Totally Alone in the Universe

I saw this tonight, which highlights an insignificant something that has been bugging me for awhile:

While we wait to establish contact, one technique we can use back on Earth is an equation that American astronomer Frank Drake formulated in the 1960s to calculate the number of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations may exist in the Milky Way galaxy.

It is not a rigorous equation, offering a wide range of possible answers. Instead it is more a tool used to help understand how many worlds might be out there and how those estimates change as missions like Kepler, a telescope that is currently searching for Earth-like planets, begin to discover more about our universe.

Drake Equation infographic

This brought back to mind something I had written in my personal journal a few weeks ago:

On some podcast, someone said that in the case of an alien invasion, they would rather be killed by an alien rather than in the panic of people, because then they would know that humanity is not alone in the universe.

First of all, if there were alien life in the universe, I think the point most people miss is how fundamentally different their form of intelligence is likely to be. I doubt communication is even possible. Continue reading

Prometheus and Post-Humans

I saw Ridley Scott’s Prometheus with my wife this afternoon. I’d been looking forward to it for awhile, simply because the motion picture industry rarely puts out any decent science fiction. Space/the future as a narrative playground has been crowded out by fantasy films, comic book super hero stories, and horror about the undead. I understand there are those don’t who want scifi to be a limited term that only regards rockets and robots, but the death of Ray Bradbury underlines the way scifi has changed. Writers like Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison wrote stories that were more than the technological fantasy of Issac Asimov or Robert Forward – they were future ethics, stories about how technology introduced changes in society that demanded new moral structures and behaviors to deal with the transformations we were/are facing.

The closest we come to this type of story is when we recycle something by Dick (one of the trailers we saw involved another adaptation/remake of Total Recall) or if someone courageous writes a paper-thin metaphor with some scifi element as a stand in for a current social issue. But this isn’t one person’s fault. Prometheus itself reinforces the truth that “you can’t please everybody so you’ve got to please yourself.” Studios and directors try way to hard to write films for a mass audience, and the films are inferior for it. Inferior is relative here; we’re talking about the difference between a good movie and a film that is good. If we subscribe to auteur theory for a second, Ridley Scott gave us a good film in 1982 with Blade Runner – which was duly nominated for two Academy Awards.  Much of the rest of his work has been to make good movies – including 2000’s Gladiator (which was nominated for 12 awards and received 5). The awards themselves reflect the culture industry’s praise for acceptable levels of mediocrity – if you make a bad movie, nobody would ever give you one. If you make a great film, no one can give you one. Great films alienate as many people as they attract. The mediocrity threshold is demonstrated by Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and it’s hopeless follower, Crazy Heart. Prometheus works very hard to be a solidly good movie, which means it had no hopes of being great.

The rest of my analysis has spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing. Continue reading

Tim Kreider’s Pain

This quote struck me, as well as this image from Tim Kreider, submitted by Carolyn Ewald. Those are live pigs – and something about this image speaks to me about everything that wrong with our society in a metatextual/remix way:


‎”…if that pain were actually collective instead of simply reiterative the sheer weight of it would drag the world from the walls of the universe and send it crashing and burning through whatever night it might yet be capable of engendering until it was not even ash.” – Cormac McCarthy, The Sunset Limited

Naturalization and Questioning the Codes We Live By

Paul Bass and Shafiq Abdussabur

Last Wednesday night the Youth Rights Media staff and I took a group of students from my Media Literacy class to a talk by Shafiq R. F. Abdussabur. The author of “A Black Man’s Guide to Law Enforcement in America,” Abdussabur is a police officer also runs workshops for other police departments in Connecticut. The purpose of this talk was “Race, Politics, and Police,” mostly focussed around racial profiling and police/community relations, always timely topics in New Haven but moreso given the way East Haven’s dirty laundry has gone national.

Because I am a terribly cynical person*, I would characterize Abdussabur’s comments as “the best PR the NHPD has going for it.” While well intentioned, there are uncomfortable overtones that even the youth in our program picked up on. His book, as the literature describes,

gives tough love instructions for those who think they have been victims of racial ethnic profiling, but only to realize that they where [sic] poor communicators.

Abdussabur did raise an important point where he talked about the dificulty of addressing racial profiling and moving forward in solving the problem because of a lack of data. While CT passed the Racial Profiling Prohibition Act in 1999, this was never properly enforced and East Haven was one of several cities that didn’t regularly file reports which would provide evidential records of profiling.

The troublesome bit was all the qualifiers that Abdussabur has for the public. On one hand, they are pretty common-sense – be polite to police, watch your tone, respect their authority, etc. During Q&A, he explained that this is something police belief the public already knows, yet chooses to ignore. The answer is evidently to train the public to meet the police’s expectations. That flies in the face of the seemingly obvious need to train police in cultural competency and overall better people skills.

