3 Thoughts on Kindle Unlimited

Kindle_Paperwhite_3GI have a roundup on Amazon’s latest innovation over at Mere O Notes so if you’re wanting to learn more about Kindle Unlimited, start there.

I. Our Technocratic Libertarianism

While Mark Lilla is basically correct in saying that we live in a libertarian era, that term is not without its problems. (Ross Douthat made this point quite well in a recent blog post.) Despite our libertarian tendencies, we are still creatures bearing the image of God and living in a world as creatures made by that God. So both the essence of our humanity and the nature of our creaturely existence constrains our ability to function as completely autonomous beings. But when you have a society dedicated to such stark libertarianism to the cost of all non-coercive forms of community, this necessarily leaves only the coercive forces of big business and big government as the coherent social bodies able to shape communal life.

Thus we have services like Netflix and now Kindle Unlimited, both of which are premised on giving the user a seemingly infinite amount of choice, yet all of the choices available are defined by the business providing the service. So our experience of the service might seem libertarian because there are so many choices and there’s nothing stopping us from choosing anything on offer.

Yet the choices available to our libertarian will are themselves defined and handed down by the only viable social bodies left to us. We just don’t notice them as much these days because Amazon and Netflix have so completely blended into the fabric of our lives that we seldom look beyond them when looking for a movie or book. This is particularly troubling with Amazon given their current spat with Hachette and their history of questionable behavior regarding Kindle books.  Continue reading

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The Abolition of Walter White

In most ways, the debate regarding TV’s big four–The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men–will rage on as each team makes their case for why their show is superior. In many cases, this really will come down to individual taste. But there’s one way in which Breaking Bad, which returns this Sunday night for its final eight episodes, is clearly unique amongst the four. Breaking Bad is a show based on the wholesale rejection of a definitive element of most TV dramas. In conventional TV dramas, characters basically stay the same and the drama comes from watching their true colors emerge over time and seeing what happens as a result, or perhaps seeing what happens as they try to change but prove unable to do so.

The conflict between Lee Adama and his father William Adama in Battlestar Galactica is a perfect example of this. Neither Adama changes in some dramatic and undeniable way during the series, it’s simply that eventually certain events conspire to make their differences more apparent and throw them into conflict. You could say the same thing about the fights between Tim Riggins and Smash Williams in Friday Night Lights or the conflict between Toby Ziegler and the other senior staffers in The West Wing. The characters don’t change, but their surroundings do. (A similar thing happens with Don Draper in Mad Men, although it is made more complex by the fact that Don keeps trying to change but so far has struggled to do so, although the end of season 6 suggests that perhaps he’s finally made a breakthrough.) Typically though, when the surroundings change, differences that have always existed bubble up into conflict. The story isn’t about change, therefore, but simply about how events can come together to make what’s been there all along suddenly seem more apparent. But Breaking Bad is different. In Breaking Bad, the entire drama is based around seeing how characters change–something foreshadowed masterfully in the series pilot when Walt gives the following speech to his high-school chemistry students:

“Chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change: Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It’s fascinating really. It’s a shame so many of us never take time to consider its implications.”

You could say, therefore, that the entire series is about chemistry. Viewed this way, Walt’s occupation as a chemistry teacher isn’t simply a convenient plot device to explain how he learned to make such a superior version of meth. It’s actually a clue that explains the entire series. Breaking Bad is the story of how a person who has given their life to understanding change is himself changed and how those changes in turn change the people closest to him.

Continue reading

Pedro at 40: How a Television Show Changed the Way a Generation Viewed LGBTQ Persons

Credit: wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:RWSFCast.jpg

Vote for Pedro

My generation might best be defined as those who remember watching Pedro Zamora die of AIDS in our living rooms.

If you’re not familiar with Pedro, he was an openly gay, HIV-positive castmember in the third season of MTV’s the Real World which aired in 1994. Those who watched Pedro’s life play out on the tiny 4:3 screens of the time were presented with a high definition portrait of kind young man who didn’t fit any of the caricatures of homosexuality that one might see in the movies or hear about from the pulpit.

