Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘humor’

23 JANUARY, 2014

The Future of Love: Malcolm Cowley’s 1930 Parodic Prediction for the Age of Data

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The Stimulus and the Response go on a date.

In 1930, as the culturally raucous Jazz Age was coming to halt with the onset of the Great Depression and America was dreaming up a brighter, technologically advanced world of tomorrow, a curious anthology titled Whither Whither, or After Sex What?: A Symposium to End Symposiums (public library) crept onto bookstore shelves. Exploring the futures of such diverse subjects as prosperity, history, literary criticism, art, music, and the atom, it featured parodic predictions from a formidable roster of future literary titans, at the time in their early and mid-thirties, including E. E. Cummings, Edmund Wilson, E. B. White, and James Thurber (the latter two had just come off their own collaboration on a piece of equally entertaining cultural commentary, the 1929 gem Is Sex Necessary?: Or Why You Feel the Way You Do), illustrated with charming cartoons by the Bill Gropper.

One of the best contributions, both for its humor and its unintendedly poignant prescience, comes from the beloved novelist, poet, journalist, and literary critic Malcolm Cowley — he who contemplated the stages of the creative process some three decades later — and considers a subject that has occupied humanity for millennia: Love.

After a series of parodic predictions poking fun at the era’s scientific novelties like psychoanalysis and eugenics, some of which were dismissed as appropriately laughable decades later, Cowley considers “what Love will be — and society in general” in the envisioned new age, beginning with the concept of childbirth:

First, the children of the future will no longer be conceived by the methods unthinkingly adopted by our parents. Children will be had at special pharmacies out of glass vials — tied with blue ribbons for boys, tied with pink ribbons for girls, and tied with variegated ribbons to indicate all the new sexes that we may confidently expect to see developed by the intensive application of modern laboratory methods. Life will thus be greatly simplified. And to think of the relief to bashful parents who hesitate to reveal the biological facts to their children! Little boys and girls will no longer have to be told that the doctor brought them or that the stork dropped them down the chimney. They will know darned well that they came from the corner drug store.

'One of the possible methods of reviving the stork ceremony of birth in the future. A child is produced by laboratory methods, thus avoiding the present system of procreation which is disagreeable to some people and which can henceforth be reserved purely for purposes of debauchery. The infant is placed in swaddling clothes, attached to the beak of a mechanical stork. The expectant mother, who is trained from early girlhood for this serious task, is then given a large butterfly net, and at a signal from the head obstetrician the bird is released, to soar eagerly in swift mechanical flight. The young mother leaps forward, captures the stork with its precious burden, and an heir is born.'

Cowley, writing in the age of truly gobsmacking rules of romance, then moves on to the question of courtship in the future:

We may confidently predict that the mating pattern will be changed by the application of scientific Behaviorism. The post-adolescent male will have learned to condition away the fear reflexes which inhibit hugs and kisses. By producing a box of candy at every visit, he will offer a stimulus certain to produce a favorable response to himself. By taking his girl to the movies (if he can’t make love at home), he will behavioristically surround himself with an atmosphere proportious to the development of heterosexual affection. By gifts of jewelry and flowers, he will condition the sweetheart to a belief in his own prosperity.

But while Cowley’s intent was purely satirical in 1930, a time long before the discovery of DNA and the invention of the modern digital web, the prescience of his parody turns tragicomic in the context of today’s quantified self and personal genomics, where we obsessively measure our psychophysiology and proudly advertise its high points in online dating profiles — ours is, after all, love in the age of data. Cowley continues:

And when the moment comes to pop the question, he will not be so foolish as to say, “Will you marry me?” That would smack of the old Victorian repressions — and besides, marriage will long since have been abolished. Instead the lover (hereinafter to be known as “the Response”) will exclaim to the sweetheart (hereinafter to be known as “the Stimulus”):

“My IQ is satisfactory, my blood count satisfactory, my basic metabolism satisfactory, my male hormones present in satisfactory qualities. My instincts are wholly mature, my thyroid and pituitary glands properly adjusted, and I am capable of following the higher mammalian mating pattern. Will you live with me happily ever after in heterosexual matehood?”

