Tag Archives: culture

The Difficulty of Difficult Media

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

(Thanks to Serdar, who inspired me with this column.)

I often hear the word “Difficult” used to describe media with praise. The “difficult” film that supposedly makes you a film buff if you understand it. “Difficult” is apparently a good thing, and I see no reason to believe this.

If a book or movie is “difficult” to understand, is that a testimony to its depth? There’s no reason to assume that it’s any good – maybe it’s incoherent or bad. Perhaps the creator didn’t know how to communicate. A difficult movie isn’t necessarily a mental obstacle course that strengthens you, but just a pointless labyrinth.

Yes, some media is “difficult,” and yes, it takes intellectual fortitude to understand it. I evaluate such media on a case-by-case basis because “difficult” even when properly used doesn’t communicate depth. A clever mystery isn’t the same as a symbolism-packed journey.

I think people love to praise “difficult” media because it says I am smart enough to understand this and you’re not. Claiming something is “difficult” for too many is a way to praise themselves. It’s a way to use a single word to claim one’s intellectual superiority that you “got” it.

I’m always wary of simplistic descriptions such as “difficult.” They quickly become shorthand whose meaning is lost or ignore important distinctions. One word can get in the way of the real experience of a piece of media or a person.

Steven Savage

A Firm Foundation of The Unknown

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Serdar’s recent blog post on the importance of skepticism and “not being sure” struck a chord in me. We need skepticism, yet we don’t leverage it and work against it – until our lack of skepticism creates a disaster. As he notes

“There ought to be room for the development of a whole sub-discipline of public relations that uses what we know about behavior on a mass scale to constructively leverage doubt. We have thus far used fear and greed and delusion, but we’re not stupid; we can use compassion and generosity and insight if we choose to.”

Later, he wonders if this can be explored in fiction. I have, to an extent, and had an insight I wanted to share.

My Avenoth novels take place in a techno-fantasy world that survived a devastating war. In turn, this setting was based on an unused science fiction novel I had in mind, looking at how we might survive and prosper after our many challenges. I learned a lot in theorizing the latter and creating the former, even if the themes aren’t always apparent.

(Perhaps making them more subtle means they affect people more . . .)

In the current Avenoth setting, the population is well-educated, aware of the past – and taught to be skeptical. Society is a complex dance of unions, churches, professional organizations, neighborhoods, governments, grounding people in oft-harsh reality. It is a society deliberately remade to ensure it can survive – and skepticism is part of it.

Contemplating that society taught me several things about the hope for a society where skepticism is valued:

  • Society that values strong ties, truth, and skepticism is easy to visualize. We know we want it – it seems we don’t want to work on it.
  • Society has to confront and deal with unsurety to have functional skepticism. Too many people sell the drug of certainty to those who want it.
  • A society that wants functional skepticism has to ask for it deliberately. It must be valued.
  • Many people know how much bullshit they believe. They don’t want to admit it.
  • A skeptical society must be skeptical of the past. Too often want the past to bless us with approval, meaning we see it with distorted vision.

Ironically, the Avenoth series, which started as a kind of fantasy/sf deconstruction, took me in this direction. It was educational, even if it wasn’t the exact point of the stories when I started.

I’d like to think that humanity can learn without a massive disaster. I fear it may be too late considering COVID-19, climate change, and economic problems. What we can’t avoid, may we learn from.

At least writing this series, I can see how it’s possible to learn. That is one of the virtues of fiction, but I do wish I could find more, as Serdar does.

Steven Savage

No Going Back, No Going Normal

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I talk about what I miss from before the pandemic. When discussing this with my girlfriend, she noted that trying to go back was useless. What you have to do is decide on a future and try to make it.

That resonated with me for two reasons I want to discuss.

The first is because we find it easy to get lost in nostalgia. Humans are creatures of history, and I sympathize when people remember “the way things were.” However, all of us know that the past wasn’t as great as we (or others) remember, as sure as we can’t go back. Even if we could go back to another time, we would be different people.

The second, deeper reason I connected with her statement was “build the future” is a lot better than the talk of “the new normal.”

The “new normal” is a deception. It is a deception because the “new normal” will be changing for some time to come. It is a deception because some things will be new and some will be old. It is a deception because “normal” will be different for many people – “normal” is not one size fits all.

Normal is a lie.

But deciding to build the future? I resonate with that because it means I choose – and making a choice means asking what you want? A lot like Agile (hey, you knew I’d bring it up), you have to ask what’s valuable and worth your time.

I don’t know precisely the future I want. I have most of the picture, but the pandemic has changed some things. I do know it won’t be “normal.”

But it’ll be mine.

Steven Savage