Comic strip about development, architecture, and urban life

Check out this overview of Ben Katchor’s comic strips about urban design and life:

In a comic strip he’s authored for Metropolis magazine since the late 1990s and in several compilation books, Katchor looks at design and at the development of homes and neighborhoods. His strips are usually one page long and place characters at the helm of strange or unsettling experiences.

During a recent phone interview, Katchor, a winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant and professor at Parsons, described his work as a part of the “American, Yiddish, socialist” tradition and “a form of social activism. You could blow things up too,” he said, referring to the radical arms of environmental groups, “but I don’t really relish the thought of being in prison. I’d rather make comic strips.”…

Katchor leads his readers from simple to complex ideas in the space of one page. For example, in “A River View,” two contractors try to profit on a large set of glass windows that have been recently replaced in a high-rise: the removed windows have the imprint of the skyline that has been baked into the glass over time. By the time they find the recycling yard where the windows have been taken, they’re told that, “a European art dealer took the whole lot sight unseen.” The final frame of the strip shows a group of people overseas looking at one pane when it is displayed like a work of fine art. Everyone involved is looking to profit.

From Katchor’s perspective, profit motivates much of recent development. Though he doesn’t believe new design is worse compared to earlier periods, mentioning that there were dull buildings in the past, he thinks today’s wealth replicates itself, with a push to “maximize profits” in many fields. Like the panes in “A River View,” Katchor sees replication: “Rather than spinning off the money into other things, giving it to other people,” design suffers from the “failure of imagination of corporate interests.”

The sample strips here are pretty interesting. A few thoughts:

1. Providing commentary through comic strips has a good history. Yet, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it applied to urban development. Perhaps it is too abstract an idea (beyond the immediate experiences of characters) for most strips to address?

2. The argument that profits drive developments sounds like the political economy view in urban sociology which emphasizes the actions of powerful people, politicians or business leaders, to make money.

3. I wonder if such humor really has a market these days. These comic strips are relatively long, have lots of text, and address complex topics that go beyond one-liners.

Sociologist argues every society has jokes about outsiders – including lawyer jokes in the US

Studying humor across societies reveals the pattern that groups are singled out as simpletons or emblems of stupidity:

For the past several decades, British sociologist and preeminent humor scholar Christie Davies has been collecting examples of an odd phenomenon: Nearly every culture has its own version of the Polish joke. That is, every country likes to make fun of people who’ve been labeled as simpletons and, often, outsiders.

In this country, we mock the poor, put-upon Poles: “How many Polish guys does it take to screw in a light bulb? Five: One to hold the bulb and four to turn the chair.” (Polish-Americans became the butt of jokes after millions fled persecution in their own country in the 18th and 19th centuries, often taking up menial jobs in their new American home.) But that’s just one example of what Davies calls the “stupidity joke.” People all over the world and throughout history have differentiated themselves from those they see as inferior and foreign by making fun of them. Take the oldest-known joke book in the world: Philogelos, Greek for “The Laughter Lover,” compiled from several manuscripts dating from the 11th to 15th centuries but believed to have been penned in the 4th century A.D. by the otherwise unknown scribes Hierokles and Philagrios. Of the 265 jokes in the book, nearly a quarter concern people from cities renowned for their idiocy, like Cyme in modern-day Turkey and Abdera in Thrace. Later, in medieval England, people cracked jokes about the dunces who lived in the village of Gotham. (New York’s nickname, “Gotham,” doesn’t sound so impressive when you learn that author Washington Irving coined it to suggest the place was a city of fools.)

