Archive for July, 2004

Identity Correction

I’ve just learned about an intriguing new documentary, The Yes Men about a group of prankster-activists who impersonated members of the World Trade Organization on television and at conferences. Riffing off the concept of identity theft, they describe their concept of “identity correction” here:

“Honest people impersonate big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them. Targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else.”

Filmmakers include Chris Smith (American Movie, American Job), Sarah Price, and Dan Ollman. Not much else to say here, but it sounds like a fun film.

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Crazy Like a Fox…

…at a MoveOn (Hen) House Party. Despite the fact that I’ve been suffering from mild to acute Liberal Outrage Fatigue, I’ve been fascinated all morning by the controversy surrounding the latest Robert Greenwald documentary, Outfoxed. Like Mel at Blog for Democracy, I’ve been wondering about MoveOn’s delay in allowing people to RSVP for screenings of the film (note to Mel: when registration opens, I’ll certainly shoot for your house party).

The controversy surrounding the film has been building all weekend, especially after a long New York Times article by NYU journalism professor Robert Boynton this weekend discussed the challenges of what Greenwald calls his “guerilla documentary” style. The article raises some important questions about fair use and copyright infringement, illustrated by several examples of the filmmakers struggling to get rights to certain clips from a CBS interview with Richard Clarke and footage from a PBS new show (the latter refused out of fear of appearing “too political”). More recently, Lawrence Lessing, one of the copyright lawyers working with Greenwald on the film has commented on the story in his blog, and a Washington Post story adds to the controversy, not-so-subtly accusing the Times of political slant in their article on Greenwald. According to Irena Briganti, a Fox News spokeswoman, Fox was only given 24 hours to comment on the story. Lots of “he said-she said” follows. I’m just going to link to the article and let my readers decide.

But the Times article also celebrates Greenwald’s ability to mix grassroots political action with new media technologies, including the Internet:

Jim Gilliam, a 26-year-old former dot-com executive and a producer of ”Outfoxed,” is enthusiastic about the way Greenwald’s projects meld grass-roots politics with the culture of the Internet. He predicts a future — augured by events like MoveOn’s competition for the best 30-second anti-Bush advertisement — in which young political filmmakers will be as likely to wield a camera phone as a digital camera. ”It won’t be long before people will be shooting and editing short documentaries that they’ll stream from their blogs,” he says. If the Internet, as media critics like Jon Katz have suggested, has resuscitated the fiery journalistic spirit of Thomas Paine, guerrilla documentaries offer to put that polemical attitude in the director’s chair.

I have to admit that I’m a sucker for this kind of populist rhetoric. Every time I read this kind of comment, I find myself wanting to do more of that kind of work or at least to promote it on my blog.

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How Can We Teach Them to Read Stephen King When They’ve Never Read Danielle Steele?

Harold Bloom has an op-ed piece in the LA Times (subscription required) lamenting the fact that fewer people are reading novels, poems, and short stories than in the past. He cites a National Endowment of the Arts study that reports that “fewer than half of all Americans over the age of 18 now read novels, plays, short stories or poetry, and that only 56.9% have read any book at all in the last year.” Bloom acknowledges that these numbers aren’t exactly newsworthy. At the same time, a Boston newspaper has reported that one local high school district has included the poetry of controversial rap artist Tupac Shakur on its summer reading list for their students (link below).

To be fair, I’ve never been a fan of Harold Bloom’s work in constructing a “western canon.” I am, by nature, suspicious of the practices of exclusion that canon formation entails. I am aware that teaching literature and film classes automatically requires such a practice (there’s a reason I teach Citizen Kane and not the Bennifer film, Gigli, for example), but it’s often not clear what motivates the decision to confer canonical status onto one novel or film and not another. Attempts to exclude certain novels or poems, such as the work of Tupac Shakur, on the basis of taste seem designed to perpetuate the elitism that conservative critics accuse the people who taught Shakur of perpetuating.

