Monday, December 21, 2009

About Avatar...

1) Full disclosure: I have not seen this movie. (If I do, at some point, it'll be because it literally looks good.) Despite this, I don't feel particularly bad about critiquing it. Given the number of reviews, the Wikipedia summaries, etc. that are available to me, I don't know that it's necessary to actually see the thing.

2) There's a pretty decent article here by Annalee Newitz that confirms up my concerns about the movie. In brief, it laments the sub-genre of films wherein a white guy - the Guy That (white, male) Viewers Can Relate To - is tasked with assimilation/eliminating an alien other, only to reverse course and join them. The link mentions Dances With Wolves, though Pocahontas and The Last Samurai also came to my mind immediately. Newitz also characterizes it as an expression of white guilt, about colonialism but also, I would imagine, about environmental damage. And in being an expression of guilt it's also, indirectly, an expression of an incredibly over-sized sense of self-worth and importance. (I'm thinking particularly, here, of Tom Cruise's character in The Last Samurai, who literally becomes the titular character and offers to teach the Japanese Emperor about samurai culture, as well as the guilt that the filmmakers are expressing for the industrialization and modernization of Japan, which serves to more subtly take credit for Japan's subsequent rise to international military and economic power.)

3) I find it impossible to remember what Sam Worthington looks like. To my mind, he has the most bland and unexceptional face I've ever seen on a celebrity, and he looks somehow like a different person every time I see him. (This, as opposed to my problem with Ed Burns, whose face I can remember but whose name I can never remember - and which I spent hours trying to recall when it first occurred to me that the problem I have with him is not unlike the one I have with Worthington. Also, I really can't stand Ed Burns.)

Thursday, December 17, 2009


I haven't posted anything in many weeks, despite having plenty of things that I'd like to talk about - things have been busy and there was a family emergency. (I wanted to talk about very Canadian topics, mostly: the clamp-down on free expression leading up to the Vancouver Olympics and the recent prisoner-torture controversy in Canada and how badly it's been handled by military and political leadership, especially.)

But most of that is very old news, now - maybe I'll get around to it, later. For now, though, I thought I'd post something from my personal life, for possibly the first time. We always still a cheesy and badly photoshopped family-sticker in our Christmas cards. This being the first year that there's more than two of us, though, I put a bit more effort into it. But only a bit:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

This is just... wow

Not that you needed me to tell you this, but don't go looking at for intelligent reflections on the topic of feminism.

Case in point: a recent article that, in its single lucid moment, notes that the feminist label has been "corroded" and taken on a negative connotation that is difficult to shake, that its stereotype suggests "a woman who's basically unattractive both in looks and spirit". For most of us who call ourselves feminist - and who don't see ourselves as "unattractive both in looks and spirit", much less see that in our friends who identify as feminist - this is a problem. And feminists tend to respond in one of two ways: to try and recuperate the word or to continue being a feminist in practice without naming it as such.

Salmansohn, the author of the article, tries something else. And it's awful. The blurb under the headline sets the stage nicely: "Being a strong, powerful woman doesn't mean you have to be tough, overworked and unattractive. Karen Salmansohn explains how power and success come from being in touch with your feminine, sexy and loving side." Implicitly, then, we're meant to assume that feminists aren't unfairly maligned, but that they actually "have to be" unattractive. Salmansohn isn't just reporting the stereotype - she's validating it. Like I said, awful.

Writes Salmansohn: "We don't have to make a choice between feminine or powerful and successful. We can be all those things." Sure, sounds great. This attitude is, in fact, a premise that's central to pretty much every feminist movement - it is feminism. Except, according to Salmansohn, it isn't. Because this is what she wrote in the preceding sentences: "I find this negative connotation to be shameful and highly unhelpful. Women could truly benefit from finding a more inspiring word than 'feminism' to stand by, as well as stand for, when seeking to become our most powerful and successful selves." Apparently, it doesn't matter that feminism can already provide what she's looking for - she's been shamed into refusing it.

And where does this shame come from, anyway? Salmansohn opens the piece with a story told by a male friend who can't fathom that he was mugged by a woman and convinces himself that "he was a transvestite". And Salmansohn uses this anecdote to segue into her lament, opining that "there's still a disconnect between a woman being 'beautiful, leggy, sexy' and being powerful—even in a low-level career like mugger." Sadly, but appropriately, it's a man's failure to acknowledge female power that leads the author to declare feminism a lost cause - because, clearly, if some trans/homophobic guy has "a disconnect", what hope could women possibly have?

The problem here is not "feminism", the movement or the word, but the all too telling implication that feminism won't get anywhere unless it toes the line with the heteronormative men who still refuse to legitimize it. Except that looking for legitimation within the order that you ostensibly oppose isn't likely to change much of anything. "Empowering" women by encouraging them to play on men's terms, within a sexual economy that privileges being desirable to straight men, isn't something new - it's simply more of the same.

(I'll avoid taking many direct shots at the idea of "feminine-ism". It's a patently idiotic idea that, in its ignorance, steals from feminism as much as it claims to revise it, and reduces gender equality to calls to embrace your "male and female sides" - a bland pastiche of the second-wave and self-help rhetoric that needs only to add bits about 'actualization' or 'realizing your full potential'. And it reduces men's participation to that of an audience: "what's not for a man to love?" It's in this shameless reproduction of a heterosexual economy premised on men's desire for women, and women's requirement to be desired as objects, that it falls over that the line that separates the merely ludicrous from the ironically sad.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Adventures in TAing, case 6 (in a ? case series): don't do what Donny Don't does

Prefacing your request for an extension #1 - due to illness:
'I forged a doctor's note in another class.'

Asking for an extension #2 - due to chronic lateness:
'Can I hand the second essay in late so that I have more time to finish the first essay?'

Asking for an extension #3 - due to ???:
'I need a good mark because I can't petition the grade. I have too many petitions already.'

Bargaining for a better participation grade #1:
'But I talk to you after class all the time'
(All of these after-class discussions related to late papers, not the content of the course. And yes, sadly, they did happen 'all the time'.)

Bargaining for a better participation grade #2:

'But I took really good notes.'
(The student also kindly offered to email them to me.)

for study tips:
'I didn't have the chance to read any of the readings, yet. Do you have any advice for how I should study for the test?'
(Nine weeks into the course, no less.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Batman and Robin (the comic book, not the movie)

I was planning on a writing a very brief blog post about Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin, which I found amusing enough when Quitely was drawing it, and much less so when Tan took over from him. And it would be short because, by the sixth issue, I just totally lost patience with it. Tan's art is muddy and hard to follow and Flamingo, while dressed up in an appropriate homage to the 60s show, is simply an awful character. (He laughs and has some sort of ambiguous resistance to pain and/or injury. That's it - he doesn't talk, doesn't do anything other than fight.)

