Blog Post: Week 16 – World Making as Resistance

As I am sure you are aware by now, I tend to agree with Jameson’s assertion that “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” As someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, I find it difficult to hold on to hope even in the best of times, much less the first two decades of the 21st century, which have demonstrated just how dangerous capitalism is for the world and its inhabitants. Given the news that a major climate crisis looms on the horizon combined with the fact that greedy authoritarian oligarchs who care more about profits than people have seized power around the globe, I find that my hope is quickly waning (not that I had much to begin with). And while I agree with Streeby about the necessity of world-making as a way to cope with anxieties regarding the collapse of civilization, I wrestle with the idea of it as a revolutionary act, largely because I wonder about the efficacy of such an endeavor (a refrain that I am sure has become annoyingly familiar by this point in the semester).

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My general state of mind since about November 7, 2000 (if not longer). Image credit: https://tse4.mm.bing.net/th?id=OIP.Or5fIQ0mJ_Xrb1i5PmhjLAHaEj

I have spent much of my life consuming science fiction and fantasy stories, and took much solace in them during many of my darkest periods. I grew up loving Star Trek and Star Wars, and often lost myself in the fantastical worlds they created. At the same time, however, I also read and watched a great deal of dystopian science fiction, such as Blade Runner and Hardware, and while it often left me unsettled, I assured myself that such visions could never come true. I now see that as the wishful thinking of a child (though I consumed much of this media in my teens) who grew up never wanting for the essentials such as food or housing. Now, whenever I look at the news I despair that the world is becoming more like Blade Runner 2049 than Star Trek or any of its more utopian (at least in the conventional sense of the word) iterations. Hell, even Star Trek‘s perfect future proved to be a lie, as it revealed advanced alien civilizations were subject to the same sort of petty political squabbles, environmental disasters, and sociocultural injustices found on earth. Meanwhile, the Federation revealed itself as a somewhat fascist organization that perpetuated colonialism on a universal scale, often in clandestine ways (evidence that the mistrust of government kicked off by Watergate impacted even the most hopeful fiction).

Star Trek revealed the darker side of world-making, even as it posited a perfect society founded on equality and scientific inquiry.

These days, I really struggle to reconcile my love of fiction (especially sci-fi and fantasy) with my need to try and make the world a better place (which is one of my primary motivations to become an educator). More importantly, I contend with my own inner conflict about whether my actions make any kind of difference at all given the enormity of the various calamities that currently engulf the world. There are times when I feel the need to retreat into my favorite fantasy worlds, such as those that include larger-than-life superheroes who defend the world from all manner of issues (of course, even colorful comic book tales are not immune to charges of fascism or perpetuating gender imbalances), all in the name of self-care. At the same time, I feel that such privileged activities are frivolous in the face of climate change, the rise of authoritarianism, world hunger, and the other issues currently plaguing the world (many of which have been around for a long time). On the one hand I feel beaten down by everything humankind is facing, but on the other hand I feel that I must remain engaged or else I am not doing my part to enact change.

Ultimately, I’m not sure where we go from here, either in terms of our class or in terms of humanity as a species. I would love to think that we could get our shit together and explore the stars, but at the same time I’ve been disappointed by people during my 45 years on the planet. I still love fiction and enjoy visiting the worlds it creates (I mean, there is a reason I became a media scholar, after all), but they rarely bring me the joy they used to when I was less aware of the problems bearing down on civilization. Maybe its just my cynicism, but I believe I have reached the stage of mourning humanity rather than holding out hope that we can save ourselves from extinction (at best) or a long drawn out collapse (at worst). As with everything we have looked at this semester, I believe in the necessity of world-making, largely because people need an occasional respite from real life, but I fear that my feelings regarding its efficacy as a revolutionary act are low to non-existent.

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Blog Post: Week 15 – Class Generated Content

In terms of how I felt my presentation went, I’m not entirely sure. People seemed to find it interesting, and Lane didn’t say anything negative, so I have to assume it went well. At the same time, however, I felt less prepared going into the presentation than I would have liked due to this semester proving much busier than I initially anticipated. I felt like I did not have a solid handle on my topic, and to be honest, I still feel that way (though I think the whole thing is starting to come together as we race toward the due date for the final projects). Ultimately, I was not 100% happy with my presentation, but I am at least relieved that it was somewhat well received by my classmates and my instructor.

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No idea how my presentation actually went, but I’m hoping it was received better than this one. Image credit: https://d1qhuz9ahqnrhh.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/2-1-750×381.png

In response to the question about what I would do differently, I think I would have preferred to present my project as a video essay rather than a more traditional conference presentation. For the final project, I have decided to put together a 10-minute video essay outlining my argument that Putney Swope and Sorry to Bother You both function as tactical media designed to critique and challenge capitalist and racist ideologies. I thought this might be more interesting than a standard 12- to 15-page research paper. However, I wish I had thought of doing that earlier, because I could have devoted more time to it and maybe could have had a version of it completed for the presentation. I think it would have been far more effective for me to spend five minutes briefly introducing my topic and then just showed the video for the reminder of my presentation time. I’m still not sure how the whole thing will turn out, but I feel like video essays such as those produced by Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting are for more effective than traditional papers when discussing films from a scholarly or critical perspective, because the audience can then see how the examples work rather than be told.

With Every Frame a Painting, Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos provided a template for creating successful video essays.

