Monday, December 29, 2008

Something I don't quite understand

How is it, according to conservative minds, that welfare - supporting individuals who have failed in the marketplace, who can't take care of themselves and need the government's help - is a dirty word and an execrable practice, while large-scale bailout - supporting corporations who have failed in the marketplace, who can no longer handle hteir own affairs and need the government's help - is a necessary, requisite, and even noble part of the economic machine?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Man beaten in Shreveport, LA, for wearing an Obama shirt

This shit is ridiculous... I could comment or say whatever, but the pictures and his account below bear witness on their own. All I have to add is that this story needs to be told... the word needs to be spread. Right now, a google search for "Kaylon + Shreveport" turns up no stories on major news outlets. Go here for more and the latest info, and blog, IM, email, and otherwise share what's going on.

Local Man Wearing Obama Shirt Beaten By Group of White Men

information from Mr. Johnson's family:

Kaylon was on his way home around 11 p.m. Saturday night (12/6). He was returning from a trip to the Natchitoches Christmas Festival where he was selling items from his newly opened Obama Shop.

Kaylon stopped at the Citgo station off I-20 and W. Bert Kouns (near Greenwood) to fuel up. A witness says the truck drove then came to a stop. The occupants of the truck were White men who shouted at Kaylon "F*** Obama" [I note: other accounts report racial epithets also being used] after noticing his Obama shirt.

The men got out of the truck, approached Kaylon and proceeded to attack him ... breaking his nose and seriously injuring his eye. Kaylon will have to have surgery later this week as a result of these injuries.

No other description is given other than they were "large" White men. The clerk in the station apparently was able to get the truck's license plate number.

Kaylon was not only assaulted, he was robbed as well. The suspects took his wallet before they fled.


"Kaylon was a key coordinator in the Shreveport for Obama campaign."


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Gender in Judd Apatow's Superbad

"have you ever seen a vagina by itself? Not for me." - Seth [Jonah Hill] to Evan [Michael Cera]

This quote, uttered in the closing lines of Superbad's opening dialogue by Jonah Hill's foul-mouthed libidinous child-man, points toward the underlying framework that Judd Apatow establishes for his sprawling discussion of gender roles and relations contained therein. The film creates and attempts to resolve a tension between two age-old rite-of-passage premises: that (1) it is desirable to relate to females, at least from the perspective of the movie's three pubescent male protagonists (and, by implication, the movie's pre- mid- and post-pubescent male audiences [the question of what and how a female audience is to relate to the movie is an interesting, and ancillary, issue]), and (2) relating to females is confusing, irreducibly so. In essence, Apatow is asking his audience: is it worth it? Does pursuit of the feminine define masculine coming-of-age, thereby validating such impulses, or is the essence of maleness (as Socrates, Plato, and Wilde might support) to cling to obtuse, crotch-grabbing masculinity, placing "bros before hoes" and rejecting the physiological and biological mystery of the female?

To complicate matters, the line quoted above is followed immediately by Jane, Evan's mother, emerging from their house to thank Seth for "taking care of [Evan]". The irony is palpable: thoroughly virginal as Seth and Evan are, despite their vulgarities acting as desperate protestations to the contrary, emergence from their mothers' vaginas has been their only first-hand experience with the female genitalia. Seth's sexualization of Evan's mother is expected, and telling: if Seth and Evan form a twin-headed protagonist (whose story throughout the night moves in counterpoint to the second protagonist, Fogell [Christopher Mintz-Plasse] a/k/a McLovin), then Seth is Evan's Freudian id acting out, in a way that Evan cannot himself vocalize or otherwise express. In essence, Seth is the opposite of a Jiminy Cricket: an anthropomorphicized anti-conscience, expressing the base desires that would be unthinkable - but not wholly unpalatable - for Evan.

Interestingly, in this scene, there is also a transferral of parental roles taking place: Jane, largely absent for the rest of the film, is asking Seth to take care of Evan. Seth's response to her is not that of a preadolescent, but rather a budding post-adolescent sexualization of the feminine. This brings to mind the Freudian stages of male maturation and development: while the female grows into womanhood by clinging to Mother, the male grows into manhood by rejecting - or being rejected by - Mother, and instead embracing a characteristically-male Society. Anything less results in crippling neurosis: and, while Evan may be awkward, I have no sense that he is supposed to be viewed by the audience as sexually repressed. Sexually desirous, yes, of a seemingly-unreachable goal (putting women on pedestals, and thereby objectifying and ironically denigrating them, is another theme of the film) but unfulfilled desire is a far cry from sexual repression.

Cera's character is himself a study in tension: quirky and callow in worldview and experience, he is oddly youthless in mannerism and speech. He is the anti-protagonist, the opposite of what society says is Cool and Teenage. While he wears a hoody - as iconically Mid-'00s Teen as tight white tees were in the Arthur Fonzarelli/James Dean era - it covers a boring, beige-striped polo shirt; Evan is a man concealed in the body of a child, and while his longings are awkwardly and childishly expressed, they are not awkward and childish longings (compare them, for example, to the musings of Hill's Seth, which are garishly explicit and thereby come off as a good deal more undeveloped than Evan's quiet romanticism and the muted sexuality of his courtship).

That addresses two out of the three (or one out of the two, given their existence as, essentially, two sides of the same coin) protagonists of the film: there is also Mintz-Plasse's Fogell, better remembered to audiences in his film-stealing performance as "McLovin". In his characterization, we again see Apatow's sense for incisive irony (demonstrated previously in his high school magnum opus, Freaks and Geeks) at work: Fogell, despite his pseudonymous loverboy aspiration, is the least overtly sexual of the three. Fogell's sexual quarry for the night, Nicola, is a cipher, a caricature next to the comparatively fleshed-out Jules and Becca, Seth and Evan's respective crushes. Fogell pursues Nicola not as part of a coming-of-age ritual, but in a muted mimicry of Seth and Evan's ultimately deeper and fulfilling relational desires. While Fogell, Seth, and Evan all begin the movie with the aspiration of Being Cool, their paths diverge in a twinned what-if scenario: as Fogell's creation of his McLovin persona (a meta-device if ever there were one, and likely conscious commentary from the screenwriter of the process of character-creation) spirals out of control into zany wackyness, his exploits growing larger-than-life, Seth and Evan's night falls out in the opposite direction. McLovin is a brand of teenaged wonderchild, a High School student's idea of a good time: shooting guns, blowing up police cars, getting drunk (we can note that, while Evan and Seth were toting alcohol around all night, it is Fogell who seemingly winds up the most inebriated), and so on. Tellingly, the epilogue only addresses Evan and Seth; Fogell, it is implied, has no denouement in this story, because he has had no character development, no arc to speak of. While the fictional McLovin has been created, grew, and climaxed, his experiences have no bearing on the (comparatively) real Fogell.

