Can “life” keep up with the creeping cycle of desensitization? This trailer for the Discovery Channel’s new series Life offers an excellent example of how current cinematic time and space differs from unmediated experiences. But then again, editing is all a matter of framing and choice, and the Discovery Channel tends to gear itself towards a theme-park thrill ride aesthetic. A film like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker would certainly offer a more meditative encounter, as do other more nuanced nature documentaries that can heighten awareness of that which we have become unaware. It is very difficult for us modern folk to enter into the animal’s “umwelt” (selfworld), so cinema has the potential to help in that process (barring, of course, that we actually re-learn how to communicate with animals).
I have a feeling, though, that the action movie style of this promo will be vastly different than the actual show, which is narrated by Oprah Winfrey. African American women have long been a trope for ancient Earth wisdom (the quintessential example would be Whoopi Goldberg’s Guinan character on Star Trek: Next Generation). Moreover, the program’s marketing claims it’s made by the same folks who produced Planet Earth. It’s hard to imagine they would go in the direction of Roland Emmerich (of Day After Tomorrow and 2012 fame). It would be a truly strange mash-up to have Oprah’s reassuring voice overlaying high-intensity action sequences, or the narrator of the above trailer on top of a Tarkovsky clip.
“Cyclonic perpetual emotion machine…” and other prescient observations about Fox from Jon Stewart. Not surprisingly, Stewart eviscerates his nemesis on ‘The O’Reilly Factor.’ But of greater interest is his discussion of TV and radio from a media ecology view (around the 13:00 mark).
“Earth, a dream we’ve been chasing for a long time.”–Admiral Adama
So concludes one of the greatest epic runs of sci-fi on TV: Battlestar Galactica (reimagined). Ripe with sci-fi’s prime directive to comment not on the future, but the present reality, like its cult-like progenitor Star Trek, BSG was rich in allegory, philosophy, and literary references. A sure sign of this is the how BSG generated a cottage industry of fan Websites, books, podcasts, Webisodes, fan films, chats and wikis that manifested all the positives of the current convergence media environment. By leveraging the collective intelligence and participatory components of the contemporary pop commons, BSG illuminated a vast zeitgeist embedded in the historical tension between humans and their technological tools. The show was a kind of conjuring of the collective unconsciousness, with the producers acting as media alchemists distilling cultural properties like mad mediacologists hermeneutically absorbed by the world’s pop culture dream code.
In the digital media class I teach we have been talking about the “consumer sublime,” which is the idea that people seek increasingly more stimulating media to “awe” their senses in the same way we once encountered the sublime within nature. The clearest example is comparing the experience of going into the Grand Canyon versus watching an IMAX movie on the canyon’s edge (yes, it’s possible). This pattern goes along with the theory of the “creeping cycle of desensitization” which argues that every time media technique hits a threshold and becomes normalized, new media come along to amp up sexuality, violence, editing, sound and overall sensory experience. For instance, go to the IMAX home page and it instantly promises that you will “hear more, see more.” For another example, compare early James Bond trailers with recent ones, or old Bat Man with the new one.
Why does this matter for the environment? Because in our addiction for speed and thrills, we seek to supplant nature’s innate experience of awe with one generated by a computer; in the process of hyper-stiumulation we actually numb ourselves to the subtle voices of the extended natural world. But there is a fuzzy boundary between technology and nature (ultimately a false dichotomy, anyway), which might explain why naturalist Wade Davis of National Geographic would star in the IMAX film, “Grand Canyon: River at Risk.” On the one hand it seems absurd to watch this film inside a dark theater on the edge of the Grand Canyon when you could simply hike down and have the experience yourself. On the other, not everyone can travel there (the film can be seen in other theaters) and it does create an intimate experience that technology enables (such as telescopes or microscopes enhancing the invisible). This contradiction is similar to that which Walter Benjamin grapples with in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” He argues on the one hand art loses its “aura” when reproduced, but on the other, it becomes democratized because it becomes available to everyone (unless, of course, if it’s being mediated by fascist propaganda or corporate media).
Any new medium both enhances and eliminates some sensory experience– no doubt certain aspect of nature become accessible to us through film and TV, while others are inadvertently cut off. BBC’s Planet Earth series, for example, takes us places we can never go, or allows us to see animals we’ll never know intimately. Or Winged Migration can show us birds’ “umwelt” (selfworld) in a way that we may never know (unless we become a shaman, that is). This is an over simplification of a much larger argument, but suffice to say, the natural sublime can be present in some kinds of media.
