Category: Review

A Hologram for the King: Outsourcing dreams and the yawning of the 21st century

[video link] An unsustainable petrol-utopia. Peak oil anyone?

If Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” was the 19th century’s zeitgeist moment, what would it look like in the 21st century? Rather than a wretched soul who knows his life has been fracked, it would look more like Bill Murray’s Prozac gaze at the end of Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers. Or any lead character in a Sofia Coppola film. Which is to say, pop culture’s 21st century scream is more or less a yawn.

Along these lines, in A Hologram for the King we have Dave Egger‘s deflated corporate man. The novel zooms in on globalization’s spiritual vagabonds, focusing on a troubled fifty-something Reliant salesman, Alan Clay, whose path to redemption is pitching a holographic communications system to the Saudi King. Like an updated version of Waiting for Godot, while anticipating the King’s audience Clay and his team are stuck in the liminal zone of the yet-to-be-developed King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, the Middle East’s future Plastic Valley, see above video). The King and his associates have little interest in keeping appointments with the Reliant team, so Clay and his Gen Y staff spend their days in the speculative economy’s version of a bardo state, camped out in the middle of the unbuilt city’s grid in an inhospitable desert where the map has no territory.

To kill boredom, Clay journeys through the surreal landscape of Saudi Arabia that is simultaneously tribal and caught-up in a hightech realm where a loss of wi-fi can bring on a catastrophic crisis in consciousness (“This is the peculiar problem of constant connectivity: any silence of more than a few hours provokes apocalyptic thoughts”). Throughout the novel Clay teeters on personal disaster, a walking emotional implosion that is more likely to disintegrate than blow-up. Drifting in the Kafkaesque KAEC, Clay’s current role of hawking holograms is contrasted by reminiscences of his glory days as a Schwin bicycle salesman. In the world of global trade, holograms–illusions–trump hand-made American bicycles–freedom. The old ways are made extinct by overseas manufacturing and the information economy.

China is an implicated villain in the story, but Clay is not innocent. He was complicit in the demise of his beloved Schwin by his own participation in offshoring American jobs. Ultimately, Clay’s whole crisis is about outsourcing life to economic abastractions. The hologram becomes yet another entry point into the disembodied world economy.

The book’s uber-consciousness speaks through a skyscraper architect who decries the lack of American ambition and imagination in favor of globalization’s pop-up cities: “in the U.S. now there’s not that kind of dreaming happening. It’s on hold. The dreaming’s being done elsewhere for now.” Though Clay’s existential crisis is brought on by the sugar rush of the petrol economy, his story can also be read as an update of earlier 20th century French writers who were grappling with the bureaucratization of humanity. As if lifted from the pages of Camus’ The Stranger, Eggers’ Clay “wanted the simplicity of being who he was: no one.”

If anything, this wonderful book offers a humanistic counterpoint to a world in which the technological singularity would reign supreme. In such a world, like space, no one can hear you scream. Instead, what drives the book is the tension Clay feels between the yawn of the 21st century and his caterpillar-like state awaiting transformation. You’ll have to read it to see if he becomes a butterfly.

Against the machine: Thoughts on Curtis’ machine trilogy

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Ep. 1): “Love and Power”

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Ep. 2): “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Ep. 3): “The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey”

I just finished watching Adam Curtis‘ epic polemic against the danger and abuse of machine metaphors in our society, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” (all three episodes are posted above). I’ve been a fan of his quirky documentaries: “Century of the Self” and “The Power of Nightmares” are a grave attacks against the cult of marketing and mass manipulation. This current effort is more complex and nuanced. He documents the folly of different groups extrapolating computer metaphors in order to explain nature and human society. He shows the tremendous irresponsibility of Western powers who have used ecological “holism” to justify imperial ambitions, and fears that environmental movements and social media advocates run the risk of similar metaphor abuse.

Curtis attacks the idea of holism as anti-individual. I don’t think it’s fair, but because it has often been misplaced, to him any invocation of a holistic view of humans is anathema. I find the critique a little too harsh and generalized, although I appreciate some of his attacks. In particular I like his polemic against biology based on theories of the selfish gene. Curtis correctly points out it is a machine metaphor applied to cell biology. There also is a blistering attack against using computer networks to drive the global economy, which again is justified. Finally, he does a good job of showing that these ideas are often subservient to neocolonial ambitions. Fair enough.

It’s hard to tell what exactly what Curtis wants to do with this project. It seems like he is defending Enlightenment principles of the individual against emerging cultural views of interconnectivity. Curtis offers a choice of one against the other, as opposed to trying to find a balance between the two. Moreover, he critiques quite heavily the liberal project of democracy in Africa without acknowledging its roots in Enlightenment concepts of the individual.

Curtis criticizes ecological models based on systems theory as a false solution for global ecology. In response he seems to argue for political and social change–conscious human interventions to solve problems–but then criticizes the revolutions that arose in Eastern Europe because they self-organized with the aid of computers. He argues that those revolutions failed, and in fact have created situations far worse than before. There is some nostalgia, I believe, for good old fashion ideology.

Curtis’ contrarian perspective comes at an interesting time. The Arab awakening, global climate chaos and crashing economies seem to be outgrowths and responses to the Enlightenment project. Are computer networks the engine of change? Or is it that networks have been abused by old thinking and misapplied metaphors? The past colonizes the present. And designs the future.

Curtis casts a wide net, associating Ayn Rand with computer network technology, neoliberal economics, ecology, biology and colonialism. Are these interconnections real? By his own logic, is such a grand conspiracy the result of the kind systems thinking he rails against? I believe much of what Curtis offers is necessary and good for discussion. It certainly slaughters a lot of sacred cows, even though the approach is one of scorched earth. It would be interesting to see Curtis debate Yochai Benkler, who takes an opposite view of networks.