Evan and Seth, on the other hand, seem to reach a verdict on The Question, albeit a complex verdict within which remains much to be resolved. As the last act of the film draws to a close, Evan and Seth curl up in side-by-side sleeping bags, reaffirming their masculinity as defined by one another: Maleness, in Apatow's world, stands largely on its own graces, a conclusion demonstrated in his other films (particularly Knocked Up), in which men and women seem to operate in thoroughly defined and tangential spheres. However, in the epilogue, Evan and Seth, finally happy and settled into their roles as Men, are at the mall the following day (in what is likely a telling clue, the entire narrative falls neatly into the structure of a single day, from morning through dusk, evening, late night, and concluding on the following morning) when they run into Jules and Becca, also recovering from the previous night's debauchery. The parallels between the Boys and Girls in this scene come as a surprise: Apatow has spent the whole movie telling us that the lines between Men and Women are high, nigh-insurmountable, and affirmation of Self involves, to some extent, rejection of the Other. But Becca and Jules, in this final scene, are a mirror of Evan and Seth, hinting at a complete story, from their points of view, paralleling the journey of our boys (a movie I would be interested in seeing, as much for the technical aspects of how it would be put together as for its narrative), and intimating to the audience that, when it comes down to it, Boys and Girls are not so much different as simply distanced.

In the final moments of the film, Evan and Seth and Jules and Becca exchange their other selves for new counterparts: Evan gives up his libidinous (and vocal!) id - Seth - and stands with Becca on his own, while Seth replaces Evan - his "son" - with Jules, and the prospect of a budding relationship, courtship, and potentially actual fatherhood. This is the first time that they take leave of one another - physically and, implicitly, emotionally - without a sense that this, too, will pass; perhaps, this time, it will not. The boys have finally taken their initial steps into manhood, and they depart - throwing meaningful glances at one another - with their respective love interests. Having cemented their masculine bonds the night before (I do not, as many seem to do, take this film as having homosexual undertones, except in the broadest and least interesting sense possible. Rather, Evan and Seth are, to me, two halves of one whole teenaged Male character), they no longer have to cling to or strive for them, and they are free to go their own ways, secure in Male relationship and ready to explore the grown-up and altogether more confusing world of heterosexual relationship.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Fundamentally speaking

The questions seem to proceed, in rational order:
Am I alone?
Where is the Other, the self, and the other self?
Are they sustainable?

If we cannot - do not - share in suffering, then do we share? (Is it categorically selfishness to share joy and not pain?)

From where does a conception of duty arise, and to what extent are its boundaries self-determined?

Grace must cover it all over.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


"They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law."

(Mark 1:21-22)

Authority: "The power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine, or judge", from French, autorite, "book or quotation that settles an argument," (c. 1230), from
Author: "One who sets forth written statements," from Latin, autor, "father", "one who causes to grow," from Latin, augere, "to increase".

So, authority, at least in some vague etymological degree, means the power or quality of the father. ehhhhh

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Village Voice - 11.7.2006 - Yellow Fever

I just stumbled onto this article by Vickie Chang from The Village Voice, dating back to late 2006, and, upon further inspection, was left highly impressed. It breaks down in fairly adequate detail (actually, to a highly satisfactory degree, given its mass-media limitations: I suspect that I would only consider a lengthy, if not outright doctoral, dissertation on the topic acceptable) the forms and root causes of Asian sexual and social objectification. The author, presumably a Chinese-American woman, seems to draw motivation and social rationale largely from personal experience, but does not ignore the ubiquitous nature of objectification: she touches, again to a reasonably contenting degree, on the complex interaction of other emasculative and exotificative threads, including those drawn tautly around Asian males and the gay Asian community.

Chang's article - again, presumably - for the reasons of (1) length constraints and (2) lack of personal experience, does have a limited (albeit wide-ranging) scope: she seems to rein in her criticisms to focus on a primarily White Other, not problematizing the behavior of any other ethnicities (self-problematic: I myself nearly wrote 'minorities', rather than 'ethnicities', before rebuking myself for thinking that Whites form the Majority; they do not, in a global sense). Of course, I understand to at least some degree (or assume I do): to discuss White stereotypes of Asians is largely an enterprise of digressing on the well-worn tropes of Imperialism/Colonialism that are well-established (if not outright cliche) in the world of Ethnic Studies, and to do so calls down on the author little scorn.

To discuss Black objectification of Asians (note: I saw recently - I don't recall where - Asians referred to as Yellow in the same way Black and White are used. Is this OK? Is there a memo I missed?) is to navigate entirely different waters, including the hypermasculization-/oversexualization-objectification (albeit largely predicated upon the action of Whites) of the Black male and female. Not to mention Latino/Native American/other ethnic populations whose interactions with Asians are more limited, and less likely to operate on easily-streamlined paths (for this reason, I strangely and broadly accept the limiting of discussion of Asian objectification to White and Black. Is this an oversight on my own part?). I have few qualms, however, about this: it is, given what the piece itself is likely intended to do (to wit: stimulate discussion, rather than serve as proxy for independently conducted discussion and thought), well within the author's perquisites to limit her discussion in such a fashion.

More potentially problematic is that the author overlooks the Asian lesbian community, instead focusing on the gay Asian population. Why is this more problematic? Well, I have two issues: one personal, one academic. By the former, I mean simply that, again, writings on the emasculating objectification of Asian males is unsurprising and fairly commonplace: another well-established theme of ethnic critiques, as widely known as the Sambo/Stepin Fetchit problem amongst Black ethnic commentators. I would have much rather learned more about the (at least relatively) unexplored topic of Asian lesbian fetishization. As for the latter, academic, critique, I feel that focusing on the emasculation of Asian gay males while simultaneously ignoring the (whatever) of Asian lesbians (a thought: should Lesbian and Gay be capitalized? Is there another memo?) may be treading close to expected - in a more sinister manner - and patronizing views.

