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

Summertime, Scrapy and Civic Media

When a semester finishes, there are really two options:

  1. Act like you’re a kid and enjoy three months of slip-‘n-slides, riding bikes, slumber parties, junk food and TV.
  2. Keep working.

As tempting as that first option is, after you finish grade school, it’s not very feasible. If you’re a teacher, you have to prepare for the next semester, writing syllabi, class plans, course outlines, and taking the time to pursue studies in the field you chose (if you’re into that sort of thing). If you’re an undergrad, you probably have to get a job, but you might do an internship. And if you’re a grad student like me, you continue the awkward shuffle of “extremely-busy-yet-seemingly-lazy.” You have to plan for your thesis. There is always research to do. If you’re motivated, you could think about conferences and submitting papers or abstracts. And the amount of reading material available to self-starters never ends – presumably you know of Negri and Hardt’s Empire, yes? did you know it’s the first part of a trilogy? You’d better get cracking!

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Remember Me: Municipal Memorials Project

Remember Me” was born out of a set of inspirations and conditions that just happened to come together in the right time and place. For a while, I had been interested in Youth Rights Media, a New Haven non-profit that teaches media production and literacy to teenagers in an after-school program. I became involved around the same time that I started exploring the ideas behind civic media and tactical design, and I knew that I wanted to apply those principles to the organization, if possible. For a decade now, Youth Rights Media has been producing documentaries and public service announcements that deal with critical issues relating to urban youth and inner-city problems, such as the “school to prison pipeline,” school dropout rates, or “digital stories” of the youths themselves. At the time of this project, they were working on “Unspoken,” a film dealing with gun violence and the way it effects people whose stories and voices are seldom heard.

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Deleuzions of This American Life

I should begin this by saying I’m a late adopter – my wife and I just got our first iPhones in late November. I hadn’t had an iPod since about 2006, and all my Mp3 players have had horrific interfaces which made any sort of regular listening to podcasts a traumatic exercise. Consequently, I just recently got into listening to them – and I love it. My craving started with Radiolab, and blossomed into regular listening of On The Media, Snap Judgement, a few other shows, and an incredibly fervent week of listening to every single 99% Invisible episode ever made. I didn’t start listening to This American Life until the beginning of last month, so I missed the big Foxcom/Apple story that was apparently partially fabricated. But I can honestly say, I’m not surprised, and I’ll try to explain why.

Disclaimer: I don’t consider Ira Glass to be a journalist or This American Life to be journalism. I know there is a thing called explanatory or narrative journalism, but journalism itself depends on these critical investigations which This American Life manages to avoid getting bogged down in (as Oppenhiemer’s critique later points out). The definition that was thrown around during my undergraduate was that journalism is a craft through which information is provided as necessary for the proper involvement of citizens in a democratic society. It’s what we need to know to make our society work. Glass is concerned with more than our civics, he is engaging us on other levels, and I’ll talk about this as well.

One of the great things about an audio medium is the way it embodies a modern ambition of oral culture. You see, before there was any medium for media, human beings communicated through this intensely personal, proxemically defined zone with no materiality – strictly phenomenal, lacking that “theoretical oscillation” between phenomenology and materiality that Mark Hansen writes about. We used linguistic and nonlinguistic methods such as gestures, expressions, and music to create our culture – Geertz cites Kluckhohn’s definitions of culture, which encompass both the “storehouse of pooled learning” and a “precipitate of history.” Geertz identifies his concept of culture as “a semiotic one” –

Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, constructing social expressions on their surface enigmatical. – Thick description, P. 5

Ira Glass graduated from Brown University with a degree in semiotics.  In his own words,

Semiotics is an unfortunately pretentious body of mostly French literary theory. What I liked about it was that it gives you a toolbox of ways to think about how to make a story. Semiotics is uninterested in questions like, “What did the author intend?” Or “What does this story say about the author’s era?” Semiotics is interested in how a story gives us pleasure, how it draws us in, why is it satisfying for there to be suspense and for a story to resolve. It’s all about what makes narrative engage us. And so there are things that I learned as a semiotics major that I use every day on my job.

