If you really want to understand how the world system works, you must understand money. The amazing documentary, Money & Life, is just the right kind of introduction to comprehend the globalization’s circulatory system. The documentary asks: can we see the economic crisis not as a disaster, but as a tremendous opportunity?
The film hits all the right notes, including using excellent biological metaphors to explain how money works, discussing money as a spiritual phenomena, showing the connection between the ideology of growth and ecological disaster, and proposing concrete alternatives. A must watch.
[video link] Yelp: With Apologies to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”
Today is National Day of Unplugging, which obviously I’m not participating in due to a massive deadline (hence the sudden burst of productivity on this blog!). However, in solidarity I’d like to share this terrific video from Tiffany Shlain & Ken Goldberg which riffs on Ginsberg’s “Howl.” It features the wonderful narration of Peter Coyote.
The video gives a flavor of the kind of profound encounter they have when seeing Earth in space, which inspires tremendous feelings of care and precariousness not unlike those we feel for our children.
While watching the video I had two thoughts. First, what if everyone in the world had a five minute experience of seeing the Earth from space, and second, would that create a new religion?
I think it would.
Clearly until space travel becomes more common, few people will have the privilege of peering out a portal and seeing the thin layer of our atmosphere set against the vastness of space. But media can help take us there. And this is exactly the kind of positive impact I think media can have to raise ecological consciousness. I wish this video had been made when I was writing The Media Ecosystem, because I would have included it as an example of a kind ecomedia that raises consciousness.
Many of us may be wondering right now what kind of madness and spiritual sickness currently pervades our screens, yet we can also start to wonder how awe can also become part of our daily experience and begin to envision media that shows life as profound and unique. Such a vision should lift us past the horror that besets so many earthlings today.
A big thanks to the Planetary Collective for making this wonderfully positive video. Check out their homepage and support their work
This hypothetical propaganda video from the UN’s Division for Sustainable Development associates “healing the planet” with eradicating humans as if they are a planetary disease. It depicts a particular fear and misperception at the heart of Beck’ anthropocentric worldview. He equates concern for the environment as anti-human. This is the opposite of what most ecologists believe. While it is true that some environmentalists are anti-human/anti-civilization (I know this from direct experience), most care deeply about humanity. As an ecocentric parent, my empathy extends to ecosystems, animals, plants and fellow humans. It’s not one or the other.
As for Beck’s vision, however, it is certainly one or the other, which makes no sense on a practical level. Since humans are organisms that depend on fresh air, water and food to survive, I’m not sure how Beck’s vision of freedom ensures healthy ecosystems so that our liberties may be enjoyed. But if you spend anytime peering beyond Beck’s carefully cultivated media empire, you quickly see that he is no more than an irrational conspiranoid that has somehow amplified his worldview beyond that of a ranting psychitzophrenic on skid row. Without media literacy, many will fall for the trappings of serious journalism that Beck dresses his hallucinations with (again, I know from direct experience that it works on some people). Even worse, some will likely believe the “Remove Your Footprint” video is actually real.
Beck is no Orwell or Huxley, both of whom were deeply empathetic authors that cared more about humanity than for corporations. Their visions were based on empirical observations of the world and were by no means hawking conspiracy theories as political agendas. Heck, Beck didn’t even write the book. He just bought the rights to put his name on it. Which just about says everything about the literary qualifications of his anti-environmental stance.
This is how uncool I am: until I read about Klout at Wired.com, I had no idea what it was. In case you are an Internet loser like me, Klout is a service with a proprietary algorithm that scores how much of a net “influencer” you are (its tagline: “Klout is the Standard for Influence”). Upon my first try, I scored a measly 16, which classified me as a “dabbler.” A 50+ score is for the super savvy, whereas 20 is the average for most users. But when I “liked” one of their partners, WWF, I jumped to 45, making me a “networker.” With such a drastic increase with one Facebook like, I find their scoring methods suspect.
Ultimately I don’t really give a damn about my rank, but at first I have to admit that my initial score left me feeling like one of those kids in the park that no one will play with. Then I got a quick high from my score boost, fulfilling my inner desire to be liked and connected (these are part of the psychological motives that Sherry Turkle writes about in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other). Now that I have been confirmed as an insider (albeit by some kind of software glitch–I’m more likely still a 16), I have to ponder the meaning of this status.
Is it too simplistic for me to say this is just another popularity contest in which the jocks and cheerleaders prevail? Or is it revenge of the geeks? Is this wisdom of the crowds? Or just a measure of the mobs?
The first thing that makes me suspicious of this entire phenomenon is how it defines its particular ecosystem of cool. The only way to generate a score is to connect Klout to predetermined social networks that it dubs worthy. They mostly happen to be corporate platforms (Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, LastFM, etc.). There is no way to link my Klout score with my personal blog or presence within independent media communities. Nor does it measure my role within my own communities of practice. It also doesn’t gage my capacity for cultural citizenship. It merely measures how much of these activities have been filtered through the balkanized Web. In this sense, it may just reinforce the branding of social relationships and lead to a kind of digital fascism.