Specifically, gay Asian men are often stereotyped (and desirable) as emasculated and ladylike "Bottoms", perhaps stemming from (or driving onwards) the popular ladyboy/hermaphroditic/transvestite fetishes of the Southeast Asian sex markets. Gay Asian women, on the other hand, are simply marginalized or often unspoken-of in broad discursive contexts (caveat: by "broad," I simply mean, that which I personally have read). Of course, this may have an innocuous and acceptable root: the author, interested in critiquing and broadening discussion on these topics may have constrained herself to stereotypes easily-accessible to a wide audience.

In any case, these minor qualms aside, I am quite satisfied with the article. Any coverage of Asian issues in mainstream or White-owned/-run publications without a disparaging sly wink or nod by an editor (or, even worse, a non-Asian author) is encouraging, especially in the White- and Hipster-voice skewed Village Voice. Even if it is two years old.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Thoughts in an airport

I sit in the Incheon International Airport, a scant 9 weeks after my arrival in 韩国 AKA Ko Rea. It's been a halcyon, whirlwind penultimate week; with an ever-dwindling number of students, final meals to be shared, goodbyes to be said (most poignant: my bidding farewell to the bustling and cheap fried chicken stand near work...), and hella packing what to do up, I remained in constant (or at least, consistent) movement over the past four or five days.

I'm sure I'll later confront more directly my break-down of the summer, and those musings will comprise the cornerstone of another update; but, for the moment, I'm content to sit, satiated by the ever-passing moment. Let me paint a picture for those of you not embroiled, at the moment, in the unique, ubiquitous milieu of the international airport.

To my right: a dark sky gives way to rushing clouds. As piscine white scales slink by, the sun peeks coyly out from behind them, vacillating between hiding herself and teasing us with portents of glad weather.

In Korea, I've found her character to be that of a scintillating ingenue: in the last week, our relationship has been a tempestuous (though yet short of actually abusive) and attractive one. Three days of joyful, walk-about weather (we went running through the park Thursday afternoon; we'll always have that) gave way to a final Friday of fat, loud raindrops drumming in a cavalcade of tiny , frantic impacts against the windows of my building and the drenched Seoul streets outside. But she relented from her tantrum (my boss, at lunch yesterday: "I think Seoul is crying, that you are leaving"), coming out to bid me farewell today; I appreciate it.

Baby blue planes striped with white and emblazoned with the Korea Airlines symbol dot the runway, taxiing lazily into the gate. Below, airline workers bustle about, unhurried but efficient. From their pace and bearing, I imagine their conversation to be laconic, comfortable. Familiar.

I'm at my Gate. A line of passengers ebbs before me; from the demographics represented therein, I assume (is that ever safe?) that it is a midwest-bound flight. Obvious G.I.'s (a safe assumption, judging by the "JAMES" "ARMY" velcro-patch firmly attached to backpack) mingle with what looks like a college students' basketball team - ridiculous, in gym shorts, t-shirt, and tourist-issue rice paddy hat (he will never wear it in the States; it will lie in the corner of his dorm room, wind up as a frat house cast-off story, or in his basement) - and Korean mothers and fathers placating their hyperactive children. A White woman walks by me, bumblebee-yellow neck pillow already affixed: after the sartorial standards of Korea, it is hard to forget (but I will, I shall, forgive) the sight of loose sweatpants, threadbare ragged hems dragging under thin sandals, a loosely-worn hoodie bulging over a t-shirt one or two sizes too large.

The line empties. Two last basketball girls wait for their friend; she ambles out of the bathroom, gathering up her baggage. Her t-shirt (she looks like an M; it is an L; I notice these things now. Good or bad or what?) reads, in starkly white-on-black, off-centred, comedic (think Comic-Sans sans-cliche) typography: POLLY'S KITCHEN
an epitome of expatriated, exported culture(?). (I mean the t-shirt, and not the girl)

One last White woman jogs up, gulping for breath. An Asian man follows her, headphones askew and bouncing.

All is quiet on this front.

Then! Suddenly, out of nowhere, it seems, a rush. More out-of-breath travelers - the dilatory crowd - bolts up: a mother and her son, a tall Black man, and a few others. The procrastinators empty in, and again serenity takes her place in line. The people-mover scrolls by, travelers bound for other gates and destinations (Dubai? Mumbai? The Bay?) scanning past, as the waiting area lies dormant, deserted: floor lined with thin strips of cheap laminated-looking dark wood, cush L-back leather seats, and a sprinkling of early travelers either accustomed to caution or unaccustomed to traveling.

The Korean Job is over; now the Beijing Journey.

Post Scriptum, Visions of Seoul redux: A young girl in the airport passes, carting a small wheeled carry-on. Her shirt: AMERICANPIE AND FITCH. Clever parody or simply plagiarism? You decide.

Post Scriptum, Part Second: [excerpted from gchat]
Me: ...the 30-something woman with a young child sitting next to me is taking like 10 pictures of herself Myspace-style

P: hahahahahhahaa
are you in airport
how long until boarding

Me: like an hour

[a few minutes later]

Me: ....she's still taking photos

Thursday, August 21, 2008

In the news: What the heck??

"As the police gathered the mounds of bikes, they also found cocaine, crack cocaine, about 15 pounds of marijuana and a stolen bronze sculpture of a centaur and a snake in battle." (New York Times, archived online)

I would love to see that sculpture.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

In the New York Times

"What Is the Real China?

"Jason G. L. Chu, a second-generation Chinese-American, has spent the last two summers studying Mandarin in Beijing. He currently works in Seoul, South Korea.

"As a second-generation Chinese-American growing up with a dearth of cultural familiarity, my first exposure to Beijing came as one of the perennially rotating crowd of language immersion students. Amidst the framework of our effective — if rigid — curriculum of cultural and linguistic recital, the official China came vividly into view...."

