1/7/17: Getting Restarted

Sitting here in an armchair drinking Dr. Pepper and eating tortilla chips while I wait for my body to recover from a night of beer and memories, the most immediate thing I feel is a sense of sloth. I don't expect this particular blog post to have much meaning at all, but I know that if I don't get back on a schedule I'll probably lose my edge (providing I haven't already.)

Here are some things I did since last we spoke:

  • Took a bus from San José to Los Angeles: Man, what a whirlwind trip. My bus ride started around 10:45 PM Friday, yet I still waited for the first train to my final destination for a full hour.
  • Had a friend die
  • Went to Iceland to hike with my family: I now fully appreciate the value of warm gear. And I am now part Viking, or so I like to think.
  • Reapplied to certain graduate programs: I want to go to grad school more than I've ever wanted anything else, and I think with some good luck I may even get there.
  • Watched "Anomalisa" and "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story": Anomalisa ruined my day because I knew I could never make anything quite as beautiful as it. Rogue One would have ruined my day with how two-dimensional it was if I hadn't been spending it with my father.
  • Got kicked out of a bar: No fault of my own.
  • Reread "A River Runs Through It": What a beautiful collection of stories.
  • Gone back to work after the holidays: And what a job I have.
  • Other things, probably

I'm off to watch a double feature of "Starstruck" and "Forbidden Zone" now. It's going to be a blast; see you again on Tuesday!

12/6: The Importance Of Routines

Today, I chose to go wildly off the track and read a selection from "Media, Meaning And Everyday Life" by Joke Hermes. Like many scholars I love, Hermes opened her piece with an analysis of the classics, scrutinizing Stuart Hall's ideology against the widespread "paradigm that was organized around texts producing subjectivities" (557). Hermes believes that the viewers and observers in media interact far more complicatedly than even Hall could have guessed, finally writing that "how and why everyday media use becomes meaningful needs to be carefully thought through" (557). However, this is not the part of the piece that grabbed me.

Far into the body, Hermes finally brings up the idea of incorporating the routine into how media consumption is studied. Coming home every day to the same TV show and the same newspaper articles "can be reassuring, a guarantee one's viewing or reading pleasures will not be interfered with or uprooted" (558). And that makes sense, because no matter what happens out there, Alex Trebek always flashes on at 7 PM PST to lead us through a series of answers. In watching that media, one woman surveyed for the piece noted that "you are reminded of all sorts of things that you knew already but kind of had forgotten" (559). I can see the comfort, but more worrying is another turn of phrase: "life is largely organized around routines that do not allow for elaborate self-reflection" (559).

What does it mean that members of society prioritize momentum over self-reflection so much? Perhaps we can finally conclude that all media is indeed the Opiate of the Masses, but that's too easy for me (and far too simple for Hermes.) Instead, I tend to think that the best way to deal with life (which is itself "a mixture of being much the same from year to year and sudden, radical changes") is sometimes to choose the pure escapism, the empty media used not as drug but as background music (563). And in the foreground, while life continues to happen, we can continue to knowingly ignore the "contradictions no one in an everyday context feels are necessary to sort out" (563).

11/19: Ways To Not Write About The Election

It's been a weird nearly two weeks since the voting public elected a racist, and in that time my slice of the nation has only grown more anxious. As I mentioned last week,  teaching children in communities hurt bad by the electoral college offers a particularly unique perspective of being pro-love, anti-hate, and protective as hell. My soul has been demanding a way to express my rage that goes beyond actively being an ally and into proactively making art to understand what the new future holds.

And yet, the organization I work for prohibits me from expressing my views in the uniform I spend 12 hours a day in. Finding a space for catharsis is becoming increasingly more difficult.

I have been recently inspired by Douglas Kearney's work on miscarriage. I find a lot of parallels in the words he has written here, but the primary mirrors are that he is someone who stereotypically shouldn't be upset at the event and that he incorporates humor. With that in mind, I present my own take:

9 WAYS TO RATIONALIZE MOVING PAST THE ELECTION

1.) "Focus On The Good"

Remember, in four short years, this suffering will be over. In shorter than half a decade, the racist, xenophobic, misogynist your country placed the highest vote of confident might not be reelected. In as little as 208 weeks, the man who has admitted on a hot mic to assaulting women will leave office, and the bloody wounds he has slashed on the nation's skin will instantly heal. That is good, isn't it?

