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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

On Teaching Our Incapacity To Unexperience

They say you can't "unring a bell." It's an analogy that is often used to illustrate our incapacity to un-experience things, to erase lived-experiences from our bodies and minds. What I discovered recently is how particularly true that is in the classroom.

A few weeks ago in my Philosophy and Film course, we screened Werner Hertzog's film Grizzly Man for our "documentary" week. Grizzly Man tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, who spent thirteen summers in the Alaskan wilderness living with grizzly bears-- all the while filming his trans-species communion-- before being tragically attacked and killed by a bear in 2003. Treadwell was filming on the day that he died, though he did not have time to remove the lens caps from his camera before being attacked, so there remains only an audio recording of his (and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard's) gruesome death. Hertzog does not include that audio in his documentary.  In fact, there is a scene in the film where we see Hertzog listening to the recording for the first time and then, afterwards, remarking to Treadwell's friend: "You must never listen to this." What is more, in a gesture practically verboten for documentary filmmakers, Hertzog instructs Treadwell's friend to destroy the tape.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Wired Election, Part 2: "Follow The Money"

[This is the second installment of my series The Wired Election, employing insights gained from HBO television series The Wire to interpret 2016 Presidential election campaign events, persons and states of affair. The cheese stands alone.]

Like many of my fellow web-citizens, I found myself doing a number of dramatic double-takes on Wednesday morning as I watched "news"-casters review the first Democratic Presidential debate of the previous evening. Almost unanimously and across the board, pundits unequivocally declared former Secretary of State and frontrunner Hillary Clinton the obvious #DemDebate winner. This, despite all evidence to the contrary as provided by almost every available metric for measuring viewers' responses. There are serious problems with thinking about these debates in terms of "winners" and "losers"-- I'll get to that below-- but the spin-cycled evaluations put forward by our Fourth Estate (the press), which is all but indistinguishable from the Second Estate (the aristocracy) these days, was truly dizzying.

Did they even watch the same debate I watched?

The Wired Election, Part 1: "This America, Man."

There are certain works of art in every medium-- literature, theater, photography, sculpture, film, painting, music, et al.-- that somehow manage, through an impossible-to-determinately-calculate alchemical combination of human creativity, the raw materials of Nature, and some other mysterious thing we might generically point toward and say "meaning" or "truth," to reach beyond the mere representation of some particular subject matter or to touch so deeply upon that representation's core presentation that the artwork ends up unveiling, unconcealing, and thereby disclosing in a way that gives us the sense of an encounter with something universal. Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus Rex does this dramatically. Coppola's film trilogy The Godfather does this.cinematically.  Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" does this (or so it is said) graphically. Otis Redding's "A Change Is Gonna Come" does this sonically.

I think a very strong case could be made that the HBO television series The Wire (2002-08) ALMOST accomplishes the same via the (still unfortunately undertheorized, but getting there) medium of television.  I say "almost" because I suspect what The Wire really discloses is very likely not, properly speaking, "universal." What it does manage to unconceal is much of what is True about America-- our site-specific pathologies with regard to race relations, policing, education, labor, crime and punishment, politics and political theater, wealth and power disparities, surveillance, media, gender, and the continuously transmorphic rules governing how our communal obligations are coerced and enforced--  thus extending its reach beyond the particular mise en scene of "early-aughts Baltimore" and saying something about, if not all of us, at least more of us than Baltimoreans.