With that said, I now want to take a closer look at Comcast’s “Dream Big” ad campaign (the first is posted here, to see the others you can click on the YouTube playlist I created with examples). Like the IMAX Website, it promises more and better of everything (the jingle chimes,”Speeding forward, future hopping, always dreaming never stopping…”). The ad presents a veritable Christmas morning of sensory delight in which we can live out our fantasy of perpetual childhood. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with being childish, but as ecopsychologist Paul Shepard points out in Nature and Madness, our culture is traumatized because we are wired for rites of passage involving communication with nature, without which our “ontogenesis”–growth pattern– is corrupted. In other words, because of our increasingly deeper disconnection with the natural world, we never fully grow up and mature the way that our biology intends. Look around, and you will see the disastrous consequences of this kind highly addictive personality disorder. Rather than have a healthy, nurturing relationship with our natural world “parent,” we run around the globe like five-year-olds with M-16s gulping as much oil as possible, even if we choke on it. I use the royal “we” of course. Most of us, I presume, would not choose this mode of life if given a choice or were properly aware of our options. Yet, here we are.
Even more sad is the Prozac calm of the ad talent’s tone. There is nothing arbitrary about this because historically “advanced” capitalist societies have cultivated a certain emotionless gaze. Think Ray-Bans and aviator cool. This began with the “Fordization of the face,” industrialization’s efforts to smooth the temperament and emotion of workers so they wouldn’t rebel against mind-numbing work. The modern equivalent is advertising’s droll voiced 20-something narrator who bemoans the cubicle life, but surrenders to it, nonetheless. The logic is that the System is more successful when few care what its managers design or do with the world, as long as it is entertaining and fun on the weekend. But then again, that might be the very reason why the System is currently falling apart. Confuse, divide, conquer and rule the emotions of people, and they will no longer find any gratification from a system that is supposed to “nurture” them. This creates a perfect opportunity for nature to reassert herself into the center of our attention, because in the end we know deep down inside the Candyland reality of this Comcast ad is only an unfulfilled desire to bond with the Mother. In fact, it’s available to you if you go outside and look. I recently had my own Candyland experience with a patch of grass. In it was a wonderworld of tiny spring flowers, varieties of grass, buzzing bees, succulents galore and mounds of emerald moss. I imagined myself tiny running amok in this little forest and found it wondrous and full of awe.
Finally, I want to remark on the inevitable harvesting of Generation BoingBoing culture. If you have followed BoingBoing over the years (it remains one of my favorite sites), you’ll notice that its writers have become tastemakers, a role I don’t think they sought or care much about unless it has to do with promoting positive net values such as open source and sharing. But aesthetically they have certain obsessions that inevitably become pop culture “cool,” which is evident in the Comcast ad. Comcast is “remediating” (or recycling from other media) a number of BoingBoing motifs. First is the fetishizing of coy, flirty ukulele DIY songstresses recorded on Webcams in bedrooms by young, attractive females. Another is the flattened eboy art style of pixelated cities hybridized with the Sims-like virtual world playground of video games. It’s a consumer cornucopia of vintage vinyl and cassettes, Japanese monsters, 1970s toys, Sesame St. animations, Linux penguins, and so on. True enough, the Comcast world is full of “wonderful things,” which in and of itself is not bad, but put into the context of how the global culture is trending, we may do well to hit the pause button for a minute and wonder where in the hell we are, and assess how we really got here.
Unfortunately, to criticize something like this is to be labeled a “Luddite” against “progress.” But I’m far from it. I don’t bemoan the many great positive changes that are happening as a result of convergence and new media (such as participatory media, collective intelligence, and transmedia storytelling). Nor do I think that Comcast is brainwashing us into a specific reality frame. But what it does do is reinforce dominant cultural themes and mentalities that need to be called out. Failure to do so would mean a failure to intervene and read against the grain of paradigmatic thinking that normally goes unchecked. Frankly, if I wake up some morning in Comcast’s world, I’d say we’re pretty screwed.
I’ve been very interested in understanding the amount of power we consume with our televisions. Well, the Sierra Club offers this little quiz to test your knowledge. I found it quite enlightening and learned something new (spoiler alert): even though TVs are becoming more energy efficient, they are also getting bigger and include more add-ons (such as media players, stereos, etc.), so the net effect is actually a wash.
Lesson 1: The Public Won’t Support You, Unless You Do Things “Harshly”: Soon after 9/11, according to Bob Woodward, Ailes sent a “back-channel message” to President Bush, suggesting that he needed to take “the harshest measures possible” in retaliation for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He added that “support” for war “would dissipate if the public did not see Bush acting harshly.”