2.) "Our Economy Does Need A Businessman"

And man, what a straight shooter. He's going to make our economy Great again, take our jobs back, and rescue the middle class. You know, all people really want is to get paid and not die, so all this social stuff is gonna fall by the wayside once we're all a bit richer. No, I haven't looked at his business plan. Why?

3.) "If You Aren't Breaking Any Rules, You Have Nothing To Be Afraid Of"

That's right, own your privilege for once. Relax for a bit, take a load off, abandon all foresight and use your whiteness while you can, go out and pick up a Breitbart hat while you're at it. You'll finally be able to do all the things you wanted to, the things past generations promised you could. And at the end of four years, people will say, "You know, he was just taking advantage of the situation. I would've done the same."

 

This is a slide from my lesson the day of the election. All four "mascot" candidates were based on the main candidates we voted on. I don't think I've ever made a bigger set of understatements.

This is a slide from my lesson the day of the election. All four "mascot" candidates were based on the main candidates we voted on. I don't think I've ever made a bigger set of understatements.

4.) "We Have Learned As A Nation, This Won't Happen Again"

You only have to get murdered once to be dead.

5.) "I'm Going To Boycott Trump Products, That'll Show Them"

I wonder if it'll help if people begin to boycott being on the Muslim Registry or taking part in their own deportation. We as a nation are now against the legislative and sheer physical power of the Federal Government, and it takes more than just some half-baked refusal to not stay in Trump Towers.

6.) "Now Is The Time For Us To Accept The President In The Name Of Peace"

In theory, peace is based in compromise. But sometimes, justice is more important than peace. Never compromise, not even in the face of Armageddon.

7.) "It's In The Past Now"

The realization that a figurehead for white supremacy and ignorant hate doesn't resonate with me once an hour like it used to. Now, it only really sinks in when it's quiet, like pausing to float in cold water and having the chill soak through. And I'm a white guy.

8.) "I Didn't Vote For Trump"

Do you want a cookie?

9.) "Not All White People Are Like Trump"

I wrote an article a while back about how white folks should react to traumatic events they might not understand. In it, I called myself (and folks like me) out to realize something: it's not always about you, but it's not always not about you either. Sometimes, taking a backseat or just doing what you can is better than dwelling on your own racial identity.

11/15: Decoding Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall's Encoding/Decoding is one of the most formative pieces in media studies history, or so I have been told by the professors who have assigned it to me. And yet, for the most part, it's an incredibly boring piece of obscure media theory, something that no one in their well-respecting mind would take the time to wade through without good reason. For the simplicity of my sleep-robbed brain (yes, I am at work for roughly 11 hours each day. It could be worse) I'll reduce this masterpiece of an essay to two elements: a diagram and three hypothetical positions.

This simple chart is the backbone of the essay, and yet it makes no sense. "What we have labelled in the diagram 'meaning structures 1' and "meaning structures 2" may not be the same," Hall writes shortly after his introduction of the diagram (54). The encoder making the program may not have the same interpretation as the person consuming it despite having the exact same elements because of what Hall calls a "lack of equivalence" (54). Even if the producer and consumer have exactly the same elements in the way they see media, the act of consumption by a body of people not necessarily lesser, but certainly different, changes meaning in a strange, chaotic way. 

The three hypothetical positions through which television can be decoded make much more sense to me from a theoretical perspective (in fact, the structure of these three positions are what partially inspired some of my own writing around robotic literature.) The first position, "dominant-hegemonic," is probably the most relevant considering our current news media crisis (59). In this model, people hear a story somewhere and follow it the way they are meant to, like the individual who tunes into the same show on Fox News every night. These are straight-ticket folks who believe what they hear. The next position is one of the "negotiated code" that use message in conjunction with what is already known, forming a belief and understanding of media that is not isolated to interpretation in a box (60). And finally, there is understanding media in the "globally contrary way," which I tend to find the most interesting (61). In this understanding of media, everything is to be doubted, and all messages can "be given an oppositional reading" (61). This final method is the method of the future, of anti-, of protest. Right now, that's the one I stand by the most.

