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When Elvis Died

Named after an essay by Lester Bangs, a rock journalist and one of the my favorite authors, this blog is my scratch pad for ideas, commentaries, and links.

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Wednesday
May132009

Jared Diamond and Papua New Guinea

With anthropology (my chosen field of study) being distant from the levers of power these days, it's rare that a controversy within the discipline spills up over the tall walls that surround the ivory tower, and into public discourse.  But recently, a scandal has erupted that has broken down those walls, and shined a light on the proverbial (and literal) skeletons in anthropology's closet.

Jared Diamond, author of the Pullitzer prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel , as well as Collapse , and The Third Chimpanzee , and lessor known, but academically influential articles like "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race" (agriculture, by the way) wrote an article last year in the New Yorker Magazine called "Vengeance is ours:  What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?" (registration required).  In this article, he profiles a guy named Daniel Wemp, an indigenous resident of Papua New Guinea (PNG), and uses his life, and quests for revenge, to tell a story about the tragedy of violence in human society.  When it came out, I got into an e-argument with some folks over at Boing Boing because I said that Diamond wasn't an anthropologist, had no formal training in anthropology, and wasn't in an anthropology department (he's trained as an ornithologist, and has a position in the geography program at UCLA). Alongside that argument was a general critique I have of Diamond's work, which basically boils down to him being an ecological-determinist--someone who views human history and social progress as a product of the environmental variation, rather than of human action and inequality. 

Within the last month, it has come to light that Daniel Wemp, the PNG man that Diamond had quoted in his article, is suing Diamond and the New Yorker for $10 million dollars, for slander--Wemp claims that Diamond fabricated huge sections of their conversations, including stories of murder and sexual assault supposedly perpetrated by Wemp in his "primitive" need for revenge.  You can read about Wemp's claims against Diamond at here, at the Website stinkyjournalism.org, run by Rhonda Shearer, the widow of one of my science heroes, Dr. Stephen Jay Gould.  (As an aside, Gould was a brilliant and groundbreaking evolutionary biologist, a tireless crusader against all forms of shoddy science, including racist socio-biology, to which Diamond's eco-determinism is a not-so-distant cousin, and creationism, as well as being a rabid baseball fan.)

At its heart, this lawsuit is tied to anthropology's deeply colonialist legacy.  Anthropology got its start as the science of cataloging people that Western nations had conquered and exploited in other parts of the world.  In America, Anthropology springs from two large roots--the cataloguing and documenting of indigenous people, as well as the exhuming of them and their ancestors remains , and the quest to determine the biological fixity of race, in order to perpuate slavery and white supremacy (no links, but see Chapter 2 of Gould's book The Mismeasure of Man .)  Diamond's books are anthropological, even if he isn't an anthropologist per se, and he is consciously or not, continuing a tradition of exploitation and marginalization of non-white indigenous people across the world. 

What is so ironic to me is that Daniel Wemp is from Papua New Guinea, and Diamond begins "Guns, Germs, Steel" with a conversation he had with another Papua New Guinean--a man named Yali.  The book starts with Yali and Diamond walking on a beach in PNG, and Yali asks Diamond "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo, and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"  The title of the book is Diamond's answer to that question, and he spends the next few hundred pages articulating why geography, environment, and resources led to Europe expansion to places like PNG. 

But Diamond glosses over the historical context of the question.  For more on this, you can can read Gewertz and Errington's book "Yali's Question: Sugar, Culture, and History" .  Diamond describes Yali as a "local politican" who had a "role in getting local people to prepare for self government".  This is a gross over-simplification of Yali's place in Papua New Guinean society.  Yali had been a religious and political leader since after WWII, when he had served, with commendation in the Australian Army.  After returning to PNG and attempting to utilize what he had learned in Australia to modernize the country, and re-inspire indigenous religious traditions (the most famous of which is the so-called Cargo Cult, and see also Lawrence's Road Belong Cargo ), he was deemed a threat by the Australian colonial authority, and put in prison.  While in prison, and afterward, he organized strikes and other protests against the government and capitalist plantation interests whom he felt had turned on him and his people (can't find any web citations, but I think it's documented in Marvin Harris's Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches   He was one of the central figures in the drive toward New Guinean independence.  In 1972, when Diamond met him, he had become disillusioned with politics, and even though PNG would soon become independent of Australia, he was still concerned with the inequality that the cash-crop system and its capitalist exploitation had wrought in his country.  His question to Diamond was not about why his people didn't have more "things", but why colonialists had more than their fair share, and his people had so much less.  In short, Yali's question was about inequality, not about environment.