I think the ideal context and/or audience for this project is definitely grad students as it is mainly tailored as an academic argument, but I also think that it would appeal to hardcore film fans as well. Given my focus on public scholarship or intellectualism, I like to take scholarly ideas and make them accessible to a general audience. Therefore, I am attempting to conduct strong research but plan on discussing it using easily understandable language. I think this idea also speaks to how I will develop this project towards its fullest potential as creative and/or scholarly work. I want to provide my argument with a solid theoretical foundation so that other scholars will find it informative, but want to ensure that the essay is cut together and narrated in such a way that it is also enjoyable to watch.

As illustrated by this entry in his “Press Play” series, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz proves that video essays can be scholarly and enjoyable all at once.

Even at this late stage, however, I still worry that my theoretical foundation might be a tad weak and could definitely use some further development, but given the format I have chosen, I’m not sure just how much I can build on what I already have, particularly given the restraints of my 10-minute time limit. Right now, I am looking to other video essays to see how they present their ideas and their material in a way that is substantive and pleasurable. I honestly believe that the video format can yield fruitful results, because it uses the tools of film-making to deconstruct films and thereby disrupt the spectacle of cinema. It just remains to be seen whether I can pull that off in this project!

Blog Post: Week 12 – Occupy and Decolonize

I initially found this week’s response quite difficult, because I couldn’t really think of examples of how we empower ourselves “within massive abstract systems that depersonalize and alienate.” Beyond just navigating a major metropolitan city like Chicago or Singapore, or even a smaller city such as Copenhagen, I couldn’t think of any examples from my own life. I spoke to my partner just to try to pick her brain, and she reminded me of a recent incident that occurred this past March, when we visited the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo (C2E2). As with most pop culture conventions, this one is designed to empower fans and engage in a dialogue with them. Moreover, it is a site of world-making, a place where fans can create a sense of community based on shared interests while indulging their own engagement with a variety of invented worlds.

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Fans and cosplayers gather outside the entrance to C2E2, Chicago’s annual pop culture convention. Image credit: https://www.c2e2.com/RNA/RNA_C2E2_V2/2019/_img/graphics/c2e2-signage.jpg?v=636719208224581199

Pop culture cons are often designed in a way that encourages people to drift through the convention hall in a way that recalls Guy Debord’s notion of the dérive. Essentially, attendees “drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there” (Knabb 50). Indeed, con-goers often drift from one attraction to another, moving from meet-and-greets with their favorite celebrities to elaborate booths set up by major entertainment companies like Marvel and DC to booths manned by local comic book or game stores. At the same time, cons also involve different forms of playfulness, as attendees often engage in activities such as cosplay, nerd speed dating, playing board games, scavenger hunts, and even invented sports (i.e. Quidditch). All these things are designed to foster a sense of community among the attendees, who can forge relationships based on mutual interests.

Pop culture conventions such as C2E2 encourage a sense of playfulness that recalls that espoused by the Situationists, who would no doubt also express disappointment over the event’s corporate nature.

Nonetheless, such spaces can become alienating and depersonalizing, as people can still find themselves adrift in a sea of strangers. This is especially true of an event like C2E2, which has grown exponentially in the 10 years my partner and I have been attending. Attendees can feel overwhelmed and anxious, as I did during our most recent visit this past March. Saturdays traditionally draw the most people to the convention, so many that it often becomes difficult to navigate the convention floor. While trying to drift through the massive convention hall, I suddenly found myself surrounded by dozens of people who were doing the same thing. The crush of bodies, the flow of the people, and the awkward bumping of shoulders left me feeling completely out of sorts, so much so that I had to extract myself from the crowd and find a quiet space to sit for a while. In many ways, it reminded me of trying to navigate downtown Chicago during rush hour, with people moving through the city with little regard to their fellow humans. Such spaces thereby feel unwelcoming and even threatening, even as they are meant to serve as a welcoming environment where people with common passions can come together and forge connections.

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Navigating a pop culture convention can often feel like navigating a major metropolitan city during rush hour. Image credit: https://english876protestmovementsandchrisolsonsblogart.files.wordpress.com/2019/04/a672f-shopping-chicago-studyusablog.jpg

Of course, fandom itself can serve as a powerful force that motivates people toward a sense of engagement and agency. According to Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shrestova, fans often engage in fan activism, which involves “forms of civic engagement and political participation that emerge from within fan culture itself, often in response to the shared interests of fans, often conducted through the infrastructure of existing fan practices and relationships, and often framed through metaphors drawn from popular and participatory culture.” Frequently, people’s fandom can drive their activism; a 2012 study noted a statistically significant link between participation in interest-driven activities online and civic engagement (see Kahne, Feezell, and Lee). For instance, Amber M. Simmons contends that students who read Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games novels are more likely to “connect with many social injustices on a personal and emotional level and … become activists.” Other examples of fan activism include the Harry Potter Alliance, the Organization of Transformative Works, the 501st Legion, and even a protest near Ramallah in the West Bank that saw Palestinian protesters campaign against a controversial Israeli-built barrier between the West Bank and Israel by dressing as characters from the film Avatar (James Cameron, 2009). Closer to home, in 2011 activists used iconography from the Star Wars films to create a sense of community, generate humor, and boost morale while protesting the policies of governor Scott Walker, who sought to eliminate public unions.