Mr. Glass has given us a key clue to his modus operandi, the importance of narrative engagement and the arrangement of signifiers and signified to create relevance (or meaning) for the audience.  This narrative engagement was key in an oral culture. Walter Ong is probably the authority on such traditions, and he wrote on the memory of such a society being “thematic and formulaic.” Epic myths were repetitively told with mnemonic devices to aid the performer. The values and words of such societies take on a type of permanence, forming “the substance of thought itself.” In writing/recording the Poetic Edda, for example, Snorri Sturluson was not concerned with the truthfulness of the story, but it’s poignancy and ability to provide an audience with a chance to create meaning.

Such a thing is not uncommon in the world today. An episode of On The Media examined the contentious relationship between essayist John D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal.

Have I changed the meaning of anything here, Jim? No, I’ve just streamlined this quote in order to help things move along a little better and to create a bit of resonance with neighboring paragraphs. It’s what writers do… An essay is an attempt, Jim, nothing else. And fundamentally for centuries, that’s all it’s been. Even etymologically, “essay” means an attempt. And so, as a writer of essays my interpretation of that charge is that I try, that I try to take control of something before it is lost entirely to chaos. That’s what I want to be held accountable for as a writer. It’s how I want to be judged. -John D’Agata

As an essayist, D’Agata is concerned with uncovering some sort of deeper insight or revelatory meaning within or behind the empirical details of an event – he and Fingal are drawn into an ideological quarrel over a second, with regards to how long it took teenager Levi Presley to fall to his death in a suicide jump. Beyond his frustration over D’Agata’s commitment to an inaccurate number, Fingal has an interesting objection:

I don’t necessarily believe that a nonfiction essay has to strive for an objective account of an occurrence as its primary project or that the writer is ethically obligated to secure the reality of an event in cultural memory. And I’m all for the beaux mots (note: I thought he said Pomo in the original piece) historiographic metafictional appropriation of events and personages.

But there still seems to be something strange about doing this sort of thing with someone like Levi, who is just a teenager, after all, just a kid in Las Vegas, not a cultural figure or an icon whose life is for the taking and can be radically manipulated and reinterpreted. I mean, clearly it’s not like you’re defiling his grave by propagating these inaccuracies, but it’s kind of like you’re being dishonest about where that grave is.

Note Fingal’s conditions for poetic licence with regards to a “cultural figure or an icon whose life is for the taking and can be radically manipulated and reinterpreted.”

Ira Glass works in much the same way as an essayist – he is concerned with the performance of a story. While he works in an area with traditions of accuracy and accountability, as a cousin to journalists and in a medium where you either create radio dramas or the news, he has more to do with Cicero and Demosthenes, who was coached by an actor, and had a routine to perfect a technique. Glass himself has a method.

I’ll be honest and say at this point, I’m not a huge fan of Glass. I don’t really know why, but in searching for why that might be I came across a terrific critique by Mark Oppenheimer, from when Glass performed live at the Schubert in New Haven.

The contrived (though totally winning) world of This American Life depends on a perfect marriage of form and content. The form is provided by the three-act structure, Glass’s pause-swallow-um, the perfectly selected music (I didn’t know Stevie Wonder’s sublime Mistra Know-It-All until I heard it at the conclusion of an act on This American Life), and the rest of the radio architecture that Glass and his crew have mastered so well. The content, however, is a bit harder to pin down. Certainly there is an emphasis on the little people, non-celebrities. But it’s not quite the kind of relentless emphasis on the common man and woman for which, says, Studs Terkel or Joeseph Mitchell is celebrated.

Oppenheimer’s criticism is more directed toward’s Glass’s lack of critical or journalistic investigation that we would be used to in such a production. As he writes about a segment seemingly filled with holes, “One gets the sense that [Alix] Spiegel could have parachuted into Vietnam in 1970, asked the villagers about their innovative rice-farming techniques, then hitchhiked to safety, neglecting to ask where all the men in the village had gone.” But again, Glass is an expert at delivering the non-cerebral to an audience that gets its fill of such intellectual pleasures elsewhere. This American Life is about a search for meaning, not truth.