11/12: On Hate

As I'm sure none of you noticed, I didn't publish a blog post on election day. Instead, I chose to watch Sam Raimi's Army Of Darkness and try to ignore the world because I knew the worst was going to happen that night, and I couldn't deal with the anxiety of a slow motion realization. I know exactly what lies in the hearts of the angry white folks who mobilized (and demobilized) to elect our new president-elect because, for a lot of my life, I have been one. And I knew that the voters would lash out in the only way they felt would get noticed.

I'm not sure whether people knew that the papers they filled out would directly damage the community I work in. I can't know whether they thought that their signatures would make the a third grader weep because she is afraid her sickly grandmother will be deported. I would guess that their filling in the bubble didn't come with images of a school yard filled with more silence than noise, more children thinking than there were playing. 

And yet, all of those things happened.

When I was back in high school, I remember reading an argument about reproductive rights. One voice argued that something based around reproductive policy would give women the freedom to make their own choice in the long run. That made a lot of sense to me, because I, of course, was a young progressive who wanted justice long-term.

The countering voice agreed that that would be best, but then asked one question: who are we to ask the millions of people suffering to wait? 

I personally am a believer and practician of Love, but I've been thinking recently about what to do when so many Americans based their vote on hate of the Other without considering the individuals they hate. Anger and rage are such radical human emotions that I can't eliminate them, nor should I. And yet, I cannot abide such a statement that evokes such visceral suffering at the mere mention of our next president's name. Is it enough to teach the people I can to love each other, or should I focus my energy on something counterintuitive? 

Because right now, Americans need to learn to be more responsible with our hate.

We can still lash out in anger, say what really gets to us, air it all out (if it is safe to do so; free  speech is quite a privilege these days for the oppressed.) Releasing pressure is how we prevent ourselves from destruction. But when that steam becomes something that is more about someone else than yourself, targeted at specific groups of people, when it burns the children, it becomes something evil. Take the time to seek understanding in your catharsis. While we all have the right to speak, no person has the right to injure with their words. 

And if your words hurt others, or you sit back while someone you know or knowingly support does, then you are letting your anger control you. You are letting your anger control the nation.

And if you tell me something about relaxing, how historically things are going to get better down the line, I will respond, "Maybe." And then I'll ask you one question:

"Who are you to ask us to wait?"

11/5: Third Cinema And Life As An Exhausted Revolutionary

This Thursday morning, I sat down for a screening of the Netflix documentary 13th, which details the issues of mass incarceration endemic to the United States of America. As I looked around our room packed with at least sixty people between the ages of 18 and 25, all of whom were committed to the cause of education equity, I was reminded of the idea of "third cinema." First theorized in a 1969 manifesto, third cinema is neither a large blockbuster (first cinema) nor a quaint arthouse drama (second cinema) but instead a film meant to incite revolution. The theorists wrote of films that "turned their back on or actively opposed the System" as no other films dared (108), but also mentioned that their screenings are "guerrilla cinema" meant to upset audiences and bring about change (132). 

13th is a brilliant work of art, directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma) in a strikingly kinematic blend of enticing images. Throughout the film, inequities based on nothing more than the color of a human being's skin and socioeconomic status are displayed over and over ad infinitum until the story is told, that "we are living at this time [of racial injustice,] and we are tolerating it."

Surely, our group of young, woke soldiers couldn't stand by at that. I hoped for a second that we angry youth had a chance to get angry, get upset, go out and forge shining revolutionary paths. But then we didn't.

Still from the 1969 Argentinian film  The Hour Of The Furnaces , a well known piece of Third Cinema.  

Still from the 1969 Argentinian film The Hour Of The Furnaces, a well known piece of Third Cinema.  

Because we can't.

