Archive for September, 2003

Who is Salam Pax?

In his most recent entry, “Salam Pax” writes about the experience of being/becoming a celebrity: conducting interviews, seeing his book promoted on the web, reading articles….The result is that the blog’s author now feels a sense of disconnection from “Salam Pax:”

Salam Pax has developed a life of his own, he is not me anymore. and I miss baghdad like hell.

This sense of unreality is obviously much more powerful than the disconnection associated with blogging under a pseudonym, but it does point to the liveliness of these fictional selves, the potential for them to outgrow their RL counterparts, or perhaps it’s a way of distancing from the overwhelming aspects of RL. Not sure I have anything that profound here; I’m mostly just trying to store this bit of information in my “external memory,” if or when it fits into the paper I’m writing.

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The Man in Black

I just found out that Johnny Cash (1932-2003) has died of complications due to diabetes, which led to respiratory failure. I’ve always appreciated his music, but my admiration of him grew over the last few years with his American Recordings releases with producer Rick Rubin. Hearing those songs allowed me to go back and rediscover Cash’s classic songs such as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Ring of Fire,” “Jackson,” and most significantly, for me, “Man in Black.” I can think of no tribute to this man whose music and spirit I admire so much, but I think his words speak for themselves:

I wear it for the sick and lonely old

For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold

I wear the black in morning for the lives that could have been

Each week we lose a hundred fine young men

And I wear it for the thousands who have died

Believin’ that the Lord was on their side

I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died

Believin’ that we all were on their side

Well there’s things that never will be right I know

And things need changin’ everywhere you go

But till we start to make a move to make a few things right

You’ll never see me wear a suit of white

Oh I’d love to wear a rainbow every day and tell the world that everything’s okay

But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back

Till things’re brighter I’m the man in black

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gangstories

One of my students alerted me to an incredibly fascinating blog, gangstories, which presents brief narratives describing life in a ghetto. The narratives are all fictionalized accounts based on the author’s experiences as a youth. According to his biography, the author has left that life and is now a college educated professional. The blog is designed to demystify some of the myths associated with urban experience:

The goal here is to tell some stories of what goes on behind the guns, drugs and crime in the headlines. This is the oral history of my old neighborhood. Figured it might do some good to write it.

It’s an interesting framing narrative in that the author includes a legal disclaimer asserting that the events and characters he presents are fictional. As with many anonymous blogs, one immediate reaction is to question its validity, but there’s something incredibly powerful in these brief narratives with their direct description and the sense of immediacy that the medium itself reinforces. In many ways, they remind me of Tim O’Brien’s short story collection about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried, with the brief, fragmentary references to the characters the author describes. Particularly compelling is “Cruel and Unusual Punishment,” a discussion of how easily someone can become complicit in an act of violence.

Update: That should be “Cruel and Usual Punishment,” the sly play on language slipped past my somewhat sleepy eyes.

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The Time Traveler’s Wife

Just because my last entry was a bit melancholic, I wanted to quickly add that I came across this new novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, the other day. Instead of focusing on the first-person account of a time traveler, we get the observations of his wife. In this scenario, the Traveler has no control over his movements in time, while his eventual wife moves in “normal” chronological, linear time (which of course implies that she doesn’t really control her temporal movements either). It sounds like an interesting experiment, one that I often thought would be interesting to read when I was writing my dissertation. Too bad I never thought to actually write it. Word on the street (or at least in Entertainment Weekly) is that the book will soon be made into a film, with Brad Pitt slated to produce and star.

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Redefining my Blog?

Lately I’ve been finding my blog slowly redefining itself (note how I release some of my agency from this redefinition, this transformation). During the summer, when I first began keeping a blog (especially in the previous generation of this blog), I tended to be more overtly political, more focused on the ephemeral, the everyday. I frequently wrote about my suspicions about evidence of WMD in Iraq, for example, or about coverage of the war by “embedded reporters.” More recently, I’ve found myself writing more about my research and teaching, especially now that I’m working on my paper on the temporality of blogging.

