Media criticism

A new semester . . .

. . . means not just one, but two new syllabi: one for graduate students and one for (mostly) undergraduates. (Technically, of course, these are actually updated versions of older syllabi, but there’s plenty of freshness in each of them).

And, this time around anyway, the new semester also begins with a very freshly published essay on cultural studies and history (with the shockingly off-topic title of “Cultural Studies and History”).

It takes Q to Django?

[Wasn't it roughly this time last year when I said I was going to be better about blogging in 2012? Oh, yeah. It was. Hmm. Well, let's try this again. Maybe it'll stick this time.]

I rang out the old year yesterday by taking in Django Unchained, the latest from ultra-violence-loving director Quentin Tarantino. I’m still processing the experience, so these are merely some quick, fragmentary reflections. Ask me again tomorrow, and maybe they’ll have shifted. Also, there may be a few spoilers below. If you haven’t seen the film, and you want to do so without knowing too much more, then you may not want to read past the first bullet point.

django poster

  • Spike Lee has done a curious two-step around the film. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to talk about it publicly. On the other hand, he’s made very public statements claiming that film is “disrespectful to [his] ancestors.” More problematically, he’s done so while also saying that he has no intention of seeing the film. Lee, of course, isn’t obligated to see any film he doesn’t want to see. Nor is he obligated to like (or respect) either Tarantino or his films. At the same time, it’s a bit disheartening to see him condemn the film so thoroughly without having seen it — not the least because Lee’s been on the receiving end of plenty of that sort of blind, knee-jerk condemnation himself. And Lee has wandered into some exceptionally murky waters himself with respect to ugly representations of black people on the big screen (cf. Bamboozled — which, to be clear, is a pretty brilliant piece of work . . . but Lee’s deliberately over-the-top depiction of blackface minstrelsy produced its own fair share of squirming audiences.) To be sure, I can respect Lee’s desire not to see the film. But there’s a big difference between saying, “I don’t really like Tarantino’s films, so I have no need to see this one” and slapping this particular film down unseen because of its content and tone.
  • Now if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like Tarantino’s movies because they’re too violent, too bloody, or too gruesome, then you won’t like Django any better. The body count here is high (and not just because, at 165 minutes, there’s lots of time to pile up the corpses), and few (if any) of the deaths are exactly “clean.” That said, the film dives deep into the heart of chattel slavery in the US . . . and that was an extraordinarily violent practice. Enough so that, even though Tarantino could have ramped the violence up without being historically inaccurate, he toned it down so that audiences could not be too traumatized to cheer the movie’s final denouement. Let that sink in for a second. A Quentin Tarantino movie (of all things!) is softer than the actual historical violence associated with slavery in this country. If you haven’t seen the movie, you might be tempted to think that this “kinder, gentler” vision of slavery only justifies Lee’s refusal to see the film. But since I have seen the film, I can assure you that it does absolutely nothing to make slavery look like a benevolent institution.
  • I’ve seen a handful of bloggers and critics who’ve criticized the movie for what it doesn’t do in terms of portraying racial solidarity between blacks or in terms of presenting even some tiny gesture towards collective rebellion. And there’s some truth to be found there. Django is not a selfless martyr, abandoning the path to freedom and wandering into certain death because he can’t bear to leave his brothers and sisters behind him in chains. Nor is he a new Nat Turner, helping to lead the fieldhands into open rebellion against white supremacy. His mission is purely personal (though not entirely selfish), and he is never distracted from it by even a moment of sympathetic solidarity for the obvious suffering of other black folk around him. But, you know, that’s okay by me. At least for now. Hollywood isn’t exactly overflowing with movies where the central characters are black and where pervasive, systemic, institutional racism is the primary target that must be destroyed. Of course, Django doesn’t take down the entire system, but Tarantino also doesn’t let us get away with thinking that that system was fundamentally a Good Thing that happened to be ruined by a tiny handful of wicked souls. What Django gives us is a vision of racism as a cancer that permeates the entirety of US society, top to bottom, and that’s an extraordinarily rare thing for Hollywood to do, even in an historical setting. I can live with Django, the fictional man, getting to live out his personal revenge fantasy and ride off into the night with his one true love . . . because Django, the movie, doesn’t let audiences pretend that slavery was really just some sort of pleasant Gone With the Wind costume drama after all.

