Pretty Much Pop #3: CONFORM with Yakov Smirnoff

Is media trying to brainwash us into being ALL THE SAME? Are the excesses of the mob scaring us into conformity? And does this in turn keep us from being actually creative, with healthy relationships?

Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt muse on cultural homogenization and a few sci-fi takes on forced sameness and then bring out our first celebrity guest, beloved comedian and now psychology Ph.D. Yakov Smirnoff, who tells us about growing up in a repressive society and his fears that political correctness and a lack of appreciation for the "reciprocal opposites" necessary for authentic communication is leading us in that direction. We conclude with a bit of host-ful response.

We touch on Cat's Cradle, Aladdin, Rosanne Barr, The Twilight Zone, Brian's wearing a Cubs hat in Missouri, and performing comedy in the U.S.S.R. as well as various sensitive audiences here. Will you not join us and dress as Devo every day?

Here's that article that comes up on Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s terms "karass" (voluntary, organic grouping) and "granfalloon" (inherited, basically meaningless grouping).

No, we are not a politics podcast, but sometimes when we reflect on the dynamics involved with our being entertained,  politics is hard to avoid! You may enjoy listening to The Partially Examined Life (Mark's philosophy podcast) discuss Adorno on the Culture Industry, or perhaps their discussion of the world of technological unemployment.

Get more at prettymuchpop.com. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Google Play. Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is produced by the Partially Examined Life Podcast Network.

Follow Yakov:  @Yakov_Smirnoff. Not enough Yakov? Well, of course there are scads of YouTube clips and other podcast appearances that he's done that you can check out with a mere web search, but if you want to hear EVERY SINGLE WORD he said to us, we did post an entirely unedited version of the interview for $5 supporters at patreon.com/prettymuchpop.

Pretty Much Pop #2: Binge Watching

This post continues Open Culture's curation of a new podcast series about popular media and how (and why) we consume it. You may wish to listen to the introductory episode first.

What counts as binge watching? Why do we do it? Is it bad for us?

Mark, Erica, and Brian reveal their watching habits (growing up and now) and marvel at crazy-high stats about how much people watch. We think about what people get out of this activity, what shows work do and don't taste good in bulk, and whether watching is best done in solitary despair or as a bonding experience as you waste the precious hours of your life sitting next to another person.

We touch on many shows including The Office, Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica (by way of Portlandia), Jane the Virgin, Pretty Little Liars, Arrow, CSI, and Chernobyl (which we'll devote the whole of Ep. 5 to).

Articles we bring up:

"I like to watch, Erica. I like to watch."

This episode includes BONUS CONTENT that you can only get by becoming a $1+ supporter at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is produced by the Partially Examined Life Podcast Network.

Introducing Pretty Much Pop (A Culture Podcast): Episode 1 – Pop Culture vs. High Culture

What is pop culture? Does it make sense to distinguish it from high culture, or can something be both?

Open Culture is pleased to curate a new podcast covering all things entertainment: TV, movies, music, novels, video games, comics, novels, comedy, theater, podcasts, and more. Pretty Much Pop is the invention of Mark Linsenmayer (aka musician Mark Lint), creator of The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast and Nakedly Examined Music. Mark is joined by co-hosts Erica Spyres, an actor and musician who's appeared on Broadway and plays classical and bluegrass violin, and Brian Hirt, a science-fiction writer/linguistics major who collaborates with his brother on the Constellary Tales magazine and podcast. For this introductory discussion touching on opera, The Beatles, Fortnite, 50 Shades of Grey, reality TV, and more, our hosts are joined by the podcast's audio editor Tyler Hislop, aka Sacrifice MC.

Some of the articles brought in the discussion are:

"The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow" by Noah Berlatsky from the Pacific Standard (2017)

"Pop Culture's Progress Toward Tragedy" by Titus Techera from the National Review (2019)

Read more about the 1895 silent film that featured a train coming right out of the screen, sending people screaming in terror. Here's more about the opening of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" at which spectators rioted. You may also enjoy episode 137 of The Partially Examined Life about the tastes of social classes that analyzes Pierre Bourdieu. Also see episode 193 on liberal education and the idea of a "canon" of essential, high-culture works. The opening music is by Mark (guitars, cellos, djembe) and Erica (violins). The podcast logo is by Ken Gerber.