Also worrisome was his lack of clarity on whether or not it’s ok to record police (which Paul Bass, asking the questions, undoubted wished he could have explored), something an audience member took objection to. It’s really at the heart of these current issues.

AbdussaburThere’s a bit of good and bad here – Abdussabur is clearly aware of what he calls the need for “multidimensional thinking” – where we see each other beyond the roles we play, a degree of personalization where an enemy becomes someone’s parent, sibling, child, etc. The enemy in need of this multidimensional representation is not a “thug,” but the police themselves. He dismisses hip-hop fashion and youth culture as fads and trends, that “everyone looks like a gangster,” and the talk seemed to gloss over the way that media portrayals can make certain demographics into a stereotype, leading to the problem of racial profiling. On a beat, police rely on what he refers to “officer discretion,” or their hunches – which can be motivated by racial preconceptions brought on by those faulty representations.

These preconceptions are promoted and internalized as a value within a culture, as self-perpetuating ego defenses against out-groups (“blacks are so violent, no wonder so many of them are in prison!”) Anecdotal evidence such as the NYPD’s repeated screening of an Islamophobic film for recruits should still be infuriating, but not surprising, in a society where Muslims have been vilified by the media for over twenty five years. The same would go for African-Americans and Latinos, who (as with any non-white minority) have continuously struggled for fair media representations which weren’t ridiculous or offensive caricatures or contrived and pandering token cutouts of real people.

These representations really not only determine the nature “officer discretion,” but the way people see themselves (identity) and the world (ideology).

Connotation, in short, produces the illusion of denotation, the illusion of language as transparent and of the signifier and the signified as being identical. Thus denotation is just another connotation. From such a perspective denotation can be seen as no more of a ‘natural’ meaning than is connotation but rather as a process of naturalization. Such a process leads to the powerful illusion that denotation is a purely literal and universal meaning which is not at all ideological, and indeed that those connotations which seem most obvious to individual interpreters are just as ‘natural’. According to an Althusserian reading, when we first learn denotations, we are also being positioned within ideology by learning dominant connotations at the same time (Silverman 1983, 30). – from Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners

Abdussabur said, “Policing is politics through the use of force.” I think that’s a great quote. I think it’s probably the most unintentionally accurate quote about humanity in general – we police others, we police ourselves, according to some measure of politics, which isn’t always decided by a legislature somewhere (as he presumably meant it to be). His outlook on policing is a decidedly parental one, in the decision to educate the public on how to better conform to the police’s expectations of them. But although the absurdity of that thought is lost on some, we have to understand that each of us go through that process of naturalization, whether it’s through induction into the culture of policing or just “normal life.” We should all have that multidimensional thinking Abdussabur mentions, which lets us challenge codes and dominant connotations – but that training should certainly be applied as part of the institutional naturalization police go through.

For more on the “evil arab/muslim” orientalist stereotype, see Steuter, Erin, and Deborah Wills. At War with Metaphor. Media, Propaganda, and Racism in the War on Terror. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

On representation of the black community, try Herman Gray, “The Politics of Representation In Network Television,” in Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, Eds., Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks, Rev. Ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001: 439-462. There’s a terrific takedown of the Cosby show in it, in case you ever wanted to be disappointed by one more thing.

*It should go without saying that comments are my own and do not reflect the views of Youth Rights Media. Just because I was there with them does not mean I am not an independent thinker with my own opinions.

Occupy The Super Bowl?

Remember what I said (or Eco said) about protesting and sports?

There is one thing that – even if it were considered essential – no student movement or urban revolt or global protest or what have you would ever be able to do. And that is to occupy the football field on a Sunday.

Well, it appears as though people are starting to grasp the power of that idea:

As Tithi Bhattacharya says,

“…the protest on Sunday actually is not a one-off. It stands on the shoulder of and in solidarity with the thousands of people who came to the State House over the last two weeks to protest this bill. It is also not, I think, the end—-or I hope it’s not the end of this series of protests. Why the Super Bowl? Lucas Oil Stadium was built with 100% union labor. Every single structure that is up in the city of Indianapolis today that has been built to beautify the city has been built with union labor. So, I think it is absolutely shameful that the legislature passed a law that condemns unions and is now using the city to kind of showcase Indianapolis while ordinary people in Indiana are completely opposed to this law. The protest on Sunday also stands in solidarity with the NFL Players Union, which has come out so strongly against the legislation. I think there has been some talk of how the Occupy movement may—-there has been some fear that the Occupy movement may disrupt a Super Bowl. As far as I know and as far as I’m concerned, the Occupy movement nationally has been a non-violent movement and absolutely is committed to being non-violent on Saturday. The question of disruption absolutely is not an issue because as I said before, we stand in solidarity with the Players Union. The only thing the Occupy movement, on Sunday, hopes to disrupt is the complacency of the 1% who think that they can get away with this.”

