Archive for May, 2010
Times like this truly do make me wish superheroes were real.
There’s an affecting moment in J Michael Straczynski’s recent run on the comic Thor. The Norse god of thunder’s been dead for three years, but has come back to life, as only gods and comic book superheroes can.
One of the first places he goes is New Orleans. Thor was dead when Hurricane Katrina hit a year earlier, and he knows he could have stopped the hurricanes, the floods, or otherwise saved the city and its people. But he wonders where the rest of the superheroes were: “Why were not force fields erected? Why were tides not evaporated by heat and blast? Why were buildings not supported by strength of arms and steel?”
Just then, Iron Man shows up, to tell Thor that all superheroes need to register with the federal government to prevent superpower-caused disasters. Instead of preventing Katrina or repairing New Orleans, Iron Man and his fellow superheroes have been fighting each other over this registration requirement, part of what Marvel Comics called Civil War.
There’s some meaning to be drawn from this, that I can’t fully articulate. Something about thinking too small, thinking about short-term hurdles and squabbles rather than the big picture; a blindness to the fact of habitual human suffering that would be willful if it weren’t also somehow sickeningly necessary.
I’m not sure. But I think I know why I’ve been reading more comic books lately.
Mostly I want to point to Rob Greco’s wide-ranging post on empathy here. Empathy might actually be the master virtue—the one that makes any of the rest worth having—and Rob serves up a great collage of ideas and further reading including, of course, this all-time Snarkmarket favorite.
BUT I am also going to use this as an opportunity to describe a little thing that I do—a thing I have done since 7th or 8th grade, at least, and still do all the time today.
It goes like this:
Sitting in any space with other people—a classroom, a city bus, even a big wide-open park—I’ll sometimes let my mind wander and imagine the space from someone else’s vantage point. It’s as simple as that. No deep emotional imagination involved; it’s really just visual.
But the important thing is that I am included in the transformed scene. Doodling on a legal pad, hunched into a laptop, reading a book, whatever. The core of the exercise, I think, is that you see yourself as just another person in the space—an opaque bag of bones—instead of as, you know, the movie camera. The privileged POV.
Does that make any sense? It’s stuck with me as a habit, I suppose, because it’s so simple. This isn’t level 12 meditation. It’s just a little flip, a little dose of visual imagination. But I always find it entirely transporting. And it tends to put me in my place.
Anybody else ever do this?
I like old Law & Order episodes — there’s a reason why I put the show smack in the middle of my Showroulette pitch — but wasn’t heartbroken when I’d heard that the flagship series was cancelled. (The quirkier, more salacious spinoffs, like “Law & Order: Freaky Sex Crimes Unit,” remain.) The show had been losing its edge for a while, in writing, acting, and even casting. I mean, how are going to cast the judge from The Wire as … a judge on Law & Order? That’s just lazy. At least the guys from The Sopranos didn’t always play mobsters.
A couple of things I’ve seen lately, though, in the wake of the show’s cancellation, suggest that Law & Order wasn’t quite as sharp because the city itself had lost its edge — in a good way, at least for New York (if not procedural dramas). This New York Times article notes how the show helped improve New York’s image to tourists and parvenues (“This Crime Spree Made New York Feel Safe”):
In 1990, when the show made its debut, 2,245 people were murdered in New York (a high-water mark), and several of those victims became emblematic of the haphazard, senseless violence that gripped the city…
[But] as [the detectives] pulled on the threads of the case, a pattern and motive always emerged. Unlike in the real New York, there is almost no pure street crime in “Law & Order.” In a show obsessed with the city’s class structure, you were far more likely to be murdered by your financial adviser than by a drug dealer. Crime has no single cause, the show seemed to argue, but crimes do, and they can be solved one at a time…
Mr. Wolf portrayed a city in which there were no senseless crimes, only crimes that hadn’t yet been made sense of. He took the conventions of the English country murder mystery and tucked them inside the ungovernable city. In so doing, for a national audience, he de-randomized New York violence.
The plunging murder rate has to help too — just 466 homicides in all of New York City in 2009, an all-time low. For a city of almost 9 million people, it’s pretty impressive that fewer people were killed in New York last year than follow me on Twitter. Let’s put it this way — Philadelphia and Baltimore, which also had record-low homicide numbers, together easily beat New York even though the two cities combined have something like half the population of Brooklyn. New York went from one of the most dangerous cities in the country to one of the safest.