Then Geoff pointed out this short essay at 4thletter, which argues that these six issues are a rewriting of Alan Moore's Killing Joke, a new version that's situates Jason Todd as the Joker to Dick Grayson's Batman and, further, fractures the character of the Joker and spreads his various aspects (with diminishing returns, I think) among the villains of the piece. Which is clever, but it isn't enough to redeem the awful art and generally boring story. (Maybe if it was, oh, two issues shorter and Tan didn't draw one page of it. Maybe.)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

V, cult audiences, and disappointment

It seems like this TV season has a few new players vying to take Lost's place. Of these shows, V is the only one I've seen, and it makes its goals pretty clear. The opening shot is of Elizabeth Mitchell (late of Lost) lying in bed, and the camera zooms in on her face as her eye opens. Lost has started episodes this way no fewer than 18 times, enough so that it's clear the producers of V are making a winking reference to it.

But V isn't just trying to suck in the Lost audience - as a lot of people have noticed, the cast is overflowing with actors from other sci-fi shows with cult followings: Inara and Wash from Firefly, Tom from The 4400, Kara from Smallville, and Tory from Battlestar Galactica spring immediately to mind. Part of the fun, I'm sure, is trying to read the characters that these people are better known for against their V counterparts - Alan Tudyk's Dale is Wash, at least until they pull the rug out from underneath us by revealing he's a V sleeper agent; Rekha Sharma's Sarita Malik appears to be an FBI agent who's suspicious of the Vs, though her role on BSG makes us immediately suspicious of her.

That said, the first two episodes have been disappointing. We were promised a reveal on par with the original series' dislocated-jaw-hamster-swallowing, but it hasn't materialized - and we're already two episodes into only a four episode block before it disappears until the spring. (And given that nearly 1/3 of their audience disappeared in between the premiere and the second episode, we can't be sure that it'll ever return.)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Brief comment on Twilight

With New Moon about to premiere, I thought I should finally getting around to commenting on Twilight, which I watched a couple months back. (I also read parts of the book, but couldn't bring myself to read more than a page here or there in isolation. It is badly, badly written - Bella "shudder/s/ed" four times on one page. Either buy a thesaurus or send her to a doctor, because this girl is obviously sick.) And having seen the movie, I get why people like it - it's hot. Pattinson and Stewart do a remarkably good job of making it look like their blood is boiling over with super-heated hormones and it's all they can do to keep it from exploding out of their perpetually fluttering eyelids and, yes, shuddering bodies.

But that doesn't make it good, or even not bad. And it also isn't enough to totally distract you from the often subtle, and sometimes less so, creepiness of Edward and Bella's relationship. When you notice that the characters seem to model their behavior on stereotypes of abuser and victim - especially in the hospital scene near the end, which made my skin crawl - that kills the sexiness pretty fast.

[Only somewhat related: I just learned that the villain in the Buffy: Season Eight comic is also named Twilight. I'm guessing there's a joke here, as Buffy fans on the whole despise the Twilight series for undermining Buffy's feminism, but has it been made explicit? Is there anything more to the joke than the name?]

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

There's a particularly great scene in Where the Wild Things Are when Max and Judith, the most disagreeable and distrusting of the Wild Things, get into an argument over whether he plays favorites. It quickly devolves into something else:

I can see how it is, the king has favorites. It's really cute. Do you have a favorite color? Can I be your favorite color? Heh heh heh...

Max (sneering):
Heh heh heh.

Judith (also sneering):
Heh heh heh.

They exchange a few rounds of mocking and increasingly loud and obnoxious laughter. It stops after Max leans in and shouts as loud as he can. There's a brief pause.

You know what? You can't do that back to me. If we're upset, your job is not to get upset back at us. Our job is to be upset. If I get mad and want to eat you, then you have to say 'Oh, okay. You can eat me, I love you. Whatever makes you happy, Judith.' That's what you're supposed to do!

Max stares, dumbfounded, for a few seconds. The Wild Things are composites, condensed figures in the Freudian sense - they are, variously, analogies for Max's parents, his sister, and himself. And depending on which position they enact at any particular moment - and there are reversals aplenty - they also force Max into their opposite and show him to be equally variable. If Judith becomes Max, then Max becomes his own mother.

It's easy to take away a message akin to 'childhood is hard and then you grow up', or to suggest that the film has something to say about the process of childhood, the difficulty of growing up and letting go, or childhood's end. The Wild Things show anything but linear growth: they go sideways, back and forth, up and down, and in circles. And Max's character-arc isn't exactly unambiguous, either. (Perhaps it's less ambiguous than in the book, where it's not clear that Max learns anything. Or that there's a lesson to be learned.)

'Effective' endings

[This is the last post I'll make about Paranormal Activity - promise!]

One of the common responses to complaints about the ending of Paranormal Activity - it even popped up in reaction to my first blog about the film - is that the ending is "effective". (I'd link to the response to the Youtube clip as evidence of this, but it appears the clip has been pulled.) I suppose that "effective" is being deployed in a very utilitarian sense, here - it's a scary movie and the ending is scary. Which has to be the most banal and meaningless use of "effective" that I can imagine.

It's also just plain wrong. The demon-face ending is not effective. I could see someone making the case that it's affective - it's definitely frightening, in the moment. But that moment of affect detracts from the effectiveness of the film as a whole, and it does this in two major ways.

First, it plays up a scare that violates the generic logic of an ostensibly 'realist' first-person POV horror-film, a genre replete with certain implicit rules and precedent - Blair Witch or REC - about how scares can and should be depicted. Explicit CGI alterations like the face or Micah's flying body fall well outside those boundaries.

Second, it violates its own internal logic. The epigraph thanking Micah and Katie's families establishes a certain boundary within which the ending must land - if we're to believe, even if only for the duration of the film, that this was made and legally distributed, then the film can't obviously end in a way that would logically lead to it becoming police evidence. Or in a way that would cause to wonder why Katie's family would ever agree to its release, much less Micah's. It doesn't make sense, and clearly one or the other - the epigraph or the ending - needed to go.

Sorry if I'm being repetitive. I must be feeling particularly whiny.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

One of the alternate Paranormal Activity endings...

I complained about the ending to Paranormal Activity (it seems to be referred to on YouTube, at least, as the 'CGI-demon face' ending) and mentioned the existence of at least two other endings. This, apparently, is one of them. (Though it still has the creepy, but dumb, evil-smile right at the beginning of the clip.)

It's better than the theatrical ending, though not by much. The complaint that it's anti-climactic and drawn-out much too long are well-deserved, though Katie's death is legitimately surprising. (Couldn't it have simply ended with her rocking and/or leaving? Something subtler, and more in keeping with the subtly creepiness of the film on the whole?) And it still suffers from that 'realism' problem. If the theatrical ending is bad because it's horribly 'unrealistic', it is also bad because there's no way it ever would have escaped police custody, much less been distributed as a movie - and that latter complaint applies just as readily to this ending.

Blair Witch, at least, could plausibly be released because it would have been impossible to prove whether the film was a hoax because the filmmakers corpses were never recovered and none of the three was obviously implicated in the murder of the others. But Micah and Katie's bodies would be all too real.

