Category: Media Analysis

Filmic Vision in Blade Runner: A Montage

I haven’t had time to write my thoughts on Blade Runner 2049. I’ve seen the film three times now, and I’m still digesting the film and its implications. In the meantime, however, I’ve made a short montage of scenes from the original Blade Runner (though set to a piece of the new movie’s score). It’s something I’ve had in mind for a long time: a compilation of all the eye imagery, representations of vision, and related elements in the film. There’s nothing worse than an itch you can never scratch, so I’m relieved to have finally scratched this one. It’s about five minutes long and you can watch it below.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/241344857″>Filmic Vision in Blade Runner</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user73754156″>Curry Chandler</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Also, last week I successfully tracked down the IMDB user review of Blade Runner from back in high school. I wrote it in 2003 when I was 17 years old. The review title declares Blade Runner the “epitome of film as an art form”. It was cringe-inducing for me to revisit after all these years, but I’m glad IMDB has maintained the reviews. You can read my Blade Runner review (and all my other IMDB user reviews) here.

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Thoughts on Pittsburgh’s “Parts Unknown”

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News came out this summer that Anthony Bourdain was in town to film a Pittsburgh-based episode of his Parts Unknown program. I like Bourdain and his tv shows, and I am weirdly passionate about Pittsburgh, so I was eagerly awaiting the episode, especially after we learned of his visit to our favorite local bar (I say that like it’s some overlooked hole-in-the-wall; I’m talking about the Squirrel Hill Cafe, aka “The Cage,” which is an East End institution and deservedly so). Ahead of the episode’s premiere last night I saw several articles online calling Bourdain’s trip to Pittsburgh “inevitable.” Pittsburgh was an inevitable stop, they argue, because the city’s booming food scene and consistent ranking as a most-livable city has put it in the national spotlight. Pittsburgh has gotten a fair bit of national attention the last few years, but let’s not kid ourselves. Bourdain and crew came to Pittsburgh because he’s on the 10th season of his show and they’ve already gone to the exciting cities, so the only thing that made a Pittsburgh-centric Parts Unknown inevitable was the show’s continuation.

When word broke last June that Bourdain’s crew was filming around town user rockandrollcityplan posted this forecasted episode rundown on the Pittsburgh subreddit:

“Once downtrodden steel town (que shot of the Carrie Furnace) now changing in the face of gentrification that is creating a burgeoning food scene based on tradition (visit to Pierogies-Plus and then Apteka). Talk about a tradition of pushing out the city’s African American population with a visit to the Hill District (shot of the arena site and then new construction in East Liberty as a juxtaposition). Walk around Squirrel Hill and remark how one of the country’s largest Jewish enclaves is filled with a new Asian population (Everyday Noodles) but some vestiges of old Pittsburgh remain in its dive bars (Squirrel Cage). Something, something, filler in the Strip District… interview with Fetterman.”

Aside from Everyday Noodles and the Strip District, which did not appear in the episode, this prediction ended up being pretty spot-on. Now, the basic narrative beats of the episode can be inferred from Bourdain’s approach across the last 9 seasons of his show. I would characterize the overriding theme of Parts Unknown as old-vs-new: how places have changed, what has emerged, what has disappeared, and what it all means to the people who live there. And within this overriding theme I think there are 2 sub-categories that an episode of PU can fall into: (1), charting the (ostensible) erosion of local culture and tradition in the wake of globalization ; and (2), defying audience expectations about a place by showing that their stereotypical views are outdated and do not reflect modern conditions. There are other threads that run through many of the shows, like “the price of success” (new local businesses are doing well but they’re sowing the seeds of gentrification!) and “accepting the transience of existence”  (tradition diminishes but a new generation emerges).

So now that I’ve seen the episode, what do I make of it? Overall I was very impressed with the episode, and by the people and places the producers’ decided to include. I have to qualify my take on the program by saying that I am not a native Pittsburgher, have only lived here for four years and will likely move away in the not-too-distant future. But I have loved this city from my first day here, embracing its wonders and its flaws, and a great deal of my scholarly research centers on the city’s past, present, and future. Based on my experience here I thought they did a decent job of representing Pittsburgh, showcasing scenes of everyday life along with glimpses of the extreme ends of the economic divide, and was ultimately a more nuanced portrayal than I anticipated (not that I expected much in the first place). My criticisms of the presentation have to do with what was included rather than what was left out (Pittsburghers will surely argue endlessly about the episode’s grievous omissions), so let me run through some of the things I did and did not like about the show.

