Saturday, December 5, 2009

Quote for the Day

(One in an occasional series)

11 November, 1955
Today on the pavement a fat domestic London pigeon waddling among the boots and shoes of people hurrying for a bus. A man takes a kick at it, the pigeon lurches into the air, falls forward against a lamppost, lies with its neck stretched out, its beak open. The man stands, bewildered: he had expected the pigeon to fly off. He casts a furtive look around, so as to escape. It is too late, a red-faced virago is already approaching him. "You brute, kicking a pigeon!" The man's face is by now also red. He grins from embarrassment and a comical amazement. "But they always fly away," he observes, appealing for justice. The woman shouts, "You've killed it--kicking a poor little pigeon!" But the pigeon is not dead, it is stretching out its neck by the lamppost, trying to lift its head, and its wings strive and collapse, again and again. By now there is a small crowd including two boys of about fifteen. They have the sharp, watchful faces of the freebooters of the streets, and stand watching, unmoved, chewing gum. Someone says, "Call the RSPCA." The woman shouts, "There'd be no need for that if this bully hadn't kicked the poor thing." The man hangs about, sheepish, a criminal hated by the crowd. The only people not emotionally involved are the two boys. One remarks to the air: "Prison's the place for criminals like 'im." "Yes, yes," shouts the woman. She is so busy hating the kicker she doesn't look at the pigeon. "Prison," says the second boy, "flogging, I'd say." The woman now sharply examines the boys, and realises they are making fun of her. "Yes, and you too!" she gasps at them, her voice almost squeezed out of her by her anger...Meanwhile an efficient frowning man bends over the pigeon, and examines it. He straightens himself and pronounces, "It's going to die." He's right. The bird's eyes are filming, and blood wells from its opened beak. And now the woman, forgetting her three objects of hatred, leans forward to look at the bird. Her mouth is slightly open, she has a look of unpleasant curiosity as the bird gasps, writhes its head, then goes limp.

"It's dead," says the efficient man.

The villain, recovering himself, says apologetically, but clearly determined to have no nonsense: "I'm sorry, but it was an accident. I've never seen a pigeon before that didn't move out of the way.

We all look with disapproval at this hardened kicker of pigeons...

The kicker moves off, but the woman goes after him, saying: "What's your name and address, I'm going to have you prosecuted." The man says, annoyed, "Oh, don't make such a mountain out of molehill." She says: "I suppose you call murdering a poor little bird a molehill." "Well, it isn't a mountain, murder isn't a mountain," observes one of the fifteen-year-olds, who stands grinning with his hands in his jacket pockets. His friend takes it up, sagaciously: "You're right. Molehills is murder, but mountains isn't." "That's right," says the first, "when's a pigeon a mountain? When it's a molehill." The woman turns on them, and the villain thankfully makes his escape, looking incredibly guilty, despite himself.

Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

And while I'm at it, what's the deal with having us read all these damned books?

A friend of mine who teaches at Grant MacEwen University in Edmonton, Alberta, had a visit last week from two students angry that he hadn't been appropriately impressed by an in-class presentation they had made the day before. And since they were in his office anyhow, I guess, they also decided to run down a number of other objections they had to his teaching style. Among their complaints: the professor was including information in his lectures that he did not put on the Blackboard summaries posted to the class website. In other words, students who were attending class had an unfair advantage over those who did not.

So, here's my question: do any of my compatriot bloggers on this site, or any of our myriad readers, have comparable stories of clueless entitlement in modern academe?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Prisoner, Updated

AMC has just finished its first run of the 2009 version of The Prisoner, an update of the 60s Patrick McGoohan series. The original Prisoner is often prefaced by the words "classic," and it has developed a cult of enthusiasts over the years. For good reason: the set-up was inspired, as well the look, and McGoohan was perfect for the role. The new series has received mixed reviews, at best. Two very good TV critics, James Poniewozik of Time and David Bianculli of NPR, more or less trashed it, essentially saying that all of the changes in the new series were in the wrong direction. Poniewozik called it "pretentious."