I still haven't been able to find the third ending, which actually sounds like it would be the best one. (Though, to be fair, based on the description I was expecting this one to be something else entirely.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Canada's Economic Action Plan and stimulus for actors

The Conservative government in Canada has been working hard on a recession-busting campaign that they refer to as "Canada's Economic Action Plan". There have been a lot of complaints about its efficacy - about how the money has been apportioned and how much of it has actually been paid out. Equally disturbing are the things that the government is taking credit for - what should be routine maintenance, like replacing old door-knobs, is being touted as Action Plan spending, complete with signage. That kind of desperation isn't inspiring. (Nor is the partisanship of it all - the Tory-blue website and signs are not particularly subtle.)

Most recently, the joke seems to be that the Action Plan's only obvious economic impact has been in its own promotion: in the past couple weeks, $100k on a press conference and $50k plastering ads the side of a train have gotten a lot of attention. In total, the estimates vary between $35 and $60 million.

What's been mostly unremarked upon, though, are the numerous slick commercials that have been produced. I can't embed the commercials, but follow this link and click on the very first video and pay particularly close attention to the bit that starts around the 34 second mark. "What does the Economic Action Plan mean to Canadians?", it asks? It means that an out-of-work actor from Student Bodies can find a job in propaganda.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The RCMP's guide to Radicalization

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have this helpful internet guide to identifying and understanding 'radicalization' and how it contributes to domestic terrorism. Let's take a look!

Radicalization, they explain, is

the process by which individuals — usually young people — are introduced to an overtly ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from moderate, mainstream beliefs towards extreme views.

They do, thankfully, also explain that this is not necessarily "bad" thing - Martin Luther King and Jesus are listed as two examples of benevolent radicals. But the list of "good" exceptions is super-short. And they continue:

The English word “radical” comes from the Latin radis, or “root.” Its connotation (as in the word “radish”) is of being buried in the ground, rooted, fundamental. So a radical is a person who wishes to effect fundamental political, economic or social change, or change from the ground up.

"Buried" and "fundamental" - spooky! But the buried bit is also worth drawing out a bit more, because the site is actually concerned with discern which otherwise normal (that is, "normal", but more on that in a minute) people are terrorists in disguise.

The assumption that domestically radicalized terrorists are somehow “different” is belied by the “Toronto 18” trial. The media repeatedly draw attention to the “ordinariness” of the defendants. This is borne out by the wiretap recordings being played in court, in which defendants communicate in a sort of “hoser-gangsta” patois, talk about how much they love Tim Horton’s doughnuts, and exclaim over the wintertime beauty of rural Ontario.

“Ordinariness” is a key factor in the domestic radicalization phenomenon. [...] There is no reason that Canadian born terrorists would not like Tim Horton’s doughnuts. It would be more surprising if they did not.

Evidently, the RCMP loves to put things in "quotes". And check out the words that they single out in this way, especially "different" and "ordinariness". (Twice given this treatment in the few sentences above.) The words assume an undeniably suspicious and malevolently ironic character: the suggestion is that these radicals are different, just not different in the way one would expect (that is, we would expect that they should not like Tim Horton's doughnuts); that they are playing at being "ordinary" because they have learned the art of "ordinariness".

Many ethnic, cultural and religious constituencies in Canada remain deeply concerned about “homeland” issues. Indeed, continued identification with communities and countries of origin remains a component of the Canadian approach to multiculturalism. The Islamist “single narrative” — propagated by Islamist ideologues of every stripe, from Osama Bin Laden to street corner preachers — is fundamentally different however. Not only does it lie at the heart of the Islamist extremist worldview, it also identifies Canada as part of the problem.

"Real" Canadians, of course, have no "homeland", much less a nefarious "single narrative". Unless, of course, you count the narrative of Western progress and the mythology of middle-power Canada and its benevolent peacekeeper identity. But I suppose it could be argued that these are two narratives. (Not that I would buy that argument.)

There is a tendency in the media to portray conversion to Islam as a sort of “fast track” to terrorist action. However [...] [m]ost converts to Islam are simply that — average people who have found that Islam speaks to them as a faith.

Note that "average" isn't placed in quotation marks. No need to qualify something as self-evident as the averageness of the white Canadian, right? They don't practice "ordinariness", after all - they simply are ordinary, even if they're Muslim. So to be clear: brown Muslims pretend to be "ordinary"; white Muslims are average.

Women are also lending their voices to the Islamist ideological message, often employing a strange inversion of the language of struggle and emancipation. In 2005, Shabina Begum, a British teenager [...] observed that [...] “young Muslims, like me, have turned back to their faith after years of being taught that we needed to be liberated from it.”

A "strange inversion" because, clearly, emancipation can only operate in one direction - from white folks to brown folks. But I suppose it makes sense that the RCMP, a body with the sole purpose of providing Canadians with protection, would be unable to make sense of people who want to be protected from "average" Canadians.

But seriously, I have no idea how this document is supposed to help anyone identify radical terrorists. Look for "ordinary" people who aren't actually ordinary, I guess.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Paranormal Activity, Blair Witch, and bad endings

Spoiler alert!

I watched Paranormal Activity on its opening night. Simply put, all of the comparisons to The Blair Witch Project are wholly justified. (Apropos of nothing, it's the first film I've seen in a theater since Penelope was born. There's no particular reason why this film was the first - it just worked out that way.)

The way that PA starts with subtle scares - creaks, lights turning on, gently moving doors - and gradually escalates - bangs, spontaneous combustion, slamming doors - is damned effective. By the time the sheets on the bed begin to move we're scared in part because, well, the scene is scary but moreso because we're already anticipating its escalation to... well, it's one thing to spoil the plot and another thing entirely to ruin one of the most terrifying scenes I've ever seen.

If PA improves on the BW model in any respect, it's with its rather rigid structure. It moves back and forth between what the stationary camera in the bedroom records in black-and-white at night and the characters' discussion of what's happening and what they should do about it in color during the day. And those breaks - knowing that the characters, and we, are safe when it's light out (that is, until the film nears the end, when even the day is no longer off-limits) - keeps us from feeling exhausted and keeps the film's scares from seeming arbitrary or, worse, dictated by the cliché structure of a genre exercise rather than the internal logic of the story.

And they also make the nights that much more frightening, the anticipation that much stronger, and the pay off feel that much better because it's deserved. I noticed that the audience would nervously, and collectively, shift in their seats as we transitioned to the stationary night cam near the beginning of the movie. By the end, people were gasping simply because the title for "Night 23" appeared on the screen and the picture faded to black. You know they're doing something right when we're scared by the expectation of being scared but still haven't any clue how it's going to happen. (As opposed a scene in a typical horror film where the scare is practically choreographed for us: If the perspective is over the hero's shoulder and a few feet behind, is there any way that it won't end with someone grabbing him/her from the back?)

But I didn't particularly like the last 20 seconds or so of the film. In Blair Witch, the ending is ambiguous but powerfully suggestive, harking back to one of the myths that we heard in the first 1o minutes and leaving us with little concrete evidence of the characters' fates even as it leaves us with a strong sense that we know what happened to them. (Even if we don't exactly know how it happened.)