The phenomenon is truly global. According to Davies’ research, Uzbeks get made fun of in Tajikistan while in France, it’s the French-speaking Swiss. Israelis rib Kurdish Jews; Finns knock the Karelians, an ethnic group residing in northwestern Russia and eastern Finland. The Irish, it turns out, have a particularly bad lot. Dumb-Irish jokes are equally common in England, Wales, Scotland, and Australia. Although it could be worse: If you happen to be an Irishman from County Kerry, you even get made fun of by your fellow Irishmen as well. The model even extends to the work world: Orthopedic surgery might be a highly competitive field, but other surgeons deride such rough-and-tumble musculoskeletal work as inferior. (“What’s the difference between an orthopedic surgeon and a carpenter? The carpenter knows more than one antibiotic.”)…

Each country’s particular brand of comedy is so intertwined with its social and cultural baggage, in fact, that enterprising academics are using the birth and spread of specific kinds of jokes to uncover hidden quirks of various societies’ cultural DNA. Davies has proven especially proficient at this. He traced the spread of dumb-blonde jokes, for example, from their origins in the United States in the mid-20th century to Croatia, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Brazil, deducing the zingers emerged as women shook up gender roles by entering high-skilled professions. When the so-called Great American Lawyer Joke Cycle of the 1980s didn’t spread anywhere beyond the United States, Davies concluded the jokes were a uniquely American phenomenon because no other country is so rooted in the sanctity of law—and in no other country are those who practice it so reviled.

I wonder if these patterns don’t reveal two common sociological ideas as pertaining to some humor:

1. In-groups and out-groups. We tend to consider our close friends/family/ethnic or cultural group as the in-group while people in other groups are outsiders. Jokes help establish the symbolic boundaries between who is in our group (and who we like) and who is not (and who we don’t know about). This may help build solidarity within groups but probably doesn’t do much to build weaker ties across groups.

2. Threats other people might present – whether they are competitors for similar resources or immigrants – can be revealed in humor. While a group might write off another group and make them the butt of the joke, it could indicate the group making the joke feels threatened.

How might this fit with the rise of lawyer jokes? Perhaps it has to do with a more visible presence of lawsuits, particularly ones deemed more frivolous by the public. Or perhaps it has to do with more visible lawyers who started showing up more on TV and were perceived as grandstanding.

Sociologist argues hidden shame destructive in modern society

Sociologist Thomas Scheff argues that hidden shame is a large problem in modern society:

According to Scheff a society that fosters individualism (ours, for example) provides a ripe breeding ground for the emotion of shame because people are encouraged to “go it alone, no matter the cost to relationships,” he said. “People learn to act as if they were complete in themselves and independent of others. This feature has constructive and creative sides, but it has at least two other implications: alienation and the hiding of shame.”

Scheff noted that while shame is no less prevalent now than in previous years or decades or generations, it is more hidden. “Shame is a biological entity like other emotions, but people are more ashamed of it than they are of the others,” he said. “The hiding of emotions is more widespread in modern societies than in traditional ones.”…

The problem with that kind of thinking, however, is that shame is, in reality, a very useful emotion. “Shame is the basis of morality,” Scheff said. “You can’t have a moral society without shame. It provides the weight for morality. There are a hundred things in your head about what you should or shouldn’t do, but the one that hits you is the one that has shame behind it.”

Scheff suggests that shame — or the reaction to it — can manifest itself in larger acts of aggression, such as wars and other military conflicts. “Especially for leaders, both shame and anger are carefully hidden behind a veil of rationality,” he writes in the article. “The Bush administration may have been deeply embarrassed by the 9/11 attack during their watch and their helplessness to punish the attackers. The invasion of Iraq on the basis of false premises might have served to hide their shame behind anger and aggression.”

I remember reading Scheff’s work in a microsociology course in grad school where he was cited as a key example of the growing body of research in the subfield of the sociology of emotions. While we tend to chalk up emotions to an individual’s psychological and physiological state, emotions that we feel and how we can express them are also dependent on social forces. Thus, if individualism is a key feature of early 21st century life, particularly for younger adults/millennials, displaying feelings of shame contradicts this individualistic approach. For example, one of the findings about younger adults in the National Study of Youth and Religion (with this particular finding discussed in Souls in Transition) is that they have very few regrets about their past actions. This is indicative of an individualistic approach to life: regrets may be based on the idea that the individual didn’t live up to some standard. But, to have shame or regrets, the individual has to be anchored to a particular moral system.