“Let’s synthesize!” the Stimulus will reply, as hand in hand these twain go marching into the heterosexual dawn.

'The eternal triangle is not always husband, wife, and lover. It is sometimes, as we learn from the more prosperous psychologists, husband, wife, and child -- or, to bring the matter nearer home, husband, wife, and Pomeranian. This is but one of the problems which will be solved by a careful reading of the present Symposium, this last Symposium, this Symposium to end Symposiums.'

Though long out of print, Whither, Whither, or After Sex, What? can be found online and is well worth the hunt. Complement Cowley’s contemplation with its modern, non-satirical counterparts exploring the natural history of love, the math of its odds, and its alleged science, the very concept of which Cowley so elegantly derided.

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29 NOVEMBER, 2013

Modern Masterpieces of Comedic Genius: The Art of the Humorous Amazon Review, Part Deux

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From scientific miracles to literary criticism, by way of bodily functions and failures of common sense.

Many moons ago, I wrote about the art of the humorous Amazon review as a modern masterpiece of parodic genius, embodying Arthur Koestler’s seminal “bisociation” theory of how humor and creativity work. It turns out this peculiar micro-genre of satire is surprisingly expansive — here is a sequel-selection of amusing, absurd, preposterous, and plain funny reviews, spanning everything from literary classics to industrial equipment.

Some take advantage of Amazon’s tendency to mash up the brand name and product description in the same title field, which often makes for some inherently funny propositions — like the Pelican 1510-004-110 Case with Padded Dividers, Black, on which “Teddy Picker” pounces elegantly:

With others, it’s hard to tell whether the person was aiming for comedy or was simply displaying a tragic level of learnedness — which, arguably, makes it all the funnier. From a one-star review of Lolita titled “Wake Me When It’s Over” (with Proper Capitalization) to an unambiguously titled one-star review of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, these “literary critics” employ Koestler’s bisociation in juxtaposing personal preference and cultural credence to a comedic effect, whether intended or not:

Some are doubly amusing not only by virtue of the humorous review but also by the sheer absurdity of why such an item would be sold on Amazon in the first place. Take, for instance, the Cyclone 4006 Ultra High Pressure Hard Surface Cleaner — a giant machine weighing 28,000 pounds and used primarily at airports for removing paint and rubber. A reviewer who goes by Wandrwoman ‘Wise as Aphrodite, Beautiful as Athena…'” — a name that already promises amusement — writes:

Some seem wholly earnest — but, between the nature of the product and the language of the review, they produce an irrepressible chuckle. There’s Body Mint and its ultimate fan, a woman named Anita (who, Amazon kindly informs us, is using her Real Name):

Others reap the irresistible low-hanging fruit of an especially questionable product, such as the AutoExec Wheelmate Steering Wheel Attachable Work Surface Tray. Just when you might think this is intended as a gag gift for that common-sense-defiant teenage driver, you realize this is a serious “ergonomic work surface” “designed to be used in a vehicle’s steering wheel” and “developed for the mobile worker on the road needing support for their tablet or a great place to write” … in an age when it’s both idiotic and illegal to text-and-drive, let alone type-and-drive. Some reviewers go for the meta:

Others take it a satirical step further:

I just picked uuyp my laptop hoder from the post offfice and I’m ddriving home now. It’s OK Iguess, but the bumpy road majkes it hard to type. And theree’s a lot of pedeestrians and traffi c that keep distracti9ng me fromm my computer.

It’s prolly OK ffor web browsing or email, but I don’gt think it will be so useful for mmore complex tasks. Oh, and yyou can’t make any sharrp turns. So when you turn right, somnetimess you have to use the oppsing lane of traffic.

Another reviewer points out the obvious:

Adding this desk to my car’s steering wheel has been baby Jesus awesome. I love emailing the Highway patrol while I drive to let them know the tag numbers of cell phone using drivers. Lordy!