The ending song was written by Mark just for this episode. It's called "High Rollin' Cult," and features Erica on violin and harmonies.

For more information on the podcast, visit prettymuchpop.com or look for the podcast soon on Apple Podcasts. To support this effort (and immediately get access to four episodes plus bonus content), make a small, recurring donation at patreon.com/prettymuchpop

The Psychological Dimensions of Game of Thrones: The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast Explores the Fantasy Spectacle

The HBO TV show Game of Thrones, like its source books, George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, is classified as "fantasy," but that term as literary classification has become unmoored from its literal meaning. A person's fantasy is most typically a matter of wish fulfillment, which should put super-hero media at the center of the genre: We regular mortals wish to be powerful and strong, to save the day and be recognized as a hero. Certain elements of classical fantasy fall under this description: Frodo in Lord of the Rings gets to save the world while remaining more or less ordinary (well, yes, he can turn invisible with the ring, but that becomes problematic), and Harry Potter qualifies as a kid super-hero.

Another key element of fantasy is obviously the imagination, which can be deployed as in dreams and the psychedelic art that draws on dream experience to come up with ever-more-fantastical imagery, ever more amazing situations and powers one could fantasize about possessing. However, the imagination also seeks to expand the fantasized creation, to make its world wider and richer, to fill in the details, and almost inevitably to try to make the fantasy more "realistic." What would it actually be like to have super powers? Would you suffer emotional trauma from damaging all those villains? What about collateral damage? If you get to ride on a dragon, how do you take care of it? What (who) does it eat?




George R.R. Martin writes in the tradition popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien of "high fantasy," which involves not only characters of high stature engaged in epic struggles, but typically involves a very fleshed out alternative world with its own slightly different laws. The more spelled out these laws are, the more nuts and bolts of the workings of the world are specified, the more realism and hence suffering can be depicted. A Song of Ice and Fire describes its rotating cast of protagonists with such a degree of detail that readers are (as in much literature) able to identify with them, to see the world through their eyes, but they suffer so much that such alternate lives as these books offer readers would hardly be anyone's fantasy in the sense of wish fulfillment. A visual presentation like a TV show by necessity can't be as clear about whose eyes the viewer is supposed to see events through (we see through the camera instead), but nonetheless Game of Thrones invites us to live through (some of) its characters, to identify with them, through their exertions of power, through their reactions to loss and triumph. But such identifications will always be imperfect, given that these characters have been drawn as living in a world that is fundamentally foreign to us, not because there are zombies and dragons, but because HBO viewers are for the most part living comfortably in a peaceful country, not having been systematically and often personally exposed to horrible sufferings.

Hear Mark Linsenmayer and Wes Alwan, regular hosts of The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast, along with guest Sabrina Weiss, discuss the psychological and social aspects of the show, but in what is depicted on screen and how these play out in our society's relationship to this grand spectacle.

Read more about it on The Partially Examined Life website.

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of The Partially Examined Life and Nakedly Examined Music podcasts. 

Related Content: 

Game of Thrones: A Great Behind-the-Scenes Look at The Show’s Visual Effects

Animated Video Explores the Invented Languages of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones & Star Trek

15-Year-Old George R.R. Martin Writes a Fan Letter to Stan Lee & Jack Kirby (1963)

Is the Leonardo da Vinci Painting “Salvator Mundi” (Which Sold for $450 Million in 2017) Actually Authentic?: Michael Lewis Explores the Question in His New Podcast

Journalist and bestselling author Michael Lewis (Liar's Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short) has a new podcast, Against the Rules, that "takes a searing look at what’s happened to fairness—in financial markets, newsrooms, basketball games, courts of law, and much more. And he asks what’s happening to a world where everyone loves to hate the referee." That is, what happens when we, as a society, lose confidence in the arbiters of truth and fairness?

