Laughing is so contagious that we often forget how subjective humor is.
- People have very subjective senses of humor, which means some jokes may be funny to certain people but not at all for others.
- It can be hard to notice just how subject humor is because laughter has an infectious effect on people. This phenomenon is especially true in large groups of people.
- When it comes to reviewing what jokes to put into a show, test it on friends and family to see which parts evoke laughs from them and which parts don't.
The Zen of choreographer Merce Cunningham comes alive in a new documentary about his life.
- In Cunningham, director Alla Kovgan brings the avant-garde dancer to life.
- Merce Cunningham's seven-decade career left behind some of the most important modern dances in the twentieth century.
- In this interview with Big Think, Kovgan discusses how she approached the film while sharing Cunningham's ideas about success.
A good friend of mine loathes Instagram. He disdains the posturing, the attitude, the constant drive for an illusion of success. During a recent conversation, he championed the humility displayed on TikTok. While I don't believe Instagram is all ego—educational feeds like Squat University and reality checks like Nature is Metal make the app worthwhile—I understood his larger point: TikTok actually feels like social media while Instagram is used more like a pedestal.
Not that TikTok users don't care about success—they are human and humans are prone to crave acceptance, thumbs up, hearts, or by any other medium. There are plenty of views and likes on TikTok to get caught up in.
How we measure success, however, is an individual matter. For one author that means selling 100,000 books; for another, the mere completion of a text is enough. Some artists cater by writing on topics that have already proven to be big sellers while others break boundaries. If people want to come along for the ride, so be it.
The avant-garde choreographer, Merce Cummingham, was in the latter camp, says filmmaker Alla Kovgan, who directed the new documentary, Cunningham. Rather than require perfection, Cunningham allowed his dancers to experiment and, importantly, fail on stage. It is only by pushing the boundaries of what's possible that you learn. Cunningham was focused on the process. He created dances, Kovgan says, and allowed audiences to find him.
Beginning in 1944, Cunningham began producing dance works while his lifelong romantic partner, John Cage, supplied music. Fusing movement and music with the latest technological means, Cunningham's long career has left behind an incredibly rich legacy.
That's what Kovgan set out to capture when she began working on the documentary in 2011. The Moscow-born, award-winning director of "Nora" was taken by how Cunningham used space and time in his works. Capturing that on film was a challenge given how big (in terms of actual movement) every production was, yet the film beautifully captures the essence of this legendary dancer's contribution to the art. Even if you've never heard of Cunningham, you'll be taken by Kovgan's exceptional storytelling.
Cunningham - Official Trailer
Derek: What made you want to feature Merce Cunningham's work?
Alla: I never wanted to make a movie about Merce Cunningham. He's the kind of choreographer where you have 16 people going in different directions and you cannot make a single shot. I first learned about his work through cinema because I watched a 1965 piece he made. It was very interesting because it had multiple screens, dances, and a lot of electronic music and a lot of feedback loops. And I was like, "Oh my God, who is this person?"
I thought making a film about him would be impossible, but then 3D came out in a new way. I felt like there was a potential between 3D and dance. It all coincided with the closure of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. It was in 2011 and the company shut down on December 31. I remember going to the last performance and it struck me that 3D and Merce can make a good fit. 3D works really well with space and Merce was very much concerned with working in space.
Derek: There is a lot of archival footage, with him being interested in technology throughout his career. You do a lot of work with split screens and the layering of film. Was that an artistic decision?
Alla: I was particularly struck by the period between 1942 and 1972—that was the celluloid era. People shot eight-millimeter, 16-millimeter, and 35-millimeter footage. I was impressed how much there was—not only footage but also photographs. Seventy photographers photographed Merce between '42 and '72. This is because he just said yes to things. He was obsessed with being captured and preserved.
When we got to make the movie, one of the biggest challenges was bringing the material that we shot today in 3D together with the archival material. We were thinking that the archival material should not be just single shots, it should be a collage of elements in space. Although the materials would stay in 2D, they're all placed in different planes. Each kind of archival moment is more like a three-dimensional block that's filled in with elements. Imagine how much more work it was to actually arrange and choreograph and choose those elements within the space.
Photo by Martin Misere / Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Derek: Besides ballet, what other styles influenced Merce?