He was warm, funny, and extremely thoughtful, always facing his illness and his antagonistic, homophobic roommate “Puck” with a kind of conflicted dignity that captivated viewers.

But just as the Real World: San Francisco started airing that summer, Pedro’s health began deteriorating rapidly, and he was soon diagnosed with progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy. Although MTV offered to pay for his medical expenses, Pedro’s health continued to worsen and, hours after the season finale aired, Pedro died, surrounded by his friends and the family members Bill Clinton had flown in from Cuba.

Not surprising, the gay community mourned the untimely loss of this bright, energetic educator and activist. But what was surprising was that many people who wouldn’t think of themselves as “pro gay” at the time were also deeply affected. Continue reading

The Frame for Watching Mad Men: When Joan sells Johnny

Brian R. Gumm is a licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren, worshiping and periodically ministering in a United Methodist parish in rural Iowa. His telecommuting day job is Distance Learning Technology Analyst for Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, which is where he received an Mdiv and MA in Conflict Transformation in 2012. Brian blogs regularly at Restorative Theology and can be found on Twitter.

The exchange between Nick Olson and Jake Meador on Christian engagement with the hit AMC drama, Mad Men, was helpful reading for watching the premier. I especially resonate with Olson’s sentiment of no longer feeling a desire to have a drink while watching the show. In the early seasons, the show’s aesthetics exuded a certain aura of coolness around drinking hard liquor and smoking cigarettes. But last season, that aura started to fade, laying bare the nihilism and selfishness of the show’s primary characters. Don Draper’s cool, composed gaze morphed into a cold, dead gaze.

*Spoiler alerts*

With respect to Don, this seems to be bearing itself out in the narrative that season six started. Before the premier, Olson’s assertion held up, that “(w)hen Don Draper gets in a boardroom to sell a product, he sells you on his ability to sell.” But that didn’t happen in the first episode.mad-men-promo-poster

The show opens with Don’s and Megan’s trip to Hawaii, which was “field work” for a potential client of the firm, a Hawaiian resort company. Upon returning to a wintry Manhattan, Don designs the creative strategy for the ad campaign, during which he’s characteristically tight-lipped, to the chagrin of Peter Campbell. When the potential clients see the proofs, Don slides into his born-salesman character and pitches them his vision for the ad campaign. The viewer expects yet another home run, but the clients don’t buy it. The copy he and his team produced strikes them as dark and morbid, even suicidal. When the potential clients leave the boardroom, Pete is exasperated while Don stares in disbelief at the copy, seemingly unable to comprehend how on earth they could have mistaken his creative vision. By the end of the episode it’s clear that Don, who through season five seemed one of the more sane characters, has started sliding back into the moral black hole from which he had crawled out of after the first few seasons.

But something else struck me about this latest episode that wasn’t mentioned in Olson’s and Meador’s conversation, namely “the frame” within which Mad Men is experienced. Their conversation focused on the show itself, which is all right and good. What I noticed happened around the edges of the show, just beyond its green curtain. In one of the commercials that played during the show,the voluptuous Joan Harris walks toward you/the camera. She picks up a glass of whiskey while describing its virtues of being “classic” and “bold,” then says as she looks you/the camera straight in the eye, “It’s Johnny Walker, and you ordered it.” You then get the company logo and the signature of Christina Hendricks, the actress who portrays Joan in Mad Men.

Here is a show that has done a fairly good job of showing the lack of any moral center that lies beneath the gloss of the world of advertising and consumerism, and now one of its actors is pitching real products during the commercial break. Not that celebrity ad pitches are new by any stretch. Far from it; the irony in this case is that it somewhat deflates the power of the show’s critical edge, however subtle it may be. When Joan sells Johnny, the bad medicine described by the show’s narrative is being prescribed to us just outside the narrative’s frame. If it doesn’t go down smooth there, why should it here?