All media systems can be gamed. Klout just allows you to do it for dominant social media platforms. This is both good and bad. If you are a band, writer, activist, musician, etc. it’s good to have a tool that gives feedback for the kind of reach you have. As the graph above indicates, it has a matrix that defines different levels of participation, which allows one to make an action plan for attention.
It’s really hard to get a sense of how quality is measured, however. In fact, it really only shows us quantity. It appears that the algorithm rewards gratuitous and excessive networkers, even those who like to tweet when they are taking a crap. In the end, this just may very well be a refined engine for networked hubris.
By the time you read this, it will be old news. The Kony 2012 meme has probably already exploded and splattered across the various portals, screens and networks of your sphere. Today everywhere I looked, there it was: my favorite blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook wall, speakers of my office mate’s computer, and the hallway of the university where I work.
With its vast, instantaneous spread and quick linking without thought, this obviously made me curious, not just to learn more about the issue, but also to think about this as a phenomenon and lesson in the power of social media.
Admittedly the whole thing made me feel suspicious. But rather than indulge my critical tendencies, I thought it would be good to acknowledge that the people behind this project (Invisible Children) probably mean well and are doing what they think is the best solution to solve a terrible problem. So what follows are my initial thoughts about its positives, and then some reflections on those elements that make me guarded.
What it does right:
Demonstrating collective action around an idea, using a clear message, slogan and image. A successful campaign that has drawn attention to an area that usually is considered peripheral. Generating debate and dialog about best practices and methods. Showing the organic and open character of the internet in which an idea can be promoted and contested. Clever and persuasive use of cinema for the greater good. Connects global problem with local reality. Effective harnessing of empathy. Nice slogan: “Where you live shouldn’t determine whether your live.” Makes the political personal. Good use of social marketing by telling a story rather than just showing facts. Powerful design and packaging strategy.
Things that make me wary:
Presents a neoliberal/neocon vision of political activism, reducing it to brand politics not unlike focusing on the arrest and elimination of Osama Bin Laden as a means for solving a much bigger, systemic crisis. Pseudo-empowerment based on flattery of the activist. Politically safe action that reinforces existing power relations. Not very Afro-centric. Promoting the role of the US as global police force. Threatens to be meme of the week, and little more. Too self-referential, self-congratulatory, and ego-driven. Orientalist in that dark Africa is once again a means for the purification of a white man’s soul. A little too emotionally manipulative, bordering on the group pressure tactics of religious cults. Potential abuse of slick design and packaging strategy to mask larger complexities.
As a native Angeleno, one of my annual rituals is to watch the New Year’s Day Rose Parade. Though I have never witnessed it in person, I have checked out the scene in Pasadena the night before and know many artisans who design and build floats for the annual parade. This year was no different, with the exception that I wanted to share the nostalgia with my kids. However, now that I’m a bit of an ex-pat, I see things that were part of my past with a slightly defamiliarized perspective.
As the parents of former students have told me, media literacy ruins TV watching for the family. Though I wanted to convey my enthusiasm for the artisanship of Rose Parade floats to my daughter, I couldn’t remove my critical hat. I became highly sensitized to the more troubling aspects of the event’s televised broadcast. Before watching it I was keenly aware that an Occupy group planned to tail the parade with their own anti-corporate message, so I was hoping to see if the network coverage (in this case, NBC) would mention or cover the Occupiers. What transpired should be of little surprise to any seasoned media watcher.
The parade coverage opened with a flyover of a Northrop Grumman’s B-2 stealth bomber, ironically dubbed the Spirit. In a sense, Spirit is an apt name for it represents the “spirit” of a particular mode of thinking (as in zeitgeist, which means “spirit of the age”). At a cost of $1.5 billion each, the B-2 represents the absurdity of our social structure in which our government pays outrageous sums to an elite group of military contractors at the expense of a withering infrastructure. Anthropologists and historians of the future will note how incredibly insane such a social system is. Meanwhile, parade commentators Shaun Robinson and Al Roker fawned over the bomber arguing that for most of the audience it was the main attraction. Such death technology warship should not be surprising given that one of NBC’s primary shareholders is the military contractor General Electric.
The rest of the broadcast represented a seamless integration between the values of the military industrial complex and totalitarian capitalist ideology. The parade’s Grand Marshall, J. R. Martinez, is a bit of a rising media personality whose notoriety comes from his experience of overcoming the psychological damage of getting 40% of his body burned while deployed in Iraq. While I admire his perseverance and resilience, none of the discussion of this man’s tragic circumstances get contextualized by how unnecessary it was in the first place. No doubt, with stealth bombers getting applauded by pop culture punditry and parade organizers, these dirty little details need not be aired publicly. Martinez is a perfect metaphor for the denial of our sick system: get burned and disfigured and then turn it into corporate motivation for how to transcend the adversity of Empire’s reckless global behavior.
