12.17.2014

Celebrating the Corrupted Company Man

Drivetime radio this morning -- the first question the journalist posed was: Is it appropriate for these celebrity players to wear these shirts on the court?

I cursed.  My son was startled and asked why.

I said: "People are dying and the first question is: "Is it appropriate?"

Suddenly going to an NBA game is like the kind of bland Sunday Dinner with Family where we pretend that the politically troubling realities of our worlds must  be quietly ignored?  In the interests of a good dinner?

The sports industry pundit being interviewed laid out the conflict in this way:  These teams are owned by someone.  All of us, when we work for someone have to realize that we are getting paid by that someone.  When we're getting paid by them -- we must say what they want us to say.  That's why we're getting paid.

His logic resonates with most of what we know.  We are bound by good taste, the expectations of being a "company man," a culture of advertising, and all the substantive rewards of a good salary.

In his recent Frontline documentary, Generation Like, Douglas Rushkoff argues that contemporary young people are unaware of the negative connotations of the term "sellout" ("to prostitute one's ideals or talents") presuming that it simply has the laudatory meaning of filling a venue with paying customers.  The focus of the film is on the ways that social media and big media collaborate to draw these young people into their whirlwind of publicity-inflected-optimism.

 The film doesn't ask how or why or where that meaning drifted away.  It's happened quite recently, though.  The grandparents of these teenagers supported the civil rights movement, fought for gender equality in the second wave of feminism, protested the government's mishandling of Vietnam and then bought really big  houses in the suburbs and focused on delicious Sunday Dinners where we Indulge in Some Delicious Pretending.

Just because selling-out has become normal, pervasive and expected -- doesn't mean that its okay.

With the concentration of capital, disparity of wealth, corrupt systems of politics and endless instruments of surveillance defining contemporary life?  It seems to me that what's needed is a new moral discourse focused on the ways that we the people can put our best efforts toward corruption.

Maybe corruption will mean endorsing the "sellouts" who have the courage to ultimately bite the hands that feed them.   Maybe when systems so steeped in actual corruption label their dissenters as "inappropriate" - maybe this is the corruption into which we should all lean?

When celebrity basketball players are willing to coordinate their efforts to give voice to those who have none in the choking, dying silence?  Our journalists, our churches, our schools -- and everyone else who is posing as moral authority these days -- should embrace, laud and celebrate their courage.


11.22.2014

The Pleasures of a Victimless Crime

When I was 10 years old I went on a Men's Fishing Trip "Up North" with a group of 30 men and their sons for a weekend of fishing, bonfires, laughter and getting socialized into manhood.

I wasn't really that into fishing at the time, but I caught a big pike and the trip was awesome.  Beginning to end: I loved it.

One night near the end of the long weekend the men announced that there would be a snipe hunt after dinner.  I'm not going to spoil how a snipe hunt works, but it is a well-rehearsed prank that plays out amongst outdoorsmen everywhere.

The adults prank the kids in an elaborate quest that includes mystery, elaborate hunting rituals and a big reveal at the end.

Kids who go on their first snipe hunt?  Know nothing.  And afterwards?  They know everything.

Before the hunt actually started  I suspected deception from the faces, eyes and smirks of the thirteen and fourteen year old boys on the trip.  They were excited about the snipe hunt and while they were trying to hide it -- I could see that they knew something I didn't.  This fact made me edgy and suspicious as the late night hour approached, but by the time that I was walking through the pitch black woods with my friend Tom?  Otherwise alone?  In the woods? Carrying pots and spoons?  At night trying to flush the snipe out of the bushes and into the trap with noise?  I forgot about my suspicions of those adolescent smirks because I was SCARED TO DEATH.

My childhood included plenty of scary games in the dark (Bloody Murder, Ghost in the Graveyard) but there was something uniquely terrifying about being two kids deep in the woods alone, hearing other (also frightened kids) walking nearby and knowing that teenagers with possibly misanthropic motives could also be near.

And it was awesome.  Later, after the snipe hunt, I understood the slight smile, the slight scorn, the slight feeling of superiority that those thirteen and fourteen year olds must have had.  I understood what it meant to be an insider.  I understood the perverse pleasure they took in our initiation.  And a little bit?  In retrospect?  I see in this gentle hazing -- a rite of passage -- an invitation to join the ranks of manhood.

I hadn't thought about this experience -- The Big Snipe Hunt -- for many years until I started to think about this video that my son showed me last week.