  • The opening teaser featured hand-made pierogie production, which might seem hackneyed to Pittsburghers but it’s also unavoidable.
  • The first sequence took place in Bloomfield, the neighborhood nearest and dearest to my own heart. I spotted some familiar neighborhood characters in the background and the sausage and peppers are all-too-familiar. Coming home across the Bloomfield Bridge I see the bocce players there regularly, even late into the evening. As I said I like the neighborhood, but a table of meats and sauce being overturned and spilling onto the ground seems like an apt representation of Bloomfield.
  • Wasn’t sure they would feature the Hill District, very glad that they did. An integral part of this city’s history and character that far too many Pittsburghers pass by unawares on a daily basis.
  • Bourdain’s ride-along with Sala Udin captured one of the most characteristic aspects of the Hill District: the neighborhood’s vocality, the call-and-response culture of friend and neighbors acknowledging one another on the street (even when passing in cars, as was seen in the episode).
  • The Hill District sequence also featured my favorite image of the entire episode: a woman ordering lunch at Grandma B’s wearing a Penguins jersey and a hijab .
  • The neon lights of Kelly’s at night seemed particularly telegenic.

Gripes and omissions:

  • No Liberty Tunnel shot. This is the biggest omission for me, way more than any bar or restaurant that went unmentioned. Arriving in Pittsburgh through the Liberty Tunnel is one of the great unique experiences that this city offers. From my first time careening through the tunnel in a U-Haul truck, to every time I return home after a trip, it is always a spectacular sensation to have the world open up upon exiting the tunnel as the city and river valley bursts into being all around you.
  • A small pet peeve, but Fetterman’s addressing Bourdain as “chef” is anachronistic considering Bourdain’s current full-time gig. If anything his honorific should be “TV Producer Tony,” or is it like the Presidency where you carry the title even after you leave office?
  • Other folks seem very upset at the wrestling sequence’s inclusion; it didn’t bother me, as a non-native Pittsburgher and non-wrestling fan I recognize the wrestling angle as an idiosyncratic quirk of the local culture.
  • The demolition derby, on the other hand, seemed out of place and served as a particularly weak ending to the episode. After traveling well beyond the Pittsburgh city limits, the show closes with scenes of automotive carnage underneath some banal closing narration from Bourdain. I’m paraphrasing from memory but this captures the gist:

“What will become of Pittsburgh? How do we welcome the promise of change while preserving what we love about our past? There are probably no easy answers, so for now, let’s just wreck some cars.”

I mean, I get that this show is essentially ‘food & place porn’ that airs on the wince-inducing middle-of-the-road CNN, but even with these measured expectations in mind, that’s a strikingly sophomoric and flippant sentiment to go out on. You’re already equivocating, so why use even more unnecessary weasel words? I mean, “probably” no easy answers? Why not just say that there are no easy answers? Would that risk offending the viewers who believe that there are easy answers, whatever their personal brand of myopic small-mindedness might be?

I’ve watched all of Bourdain’s tv series and enjoy each of them to varying degrees (Cook’s Tour is a grainier grungier early cut and The Layover is the underappreciated peak-travel-tv Bourdain), and his Zero Point Zero crew do excellent work but their reliance on certain templates becomes evident once you’ve seen enough of their productions. One of their favorite go-tos (more evident lately in their non-Bourdain projects) is the technique of editing around a big laugh. Need to transition to the next scene? Insert a clip of everyone having a nice big laugh then cut. And the derby finale sequence represents this sort of “big laugh” thinking on a larger scale: throw up some noise and spectacle to distract the viewers so we can make the big out. And Bourdain’s perfunctory closing narration plays a part in this as well, since who’s going to notice the utter vacuity of your parting words with all that slam-bang car crashing and little-kid-American-flag-waving going on?

I get it: Pittsburgh is so uninteresting the film crew had to drive 30 miles outside the city to film an *ahem* rural, all-American crowd enjoying a demolition derby. Television is a visual medium, after all, so perhaps they couldn’t find sufficient visual spectacle within the city limits. It is important, too, to recognize that Pittsburgh can’t represent all of the greater region, and the rural population is an important part of the contemporary political condition as indicated in the episode’s discussion of the state turning Republican in the last presidential election. But without any semblance of full-circle denouement or contextualization within all that had preceded it, this closing sequence was muddled and disappointing.

After the episode aired I went back to the Pittsburgh subreddit to gauge reactions. Initial responses were overwhelmingly negative, which is perhaps to be expected. Every place means many different things to the people who live there, and it is impossible for a 40 minute TV program to fully capture and represent the essence of a city from even a single individual’s perspective. The user-base of reddit probably skews young, and a number of the negative comments seemed to be responding to perceived attacks upon their generation and lifestyle choices. Among the perceived slights were dispersions cast on millenials, bicyclists, craft beer aficionados, and suburban residents who travel into the city for sports and other entertainment. What these commenters are overlooking, and others in the forum have pointed out, is that the show is called Parts Unknown and aims to represent the sort of lived experiences that are usually absent from mainstream media discourses. I mean, people actually expected a Rick Sebak-style milquetoast promotional showcase of the city? The bottom line is that if these self-identifying millenials want to be constantly catered to and reassured in their lifestyle choices they have no shortage of outlets.