Bloom attributes the decline in reading in part to the rising popularity of television, computers, and video games, and to a certain extent, I think he’s probably right that these technologies compete with reading novels and poetry for our finite attention span, but the implications of that competition are far from obvious. Bloom suggests that because of these new technologies, “it’s no wonder that the heads of so many Americans are stuffed with pointless information.” The implication is that knowing Shakespeare or Chaucer is worthwhile, but knowing Super Mario Brothers, Seinfeld, or The Simpsons isn’t, and this is where I find myself most resistant to Bloom’s position. I realize that my disagreement grows out of my own position as a film and media studies scholar, and to be fair, Bloom has acknowledged the significance of a few films, particulalry the end of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, to what he calls the “western canon.” But, as Kevin Drum points out, Bloom’s comments, intentionally or not, seem to suggest that the study of (great) literature is lost precisely because of the new emphasis on science and technology, or more preciely on the new media that are radically transforming literacy.

I’m going to be absolutely clear in saying that I love literature, Shakespeare and Chaucer included. We should have more focus on literature and the humanities at the high school and university level, but I also believe we should be conscious of these new forms of literacy (cinematic literacy, televisual literacy, gaming literacy) and provide students with a langauge for understanding the texts and media they encounter on a daily basis. Having a better understanding of how these media operate would seem to be one of the crucial problems of 21st century citizenship.

There are specific reasons that students respond to Tupac Shakur, and it’s essential that students understand that appeal, that they undertsand their investment in the work of such performers and artists. This doesn’t mean that I believe we should ignore texts written before 1990 or 1980 or some other arbitrary date, but I think the decision to reject certain texts (often the very texts that students find most appealing) runs the risk of making the humanities appear even less relevant. Besides, if students find that they like reading Tupac Shakur, they might then pick up a novel by Alice Walker or Toni Morrison, James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison. Instead of seeing Tupac Shakur as an impediment to literacy, why not see his poetry as a “gateway drug,” a way of getting students invested in the practice of reading, in the relevance of literacy.

Update: More information from the NEA, Joanne Jacobs, and Critical Mass.

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Before Sunset

I really enjoyed Before Sunset (IMDB). I’ll admit that I’m very much a sucker for Richard Linklater’s talky, meandering, philosophy-lite films, and I’ve always had a special fondness for the romance in Before Sunrise. I watched the original in my tiny, drafty attic apartment while I was in graduate school deep in the heart of Indiana, and Sunrise gave me a wonderful escape. Of course, as a graduate student/wanna-be novelist, I identified pretty deeply with Jesse, the Ethan Hawke character, but the film itself felt “timeless,” like Jesse and Celine (Julie Delpy) had somehow stepped outside the world for just one night, and of course, I’d appreciated the original film’s ambiguous ending (I’ll try not to be too specific).

Because I had such fond memories of the original, I worried that the sequel would dissapoint me, but Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke have managed to update Celine and Jesse’s story in a powerfully effective way, and like the cinetrix, I’d love to have an Antoine Doinel-style series. The sequel begins with Jesse giving a talk at a bookshop in Paris on his novel, a thinly fictionalized account of his night with Celine. Celine, who has spotted an advertisement for the book signing shows up and the two immediately begin talking, reconnecting after nine years apart, and like the original film, Celine and Jesse have a limited amount of time, in this case about an hour and a half, before Jesse has to catch a plane. The film uses the Paris setting nicely (I even remembered a spot along the Seine where I ate a sandwich one afternoon), and the use of real-time adds to the intensity of their reunion. In fact, I think it would have been a mistake not to tell this particular chapter of their lives in real time.

I won’t say much more about the film, or its plot, other than to note that it presented characters who had clearly endured the last nine years developing, growing, and struggling. Stuart Klawans’ review in AlterNet conveys the spirit of the film nicely. It’s a movie about lost opportunities and alternate selves, about the desire to regain the open possibilities they had when they were 23. It’s also a movie about the worlds or lives they’re escaping. Although their lives and jobs are generally satisfying (he’s a novelist, she’s an environmentalist), there’s a clear sense that something is missing for both of them. As Stuart Klawans points out:

The trick here – an excellent one – is that the lovers know they’re in a time bubble. When it pops and life’s mess pours in, Celine and Jesse won’t seem so admirable.

