March 6, 2008

Cultural Anthropology 101, Spring 2078

Good morning class, I trust you all had a nice semester break, particularly those of you who went on the senior trip to the sun and sand of Northern Michigan--it's nice there are some places temperate enough to expose the skin to outdoor air, eh? Hope you stayed sober enough to remember to put on the ol' SPF 1200! Hur hur.

Anyhoo, now that you're safe back here in the University Dome, I thought we'd pick up where we left off in our discussion of turn-of-the-century literature and what it can tell us about the culture of the time. All literature is best understood in the context of its moment in history, of course, although some works, for example Ulysses, Wuthering Heights, Bridget Jones's Diary, The Da Vinci Code, etc. have a timelessness that establishes them in Western canon. It can be harder, however, to interpret and appreciate the everyday fiction that is steeped in immediate cultural references, references that would have been perfectly clear to readers at the time but which are now dated and obscure.

For example, we will look today at the graphic periodical Kick-Ass by Mark Millar and artist John Romita, Jr., which debuted in February 2008 with an issue absolutely filled with up-to-the-minute pop cultural references that undoubtedly made for knowing humor, albeit for no more than a few years after its publication. Comic books (what you know today as "sequential screens") of that age were not all culturally cryptic--some going back as far as 150 years are dominated by straightforward action sequences that, despite quaint language and an awkward-to-read physical paper format, are relatively comprehensible to the modern reader. But while the references in Kick-Ass gave it a remarkably short shelf-life of relevance, investigating them can help us explore the tastes and interests of society at that particular instant.

Kick-Ass, as I'm sure you know because I assigned it for the break, snicker, takes place in "our world" of the time--that is to say a world with superhero stories but without actual super-powered beings, as our earth was before the genome advances of the 2030s. The protagonist, an average teenager and comic book fan, takes it upon himself to emulate his fictional heroes and fight crime in a costume. Throughout, we encounter the cultural references that would pervade the mind of an adolescent boy of his time, upon which I will now shed the light of my years of historical and anthropological research:

"That wasn't me, by the way. That was just some Armenian guy with a history of mental health problems who read about me in the New York Post."
Founded in 1801, the Post was what was known as "the paper of record," defined as the pinnacle of American journalistic standards until the print newspaper industry shuttered under the Google Acts of 2017. The Post was particularly known for its concise headlines, lauded for summarizing breaking news with an accuracy that often precluded the need to read the actual text.

"I liked Scrubs, Stereophonics, the Goo Goo Dolls and Entourage. Snow Patrol, Heroes and the movies of Ryan Reynolds."
Scrubs: A critically acclaimed television (non-web broadcast) show about the medical and personal drama of a hospital staff--again, before the genome advances. It starred popular actors George Clooney and Zac Effron.

Stereophonics: "Phonics" was an educational program that focused on teaching children to read through sound association with letters. This program, when delivered via stereo headphones (iBuds) was known as Stereophonics.

Goo Goo Dolls: An acclaimed rock band formed in 1971 in New York City, associated with the early punk rock era. Members included David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain, and a major hit was 1982's "Hot Hot Hot."

Entourage: An electronic mail program developed for Macintosh personal computers to mirror Microsoft's Outlook.

Snow Patrol: A 2002 family film starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. and a team of trained Siberian Huskies.

Heroes: Long sandwiches, sometimes also known at the time as "Subs" or "Hoagies." You know them as "Toyotas."

Ryan Reynolds: The director of Snow Patrol.

"Kick in my bedroom door and you would probably have found me downloading my favorite television show or jerking off to my biology teacher."
In the late 20th and early 21st century, content on the internet was stored in a separate location from someone's personal computer or device--the OmniServer was not yet in place. "Downloading" was the method by which content was transfered for use. "Jerking off" was a slang term for "being overly complementary to for personal gain."

"Galactus as a dust cloud? C'mon man, that costume's a classic. People would have pissed themselves if they'd seen him on the Baxter Building in that big purple helmet."

A reference to Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, a film adaptation of the Fantastic Four comic book series. The character Galactus was an ultra-powerful mutant, able to control metal with his mind, and known for wearing a large purple helmet.

"Man, I still can't believe how good Whedon's X-Men is. This stuff makes Buffy look like shit... and I say that as the world's numero uno Buffy maniac."
Wil Whedon was a child actor, known first for his role in the 1986 film Stand By Me, who later starred in the X-Men film franchise as well as the television show Buffy the Teenage Witch. Before the Spanish language was outlawed, "numero uno" was the equivalent of the slang term "who wants pizza?" meaning "absolute".

"Does everything have to be about money? Jesus man, why do people want to be Paris Hilton and nobody wants to be Spider-Man?"
Paris Hilton was an accomplished singer who worked her way from poverty to pop superstardom, writing her first hit song on a napkin in a coffee shop as a divorced single mother on UK public assistance. Spider-Man, of course, was the fictional superhero character who inspired the current real Spider-Man to splice his DNA with a spider's as part of the second wave of genome experiments.

"I didn't do a lot of crime-fighting in those first few weeks. But there was a lot of posing on the roof and balancing on walls as I got used to the wet suit I picked up on eBay."
eBay was an online clearinghouse for paraphernalia from the films Bad Boys, Armageddon and Transformers one through eight, among others. This protagonist may have been inspired by a character from one of those films, and took pains to procure an appropriate costume.

"I was feeling so good about myself I hadn't even looked at internet porn for close to seven weeks."
Yes, this is a bit like saying "apple apple juice"--but there used to be other avenues for obtaining porn.

So as you can see, despite the tediousness of such research, close investigation of historical cultural references can greatly aid not only in understanding a text, but in understanding the world from which our own society developed. If there are any questions, please feel free to fly to the front of the class. Don't be shy now.

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