Another theme in the negative reactions, and one I find much more troubling, is indignation that the Hill District was even featured in the episode at all. Apparently this historic neighborhood “doesn’t represent our city.” One commenter particularly criticized the depiction of the deleterious effects that the Civic Arena’s construction had on the Lower Hill. This person characterizes the Hill District’s development as sacrificing “a dying neighborhood in exchange for economy”. Ignoring the obvious vapidity and implicit racism of this statement, I have to ask what “dying neighborhood” this person is invoking? The vibrant Hill District of the 40s and 50s that was destroyed by this malign urban renewal scheme? The neighborhood which was among the most culturally verdant African American communities in the country? The neighborhood that produced August Wilson, Teenie Harris, and Gus Greenlee’s Crawford Grill? Or is it the Hill District of today that is “dying”? The one that remains cut off from the rest of the city (spatially, racially, economically, etc.) 60 years after the Civic Arena project? The one that is so far removed from the eyes and minds of most Pittsburghers we are angered when it appears on our television screens?

Make no mistake: the history of the Hill District, both good and ill, is integral to Pittsburgh’s identity and to its place in the history of this country. Pittsburgh mills may have contributed to the building of skycrapers and the defeat of tyrants, but the razing of the Hill District is just as significant to the history of our national consciousness. It is a history of residential segregation, uneven development, the destruction of black homes and neighborhoods, racial ghettoization, concentrated poverty, and discriminatory policing. More than 100 years ago the journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote about political corruption in Pittsburgh in his book The Shame of Our Cities. Pittsburgh’s industrial production and pollution may have earned the city’s nickname of “hell with the lid off,” Steffens said, but the city’s political landscape was “hell with the lid on.” The sprawling parking lot on the former Civic Arena site that once connected the Hill District to downtown Pittsburgh, and the bungled attempts at redeveloping that land, are continuing sources of shame for this city.

As Anthony Bourdain has pointed out, there are no easy answers. But who needs answers when we can go watch the demolition derby? Let’s go wreck some cars.

The unreal urbanism of Pokémon Go

Earlier this month the mobile-app game Pokémon Go was released in the U.S., and the game has been ubiquitous ever since. Aside from being a sudden pop culture phenomenon, the game’s success poses some significant implications. First of all, this is clearly a breakthrough moment for augmented reality. Pokémon Go is not the first augmented reality game, nor is it the most ambitious, but it has undoubtedly brought AR into mainstream consciousness. Secondly, the success of Pokémon Go has led me to reconsider all my previously held assumptions about the uses of mobile apps and gamification for interfacing with urban spaces. I have historically been cynical about the prospect of using mobile games or AR interfaces to interact with urban space, since they usually strike me as shallow and insignificant, typically resulting in a fleeting diversion like a flash mob dance party, rather than altering people’s perceptions of place in any lasting or meaningful way. Pokémon Go satisfies all the requirements of my earlier preconceptions, yet despite my best critical instincts, I really like the game.

Pokemon Go S&amp;S

A lure party in progress at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial in Oakland. Photo credit: user invertedcheese85 from reddit.com/r/pokemongopittsburgh

 

The buzz about Pokémon Go had been building on various forums online, and after it was released it was virtually impossible to avoid Pokémon Go-related posts. Save for maybe 10 minutes with a friend’s Game Boy in the late 90s, I’ve never played a Pokémon game and I preemptively wrote off Pokémon Go as yet another cultural fad that I would never partake in or understand. Curiosity got the best of my wife, however, and she downloaded the app and we walked around our neighborhood to test it out. To my surprise, the game was a lot of fun; our familiar surroundings were now filled with digital surprises, and we were excited to see neighborhood landmarks and murals represented as Pokéstops, and wild Pokémon hanging out in the doorways of local shops.  We meandered around discovering which of our local landmarks had been incorporated into the game, and each discovery increased my enjoyment of the app. Yes, the game is simple and shallow, but I was completely charmed. I downloaded the game so I could play, too.

Reactions to Pokémon Go have been as fascinating as the game’s widespread adoption. Many news articles sensationalized the inherent dangers of playing the game: distracted players wandering into traffic or off of cliffs, people’s homes being designated as Pokéstops and besieged by players, and traps being laid (using the games “lures”) to ambush and rob aspiring Pokétrainers. There have also been insightful critical analyses of the game. An early and oft-shared article by Omari Akil considered the implications of Pokémon Go in light of recent police shootings of black men, warning that “Pokemon Go is a death sentence if you are a black man“:

I spent less than 20 minutes outside. Five of those minutes were spent enjoying the game. One of those minutes I spent trying to look as pleasant and nonthreatening as possible as I walked past a somewhat visibly disturbed white woman on her way to the bus stop. I spent the other 14 minutes being distracted from the game by thoughts of the countless Black Men who have had the police called on them because they looked “suspicious” or wondering what a second amendment exercising individual might do if I walked past their window a 3rd or 4th time in search of a Jigglypuff.