I think I feel like something has been lost in this shift in focus. I don’t know if this is simply the fall semester rush of activity, an awareness of new audiences, or an understanding my blog as a part of my research rather than a self-indulgent activity. I’m feeling a little ambivalent about this shift today. Do I really want comments in my blog to feel like peer review (or have I already internalized that logic)? I certainly enjoy the feedback that I have received from all my readers, and, like KF, I feel like the work I do on/in the chutry experiment deserves to be “taken seriously.” As she points out, blogs are both sites of research where we can investigate a new form of writing and a location where we can get feedback from colleagues on a consistent basis:

The blog seems both virtual laboratory and ongoing conference, and needs to be taken seriously by one’s peers.

I’m somwhat resistant, though, to formalize blogging as a research tool, precisely because of that sense of uncertainty that I’m feeling right now.

I’m not sure what my answer is to any of these questions right now. I could simply be feeling tired and cranky today, especially given my memories of the events of two years ago. Maybe I haven’t had enough coffee. I originally planned this entry to be a quick comment on a couple of recent articles on the Demoratic debate in Baltimore and Wesley Clark’s recent meetings with Howard Dean, but obviously I’ve taken a much different direction. I will say that a Dean-Clark ticket sounds awfully interesting to me, although it’s far from a done deal.

Now that I’ve reviewed this entry, I’m feeling a little more comfortable with the new relationship between my blog and my research. Maybe it was that third cup of coffee. Perhaps I simply needed to review what I’ve written, to think through it one last time. I’m having a hard time letting this entry go, publishing it for public viewing, but I see these reflections as part of a larger thought process for me, about blogging as a medium, about my blog in particular, and about my professional and personal identity.

Plus, I’m more conscious than ever before how difficult it is for me to end blog entries, especially when I’m not sure that my thoughts are fully resolved.

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The Secret Lives of Bloggers

No more than a quickie link-and-comment, but Salam Pax’s recent Guardian article about how he was able to publish a blog for several months within the police state of Iraq is pretty powerful–creative Google searches, deleting archives, changing URLs–all to keep his blog and his addiction to others’ blogs going. I can’t wait to read the book (requires Macromedia Flash).

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Academic Blogging

Brian at Crooked Timber has an interesting discussion of blogging as a tool for academics developing ideas for their research. As he notes, blog entries tend to be “short and topical” (focused on the present) while academic papers are more developed and “long-term,” which might seem to make them incompatible. Brian has, however, been able to use his blog to benefit from a regular audience who can respond to his ideas and quickly provide him feedback.

This is similar to my experience (one reader even read a complete draft of a paper I’m submitting ASAP for publication). I’ve also arranged conference panels using my blog, and I’m curently working on the blogging article (too lazy to link to those entries). I’ve also had the chance to reflect more carefully on the profession itself, and it has permitted me the opportunity to take more chances with my writing (you might’ve guessed by now that I’m a bit cautious) and to indulge my tendency to explore an idea from many different directions, from many perspectives (Side note: I’ve been wanting to write an entry about blogs as “travel narratives,” allowing bloggers to explore things for some time now). All of these experiences have been incredibly positive.

I’m not very good at being critical of blogging as a “writing machine”, but I think Jason’s right to be just a little suspicious here. I’d like to believe that comments and trackbacks actually diminish the egocentrism he describes among “high-profile” bloggers, but I’m not sure they do. I’m not sure that I have any real conclusions here–I’m just posing the question, in part as a means of preserving it in my “external memory.” Then again, I’m not sure that a few bad bloggers spoil the lot.

I have found it to be a useful tool in improving my writing, and I think my experiences as a blogger actually provided me with a slightly clearer understanding of Benjamin’s “The Storyteller,” which I discussed with my students today (they did a bang-up job in class discussion, by the way).