Aesthetically I like the style of his films: the odd mix of kooky ephemeral films juxtaposed to eclectic and often unusual choices in music make his rants a fun romp. One thing is for sure, these documentaries are far from boring.

Patti Smith: Portrait of an artist as a young woman

Note: I’ve been on an Internet holiday, and now am getting caught up with writing deadlines, so blogging will be scattered and light. Meanwhile, here’s what’s on my mind.

Thank the Great Whatever that I picked up Patti Smith’s Just Kids at the Rome’s Fiumicino airport on my way to the US. Not only did it get me through the 12 hour flight to the states, but it inspired great thoughts and insights about one of my favorite artists.

As you probably have heard, Just Kids won the National Book Award. One has to wonder why there hasn’t been any right-wing chest thumping about this choice, given their perception that American artists promote communism, homosexuality and drugs. There is little in this book that would dispel this myth.

It takes place from the late-sixties to mid-seventies, covering a formable period of New York artistic life. This book is perfectly bookended by Warhol’s POPism: The Warhol Sixties and Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s biography of early punk. This would certainly be a solid trilogy for American Studies, and would provide welcome relief from the false myth of the wholesome and “morally pure” American. In fact, among these artists you will find more honesty and moral backbone than anyone on the Christian Right.

Just Kids revolves around the relationship between Smith and her long-time companion and collaborator, Robert Mapplethorpe. Some of you may remember that Mapplethorpe was a target of the late Jesse Helms, a far-right art critic and nemesis of the National Endowment for the Arts. Mapplethorpe died of AIDS and was known for his erotic gay photos, but that wasn’t his only subject. Aside from being a great love story, the book is also an honest look at a life of art, and the sacrifices it entails. Though Smith and Mapplethorpe dreamed of fame and better lives through out their youth, they struggled through homelessness, illness, starvation and an ascetic, if not Bohemian, kind of life.

I enjoyed reading about New York before it became a corporatized Disneyland. I remember the City in the ’80s when it was still a gritty and raw place. Though I don’t want to romanticize poverty, I liked the old, decomposing NYC when artists lived to push the boundaries of what society offered, living in the margins of capitalist decay. The book’s depiction of Chelsea Hotel (where Smith and Mapplethorpe lived for many years) and its mix of vagrants, eccentrics and rock stars brought back memories of what life was like in downtown LA during the early ’80s when punks mingled with Bukowski and various fringe artists. Not to be nostalgic, but I really miss those days.

This is a beautifully written book full of passion for life, art and love. It offers lots of insight into how a young woman from Jersey who worked in factories as a teen followed her love of Rimbaud down the rabbit hole to a life-changing odyssey of poetry and music. I think Smith would be the first to say we don’t need any more heroes, but she definitely ranks as one for me.

Girl Talk: A contrarian view

Girl Talk is the darling of the copyleft movement, having been made a hero in a number of online documentaries, including RIP: A Remix Manifesto and Good Copy Bad Copy.* However, to paraphrase curmudgeon and village atheist Steve Albini, though sampling shouldn’t involve the law, we should still ask if it is art. I’m not talking here of sampling across the board, but about the music of Girl Talk.

To recap, GirlTalk (Gregg Gillis) is a likable Pittsburg native who works (worked?) as a scientist by day but is motivational remixologist by night. He mashes-up familiar and recognizable samples from across the frequency spectrum, using top 40 G-rated pop as a backdrop for hip hop MCs who deploy all kinds of R-rated words that would make suburbanites blush. Unfortunately, such a juxtaposition feels a bit like cultural imperialism, for the mixes appropriate the appropriators and lack the reverence that crate diggers have for musical tradition. To me Girl Talk is like snacking on an all you can eat bar at Sizzler. Yeah, it tastes relatively good (high in salt!), it’s cheap (or in this case, free), it can be fun if you are doing it with people you like, and it’s appealing to a wide audience. No harm, no foul.

Yet, why does listening to it make me mad?

I recently downloaded All Day after an initial burst of Twitter hype. As the soundtrack for my commute on the bus, I found it digestible and easy on my ears, but annoyingly simplistic and unartful. The opening track to All Day is a very long sample of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” It is so long that it might as well be a track from a Sabbath album with a few embellishments. It’s a fun listen, but where is the artistry of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad which makes sampling an act of hermeneutics? PE’s music is not just ear candy but rich, layered, dense and cryptic. Or DJ Shadow who builds with an amazingly eclectic palette to create something entirely new? Or what about the innovative push of DJ technology by artists like Christian Marclay, Otomo Yoshihide, Philip Jeck, and Janek Schaefer? The great hip hop artists were always reverent to their sources by drawing on a sophisticated knowledge of jazz, soul, or funk. Girl Talk is more map than territory, like surfing the Internet without deep listening.

One of the questions pondered in RIP is whether Girl Talk’s music is piracy or something entirely unique, and whether or not it is creative. Well, I don’t want to side with the record companies to argue that he shouldn’t make the music he is creating, but I think calling it new or “creative” is almost an indefensible position considering the lack of innovation and novelty of the mixes. I agree that the sheer number of samples and their seamless editing is definitely part of the craft of DJing, but I think a DJ and musician do different things. I know because I have done both. Nonetheless, DJing can be high art. Watching turntablists like DJ Q-Bert, DJ Quest, or DJ Krush in action is a sublime experience. Editing this shit together on a laptop at home just isn’t the same. I’m guessing Girl Talk’s popularity is based on his live shows, which look really fun and intoxicating. I’m down with that. Certainly it’s a skill, I just don’t want to call it art nor do I feel like dancing with his big fan Paris Hilton.

Being “illegal” gives Girl Talk’s albums a veneer of legitimacy and rebelliousness. But this is hardly punk or anything avant-garde. Rather, it’s white middle class folk music. Again, I don’t mean to speak ill of something that gives a lot of people pleasure. I also know I’m coming off as a bit conservative, but I just wish our cultural heros were more interesting and cutting edge.

