Monday, 25 April 2011

Other Women's Garden Stories

I have spent considerable part of the last decade reading and listening to stories about other women's gardens. Over this time, it has become increasingly clear to me how important their storied nature is to the significance of the experience of gardens. The transience of garden experience may partly drive the documentation impulse -- like that associated with travel and food. But the narration of gardens seems to play a psychogeographical function beyond the mere capture and communication of ephemeral beauty. In the Toronto context, this is amply clear: the Toronto Community Garden Network, Afri-Can Food Basket, and FoodShare Toronto Garden projects are all adept at mobilizing the stories of gardens for progressive politics. Their stories of people coming together to grow food help marry the sometimes abstract world of collective politics with the readily imaginable benefits of being able to grow food together. Gifting politicians with honey from urban gardens or showing proud before and after photographs of highrise lawns cum food gardens certainly gets some points across about urban political ecologies! (Much as representations of the White House vegetable garden have helped legitimize vegetable gardening.)

The seeming straightforwardness of the stories that can be told with gardens can be troubling, though. Gardens have been canonical sites for teaching proper citizenship and comportment, and gardens are all too often places where "deserving" poor people are taught that they should be able to fix complex systemic poverty themselves, through a bit "honest work." "Healthy" and "natural," gardens are easily used to encode contentious cultural politics in difficult to question ways.

Food gardens are popular development projects, not just for the cultivation of material sustenance, but also for the cultivation of the self. A quick browse of garden fiction lists exhibit the garden as a powerful tool for individuals: self-realization and escape into reflection and transcendent communion with nature are common themes. The significant percentage of gardening that appears to be performed with some narrative intent belies gardening's focus on individuals, however, and draws attention to the social and communicative nature of gardens -- even beyond the obvious domains of community gardening.

And it these social and communicative functions of gardens as stories that I find fascinating. Given the massive cultural shifts that have taken place around food and agriculture over the past century, how much are gardens "read" in the ways their authors intend? How much of the intent of garden narratives is implicit, even to their gardeners? "Garden studies" is an academic area that brings together art history, literature, architecture, landscape architecture, cultural studies, environmental studies, and geography; how much do readings of garden fiction help garden readers interpret?

Grenness, Johannes, 1914, Woman in Red Dress in Garden with Poppies and Summer Day in a Garden, courtesy of Blogger 'SPhera's excellent entry on Johannes Grenness (with several worthwhile gardens to see).

World Connect, 2011, Niagadina Women’s Community Garden,
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Monday, 18 April 2011

Most Challenged Books of 2010

The American Library Association (ALA) recently released its annual list of books that have received the most formal written complaints. These complaints must be filed with a library or school and request that the material be restricted in distribution or removed completely. Some intriguing trends are revealed upon examining this list. For one, sexual content (particularly homosexual content) is a frequent complaint (only number 8 and 10 escape this criticism), often accompanied by criticisms that the book is unsuitable for certain ages (#s 1, 2, 5, 6, & 7). A semi-autobiographical book by Sherman Alexie is charged more specifically with containing “sex education,” whilst a coming-of-age novel featuring a young female is accused of “sexism.” Amongst the newer publications on this list is an old classic, Huxley’s Brave New World, apparently still controversial enough after all these years to raise some hackles. Interestingly enough, there is less of a relation between book sales and complaints as one might expect. Likely the most popular book on this list, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (ranked #1,062 across all books, #1 in books for teens), is only #10 in complaints sitting right alongside an edited collection of stories by queer youth (#275, 948 across all books). Although most of the books are aimed at children or youth, the one exception appears to be Nickled and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, a journalist’s account of living poor in America that is criticized for its inaccuracy, political viewpoint, and religious viewpoint. If there is a possible bright side to this list, it is that the ALA received a total of only 348 challenges last year, a paltry number compared to all the books sold. Below is the entire list, ranked from most challenged to least.

1. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
Reasons: "Homosexuality, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group"

2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: Offensive language, Racism, Sex Education, Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group, Violence

3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Reasons: Insensitivity, Offensive Language, Racism, Sexually Explicit

4. Crank by Ellen Hopkins
Reasons: Drugs, Offensive Language, Sexually Explicit

5. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Reasons: "Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group, Violence"

6. Lush by Natasha Friend
Reasons: "Drugs, Offensive Language, Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group"

7. What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones
Reasons: "Sexism, Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group"

8. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America by Barbara Ehrenreich
Reasons: "Drugs, Inaccurate, Offensive Language, Political Viewpoint, Religious Viewpoint"

9. Revolutionary Voices edited by Amy Sonnie
Reasons: "Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit"

10. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Reasons: "Religious Viewpoint, Violence"

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Monday, 11 April 2011


*** Spoiler Alert ***

Let’s say you are offered a clear little pill that would allow you to access the full potential of your brain. Would you take it? If you are the protagonist of Limitless - an unkempt and down-on-luck writer with a writer’s block the size of a polar cap, you certainly would. So you pop the pill and wait. The pill, apparently, makes your brain very, very fast. Then what?

To save you the trouble of watching the film (please let me save you that trouble!) I’ll give you a summary. You will clean you apartment, get a haircut, buy a great suit, exercise yourself into stunningness. Then you’ll write your novel in four days. You will acquire languages seamlessly, and then used them to impress your ex-girlfriend in ethnic restaurants. You will abandon writing books for a clearly more intelligent choice of investment banking. You will outpace your bosses. You will enter social circles you have only dreamed about, and sleep with a variety of exotic beauties. You will know everything about everything. You will be able to street fight eight men at the same time. You will make an awful lot of money. And in the end, you might just become the president.

Don’t get me wrong - I am not blaming the movie, I am blaming my expectations. I was expecting a movie about a struggling writer who, with some chemical help, reaches full human awareness, and gets his novel finally done. I know, it’s unwise to search for inspiration, or insight, or tips (what’s the name of those chemicals?) in a movie. What did I think it would be, after all, Matrix for struggling writers? But being subjected to an adolescent boy fantasies for an upward of ninety minutes is too severe of a punishment for that mistake. If you like the genre, you can save yourself time and money and watch an MTV video instead. But don’t let me put you off, especially if deep inside, you really, really want to be the president.

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Monday, 4 April 2011

Enjoying Characters Who Behave Well

Dolf Zillmann (2000) has proposed a highly regarded theory, called disposition theory, according to which we acquire a disposition to like fictional characters who behave well, and to dislike those who behave badly. People who watch movies and read fictional books become very concerned with whether characters behave well. Zillmann says, for instance, that each person who engages with a drama or comedy is “a moral monitor who applauds or condemns the intentions and actions of characters” (p. 38).

In a number of experiments it has been found that people experience pleasure when a liked character behaves well and succeeds. People experience frustration and anxiety when a disliked character behaves badly and succeeds. If, in a thriller with a confusing plot you wonder which character is the real baddie, he’s the one who acts with disdain to an underling.

When a good character achieves retribution for a wrong that he or she has suffered, or when a bad character is punished, people are sensitive to the level of revenge or punishment that occurs. We enjoy stories more when this seems appropriate. There is even a name for this: poetic justice.

RenĂ© Weber and colleagues (2008) put this theory to the test by asking whether people’s feelings towards characters in a story, and the extent to which characters deserve what happens to them, underlies enjoyment of the story. More than 500 female students were asked to evaluate 12 characters in a televised soap opera. These women were not fans of the soap opera, which ran on a television channel every weekday for ten weeks, and they were not asked to watch the whole series. Each woman watched, in her own time, just one week’s episodes on a DVD she was given. After watching the episodes each participant made ratings of each character (from extremely moral to extremely immoral) of outcomes for each character (from extremely good to extremely bad). She then rated the extent to which she found the show enjoyable and entertaining. At the same time, the researchers recorded Nielsen ratings (the television industry’s estimate of viewers’ numbers) for the show. The findings were that enjoyment of the women in the survey, and the Nielsen ratings, were highest when good outcomes occurred to characters who behaved well and bad outcomes occurred to characters who behaved badly.

Weber, R., Tamborini, R., Lee, H. E., & Stipp, H. (2008). Soap opera exposure and enjoyment: A longitudinal test of disposition theory. Media Psychology, 11, 462-487.

Zillmann, D. (2000). Humor and comedy. In D. Zillmann & P. Vorderer (Eds.), Media entertainment: The psychology of its appeal (pp. 37-57). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
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