Paranormal Activity missteps, though, and it starts with the day preceding the final night. It's implied that Katie might be possessed by the demon that's been haunting them, but this comes entirely out of nowhere. (She had been sleepwalking earlier in the film, yes, but that episode made seem fearful, not sinister.) When night falls, the scene unfolds incredibly alike the finale in Blair Witch - off screen screams, a character racing downstairs, a commotion in the dark, and silence. When we hear footsteps climbing up, it's not certain that things have gone wrong. And then Micah's body flies at the camera - which is terrifying, but wholly inconsistent with the more mundane scares that we've seen to this point. And if that weren't enough, the possessed Katie, who has presumably thrown Micah at the camera, shuffles into the room after him, bending over his body, and then roaring at the camera and breaking it. Roaring with a computer-enhanced demon-face. That's right. A movie that began by exploiting our all too real fears that creaking doors might not "just" be creaking doors resorts to bad CG and a demon-face. What. The. Fuck.

While I was writing this, I checked Wikipedia because I remembered hearing that there were alternate endings. And there are two, apparently: one in which only Katie returns from the ground floor, and she sits on the floor beside the bed; another in which, again, we only see Katie and enters the room only to slit her throat in front of the camera. I would have preferred either one. And then I read this on the same page: "The ending currently attached to the release of the film was suggested by Steven Spielberg." Spielberg, incidentally, wanted to remake this film and had to be convinced that this was far scarier than anything they could do with a bloated budget. Why am I not surprised that his one (ostensibly) contribution is the very worst of the bunch?

(And while no one asked, I would've gone with an ending quite unlike any of the three they made. I wouldn't have had Katie return from the ground floor at all - it would have been Micah. And if anyone cares to ask, I can try to explain what and why in the comments.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The half-life of funny (to offensive)

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective made $72 million in 1994. (It was the 16th highest-grossing film in North America that year; for comparison's sake, Slumdog Millionaire was 16th last year and made $141 million.) And given that it was so popular, you'd think I would remember if it had earned any complaints or criticism for its rather questionable portrayal of a certifiably insane trans/queer villain and a homophobic hero. Here's a reminder of the latter:

I can easily imagine a character like Finkle/Einhorn still featuring in a comedy in 2009, but I can't fathom anyone including a scene like the one above. Ace's reaction was evidently thought harmless, even funny, by most audiences in 1994, but this sort of humor has all the charm of hate speech, today. And that's a really short turnaround, isn't it? To go from 'acceptable for a general audience to laugh at' to virtually unfilmable in 15 years?

(Or am I simply wrong in thinking that homo/transphobia can't be quite so obviously celebrated and laughed at anymore?)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

When ads lie: frozen pizza

I have never eaten a good frozen pizza.

'Passable', sure; 'digestible', most often; 'not worth it' a good third of the time. But never 'good'. And all frozen pizzas are plagued by the same shortcomings: the cheese either isn't mozzarella or it's the cheapest possible kind, the frozen vegetables are identically tasteless, the crust can always be mistaken for cardboard, and it never heats evenly - sometimes the middle is still cold even as the crust is burnt.

So given that frozen pizza is generally quite bad, I guess it makes sense that frozen pizza brands often liken the quality of their food to that of a pizza delivery place. A couple of examples:

The problem is, to my mind, that they are always wrong - frozen pizza is never as good as the worst delivery or take-out place. And it's not just that they're stretching the truth. I'm sure that every pizza slice, for instance, is the "world's best" in someone's mind - someone surely must appreciate the cardboard crust, or at least think that the price-point and convenience outweigh the deficiencies in taste. But even those people could never confuse a frozen pizza with one that was never frozen, much less one made by a place that specializes in fresh-made pizza.

What's worse, the brazenness of their lie always reminds me that frozen pizza is just plain bad and will always be bad. Why not make more modest claims? Advocate for their brand on the grounds that it's cheaper than delivery? More convenient than take-out? McDonald's might as well claim that the patty in a Big Mac is better than veal cutlet.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Because the Winter Olympics aren't already white enough

I can almost understand why people like Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort have an audience. They, and their audience, perceive science to be a legitimate threat to their theology and, thus, their way of life - and they're right, it is. So it makes sense that desperate, if not particularly critical, people would want to rally around them.

What I don't get are the people who say shit like this:

Who is fighting to ensure that the immigrants of European descent* are adequately represented at next year’s Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games?

"Adequately represented"? 80 countries were represented at 2006 Winter Olympics, only 33 of which sent 10 athletes or more. Of those 33, only seven are not located in Europe or North America and only four of the seven are not countries overwhelmingly populated by white people: Australia (40 athletes), Brazil (10), China (78), Japan (112), Kazakhstan (56), New Zealand (18), and South Korea (40). The seven largest contingents - Canada, Germany, Italy, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States - combined for about half of the total number of 2500 athletes.

People of European descent are overrepresented. And Rachel Marsden? You're a moron.

Canada or the USA without European immigrants would look somewhat like Africa.

Which Africa, exactly? The one that was fetishized by European Renaissance explorers as one of eternal sun, populated by people of such outstanding moral character that they were understood be nearer to God than all others? The one that was fetishized by Enlightenment conquerors as one of unending dark, populated by people of such lecherous nature that they were understood to be hardly better than demonic children? Or the Africa of the 21st century, the one that has endured centuries of colonial oppression, exploitation, and systemic dehumanization of its people?

It’s no coincidence that the best countries in the world are either European or founded by Europeans.

Oh, snap! In your face, Japan!

It's easy to be "best" when you've amassed your wealth via the enslavement and robbery of entire nations. The hard part is being merely "good" when you've already been taken for everything you had and, to add insult to injury, need to ask favors of the people who enslaved and robbed you in the first place.

And it's no coincidence that the biggest genocides in the world were perpetrated by European nations or those founded by Europeans. Of the 12 genocides that happened between 1490 and 1950, 10 were undertaken by Europeans or their descendants. And white folks hardly escape the blame for many of the latter genocides, even where their influence isn't as obvious. But I'll get to that...

Everywhere they go, European immigrants make things better – until they’re asked to leave, at which point everything usually descends back into chaos. Not that they ever get any thanks for it.

How terribly unfair. If only they hadn't wiped out - sometimes intentionally, sometimes not - entire nations of the indigenous population of the Americas with small pox. But the dead are ungrateful assholes like that.

But let's look at Burundi and Rwanda, apropos of nothing. Belgian colonizers took the Tutsi/Hutu class distinction and reinscribed it in law as a racial distinction, organizing the two "ethnicities" in hilariously arbitrary fashion - for example, by measuring nose size. And what is generally agreed to have been a pretty stable social system ("descends back into chaos" supposes an original chaos that did not exist) became, less than 100 years later, so divisive that it led to not one but two genocidal civil wars: in Burundi in 1972 and Rwanda in 1994.

Yeah, I'm sure that the 1 million or more who died would really like to thank Europe for sharing the logic of racial superiority and ethnic war.

So how are the Vancouver 2010 Olympics paying tribute to these increasingly marginalized European immigrants and their defining contributions to Canada? By ignoring them completely, it seems.