Alla: I'm not a Merce expert, but he took ballet and modern dance and tried to make a new dancer. Of course, he did a lot of yoga, and he has seen a lot of different dances, from Native American to Indian. He danced with Martha Graham for some time and she was a big influence. He developed a technique to not only be influenced by different styles and distill things for himself, but he also had to create a system that would train the bodies of the dancers. That's a tall order.
Derek: How much freedom did the dancers have within his instruction to express themselves?
Alla: All the freedom they could have. He wanted them to do the movement, and then, at least in my impression, is that he was quite open. He was quite interested in our flaws as dancers. Of course, things would change, depending on who was doing it. He was looking for individuals. They were not just realizing his vision, they were manifesting their personality through his work. It was a very stable company. People stuck around, sometimes for decades, which is a long time within the contemporary dance world. It wasn't easy; you had to accept not knowing and have a sense of uncertainty. But if you think about it, are we really certain about anything?
Derek: I try not to be certain about anything.
Derek: What struck you most about Merce's work during the period you cover in the film?
Alla: There was a kind of spirit that we're missing, or maybe it's only possible when you're young, and maybe it's only possible in some period and place. New York was definitely that place where everything was possible. You could actually have a loft with $20 a month and you could just to get together and do things because you just wanted to do them and be kind of poor. It was very romantic in a way. At the same time, I was incredibly struck by Merce's humanity and perseverance. He didn't have anything. He didn't have audience support, money, press, nothing. He persevered for two to three decades in that condition. His success comes when he's 45 years old.
John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg.
Photo by Douglas Jeffrey / Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Derek: How did his dancers and friends feel about him as a human and as an artist?
Alla: He influenced them incredibly. There were two different generations. The dancers who knew him in the early years experienced his pain. The dancers who knew him later knew him as this generous old man who was kind and loving. It was interesting in comparison to the dancers who were there back in the fifties, but both generations revere him and were inspired by him.
Derek: Speaking of pain, there were moments in your film that reminded of the dancer, Sergei Polunin, trying to evolve a dance form but getting stuck by convention in the process. How did Merce feel when audiences didn't take to him? There was a moment in the film where they talked about having tomatoes thrown at them at the end of a performance.
Alla: The reason he survived is because he had friends, and the number of those friends grew over years. Merce created dances and then waited for people to be able to see them. It took a while for people to understand what he was doing, and to understand you have to have a background. The reason Europeans got into this is because they have backgrounds; they take their kids to see modern dance since the age of five.
Because Merce had this community and friends, he always felt supported. That's one thing. But criticism was also part of the deal. He accepted what that was. He was not oriented for this kind of success, because everything now is measured by success. He was willing to take a risk. He was willing to gamble. He was willing to not be successful because when you work like that, when you have a choreographer making choreography, musicians making music, and visual artists making things, and they meet at the premiere, what is the calculated success?
They would always say sometimes things worked and sometimes they didn't, and they were willing to accept those times when things didn't work. You also have allow situations where things don't work. It affects you dramatically.
"I share this honor with ancestors and teachers who inspired in me a love of poetry," the 68-year-old poet said.
J. Vespa / Contributor
- Joy Harjo is a poet, author and musician, and is an active member of the Muscogee Nation.
- Poet laureates are charged with overseeing poetry readings at the Library of Congress, and with promoting poetry to the nation.
- Harjo succeeds poet and educator Tracy K. Smith.
The Library of Congress has named Joy Hargo as the United States' 23rd Poet Laureate for 2019-2020. Harjo – a poet, author, musician and member of the Muscogee Nation – is the first Native American to hold the title.
"Joy Harjo has championed the art of poetry—'soul talk' as she calls it—for over four decades," Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said in a release. "To her, poems are 'carriers of dreams, knowledge and wisdom,' and through them she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth-making."
Harjo, 68, began writing as a college student, during "the beginning of a multicultural literary movement" that made her realize poetry was available to everyone, she told The New York Times. "It became a way to speak about especially Native women's experiences at a time of great social change."
Since, she's written more than eight books of poetry, a memoir and two childrens' books.