Others questioned the distribution of Pokémon across neighborhoods, suggesting that poor or black neighborhoods had disproportionately fewer Pokémon and Pokéstops. Among urbanists, however, reaction to the game has been mixed. Mark Wilson at Fastcodesign declared that Pokémon Go “is quietly helping people fall in love with their cities“. Ross Brady of Architizer celebrated the game for sparking “a global wave of urban exploration“. Writing for de zeen, Alex Wiltshire boldly states that the game has “redrawn the map of what people find important about the world“. City Lab contributor Laura Bliss proclaimed “Pokémon Go has created a new kind of flaneur“.

Others have been more critical of the game, with Nicholas Korody at Archinect retorting: “No, Pokémon Go is not an urban fantasy for the new flaneur“. At Jacobin, Sam Kriss implores readers to “resist Pokémon Go“:

Walk around. Explore your neighborhood. Visit the park. Take in the sights. Have your fun. Pokémon Go is coercion, authority, a command issuing from out of a blank universe, which blasts through social and political cleavages to finally catch ‘em all. It must be resisted.

Some, like Jeff Sparrow at Overland, drew direct parallels to the Situationists:

On the one hand, that’s way cool – suddenly, the old pub near your house is inhabited by monsters.

On the other, there’s something faintly distasteful about the recuperation of specific real histories into a billion-dollar corporate mythology. Nearly 150 people lost their lives when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned to the ground, entirely needless deaths caused by the atrocious working conditions of the garment trade. The tragedy became a rallying point for the trade union movement, the name of the factory, a shorthand reference to employers’ greed.

Now, though, it’s three free Pokeballs.

We might also say, then, that, even as the game leads players to embrace the derive, it also offers a remarkable demonstration of the phenomenon that Debord critiqued.

Writing for the Atlantic, Ian Bogost mediated on “the tragedy of Pokémon Go“:

We can have it both ways; we have to, even: Pokémon Go can be both a delightful new mechanism for urban and social discovery, and also a ghastly reminder that when it comes to culture, sequels rule. It’s easy to look at Pokémon Go and wonder if the game’s success might underwrite other, less trite or brazenly commercial examples of the genre. But that’s what the creators of pervasive games have been thinking for years, and still almost all of them are advertisements. Reality is and always has been augmented, it turns out. But not with video feeds of twenty-year old monsters in balls atop local landmarks. Rather, with swindlers shilling their wares to the everyfolk, whose ensuing dance of embrace and resistance is always as beautiful as it is ugly.

Pokémon Go’s popularity has led to many online comparisons to the Star Trek: TNG episode “The Game,” in which the crew of the Enterprise is overcome by a mind-controlling video game. The game in Star Trek is not strictly-speaking an augmented reality game, but does involve projecting images onto the player’s vision similar to an AR-overlay. Previous gaming and gadget fads have been compared to the TNG episode, notably Google Glass (for it’s similarity to the eye-beaming design used to interface with the game in Star Trek) and the pervasively popular Angry Birds game (as evident in this parody video). The comparison has regained cultural cachet because, unlike Angry Birds which can be played on the couch, Pokémon Go is played in motion. This, of course, has contributed to the perception of the game’s zombie-fying effects; we’ve grown accustomed to the fact that everyone’s eyes are glued to a smartphone screen in our public spaces, but now there are whole flocks of people milling around with their eyes on their devices.

My cynical side is inclined to agree with the critics who see Pokémon Go’s proliferation as proof positive of the passification and banalization of our society; the visions of Orwell, Bradbury, and Phil Dick all realized at once. But there’s something there that has me appreciative, even excited about this goofy game. As my wife and I wandered our neighborhood looking for pocket monsters, we noticed several other people walking around staring at their phones. This is not an uncommon sight, but it is re-contextualized in light of Pokémon Go’s popularity. “Look,” my wife would say, “I bet they’re playing, too.” After a while she had to know for sure, and started walking up to people and asking, “Are you playing Pokémon Go?” Every person she asked was indeed playing the game. Then we were walking along with these people we’ve just met, discussing play strategies, sharing  Pokéstop locations, spreading word of upcoming lure parties.

One night around 10:30 last week we went into the Oakland neighborhood, home to both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon’s campuses and a hotbed of  Pokémon Go activity. When we arrived, at least 20 people sat along the wall in front of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial, smartphones in hands. We walked around the base of the Cathedral of Learning, where dozens of people in groups of two, three, or more were slowly pacing, stopping to capture a virtual creature. We crossed the street to Schenley plaza, where still dozens more people trekked through the grass, laughing and exclaiming and running up to their friends to share which Pokémon they had just got. Sure, most of these people were only talking to their own groups of friends, if they were talking at all, but it was still a cool experience. For me, the greatest thing was not which monsters I caught or XP my avatar earned; rather it was the energy, the unspoken but palpable buzz generated by all these people walking around in the dark of a warm summer night. Yes, I was giving attention to my smartphone screen, but what I remember most from that evening are the stars, and the fireflies, and the murmuring voices. Pokémon Go is promoting a sort of communal public activity, even if the sociality it produces is liminal at best. Yes, it is still shallow, still commercial, still programmed, but it’s something; there’s an energy there and a potential that is worth paying attention to.