OK, bring on the noise!

* By the by, other great documentaries on the topic include Steal This Film and Copyright Criminals .

The (anti-)Social Network: My two bytes


Image source

The Social Network or How Heroic Rich White Guys and Their Asian Groupies Colonized Youth Culture…

OK, snarkiness aside, I think The Social Network is a very well-made film. David Fincher is a top notch director, and Aaron Sorkin, if you can get past his machine gun style of dialog and plot devices, are quintessential storytellers of our age, churning ironic cool, short-attention span aesthetics and multilevel storytelling into high art (at least of the technical variety). The Social Network is very much a hybrid of television, film and Internet cultural sensibilities, the kind celebrated by Steven Johnson in Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter.

But beyond the slick and entertaining aspects of the film, various subtexts reinforce myths about the Internet and capitalism that end up being a feel-good story for our system at a time when it is in profound crisis. Ultimately it serves as yet another propaganda device for the reality bubble of the global knowledge economy and its exploitation of youth culture. Unlike Fincher’s Fight Club, this film is a very pro-capitalist, lacking the P2P ethos and grassroots character of the Internet’s popularity, which mostly thrives in the absence of commerce.

(Soon to be changed through enclosure, however, no thanks in part to this kind of propaganda. In fact, you may want to check out Tim Wu’s The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, and his excellent WSJ editorial about media monopolies: “In the Grip of the New Monopolists: Do away with Google? Break up Facebook? We can’t imagine life without them—and that’s the problem.”)

First, there is the genre trope of the loan genius–Zuckerberg and his freewheeling alter-ego Sean Parker (founder of Napster and brilliantly played by Justin Timberlake)– who, despite the film’s title, are depicted as anti-social jerks in search of blow jobs, fame and big bucks. There’s little cultural context in terms of the financing behind Internet start-ups, nor does it explain the popularity of social networks beyond being a tool to get laid. Though the film accurately points out that cool can’t be marketed, it fails to explain why a 26 year-old can be worth $25 billion. Really, this needs to enter into the film, somehow.

An uncritical view into how an astronomically valued company that makes little money can only feed into the larger ideology that enables banks and the government to print worthless money while we as a people are reduced to pawns of finance and capital. The film never asks what it is that is being monetized by the Facebook economy, a very significant and important ethical question. At this point–not that anyone cares–Foucault is rolling in his grave. I don’t know if he could have imagined such wholesale voluntarism to surveillance and privacy mining. (Disclaimer: I have a Facebook account, so I’m guilty as charged.)

There is a snippet and comment about how Napster took down the record industry, which passes with little debate. Was it a bit of code that did it? What about people’s pre-existing social habits, or the dinosaur-like behavior of traditional media companies? And there is the famous scene from the movie in which Zuckerberg refuses to give his attention to a stuffy establishment lawyer, which reinforces the rebel-without-a-cause image of Internet entrepreneurs and capitalism’s need to constantly reinvent itself all-the-while keeping the basic system of monetary control intact.

The film’s ultimate subtext is that social network entrepreneurs are the new rock stars. Think about it. Instead of playing in a garage band, you and your friends band together to code a tool that will eventually get signed by the arbitrators of the new culture industry in Silicon Valley. Even the way Facebook spread was like a touring band–it expanded its base by encircling and entering into markets one campus at a time (in particular those schools that are at the core of the information economy). Rather than it be traditional record companies, here it is the buttoned down venture capitalists who thrive on personality cults to drive their new wares and the stock market as its engine of commerce. That it is driven by a sex crazed youth culture makes it that much juicier. As Sorkin said, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling…. What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?”

I admit I didn’t know much about Zuckerberg’s story before seeing the film, so upon checking out his Wikipedia page, I was surprised by the following quote: “For me and my colleagues, the most important thing is that we create an open information flow for people. Having media corporations owned by conglomerates is just not an attractive idea to me.” And, “The thing I really care about is the mission, making the world open.” The Wikipedia page paints Zuckerberg as a hacker. If this is really the case (it seems to be at least partially true), then this would have been a far more interesting subtext than the rock star one used in the film. Granted, there are hints of Zuckerberg’s hacker ethos, but no sense of history that puts hacking at the center of the story of the Internet’s growth, as opposed to venture capital. Either way, at the end of the day, the history of culture and capitalism is portrayed once again as something done by smart, rich white guys accompanied by their Asian groupies.

FYI, there is a great soundtrack from Trent Rezner, who, true to his DIY roots, offers several of the songs for free on his Website.

Inception’s meme ecology

I updated my original blog review of Inception to turn it into a more coherent essay. It is freshly minted at Reality Sandwich. Meanwhile, you might be interested in the above video, which a commenter posted at the RS sight. It’s strangely related to what I had written, though the video is less cogent (me thinks!). I don’t totally get the “528” reference. The video seems to be borderline spam (you need to read the video description at YouTube to understand why). The purpose and intent of the video is confusing. Which is exactly the point of my article: it’s getting too difficult to tell the difference between people and media bots.

Avatar: downloading our higher selves


Like most things new, it took a month for Avatar to screen in Italy. I avoided reading any posts or articles about the film until I first had a chance to view it myself. Since seeing it here in Rome, I’ve been crafting my response. I haven’t posted because I keep thinking of things to add, but I decided to just stop and let the following speak for itself. I’m sure I’ll add more later as the film continues to resonate.

