Friday, February 3, 2023

What Was '90s Irony Really About?

Not too long ago I remarked that in the '90s there still seemed a certain amount of alertness on the part of society's thinkers about just what condition society was in, and where it was going on--which is to say, in the middle of a nervous breakdown, amid breakdowns of other kinds.

Consider all that was going on. Deindustrialization, the decay of the country's infrastructure and services, the hollowing out of the "middle class." Surging socioeconomic inequality, the polarization and moral panic of "culture war." The growling derangement of a "Greed is good"-"Force works" mentality. The hyper-sensationalization of one crime as idiotic as it was gruesome after another (Amy Fisher! Tonya Harding!), which process included endless made-for-TV movies (Amy Fisher had three all to herself, not counting the three more Saturday Night Live presented us with in a more than usually memorable episode!), and the grist it all offered the mill of an age of "shock TV" and "extreme" everything, and enormous smugness on the part of the edgelords dominating the landscape. (This was the era of Jerry Springer, and Howard Stern, and Quentin Tarantino, and South Park.)

All of this is, of course, far more advanced now, far worse now--and taken quite in stride. But there was less acceptance then. And that seems relevant to the famous '90s irony. Annoying as it often was I wonder now if it was not a sign of society (at least, as represented by some of those who do its thinking for it) being in a healthier condition than it is now, aware of what was going on, and using irony as a coping mechanism--distancing itself from its unfortunate situation, laughing at what was happening to it because it still understood that this was what breakdown looks like, and if it was no great era for valiant efforts to change the world, on some level was still fighting against it.

I have said it before but I will say it again: back then writers could imagine society becoming so sick it would be addicted to reality TV (The Truman Show, EdTV), but reality has gone far, far beyond their imaginings (as all that is evoked by utterance of the name "Kardashian" makes clear, and so too the way people shrugged at the amplification of the concept in The Circle). I think of the underrated sequel to Robocop, which had a bankrupt Detroit being privatized to a corporate goliath whose activities include selling a new model of high-tech policing based on killer robots--a joke then, but in hindsight it stands as prophesy infinitely more accurate than the drivel of the Establishment hacks paraded before us on the nightly news as "experts" (whose misunderstanding of the events of the period and their aftermath was unbelievably risible, and has cost the world dearly).

As all this goes to show, we are past the point at which satire, or even parody, is possible. And I don't think it's a simple caving in to nostalgia to point that out.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The Florida Man Phenomenon: A Note

In the past decade "Florida Man" became a popular Internet meme, derived from just how often news stories detailing comically bizarre incidents perpetrated by individuals who were likely intoxicated or mentally ill begin with the words "A Florida man."

All of this, of course, has had some asking why so many incidents of these types seem to occur in the state. Some have suggested the state's demographic "diversity," others its extreme weather (its seemingly having the "dog days of summer" nearly all year round).

However, the mundane reality is that it is easy to come up with numerous explanations which have nothing to do with any special eccentricity on the part of the state and its inhabitants.

The sheer populousness of the state would quite naturally mean a disproportionate share of eccentricity. With about 22 million inhabitants circa 2023 one would, all other things being equal, expect forty times as many such incidents as would come from, for example, Wyoming--with the fact all the more worth remarking given that the only two states in the Union larger than Florida in population have a pretty strong reputation for eccentricity themselves, namely California and Texas.

Urbanization may matter too--Florida being not just heavily peopled, but highly urbanized. (With over 91 percent of its people living in cities as of 2010, it is perhaps the seventh most urbanized state in the country.) One might add that it is particularly rich in large, high-profile urban areas (the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, Jacksonville, Tampa-Saint Petersburg, Orlando) where not only are local events likely to get national notice, but which sprawl to such a degree as to make it essentially one giant "megalopolis"--containing 17 million+ of its 22 million people, giving the megalopolis a population larger than is to be seen in any other whole state but California, Texas and New York.

That makes it that much easier for any odd incidents occurring within it (of which, again, there would likely be many given the sheer number of people present) to come to public notice (again, as compared with what may happen in a thinly peopled rural area).

One might add that where comparisons with other states are concerned it may matter that California and Texas are associated with older stereotypes that let news audiences (quite wrongly, though they did it all the same) fit a good many of their incidents into a familiar framework (California's counterculturalism, for example, or Texas' nationalism and ultra-conservatism).

By contrast Florida, long associated simply with retirees and "fun in the sun" has had nothing of the kind, leaving it susceptible to the identification of all this with a vaguer "Floridaness"--which has in itself been powerfully self-reinforcing, with new incidents fit into the increasingly familiar pattern, the more in as the words "a Florida man" became a reliable way of grabbing the attention of the sorts of readers and viewers who eat this kind of thing up.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Myth of a Country Ever More Awash in Holders of "Useless" Degrees

The accusation that the fault for many a national problem lies in the country's young people eschewing STEM in favor of "soft" and "useless" degrees in the arts, humanities and social sciences whose award is something akin to a scam given that upon graduation the fate of those debt-loaded students will be working behind the counter at Starbucks.

As is generally the case with such situations the advancement of the claim, and the debate it provokes (if one dignifies it with that term), is mostly evidence-free--a matter of spewing one's culture war-soiled prejudices.

The fact by itself ought to make the claim suspect. Admittedly education is an area where the collection of statistical data leaves much to be desired. However, the data that is available suffices to make it quite clear that the image of young people all getting "useless" degrees is profoundly false.

Consider, for instance, the much-maligned degree in English. In 2018-2020 the proportion of bachelor's degrees awarded in that field ran below 2 percent of the total (far, far less than you would guess from the noise)--with this, of course, including all those taking English as part of pre-law study, aspirants to work in advertising, persons planning to teach the English language courses that everyone following any course of study must take in school, etc.. The result is that for every B.A. awarded in English American colleges awarded three degrees in engineering, and another three in computer and information science, and at least that many in the biological and biomedical sciences.