New York Times, August 4, 2008; online archive, pgs. 2-3)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Louis this, Gucci that: thoughts on aspirational consumerism in Seoul

[Disclaimer: this is written with the full knowledge that its very author may also be implicated as complicit in abetting and supporting the behavior critiqued within. See explanation below.]

The very first time I jumped on the subway from Ju-Yeop into Seoul, I was unprepared for the veritable flood of luxury items with which I was confronted. As, frankly, a confessed brand monitor, if not outright follower, I had thought that my trips around SoHo and Broadway/5th Avenue (not to mention, 4 undergraduate years at a ridiculously wealthy school) had inoculated me against the vast human drive to consume.

Not so, apparently. Over the course of my first trip into Seoul - not to mention subsequent jaunts around town - I am nigh-certain that I saw more Louis Vuitton monogrammata than in the preceding 22 years of my modestly accomplished (if overly self-congratulatory) life. My current estimation grants something like 1 in every 7 or 8 women (and 1 in every 15-20 men) on the subway/street in my corner of Korea (including in church, in the mall, on the bus, etc.) an aspirationally branded carryall, purse, or other sort of bag; not to mention the belts, wallets, etc. and the like which parade themselves in front of me on a weekly basis.

Aspirational brands? I hope not, for - if so - these Ko Rean citizens sleep fitfully and dreamlessly.

Far be it from me to criticize a foreign culture (I say as I prepare to plunge into exactly such a piece of critical work), and I do hold out hope that this one niche impression in a sole field of Ko Rean life is merely some quixotic quirk of the cultural milieu, but this overabundance of luxury goods has inculcated in me an instinctive reaction to the very hint of a Prada nameplate, the Gucci interlocked G's, or the brown/tan patchwork of a Louis bag: to wit, I have begun loathing the trappings of conspicuous consumption.

Actually and honestly loathing: my reaction has taken on a visceral note; I nearly (and occasionally literally) cringe at the sight of another overexposed high-fashion brand, and have been (thankfully, not often, and only, I pray, in exaggerated rhetorical jest) struck by the desire to bear down on the next bearer of such an item, wielding vengeance in my own fist.

Of course, this is an odd confession from an avowed fan of, well, consumption. Let's be blunt here. I am straight up a purchaser: I will subsist on $5 a day but then drop $40-80 on a pair of shoes like it is not even a thing. And perhaps, in some indirect way, this is an indictment of my own habits.

But I think there are some distinguishing features of this particular obsession which particularly sadden me, in ways that (I hope) my own spending patterns remain innocuous (though it still provokes thought). Mainly, my arguments fall into two categories: (1) that such an obsession, if not the actual physical ubiquitousness of such items, is a sad reflection on the status of popular culture and spending trends, and (2-4) that such acquisition is actually statistically self-defeating.

1) Statistics: either Koreans are madd rich, or people are far over-reaching their means.
The prevalence of Louis Vuitton bags is such that either 12-18% of the population in Seoul (at least, that part of the population within my sampled demographic) is wealthy enough to spend multiple thousands of dollars (that is, multiple millions of Korean Won) on a single cosmetic item; or what I consider the more likely scenario (and again, it is a presumption on my part that Seoul does not have precisely such a well-earning population), that a large percentage of the population considers the status of owning a Louis bag (what status is this? see below) to grant sufficient utility such that it outweighs the additional work required (or benefits sacrificed) to earn the extra few thousand dollars to purchase the item.

2) Removing the "luxury" from "luxury brand".
All the brands whose prevalence has been increasingly obnoxious to me are brands whose hallmark is that they are, definitionally, aspirational: that is, to own such an item from such a brand ought to be something to which one aspires, and then, in a culminating moment, in the apex of one's consumerism, attains. The permeation of such items into Korean society cheapens this aspirational aspect: if everyone has a Prada bag or a Louis belt or a Gucci wallet, then acquisition becomes no longer joyful. It is, in some perverted sense, mandatory.

3) "A little Louis better than no Louis at all"... nah.
The items which I have been seeing have, as a general rule (with several exceptions), been smaller-ticket items. A small belt, a small wallet, the smaller-sized (and more simply designed) purse or carryall. This is one of the points which seems self-defeating to me: the very idea of an aspirational luxury item is that it serves as an ostentatious display of wealth. LV and other aspirational brands produce small lower-price-range items for two reasons: (i) to provide corollary goods for those high-rollers wealthy enough to purchase the large-ticket items (i.e. you get the LV backpack... and you get the belt to match. You get the Gucci kicks, or windbreaker, and the wallet to match) and (ii) to cajole those without the financial werewithal to purchase the more expensive items into spending their money on secondary items. A preponderance of small-ticket items without a large-ticket item conveys a sense that the wearer/bearer falls into (ii): someone without the means to purchase a more expensive brand item, who wants, but cannot and does not actually have, the status associated with said brand. This is the epitome of ironic self-defeat: in purchasing and bearing supposed luxury goods, the consumer actually expresses their lack of economic status.

4) "Youse all biters!" (Beat Street); swagger jacking.
Stylistically, this seems self-defeating as well (a bone which I have to pick with much of Korean society at large... but I don't want to get too aggy on 'em at this moment yet [Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em!]). The very essence of a luxury good lies in connoting to others the sense of classic style and coolness: that the {w,b}earer is sufficiently entitled such that they can afford time and money on something which is stylish, functional, and blings hella bread. By cheapening the idea of a stylistic luxury item to the level of a common accessory, the idea of good taste flies out the window: if you wear a Louis item like a nouveau riche, it is not serving to lend you an air of class; you are lending it an air of banality.