The only positive element, according to both men, is the performance of Ian McKellen as Number Two. In the original, Number Two was a sort of governor of the Village/Prison where all the action took place, ruling on behalf of a mysterious Number One (and perhaps also an even more shadowy corporate body that is alluded to but never mentioned.) Several important differences between the old and new involve Number Two (who is now just called Two). First, in the old series, the actor playing Number Two changed every episode (the exception being Leo McKern (Rumpole at the Bailey), who was in two different episodes.) In the new one, McKellen is the same Two throughout. He's also a more complicated and sympathetic character. Also, Number One has essentially disappeared. It's suggested at one point that he's just a metaphor (yeah, I think the theological implications are intended). The McGoohan character, Six, is played now by Jim Caviezel, and the universal assumption seems to be that he is upstaged at every turn by McKellen's brillance.

Although I am a big fan of the original Prisoner, I have to say that it has benefitted a great deal from nostalgia, which tends to miss out on a number of weaknesses. The most obvious problem was with the notorious final episode. Poniewozik notes that the original series was "never completely resolved," which is one way to put it. My way of putting it would be that the final episode was the worst ending to a television series that ever was: so incoherent and silly that it was almost offensive. McGoohan would later say that his home was attacked by outraged viewers the day after its original showing. After having watched the whole series and then experienced the deep disappointment of the final, all I can say is that it was an instance of justified mob violence. Although there's never been a clear explanation for what happened (McGoohan very carefully dominated discussion of the series during his lifetime, and so the open scandal of the last episode was never really addressed) there are three plausible explanations:

1. The series ended before it was supposed to, and so the producers (McGoohan was executive producer) had to quickly come up with an ad-hoc ending, and this was the best they could do.
2. McGoohan wrote himself into a corner (we might call this the Lost problem). It was pretty obvious who Number One was supposed to be, by the end: essentially, the identity is signalled at the beginning of every episode. A little too obvious, maybe. The writers couldn't figure out how to give the final a true hook, so they just threw this mash at the viewers.
3. The series suffered from the departure of George Markstein, one of the original creators, who left about halfway through the series run (following, I believe, a fight with McGoohan). Markstein might have been able to figure out to end the damned thing.

In general, the series was much weaker after Markstein left. I would argue it was him, and not McGoohan, who was the real genius behind the original.

The new Prisoner is not the equal of the original. It is far superior, beginning with the fact that it has an actual ending, which explains what has been going on for the past six hours. A number of critics complained that the narrative was confusing, and it is. Temporal and spatial shifts occur constantly, with little or no explanation. Characters appear in different roles without explanation. If you watch all the way to the end, you'll see why all of this is happening. The producers have used various techniques to mimic the mental dislocation that the main character feels. I suspect that this is why AMC decided to run the entire series over the course of only three nights. The network probably felt that modern viewers would not stick with something this difficult over a longer period. But I don't think that's a sad commentary on the show's technique. I think its a sad commentary on modern television audiences.

But the real success of the series, the reason that I am writing this post, deals with the moral dilemma presented in the last episode. This has been the area of greatest obtuseness on the part of the reviewers. Even the person from The New York Times, who generally liked it, thought that the theme of the show was much less ambitious than the 60s version: appropriate, he wrote, for our postmodern fatigue with ideology and big ideas.

I dunno: to me it seemed like there were lots of big ideas in this series, the most important one being the continued attraction of utopia, which the writers presented in a particularly clever manner, playing the audience in the same way, more or less, that Two plays Six. Like Six, by the time we figured out what has happened, it's too late.

And when I say that the ending is clever, I mean that it is morally compelling in manner all too rare at our current cultural moment. Someone who would be willing to sacrifice human freedom or human lives on behalf of The People, or Humanity, or The World, or God, is too stupid to be trusted with anything more powerful than a lawn mower: this is a moral truth so obvious that both Stalin and C.S. Lewis could agree on it. But what if the pain that we were going to relieve was not that of some bloodless abstraction, but a single individual. An individual whose agony, while fictional, is very realistic, and severe. And a character that we have come to like a great deal over the course of the past six hours. There is no longer a clearly best or worst choice: the series complicates the line between good and evil in a way that the earlier series did not.

Here, utopia (in the sense of a world accomplished in the art of reducing human suffering) comes about not through politics but through the application of science. I wonder if this is not part of the reason for the mixed reviews of the series. We may have undergone some "postmodern fatigue" with politics and grand narratives, but our utopian desires have not left us. We have merely transferred them to technology. Maybe the reason that critics like Poniewozik and Bianculli didn't like the show much is that it hit a little too close to home. The 60s Prisoners embodied the cultural zeitgeist; the 2009 version challenges it.