But will the bubble pop? A movie builds suspense; and as the minutes tick by in Before Sunset, the people on screen and in the audience alike wonder more and more intently if Jesse will catch that airplane.

I will say no more, except that time has rarely passed in a film with such apparent ease and spontaneity, yet with such rightness in every moment. Working with the very rudiments of movies, Linklater, Delpy and Hawke have sustained a flawless performance – one that’s warm, thoughtful, funny, sexy, charming and in all ways alive.

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Democratic MeetUp 7/13

Just wanted to pass along some information about the upcoming Democratic MeetUp. This looks like a good opportunity to meet the Democratic candidates running for Zell Miller’s Senate seat.

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Next Tuesday is July’s National Democrat Meetup Day, and tens of thousands of grassroots Democrats (who may or may not be members of local Democratic Parties) will be gathering in restaurants, cafes, coffee shops, etc. – just as we will be doing:

Tues., 7/13 at 7:00 p.m.
Ashton’s
314 E. Howard Avenue, Decatur 30030

Our meetup will last only one hour (7-8), but you are welcome to have a bite to eat, a soft drink, latte, or ice cream, hang out and talk politics as long as you want.

This month is dedicated to the US Senate race to fill the seat Zell is vacating. We now have rsvp’s from all 8 of the Democratic Candidates for this Meet & Greet – please be sure to be there and invite other Democrat-leaning friends to join us. This is your chance to decide first-hand which candidate you want to help with get-out-the-vote efforts for the July 20th primary. With this many people running for the Democratic nomination, there is likely be a run-off election on August 10th of the two highest vote getters. Next Tuesday evening will also prepare you to make a decision 7/21 on whomever those two end up being.

The US Senate Democratic candidates will be given the mike for 2-3 minutes each to make sure we collectively meet each of them. Also, while mixing and mingling during the meetup, you’ll have the chance to talk, ask questions one-on-one. Georgia’s US Senate seat is extremely important, and we want to get our strongest possible candidate to go up against the Republican in November. Please get excited about the things that will be happening between now and August 10th!

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I don’t think it’s necessary to RSVP, but it might help the people who organize the event if you do. Here’s a link to the Democratic MeetUp site.

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Friday Afternoon Film Reads

Just collecting a few links to recent film articles and blog entries for future reference. First, GreenCine Daily directed me to Mark Richardson’s “Polemical Posturing versus Feigned Naivety in Documentary” in The Film Journal. Richardson favorably compares Nick Broomfield’s use of reflexivity in Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer to Michael Moore’s use of it in F9/11 and Bowling for Columbine. I haven’t seen Aileen yet (it’s on the list), but it’s an interesting take on how these two directors use reflexivity in different ways, although I’m not sure I entirely agree with Richardson’s conclusions (I found Broomfield’s Kurt and Courtney incredibly manipulative).

J.D. Ashcraft, an indieWIRE blogger, reports on an F9/11 panel he attended at the Enzian Theater. he notes that the panel debated some of the Big Questions, such as whether or not Moore’s film should be considered a documentary and whether or not that label matters much, with one panelist noting that the classification might matter when it comes to the Academy Awards. Ashcraft does note an interesting phenomenon, in which one conservative guest took a lot of heat from the audience for what seems like a benign observation about the film’s use of humor:

More than once, the seemingly conservative Peter Brown expressed contrarian views and was already getting grumbles when he offhandedly called the film humorous. The audience pounced, “What’s funny about death and war?!” some members angrily shouted. People stopped asking questions and started just shouting out and stirring in their seats. All the panelists looked confused and it seemed to me things were on the verge of getting very ugly when Mr. Brown responded and, with help from fellow panelists and the moderator, calmed the crowd a bit.