For all of the pain and the rage and the hate and the loss and the love built up in our room, we had to teach a room of children for five hours that day, most of arriving underprepared and badly shaken by the grim reality closing in around us. The thing is, third cinema only works if the audience can be driven to revolution. Caught in the middle of a dark week during the hardest month yet, the entire group of young idealistic teachers was simply beaten down by the weight. I was among at least three of my direct team of ten who wept that day, not including the members of our larger group who were simply driven back home to bed by the heaviness.

It was like tying bowling balls to people in free fall.

 

I am hesitant to say that my organization is part of a revolution, especially considering my team's close ties to Bain Capital. However, we are full of individuals who believe we are here to change the world. I believe instead that I am trying as hard as my soul will take to love and learn with community, but the fact that I am exhausted daily does not change. We all are.

The idea of some beam of light that will by itself energize a group or an individual to action is a conceited fallacy. So, how do take on new fights? We cannot, we can only empathize with the suffering and hurt, integrate them into our base of knowledge and try harder, do better. On the one hand, 13th is a movie that did me wrong, wearing me to a small, whimpering pulp at a critical point in the day. 

But on the other, it has helped me take another step to decolonizing my mind. Moving forward is better than standing still.

11/1: Raymond Williams Has Not Aged Well

I love the way the selection of Raymond Williams's "'Mass Communication' and 'Minority Culture'" begins, noting things like "society is a form of communication" and that communication is as important as "power, property, and production" (44-45). In fact, one line jumped out at me as pure poetry: "We degrade art and learning by supposing they are always second-hand activities: that there is life, and then afterwards there are these accounts of it" (45). At that level, the entirety of this selection is poetical and beautiful, the work of an artist. That being said, the essay hits a serious shift as soon as the subsection "HIGH AND LOW" begins (46). 

While I've written about artists whose work is not necessarily mainstream, I've yet to hear any of them refer to themselves as part of "minority culture," so the term confused me. "'Minority culture' can mean two things," writes Williams, noting that it is either "the work of the great artists and thinks" or "the work of [the great] as received and used by a particular social minority, which will indeed, often add to it certain works and habits of its own" (46). Now, this is a bit tricky to think about. How can what is essentially the Canon be referred to as "minority culture" unless Williams is considering elite academics a minority? That's technically true because not everyone can tell you who the prominent scholars are, but it's also a reckless and dangerous misuse of the word that would not fly if it were published today. And even if he means the more modern definition, what does it mean to say that minorities "often add" to culture, as if incapable of producing a unique culture? 

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I am tired of reading about men who are worried the high culture they so treasure will be overtaken and integrated with mass culture, or who feel their ivory tower is being besieged by MTV. I have nothing against "high art," just not a fan of being so culturally insensitive. 

10/29: A Six Second Farewell, And A Racism Roundup

At this point, I'm sure you've heard that Vine will be shuttering sometime in the near future. I am a little sad to see the service go (even if I never really actively used it,) but the completionist side of me knows that the end of an era will allow me to watch the final ultimate compilation of what the best six second videos on the internet are.

However, it's a little disconcerting when we think about what that means for minority voices. NPR's Kat Chow summed up what Vine meant as a non-corporate, low-budget space for Black and brown developing artists so nicely in this article, I won't go beyond linking it and telling you it's worth reading. The main question she asks (and which I have been turning around in my head) is, where do the young people of color turn now to either make short art pieces and share clips of the world around them?

Personally, I'm not worried. There isn't going to be a shortage of independent video-sharing services anytime soon, even if Youtube is getting more corporate by the day.

Chow's piece also brought that question no one has really written in depth about yet to mind: how is Black culture's coopting into memes complicated by different social media platforms?

Just like Elvis stealing rock and roll, white folks steal memes regularly. Take for instance Juju On That Beat, a short dance that took the internet by storm late last month. The song itself is undoubtedly Black, with one of the few lyrics describing the singer's nappy hair. However, nearly every video I've seen that is not the original is a white artist performing the dance. This kind of coopting was typical of Vine, and I don't think I'm sad to see that part go. The whole topic deserves more than a blog post; when I'm not on deadline, I'd like to revisit this.