Now, one can rightly argue, “Yes, but that’s the name of the game/necessary evil” and so forth. In a range of senses the show about advertising couldn’t exist without advertising. But treating that as inevitable and given should give Christians pause. I strongly affirm Olson’s point that “(a)esthetics and ethics are inevitably bound together,” but would add narrative to that set. And the nihilistic narrative ethics of Mad Men does a sort of deconstruction on the very frame which makes it possible in the first place, and that frame is just as “storied” as the story it brings us in the show.

It’s like philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s joke about chocolate ex-lax: Mad Men is the tasty thing which undoes itself. It’s this sort of nested auto-deconstruction which I think is brilliant about the show, and why it’s disappointing to see Joan selling Johnny. But the question has begun to dawn on me: When is enough enough?

If our (American Christians’) social imagination is coterminous with capitalism and consumer culture, then we need to learn to break open the frame of that imaginary, however briefly. And perhaps Mad Men is a site where such interventions can take place. But the renewing of our minds and disciplining of our bodies which produces the critical vision to perform such critique doesn’t come from within the world which makes Mad Men possible; it comes from the gifts of the Holy Spirit conferred upon the body of Christ through its own liturgies. Perhaps six seasons of Mad Men is giving too much, even when its fangs have supposedly been pulled.

Should Christians Watch Mad Men? A Rejoinder

Editor’s Note:  This guest post is by Nick Olson, who writes film reviews at a host of places including Filmwell and Christ and Pop Culture

I have a confession: when watching seasons 1 through 4 of Mad Men a couple of years ago, I often had the overwhelming desire to have a drink to go along with the madness. And I don’t think I’m alone. My friend and colleague Josh Larsen seems to have had the exact same response. As he put it, “How do I know that Mad Men has reached a new level of artistic maturity in its fourth season? I no longer want to have a drink while watching it.” I’m not sure if my timeline runs parallel with Josh’s, but I can attest that by the end of season 5, when the general tone of has been captured in the image of Don looking down the abyss of an elevator shaft, a glass of bourbon with Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Campbell and company has grown less enticing.

Mad Men

Mad Men (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This confession might seem like confirmation of Jake Meador’s recent post on the ethics of watching Mad Men, in which he says that the show has lost him because, “[u]ltimately, Mad Men follows the standard narrative of our ad-addled culture, which says that if you dress something up enough, people will buy anything–even things that are morally depraved and terrifying.”  But I don’t think my initial anecdote is quite a confirmation. Rather, I think Mad Men itself is like an enticing drink that doesn’t go down smoothly. And the series, while playing up the alluring shape that deceit often takes, clearly emphasizes the destructive aftermath.

But before offering a few friendly counterpoints to Jake’s article, I want to establish a few points of agreement which, on scale, seem as important here as my disagreement with some of his assertions regarding the ethics of watching Mad Men.

First, I agree with Jake when he suggests that Mad Men is “a horse of a different color” than a show like Breaking Bad. When asked which of the two shows I prefer, I’ve often said that I’d choose the latter because I do think Breaking Bad is a show more intentionally concerned with moral deterioration—or, with a person who has known the goodness of self-restraint and is steadily losing it. The difference between the two shows is evident in their titles. Greg Wolfe probably put it best during a podcast when he said that Breaking Bad, unlike Mad Men, seems to have a more distinct sense of a “moral center.” But it’s important to recognize that the absence of a moral center is also precisely the point. It’s the nature of their madness qua madness that they have no moral center. Their insanity is qualified by their inability to have judicious self-restraint.

Further, I think Jake is right to suggest that perhaps some Christians have overreacted to the cultural legalism that might have characterized their upbringing. I’m all for an article which carefully and humbly questions the cultural artifacts that we enjoy (some indignation may even be appropriate in some cases); Jake’s article is like a Gardnerian analysis brought to bear on television. Christ and Pop Culture had a relatively similar article assessing whether Game of Thrones is a worthwhile cultural artifact. I like Gardner, but I also disagree with his assessment of Updike and Percy. Speaking of Updike, I’ve often thought that Don Draper is basically “Mr. Death” himself, Rabbit Angstrom. There just aren’t many Kruppenbach’s on Madison Avenue in the ‘60’s.