The joys of online noise

Facebook gets a lot of abuse. And it’s earned most of it. They routinely make privacy an opt-in feature, and then compound that problem by making it hard for people to find the right settings to change if they do, in fact, want to opt in. They mine our friends’ profiles for pix and prose that they can turn into “personalized” ads, and then compound that problem by telling us that these bits of purchased hucksterism are merely “featured” content. They scrape our so-called private messages (and the public ones too) for anything that looks like a political preference and hand all that info (in aggregate form only, we’re told) off to third parties. They change major design features every other week or so, and then compound that problem too by largely ignoring the complaints of thousands — even millions — of their users who were perfectly happy (or happy enough, anyway) with the previous look and feel of the site. You can, no doubt, add your own litany of things that Team Facebook gets wrong to the items above . . . but that’s not what I want to talk about here.

No, for all the things that Facebook gets mind-bogglingly, astoundingly, stupefyingly wrong, they actually get at least one thing very, very right. And, significantly, it’s one of the things that an awful lot of people think they screw up the worst. For all the redesigned walls, feeds, sidebars, and timelines, the one feature — and I want to insist that it really, truly, honestly is a feature — that Facebook has never changed is that the site is incredibly noisy. If anything, most of those redesigns have made it even noisier.

Assuming that you have more than a dozen or so friends — and I mean “Facebook friends,” of course, who may or may not be people you consider your friends offline (but that’s a topic for another day) — your encounters with Facebook are most likely an endless barrage of information. Status updates. Check-ins. Uploaded photos. Event invites. Game annoucnements. And so on. The vast majority of these bursts of trivia about your friends’ lives aren’t actually intended for you in any directed fashion. By default, Facebook assumes that everyone wants to share everything with everyone else, so your friends generally have to make an extra effort not to share that status update about their great bike ride (or their recent bout of food poisoning, or their trip to see their grandmother, or what have you) with everyone they know. And since most people don’t make that effort, Facebook is a very noisy place indeed. This is a large part of why so many people run away from it. Or at least complain about it.

It’s also precisely why it works.

The best way to illustrate this is to compare Facebook to its latest major competitor: Google+. Trying so very, very hard to be the anti-Facebook, Google+ is set up, by default, so that you only share things with the people you specifically want to share those things with. You can, of course, opt to share things Facebook-style — i.e., with everyone you know on the network — but (again) most people don’t make that extra effort.

And so while Facebook is noisy to the point of being overwhelming, Google+ is almost deathly in its silence. Tomblike even.

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with quiet social spaces — and nothing intrinsically superior about noisy ones. But Facebook seems to understand — much, much better than Google+ does — that a certain level of noise helps to produce a palpable sense of energy and excitement. Or, at the very least, it produces a measure of variety that, in turn, fosters actual engagement. Whenever I check Facebook, it’s almost always different — even if the time that’s passed since I last checked it is only a minute or two — and so even if 99% of what appears in my feed doesn’t grab my attention (mind you, that’s too high a figure, but only because I’ve hidden a lot of “friends” whose daily routines matter to me less), I’ve almost always got some potential reason to wonder if something has happened to someone that is actually worth my attention. Which, in turn, means I’ve got a reason to spend time on the site . . . and that often means I wind up finding something worth commenting on myself, and so I add to the overall level of noise, and the cycle continues.

Google+, on the other hand, can stay unchanged — at least from my perspective — for hours at a stretch. Sometimes days. To be fair, some of this might be a simple function of numbers: I have more Facebook friends than I have Google+ friends, so I’m likely to see more traffic on the former anyway. Still. The drop-off is much, much sharper than that. People who are my friends on both sites are almost always much, much more active on Facebook. They (and I, too, to be fair) could be much noisier on Google+ — but the site makes you work harder to do that. And so, for most people, it simply never happens at all.