Meanwhile, each parade float was a mini-ad for its corporate sponsor. It was obvious that Roker’s canned commentary was essentially ad copy penned by the corporate overlords. Meanwhile, interspersed throughout the coverage was a noticeably higher ratio of advertising that mostly hawked product discounts and financial services for the newly poor. Though subtle (or not if you are media savvy), this was truly a hegemonic spectacle selling the ideology of the 1%. Good thing the Occupiers were there to counterbalance the message. Yet.. if you watched NBC, such a perspective didn’t exist. It was eliminated from the parade’s coverage.
This is a blatant example of how alternatives get excluded by the traditional power structure’s media system. Luckily, we no longer exist in a reality bubble of top-down communications. The complex ecology of our current social media allows for alternative perspectives to be shared horizontally. This is not to say that Occupy Rose Parade was entirely ignored. The LA Times and local news stations mentioned it, and those who were in attendance at the parade certainly had a chance to be exposed for the first time to the Occupy message. Not surprisingly, some critics disparaged the protestors for degrading a family event with politics. But in light of the parade’s default message of corporate and military domination, to not see the entire event as political represents a triumph of ideology.
Let’s hope that those who fail to see the political nature of mainstream media spectacles increasingly become the minority. Transforming and educating for a new perspective means we have lots of work to do. To begin with, its time to occupy the spirit of our age. I keep harping on the Occupy theme, but I believe it represents a concrete alternative to the mode of communication propagated by the hyper-capitalist take-over of the cultural commons.
The miracle of this animation is that Zizek was condensed into ten minutes (here is the whole lecture). But even in this short burst we get a dense critique of cultural capitalism, a stark rebuttal to the kind of ethical capitalism that is being peddled these days through the likes of Starbucks. I have been grappling with my innate distrust of the claims made by the likes of the mega-chains like Wal-Mart and Starbucks who are dipping their toes into the kinds of activities we have long advocated for: fair trade, organics, etc. Zizek argues that there are contradictory aims of a Birkenstock wearing multinational that perpetuates the system that is creating the problem in the first place. It is like the viscous cycle of a medical system in which the drugs we take to cure us make us sick. What I see happening on the ground is that corporations are taking over the commons, and there is little debate as to whether or not this is really healthy for the world. The net result seems to be a re-feudalisation of society and the creation of electronic apartheids across the globe. Throughout Europe and the US the public is being stripped of hard-won services and benefits, yet we are paying more taxes? And for what? To pay off interest to the banks who are making profits that are utterly absurd. Where is the social good there? I am oversimplifying, I know, but something really stinks. My only hope is that this final grab will backfire, and that the facade of cultural capitalism will be stripped away to show the ugly face of primitive accumulation for what it is.
As Wired.com points out (Report: Teens Using Digital Drugs to Get High), there is a new hysteria about a craze called “i-dosing.” As the story goes, teens are encouraged to put on headphones and to listen to ambient tracks on the Internet that induce feelings of pleasure and ecstasy. God help them! As the Wired article points out, the phenomena is getting the attention of some concerned folks who worry that this is simply a gateway to some other drug, like marijuana or LSD. Never mind that this is much safer than a much more pressing addiction: our insatiable appetite for war and petroleum.
Indeed, their fears are likely confirmed by the graphic on the signature i-dose track (posted above), “Gates of Hades” (you have to let it run a little to see it). If anything I find the electronic pulse on this track annoying. I much prefer a Tibetan bowl, Balinese gongs, chanting ohm or my favorite: a live Sonic Youth feedback jam. But hey, who can fault teens for wanting to transcend the hellish nightmare we call school and American consumerism.
The fear of teens evading the control of the capitalist/Church mind trap is normal in America. During a time when corporations have hijacked democracy and are poisoning the planet, there’s never a better moment to whip up hysteria about how race music/rock/rave/Internet are abducting our children.
Incidentally, the article’s comments are hilarious. My favorite comment comes from Zombowski, who put it this way: “I can’t figure out how to get the music into the needle. Do I shoot it up with an old record player?”
One of my earliest posts on this blog was about Tila Tequila, whose initial claim to fame was being the most “friended” member of MySpace. My initial shock was her insistence that success was due to her punk rock DIY approach to celebrity. Anyone who knows anything about punk (that is, from direct experience), celebrity and punk are like BP oil swirling in the Gulf of Mexico. Unless, of course, you are geniuses like the Sex Pistols (and Malcolm McLarin), who exploited the media as a kind of guerrilla warfare. Now that John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten) self-parodies on reality TV shows (I still love the guy– you’ve got to see Filth and and the Fury for some insights into his character), it seems like the media has won the war.
