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Sunday, November 27, 2011

First As Tragedy, Then As Farce

We barely had a moment to digest the horror of the incident at UC-Davis, where police pepper-sprayed nonviolent student protesters associated with the Occupy Movement, before the image of the offending policeman (Lt. John Pike) was transformed into an internet meme. Pike's image was photoshopped into some of the great works of Western art, including those pictured to the left (clockwise: Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, Trumbull's Declaration of Independence, and Rockwell's Freedom from Want), which were then disseminated at fiber-optic speed on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and countless blogs. In fact, there's a whole site dedicated to this meme now, called Pepper Spraying Cop. The events at UC-Davis were tragic, to be sure. So how did the Pepper Spraying Cop become funny?

At first, many of the mash-ups appeared to be implicitly meta-criticizing Lieutenant Pike's action. The brashness and brute force of Pike's assault is amplified in the Seurat image, where the pastoral calm of the painting's subjects is violently disrupted by Pike spraying the seated woman with the parasol. (Incidentally, Seurat's is also a painting about class mixing--Sunday afternoons were the only time the lower classes had leisure time, and they would go to Grand Jatte to relax, mingling with the upper classes.) Similarly, the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of Pike's actions are highlighted in the Delacriox and Trumbull images, where Pike's pepper-spray can is positioned to aim its assault directly at "liberty" and "independence." And Pike's complicity with (and protection of) the wrongs of the 1% is dramatized in the Rockwell image, where the introduction of Pike's figure essentially negates the "freedom from want" represented therein.

Like all memes, though, the Pepper Spraying Cop took on a life of its own and began to be inserted into images that lacked a metacommentary like those above. (Pike spraying a baby seal, Pike spraying the kid from The Shining, Pike spraying
Beyoncé and Harry Potter and Tim Tebow, even Pike spraying God.) These latter iterations were funny, to be sure, and so were the earlier images. But "funny" comes in many flavors, and it's difficult to determine in what way these images are amusing. Are they ironic? Are they satirical? More importantly, is it okay to be amused by them? How soon after tragedy is too soon to transform it into farce?

As a member of the Stewart/Colbert generation, I often wonder how fit I am to decide these questions anymore. For at least the last decade, my "news" has been deconstructed and reconstructed as satire, irony or farce on a daily basis. Back in 2001, I remember there being a palpable hesitancy around making jokes about the events of 9/11 for a long while. The question 'how soon is too soon?' weighed heavily on everyone, not just comedians, not just political pundits, not just bloggers. That reticence seems to have waned, if not completely disappeared, in the intervening years. Another example: Within 48 hours of the Sandusky/Penn State scandal, I heard the following joke:

Q: If a woman who has sex with younger men is called a 'cougar,' what do you call a man who has sex with younger men?
A: A Nittany Lion

It's brilliant as a joke, of course, despite the horrible events upon which it depends to be funny. And the Pepper Spraying Cop is brilliant as a meme, despite the events upon which it depends to be funny. But what to do with the requisite desensitization that is necessary for both jokes to "work"?

Philosopher Cynthia Willett (Emory University) addressed some of these questions in her recent text Irony in the Age of Empire: Comic Perspectives on Democracy and Freedom, where she argues that we ought to embrace the way in which comedy, satire and irony can be not only critical, but emancipatory. Now, for most people of my generation/education/political persuarsion, the idea that comedy has some political purchase is nothing new. In fact, for many of us, the only thing standing between our day-to-day existence and total despair is Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Most of my friends have themselves adopted this sharp (or, negatively stated, acerbic), quick (sloppy), biting (mean), and astute (cynical) sense of humor, which often turns an everyday conversation over beers with them into an exercise in pugilistic hilarity. Some people (namely, my father) find this generational characteristic a little off-putting--we're too loud, too mean, too enamoured with our own disillusion and, yes, a little too honest to make for good (read: polite) company. I actually respect his criticism to a degree, as I myself (like almost everyone I know) have certainly gone home and plucked the barbs out of my own ego after having been lambasted by friends... all in good fun, of course. But it is what it is. These are my people.

