Archive for September, 2003

Could we ever be Time Lords?

Via Crooked Timber, a link to an article in The Age on the physics of time travel. Most interesting for my purposes are the references to the Gwyneth Paltrow film, Sliding Doors, as an illustration of the “many universes” hypothesis, and to Stephen Hawking’s “Chronology Protection Conjecture,” which, according to Leo Brewin, basically implies that time travel paradoxes won’t happen because we can’t make sense of them.

Game Update: Alas, it looks like I bragged about my the Braves a little too quickly. They’ve come back a little (it’s 4-2 as I write), but they are almost out of chances. Maybe I could build a time machine and get the Cubs’ bus lost in Atlanta traffic….

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Television and Duration

I’m still reading Margaret Morse and thinking about the blogging and the everyday paper. In her discussion of nonplaces, Morse discusses television, specifically Raymond Williams’ understanding of television as “flow” (although she articulates her understanding of “flow” against his) as “the pure juxtaposition of unrelated segments” (229). As Morse explains flow, it seems like there is a similar process going on within blogs (or blogspace). There are two major similarities that I can recognize:

  1. The relationship of unrelated elements within blogs: Even though I have been using this blog primarily for research, I also write movie reviews, discuss my teaching, and dabble in politics, but I’m guessing that most blog readers don’t read my blog from beginning to end.
  2. The relationship of unrelated elements between blogs: Like a television remote control, blogrolls, almost invariably navigated by clicking (a mouse instead of a remote), allow a viewer to bring together disparate elements.

I’m not sure how this connects to my notion of the everyday, but I think there is a relationship between blogging and television that can be triangulated through how the two mediums construct time. I’m also trying to wrap my head around the connection to “nonplaces” and the suggestion that television offers a “derealized” space, in part because it depends on a notion of “real” space that I find difficult to define.

I’m still thinking about the “media and democracy” points, too, especially in light of the ways in which blogging has functioned as an “alternative” media during the war and the recent allegations regarding the “outed” CIA agent.

More on that later, but now I’m going to take a break and watch my beloved Braves beat the Cubs.

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Media and Democracy

I’ve been reading Margaret Morse’s book, Virtualities: Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture, in order to refocus my energies on the “Blogging and the Everyday” paper (more details on the paper here), and I’ve been intrigued by her discussion of “television democracy” and her reflection on television and temporality.

I’m not quite ready to work through her discussion of American TV news as antithesis of duration (55), but her reflection on “television democaracy” (the term was used by Ted Koppel in a Nightline analysis of the popularization of camcorders, VCRs, and home computers). The suggestion that these technologies “democratize” the media seems to me a somewhat generous fiction, and not just because of the economics of access. In part, it is the “policing” that Koppel himself performs in this report, recasting the video footage of the Romanian revolution (the event that prompted Koppel’s report) as only tenuously reliable, leading Morse to ask

Why is such amateur footage of disasters, uprisings, riots, and hostage situations used as the sign of the real so often discussed as potential fraud?

This might seem like a rather long detour for my paper about blogging (and quite frankly, it might be off topic), but I think blogging enacts a similar dynamic albeit within a specifically digital space.

Blogging speaks in part to the desire for reciprocity in an increasingly homogeneous media landscape. The media filter function of blogging represents a kind of public sphere, and one can easily imagine Ted Koppel doing an episode of Nightline on blogging (maybe he has?) and making similar comments about democratizing the media. In many ways, blogging (especially in this media filter function) represent a response to the erosion of faith in traditional media.

Blogs also face similar policing techniques (to camcorders, VCRs) when readers, from various positions, question the reliability of certain blogs. in my old blog (scroll down, no permalinks on Blogger), I speculated on Salam’s Pax’s “real” identity, for example, but the more explicit policing comes during the supposed conflicts raised by reporters keeping blogs (I’m thinking of the Kevin Sites controversy, can’t find a link). More specifically, these major media outlets cannot control how what they say will be used; their writing is set adrift, beyond the control of the original author. Of course, the mainstream media doesn’t really suffer: all those political bloggers bring traffic to their website.

