Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Facebook and the end of privacy

About a year ago, I blogged about Facebook and the impossibility of either not friending or de-friending someone on it, especially after you've succumbed to that initial urge to friend as many people as possible and learned that everyone you know knows at least two dozen other people that you know.

I use the word "impossibility" here not in the sense that it can't be done, but rather in the sense that you'll be viewed as a weirdo, jerk, or asshole if you do so. Because if everyone you know seems to know someone else that you know, then everyone you know will learn what you've done. And then everyone you know will be angry with you for one of two reasons: either they're angry because there's an unwritten understanding that you just don't do that, or they're angry because they wish they could de-friend people too (but don't feel that it can't be done).

And this means that, for all intents and purposes, it can't be done.

So you probably know where this is going. After a couple years where I accepted friend requests from pretty much everyone I'm related to, that I know, that I have known, only vaguely knew, met once, or never actually met, I realized that my friends list was full of people who aren't actually, well, my friends. Barely even acquaintances, really. And if Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is to be believed, this was intentional. He claims that "one day everyone would be able to use it to locate people on the web - a truly global digital phone book."

But a listing in a the 'truly global digital phone book' is not what I signed up for.
So I started defriending people: a few dozen of the people that I really never talk to, then a few more that I couldn't foresee having reason to contact over Facebook, and eventually I cleaved off about half of my list - about 150 people. And then I made myself invisible to everyone who wasn't still on my list. To say it was cathartic would be something of an understatement - only when I closed the door to the fridge and put a pad-lock on it did I realize that it felt as if people had been raiding it for years.

Zuckerberg's comment causes me to suspect that privacy and intimacy have not been valued by Facebook for some time, and it shows in the evolution of the space, its rules of ettiquette, and our friends lists. But, really, all I want is to be able to post a status update asking if anyone is free for coffee or wants to see a particular movie that Victoria would never see - and to not have to worry about who might respond.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Catching up with TV: BSG and Lost

[Warning: spoilers abound for those who aren't up to speed on the only two TV shows I'm currently watching]

I have but love to share for the pacing and content of Battlestar Galactica's final half-season. With only 10 episodes to go, an entire mythology to unpack, and a home to finally discover, Ronald Moore and crew saw fit to spend the first four on a mutiny plot that, apparently, had absolutely nothing to do with the show's most pressing issues. And as if to add insult to injury, they followed four episodes that offered no new revelations with a single episode that overflowed with them, many of which were the product of memories triggered completely by accident.

In fact, it seems as if all of Season 4.5 to this point has been poking fun at the show's mythology: the much anticipated reveal of the 5th member of the "final five" cylons was so compoundingly disappointing that I can only suspect that, having realized that outing Adama or Roslin or some other important character would seem a) predictable, and b) nonsensical, the show's creators decided to instead undercut every expectation we may have in increasingly hilarious fashion:
  • our final cylon, Ellen, is already dead and has been for some time, and so the anxiety about her identity was a total non-issue
  • she was an incredibly marginal character anyway, and it's hard to imagine a character that we would have suspected less or a reveal that would have made even less of an impact
  • the "final" five is revealed to be something of a misnomer, since they're actually the first humanoid models
  • they're also 2000 years old and completely disconnected from the cylons who rebelled against humanity, which muddies the underlying conflict
  • Ellen's not even the last mystery-cylon, as we've now learned about Daniel's existence
All of which also appears to undermine what we were meant to understand as the thematic premise of the show: namely, that the hubris of the human race in thinking themselves gods has led to their own destruction. Rather, the eradication of the human race now appears to be part of a larger scheme orchestrated by one cylon to humiliate and break the final five, the parents who he has grown to resent and hate. Humanity's culpability in their own destruction is no longer even all that obvious.

I'm sure that all this has ruined the show for some people, but i like the move away from the mythology. Rather than acting out of, in varying proportions, a sense of guilt and/or destiny, the characters seem newly self-motivated to find a home and redefine themselves because they want to, not because they're supposed to. In the pilot, Adama asked whether humanity deserved to survive, a question that Athena shot back at him when she first landed on the ship. And if the mutiny hadn't have happened, if the fleet continued to press on only because they were supposed to, that question would still be hanging in the air.