Put a different way, Facebook is sort of like a giant, open-air house party. You walk in, there are lots and lots of people, they’re all engaged in lively banter of one sort or another . . . and while a lot of that is just noise to you, it’s still got a vitality and an energy that you can feel. And it’s pretty easy to drop in and out of conversation circles at will. The party as a whole may not appeal, but you can still have a pretty good time anyway. Google+, on the other hand, is like a high-rise apartment building where you know that there are parties going on all over the place, but where the walls are all soundproofed, the doors are all shut and locked, and you either have to be willing to knock on a few of those doors or you have to get lucky and hope someone opens one of them as you’re passing by . . . otherwise, you’re just going to wind up wandering the halls all by yourself.

None of this means that Facebook doesn’t still have serious issues with their privacy policies (they do) or that they don’t deserve a lot of the flack they get (ditto). And i have no doubt that there are people who are perfectly happy with the quieter, more buttoned-up atmosphere of Google+. But a large part of what makes Facebook actually work well — from users’ perspectives, mind you, rather than as a business — is actually bound up with many of the things that it seems to do so badly.

All the news that’s fit to ignore

As I type these words, there’s a story about the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests sitting near the top of the front page of the Guardian‘s website. The Guardian, of course, is based in London. Wall Street, of course, is in New York City.

As I type these words, at the very top of the front page of the New York Times‘s website, there’s a link to an op/ed piece by Michael Kazin called “Whatever Happened to the American Left?” with the following subheading:

Critics of corporate power have failed to organize a movement against the policies that drove the nation into a recession.

Even if Kazin happened to write his piece before the Wall Street protests began eight days ago (so it’s not necessarily his fault that the world has undermined whatever truth his complaint might have contained), one would think that the Times‘s editors might have noticed the glaring contradiction between an essay they chose to feature so prominently on their website and the unfolding events happening just down the street.

Then again, the Times doesn’t appear to think the Occupy Wall Street protests are particularly newsworthy. Buried much, much deeper on that same page, there’s a simple link — no story, no photo, no additional detail — to a Times blog entry of a “Video of a Confrontation on Wall St.” That’s the only mention of the protests of any sort on the Times‘s website’s front page.

Meanwhile, as I type these words, over on CNN’s website, there are 21 stories listed under “Latest News” (i.e., stories that, in a print context, would be described as “above-the-fold”). Those big, Big, BIG stories include:

  • Python is 24-26 feet long, 300+ lbs
  • Campus bake sale sparks outrage
  • Police: Sorry for not uncovering sex lair
  • Scarlett Johansson on her privacy
  • Ben & Jerry’s sells ‘Schweddy Balls’
  • Tiger Woods hires new caddie
  • Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels on display

Not a single one of the 21 stories is about the Wall Street protests. Nor is there a link to a story about those protests anywhere else on CNN.com’s front page.

But it’s good to know that Tiger has found someone else to lug his clubs around for him. I’d been losing sleep over that burning issue for weeks.

Where do you want to live?

Like so many interesting things in life (or at least on Facebook), this began by chance.

places

Actually, to be honest, I’m not sure exactly when it began. Maybe it was when I first created a “check-in” entry for a place that did not yet have one. Maybe it was when I first noticed a check-in option that was clearly some random individual’s awkward misspelling of the place I was at the time. Maybe it was when I first realized that Facebook will suggest places to you when you “check in” that are a mile or two away from where you actually are — and so the relationship between your real location and your check-in location is pretty shaky to begin with. Whenever it actually began, “it” was the recognition that Facebook’s openness when it comes to its “Places” feature allows for an . . . unusual . . . degree of playfulness.

And so, over the past several weeks, I’ve been “checking in” on Facebook far more often than I ever did before . . . but I’ve almost always done so by inventing the name of a new place and adding it to the Facebook database. Sometimes these have been completely whimsical (Drunken Cheetah Cafe). Other times, they’ve been more abstract (that spot at the center of your back that you can’t quite scratch). Occasionally, they’ve had some small relationship to where I’ve actually been (Brown. Tall. Who Are We?). But I’ve rarely used the same invented check-in more than once, even when I’ve gone back to the same place repeatedly.

