Between the Lines: July/August 2011

August 1, 2011

Humor magazines, the cover-story subject, illustrate the timeless themes of campus life—from odd food offerings to odd curricular offerings. Sometimes they offer insights into the larger culture.

One example is the winter 2006 issue of Carpe Noctem. Two years after the founding of Facebook, Duke’s self-described “official humor/satire publication” was fascinated by the now-pervasive social utility. It offered a mock Facebook profile of Gilgamesh. He resided in “Mesopotamia,” and his concentrations were said to be “classical civilization and meandering.” His clubs and jobs included “great ruler and world traveler.” His favorite music was “Cuniform Jam.” His favorite quote was “He journeyed beyond the distant, he journeyed beyond exhaustion, and then he carved his story on stone,” ascribed to “ME about myself.” He embraced the label “I’m the first epic hero”—typically self-aware, and perhaps unusually astute, in the ethos of Facebook.

The publication pointed to an interest in cell phones—not so ubiquitous five years ago. One mock commentary responded to the question, “How do cell phones work, and why are there so many at Duke?” The explanation, weirdly enough, compared cell phones to “a kind of a very, very long cat,” in the sense that “you pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles.” There are plenty of cats at Duke, the presumed expert observed. “I’m still not sure why there are so many cell phones.”

Carpe Noctem’s version of cultural currency had a retro aspect—Star Wars, a vestige from 1977 but an enduring cultural touchstone in 2006. One side of a Carpe Noctem chart captured Luke Skywalker’s characteristics; the other side assigned parallel characteristics to the typical Duke student. So adhering religiously to online course evaluations became the equivalent of following the Force.

These publications can be mined to uncover the attitudes, values, and concerns of their time. In that sense, they do the work of any culturally aware magazine.

  • As editor, Bliwise has overall responsibility for editorial direction and content and for representing the magazine to its various constituencies. He also teaches a seminar in magazine journalism through Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.