I don’t have an explicit conclusion. These observations, I’m hoping, are closer to a starting point. I do think my questions about temporality are explicitly connected to these points about the public sphere, especially through the polyvalence of “immediacy” (as “realism,” as “here-and-now”) within the blogosphere.

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I’m not sure what “frog-marching” is, but Joseph Wilson, the former US ambassador who publicly challenged Bush’s “Niger-yellowcake” allegations, is ready to see Karl Rove “frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs.” Apparently, a senior White House official is responsible for the leak to six reporters (including Robert Novak who went public with the information) that revealed that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was an undercover CIA agent investigating weapons of mass desctruction. CalPundit has an excellent summary of the situation to-date, and his frustration at the apparent cynicism of the Bush administration pretty much sums up my feelings, too. It’s important to note that Bush himself isn’t implicated in in the scandal, but an administration that is willing to reveal the identities of high-level agents for political purposes is playing a dirty and illegal game.

Kind of makes Whitewater look a little less significant now. Well deserved credit to Nation reporter David Corn (as well as the Washington Post reporters cited above) for blowing the cover off this story. Looks like Ashcroft won’t be able to hide from this one.

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Myopia, or Writing and Everyday Life

One of my favorite things about blogging is that whenever my thinking feels stalled or when I become too caught up in the frustrations of everyday life, I know that I can rely on one of my fellow bloggers to provide the spark that re-energizes my thinking. One of the blogs I visit regularly to get my focus back is weezBlog, and her most recent entry on blogs as first-person narratives articulates something that had been eluding me. She writes:

The sad thing about a real time narrative is that one cannot skip the boring bits, or jump to the denouement…at least the unfortunate protagonist can’t.

Someone else may pick up the thread after the fact and sagely nod their head and say, “Yup. Saw that coming in post number 58. C’mon, you couldn’t figure it out by 107?”

We’re kind of myopic here, us real-time characters. Doing the sling and arrows thing. Sponges of outrageous fortune. (I do wish the omniscient one could give a clue sometimes, tell me that the outcome will be just fine…just wait a few turns, and all the disparate threads will resolve themselves).

I like the idea of connecting myopia to the everyday–that we can’t see far enough ahead to know where our stories will go. Last week, when I was in the middle of my grading marathon, I could barely see beyond the stack of papers in front of me; grading (especially when you have 75 students who all deserve for their papers to receive careful attention) requires a tremendous amount of energy and leaves me with little time for reflection. I couldn’t fast-forward to the “more interesting” stuff, whatever that will be, even if I wanted to.

Now I’m in the process of putting together applications for tenure-track jobs (revising my job letter and dissertation abstract, that sort of thing), and that feels like a different kind of vision. I still can’t see too far ahead (who knows where my current road will take me?), but I’m having a difficult time concentrating on anything nearby, too. To extend the vision metaphor, maybe it’s a bit like hyperopia (seeing things far away, but not up close) in that I’m barely able to absorb what is taking place around me, leaving me to feel my way through a day’s events. Or maybe things are moving so fast right now that my vision is blurred a little.

Or maybe I’m concentrating on all the wrong narratives….S and I watched Lost in Translation (IMDB) last night, and we both really liked it. The film focuses on Bob (Bill Murray), a washed up actor filming commercials in Japan, and Charlotte (Scarlet Johansson), a recent philosophy graduate traveling in Japan with her photographer husband. Because they are both facing some uncertainties about their direction in lfe, the two of them develop an interesting friendship. In ways, it really captures this sense of boredom and frustration, the feeling of not knowing where your story is going to go. I’m still sorting through the film, and I may be too scattered to write a full blown entry about it, but it’s definitely well worth seeing.

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I Never Thought I’d Link to Someone Else’s Baby Pictures…

…but this is an exception. During my years as an MA student at Georgia State, Jim was my roommate. I’d known him since high school, but our friendship really grew (scroll way down) when we were studying at GSU and growing out of our shared past.