Moreover, the trend has been toward less humanities education, and more STEM education, with English and engineering useful reference points. In the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, it may have been common for bachelor's degrees in English to comprise 4-5 percent of the total. By 2010-2011 they were down to 3 percent, on the way to the current level (a drop of a third in a space of a few years). By contrast, if the output of engineering graduates has been more volatile it seems worth remembering that where in the early twenty-first century they seem to have run 4-5 percent of the total, in 2017-2020 they consistently accounted for over 6 percent of B.A.s (a jump of a third in a similarly short span of a time). More broadly, over that decade the Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences category as I have been able to determine it went from accounting for 39 percent of bachelor's degrees at the start of the 2010-2020 period to 33 percent at its end, while STEM categories, broadly defined, surged from 29 to over 39 percent--the ratio gone from 1.3 Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences bachelor's degrees for every one STEM baccalaureate to nearly the reverse (in, again, the space of a decade).* Defining STEM more narrowly so as to focus on the physical science, computer science, engineering and engineering technology graduates, mathematicians and the like (leaving out such undeniable science workers as those in agriculture and natural resources, the biological and biomedical sciences, the health professionals, etc., in favor of the physical science/production-orientation those who speak of the term usually have in mind) I still get a jump from 12 to 16 percent--and so a robust (if somewhat more modest) measure of absolute and relative growth that has these categories going from producing three graduates for every ten in the Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences category to five in the relevant span of time.**

Indeed, to the extent that the image of the overproduction of "useless" arts, humanities and social science majors has any basis it seems to lie in outdated images of what is actually happening at the schools--for the shift has been extraordinary. This is all the more the case as this proportional shift has occurred not in a context where the number of B.A.s awarded fell but actually rose by a near fifth (from 1.72 to 2.04 million), so that one cannot rationalize it as a matter of people simply dropping out of the "useless" humanities, etc. programs. (The number of engineering majors surged from 76,000 in 2010-2011 to 128,000 in 2019-2020, a 68 percent jump bespeaking a sustained 6 percent a year growth rate; the number of graduates of STEM programs as counted here more broadly from 496,000 to 801,000, an only slightly less impressive rate of growth.) Moreover, for all the complaints about the number of foreign students in such programs. (Even discounting the "temporary visa" category one has a fifty percent jump, evidentiating the position that U.S. citizens really are getting so many more degrees.)

It has also happened in a context where there has been little serious effort to make STEM majors more attractive (e.g. better pay and conditions for workers, or an easing of the cost of education for those who go this track); and where there does not seem to have been much done to better equip students to follow those majors at the K-12 level.

One would think that this big jump in the number of STEM majors would be a national story which would give some solace to the "WE NEED MORE STEM!" crowd. However, because it would offer some solace to them (and for many, many other reasons) it conflicts with the narratives so many want to push--of the humanities as a threat to the country because of intellectuals' perversity; of young people having only themselves to blame for their own problems when they leave college and can't find work commensurate with their level of schooling, and the country's industrial decline being attributable to their fecklessness rather than anyone else's--and so is totally ignored by those whose job it is to "inform" the public.

* In calculating the figure for Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences I counted in, besides the "Visual and Performing Arts," English and foreign languages, literature and linguistics, "Social Science and History," "Liberal Arts and Sciences, General studies, and Humanities," "Philosophy and Religious Studies," "Area, Ethnic, Cultural, Gender, and Group Studies," also "Psychology," "Family and Consumer Sciences/Human Sciences," "Theology and Religious Vocation Programs," "Communication, Journalism, and Related Programs," and "Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies." In calculating the figure for STEM I counted in, besides "Engineering," "Engineering Technologies," "Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services," "Communications Technology," "Architecture and Related Services," "Biological and Biomedical Sciences," "Physical Sciences and Science Technologies" and "Mathematics and Statistics," also "Precision Production," "Agriculture and Natural Resources," "Transportation and Materials Moving," "Health Professions and Related Programs," and "Parks, Recreation, Fitness, Leisure and Kinesiology."
** Specifically I retained the "Engineering," "Engineering Technologies," "Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services," "Communications Technology," "Architecture and Related Services," "Physical Sciences and Science Technologies," "Mathematics and Statistics," "Precision Production," and "Transportation and Materials Moving" categories.

Higher Education in the America of Berzelius Windrip

Back before literature went over to the Counter-Enlightenment mind, body and soul, devoting itself to epistemological nihilism, Medieval misanthropy, sneering irony toward human suffering and social concern, and the sniveling subjectivism of the "writers" who have made of the world of letters a Modernist-postmodernist Wasteland this past century, it was the case that a great writer could be expected to show us something of the world through their art. In early twentieth century America this was still very much the case with greats such as Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, John Steinbeck and, of course, Sinclair Lewis.

In line with that cultural shift what made these writers great has since been held against them, with Lewis no exception. Indeed, that champion of the New Criticism Mark Schorer personally played a significant part in destroying Lewis' reputation (as he did that of H.G. Wells), and I am not sure it ever recovered. Still, Lewis' works did endure, such that the literate (such as exist) are still likely to not be completely confused when they hear of George F. Babbitt, or an Elmer Gantry--and indeed it seems that there has been some revival of interest in one of his later works, It Can't Happen Here.

Still, if the book was more talked about than it had been in a long time I'm not sure how many actually read it--and how many of those were attentive to the bit about what happened to higher education in America under the dictatorship of America's answer to Mussolini and Hitler, Berzelius Windrip. As Lewis wrote, the country got new model universities that, rather than "merely kick[ing] out all treacherous so-called "intellectual" teachers who mulishly declined to teach physics, cookery, and geography according to the principles and facts laid down by the political bureaus," were "free from the very first of any taint of 'intellectualism.'" Thus they virtually annihilated the humanities and sciences (dispensing entirely with ancient languages, ancient history, foreign literature and even pre-1800 English literature excepting Shakespeare and Milton, while in science declaring that "too much and too confusing research had already been done" and need not be bothered with anymore), leaving little but political indoctrination (the one history course retained in the curriculum devoted to "show[ing] that, through the centuries, the key to civilization had been the defense of Anglo-Saxon purity against barbarians"), vocational training ("lakeshore-cottage architecture . . . schnauzer-breeding") and athletics with a growing tilt toward preparation for what no fascist state can live without, war (with "speed contests in infantry drill, aviation, bombing, and operation of tanks, armored cars, and machine guns" counting for academic credit).