So I agree with the shape of Jake’s argument. I think it’s important that we negotiate enjoying art with discernment, and moral discrimination can undoubtedly be part of that discernment without descending into a kind of legalistic moralism. I’m a film columnist and I often make these sorts of discretionary choices. A recent example was my decision to forego Spring Breakers. Several critics have suggested that it’s a film which subverts spring break culture, but after doing some reading and interacting with some film critic communities regarding their impressions of Mr. Korine, I decided not to see and review it for my audience. Christian critics should both do a kind of direct diagnostic work, but also occasionally (as necessary) provide some discretionary warning. For example, I respect Jeffrey Overstreet for his willingness to not only be transparent about the fact that he walked out of Compliance, but then present his reasons for doing so instead of just ditching the review altogether. These warnings and discretionary moves don’t even necessarily have to be conclusive declarations.

So, in short, I’m glad that Jake has started this conversation on the ethics of watching Mad Men; even in my disagreement with his conclusion, I recognize the benefits of having the conversation. It pushes me—a person who enjoys and plans to continue watching Mad Men—to more carefully evaluate my position.

Frankly, it’s not my intention or desire here to go into a long-winded analysis of the show. Continue reading

The Ethics of Watching Mad Men

In a recent Comment piece, Jamie Smith argued that one of the foremost challenges facing Christians today is not whether or not we ought to engage popular culture–that battle has been won. The new question we have to face is what the shape of our engagement will be. We’re no longer wondering “Is it OK for Christians to watch R rated movies?” or “Is it OK for Christians to work in politics?” Those questions have been definitively answered in the affirmative. Now the questions are “how do Christians watch movies?” and “what sort of political presence should Christians pursue?”

This weekend Christians will have an excellent chance to put this thinking into practice as we consider AMC’s returning hit Mad Men, which opens season six on Sunday evening. In years past, evangelicals would brush the show aside, put off by its libertine sexual ethics, the colorful language used by some of the characters, and the general moral free-for-all that defines the show. Today’s evangelicals, reacting against the legalism (real or perceived) of their childhood faith, have often instead embraced the show, citing its exquisite settings and costumes, excellent writing, and tremendously complex characters.

While it is certainly good that evangelicals can recognize and appreciate good art when they see it (it was not always so), I do feel some trepidation all the same about our embrace of shows like Mad Men. Churchill famously said that first we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us. I suspect that something similar happens when we’re talking about stories.

In older stories, what Chesterton would likely call the great fairy tales, we hear a story of a great hero who we come to love. We cheer for him in his triumphs and grieve his failings and above all we hope for him to come to a good end. So we cheer when Frodo destroys the ring or when Orlando and Rosalind are finally brought together.

Mad Men

Of course, other stories create a different sort of hero or, more properly, an anti-hero–a protagonist that we initially admire and support but who becomes a loathsome villain as the story is told. Dorian Gray, Macbeth, and Walter White all come to mind as good examples of anti-heroes.

The important commonality both types of stories share is that there’s a real moral universe standing behind the story and the story takes place in that predefined world. So Frodo is an heroic figure and if we grow to love him we will have done well. Likewise we ought to learn to despise Walter White, even while perhaps holding out hope that something might get through his pride and ego deep enough to remind him of the man he once was.