Now he’s a father, which still seems completely weird to me (I still don’t feel like a grown-up and now Jim’s a dad). Rowan Elizabeth was born September 24th, weighing in at 9lbs, 3ozs.

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The Unbearable Impermanence of Blogging

My title comes from Liz’s entry on the way that discussions fade away so quickly and silently from the blogosphere once the topic has scrolled off of the author’s main page, creating what she calls a “topic du jour” approach to discussions. I think she’s pretty much right; in fact, the only reason I’m writing this entry now is because I realize that if the entry falls into her archives, I’m likely to never respond to it. I’ve been puzzling over my response to this entry for too long. Perhaps this entry exists only to store Liz’s observation in my external memory, hopefully to return to it later when I’ve had a little sleep and I’ve built up some momentum on the paper I’m writing.

I’d also point out that Jason’s entry on the topic nicely addresses some of the questions on blogging and thinking that Liz raises in her post.

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Hell House

Hell House (IMDB) is a documentary about an annual haunted house sponsored by Trinity Assembly of God Church near Dallas, Texas, designed quite literally “to scare the hell out of you.” At the time of filming, the church was working on its tenth annual Hell House and an estimated 75,000 people had passed through the gates. As someone who grew up in a Pentecostal church (and attended an evangelical college), I’ve been curious to see this film for some time.

The film documents, in verite style, the entire process of conducting a Hell House, from the initial planning stages to the main event. Also included are brief interviews, against a pure white backdrop, with several of the actors or participants in Hell House who reflect on what they imagine hell to be like or relate their observations that we are living in the end times (another set of interviews on the existence of demons was deleted). These scenes are particularly jarring, especially when middle-class teenagers describe hell as a place of “everlasting torment” or point to symptoms such as abortion as a sign that the world is in the worst state it has ever been.

The hell houses themselves are divided into various rooms that portray various crises such as an abortion that goes wrong, a homosexual man dying of AIDS, a teenager who commits suicide after being date-raped at a rave (apparently the contemporary equivalent of a den of iniquity), and an abusive husband who assaults his wife after discovering her Internet affair. These segments play more like stereotypical self-help concepts than actual life horrors. As J. Hoberman reminded me, one volunteer cautions that he wishes we “didn’t have to see” what he’s about to show us. And yet the people who are participating seem to enjoy it so much–the teenage girls compete for the opportunity to play “suicide girl” and others look forward to playing in the rave scene because they like to dance. The characters seem to enjoy the roleplaying deeply. Hoberman’s comparison to a Judy Garland musical captures the mood in these scenes quite nicely, and it struck me that their performance, rather than identifying the fundamental rift between God and Satan, seemed to more powerfully underline their complicity, the conspiarcy bewteen good and evil in which good needs evil in order to exist in the first place.

There is a significant moment of criticism when a few locals criticize Hell House for perpetuating “Christian faggot shit,” contentiously asking on what authority the Hell House crew determines what’s a sin, but the filmmaker treats his subjects with some compassion and avoids overtly making fun of them, although their lack of awareness comes through on a couple of occasions, especially when they can’t remember the name of “the date rape drug.”

I have to admit it was strange to revisit that part of my past, but there was also a strange distance, like hearing a language I once knew and sopke fluently but have long forgotten, and while the film has its nuances, I’m not sure that it completely captures all of the tensions and contradictions that I encountered during that time of my lfe (or if that’s even possible). The film’s comic detachment seems to preclude that kind of analysis, but on second thought, the filmmaker’s coyness may be just the right touch. And now it’s time for me to get some sleep: grading marathon tomorrow.

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Long Day, Long Week

Expect light blogging for the next few days–the MLA job list came out today, which should make things a little busier than usual for me. My initial observations are that it’s going to be a very tight market (not surprising given current state budgets), so I’m feeling a little stressed. I can’t complain too much because I do have guaranteed employment for one more year, but I’d certainly enjoy having a tenure-track gig.