Media critic WJT Mitchell asks the question, What do pictures want? Whenever staring into the eyes of media, I often wonder who or what beckons me. From the initial to closing shots of Avatar, we are invited to connect to a world through the gaze of a floating screen. In the former case eyes open to a world turned upside down, but one yet to be born. In the latter, through another set of eyes we see ourselves transmuted as a cyborg animal in a world right side up, returned to order. In other words, we voyage though Campbell's Hero's Journey to a T– one of Hollywood's most tried and true narrative arks. But what if Avatar's archetypal roots reach deeper to its Hindu namesake, calling forth the larger comsic question: is the dreamer being dreamed? Maybe the picture (as isn the film) wants to know the answer.

Before moving on, I'll start by acknowledging the easy criticisms of the film, which are also echoed across the blogosphere. Indeed it's a cowboy and Indians weekend matinee movie. James Cameron plugged and played a number of tropes, the most obvious coming from Last of the Mohicans, Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves. In the end we have an updated version of the White Messiah violently intervening to resolve a conflict between pastoral natives and a colonial war machine. Which begs the question, Do we really need another crusade to solve a problem of consciousness? One lesson is that we should avoid the right-wing Christian view that takes "spiritual warfare" literally. Certainly the film's decisive battle scene would mesh with Derrick Jensen's call to bring the fight to Empire. On the other hand, has there ever been a major film in which the protagonist does not prove himself a "man" without an act of violence?

Going back to the film's homage to matinee adventures, I could go on with the genre mash-ups (as many bloggers humorously did), but the film's conventions ultimately serve as an easily digestible morality play that are context for the special effects and larger issues of global significance. That the film has pretensions of planetary appeal is indicated by its Up With People/ world pop/ ready-made-for-New-Age-bookstores soundtrack.

Nonetheless, as an ecologically themed movie one has to wonder (tongue jammed into cheek) if the disposable 3-D glasses are made of biodegradable plastic (they are imprinted with recycling code "7"–which I think means a highly toxic amalgam that shouldn't be recycled, buried or incinerated). Also there is the fact that Mattel will make Avatar action figures made of who-knows-what toxic polymers under who-knows-what labor conditions under who-knows-what kind of authoritarian rule while shipped across the planet producing who-knows-how much C02 in transit. Not surprisingly, McDonald's will have Avatar themed Happy Meals with who-know-what "meat" product. Surely we couldn't expect the the culture industry's machinery to shut itself down in the wake of the world's greatest blockbuster. No, not when there's consumer markets to be mined. It may be too much to ask for more purity from Hollywood, but at least we (the audience) can make the cultural intervention by supplying a deeper systems analysis when one is absent. We can thank the film for creating the space to make such a discussion more relevant.

Surprisingly, Avatar makes me optimistic, despite its double binds. The quandary is that in order for the film to connect viewers to nature spirits it must use the technology of the system that it critiques. After all, like the film, Pandora's alien miners deploy 3-D imaging which enables them to map and exploit the world. But ecology to us modern folks is contradictory in the same way: we call for a return to nature, yet depend on science to map the risk of global peril in order to combat it. For instance, the iconic photo of Earth in space could not have been made possible without NASA's help, who deploy a highly extractive and environmentally destructive form of "high" technology (US rocket fuel, for example, is very destructive to the ozone and its toxic compounds are found in baby formula). At our current stage of globalization, arguments for restoring the biosphere, mitigation and remediation, whether we like it or not, require science and technology, and even the Internet, a primary byproduct of military research. The rub is that technology, according to Jacques Ellul, is first a product of "technique," a way of thinking and categorizing the world that is materially manifested in technology. The bind is that we are now called upon to turn technique upon itself in order to tunnel back to "nature," something that is itself now just a construct.

The hope is that artists and communicators can tap into the primordial call of Earth by creating stories and visualizations that move us toward a planetary vision of ecology. As Ursula K. Heise argues in her fantastic book, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global, the Internet is often used in popular culture as a synecdoche for planetary connectivity. Avatar takes that one step further by showing how Pandora is itself a kind of organic Internet, its native inhabitants "jacking in" like the cyberpunk cowboys of yore. So while its true the system that produced the technology of Avatar is itself destructive, at the same time we should also acknowledge that it offers an emotional reconnection with a feeling of planetary consciousness, its 3-D heart reaching out to us over the silhouetted heads of the theater. In this sense, the film is about itself. After all, when we mindmold with Na'vi Jake Sully in the last shot, has he not become our dream? Or are we in his?

The film presents two paradigm extremes: the Mechanistic World Eaters, and the Organic World Grokkers. In-between are the bridge people, those who have a foot in both worlds, represented by Sully the wounded hero who becomes a shaman, and the chief's daughter Neytiri, who is schooled in the language of the oppressor. The love between them is one conduit to transformation; information technology and art is the other. As such, the film presents different aspects of technological prosthetics. There are the machinery versions of the Robo Cop variety, and there is the Avatar Project, which allows humans to control biologically engineered clones in order to infiltrate Pandora's natives. Finally there is the film itself which is a prosthetic of our enlarged senses. Like us, the film's avatars are digital natives, which inhabit a hybrid domain of modern network technology and the primeval matrix of interconnectivity. Despite the popular belief that we are disconnected from the natural world (reflected by the fact that we talk as if there is a dichotomy between the two), like the avatars we are biologically and imminently part of the biosphere. We are not on earth, we are in earth. And just as my mirror neurons enable me to empathize and connect with fellow humans, they also extend to other animals, plants and minerals (yes, minerals!). We are naturally interweaving with all aspects of our world, but due to our domestication (best exemplified by Avatar's comically named antagonist, Parker Selfridge), we are trained to experience nature as if it were alien. As bridgers, though, the minds that navigate the avatars are extending their awareness into a larger reality.

