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A Cinema's Guide to Perverts  

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I know, I've got the title of critically acclaimed psychoanalytic philospher Slavoj Zizek's documentary backwards: it's A Pervert's Guide to Cinema. What astounds me about this documentary, however, is the lack of reflexivity. We might ask: why has Zizek chosen the themes he has? Why these specific movies? Could we not also see the movie as a guide to the pervert who selected the movies?

This is very alarming considering psychoanalysis' constant look back at the analyst's own psyche for working out the analysand's (to borrow from Lacan) problems. So, that's my mission in this post: to look back not at the film, but they psychic stance of Zizek in the film (I'm sure that he would hate this). I'm specifically going to draw on the object-relations theory of psychoanalysis, most interested in the ways people relate to dogs, cats, balls, hats, and people as objects in their psychic stream. I spent a lot of time with Ellen Schattschneider at Brandeis University talking about this very topic (ala Klein, Winnicott, Lacan, Freud, and Kristeva), and think it can shed some light on why Zizek has made the choices he has in this film.

(Ellen has a fantastic book (Immortal Wishes) on the psychic implications of industrialization on ascetic discipline that I encourage people to read)

One of the largest underlying themes of the Pervert's Guide to Cinema is a constant gynophobia: everything is the vagina's fault. In a scene standing over flowers, Zizek characterizes a tulip as a dangerous vagina set to destroy the phallic domain, while simultaneously slut-shaming it for letting thousands of insects enter into it and spread its pollen. This is especially ironic given that a few scenes earlier, in an analysis of Hitchcock's Birds, he glorifies the multiplicity of (implicit/subconscious) sexual relationships between Mitch Brenner (the lead male), Melanie Daniels (the lead female), and Mitch's mother (for whom the sexual betrayal is manifested materially as the Birds (starring as themselves)). Even more disgusting is his misogynist reclamation of Blue Velvet: Dennis Hopper's constant psychological rape of Isabella Rossolini (done in the name of Hopper's character's mother) is not Hopper's fault, but his attempt to materialize Rossolini's fantasies (because, deep down inside, she 'wants' it... sounds like a rape excuse to me)- Hopper acts as an agent that collides Rossolini's symbolic and real, creating a 'nightmare' (of enjoyment?). [Garbage]. This gynophobia is not surprising, however, given the numerous intellectual folktales around Zizek's problem with interacting with women. This, is what I am going to mine in my object-relations analysis of Zizek's role in this film.

Particularly useful is analyzing Zizek's role in the film vis-a-vis Thomas Ogden's theory of projective identification (an expansion and combination of Klein and Winnicott, written about mainly in the late 70's early 80's). In this theory, Ogden suggests that the person inhibited by a type of neurosis, broadly defined as a psychological stumbling block historically rooted in something- but this is not important-, will never find their own solution to the neurotic problem. They are thus left, stranded in their own psyche, wondering how a 'normal' (that is person not displaying the same neurosis) would handle the situation. In order to figure out what a 'normal' would do, they psychologically project onto Mr/Mrs. Normal their own psychic dimension. Put in less abstract terms, they create similar conditions to their own stumbling block for the Normal to work through. They observe the Normal coping with the neurotic condition so that they, the observer, may copy the strategy. This is, of course, the whole process of psychoanalysis by an analyst. All of this is derived from Lacan and Freud's theory of transference: the analyst always ends up with the analysand's baggage. It's not because the analyst embodies it, but that the analysand puts it on her/him. (This is also wrapped in the concept of disavowal- the casting out of a psychic problem- which is opposite of repression).

Back to our movie and Mr. Zizek (although perhaps calling him Mrs. Zizek may materialize his own fantasies of domination- see funny note* below). Zizek theorizes that movies provide us not with a materialization of our fantasies, but tell us what our fantasies are. This is very Freudian of him. But, instead, my objects-relations theory position would suggest that movies are medium through which we project our subconscious desires, such that we can work out how we are to handle them (this is a big theme that runs throughout all of my research, especially that in Gibraltar: soundscapes act as a way for people to work out what it means to be Gibraltarian). It is an interesting realm, given that the movie becomes a fantasy projection of the film maker and the film watcher, creating a nexus of fantasies intermingling with one another. Returning, however, to Zizek, taking this approach makes us ask if Zizek is projecting his own fears onto the films he sees, and thus manipulates us into working out his own fantasies, or just projecting onto us? It is in this way that this film serves as a metapragmatic of Zizek's theory: we only feel the way we do about these films because Zizek has created an atmosphere in which he can project is psychic struggles onto us through the medium of these other films. He wants to see how we deal with being a chauvinist masochist. Classic projective identification: he has placed us in the realm of his own psychic instability to see how we figure these things out. Problem: he can't see us figure them out. There is no solution for Zizek; the arrousal comes from his pleasure in us becoming misogynists. This is very reminiscent of the Marquee de Sade and Gene Genet: both disavowal (put into the world) their sexual fantasies, that is projectively identifying, to the point where neither the phantasy nor the solution are important, rather making it other people's fantasy becomes the phantasy itself, the phantasy par exellence. It's very narcissistic. Genet, Sade, and Zizek can only get off if their fantasies are those of another person, that is, another person makes them real by fantasizing them.