Activists in Wisconsin appropriated iconography from the Star Wars films to protest the policies of former governor Scott Walker.

Fandom can thus inspire people to activism, and activists sometimes reconfigure fan-like activities and invented worlds for the purposes of political engagement. Such activism can serve as a way to reclaim corporate-owned intellectual properties and use them to challenge or subvert the capitalist ideologies they ostensibly serve to perpetuate. As such, fandom and fan activism both grant people a sense of subjectivity that in turn allows them to push back against the massive corporate entities that disenfranchize individuals by positioning them solely as another revenue stream. This, to me, reflects Debord’s ideas about psychogeography and the dérive because it dissolves the boundaries between art and life, but also provides people with playful, inventive strategies for exploring ideological systems.

Works cited

Educational Research Newsletter and Webinars. “The Hunger Games motivates students to get involved in social justice.” ernweb.com, last modified 2019. Web. April 13, 2019.

Jenkins, Henry and Sangita Shresthova. “Up, up, and away! The power and potential of fan activism.” Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 10, June 2012, https://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/issue/view/12.

Kahne, Joseph, Nam-Jin Lee, and Jessica T. Feezell. “The Civic and Political Significance of Online Participatory Cultures among Youth Transitioning to Adulthood.” Journal of Information Technology & Politics, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 1–20.

Knabb, Ken (ed.). Situationist International Anthology. Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995.

Blog Post: Week 11 – Indigenous Resistance

I must admit that I am not terribly familiar with many indigenous resistance movements (for instance, I had not heard about the occupation of Alcatraz prior to taking this course). However, I did follow the Standing Rock protest somewhat on social media. I think the “on the ground” stories did a much better job of conveying this struggle than did mainstream news organizations, which are clearly in the pocket of large capitalist corporate institutions that have a vested interest in maintaining a reliance on fossil fuels. As Emily Dreyfus of Wired noted, “social media and live streaming enabled the Standing Rock Sioux to amplify their protest for clean water.” Indeed, people around the world could show solidarity with the protestors by “checking in” to Standing Rock via Facebook. At the same time, however, such visibility was fraught with tension, as social media allowed for the spread of misinformation and several hoaxes. In addition, there is the question of whether social media contributed to the protest in any meaningful way; in an article published in New York Magazine, Madison Malone Kircher observes “as with so much social-media activism, there’s very little evidence that checking in to Standing Rock on Facebook makes much of a difference.” This idea echoes Dreyfus’s assertion that the “speed and ceaseless flow [of social media] also allowed the world to forget about [the protestors].”

In addition, on January 24, 2017, “President Trump signed an executive memo aimed at allowing the Dakota Access Company to finish the last bit of pipeline,” along with a second memo that “reportedly [enabled] the completion of the Keystone Pipeline” (Dreyfus). This action underscores the massive power imbalance between ordinary protestors and the capitalist oligarchs who have not only consolidated their corporate power but have also infiltrated all levels of the United States government. Moreover, this imbalance widens for people of color and indigenous peoples such as the Standing Rock Sioux who sought to block the pipeline. I know I am not saying anything new here, but the multinational corporate entities that seek to do nothing more than maximize their bottom line care little for the concerns or well-being of people. Indeed, in The ZAD and NoTAV, the members of the Mauvaise Troupe Collective quite correctly write that “Capitalism quite openly depends on the fantasy of infinite economic growth,” and the CEOs of the megacorporations view ordinary people as either cogs in the machine or dollar signs they can exploit (often both at once). Given that the protestors seek to stand in the way of this profit-driven expansion, they are nuisances meant to be stamped out. This goes double for indigenous people or people of color, who sometimes cannot participate in the scam of capitalism due to various economic imbalances. Additionally, the corporations have enlisted members of the government to help quash any sort of rebellion.

Economist Yanis Varoufakis, the former Minister of Finance for Greece, believes that the mega-rich and corporations are cannibalizing the political sphere, causing financial crisis.

According to the Mauvaise Troupe Collective, capitalism dictates that “as long as our environment is a resource, it must be exploited, and if it becomes an obstacle, it need only disappear.” This attitude applies to both the environment itself, but also to the people who would stand in the way of infinite economic growth. Yet such growth is untenable, especially given the finite resources of planet Earth. Indeed, as the authors of The ZAD and NoTAV explain, “the limits of the resources on which [economic] growth is based [have] well been reached,” and thus “a critical phase presents itself. This critical phase speaks to the necessity of protests and/or interventions such as that staged at Standing Rock. Yet it also highlights the massive power imbalance between ordinary people and the wealthy capitalists who seek to line their pockets with little regard to the planet or its inhabitants. At the same time, however, one must take into account “the whiplash of the news cycle and the short attention spans exacerbated by the Twitterification of politics” (Dreyfus), all of which can contribute to outrage fatigue. Furthermore, given the corporate consolidation of information media, it becomes easier for oligarchs to manipulate people and get them to work against their own interests. As the Mauvaise Troupe Collective notes, populism can establish “people as a mass that can be manipulated by flattering their basest instincts and often using reactionary tricks” that can lead to “an increase in pride and submission to an authority.”

Donald Trump tapped into populist anxieties to rise to the highest office of the United States and advance authoritarian policies.