Enter Lady Gaga. As Nancy Bauer writes in her NYTime philosophy blog post, Lady Power,
“Gaga wants us to understand her self-presentation as a kind of deconstruction of femininity, not to mention celebrity. As she told Ann Powers, ‘Me embodying the position that I’m analyzing is the very thing that makes it so powerful.’ Of course, the more successful the embodiment, the less obvious the analytic part is. And since Gaga herself literally embodies the norms that she claims to be putting pressure on (she’s pretty, she’s thin, she’s well-proportioned), the message, even when it comes through, is not exactly stable. It’s easy to construe Gaga as suggesting that frank self-objectification is a form of real power.”
I don’t subscribe to satellite or private service in Italy, and only have access to public TV, for which I pay a 100 Euro annual tax. RAI (pubic TV) is only broadcasting one World Cup game a day, which means I have missed many matches, including last night’s crucial game between Ghana and Uruguay. The Net in Italy is now thoroughly filtered so I cannot access live streams from the BBC or ESPN. This is all because the big media monopolies have agreed to gate off large chunks of media, essentially privatizing a global event that arguable belongs in the planetary public sphere.
Incidentally, who pays to train the national teams competing in the World Cup? We do! This is like corporations patenting inventions from public universities.
Living in Italy it’s hard to ignore the World Cup. Everyday at the local market people want to know my opinion about the England-USA match-up on June 6. That’s fine by me. I’ve got the bug too.
What I find fascinating is how a single ball can so inspire the collective imagination, which is brilliantly captured in the above Nike ad (the first embedded video). Taking a page from Lost, the ad flashes sideways into alternate realities based on the results of the play. Aesthetically the ad captures the global zeitgeist of the World Cup’s fever dream.
Speaking of balls…
Using the soccer ball as a point of discussion, a section of Piere Levy’s Becoming Virtual explores the “anthropological object,” which highlights the possibility for using the World Cup’s gameplay as a visualization for a larger project: global ecology.
Building on French philosopher Michel Serres‘ work on “quasi-objects,” Levy draws on the image of a soccer match to concretize how collective intelligence can emerge around the movement of an “anthropological object,” the otherwise unspectacular soccer ball. There are different levels of engagement: the stadium and its spectators, who cannot directly act on the ball, but most certainly can charge the energetic field of the gamespace (as the general debate about the vuvuzelas testifies). On the field, there are the players, of course, who directly engage the ball. Then there are those of us with our nervous systems extending into the gamespace via the cameras that capture the action and transmit it through cyberspace, satellite and broadcast.
With the scene set we can see that though the ball is itself an artifact in its own right, once it goes into play it becomes a point of relations, propelling collective intelligence into action. No single player can pick up the ball and puncture it or run away with it. The ball becomes a tool for which we can think with and respond to in relation to other people. In play it is collectively conceived, a fulcrum for a billion people to relate to and with each other.
Now, imagine if that kind of collective action revolved around the most important ball of all: Earth.
Certainly the commercial, creative and civic energies that go into the World Cup are not currently directed towards our blue ball in space. Yet, as Levy wholeheartedly wants to do with this particular thought exercise, we can humanize/eco-ize the virtuality experiment that we as a global society are engaged in. He suggests that cyberspace can be such an object to think with, one that offers the pedagogical potential for engaging us in building intelligent communities. Obviously at this current moment the BPs of the world are firmly entrenched in the political, military and financial matrix of global power, but they are not poised for the necessary intelligent response to what the ecosphere, and humanity, is calling for. The Greenpeace ad (the second embedded video) is a step in this direction.
Of course, unlike a soccer ball, we don’t need to kick Earth around any more. In Levy’s words:
“Technology virtualizes action and organic functions. Yet the tool, the artifact, are not merely efficient things. Technological objects are passed from hand to hand, body to body, like a baton in a relay. They create shared uses, become vectors of knowledge, messengers of collective memory, catalysts of cooperation.” (p.165)
Is Challenger the official car of the Tea Party? Here Dodge is desperately pandering to the extreme right, an indicator that American corporations have no scruples when it comes to salvaging its business model. Indeed, this is a zeitgeist ad for the American political landscape: a failed ideology can only salvage itself through the appeal of fascist aesthetics.
Indeed, muscle cars are like tea Partiers on steroids, trouncing the landscape as they chase off the foreign occupiers with a false sense of self-confidence. Sorry to say this folks, but the Brits have you by the balls right now. BP will gladly fuel your Challenger for you at a special discounted rate of specially repurposed Gulf oil.
George Orwell, Walter Benjamin and George Washington are somewhere shaking their heads right now while chasing quaaludes with a stiff brandy.