Lesson 2: The Public Does Not Need To Know The Full Reasons For Going To War: In 2003, a University of Maryland study found that “those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions” about basic facts related to the war. 80 percent of those who relied on Fox News as their primary news source believed at least one of three lies: the discovery of alleged WMD in Iraq, alleged Iraqi involvement in 9/11, and international support for a U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Lesson 3: When Things Go Bad, The Public Doesn’t Need To Know: “Fox spent half as much time covering the Iraq war than MSNBC during the first three months” of 2007, “and considerably less than CNN.” Fox News “were obviously cheerleaders for the war,” said CNN U.S. President Jon Klein. “When the war went badly they had to dial back coverage because it didn’t fit their preconceived story lines.”
The above video clip happened live during an Italian evening news broadcast I was watching a few weeks ago. Don’t worry about the language, it’s not necessary to know Italian to understand what’s happening. This goes to show what an echo chamber the news is. Rather than the news coverage itself being important, instead the appearance of Gabriele Paolini in the background making funny faces becomes the news. Who is this guy? Paolini is regionally famous for hijacking live news coverage by repeatedly jumping into the camera’s frame. He had disappeared for a while, because apparently he had been institutionalized. Now that he’s free, police have to monitor live newscasts to make sure he doesn’t disrupt them.
Paolini has a cause, which is to promote the use of condoms. But when I was first confronted by this character (and later learned there is another less-dispruptive publicity seeker who simply makes sure his face is always in the camera frame), I thought maybe this was the work of a brilliant prankster. Apparently not, just a well-known village eccentric, which goes to show that Rome is still intimate enough that it’s possible to be a local celebrity for being the weirdo who interrupts the news. I’m just glad it’s still possible to disrupt the slick dissemination of infotainment.
I suggest you enter Paolini’s name into YouTube (OK, I did it for you- click here) and you will be amazed by the numerous clips documenting his interventions, the funnier being when a news reporter kicks him in the nuts, and another when he jumps in front of the camera during the World Cup. The man has no shame, that’s why we love him so. Go Paolini!
If you are feeling inundated by political ads, you may better enjoy the experience if you make a game of identifying the various persuasion techniques used to make their arguments. This brilliant little video is a great primer on how to do it.
One of the best things I like about watching this version of Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman’s “Television Delivers People” (1973) is the distortion of an old video tape from broadcast TV. This video inspired a show currently running at The Whitney:
Television Delivers People brings together single-channel video works from the 1970s to the present that examine how an individual viewer is shaped by television’s structure and content. These videos also suggest the possibility of an active approach to viewing which remains relevant even as the physical experience of viewing changes. The exhibition takes its title from Richard Serra’s video Television Delivers People (1973), which pairs a Muzak soundtrack with a scrolling list of statements describing the manipulative strategies and motivations of corporate advertisers imbedded in television. Works from the late 1970s and early ’80s by Dara Birnbaum and Joan Braderman extend Serra’s media critique by using strategies of appropriation to deconstruct specific television genres and programs. Videos by Michael Smith and Alex Bag adopt a performative approach in responding to television, acting out characters whose lives are shaped by cable and its endless programming choices. The exhibition also includes videos by a number of young artists who have created experimental narratives reflective of a dense internet culture, where diverse content from television, film, and music is immediately accessible and available for manipulation and response. Curator: Gary Carrion-Murayari
I’m reluctant to use the term “mass media” because so much of what we call “mass” is actually being composted by the blurring distinction between consumer and producer, and the transition from the one to many paradigm of media broadcasts to the many to many model of networks. Nonetheless, both ecologies still exist simultaneously and we could say that TV exhibits the old broadcast model the most of any medium, though it’s changing every day, the writer’s strike being at the cusp of the new space that TV is entering into.
Up to now I’ve thought of mass media as having one primary ideological impact, which is the idea that reality is inherently false and the only way to transform it is through buying into the commodities system. However, in the article clipped below, Robert K. Blechman illustrates an equally persistent theme in televised content: the pitting of antisocial against social behavior. The goal of television is, in a sense, to constantly normalize and reign in abhorrent behavior. Mary Ann Doane argues that it also tries to stave off catastrophe by containing it through the medium. A good example is how immediately after the planes crashed into the Twin Towers the news agencies edited film-like trailers that constructed a narrative sequence to make the event movie-like, and therefore more psychologically acceptable.