(On a totally separate note - anyone have any good guesses as to who Daniel will turn out to be? The creator of the 12 Colonies' cylons, as revealed in the Caprica promo stuff, is named Daniel. And it's been pointed out that Starbuck's unnamed, unseen dad was an musician, which might be important given that Daniel is said to be artistic. I think it's important to point out, though, that the number of each Cylon model appears to indicate, roughly, their human age. Since Daniel is number 7 and is sandwiched between two women who appear to be in their late 20s or early 30s, wouldn't it make sense that he'd be the same age?)

* * *

On the flip-side, I think that Lost's fifth season is only now finding its feet. Among many others, I've complained that the structuring of the episodes has felt a bit off, that the absence of true flashbacks and flashforwards - which had always been tied to particular characters in each time-frame, if not particular themes as well - was making it difficult to enjoy the show. Not only were the events on and off the island totally separate and disconnected, (with certain, rare expections like Desmond and Daniel's meeting) but the fact that the groups had to share screentime meant that very little happened in each episode.

All of those problems seemed to be rectified in this latest episode, at least. It begins - and ends, though we don't know that initially - with the moment that Jack, Kate, and Hurley find themselves back on the island, implicitly promising us that while they begin the episode in LA with little hope of reconciliation or return, this is where they'll end up by the end of the hour. With the flashback/forward having been more or less abandoned this season, this was an unexpected surprise and it was nice to see it return - and for so much to happen in this one episode, too.

Which isn't to say that we're totally done with LA - given the mysterious and unexplained circumstances that led to Sayid, Kate, and Hurley ending up on the plane - and Ben's injury and visit to the marina, where we might guess Desmond and Penny are docked - we have plenty of interesting material for future flashbacks. But the creators have rightly guessed that we've seen enough of the real world for a while and that we'd much prefer to see everyone back on the island where they belong.

Added on Feb. 20: Come to think of it, this episode is how season 5 should have started - with Jack waking up, finding Kate and Hurley, then gradually finding everyone else and establishing the new status quo. How did they get there? Well, that's what the flashbacks would have shown us.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The X-Men and identity politics #2: Xavier's man Friday

[An exchange on Geoff's blog a couple weeks back with someone who didn't like my X-Men paper had me thinking that I need to start writing about mutants and race (and, obliquely, all aspects of identarian politics) again. For those few people familiar with the old paper, some of this will seem like a retread. But since that paper is long and, by virtue of being written with an academic audience in mind, not accessible enough. Which was one of the reasons I started this series in the first place.]

A paraphrased defense of the X-Men's politics: 'Focusing on fighting other mutants does not make the X-Men anti-mutant, assimilationist, or conservative. Those mutants are evil and would make relations with humans worse, and it's that working relationship which they're trying to build and preserve.'

My short response to this is an unequivocal 'sorry, but I don't buy it'.

The sort of assimilationist practices (and their rationalizations and justifications) that the X-Men engage in are at least as old as the novel format itself, so maybe it would help to historize them. Remember Friday, the slave-turned-servant to Crusoe in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe? Friday is the model non-white citizen of European colonialism - a savage who is so grateful that the white man has undertaken the burden of educating and saving him that he devotes his life to serving that same white man. Quite the opposite of encouraging us to embrace difference or form equitable relationships premised on mutual enrichment and growth, Defoe's story proposes an entirely unilateral transmission and unidirectional relationship. Friday is only worthy of notice because he recognizes his master's superiority and assumes an entirely deferential position relative to him. To do otherwise - to challenge Crusoe's authority or assert an equal standing - would be to threaten the natural order of the world and situate yourself as an enemy to it.

Appropriately, one of the tag-lines for the 2000 X-Men movie was "Trust a few. Fear the rest." And, sadly, the X-Men have participated in a similar politics for much of their publication. Like Defoe, the X-Men's publishers would have us believe that the only mutants who deserve to live in peace with normal humans are those mutants who would unquestioningly protect all of humanity. Yes, even those who would rather see all mutants jailed or dead are more deserving of the X-Men's protection than are the mutants who fight back because they don't want to be jailed or dead. These mutants who reject their oppression and the moral authority of those who oppress them are, at best, ignorant to the natural order and, at worst, evil. Like the hyperbolic island cannibals whose only function is to supply a contrast as the evil Other to Friday's good one, these evil mutants are often made to seem insane or power-hungry, and so undermine the standing of any mutant who objects to the X-Men's approach. Even when an 'evil' mutant, like Magneto, poses legitimate ethical and political concerns, those same concerns are undercut by unnecessary displays of violence and mutant supremacist language - as if these things are ultimately inseperable.