I found this video depicting 24 hours of air traffic strangely beautiful. McLuhan once said that airplanes were the subways of the sky that connect one global megapolis. You get a sense of that from watching this video. It’s also a good visualization of where economic power is concentrated. It’s a bit like the subway system of NYC in which all trains lead to Manhattan. If you need to move across Brooklyn, forget it. Ditto for Africa.
PS I’m blogging “lite” these days due to big writing deadlines. I hope to get back on track soon.
With 2012 Roland Emmerich has crafted a perfectly pitched disaster film. I don’t mean “perfect” in the sense of meaningful art, but in the ultimate mega-zeitgeist sense that it captures so much about our current historical moment. We can think of this film in same way that Leni Riefenstahl‘s Olympia or Triumph of the Will encapsulated the Nazi gestalt, or how a perfectly executed Pepsi ad embodies all the secret recipes of global capitalism’s deranged view of the world.
Emmerich is a pop genius. In one flick he combined the entire ’70s genre of catastrophe films while riffing some of the top grossing films of all time: Titanic, Earthquake, Poseidon Adventure, Airport, Towering Inferno, and of course he recycles his own global warming saga, The Day After Tomorrow, and his other hits, Godzilla and Independence Day.
So to think about this movie you have to toss out what ever idea you have that this is about 2012 in any remote way. This movie is not about consciousness transformed or reborn. Rather, the Mayans, along with the film’s actors, are mere props for the film’s main character: computer generated animation exploding on a spectacular scale.
Movies on this magnitude are nothing less than fragments from the dream life of global capital, or what I call the World System. Thus, to get at the film’s deeper meaning, we have to take it for what it is: an out of body flight through the corporate dream world’s restless vision of collapse. Recalling that a “corporation” is a kind of abstract “body,” are we not vicariously flying through the World System’s hyperspace POV? Films, ads, and commercial culture depict escape from our bodies, banishing the earth spirits so that we can become angels, and this film lifts us like no other.
The runway for our departure was created with linear perspective and its vanishing point during the Renaissance. Just beyond the horizon lies utopia and the space shuttle launch pad. Now that we are in full orbit, flying outside of our traumatized obese/anorexic bodies, we feel this strange jitter like maybe something has been left behind. We look back at earth, but our flight careens through cascading buildings with shattered glass spraying the horizon, smoke billowing from the severed earth, bridges twisting and bending, monster sounds eminating from the bowls of the planet’s interior. This is no healing dream of drifting voyage, but one of distress and angst, a roller coaster of tension and release that can no longer be satisfied by bodiless sex. This is how hungry ghosts mindfuck.
As we witness spectacular CGI destruction of LA, Las Vegas, Hawaii, Washington DC, The Vatican and so on, in 2012 almost always we are treated to a bird’s eye view as our gaze flies through one disaster zone after another. If it’s not airplanes it’s a subway, limo, RV, or boat hurtling over and through cracked earth. But unlike our personal dreams of flight, which often are about expanded consciousness, freedom and release, our mechanical cocoon–the airplane–comes to incorporate an armor against technological and scientific death. Yet, airplanes also are the most common symbol of civilization’s failure to keep us safe. One plane accident is a blip compared to how many people die each year from car travel, yet our most haunting traumas come from aircraft catastrophes. Consider how the Hindenburg’s ashes smolder in our unconsciousness, or why 9/11 is one of the most potent symbols of terror in our lifetime.
Like Day After Tomorrow, 2012’s social commentary is scattered like fuselage wreckage. The G8 steers the global economy and sets the economic tone in which Hollywood’s business is the producing consciousness. Likewise, in 2012 the G8 comes to represent a limited view of the the global consensus. This is no different than current news reporting from Copenhagen that mistakenly calls the leaders of the globe’s top grossing capitalist bureaucracies “the world,” or how we internalize the behavior of a corrupt military industrial complex as the work of “our” democracy. Neither represent “us.” So when it comes to the film’s Malthusian lifeboat metaphor (leaders have foreknowledge of impending world destruction and only a limited capacity to save the population), G8 leaders sell cabins of the mega-luxury ocean liners that will be civilization’s arks for one billion euros a piece, the rest are left for the “genetically fit.” Only the humble presidents of the US and Italy (you can hear the Italians snicker at this odd detail) stay behind to be with “their” people. These acts of humility notwithstanding, when the Vatican and the White House are simultaneously destroyed by earthquake and tsunami, we secretly take pleasure in seeing the old order destroyed. The shot in which a crack predictably separates Adam and God’s fingers in the Sistine Chapel is the final breach between the old system’s churches and the cinema that takes over as our primary house of worship.