Good luck to them, but just remember how Eco wrote that:

…an attack on a sports field would surely cause the massacre of the attackers, indiscriminate, total slaughter carried out by self-respecting citizens aghast at the outrage…

Not to say that it shouldn’t be done – it is a smart move to try and interrupt the inevitable media spectacle of the Superbowl for the aims of these demonstrators. Protesters must find those intersections of physical and virtual space to create interruptions for the public if they’re going to draw attention to their cause, especially in a world where the traffic of our attentions is increasingly virtual and not physical.

End of the Semester Thoughts

Well, it’s only a few days after being done with finals, and I’m still recuperating. My first semester at the New School was really great – I was fortunate to be in a unique place in a unique time, and it’s something I’ll always be fortunate to be able to look back at.

Being a married, commuting student, who travels in for class from out of state each day you’re in the city, really divorces you from the much of the social life and circles that spring up in a university environment. I’ll regret not being a part of things more and missing out on those peer interactions. At the same time, you’re on the periphery of what other people are doing, which puts you in this unique position of observation – like the prospect-refuge principle of design, you don’t feel so much shut out as you feel on the tip of the mountain surrounding the valley, looking down on both sides.

I am glad I never got involved in the All-Student Occupation – I “watched” it happen by observing the social media of friends and acquaintances who were there, or had visited, heard about it second hand, but by the time I finally made it to the study space and Keller Gallery, everyone was gone and everything was cleaned up, save for one lone art school undergrad who was “occupying” the lobby for the last three weeks of school (read: cramming for finals in public). The reason I’m glad for that, is because there was always an undercurrent of concern over “purity” resonating in the accounts of people who had visited. Many felt unwelcome, and a recent article in the New School Free Press revealed that there was in fact, an “inner circle” who had continuously sabotaged the open and democratic process of the general assembly. Perhaps these were altermodernists to the extreme, the sort of people who told Emma Goldman that free speech is a “bourgeoisie superstition” and would have found a friend in Stalin.

There is a need, in any political mediation, to weigh the power of the participants against their ability to fulfill their role. It’s one of Aristotle’s judgements for fair democracy – people need to have not just the freedom, but the ability to reasonably articulate their ideas for the process to be fair. In an ideal debate, the good ideas win out on their merits – that’s the illusion of the “marketplace of ideas.” Unfortunately, much of the world is run by people who recognize (or imagine) the danger people pose to themselves when they are inadequately prepared or able to participate in the process.

In the grander scope of things, I was at Democracy Now! from September to November, during which time I was able to see OWS go down. I would have liked to blog about it more, but between classes, work, the internship, and commuting, I felt there were enough ideas out there at the present without adding my own to the mix.

Now as the winter sets in, I’m looking forward to a few weeks I can catch up on reading, get some things done that I’ve neglected, and start planning for next year. At first there was some panic (no more school! what do I do?) but I quickly realized that even if I spent my time doing nothing, it would be nice change of pace – and that it wouldn’t last forever anyway.

The Academy, Sports, and OWS

What people really care about - 2010 UK Demonstrations about PM Cameron's cuts to School Sports Partnerships.

While reading through Umberto Eco’s Travels In Hyperreality I came across an essay called “Sports Chatter,” written in 1969, which struck me by the wording of the first paragraph:

There is one thing that – even if it were considered essential – no student movement or urban revolt or global protest or what have you would ever be able to do. And that is to occupy the football field on a Sunday.

In light of OccupyWallSt and all the demonstrations in the same spirit across the country, it’s worth noting that this holds true. We have Thanksgiving coming up soon, and while I usually have my head buried in books or working on various projects, a trip to St. Louis last week reminded me that the rest of the country is gearing up to consume football media along with a turkey dinner. Imagine if people sat down to the TV after Thanksgiving to watch a game and saw instead a bunch of protesters occupying the field?

The very idea sounds ironic and absurd; try saying it in public and people will laugh in your face. Propose it seriously and you will be shunned as a provocateur. Not for the obvious reason, which is that, while a horde of students can fling Molotov cocktails on the jeeps of any police force, and at most (because of the laws, the necessity of national unity, the prestige of the state), no more than forty students will be killed; an attack on a sports field would surely cause the massacre of the attackers, indiscriminate, total slaughter carried out by self-respecting citizens aghast at the outrage…

Sports activity is dominated by the idea of “waste.” In principle, every sports act is a wast of energy: if I fling a stone for the sheer pleasure of flinging it – not for any utilitarian end – I have wasted calories accumulated through the swallowing of food, earned by work.