But there is another way to tell a story, which begins by blowing up that moral backdrop and replacing it with an aimless, purposeless, utterly silent universe. (Here Matt would say that we’re simply talking about the old Greek debate between the chaos of Homer and the order of Plato.) In chaotic stories, we can’t really judge characters as being good or evil, but simply as being effective or ineffective at doing what they want to do. Think of Albert Camus’ The Stranger or the recent film There Will Be Blood. In a chaotic story, all that ultimately exists is the individual. And the individuals in the story are either strong enough to act as free beings unencumbered by limitation (think of Camus’ narrator who kills a man on the beach and feels no remorse) or they’re too weak and are crushed by rival characters more willing to do what’s needed (think of Daniel Plainview killing Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood or Francis Underwood’s manipulation of Congressman Russo in House of Cards). Oftentimes, these chaotic stories may be compelling narratives, but the universe in which they take place is so bleak and terrifying that we can’t feel any attraction to it. (Game of Thrones would be another good example of this, I think.) “Life’s a bitch” may make for an interesting story, but it doesn’t make for much of a world. And when we see the bleak chaos of Sartre’s Nausea or the 2007 film No Country for Old Men, we are rightly horrified and come away from it hoping for something to bring order to the chaos.

And this brings us back to AMC’s Mad Men. Continue reading

House of Cards: Kevin Spacey, Tolkien, and the Bible

It’s an easy, common observation to note that you can learn about a culture by observing the heroes it creates. The culture that creates a hero like John Keating of Dead Poet’s Society is different than the one that creates a hero like Samwise Gamgee of The Lord of the Rings. The former lionizes individualism, self-actualization, and absolute freedom of expression. The latter upholds a more communitarian, self-sacrificial ethic as heroic. Your choice in heroes suggests a great deal about your vision of the good life.

It might be a bit more interesting to attempt a similar study by looking at the villains of distinct cultures–and more interesting still to note how different cultures deal with the same villain. Which brings me to Netflix’s new original series House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey as power-hungry congressman Francis Underwood.  The series opens with a scene in which Spacey monologues to the camera about the two types of pain, the pain that makes you strong and the pain that makes you useless. “I have no patience for house-of-cards-final-posteruseless things,” Spacey explains as he puts a dog just run over by a car out of its misery by wringing its neck. Later in the series another Underwood monologue offers an obvious but still useful Rosetta Stone for the character: Describing the failure of his former staffer and current lobbyist Remy Denton, Underwood says, “He chose money over power. In this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the Mcmansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn’t see the difference.” And yet that quote, important as it is for understanding Underwood’s mind, may be even more important in understanding the show’s greatest shortcoming. To Underwood, power is a strong fortress. To deploy a biblical image, we might say it’s the house built on the rock that stands firm when the house built on the sand-like foundation of money passes into decay. The trouble with that thought, of course, is that it isn’t true.

House of Cards is not unique in creating an impregnable individualistic villain who will do anything to seize power. It was only a few years ago that Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his portrayal of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, a character every bit as merciless and driven as Underwood. Going back further, Tolkien’s Saruman is another villain driven almost exclusively by power and going back still further one can say the same thing about Shakespeare’s Macbeth, an especially apropos comparison given House of Cards’ many Shakespearean overtones and, especially, the eerie similarities between Underwood’s wife Claire and Lady Macbeth, a point that Spacey himself has raised in interviews.

So contemporary story-tellers like Cards writer Beau Willimon and There Will Be Blood director PT Anderson are not breaking new ground in creating characters like Underwood and Plainview. Continue reading

Downton Abbey as a Jane Austen style Tragedy

The third season of Julian Fellowes’ BBC hit Downton Abbey has finally arrived in the United States, and it’s getting all the buzz you would expect: most notably, from my perspective, the series has recently received positive coverage in Books & Culture and at Christ & Pop Culture. Both of those pieces draw out the ethical and artistic strengths of the show. I’m willing to concede that Downton has definite strengths–I have taken the time to watch a little over two seasons, after all–but my overall evaluation of the show is getting progressively more negative with each new episode. To explain why, I need to go back to Jane Austen.

As a costume drama, Downton lives in the tradition of social comedy exemplified and initiated by Austen. Any history of costume drama on the screen would have to include, at minimum, the famous Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice and Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility. And Downton partakes of many other Austenesque qualities, from its emphasis on the leisured classes to its social intrigue to its witty dialogue. In all of these ways, Downton draws positively from Austen’s legacy.