Changing directions entirely to my own roots in Oregon, Ammon Bundy's merry gang was acquitted of almost all charges. People aren't happy about it, including the state representative for Oregon, Earl Blumenauer. Blumenauer's public Facebook post calls out the specific inequity of the treatment protesters are receiving in North Dakota right now, going as far as to recognize that white armed men and unarmed Native Americans are treated vastly differently. That's not a new sentiment, and it could be a final play in getting reelected next month, but I want to believe that people in Oregon are finally realizing how uneven our state is (and the nation is) for POC.

Thanks for reading a long, rambling blog. I'll supplement this later probably, but I'm signing off for now.

 

 

10/25: McLuhan: The Medium Messages, And I Turn Off My Phone

In theory, I am already familiar with Marshall McLuhan's work. In fact, I read The Medium Is The Massage just a couple years ago, even if I don't remember some of the relevant points. However, the one thing I forgot about reading excerpts of essays (as I am doing now) is that they read like highlight reels. And that's really fucking cool. Normally, in order to read an academic scholar you have to wade through many things that are don't immediately grab you; I consider explanations and examples the verbose equivalent of passing a soccer ball back and forth. What I got in reading selections from Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man is a series of spiced quotes, beginning of course with his idea that "the medium is the message" (39). Essentially, what McLuhan is claiming is that the not only are stories made differently for different mediums, but the medium of transmitting the message also defines how a message is understood. That is to say, "the 'content' of any medium is always another medium... if it is asked, 'What is the content of speech?' it is necessary to say, 'It is an actual process of thought'" (40). It's an easy rabbit-hole to chase art down, but McLuhan seems to find peace in the abstract because it does not convey a linear message. The message is only the medium, that which physically is, not another spelled out idea. 

The next fascinating section for me is labelled "Hot And Cold." There are two types of communication, McLuhan argues, these being "Hot," which gives the consumer a lot of information, and "Cold," which gives the user much less information (41). On the surface, that is interesting because our media today is hotter than ever as we swallow the glut of data and stimulation presented in even the most mundane pieces. Video is never just video, it is a Youtube clip with annotations playing over the screen, comments and ties to social media not far below, and videos suggested by algorithms lurking to make sure you stay on the site as long as possible. And yet, according to McLuhan, "any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one" (42). We can chalk that up to the fact that McLuhan couldn't predict Facebook, but it is still a puzzle I'll come back to someday.

And then, to top it all off, McLuhan finishes by talking on The Singularity and a hivemind. "Rapidly, we approach the final phase..." write McLuhan, "when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society" (43). It's a bizarre idea that humans will suddenly know exactly the same things because we will all know everything, and I think we have a much rockier road than McLuhan writes about. Just to throw thumb tacks at his idealistic balloon, the first issue is one of access to the superbrain, which not all of us have right now, or may ever have. The second is a little more interesting: if we all know everything, what will we ever disagree on? Sure, there are different ways to interpret truths, but complete omniscience implies complete conformity, a loss of difference. I don't know how that will change our human experience, if we allow ourselves to still be organic at that point. 

For now, I'm just savoring what looking back at this blog post will be like when I have a cybernetic brain. Kids are so cute.

10/22: "The Siege Of Jadotville" and African War Movies

I have an affinity for watching war movies. Even if I outwardly deplore violence in all forms, there is a perverse desire in the human heart to watch men and women in uniform live and die on the battlefield. But more importantly, a lot of really good war movies are just as much about exotic locales as they are about killing the people that live there. And, I don't know if you've heard, but I like writing about travel.

While I could focus on any number of sub-topics here, I'll focus on the continent of Africa and the brand new Netflix Original, The Siege Of Jadotville

From Africa: Blood And Guts to Machine Gun Preacher, virtually every major film about the African continent made by Westerners focuses on people killing each other in horrific ways. Even the films that are not about white folks coming in and saving the day are about atrocities; just look at Hotel Rwanda. Why are do non-war movies about Africa not exist? Part of my brain wants to believe that it is the simple economics about filming overseas, but a closer look reveals the truth. There are no comedies or romances set in Africa because we have conditioned ourselves to believe that laughter and love do not come naturally to that continent. 

OK, there may be one or two comedies about Africa, but they're usually at the expense of the people that live there.