The Wire’s David Simon, though, argues that the rising wealth and lowered danger of New York skews New York’s sense of what’s happening in American cities nationwide — and because New York dominates America’s media imagination, that has a disproportionate effect on how we understand what’s happening elsewhere. (Make sure you watch this video to the end, where he gives Law & Order a pop):
Some of this is familiar anti-NYC stuff, particularly from people who 1) live/grew up elsewhere and 2) work in/adjacent to media and publishing. But I think Simon’s bigger point, that the “urban experience” in America has become much more heterogeneous, both within and between cities, is 1) true and 2) has consequences, is really worth paying closer attention to.
One of the problems with studying any medium is that it’s too easy to mistake the part for the whole. Literature professors can confidently chart the development of the novel over centuries by referencing only a tiny well-regarded sliver of all novels published, some immensely popular and others forgotten. When you turn to the broader field of print culture, books themselves jostle against newspapers, advertisements, letters and memos, government and business forms, postcards, sheet music, reproduced images, money, business cards and nameplates, and thousands of other forms that have little if anything to do with the codex book. We tend towards influential, fractional exemplars, partly out of necessity (raised to the level of institutions) and partly out of habit (raised to the level of traditions). But trouble inevitably arises when we forget that the underexamined whole exists, or pretend that it doesn’t matter. It always does. If nothing else, the parts that we cut out for special scrutiny draw their significance in no small part by how they relate to the other, subterranean possibilities.
The culture of digital technology, like that of print, is impressively broad, thoroughly differentiated, and ubiquitously integrated into most of our working and non-working lives. This makes it difficult for media scholars and historians to study, just as it makes it difficult (but inevitable) for scholars to recognize how this technology has changed, is changing, and should continue to change the academy. Self-professed digital humanists — and I consider myself one — generally look at digital culture, then identify themselves and model their practices on only a sliver of the whole.
Digital culture far exceeds the world wide web, social networks, e-books, image archives, games, e-mail, and programming codes. It exceeds anything we see on our laptops, phones, or television screens. It even exceeds the programmers, hackers, pirates, clerics, artists, electricians, and engineers who put that code into practice, and the protocols, consoles, and infrastructure that govern and enable their use.
This is important, because digital humanists’ efforts to “hack the academy” most often turn out NOT to be about replacing an established analog set of practices and institutions with new digital tools and ideas. Instead, it’s a battle within digital culture itself: the self-styled “punk” culture of hackers, pirates, coders, and bloggers against the office suite, the management database, the IT purchaser. Twitter vs. Raisers’ Edge. These are also reductions, but potentially instructive ones.
For my own part, I tend to see digital humanism less as a matter of individual or group identity, or the application of digital tools to materials and scholarship in the humanities, but instead as something that is happening, continuing to emerge, develop, and differentiate itself, both inside and outside of the academy, as part of the spread of information and the continual redefinition of our assumptions about how we encounter media, technological, and other objects in the world. In this, every aspect of digital technology, whether old or new, establishment or counter-establishment, plays a part.
Noted: The Mongoliad, “a sort of serialized story” for the iPad, iPhone, Kindle and Android written by Neal Stephenson and others. Not yet available; you can bet I’ll keep an eye on it.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has been my favorite writer to read on this Rand Paul mess. (Short version — Ron Paul’s son won the Republican primary for a Senate seat in Kentucky, after which his candidacy kind of fell apart after some really clumsy and embarassing interviews where he tried to say that he was against the Civil Rights Act banning segregation, but that he wasn’t a racist, would have marched with MLK, and thinks a free society means people/businesses are free to do despicable things.) Here are the key bullet points:
- Why can the media only focus on how bad this looks for Paul politically, rather than try to engage with his opinion as a serious position? “[W]hile I expect politicians and their handlers to think in terms of messaging, I also expect–perhaps foolishly–for media to be in the business of pushing past that messaging to actual ideas. What we get instead is a faux-objectivity, that avoids the substance of issues and instead focuses on how that substance is pitched. In that sense, much like the relationship between entertainment and many entertainment journalists, it’s really hard to see media as more than quasi-independent extension of campaign apparatus.”
- Why can’t Paul and his conservative/libertarian supporters actually engage with this stuff more seriously? “What I’m driving at is raising the question about methods is never wrong, to the contrary it’s essential. That process is undermined by people who raise those questions, without having thought about them, without being able to speak to their nuances, and are mostly concerned with tribal signaling. People were dragged from their homes, raped and murdered over civil rights. Talk about it, by all means. But talk about it with the intellectual seriousness it deserves.This is not a third grade science fair project.”