So, in the film, Zizek is attempting to cope with his own phallocentricism and misogyny, and he does so through manipulating us into understanding his own psychic stumbling block. We become those that Zizek is turning to in order to understand the reason he hates women so much. Zizek uses the film as a way to work out his issues by doubly projecting them onto the film (which instructs him how to cope with his hatred of women, or -more truthfully- where he finds instructions for playing out his hatred of women) and projecting them onto us. In this way, his analysis of film is only true on a meta- level. If film's purpose is to tell us what we desire, it is only because Zizek has used it as a medium to manipulate us into learning his desire. But the question, with which I'll conclude this rant, is whether we can watch Blue Velvet (who would ever do this optionally?!?!) or Alien (more likely) without being inhibited by Zizek's psyche-spectre, without finding in it our own- by way of his- mysogenistic fantasies and gynophobic terror? I hope the answer is yes.

**** So, funny note. If we consider obj-rel theory and proj. ident., we might in turn analyze Zizek's hatred for women as well. In all truth, he is terrified of women, and his own inability to cope with this terror of what he might call the 'Oedipal Desire' has driven him to a domination of women. But, the act of domination, is indeed the key here. This fear leads him to feel as if he is sexually incapable of sizing up to women, as if women have dominated his body with the fear. He thus projects onto women- his fetish object- to see how they react to domination so that he can figure out how to be dominated and still live a productive life. According to this theory, Zizek is probably a closet submissive waiting for a dominatrix. I told you it was funny.

Reality of the Virtual, or Virtual of the Real  

Posted by bryce

I just spent some time watching the Zizek 'documentary' (I use the term loosely, it was more like 'private lecture') 'The Reality of the Virtual'. I stumbled on Zizek a little more than a year ago as I was working on my zombie walk materials. I've recent submitted a copy of that project for publication in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.

In honor of Mr. Zizek, I wanted to post this segment from an earlier draft of the essay. It, unfortunately, was editted out (for sake of going a different direction), but still makes an interesting assertion about the relation between metaphor, pretend, and the real. Cheers:

Before converging on the ways in which the context of the zombie walk shapes the experiential text (or, in light of the ethnography, its absence as a conscious text), I find it necessary to introduce the concept of metaphor- the stimulus that causes the move into trance states. I will then outline the ways in which metaphor acts as a gateway for the unconscious to seep into the conscious realm by way of Lacanian psychoanalysis.
A metaphor, semiotically speaking, is the transference of a quality of one object to another, unaffectually related object- that is, the carrying over of characteristics of a source to an intended target.
To privilege metaphorics in the zombie walk is not to some how obscure the zombie walk itself, but rather to insist that our experience of the zombie walk, that unconscious state  which most participants attest to, is the result of networks of dense metaphorical meanings. Metaphors in this sense are not simply codings of experience; they are the reality of the lived experience. To claim that the zombie walk is metaphorical, is not to claim that it is overlaid with what Jakobson (DATE) calls ‘poetic codes’- that is, not messages, but frames through which messages are given meaning; poetic codes being the realm through which meaning is given body- that can be deconstructed to prove the ‘true experience’ of the event. The metaphor of death, the staged cannibalism, and the birth metaphors inherent in zombies and the zombie walk itself are not just literary devices, picked up by my superior analytical mind, rather they constitue part of the material out of which we experience the zombie walk. The zombie walk does not simply exist in the physical environment, but also in its material imaginary- the tropes of zombiedom and the unconscious desires associated with them. The ‘truth’ of the zombie walk lies in its lived metaphoricity.
This harkens back to the theoretical prop of this essay- the figuration of the zombie walk, its existence as a network of metaphors, metonyms, symbols, and so on, is a crucial aspect of its physical experience. Simply put, the metaphysical and the physical are dialectically implicated. To purse the zombie walk as a performance of figuration is to liberate the figuration and the participation from their seemingly separate boxes. Poetics is not the ornamental efferevesence of a more fundamental reality; it is the reality in its totality.
From this understanding of metaphor, I move on to employ Lacanian psychoanalysis to understand better how the metaphor activates this collision of experience and poetics such that it causes a state of unconsciousness. Throughout the rest of this paper, I will argue that the state of trance is the result of the metaphor bridging what Lacan refers to as the Imaginary and the Symbolic.
Lacan believed psychoanalysis to be more than a ‘talking cure’ (some might argue that he understood it to be no cure at all), it was a method for reading written, oral, and visual texts. This is not to say that he was not a psychoanalyst in the traditional sense- as Zizek (DATE) notes, “Lacan was first of all a clinician, and clinical concerns permeate everything he wrote or did. Even when he reads Plato, Aquinas, Hegel, and Kierkegaard, it is always to elucidate a precise clinical problem… the clinical is everywhere,” (pg). Lacan’s approach, its central place in the world, is its ability to concentrate on the ways in which the mind colors everything that appears non-clinical. It need not be on a couch, and we need not adhere to the process of therapy, to concentrate on the effects it has on society, and how society, in turn, acts on it.
For Lacan (DATE), the metaphor was directly connected to the symptom. “if the symptom is a metaphor, it is not a metaphor to say so… the symptom is a metaphor,” (Ecrits 175). This is so, because the symptom, associated with the Freudian concept of condensation, is a message which returns to the subject a truth about a specific desire. This message generally arrives in a symbolic form, as a kind of aphasia. The symptom is a sign of a breakdown in the process of Symbolizing the imaginary.
We can turn to the work of Zizek (DATE) to understand the ways in which this could cause a trance state. For Zizek, Lacan’s realms take on a relational meaning defined by dialectic process: the Real is the arena of the dialectic, where opposing terms can coincide; the Imaginary is where two terms can be reconciled in harmonious synthesis, and the Symbolic is where two terms are defined differentially, where one is something because it is not something else. If, as I intend to show in the next sections, a metaphor of death is constantly present as a symptom, we know that the realm of the imaginary has been breached. Death in simultaneous occupation as life, created through the living inhabiting death, negates the differential definition of the two, collapsing much of the Symbolic realm. What is remaining is the realm of the dialectic, which is the Real, in which the oppositional terms exist in one body only insofar as both exists mutually exclusive. However, Lacan nor Zizek’s system allows for a total knowing of the Real, which is always mediated to the Symbolic by becoming symbolic. The only way in which to gain access to the real, debatably, is through death. It is the only Real. But because the zombies are only performing death, and because this performance is mediated through the body, we are only dead in so far as we are performing. Following this, we are only tranced by the foreground of realm of the Real. Whereas it might enter the symbolic, it can never fully be the symbolic.
A visual analogy is one of poking a hole in the bottom of a glass of water, which represents the symbolic. As the water runs out, it is not necessarily empty- there is air in the room- but it is not full of water. The Real enters the consciousness in much the same way that the air occupies the glass- the water may all leave, but this does not cause the glass to disappear.
This occupation of the real, I hypothesize, introduces the trance state. The ways in which it is fueled is in the successive metaphors for death which constantly arise throughout the zombie walk, and the ways in which these metaphors fuel their own transference by reconstructing the phenomenal world in terms of the bodies that are present, that is, the zombie bodies that mask the human bodies of the zombie walkers.
If the real comes both before and after the Symbolic Order, is this not a contradiction in terms? The anser is ‘yes!’ and for those who have been faitfully following this chapter so far, it will remind them of Hegel’s dialectic." This is because, for Zizek, the Real is the arena of the dialectic, where opposing terms can coincide. In distinction to this, the Imaginary is wher two terms can be reconciled in a harmonious synthesis, and the Symbolic is where two terms are defined differentially, where one is something because it is not something else.
Lacan (DATE) shows how this is possible, by positing that the emotions that are performed in wearing a mask, or taking on an identity, are not simply ‘false’. The social mask matters more than the direct reality of the individual who wears it. As Derrida is quoted as saying, based on Lacan’s understandings of the relationship between the trichotomy of consciousness, “To pretend, I do the thing,”
We extend this, given understandings of play and performance (Bateson, etc.) to suggest that more than ‘do the thing in pretend’, we also ‘become the thing that does the thing’ in pretense- in anticipation of being dead someday, we pre-tend to death as our imaginations understand it. With that we take on all characteristics of the zombie, our symptom. As I will argue for the remainder of this essay, the pretending of the body as the zombie directly impacts the performance of metaphor, which returns to fuel the trance state of the Toronto Zombie Walk.