Eco takes a few steps back from his humor to talk about the necessity of “play” but how observed sports is voyeurism. There’s a lot else there, it’s a great essay and I’d encourage anyone to read it, but  the point is, Eco’s distaste for the realm of professional sports and the spectacle of that media is clear. It’s not quite the full blown disdain that Chomsky is often cited for:

…there are other media too whose basic social role is quite different: it’s diversion. There’s the real mass media-the kinds that are aimed at, you know, Joe Six Pack — that kind. The purpose of those media is just to dull people’s brains.

This is an oversimplification, but for the eighty percent or whatever they are, the main thing is to divert them. To get them to watch National Football League…

…it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. [audience laughs] That keeps them from worrying about — [applause] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in — they have the most exotic information [more laughter] and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.

Chomsky goes so far as to call it “the building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority,” “group cohesion behind leadership elements” and “training in irrational jingoism.” Which all bears reflection – sports teach players “there is no I in team” and how to “take one for the team” and so on. When I was young, I used to read these historical short stories in a compilation series, with little pieces on people like Alphonse Bertillon, Jonas Salk, and other “greats” of history. One of the stories was about Ty Cobb (before he was famous), and how his coach insisted he bunt a ball. He ignored, got two strikes before a home run, and then the coach kicked him off the team. Sports movies, stories and experiences are all about functional narratives for working with others (my favorite being The Natural, Percival’s adventure rewritten for baseball).

Of course, sports have an intricate connection with academics in the US, part of the foundation-university relations-alumni complex. I wrote a pretty polemic and naive piece about this at Missouri State over two years ago. Colleges often devote large sums of money  to sports programs (at the expense of other departments, leading to lower salaries and higher tuition) because they believe it is more economical to attract funding through impressive physical (versus scholastic) performance. Granted, students involved with these programs are required to maintain certain academic standards, and universities often devote extra time and opportunities to ensure the athletes meet those standards. But they are also often afforded privileges, which we all know about, which range from the classroom (where they may be frequently absent), to the dormroom (where they spend the night instead of a jail cell for sexual assaults). And the coaches have their own structure of privilege as well – Penn State’s fiasco shows us that things are usually handled internally before someone decides whether or not to go to the police.

Ok, that’s a lot of rambling about universities and sports in general. Sports are a big money industry, and this is reflected in the media pretty clearly. Sports films can be seen to parallel war movies, with these heteronormative, hyper-masculine images of “troops” marching out to battle, engaging in epic struggles, facing grotesque and unhuman foes. Warrior athletes could provide that “irrational jingoism” that Chomsky talks about, and America eats it up. Sports is inconceivably a multi-billion dollar industry, from franchises to equipment to advertising and so on. America is obsessed with sports, a business where millionaires spend their lives either training and being celebrities with a few hours devoted to a game several times a week during a season. It’s part of our culture, and with social inequality being a key concern of Occupy events and demonstrations, sports are worth some criticism. True, the thought of sports + politics might boggle the mind, but demonstrators don’t have to be the ones to raise the issue. It would be interesting to hear what pro athletes, being in the 1%, have to say about these issues, as they are the last truly populist heroes of our times.

Back to the university, I find it interesting to remember Chomsky’s 1969 essay, “The Function Of The University In A Time Of Crisis” in a time of, well, crisis. Written with regards to the New Left (which met its demise through a combination of its own undoing and the continually marginalizing, integrating forces of society), Chomsky says

The university will be able to make its contribution to a free society only to the extent that it overcomes the temptation to conform unthinkingly to the prevailing ideology and to the existing patterns of power and privilege.

In its relation to society, a free university should be expected to be, in a sense, “subversive.” We take for granted that creative work in any field will challenge prevailing orthodoxy. A physicist who refines yesterday’s experiment, an engineer who merely seeks to improve existing devices, or an artist who limits himself to styles and techniques that have been thoroughly explored is rightly regarded as deficient in creative imagination. Exciting work in science, technology, scholarship, or the arts will probe the frontiers of understanding and try to create alternatives to the conventional assumptions.

Occupy protests moved to college campuses recently, leading to incidents like the grotesque abuse of power at UC Davis. Protesters occupied the common area and were punished for it by campus police (Bob Ostertag, a professor there wrote an excellent article regarding the militarization of police which had a hand in this). People are already debating their feelings on OWS and related demonstrations. If anything, it is helping to alter the political discourse in this country, once again, and allow cultural critiques breathe by their practice by the masses. But are we ready to occupy the football fields? I doubt it. If we did, I’m certain Eco and Chomsky will be amused by those efforts and the ensuing chaos.