Pokémon Go is not the be-all-end-all of augmented urban exploration, nor should be it considered the pinnacle of how mobile technology can enable new ways of interfacing with city space. But the game’s popularity, and my personal experience using it, has given me hope for the potential of AR apps to enrich our experience of urban spaces and engender new types of interactions in our shared environments.

Thoughts on polemics, Audre Lorde, and Do the Right Thing

Radical black feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde found productive potential in anger. According to Lester Olson, in his article “Anger among allies”: “Lorde distinguished between anger and hatred, and she salvaged the former as potentially useful and generative” (p. 287). Lorde’s distinction between anger and hatred is developed in a quote from her remarks: “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change” (p. 298).

In a quote from her address titled “The Uses of Anger,” Lorde uses the metaphor of the virus to describe hatred:

“We are working in a context of oppression and threat, the cause of which is certainly not the angers which lie between us, but rather that virulent hatred leveled against all women, people of Color, lesbians and gay men, poor people – against all of us who are seeking to examine the particulars of our lives as we resist our oppressions, moving toward coalition and effective action.” (emphasis added)

This thematic link between hatred and disease is also present in Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing. While the film’s characters never state the distinction between anger and hatred as explicitly as Lorde does, the film makes many associations that establish a difference between the two. The action of the film takes place in a roughly 24 hour period, during the hottest day of the summer in Brooklyn, New York. The temperature is referenced throughout the film, and the link between the heat and character’s emotions is made early on. Anger is associated with heat: characters talk about “getting hot” as a euphemism for getting angry. By extension then, the hottest day of the summer could also be understood as the angriest.

Hatred, on the other hand, is continually linked with sickness and disease. Early in the film, when pizzeria owner Sal arrives with his two sons to start business for the day, his son Pino says of the pizza shop:

“I detest this place like a sickness.”

Sal admonishes his son, saying: “That sounds like hatred.”

This connection returns at the end of film, again in front of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, which at this point has been reduced to a smoldering shell. Mookie seeks Sal out to ask for the wages he is due from the previous week’s labor. Angrily, Sal throws $500 in $100 bills at Mookie, twice as much as he is owed. Mookie leaves $200 on the ground, telling Sal that he only wants what he has earned. There is a stalemate as the two men stare off, the $200 between them, and each of them waiting for the other to pick it up. Apparently not understanding why Mookie would leave the money lying on the ground Sal asks him:

“Are you sick?”

Mookie replies: “I’m hot as a motherfucker; I’m alright, though.”

Mookie’s response here should not be understood merely as a comment about the weather. Yes, he is hot because of the summer heat, but the associations presented by the film make clear the deeper meaning of this exchange. Mookie is angry, angry as a motherfucker; having endured the ordeal of the hottest day of the summer, culminating in his throwing a trashcan through a shop window, and now he finds himself the following day with his various responsibilities still in place, but now without a source of income. But he does not hate Sal. He is not infected by hatred. He is not sick.

If the film associates hatred with sickness and disease, how does it relate or portray love? The radio DJ character, Mister Senor Love Daddy, seems like an obvious connection. Another important component is the name of Senor Love Daddy’s radio station: We Love Radio 108 (“Last on your dial, first in your heart.”). The name of the radio station not only presages Clear Channel Communications’ eventual rebranding to I Heart Radio (kidding, of course), it also establishes a connection between love and another of the film’s characters: Radio Raheem.

Radio Raheem is arguably the character most closely associated with the concepts of love and hate. Raheem has custom brass knuckles on each hand: the word “LOVE” on his right hand, and the word “HATE” on his left. Through the presence of these words on his knuckles, and his performance of the accompanying story about the struggle between love and hate, “the story of life,” Radio Raheem recalls Reverend Harry Powell from the 1955 film Night of the Hunter. Reverend Powell has the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles: love on the right hand, and hate on the left. He also tells “the story of life,” which, although using different language than Raheem, tells essentially the same account of a struggle between hate and love, where hate has the upper hand for a while but is eventually beat out by love.

In Night of the Hunter, Reverend Powell’s performance of pious geniality conceals a dark secret: he is a serial killer, traveling the country seducing widows whom he soon murders before absconding with what wealth he can steal. In Do the Right Thing, Radio Raheem is not revealed to be a serial killer, but he is done in by a sort of serial killing: the recurring killing of men of color perpetrated by police officers. The characters of the film react to Raheem’s death in a personal way (“They killed Radio Raheem!”), but it is clearly also a reaction to this serial killing of black men that contributes to the crowd’s reaction (someone is heard exclaiming, “They did it again!”).