Ultimately, all the thoughts discussed here tie into my own anxieties and uncertainties regarding the need for protest and their efficacy. Clearly, given the looming environment crisis that threatens to radically alter (if not end) civilization on Earth, the need to protest the “infinite growth” model of capitalism is more vital than ever. Yet the outcome of protests such as #NODAPL, which became highly visible but nevertheless failed to stop the advancement of the pipeline, suggest that the capitalist machine has become so big and so powerful that the people’s best efforts are doomed to fail. This may be a pessimistic outlook, but I often wrestle with the question of how we as ordinary citizens fight back against a system that is so clearly rigged in favor of those who hold little regard for the environment or the basic human rights of others. I understand that protest and interventions often serve to create visibility for an issue or to foster a sense of community among people, but if they fail to turn back the tide of environmental degradation and the march of capitalism, then what is the point of it all? That is mainly where I struggle with my desire to revolt against mainstream hegemonic ideologies and my sense of hopelessness that we can enact any sort of meaningful change before it is too late.

Works cited

Dreyfus, Emily. “Social Media Made the World Care About Standing Rock—and Helped It Forget.” Wired, January 24, 2017. Web. April 6, 2019.

Kircher, Madison Malone. “Checking In at Standing Rock on Facebook Is a Nice Show of Solidarity, and Not Much Else.” New York Magazine, October 31, 2016. Web. April 6, 2019.

Mauvaise Troupe Collective. The ZAD and NoTAV: Territorial Struggles and the Making of a New Political Intelligence. Translated by Kristin Ross, Verso, 2016.

Blog Post: Week 10 – The Bullet or the Ballot

This week’s topic particularly resonates with me, as I have long wrestled with the question of violent vs. nonviolent protest (even as I understand that this is, as Lane notes in his prompt for this week, a somewhat false binary). While I have dealt with anger issues for most of my adult life, I am generally a nonviolent person, even though I consume a great deal of violent media (a dichotomy that led me to develop a class on Masculinity and Communication as a way of interrogating my own relationship to violence and aggressive masculinity). Furthermore, like many other white, ostensibly middle-class liberals, I used to buy into the prevailing narrative surrounding the ethical high road of so-called “peaceful” protest, which lionizes the supposedly nonviolent tactics employed by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the same time, however, I have learned over the last few years about how such narratives regarding nonviolence can sometimes perpetuate oppressive ideologies that contribute to the continued brutalization of disenfranchised groups and individuals. People sometimes criticize protests and protestors for engaging in violent actions and lament that they should protest peacefully instead, but this often dismisses the plight of the protestors and the reason that they engaged in violence. Indeed, as noted in a recent op-ed appearing in the New York Times, the act of decrying the violence of anti-racist and/or anti-fascist demonstrators can sometimes promote “a false equivalency between groups that advocate white supremacy and those that seek to eliminate it.” Moreover, as Judith Butler noted in her recent article written for the website Public Books, the terms “violence” and “nonviolence” can easily become twisted by the forces tasked with maintaining state power and capitalist philosophies. Butler writes:

…violence and nonviolence are terms that are already twisted by the frameworks in which they appear: the state can decide to call certain actions “violent” because they are perceived as a threat to its monopoly on violence, even when those actions are nonviolent forms of expression, such as assembly, dissent, boycott, and strike. On the left, social structures and systems are regularly called violent even when the structure itself does not physically act, but gives rise to forms of subjugation and disenfranchisement that undermine the lives they affect.

Having grown up in a somewhat conservative working-class household located in the small, overwhelmingly conservative town of Menominee, Michigan, I learned early on that trying to talk to people with different viewpoints is often a difficult prospect. At the risk of stereotyping, people in such settings often develop deeply entrenched beliefs and cling to them tightly. In addition, a lack of exposure to other ways of life can lead to decreased empathy for anyone who appears “different” from the “norm.” This phenomenon seems to have increased in the age of the Internet, when people can easily log on to different websites that reinforce their existing views and sometimes spur them to violent actions. Social media only increase this type of radicalization; according to Alex Koppelman of CNN:

social media, often in combination with other factors, has proven itself an efficient radicalizer, in part because it allows for the easy formation of communities and in part because of its algorithms, used to convince people to stay just a little longer, watch one more video, click one more thing, generate a little more advertising revenue.

Given all this, I continue to struggle with the violence vs nonviolence question. I believe in nonviolence and peace, and work toward that goal in everything I do (my academic work and my teaching is often focused on helping people understand one another so they may work toward peaceful coexistence). At the same time, however, I understand that there fascists do exist and that they seek to maintain their power and their perceived ideological superiority through any means necessary, and that it is sometimes necessary to use violence to fight back against such oppression, suppression, and repression. Hence why I fully support punching Nazis, neo-Nazis, alt-right thugs, or whatever you want to call them, even as I long for a world when such actions prove unnecessary.

Given that people like Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, and their followers seek to silence, harm, and even murder anyone who disagrees with their beliefs, it is sometimes vital to fight violence with violence. Of course, this opens up the question of how they can then spin the use of this violence to their advantage, painting groups like antifa as the violent ones seeking to undermine things like free speech and democracy. They decry the violence and say that liberals or progressives should debate them in the marketplace of ideas. Of course, this is just another way to obfuscate the alt-right’s own use of violence and intimidation, as well as an insincere attempt to appear rational, thereby normalizing their fascistic tendencies. Ultimately, and Lane may again accuse of wanting it both ways, I find that there is no easy answer to the question about the ethics and efficacy of violence and nonviolence. I think one is preferable in the long run but that the other is sometimes necessary when facing down disingenuous bullies who seek to cause others pain. The truth might lie somewhere in between, which then speaks to the false binary mentioned above

Works cited

Butler, Judith. “The Big Picture: Protest, Violent and Nonviolent.” PublicBooks.org, October 13, 2017. Web. March 30, 2019.