Eschatology, Hegel, and the Preservation of Tweets  

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For those of you who don't know about the library of congress' recent decision to archive twitter, please READ THIS

As others have pointed out, the recent decision by the library of congress to 'preserve' all tweets is an epic decision. The LOC efforts in archiving all public tweets will have a large impact on the ways in which people tweet (Hello governmentality...). Obviously, along with this, there will be a great deal of talk about issues of privacy and the protection of identities, etc.

While these are all interesting things to think of, I'm going to leave it to others to propose future effects. Instead, I would like to ask a larger 'meta-level' question: 1) what are we preserving, and 2) and what in our culture informs our decision to preserve it? Instead of aribitrarily splitting these things, I'm going to attempt to answer them in a rolling narrative.

When I think about twitter, I think beyond a simple message system. 140 characters is seemingly a short message. Many have even posited that twitter, along with text messaging, will 'destroy the english language' (as if it is the same now as it was 500 years ago). But, I'm asking, is it truly a simple message, or is it a 140 character microcosm that contains hieroglyphic connection to ever vanishing referents?

Say what?! Am I crazy? No. Think of what is tweeted. In many cases, the context of the message is needed to truly understand what it means. In preserving tweets, we are assuming that what is important for twitter is the social conditions that are carried by the messages 
as opposed to the social conditions that gave rise to them. What is the distinction? Simple- what they meant at the time they were tweeted and what they mean in the now are not the same. You say, "simple problem, we'll go back and look at what's going on at the time of the tweet". Yet again, another assumption, that large scale history is the same for all. I think it is easier to think of twitter, instead of as messages, then as a little world of sociality that transcends the cyber. If we do not preserve the context in which the tweets were made (which we can never do), are we really preserving the tweets or just the shells of their dead selves?

I think that this 'dead self' metaphor works on multiple levels that helps explain why we are preserving tweets. At first, I thought it was indicative of a pack-rat culture that is fearful that needs control over all information it will ever produce, or will forever lose it. But now, however, I think it is much more eschatological; I think it stems from our inability to cope with the fact that somethings must pass, ourselves included. To steal from psychoanalysis, perhaps we are projecting our fear of our own forgotten-ness on other things, like twitter. In a last ditch effort to leaves some type of presence on the planet, forever, we must archive some essence of ourselves. (NB, I would not like my twitter to be my lingering essence, thank you.)

This reminds me of a discussion of Christianity by Hegel. For Christians, it is with the passing of Christ that the problem of 'presence' gets brought up: How is God present after Christ? He states in a lecture from 1827 "But in the hearts and souls is the firm (belief) that the issue is not a moral teaching, nor in general the thinking and willing of the subject within itself and from itself; rather what is of interest is an infinite relationship to God, to the present God, the certainty of the kingdom of God- finding satisfaction not in morality, ethics, or conscience, but rather in that than which nothing is higher, the relationship to God himself. All other modes of satisfaction involve the fact that they are still qualities of a subordinate kind, and thus the relationship to God remains a relationship to something above and beyond, which in no sense lies present at hand." It is through the Holy Spirit that Christians are connected to the divine, which only comes about through the death of Christ- the death of the vessel of its presence, for which no other vessel can take its place (especially according to protestantism!).

Thus, for Hegel, the evidence of presence is not a material (the sense-able presence of Christ) but the immaterial (the presence of God in the Spirit). This spirit is only possible with the execution of Christ, and thus Hegel's philosphy is defined by the pathos of Christ's absence (this pathos is why Christians must embrace other signs of presence- those of indirect interaction). For Hegel, then, the only way to preserve the sense-able presence of Christ is to let it pass away, because by its very nature it is singular and momentary and cannot be repeated but only remembered (the remembering being the Spirit). Means of prolonging the presence of Christ are readily available when needed- ie images, relics, fetishes, etc., but they engender an illusion of presence, not the presence itself.

Turning back to twitter and its preservation, we can ask- are we preserving the tweets (which are the compounded presence/message construct) or the sense-able presence of our selves that was intended to pass? To put it another way, are we preserving twitter or are we instead creating a new twitter by preserving it, one that is not 'authentic' in its representation but provides a simulacrum of sociality; by the act of preserving twitter, do we change its state from the thing itself to the thing as we see it now? Are we preserving anything, or creating something new from old materials? Is it a classic 'form vs content' argument?

