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Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The Root of Fear is Madness: On Black Mirror's "Playtest"

[NOTE: This is the second in a series of reviews of Black Mirror Season 3. These posts DO include spoilers. Stop reading now if you don't want to know!]

The second episode of Season 3 ("Playtest") is what I imagine many people who have heard about Black Mirror but never actually watched the series would expect the show to be like. "Playtest" is a straightforward horror film and, for that reason, I wanted to turn it off about halfway through.  I hate, hate, HATE horror films. I do not find the experience of being afraid exciting or thrilling or enjoyable in any way whatsoever. In fact, I don't think that anyone enjoys being really afraid. (So, if you say you enjoy haunted houses or roller coasters or bungee jumping, that is evidence enough for me that those things do not truly frighten you.) Real fear paralyzes, incapacitates, terrorizes. It cannot be reasoned with. It is immune to grit or determination or willpower. And it is intensely, radically idiosyncratic.

"Playtest" is, in part, about that idiosyncratic element of what frightens us, something we might call the fundamental own-ness of our fears. The story revolves around a new virtual reality game being beta tested by the eponymously-named company Saito Geimu (a Japanese transliteration for "sight game"). The game immerses you in a too-real experience that is designed to frighten, during which it "learns" the nooks and crannies of your subconscious mind, and then employs the deepest, darkest things it finds there to (literally) dial you up. For the playtester Cooper (Wyatt Russell)-- who isn't really a "gamer," just a dude looking for a side-hustle and some easy cash-- the virtual experience starts out with giant spiders, things-that-go-bump-in-the-night, and apparitions uncannily resembling his childhood bully, but it ends with a terrifying descent down the Escher-esque stairs of madness.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

#ImWithSusan: Finding Friends in the Black Mirror "Nosedive"

[NOTE: This is the first in a series of reviews of Black Mirror Season 3. These posts DO include spoilers. Stop reading now if you don't want to know!]

All of the episodes of Charlie Booker's brilliant sci-fi series Black Mirror take place in a near-distant future, but in the first installment of the newly-released third season ("Nosedive") that future is far more "near" than it is "distant." And it is the uncanny nearness of the "Nosedive" world that makes it both almost-unbearably uncomfortable to watch and deeply, at times painfully, disturbing. And/yet/but, if watched with one's head tilted askance at exactly the right angle, I think, "Nosedive" is perhaps the most potentially hopeful Black Mirror episode so far.

Booker's imagined world in "Nosedive" is somewhat unusual by Black Mirror standards for its lack of "futuristic" technologies. In the "Nosedive"world, realtors can holographically "insert" you into a home you're considering buying to help persuade you the home is a good fit. People have eye-implants that allow them to see important information about others' digital selves projected onto their meatspace selves. The automobiles in"Nosedive" are eco-friendly, battery-powered iCars that you plug in with a USB cable. But, all in all, that's about it as far as the imagined "futuristic" technology goes.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, and the APA's "Code of Conduct"

by Edward Kazarian and Leigh M. Johnson
A little over two years ago, more than 600 philosophers petitioned the American Philosophical Association to “produce a code of conduct and a statement of professional ethics for the academic discipline of Philosophy.” The immediate motivation for the petition was several high-profile cases of sexual misconduct by philosophers, which together amplified what many viewed—rightly, in our estimation—as a widespread and endemic culture of hostility, predation, exploitation, and intimidation within the profession.  Shortly thereafter, in March 2014, we co-authored a piece entitled “Please Do NOT Revise Your Tone,” articulating our concerns about the problematic effects of tone-policing, generally, and about the drafting and institution of a “Code of Conduct” by the APA, specifically.  In that piece, we argued that there was good reason to worry that such a Code would:

1) impose a disproportionate burden of changing their behavior to "fit in" on those who are members of out- (that is, underrepresented or minority) groups within the profession; 2) likely be applied disproportionately against those expressing dissenting views or criticizing colleagues for lapses in judgment or perception; and 3) tend to reinforce or provide opportunities to reiterate the structures of privilege and exclusion already operating within the profession. 

The Executive Board of the APA subsequently decided in favor of producing the document and, earlier this week, published the final version of the discipline’s official “Code of Conduct” here.