What Willet's work has made me think more about, however, is how much can actually be accomplished by such comedic criticism. Every night I watch Jon Stewart and I wonder: how in the world can things continue to go on like they are with this kind of truth out there? Of course, I know that the targets of Stewart's and Colbert's not-so-subtle criticisms probably don't watch their shows, or grossly misunderstand the jokes, but one would think the fact that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are such a central part of the social milieu would have some cash-out value. One would think that shows like Stewart's and Colbert's (and jokes like the PSU one above, and memes like the Pepper Spraying Cop), at the very least, can reduce the number of lies that are allowed to go uncontested in public discourse.

When I taught Media Ethics, I would show the clip of Jon Stewart's visit to the FOX exercise-in-ridiculousness show Crossfire. If you haven't seen it, you can watch it here. (And even if you have seen it, watch it again!) Stewart's dilemma in that conversation is the one that I imagine is the most insurmountable for the comedian who actually wants to effect political change-- how do I get people to take me seriously? But every time I see the clip again, I am reminded that it is one of the most brilliant, and most inspiring, moments of political confrontation that I have seen. It's such a perfect little concentration of all that is wrong with political discourse in our country right now... namely, that there is no "discourse." The Right caricatures and then lambasts the Left seriously, and the Left caricatures and lambasts the Right comedically. We all know who's been winning that battle for the last several years-- the question is, who's going to win the war?

For my part, I think that we have to keep the distance between our tragedies and our farcical representations of them-- like the Pepper Spraying Cop meme-- as minimal as possible. The joke must be biting and more than a bit sour so that we do not forget that it's only funny because it's not funny, after all.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Material Infrastructure of the Internet

Like most people, I presume, I have a tendency to think about "the Internet" or "cyberspace" or the "virtual world" as something fundamentally non-material. I type emails, I post on my Facebook page or this blog, I search and find things on Google, and it seems to me each time as if every strike of my fingers on the keyboard activates some kind of magical, ethereal force, existing outside of space and in hyper-compressed time. Of course, I am aware that there are material elements of my activity-- my laptop, the power chord and plug that connects it to my wall, the wireless router that has (of course) its own physical wire, to which I must maintain a certain physical proximity-- but each of those concrete, tangible items seem ancillary. They provide access to the Internet. They are material, of course, but the Internet itself is not. Or is it?

For the last couple of decades, people have been struggling mightily for an apt metaphor to explain what exactly "the Internet" is and how it works. The metaphors that have prevailed-- metaphors of "network" and "space"-- are partially responsible for our tendency to think of the Internet as non-material. But as we all know, when we really think about it, that "network" and that "space" must have a material architecture. My cyber-connections with the rest of the globe are also actual, physical connections. Millions of miles of material cable and wires, thousands of material mega-machines in material brick-and-stone buildings, must already be in place in order for me to tap my fingers and have a real-time conversation with my friend in Australia.

I came across this short (10 minute) documentary about all those material parts of the Internet, which are "bundled, buried and behind closed doors" (as well as, quite often, right there in plain sight!). It's a fascinating look into the architecture of the Internet, but what's really interesting about it is the way it shows that the routes and lanes of the Information Superhighway reproduce the routes and lanes of trade. And information, like all of the other goods and resources traded across seas and borders, concentrates power. As one commenter says, "communication is bound up, historically and in the contemporary period, with the projects of Empire." Take a look at some of the "maps" of the Internet presented here. Fascinating.

Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors from Ben Mendelsohn on Vimeo.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Why I Stood With The Students

As I reported in my previous post, students at my college organized an event last Monday night, the Rhodes Solidarity Vigil, which was meant to demonstrate solidarity with the nonviolent student protesters at UC-Davis (and elsewhere) who were brutalized by police while peacefully exercising their right to assemble. This is why I stood with the Rhodes students that night:

For at least the last 50 years, college and university campuses have served as cultural, moral, and political crucibles, where the often white-hot heat of our nation's collective values are tested, refined, sometimes challenged, and sometimes changed. There are, I imagine, a myriad of ways to explain why this is the case, but I'd like to think that chief among them is the fact that students constitute a rather unique sub-population, the characteristics of which make them uniquely capable of apprehending more directly the systemic injustices that plague our body politic. College and university students exist, for the most part, as a community of shared interest, age, and vocation. They are, for the most part, sheltered from the burdensome weights of adult life, like disease, death and (until quite recently) debt. They are engaged with one another in the difficult tasks of educating themselves, of training and disciplining themselves, of fabricating for themselves a place and a purpose in the world. And, for the most part, they have not yet had their ability to imagine more and different possibilities restricted.

It is that last characteristic-- their unrestricted imagination-- that I find the most inspirational in my day to day interactions with students. If given the resources and freedom to imagine their world otherwise, they can and they do. College and university campuses have been, and ought to be, safe spaces for that imaginative work. Recently, however, some campuses have not been so. Most dramatically demonstrated at UC-Davis and UC-Berkeley, where students were beaten with batons and pepper-sprayed by police while peacefully assembling, campuses have not only become focal points for an ideological struggle taking place in our country, but battlegrounds for that struggle. The scenes of that battle, disseminated as they were through the viral network of our new media, are disturbing. Students, armed with nothing other than their grievances and their nonviolent discipline, have been met with the unjust and unjustifiable violence of police force. Inexcusably, administrators charged with protecting those campuses and the students who inhabit them have turned a blind eye.

I am so very thankful that my campus has not been host to such violence, that my students have not been quieted or harmed, and that our collective space remains safe for the free expression of ideas, even unorthodox, unpopular or dissenting ideas. Ours remains, thankfully, a campus that has maintained its integrity and, more importantly, its hospitality to critical discourse, civic engagement and democratic action. So, when our students gathered to show solidarity with their peers at UC-Davis and UC-Berkeley, I stood with them and for them. I saw it as my moral obligation to do so, inasmuch as I find the deployment of brute force against nonviolent protesters to be a gross moral transgression. I saw it as my political obligation to do so, inasmuch as I find the exercise of police violence against the citizenry it is charged to serve and protect, the violation of basic constitutional rights to assemble and to dissent, and the suppression of free and open democratic discourse to be gross political transgressions. And I saw it as my professional obligation to do so, inasmuch as I consider it my charge to protect my students' freedom to insist on a better world for themselves, to call into question the values of those who govern and discipline them, to put the intellectual resources they have gained in the course of their education to practical use, and to not be beaten or violated for doing so.

As a member of the faculty at a liberal arts college, I wish that we had the courage and conviction to lead and not follow on this issue. I am, quite frankly, embarrassed that we haven't done so. Even if there are those among us who are unconvinced of the merits of the grievances voiced by the larger Occupy Movement-- which I am not-- I cannot understand how one can, in good conscience, not publicly and resolutely oppose the suppression of students' opportunity to participate in the long and virtuous tradition of using campus spaces as safe spaces for positive forms of dissent, where visions of moral, political, social and economic alternatives can be given fair consideration.

There are brave, disciplined, informed, reflective, convicted and committed students in this country who are exercising precisely the sort of imagination that we try to cultivate in them and on which our collective future depends. I stand in solidarity with them. And whenever my students stand with them, I will stand in solidarity with my students, too.