In Episode 5, Lewis focuses on “Salvator Mundi,” a painting of Jesus Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, which famously sold at auction for $450 million in 2017. Pretty remarkable, considering that some question whether “Salvator Mundi,” is really a Leonardo painting at all. Or, if it is, whether the highly-restored painting still retains any brushstrokes from Leonardo himself. This leads Lewis to ask some intriguing questions about the authenticity of art, and to explore the pressure placed on the referees of art--namely, art historians--to confirm the authenticity of potentially valuable paintings. Below, you can stream the episode, "The Hand of Leonardo."

As a bonus, we've also added an episode that examines how sketchy "customer service" companies mislead people trying to repay their student loans, and how the Trump administration has undermined government agencies designed to protect debt-strapped Americans.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

Is Modern Society Stealing What Makes Us Human?: A Glimpse Into Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra by The Partially Examined Life

Image by Genevieve Arnold

The prologue of Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) introduced his notion of the "last man," who is no longer creative, no longer exploring, no longer risk taking. He took this to be the implicit aim of efforts to "discover happiness" by figuring out human nature and engineering society to fulfill human needs. If needs are met, no suffering occurs, no effort is needed to counter the suffering, and we all stagnate. Is our technology-enhanced consumer culture well on its way to delivering us up to such a fate?

In the clip below, Mark Linsenmayer from the Partially Examined Life philosophy podcast considers this possibility, explores Nietzsche's picture of ethics, and concludes that the potential mistake by potential social engineers lies in underestimating the complexity of human needs. As Nietzsche argued, we're all idiosyncratic, and our needs are not just for peace, warmth, food, exercise and entertainment, but (once these are satisfied, per Maslow's hierarchy of needs) self-actualization, which is an individual pursuit, and so is impossible to mass engineer. Having our more basic needs fulfilled without life-filling effort (i.e. full time jobs) would not leave us complacent but actually free to entertain these "higher needs," and so to pursue the creative pursuits that Nietzsche thought were the pinnacle of human achievement.

Nietzsche's target is utilitarianism, which urges individuals and policy-makers to maximize happiness, and the more this is pursued scientifically, the more that "happiness" needs to be reduced to something potentially measurable, like pleasure, but clearly pleasure does not add up to a meaningful life. While we may not be able to quantify meaningfulness and aim public policy in that direction, it should be easier to identify clear obstacles to pursuing meaningful activity, such as illness, poverty, drudgery and servitude. We should be glad that choosing the most ethical path is not a matter of mere calculation, because on Nietzsche's view, we thrive as "creators of values," and figuring out for ourselves what makes each us truly happy (what we find valuable) is itself a meaningful activity.

The Partially Examined Life episodes 213 and 214 (forthcoming) provide a 4-man walkthrough of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, exploring the Last Man, the Overman, Will to Power, the declaration that "God Is Dead," and other notorious ideas.

Episode 213 Part One:

Episode 213 Part Two: 

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of The Partially Examined Life and Nakedly Examined Music podcasts. 

Listen to Last Seen, a True-Crime Podcast That Takes You Inside an Unsolved, $500 Million Art Heist

In the early morning of March 18, 1990, two thieves entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole 13 pieces of precious art, including paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt. To this day, those paintings, valued at $500 million dollars, have never been recovered.

The story of the bold heist and the various attempts to recover the paintings--they get told in a 10-part series of podcasts called Last Seen. Created by WBUR and The Boston Globe, the true-crime podcast "takes us inside the ongoing effort to bring back the jewels of the Gardner collection." You can listen to the engrossing episodes online, or via iTunes, Stitcher and Spotify. Or simply stream the episodes below. And if you know anything that cracks the case, there's a $5 million dollar reward.

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

To delve deeper, you can also read two books on the mystery: Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World's Greatest Art Heist and The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

Related Content:

Take a Virtual Reality Tour of the World’s Stolen Art

Enter an Online Interactive Documentary on Rembrandt’s The Night Watch and Learn About the Painting’s Many Hidden Secrets

See the Complete Works of Vermeer in Augmented Reality: Google Makes Them Available on Your Smartphone

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