Reading that document over, our original worries remain unassuaged and unabated. We are especially concerned now that this quasi-official document—which elaborates a set of norms, but does not include any mechanisms for enforcement, adjudication, or sanction—will inevitably be used at the local (department-, college-, or university) level in unofficial, ad-hoc ways to undermine or sabotage already vulnerable members of the profession. Worse, we worry that this document will provide pretext for attempts to pressure APA members by complaining to their employers that they have in some instance or another behaved ‘unprofessionally.’ We recognize that any law or regulative code as such allows for the possibility of perverse application, but we maintain that the current iteration of this Code of Conduct is particularly susceptible to manipulation for a number of reasons.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Sick Of This Sh*t: On Professional Philosophy's Boiling Frogs

There's an old anecdote about boiling frogs that is often employed by philosophers to explain the sorites paradox. If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, the story goes, it will immediately sense the heat and the danger, jump out of the pot, and be spared its life.  But if you put a frog into a pot of cold water and only incrementally increase the heat, the frog will not realize it is boiling until it's already too late.

I was reminded of the boiling frog syndrome last night as I watched the 24-hour news cycle shills practically induce their own brain aneurysms attempting to feign shock at Donald Trump's most recently revealed buffoonery. Of course, there is nothing in the least bit surprising about "new" news of Trump's crass misogyny, pathological narcissism, or boundless sense of entitlement. But here they were on my television-- CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, the whole lot-- collectively gasping, double-taking, and fanning-themselves like Southern debutantes, exclaiming who could ever believe such a thing?! as if Trump had just donned a post-Labor-Day seersucker suit.  And here we are with them, we American frogs, looking around at our cushy, comfy democratic melting pot and saying, yeah, how DID it got so hot in here all of the sudden?

It didn't get so hot in here all of the sudden.  We've been blissfully basking in increasingly warmer water for a long, long time.

Mirroring the very worst of American politics, my discipline of professional philosophy also experienced a cranking up of the climate-heat this past week, If you have international friends, you are doubtlessly already aware how hard it is to explain the complete sh*t show that the 2016 Presidential election season has become here in the United States. Now, imagine if the phenomenon you were trying to describe included not distant and powerful plutocrats like Trump and Clinton, but your actual friends and colleagues.  And imagine if, instead of being a metaphorical sh*t show, it involved actual feces.

Yes, you read that right.  Actual feces.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Open Call for Conversation: #ThinkMore Podcast With Dr. J

After many, many months of research, tech upgrades, trial-and-error experiments, and almost crippling self-doubt, I am finally ready to announce that I will be launching my new podcast #ThinkMore in the coming weeks.

I first want to give a shout-out to Myisha Cherry and her very excellent The Unmute Podcast for inspiring me to get my ish together and finally set things up to podcast on my own. If you haven't tuned in to The Unmute Podcast yet, stop reading and do so now.  There are a few good philosophy podcasts on the web-- check out Philosophy Now, History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Philosophy Bites, The Big Ideas, and (my favorite) The Partially Examined Life--but none of them have the panache of Myisha Cherry's podcast, which not only focuses its attention on underrepresented philosophers, but also has the superadded virtue of relaying conversations that are real and really interesting to listen to (mostly thanks to the hostess!).

I've got several recordings in the can--yes, I know that's film lingo but I don't yet know the audio analogue-- for my new podcast but I don't want to make it live until I get a few more. So, what follows is an OPEN CALL for interviewees.

OPEN CALL FOR CONVERSATION ON THE #THINKMORE PODCAST WITH DR J

Dr. J (@LeighMJohnson) is the hostess of the new #ThinkMore podcast. She is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Christian Brothers University and has been the sole author of the ReadMoreWriteMoreThinkMoreBeMore blog since 2006. Her teaching and research interests focus on social and political philosophy, critical race theory, feminism and gender studies, humanism and human rights, democracy,  technology, and film.  
Dr. J is an OMG really interesting person with whom to have a conversation!  No punches are pulled, no straw men are not set ablaze, no nuances are left unpacked, no presumptions are not rigorously investigated, and no bullsh*t is not called out. Are you up for a conversation like that?  
Fair warning: all #ThinkMore conversations will be recorded, edited, then posted on the Internet. And the Internet never forgets.
If you've got something interesting to say about philosophy, politics, music, or pop culture and you want to be heard on #ThinkMore, send your pitch (300 words or less) to leigh.johnson@cbu.edu and put "#ThinkMore pitch" in the subject line. I promise to get back to you within 48 hours. I will be incredibly flexible with scheduling interview times, but interviewees should know in advance that they will need reliable Internet access, a decent microphone (see here), a generous dispositional attitude, and probably a thick skin.
So that's the official call.  I hope regular readers of this blog will share it widely (and also please follow #ThinkMore on Twitter!). Come hell or high water, I'm launching this podcast no later than next week,so go ahead and buckle up.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Well Actually, This Is How Erasure and Appropriation Happens

Women's voices, ideas, engagements, and critiques are constantly being erased and/or appropriated-- in academia, on the internet, at workplaces of every ilk-- sometimes through slick and malicious moves, but much more often as a consequence of careless inattention.