I introduce Benjamin here at the end of the entry because I find that, rather than isolating us as Benjamin feared print culture might (novels and newspapers, especially), blogs have the potential to create connections. I realize that this isn’t the face-to-face conversation that Benjamin privileges, but I feel connected to many of the bloggers I read. George has even met a few bloggers in his many travels (makes me want to travel just so I can meet another blogger–of course now I’m privileging f2f).

Now I’ve wandered a bit too far. Perhaps I’ll camp here for the night and return to this thread tomorrow.

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Memes, Time, and Thought

Be sure to read the previous entry first…. I’m still not sure I’ll structure my argument around the identity (or immediacy) meme, but I like the idea of thinking about memes in terms of time, how they unfold, often unexpectedly, always between multiple blogs. Blogging has allowed me to track those changes more carefully in my own work, to recognize how readers (who themselves become writers) co-produce the “meaning” of my blog (if one can even say that meaning is produced in a single blog).

The process of ideas developing over time is nothing new, of course, but the tools available to bloggers (“immdiate” response, hyperlinks, blogrolls, trackback, etc) all seem to augment this process in an intriguing way. My hesitation about this line of thinking is probably pretty evident, with my overuse of parentheses and scare quotes. I also recognize that other bloggers see their blogs as completely discrete, single-authored texts, a perception they reinforce by not allowing comments or trackbacks, or in some cases, permalinks to individual entries. Still thinking out loud…

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“Blogging and the Everyday” Paper Notes

A few disorganized thoughts: Like mcb, I’m working on my article for Into the Blogosphere. Because of my research on cinematic time, I became intrigued by the relationship between blogging and time, especially the ways in which blogs are used to assimilate our experiences. I’m still struggling with a number of difficulties, including the very pertinent question of determining which blogs will be the object of my study. Right now, my tendency is not to focus on a single blog (which seems reductive), but to perhaps focus instead on what I might call the “immediacy meme” that has been floating among the Wordherders and friends for some time. By focusing on a “meme” rather than a single blog, I think I will better illustrate the importance of hyperlinking to the development of concepts within blogging communities (but I’m not sure about that).

When I borrowed (stole?) George’s description of blogs as “writing to the moment,” I was intrigued by the complicated temporal relationship he was describing between immediate experience and assimilated experience. George is, of course, writing about blogs that have a biographical quality to them and asks,

In what narrative do we imagine we’re participating? How does the importance of previous events change as later events occur?

Bloggers don’t know how their narratives will turn out; therefore, when I write about this article, about my teaching, I do so without knowing how those narratives will resolve themselves. A second complication: from which point can the author/the reader make that determination? Now that I have written about my course blog’s unexpected publicity, at what point does that narrative end? At the end of the semester? After I’ve (hopefully) earned a tenure-track teaching job? At the end of my career? Even later than that? I know these questions about deferred meanings have been around for a long time, but I think blogs raise the stakes in an intriguing way.

Of course as Dave reminds us, this concept of immediacy is itself something of an illusion, in part because these representations of experience are always mediated, in part by the technology itself, and Dave’s discussion of blogs as a form of life-writing are far more developed than my own.

There is something about this illusion of immediacy that seems to speak to the social role that blogs seem to have served, especially here in the US. It’s my understanding (and maybe others can back me up on this) that blogs gained a boost of popularity in the aftermath of September 11, with the traumatic experiences of that day finding their articulation in part through a medium that lends itself to very immediate personal reflections.

Certainly my interest in blogging as a medium was piqued by their use in articulating first-person accounts of the war in Iraq. The first person narratives of the war, particularly the observations of Salam Pax, were more powerful because of the appearance of immediacy that blogging provides. In fact, the treatment of Salam’s blog in the press and in other blogs points to this desire for more authentic representations. But now I’m beginning to feel my definition of “immediacy” slipping away….Against what inauthentic representation am I now defining immediacy? Against mainstream media representations? Against all other mediation? How does one define “immediacy” in the first place when there are so many registers available? Can “immediacy” be defined without some opposite (“culture” to Derrida’s “nature”) to make it visible?