What this now means for some locales in my usual circuit is that when I — or, presumably, anyone else — open up the check-in dialogue, I will see the actual name of wherever I am . . . surrounded by a dozen different invented check-ins. And so the digital city around me isn’t just filled with the names of various businesses: it’s checkered with a host of more fanciful locations. The First National Bank of Soul and Funk. Uptown Ska Palace, Divorce Court, and Tobacco Emporium. Fort DeSoto Park (East Beach) (secret Minneapolis extension). And so on.

I have mild regrets — though only mild ones — that, by avoiding the “proper” check-in choices for my favorite coffee shops and bars, I’m blurring their online visibility somewhat. At the same time, however, I’d much rather help to create a map of the city that isn’t based entirely around commerce. And I’m happy to undermine, even if only in a very little way, the logics of surveillance and marketing that “checking in” are intended to perpetuate.

What I’m still waiting for, however, is to open up that check-in dialogue and find that someone else has started inventing fanciful place names of their own. I can’t be the only person who’s started doing this. And it wouldn’t take a lot more people doing so to slowly fill the digital versions of our world with the places that we really want to be. Consider this your invitation to join in on the fun. . .

December notable nine

  1. Mocha. Damned if the old girl isn’t a trooper and a half. The tumor has taken over an awful lot of her face. And she’s clearly not excited about the never-ending snowfall. But the Empress of All North America continues to have noticeable pep in her step more days than not. And so she continues to be the lead item here.
  2. Devious friends. Mocha also makes it into the second item this month, courtesy of two dear friends of mine: one who housesat for me while I was in San Antonio for the ASA meetings last November, while the other served as her partner in crime (and brought along her boyfriend and his photography skills). A few weeks later, they presented me with a series of holiday photos taken chez moi that involved ugly Christmas sweaters, cheesy Christmas decorations, . . . and festively costumed fuzzies.
    xmascard_006.jpg     xmascard_005.jpg
  3. Snow, snow, and more snow. The same storm that broke the roof of the Metrodome was severe enough that both the state and Hennepin County pulled snow plows off the streets for safety reasons. When Minnesotans think it’s too snowy for plows to operate, we’re talking about a lot of snow. And it kept coming after that. In smaller doses to be sure, but every few days since then, another inch (or six, in some cases) has piled up.
  4. Saji Ya. I’ve long thought that the best sushi in the Twin Cities is at Origami in downtown Minneapolis, with Fuji Ya in Uptown coming in as a very strong second. And while neither of those establishments has slipped, I now think that Saji Ya — which I experienced for the first time last month — has to be a part of any serious conversation about the finest raw-fish-and-rice in the area. For now, though, I feel comfortable saying that it’s the best sushi in St. Paul. And if there’s better sushi in St. Paul (or Minneapolis, for that matter), I definitely wanna know about it.
  5. Marwencol. I saw better movies (though not many) in December, but most of those were old favorites (Double Indemnity, Fight Club) or movies you already know you should see (the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit). But you probably don’t know about Marwencol. And you should. If it’s playing near you, catch it before it leaves. If it’s not playing near you, find it on Netflix or at your local video shop as soon as it appears. I won’t try to describe it for you, since I don’t think I can do it justice. Just trust me. If only this once.
  6. Chinook of the North. A few months back, I’d mentioned that I grew my own hops in 2010, and that I was looking forward to using them in a forthcoming batch of homebrew. Well, in December, I finally bottled that first (partially) homegrown batch: a Chinook IPA I’d previously made (and enjoyed immensely) using nothing but store bought ingredients. The version using hops I harvested myself was ready for its first proper tasting right before New Year’s Eve. And it sucked. Badly. Not sure if it was a problem with the hops or if I botched something in the brewing process or what. But it was bad enough that I wound up dumping it all. Which I’d only done once before in nearly two dozen batchs since I started homebrewing again a few years back. You win some, you lose some. We’ll hafta see how the 2011 crop comes in later this fall.
  7. Beg, Scream, & Shout!: The Big ‘Ol Box of ’60s Soul. I’d known about this boxed set for a while. I’ve got at least one friend who has had a copy for years. And somehow I managed to have (most of) a digital copy of it sitting on my external hard drive. But I had mostly forgotten about it . . . until I was trying to locate a suitable Christmas gift for a friend (not coincidentally, one of the perpetrators of the photos directly above), and I had a sudden epiphany that this set would be the perfect present for someone (like her) with a penchant for the likes of Otis Redding and Sharon Jones. The trick, as it turned out, would be finding a copy that didn’t require me to take out a second mortgage — or even finding a copy at all, since the set has been out of print for almost a decade now. But the fates were kind to me. Twice, actually. Since my neighborhood Cheapo turned out to have one . . . and then I found another (for myself) on eBay. Why I never picked this set up before is beyond me. Six CDs, and not a bad track on any of them. Truly funky packaging: each disc comes in an oversized sleeve that looks like an old 45, and the box itself is modeled on an old 45 carrying case. And the set comes with a box of trading cards: one for each song.
  8. All Day. Evidently, the new Girl Talk album dropped on November 15. But I didn’t learn about it till December. Not surprisingly, it’s a damned fine bit of mash-up work. What did surprise me, however, is how I learned about it: I heard a track from it on the radio. And while it still amazes me (even if it also pleases me) that Girl Talk hasn’t been hit with cease-and-desist nastygrams from the RIAA and all their cousins, it amazes me (and, again, pleases me) even more that GT would actually get played on an over-the-regular-airwaves radio station.
  9. The Muppets vs. Nine Inch Nails. Speaking of mash-ups . . . well, why speak at all? Just watch. And enjoy.