Koppelman, Alex. “The internet is radicalizing white men. Big tech could be doing more.” CNN, March 17, 2019. Web. March 30, 2019.

Mcbride, Michael, Traci Blackmon, Frank Reid and Barbara Williams Skinner. “Waiting for a Perfect Protest?” The New York Times, September 1, 2017. Web. March 30, 2019.

Blog Post: Week 8 – Bodies in Civic and Public Spaces

When reflecting on the questions posed in this week’s blog prompt, I immediately thought about the difference in consequences between something like the Ferguson protests (or even the 1992 riots over the Rodney King verdict) and the riots that routinely follow sports victories. Often, these consequences involve a racial component, with white people suffering fewer or lesser consequences than people of color. In an article written for Mic, Derrick Clifton notes that mainstream news media routinely refer to sports rioters as “‘revelers,’ ‘celebrants’ and ‘fans'” while calling black protestors “‘criminals,’ ‘thugs,’ ‘pigs’ or even ‘violent.'” Similarly, Chantal Da Silva of Newsweek compares the consequences suffered by Black Lives Matter protestors to those that affected people who participated in the Philadelphia Super Bowl riots, and observes that “officials appeared slow to condemn the destruction caused by [sports] rioters.” She spoke to Black Lives Matter New York President Hawk Newsome, who states, “Somehow, it seems there’s a line drawn in the sand where destruction of property because of a sports victory is OK and acceptable in America. However, if you have people who are fighting for their most basic human right, the right to live, they will be condemned,”  told Newsweek.”

I believe that these ideas all tie into the questions about whose bodies are allowed in public and civic spaces, as well as which actions are seen as appropriate. It also relates to Aimé Césaire’s “Discourse on Colonialism,” specifically the idea that “Between colonizer and colonized there is room only for forced labor, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops, contempt, mistrust, arrogance, self-complacency, swinishness, brainless elites, degraded masses” (6). Thad Morgan provides a prime example of this notion with his discussion of how the National Rifle Association supported gun control as a way to limit African American access to gun, as this idea reveals how the white majority demonizes the black minority as a way to maintain their oppression. Indeed, just in the last few years, white men regularly stroll the streets while armed with automatic rifles with no consequences, yet young black men are gunned down in the street for merely wearing hoodies or selling cigarettes. This illustrates Césaire’s assertion that colonization leaves “societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out” (6). It also reveals the racial divide that determines who gets to speak in public and which actions are accepted and which condemned.

Jim Cooley openly carries an automatic rifle through Chicago’s O’Hare airport in June 2015. He suffered no consequences beyond being questioned by police.
Image credit: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-law-allows-man-to-carry-loaded-assault-rifle-through-atlanta-airport-im-not-scaring-anybody-20150604-story.html

To tie this into my own work, I turn to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, which frequently presented “images of African-American men” that were rooted in a fantasy of liberation and Black Power rhetoric” (Bausch 258). Indeed, films like Shaft, Black Caesar, and Superfly all drew on Black Nationalist and Black Power imagery and ideologies to craft a new portrayal of black manhood and masculinity that involved empowerment and emancipation. At the same time, though, many of these Blaxploitation films were written and directed by white men, and they often played into white anxieties and fears regarding African American enfranchisement. Indeed, as Katherine Bausch notes, “black men have always been a site for anxiety and imagination,” and Blaxploitation films, while offering empowering images to black audiences, also stoked both fear and fascination among white audiences. This tension has seemingly always impacted the relations between white people and people of color (but specifically African Americans), and in many ways it fuels ideas about who gets to protest, which bodies get to act in public spaces, and which ideas are acceptable.

Movies like Black Gestapo (Lee Frost, 1975) empowered black audiences while also fueling white anxieties.

Ultimately, ideas about who gets to speak and who does not involve more than just race; indeed, class, gender, sex, age, and several other factors determine whose bodies are allowed, whose bodies are seen, who is enabled to bear witness, and what actions and behaviors are appropriate, acceptable, effective. Today, despite an increased awareness of identify politics combined with marginalized groups and individuals gaining more of a voice thanks to new distribution platforms (such as social media), white, straight, upper-class male voices still tend to dominate the conversation. The political climate of the early part of the 21st century has only made the gulf between those who get to speak/act and those who do not even more evident. One need only look at the different reactions that greet Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem and Representative Joe Wilson’s outburst of “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address. For many people (particularly those on the right), Kaepernick’s actions were disgraceful while Wilson’s were merely speaking truth to power. This gulf reveals the continued need for protest, but also for us as a society to engage in some thoughtful reflection on who we allow to speak and act, and why we frame things the way we do.

Works cited

Bausch, Katherine. “Superflies into Superkillers: Black Masculinity in Film from Blaxploitation to New Black Realism.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 46, no. 2, pp. 257-76

Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. Translated by Joan Pinkham, Monthly Review Press, 1972.