I’ve been trying to get back into the habit of jogging this week, and that has helped a little. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy running, and I really can forget about the rest of the world for a few minutes at least.

This weekend, I’ll concentrate on grading my students’ papers (a useful distraction from the market) and then the job search begins in earnest. Good luck to all other job seekers out there.

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Nobody Died

I found this quirky little protest site, “Nobody Died When Cinton Lied,” on Blogdex this morning. Apparently, this slogan has been spotted lately along the freeways in Orange County, California. The site collects descriptions and photographs of signs protesting the war in Iraq and Bush’s use of deceptive language to stir support for the war. It’s an interesting form of protest and the signs themsleves are quite compelling, as the author suggests.

Still, I wonder how these protests work as anti-war rhetoric; given the divisiveness that Clinton’s name inspires, and the fact that viewers of these signs are stuck in Los Angeles gridlock traffic, I’m not sure that they’re going to change a lot of minds. Then again, maybe that’s not the point.

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I just watched James Mangold’s Identity (IMDB), a psychological thriller starring John Cusack in full “dark and stormy night” mode (has there ever been a film where he hasn’t gotten caught in the rain?).

The film starts quickly: After a shot of a tape recording of a psychological session between a psychiatrist and a mass murderer, we get a shot of a man carrying his badly injured wife into a lonely flea-bag motel. The clerk, mysterious and slightly effeminate (channeling his inner Norman Bates) tries to call an ambulance, but the phone lines are down. The film freezes briefly, and we get a brief flashback. A prostitute (with mandatory heart of gold) on the run from her past life has knocked out the line when she backs her car into a telephone pole. The film freezes again, and we get another flashback, and I’m hooked–the use of freeze frames to play with chronological time (and psychological time) is intriguing; the atmosphere is set beautifully.

Eventually ten people are trapped at the hotel. All the roads are closed; the one cell phone can’t get a signal; a police radio belonging to an officer transporting a criminal is also out. Very quickly, several of the guests begin dying sometimes mysteriously, sometimes quite violently. The enclosed space inspires paranoia among the group, and we are led to suspect several people: The creepy hotel clerk? The diligent cop? The benevolent limo driver (who happens to be reading Sartre)? Spirits from a Native American burial ground (thankfully the film doesn’t really go there)? We also discover, through a series of coincidences, that the guests have a few things in common. Meanwhile, the film occasionally crosscuts to a last minute appeal of the death sentence of the mass murderer.

I won’t give away what happens (although unlike the Salon reviewer, I had a pretty good guess), but for readers who have seen the film, I found the final turn rather dissatisfying, especially given the stylized visuals and the paranoid atmosphere that Mangold works so hard to create. It is sufficient to say that the resolution explains this paranoia and the intentionally cliched characters that meet in this desolate space, but once this violence was contained (metaphorically if not physically), the film ceased to be nearly as interesting. And unlike Roger Ebert, I felt cheated by the third act rather than impressed by its explanation. It felt cheap, like the screenplay was trying to trump other meta-thrillers such as Memento and Usual Suspects. Still, I enjoyed the film even though it felt more like an exercise in style: smooth and flawless, but relatively empty.

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From Little Rock to the White House

Word on the street in Little Rock is that Wesley Clark has decided to run for President. This decision should shake up the race for the Democratic nomination considerably. My guess is that Clark’s candidacy will probably affect Dean the most, and not just because Dean (who leads some polls) has the most to lose. Because Clark has expressed opposition to the war, he will likely tap into the base of Dean supporters who opposed the invasion of Iraq. Clark also conveys a keen sense of intelligence; he was a Rhodes Scholar and first in his class at West Point. Perhaps more significantly, Clark has enlisted some of Clinton’s campaign strategists, which can’t hurt his candidacy. Because he’s entering the race somewhat late, people are calling him a longshot, but given the accelerated pace at which media stories in this country can live and die, I wouldn’t bet against him. More than anything, I’m hoping that his campaign will at least spark more productive discussions about the international role of the United States.

Given the currently “shifting tides” of American politics, this could be an interesting election.