Obviously, not a well fleshed out argument, but do people understand what I'm getting at? In preserving social media, just as preserving Christ's presence, what is ephemeral is the real power and what we preserved is just a falsity of that presence of the spirt and the social. The preservation is not of the thing, but of something that is its shell. Thoughts?

great Zizek video  

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I find this video of Zizek fascinating, and the premise of the project incredible. In this video, I think we see Zizek starting to turn away from liberal communist viewpoints to those of a more libertarian socialist position. What do I mean by that? That there seems to be tension in the way that Zizek talks about political bodies in communism; he alludes to, many times, that a government based on the social responsibility of all to produce for others what they themselves needs is contradictory to having a government. Quite simply, to place people in charge removes them as producers, creating the conditions for social exploitation that exist in capitalism. By being 'in power' to control distribution, the politicians no longer produce. Should they be asked to do this on top of their production, they are no longer equally compensated for their work- it's a catch 22 for Marxist critique. Luckily for us, Zizek is not a Marxist.

This also reminds me of his remarks about the US party system. The right is always in constant struggle for control, and always attempting to de-regulate for their own best interests. While it may seem that the left is against this, they truly are not for 2 reasons. First, they themselves are rich people who benefit from deregulation (remember, rich politicians will never let you vote them poor). Secondly, the left must always fail in order for their Utopian fiction to avoid becoming just that. If it fails, then it can never be proven it didn't work (which he relates to the fall of Lenin-ist Communism and Pseudo-Marxism). In order for a true revolution to take place, and indeed this is the solution for the economic crisis, the US will have to break apart and become much smaller, self sufficient units.

Quick Geeky post on Youtube  

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So, thinking about the new Youtube geography, I came to a startling realization (NB: Youtube looks like they had a 3 year old design their interface- does someone not believe in framing anymore? how about general aesthetics?). The entire geography has not only changed, but it has also made it impossible for old videos to transcend their video-ed box. What do I mean? Watch some old Youtube Vlogs, and you'll occasionally see people pointing to the old info box and say 'click on the info box for more information'. The info is no longer over there. Youtube has put the videoed people back in the box, relatively speaking. The have re-captivated the monkeys that had expanded the media-ecology of participo-centric experience. Of course, new vlogs will merely point down. But, what does this say for future generations? What if there is no longer an info box? What does that mean for old info box referents? Youtube has changed the pointing from iconic to an Dicent Iconic Legisign... will they further transform it into a Rhematic Iconic Legisign? WHAT IS THE WORLD COMING TO!? (please note, there is a large amount of sarcasm and satire in this post that is intended as a response to all of those who have academically interpreted the new youtube as some kind of hegemonic subjugation).

Long time, no post; and a few quick words  

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So, the year has already entered light speed. At the University of Oregon, we exist on a quarter system. My intellectual calendar, however, is still set to semesters: I continually create more work for myself than possible to keep up with. Yes, this is an excuse as to why I've not been more present in the blogsphere.

Thus, a quick update on the work I am doing is in order:
- Peircian trichotomies as modality for cultural criticism.  If you think the title sounds complex, you should read some Peirce... it will blow your mind. CS Peirce was the founder of the American pragmatist philosophy, and one of the forefathers of semiotic theory (splitting it with Saussure, a swiss linguist). Many people- especially those in cultural studies, symbolic anthropology, media studies, and art history- utilize Peirce's second modality of signs, which divides into icon, index, and symbol. This, however, is only a partial view of Peirce's theory. This second modality merely describes the relationship between the object and the sign; Peirce also built in a mechanism for understanding signification as a processual logic that involves, sometimes, interpreting a sign-object relationship as something other than what it is. Put simply, although a sign may exist in an iconic relationship with its object, it can also be taken as a sign. To account for this requires a re-introduction of Peirce's first and third modality of signs.
      My work in this category has taken two avenues, and exists in two articles currently under review: one on Peircian trichotomies in the analysis of tourist experience and one on using Peircian semiotic analysis of visual symbols on a Sioux Elk Whistle to construct an ethnohistorical account of performance  practices around love magic. I hope to make both available as soon as they are published (of course, you will need a subscription to either projectMUSE or JSTOR to access them... copyright laws.).