Clifton, Derrick. “11 Stunning Images Highlight the Double Standard of Reactions to Riots like Baltimore.” Mic.com. Mic Network Inc., April 27, 2015. Web. March 16, 2019.

Da Silva, Chantal. “Black Lives Matter: Philadelphia Super Bowl Riots Reaction ‘Glaring Example of White Privilege.'” Newsweek, February 5, 2018. Web. March 16, 2019.

Blog Post: Week 6 – Media, Games, and Spaces

When discussing media interventions such as those described by Rita Raley in Tactical Media, I think it is important to consider things like the distribution of power, the consolidation of media outlets, and the rise of ideological tribalism in the 21st century. I believe that these three conditions greatly impact the efficacy of media interventions in the modern era; indeed, even when successful, such interventions often occur within a context that sometimes limits their reach beyond those inclined to agree with the philosophical message of the intervention. In other words, it seems to me that, given the rise of so-called walled gardens and filter bubbles brought about by the corporate algorithms designed to maximize views and clicks, 21st-century media frequently “preach to the choir” rather than actually change minds. Furthermore, given the corporatization of media (but particularly the news media), the handful of massive multinational conglomerates that control different media outlets can frequently restrict a message and thereby lessen its impact. This is not to say that media interventions or tactical media fail to make any sort of impact, but rather that the message can sometimes become absorbed into the noise of today’s ultra-mediated world, which has given rise to a spectacle grown so large that it threatens to overwhelm the average citizen. Thus, it becomes important to consider how media interventions operate within the media ecology of the 21st century, and whether they remain effective in the face of near-constant technological stimulation and ready access to all sorts of information.

A handful of corporate entities control the majority of the media, meaning they can also exert more control the flow of information.

As I discussed in a previous blog post, groups like The Billboard Liberation Front, the Yes Men, Guerrilla Girls, monochrom, and others all engage in a playful (and altogether necessary) disruption of the spectacle through their pranks and interventions. They reveal the impersonal and all-too-often harmful effects of capitalist enterprise and neoliberal ideologies. However, I am often struck by the fact that the people who praise such endeavors are those who are most prone to agree with their messaging, while those opposed tend to condemn their efforts. Moreover, such ideological positioning appears to be increasing thanks to massive media conglomerates such as News Corp or NBCUniversal creating news organizations seemingly designed to advance one position over the other. In addition, as media conglomerates continue to merge and absorb other outlets, they gain disproportionate power over information, especially as government oversight weakens and corporate entities continue to gain more influence over lawmakers. One need only look at Disney’s efforts to sue small party entertainment companies over likeness rights to see that corporations wield great power and seek to exert strict control over their intellectual properties. They even go so far as to change copyright laws to maintain a vice-like grip over their franchises. All of this places the power of the flow of information into the hands of the wealthy and powerful and subsequently make it more difficult for those without the power to fight back and thereby disrupt the spectacle.

Media consolidation allows corporate entities to exert more control over the flow of information.
Image credit: https://niemanreports.org/wp-content/uploads/pod-assets/Image/Nieman%20Reports/Images%20by%20Issue/summer2000/Solomon_1.jpg

At the same time, media interventions continue to take place but they sometimes take the form of trolling, such as when a well-known self-described Internet troll posed as a member of antifa to prank both CNN and Fox News. Rather than try to disrupt the spectacle through his actions, the troll (identified only as “Kevin”) sought to sow “utter freaking chaos” and to discredit the antifa movement, which seeks to combat anti-fascist ideologies such as those often associated with capitalism and neoliberalism. Here, Kevin used chaos not to disrupt the spectacle, but to maintain it by undermining the efforts of a movement that actively seeks to disrupt the spectacle perpetuated by capitalist, neoliberal media conglomerates. When activists do attempt to disrupt the spectacle, such as the Occupy Movement did in the wake of the the global financial crisis, their efforts are weakened by a corporate news media that is beholden to advertisers and subject the ideological positioning of the audience. Depending on a viewer’s preferred network, the Occupy Movement was either a violent leftist anti-capitalist organization or a heroic response to “America’s myriad grievances with Washington, D.C.” Overall, media interventions are more important than ever in the 21st century, as people become increasingly inundated by media, but given the rapidity and scope of media conglomeration as well as the consolidation of information, I question the efficacy of such interventions. I want to believe they still serve to disrupt the spectacle, but my cynicism frequently undermines that hope, especially when confronted with the realities of the modern media landscape.

Blog Post: Week 5 – Disrupt the Spectacle

While reading both Wark and Raley, I found myself thinking quite a bit about the Billboard Liberation Front (BLF), which is one of the first acts of détournement I can recall encountering. I’m sure I’m not the first to point this out, but the BLF seem to epitomize the core aspect of détournement, which Douglas B. Holt describes as “turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself” (252). By defacing or replacing billboards, which remain omnipresent in American society and, in the words of comedian Bill Hicks, help to “turn everything into a dollar sign,” the BLF hijacks the public face of the capitalist machine and thereby challenges the consumerist ideologies that serve to perpetuate economic inequality, climate change, and more. The group is giving a proverbial thumb to the eye of corporate America and critiquing the profit-driven motives that disregard ecological sustainability and human health in favor of a never-ending quest for more money.

Bill Hicks shares his thoughts on advertising.