Finally, I have to say that McKellen's work was over-praised, Jim Caviezel's under-appreciated. Both men did solid a solid if not spectacular job: the real accomplishment here lay in the writing and production, not the acting. But I think that at this point McKellen has approached a sort of Olivier-like cultural status, whereas Caviezel is too good-looking, and his politics and religion too suspect, to get any critical breaks.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Don't know about anyone else, but I've found most of the obits on Lévi-Strauss to be a little underwhelming. Lots of news outlets focused mostly on his significance from a very narrow political perspective. The guy on NPR emphasized his role in according so-called "primitives" the intellectual and moral respect that all right-thinking people now agree they deserve. Well, I guess: but he wasn't really an innovator on that score, maybe just one in a long line that stretches back at least as far as Herder. Same with the discussions of his ecological sympathies. If he was an environmentalist long before it was fashionable, that sure wasn't why structuralism seemed so important a part of Western intellectual life at one point. When it came discussions of the actual theory itself, a lot of the English-language outlets were quite vague. I credit this not to the obscurity of the argument but to the fact that so many people nowadays would say that structuralism is passé, and it would be bad form to suggest that we had all moved past the great man whose praises we are singing.

In what was to my mind the best obituary, Maurice Bloch wrote in the Guardian that:

"It is striking how, in spite of the immense respect with which he is treated, especially in France, he has no direct followers or students. Many claim and have claimed to be structuralists but it usually turns out that only a limited aspect of his thought has an influence on them, and at worst the adoption of the label "structuralist" was merely a matter of passing fashion. He is a lonely, if imposing, figure in the history of thought."

Structuralism was already on the way out when I started getting interested in it, in the late 80s and early 90s. I'm not sure that I have ever quite understood why, though: beyond the mere vagaries of academic fashion. Most of the British structuralists that I've read, like Victor Turner and Mary Douglas, struck me as much more interesting cultural theorists than what came after them. And Lévi-Strauss, to the extent that I understood him, seemed to be arguing a very big idea indeed, which was that our fundamental assumptions about human nature, and more specifically human agency, were completely off-base: empirically wrong-headed and politically noxious. This still strikes me as a pretty compelling claim.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The possibilities of comics

About three-quarters of the way through Asterios Polyp, Mazzucchelli takes up an entire chapter with a small, seemingly irrelevant moment in the married life of Hana and Polyp. The event is bookended by Polyp worrying over a blister on his foot. The rest of it (seven pages) has to do with a minor domestic emergency: Hana is swabbing her ear with a q-tip, and the end of the tip breaks off in her ear. She freaks out. Polyp comes to her rescue, using one of those little tweezer doohickies from his Swiss knife to pull it out. At the end of the chapter she hugs her husband and promises him, "That's the last time I buy that pseudo-somebody brand."

Or rather, that's one thing that happens. Mazzuchelli has structured the chapter so that, visually, there are three different sections to every page. The linear narrative I've just given you is the middle section, a series of panels set apart from the top and bottom sections visually through the prominence of the color blue (the other two sections are primarily colored in red and purple). It's also the only section with words. Above and it and below are a series of more or less unconnected vignettes from Hana's life, most of which have some relation to her body, the discharges therefrom: Hana taking a dump, Hana farting, Hana cutting her leg shaving, Hana throwing up in the toilet, Hana slurping noodles, Hana sneezing, Hana kissing her cat, Hana snoring.

There is no clear connection between these panels and the center section (a series of random panels of Hana trying to pull open a subway car door just makes matters more confusing), but for me one of the clear suggestions was of an unarticulated discomfort on Hana's part with her body, with the porousness of the human body, the way that its boundaries often break down. (This only makes sense (maybe) a little later on in the narrative). There is also a least one other sub-theme: the importance of trusting another person, and the difficulty of same. Mazzucchelli is able to communicate this in a way that--to bring up the point from my previous post--I can't see him being able to do with any other medium. Because of how the graphic novel works, you are able to digest all of the information--the various silent panels as well as the middle, verbalized moments--in one glance. For sure, you will pause on a single panel for a closer look, but at the same time all the rest of this information is also coming at you. A novelist wouldn't be able to do that: she would have to toggle from one scene to another as we move down the page. Here, Mazzucchelli is able collapse time, in a way: to give us a sense of these various moments making up the life of a person, at a single go. It's almost like watching a musical score, but in pictures.