- Social Landscapes and Sonic Spatiality in Gibraltar. This is the project that I began in Gibraltar this past summer, examining the ways in which sounds in urban space are implicated in the processes of constructing and performing identities. It is also the foundational work for my dissertation, which will compare soundscapes and identity throughout Spanish and Moroccan Andalucía. (Tentative title, as seen on NSF grant: Soundscaping the Mediterranean into the 'Other' Spaces of Andalucía: A Pragmatic Semiotic Analysis of Identity and Sonic-Spatial Sign Systems in Urban Gibraltar and Ceuta).
      Previous theorists (Schafer, Ingold, etc.) have conceptualized soundscapes in urban spaces as the surface reverberations of the visual landscape; in this way, sounds are always slave to a visiocentric conceptualization of space. Instead, I claim that soundscapes constitute a separate space from the visual, it is instead its own type of architecture to be found next to visual aesthetics and sometimes in conflict with them. In this way, semiotically speaking, the soundscape is not part of the sign system of visual archtiecture, but constitutes its own sign system, a semiosphere (Lottman), within the meta-sign-system of urban space. Urban space is, and has never been, one space for any one group of people- it has always been implicated in different worlds. I suggest that sound and noise are a means to locating one self in the shifting borders between Europe and Africa (not just legal borders, but linguistic, cultural, ethnic, and religious borders as well), such that sounds signify 'where' one is cultural-geographically, who one is cultural-ethnically, and who one wants to be known as.
      Like my previous work, this draws heavily on semiotic theory as it is present in the work of Greimas and Lefebvre. I also introduce Peircian semiotics in the mix to discuss the ways in which sounds relate to space (as in the sign-object relationship) and how the shifting interpretations of the signs (that is, Peirce's first and third modality) are the foundation for identity building and identity performance. (NB: note how I'm separating these two concepts- performance and construction are not the same, as one must have the script before they can play the part).
     The work from this summer should be out in publishable form soon (more than likely as 2 or 3 different publications), and is a macro-level urban ethnographic analysis of the role of soundscapes in various sections of Gibraltar. I comment on the role of language and its relation to architecture and heritage on Main Street; the power of the state to violate domestic space with its sounds in order to discipline the bodies within those spaces; the ways in which tourists interact with sounds in nature and the intrusion of the non-natural industrial soundscape; and to the ways in which religious structures and war monuments create conflicting 'echoes' (the sonic ghosts of the past) on the landscape. The work straddles the boundaries between anthropology and cultural criticism, with a heavy leaning towards cultural semiotics.

On top of all of this, I am finishing my final term of classes (w00t). Starting next term, it's nothing but teaching credits and individual 'topics courses', with the possibility of starting fieldwork in the Winter/Spring term (depending on grants out in the review stages at the moment).

Social Media, Social Responsibility, and Social Justice  

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In 2009, I gave a commencement speech on behalf of Brandeis University's Cultural Production program. Recent controversy over the internet in classrooms has inspired me to dig it up, partially revise it, and post it for the world to read.

Two fish are swimming in the water having a discussion about the political economy of sea anemones. Eventually, they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them saying "Morning, boys. How's the water?" The two young fish swim on for a bit, discussing conservative vs. liberal anemones, how the anemone university should act fiscally responsible, when, suddenly, one fish looks over at the other, dumbstruck, and goes "What..what's water?!"

In this past year, many of us in the Cultural Production Program have been thinking about the role of media in our society. The ways in which what we watch on television is simultaneously an expression of ourselves and a disciplining of who we will become, how the internet as an appendage of phones, ipods, cars, and hairbrushes has created a world of constant surveillance, and the ways in which portable mp3 players subvert the media panopticon by providing new soundscapes to the urban social landscape of Boston. In our explorations, we have seen that many in older generations comment on media and technology's constant presence in, and often interruption of, our "real lives", while our generation, and those younger than us, ask, "what's water?"

Those of us graduating from Brandeis University stand at the precipice and look over into a new world, one in which the border between virtual and physical is slowly disintegrating; one where media should no longer be an interruption in the flow of the everyday, nor a distraction, but integrated into our processes of accomplishment. Status updates, tweets, likes, pounds, comments, diggs, and other web actions are no longer that of the cyber world, but are vehicles upon which physical interactions are taking place, and vehicles which are becoming essential for various real world phenomena. This is a brave new world, one in which a laptop in the classroom enriches debate of social justice and human rights, as opposed to facilitating a shopping spree on eBay at the expense of other classmates during a lecture.

There are dangers in this new world, however; pop-up windows in the cyberspace of life. A myriad of messages barrage us at every instant, coming from the cell phone, the electronic check out machine, the National Inquirer on the magazine rack, the lady in the next aisle listening to music on her cell phone. We are in a place where the only monotony that we hear is the polyphony of text, image, and sound.