Recall the poetic justice in Day After Tomorrow when the US has to relocate its government to Mexico, and that it’s the southern neighbors who save selfish Americans from eminent destruction. In 2012 the greedy Russian mafiosa dies (of course!), but so too does the Indian scientist who was responsible for discovering the impending planetary disaster. He dies with his family because there’s no room for him or his brood on the high tech arks designed to weather the pole shift and tectonic plate shifts. In fact, so many people die in this film with such vivid detail, one is left a bit numb and immune to it by the end. In this respect, it’s hard to see the poetry.
We live in a risk society that has the duel nature of offering us protection while simultaneously creating more peril. This tension has to be constantly resolved, with media serving as a particularly good balm for containing our fear of disaster and contigency. Film gives us the catharsis necessary to nervously laugh off the truly scary dangers that are the result of human actions, not acts of gods (at least the organic ones). But in the film, the very megamachine that threatens the planetary biosphere is what saves humanity. I don’t think it’s without irony that the only way the arks–or spaceships for planet earth–can be built in secret and so quickly is by the one society that so perfectly symbolizes the ideal of the megamachine: China. What else has the power to relocate populations and marshal the forces of massive bureaucracy, global capital and corruption to build such high tech asylums. Like the sci-fi TV series Battlestar Galactica, these ships are an advanced technological life support systems that can sustain us in a homeless universe, and they can only be made by a cyborg-like society with people as its mechanistic components.
Ultimately the film pits a cipher for humanity–an African American scientist–against a technocratic bureaucrat who is responsible for overseeing the lifeboat project (American commanded and Chines built, no less). Emmerich can’t help but eat his bioengineered cake: the technocrats are assholes, but they save us anyways. We just have to bite the bullet while they engineer our way out of this apocalyptic mess.
As I awaited for the sunset and kiss to conclude the film, it came but not without an additional penultimate Western resolution. In the end the megamachine delivers the protagonists like a bunch of Nazis fleeing to South America with their collection of European art masterpieces and dreams of genetic fitness, but this time it’s Africa, ready to be re-colonized again and to become a playground for domination and imperial fantasies launched from the decks of the ocean liner fortresses. Don’t be fooled by the cast’s multicolored skin hues, this is nothing less then a narrative of monocultural salvation. After all, with arks, floods, earthquakes and god’s wrath, is this not a Biblical tale of purification updated for the 21st century?
We zoom out to see a planet transformed, not by cosmic alignment as the slight of hand would like us to believe, but by the world eaters whose CGI teeth have bitten a huge chunk off of the African continent, its gaping wound now swallowed by a world reconfigured by alchemists of abstraction. While not explicitly stated, is it not the alien point of view that is finally offered to us, a view in which we look down upon the world as utterly strange and unreal?
Did I enjoy the film? Immensely. Intercourse with the World System has to be pleasurable, otherwise we wouldn’t mindmold with it. Blockbuster films are contemporary religious incantations to praise the gods’ work in order to justify and reward our labor, and to feed the machine. But they’re not monolithic either. Films like this have enormous benefit because they allow us to creep around the mind of the World System to see how it thinks. But it also comes with a warning sticker: be mindful of this entertainment, for it can call forth even greater dreams of annihilation. And after this massive barrage of destruction tropes, only the obliteration of the universe could top it, and that would make movie going moot.
A contrast in life’s inconveniences: Hangover vs. Sin Nombre
Somewhere between Rome’s train station and JFK airport my wallet was lost/stolen. This is a problem when plastic is the sole means of transaction inside nonplaces like airports, where only multinational corporations are granted the right to do business. So without cash or credit cards, I was unable to eat or stay in a hotel, minor problems compared to transient migrants around the world who’d love to have such a temporary inconvenience versus a lifetime of disenfranchisement.
In his book Earth Pilgrim Satish Kumar talks about experiences on various pilgrimages when he traveled around the world with no money. He experienced some lonely moments while on the road, sometimes finding himself cold and hungry because no one would offer him food or shelter. Though initially resentful, he also learned about his attachments and gratitude for when he was taken care of. I had similar moments when I walked across Spain, and feel this small misadventure was one of those learnable moments that can defamiliarize the normal routines of life.
It wasn’t until I finally got access to a public internet portal at my final destination that I was able to negotiate what I needed for personal security. My inability to eat or secure a safe place to sleep was ultimately solved by my Mac, Skype and the Internet, which enabled me to pay for services online. This one connection was a vital link to an abstraction that ultimately triumphed over the human trust I failed to garner in person, despite having a passport, personal checks and a valid credit card number(sans physical plastic card). It enabled me to call Italy to get vital information that I could then use to book a hotel room that a clerk would not do in person. The difference between a warm bed and street was a laptop and the technical skill to navigate the system.