Okay, here's a summary of some great pieces providing extensive context on this controversy:

1.)Diamond's original New Yorker article, which unfortunately is by Subscription only, and may have been taken down by the New Yorker after the controversy ensued.

2.)The Summary of Wemp's lawsuit and claims against Diamond's article, written by Shearer and her colleagues.  To my understanding, this is a summary of a much larger report that they have put together, but not yet released.  They also have a good list of articles on this controversy as well, that, I'm happy to say, parallels mine.

3.)Articles on Diamond at Savageminds.org, an anthropology group blog.  These articles, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, have documented the problems and pitfalls of Diamond's article, and are pretty interesting reading on the cultural context of war in New Guinea (itself a long-studied anthropological topic), anthropological ethics, and more.  I don't agree with everything they've written, but there is a lot there, if you're interested in delving.  The comments section is pretty hot right now, and well worth reading for why this is so controversial.

4.)Articles on Diamond by Louis Proyect:  The Unrepentant Marxist.  Proyect is one of my favorite bloggers, and writes with equal skill and verve about socialist party politics, indigenous rights issues, and the latest in cinema.  His articles have contextualized Diamond's work in the larger social history of anthropology, particularly as it relates to state and capitalist exploitation.

 

Tuesday
Apr282009

Playing for Change: Stand By Me

As most people who know me will tell you, I'm a skeptic about the emancipatory power of technology, particularly information technology.  I am enough of a student of history to know that any time someone heralds the equalizing power of some communication revolution, it's usually a cover for its benefits being unevenly distributed, because society is unevenly distributed.  Thus, the more and more we proclaim the Internet as the new democracy, the more and more I fear that it may become a tool of our own domination. 

And of course, the contradiction for me is that I'm a huge geek, and love all these technologies in a totally un-selfconscious way.  I recognize the power they have, even the power they have over me, but I'm so enthralled with their power and potential that I sometimes lose sight of their social context.  When I saw this, from the Concord Music Group's Playing for Change series, I first got excited from the technological end--here were people all across the world, playing the same song!  But then I listened to the song, and watched the faces of the people playing it, and my geeky excitement faded, into rhythm and melody and joy.

 


 

Nothing changes, the world is still as dangerous and deluded as ever.  But for me, for a few minutes, light appeared in a shadowy crevice under my heart...hope it does something for you.

Monday
Apr132009

My favorite Screams: Rage Against the Machine

When I heard, a dozen years ago, that Rage Against the Machine was going to be on Saturday Night Live, I was ecstatic--I was a huge fan of the band, and had been ever since I had heard their eponymous debut in 1993.  When I heard that they were going to be sharing the bill with (thankfully) former Republican presidential candidate Steve "Flat Tax" Forbes, I originally thought it was quite a coup.  At a time when it seemed like politics was all keeping away from people you disagree with, here was a show that was willing to present two very starkly different sides of the political spectrum.

Saturday arrived, and I stayed up late and sat through Forbes' awful monologue, and some terrible sketches where he incessantly promoted his viciously anti-poor policies, and too many commercials to count.

Then Rage came out, and played this:

 

 

It was one of the most electrifying performances I have ever witnessed--even watching it again, 12 years later, almost to the day, I still get goosebumps by how powerful this band was.  Tim Bob and Brad Wilk were in the pocket the whole time, Tom Morello was the image of the avant-garde guitar virtuoso until the end when he lost his shit and thrashed around the stage, and Zach De La Rocha stalked the space between them all like a panther, waiting to strike, then screamed out the final words as the song reached its climax.

I was so excited by this performance--I couldn't wait to see what they would play for their second song.  And then it didn't arrive.  There were more crappy sketches in the dumping ground second half of the show, and then Steve Forbes and the cast came out and thanked everyone (sans Rage) and the credits rolled. I was disappointed, but promptly forgot about it in the haze of Sunday morning.