A final question: Is Do the Right Thing a polemic? I find it interesting to consider the question in light of the definitions offered by various authors. In her article on Larry Kramer’s polemical form, Erin Rand writes of polemics:

“Hence, polemics refute dominant ideologies and modes of thinking by rejecting the primacy of reason an invoking explicitly moral claims. In polemics a moral position is not simply advanced through rhetoric, but morality actually does rhetorical work.” (p. 305)

Rand traces the meaning of “polemic” to the Greek polemikos, meaning “warlike”,  and when Lee’s film was released many reviewers and commentators were concerned that it amounted to a call for violence. I am not sure the film satisfies Rand’s four elements of rhetorical form, but I do believe it satisfies the rhetorical move that Olson calls shifting subjectivities:

“An advocate articulates a shift in the second persona of an address, wherein the auditors or readers occupy one kind of role initially and then, drawing on what is remembered or learned from that position, are repositioned subsequently into a different role that is harder for them to recognize or occupy, but that might possess some transforming power.” (p. 284)

As film critic Roger Ebert recounted in an essay about the film:

“Many audiences are shocked that the destruction of Sal’s begins with a trash can thrown through the window by Mookie (Lee), the employee Sal refers to as “like a son to me.” Mookie is a character we’re meant to like. Lee says he has been asked many times over the years if Mookie did the right thing. Then he observes: “Not one person of color has ever asked me that question.” But the movie in any event is not just about how the cops kill a black man and a mob burns down a pizzeria. That would be too simple, and this is not a simplistic film. It covers a day in the life of a Brooklyn street, so that we get to know the neighbors, and see by what small steps the tragedy is approached.”

Some critics and audience members objected to what they interpreted as Lee’s call for violence, and at least an implicit approval of property destruction. We heard similar rhetoric last year, when protests in response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner became characterized by media emphasis on incidents of property damage and looting. The state response to protests is always characterized by a tolerance so long as demonstrations are peaceful and “civil,” and when this line is broached it functions to demonize and dismiss the “protestors” at large. Is this not evocative of the white woman who purportedly said to Audre Lorde, “Tell me how you feel, but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you”?

McLuhan and Mad Men

  • The final episode of acclaimed TV series Mad Men aired this week. I’ve not seen any of the show (though now that the series is complete it is ripe for binge-watching), but I did appreciate this piece from Stephen Marche at Esquire, analyzing Mad Men through Marshall McLuhan’s media theory (spoilers if, like me, you’re not caught up with the show):

I sometimes wonder when I’m watching Mad Men, if and when the various characters read the passage above, from Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, which came out in 1964. Of all the great sixties cultural icons that are missing from Mad Men—and some of the absences can be glaring—I’ve always found the lack of any mention of media writer and thinker McLuhan the most inexplicable. Maybe he was just too close to the bone.

McLuhan is the perfect guide to Mad Men for one obvious reason: He loved advertising. He was among the first to celebrate unreservedly what he called “the Madison Avenue frog-men-of-the-mind.” The business of trying to sell people more stuff neither frightened nor appalled him. He didn’t look down on it, as so many of his contemporaries did.

Resistance is Feudal: A descent into McLuhan’s media maelstrom

McLuhan maelstrom

McLuhan’s approach to media studies is almost always characterized as deterministic. The entry for McLuhan in the Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory states in part: “McLuhan’s version of technological determinism is extreme […] the most striking feature of his studies of the media is their total failure to discuss the ownership and control of means of communication.” McLuhan addresses the issue of determinism early on in The Gutenberg Galaxy, writing: “Far from being deterministic, however, the present study will, it is hoped, elucidate a principal factor in social change which may lead to a genuine increase of human autonomy.” Rather than tackle the issue of whether McLuhan “really was” a technological determinist, I will take McLuhan at his word regarding the stated goal of his media studies: “Study the modes of the media, in order to hoick all assumptions out of the subliminal, non-verbal realm for scrutiny and for prediction and control of human purposes.” So if McLuhan’s goal in The Gutenberg Galaxy is to increase human autonomy in the electronic age, what does that look like in practice and how would it be accomplished?

As noted in one of the introductions to The Gutenberg Galaxy, literature is major touchstone for McLuhan’s work. His frequent use of literary allusions and the stylistic decisions employed in his works have caused some critics to consider his books more literary exercises than scholarship or theory. One such literary reference in Gutenberg Galaxy is the short story “A Descent into the Maelstrom” by Edgar Allan Poe. In Poe’s story, three brothers on a fishing trip are drawn into a whirlpool. As their ship is pulled into the vortex, two of the brothers drown. The fate of the third brother is described in this excerpt from the Wikipedia summary of the story: “At first [he] only saw hideous terror in the spectacle. In a moment of revelation, he saw that the Maelstrom is a beautiful and awesome creation. Observing how objects around him were pulled into it, he deduced that “the larger the bodies, the more rapid their descent” and that spherical-shaped objects were pulled in the fastest. Unlike his brother, he abandoned ship and held on to a cylindrical barrel until he was saved several hours later.”