Okay, that's enough of me complimenting this guy. My next post is going to be more critical.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Color and Alternate Reality in Asterios Polyp

Building on Trithemius's well-made points regarding visual design of characters is Mazzuchelli's Asterios Polyp, I'd like to focus on color. One chapter in AP is dedicated to an alternate reality, a sequence set off in a different mode through use of color. About three quarters through the book, Polyp the architect is depicted encountering a three-headed dog (an obvious Cerberus reference) in front of a subway station. After briefly petting this 20th century Cerberus (one of whose heads is a poodle head), Polyp descends into the subway station, which is flooded with water, creating a most Sygian impression. He gets off the train, then goes down again (Hades, one presumes) to encounter a vomiting woman, and then a set (chorus) of nattily dressed phantoms (including his parents, others), all emitting/exhaling breath/spirit/geist/whatever from their mouths. He interacts briefly with these phantoms, his own non-speech (depicted as vapor from his mouth) seems to assuage them enough to make them disappear, and Polyp enters a theater, where Aeschylus-ian drama (complete with masks) plays out on stage. This drama depicts a boy meets girl, they both have fun, girl falls/dies, boy sad drama. Then Hana's real-life impresario the choreographer (Willy Chimera, so-called by Polyp) comes in, to announce something to Polyp, summon Hana, and allow Polyp and Hana to depart from the underworld. Hana doesn't make it up; Polyp is left bereft.

First thing to point out here: almost the entire thing is depicted in the purple tone printmakers and comix artists have used for markups. The first thing that occurred to me here was to recall how Gary Panter used the same technique for many of his comics. The effect of the single color print here is, first, to set this chapter aside from everything else. Is it a dream? Is it the narrator (Polyp's dead twin brother) speaking to us more directly? Is it an alternate reality of some non-dream kind? There is no saying. But the color tells us this is separate from the rest of the story. Second, this color can be taken as a very specific reference to Gary Panter's depictions of hellish futurescapes. This is a dystopian purple, through reference to Panter. I could be very wrong about this.

Next post will be on references to Los Bros Hernandez in this sucker.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Poem for your day

I stole this off of Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac website. I don't claim to have any connection with the group of people being described here. I used to live in the city, but far away from this part of town. But I just love this poem.

Maybe I can justify it by saying that it is in honor of the Phils clinching the division yesterday.

Stadium Traffic
by Daniel Donaghy

You're on your way home
when a thousand cars
pour onto Broad Street:
the ball game's over.
No one's going anywhere soon.
It's mid-July: eighty and humid.
You smell like all the crappies in the Delaware,
wear the ache of dock crates in your back.
Your buddy lost two fingers tonight
to a jigsaw: boss said go home early,
stay late tomorrow night.
These people don't appreciate
what they have: time to go to ball games.
You get out among blaring horns
and hustlers hawking T-shirts,
walk the yellow lines like a tight rope,
arms out for balance,
all the way to the corner and back.
Broad Street still as a parking lot,
wound tight as a fist.
You pop the trunk, fish a beer
from your cooler, and pound it.
Back in your car, the radio's
recapping the game:
your team pulled one out
they would have blown last year.
You've blown the last year working
nights while your lady works days.
Night work means bad lighting,
and you've had enough close calls.
You've had enough overtime.
You've had enough.
Something has to give.
Somewhere in the distance a dog
is barking, a husband is coming home.

The Geometric Mr. Polyp

One of the features of Mazzucchelli’s book that has gotten a lot of play is his use of visual information to convey personality. This is especially notable with Asterios Polyp himself, who is drawn in a highly stylized, almost geometric manner: all lines and angles. Much of the time he comes across as a two-dimensional figure in comparison to the background, or to other characters. Mazzucchelli uses other visual cues as well: rather than speak in word balloons, Polyp speaks in word “boxes,” with block letters (as opposed to the more flowing lettering of almost every other character: his mother, in fact, speaks in cursive). At certain moments in the narrative Mazzucchelli heightens this contrast, such as when Polyp and his wife Hana have an argument over a composer they have just met. Then the architect literally morphs into a set of abstract forms, with a head on top and a pair of shoes on the bottom (and still holding the ever-present cigarette). As the main thematic and narrative foil, Hana (who is herself a designer: Mazzucchelli has her graduate from his alma mater) also becomes his visual negative. She is curvy and flowing, in opposition to his rigid figure, and this mirrors her more open attitude toward others and to the world. Again, Mazzucchelli heightens this during arguments, as Hana’s lines become less and less distinct: at times she looks almost like the draft of an image, rather than an actual person.