What does it all mean?
So, then, why do so many desire the status conveyed by these items? What do these items say about an individual, if anything?
As I touched on in (1) and (2), above, the status of carrying such an item cannot be that one is wealthy: the prevalence of such items likely (I suspect) implies that owning an aspirational item does not necessitate the purchaser's entrance into a particular social class. Rather, it only implies that one values such an item as greater than the utility of other goods, services, and benefits which could be purchased for an equal amount of money (which is a troubling realization, in general, regarding aspirational items, especially when compared against the cost of, say, feeding or educating children, widows, etc., in much of the third world... but more acceptable, for various reasons which I may later articulate, for those with immense disposable incomes; less so, perhaps, for those without).
Also fairly obvious (again: highly subjective words) is that the value of such items does not lie in their ability to serve as accoutrements to a certain style or fashion of attire. I have seen luxury items acting in blatant counterpoint to the dress of the person carrying them: in fact, such a use of said items seems purposeful, highlighting flamboyant wealth through stark juxtaposition. It's tacky and tasteless: worse than meaningless, it points out a deficiency of fashion sense and style.
So, it seems, this is the purpose of such items: the brusque display of gross wealth.
But again: isn't this simply the purview of the nouveau-riche? Or the rustic fakir, making pretense of wealth but spending grotesque quantities of money in the wrong places: the entry-level BMW with the baller status rims.

I submit, then, that this is the sad state of affairs: aspirational brands, due to overexposure in popular society (along with a lack of imagination and comprehension of the source of such brands' popularity), have transformed from status symbol to sign of misappropriated and likely misused funds.

Corollary I - Fakes, and the negligible effects thereof:
Of course, it has come (and been brought) to my attention: such items may be, in large part, fakes. A sham, a gilded brass ring.

But does this change my argument in the slightest? Not at all. In fact, it only advances my argument that aspirational brands' function as status symbol has been surplanted by their status as emblem of a tragic lack of sartorial imagination and farcical aspersion to wealth, for reasons that ought to be fairly obvious.

Friday, July 4, 2008

到时候再说,爷爷 / Goodbye, Grandpa.

My grandfather (step-grandfather technically, but the only 爷爷 I
ever knew) died about a week ago.

Somehow, I am always off in Asia when my grandparents kick off
this mortal coil. (I'd like to think that they'd approve of my ever-
increasing activity in the motherlands.)

Last summer, my maternal grandmother died when I was in 北京,
and my mom didn't bother telling me until... December, I think it

Sentimental family I got.

Anyways, the second funeral in half a year for my dad's side of
the family. Right before Christmas, my paternal great-uncle Fong
had a heart attack, so we went down to VA for his memorial
service (documented here).

I hope my 奶奶's doing okay. The old earth been through many a
sadness these last few days. But she is a pretty solid believer in
God's mercy, which loves and holds on to those He calls to Himself,
so I think she will keep on living proper-like. After all,

We ain't dead yet, is we???

"To live is Christ, to die is gain" - Paul, the Letter to Philippians,
Book 1, Line 21

Since I couldn't myself be at the funeral, consider this little joint on
the iNternets my tribute, catharsis, and respect paid.

All praises due to the Most High.


Grandma; Great-aunt.

Tori (sister); ma.

Every time I see a picture of her, I get surprised at how growed-
up Tori be looking. Man don't nobody be catching feelings or man
thoughts. I will straight up smack a dude, no games.

Photo credits: all pictures blatantly stole from Tori.


I remember one of the last times that we were in DC (beginning of
last summer? Two Christmases ago? Spring Break?) and Grandpa
was still (比较) lucid and mobile.

We were putting on our shoes, grabbing all the mad food that
Grandma always insists on us taking home, and picking up our bags
to get out the door. As we left, Grandpa (already worn too thin and
easily tired to escort us downstairs, to our car) leaned in to hug me

"I'm getting old," he whispered in my ear. "Do you know how old I

"Ninety-seven, right?"

He continued right on, his hearing aid not picking me up: "Ninety-
seven. That's not bad. I'm very old."

I think he knew. No, of course he did; you don't live that long and not
know what's coming. You've seen it happening around you; I can
only imagine. The friends, the acquaintances, the familiar public
figures, disappearing one by one. The world growing young; un-

I know he was tired, and I think he didn't mind, either. That's the
beautiful thing. Time to finally rest.

He loved that cap. For the last few years, every time
that we would go to visit him and grandma in DC, he
would be ailing to some degree. The wind didn't really
suit him no more in his last years, so he would usually
roll out with the ball cap on. I think it was an Army-
Navy game hat. Grandpa was a public servant for many
a year in D.C., which is why he and my grandma
wound up in Bethesda, MD.

Dead bodies always look thin.

One day we'll be filled up again.

儿子们 meet the 老朋友们.

My family's wreath.

Word is bond, though my dad was actually
Grandpa's stepson, dude was always real proper to
us. He was always real happy to see us when we
would roll through the area.

One of the things he was real proud of living to see
was me attending Yale. Ever since four years ago
(back when things was less hazy for him), when I
got accepted to the school, he started calling me
"Yale man".

(Of course, as dude had mad accent, it actually came
out more like "Yellow man" but that is all right too.)

I know he started losing a lot of things in the last few
years, including most of his English (you could tell...
as he regressed into second childhood, his first
language, 广东话, Cantonese, was his weapon of
choice), but one thing he always held on to was that
his grandson was at Yale. He told me (a couple times
actually... but that is also fine) that, sometime right
after World War II, he and his boss, also a Yale
graduate, visited Yale on some official business for the
State Department. This connection, the nigh-mythical
continuity of that Ivy League institution, was
something that he clung onto over the last few years.
It was a bridge for us, something we could hold in
common, even as reaching and tenuous as it was.

Uncle Jojo. As my dad's generation grows into their 40s and 50s,
I start to see them in each other.

Wonder how Tori, Sarah, Ryan and I are gonna look in 2040???

Aunt Mary, Uncle Fong's widow, and two of their girls.

Aunt Tanya; Sarah; Ryan; Uncle Jojo.

Ma, Tori, Sarah.

I remember that girl from when she was, like, 0 years old. The
fact that she now has an AIM screenname still bugs me out.


Great-aunt; Grandma.

Uncle Jeffrey & fam. I also remember Crystal from when she was
barely born. Snap.

You know how 中国人 do it... always gotta have the mad mad
crew up in the buffet. Birthday, funeral, after church, Wednesday
night, whatever!

Goodbye, Grandpa.

See you when things are made right.

Monday, May 19, 2008

How is this movie not being problematized?!!!!??

The Love Guru.

How is this movie not a problem? Mike Meyers walks around for a few hours with a bad Apu accent and it's no big deal?

Homey done been getting a pass for way too long.