Some reviews weave entire micro-novellas around the product, such as this three-star treatise on the Denon AKDL1 Dedicated Link Cable by none other than Star Trek star George Takei:

Another reviewer offers a different, equally entertaining twist on the cable:

After I took delivery of my $500 Denon AKDL1 Cat-5 uber-cable, Al Gore was mysteriously drawn to my home, where he pronounced that Global Warming had been suspended in my vicinity.

Yes, I had perfect weather: no flooding, no tornadoes, the exact amount of rain necessary, and he pronounced sea levels exactly right and that they were not going to rise within five miles of my house.

Additionally, my cars began achieving 200 mpg and I didn’t even need gasoline. I was able to put three grams of cat litter into the tank and drive forever.

What’s more, the atmosphere inside my home became 93% oxygen and virtually no carbon dioxide. In fact, I now exhale oxygen.

One heck of a cable.

Didn’t notice any improvement in audio quality though.

The $800 Apple iCable is clearly superior.

Then there are those that simply defy categorization, such as this one-star review for the Accoutrements Horse Head Mask:

But my favorite remains this brilliant gem from the first installment, wherein an Edgar Allan Poe impersonator reviews a humble jug of milk in the style of “The Raven”:

Read the rest in all its full Poe-tastic glory here, then revisit the original omnibus here.

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30 SEPTEMBER, 2013

How To Be a Nonconformist: 22 Irreverent Illustrated Steps to Counterculture Cred from 1968

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“Avoid socks. They are a fatal giveaway of a phony nonconformist.”

“Why do you have to be a nonconformist like everybody else?,” James Thurber asked in the caption to a 1958 New Yorker cartoon depicting a woman fed up with her artist partner. It remains unknown whether the cartoon itself, or this cultural dismay shared by some of the era’s counterculture thinkers, inspired the 1968 gem How To Be a Nonconformist (public library) by Elissa Jane Karg. One could easily imagine that if Edward Gorey, master of pen-and-ink irreverence, and Patti Smith, godmother of punk-rock, had collaborated, this would’ve been the result. But what’s most impressive is that Karg was only sixteen at the time, a self-described “cynical & skeptical junior at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, Connecticut,” qualified to examine nonconformity as “an angry and amused observer” of her “cool contemporaries.”

With her irresistibly wonderful black-and-white drawings and hand-lettered text, which originally appeared in her school newspaper and were eventually published by Scholastic, she offers 22 rules for becoming “a bona fide nonconformist,” poking fun at so many archetypes still strikingly prevalent — perhaps even amplified — today: the misunderstood artist-hipster, the troll grubbing for clout by spewing curmudgeonly comments, the protester-for-the-sake-of-protesting, the musician flaunting her mental health issues as a badge of genius. Rather than derision, however, Karg’s subtler message is a reminder that, as Toni Morrison memorably wrote in Beloved, “definitions belong to the definers, not the defined,” that a full life is about “allowing the various petals of our identity to fully unfold,” and that adhering to any prescriptive mode of living, even if it’s one that rejects the herd of mainstream culture, only flattens us into caricatures of our complete selves and transforms us into a herd of a different kind, one the cultural critic Harold Rosenberg famously called “the herd of independent minds.”

Karg, in true counter-nonconformist fashion, didn’t end up moving to New York City and commodify her brand of creative cynicism. Instead, she moved to Detroit, had two daughters, joined the socialist party, became a nurse, and led an earnest life as an avid advocate for women’s rights on the cusp of the second wave of feminism. Tragically, though perhaps poetically given her life choices, she was killed in 2008 at the age of 57 while riding her bicycle back from a socialist party meeting. She never authored another book, but did co-author the 1980 handbook Stopping Sexual Harassment.

Immeasurably wonderful, How To Be a Nonconformist is long out of print but surviving copies of can be found online. Complement it with Exactitudes, the modern-day photo-anthropological record of the cultural phenomenon Karg satirizes.

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