Still, though the technological net that encompass Pandora can model and map it in 3-D, it fails to garner empathy from the World Eaters. Only through hybridization with the Primal Matrix can it happen. This occurs through technological bonding with the world's natives, who are themselves a kind of animal hybrid (though they wouldn't see themselves that way). Indeed, humans are animals too, lest we forget. Na'vi are part cat, part humanoid, which invokes some of Donna Haraway's work about cyborgs and hybridity ("We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs"). On a biological level, if we were pressed to evaluate what is it that defines us as human, you would be shocked to learn how much of us really is water, parasites and bacteria. Moreover, our DNA contains even the most ancient strains of evolution. Indeed we are part lizard, bird, fish and algae. Where the distinction begins and ends is cultural.

In order for us to reach beyond the reality bubble of technique, we start by burrowing our way through with what we can grasp. When Sully enters the world of the Na'vi for the first time, the only way he knows how to survive in the foreign landscape is to use fire– our first technology. But it is only when the flame is extinguished that he can see the world alive with light and energy. As many bloggers have noted, such a vision is not unlike the kind you have when imbibing the "fruits of gods." If Avatar pushes the Vatican to criticizes the film's animism, then I think it's on to something.

The most useful aspect of Avatar is its ability to defamiliarize the concept of "alien." I read some reviewers refer to the indigenous inhabitants of Pandora as aliens. Wrong. As the dialog and schematic clearly shows, the humans (we don't know much about their history) are clearly the aliens, in the same sense that when the Spanish invaded the Americas, they too were aliens to the native societies.

The film's machines–as cartoony as they are–are literal world eaters, visual manifestations of the very system that exists in our planet, right now, be they rain forest consuming corporations or imperial invasions (references to mercenaries and "Shock and Awe" might confuse some of the film's fans who don't see Pandora's connection with Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan). Avatar's weakness is to not elaborate more on the RDA Corporation's home society. Like the war machine we see on the evening news, they are decontextualized from history (I imagine the sequels will flesh this out more–fingers crossed). It would be more courageous if their parent "civilization" was identified as a democracy. That could help us see more directly our own way of life as connected to the world-consuming ways of Pandora's colonizers.

If you are like me, the most powerful moment of the film comes in the last shot, when Sully's consciousness reawakens fully merged with his Na'vi prosthetic. In that moment my heart's aperture opened widely, encompassed by an enlarged sense of recognition and unity that comes from a true connection with the world. From the screen's eyes to mine, tears welled.

Cameron remarked that the Na'vi are like our higher selves. Connecting to this realm is refreshing like a purification dream. Indeed, the film's very roots are rooted in dreams, our one border region that still actively engages spirits of Earth. First, the Na'vi's physical form was inspired by a dream of Cameron's mother. Secondly, the image of blue avatars also draws upon the mythological vision of Hinduism, in which gods manifest themselves on Earth as dreamers dreaming themselves into existence. For us film can be a contact point to the liminal zones where such entities are realized by technologically aided human imagination.

Though a reviewer cynically called Avatar this season's "ink blot test," as a kind of zeitgeist film, Avatar's popularity may indeed indicate that our higher selves are calling us home. Our inner hippies are still there, feeling the groove of our filaments snaking with the global matrix, our mutated and war-damaged bodies ready to be compost for the World Tree.

In answer to my initial query– What does Avatar want?– Mitchell argues that the dominant motif of the modern era has been, "things fall apart." This can be represented by our literature's earliest version of bio-engineering: the monster Frankenstein. Such a creature doesn't dream, but is instead a nightmare. For so long his yellowed irises have stared us down in one form or another, perhaps beckoning us to re-enchant ourselves, and to rid our culture of this horrible vision of what we have become. I suspect that this is what Avatar really wants. Finally, as we stare back at the cultural dream's refashioned eyes, they invite us to download our higher selves by responding, "now things come alive!"

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Summer reading update

Even though I haven’t been online that much this summer, I have still been pretty mediated, albeit old school style with books. I thought I’d share during this brief blogging pause what I’ve been reading.

“The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization’s Rough Landscape” (Harm De Blij)

So far so good, The Power of Place uses geography to remap how we think about globalization. This is a myth buster.

“Spook Country” (William Gibson)

I didn’t like this one so much. Shallow characters and uninteresting plot, but Gibson has such an interesting mind that many of the book’s concepts and commentary save it.

“The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living” (Fritjof Capra)

I wish I had read this before writing my book. What a powerhouse of ideas and inspiration for relating cell structure with how societies are constructed. Super scary stuff on GMOs as well.

“The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift” (Andres R. Edwards)

If you don’t know much about what sustainability is, you’re not alone. Most people who were polled in the US couldn’t define or recognize the term, “sustainability.” No matter, the book gets under the hood by providing a wealth of definitions from various ecological organizations and schools of thought.

“Sustainable Education: Re-Visioning Learning and Change (Schumacher Briefing, No. 6)” (Stephen R. Sterling)

This is the best pedagogical overview you will find that filters education through an ecological paradigm. Again, I wish I had read this before I wrote my book.

“Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations” (Clay Shirky)

Worth all the buzz. Shirky translates in simple language the emerging paradigm of social networks and activism.

“The Secret History of the American Empire: The Truth About Economic Hit Men, Jackals, and How to Change the World” (John Perkins)

As I blogged previously, I found this book to be a good breakdown of how economic control and imperialism is actually practiced. This was probably the most interesting summer read for me because at times it’s like a spy novel, but it’s all true.

“Mediacology: A Multicultural Approach to Media Literacy in the Twenty-first Century (Counterpoints: Studies in the Postmodern Theory of Education)” (Antonio Lopez)

And finally my book. I’ve been reading it here and there and still feel good about it.

Empire of the corporate mind

Written by a former Economic Hit Man, John PerkinsThe Secret History of the American Empire takes you on an inside journey of “corporatocracy” empire building. The book is fairly simplistic when it comes to history, but it confers with all the more academic sources I’ve read about the subject. What is great about the book is that makes the material accessible to a wider audience, especially concerning how important financial institutions (such as the World Bank and IMF) are for keeping the system in place. The book has a really good definition of empire, and also offers several alternative approaches to counteract what may seem like an inevitable process of control, but actually is highly dependent on our ignorance and complicity through consumer habits. If we are going to have an ethical approach to media production and analysis, we must acknowledge that the US government acts and engages in the world as an empire. To deny this fact is to distort the nature of how corporate media filters the world.