Throughout this process I kept in mind the perspective of the majority of the world’s population who are disenfranchised from the symbolic order and who don’t have the resources I have to solve my “problem.” Thus I began to meditate on what it meant for me to be a “franchised” human:
1 : freedom or immunity from some burden or restriction vested in a person or group
2 a : a special privilege granted to an individual or group; especially : the right to be and exercise the powers of a corporation b : a constitutional or statutory right or privilege; especially : the right to vote c (1) : the right or license granted to an individual or group to market a company’s goods or services in a particular territory; also : a business granted such a right or license (2) : the territory involved in such a right (from Merriam-Webster)
Within the terminal zone of air travel (I write more extensively about this kind of “splace” in my book chapter about the TV show Lost), one is indexed by abstract documentation which marks citizenship, but that is only one part of the equation. The other is being a franchised human, one that is legitimated by the financial and technical apparatus that enables access to the privilege of food and shelter (among other things). This was brought into stark relief by one of the twists of this misadventure: my airline accidentally put my in first class, which offered a glimpse into a highly seductive realm of privilege and service.
This being the first time I’ve ever flown first class, it was a small window into the reality bubble of the global business person. For the privileged few that pay for this special treatment, it’s not hard to see how addictive it is to be so spoiled: a cornocopia of drinks and snacks, a quality meal, free movies and entertainment, champaign before take off… everything short of a foot rub and blow job.
The young man sitting next to me was an executive for a multinational pet supply company. When I told him I’m working on a PhD in sustainability, he told me that his company now has a sustainablity consultant. When our discussion leads to other countries outside the US (he had just done whilwind biz trip from Toronto, Tokyo, Sidney and New York), he complained that his company’s biggest obsticle is that so many other coutnries have too many family owned businesses that prevents his mega-corp from dumping box stores into their communities. He complained that the rest of the world lacked the American go-get-em acumen, and by inference the rest were not as wise or clever as “us.” He was a nice guy, but the entire time we talked he played a video game on his iPhone. I regret not asking what he thought sustainability means.
I watched two films on the flight: Hangover and Sin Nombre. Both are about misfortune, but each offer completely different visions of reality, though strangely complimentary. In the former case, the film is about four guys who go to Las Vegas for a bachelor party, but it goes horrible wrong. The film is very funny and entertaining, but the ultimate lesson is that good credit and gaming the system can solve all problems (which entails a level of privilege, education and franchisement). In typical bourgeoisie fashion, the temporary crisis is life altering to a minor degree– in the end the upside down world returns to normal. The system triumphs.
Sin Nombre, on the other hand is about an upside-down world that never gets corrected. In it the lives of two characters intersect: a Honduran teen seeking a better life in El Norte encounters a Mexican gang member on the lamb from his former homies. Much of the narrative features nonprofessional actors and takes place on freight trains and slums, harking to Italian neo-realism. Unlike Hangover, here the characters are the opposite of tourists who sample and dabble the fantasies of the consumer world. In Sin Nombre, as the film title suggests (“Without Name”), the characters are not quite pilgrims either. They are refugees from a greater historical drama that remains outside the purview of people sitting in first class on an international flight.
Oh, the irony.
Consider the settings of the two films: Las Vegas versus the transnational migration route from Honduras to the US-Mexico frontier. In both cases the trope, “What happens in _____, stays in _____,” applies, but in the former the protagonists are just tourists who can sample in fantasy worlds as a way to blow off steam from repressive techocratic normalcy; they are assured of a return to the mechanical womb of civilization after being purified of unnecessary angst. In the latter case, the migrant and gang banger reality are to stay “down there” so that we can maintain the illusion of the Las Vegas world without its socio-ecolgoical consequences interfering with all the fun.
The roots of the crisis that push people into the dark journey of Sin Nombre have their origin in our freedom– though “freedom,” as my little venture shows, is quite a limited illusion. The Mara Salvatrucha gang, of which one of the protagonists belongs, has its origins in the Salvadoran refugee communities that fled the US backed civil war of the 1980s. And the plight of many displaced Central Americans and Mexicans has been impacted by the transnational control of local resources and displacement caused by US-sponsored war and “free trade” agreements. Transnational immigrants are the negative side of the balance sheet whose reality doesn’t fit into the level of abstraction needed to keep the global economy moving, or to put a meal on the table for someone such as myself.
After watching the films I was confronted with another minor crisis: I discovered that my medicine bag full of prescription meds was missing too, without which I could die (due to severe bouts of asthma). It was at this point I became acutely aware of how dependent I am on the civilization that I criticize: my meds, caffeine, food energy and mobility are only made possible through my interaction with the apparatus of the global network of symbols that I can navigate and ply. Without access I would die. OK, maybe that’s a little overly dramatic, but the fear is the same as an addict: without my fix the world shrinks to a quivering hole. I am addicted to civilization, and to quote another film, I can’t quit you. I have franchised my humanity to the global system.