Final aside: Why not write on weblog narratives about the war?

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This is Kind of Cool

I mentioned This is Not a Love Song briefly on my course blog yesterday, and now I want to treat what is being billed as “the world’s first simultaneous online and cinema e-premiere.” Love Song was written by The Full Monty screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and claims to use digital video (DV) “not as a cheap substitute to film” but as a unique art form. I haven’t had a chance to see the film yet, and my modem is rather slow (and I’m also not based in the UK), so I’m not sure when I’ll get that opportunity, but I’m certainly intrigued by the experiment.

The description of the filmmaking process suggests that their use of DV is consistent with many experimental filmmakers who see the medium as more spontaneous and better suited to presenting immediate, real-time experiences, such as Mike Figgis’ Time Code, which featured a split-screen showing images captured by four cameras filming simultaneously for ninety minutes without cutting (thus dispensing with typical film editing structures as shot-reverse shot, etc).

In part, the filmmakers have pitched their premier as a way of showing independent filmmakers a new means of distributing their work:

We just wanted to show it could be done to give opportunity to independent film producers, and maybe food for though for the film industry at large.

I do think there is some potential here for alternative means of distribution that dodge the major studios, especially for young filmmakers who are trying to call attention to their work, and their privileging of cheap production and distribution techniques reminds me of past artistic movements such as Dogma 95 (but without the pretensions of manifestoes and vows of chastity). I’m not quite persuaded that the project is as revolutionary as its advertisers claim, especially given the expense of maintaining a site capable of storing a DV film and handling so many download requests. The flashy website, with its use of Barbara Kruger-style lettering also hints that they see their project as subverting the Hollywood system.

But, in general, I’ll be very curious to see the film, in part to see how it uses DV, if it allows DV to become a “new art form” as the filmmakers advertise. Is there anyone reading my blog who had a chance to see the film?

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And Now a Word From Our Sponsor

I forgot to mention that I’m going to be Georgia Tech’s faculty sponsor for the Society for Creative Anachronism. It seems to be an apt position for someone who writes about time travel films. I’m flattered that Patrick invited me, and my only hesitation was whether or not “temporary” faculty could sponsor organizations (it turns out they can).

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Good News on Deregulation

Good news (NYTimes, free subscription required) about the FCC proposal for further deregulation of media ownership. A federal appeals court issued an order blocking the new rules that would have allowed further media consolidation. This proposal faced massive bipartisan criticism over the summer, and I’m happy to see that the appeals court stepped up to the plate (in a unanimous decision) to block the rules, one of which would have allowed companies “to buy enough stations to reach 45 percent of the nation’s viewers” (NYT). This relaxation of media ownership likely would have damaged local ownership–and control–of media outlets beyond repair. I’m kind of sleepy this morning (hence the disjointed thoughts), but this news is very encouraging to me. Not only does it prevent Fox, ClearChannel, and Viacom from extending their reach even further, it also illustrates how grass-roots political efforts can succeed. The massive expression of public disapproval certainly helped prevent further media concentration. Cool news.

Update: Check out this article by John Nichols on the court’s ruling in The Nation Online.

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Tully

Tully (IMDB) is a rambling, lyrical independent film in the tradition of All the Real Girls, which I reviewed in a previous incarnation of this blog. Like Girls, Tully is a reflective film that carefully traces out its characters, allowing them the time to have real conversations.

Tully focuses on the Coates family, specifically on Tully Jr, the local heartthrob who has dated and rejected most of his small town’s women. Tully’s father is a taciturn, slightly morose man, who seems to have faced more than his share of tragedy (he provides locals with a broken narrative about his wife dying fifteen years earlier), and we get a sense of Tully Jr’s anger when he acts rough toward his younger brother Earl. Tully eventually develops a friendship with Ella, a local girl who has returned from college where she is studying to become a veterinarian.