Bryan Singer, echoing the common refrain, suggested that Professor X is a Martin Luther King figure and Magneto was Malcom X. But if it weren't already clear, then I'll make it explicit: if the X-Men comics are meant to be read as any sort of metaphor on the politics of race, then we have to consider that Professor X is actually Crusoe's man Friday.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

White male masochism and The Wrestler

Over on his blog, Geoff Klock is reading David Savran's Taking It Like a Man and pulled the following quote from the book: "[film] heroes remonstrate against a culture made uneasy by traditional machismo by proclaiming themselves victims, by turning violence upon themselves and so demonstrating their implacable toughness, their ability to savor their self inflicted wounds". Geoff illustrated Savran's point with reference to the Crank movies, which prompted Scott McDarmont to suggest that the same can be said of The Wrestler. Which got me thinking that The Wrestler is actually a much better example of the white male masochism that Savran describes.

Like Crank and Crank 2, The Wrestler celebrates a lead character whose defining trait is his ability to endure, and find pleasure in, absurd amounts of physical pain. But Savran isn't actually talking about literal physical pain - if he were, we would have to consider that these characters don't so much "proclaim themselves victims" since they actually are victims: their suffering is objectively marked by the savage beatings and physical trauma they endure, to say nothing of the always imminent threat of death as a direct result of these wounds. It's one thing to chastise someone for proclaiming himself the victim when it is otherwise unobvious, but something else entirely when he has one hour to live (as in the Crank films) or could have a fatal heart-attack at any moment (as in The Wrestler). They are, in a sense, beyond criticism - and employing that sympathy-generating strategy is itself deserving of critique.

Rather, Savran asks us to read these characters and their physical wounds and masochism allegorically. That's something of a stretch for the Crank movies, which are banal and superficial productions - the more interesting reading of these films would involve asking how and why this plays so well to the white male audience, who arguably find some catharsis in watching Jason Statham proposely get the shit kicked out of him and come out on top as a direct result.

But we don't even need to infer an allegorical level to the lead's physical pain in The Wrestler - Randy "The Ram" Robinson's entire life is a catalogue of emotional and existential pains. All three of the film's major plotlines lend themselves to Savran's critique.
  1. The washed-up wrestler plot, which features his failure to recapture the fame, glory, and money he once enjoyed as a wrestler and the realization that he doesn't know how to do anything else
  2. The absent father plot, where we learned that he abandoned his daughter as a child and that he continues to be unabile to put her first
  3. The romantic plot, which shows us his difficulty in forming lasting relationships with women and his preference for the easy high (whether that be a one-night stand, drugs, or wrestling) instead of something harder and less certain
Conveniently, from the perspective of the masochistic white male victim, each of these can be figured as either/both the result of Randy's own failings or the fault of a society that doesn't understand him and has no place for him. He's too old to be a pro wrestler and unqualified for the world outside of it, a world that requires he talk to people; his daughter just doesn't understand how hard he's trying and is too much of a hard ass to give him a chance, a personality trait that is not-so-subtly reinforced by Randy's realization that she's a lesbian (and so, naturally, must be averse to masculine men); Randy's only on-screen sexual relationship is with a woman he picks up at a bar and smokes coke with, and he finds himself rejected by the woman he actually likes for no obvious reason - until the very end of the film, when it's too late.