Scheff’s solution to hidden shame?

The answer, according to Scheff, is to have a good laugh. “That is, laugh at yourself or at the universe or at your circumstances, but not at other people. Most of the laughing we do in comedy is good. No matter the actors, we are really laughing at our own selves that we see in their foolishness.”

It would then be interesting to study who using humor laughs more than themselves than at others. Is most of our humor/comedy today compared to the past directed at others rather than exploring our own shame and embarrassing moments?

San Francisco street character, Bushman, dies

For years, Bushman could be found “interacting with” tourists in San Francisco:

For 30 years Gregory Jacobs spent his days at Fisherman’s Wharf hiding behind branches, often up against a trash can, silently waiting for unsuspecting tourists to come by.

When they did, and when they least expected it, he would push those branches towards them, often giving them a little growl. Almost always, without fail, they would jump scream and run.

It is one of those iconic San Francisco experiences. Few people can forget a run-in with the bushman.

But Jacobs hadn’t been in his usual spot lately. He’s been in and out the hospital with heart problems. Last Sunday, his family told KTVU, his heart finally gave out and Jacobs passed away.

The article goes on to note that there are actually two Bushmen so there will still be one at these tourist sites.

Bushman might be considered one of Jane Jacob’s “public characters.” Sociologist Mitchell Duneier discusses this idea in the introduction to his classic ethnography Sidewalk.

Not long after we met, I asked Hakim how he saw his role.

“I’m a public character,” he told me.

“A what?” I asked.

“Have you ever read Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities?” he asked. “You’ll find it in there.”

I considered myself quite familiar with the book, a classic study of modern urban life published in 1961, and grounded in the author’s observations of her own neighborhood, Greenwich Village. But I didn’t recall the discussion of public characters. Nor did I realize that Hakim’s insight would figure in a central way in the manner in which I would come to see the sidewalk life of this neighborhood. When I got home, I looked it up:

The social structure of sidewalk life hangs partly on what can be called self-appointed public characters. A public character is anyone who is in frequent contact with a wide circle of people and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a public character. A public character need have no special talents or wisdom to fulfill his function—although he often does. He just needs to be present, and there need to be enough of his counterparts. His main qualification is that he is public, that he talks to lots of different people. In this way, news travels that is of sidewalk interest.

Jacobs had modeled her idea of the public character after the local shopkeepers with whom she and her Greenwich Village neighbors would leave their spare keys. These figures could be counted on to let her know if her children were getting out of hand on the street, or to call the police if a strange-looking person was hanging around for too long: “Storekeepers and other small businessmen are typically strong proponents of peace and order,” Jacobs explained. “They hate broken windows and holdups.” She also modeled the public character after persons like herself, who distributed petitions on local political issues to neighborhood stores, spreading local news in the process.

While Bushman didn’t necessarily provide needed services for local residents, being a fixture for so long and interacting with the tourists in a unique way helped make him a feature of Fisherman’s Wharf. I remember seeing him in action multiple times. The first time was surprising and yet it seemed to be the sort of thing that one could only find in a big city: a local man popping out of one of the more natural features along this stretch of the Embarcadero (yes, tearing the Embarcadero Freeway down was helpful but a lot of this road is still fairly ugly) and poking fun at the many tourists who bring lots of money into the city. This is quite different from other odd characters in American cities like the Naked Cowboy in Times Square or the various gold or silver-covered street performers on Michigan Avenue and elsewhere who perform and then ask for money. The key difference is that Bushman had a direct confrontation with tourists who were often quite frightened – until they realized that people were watching them and this was all “normal.”

A McMansion and a Megamansion have a spirited debate

Listen as a 9,000 square foot McMansion and a 30,000 Megamansion debate their respective virtues. Who should really be called ostentatious? At least they can agree on their dislike for a nearby apartment building.