I’ve found these responses to F9/11 increasingly frustrating, in large part because they seem to prevent real dialogue about the war in Iraq and Bush’s foreign policy. I don’t think it’s possible to produce an objective documentary or non-fiction film about the war (or on any topic for that matter), but the true-false debates that have framed the discussion of the film are missing the real questions raised by the film about the decision to go to war in Iraq. Note to self: the F9/11 buzz will no doubt fade before summer’s out, but a panel at Tech on a similar topic (documentary film, media and elections) this fall might not be a bad idea.

The cinetrix mentions a new book that I’d like to read, Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies. The book “details the pernicious level of cooperation between the Pentagon and Hollywood. That’s right. Your tax dollars at work.” Interesting that Forrest Gump, a distinctly patrioitic film, did not receive any cooperation from the US military. She also mentions the new documentary, Gunner Palace, which focuses on a group of US soldiers stationed in a palace that once belonged to Uday Hussein (she also makes an excelelnt case in the comments that Three Kings is the first hip-hop combat movie). Also check out the interview with Michael Tucker in The Guardian.

Finally, I saw Spartan last night. It’s an interesting take on the political thriller, implicitly critical of the Bush administration (although the presidential sex scandal may seem more Clinton-esque). Mamet still has trouble writing parts for women. Spartan very much presents a man’s world, and none of the female characters, including the kidnapped president’s daughter (she is kidnapped by a group in Dubai involved in the sex slave trade), are given mich depth at all. The Arab characters are all pretty much without depth and completely corrupt as well, which is another major problem in the film. It’s still a pretty compelling movie, although while I was watching the final act I felt like the film was unravelling a bit. His other films that revolve around various schemes and conspiracies, such as The Spanish Prisoner, Heist, and House of Games are a little tighter narratively speaking. Of course the conspiracy in Spartan is so much “bigger” (in that it involves the President, the CIA, the Secret Service) that it simply can’t hold together. Has anyone else seen Spartan?

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The Big Ones Vs. The Last Typhoon

Also via GreenCine: two very different narratives about the state of things in the Hollywood film industry. In “The Last Typhoon,” Bruce Feirstein (IMDB page) describes a Hollywood business that “isn’t working anymore,” and sees a “perfect storm” developing that will transform the entertainment business. A slightly different story emerges from Ed Halter’s Village Voice article, “The Big Ones,” which discusses the relationship between internet communities and film audiences.

Feirstein’s narrative is relatively familiar: he points to the relative box office failure (we’ll soon find out if I, Robot continues the trend) of some of this summer’s biggest event films and the declining Nielsen Ratings of the major networks (and the subsequent reliance on cheap and easy reality television) as mere symptoms of larger technological and sociological changes that might produce major changes in entertainment as we know it. These changes include the proliferation of cable networks, the popularity of home entertainment systems, the rise of computer games, and the expense of movie tickets.

With so many entertainment choices now available, audience attention is splintered, and films that don’t find an audience quickly are consigned to the dustbin of cinematic bombs, or at least quickly shuffled off to video where the studio can try to recover their investment. More crucially, other media, specifically computer games now challenge film, competing for valuable human attention, with games having the advantage of being more openly interactive, not to mention being more time-consuming. These changes set the stage for major changes in the way that Hollywood does business. Feirstein notes, for example, that Disney is already scaling back motion picture production and speculates as to whether or not advertisers will be willing to pony up bigger bucks for increasingly small audience attention on the major networks.

I think he’s right that were going to see major changes in the entertainment industry in the near future and that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to predict how those changes will look. I think we can see how some of these changes in human attention and moviegoing cultures are already being felt today, and Ed Halter’s Village Voice piece addresses some of these changes, notably the role of fansites and Internet communities, ranging from Ain’t It Cool News to MoveOn.org to fundamentalist Christian film sites, in creating audiences for certain films.