The BLF demonstrate the sort of playfulness advocated by the Situationists and Letterists, conceptualizing their activities as pranks (in fact, in a 2003 article appearing in SF Gate, Sam McManis referred to the group as “merry pranksters”). Much like the film They Live (John Carpenter, 1988), which Bijan mentioned in class recently, the BLF alter (or, in their terms, “improve”) existing billboards to reveal the sinister motives that lie behind seemingly innocuous capitalist institutions such as technology, fast food, theme parks, and more.

John Nada (Roddy Piper) uncovers evidence of an alien invasion in They Live.

Now more than ever it seems as though we are living in Marshall McLuhan’s “Age of Anxiety,” especially given that media has become more pervasive than ever before. As McLuhan writes in The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences, they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered” (26). This quote becomes particularly relevant when looking at the early years of the 21st century, a time when social media bombards users with political messages of all stripes, 24 hour news networks conflate facts with opinion with alarming regularity, and billboards (which are increasingly becoming digitized) dot the landscape to an unprecedented degree. This constant mediation has left people feeling ever more anxious and depressed, especially as elected leaders appear to ignore the will of the people and instead opt to advance corporate interests, even in the face of encroaching ecological disaster.

Members of the Sunrise Movement confront Senator Dianne Feinstein over her refusal to back the Green New Deal.

Ultimately, this modern moment demonstrates the need for the playful revolt practiced by radical art groups like the BLF, Guerilla Girls, and monochrom. Their actions highlight the exploitative nature of capitalist enterprises while revealing the destructive implications of consumerist ideologies. At the same time, however, their revolutionary tactics appear to have been appropriated by conservative activists such as James O’Keefe and Alex Jones, both of whom have engaged in performative actions meant to advance ultra-Right-Wing philosophies (such as O’Keefe’s efforts to defund the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now or Jones’ entire Infowars persona). Such actions only serve to advance capitalistic tendencies and contribute to the environmental degradation and human suffering wrought by consumerism. Yet, given the current widespread support for progressive causes such as reversing climate change, implementing stricter gun laws, and protecting reproductive rights, it seems that the messaging of the BLF and similar groups is winning out. Nevertheless, leaders seem more reluctant than ever to take radical action on issues like impending ecological collapse and the widening inequality gap, suggesting that urban guerrilla groups like the BLF have a lot more work to do and need to continue their playful yet vital actions.

References

Holt, Douglas B. Cultural Strategy: Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands.Oxford University Press, 2010.

McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Gingko Press, 1967.

McManis, Sam. “Massaging the Message: Using urban guerrilla tactics, Billboard Liberation Front ‘adjusts’ ads.” SF Gate. August 24, 2003. Web. February 23, 2019.

Blog Post: Week 4 – Situationist International

Based on McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street, it appears as though the legacy of the Situationist movement has permeated various aspects of mainstream society and popular culture. For instance, Wark explains that the ideas of dérive and détournement either influenced or can be seen in everything from urban planning (specifically through architecture that recalls Constant Nieuwenhuys’ plans for New Babylon) to literature, and from cinema to the Internet itself (which Wark argues resembles Nieuwenhuys’ plans for a decentralized communication network). Indeed, much of 21st century society revolves around a philosophy of play, with corporate overlords introducing ludic elements into the workplace as a way of increasing productivity (one only need look at Google’s or Facebook’s corporate headquarters to see that they resemble a McDonald’s play land rather than a traditional office setting).

In many ways, as with so many fringe movements or protest groups, their tactics have become assimilated into mainstream culture while their central message has been somewhat forgotten. For instance, in the final chapter of his book, Wark describes René Viénet’s 1972 film Can Dialectics Break Bricks?, which uses détournement to transform a kung fu film into a “pointed allegory for the co-option of radical desires by the supposedly leftist wing of spectacular power” (153). Here, Viénet reorders scenes and alters the dialogue to expound on radical French philosophy and to offer up “a critique of class conflicts, bureaucratic socialism, the failures of the French Communist Party, Maoism, cultural hegemony, sexual equality and the way movies prop up Capitalist ideology” (Metzger). Yet, in many ways, his film recalls Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), which engages in a similar act of détournement by re-purposing a Japanese spy film and turning into a tale of one man’s futile search for the perfect egg salad sandwich. Rather than commenting on existing power structures, Allen instead employed these tactics solely in the name of comedy. In the process, the Situationist’s tactics become sanitized for mainstream consumption.

Such co-option of radical ideologies seems to be de rigueur, especially in capitalist nations that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo while quelling any sort of rebellion that might interrupt the flow of capital. Indeed, one only need look at the assimilation of punk, grunge, and hip hop cultures, all of which revolve around a ludic sense of play that is directed at mainstream institutions and longstanding power dynamics. Punk, which evinced an anarchic ideology that advocated for tearing down existing institutions and replacing them with something new or different, was quickly gobbled up by the mainstream to the point that it eventually lost all meaning and became little more than an expensive fashion statement as malls around the country stocked overpriced pre-ripped jeans. Meanwhile, socially conscious hip-hop and political rap, which originally served as a means to draw attention to black culture and the issues surrounding it, soon transformed into little more than music used to sell everything from breakfast cereals to used cars.