My son is thirteen on the verge of fourteen and I'm grateful that even though he's now playing first shooter games (which I don't like and prohibited for many years), he still wants to share them with me and have me understand what he thinks is cool about them.  He also has been parented  by youtube as much as me -- not because of any abdication on my part -- but because youtube's omniscience overwhelms any parenting skill I have.  Youtube has taught him to master yo-yo-ing, to successfully hack every computer and computerized device in the house, to solve Rubik's Cube in close to a minute and to replicate every soccer move Messi ever made famous.  So "Dad, lookatthis!" live-sharing of youtube punctuates every unexpected mundane task at our house.  Rarely do the fails(!), tricks(!) or pranks(!) rise above the quotidian level of my engagement.  This one was a different.

In a  contemporary subdivision rendered in a bland iconic animation, heavily weaponized mercenary contractors engage in one on one killing duels.  Nothing new there -- this first person shooter ritual is repeated in houses all over America every day.

But instead of just hearing the sounds of warfare, in this youtube vid, we hear the sound of a whining, crying 6 year old.  This kid probably plays Modern Warfare in a cluttered ordinary dull living room untouched by any kind of war.  And we get the sense from his protests that he's getting pwned by an older, silent, merciless player.

My son held the iPad in my direction: Dad, Listen to this it's hilarious.  He's crying.  It's so funny. 

The six year old cried, he complained, he begged, he threatened to tell his dad.  And I understood right away that the video was "funny" because of the juxtaposition of these "manly" violent actions with such childish whiny vocal tones.  Begging and pleading by an over-indulged, over-entitled, under-skilled random kid both felt ridiculous (the juxtaposition!) and a comic come-upance (bratty kid! deserves it!).

The title of this video was "Call of Duty Kid Cries [So Hilarious]."  The 2000+  thumbs-ups below agreed.

Hilarious.

I'm a big fan of rites of passage, rituals in general, the history and performance of gender, but the longer I thought about this video, the less I liked it.  Youtube provides an endless plentitude of this genre -- I don't know if there's a name for it yet -- so in the absence of knowing, I'm naming it:

the Little Kid Cries: LOL Genre.

Later in the video, as the kid's rank is downgraded and he watches as we hear him lament at length.

"Why did you do that?"

Dramatic music swells, the ranking texts are displayed over honorable looking military monuments and the kid continues his whine:

"I worked so hard!  And now I can't even play!  Why did you do that!?  Answer me! Why!"

And then he starts to weep.

I admit it: the weeping feels overwraught and overplayed.  A part of me suspects that this kid throws fits at every department store where his parents won't buy him a new toy machine gun or plastic machete.

But on the other hand, it doesn't matter to me: this is a kid crying.  He's been wronged and he's crying.  His humiliation has been repurposed for comedic affect.  And two-thousand + viewers agree:

It's hilarious.

In general I love texts that emerge from the work of fans -- remixed, mashed-up, sweded revisions that inflect mass culture with more personal and less official meanings.   So why do I feel so different about this dark corner of the machinima universe?

The straightforward answer is that this game, this video, this post and this genre thrive on a kind of dissociation that hurts people.  The title of my blog post is a lie: there are no victimless crimes and none of the crimes of this story are as innocent as they pretend to be.  This argument is more conservative than I want to be and not nuanced enough to account for any of the particular viewers or commenters or thumbs-uppers.

Possibly it's not even accurate enough to account for this particular youtuber who enjoyed trolling this kid enough that he decided to upload this episode to his youtube fans and followers and indicate with the title that a COMIC reading space was the point.

Our transcendence through his pain.   

I don't know this guy and I don't know what he was thinking, but it's pretty clear that this rhetorical move has become a common one, and I believe that dissociation is the shadow of all the laughter that these videos generate.

The pleasure of Modern Warfare does pose as a victimless crime.  All the thrill of heroism, murder and glory without any morticians, funerals, widows or orphans.

And the pleasure of trolling a whiny brat seems well-informed by thousands of videos of spoiled rotten children filmed and uploaded to the internets by their parents.   We don't even see this six year old.  We don't even know his name!  Victimless crime!  And so LOL Hilarious OMG!  Uploading this video FEELS like a victimless crime.

The most subtle pleasure though is that of the viewers, the commenters, the thumbs-uppers.  Our laughter feels as immaterial as it is instinctive.  Our contributions to big data pervade so much of our lives that this laugh, this click, this Ha!, this THUMBS-UP! hardly feels like a contribution to the rhetorical sphere.

But my argument is that these are not victimless pleasures and that these crimes victimize not only the users, but (more poignantly?) our life together.

I like Ian Bogost's arguments about the procedural rhetoric that video games articulate: modes that help players deliberate about particular questions relevant to particular spheres.  But the rhetorical moment that I'm focusing on here is an epideictic one.  Aristotle classified the epideictic genre as speeches to praise or blame (funeral orations, a comedy roast, an awards ceremony and, arguably, the entire field of public relations).  He argued that these kinds of appeals were particularly useful in helping a community share a particular value or recognize a common enemy.