Solidarity

This past Monday, November 21, students at Rhodes College organized a candlelight vigil to show their solidarity with the student protesters at UC-Davis who were assaulted by police while nonviolently protesting on November 18. Rhodes' event was an answer to the call sent out by Occupy Colleges, the student wing of the Occupy Movement, asking campuses across the country to hold candlelight vigils to show solidarity with "all injured students who were protesting tuition hikes and economic injustice." Our students had a lot working against them in this effort-- the weather in Memphis was rainy and windy that day, they had less than 24 hours to organize and publicize the event, and Rhodes isn't a campus where collective political statements of any sort are the norm-- but they managed to pull it off beautifully. I'd estimate about 100 students, faculty and staff attended, with the overwhelming majority of the attendees being students.

I've never been to a candlelight vigil before. To be honest, in the past, I've often considered those kinds of vigils to be merely symbolic and I didn't really appreciate them as effective political statements. But I can honestly admit that Rhodes Solidarity Vigil changed my mind. There is something about a large group of people standing in solidarity, observing a moment of silence, and shining a light in the darkness that serves as a very, very powerful statement. After the minute of silence, students opened the "floor" to anyone who wanted to remark upon the events at UC-Davis (or the larger Occupy Movement). The discussion that ensued was sober, reflective, intelligent, egalitarian and, at times, quite moving. Here are some images from the vigil:


(Apologies for the blurriness of some of these images, but it was rainy that night.)

As impressive (and unprecedented) as this event was, I can't help but also note my disappointment that it wasn't better attended. I heard through the grapevine that day that many in the Rhodes community expressed their reservations about attending because they were concerned that showing solidarity with the students at UC-Davis would be interpreted as solidarity with the larger Occupy Movement. I find that argument both weak and disturbing. If one cannot stand in solidarity against the use of police violence against nonviolent protesters, whatever the merits or demerits of their protest, then one needs to recalibrate one's moral compass.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Beautiful Politics

Please, please take 4 minutes and 29 seconds out of your day and watch this.

Dr. J Catches Up

It's been too, too long since I've posted here. Two whole months, in fact. [Insert standard excuse about being too busy.] My absence was particularly egregious this time, since my last posts, back in September, left a few issues hanging. (Just as an aside, it's hard for me to believe that the last time I posted on this blog was in the pre-Occupy-era. What a difference 8 weeks makes.) I'm using this post not so much as an effort to adequately tie up loose ends, which I think might not be possible, but more as a segue to new things. Here are a few, all too brief, remarks on what has happened in the interim:


Leiter v Alcoff: As to the Leiter v. Alcoff hullabaloo, a lot has happened since my last weighing in on the issue. Among other things, SPEP passed a resolution in support of the Pluralist's Guide to Philosophy, a decision which sparked much debate on Leiter's blog, the New APPS blog and elsewhere. As many anticipated, the debate over the merits/demerits of the Pluralist's Guide have now ballooned into a much larger contest about the state of the so-called "analytic/Continental" divide in professional philosophy. And, as has been our way, the quality of the debate has ranged from puerile and ad hominem attacks to seriously reflective and constructive suggestions for reform. I'll just say, for my part, that I was one of the 24 who voted against the SPEP resolution (outnumbered by the 118 who voted in favor of it), though I still think that there are many merits to the Pluralists Guide and something of that sort is needed in our profession. I'll also say that I think Leiter-et-al's personal attacks on Alcoff (and, more generally, the SPEP constituency) were unprofessional and inexcusable. I'm sure this matter will be revisited on this blog again.

Penn State scandal: My graduate school alma mater, The Pennsylvania State University, was recently rocked by a sex scandal involving one of their former football coaches, Jerry Sandusky, who is alleged to have used his position as the director of a troubled-youth program (The Second Mile) and his influence as a football coach at PSU to prey upon and sexually abuse several young boys over the course of a couple of decades. PSU President Graham Spanier and longtime football coach/legend Joe Paterno were both fired for allegedly knowing about and covering up the misdeeds of Sandusky. (Penn State's former Athletic Director, Tim Curley, and Senior Vice President, Gary Sschultz, were arrested along with Sandusky and charged with perjury.) After the news of Spanier and Paterno's dismissal was announced, Penn State students rioted in the streets. As a Penn State alum, this has all been heartbreaking and embarrassing. I *will* have a post on this matter forthcoming, but in the meantime I'll directly you to Associate Dean (and Professor of Philosophy) Chris Long's excellent Open Letter to Liberal Arts Undergraduates at Penn State.