Also, water is wet.

I was just recently "disappeared" in an essay by my friend Joshua Miller ("Friendly Fire and Fiery Friendship"; also reproduced on Daily Nous here).  Because this is not the first time I've experienced such, and because I want to think that something might be done about the "careless inattention" that so frequently causes it, I will, in the following, walk you through the anatomy of this case.  But first, three important caveats:

Thursday, June 23, 2016

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 23: Your Favorite Song This Time Last Year

It's funny how quickly pop songs start to sound "old." In order to figure out what I was listening to this time last summer, I'll admit that I had to consult iTunes and a couple of music blogs to see what the top tracks were for June 2015.  In almost every case, my first thought was whaaaa? that seems like AGES ago!, but nah, in every case I was wrong, because it was just one measly trip around the sun ago.

My pick for today is a song that I was 100% obsessed with around this time last year.  In retrospect, I don't think I'd put it in my top 50 Songs of All Time, but it could possibly squeeze its way into the top 200. Ask me again next year and I'll likely have changed my mind.

Before you get all judg-y about my selection, keep in my mind that I was not alone in my Rihanna-love last year.  This track was hotttttttt.

Here's my pick for Day 23, Rihanna's "B*tch Better Have My Money":



Pay me what you owe me.  Don't act like you forgot.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 22: A Song You Wish You Had Written

Ok, at this point-- I'm writing this on June 37-- I'm already six days behind on the 30 Day Song Challenge.  I was just about to give up and call it quits, but then I remembered that I've been doing this for a long time and, even if this year's iteration ends up being the last hurrah, I ought to see it through.  So, I've got a little less than 3 days to catch up and finish.

Hide and watch me do it.

My pick for today is Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind," first released on his 1982 album of the same title.  It goes without saying, I hope, that Nelson is among the greatest of American singer-songwriters, but God also gifted that man with a very unique kind of warbly voice that somehow manages to caress and expose every bit of human vulnerability in its most rarefied form.  This little ballad of love and regret is one of his best.  Here it is:



Little things I should have said and done.  I just never took the time.

I could throw all of Willie Nelson's song lyrics into a bag, randomly pick out one line, and almost certainly find in my hand a First Principle for Living and Loving.  He's that good.  But "Always On My Mind" is my pick today because I wish I had the courage to be as honest, as vulnerable, as self-critical and as gracious as Willie is in this song.

This, to my mind, is the song that says all the things that everyone, at some point in their lives, need to hear... but which hardly anyone takes the time to say to those who need to hear it.

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 22: A Song You Want Played at Your Wedding

I won't ever get married-- partly because I object to the state institution of marriage, but also because I'm old and ornery and too attached to my own independence now-- so today's prompt is a bit of a strange one to answer. For the record, I love weddings, I love couples who pledge their lives and fidelity to one another, I love cake and flowers and Vitamixes and the chicken dance...I love love.

I just don't love the fundamentally exclusive, overdetermined and state-sanctioned cultural institution of marriage-- which bestows civic and economic rewards, for thoroughly undemocratic reasons entirely unrelated to merit, right or desert, which does so at the expense and to the detriment of more than half our democratic citizenry, which has no governing interest other than the managerial consolidation of private property and the compulsory regularization/normalization of sexual behaviors, familial structures and gender expressions-- and which has now been marginally modified by the highest court in the land to be a slightly-less-exclusive exclusionary institution.

/rant

Anyway, in a compossible world where marriage wasn't the horribly unjust institution that it is in this world, if I were forced to choose a song I would like played at my wedding, it would be this one, sung by Otis Redding, "The Glory of Love":



Give a little. Take a little. Let your little heart cry a little. That's the story of, that's the glory of love.

Y'all know what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 21: A Song That Is Best Heard Live

Most of the kinds of music I like-- blues, gospel, country, rock n' roll-- are better heard live.  I don't know if this is true of all genres of music.  I've heard my jazz-loving and classical-loving friends speak of some of their favorite albums as if the recording were absolutely perfect, as if no "live" reproduction could ever do justice to the infinitely and perfectly repeatable production.

I love to hear live music and I try to get out and do so at every opportunity.  That's easy to do in a city like Memphis, where there is live music every night of the week, much of it "free." (I put "free" in scare-quotes because NO ONE should EVER think that musicians in this town work for free. If they're getting paid at all by the clubs, it's a pittance, so do not ignore the call of their tip buckets!)  There's something about the energy of listening to loud, live music in a small space with other people that feeds my soul.