In other words, without reading any of the text, you might already begin to suspect that Asterios Polyp sees the world in a hyper-intellectualized, abstract way: that his own architectural designs, and his theories about his field, reflect a love of form, elegance, and simplicity over ornamentation and comfort. This is pretty much the case. Polyp has the modernist desire to explain the entire world, categorizing things and people into binary opposites. He likes clean lines, clear definitions that draw hard and fast distinctions between what is good and what is bad (which he thinks of more in aesthetic than moral terms). Anything that won’t fit into his system will be made to fit. His preference for theory over actual lived, brute experience is, needless to say, a source of a great deal of his problems. For example, he picks out his shoes because he loves the way they “express the essence of shoeness.” Since he doesn’t bother trying them on before he buys them, they end up giving his feet blisters. (Reminds me very much of my visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robey House in Chicago. Wright designed all the furniture to fit with his vision of the house. The long backed dining-room chairs were beautiful, and apparently torture to actually sit in. Also, the roof leaked all the time because Wright couldn't be bothered to think about where the rain-water would drain.) Word and image work together here to get the point across in a way that would not be possible in a novel.

It’s a clever way of using the qualities of the comic to highlight its own distinctiveness as a communication medium, but it’s also fairly obvious; obvious enough for readers like me--readers, that is, who are a little familiar with graphic novels and some of their conventions but not too terribly familiar with them--to cotton onto. I think that explains in part the excitement Asterios Polyp has garnered in more mainstream publications: we can see the innovation here that we might miss in works by other artists. My other point: the effect is most dramatic, therefore most impressive, with Polyp and with Hana. After this, things sorts of drop off: the minor characters look as though less thought went into their construction: they're much closer to visual caricatures.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Asterios Polyp: An experiment in blogging

For the next few weeks pravdakid and I are going to try something a little different, at least for this blog. We're both going to be blogging about the same thing, the new graphic novel Asterios Polyp. Tomorrow, I'll blog my first reactions, but today I want to introduce the novel and give a little background to it.

Asterios Polyp is written and drawn by David Mazzucchelli (I'll be misspelling that name frequently in the course of these comments, I'm sure). It has generated a fair amount of buzz both in the mainstream media (getting several different reviews in the New York Times), and in the world of comics criticism. Mazzucchelli was a name unknown to me, but apparently he's pretty famous in the comics world, since he worked with Frank Miller on some groundbreaking projects, including Daredevil and Batman: Year One. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, his work is somewhat reminiscent of another design school grad, Chris Ware, in that he clearly loves to experiment visually with comics conventions. He's been working on this thing for about ten years or so.

Briefly, the book is about an East Coast architect and academic named Asterios Polyp, whose life, at the beginning of the narrative, has taken a woeful turn. This is due in no small degree, we quickly understand, to the fact that Polyp is an asshole. When we first see the main character, he has lost his job and his wife, his apartment is a mess, and he is watching old home-made porn tapes. Then his apartment building is struck by lightning and burns up: this is the event that gets him moving. He leaves New York and takes a bus upstate. That's as far as I've gotten. More tomorrow.

(Dave, feel free to correct any mistakes I've just made here.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

An open letter to Andrew Sullivan, concerning the ongoing struggle to “see what is front of one’s face.”

Mr Sullivan:

In the fall of 2001, soon after the terrorists attacks of 9/11, you inaugurated the “Sontag Award” on your blog, The Daily Dish, as part of your journalistic battle against “decadent,” radical left-wing intellectuals, bent on destroying the United States through their ill-considered attacks on the Bush administration and their criticisms of the Iraq War. The award was named in honor of Susan Sontag, who had the temerity to suggest in the early days following the attacks that the United States was not, in fact, a blameless actor on the world stage, and that U.S. citizens needed to be more critical of the government’s response to the attacks. In the months and years that followed, you frequently dispensed the Sontag award upon those who, in your words, were guilty of “glib moral equivalence in the war on terror and visceral anti-Americanism.” (I note in passing that to argue for self-reflection and self-critique does not require that one engage in “glib moral equivalence” of any sort. A better example of the latter, I should think, would be to, say, create a label for one’s right-wing domestic opponents--something like, oh, I don’t know, like “Christianist,”--that is clearly meant to suggest a structural similarity between such people and the “Islamisists” who bombed the Trade Towers. But back to the matter at hand...)