Now, what happens when we drop soldiers from the United Nations into this continent of hate and suffering with the goal of defending people? Ridley Scott asked that question bluntly in Black Hawk Down, when an entire city in Somalia rains down hate on trapped American soldiers. That film is now widely recognized as skillful propaganda for the U.S. Military, but its reputation didn't stop Richie Smyth from making a spiritual successor in The Siege Of Jadotville. This time, Irish troops are sent by the fledgling United Nations to keep peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the 1961 civil war. 

Now, for a movie about white men righteously killing Black men, this movie is the tiniest bit self-aware. References to colonialism and the soldiers being unwanted and unnecessary come hard and fast near the beginning of the film, especially from the evil general protecting the mining company's interests. Ireland in particular was chosen by the UN because it has "never conquered another sovereign nation" (though there are many other nations that can also claim to not have conquered. I'm reminded of #NotAllMen.) Furthermore, the entire film centers around the fact that our Irish lads are constantly being abused by their government and by the UN, so who exactly the good guys are kind of gets muddled sometimes.

The "war virgins" preparing to ship out. In front, Jamie "50 Shades Of" Dornan playing a book smart commandant.

The "war virgins" preparing to ship out. In front, Jamie "50 Shades Of" Dornan playing a book smart commandant.

And that's where the nice things I have to say about this movie end. It is unquestionably a simplistic caricature of a few brave white guys holed up against the African hordes, outnumbered and outgunned. As our boys continuously gun down wave after wave of Black bodies from their castle, we see them grow and learn like the true humans they are until they are finally taken captive. The Siege Of Jadotville is a sickening, horrifying film, and I can't possibly fathom why it was made in 2016.

I could write for hours about how many things were uncomfortably terrible, but I'll just circle back to the opening. First, a sun rises over the safari as Commandant Quinlan (Jamie Dornan) says a few words about the African sun either melting or forging you. Sure, makes sense. We then follow Patrice Lumumba, who is not identified at all, getting kidnapped out of the back of his car. Why was it important to show that scene, but not important enough to tell us who he is? But OK, I understand, a political figure is kidnapped and that's a big deal, especially when it turns into a torture scene immediately following that.

This is the image that finally did it for me. Patrice Lumumba's blood splattering on the wood behind his skull as he is shot in the head is not just graphic, it is tasteless. This is different than other depictions of Lumumba's death, especially the famous scene from Lumumba: The Death Of A Prophet, because it has no buildup at all. Only in Africa can a historical figure be turned from Prophet to hamburger within the first minutes of the film seemingly without reason. To kill an important figure in such a way is to erase the deeds of an incredibly important figure and replace them with his gore. And more importantly, it takes the extremely volatile complexities of a political landscape and replaces them with a gunshot.

I don't really have an idea for how to end this piece. So, here's a screenshot from that movie, with Lumumba's character on the right.

I don't really have an idea for how to end this piece. So, here's a screenshot from that movie, with Lumumba's character on the right.

10/18: Adorno's "Culture Industry Reconsidered"

The first time I ever heard someone describe Theodor Adorno's work for me was an annotation in a rented book that read, "Can't write well, rambles to hide it." My first action (after wondering who that strange person was and how they knew me knew me) was to dive into the deep complexities of the elegant, obfuscating German theorist. This particular essay, Culture Industry Considered, is no different, though its style can be traced back to the simple fact that it is a translated speech. Adorno starts his monologue by tracing the term "culture industry" back to a book copublished with Max Horkheimer in 1947, which is admittedly where literally everybody (yes, literally) knows their names from. I kinda liked what I have read of that book, especially considering that they moved from using "mass culture" to "culture industry" so they could "exclude from the outset the interpretation [that culture] arises spontaneously from the masses themselves" (31). That makes sense to me, but that's about where Adorno goes off the rails. From his past work, he dives into the present doom-telling, claiming that both high and low art are ruined because the culture industry combines them (31), that the entirety of "the culture industry turns into public relations, the manufacturing of 'goodwill'" (32-33), and finally lamenting that the critic is ignored because they are a cultured snob (34). Continuing on, Adorno finally claims that "the total effect of the culture industry is one of anti-enlightenment," essentially returning to the point of his previous book (37).