The subject of Robert’s article is the contradiction between the moral condemnation of performance enhancing drugs and the simultaneous promotion of performance enhancing everything that is exemplified by TV. This is an aside, but I noticed that for a while the trendy word of marketing was “unleash”: unleash your inner whatever, which I thought was such a thoughtless and ultimately stupid mindset that culminates in misadventures like the Iraq war. It’s a bad thing when our leaders feel obliged to “unleash” their ideology on the world, let alone attack dogs on torture victims. Anyhow, as a diehard baseball fan (yes its true!), I have been intrigued by the Roger Clemens soap opera (he was called out in a major report on performance enhancement drugs in baseball). I never liked Clemens and thought of him as the Hummer of baseball, an arrogant, shameless self-promoter that reminded me so much of President Bush. I imagine as Clemens fights for his public image (I wouldn’t be surprised if his Wikipedia page is going through some major rewrites at the moment) with denial after denial (in fairness, technically he is not guilty of anything), I’m left with a sense that our culture has become a steroid culture: beefed up but sick at its core, ill-tempered and in a kind of enraged denial that only the worse kind of coke addict could exhibit. As such, I think its useful to observe how these patterns play out across the board, and I think Robert’s article does a fine job of that.
So we have a basic opposition within the content structure presented by American television. On the one hand we have advertisements, where the performance enhancing drugs or productsmust be used, and on the opposite end we have sports where the performance enhancing drug must not be used. In between we have differing interations of this primary opposition, with entertainment and news content reflecting multiple variations of this use/don’t use opposition.
The point is that we aren’t concerned with the effect of drug use, or the unfair advantages performance enhancing drugs might give to advertising, entertainment or news personalities. We are concerned with the advantages performance enhancing drugs might give to professional atheletes. In their case, the use of any drug is itself a violation of the rules which state that, though any given athelete might already represent an outlier of norms concerning physical strength and ability, they shouldn’t do anything “artificial” to enhance their already considerable talents.
Sometimes you have to thank the media gods for providing free resources to deconstruct their world. So welcome to Super Bowl Monday Planet: Firebrand, a ridiculously conceived Website that can be likened to a content-free television network, i.e. all ads, now shows. But if you are like me and are infinitely curious and attracted to ads like we are to a car wreck on the freeway, then Firebrand is pure unadulterated consumeristic voyeurism. Forget the strange premise that people will watch ads for entertainment value. We have a free media literacy download site!
You can download any commercials onto your computer and use them for teaching about media. Firebrand supports a number of formats, including iPod, iPhone, Windows Media and Quicktime.
OK media lit folks. Have at it!
From the Website:
We love commercials. We submit, with rare exception, that they?re the best stuff on TV. In under a minute you get the best directors, the sickest special effects, the funniest writers?what?s not to love?
We love commercials. 1984. Mean Joe Green. Whasssup? You know you love them, too. So let?s gather ?round the best of them. Sort them. Judge them. Share them. Love them.
We love commercials. The eye candy. The laugh out louds. The did-you-just-see-thats. The most loved, the most emailed, the ones we still talk about today. Let every day be Super Bowl Monday.
Air Force Academy chapel, Colorado Springs, CO Cylon Resurrection Ship, somewhere in outer space
In case you haven’t seen Sci-Fi network’s Battlestar Galactica (I highly recommend that you do), the premise of the story is that a race of robots created by humans decides to destroy their creators. The cyborgs, called Cylons, have developed a theistic construct of the universe, believing in a single God (the humans are polytheists who warship something akin to the the Greek pantheon). It’s one of the more interesting twists in the series plot lines. The Cylons eventually believe they are doing “God’s” work, so instead of simply destroying the fleshy heathens they decide to invade and occupy a human colony in order to convert them to their cybernetic lord (sound familiar?). In the process of the occupation the Cylons torture, detain and kill the humans without a hint of irony (again, sound familiar?). The hint that perhaps the Cylons are stand-ins for fundamentalists comes with their ability to “resurrect” their consciousness into cloned bodies whenever one of their advanced humanoid models is killed. The “resurrection ship” (pictured above) contains fresh cyborgs that can be downloaded with the consciousness of terminated or killed Cylons.
The religious pursuits of the Cylons obviously have their real world analog, and is a sophisticated commentary on the nature of fundamentalist religion. In it I find echoes of my own sense that monotheism is a bit like a dangerous thought virus that has no logical basis in reality, yet has a way of repeating and transferring itself from one generation to another. Thus I was intrigued to discover the similarities of the Air Force Academy chapel (the first image) with the resurrection ship. Since we know Cylons are not modernists (as the chapel was made in the 1960s and is clearly inspired by modernist architecture), it’s probably a clue that Battlestar Galactica’s writers do in fact view the Cylons as a type of fundamentalist culture which is militaristic, dogmatic and homogeneous. After all, one of the key reasons the Cylons initially attack the human race is that they are viewed as sinful and impure. All these elements happen to be aspects of what is transpiring at the Air Force Academy– and the US military in general– which has become a fierce fundamentalist conversion center, thereby combining high tech with militancy and intense faith. Things get a little loopy, however, when it turns out that it’s tied to the ministry of Ted Haggard (you know, the preacher guy who apparently loved speed and hard (male) bodies).