Specifically, Halter is interested in the F9/11 juggernaut, noting that it might be ushering in “a new category of high-concept Hollywood product: the activist blockbuster.” Of course the success of F9/11 is the product of a number of factors, including the film’s ability to give voice to increasing disgust with the Bush administration, particularly during an election year. Moore’s own controversial star persona (note that Halter provides a great overview of past Moore promotional activities) also contributed to what the authors of Global Hollywood would call “the cultures of anticipation” that have built up around the film. Of course, Moore’s film feeds back into these “cultures of anticipation,” creating what might be called “cultures of reception,” (I can’t recall if the authors of GH use this term) represented in part by the MoveOn house parties on opening weekend, which were attended by an estimated 55,000 people and provided people with strategies for defeating Bush in 2004, including voter registration drives.

I’m not sure I’ll be able to weave these two narratives together as neatly as I would have liked, but I think that the popularity of Moore’s film (whether you agree with him or not) illustrates one possible alternative in the crowded media landscape. While I’m aware that Moore’s unprecedented popularity cannot be duplicated, I imagine we’ll continue to see a renaissance of documentary films for some time. Now that an audience, or a culture of anticipation, has been created through the convergence of online communities and successful films, I think the tatse for these kinds of narratives will continue to develop. Most documentaries have the added benefit of being cheap to produce, comparatively speaking. And while the urgency of this year’s presidential election has been noted many times, I think the resistance to Bush may be an outgrowth of a political community that was developing even before he was “elected” the first time.

In short, I think we’ll see an increasing convergence between film and media event, between politics and entertainment (or vice versa), between the anticipation for a film and its reception. I hadn’t planned on taking these idaes quite this far, and they still feel incomplete. I’ve become a little less comfortable lately with viewing my blog as a place where I can write first drafts of incomplete ideas, but this entry feels more like a starting point than anything resembling a conclusion or a complete, resolved idea or concept. Perhaps it feels too big for a single blog entry….

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Cinemocracy

Cinemocracy focuses on “Movies about politics. Politics about movies. Hollywood and Washington, hybridized.” I think it’s a safe bet that I’ll be visiting there frequently from now on. Their July 6 entry includes a photograph of a church bulletin board that seems, well, a little critical of our current president. Lots of great coverage of F9/11, too. Via GreenCine.

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Outfoxed House Party

Note to self: be sure to attend the Outfoxed house party on Sunday, July 18 (via Blog for Demcoracy).

Outfoxed is the latest documentary by filmmaker Robert Greenwald, whose production company made Uncovered, Unprecedented and Unconstitutional. It investigates the news media’s “race to the bottom,” exemplified by Rupert Murdoch and the folks at Fox News and includes interviews with Walter Cronkite, Robert McChesney, David Brock and other cool people.

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Blogger and Me

From documentary filmmaker to blogger: Michael Moore now has a blog (Via Eschaton).

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Kerry-Edwards 2004

As most of you will know by now, John Kerry chose North Carolina Senator John Edwards as his running mate (I just got my email, about half an hour after the newspapers got theirs). It wasn’t a big surprise, but I think it’s a good choice. And the delayed announcement did manage to create a little buzz about the campaign today.

I’m running late, so here is John Edwards’ “Two Americas” speech, one of my favorite speeches of the Democratic primary season, and a link to the New York Post cover story announcing Gephardt as Kerry’s VP choice.

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Precarious Life

Interesting Salon review of Judith Butler’s latest book, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, a collection of five political essays on the post-9/11 world. The reviewer, Astra Taylor, introduces the oft-repeated argument that theory is dead (long live theory), but instead of participating in theory’s burial, Taylor argues that Butler’s latest book actually makes a powerful case for why we need theory more than ever. According to Taylor, Butler’s essays address a range of serious contemporary concerns:

Our government’s response to Sept. 11, the charge of anti-Semitism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Guantánamo detainees.

Not much to add here because I haven’t read the book yet, but Butler’s concept of a “hierarchy of grief” seems particularly relevant in thinking about the US response to the September 11 attacks, and I’m intrigued by Butler’s attempt to define an alternative response, besides violence, to the very deep grief many of us felt in the aftermath of 9/11.