Being a satire from the 1930s Lewis' book had its over-the-top and in cases dated touches--but I leave it to you to wonder just how big a stretch this vision is from a great deal of talk about higher education conventionally treated as eminently practical and respectable, and what that says about the sort of media we have.

Should Economics Be Classified as a STEM Subject?

In recent years there has been a big push to have economics classified as a STEM field--and while this issue is not exactly high on the public agenda it does seem worth saying that most of the discussion of the issue is in favor of such a change. And at a glance that may seem natural. After all, economics is supposed to be a science, and as currently taught it is certainly intensively mathematical.

However, the issue is more complex than it looks--because of the ambiguities of the STEM category, and the context in which proponents of the idea are trying to make STEM a part of it.

Just What is STEM Anyway?
In the past I have admitted to a dislike of the term STEM. This was mainly a reaction to its glib slogan-ness, which it seemed to me made it easier for people to push a bunch of simple-minded and harmful attitudes all the more forcefully—in particular the idea of a hierarchy of intellectual endeavor (and the minds which pursue them), and the diversion of attention from the real problems of the country's manufacturing base, and its college graduates, and much, much else associated them with a dismissive "Those lazy, stupid young people are studying the wrong things."

Still, there is also the (totally unsurprising) intellectual haziness behind the glib formulation. STEM awkwardly lumps together Science, Technology, Engineering, Math--which is to say forms of knowledge and activity to be found all across the economy, such that one can define it so broadly as to include virtually everyone. The number of working people who have absolutely nothing to do with any of those fields in their work is not exactly high, and likely falling all the time with anyone at a desk likely to have a computer in front of them--while going much less far one finds blurry boundaries. Consider, for example, the elementary school teacher who performs the important function of imparting the rudiments of math and science to very young people who will include the STEM workers of tomorrow. Consider the doctor who is lengthily trained in the sciences and their application. Certainly they merit acknowledgment as STEM workers--but they are not what people usually think of when (again, glibly) tossing about the term. Instead what they seem to have in mind was physical scientists (physicists, chemists, etc.), engineers, and people with advanced training in allied occupations (mathematics, computers) devoted to the work of high-technology physical production--and STEM made a cause célèbre in the name of expanding the work force for high-technology manufacturing, such that what was wanted was not so much more in the way of pure scientists or mathematicians (certainly there is no shortage of, for example, qualified Ph.d-holding applicants for tenured university positions in those fields) as more of the Technology and Engineering folks for industry.

But of course the fuzziness, and the hype about STEM, STEM, STEM! gave it the status of "cool kids club" and everyone wanted in (the more in as educational institutions craved the government and private sector support--read: money--going or likely to go to STEM, the more so amid the brutal austerity of the general scene), such that the head can spin just trying to keep track with all the initiatives to get this field recognized as STEM, that field recognized as STEM. And economics has been no exception. But if we are to stick with what STEM is really about then, no, economics does not have a claim here. But even if we take the broader view we still find ourselves facing other important questions.

Physics Envy?
Economics as we know it is a product of the Enlightenment and its respect for science--with the same going for its being a specifically mathematical science (where, at least from the standpoint of mainstream, neoclassical economics, Stanley Jevons' work was foundational). Indeed, the aspiration has been reflected in the etymology of the term "economics." Where people previously spoke of "political economy" from the dawn of its neoclassical era on they increasingly cut out the "political"—cut of the idea that economic life and its rules were rooted in specific historical, technological, social, cultural--and political--conditions, and instead presented economic life as "autonomous." Putting it another way it bespoke the claim that what (mainstream) economists taught--above all, the optimality of profit-seeking, property-owning private individuals being left to their own devices as completely as physically and morally possible, with any attempt to alter the direction of economic life from the path such individuals put it on not only the worst of oppression, but an exercise in futility certain to produce catastrophe--was as indifferent to particular social conditions, as true in all times and places, as Newton's laws of motion.

Not everyone agreed with that teaching, of course, and that being the case they could still less agree with the grand claim for their teaching as eternal truth--the insistence that "This is science!" an attempt to rationalize what the rich find convenient and hostility to anything they would find inconvenient, with the pretense to it all being "science" suspect down to the use of the math itself. (Indeed, as economist James K. Galbraith--who, far from being the harshest critic contemporary economics has, and certainly no anti-capitalist-- remarked, "the clumsy algebra of a typical professional economics article" is there "not to clarify, or to charm, but to intimidate," for ideas "that would come across as simpleminded in English can be made 'impressive looking' with a sufficient string of Greek symbols," and any critic of the argument dismissed as simply too obtuse to follow all the math.)

Moreover, it is notable that those calling for economics to be recognized as a STEM field are not making the same demand on behalf of other social sciences--indeed, are often prone to distance economics from those subjects out of which it grew in line with common prejudices. Social science is squishy and useless, they say--in contrast with practical, useful, tough-minded economics. Again, there is a political prejudice here--namely, against what such persons tend to see as the leftishness of the social sciences (the biggest reason of all for their contempt toward it), as against an economics field whose mainstream has overwhelmingly and squarely stood with the right for the last century and a half (by cutting those social sciences out of the picture, by when Keynesianism could not be ignored bastardizing it beyond all recognition, by nurturing the intellectual seeds of and propagandizing for the neoliberal revolution) a significant factor in its comparative respectability.