Thus, I suggest a revision to an old adage, one that has been beaten to death in many graduation speeches. We are told "The value of a liberal arts education is not in telling students what to think, but how to think." Ladies and Gentlemen, we stand in a new age of liberal education and at a time for a new addage; a liberal arts degree is no longer about the capacity to think, but about critically discerning what to think about. The value in our degrees is in its training to weed through the cacophony of mediated messages as we sit down to type a TPR business report, about finding the one particular task that must be accomplished in a world of multitasking, multimessaging, mashups, and myspaces. We have been trained, will continue to learn, and must teach others how to read through the symphony of messages created in a world of headlines and text messages, so that we can find content and accomplish tasks. They will teach us "this is water", and we will teach them in what direction to swim.

Most importantly, as those older fish remind us: "this is water, this is water", we must remember that technology is only as useful as the intention we put to it. Should our gills evolve into lungs, we should no longer attempt to breath underwater. But, if you chose, as many of you will, to use media and technology to raise your voice on behalf of those whose cannot be heard; if you choose to use it to provide support for the powerless in the face of the powerful; to educate those without power to come closer to obtaining it; or choose to set it aside so that you might put yourself in someone else's shoes, then we will only come to have stronger gills, and may manage to convert some amphibians in the process.

Despite our passion for media and technology in the 21st century, and with this I'll close, we must remember that the world does not need the Internet, twitter, blogs, email, or a hybrdized social/media relationships to change for the better. These are only tools, ones that, in my humble opinion, provide the opportunity to create new realms of opportunities for those without them. But, I believe that JK Rowling put it best; we carry all of the power we need to change the world inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better. Technology must be slave to our imaginations my friends, it must never become "water".  

Thank you, congratulations graduates, and Godspeed.

Why blog?  

Posted by bryce

So, while I've been working on this blog, and making empty promises of posting all of the time, I've decided to be out and out about the why:

In the disciplines of anthropology and cultural studies, scholars have a very difficult time of relating their studies to everyday people (anthropologists as a whole are worse, but cultural studies has some zingers). While I'm very good about explaining my research and my views in person, sometimes I'm just not a very good writer.

As I've worked on grants, etc. this term, I've found my writing has improved DRASTICALLY- especially because I've been communicating my ideas on aesthetics and existential concerns in anthropology to people who could more or less give two shakes. My discovery- you can write in a way that makes them want to give three shakes. The secret is writing clearly and conveying your message in a way that seems exciting without coming off like a used car salesman.

Of course, as many of my earlier professors have discovered and have told me and I've ignored until I found it out myslef, the key to pulling it off is to put your ideas in bigger worlds. To be real, cultural anthropology is the most vague discipline out there. We can't even decide in the field what it is, so why expect people outside of it to know we're not Indiana Jones? ANYWAYS, as I was saying, the world is bigger than the things we do, and in the grand scale of life on Earth, it doesn't even matter- no matter how hard we try, there will always be inequality, death, the destruction of art, etc. etc. So how do we get people to care?

By phrasing our research in their worlds. I'm interested in doing work outside of academia proper, and working in museums. So, that means, I have to think complex ideas and convey them in simple terms (and sometimes in a different mode of language- through exhibiting material things). That's the point of this blog: to take the big ideas in my head and convey them to the world around me THROUGH THE WORLD AROUND ME.

The other motive, which I was hinting at before, is that it's initiative for me to a) write more b) in a non-formal, quotidian setting. Although I'm writing for you, the reader, I'm also writing for me, so that  I am better at writing to you.

On the Christmas Tree  

Posted by bryce in , , , ,

So, I've been promising this post for a while, but I've been trying to think of the perfect way to come at it. I generally knew what I wanted to say, and why I wanted to say it, but was unable to figure out the 'how'. But, tonight, the lady and I went to a good friend of mine's house, who so happens to be a biological anthropologist, and had a great relaxing time. Being rejuvenated, and full of wine, it hit me while I was laying in bed. So here it is... partially drunk, but coherent hopefully (or at least it will be after I edit it in the morning).

My 'anthropological' interest is in why people aestheticize stuff, on a broad scale. And so, while I can't make general "they do it because..." assertions, I can most certainly shed light on the process of aesthecization through little vignettes. For the past few years, since taking Mark Auslander's "making culture: theory and practice", I have had a particular side interest in holidays- especially Halloween and Christmas (consumerism and symbolism mix in no better ways than through holidays). This post is, given the season, about Christmas.