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yet there is one aspect of Austen’s storytelling that I find myself seeking vainly for in Downton, and it speaks to what is ultimately the show’s failure on both moral and artistic levels. A recent piece in Philosophy Now points to Austen’s monumental stature as a moral thinker, a judgment with which I concur.

Austen’s novels are investigations of virtues and vices, with the aim of pointing we readers toward the good. The novels are not didactic, but they are formative–after reading Sense and Sensibility, I want to be like Elinor Dashwood. Austen’s method for accomplishing this ethical project involves specific moral registers assigned to her protagonists and her minor characters. Austen’s heroes and heroines are generally morally serious, if not morally exemplary–even those who have distinct flaws, such as Emma Woodhouse, generally come to see the error of their ways. Continue reading

A mind is a terrible thing to waste on comedy

Eddie Izzard is a gifted, but he’s burying his talent. How can I claim this, and why should I be bothering about the speck in his life before the log in mine? As to the first, I shall attempt to demonstrate it shortly, and as to the latter, I will say that this critique of another man’s speck is a part of my attempt to understand, and remove, my own log. Comedy is one of my chief interests and I am currently deliberating as to how much of my time and energy to invest in it. You could say I am using him as a foil. The following critique is distant speculation, as I’ve never conversed with the man but I assure you that if I do I will run this thought by him and hear his defense first-person.

Now, I say his is burying his talent. Here is the proof:
1. He is a highly energetic, fecund thinker;
2. Highly energetic, fecund thinkers may employ their energy to any number of ends, from the best to the worst.
3. If he employed the larger portions of his mental energy to some societal or personal good, this would be morally praiseworthy, as a full investment of his God-given talents into the kingdom of man and the kingdom of heaven.
4. If he employed the larger portions of his mental energy to some less good, societal or personal, this would be morally blameworthy, at least insofar as the choice was willing, because it is a half-hearted investment of his God-given talents, the other half of which he buried.
5. Izzard employs entire sections of his mental energy to the end of producing laughs in people.
6. There are producing laughs in itself is not a societal or personal good, (though it may be used as such), or, if it is, it is a lesser good.
7. Therefore, he is burying his talent.

1. Is easy to agree with for anyone who has seen his stand-up. The man’s energy is almost boundless.
2. This is easy; it’s basically saying “potential can be actualized various ways.”
3. If God created us, then he designed us. If he designed us, he designed us to some end, with some purpose in mind, or without reference to some end, without purpose. God does nothing without purpose, for this would be irrational, and God is perfectly rational. So he designed us to some end. This end to which he designed us are “good works, prepared before us”, works for which we will recieve reward if completed, blame if left incomplete.
4. It does seems that it is possible for us to do wrong the assignment given to us, if we take the most apparent meaning of the parable of the talents. The “wicked servant” took the money given him and buried it, “for fear of the master.” The master punishes the servant for his misuse (or lack of use) of the talent. This indicates that the master did not give specific instructions on how to use the talent, but left some responsibility on the servant.
5. Watching his videos, you see Eddie Izzard not only telling pre-prepared jokes, but improvising. Improvisation, interacting with the audience and such, demands that the skills of humour be honed and developed, ready for use, before the performer ever steps foot on stage.
This being true, I infer the following: Eddie Izzard habitually practices his comedic skills while off the stage. If he is so excellent and “warmed up” while on the stage, he must be keeping warm, by exercising, while off the stage. If this is so, then Eddie Izzard could truthfully describe his life this way: “Large percentages of my time are committed to identifying what is funny, organizing, and executing jokes to make people laugh.”
6. That laughing is not a societal good, or not as good as, say, feeding the poor, fighting against idealogical strongholds in Academia, preaching the good news, is, I think, not controversial.

Therefore, point seven follows, that Eddie Izzard is burying his talent.

I welcome a challange or refutation to any one of my premises, or my conclusion, from one who has it. My reasoning is yet… amateur.