The gamers who repurpose these trolling vids invite their audience to laugh at the childish response to violence and humiliation.  The viewers perform the value of hardened masculinity by laughing at a common enemy: the vulnerable weak girlish cries of a child.

This laughter offers them transcendence against the threats that still oppose them, threatening imminent loss and possible humiliation.  The laughter also offers transcendence internally over the memories they have of the times they cried, in public, as a child.  And then, surprised to find out that they were "too old to cry" (was it a taunt?  a sneer?), they soldier forward into manhood.  Repressing and ignoring emotions.  Embracing rationality and aggression.

It's not that I find rites of passage or even particular cultural articulations of manhood to be problematic.  Remember the snipe hunt?  There is a satisfaction and a beauty to knowing and understanding what is required of you and how you can accomplish it.  There is therapeutic salve in the laughter and the taunts directed toward one's own innocent past.

The difference between the snipe hunt and the crying kid LOL genre?  In the snipe hunt, the sneer and the taunt are just a part of enfolding the novitiate into a community of acceptance and maturity, accepting the forgotten naivete and innocence of childhood as a part of a never ending cycle of maturity and communal development.  Next year at the snipe hunt you will sneer with the 14 year olds.  You'll be one of us.  A man.

The experience of new media feels precariously disintegrative, though.  Games are played in latch-key living rooms, quiet bedrooms. Youtube vids are watched on small screens under the covers and the stinging humiliation and scorn we sling at the whiny brats we do not know cannot be accompanied by the same sort of re-integration or even self-recognition that multi-generational, geographically-contextualized communities provide.

I fear that the scorn and the taunts are insufficiently linked to our own development.  I fear the compassionate commitment that accompanies gentle hazing by friends or family dissipates in a world defined by such transient relationshipsand the anonymous feeling that the age of big data bequeaths on all of us.

11.03.2014

Ex-Gay Rapper Shakes It Off.

I was struck by two discursive moves that were being made in this story that I encountered through Facebook fans last week. It's a story that grows mostly out of the the interview that the reporter did with "ex-gay" & "Christian" rapper, Jackie Hill-Perry.  She tells the story of her salvation and her record's imminent release.

The stories I was most aware of though, were not the ones that Ms. Hill-Perry was telling.  The stories I was keenly aware of were the stories of how and why THIS story belonged in a national newspaper.

The fact that the Washington Times paid a reporter to write this story which gives a not-so-journalistically-balanced platform to Ms. Hill-Perry means that the paper KNOWS that there is an audience that wants to read this story.   What's more?  There are advertisers who want to reach an audience full of people who want to read The Ex-Gay-Ness Story.

The story of "ex-gay" has largely played-out and gone silent even in mainstream Evangelical discourse.   With the leaders of "Exodus" and other ex-gay treatments denouncing their techniques and presumption as being dangerous, wrong and problematic, the story in evangelicalism has largely shifted to an acceptance that being gay is not a choice.

Jackie Hill-Perry tells a different story. It's a straight up -- God saved me from the gayness.

I'm not interested in evaluating the veracity of her story because it's probably not a story that's over yet.  Given that she's still alive -- maybe we should reserve the happily ever after (or not) until later.  I am very interested in noting the resonance of her story, though.

To me this story is about the idea that despite the wide shift in public opinion regarding whether or not you can pray the gay away -- or if maybe being gay is something that can be shaken-off -- both a national newspaper and a indie hipster ("Christian") record label is leveraging Hill-Perry's ex-gay-ness to sell their brand.

Almost invisible in this story?  Are the self-loathing and other-loathing that the Ex-Gay-Ness Story demands.  But that's no surprise because that story won't sell records or papers to the crowd that these media makers are catering too.  But that doesn't make those stories go away.  There is a dark underbelly to every story, and it's worth mentioning what this dark underbelly looks like:

self-loathing and other-loathing

There's always a cost involved in telling stories too. Sometimes that cost is invisible though or at least really hard to see.  The cost always correlates to the payout, too.  So pay attention to how much traction this story gets, and you'll have a rough estimate of how much (mostly invisible) self-loathing and other-loathing is going on somewhere less public and more personal.

While Hill-Perry's artistic gifts are not limited to the story of her ex-gayness nor to the promotion of a politically conservative brand, in many ways the promotional stories that ride like viruses throughout much today's popular art (in product placements, celebrity endorsements and advertisements-shaped-like-art) will outlast the art that was their host.

The story of gay "lifestyles", the gay "choice" and Ex-Gay-Ness has been around for awhile and thanks to the collaboration of The Washington Times and the Humble Beest record label?  It'll stay around for a while longer.

10.19.2014

Notes from the Fog



On our  way to school this week, Addison and I were loving the fog.  The perpetual illusion that we were about to drive off the edge of the earth.  The fog ahead seemed a visual signal of the end of reality.

