Friday, September 26, 2014

The Problem With Problems

aaaaaaaProblemProblemProblemProblemProblemProblemProblemProblemProblemProblem. Problem!!!!!!!

The word "problematic" is a firehose for—what, exactly? I know it's loud and sprays everywhere, but I can't locate its target. It is common knowledge in certain corners of the internet that "problematic" is codependent with the think piece, that short, poorly researched form of essay that exists to criticize recent cultural phenomena on usually disingenuous political or moral grounds.

Fifty years ago, "problematic" was modest, mousy and rare, maybe akin to "thole" or "vellicate"—nice for a dinner party, but far from a buzzword. Today, you can't go online without bumping into a "problematic" or two: "Hip-hop videos featuring bling and babes" are "problematic"; "The Promising…Future of Ultra-Fast Internet" is problematic; "psychological process—which underpins racism, extreme nationalism, and prejudice of all sorts" is problematic; "resolutions, as Oscar Wilde knew," are problematic; "videogames" are problematic; Miley, Katy, and Iggy (not Pop) are problematic. In the academe, "the modern Chinese self…caught between tradition and modernity" is problematic, as are the "Fictions of Poe, James and Hawthorne" and "Ordering in French Renaissance Literature."

Although vacuous, "problematic" has become shorthand for self-serious identity politics for several reasons, starting with its historically mechanical and apolitical connotations. To borrow a tagline from another failed experiment in seriousness, let's Look Closer.

Imported from France some time around 1600, earlier iterations of "problematic" favor the word's mechanical usage. From a review in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions in 1686, for example, you will find the statement, "I have inquired into Dr Papins [sic] problematic engine for raising water." Or The British Cyclopaedia of the Arts and Sciences(1838), "Whether steam artillery will ever be employed for land warfare is somewhat problematic, as the weight of a steam gun is such as to preclude any degree of rapid locomotion…" It was also political back then, but not to the point of satire, as it is today. Here is the word's older political usage, from the New York Times in 1854: "The axiom, that good may come from evil, may be true in some respects, but this good result is by far too problematic and uncertain to give any one the right to count on the life-blood, tears and sufferings of thousands as an invested fund of martyrdom…"

The word remained unpopular in English until 1960, when its ngram begins to resemble a hockey stick. There are at least four interrelated traditions responsible for the morphing of "problematic" from throwaway to political buzzword in the late-middle twentieth century: 1) the emergence of identity politics beginning in 1968, 2) the rise of the think piece in the nineteen seventies, with a second, ongoing spike that began around 2006, 3) the development of post-structuralism in the seventies, and 4) changes in syntactical patterns of academic English around the turn of the century.

One reason "problematic" lends itself so well to identity politics (and therefore, the think piece and certain flavors of post-structuralism) is because even before "problematic" became overwhelmingly political, many uses of "problematic" alluded to difficulty in representation. The Oxford English Dictionary motions to, but does not outright state this, with its parsing of "problematic" as "difficult to decide."

Take, for example, this early use of "problematic" in The London Intelligencer, on Signior Dominica, former Valet de Chambre to King James II:

His Religion was very Problematical, for sometimes he discursed like a Roman Catholick, sometimes like a Protestant, at others he shewd such Respect for Rabbinical Learning, as might have created a Suspicion of his being a Jew; but then he was deeply read in the Koran, and might as well have been taken for a Mahometan. (1-3 October 1751)

Same goes for this entry on Napoleon's army, from The London Sun, 7 July 1800:

All that the Paris Papers state to have been brought by the Chief Consul, is the Ratification of the Armistice. Even this appears to us more than problematical, for, if it had been true, it cannot be doubted that BONAPARTE would have mentioned the fact among the numerous speeches which the Paris Journalists ascribe to him, who appear greedily to collect all his conversation, we know not, in fact, whether with a view to excite our admiration or our ridicule.

Not only are both entries about difficulty in detection, but both are about representation in classically conceived mediums—in the first example, religion as mediated through speech; the second, the details of an armistice as represented in Napoleon's oration and press.



I Would Have No Pubes If I Were Truly In Love

This I know
This I am sure of
the only non-white person at the poetry reading
was totally related to me
I don’t call anything a dream
your primeval stink really gets me
I think fucking is P in V but later
my mom tells me there’s more READ MORE


My Beautiful Dark Tinder Fantasy

You go on Tinder while aboard a ferry and you match with the ferry captain.

You go on Tinder when it’s just you and a beautiful woman in an American Apparel dress in an elevator and she’s on her phone too and you match and you push her up against the wall and start making out without exchanging so much as a word.