McLuhan alludes to the vortex in Poe’s story to describe the plight of individuals making sense of a world caught between literary culture and post-literate technology. He writes: “May not it be our job in the new electronic age to study the action of the new vortex on the body of other cultures?” (p. 88). Extending this metaphor, McLuhan is ostensibly equating his approach to media studies with the sailor’s study of the actions of the objects in the vortex. This suggests that by understanding the effects brought on by the interaction of various media in the electronic era we can consciously act and thereby not be drawn under the water, as the sailor in the story survived by acting deliberately and not succumbing to panic and terror as his brothers did.

The notion of conscious acts seems key to McLuhan’s project of increasing human autonomy in the face of wide-sweeping technological determinism. The Gutenberg Galaxy is peppered with references to Finnegan’s Wake, often accompanied by allusions to waking up and regaining consciousness. McLuhan writes about “hypnotic” and “entrancing” effects of media, of the “involuntary and subliminal character” of perspective engendered by print. He says that “the influence of unexamined assumptions derived from technology leads quite unnecessarily to maximal determinism in human life” (p. 280). This returns us to McLuhan’s stated goal in his media studies, of unearthing subliminal assumptions for scrutiny and the basis of conscious decision-making. In essence, the aim of McLuhan’s probes, puns, and provocations could be summed up in a single sentiment: “Wake up!” Returning now to my initial question: how does McLuhan propose that we “wake up” and become more conscious of media effects? The Gutenberg Galaxy ends on a cliffhanger, and with a promise that McLuhan will return in the sequel, but the concluding chapter makes the case that it is the function of art to rouse the sleeping to consciousness, and draw attention from a focus on content to an awareness of form.

MISC Monday: MLK media literacy; social media stress; the attention economy, and more

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Examine the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement with hundreds of PBS LearningMedia resources.  Here is a sampling of resources from the extensive offering in PBS LearningMedia. Use these resources to explore media literacy from historical documentaries to media coverage of social movements.

Among the survey’s major findings is that women are much more likely than men to feel stressed after becoming aware of stressful events in the lives of others in their networks.

“Stress is kind of contagious in that way,” said Keith Hampton, an associate professor at Rutgers University and the chief author of the report. “There’s a circle of sharing and caring and stress.”

In a survey of 1,801 adults, Pew found that frequent engagement with digital services wasn’t directly correlated to increased stress. Women who used social media heavily even recorded lower stress. The survey relied on the Perceived Stress Scale, a widely used stress-measurement tool developed in the early 1980s.

“We began to work fully expecting that the conventional wisdom was right, that these technologies add to stress,” said Lee Rainie, the director of Internet, science, and technology research at Pew. “So it was a real shock when [we] first looked at the data and … there was no association between technology use, especially heavy technology use, and stress.”

The higher incidence of stress among the subset of technology users who are aware of stressful events in the lives of others is something that Hampton and his colleagues call “the cost of caring.”

“You can use these technologies and, as a woman, it’s probably going to be beneficial for your level of stress. But every now and then, bad things are going to happen to people you know, and there’s going to be a cost for that,” Hampton said.

The real danger we face from computer automation is dependency. Our inclination to assume that computers provide a sufficient substitute for our own intelligence has made us all too eager to hand important work over to software and accept a subservient role for ourselves. In designing automated systems, engineers and programmers also tend to put the interests of technology ahead of the interests of people. They transfer as much work as possible to the software, leaving us humans with passive and routine tasks, such as entering data and monitoring readouts. Recent studies of the effects of automation on work reveal how easily even very skilled people can develop a deadening reliance on computers. Trusting the software to handle any challenges that may arise, the workers fall victim to a phenomenon called “automation complacency”.

Should we be scared of the future?
I think we should be worried of the future. We are putting ourselves passively into the hands of those who design the systems. We need to think critically about that, even as we maintain our enthusiasm of the great inventions that are happening. I’m not a Luddite. I’m not saying we should trash our laptops and run off to the woods.

We’re basically living out Freud’s death drive, trying our best to turn ourselves into inorganic lumps.
Even before Freud, Marx made the point that the underlying desire of technology seemed to be to create animate technology and inanimate humans. If you look at the original radios, they were transmission as well as reception devices, but before long most people just stopped transmitting and started listening.

From an educational perspective, what we must understand is the relationship between information and meaning. Meaning is not an inevitable outcome of access to information but rather, emerges slowly when one has cultivated his or her abilities to incorporate that information in purposeful and ethical ways. Very often this process requires a slowdown rather than a speedup, the latter of which being a primary bias of many digital technologies. The most powerful educational experiences stem from the relationships formed between teacher and student, peer and peer. A smart classroom isn’t necessarily one that includes the latest technologies, but one that facilitates greater interaction among teachers and students, and responsibility for the environment within which one learns. A smart classroom is thus spatially, not primarily technologically, smart. While the two are certainly not mutually exclusive (and much has been written on both), we do ourselves a disservice when privileging the latter over the former.