In considering the drive to get economics recognized as a STEM field one cannot overlook this dimension of the issue--which to those who object with the claims for economics can only seem the more wrong-headed at a moment when the neoliberal project that the economics field has so squarely promoted, enabled, helped operate stands in more discredit than it has been at any point since it became a political force a half century ago.

Why Aren't More Young People Attracted to Study of and Careers in STEM Subjects? A Thought

Before proceeding any further I think it necessary to say that there is a considerable body of literature debunking the myth of a (to use the awkward and fuzzy but nonetheless pervasive term) "STEM" skills shortage, and that I generally agree with the case it makes. (Indeed, far from America's young people determinedly refusing to study STEM my own examination of the recent data shows that even when we cut foreign students in the country on a visa out of the picture American colleges' output of B.A's in engineering surged by 50 percent in the 2010-2020 period.)

It also seems to me worth saying that the endurance of the myth of a STEM skills shortage is entirely political--a matter of scapegoating the humanities, intellectuals and young people for the country's industrial weakness, and the difficult prospects of college graduates, and that the reason this is so successful is because of the numerous interests that find this convenient, and the deference shown them by a news media that never fails to fulfill its designated role as their (to use the most polite word of which I can think) courtiers.

Still, even if there is no shortage of STEM personnel, it does not seem to me inaccurate to say that young people are less attracted to it than to other subject matter which may be less promising career-wise.

It is virtually certain that many factors are operative here--like the extreme variation in American educational outcomes at the K-12 level that means many never had a shot at the proper foundations (you won't do well in trigonometry if your algebra is shaky), and the snobbery that surrounds the stupid hierarchy some make of intellectual life (the stridency about math being superior to words, science to arts, etc. intimidating many and sending many persons with the required aptitudes in other directions).

But I think one particularly overlooked factor is the absence of something we see in other areas.

Consider, for instance, their study of English. Certainly few seem to be very satisfied with the quality of the education imparted in this area, with some justice. (In a country where, on average, people have two years of college--have gone up to "grade 14"--why do they generally read at an eighth grade level?)

But learning here is not limited to what goes on in the classroom. Consider how--not so very long ago--many people read--for fun.

Not everyone was a reader. (Even before the explosion of electronic home entertainment there were those who preferred sports.) And those who did read did not always read the sort of things their parents and teachers would have liked them to be reading. But they read all the same. In the process they practiced their skills, and enlarged their vocabularies, even when they were only entertaining themselves.

Some people even wrote--for fun. They produced diaries, journals, stories--sometimes even whole novels. (A fifteen year old's first novel is not likely to be a great work of literature--but all the same, novels.) And in the process they worked on the relevant skills yet again.

Many, in fact, enjoyed it so much that they aspired to do this kind of thing for a living--so many that, in spite of what was more often than not the extreme discouragement of the people around them, and the extremely long odds against their ever making a living this way --they put a lot of time and effort into trying to do that. And while this is not a particularly happy part of the story it seems to me that what led up to that did make a difference in the overall level of ability people had, and their willingness to pursue degrees and take up jobs where their English skills are relevant.

There simply was not the same opportunity to amuse themselves with numbers that there was with words; to, in the course of pure recreation, improve their mathematical skills the same way; to exercise their imaginations, and express themselves, and play, with numbers the way they could with words; and to do what all this made possible, discover a passion for the activity. Of course, some fell in love with numbers anyway. But the odds, the chances, were far fewer. Save for those few who were exceptionally susceptible to its attraction, or had special opportunity to get interested (perhaps because they had a knowledgeable parent who knew how to intrigue them, who was able to show them that here, too, there could be imagination and play and much else), math was plain and simple work--something they had to study in a highly structured, punitive, stress-and-fear-filled environment which made many want to have nothing to do with it when they could avoid it. Which diminished the odds of becoming attracted to math yet again.

I do not know that it could necessarily have been any other way. But the fact that it has not been that other way must be accounted a part of the story--while it may factor into how the situation is changing. Again, looking over the B.A.s being rewarded I was struck by how the popularity of English as a college major plummeted in recent years, such that where the allotment of some 50,000 such bachelor's degrees seemed to be the norm in the 1990s and the twenty-first century down to 2013-2014 the figure stood at under 40,000 in 2018-2020 (a fall from the level of 5 percent of the degrees awarded in 1990-1991 to under 2 percent of them in 2019-2010, and perhaps still falling). One can argue that the endless drum-beating on behalf of STEM, STEM, STEM! (and the denigration of the humanities that has gone with it) has factored into their choosing other studies and other careers. However, it may also be no coincidence that the age cohort getting those later degrees grew up in a more fully digital age where there was less and less scope for reading to compete with other entertainments--and the smart phone, in its having everyone taking the whole package of electronic entertainment options everywhere with them, delivered a Mortal Kombat-like finishing blow. Bluntly put, we have fewer English majors because we have fewer people who found that they liked to read--in what can seem another rebuke to that conventional wisdom which, again, is ever conventional, but rarely wise.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Some Thoughts on Reading a List of the Top 500 Keyword Searches

The Search Engine Optimization company PageTraffic posted a list of the 500 most popular keywords on Google during 2022 (so far, anyway) on its web site.

As might be expected many of the top searches were clearly a way of accessing utilities that could be used for a great many different purposes in daily life (like e-mail and social media accounts usable for general communication, or means of online payment). A great many of the others also appeared to be related to the performance of essential daily tasks, like shopping (there were plenty of names of retail outlets here, in the main of a general nature; interest in bargains on used cars, used textbooks, etc.), and getting information related to that (as by checking price comparison sites, or finding directions to some place to which they needed to get, or the weather they would face going to work or going about their errands during the day).

When one got away from that to searches for information that was not necessarily being sought for some sort of immediate use one saw signs of at least a little interest in current events (manifest mainly in people going to favored news sites), and even a few particular news stories (generally associated with the cultural and political "fringe"--what most would call "conspiracy theory"-type stuff, or tabloid-type stuff). However, entertainment predominated, especially if one includes the numerous searches referencing celebrities and pornography under that heading. (Even where the keyword was not the name of some porn site or of some well-known fetish many of the searches were very, very specific, and the intent hard to mistake.)