H/T to Scud for recommending the book.

Review: Pirate’s Dilemma


The Pirate’s Dilemma is slightly maddening. The intention is valid: to steer people towards thinking about piracy in a new light. The “pirate’s dilemma” is whether to persecute and shut down piracy, or to recognize it as a kind of creative competition. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The thrust of Mason’s argument can be summarized by the two models of music industry approaches to P2P file sharing: either go the route of Apple and create a cheap, viable option for consumers, or the RIAA route and sue its customers.

As a former DJ, Mason cuts and pastes his way through the book with anecdotes. At first I found the approach a little obnoxious– a kind of overly cheerful airline-style of magazine writing. As a former punk, I found the whole chapter on punk capitalism a little superficial, and lacking a discussion of a really important DIY capitalist operation, Dischord Records. The section “Tao of Pirates” was also missing an important discussion of historical pirate culture, i.e. the black beard types that are so debated so interestingly in Wilson’s Pirate Utopias. I think the word pirate is used too generally. Basically, anyone under 50 is a pirate these days, and I don’t thing that’s true. Finally, the remix section failed to credit Dada.

But as I read on, I warmed up to the book and found the discussion of guerrilla marketing and hip hop pretty good. There was some history and anecdotes that I wasn’t aware of, so I was pleasantly surprised here and there. Still, if you want a more in-depth analysis of the economic situation of open source, read Benkler’s Wealth of Networks.

Ultimately I think Mason’s intentions are good. I’m not sure celebrating the cooptation of underground culture by capitalism is something that is to be happy about, but I suppose as the pirates become more mainstream, maybe our society will be better for it, and that to me, is the ultimate Pirate’s Dilemma.

Book is true enough


“True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society” (Farhad Manjoo)

I just finished True Enough, which challenges the conventional thinking that new media democratize information and will lead to greater vetting and truth. On the contrary, the author argues that new media encourage the retreat into reality tunnels. The greatest benefit of the book is a detailed analysis of the psychological factors that go into propaganda. It explains why “Swift Boating” works. Manjoo– a columnist whose platform is the Web– makes an insightful and correct analysis, but I’m also wondering if there is also a nostalgia for solidity, to the days when there were less media, and diminished freedom of expression due to the top-down model of the one-to-many media structure of old. I think the warnings he makes about our tendency to regress into info tribes should be headed. Does he want to a return to the Jeffersonian ideal of educated elites, or a newspaper saturated public sphere? The solution, I think, is rather old, which is to rely on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, which is to not hold onto some notion of mediated truth, but to surf it as an engaged, mindful observer.

For more insight follow the debate about the book’s conclusions between Manjoo and Steven Johnson, author of Emergence.

Clark sci-fi


Not that Clark! Former counterterrorism czar, Richard Clark, has written a sci-fi thriller that apparently is loaded with grounded futurism. I listened to a fascinating interview with him on the Diane Rehm radio program. If you click below you can listen to the hour-long segment. I haven’t read Breakpoint yet, but it sounds like good airplane reading.

WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio – The Diane Rehm Show for Tuesday January 23, 2007:

11:00Richard Clarke: “Breakpoint” (Putnam)

The counterterrorism czar to Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush presents his latest novel. It’s a tale of cyber-insecurity, the growing threat from China, and a not too distant future where advances in science and technology threaten what it means to be human.

From Publishers Weekly (via

Veteran counterterrorism official Clarke, author of Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror and the novel The Scorpion’s Gate, proves once again that authenticity, insider information and top-secret access artfully applied trumps fancy writing with this cutting-edge, nail-biter techno-thriller set in 2012. Clarke’s intriguing plot centers on the development of Living Software, a massive computer program designed to travel throughout the Internet correcting computer errors and creating software without any help or oversight from human beings. Volunteers would be connected to this program in a project aimed at reverse engineering the human brain. Added to this fascinating mix is the Transhumanist movement, whose labs grow designer children with extra chromosomes. Mysterious entities who would deny this progress are blowing up government Internet connections, killing scientists and destroying the labs participating in this research. Savvy readers will ignore the evidence that points to the obvious suspect, but still be surprised at the identity of the perpetrator when all is revealed. (Jan.)

“Breakpoint” (Richard A. Clarke)

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Children of dystopia

It’s about time the pop culture produced a decent dystopic cult movie. Enter Children of Men, directed by Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron (Y tu mama tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), a post-Baghdad, Road Warrior-type movie sans the cheesy trappings of antiseptic sci-fi. Add one part Black Hawk Down, two parts Blade Runner, one part Sarajevo, stir, and you get a gritty, politically conscious thriller capturing the ennui of our times. Just as Casino Royale eschews the usual Bond clichés for a more neo-realist, noire vision of realpolitik, Children of Men disposes the neon and shoulder pads for sour-reeking pollution, mob rule, torture-for-democracy, dust-covered video monitors, and the post-apocalyptic ambience of globalization on the brink of losing-it-badly. Not too far off really, and if you look closely, much of the background is a stand-in for daily reality that most immigrants and residents of third-world slums already grapple with.

The story celebrates life amidst so much death, but you can barely avoid mortality’s stench. The moving moments offer hope for the alternate reality creeping up on our horizon line. Coming from Mexico, I suspect that Cuaron has true instincts for the reality of future megalopolises, and a great suspicion of the cruel combination of fear, power and racism. Like all sci-fi, Children of Men is as much about the future as it is about the present.