Monday, May 12, 2008


15,238 words later, I am done with Yale.

A small sample (1 section):

3) A sense of “naughtiness” generated by racist beliefs in conflict with one’s “actual” mores. In my discussion thus far, I have been assuming that racist responses to humor are ethically undesirable so long as the premise that holding racist construals is ethically undesirable is granted. This is an assumption that the reader does not necessarily need to accept: I may be mistaken in associating those who are amused in a racist manner by racist humor with those who are actually racist. I take it that those who would claim me to make this sort of error are picking out, as counterexamples to my claim, that set of people who can laugh at racist jokes in the same way that racists do, but yet, in other areas of their lives, evidence fair, unbiased, and equanimous behaviors. I myself have had several friends, particularly in high school, who were fond of telling explicitly racist jokes, or referring to grossly offensive ethnic stereotypes, and laughed at them in much the same way a racist would, yet whom I am fairly certain were not “actually” racist insofar as they did not construe individuals of other races as inferior to or less human then they themselves.

I suspect that this scenario is somewhat like that which Bergmann refers to as a “sense of ‘naughtiness’ generated by sexist beliefs” (73): “Something is ‘naughty’ for adults when they believe it to be forbidden, prohibited, or not spoken of and they also think that indulging in it or alluding to it is harm[less] fun.” Bergmann, however, does not see a distinction between “actually” sexist humor and “merely naughty” sexist humor: she simply classifies the latter as an instantiation of the former, supposing that one must, at some level, harbor a hidden sexist belief in order to find such humorous content amusing. I think that this sells the argument short, though: Bergmann’s thought is that, to see any sort of racist joke as funny, you have to see it as a racist sees it, which is accomplished by your actually being racist. But my objector do not have to believe that people who derive humor from racist jokes in this way are all closeted racists.

The objector might instead claim that is some way in which one can actually not be a racist (i.e., not actually personally subscribe to any racist beliefs) and yet still find “naughty” racist humor amusing: that is, it may be possible to suspend one’s actual racial ethics for the duration of the enjoyment of a joke, then return to one’s initial ethical stance, with no harm done to anyone in the meanwhile. In fact, if this is possible, it may even be preferable, for the reason that amusement or a good sense of humor, all else held equal, improves one’s quality of life. What is wrong, the objector asks, with just trying to get a laugh, with no political purpose behind it, so long as everyone involved knows that the comedian and his audience are not actually racist?

Under this view, I may harbor no conscious or subconscious construals of superiority or ill-will towards African-Americans, temporarily take on the beliefs of someone who does feel superior or malicious towards African-Americans in order to find some racist joke (such as the poster in B.2) against Blacks amusing, then return to my own non-racist stance. Imagine also that I do so alone, with no chance of another ever discovering my momentary point-of-view shift, and having taken no actions within that that period of time with repercussions for myself or others: where does the ethical harm lie in doing so? It seems as though this might be a sort of best-case scenario: I may stake a claim to strong personal ethics, but also derive amusement in ways that would otherwise conflict with those personal ethics.

I, unlike Bergmann, accept that this situation is, in some way, distinct from the case of an actual racist responding to racist humor; but I am still ethically suspicious of this stance. Morality is generally construed to be consequentialist (i.e., things are wrong because they lead to bad outcomes), intrinsic (i.e., things are wrong for some inherent reason), or some combination of both. Regardless of one’s specific meta-ethics, however, I find it difficult to condone such behaviors as outlined above.

If morality is consequentialist, then my ethical concern centers around the claim that one’s actions in adopting, even briefly, the point of view of a racist, can actually have no consequences. Perhaps there are no direct ethical ramifications resulting from my amusement at the racist joke: I will likely not, for example, physically or verbally abuse or disenfranchise any Black individuals during the time I was feeling amusement at that joke. However, morality does not only concern itself with making one-shot moral judgments (“this joke at this time is wrong/right”), but also with the long-term effects of ethical choices in shaping one’s character and aesthetics: “I ought to make choices such that I become this sort of person,” or, in the case of humor, “I ought to/ought not be the sort of person who is amused by these types of jokes.” The role of morality as regards humor lies not only in evaluating an individual instance of a joke as harmful or harmless, but also in shaping an individual’s character such that she becomes the sort of person who finds racist jokes unamusing.

The root of this concern lies in the possibility that taking up a racist view, even in jest, might lead to actual desensitization towards that particular kind of racism. This is a controversial charge, and I have found myself, over the past few years, alternately accepting and questioning it. Certainly, I accept that one’s sense of humor can change. Growing up, I found certain things hilarious; after learning of new things, or simply through mental maturation, I realized that I no longer find those prior amusements hilarious. One’s humorous aesthetic can change, and it is overly simplistic[1] to say that such changes are out of our control. It is generally (though not universally) accepted that same way that upbringing received from one’s parents or other elements of one’s childhood environment (“nurture”) can balance out the effects of one’s natural tendencies (“nature”) in shaping one’s character. Similarly, find it reasonable to claim that a man who makes an ethical judgment that his sense of humor is “naturally” lacking can make moral choices to “nurture” a better aesthetic within himself. If this is so, it then falls well within the realm of morality to demand that an individual moral agent does, to some degree, attempt to effect character change on himself, and one of the best means by which such changes might be effected is through a forced separation from ethically questionable material, despite its retained potential for aesthetic fulfillment.

My critic might here interject that I am demanding more ethical stringency from an everyday moral comic audience member than the finest scholars: for certainly historians, biographers, authors, thespians, and other such academicians place themselves in the shoes of ethically contemptible individuals or characters all the time (imagine C.S. Lewis writing from the perspective of a demon in his Screwtape Letters, or a biographer of Hitler striving to peer through his subject matter’s own eyes). My response is simply that there is something that qualitatively and intentionally distinguishes between the scholarly adoption of a “purely academic” point of view for discussion or research and a viewpoint willingly adopted for reasons of seeking the emotive response of amusement: the concept of scholarly detachment, or a “purely academic” hypothetical question has been promoted precisely because of the need to separate the work of a scholar in exploring potentially unethical points of view from her own personal point of view. To wit, while an academic hypothetical may remain intellectual only, and otherwise unemotional, the danger of emotive responses is precisely that they are affective and emotional, affecting areas of the psyche in which it is far harder to remain divested: I am not even clear on what it means to experience an emotion “hypothetically”, which is very nearly what my critic is claiming a non-racist may do in experiencing amusement elicited by racist construals.