Ah, yes. Because the TV spots starring all those white athletes, as narrated by Donald Sutherland, certainly seem to indicate that white folks are being ignored. And the Olympics' and team Canada's major corporate sponsors - like VISA, McDonalds, or Coke - may well be ubiquitous, but that's really just code for "marginalized". Because we all know that the execs at Lakota are actually calling the shots, right? I bet the vendors won't even sell one can of Coke - it'll be raw seal for everyone!

And seriously - haven't we had enough of this white self-victimization bullshit, yet? Attempts of this sort to level the playing field**, as it were, do not marginalize the people who occupy the center. The goal, I imagine, is to reduce exclusivity - to make the center more inclusive, rather than force the center to the margin. Requests that over-representation be corrected - and to ask for equal representation is not to ask for under-representation - shouldn't be taken as an excuse to run for the margins.

I’m descended from the people who built my country, but they’ve been forgotten.

I'm not sure whether this is best described as hyperbole or idiocy. Both, probably.

*I'm not really sure what she's up to with this "European immigrants" schtick. My guess is that she wants us to think that she's poking fun at political correctness. And, if we believe that, then maybe we won't be cognizant of how utterly and obviously racist her diatribe is. Seriously - read the article but replace her euphemisms with "white".

** It's up for debate whether the aboriginal iconography of the Olympics, which is what the author is whining about, actually attempts to do this or whether it merely pays it lip service. Miga, Sumi, and Quatchi - the official mascots - were chosen for their cuteness and marketability, not because they are in any way an accurate reflection of aboriginality or because they want to displace Ace or Youppi. This is the worst kind of multiculturalism - the kind that makes other cultures suitable for consumption by the dominant social group without ever opening dialogue, that asks them to enjoy it rather than to understand it.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

"Balance" and "theory"

I often watch The View when I feed Penelope her lunch, and turned it on this morning just as their panel was discussing the new Cameron/Comfort edition of On the Origin of Species. (The equally absurd and awful contents of which I blogged about a few days ago.) During the discussion, Heidi Montag and Sherri Shepherd (mis)used two words that, when deployed in these arguments, drive me absolutely nuts: "balance" (as in, the introduction provides "balance" to the evolution vs. creation debate) and "theory" (as in, both evolution and creationism are "theories").

1) To call the Cameron/Comfort edition "balanced" is outrageous - even if I agreed with Heidi's definition of "balance". Comfort is writing in the 21st century, Darwin in the 19th - genetics wasn't even a word when Darwin wrote, which makes Comfort's discussion of DNA both anachronistic and irrelevant. (Irrelevant to a debate about Darwin and/or evolution, but it's obvious that Comfort's actual target is science as a field, not Darwin as such.) Comfort can - and does - misrepresent Darwin's argument while Darwin, for obvious reasons, cannot refute his erroneous claims. Heidi also commits a sin that I'm all too familiar with as a teacher - she conflates complaint and critique, mistakes a wholly fallacious straw-man argument for rigorous analysis. Bringing balance to a debate requires, at the very least, some responsibility on the part of the commentator to accurately represent the position that is being critiqued. What Heidi calls "balance" would probably be libel if Darwin weren't long dead.

2) a. The "theory" bit is equally annoying. At some point, it became conventional outside academic circles to use "theory" as a derisive or pejorative term - the implication being that a "theory" is not simply unproven but is purely speculative, a mere hypothesis. Of course, if you can use Wikipedia, much less know anything about science, you know that a theory is far more complicated than this, that it's an analytic concept and that it proceeds from controlled observation - it's deductive - rather than preceding it, as would a hypothesis. It's on this basis that the Darwinian theory of evolution is astoundingly incomparable to the "theory" of creationism.

b. What's even more annoying, of course, is that creationists - and Sherri was doing this, implicitly - collapse i) the Darwinian theory of natural selection as the reason for evolution with ii) the fact of evolution. Evolution has occurred and we have a fossil record that proves it - hell, the non-fossilized remains of much smaller human beings from several centuries and millennia in the past are evidence of evolution, too. What remains is not for us to determine whether evolution occurs, but to determine how it occurs. And while the fossil record for the entire world is small, yes - the conditions under which organic material is fossilized are quite specific and rare - this shouldn't give us reason to doubt that evolution has occurred. It's a problem, yes, but insofar as it presents us only with the transitional forms - because all life is a transitional form that evolved from something else, which is transitioning to something else - and not with a roadmap of how it got there and where it was headed. And that's where the theory bit comes in.

The funny thing is, of course, that I'm actually quite critical of the way that scientific "truth" is produced and sold. Too often, scientists have encouraged us to conflate fact and theory just as eagerly the creationists do. But they get a well-deserved free-pass on this one.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Adventures in TAing, case 5 (in a ? case series)

It happens that some of the pop culture references I make just don't work, despite my best efforts to keep it as contemporary as possible. Maury and The Bachelorette - effective. Lost - not so much. More generally, I forget that they take certain trends for granted - that, for teenagers, there was never a time before Britney Spears or when slasher and date films weren't, to some degree, self-aware and being actively ironic.

And so, this came out of a discussion of the use of disability in genre films, where I suggested that genre films use physical disability to imply a correlating psychological or moral deformity:

Student 1: That's not true. In Scream, Dewey is disabled but we don't think he's the bad guy.
Neil: Sure, but Scream is an exception. It's poking fun at its genre.
Student 1: No, you're thinking of Scary Movie.
[Other students begin to nod and agree that I must be confusing Scream with Scary Movie.]
Neil: No, I mean Scream.
Student 1: Are we talking about the same movie?
Neil: Scream 1, 2, and 3. With Neve Campbell.
Student 2: With, you know, "Scream". The guy with the white mask.
Neil: With the black robe and the extended face.
Student 3: With Courtney Cox.
Neil: Yeah. It's making fun of horror movies.
[More rumblings that I must still be confusing Scream and Scary Movie.]
Neil: Doesn't anyone remember how all the characters are aware that they're in a horror movie? How they talk about it? How Neve Campbell says that the victims are bimbos who run up the stairs when they should run out the door - and then she runs up the stairs?
Student 1: I don't remember that.
[Looks of confusion and silence from the students]
Neil: Was anyone old enough to see it when it was first released?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The X-Men and identity politics #3: Jason Powell and the limits of mutant activism

Over on Geoff's blog, Jason Powell has been doing an amazing job of critiquing every issue in Chris Claremont's run on Uncanny X-Men. He's also caused me to reassess some of the things that I wrote in the paper that I have linked in the sidebar - to acknowledge some material that I had either ignored or forgotten. So this is write-up is something of a corrective post-script.

Jason has just wrapped up his analysis of UXM #235-8, a storyline set in the mutant-enslaving African nation of Genosha (not so subtly modeled on South Africa's apartheid state). This is not the same team of apologist and acculturationist X-Men from the Lee/Kirby or Claremont/Byrne days that I complained about. As Jason notes, this is a team that doesn't find a world order that's worth protecting and decides to attack it instead: "Wolverine’s oath to tear down an entire nation built on racism feels utterly right for an X-Men story. As if this is the kind of thing they should have been doing from Day One."

