offense, but insofar as the mainstreaming of the force that is RuPaul came clear to her, she found it dismaying.)

Then again, using my mom as the example of conservatism: she's always had a tolerant streak for gay men, unusual for a Southern Baptist of a certain age and background. My brother and I theorize that she had a friend who protected her when she was young, and surrounded by teenage marriage (and teenage domestic abuse), alcoholism, religious fervor, and economic straits of the place she grew up. It was all these things - marginal indeed, even if not subcultural - that built the woman she's become, too. It was these things that led her to the conviction she would marry a man of education, and get out of there. It was these things that led to my fear-of-G-d upbringing, and a clarity of consequences for transgression which still hold firm even now I'm pushing fifty with a short stick, and have lived as a grownup with reasonable moral competence for most of my life.

DLM said...

The thing about ubiquity is this: where once, we had deep wells but fewer sources of water (so to speak), now we have a much easier access to the water table, but the layer is revealed to be thin indeed. Subcultures aren't that strange, in the end. People are still people.

I've known this since my brother was a punk rocker and I got to know the kids. They were less privileged than those I went to school with, but I suspect not actually any more damaged. I know it now when I go out and see all the shocking goth kids, who are working "shock" value badges that weren't new when I was first seeing them, thirty-plus years ago. I see the essential lives of the contestants on Drag Race, and don't register strangeness there; only stunning creativity, enacted by people who want the same things everyone else does. Some of them are very young, and they burn intensely; some are very experienced, and they care for the younger ones, who've been spurned all too often by those who one might think would more naturally be their caregivers. "Drag family" isn't a euphemism, it's systematized. Just like all the other normal things in life.

Decentralized ... your word choice strikes me here. I've blogged many times about how I've touched so many subcultures, scenes, nerdleries in my life, but generally don't presume to claim membership in any of these communities. I think that is precisely because I respect the extent to which they DO have centers - the rules and expectations of each game - and don't want to become a part of diffusing those cores. THere are still times I might be taken for a goth - hell, my boss's boss, last Hallowe'en when I rocked a sort of veiny Morticia vamp look at the office (our costume contest is epic here), just smiled and said, "Why do I get the sense this isn't much of a stretch for you?" I smiled back (fangy) and said, "Because it's about half an inch to the left of my usual style."

The water table. It's shallow. But yeah, maybe not buried as deep as once it was.

Still. There are plenty of people who still use wells.

For those who are interested, Jeff's July poem can be found here: Entirely worth the cut-and-paste, y'all, his language is insanely rich ... fifty raw crumbs/Of regret and remembrance ...

Jeff said...

That was a rich and interesting response to my little theory! Thanks for taking the time. (And yeah, when I see a teenager trying to shock the world with, say, blue spiky hair, I find it amazing that a badge of rebellion can still have currency after 40 years!) I've moved in enough weird circles in my also-pushing-fifty-with-a-short-stick years to agree with you that once you spend some time in one of those orbiting, overlapping spheres, you see it more clearly and more honestly and almost always more generously. I'm thinking, though, that my parents' generation (which is presumably your mom's, too, or close enough) may be the last where "normal" was the default, and not just one of countless choices. Still, that may be my own bias showing, and the fact that I've not been at home anywhere except, increasingly, here with my dear lady in the woods.

How you felt about punk is I felt about the metal scene. Many of my friends were serious metalheads, and I sometimes went to concerts with them and loved some of the music, but I just couldn't claim true membership. I came from an unbroken home in a modest, slightly shabby neighborhood that was rich in quirky but loving grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I didn't have the anger, betrayal, and neglect that needed to be literally shaken out of my head; I knew better than to grow out my hair and try to look a part I couldn't play. Years later, I got to grad school and realized I wasn't one of them either, these chirpy people who got good grades in school, went to nerd summer camp rather than work in call centers or warehouses, and used words like "marvelous."

I pity social historians who will try to understand the second half of the twentieth century. Our affluence as a society has created so many cultural wheels within wheels. How will they make sense of what we can't even see clearly, even though we lived through it? Funny that we got to enjoy things history will struggle to imagine...

DLM said...

Those social historians will certainly have rich veins to tap. Even if they won't need wells. :)

Okay, off with me; my metaphors are strained to the braking point!