I have a second concern, about the intrinsic harmfulness of such points of view: Roberts, in his 1991, makes the point that “the sinfulness of the emotions is independent of the evil or absurdity of their manifestations” (quoting Harre, 13). Despite a “widespread notion among philosophers that feelings… are not the sort of thing that can be morally assessed,” Roberts evaluates the sort of emotions “that go by such names as ‘envy,’ ‘pride,’… ‘contempt, ‘self-righteousness’… and the like” as inherently censurable, “in themselves… morally offensive” (22). Roberts’s concerns regarding these emotions arise from considering them from the point of view of a family of moralities with the shared trait of highly valuing interpersonal relationships: friendships, brother- and sister- hood, and the like. Within such moral structures, Roberts argues, one’s ethical duty “is constituted not just of behavior of an appropriate kind, but of proper attitudes, and it is these attitudes that are above all contradicted in the wicked feelings [emphasis added]” (22).

The same point translates to racist construals: if one believes morality to be inherently derived, then allowing one’s self to be “temporarily racist” is no better than being “actually racist”. And, presupposing the immorality of racism, it is also immoral to adopt racist beliefs and racially-motivated attitudes of superiority towards others, regardless of whether one does so because of a belief that it is true or simply because it allows one to derive amusement from a particular joke, regardless of whether one does so for a shorter or longer period of time, and regardless of its impact (or lack thereof) on one’s actions and later thoughts. The later reversibility of one’s mental stance it does not alter the fact that one is presently engaging in that particular attitude or construal of other races, and this is in itself morally questionable. If morality about racism is intrinsic, then there are certain racist construals that ought not be accepted, even if only hypothetically and in jest.[2]

[1] A claim that requires support.

[2] The point can be made that there may be a substantive distinction between “being racist” and “pretending to be racist”, in a way such that whatever is inherently wrong about “being racist” is not wrong with “pretending to be racist”. I suspect, though, that Roberts’ paper again provides a response: in the same way that “being a moral friend” involves not only actually acting morally towards one’s friends, but also holding proper attitudes towards those friends, I think that “being non-racist” involves strictly holding non-racist construals of those other races. Given space constraints, however, I have chosen to not include full discussion on this point in this paper.

Monday, April 14, 2008

[Xanga] Little Miss Sunshine

So, I watched Little Miss Sunshine last night at a friend's room, and I came away with mixed feelings. Best foot forward: it was rather well-shot, and the characters were interesting. I particularly thought Steve Carell was an intriguing casting choice, setting off the rest of the ensemble in a rather fine way.

However, I found the movie overall depressing. Not necessarily in a bad way (in the sense that it made for rather "good art"), but in the sense that the philosophy behind the movie was very empty. In the crucial finale scene (complete with choreographed/spontaneous dancing, the music of the late Rick James, and family bonding), characters found new self-awareness and even a measure of happiness, but with no foundation or grounds for the guarantee of its future continuance. Of course, this may just be a reflection of my general pessimism regarding human nature, but I felt as though the characters, though individually interesting, grew very little with regards to themselves. Charmingly two-dimensional they may have been, but two-dimensional they remained. Though less explicitly authorial, I was left with the same feeling made explicit at the end of The Graduate: the characters ride away, quaintly melancholic music swells, and their futures are left to the imagination of the viewer. In the latter movie, this is made obvious by a director's trick: rather than calling "cut!" at the end of the taping, he left cameras rolling, taping several seconds of awkward smiles and sighs which remain uncut in the final footage. But in LMS, that feeling is subtle, infusing the entire movie: it is an aftertaste, sitting on the palate but somehow still unexpected. Not that I'm saying the director didn't intend for us to have such a feeling; simply that he communicated it carefully and even, perhaps, subliminally.

And this feeling of irresolution, of oscillating expectations, confounds me. Not that I don't understand it; no, I understand it all-too-well. Rather, it denies my definition and expectations of art. This is more or less an obvious outgrowth of my Christian beliefs, but the fact of the matter is that I desire - and believe to have found - a firm hope for the future, in salvation granted in Christ. This transforms my life from one which is lived in uncertainty, to one which is lived certainly and with security. I understand how a desolate future suits itself better to the expectations of this world. My disconnect with the filmmakers' intent comes at a fundamental level, at the level of my not having any expectations of or in this world, but yet every positive expectation of the future. My future well-being is assured; to grant a movie's characters any less than this is not only contextually disheartening, but rings false to me, or at-least incomplete.

In general, this is my gripe with recent movies such as Napoleon Dynamite, Punch-Drunk Love (which I actually do rather enjoy), Garden State, Eternal Sunshine..., and the like. Mainstream indie movies (can such an oxymoronic creature even exist?), where soft twee-pop and ostentatiously independent music skitters and crawls around the edges of the viewer's frame of reference, where characters come to a Kierkegaardian revelation of existential angst and boredom... and continue on in the manner in which they came. Speak all you want of cinema verite and its ramifications, but I see no joy in this.

When experiencing art, I find the highest and keenest thrills to be communicated through a careful mixture of the real and ideal. I want to be connected to the art, to experience it not as an outside observer, but as a participant. Realism in art grants this: Tolkien's lengthy descriptions and pages-long histories immerse (to a level that Robert Jordan strives in vain to reach), rather than confound. Middle-Earth is fantastical, but its inhabitants, its geography, its specifics, are familiar.
The ideal plays as much a critical role, though, in my enjoyment of art. Merely representing life on the silver screen is not sufficient to enthrall: depicting a world, no matter how fantastical or improbable, devoid of the ideal, is mere documentarianism. Art requires more: We hope to reach beyond, to see things hinted-at in the world of experience. Art is the Platonic fire, the illumination in the cave of experience that grants us our only knowledge of the Forms. By reducing art to a verisimilitude, we willingly restrict ourselves.