The singer, not the song

That should probably be “The filmmaker, not the film” or “The screenwriter, not the script,” but somehow neither of those has the same ring to them.

Anywho, a good friend posted a query to Facebook asking for people to name their favorite holiday movies. I chimed in with a joke answer . . . that, on further reflection, may have been a more serious answer than I originally intended it to be.

My chosen movie features an “everyman” actor who plays a man with a restless soul. He struggles with his inner demons and wins the love of a good woman. Along the way, he also manages to champion the virtues of simple living, fixing up old houses, and fighting off the rapacious ways of evil bankers. The movie ends with the happy couple reunited and smiling as the credits roll.

Sounds a lot like It’s a Wonderful Life. But I hate that movie. No, really, I do. Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are fine, and the scenes of their early courtship are actually sweet. But, in the end, Frank Capra slathers way too much cloying, syrupy sappiness on top of everything, and my gag reflex kicks in.

No, my new favorite holiday movie — now that I realize that it really is a holiday movie — is Fight Club. “The things you own end up owning you.”

Fun with math: BP edition

Sometimes the toss-away lines in news stories are the scariest ones. The item linked above includes the following, otherwise unremarked-upon sentence in its concluding paragraph:

The company has set aside $32bn (£20.5bn) to cover its liabilities arising from the disaster, which US lawyers say has affected tens of thousands of people in the Gulf, particularly those in the fishing and tourism industries.

What’s not remarked upon here is that BP has $32 billion lying around to set aside. That is, they can go about their normal business while simply bracketing that outrageously huge sum as if it were some sort of “rainy day” fund.

And that really is an outrageously huge sum. As I type these words, the US Census Bureau’s rolling population clock estimates that there are currently slightly less than 310 million people in the US. Which means that if each and every man, woman, and child in the US put $100 into a pot (and that’d have to be a very, very big pot indeed), that would still be less money than BP can “put aside” to pay for the mess it made in Gulf.

Unfortunate headline juxtapositions

Courtesy of cnn.com

AP haiku 2: Electric boogaloo

New York man accused
Schilling says season over
Oil rebounds on word

Next »