More recently, the image of Guy Fawkes featured in Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel V for Vendetta and its subsequent film adaptation (directed by James McTiegue and written by Lana and Lily Wachowski) became a prominent symbol of rebellion, specifically among members of the international hacktivist group Anonymous. Since 2005, the year the movie was released, members of the group have showed up at numerous rallies and produce numerous videos sporting the distinctive mask. Yet, Warner Media owns the copyright to this image and receives a licensing fee every time someone purchases one. Thus, the corporation has found a way to monetize revolution, much like Hot Topic has turned the punk attitude into a mainstream cottage industry.

The Situationists imagined a world that revolved around ludic pursuits, with play serving as life’s guiding philosophy. That world has come to pass, but like so many other things in the capitalist sphere, it has been co-opted and monetized for maximum profits. As Wark notes, this idea aligns with Marx’s assertion that everything becomes ground up in the capitalist mill, even crime itself: “Marx goes on to show how the criminal produces the police, the judiciary, a whole division of labor, ‘creating new needs and new ways of satisfying them'” (154). Indeed, why should anarchy, rebellion, and play be exempt from this sort of co-option. It all just becomes another brand, another style that people can adopt to announce that they are different just like everyone else. More importantly, thought, capitalist structures absorb these rebellious ideologies as a way to perpetuate the tenets of free enterprise and thereby maintain a status quo that reinforces class boundaries and economic realities (while placating the masses with the false promise of a revolution that never comes). From the examples described above to Dodge remixing the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. to sell trucks, massive multinational corporate entities appear capable of transforming any sort of uprising into an advertising slogan. Thus, I wonder once again whether the tactics of those like the Situationists can have any real lasting effect beyond become just another catchy jingle.

References

Metzger, Richard. “Cinema subverted in ‘Can Dialectics Break Bricks?’ (1972).” Dangerous Minds. February 21, 2012. Web. February 16, 2018.

Wark, McKenzie. The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International. Verso, 2011.

Blog Post: Week 3 – Legislative action

After reading chapters 1 – 7 in McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street, I think I find the concept of détournement most interesting. Wark describes this idea as both “the opposite of quotation” and “a challenge to private property” because it “attacks a kind of fetishism, where the products of collective human labor in the cultural realm can become a mere individual’s property” (40). He also describes how it functions as more than just a remix such as those described by Henry Jenkins, but rather as something that highlights the idea that knowledge belongs to no one person but to society itself. For me, this idea calls to mind both the cut-up technique developed by the Dadaists (though popularized by William S. Burroughs) and the work of street artist Banksy. With cut-up, poets sought to rearrange existing texts into entirely new works, often by literally cutting up a finished text and then rearranging the pieces into a different order to create something entirely new. Such actions seem to attack the fetishism of the written word and therefore represent a kind of challenge to or rebellion against linearity that has been established by literature and its critics. Thus, cut-up, like détournement, appears to function as a challenge to existing elitist power structures as well as an attempt to shift power imbalances in favor of those excluded from so-called “high-minded” pursuits (especially since the Dadaists intended cut-up as another of their surrealist games, thereby demonstrating a ludic aspect to the technique).

Meanwhile, Banksy often repurposes prevailing cultural images (such as corporate logos or well-known pop cultural characters like Mickey Mouse, himself a sort of corporate logo) into subversive new formats that send up corporate culture and reveal the darkness that lies at the heart of capitalism. Significantly, Banksy displays his art publicly on walls or in the form of self-built physical prop pieces often erected on the sidewalk or other high-traffic areas. By placing his artwork out in the open, Banksy demolishes the idea of the art museum, which is sometimes conceptualized as an elitist institution accessible only to a wealthy few or to those with cultured and refined tastes. Therefore, like the Dadaists and other cut-up artists, Banksy appears to create art that also functions as a rebellion against the art world (both as an idea and an institution) and a subversion of the notion that art occupies an exclusive and sophisticated realm. More importantly, by making his artwork freely visible to the public, he is enlisting the populace at large in his rebellion as well.

This then brings me to Wark’s discussion of Jean-Paul Sartre’s desire to walk the streets of Paris during curfew. Wark writes that by walking the streets at this time, Sartre engages in an act of rebellion because his nighttime stroll becomes a situation rather than a mere act of contemplation. As Wark explains, “The situation is the common product of its own unknowable facticity and of Sartre’s freedom” (57). In other words, without the curfew, Sartre is free to walk the streets whenever he wants, but with the restriction in place Sartre is actively exercising his freedom to walk whenever and wherever he wants in a blatant act of defiance. This idea puts me in mind of Michel de Certeau’s “walking rhetoric,” which states that pedestrians actively create a city’s meaning by walking through it as individual subjects capable of ignoring the city planners’ intended regulations of movement (i.e. bus routes, crosswalks, parking spaces, etc.). For de Certeau, the act of walking through a city imbues these different urban spaces with new meanings that sometimes contradict their intended purposes. This suggests that any pedestrian can “rewrite” the conventions and institutions of society simply by choosing to walk a specific route through a city. This idea in turn puts me in mind of the “Standing Man in Gezi Park” video we watched in class, as he was performing an everyday act (i.e. standing still) but in such a way that it becomes a revolutionary act. Ultimately, it seems that the act of placing something into a new context, whether it be literature, art, or simply walking, can reveal that act as a symbolic challenge to legislative or institutionalized power.

References

de Certeau, Michel. “Chapter VII: Walking in the City.” In The Practices of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall, University of California Press, 1984.

Wark, McKenzie. The Beach Beneath the Street. Verso, 2011.

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