For the last few years I have been giving up on various visions of the future that I had, heretofore:

"believed in."

Imagine a meticulously handpainted theatre backdrop suddenly retracted up into one of those magical screen rollers, and the shock of realizing that what's behind that screen?

Fog.

Last week another screen rolled up and I'm looking at the fog (again).

It isn't as thrilling as the fog was when Addison and I were driving to school.   As visually stunning as the fog was?  The road was familiar and a repeat.  And what's more?  I have driven through that fog before.  And every time, the road continues, and it is familiar and repetitive, and the fog rolls back a bit more.

The only comfort to me about the fog of the future?

Is that I am at least not looking at a screen.  I am reconciled to moving forward and I am reconciled that the outcomes are unknown.  And I am sometimes okay with that.  Sometimes.

Those screens were just so convincing, you know? Happy endings?  Clear directions?  Occupational trajectories?  Destinies?

The details were so meticulously painted!  So agreed upon by everyone!  So endorsed and prescribed and affirmed!

(In my last blog post I gave up on inbetween-ness and committed to a direction.  The re-appearance of a post here? Is, yes, a re-commitment to the journey.  The foggy, destiny-free journey. )

3.23.2014

Moving On


I just finished my Picture A Day For A Year blog and there is something rewarding and nourishing about being DONE with something.  You look at it and you think: I set out to achieve something and I accomplished it.  So much of life (particularly life at middle age) is defined by wading through perpetually unfinished (and seemingly unfinishable) work.  I assume that's why people become consumed with lawn-mowing, gardening and home-improvement projects -- these things are uniquely unlike the nourishment and attention they lavish on their jobs, their families and their self-development -- because they are finished.  (Thus, too the proliferation of 26.2, 13.1, 3.1 stickers on the backs of cars?  Finish lines everywhere to help us manage the unfinishability.)

So the last post I wrote was about a feature film I was hoping to make and part of me wants to take the post down and pretend like it never happened.  It would be easier to imagine that NOT FINISHING wasn't a part of my life, that I have never failed at anything and that my life, like most of the lives represented on the internet is NOT disappointing.

But the truth is that I'm not going to make that movie.  And while I can imagine that sometime I would change my mind about this?  I'm actually not planning on making movies any more at all.  Depending on who you are and how you know me -- this may seem like a big shock or a massive contradiction of my essence.  But it's not, I assure you.  These kinds of transitions (like the structures of scientific revolutions in Kuhn's wonderful extended essay about the nature of academic thinking and the history of human thought) happen gradually and slowly and probably even? Inevitably.  And when they do reach the tipping point or the day that they must be announced?  They *seem* monumental, but upon further and deeper examination? They've been a long time coming.

This isn't really supposed to be a post about movie-making or goodbyes though.  It's actually a post about what's next.  Well, it's ACTUALLY actually a post about the fact that there might *be* a next.  I'm not going to say exactly what the *next* is right now and right here, I'm just going to allude to it and then probably say more about it later.

This blog has been called the inbetween for a long time and for a lot of reasons.

I studied Van Gennep's ideas about limin and liminality when I was writing about Garage Sales in graduate school.  I have always loved the fluctuation, potential and magic that can emerge because of inbetween-ness.  And as I entered middle aged adulthood with this blog the frame "inbetween" seemed uniquely helpful for capturing my life as I understood it.  I could write several books about how and why I came to appreciate inbetween-ness, but the truth is:  I'm a little bit tired of being inbetween.

I'm a strong "P" on the Meiers Briggs test which means I have an almost indefinite ability to persist without closure or definition, but there is a bit of a cost that comes with deferring so long.  I know that because I've spent 44 years being okay with "inbetween" -- that it will always be a part of me, but I think I'm going to create another online space to chronicle this new chapter in my life. The part of me that is no longer trying to straddle two professions (higher education and filmmaking) but the part who is instead committing to something new.  Something that I want.

Here's the plan: in order to avoid another public accountability debacle like that of my recent (and now officially inaccurate) post, I'm going to write there for a little while before I start inviting everybody to read.  If you happen to find it?  Of course you can read it, but it'll take me a while to get my bearings and find my voice.  If you're still interested in two months -- I'll announce my new blog here and you can unsubscribe from this chronicle and sign up for the next one.  I'm glad to have had this outlet and I'm particularly grateful to the readers who mean more to me than I can probably express in the thinness that this medium affords.

Edit:  Well, I still wouldn't mind some clarity, stability and direction, but that plan didn't work out.  So I'm back here, waivering again.  In between.  Forever inbetween?  It seem to be a position I return to over and over again.  Maybe that's all that there is.  Stay tuned.  I'll let you know when the pendulum swings again.  Meanwhile,  I'm back to writing occasional dispatches here.

Do stay in touch!