For supplemental reading, I recommend a few pieces by people much smarter than me. I really enjoyed Sheerly Avni’s piece, “‘Children of Men’: Universal’s Orphaned Masterpiece,” which goes into how Universal is doing everything it can to bury this decidedly anti-Bush/Blair/Neo-Con movie. Also, at the Children of Men Web site, there is some really interesting commentary from chic philosopher, Slavoj Zizek. I quote it entirely here:

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The Prestige: an alternate time that is our own

The Prestige

Be forewarned, a movie about magic employs the principle technique of enchantment: misdirection. Thus any film claiming to be about magic has as its subtext the fact of the film itself, which is a carefully constructed illusion, just as any Hollywood motion picture about spectacle is ultimately self-referential (such as Gladiator being a veiled commentary on the studio system). Curiously, this year there have been two films that deal with fabricating reality, locating their narrative in Victorian-era 19th Century: The Illusionist and The Prestige. Both situate themselves at the early stages of media spectacle, a time when phantasmagoria—the predecessor of modern film—was a popular form of pubic performance that utilized the proverbial smoke and mirrors. That there would be a cultural curiosity about this nascent period of magic, performance and spectacle is not coincidental. As we are facing ourselves in a fully engaged mirror of mediation, we are innately curious about the origins of our societal identity crises as we encounter our interdependent relationship with media.

Of the two films, The Prestige is particularly relevant. The foreground of The Prestige is a war between two rival professional magicians. The background is the enmity between two magicians of a different sort: Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, the inventors of our modern electrical system. The film’s subplot concerning the life and work of Tesla (played by the quintessential space cadet, David Bowie, no less) alludes to the ambivalence the society had with new technology at the advent of electricity. One of the most repressed figures of modern history, Tesla, we may recall, invented/discovered alternating-current (AC) electricity, which competed with direct-current (DC) electricity championed by Edison. As the cliché goes, history is written by its winners, and it’s no wonder that Edison, a brazen self-promoter and showman, engaged in a number of public spectacles and dirty tricks to discredit his nemesis, Tesla. Edison publicly electrocuted stray animals to shock people into believing in the dangers of AC (one scene in The Prestige alludes to such a public war). Not coincidentally, Edison was one of the earliest innovators and promoters of moving image technology, something that eluded Tesla who preferred to experiment privately with this radical, newly harnessed energy. But even Tesla was known to be a bit of a show-off. When his studio was in New York he was known to entertain celebrity visitors like Mark Twain‘s entourage and dazzled them by conducting high voltage electricity through his body that produced an eerie aura, and used wireless florescent light tubes (one of his many inventions) that were powered as if by magic. Witnesses reported also seeing Tesla hold “balls of lightening.” Continue reading

Are we not men?

Few films are as gratifying as X-Men: The Last Stand. The effects are seamless, plot complex, emotions driven and social issues nuanced and prescient. The movie as dream is utterly captivating, and since most will focus on the entertaining aspect of the film, I just want to point out a few social aspects worth noting.

The mutants are humans merging with nature; as ciphers for us, they are hybrids. Typically in sci-fi, hybrids are part machine. In the case of X-Men, the characters are elemental or animalistic. In a sense they are the earth force re-balancing the human realm, which at first resists the mutants and insists on instituting a policy of “curing them” (made possible by a genetically engineered serum). Unlike typical sci-fi, the conflict is not mediated by technology, but rather by biology (and bio-science). As the struggle ensues between the mutant factions, the battle goes mano-a-mano, albeit the group that harnesses the perfect balance between the forces of nature and human prevails.

As an example of “sustainable media,” the X-Men strikes an equilibrium between cinema’s tendency to obliterate nature through the spectacle of destruction (both in the act of making the film and symbolically), and to bridge the natural world through its fusion of electricity (a biological force) and communication. It eliminates the false barrier we make between the environment and media, for in our world, media is the environment, yet it has a hybrid quality like the mutants. Though few are willing to admit it, we in the high-tech world are cyborgs, but in a good sense. Our fusion with technology is not into a false world, but into one of complexity and hybridity. There are dangers, of course, due to the unsustainable paradigm of our collective operating system. Yet we also have an opportunity to leverage interdependence. As operators, each one of us has the ability to input new data into the system as it self-organizes. As Buckminster Fuller once said, on Spaceship Earth there are no passengers, only pilots. Just as the new beings in Xavier’s Academy for Gifted Youngsters learn to harvest their abilities for the collective good, so too can we not reject our powers, but embrace them for the evolutionary challenges that await us.

Note: the title of this post is not only lifted from my beloved Devo, but also from a chapter in an excellent book on film and ecology:

“EcoMedia (Contemporary Cinema 1)” (Sean Cubitt)

“Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” (Devo)

“Devo – The Complete Truth About De-Evolution” (Rhino / Wea)

A day without Mexicans

Day-without-mexicansToday there will be national demonstrations against revised efforts to “reform” immigration law that are expected to draw over a million folks. This is great news. In an effort to explain why this sleeping jaguar has awakened, some in the mainstream media have finally examined the debate from a Latino perspective. In particular CNN profiled the producers of A Day Without a Mexican (watch the trailer here). The film spoofs the immigration debate by depicting a hypothetical event in which all Mexicans disappear from California. The resulting chaos is predictable and kinda funny. The film itself is a bit of a one trick pony. It tries to extend the one-liner into a feature-length movie when a short would have sufficed. Still, the idea is a great meme that deserves circulation. Indeed our entire system would likely collapse without immigration, and especially from hard-working and industrious Mexicans who for our economy, in the words of Enterprise caption Jean-Luc Picard, “make it go.” So though I personally found A Day Without a Mexican a so-so movie, I’m glad it’s getting revised interest. The title itself should get our brain melons picked.

Visit the filmmaker’s site.