  • Dowd’s argument here is similar to Carr’s thoughts on MOOCs:

In education, computers are also falling short of expectations. Just a couple of years ago, everyone thought that massive open online courses – Moocs – would revolutionise universities. Classrooms and teachers seemed horribly outdated when compared to the precision and efficiency of computerised lessons. And yet Moocs have largely been a flop. We seem to have underestimated the intangible benefits of bringing students together with a real teacher in a real place. Inspiration and learning don’t flow so well through fibre-optic cables.

  • MediaPost editor Steve Smith writes about his relationship with his iPhone, calling it life’s new remote:

The idea that the cell phone is an extension of the self is about as old as the device itself. We all recall the hackneyed “pass your phone to the person next to you” thought experiment at trade shows four or five years ago. It was designed to make the point of how “personally” we take these devices.

And now the extraordinary and unprecedented intimacy of these media devices is a part of legal precedent. The recent Supreme Court ruling limiting searches of cell phone contents grounded the unanimous opinion on an extraordinary observation. Chief Justice John Roberts described these devices as being “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

We are only beginning to understand the extent to which these devices are blending the functionality of media with that of real world tools. And it is in line with one of Marshall McLuhan’s core observations in his “Understanding Media” book decades ago.

As early as 1971 Herbert Simon observed that “what information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”. Thus instead of reaping the benefits of the digital revolution we are intellectually deprived by our inability to filter out sensory junk in order to translate information into knowledge. As a result, we are collectively wiser, in that we can retrieve all the wisdom of the world in a few minutes, but individually more ignorant, because we lack the time, self-control, or curiosity to do it.

There are also psychological consequences of the distraction economy. Although it is too soon to observe any significant effects from technology on our brains, it is plausible to imagine that long-term effects will occur. As Nicholas Carr noted in The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains, repeated exposure to online media demands a cognitive change from deeper intellectual processing, such as focused and critical thinking, to fast autopilot processes, such as skimming and scanning, shifting neural activity from the hippocampus (the area of the brain involved in deep thinking) to the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain engaged in rapid, subconscious transactions). In other words, we are trading speed for accuracy and prioritise impulsive decision-making over deliberate judgment. In the words of Carr: “The internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it”.

The research carried out by the Harvard Medical School and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences studied the sleeping patterns of 12 volunteers over a two-week period. Each individual read a book before their strict 10PM bedtime — spending five days with an iPad and five days with a paper book. The scientists found that when reading on a lit screen, volunteers took an average of 10 minutes longer to fall asleep and received 10 minutes less REM sleep. Regular blood samples showed they also had lower levels of the sleep hormone melatonin consistent with a circadian cycle delayed by one and a half hour.

Ever since the frequent cocaine user and hater of sleep Thomas Edison flicked on the first commercially-viable electric lightbulb, a process has taken hold through which the darkness of sleep time has been systematically deconstructed and illuminated.

Most of us now live in insomniac cities with starless skies, full of twinkling neon signage and flickering gadgets that beg us to stay awake longer and longer. But for all this technological innovation, we still must submit to our diurnal rhythm if we want to stay alive.

And even though sleep may “frustrate and confound strategies to exploit and reshape it,” as Crary says, it, like anything, remains a target of exploitation and reshaping – and in some cases, all-out elimination.

What is striking about this corporate monopolization of the internet is that all the wealth and power has gone to a small number of absolutely enormous firms. As we enter 2015, 13 of the 33 most valuable corporations in the United States are internet firms, and nearly all of them enjoy monopolistic market power as economists have traditionally used the term. If you continue to scan down the list there are precious few internet firms to be found. There is not much of a middle class or even an upper-middle class of internet corporations to be found.

This poses a fundamental problem for democracy, though it is one that mainstream commentators and scholars appear reluctant to acknowledge: If economic power is concentrated in a few powerful hands you have the political economy for feudalism, or authoritarianism, not democracy. Concentrated economic power invariably overwhelms the political equality democracy requires, leading to routinized corruption and an end of the rule of law. That is where we are today in the United States.

The short answer is technology. Yes, Facebook really did ruin everything. The explosion in communication technologies over the past decades has re-oriented society and put more psychological strain on us all to find our identities and meaning. For some people, the way to ease this strain is to actually reject complexity and ambiguity for absolutist beliefs and traditional ideals.

Philosopher Charles Taylor wrote that it would be just as difficult to not believe in God in 1500 as it is to believe in God in the year 2000. Obviously, most of humanity believes in God today, but it’s certainly become a much more complicated endeavor. With the emergence of modern science, evolution, liberal democracy, and worldwide 24-hour news coverage of corruption, atrocities, war and religious hypocrisy, today a person of faith has their beliefs challenged more in a week than a person a few generations ago would have in half a lifetime.