The Christian supremacist fascism first reported at the Air Force Academy is endemic throughout the military. From the top down, there has been a complete repudiation of constitutional values and time-honored codes of ethics and honor codes in favor of religious ideology. And we now have a revolving door between Blackwater USA, which is Bush’s Praetorian Guard, and the U.S. military at every level. The citizen-soldier military dictated by our founding fathers has been replaced with professional and mercenary right-wing Christian crusaders in control of the world’s most powerful military. The risks to our democratic form of government cannot be overstated.
It’s expedient for the warmongering neocons to encourage fundamentalist militancy in the armed forces because it gives them a hardcore base to execute their goals for economic domination of Muslim controlled oil fields. But like the Cylons, the danger of cultivating such a class of “theo-cons” is that they ultimately may not be controllable and will put forward their own agenda of apocalypse and rapture, something Bush apparently believes in, although I find that to be an excuse at best, and a deadly ruse to hide more nefarious goals. The connection between the mercenary army, Blackwater, and Christian supremacy is an example of the kinds of bad things that happen when you let the tiger out of the cage. In the end, by deploying its private fundamentalist army in the heart of Iraq, the White House may have ultimately undermined its mission. It’s hard to put a smily face mask on extremists in the age of transparent global media. So we may be saved from a Cylon attack after all.
How do you turn mat art into a viral video? Sci-Fi’s Tin Man series has this wormhole site that draws you into its various worlds— one after another. It’s a compelling visual fantasy; you have to give the creators credit for having cajones to tackle the Oz story and contemporize it with darker themes. I don’t know if they can top Gregory Maquire’s Wicked, which envisions Oz through the eyes of the Wicked Witch, but given the trend of recent remakes, I bet it’s a fairly bleak retelling.
I’ll admit that watching this short video made me cry. Not because I believe all of its arguments–that war and our opinions can be controlled virtually, or that journalism is the answer to our problem of war–but because our military technological mind is getting so out of whack that it increasingly is turning people into aliens who can abstract death and destruction. Still, I’m not afraid because hypocrisy is not sustainable. The control fantasy future of the military planners is founded on nothing substantial except destruction. Some day the only thing left to destroy will be destruction itself. But it’s depressing to see this process in action. To quote the opening of The Great Turning (a book about moving our culture from one of empire to earth community),
[This book is] George W. Bush, whose administration exposed to full view the imperial shadow side of U.S. democracy, stripped away the last of the illusions of my childhood innocence. and compelled me to write this book.
An interesting commentary on new animal programs with their shifting narrative arcs designed to satisfy human agendas. I think wildlife programs are a double-edge sword. On the one hand it gives us a more intimate understanding of the animal world, on the other hand if further promotes a sense of separation, first by “othering” animals as something “out there,” second by making nature into an entertainment spectacle, and third excluding humans from a relationship of partnership.
But for as much as Meerkat Manor sounds like Laguna Beach and Arctic Tale looks like Survivor, such word play might not be enough. Roger Scruton, a research professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences who writes widely on animal rights issues suggests we need a new framework for our animal-human relationships. He argues that “negotiation, compromise and agreement” are the foundation of all human communities and that rather than assigning animals rights based on a moral framework, we should give them rights based on how we use them: as pets, food or scientific study.
BTW, if the subject of nature and media are interesting to you, I highly recommend the following book,
Once upon a time, TV news put journalists on camera. Today, cable news has on-air “talent”—who are “cast,” not just hired. A Walter Cronkite would have big trouble getting a job today in TV news. But an actor? No problem. CNN a few years ago cast a former actress from “NYPD Blue” as one of its “Headline News” anchors. At Fox News, where lip gloss and blond hair go further than a background in journalism, I could find no proof to the charge that executives reviewed audition tapes of potential female anchors with the sound turned off.
Jeff Cohen, a founder of FAIR, has been one of the best media watchdogs of the era. His new book, Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media, is out. It’s probably a good read (and funny too, I’m sure), but I wonder if it’s worth caring anymore about how bad cable news is. Do people really care what they say? Do these networks really have that much influence on people’s opnions? I’m thinking out loud here, but I’m guessing that we place more importance on this kind of programming than the actual impact. I wonder if these networks exist within a self-genereating reality and the Internet will bypass them as it has with newspapers. What do you think?