Jason's probably right, though I have to give him additional credit for having revealed both how gradual and convincing the slow transformation of the X-Men - on the level of individual character, Storm and Wolverine, but also the composition of the team itself - from an anti-mutant police force to a pro-mutant terrorist cell is achieved. And there's no denying that the team that tries to destory Genosha is composed of terrorists - sympathetic ones that should encourage us to avoid reductive explanations of terrorism, but terrorists nonetheless. Jason remarks that one of the issues - and I think this comment is applicable to the storyline as a whole - is "the apex of Claremont’s creativity and expression on the Uncanny X-Men series". It's also, sadly, an indication of the concept's limits.

The storyline completes the reversal that began with the old Brotherhood of Evil Mutants becoming the government-sanctioned super-team Freedom Force - the X-Men have, effectively, become the new Brotherhood. That Claremont could pull this off speaks volumes to his skill in building the transformation up slowly and carefully over a period of years, but it's telling that he blows the team up over the next 12 months. You can turn the X-Men into terrorists, but you can't then write an ongoing book about terrorist "heroes" who punish governments for human rights abuses. (At least, not until Warren Ellis and Mark Millar did so with The Authority, which feels as if it owes something to this version of Claremont's X-Men.)

Nor could Claremont, after writing such a convincing and inspiring change of direction, take a step-backward and return to superheroics-as-usual. And so, after the Inferno crossover that has nothing to do with politics and a couple of stand-alone issues, Nimrod reappears to kill Rogue, Wolverine and Longshot leave, Storm is thought dead, and the other four X-Men sacrifice themselves to escape certain death. And then Claremont builds the concept back up from the ground, (and, in so doing, creates something quite unlike what we've seen before) reunites and returns the group to face a different kind of Genoshan threat, and is summarily removed from the book.

But for those few months...

Friday, September 25, 2009

The creationist's guide to Darwin...

Kirk Cameron and company are releasing a new edition of Darwin's Origin of Species, including a new introduction (by Ray Comfort) that's full of non-sequiturs, fallacious arguments, and anecdotes from scientists-turned-Christians*. (And, occasionally, something kinda useful - like descriptions of Darwin's more problematic premises about women and race. Totally eschewing the fact that Darwin was actually quite the anti-racist in his time. And ignoring the fact that the Bible is far more misogynistic and racist than Darwin could have ever hoped to be. But I digress...)

The hits come early and don't stop coming. Take this ill-conceived metaphor for natural selection:

Consider for a moment whether you could ever believe
this publication happened by accident. Here’s the argument:
There was nothing. Then paper appeared, and ink fell from
nowhere onto the flat sheets and shaped itself into perfectly
formed letters of the English alphabet. Initially, the letters
said something like this: “fgsn&k cn1clxc dumbh cckvkduh
vstupidm ncncx.” As you can see, random letters rarely produce
words that make sense. But in time, mindless chance formed
them into the order of meaningful words with spaces between
them. Periods, commas, capitals, italics, quotes, paragraphs,
margins, etc., also came into being in the correct placements.
The sentences then grouped themselves to relate to each other,
giving them coherence. Page numbers fell in sequence at the
right places, and headers, footers, and footnotes appeared from
nowhere on the pages, matching the portions of text to which
they related. The paper trimmed itself and bound itself into
a Bible. The ink for the cover fell from different directions,
being careful not to incorrectly mingle with the other colors,
forming itself into the graphics and title.

First things first - no scientist believes that there was ever "nothing", nor did matter come from "nowhere". And regardless, Darwin doesn't concern himself with the beginnings of the universe, so the relevance of this passage to his book could only be apparent to - and be written by - someone who doesn't understand the book or its theories. Or science, for that matter. "Mindless chance" hits closer to the mark, if "mindless" is meant to mean "without direction from on high". "Chance" a bit pejorative for my taste - insofar as an organisms competition for resources depends on factors beyond its own control, chance plays a big role. But
biology determined whether, say, dinosaurs would be wiped out by an unlucky encounter with an asteroid while alligators would survive, not random chance, which is what "chance" here seems to imply. And that bit about ink "being careful not to incorrectly mingle"? He's mixing up his theories - its creationism that thinks the universe can be correct or incorrect according to some mystical standard, not evolution.

Who proof-reads this crap, anyway? Certainly none of the scientists who granted them testimonials. But anyway...

To liken DNA to a book is a gross understatement.

Actually, it isn't. Because "understatement" implies that the analogy, on some level, works. It doesn't.
To liken DNA to a book is an exercise in absurdity.

After completing the mapping of the chimp genome in 2005,
evolutionists are now hailing the result as “the most dramatic
confirmation yet” that chimps and humans have common
ancestry. Their overwhelming “proof” is the finding that the
genetic difference is 4 percent—which is interesting proof,
because it’s actually twice the amount that they’ve been
claiming for years.

Those sneaky scientists - hypothesizing one thing and then, after years of research and testing, amending their position slightly. Damned flip-floppers, why can't they remain stubborn and unmoving in the face of new and contradictory evidence? You know, just like religion? Well, that's the scientific method for you.

In addition, even if the difference is only 4 percent of
the 3 billion base pairs of DNA in every cell, that represents
120,000,000 entries in the DNA code that are different!

And, oh, about 2.9 billion that are the same -
2.90 billion versus 0.12 billion.

Men and monkeys also have another fundamental
difference: humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes while
chimps have 24, so the DNA isn’t as similar as you’ve been
led to believe.

Who is "you" in this sentence? Someone who knows nothing about science and about how remarkably close, when compared to the rest of nature, this similarity actually is? Maybe someone who is easily fooled by the lack of context that's presented in this introduction? Because it can't be a "you" who knows anything about biology.

But I've wasted enough time. A commentator interlaces some hilarious refutations of Kirk Cameron's video introduction to the book here:

And a brief and hilarious rebuttal to Ray Comfort's video extolling the common-sense linkage of bananas and intelligent design. Except that common-sense ignores their actual origin and spread across the globe - their evolution, if you will - which is part mutation and part cultivation and is explained in more detail at the end of the video:

Scary stuff.

Remember how arguments would be resolved in team games when you were a kid? When there were no adults around, I mean. If someone on your team showed any indecision, much less entertained the thought that the other team was right, it didn't matter that he or she was the only one - a tiny minority - that thought so. Some jerk on the other team would take that as proof that you were wrong - even though the rest of your team was certain you were right.

This guy is that jerk.

(Besides, for every Antony Flew there's a Bart Ehrman. And even Flew, held up as evidence that science can lead a person to God, is a deist who believes in the existence of an unknowable, disinterested original force that he calls God, not the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God.)

Friday, September 18, 2009

So i finally saw Watchmen...