Like Girls, which made extensive use of its North Carolina setting, Tully drwas heavily from Nebraska’s small independent farms, tiny general stores, noisy bars, and placid creeks. The rundown spaces–a junkyard, a bar restroom, all beautifully filmed by John Foster–offer a subtle suggestion of nostalgia, which I read as an attempt to sustain a sense of regionalism that is in danger of being lost.

But while one of the film’s key plot points centers on a threat to foreclose the family farm, Tully avoids simple moralizing about the plight of the independent farmer. Instead, Tully focuses on the emotional distance between various members of the Coates family, which is visually conveyed through the spatial distances of the farm itself; the brothers have to drive–Tully’s car, a pick-up truck, a four-wheeler–just to have a conversation. At the same time, the use of cars and pick-up trucks suggets a certain kind of restlessness. Tully never expresses a desire to leave his small town, but he is frequently in motion–going to stores, running errands, often just for the sake of movement.

I think Tully has much to recommend it: a terrific screenplay nicely directed by Hilary Birmingham; solid performances especially by lead actor Anson Mount (although his Tennesee accent crept in occasionally); and a terrific understanding of the farmland that gives the film its “atmosphere.”

The DVD release has the additional bonus of the short film, The Third Date, directed by Amy Barrett (who is based in Atlanta, if I’m not mistaken).

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Small World

Just wanted to note that a graduate student in Georgia Tech’s IDT (Information Design & Technology) program came across my teaching blog. I’m always fascinated by these accidental connections, as my reflections on the theory of “six degrees of separation” suggest. He also seems interested in blogs as a storytelling technology, a question that I’m trying to work through in my own research and writing.

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Cabbagetown

Inspired by George, I’ve been writing a lot about preserving the past in Atlanta lately, and the connections between memory and place present an important dilemma for urban planners who wish to revitalize a community without destroying its character. This challenge is addressed in the brief independent documentary, Cabbagetown, made in the early 1990s.

Cabbagetown (childhood home of musicians Kelly Hogan and Benjamin Smoke) was a small Atlanta mill community near Oakland Cemetary and Reynoldstown, where Jacob Elsas, a German immigrant, started the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill in the 1880s, and the mill continued to operate until 1970, largely based on the labor of people from the Southern Appalachins. The mill operated paternalistically, claiming to provide all of its workers’ needs, and like many southern mills, aggressively fought against unionization. After the mill closed, the Cabbagetown community faced deep poverty, with many residents turning to crime. Cabbagetown presents the community at a point of crisis, with the narrator lamenting the potential gentrification that will destroy the community’s history. Oddly, the documentary doesn’t really provide us with much access to this history–no Cabbagetown residents were interviewed, and the people and houses are shown with a strange clinical distance, often in photographs.

Since the movie was made, Cabbagetown has seen renovations of many of the community’s houses and the older residents are being pushed out (Home Depot founder Arthur Blank’s foundation has been a significant contributor to renovation efforts). And, in a strange turn of events, a significant portion of the old mill was destroyed by fire while construction workers were transforming it into loft apartments. I’m not sure that I have anything particualrly new to say about renovation here, but the desire articulated by the film to preserve the past as the filmmakers understand it seems like a false hope to me; there’s also the additional complication of social class, in that Cabbagetown was predominantly working class, which this particular documentary seemed to treat with an odd degree of nostalgia. I guess I’m not quite sure how to read something that seems to want to preserve something so heavily marked by poverty and exploitation, but I recognize the desire to preserve these narratives. I just wish the documentary had preserved some of those voices rather than speaking for them.

Some other interesting information about Cabbagetown: a collaborative project from Georgia State University, and a much different reflection on Cabbagetown’s artistic cred.

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