It was only later that I found out what happened--SNL had kicked Rage Against the Machine out of the building after their song because the band had dared to unfurl upside-down american flags over their amps.  This from a show that had courted controversy since its inception, a show that was legendary for fighting off network censorship, a show that had always tried to be dangerous. 

Looking back on it, I think this is a good lesson in why "balance" in the abstract always means, in practice, the ceding of the discussion to the powerful.  SNL's producers probably thought it would be a great idea to have an arch-conservative and a radical leftist band on the same bill.  They probably thought that this was the ultimate expression of democracy, and the free exchange of oppositional ideas.  What they forgot (or didn't want to admit) was that, in a stratified society, with unimaginable extremes of wealth and poverty, and unequal power, somebody gets to decide whose ideas are worth exchanging and whose aren't. 

Let that be a warning to all who argue that expanded communication alone will save us from the ails of the world.

Wednesday
Mar112009

Watchmen Pt.3:  Conclusion

The story that's being told of the making of this film is almost super-heroic--lost in the wilderness for 15 years, it finally landed in the lap of Zack Snyder, who fought and won against the Big Bad studios to realize his vision and bring the film to light.  Given that narrative, it's easy to sympathize with Snyder, and give him a pass on the few minor (and even one or two major) changes he made to the plot.  Patton Oswalt made this point, as has my friend the Minister of Intrigue.

To be honest, I didn't mind the changes either.  The film was an almost perfect simulacrum, down to individual panels lovingly recreated as panning shots.  It even included aspects which, upon reflection, work as comic panels but not so well as movie scenes (especially Watchmen's love scene--much better in text and image than in sound and movement).

Given how hard he fought, this film must be the product of Snyder's white-hot purity of vision--it's the film he wanted to make.  And it was lovingly rendered, even beautiful at times, but Snyder filmed Watchmen with the eye of a curator.  The film was so authentic that, in my mind, it lost what made it unique as a graphic novel.  What filled the space between was the entertainment world to which Watchmen was prologue, and even presaged--the rise of superhero movies, MTV's stylistics, CGI re-shaping what could be shown on screen, and maybe less consciously, hyper-individualist consumerism, popularity politics, and all of the other prickly cactuses of the 20th/21st century flip.

I don't begrudge Snyder for that--this is where the line between source material and material conditions gets hazy.  But where Moore took what came before him and was around him, and tortured it into a horrifying truth, Snyder lovingly cultivated and curated its every jagged contour. And in the end the film becomes a celebration of what the book was parodying--a huge, powerful mythology, self-sustaining and un-interrogated.

Or maybe I'm just a sinner quietly casting the first stone.  It's not like I picked up the first issue in 1985 after reading Secret Wars II, the concluding issues of the Dazzler, or the soon-to-be-eradicated clusterfuck that was the FlashDespite my first encounter with it, I only read Watchmen after falling in love with the comics that were made because of it--Sandman, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, etc...   I also grew up on all the stuff that I mentioned as filling in the gaps between book and film.  Who am I to declare this movie a deviation from a pure form?

But then, of course, Alan Moore was just feeding on his influences too--pop music, Mad magazine, noir fiction, cold war geopolitics, anarchist theory, etc.... and mixing them all into a superhero parable. What's essential and the "true core" of that? If I keep searching for something pure to measure against what seems so patently false, will I ever find an island to rest on, like the protagonist in Tales of the Black Freighter who comes ashore on his raft of bodies with the intent to kill those who wronged him? Or will I find that that very quest is fruitless; a contradictory need, inherited from the world I'm in, to seek solace in a mythical purity?  Is the whole search just a way for me to escape my conditions?  Is that all we are ever doing when we complain about film adaptations?

Watchmen the movie doesn't answer any of these questions, and Watchmen the comic gives what I think are actually pretty shitty answers (that's for another day).  And yet both are still great, and I love both, though in different ways.  But I still feel unsettled, and I wonder whether that says little about the film, and more about me...

Monday
Mar092009

Watchmen Pt 2: With great power...