Ask me what the inside of Lucinda William's tour bus looks like: In happier news, I got to meet one of my musical idols, Lucinda Williams, several weeks ago. I went with a friend (Kelly Robinson, author of the really excellent blog A Certain Solitary Pleasure: Adventures in Reading) to Williams' concert at the New Daisy here in Memphis and, after it was over, I asked one of her road crew if there was any way I could meet her. (Hey, the worst they can say is "no," right?) He looked a little skeptical, so I started to tell him about my American Values Project, since Lucinda had spoken quite a bit about #OWS during her show and I thought she might be sympathetic to a project like ours. As it turns out, she was. My friend and I got invited onto Lucinda's tour bus, where we spent about an hour talking, laughing, and taking photos (of her and her whole band) for the American Values Project. Lucinda was warm and funny and smart and committed to good politics, just as I hoped she would be in "real" life.

Antjie Krog at Rhodes: In another getting-to-meet-my-idols story, I had the good fortune to meet and serve on a panel with Antjie Krog, South African poet, journalist and author. Krog was one of the reporters who covered the proceedings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and wrote Country of My Skull recounting that experience. She came to Rhodes this past week to deliver a lecture and poetry reading, both of which drew an overflowing audience. Thanks to my good friend, Mark Behr (who organized Krog's visit), I got to spend a lot of time with Krog. She is, in almost every conceivable way, the very model of an engaged intellectual. I don't think there's been any academic, other than Derrida, who has had me so star-struck upon meeting them. Krog not only has a very powerful presence about her, she IS a presence-- a soft-spoken, slight, mild-looking woman who commands attention and respect with the power of her words alone. Greatest moment: getting to discuss my weak humanism ideas with her, outside on a deck, smoking an after-dinner cigarette.

American Values Project: I've also been really busy with the American Values Project this semester, which has launched a new website and a new Facebook page. Rhodes College also gave AVP two new assistants this year, and their addition has helped a lot. We recently participated in an event sponsored by CODA (the Center for Outreach and Development of the Arts) called "Exhibition Momentum," where we were able to take AVP photos of people, print them out, and create a real-time collage of those image on the Jack Robinson Gallery's wall. The AVP team is really committed to keeping this project going, and we're still working toward creating a physical exhibit of the images that could travel the country during the 2012 Presidential campaign season. So, if you haven't submitted a photo to the project yet, please do so! And if you have submitted a photo, please spread the word and encourage others to do so! The AVP began right here on this blog back in February of this year, and since then we've been shown at a gallery in New York City, been featured on the Rhodes College website, grown the size of our team by 200%, and even gotten celebrities to contribute! Sometimes, when I'm buried in the mundane business of the AVP, I think to myself that I shouldn't be so committed to this project. But I am.

Occupy Everything: Last, but not least, you may have noticed that we have a revolution on our hands. The occupation of Wall Street that began in September of this year has spread out across the nation. Initially dismissed as the content-less complaints of a marginalized few, the protesters have now taken on the sobriquet "the 99%", and their message is resonating with the heartland. Every week, it seems, their messages and strategies get more innovative, more powerful, more inclusive, and more insistent. It is no longer possible for any of us to dismiss their presence, and it's increasingly more difficult to ignore the systemic injustices to which they are calling our attention. Because of the Occupy Movement-- yes, it's really a MOVEMENT now-- I've had some of the most interesting and reflective discussions in my Marx classes in years. (No more of these problems!) All of the other interesting things that have been happening in my life in the last couple of months notwithstanding, I've missed the most blogging about OWS. More to come, for sure.

Okay, that should just about catch me up. Stay tuned!