Such distinctions also bring to mind Deleuze’s interpretation of the virtual and the actual. The reality of the virtual is “actual” reality  produced by many different potentialities.

Purely actual objects do not exist. Every actual surrounds itself with a cloud of virtual images. This cloud is composed of a series of more or less extensive coexisting circuts, along which the virtual images are distributed, and around which they run..

…an actual perception surrounds itself with a cliud of virtual images, distributed on increasingly remote, increasingly large, moving circuts, which both make and unmake each other. These are memories of different sorts, but they are still called virtual images in that their speed or brevity subjects them too to a principle of the unconsciousness.

…memory is not an actual image which forms after the object has been percieved, but a virtual image coexisting with the actual perception of the object. Memory is a virtual image contemporary with the actual object, its double, its ‘mirror image,’ as in The Lady from Shanghai, in which the mirror takes control of a character, engulfs him and leaves him as just a virtuality; hence there is coalescence and division, or rather oscillation, a perpetual exchange between the actual object and its virtual image: the virtual image never stops becoming actual. – Deleuze, The Actuality and the Virtual

What we see in Glass’s work is this type of oscillation, the same type that creates myths and stories and legends, the way memories shift and take a form which we can relate to and cherish, in positive or negative ways. But we see it at a rate which goes past actual perception – in the Foxcon story, the mirror image has engulfed This American Life and left it as a virtuality, and now that we know this, we are terrified by the implication, but we were truthfully ready to believe it because of what we already know to be true about Foxcon, predatory capitalism, and terrible conditions for industrial workers who manufacture Apple products. We are aware of the meanings, the morals of our myths, and we are more than eager to adapt reality to this virtual understanding.

As the most valuable company in the world today, Apple certainly meets Fingal’s conditions for beaux mots/pomo “historiographic metafictional appropriation.” News media refers to the economy with all the reverence owed to the chief god of a pantheon. If economy is a cosmological deity, then Apple could certainly be one of its sons, or at least a Demigod; son of Steve Jobs and the tech boom. Writing of Foxcom as a Fenrir character, personified moral guilt unbeknownst to us, waiting to destroy Apple’s supremacy, is only sensible. To fudge a few facts is only expected when we are more concerned with creating an engaging narrative than we are journalistic traditions. Which is why Glass produces these pieces of audio theatre in acts and episodes, with story arcs and all the trappings of literature, rather than history or journalism. Mike Daisey, with his theatre background and openness about how he made the story, at least appears honest about that process. If Ira Glass protests, it’s because he has to maintain a pretense of legitimacy, and pay homage to the traditions he knows as a reporter and to the medium through which he produces his show. It may not be straight news, but it certainly isn’t purely radio drama. Disavowal of the story lets you know that This American Life still cares that its signs and symbols, characters and plot devices still exist somewhere in the real world, in some shape or form. The arrangement may still be an artistic process, but they still try to be authentic to some actual objects.

And if I got anything wrong, remember, this is an essay, a virtual “reality,” and not any sort of concrete, material, empirical phenomenon.

Gills Deleuze, The Actual and Virtual, in Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, dialogues II, Columbia University Press, 2002.
Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books, 1973, pp. 1-30.
Mark Hansen, “Media Theory,” Theory, Culture & Society, 23(2-3) (2006): 297-306.
Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy (New York, NY: Methuen, 1982) 35.

Tracking The Vision In Our Mind

Cross-posted with some revisions at civicmedia&tacticaldesign

I remember when I was a kid how I would flip through the first few pages of the books in the library, in search of a map. There’s something special when children’s literature uses maps to tell you where the story happens, whether it’s a fantasy, or in some real place. I would peer over Tolkin’s drawings of Middle-Earth and wonder what happened in Rhûn. Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth was built around a map which told you exactly where the story was going, from the Doldrums to the Castle in the Air. Mr. Bass Visits the Mushroom Planet, the Redwall series – even the oddly placed biography about Castro I found in the Children’s non-fiction made me understand Cuba a little better, thanks to the map.

I've spent too many hours in this world.