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from Watchmen, and having gone straight to the Director's Cut DVD means that I'll never be able to weigh-in on the same film that came out half a year ago. So bear that in mind. And I also tried to avoid reviews in the meantime. I read the Rotten Tomatoes 'consensus' and overheard a few details - like the replacement of the faux alien with a faux Dr. Manhattan - but otherwise went into it with no idea of what to expect outside the trailers. So here are my thoughts, scattered as they are, repetitive as they may be:
  • Two scenes stand out to me as the best: The opening credits which, while long, are particularly effective in setting the stakes and establishing the tradition within which the rest of the film works (both with and against), and the death scene of the first Owl, which revisits the aesthetic of that credits scene and brings some closure to it, albeit not the sort of closure that we're looking for. (And so it anticipates the penultimate scene, in which Adrian makes clear that the failure of heroes-as-heroes requires that heroes act villainous.) I liked that Snyder played up the movie-star quality of those old Minutemen by giving the scenes a decidedly Old Hollywood feel. (A touch, no doubt, that also owes something to the particularly effective vocal affectation that Carla Gugino brought to her Silk Spectre.) I subsequently learned that the Owl I vs. the knot-heads was cut out of the theatrical release, which is a travesty.
  • Acting wise: Dr. Manhattan and Dan were great; the Comedian and Rorschach were okay; Laurie (and Laurie's wig) and Adrian were awful.
  • Script wise: I think that Adrian was badly bungled. There's a certain element of mystery surrounding the identity of the killer in the comic, but the script and Goode make it impossible for us to not realize that it's Adrian. (Victoria, having never read the comic, figured it out about a minute after he was introduced.) We're also not really given a chance to root for him - we have to take him at his word that he's doing this for the good of the world. It was clear in the comic, at least, that he genuinely thought he was doing this for the good of the planet. Not so much in the movie. It would have helped if they had cast the movie's ostensible villain against type. (And by that I mean they should have appeared to type-cast him: someone pretty and/or typically heroic, a Jude Law kind of guy.)
  • CGI-wise: Dr. Manhattan looked great when it was obvious that they were touching-up Billy Crudup himself. When it was a computer-generated Crudup - especially when he was talking - he looked distractingly awkward and awful.
  • The lack of a consistent narrative focus bugged the hell out of me. In the comic, you can get away with having Rorschach narrate entire issues because you only have to maintain that perspective for the duration of a single issue. In the movie, it's distracting to be guided by Rorschach for one scene and then lose him entirely for the next 20 minutes. Either the film is being filtered through his diary or it isn't; either you're explicitly focusing each scene/episode through the perpective of one character (as Moore did, more or less, in the comic) or you're not - make up your mind and stick with it.
  • The violence. I have no strong objection to how much more violent the movie is than the comic - the fights look appropriately cool, certainly. (The scene with the cleaver made me a bit queasy, though. But it had a practical purpose - if everyone is excessively violent, why would we ever question the lengths to which Rorschach goes? It would appear that the only option is to make Rorschach even more violent.) But it did confuse me - are we supposed to understand that the Watchmen do have super-strength?
  • The pacing. I needed a break and I felt like I never got one. This is both a good and a bad thing - it felt shorter than it was, and it kep things exciting, but it felt rushed. Was there ever more than 5 seconds of silence in the film? It felt like Snyder couldn't possibly allow us time to decompress. And this applies in-scene as well as in the (non-existent) space in-between them. Adrian's reveal that the attack had happened 35 minutes earlier requires a certain dramatic pause in order to sink in, for it to register as truly horrific. Instead, it becomes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment. Have the screenwriters ever heard of a 'beat'?
  • The decision to replace alien with Dr. Manhattan had me skeptical, initially. But seeing how compressed the story was even without that incredibly complicated element has me thinking that it was for the best.
So what did I think, on the whole? That it was merely okay, perhaps a bit closer to 'good' than 'bad', though I don't know how much of that is filtered through my inability to separate it from the source material. There was plenty to like and plenty to dislike, and I think it hit the extremes at both ends of that spectrum more often than most films.

Next up: Another superhero film from earlier this year that I wasn't able to see, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The body bag gaffe and racism

The Canadian of Health is preparing for an H1N1 epidemic: training their staff on how to handle an epidemic, testing vaccines, and so on. Which seems sensible enough. You wouldn't think that racism could possibly creep its way into the preparations. But if you thought such a process was above racism, you'd be wrong.

What my government-funded workplace did for me, my co-workers, and my students:
-They installed hand sanitizer in every hallway that I use to get to classroom that I teach in. Pretty thoughtful, really, since I have to open so many doors. Not wholly necessary, though.

What (until very recently) government-funded Aboriginal reserves received:
-Well, not hand sanitizers. Because, some bureaucrats suggested, they contain alcohol and the people might drink them instead.

What I, the white urbanite father, personally got by way of preparation:
-An somewhat informative pamphlet in the mail, telling me how to reduce my risk of infection, like by washing my hands frequently. A colorful and affable reminder to do more or less common-sense stuff.

What Aboriginal reserves in Alberta got by way of preparation:
-Body bags, reminding them implicitly to isolate the bodies of the people killed by the flu so as to prevent them from infecting others. Because we can't trust these people to separate the living from the dead, it would seem.

Mind you, they finally got those hand sanitizers in the same shipment. Something like 3 or 4 months (or more - I don't know when they were first requested, just when it was reported) after they asked for them, but they got them. Some victory.

The cover to Batman and Robin 3

This blog entry has nothing to do with the comic itself and everything to do with how good Frank Quitely is.

Take a look at the cover to Batman and Robin #3:

Pretty nifty, eh? All these trippy colors, a bunch of scary hands in the foreground and a bunch of Dollotrons for Batman and Robin to POW! PAFF! and BOP! (The SCT and BANG made of blood in the hospital scene? A perfect demonstration of Quitely's ability to adapt the TV show's aesthetic to the new title.) I did, however, wonder why two of the baddies seemed to be looking backward - looking at us, maybe? Looking at Professor Pyg? But that wouldn't make sense because he didn't wear those gloves. Weird.

But I put it down on my desk and when I came back the cover was upside down. Not only did I notice some now conspicuous design choices, but those two backward glancing characters made sense - because the cover is actually face:

The faces are eyeballs, the logo is a maniacal grin, and the white gloves a face, with Batman, Robin, and the throng in the background being a nose, of sorts. And those conspicuous details that now make sense? Well, green and purple can't possibly be random choices. And there's also a curious green glow on the thumbs of a Dollotron in the foreground - cast on them from the background, I guess, though it doesn't make physical sense. More likely it's a purely aesthetic choice, and when we reverse the cover it suggests green eyebrows for this face.

And the owner of that face: can it possibly belong to anyone other than the Joker? Very cool.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Stuart Hall on Marxism

From a longer piece by Michael Bérubé that nicely sums up why I don't call myself Marxist:

Indeed, if there was one thing that [Stuart] Hall inveighed against above all others in his debates with his fellow leftists, it was economism, the favorite monocausal explanation of the left intellectual. "I think of Marxism not as a framework for scientific analysis only but also as a way of helping you sleep well at night; it offers the guarantee that, although things don't look simple at the moment, they really are simple in the end," Hall wrote in 1983. "You can't see how the economy determines, but just have faith, it does determine in the last instance! The first clause wakes you up and the second puts you to sleep."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Caster Semenya and 'gender-testing'

I'll resist the urge to rant about how patently absurd it is to 'gender-test', given the impossibility of finding an exact scientific standard that expresses a common biological truth among all men or women, or a single (or even short list of) biological difference that clearly delineates one group from the other. In fact, I'll leave it at that.

