Wednesday, November 25, 2009

300: Contemporary Fascist Film-Making, American-Style

When I watched the movie 300 about two months ago, I was astounded, in the proverbial jaw-dropping way, to be seeing a film that struck me as one of the purest examples of a fascist aesthetic ever filmed, rivaling even a film like Triumph of the Will for the sheer promotional quality of its ideological implications, and in fact exploring more deeply than Triumph many aspects of fascist ideology. It’s amazing, in fact, that 300 makes Triumph of the Will look rather reticent regarding the ugliest parts of fascism. That a film this starkly fascist could have been made in the U.S. in 2006 and toured the usual run of suburban and urban multiplexes seems to me both intensely fascinating and horrifying. Whether it surprises me is something I’m still trying to figure out.

When I posted a brief Facebook (where I’ve been spending a lot of time lately) comment about the fascism of 300, a friend of mine wrote back to challenge me to define what I meant by “fascist aesthetic.” So, thanks to John, I put together the list below.

This list doesn’t for the most part describe my individual take on fascist art. I consider it just more or less a description of the main elements of fascist art work as it was defined by Hitler and other artist-fascists at work in the Nazi regime and elsewhere. If you would like my personal take on fascist art though, I’m happy to offer it: I don’t like it. Now there’s a surprise. Fascist art works through an avoidance of history and any actual material conditions of the world. It offers a violent mythology and epic cartoon designed to blur and hide anything resembling actual history.

As Michael Theune pointed out in his response to me on Facebook, another thing that 300 illustrates is that a fascist aesthetic can indeed result in a boring film, not to mention an absolutely preposterous one. Still, by watching the film with the sound off and my own alternative soundtrack blaring, as well as with a generous serving of long commercial breaks courtesy of TNT (you don’t think I rented the damn thing, do you?), I was able to watch 300 in compact snippets that really highlighted the film’s affects and goals.

Of course, an argument can be made that the Spartans, the subject of the film, really were the world’s first main proto-fascists. Still, nothing about 300 is designed to be historically accurate, so claiming that historical accuracy was the reason behind taking such an approach obviously won’t wash.

And now my list of the basic characteristics of fascist art:

1) Belief in the moral corruption and physical and mental inferiority of dark-skinned people, homosexuals, and the physically disabled (all of which groups are, in fact, more or less interchangeable, in some degree).

2) Belief that the only true calling for a man is that of soldier, and that there is no greater honor than to die for one's country.

3) A promotion of the muscled male physique in a standardized, glorified way.

4) Belief that governments and democracy are corrupt hindrances to the activities of great moral soldier-leaders, who deserve the right to make decisions for all without the input of corrupt, morally and physically weak others.

5) A monumental, cleanly lined architecture whose goal is to emphasize physical strength both of building and of human physique.

6) Obfuscations about freedom and conformity; all free men must look, think, and act alike.

7) A sense of being a small, embattled moral elite in a world of corruption and decadence.

8) As that small, embattled elite, the group must finally die in defense of its values. Oddly, in fascist art, success is less beautiful and emotionally fulfilling than death.

9) A mythological landscape on which the fascist drama can be played out, one that describes even the environment of the world as a pure function of fascist values. No actual material messiness is allowed in the details.

This list may not be complete, but I hope it’s at least a good start. Of course, many of these values can be found in other art that is by no means fascist. It's the total combination of these characteristics that makes for fascist art, and that also makes 300 such a significant and unexpected new addition to the genre.

And have a happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Listen Up, Student Applicants: Let’s Talk MFA in Creative Writing

It’s that time of year when students applying to graduate programs are putting together lists of schools and portfolios and asking for recommendations. U.S. professional culture now has full-blown Recommendation Mania but I’ll save the details of my critique of that for another time.

Over the last few weeks, there have been some extended and quite useful blog discussions of the problems and possibilities of the MFA in Creative Writing. I’m gathering a few relevant links here for people wanting to read more.

I hope especially that students in the process of applying for MFA’s will check out these discussions. And that includes all of you who have been stopping by my office to talk about graduate school applications.

A significant discussion of the political, social, and economic problems that MFA programs both suffer from and promote can be found at Rachel Zolf’s Tolerance Project blog. Both Rachel’s initial post and the many responses are all well worth considering in detail:

A discussion of an entirely different tone and topic, regarding MFA Program Rankings and their value and why the very idea of such rankings makes many writers purple-faced with rage, took place over at Elisa Gabbert’s blog:

And, partly in response to the conversation on Rachel Zolf’s blog, K. Lorraine Graham posts the following thoughts about her own MFA experiences and desires, and some of the contradictions and complexities she has found:

What follows in the rest of this post are some of my own thoughts on getting graduate degrees in creative writing. Take them or leave them, as you will.