Lipified Bohemia

flaming-lipsOnly the Flaming Lips would have the audacity to cover Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but they did, and you would be remise to not immediately download/purchase/rip/borrow their super awesome epic, At War With The Mystics, containing said magnum opus sacred cow. Only crazy or egomaniacal artists would tackle such a task. Which criteria the Lips fall into, you be the judge.

Meanwhile, I’m going to whine (me? never!) about one little annoying thing: iTunes has to stop making crappy rips of their files. They are the top music retailer in the world and their MP3s totally suck. This is the second album in a row that I purchased on iTunes that distorts on many frequencies. Another download service I use, emusic, has no such problems. Unfortunately they don’t distribute blockbusters, but they’re awesome for indie, jazz, folk, trip hop and weird music. Apple did credit me for the last bad album (I haven’t hit them up for the Lips yet), but the point is, invest some of that marketing money for making decent files meant to be listened to on something other than a stupid phone!

Short Attention Span Reviews- PKrunk

Punk:AttitudeRize.jpgThe Internet is all about tomorrow, but the way my schedule is, it’s all about yesterday. But like the pile of books growing in my flat like slime mold (if only they could pay rent!), it may take ten years to get through them, but when the time is right, they’ll get read. Which brings me to a few movies that without the assistance of Netflix, I would never have gotten to, even in ten years. As it stands, a week sitting in the pretty little unopened red envelopes seems like decades in Net time. Anyhow, this brings me to two documentaries that appropriately arrived within days of each other, and in a way are bookends to this all-important religion of mine, DIY (do-it-yourself).

Rize and Punk: Attitude are tributes to two great subcultural movements that emerge from those 5% living in the margins that somehow find each other in the primordial muck of civilization to flower into beautiful lilies of culture. Punk Attitude, a documentary that almost tries to do too much, covers all the bases, going back to early rock and roll, detouring with Warhol and the Velvet Underground, taking a piss with MC5, the Stooges, NY Dolls, Ramones, and so on, culminating with hardcore in ’81, and jumping to Nirvana. Whew! I agree with Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth) who in the film called the ’80s a secret history. I concur, and I should know because I was there. But more on that at a different time, in a medium with more air than a blog can offer.

In general, Punk: Attitude is a good primer, made by now prolific punkumentarian, Don Letts, also maker of the great video, The Clash: Westway to the World. It’s prime focus, the ’70s, is the film’s strength. For this period I would recommend The Filth and the Fury for a more detailed look at the Sex Pistols, and 24 Hour Party People for a narrative version of British punk’s nascent movement. Of course the recent Ramones documentary, End of the Century, is required viewing.

I haven’t seen the Minutemen movie yet, We Jam Econo, but a friend from the old LA scene complained that it reflected how male dominated the punk music scene was. True, but it was vastly better than any other music movement of the time. I’m still waiting for the DVD of the Decline of Western Civilization (what the hell!), the movie on LA’s punk underground released in ’81 that got me to shave my surfer boy hair. So it remains, the ’80s is yet to be adequately documented from the vantage of history, although Dogtown and Z Boys definitely does it for skate culture.

On to Rize. This is pop photographer David LaChapelle ‘s ode to Krunk, the hip hop clown-inspired street dancing that is part theater, part kung fu, part subterranean Africa, the sum of which is most definitely LA. Krunk makes me happy. It’s the ghetto doppelganger of punk. It is DIY style, uplifting culture, an alternative to BS you see in what my rootsy MC friend Mike 360 calls “shit hop.” Krunk kids remind me so much of what punk felt like pre-Nirvana (not to dis on my boys). Of course the danger of turning the lens on any subculture is to immediately commodify it. To see it is to destroy it. I don’t know the state of Krunk in the wake of LaChapelle ‘s film, but I hope it had the same impact on some alienated youth the same way that Decline had on me. Personally I found the documentary a sincere gesture, a moving tribute to a bunch of kids who remain, even today in 2006, an underclass in American because of their race.

V is for Vitriol – but it’s still fun!

VHere is an ambiguous short review of an ambiguous movie. Rather than spoil the plot, which is fairly nuanced, I’d say that first of all, V is for Vendetta is better than the Matrix Trilogy, the first follow-up by the Wachowski Brothers. The film is not dominated by action sequences, and is philosophically more complex. As a dystopia, the film has the usual tropes of jack-booted thugs, fascists donning couture black and heroic individuals who save the world. What is novel about the movie is that it provides a handy tool set for deconstructing the psychology of power, fascism and terrorism. Located in the very near future, there is plenty of commentary about current events– as we should all know by now, the future is always about the present. The popularity of this film will be a test of the gestalt of our times. Its gray morality surrounding terrorism is a lot muddier than the year following 9/11 when Bush could say you are either “against us or for us” and people would just nod in blind approval.

For the record I’m opposed to all forms of violence, including terrorism and war, so I don’t casually recommend this film, but its nuanced treatment of the matter lends complexity to politics and violence, which John Kerry failed to communicate effectively in the last election. For these reasons I think it will be a positive addition to the pop discourse of our era.

The film’s tag line, on the other hand- “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people”- is tricky. Like other catchy feel good slogans, such as “Fight the Power,” it sounds better for an ad campaign than as a unifying battle cry. (Hey, wait, it is a an ad slogan- for the film!) The trouble with the phrase is that it promotes fear- that somehow inducing fear is a desired political strategy. That is the ultimate failure of terrorism (beyond its violence): that it doesn’t build community but splatters it. There is no worm hole to community organizing. Typical of media, this film promotes a short-cut to real social change.

Likewise The Matrix also lacked a social strategy. That some Jesus-like character, “The One” (Neo), would save the world is a very disempowering message. When will we wake up to the realization that we are the ones we have been waiting for? No more heroes! No more rock stars! (See, punk is not entirely dead!)

One final thought. The credits roll with the Stone’s “Street Fighting Man,” but it should have been the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK.” Come on, get with it!