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Steal This Movie

Okay, it’s hardly an original title, but I’m in a jumpy mood today (summer budget woes). Just came across Krista’s reference to this Michael Moore comment (via Boing Boing) in the Sunday Herald, in which he encouraged people to distribute his film online for noncommercial use:

I don’t agree with the copyright laws and I don’t have a problem with people downloading the movie and sharing it with people as long as they’re not trying to make a profit off my labour. I would oppose that,” he said. “I do well enough already and I made this film because I want the world, to change. The more people who see it the better, so I’m happy this is happening.”

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Michael Moore, Superstar

Here’s an interesting New York Times article by Sharon Waxman about the current popularity of documentary films. Waxman’s main subject is (surprise!) F9/11, which broke the $50 million barrier this weekend, but she also notes the popular success of last summer’s documentary mini-hits, Spellbound and Winged Migration as part of the larger trend of the popularization of the “nonfiction film.”

Harvey Weinstein compares the F9/11 phenomenon to the popularization of indie film by sex, lies, and videotape and the breakthrough of foriegn film represented by Cinema Paradiso and Life is Beautiful, all Miramax releases (Harvey, you must be so proud!). Others have attributed this new-found popularity to a greater patience with documentary or nonfiction due to reality television, although I think the “popularity” is somewhat overstated (like Matt Dentler, I’m a little troubled that reality TV is being used as an excuse to declare televised fiction dead).

To some extent, I think F9/11 is a special case of documentary success, based largely (no pun intended) on Michael Moore’s status as “star,” someone who can guarantee a specific audience. I’d imagine that unless Moore deviates considerably from his muckraking style, he’s going to have this built-in audience for some time (notice that previews for The Corporation have not been shy about pointing out Moore’s presence in that film). And of course, the timing of the film’s release is absolutely perfect. The issues at stake in terms of the elections and the various scandals in Iraq have also mobilized audiences to see the film.

Still, it’s fantastic to see documentary film being debated so intensely in the newspapers, on the Internet, and on television. The article addresses the Big Question about F9/11, about whether or not it should be classified as a documentary, or whether another term (nonfiction film?) might be more appropriate. Errol Morris (who is set to direct a series of anti-Bush advertisements for MoveOn.org) addresses this question in the Times article:

“There are a whole number of really important questions here,” said Errol Morris, a documentary pioneer whose Fog of War, about former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, won the Oscar this year. “Does it makes sense to talk about a movie being true or false? I’m not sure it does. In fact I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. Movies are movies.”

Still, he said, investigative documentaries have a responsibility to seek clear facts and clear answers. His 1988 film The Thin Blue Line contributed to the freeing of a man wrongly convicted of murder.

“It’s not a question of the movie but of the ethics of the person making the movie,” Mr. Morris said. “Journalism is not infallible, but we depend on journalists to do something of a good job in investigating a story, whatever that means — to be motivated by a desire to find out stuff.”

Otherwise, he said, “you’re just using the legal troubles of people as fodder for entertainment.”

I’m not sure if Morris’s comment about using other people’s misery as entertainment is a veiled critique of Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans, but that’s one of the questions I’ve been mulling as I prepare to write my SAMLA paper on that film. I’ll also be thinking about this boundary between “true” and “false” in that paper. I don’t have any clear answers yet, but I do think that Morris is asking the right questions. And, as the documentary or nonfiction film continues to evolve (and continues its popularity), I think we’ll be looking at these issues for a while.

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[FC] The Spirit of Terrorism

I’ve stumbled across Baudrillard’s “The Spirit of Terrorism” a few times since its publication soon after the September 11 attacks but didn’t have a permanent link to it until now. I haven’t re-read the essay today (still working on Implicating Empire, which has been very useful), but I’m trying to track down essays that read the attacks in terms of the connection between the World Trade Center and representations of globalization.

I’m already relatively familiar with the DeLillo and Zizek essays on 9/11, especially after teaching 25th Hour (which may make a cameo appearance in the essay I’m writing). My arguments in this essay are still very tentative, so I’m not really ready to share too many details.

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