And yet, for being nonsensical on the paragraph level, the work is a series of masterfully constructed sentences. I am particularly touched by his claims about coloured film, in which he states that "No homeland can survive being processed by the films which celebrate it" (35). That simple, incredible statement sums of the issues of tokenism and making identity into a monolith so crisply, I had to read it four times over. Furthermore, Adorno had a pretty gnarly burn on astrologers, when "advise which is valid every day and which is therefore idiotic" still "needs the approval of the stars" (37). 

I have a feeling I will have to take a look back at Adorno's earlier work to explain his crazed polemical ramblings against the culture industry, but I'll leave you with one final sentence that simultaneously frustrates and intrigues me: "What parades as progress in the culture industry... remains the disguise for an eternal sameness" (33). As a progressive media scholar, my passion is finding those traces of progress in the culture industry, the small moments that allows the media our parents see to jump forward in time, and illuminate them so we can recognize and decorate those changing the world's minds today. And yet, if everything is governed by eternal "sameness" and all the changes new identities on screen make are slow and unintentional, then what's the point? No matter how many different kinds of identities we see on our TV screens, if they all still participate in boring sitcoms instead of radical programs that challenge our mindsets, are they changing anything at all or just entering that same world of bland? I'm not 100% sure, and I don't think there's a simple answer. That's the point of Adorno, I think; interpreting media isn't easy, and it sure ain't simple.

10/15: On Aging And Making Art

No birthday would be complete without a reflection on age and maturity. But, seeing as this is a film blog, not a personal one, I thought I'd frame that through a comparison of two of my favorite Martin Scorsese films: Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street. Not particularly original, but it's my party and I'll ramble if I want to.

Thematically, Scorsese often chooses to create worlds on the darker side of society and fill them with cohorts of strong, sinning men. And whether that world is filled with the cabbies of Taxi Driver or the mob and police of The Departed, Scorsese's structure is impeccable: rise, salad days, decline, fall. To say the man is a master of storytelling is an understatement and a misuse of the word master. I don't want to ignore his politics toward POC, specifically Black folks (even if Spike Lee did,) or his dubious politics on media violence, but that isn't the point of my post today.

This message accompanied the television release of TAXI DRIVER

This message accompanied the television release of TAXI DRIVER

No, today's post is about an artist's restraint. 

When Goodfellas came out, it was a masterpiece. As perhaps the most iconic gangster movie at the time (though not of all time; for me, that title belongs to City Of God,) the film is an impeccably constructed Greek Tragedy. Every single shot (and yes, that includes the revered Copacabana scene, which I think pales in comparison to the excellently superfluous opening line) is photographed with the utmost care, and you can almost see the master pulling the strings. If this were a play, it would be Hamlet.

Now compare that to the neurotic fever dream that is The Wolf Of Wall Street. 20+ years later, Scorsese could have made another great film about rules and the consequences of breaking them, but instead he made a confusing mash of hyperenergetic images that tell the story of the nouveau über-riche, starring the actor who just seven months earlier had played Jay Gatsby. They say nothing in filmmaking is accidental, but I would go farther to say that everything in a Scorsese picture is intentional. So, why was this movie so much different?

The answer is simple: in chaos lays elegant solutions. For all of its extravagance, The Wolf Of Wall Street is as uncomplicated as lust. The imperfect ambition, high passions, and human consequences of Harold Hill are replaced by a man who simply succeeds. Even while riding yachts through the maelstrom and taking cocaine to reverse the effects of quaaludes, Leo is not shown slowly crumpling like Hill over the course of the story.  The man is invincible until annihilation, too big to fail. Until he does. What more perfect fate for a white guy who helped crash the American economy?

The crash is all contained within that which is not shown. We never see any intricacies of his collapse because Scorsese is too smart to do that, too mature to revel in the emotion, and instead tells a fable of an unreal man who has no grounding in reality. And as a fable, it has a greater impact on us as pedagogy, not as a flawed tale. The message, that greed and extravagance is rewarded often in our economic system, is shouted through the lack of pathos.