- This post, “Towards an abstract courage,” is my favorite, because it addresses the idea that certainly, Paul and every other decent person would have been allies with King and other desegregationists to bring segregated businesses down, without the federal government stepping in. “Now, after the police dogs, night-sticks and fire-hoses have been beaten back, Rand Paul wants to reopen the question, while, to be sure, claiming that he would have had the ‘courage to march with Martin Luther King.’ This is a common strain of courage. It chiefly shines through in men born 50 years too late. Presently among the crowd, they are distinguished at that decisive moment when queried about wars they won’t have to fight, in times they will never live. These men populate our history books. They are all on the wrong side.”
- To that end, “Towards a manifested courage” tells the story of Joan Trumpauer, one of the white freedom riders arrested in Jackson, MS for integrating a lunch counter.
Coates links to Charles Lane in the Washington Post, who writes:
Suppose an African American customer sits down at a “whites only” restaurant and asks for dinner. The owner tells him to leave. The customer refuses and stays put. What are the owner’s options at that point? He can forcibly remove the customer himself, but, as Paul concedes, that could expose the restaurateur to criminal or civil liability. So he’ll have to call the cops. When they arrive, he’ll have to explain his whites-only policy and ask them to remove the unwanted black man because he’s violating it. But they can only do that on the basis of some law, presumably trespassing. In other words, the business owner’s discriminatory edict is meaningless unless some public authority enforces it.
Conversely, it is precisely because of this nexus between private discrimination and public enforcement that the larger community, through the political and judicial process, acquires a valid interest in legislating against discrimination. The public is entitled to say whether their tax money should pay for arresting black trespassers on whites-only property.
This, for me, is a huge point, since it establishes that segregation and desegregation aren’t at substance purely a matter of freedom of association or the content of characters/hearts, but a matter of recognition under the law. What we see are the people, those angry faces — but what makes the invisible infrastructure for all of that anger is the law.
To see how important — and how slippery — this point can be, read this NYT editorial excoriating Paul, then Chris Bray at History News Network, who justly slams the NYT:
[T]he American history of racial oppression and brutality is a history of government. The founding document of the republic privileged slavery as a lawful institution, and government served that institution for another seventy-eight years after that. The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free all American slaves; it freed slaves in states engaged in rebellion…
After the abandonment of Reconstruction, “redeemed” southern governments rebuilt structures of oppression through law and the institutions of government. Jim Crow laws were laws; the regime of racial segregation was not simply a set of social choices. That guy standing in the schoolhouse door? He was a governor. Why is that so hard to figure out?
I think it’s because we’ve seen the pictures of the dogs and the firehoses and the angry men and women behind them, and we’ve assumed that that’s what discrimination looks like, to the point that we can’t understand anyone or anything as racist unless it looks like that.
But I don’t think that’s it at all. It’s a secret history of the invisible that we’re tracing. And the thing about being invisible is that it’s pretty easy to be everywhere.
Was about to email this to Tim, but then thought I should probably just post it instead! Check out this great old film on “Modern Business Machines for Writing, Duplicating, Recording, Etc.” There’s a lot packed in, and it’s pretty fast-paced; worth dragging the scrubber around a bit even if you don’t want to sit straight through.
Don’t miss the court reporter’s shorthand machine! Totally ridiculous, and yet, there’s a premonition of our lives today, all SMS shorthand and walking around staring down at weird devices…
Henry Jenkins riffs on He-Man and other 80s-era action figures, offering a reading that starts out as largely charitable but ends up somewhere that’s actually quite beautiful:
When I speak to the 20 and 30 somethings who are leading the charge for transmedia storytelling, many of them have stories of childhood spent immersed in Dungeons and Dragons or Star Wars, playing with action figures or other franchise related toys, and my own suspicion has always been that such experiences shaped how they thought about stories.
From the beginning, they understood stories less in terms of plots than in terms of clusters of characters and in terms of world building. From the beginning they thought of stories as extending from the screen across platforms and into the physical realm. From the beginning they thought of stories as resources out of which they could create their own fantasies, as something which shifted into the hands of the audience once they had been produced and in turn as something which was expanded and remixed on the grassroots level.
The impetus for Jenkins’s generational meditation (besides an impending deadline for a keynote) is this io9 piece on “The 10 Most Unfortunate Masters of the Universe Toys,” which 1) I linked to a ways back on Twitter, and 2) is hilarious. Sample:
Stinkor was an evil skunk. How do we know he was evil? He has the suffix “-or” appended to his name. If his name was just “Stink,” he’d be kicking back in Castle Greyskull, pounding Schlitz with Man-At-Arms and scheduling baccarat night with Man-E-Faces.