Randy's moment of triumph, such as it is, comes at the end of the film, when he comes out of retirement in order to wrestle one last time - a match that he's been assured will probably mean his death. Not that we actually get to see that happen. Randy stumbles, gets light-headed, and climbs to the top of the ropes to perform his finishing move - against the advice of his opponent - as the crowd cheers him on. The film ends as he leaps into the air, poised to win the match on his own terms and according to the code of honor by which he's always performed. And that final image allows him to figuratively transcend his pain, to shout a silent 'fuck you' to everyone that wronged him, even as we realize that he would fall to the ground in a heap and die if the film were to continue. It's the sort of victory that's only possible in a film, and one which can only seem sincerely proud or empowering if we refuse to acknowledge its stupidity and our ostensible hero's culpability in his own death - a recognition that, while delayed by the sudden ending of the film, ultimately cannot be denied.

If the pleasure in white-male masochism exist where it allows us to "savor [our] self inflicted wounds", then I think it makes sense that the dead bodies need to be hidden from view. They're not exactly in a position to be savoring much of anything.

Friday, February 06, 2009

2008's Music retrospectacular

A brief look at the stuff from 2008 that surprised, disappointed, and impressed me. (See my 2007 list here.)

Two Surprises

2. Katy Perry - One of the Boys
This is surprisingly endearing and ironic album. After listening to "UR So Gay", one would guess that "I Kissed a Girl" is supposed to be comedic - that it doesn't sound like it's funny is probably the album's biggest failing.
1. Scarlett Johanssen - Anywhere I Lay My Head
The high-water mark for celebrity vanity-projects - because it doesn't sound like a vanity project.

Four Disappointments

4. Destroyer - Trouble in Dreams
I am a huge fan of Dan Bejar and loved the previous two Destroyer albums. But one or two songs aside, this one left me absolutely bored.
3. No Age - Nouns
For weeks, I was reading and hearing that this album was fantastic. After three listen-throughs, I found myself totally incapable of remembering even one melody from it.
2. Of Montreal - Skeletal Lamping
I recall hearing that this album was conceived of as a series of one-minute long songs. And it shows - it's jarring, abrasive, and at times feels as if it were made intentionally unlistenable on a structural level.
1. Guns n Roses - Chinese Democracy
Axl sounds old and tired. And his self-importance was only interesting when it was paired with a musical exuberance that subtly undercut his earnestness. The music for this album just sounds bloated and pained.

Twelve Favorites

12. Friendly Fires - Friendly Fires
A dance-rock explosion.
11. Jason Collett - Here's to Being Here
In a year where nearly everything I liked was propelled by a beat that demanded you move to it, Jason Collett slips through the middle with an acoustic guitar and an affected country-twang.
10. Portishead - Third
A grower, for me. I expected another Dummy or Portishead. It took time for me to accept that they weren't going to go there again.
9. Deerhunter - Microcastle
I immediately want to compare this album to Yo La Tengo. Which is weird, because I've never really been a fan of Yo La Tengo, and I like this so much more than anything YLT recorded.
8. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
I've never found TV on the Radio affective or moving. But this album, at the very least, makes me want to move. And if you can do that well enough, well, that's enough.
7. Goldfrapp - Seventh Tree
Goldfrapp moved away from glammed up electropop to this pastoral, electric folk just as the former was being taken up by people like Britney Spears. A canny move - and a great move for one of pop music's great voices.
6. Fleet Foxes - Ragged Wood/Sun Giant
So totally unlike everything else. It sounds like it's emerged from somewhere not just in the past, but somehow outside of time. I'm also a sucker for great harmonies.
5. Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair
Best disco album I've ever heard. And I'm not a fan of disco.
4. Black Kids - Partie Traumatique
If nothing else, these kids manage to write and record music that perfectly captures the immediacy and constantcy of absolutely having-to-hook-up-right-now-at-this-very-moment. Which is just a little bit precious and a little bit awesome.
3. Santogold - Santogold
I like Gwen Stefani, but she's a bit too poppy for my tastes. I like MIA, but sometimes find her music grating. But Santogold sounds more than a little like both, and seems to provide the perfect balance.
2. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
I will admit to being mostly ignorant of the afro-pop influences that these guys are cribbing. I just know they make for some fantastic music.
1. M83 - Saturdays=Youth
A shoe-gaze album by a 26 year-old fuelled by nostalgia for his teens and grounded in 80s synth-pop, it sounds as if the past is speaking through the music itself - present but forever at a remove. Young enough that he's still a romantic, but old enough that he's forgotten just how unromantic it is to be a teen.