Most of this seems predictable enough, but there were too surprises. I had a notion that, if most people are not intellectuals and their searches for information are mostly for stuff they can make practical use of immediately in their own lives, I thought that in looking for the immediately useful they would show themselves to be not merely "buyers," but "doers." I thought there would be more evidence of people seeking out, for example, health information, or wanting to know how to fix something, clean something, cook something. (WebMD did make the list, but it was not very high up that list, and I failed to notice anything else like it. One may imagine that some of those going to YouTube had an interest in its ample supply of "how-to" videos, but again, the keywords failed to make that clear--and I personally suspect people looking for YouTube generally rather than something specific on YouTube were going looking for amusement rather than to learn something.)

The other surprise was in the celebrities people were looking up. Those they searched for in 2022 were pretty much the same ones I would have expected them to be searching for in 2012 (Kim Kardashian, Taylor Swift, Scarlett Johansson, Anne Hathaway, Emma Watson, Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan, Megan Fox)--and even 2002 (Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Britney Spears, Trish Stratus, Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, Alyssa Milano, Brooke Burke, Pamela Anderson, Carmen Electra, Jenny McCarthy)--as if none of those who have emerged since have captured the "public imagination" in the same way, even by comparison with them at this point in which the great majority of these personages would seem to be very, very far from the peak of their cachet.

Certainly plenty of people have remarked the decline of the movie star, but a decline of celebrity more broadly in the way implied here is something else. Could it be a function of the ever-more extreme fragmentation of popular culture? Or is something else going on?

What do you think, readers? (Lest there be any doubt about the matter that's not a rhetorical question, I really am inviting your comment in the thread below. If anyone is out there. The results I'm talking about didn't exactly raise my confidence in anyone being a reader of the kind of thing this blog happens to offer . . .)

Does a Book Release Now Have to be an Event for People to Take an Interest?

I have previously written about how the tougher and tougher market for theatrically released films since the advent of TV has meant that films' backers need their movies to be perceived as events that the audience will want to see in the theater now rather than wait three months and stream at home to get very many people to buy tickets.

These days I think the same thing is happening with novels.

Simply put, people used to consume novels casually and frequently in the course of their daily routine--during a commute, while looking to relax before bed, etc. opening one up. In doing so they often followed some genre, some author, some series fairly faithfully, so much so that the most popular authors commonly building careers out of some formula, or the continuing adventures of some character, in a manner reminiscent of catching up with the latest episode of some TV show. (Indeed, Mack Bolan had a dozen adventures a year in the '80s--not unlike what a season of a show might offer--while hardback heroes like Jack Ryan or Dirk Pitt, or later, Alex Cross or Kay Scarpetta, often had new adventures annually or biennially.)

However, just like the old pattern of movie theater-going, that whole model of producing and enjoying books is collapsing due to the convenience of other media (just as it became easier to watch TV than see a movie people can watch a show or play a game just as easily as read a book during their commute or anything else, and more disposed to do so too), with this likely having much to do with the decline of the paperback (the end of The Executioner was a non-story in the media), and the way the bestseller lists look these days. Those hardback authors who crank out, for example, procedural-type thrillers regularly, seem to me in the main old stars doing so for the audience--or what remains of the audience--they won long ago, because younger people are simply not becoming casual readers, and heavy consumers of novels in the process, in that same way. Thus do we see James Patterson still making the list--but we don't see new writers of comparable thrillers getting up there in the ranks with him. Indeed, where the names on the covers are concerned the paperback rack at your local convenience store or supermarket (in general, dominated by the paperback editions of last year's bestsellers) is virtually indistinguishable from what it was in the '90s.

Those very few "newer" novelists we see make it really big these days generally seem to offer something more idiosyncratic in content, and are more often aided by he publicity potential of the author themselves--with Della Owens' Where the Crawdads Sing exemplary. The book is admittedly describable as a murder mystery--which makes selling it that much easier--but no basis for some series whose latest entries people will snap up when they hit the market each and every year, with other features of the narrative (its sociobiological perspective, its politics, etc.) critical to the draw, while it probably mattered a good deal that the author was already a famous and not uncontroversial figure. (Again I am reminded of the vile king of the Paris publishing scene Dauriat sneeringly telling young Lucien de Rubempre that what he does is take "distinguished names," "reputations ready-made," and via crass and corrupt means for manufacturing "success"--"the claqueurs hired to applaud"--coin money out of them, rather than giving aspiring authors a chance to become famous by actually writing, and that they are fools to expect anything else from him.)

In this particular case the publisher was especially successful in making the event happen--and in the process made a bestseller not simply by attracting people in the habit of reading, but creating such an atmosphere as drew in a significant number of that ever-growing portion of the potential audience who do not read so regularly, because they were promised something special, because the author was themselves a source of interest, because they wanted to see what the fuss was about. Afterward, I suspect, many of those readers did not become more regular readers but went back to reading nothing—at least, until another publisher similarly interested them in their wares as something to which they simply must attend.

Black Panther 2, Avatar and the End of 2022

Black Panther 2 has taken in $11 million in its fifth weekend, lifting its total to $409 million (up from $394 million last weekend), a rate of decline suggesting the movie will finish out below the $450 million mark, and perhaps not much above $430 million in North America; while globally (where the film now stands at $768 million) it seems certain to finish well below not just the billion-dollar mark, but the $900 million mark, and I think, likely to finish below even the $850 million mark (which would give it about half of the original's gross when this is adjusted for 2022 prices).

Of course, this is pretty much in line with the low end of the conventional expectations from the start for the U.S. (with which I did not disagree, and which seemed to me increasingly persuasive from the first weekend on). At the same I have little more to say about what all this means for a Black Panther 3 or for the continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Instead what interests me is that Black Panther 2 has held to the #1 spot at the box office for five straight weeks--a rare feat these days, especially in the normally very competitive holiday season, though alas, this seems at least as much a function of the weakness of the competition as the strength of the film's draw. Had it come out in a "regular" year it might have done even less well--which is to say that, like Top Gun 2, if in lesser degree, it has been a beneficiary of the pandemic's leaving 2022 with a relatively thin slate of releases.

