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Archive for 'Book A Month Challenge'

on ‘Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal’ by Greg M. Smith

April 26, 2008

This month’s BAM Challenge is to read about beauty; the book I chose is Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal by Greg M. Smith (University of Texas Press, 2007). I had read about this book on Henry Jenkins’s blog and thought this month’s challenge gave me a good excuse to read the book.
Beautiful TV This work is unusual for television criticism in focusing on a so-called “middlebrow” series (p. 6) that is not currently being shown (and not even available on DVD in the US) — rather than one of the current ‘hip’ shows — and also in concentrating on the formal aesthetic and narrative qualities of the series instead of on its broader social or cultural significance.

The book assumes some familiarity with the show, since character names are mentioned without any background information. A list of episode titles with original air dates is included but readers are referred to tv.com for more information. I had followed the series but didn’t remember some of the minor characters when their names were brought up in the course of the book. (“Raymond Millbury”? for example.) Sometimes looking up the actor and seeing a picture would help jog my memory.

In the introduction Smith discusses his reasons for writing about Ally McBeal and his approach to television criticism. (The full text of the introduction is available at the publisher’s website.)

The first chapter looks at the use of music in the show (where I learned the term “diegetic,” referring to music that seems to come from within the story world, as opposed to “nondiegetic” or background music that the characters aren’t supposed to hear). In chapter 2, Smith focuses on the innovative use of special effects to portray the characters’ subjective states.

The book then shifts to examining narrative and argument, first looking in chapter 3 at the network of supporting characters and how they function “as thematic variations on Ally herself” (p. 74). In chapter 4, the use of guest stars is analyzed, showing how “eccentricity” is employed as a stand-in for the more controversial concept of “difference.”

Chapter 5 is concerned with the overall argument of the series, which is focused on the subject of sexual harassment. The law firm of Cage and Fish specializes in sexual harassment cases, allowing the series to examine the role of the courts, while also looking at gender relations in the workplace and in the characters’ personal lives.

According to Smith (p. 191),

Ally argues that the law can be a blunt, unpredictable instrument when it is asked to alter mindsets. Attitudes such as tolerance and respect cannot be legislated, Ally McBeal asserts; they must be changed through the gradual process of debate.

The author discusses his use of the word ‘beauty’ in the afterword (p. 197):

The concept of beauty that emerges from this book is a fairly old-fashioned one: a cohesive system in which elegant, innovative formal technique serves to convey a unified, complex argument suitable for moral and ethical insight. … In arguing for the art and argument of a quite silly (and often annoying) television series, I want to reclaim our ability to talk openly, unashamedly, unironically, and rigorously about television as a beautiful object.

Beautiful TV is reminiscent of Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson, which argued for the increasing cognitive complexity of television. Shows that develop over many seasons can become quite epic in scope, sometimes adding up to more than a hundred hours of programming (111 episodes are listed for Ally McBeal), although the effect is somewhat diluted by the week’s gap between episodes. With the increasing availability of DVDs and on demand programming, and the efforts of critics such as Smith, perhaps television’s beauty will come to be more widely appreciated.

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‘Garcia’s Heart’ – neuroeconomics & war crimes (Book a Month Challenge)

February 12, 2008

Garcia’s Heart, a first novel by neurologist Liam Durcan, dealsGarcia’s Heart with issues of medical ethics, memory, and the difficulty of knowing another person’s mind and heart. The narrator is a neurologist attending the war crimes trial of his former mentor, Hernan García. The accused refuses to speak, thus leaving it up to the narrator to sift through his own memories, trying to reconcile his image of the man who had inspired him to study medicine with the actions attributed to him. In the process, the narrator also examines his own life and the choices that led him to apply neuroscience to market research on behalf of a large corporation.

García is a cardiologist and the narrator is a neurologist, so there is some heart vs brain contrast between the two characters; plus the physical heart plays a pivotal role in the plot, making this an appropriate selection for the
“Book A Month Challenge” theme “the heart.”

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February theme for Book a Month Challenge is the heart

February 1, 2008

Garcia’s HeartI saw that the February theme for the Book a Month Challenge is the heart (romance, love, courage, the physical heart, etc.)

This might be an excuse — or better an occasion — to read Garcia’s Heart, which I’d noted earlier as an example of ‘neurofiction.’

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review of ‘A Watched Pot: How We Experience Time’ (Book A Month Challenge)

January 19, 2008

A Watched PotA book about time for the January Book A Month Challenge:

A Watched Pot: How We Experience Time by Michael G. Flaherty (New York University Press, 1999)

Flaherty explores variations in the perceived passage of time from a social psychological perspective, seeking to account for three paradoxical aspects and three elementary forms of time experience. The paradoxes are (1) that time seems to pass slowly in periods that are either unusually busy or unusually empty of activity; (2) the same period can be experienced as a long time while it is happening, but a short time when it is recollected, (3) some busy periods seem to pass slowly while others seem to pass quickly. The three elementary forms of variation in time perception are protracted duration, temporal compression, and synchronicity (experience synchronized with clock time).

Protracted duration is experienced in situations involving suffering or other intense emotions, violence or danger, waiting and boredom, altered states, concentration and meditation, or shock and novelty.

Flaherty arrives at the concept of “intensity of conscious information processing” to account for the variations in experience of time, so that protracted duration is associated with high density of conscious information processing; synchronicity is experienced when the density of conscious information processing is moderate; and temporal compression is correlated with low density of conscious information processing. (p. 113)

The author started out collecting examples of protracted duration, then developed a theory to account for the variations, which he then applied to cases of temporal compression. In the conclusion, cross-cultural issues are considered, as well as the possibility of deliberate “time work” — manipulation of temporal experience as a form of creativity or self-actualization.

The book was fairly interesting but did not give me much in the way of new ideas or concepts to apply to my experience of time, as I was hoping for. Lumping time perception into three broad categories might have obscured some of the more unusual aspects of temporal experience. [Next morning's thought - Can I change the intensity of my conscious processing to slow down or speed up perceived time?]

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more books on time

January 5, 2008

I still haven’t quite settled on a book for the first Book A Month Challenge (“read a book about time”). I came across this list, a few years old but covering a lot of different genres: C.S. Lewis Summer Institute’s Bibliography for Time and Eternity. From that list, I thought this title sounded interesting: A Watched Pot: How We Experience Time by Michael Flaherty.A Watched Pot

Also J.T. Fraser has written a lot of books about time (link to books by J.T. Fraser)

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