What I always thought made Watchmen so spectacular was that it held up a mirror, clear and brutal, to the often blithe mythology of superheros, in two ways. First, it took what Marvel started in the 1960s, with superheros as people with real problems, to its most logical extension.  Rather than simply being human beings who incidentally wore masks and had outrageous abilities, Watchmen probed what kind of person would decide to put on a mask in the first place, and whether or not Spiderman's Shakespearean couplet that:

With great power
comes great responsibility

might actually lead to, at best, a certain narcissism, and a worst, a megalomania or even a dehumanizing God-complex. In Moore's mirror, putting on a mask doesn't just protect an identity, it builds a wall against the world, and allows any basic human neuroses, normally worked out in the day-to-day of being around other people and communicating, to fester and grow.

But Watchmen also moved outward from the psychological to the social, outlining an alternate history of the 20th century injected with costumed neurotics.  In so doing, Watchmen went beyond the insulated societies that populated most comics, and into a powerful critique of comics themselves. What about our society requires superhero mythology?  Does it say something about us that we value these people in costumes as a form of entertainment?  Given a society as contradictory and dangerous as ours, might superheros be too simple a solution to problems that we face?

This made Watchmen almost necessarily reactionary, because it described a world like our own and then used that description as a critique. That world, of Cold War state and personal terror, rampant consumerism combined with merciless monopoly capitalism, widespread inequality, and fragmenting identity became more than a backdrop for Moore's tragic narrative about costumes and masks--it was a character unto itself, perhaps even more powerful than Dr. Manhattan.  Watchmen was of a time and place, and more than anything else, it felt urgent in its desire to wring every ounce of meaning and sanity from a world increasingly meaningless and insane.

And it's that element that is not present in the film adaptation.  But how could it be?  For Zack Snyder to have made a "true" adaptation, he would have had to change the setting and the story to something more closely resembling our world; he seems too much of a purist to let that happen.  And he would have had to make a deliberately political and polemical film, which would have upset studios already strained with drying budgets, lawsuits, and nearly 20 years of attempts and failures to get this film to screen.  What we have instead feels like a period piece, with its subtle fury almost quaint, and safely nestled in the past.

Sunday
Mar082009

Watchmen pt 1: Action Stories

I remember a TV commercial--it must've been the late 80s--put out by D.C. comics as an effort to drum up readers, and consisting of a young man proclaiming the exciting D.C. line up against the background of a darkened city. I can't find it on youtube, but the one thing I remember distinctly, was his description of something called "Watchmen" as one of D.C.'s "action stories". Being a burgeoning comic-buff, I knew the other titles that he rattled off with the glee of a pitch-man, but I didn't know this Watchmen. It wasn't until years later that I realized how absurd it was to pitch Watchmen to a TV audience as an "action story".

And now we have a gargantuan behemoth of a movie, brought to the screen after (by my count) four directors, two different studios, one lawsuit, and nearly two decades of skepticism, speculation, and incredulity that this action story could become a feature film. At this point, it has superceded its own content to become a cultural event, like the moon landing--so huge and impossible that it's kind of awesome that it's even here at all.

But what about the content that (supposedly) brought it here? Does it carry itself from the page to the screen? I'll leave that for others to judge. I liked it. Some parts I didn't like, some parts I loved. But really, even if you knew nothing about it, about its significance for comics as a genre, about the endless wrangling over ownership and the problems of adaptation; even if you knew none of that, you've been seeing commercials, trailers, posters, and god-knows-whatelse for the last six months. You can throw down your eight dollars and develop an opinion as easily as me.

But here I am, the next day, and I woke up being so unsettled by my reaction to it that I started writing these lines, and when I came out the other side, I had written pages and pages. I am left with questions that I can't answer, because the answers seem to be only more questions--about authenticity, the modern world, and what it is I like about comic books, or if I even like comic books at all. I will mercifully edit them down into smaller chunks and post them over the next few days, in an effort to try and pin down why I enjoyed the movie, even as I felt hollowed out by it.