You no longer mention the Sontag Award. Indeed, it is difficult to find any kind of evidence on your blog now there was ever any such thing. You list a “glossary” of snarky awards that you continue to promote, but they mostly refer to right-wing figures like Michelle Malkin and Hugh Hewitt. This change mirrors your own (obvious though unstated) political conversion. Now that you are a prominent supporter of a Democratic president and an opponent of the War on Terror, the danger from effete, latte-sipping, socialistic fifth-columnists is no longer quite so alarming, apparently. Instead, good Americans all need to fear knuckle-dragging, pickup driving, gun-toting Southern Baptists: moral monsters who believe neither in evolution nor gay marriage. Right-wing caricature, in short, replaces the previous left-wing caricature. Andrew Sullivan is not at war with the Susan Sontags of the world. Andrew Sullivan is at war with the Michelle Malkins of the world. Andrew Sullivan has always been at war with Michelle Malkin.

One piece of evidence remains from those early years, however. About the same time that you came up with the Sontag award, you also invented the Von Hoffmann award. This award is given out for “stunningly wrong political, social and cultural predictions.” The origin of this award is the warning by columnist Nicholas Von Hoffmann, in late fall of 2001, that the war in Afghanistan would turn into a quagmire, a claim that you found, given the early apparent success of Western troops in defeating the Taliban regime, to be self-evidently risible.

I’m sure you realize the problem. The war in Afghanistan is now almost eight years old, with no foreseeable end. Eight years is longer than the United States’ participation in both World Wars. Nicholas Von Hoffmann’s 2001 prediction was not “stunningly wrong;” it was pretty much spot-on.

Andrew, you need to get rid of the Von Hoffmann award. I suggest that you do so as soon as possible, in a similar manner to how you made the Sontag award disappear. Simply remove it from the website, and never mention it again. There is no need to apologize to Mr. Von Hoffmann, nor any admission of fault on your part. Repeat after me: the Von Hoffmann award does not exist. It has never existed.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Perpetual ferment hasn’t been bubbling much lately so I thought I’d write about my experience yesterday at an agricultural society luncheon talk. The speaker was the publisher of an agricultural trade publication, and his talk focused on bringing the brand online. It was basically an introduction to new media publishing, which was a new topic for the society membership, most of whom were men over the age of 50. Not much to report on the talk. For me, the really interesting thing about the event was the pre-talk discussion at my table: a spirited dog-pile on the slow food movement. Last month’s speaker had been a slow food advocate, and the guys at my table were still savoring their contempt for what he said and how he said it. One observed, “People tell me they respect agriculture. They don’t respect agriculture, they just like food.” They traded anecdotes about urban naïveté toward the flyover states. One mentioned a businesswoman who looked at the endless tracts of corn in Iowa and asked, incredulously, “Who is going to eat all this corn???” “Did she think it was sweet corn?” “YES!” The table rocked with genuine laughter. Apparently the slow food speaker had been savaged in the Q and A, and the men at my table revisited the best bits: “Where are you going to get all these farmers? You’d need ten million people willing to farm! Nobody wants to farm! It’s dirty. It’s unrealistic, it’s unscalable, it’s unsustainable, and it’s never going to work.” All agreed that the best Q and A zinger had been: “Have YOU ever farmed?” Unfortunately the speaker’s answer had been “no.” As my lunch companions piled on, I realized I was watching the ritual behavior of a tribe working hard to contain a threat. These were businessmen, expert in running large operations, deeply invested in industrial methods and products. These were Friends of Monsanto.