I am particularly interested in the Christmas tree, and why/how/what/etc. involved in its aestheticization. Particularly, I think the Christmas tree, most certainly in its modern context, but assumedly in its origins, is a site of memory. Let's think through this...

Many people argue that the tree has a pagan origin, but this is only partially true. The decorating of a tree with tinsel (originally small metal pieces) is, indeed, a pagan origin (intended to transform the tree into some sort of symbol/icon/index of the god Bacchus), however, no pagan would ever cut down a tree and move it into their house for 'decorative' purposes. To do such would be to defile nature. However, there would be the ritual of bringing sprigs of trees and leaves into the house (for those pagans with access, this would resemble either our wreath, yule log, or our ivy/holly), but these would have generally already fallen off of the tree, and be considered a 'gift' to the pagan from the tree (note- this is an archaic form of paganism and in no way represents all contemporary forms of this belief, for which I have the utmost respect). The misunderstanding of the Christmas tree, itself, comes from a misunderstanding of pagan ritual, or misinterpretation from Hebrew, in the biblical book of Jeremiah 10:2-4- "Thus saith the Lord, learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven... For the customs of the people are vain: one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they faste it with nails and with hammers, that it move not." Somebody with a deeper knowledge of Paganism will have to explain to me the part about 'move not'.

In the Christian tradition, the tree can be traced to c. 720, when St. Boniface cut down the 'tree of Thor' to disprove the legitimacy of Norse gods to local Germans, and a fir tree grew from the roots of the oak. From this 2 explanations come forth: "...let Christ be at the center of your households..." Boniface says, and the fir tree became a symbol of Christ in the house. OR- as a symbol of the power of God, in the face of Saturnalia and other types of religious observances, the church displays the fir to show how Jesus shined through all other beliefs.

In either belief system you think about your tree, the whole point is rememberance- be it of Bacchus or Jesus. The Christmas tree originates as a site of memory. One of the interesting things about aesthetics, as Mukarovsky argues in his theory of Functional Aesthetics, is that while the aesthetic mode might change (the symbols that represent the aesthetic), the message, in some way, remains intact.

Of course, we can't leave without commenting on the contemporary Christmas tree. For some people, it is a religious symbol. For some, it is a sign of the season without any type of (direct) link to a spiritual ideology- it's a family centered object. Regardless, trees become sites of memory through decorating it with ornaments from one's past- how many trees do we have with past school projects and dated items like "baby's first Christmas"? How many times do we scoff at the store built, pre-decorated trees as being some how stagnant and 'inauthentic'? The aesthetic function of 'remembrance' is carried through from Bacchus to Jesus, to our former selves.

I'd like to leave you with a stretch of the imagination, but let me pre-code it. Bacchus= spiritual being in the 'beyond'. Jesus= part of the father, son, and holy ghost. "Baby's first Christmas"= the past, a person whom we no longer are (some people I know, in their 30's, have the 'baby's first Christmas' ornament their parents bought, and still hang it.). In what way, as Levi-Strauss hints at in his essay The Execution of Father Christmas,  is the Christmas tree an altar to the spirits of the dead? Even in our highly secular society, where the tree fills no explicitly sacred function, does the tree fill some unconscious desire to communicate with the beyond? In this way (strangely enough), the Christmas tree might be related to the zombie walks I studied for my MA Thesis: it is intended to fill a slot in our cognitive vocabulary for which we no longer have a social morphology. The aesthetic function of trees, decorated in the bleakest seasons of the year- to communicate with the spirits that make it so bleak, or who might just have the power to make it better, be they Bacchus, Jesus, or the ghost of our former self.

So, I'll close with a story my good friend Andreas Teuber (a philosophy professor at Brandeis University) told me about an allusion Slavoj Zizek always uses:

A man has been seeing a psychoanalyst for years about a fear that he will be eaten by a giant chicken. After 3 years, he is finally getting better. Then, one day out of the blue, he runs into the analyst and says "He's following, and this time, he really is going to eat me!". The analyst looks at him, and replies "We've been over this a million times- the chicken is not real, and he will not eat you." The patient, nervously replies, "I know that, but does the chicken?!"

We might not be trying to communicate with the past through the Christmas tree- but do the spirits and ghosts know that?

Welcome to...

A blog filled with anthro-inspired cultural criticism (with a strong continental philosophy bent), focusing on the digi-physical worlds we inhabit and the end of the world (complete with zombie apocalypse).