This is a funny series: you can also find a conversation between two trash-talking classic pieces of furniture, an argument between a blender and espresso machine, and two NYC bikes duke it out. Here is more about the short series:

Comedy writer Tom Saunders (Arrested Development, The Larry Sanders Show, Just Shoot Me), on the other hand, has long fantasized that the stuff around us actually talks, and he has created a series for DnA that proves it.

In Everything Talks, buildings and objects (often brand-name designer products) bicker over who’s best. They puff out their chests, brag and trash talk, trying to best their rival. The segment spotlights the thrill of rivalry and in doing so has fun with the status we humans attach to our objects.

Here is how Tom describes Everything Talks: “The idea that we could hear an actual conversation between, for example, a Vitamix blender and a Rancho Silvia espresso maker was science fiction only a few years ago. At last, a new computer app (connected to an ultra sensitive listening device) is able to translate, amplify and record otherwise inaudible discussions between inanimate objects without them knowing we are listening in!

Throw in some of the magic from The Twilight Zone and these braggart status could soon be taking over the world…

One part of this that is funny is that while humans use consumer goods as status symbols and measure themselves against others with these objects, they don’t always do this directly. This can be done through intermediaries or in one’s own head for a long time while trying to not let others know this is happening. This reminds me of the findings of the ethnography The Moral Order of a Suburb where a sociologist finds that suburbanites tend to get along by avoiding direct confrontation. In debates over McMansions, this might take the form of going to local government and objecting or writing a letter to the editor (though I’m sure there are occasionally face-to-face arguments about McMansions).

 

Lampooning modern life: “Pottery Barn Catalogue Descriptions Written by an Aspiring Crime Novelist” and 20th Century History in Linkbait Headlines

Taking some time to laugh at our modern times is a necessary part of survival. So, two recent examples:

1. xkcd rewrites some major moments in the 20th century in the style of today’s Internet headlines. An example from 1912: “6 Titanic Survivors Who Should Have Died.” One of my first thoughts on reading these headlines: how long until we get history textbooks that follow this style?

2. McSweeney’s rewrites descriptions from a Pottery Barn catalog in the style of an aspiring crime novelist. An example:

The door to the Farmhouse Armoire stands slightly ajar, revealing room for a 60-inch television and something more sinister. Look closely at the Morgan Cachepot across the room, and you will see reflected in its gentle curves the silhouette of an escaped maniac hiding inside the wardrobe. Quick thinking and a rustic iron latch will hold the madman until the police arrive. The solid pine doors can withstand the pounding fists of a captive lunatic, but not ammonia-based cleansers.

This would make the Pottery Barn catalog a lot more interesting.

This is one redeeming quality of the Internet: the ability to harness and make accessible lots of examples of wit. If the Internet can’t rally to save Wikipedia or we can’t stop ourselves from obsessively interacting with smartphones and social media, at least we can chuckle a bit along the way. At the same time, it is odd that I came upon this humor through a chain of websites and others who selected it as worthy of their reader’s attention (or clicks). Why bother making light of my own circumstances when I can rely on others to provide a quick laugh?

Purchase McMansion merchandise from UrbanDictionary.com

You can purchase mugs, magnets, tats, and even beer steins with UrbanDictionary.com’s definition of a McMansion. Here is their definition for McMansion and an example of the word being used:

Definition: A loser’s term of jealousy for a nice house he or she can never afford.

Example: “Did you hear how well Susie’s doing? You know we used to all make fun of her in school, well I hear she’s got a good job and just bought a beautiful new home.”

“Yeah, she’s just the type who’d buy a McMansion. I’m happy with my double-wide in the trailer park, it’s more ‘real.'”

It is what you might expect from UrbanDictionary: snarky and turns the term around from its typical critic of the homeowner who would dare purchase such a garish and unnecessary home. Additionally, the claim that a double-wide trailer is more authentic is not what any critic of McMansions would actually say.

So, how many of these items with the term McMansion have been purchased? Any? The t-shirts are rather bland and who would want to wear such commentary? These items seem destined to be clever gifts that then aren’t used much…