Sunday
Feb152009

A warning from the 90s on technology, capitalism, and progress

I have been working on a paper about Geographic Information Systems and archaeology, and specifically on the way in which changes in the political-economy of late 20th century capitalism have impacted the development of modeling procedures and usage variation in GIS.  I was reading a book entitled Ground Truth: The Social Implications of Geographic Information Systems edited by John Pickles (Guilford Press, New York 1995).  As I read these paragraphs, I was struck by how they seemed to speak directly to "the new media revolution", the expansion of the internet, and the pitfalls of seeing all technological change as unblemished "progress".  I quote it here for your consideration:

But, like all highways, the information highway requires points of access, capital investment, navigation skills, and spatial and cultural proximity for effective use. Like the automobile highway, the information highway fosters new rounds of creative destruction and differentiates among users and between users and non-users. It brings regions of difference under a common logic and technology, and through differential access and use exacerbates old and creates new patterns of social and economic differentiation. While for some, information means the provision of alternatives and the satisfaction of choice (even if a “choice” signifies a socially constructed yet now naturalized whim of the wealthy consumer), for others this post-industrialism (and its attendant postmodern cultural forms) must still be seen in the context of a political economy of graft, monopolism, and uneven development.

Such processes of territorial colonization, globalization, and production of new scales of action contrast sharply with a techno-cultural ideology of enhanced autonomy and self-actualization, and severely complicates the assessment of the relationship between technological innovation and social change. Not only do data technologies treat all data and information within a universal logic and calculus, and not only do imaging technologies reach without break across socially and historically differentiated territories, but the tools themselves permit types of surveillant intervention that restructure everyday life itself. For some, this is a matter of market logic in which waves of competitive, leading-edge technologies are sufficient in themselves to drive the process of economic and social restructuring; the adoption of the technology by others is a sufficient (and necessary) reason for its adoption by us. Thus, the dynamics of development and adoption are legitimized by an ideology of “progress” and an un-problematized belief in the importance of technical “advances” across such fields as science, medicine, administration, and logistics. New data handling and imagine capabilities are, in this way, full naturalized as the next logical and necessary step in the advance of science and society, and the stimulus to new ways in which individuals and groups can overcome the barriers of distance and enhance their abilities to exercise control over society, space, and the earth.

But where technology is not seen as a social relation, it is fetishized and aestheticized, the contingent nature of technical outcomes is overlooked, and the struggles waged over the choice and application of any particular technology are ignored.

Thursday
Jan012009

My fave record for 2008: Frightened Rabbit, Midnight Organ Fight

I listened to Frightened Rabbit's The Midnight Organ Fight pretty constantly since I bought it off emusic a few months ago.  It's stuck with me in a way that few other records have this year.  I've found myself turning to the past a lot, and either revisiting bands I loved in former times, or seeking out bands that I never listened to when they were released.  There's literally no objective criteria why this album is better than any other record released this year, but I wanted to say a few things about it.

I first heard "Keep Yourself Warm" on the Onion' A.V. Club "Best new tracks of 2008 so far" feature.  They said that the vocal hook "It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm" sounds like "resignation as well as a grand statement of purpose", when they reviewed the album.  What is easily missed, is the music, which builds off a single drone keyboard line, and guitars that sound reminiscent of church bells.  Alanna pointed out to me that, when put together with the lockstep drums that come in later, the songs sounds like a DJ spinning house music in some dark club, maybe "the hole" where singer and principle songwriter Scott Hutchison will "find out more".

Personally, my favorite moment on the song comes right before the eponymous couplet that the A.V. Club staff liked so well.  Right before it all explodes in a wild cacaphony, Hutchison and his brother Grant (the drummer) sing, in close ascending harmonies, "you won't find love in a hole".  It's achingly beautiful, and lends the next line its previously remarked on sense of purpose.

The whole album is filled with moments like that:  "It'll be the only thing holding me up" on the opening track "The Modern Leper"; "When it's all gone something carries on" in "Head rolls off"; "You twist and whisper the wrong name--I don't care and nor do my ears" on "The Twist".  It's a dark record, about the longing for someone you can no longer be with, even when you've forgotten why they made you happy, and every moment with them brings some kind of pain.

And like those awful situations, there are many embarrassing and maybe even regrettable actions on the record.  I winced the first time I heard Hutchinson, in talking about his feelings of love, say that "we should kick its cunt in and watch as it dies bleeding", or when the bombastic horns kick in, as he, in all seriousness on the second song of the album, that "this is the last song I'll write about it you".  It's outrageous and melodramatic, but so are most break-ups I've ever been in or heard about.  And in a way, it drives the point home so much harder.