You go on Tinder right before surgery and you match with the anesthesiologist. READ MORE


Thrashin' Fashion: Baring All

After London comes Milan, and while a lot of the bigwigs show there (Prada! Versace! Gucci!), it can generally feel like a snoozefest. Milan is known as the city of glamour and excess, I guess, and if you looked through the collections you certainly noticed. But glamour and excess can be boring when they're all the same. And anyway, it seems that glamour and excess have come to mean an exposed nipple, which, if you are Rihanna or take your fashion cues from her, you would be very excited about. READ MORE


This Is Not A Mitford Eulogy

wait-for-meYesterday, the last surviving Mitford sister, Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire passed away at the age of 94. If you don’t know who the Mitfords are, ALLOW ME TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE (or, let Nicole change your life with this primer circa three years ago).

I have a problem, and I’m sure I’m the only person in the universe with said problem (I’m not like most girls) of mythologizing historical figures, no matter how recent the history. The Mitfords were fascinating, they were larger than life, and each one in their own way. It's easy to strip away biographical complexities and focus only on their most obvious trait, profession, or ideology, casting them into role of kooky characters or personalities, like very fancy Spice Girls (Are you a Debo or a Decca?).

But, of course, these were women who were entwined with history—who were history—with at least two of them holding troubling (understatement) political views so entwined with the Mitford saga and their archetypes. There’s a reason why there never was a Fascist Spice. READ MORE


Derek Jeter Saved My Family

My dad is a huge Yankee fan. In order to understand this, you need to know that my dad is the kind of person who picks a few things to really like and then he likes them obsessively. My dad likes three things more than anything else in the world: Datsun Z Cars, old episodes of Superman and Star Trek, and the New York Yankees. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball history; you can see the joy on his face when he talks about his team.

So when I was a kid, whether I wanted to or not, I was going to know baseball. I learned how to keep a boxscore, I learned how to listen to games on the radio. My earliest memories are of my brother’s Don Mattingly posters and hearing announcer John Sterling remind us that a home run was "high, far and gone." READ MORE

Need an Action Figure of a Dead Loved One? Meet Jeff Staab

Can’t Take It With You #4: Jeff Staab, Proprietor of Cremation Solutions

When it comes to grief, what’s meaningful and what’s creepy is often a matter of largely unpredictable personal preference. I recently came across a website selling 12-inch poseable action figures that are customizable to resemble a dead loved one, whose ashes you can also get sealed inside. After an initial reaction that was something along the lines of "oh HELL no" and a swift x-ing out of the browser window, a minute later I found myself back on the page, scrolling through all of the options: "Trendy Male," "Casual Female," "Male Grey Suit," "Nice Nurse," "Karate Male/Female."

I can’t imagine a scenario in which I’d be capable of drawing comfort from the depths of the uncanny valley, but grief has a way of imbuing the strangest things with healing powers. Somewhere, at some point, someone has taken great solace in one of these eerie flat faces—and it’s entirely possible that one day some unrecognizable future version of myself will, too. Or maybe it will be a Cremation Crystal Companion or a custom portrait with cremains pressed into the glass or a life-sized human head custom made in the likeness of my dear departed whoever.

These things are all available for purchase from Cremation Solutions, an online store run by former funeral director Jeff Staab. Like Sarah Wambold, who you met in Can’t Take It With You #1, Staab is a funeral industry ex-pat who’s trying to forge a saner path through the wilds of death and mourning in America. It all started with Staab’s invention, a few years ago, of an urn that converts into a memorial birdhouse once the ashes are scattered; since then, he’s written widely about cremation and ash-scattering best practices on his blog, and recently began working with certified celebrants to offer personalized funeral-writing services. The goal, generally, is to find a middle path between the stuffy, expensive world of funeral homes andthe chaos of a haphazardly dumped Folgers can.

By way of this interview with Staab, I’m happy to welcome Can’t Take It With You back from an accidental summer vacation (uh, YOLO?). Are you someone whose life or work intersects with death and money in an interesting way? I’d love to hear from you.

So once I saw those poseable action figures I was like, "I need to talk to the person behind this."

Yep, that's a new thing I'm doing. I actually just sold one yesterday—Superman. Someone was getting their dad as Superman.


Was that the first one you'd sold?

Oh, no. It's the big heads I don't sell very much of. They get written about a lot, but I hardly sell any. They’re really expensive and they creep people out. They’re too real-looking, really. They look just like the person. As good as the photograph you give us—that's as real as they look. READ MORE


Smells Like Teen Spirit

I've had a theory for awhile that the greatest American fashion designers must, as a rule, be born and raised outside of the United States. I don't mean "greatest" in terms of actual greatness, because that is subjective, and I'm not going to argue about whether Alexander Wang is more indicative of American fashion than Tory Burch because that's a losing game. I mean greatness in terms of which fashion designers can adequately sum up "America!" as a concept in their seasonal assortment. READ MORE


Ask Baba Yaga: What Is Missing?

Baba Hole
Transcript after the jump. READ MORE


10 Hot Similes For Your Romance Novel

romance Want to make as much money from writing as successful and wealthy authors E.L. James and Danielle Steel? Looking to turn a new generation of readers on...to reading? Just very horny and need to get it onto the page before you explode? Consider, my friends, the romance novel.