Story and place are largely inseparable – “anywhere, USA” has been a cheap tactic of producers to create hyperlocal narratives which become increasingly plausible in a globalized world with homogenous storefront industry. Far off locales used to be a way to use cheap and harmful racial stereotypes about exotics to thrill the audience of H.R. Haggard novels – now they provide the same exocticaztion, minimizing compelling personal connections that emphasize universal humanity, such as Born Into Brothels. We are struck by how different people’s lives are, wheras before how different the people themselves were. The maps which tell us where they are largely accepted, a standard projection (like Robinson’s, or for today’s world, Google Earth), but they do more to categorize and index where we are like Borges’s map:

…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. – On Exactitude in Science

In doing so, they do less to emphasize relativity, and that’s the real purpose of a map – to make clear equidistant relationships in one’s environment, to oneself. Wood brings up this issue with a dismissive comment:

Embattled cartographers defended themselves by condemning all rectilinear world projections-an hysterical overreaction that reflected the seriousness of the wound Peters’s critique had inflicted-a laughable position, were it not so sustained, that continues into the present. – P. 127

When we have a standardized projection, it leads to mainstream interpretations which harm some: as we read about when Dennis Wood talks about protest maps and references Stuart McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World. Those issues also hearken back to the inherent Eurocentrism of the Mercator projection, relevant to post-colonialist concerns, and raise questions about arbitrary universal directionality in general.

The solution to this, in my mind, is the Dymaxion map, which I didn’t see in our readings. Buckminster Fuller created this in the 1940s, with one defining property as I see it:

More unusually, the Dymaxion map does not have any “right way up”. Fuller argued that in the universe there is no “up” and “down”, or “north” and “south”: only “in” and “out”.[4] Gravitational forces of the stars and planets created “in”, meaning ‘towards the gravitational center’, and “out”, meaning “away from the gravitational center”. He attributed the north-up-superior/south-down-inferior presentation of most other world maps to cultural bias.

Even more important, the Dymaxion map can be oriented around any point:

The point is, it can be wholly relative to a person’s position at any point with the same parameters as someone on the other side of the planet. I think that’s pretty cool.

Going back to the story part of “story and place,” I was very happy to read about Jake Barton’s City of Memory, because I felt that in cartography, we create a very subjective world, and there is a tendency to the dissolution of objective cities in one’s personal experience, as Wood mentions. There is also the reality of desire paths, routes which form from natural, organic processes as a protest (in and of themselves) of constructed (or again, arbitrary) passages constructed by authorities. They are subject to a million whims and factors – not merely the path of least resistance, but they say something about the people who travel them as well, the places they go and where they are coming from.

10 Seconds at Grand Central

10 Seconds at Grand Central - by Nathan 2009 (not me)

City of Memory represents the narrative layer and personal experience of a physical space. I had an idea before I read about it of a geocache-style repository of stories. I love to read people’s experiences of places and things – b3ta has a pretty cool Question of the Week section where you can read about lots of little personal anecdotes. My favorite podcasts are the episodes of things like Snap Judgement where we get insight into someone else’s experience. And of course, Post Secret and other confessional services (from GroupHug all the way back to The Lowbrow Project, for those who remember it) are all about expressing the universality of human experience – you are not alone, wherever you are. A geocaching service that stored these memories would work like the yellow arrows project Wood mentions – you go to a place and you occupy it with someone else who is there, yet possessing a different temporality. City of Memory seems like it would do that fairly well. Users move from being alone in crowds to being together at different points of time.

These devices (the narrative infrastructure, the Dymaxion map) would allow us all to have a more subjective yet interpersonal experience with others in an increasingly communal world. We would begin to see more of the planet in a place where multiple realities existed – if something is not true for one person, that doesn’t mean it’s untrue for everyone. Fiction becomes “possible reality,” and issues which we associate with identity politics gain weight, because we know that someone somewhere out there is probably dealing with it. And if we stand in the right place with the right tools, we can share that experience with them.

Dennis Wood. Counter-Mapping and the Death of Cartography, in Rethinking the Power of Maps. Guilford Press, 2010.