Watch & listen to poet & musician Joy Harjo discuss the importance of poetry, her Native American heritage & her ne… https://t.co/w8sOMgZSeO— Library of Congress (@Library of Congress)1560970801.0
"What a tremendous honor it is to be named the U.S. poet laureate," Harjo said in a Library of Congress press release. "I share this honor with ancestors and teachers who inspired in me a love of poetry, who taught that words are powerful and can make change when understanding appears impossible, and how time and timelessness can live together within a poem. I count among these ancestors and teachers my Muscogee Creek people, the librarians who opened so many doors for all of us and the original poets of the indigenous tribal nations of these lands, who were joined by diverse peoples from nations all over the world to make this country and this country's poetry."
Harjo's poems often touch on nature, womanhood, definitions of self, fear, grief, generations, spirituality and Native American culture.
"My poems are about confronting the kind of society that would diminish Native people, disappear us from the story of this country," she told the Times.
In poetry performances, Harjo is known for singing and inflecting her voice, giving her a uniquely musical style. Outside of poetry, Harjo has toured with the bands Poetic Justice and Arrow Dynamics, and she's released five albums of original and award-winning music, on which she sings and plays the saxophone.
Harjo told the Times she's "still in a little bit of shock," and doesn't yet know what she'll focus on during her time as poet laureate – appointees are asked to oversee poetry readings at the Library of Congress and promote the art to the country.
Harjo said poetry has the power to connect people together.
"Just as when I started writing poetry, we're at a very crucial time in American history and in planetary history," Harjo told the Times. "Poetry is a way to bridge, to make bridges from one country to another, one person to another, one time to another."
Here's one of her poems, entitled "Grace".
I think of Wind and her wild ways the year we had nothing to lose and lost it anyway in the cursed country of the fox. We still talk about that winter, how the cold froze imaginary buffalo on the stuffed horizon of snowbanks. The haunting voices of the starved and mutilated broke fences, crashed our thermostat dreams, and we couldn't stand it one more time. So once again we lost a winter in stubborn memory, walked through cheap apartment walls, skated through fields of ghosts into a town that never wanted us, in the epic search for grace.
Like Coyote, like Rabbit, we could not contain our terror and clowned our way through a season of false midnights. We had to swallow that town with laughter, so it would go down easy as honey. And one morning as the sun struggled to break ice, and our dreams had found us with coffee and pancakes in a truck stop along Highway 80, we found grace.
I could say grace was a woman with time on her hands, or a white buffalo escaped from memory. But in that dingy light it was a promise of balance. We once again understood the talk of animals, and spring was lean and hungry with the hope of children and corn.
I would like to say, with grace, we picked ourselves up and walked into the spring thaw. We didn't; the next season was worse. You went home to Leech Lake to work with the tribe and I went south. And, Wind, I am still crazy. I know there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it.
What an academic sting on humanities journals really means to the rest of us. And to academia.
- Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian
- A trio of academics have just admitted to writing nonsense articles and getting several of them published in scholarly journals.
- The articles were created to have phony data, absurd arguments, and conclusions that the journals' review boards would accept.
- It raises questions about academic rigor in some journals, but claims that this debunks entire branches of the humanities are unfounded.
If you've been reading the papers lately, you might have heard about a group of academics who have just fessed up to having written fake scholarly articles with obviously absurd subject matter and getting them published in journals of dubious quality. The phony articles included several papers consisting of lines of Mein Kampf with modern jargon thrown in, an essay celebrating morbid obesity as a healthy life-choice, and a study of table conversations at Hooters restaurants in an attempt to understand why some people like eating there among other fashionable nonsense.
Of their 20 faux articles, seven had been accepted with four already published and three being reviewed when the authors had to step in and announce that they had been conning the journals as the result of some journalists getting close to the truth. A great debate is already raging on what their stunt proves and if they are to be commended or shunned for it. It is a debate we've had before.
The strange history of academic stings
This kind of thing isn't new. Purposefully ridiculous articles are often submitted to journals and conferences with questionable standards or a pay to play system to demonstrate these poor practices to the world. Some of the more amusing examples include a paper rated excellent by a vanity press journal that consisted of a single, strongly worded sentence repeated again and again and one that alleged the social construct of the male reproductive system is a "driver behind much of climate change."
In a similar vein, many diploma mills have been exposed by having animals apply to them with semi-accurate resumes and being granted degrees. Several dogs and cats in the United States currently hold degrees as a result of these stings.
The Sokal Affair, the mother of all stings.