One of the most popular genres on the planet, the title for your romance novel is the easiest part, and will provide you a premise upon which to build the rest of your work. Consider "The [Occupational Noun]'s [Adjective] [Noun]," as in The Prince's Saucy Wench, The Doctor's Sexy Briefcase, or The Duchess' Naughty Dubloons.

Plot is up to you, and I'm afraid that's the toughest bit. But to help you on your way to the good stuff (someone's shirt should be getting ripped roughly every 2-3 pages or you're doing it wrong), here are some sexxxxxy similes to pepper throughout your work. READ MORE


On a Mission to Solve America’s #GirlProblems

Brought to you by Garnier Fructis.

Women know that there are real problems and then there are #GirlProblems. Those relatable and hilariously true problems women talk about everyday on social media: the pain of having a million hair ties until you actually need one, coming to terms with your new nail polish color, and the struggles of going to the bathroom in a romper. #GirlProblems are definitively a girl thing.

Through the “One Less Girl Problem” campaign, Garnier Fructis Sleek & Shine is on a mission to solve America's #GirlProblems... well the hair ones anyway.

The campaign celebrates the funniest #GirlProblems lighting up our collective social media feeds. And Garnier solves and responds to the #GirlProblems that relate to hair and frizz through humorous how-to instructional videos and other content.

To kick things off, Garnier released a video featuring some of the most universal #GirlProblems as read by an audience that will likely never relate — average guys. Comedians like Judah Friedlander and Sandeep Parikh join in the festivities. Tune in to the conversation OneLessGirlProblem.com

Garnier Fructis Sleek & Shine is the #1 smoothing brand in the U.S. All of its products—shampoo, conditioner, and treatments—are aimed at delivering smooth hair, and promoting long-lasting frizz control and shine.


The Best Time I Was Almost an Actress

I was obsessed with movies and television as a child. So obsessed that I’d spend hours quoting dialogue, singing Wizard of Oz songs, trying to force a British accent (alone), all while telling myself—in the A&E Biography narrator’s voice—that I was the next Judy Garland.

Actually, I liked to tell myself that Harrison Ford or Tommy Lee Jones—who would obviously eventually come to see me as a daughter —would stumble upon me during one of my Broadway renditions and pluck me from my boring suburban life, casting me in every movie they signed on for.

The A&E Biography episode went a little something like this:

“And when Harrison Ford found himself on the mean streets of Cambridge, Ontario,” the narrator would say, “and he heard the sweet notes of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ he knew he had found the next Judy Garland.”

I have no idea why either actor would be in Ontario, or why out of every child actor they’d compare me to Judy Garland, but this meet cute was merely an indicator of my delusions of grandeur —delusions necessary in sustaining any career in the arts, but especially in fueling a burgeoning acting career. Which is why, ten years later, when I asked for an agent, my parents said told me I could spread my wings and fly. READ MORE

Live Sketches from the Big Climate March


march_1 READ MORE


So No One Told You Life Was Going To Be This Way

9:51 a.m. As I approach the couch, its guardian tells me to put my coffee down. Because it’s the real couch from the show.

Rembert Browne went to the Friends pop-up museum/coffee shop/gift shop in Soho so that we don't have to. Thank you for being a friend, Rembert.

Inside 'Marry Me,' 'Hotwives,' and 'Drunk History' with Tymberlee Hill

tymberleehillHaving to transition from being an eccentric sitcom neighbor to a reality show housewife to any number of historical figures as filtered by intoxicated comedians would normally make for a serious case of mental whiplash, but it’s no issue for the incredibly talented and incredibly funny Tymberlee Hill. The Virginia Beach native began her career as a classically trained stage actress before making the completely accidental switch to comedy after her move to LA. A few chance performances at UCB have since led to roles as the insanely entrepreneurial Phe Phe on the Hulu exclusive The Hotwives of Orlando, as a frequent player on Comedy Central’s Drunk History, and as Casey Wilson and Ken Marino’s crazy friend on the upcoming NBC sitcom Marry Me from Happy Endings creator David Caspe.

I recently had the chance to talk to Tymberlee about her work in one of her busiest years yet, her Broadway aspirations, and why we should all be excited for next month’s premiere of Marry Me.

So, how are you? What’s going on?

Oh my gosh, well, I think everything is going on! We’ve got the show up and running. We’re shooting it non-stop. That’s what’s happening! Marry Me non-stop.

Well, in your Twitter profile you describe yourself as “the hardest working brown in the biz,” and that seems especially true of you this past year. Has it been a particularly crazy time in your career?

It has! It’s been nuts, that sort of all of a sudden, y’know... We started with Hotwives around November of last year and then we had reshoots into the new year, into 2014, which coincided with me shooting Drunk History, which coincided with me shooting Marry Me. So at one point, for like a week in March, I was shooting all three of them. READ MORE