I expect that Avatar 2, cutting into what remains of Black Panther 2's ticket sales from this weekend forward, will similarly benefit from being up against a weaker-than-usual slate of December and January releases. But afterward the market will tighten fast, with 2023, after three years of slim pickings at the box office, looking as packed with potential hits of the big-budget action franchise variety as any pre-pandemic year.

Friday, December 9, 2022

The Need for Movies to be "Events" and the Fate of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The decline of movie theater-going is a story that has been told many a time--not least by the writer of this blog post.

Short version: in a couple of decades a number of changes, the most important of which was the proliferation of TV, meant that measured on a per capita basis Americans' trips to the movie theater fell from thirty to four, and the studios struggled then and continue to struggle now simply to maintain that level. Over that period they have developed and utilized many strategies to accomplish that object (bigger screens, color and 3-D to provide a superior visual experience; "edgier" fare than the more thoroughly censored small screen could offer, etc., etc.), but improvement in TV technology (color, bigger screens and high-definition; access to more content via cable, home video, streaming; the relaxation of censorship over television until it became edgier than the movies) progressively narrowed their options. And these days filmmakers have only two options left, namely:

1. Deliver the kind of spectacle TV production companies still can't deliver on their budgets, while extracting every bit of impact from screens bigger than any TV-maker offers, to offer a sensory experience such as viewers still cannot have at home; and

2. Make your movie seem like an "event" that people want to participate in right now, rather than waiting for two or three months and catching the thing on streaming at a much lower price.

Big-budget action-adventure films with salable brand names fit the bill well, and in this century, none have more consistently done so than Marvel, which offered the requisite spectacle while making its movies seem an event even as it put out three of them in a year in what still stands as the only really successful attempt at a "Shared Universe" (as the fate of such efforts with Star Wars, Warner Brothers' Justice League, Universal's "Dark Universe," and the rest make all too clear).

Where the matter of making the films seem like an "event" is concerned Marvel benefited greatly from the fact that where DC characters had been previously familiar--and new versions of their stories unavoidably and often unfavorably compared to their predecessors--they were putting their not-much-less famous characters on the big screen for the first time, and in the process delivering something new in at least visual terms (like Spider-Man in a really big-budget, big-screen production for the first time ever, swinging his way through New York in Sam Raimi's original 2002 film). As more and more such characters got the treatment there was still the interest of cross-overs, culminating in the gathering together of Iron Man, and Captain America, and Thor--and the Hulk, and Black Widow, and Nick Fury, and Hawkeye--that helped make 2012's The Avengers an event. Subsequently Phase 3's continued milking of the interest of multi-hero cross-over events (from Captain America 3 forward), mobilization of "identity politics" behind Black Panther and Captain Marvel gave those films "event" status claims, and the films' collectively offering an arc which drew that whole "universe" of superheroes together into their biggest cross-over event as they fought their biggest enemy ever in their climactic battle with Thanos, saw the franchise go from strength to strength.

By contrast nothing of the kind could be claimed for Phase 4, by which time a very great deal had already been done, and the franchise could not go bigger, while the law of diminishing returns was kicking in very forcefully. The interest of certain critical figures was already exhausted (Thor), while by this point the figures being put on-screen for the first time tended to be less well-known to the broader audience (The Eternals, Shang-Chi--Spider-Man they are not). And the makers of the films did not exactly rise to the challenge the situation posed. An origin story for Black Widow could seem an anti-climax to her prior adventures, as prequels so often do; Dr. Strange, another of the less well-known figures, had a sequel movie tied in with the Wandavision TV series in a way problematic for the broader audience that could not all be counted upon to have seen it; and Black Panther 2 was mainly an event to the extent that it was connected with a prior movie that had been an event (while dispensing with the lead character and actor who played him!).

In the end, only Spider-Man: No Way Home, with its ever-popular hero and retconning of the two prior Spider-Man franchises into a single multiverse-spanning narrative could seem really an event that way. And unsurprisingly it was the only really spectacular, Marvel Cinematic Universe-at-its-peak, billion dollar barrier-bursting success (with the fact that, if one can blame the pandemic for much of the underperformance of the first three movies one cannot do the same for that of the three movies which followed Spider-Man underlining the fact). And right now I have my doubts that there is anywhere left to go in this respect--the Phase 5 slate of films already in the pipeline. (Indeed, Ant-Man 3, will be coming to a theater near you scarcely two months from now.) Some of them might make decent money (with Captain America 4 perhaps the best bet that way, to go by their prior track records). But I see no sign of anything that will bring back the sense of Marvel releases as events that did so much for the franchise's first three phases, with all that implies for the franchise's fortunes in the coming years.

Martin Eden, Radical Rightist

In Jack London's Martin Eden the eponymous protagonist, discovering the world of books and the ideas in them, early on happens on the work of Herbert Spencer, which--along with his later discovery of the work of Friedrich Nietzsche--becomes a profound if ultimately destructive influence on him.

In that, as in so many other ways, the book had a very contemporary ring.

That may seem odd, as Spencer and Nietzsche hardly enjoy the same vogue today that they did in London's time. But they stand in a tradition that endures--the radical right's hostility to egalitarianism, with Social Darwinism, nihilism and the rest invoked in opposition to liberalism and the left. And Eden's discovering those ideas so early on, and being influenced by them, should seem obviously contemporary to anyone looking at the "alt-right" and related phenomena today.