The Confusion At An Interdisciplinary Crossroads

This is a major source of frustration and anxiety for me, as are all Gordian knots we haven’t unraveled or merely sliced through, but it’s a particularly difficult one because it points to a major social and academic complications that go beyond my personal field of study.

For me, this topic comes out of a simple question: “What do I want to do after The New School?” Question like this have difficult answers, and simple strategies. The answer to “What do I want to do after I get my BA?” was “Study media more, for a lot of very complicated reasons.” The strategy for that was “Go to The New School,” which is a lot simpler than the answer. But without any answer we come up with, our plans make very little sense.

I already know my answer. For me, the real issue of media studies is one of public consciousness and identity, public opinion and social mediation. There is an understanding I’m searching for that deals with the transformations of rhetoric across mediums, especially with the current “revolution” (so to speak) of decentralized, digital networking, DIY culture and democratized media activists. There’s lots of relevant, current examples, and this question of whether or not the public can be self-determining in the public discourse is something that goes back to the arguments of Dewey or Ogden and Richards vs Lippman or Bernays.

The problem then, is not my answer, but the strategy. Because while these are old arguments, there is an increasing interdisciplinary nature to these issues. First, we have media studies, which emerged as an institutional program at The New School in 1975, started

…with the founding of the Center for Understanding Media. Media education pioneer John Culkin sought to create a place that provided “consumer education for the minds and emotions of the audience for all media.” With its history of progressive education, The New School was a logical home for the center. Interest in the field and the center grew, and The New School created the country’s first formally established program in media studies.

Culkin was a buddy of Marshal McLuhan, who popularized media theory in 1964 with his hot/cool, “the medium is the message,” instantly televisible presentation of ideas. The related field of media ecology was institutionalized at NYU by Neil Postman in 1971, but these were both born out of earlier “mass communication” programs and a tradition that goes back to communications researchers and scholars like Walter Lippman, Paul Lazersfeld, John Dewey, etc. These are also semi-relatable (for our purposes) to journalism schools, film programs, and rhetoric studies, which have long, independent histories and traditions.

Rama Hoetzlein's timeline of Media Studies

Now, for the convergence. There has always been a pedagogical rift between theory and practice in any discipline. One goes to film school to become a filmmaker, and to graduate school to become a critic. However, I think there is an increasing drive to marry theory and practice (at least, there certainly is the effort at The New School). We want informed practice and people who have actually done the things they study. So, one does not just learn cinematography – they also study film theory and aesthetics and so on. Journalists still very much learn their non-professional profession as though it were a craft, but ethics, multimodal methods and more specialized knowledge has become increasingly important with the demise of the traditional news industry. Communications studies are usually for people who wanted to be PR people, designers, marketers, practical industry types. But again, as the media landscape changes, it becomes worthwhile to incorporate a broader scope of knowledge.

So when we have intersections of study, we may attempt to qualify everything in the terms of our discipline, or broach those walls in the favor of interdisciplinality. Media studies itself has no such option. As others have pointed out many times over, there is no central media theory. It effectively borrows from anything and everything it can. I took a trip to the Yale bookstore and found most of the authors from my readings under the Literary Criticism section. Media studies can’t qualify things inside the discipline because there isn’t one – it’s an amalgamation of many of the other things I mentioned. But there isn’t just a marriage of theory and practice going on out there: I think there are potential marriages of fields in the pursuit of exploring phenomenon like digital rhetoric, or political communication remediated in virtual environments. When citizen journalism becomes a necessary part of public discourse, academics can engage in action oriented research to effectively marry their scholarly theorizing with legitimate social practice.

So there are a great many possibilities to do further research in this area. We are dealing with a pretty recent phenomenon which has only begun to be studied. It’s already made the potential effects clear in very loud, very global ways – from the Green Revolution of Iran to OWS, I believe new media digital and networked political activism has demonstrated potentially profound impacts on multiple fields and disciplines.

So going back to my question, “What do I want to do after The New School?” I really want to study these. I really want to help create knowledge about it. I really want to develop our understanding as such phenomenon continue to unfold. The problem is, I don’t know with who or where! Someplace scenic would be nice though!