The French postmodernist Jacques Derrida as he appeared in 1982. He was drawn into the Sokal affair and criticized the whole thing as a distraction form real debate.
(JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images)
The most famous of these stings was carried out by physicist Alan Sokal on the publication Social Text in 1996. His article Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity is a fantastic hodgepodge of jargon, quotes from postmodernist thinkers, and nonsense lines such as "It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ``reality'', no less than social ``reality'', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct."
Dr. Sokal was motivated by the so called science wars between some postmodern thinkers and scientific realists about the nature of science. He hoped to demonstrate by the article's acceptance that some journals would publish utter nonsense so long as it agreed with them.
When the article was published, he immediately revealed the hoax. Most of the criticism towards his actions seemed to ignore the fact that a publication had gone ahead and given a platform to a man arguing that physical reality was a social construct and focused on him being mean-spirited, which Dr. Sokal himself pointed out in a follow-up.
Dr. Sokal and Belgian philosopher Jean Bricmont later did write a more academic response to what they saw as a tendency of postmodern journals to misunderstand science but publish articles with conclusions they supported anyway.
Their book, Fashionable Nonsense, has the same spirit as the hoax article, but approaches the subject by analytically looking at statements like "The attribution of tuberculosis and Koch's bacillus to Ramses II should strike us as an anachronism of the same caliber as if we had diagnosed his death as having been caused by a Marxist upheaval…"
What do these stings tell us?
While some more sensationalist writers would suggest that the Sokal affair kills off postmodernism or that this new sting signals the end of gender studies as a legitimate academic subject, these are wildly unsupported claims. Dr. Sokal himself explained that his example is often portrayed as saying much more than it does. He wrote in a follow-up article:
From the mere fact of publication of my parody I think that not much can be deduced. It doesn't prove that the whole field of cultural studies, or cultural studies of science -- much less sociology of science -- is nonsense. Nor does it prove that the intellectual standards in these fields are generally lax. (This might be the case, but it would have to be established on other grounds.) It proves only that the editors of one rather marginal journal were derelict in their intellectual duty, by publishing an article on quantum physics that they admit they could not understand, without bothering to get an opinion from anyone knowledgeable in quantum physics, solely because it came from a ``conveniently credentialed ally'' (as Social Text co-editor Bruce Robbins later candidly admitted), flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions, and attacked their ``enemies''.
Likewise, in the recent string of hoax papers, only one or two of the journals that were duped were publications of note that anybody seems to read. While this is still problematic, the pranksters explain if they were trying to publish enough papers to try and get tenure they would have succeeded; it hardly means that there are entire academic fields were anything that adheres to the proper talking points will get published. That would require a much larger and more rigorous experiment than this.
The authors themselves understand this, saying in their explanation of the hoax:
We managed to get seven shoddy, absurd, unethical and politically-biased papers into respectable journals in the fields of grievance studies. Does this show that academia is corrupt? Absolutely not. Does it show that all scholars and reviewers in humanities fields which study gender, race, sexuality and weight are corrupt? No. To claim either of those things would be to both overstate the significance of this project and miss its point. Some people will do this, and we would ask them not to.
They remind us, however:
This does show that there is something to be concerned about within certain fields within the humanities which are encouraging of this kind of "scholarship." We shouldn't have been able to get any papers this terrible published in reputable journals, let alone seven.
The authors also admitted that the journals they targeted would not publish obvious hoaxes and a fair amount of work had to be put into creating fake articles that would slide past the radar. Despite their work, six of their papers were rejected outright.
Why did they do this?
Co-author Helen Pluckrose explained the motivations of the trio when she said:
"It is worth mentioning that all three of us are left-leaning liberals who think rigorous scholarship in the areas of gender, race and sexuality is important. We see the type of scholarship we have been exploring as a hindrance to obtaining genuine knowledge by which to achieve social progress,"
There were hoping to hold academia to high standards, and showed that a few bad apples weren't keeping those standards. They weren't out to troll people.They were just trying to reveal a problem in some journals' methods.
As long as there are journals with less than ideal standards and pay to play operations, there will be writers with a sense of humor exposing them with hoax articles. While it might not be the most polished way to bring such issues to light, it did get you to read about the problem and launched a discussion.
All of the hoax papers can be found on this public access drive created by the authors.