Or maybe they never show Leo acting because he can't do anything but shout.

10/11: Lazarsfeld & Merton and Mass Media

Mass Media Reconsidered: Lazarsfeld & Merton’s “Mass Communication, Popular Taste And Organized Social Action”

            At the time of its writing in the 1940s, Lazarsfeld and Merton’s essay was an investigation not only into the newly developed idea of mass media, but also how it was affecting the people who saw and heard it. The authors seem to validate the widespread nature of mass communications while questioning its importance in the grand scheme, writing early on that “the number of hours people keep the radio turned on gives no indication of the effect upon them” (Lazarsfeld & Merton, 19).  As any academic does in an ambiguous field, the authors quickly move on to break up and define three specific functions of mass media on society.  The first assigns importance to individuals or causes, when “the mass media bestow prestige and enhance the authority of individuals by legitimizing their status” (20). Outside of itself, this function leads into the next, “an enforced application of social norms through the mass media” (21). This section concerns the changing norms of what exactly is normal versus perverse, but the most interesting section to read today is titled “The narcotizing dysfunction.” In the age of the dataglut, words about overexposure “[serving] to narcotize rather than energize the average reader or listener” strikes a firm chord (22). When they write that a citizen “comes to mistake knowing about problems of the day for doing something about them,” they may as well be referencing your friend who posts self-righteous Facebook statuses in lieu of actually serving a community (23).

            From here, the essay moves into more and more speculation, alternating being horrified at the “low level of popular taste” due to people being uneducated (25) while noticing that people “cease listening” to the high-class stuff (27) and making yet another list, this time about what makes propaganda effective. There are some gems in here, like an analysis of Kate Smith as “a hardworking mother who knows the recipe for managing life on fifteen hundred a year” despite making several times that (which would have been handy when I was writing on Bernie Sanders’s Instagram last year) (27). For the most part, though, this essay rambles its way to a conclusion that, again, “the media do not exhibit the degree of social power commonly attributed to them” and that mass media work toward “the maintenance of the going social and cultural structure rather than toward its change” (30).

            I chose to begin my summary articles with this piece for a variety of reasons. Foremost, it was the first one to appear in my book, likely due to its publishing date. However, the main reason I chose to write about this essay in particular is its apparent nature of pessimism: mass media are doomed no matter what, and all we can do is be aware of that. Well, yes, that is true in a sense, but the idea of “mass” has changed so radically recently that nothing remains except the idea of distribution to an unknown (yet huge) amount of people. Rather than the idea of narcotized masses, I choose to believe that individuals are indeed being affected by the media around them even when there is now more than ever. I would love to hear Lazarsfeld and Merton discussing #BlackLivesMatter or the Arab Spring, when mass use of media mobilized revolutions. I choose to believe a world of optimism, when citizens control the mass media, that actively encourages the world to regularly change its social norms.

Welcome

            Welcome, dear reader, to my self-serving, self-starting, Stay Sharp Blog! This blog is designed to keep me motivated in the interim between my time as an undergraduate and my hopeful future as a graduate student by maintaining and honing my writing skills to a finely crafted edge while motivating myself by keeping a strict schedule of at least two posts a week.  There will most likely be two different types of post here. One style of post will be a more formally academic piece in which I will summarize, review, and reflect on selected essays from the second edition of Paul Marris and Sue Thornam’s “Media Studies: A Reader.” The other style will be more fun, and will concern either a well-respected film or a more readily available media object or trend. I know that these defined designs will often morph into a strange fusion of cultural studies, critical theory, and perverse humor, but having some rigidity in form will get me through the tougher parts of my journey. Expect posts on Tuesdays and Saturdays, though we shall see.

            A final warning: at the end of the day, this blog is not some noble endeavor managed efficiently by an academic who spends their time in libraries and at film festivals. No, this is a grimy act of desperation by a starving young writer addicted to chasing his dreams. There will be explicit material, there will be unpolished arguments, and there will be nonsense. Who knows though, maybe someone will read it.

None of these posts are written while I am on the clock for my current employer, which I will not name. All views are my own because I'm greedy.