There’s no doubt that MFA programs participate in, and benefit from, a situation in which there’s a lack of satisfying career options in the U.S. for people who are in the process of becoming writers or deciding whether to become writers. Too many people enter MFA programs because there isn’t anything else they can find worth doing while still trying to develop their writing. In some instances, I suppose, that’s caused by lack of imagination on the part of the person applying, but in many (and I would say probably most) others, it’s closer just to being a social fact of life in the U.S.A. One, by the way, that needs to change.

MFA programs also therefore participate in university exploitation of labor. An MFA may help someone become prepared to teach, but most of those teaching options are not great. Adjunct teaching at low wages and with no job security is not automatically or even usually a stepping stone to a successful career as a professor. It can be such a stepping stone (and beware professors who too smugly say “There are no jobs for professors” and appear to be taking pride in their own success at the impossible) but isn’t always or even often one.

It is worth noting that many people who get an MFA or even an academic Ph.D. and who don’t end up working in universities are not automatically doomed. In fact, many who take such a degree and then leave academic institutions for other careers (or work in those institutions at jobs other than teaching) do better, at least financially, than some people who continue working as teachers. Despite cliches about English majors, most people getting literary degrees are quite capable of surviving once they leave their academic programs. Imagine that.

In terms of actual academic jobs teaching creative writing, the less prestigious a university is, the more likely it is to require that professors of creative writing have an MFA or Ph.D. More prestigious universities (Ivy League universities, for instance, and some similar others) will more often hire writers simply for their achievement as writers, although that approach may be increasingly disappearing at all but the most elite U.S. institutions.

What that means is that at most U.S. universities, just being a publishing writer isn’t considered a good enough background for teaching creative writing. You have to have both the degree and publish. Many writers have been critical of this fact, and rightly so in most instances, since having an MFA doesn’t mean that someone is automatically going to move forward as a writer or that their writing is any good. Still, right now that’s how most U.S. universities and colleges operate.

This problem is also tied to the issue of how universities consider the importance of teaching and writing when it comes to being a professor. The less prestigious the school, the less likely its administrations are to really want to see its professors publish that much. That’s a sad fact. For instance, as several of my very helpful academic colleagues pointed out in letters they wrote supporting my application for tenure, the fact that I’ve published a lot didn’t actively hurt my ability to be a good creative writing professor. I’m not criticizing my colleagues in saying this; it was a good practical tactic. The point though is that too many administrators at too many institutions see publication as getting in the way of good teaching.

Students who enter an MFA program are probably best off when they know what MFA programs offer and what they can’t. Such programs give people a few years to read and write and learn and to have further chances to create a community of others who share their interests. They give people a professional credential that has some potential career and earning value, but by no means necessarily much. Therefore by no means do MFA programs necessarily solve the problem of anyone’s future work life, and of course most last only two years. They end fast.

The students who are especially best off in MFA programs are the ones who enter an MFA while either developing or already having developed other possible options for their future work lives. Remember the saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” I myself worked as a professional journalist for many years, on and off, while getting my own academic degrees.

And remember, crucially, that getting an MFA degree doesn’t make anyone a writer. Only continuing to write will actually do that, and many people do that just as well without an MFA. And entering graduate school is not the only way to develop a connection to other writers or to become part of a community of them. Another approach is to move to a city where many writers already live and become part of the literary activities in that place.

One final irony here: having a developed social critique of MFA programs is helpful regarding knowing what you’re getting into, but is much less helpful than having other actual options.

I hope anyone with further thoughts or questions about MFAs will respond in the comments section.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Joseph Thomas and Mark Wallace reading at Agitprop this Saturday, November 7

The Agitprop Reading Series Presents:

Joseph Thomas and Mark Wallace

Saturday, November 7, 7 p.m.

A libertine of unimpeachable taste, Joseph T. Thomas, Jr. is an assistant professor of English at San Diego State University’s National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. He is the author of two books, Poetry’s Playground: The Culture of Contemporary American Children’s Poetry (Wayne State UP, 2007) and Strong Measures (Make Now Press, 2007). Poetry’s Playground was named a 2009 honor book by the Children’s Literature Association.

Mark Wallace is the author of more than fifteen books and chapbooks of poetry, fiction, and essays. Temporary Worker Rides A Subway won the 2002 Gertrude Stein Poetry Award and was published by Green Integer Books. His critical articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, and he has co-edited two essay collections, Telling It Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s, and A Poetics of Criticism. Most recently he has published a short story collection, Walking Dreams (2007), and a book of poems, Felonies of Illusion (2008). Forthcoming in early 2011 is his second novel, The Quarry and The Lot. He teaches at California State University San Marcos.

Reading Location:
2837 University Avenue in North Park
(Entrance on Utah St., behind Glenn's Market)
San Diego, CA 92104
For more information, call 619.384.7989

The Agitprop Reading Series is currently hosted by James Meetze, but this event will feature special guest host Steve Willard.