My qualms with LMS, ultimately, reduce to a theological concern. Art must reflect God, and not man, or else we are merely representing to ourselves a facsimile of the already "dim mirror" of earthly experience. Our lives are imbued with hope and power, not because we are human, but precisely because we are not. The verisimilitude that movies such as LMS offers us grant us a fine portrayal of human nature, but they do no more; they are like a half-silvered mirror, reflecting our human qualities and letting loose that divine quality, that "image of God," that gives us the desire to see our lives from an external perspective. Making utterly realistic movies, devoid of idealism, is flat narcissism; making purely ideal movies, on the other hand, is disjunct from our experiences of that which is. In order to satisfy our soul's contrary desire of realistic hope, we must look through the lens of real experience at the glimmer of yet-unexperienced truth.

[Xanga] A confusing case of transworld identity

Abstract: In the interests of questioning transworld identity, I outline a case of a possible world in which I, as an embryo, split into two and was born as identical twins.

I propose the following case as one where theories of transworld identity may run into complications or, in a best case, fail to explain the case adequately. I do not vouch for this case's novelty (as I have not reviewed the pertinent literature), nor its usefulness, nor the validity of my scientific description of the "facts":

Imagine a possible world where every physical fact up to one week beyond my conception is identical to the real world. However, at exactly one week after my conception, the embryo divides into two, and, instead of me being born, my mother bears identical twins. I further suppose that both twins grow to maturity, and each is genetically identical (or close enough that dissimilarities do not matter). With which twin (or both, or neither) do I have identity?

To add some complications to this account, what if I were to also imagine the following: The real-world me has an interest in martial arts, hip-hop music, and is a Christian. One of the possible-world twins, A, loves martial arts, but has no interest in rap music whatsoever. The other twin, B, could care less for martial arts, but is an avid listener of hip-hop music. One, both, or neither of them is a Christian (depending on whichever gives the most interesting account). With which twin (or both/neither) do I identify?

[Xanga] The uses of the first person possessive: a note to avert systematic error

I would simply like to note that in the English language - and many other languages, I believe, though English (and perhaps Mandarin, on a good day) is the only language with which I have sufficient fluency - the first-person possessive has three uses: two specific and one vague. Actually, this is misleading. I would rather say that the first-person possessive has two specific uses, and we sometimes mix up the two specific uses and then proceed to use this conflated definition in a vague sense, hoping that the vagueness of our utilization will camoflauge our error.

The first case is that of the individual possessing something: this is the case in which I may accurately say "my hat," or "my chair," or "my computer." In this case, the relationship is one of simple possession: I am in an ownership relationship with the hat, chair, computer. The description of "hat" as "mine" is of unilateral ownership, and it runs vertically from me to the hat. This is, I feel, the common-sense or "folk" use of the word: ask someone to explain what "mine" means, and the description would likely be along the lines of, "owned by me" or "belonging to me."

The second case is that of something possessing an individual: this is the case in which I may accurately call someone "my boss," or a knight might have addressed King Arthur as "my lord," or the pious man addresses God as "My God." This use is less obvious, I feel, as it is a possessive only inasmuch as it is a descriptor of a relationship: when addressing King Arthur as "my liege," the knight is not saying that Arthur is a lord who belongs to him. As far as I can make sense of this descriptor (and, not trained as a linguist or a philosopher of religion, that may not be very far), it is possessive of the relationship between the knight and Arthur. Arthur is the lord of this knight, but that does not mean that Arthur is of this knight. Rather, the lordship relationship is one in which Arthur and the knight both participate, and insofar as this is true, the lorded-over/lord relationship is possessed by the knight, which allows him to address Arthur as "my lord." (I'm not particularly certain about this analysis of the use, but it is incidental to my point.)

The confusion of usage occurs in gray areas as follows: "My country," "my school," "my household." In these cases, there is no immediate understanding as to which of the above two relationships the first-person possessive pronoun refers to. In the case of "my country," does the descriptor imply that the individual owns this country? Perhaps it is contextual to the country - is it a democracy or dictatorship? Or perhaps the individual's political philosophy is relevant: does he, as Hobbes seems to in his Leviathan, view the government as existing contingent on his empowerment of it? But I disagree that this usage stands apart from the first and second cases. Rather, the vagueness in ascribing it to either the first or second type usage is drawn from vagueness in the individual's understanding of his relation to the country. I suppose that I am viewing this third case as subordinate to the first two: it stands on its own not because it is separate from the first two, but because, independent of context, it is both one and the other. Within context, of course, these statements may make perfect sense. If a dictator rules his country with an iron fist, of course his declaration of "this is MY country!" is a first-case usage. And a statesman who views his leadership of the country as mandated and empowered by the will of the people will of course say "this is my country!" with a usage of the second type. A politician uncertain of the source of his power and of his political philosophy will of course use the phrase, "this is my country," in a vague sense, meaning neither the first nor the second case: vagueness creeps into his speech not because the word is being used in a special way, but because it is being used in both ways.

Finally, I would note: I said, in the third paragraph above, that the pious man addressing God as "My God" addresses Him (and properly so) with a possessive of the second case: that of lorded-over/lordship. I feel that the systematic error associated with such uses as "my wife" is to also be zealously avoided in such an address of God. With overtly dominant descriptors of God such as "My Lord," it is not easy to forget His position of lordship over creation and the individual. However, Christianity, in particular, approaches God as a being, and not a title. The Greeks, Mayans, Hindus, and many other religions use "god" as a title for a being with a proper name (from Zeus to Quetzalcoatl to Ishvara); the Christian religion has no such title-relationship. Rather, "God" is our only "god," and thus, I fear, we easily forget that in such a title there is an inherently dominant quality to His character. It is not difficult to fall into a systematic error of addressing God with a possessive of the first case, or even, I propose, to consciously address God with a possessive of the second case but subtly and subconsciously begin to view one's relationship with Him as having qualities of the first-case possessive. We must be ever vigilant that our address of God as "my Lord" does not begin to slide into the third case, where our understanding of the relationship with Him grows vague and poorly-defined.

As a believer, one's view of God, and one's address of Him as "My God," must thus consciously be kept as an possessive descriptor of the second case, and not of the first: as akin to "My Lord," or "my boss," and not in the same usage as "my cup," "my home," or "my genie."