It’s not often I am physically surrounded by real live people whose views on a topic are opposite to my own habits of thought. These men weren’t total aliens to me: my maternal grandfather ran an enormous wheat operation in Nebraska, then my mother and her brother took it over for a while. I was familiar with the conservative culture of the Midwestern industrial farmer. I’d seen the producer’s exasperation with bureaucracy, the service industry, and consumer culture. My uncle, who would have turned 80 today, was working more than 1200 acres when he died; he was also a rock-ribbed Republican. My paternal grandfather, what we might call a traditional agrarian farmer, worked forty acres where I grew up, and after he died my father farmed weekends in a manner too serious to be considered a hobby but not serious enough to be a career. I’ve done a share of farmwork, for pocket money, or just for the exercise: I’ve picked tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupes, and corn. I’ve plowed, planted seedlings, turned vines, and stapled crates. But I’ve never really farmed, not like my relatives did. The men at my table were right -- farming for survival is hard, you get filthy, and at certain times of the year you have to work 18-hour days. And you run the risk of hail.

My lunch companions were certainly not dirty; they were wearing suits and talking about the stock market. At that table, they were captains of industry. Some had doctorates in agricultural science; others bred racehorses or published on bovine genetics. The day’s speaker, sitting to my left, was the CEO of a multi-media firm but he took care to establish his bona fides by mentioning his Christmas tree farm. During his presentation he cited a rising star in ag media named John Phipps. I googled Phipps, expecting to find the Sean Hannity of agribusiness, but was pleasantly surprised at his evenhanded tone (yet unsurprised at his faith in the Invisible Hand). Some of his comments on organic farming clarified what I’d witnessed yesterday. In a blog entry on industrial agriculture’s hostility to what he calls the agrarian movement, Phipps describes the market for organics, free-range eggs, and local produce, then observes,

Industrial producers like myself have been trying to write off these developments as consumer fads, but I think they are woven into the cultural shifts made possible by abundance and the differences in values of Boomers and succeeding generations. We also have struggles with a larger issue: agrarians are boldly snatching our outdated "family farm" image which we flog in the halls of Congress to attract subsidy support.The growing divide between agrarian and industrial producers no longer alarms me. In fact, heated opposition to the agrarian movement is the last thing industrial ag should be spending time on. The market is sorting this one out as we speak.

Overall, Phipps calls for a frank self-evaluation of industrial agribusiness: the work is a massive tech-intensive, scalable operation capable of high caloric yields, and the agriculturalist is a CEO and entrepreneur as well as a hands-on manager who joins the workers on the factory floor. According to Phipps, Big Ag needs to be honest with itself about what it does and who it is. In casting off romantic images of the farmer, it doesn’t hurt that Captains of Industry are fewer and farther between in our post-industrial economy, and the role is there for the taking. Agribusiness finds itself in a uniquely protected niche as the financial markets plunge: some pundits are saying the safest investments are gold and farmland. Stop worrying about the small farmers, says Phipps – trust in the market.

Though he regards the agrarian farmers with some benevolence, Phipps dishes out a spot of contempt for the agrarian consumers. Pointing out that the biggest producers of organic foods are corporations like Kraft and Coca-Cola, he argues that earthy-crunchy types see corporate ownership as a betrayal of “organic” values:

Despite complying with the rules, many food advocates are outraged at large operations providing products they imagined would come from smaller and frankly, quainter farms.The rise in the local food movement underscores this disappointment. My own feeling is it's not really about the food characteristics - it's about the desire for an attractive and pleasantly rustic rural population to grace modern life at the convenience of non-farmers.

The jabs at the slow foodies suggest a cultural divide not at the level of the market, but at the level of social reality. Like the businesswomen flying over Iowa, he thinks localvores nurture a Fisher-Price image of the traditional family farm and fail to grasp the scope of what is really necessary feed the nation and the world. They link farming with tourism. In a sense, I’m reminded of Jack Nicholson snarling “you can’t handle the truth!” At the same time, I wonder whether the highly educated and prosperous businessmen at my table still might smart a little at the image of the picturesque rube. Yet they saw the utility of invoking that image when lobbying for subsidies and tax breaks. Listening to my lunch companions slag slow food, I knew the object of their scorn was not small farmers, though they worked at transcending whatever stereotype they saw in that role, when convenient. Their real target was the urban elite who styled themselves slow food experts – who do a little gardening, read Michael Pollan, visit Lancaster County, and feel obliged to write letters to Congress or the New York Times about fixing the food system – in other words, members of MY tribe.

Today I ran into a friend who makes her living in the local food movement; I briefly described my experience and she told me the cultural divide between industrial and agrarian farmers is actually beginning to give way. I’ve run out of blogging time and I don’t have any big conclusions. Oh, and the lunch wasn't very good. The vanilla mousse tasted like fish.