Update 9/22: I’ve decided to discontinue comments on this particular entry simply because I don’t consider copied articles from other sources to be comments. Instead, it’s an annoying rhetorical device that does little to support your argument. Comments that refer to other sources are perfectly legitimate, but I can’t engage with someone who doesn’t provide a context for the articles they are linking. Because there have been several different IP addresses, I’ve decided not to ban anyone. I’ve also decided not to delete the comments for now. As I mentioned in my final comment, I believe blogs to be a useful space for political discussion, but merely pasting other people’s writing into a comment does not merit a serious response. I’ve hesitated all weekend about whether or not I would take this measure, and it now appears inevitable. This type of comment spam is making me rethink what I’ll discuss here in the future.

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During a quick narcissistic Google search, I came across Localfeeds: Atlanta, which tracks and publishes any blogs located in Atlanta that publish an RSS feed and connect with GeoURL. So far, it looks like they’ve created “Localfeeds” for about twenty-five or thirty cities across the US, in Canada, and the UK. I have to admit it was a little strange to see material from my blog in this other space, but it’s interesting to see yet another mechanism for connecting blogs associated with a specific geographic space (such as AtlantaBlogs). I know there’s an intriguing connection between the somewhat abstract space of the blog and this tendency to identify with a specific place in one’s blog, but that connection is escaping me right now, just beyond my reach. I’ll have to put that on the list of things to think about when I have time (with student papers coming in tomorrow, no promises).

Meanwhile, when I was checking out LocalFeeds, I also had the good luck of coming across a blog authored by a member of Magnapop, a band I really like that has local ties.

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Gender Genie Revisited

They’ve tweaked the Gender Genie and so far it has been correct on every entry I’ve entered (including some entries that were incorrectly labelled earlier as female). The algorithm has changed quite a bit, but still seems to emphasize that women write and speak more “relationally” than men. They have also started asking people to categorize the writing they submit (not sure if this changes the algorithm). I was skeptical when I wrote my original entry, and I still have some doubts. I may return to this point later, but I need to get some reading done for my “Blogosphere” paper.

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American Splendor

I had a lovely brunch with S at The Flying Biscuit, one of the coolest restaurants in town, this morning, and tonight we went to see American Splendor (IMDB), the film based on Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comic. Pekar, who also co-authored Our Cancer Year, with his wife, Joyce Brabner, appears to be an interesting figure, but I have to admit I knew little about him before watching this film (I’ll definitely read his stuff now).

What struck me as most interesting about the film was the way it treated the conversion from his comic books to the film. The film effectively mixed interviews and voice-over narratives (by Pekar himself) with performances by Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, and James Urbaniak (as friend and frequent illustrator, Robert Crumb). Because much of Pekar’s work is autobiographical, this narrative technique called attention to how Pekar himself used narrative to frame his experiences (in part in order to sell comic books). Many shot sequences used a static camera and framing that recalled the artwork typically associated with comic books. I also very much enjoyed the film’s treatment of Pekar’s appearances on David Letterman (during his NBC days), mixing actual footage of the show with Paul Giamatti’s performance as Pekar and shots of Giamatti watching himself on Letterman’s show, which has always been self-conscious about its own staginess. Pekar was a regular on the show until he eventually broke down, angrily airing his resentments about having to sell himself on Letterman’s show. I’ll also say that the sequence in which Pekar has a nervous breakdown on the show (just before he is diagnosed with cancer, according to the film’s narrative) is smartly filmed, using stage lights and cameras to block our access to Pekar’s face during this emotional scene, with Letterman confiding quietly to Pekar that he’s blown a good thing.

The film deals with Pekar’s tensions about his celebrity very carefully (Pekar continued to hold his job as a file clerk years after achieving commercial success as a comic book writer), and Pekar’s ability to capture the subtleties of his friends and colleagues is effectively captured by the graphic matches between the comic books and the film itself. Good stuff. The Village Voice review, which references Marshall Berman’s appreciation of Pekar’s comics is worth checking out.

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