I cannot credit London with saying much about why Eden came so strongly under the spell of those thinkers and ideas--but it does seem an easy enough question to answer. Simply put, the ideas of even the extreme right are given a publicity that the ideas of the left are not. Often they are lent a fair amount of prestige through their having rich, powerful champions. Even when the publicity is not wholly positive it tends to be somewhat respectful, and even if less than respectful it still creates a wider awareness of them, and may promote interest in them, in a way that it does not with leftist ideas. And so a young person who starts looking for answers is far more likely to encounter them than they are those of the left (certainly if we are speaking of the actual left, and not the conservative centrists to which our lobotomized political discourse refers as left), as endlessly demonstrated by how much more easily a young person finds their way to, for example, Ayn Rand or Jordan Peterson, than to socialism.

It may also be that for a young person looking for answers severe, elitist, ideas like the ones discussed here have some attraction. The fact that they are looking for answers, after all, is likely to bespeak a measure of dissatisfaction--with the society in which they find themselves, with the people around them, with all that means in a society which speaks endlessly of equality, democracy, etc.. (That society may in fact be extremely unequal, the democratic pretensions threadbare at best, but if, as is often the case, they take the rhetoric seriously they react against it.) The idea that there is rightfully an elite may not be unappealing, even when they are clearly not part for it--telling themselves that they really are part of such an elite, that they have somehow been deprived of their rightful place by those from whom they feel alienated, the "herd" somehow responsible for their being down here rather than up there where they ought to be. Indeed, the very severity of the views can fit in well with all of this--their adopting "tough-minded" ideas seeming to them to be proof that they are themselves "tough," unlike all those others spouting what seems to them namby-pamby claptrap, and therefore part of that circle above and better than all the others, because they see life as it is, as even if their situation is none too estimable at the moment, they entertain hopes for what they might become, attaining to their rightful place. (This may go especially for those who have found delusions of grandeur a necessary coping mechanism for their hard actual circumstances, or the challenge of going out into a world turning a very hard and ugly face toward a young person of modest background--especially until they learn just how rough the going will actually be, how irrelevant their estimation of themselves.)

Thus did it go with the would-be superman Eden, disdainful of the "herd," and intent on winning his way to some place higher and better--who only very late, too late, realized that for all his very many and real gifts he was nothing of the kind, and just when he should have reaped the rewards of his struggles, threw everything away.

History as Superhero Tale

A.J.P. Taylor quipped in one of the essays collected in Europe From Napoleon to the Second International that in biography the biographer "builds up his individual subject until society is almost forgotten," whereas in history "society comes first," and the subject is "always man in society."

Looking at "popular" history I suspect the distinction is lost on most. It seems that for many, maybe most, of those who produce and consume it, history is nothing but biography--and what Taylor would recognize as history scarcely present at all. Here the "Great Man" theory (with the "good" among them responsible for all progress, the "evil" for all calamity) lives on, as if centuries of intellectual progress--the advent of other ways of looking at the world--simply never happened.

For those who unquestioningly accept such a view of history, as for Margaret Thatcher and her acolytes, society does not exist (unless they suddenly find it convenient to speak foolishness about "Big Society" to gull the simple as they slash the social safety net).

Accordingly, when cultural critics (quite correctly) take to task the simple-mindedness of superhero fiction, with its larger-than-life heroes and villains and the reduction of everyone else to cast-of-millions extras, it seems well to remember that it is less a matter of comic book writers distorting the public mind than the fact that their work simply reflects what people are taught about the world by the very institutions and persons responsible for their education in the broadest and narrowest senses of the term--so that they comprehend all history as superhero tale anyway.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Is Marvel the New Star Wars?

When Disney bought Star Wars it was clear that they meant to make Star Wars another Marvel-like mega-franchise, producing rather than a new hit every two or three years, two or three billion-dollar hits a year.

All of this fell apart pretty quickly--by the third movie, in fact, with The Last Jedi getting such a poor reception that supporters insisted Russian robots must be behind it, and a half year later Solo flopping hard. (Going by the rule of thumb that, all other things being equal, a movie needs to make four to five times its production budget, to break even on its theatrical run Solo may have needed $1 billion-plus. It didn't even break the $400 million barrier.)

And so all those projects, like that Boba Fett movie, fell by the wayside as Disney settled for just putting out Episode IX to an underwhelming reception (with a global gross about a fifth less than what The Last Jedi had).

In the three years since, amid much firing and replacement of directors and much launching and cancellation of projects, we have not had a single new Star Wars movie even make it into production, and there will not be another such release for at least a year. (Maybe Taika Waititi will make his "untitled" movie, maybe he won't.)

The result is that it seems safe to say that the plan to transform the Star Wars franchise into a Marvel-like movie machine failed--and miserably--with the profusion of small-screen Star Wars unlikely to be satisfactory compensation financially with even the best response (and the shows would not seem to consistently have that).

Now it seems that not only is it the case that Star Wars did not become the new Marvel--but Marvel may be starting to look like Star Wars as its own movies, post-Phase 3, even with the box office normalizing, give an impression of a declining trend, the franchise's best days behind it. (Even Black Panther 2 seems on track to make just half what the first film did in inflation-adjusted terms.)

All this is not so very mysterious. Even a mega-franchise has its limits, and at this stage of things many of its individual components (like Thor) give an impression of exhaustion, with this increasingly characteristic of the none-too-inspired whole. Still, in contrast with the shock Solo delivered to Disney with Marvel what we are seeing is a slower decline, with the result that we will probably see Marvel finish out Phase 5 . . . while looking increasingly past its prime, Marvel, like Star Wars before it (and James Bond before that), going from the stature of king of the marketplace to just another franchise cranking out more movies which have nothing really new or interesting to offer because the brand name retains enough cachet for people to keep coming to see them to make it look as if it worth the producers' while--all as the bigger movie market grows ever more stagnant.

In short, far from making Star Wars into the Marvel, Marvel is now the "new" Star Wars.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Black Panther 2's Fourth Weekend

Black Panther 2 took in some $18 million in its fourth weekend, bringing its gross during the first twenty-four days of its North American run to $394 million.

But how much higher will it go?