A bunch of things are annoying me about all the attention that runner Caster Semenya's ostensible 'failure' of the gender-test - that is, it was revealed that she's intersex, that she has testes where her ovaries were expected to be - has produced. Foremost is the disturbing regularity with which news outlets are reporting the test results as if Semenya is some entirely undiscovered breed of humanity.

She isn't - Anne Fausto-Sterling lists some three-dozen different medically-defined sex variations that are collectively called intersex, and estimates that some 2% of the world's population fits one of those categories. (I've seen more conservative definitions and estimates, but even these would put the number of intersexed people across the globe in the millions.) She isn't even the first intersex person to be identified after medalling in a track and field event. More recently, a total of 23 women at the '92 and '96 Olympics were DQed for failing a DNA test. But, I suppose, the difference there is that they were tested prior to racing. Which is why no one noticed or cared.

Strangely, the wholly problematic tradition of sex and gender-testing in international sport - a 70 year long tradition - hasn't been contextualized or addressed at all. One would think that responsible journalism would note that it was commonplace in the 60s for female athletes to participate in a "nude parade", that the earliest genetic tests focused exclusively, and rather arbitrarily, on the presence of a "clump" of chromatin, and that failing the test doesn't necessarily indicate a chemical or biological advantage for the athlete. (In the majority of failed tests, in fact, the athletes displayed no other evidence - physically or hormonally - that they weren't normatively female.) Also, I obviously lied about saying that I wouldn't rant about gender-testing.

To their credit, I've haven't found a news outlet that has gone so far as to state that Semenya is 'actually' a man. There's a certain distress in their response to her ambiguity - and a lot of effort is taken to avoid using gendered-pronouns - but at least they're willing to entertain the possibility of ambiguity. Now if only they could actually use the opportunity to spread some understanding, rather than make it seem like something of a freak show.

(Note: Tavia Nyong'o has written a particularly good synopsis and analysis of the issues here.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

I hate the vocorder. Mostly.

The vocorder is to the late 00s what melisma was to the late 90s. Which is to say that it's ruined pop music all over again.

I don't absolutely hate either one, per se, but I definitely hate how widely and inappropriately they've been (mis)applied. The effect works perfectly with, say, Kanye's "Heartless" because it provides an incredibly apt musical texture for the lyric - just when it feels as if Kanye should be at his most impassioned, he sounds his most robotic. And there's an indeterminacy to the effect, too - has Kanye himself become cold and heartless, or has the artificiality of the vocorder overstated his case and, thus, undercut it?

I think the surest sign that the vocorder's reach has become too pervasive is when Mariah Carey - who arguably popularized the pop-melisma in the early 90s - also, and bafflingly, began to use the vocorder on her newest album. (I say 'bafflingly' because the vocorder was first used to subtly hide the vocal shortcomings of people who couldn't sing - ie. Britney Spears - and not to obscure the ability of people who can sing. Conversely, over-indulging in melisma seemed, at first, to be used as a way to flaunt one's voice and only later did it become clear that young singers were being taught to move between notes because they couldn't hold a single note - ie. Jessica Simpson.)

I can't embed Mariah Carey videos, so I'll post some links...
Vision of Love (1990) - The emblematic melismattic song.
Obsessed (2009) - The vocorder song.

And just to include something that, to my mind, uses the vocorder effectively...
Heartless (2008)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Notes on reactions to MJ's death

I started compiling some notes on the reactions to Michael Jackson's death four weeks ago, and then never came back to it. (I had an exam to prepare for, a move coming up, and, you know, life. And so I forgot about it.) Here are those notes, since they'll otherwise just sit, unread.
  1. If discussions on Facebook and at softball (with other graduate students, mind you) are any indication, the response to Michael Jackson's death has been incredibly polarizing: among those who care too much and those who care not at all; those who find it newsworthy and those who wonder why we've suddenly stopped paying attention to Iran. (There is, of course, a minority of people who don't seem to think we need to fit one model or the other.)
  2. The people who decry all the attention seem to characterize the response to MJ's death in terms that seem like Bourdieu's notion of the 'carnivalesque' - a debased space of excessive affect and grotesque expression, the lowest of low cultures. (And, I would add, a hysterical space.) It's at once a liberating space of enunciation, on the periphery of culture, and a mode of containment by hegemonic culture - ejected from the center but nonetheless under its regulatory power. Importantly, the gesture of placing something within the carnivalesque marks it as illicit, and so both an object of repulsion and desire. It's also, as Gael Sweeney notes, a particularly apt model for theorizing the relation of ghettoized cultures to the middle-class mainstream - white-trash and black pop-culture in relation to the white norm.
  3. Charges of the grotesque and excess have, of course, been levelled against MJ himself for at least the past two decades. In his infamous interview with Martin Bashir, Jackson associates with 'taste' ('good taste', implicitly) those objects and artworks which Bashir deems gaudy and tacky. (And so MJ is also guilty of the sins of those who are 'new money'.) Jackson's obsession with plastic surgery and whitening, of course, are both grotesque and excessive, though they're also expressive of another element of the carnivalesque - its normative function in race politics. Just as those who think themselves universal must believe that the occupants of the carnivalesque would reject it if only they knew better, MJ's bodily transformation seems to express how non-whites aspire to whiteness - and how, because the non-white is carnivalesque in its essence, that transformation can never convincingly happen. (Though this is perhaps too obviously and problematically essentializing a gesture for anyone but the most racist of white people to admit of black people. Of white trash, though...)
  4. There's a gendered element to the response, too. As Victoria reminds me, the public performance of women's grief, seemingly irrespective of race, is made to seem less carnivalesque. I'm guessing that the ostensible naturalness of women's affective responses has something to do with this. And while the carnivalesque nature of non-white people is also naturalized, it's strikes me as a more pejorative description - the emotions of women are thought to serve a role in maintaining society that the carnivalsque simply can't and won't.
  5. Of course, white people (men, implicitly, since white women are a great deal more ambivalent when you need to consider their whiteness and womanness as positions that exist in some ambivalence) engaged in the carnivalesque are a far more problematic thing, given that they are the ostensible bearers of a rationalist tradition. (Appropriately, stereotypical funeral conventions, and gendered roles that people are expected to play, illustrate this rational/carnivalesque difference rather aptly.) And a hysterical response marks a rational subject as suspect - someone who should be marginalized, which is especially troubling if that person looks as if they belong at the center, and so makes visible the contingency of a racialized and gendered hegemony.
  6. And so this takes me back to 'guilty displeasure', which I wrote about - and others helped me develop - a long while back. For many of those (mostly white people) who are tired of hearing about Michael Jackson, complaining about his overexposure (or about the celebrity culture that he exemplifies, etc.) has become something of a worthwhile performance itself. And it's not about reveling in the displeasure that one feels toward MJ as it is about the displeasure one feels for the people who have reacted hysterically to his death - especially those people who mark themselves as either traitors to one's race (white women) or one's gender (white men).
  7. I'm overstating my point, I realize. I don't think that, for the most part, this is a conscious logic or even an unconscious one. But I'm trying to trace a tradition that I think these responses mirror in an eerie way.