Monday, May 5, 2008

No more pencils, no more books

I just had my last-ever class at Vassar. Still have to write two papers and a one-act play before I graduate, but other than that, I have learned everything that I will ever learn at college. Weird!

One thing I won't be sad to leave behind are some of the scholarly essays, especially the works of "literary theory," that I have had to read here. Granted, much of what I read increases my knowledge or even helps me see things afresh...but some essays are laden with jargon or digressions or pompousness, and I can do without them. My Shakespeare professor asked us which of our readings we liked the most and the least, and I gave my thumbs-down to an essay called "Out Damned Scot: Dislocating Macbeth in Transnational Film and Media Culture", by Courtney Lehmann. Ridiculously bad, it encapsulates everything that annoys me about certain trends in scholarship.

"Out Damned Scot" is full of pretentiousness, over-analysis, irrelevant leftist politics, and bizarre claims. It analyzes several recent film adaptations of Macbeth--we read it after watching Scotland, PA, a 2001 indie film that sets the Macbeth story at a 1970s fast-food restaurant. The essay's ostensible thesis deals with how these Macbeth adaptations respond to globalization, as well as how Macbeth, a "noir western," negotiates "desire and drive" to reinforce a corrupt capitalist system. (Or something.)

The essay begins with this confusing thesis, and a pretentious simile about how watching a DVD is like "the contested province of the thistle--a cross between a lone flower and a menacing mass of weeds" and thus like Scotland. Other pretensions include frequent use of the word jouissance, referring to our era as the fin de siècle, and citing Walter Benjamin, Homi Bhabha, Fredric Jameson, and Slavoj Zizek.

Much of Lehmann's essay ascribes absurd social significance to works of art (works of entertainment?) that probably can't bear such scrutiny--like In the Flesh, a porn adaptation of Macbeth. Lehmann writes, "The weird sisters proceed to get downright freaky among themselves [... culminating] in the head witch using a double-pronged dildo to pleasure the other two. In the broader context of the film, this image suggests the proverbial fork in the road." Um, perhaps not?

Then Lehmann discusses Star Wars: Macbeth, a short comedy film made by students at Glen Ridge High School in 1997 (you can watch it here; I haven't). Without any real evidence to go on, Lehmann decides it is a response to a traumatic event in Glen Ridge history: the 1989 rape of a retarded girl by high-school jocks. According to her, it shows the "revenge of the nerds," as well as an attempt to retreat to the golden days of the 1970s, before the rape occurred. When a nerdy Macduff kills an athletic-looking Macbeth and then "departs in a replica of the Millennium Falcon," "the implication is that [he] is headed 'back to the future' with a clean slate, having eliminated the evildoers who will give the school and surrounding community a bad name a decade later." Perhaps. But I'm more inclined to think that Star Wars Macbeth is just a youthful high-jink, the kind of skit that could be made by nerdy teens anywhere in America. Children have short memories and since the Glen Ridge trauma occurred when these kids were 10 or younger, I doubt many of them were thinking about it when they got to high school.

Lehmann also makes irrelevant jabs at the Bush Administration. In the porno Macbeth, when Banquo's ghost participates in an orgy while Macbeth sits and watches, Lehmann writes that this "[renders] the murder a failure and Macbeth an unlikely victim of John Ashcroft syndrome." Huh? A footnote explains that Ashcroft was defeated in a 2000 election by Mel Carnahan, who had died the previous month. (And Lehmann gets it wrong: the men were not competing for governor, but for the Senate.) I don't like Ashcroft either, but I know when he is relevant to a discussion versus when an author is trying to score points with leftist academics.

The analysis of In the Flesh concludes with the bizarre claim that masturbation reminds us of "self-detonating war instruments," and thus "the zero-sum game of suicidal terrorism," and "the spectacle of remote control warfare with smart bombs and unmanned planes, which remain the isolationist prerogative of those nations with the most pleasure and the least guilt." Gee, and I thought it was supposed to be fun...

Since Lehmann is discussing capitalism and globalization, it is relevant to point out how Scotland, PA amusingly plays with the similarity of "McBeth" and "McDonald's." But how does she possibly reach this conclusion: "The fetishized arches of the letter 'M' in this film ominously point to what comes after 'M'--'En'--as in noir and, of course, Enron." Maybe that's how her mind works--but do you immediately think of "Enron" when you see a big letter M?

So, good riddance to this kind of scholarly writing--so over-the-top, over-reaching and confused that I still can't explain Lehmann's thesis despite having read the essay three times. In fact, the more I read it, the more I decide it must be a parody of poorly written contemporary scholarship. But the sad part is, it's not.

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