Just in case it seems like I’m whining way too much, follow this last thread. In Italy I can walk into any pharmacy and pay 50 euros for my inhaler, or go see my doctor (for free) and get a prescription that makes the medication cost only eight euros. Today I had to go the emergency room to get a prescription (the urgent care clinic wouldn’t accept me because I have no American health care or money because of my lost credit and ATM cards). At the hospital it took five different people to interview me before I got the script. I have no idea how much they will bill me, but I’m sure it won’t be less then a few hundred bucks. Than I discovered that the inhaler I need costs $256 at Walgreens! Now, who are the real criminals, the petty thieves who nicked my wallet and meds, or the insane architects of this inhumane “health” system?
[If something is “pure,” you think] that it’s one hundred percent pure. Like pure granulated sugar, pure white bread. Meaning unsoiled, unsullied, undamaged, unconnected with dirt. So white people are “pure” and clean. And black people are “dirt.” If you want to get into the psychoanalysis of this, I think there is a very rich and interesting set of connections here dealing with anality and excrement. These associations echo in a frightening way in our cities. Some parts of cities are considered attractive and other parts are waste. It’s a bodily metaphor: you eat one part and you shit the other part. It’s not an accident, for example, that the environmental justice movement is focused on both toxic waste and race. If you throw people away and you throw material away, it is no accident that they are not separated: you just throw them away together. When I talk about purity, what I’m really saying is that there’s been an obsession with this question of white people not getting soiled.
I’m sure who ever came up with the illegal (space) alien Halloween costume will fail to see the irony that the culture which views “illegals” (namely Mexicans) as dirty and contaminated has become alien itself (apparently the costume makers had a different kind of irony in mind). Carl Anthony, whose work bridges social justice with environmental issues, links “whiteness” with ecologically destructive attitudes. The abstract idea of a unified white culture in the US goes back to a time when European immigrants needed a way to solidify their identity against Native and African people. In doing so they took on terms like “purity” and “clean” to separate themselves from those that were perceived as “dirty,” “impure” and “diseased.” Anthony notes how these terms have also been associated with the difference between scientific cleanliness and nature.
So imagine my surprise when I clicked to the item captured above at MSNBC.com and found a “Germ Wipeout” banner ad for Clorox on the same page as an article about an illegal alien controversy. Remember that contextual ads are placed in relationship to article subjects and keywords (I just went back and got an HP ad instead. Hmmm). Oh the media gods can be so cruel, yet at times deliver the perfect “dialectic image” for us to explode. Coincidence or spooky? You be the judge.
For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Such is the lament of the bookish mind as it faces annihilation from the Internet.
Restating my mantra, media constantly go to war with other. They constantly compete for the center of attention by moving in and out of the periphery to the center and back again as new technology changes how we consume and share information. Often the winner incorporates/repurposes/remediates elements of the old into the new (the Internet, for example, uses text, and newspapers use more images, color and article summaries for Web influenced info snackers).
So as the Internet is pushing books to the edge of the mediacological ecosystem, book people are fighting back. The most prominent pugilist recently entering the fray is The Atlantic’s Nicholas Carr, whose article, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, revises the persistent argument that new digital media are dumbing us down. The thing I don’t like about this argument is that it assumes there are good kinds of aptitude and bad kinds, the classic-book-deep-thinking being a good kind of intelligence, and the being-in-the-moment of net surfing is bad. We need both.
Carr’s article is actually quite good and outlines how knowledge work is an extensions of Taylorism and the systematizing of work and thinking. Where I fault the piece is how it focuses too much on loss, and not enough on gain. Some of the major benefits of the information economy, which MIT new media guru Henry Jenkins refers to as Convergence Culture, are described by the following characteristics (BTW, I go into this in more detail in my book, Mediacology, ch. 8, “Media Lit’s Mediacological Niche”):
transmedia storytelling, and
Consequently, Jenkins believes that in order to be fully engaged participants of convergence culture, students (and teachers) need to develop skills that allow for
the ability to pool knowledge with others in a collaborative enterprise (as in Survivor spoiling), the ability to share and compare value systems by evaluating ethical dramas (as occurs in the gossip surrounding reality television), the ability to make connections across scattered pieces of information (as occurs when we consume The Matrix, 1999, or Pokemon, 1998), the ability to express your interpretations and feelings toward popular fictions through your own folk culture (as occurs in Star Wars fan cinema), and the ability to circulate what you create via the Internet so that it can be shared with others (again as in fan cinema) (p. 176).
There is nothing stupid about these kinds of skills. Thus, I think the argument that the Internet makes one more shallow often ignores the other aspects of emerging cultural practices that are greatly needed and are deep in their own way. In particular, I find these latter skills necessary to develop strategies for sustainability, just as much as those cultivated by the isolated mind of the solitary book reader.
Still, I have to admit. I was depressed after reading the article because I felt that there really is too much to do, read, search, and write. The Internet compounds that. Upon reflection I thought some meditation would do the trick, because what I really needed was to clear my mind of books and the Internet. As Skype tells us, just breath.