Once more the original Black Panther can seem a good first point of comparison. That movie took in $562 million in the same period--working out to 80 percent of its total. If Black Panther 2 likewise manages to expand its 24-day take by another 25 percent then it will finish up in the vicinity of $500 million, which does not seem wholly implausible.

Still, there is the fact that the film is fading faster. The original Black Panther not only opened "bigger" ($202 million on opening weekend, which is $240-$250 million in today's terms, versus Black Panther 2's $181 million), but in spite of the particularly large opening in its fourth weekend took in 20% of what the movie made in its first three days ($41 million). By contrast in its fourth weekend Black Panther 2 made less than 10 percent of what it did in its more modest opening weekend (under $18 million)--a fact offsetting the better hold it got from a Thanksgiving day release.

Once again, its trajectory looks less like that of Black Panther than that of Thor 4, which made about the same relative to its first weekend in its fourth (9.2 rather than 9.7 percent). That movie made 88 percent of its gross by that point. Assuming Black Panther 2 to be doing the same it would be headed for a gross in the vicinity of $450 million.

Meanwhile the overseas earnings are likely to be proportionate. Currently running 86 percent of the domestic gross, should this trend continue down to the end of the film's run the movie would end up making $390-$430 million. The result is that the global take would be in the $840-$930 million range--once more, under a billion dollars, and especially at the low end of the range--which I think the more likely outcome--not much more than the disappointing Thor 4 ($761 million), somewhat less than the not-quite-all-that-was-hoped-for Dr. Strange 2 ($956 million), and in real terms, perhaps just half of what the original Black Panther made ($1.6-$1.7 billion in 2022 dollars).

As is usually the case in such matters the entertainment press will look on the bright side--but it is still a far from overwhelming response to the first sequel to Marvel's big event movie of just a few years ago, and to the close of Marvel's "Phase 4." Indeed, with the profitability of the film possibly in doubt (even allowing for all the ambiguities in these matters one can only be sure if a movie makes five times its production budget, which $800-$900 million is not in this case) whether the movie was a hit or a flop is doubtless already the cause of the usual ferocious arguments among the culture warriors (on both sides of the line) who seem to think their arguments about (usually) mediocre, forgettable movies, the most important issue of an epoch of pandemic, war, economic catastrophe and ecological collapse--while adding immensely to the anxieties of Disney's shareholders, board and executives as, on top of the other troubles beleaguering the once unstoppable-seeming Disney machine, flop is piled atop flop piled atop flop. (Indeed, looking beyond the aforementioned Marvel-based disappointments, Black Panther 2 scarcely had a chance to let the company's "leadership" down before the megabuck autumn release Strange World crashed and burned, just months after Lightyear underperformed, while in America, at least, the $175 million Turning Red was sent straight to video, where, as Warner Bros' recent conduct reminds everyone, nothing that pricey can really make enough to cover its cost, even with the benefit of a far friendlier reception than it got.)

What, if anything, the management will do about the situation is another matter entirely.

Centrist Dystopias

Recently remarking the way the YA boom that was so impressive in the early 21st century, and especially the early '10s, collapsed, I was mainly interested in the role of our digital devices, and especially that of the smart phone--the way the smart phone's proliferation had everyone carrying the whole package of entertainment options with them everywhere as a matter of course, not only providing more alternatives to reading, but being relatively inimical to reading, in situations where people used to get a lot of their reading done (commuting, flying, etc.); and this, perhaps, especially affecting the young, who may have been less accustomed to reading.

Still, I also thought the content being offered had distinct limits--and it seems to me worth enlarging on that now. Among much else I had in mind the dystopian scenarios we got. In Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry I used the term "centrist dystopias" to refer to them. At the time I used the term "centrist" in the more general way people use the term than I do now, to refer to a watery middle-of-the-road position--and "centrist dystopia" to mean a society that no one, at least no one anywhere near the mainstream of American political discourse (at least before these disgraceful last several years), would call anything but a deeply unattractive social order (Suzanne Collins' Panem, for example).

Even so, I still think the term applicable, reflecting as it does the essential features of centrism in the narrow sense--avoidance of deep and probing social analysis and criticism, an aversion to calls for change generally and virtual ruling out of anything but the smallest adjustments, a stress on agreement among those interests recognized as within the mainstream, with the same results that centrism produces, not least a shallowness about the conception.* (Yes, Panem is a horrible place. But why did we end up there? Of that she does not have much to say as compared with, for example, Jack London, George Orwell, Frederik Pohl and any number of other authors of really classic dystopias in their own works.) The result was that people could see what they wanted to--not just the center but right and left claiming it for themselves.

Considering all this it seems to me that (while this is not the only factor in the dystopia bubble's going bust) all of this has become less viable--for many reasons, but one of which is the tenor of politics, and especially the current and probably increasing level of of public polarization. If people were ready to accept centrist dystopias in the '00s and early '10s the wake of the presidential election of 2016, Qanon, Charlottesville, "Russigate," "1-06"--and pandemic, and full-blown major land war on NATO's doorstep as war brews at the other end of Eurasia, and so much else--I suspect watery "dystopia for everyone" will no longer do. Authors would seem less able to avoid taking some stance toward such events, and the developments behind them, rather than talking about a place that might be bad in some general way. Failing to do so the public is also likely to be less charitable to those who play it safe--thinking them cowardly and contemptible, or behind the evasions "on the other side," and feeling less charitable toward that, with all that means for those who do declare themselves, who get punished for doing so more severely than they would have been before. This may have factored into those who dared to play the game one way or the other having so much less less success, while those who were cannier about their careers opted not to play the game at all--save, perhaps, to continue milking some old success, as Suzanne Collins has done (with the prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes a bestseller, and the inevitable film adaptation coming your way in November 2023).

* These days I use it to mean that tendency originating in mid-twentieth century Cold War anti-Communist conservatism stressing pragmatism, pluralism and the sustenance of "consensus" behind the existing social order.

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