Wednesday
Dec102008

The International CBS Tendency

 

I was in my car the other day, and flipped on my local talk radio station WHMP.  They host Air America, some local stuff like the Bill Dwight show, and a few other programs, but their hourly newscast is done by CBS news.  Reports continued to stream in about the Chicago factory takeover, which I wrote about the other day.

Imagine my surprise when the syndicated opinion commentator ( Dave Ross is his name) called for Republic Windows and Doors to give the factory to the workers.  That sounds a lot like workers owning the means of production.

It's been a while since I've been stunned by radio, so thanks Dave Ross, and CBS, for broadcasting an eminently reasonable idea, for once.

Sunday
Dec072008

Homemade tortillas

I am desperately trying (and failing) to finish my prospectus, and write a paper for a conference in January.  Instead of doing that, I'm surfing the internet, reading recipe blogs.  In particular, I like baking and books, though I suspect that I'll never be as proficient with breads and cakes as Ariela.  I can bake two things, basically.  One is homemade thin pizza crust, which I'll write about some other day of procrastination.  The other is homemade tortillas.

I had no idea that it was so ridiculously easy to make tortillas until Robert Rodriguez did it before my eyes on the Sin City DVD .  Now, I never go back, unless I'm too lazy.  They're so much better than any store bought tortillas, and they take about 40 minutes from "Hey, I'd like to eat some tortillas" to "Hey, I'm eating tortillas".  About 20 of that is rising time.  Yeah, it's that easy.  This recipe may look long, but that's just my verbosity--it's really all of about 6 steps.

There are five ingredients.  Yup...five, and you've probably got them around the house. Mix the first four together in a big bowl:

2 cups flour
1/2-teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup butter (or lard)

I use butter myself.  I tried lard and found I didn't like it as much--not sure why.  Anyway, mix them until you get something that looks like corn meal.

Add the fifth ingredient, which is about 3/4 of a cup of water, and keep 1/4 cup on hand.  Mix it together with a mixer on low, or a wooden spoon (my personal choice) for about a minute or so.  It should get sticky, but not sloppy.  If it's still breaking into clumps too much, add water a few drops at a time (I'm only barely kidding.  Seriously, spare the water--you're probably using too much).

Pull small clumps out with your fingers.  Put these chunks on a floured surface, and when they're all out and in a big pile, smush them together and start kneading--basically you want to hold the ball of dough and push in with your thumbs, rolling it over and over.  You can add a little flour to the surface if you need to, but the idea is to get dough that is smooth and elastic.

Once you get that, begin taking small golf-ball sized pieces off, roll them into balls, and arrange them on a plate.  Try not to let them touch.  You should get about 10-12 out of this amount.  Cover them with a damp (not wet) paper towel and let them sit out for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, get out a rolling pin, a relatively large skillet (say, wider than 10 inches in diameter, or thereabouts), a plate for your finished product, and find some surface to roll on.  I use a large flat chopping board.  Dust the surface lightly with flour.  Put the skillet on to high heat. Also, unless you want to just eat tortillas, now would be a good time to prepare filling.  Not that you couldn't just eat the tortillas--they're that good.

Take the paper towel off the dough balls.  They'll be damp (obviously) and slightly larger from rising.  Take one of the balls and flatten it with your thumbs to just slightly larger than a soup-can lid.  Once that's done, put it on the floured surface, roll it once, then flip it over, and roll it until it's about 10 inches in diameter (see why you needed a large skillet?) Flip it one more time, then drop it onto the skillet.

Let it cook there for about 10 seconds (yes, seconds), then use a spatula and flip it over.  Leave it sit for about 1-1 1/2 minutes, or until you start to see large bubbles.  Then flip again, press the edges with your spatula, and take that sucker off.  Do this with the rest, and add palm-fulls of flour if you get low or the uncooked tortillas start to stick to your pin or surface.  Stack em on your plate or in a tortilla warmer.  When you're done, you've got hot, delicious tortillas for any occasion!  Enjoy!