Archive for February, 2010

Activate Your Vagus Nerve!

February 28, 2010

CBC radio on Sundays can be so satisfying. Norah Young on Spark had an interesting piece on personal branding. I like to think of kulturbot as an exercise in impersonal un-branding, but Anand Giridharadas’ thoughts on the the fervent need to style and profile online were very interesting.  While it is interesting that Giridharadas links the personal branding trend to the shift in the global economy to a more precariously situated workforce, I disagree that “For those who bemoan the scriptedness of public officials or the brainwashing of corporate advertising, personal brands can be deliverance”.  Is personal branding not a way to apply the form-over-content approach of corporate identity construction to the level of individuals? In this sense, the trend signals an incursion of corporate culture into ever more personal dimensions of social life. What interests me is the possibility to co-opt branding strategies and use then against themselves.

Mary Hynes also had an interesting conversation on Tapestry with Dacher Keltner, a Princeton researcher who studies human kindness. Given the hegemonic uses to which cynical discourses on the “innate” selfishness and violence of human nature are put, investigations such as Keltner’s offer a refreshing counterpoint.

Our research and that of other scientists suggest that activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of caretaking and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity. People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism—compassion, gratitude, love and happiness.” Dacher Keltner in Scientific America.

The idea that there is an inherently altruistic side to human nature runs contrary to a great deal of popular entertainment that tends to support a darker view of human nature. I was simultaneously impressed and disturbed, for instance, with the ideological use to which Martin Scorsese employs reflections on human violence in his new film Shutter Island. The scene in which De Caprio’s character is talking to the guard in a jeep makes an argument for the innately violent tendencies of human nature in a particularly unsettling and effective way, with the guard suggesting that DeCaprio would bite his eye out given the proper circumstances, then patting him on the back like a baseball coach before DeCaprio makes his final assault on the lighthouse.

"I'll teach that shrink to mess with my vagus nerve!"

The inversion at the end of the film (spoiler warning) where we find out that DeCaprio actually is violent and deluded reinforces the idea that humans, like inmates in a facility for the criminally insane, are in need of systematic guidance and control. This Hobbesian discourse needs to be interrogated for the manner in which fear of ourselves and each other is employed to justify systematic exploitation. Keltner’s investigations are a noteworthy movement in this direction.

Mission Accomplished

February 28, 2010

At the risk of sounding like the ultimate kill-joy, I was extremely happy when my friend announced, just now, that the Olypmics were officially over and done. Now the urban poor can move back into Vancouver, and the less poor can start to talk about how the city is going to pay off the huge debt incurred from the whole operation. Happily, I made it through the entire two weeks seeing nary a snippet of the actual games. The trumpeting announcements on CBC radio every half hour were bad enough! I did, however, buy the official doughnut.

Please Do Not Adjust Your Shopping Carts

February 28, 2010


The grocery store was transformed today by the broadcasting of the Canada/America Olympic Hockey game over the supermarket’s PA system. It was extremely difficult to make out any of the details of what the announcer was actually saying do to the poor acoustics and speakers. One was left with a War of the Worlds effect in which the essence of hockey excitement was distilled from any actual game content. It was a strange soundtrack to accompany grocery shopping, the live media feed linking the florescent-lit aisles of provisions with the illusion of live action from an ice rink in Vancouver. Not that I disbelieve that the hockey game was actually occuring, but had the announcer being talking about alien spacecraft tromping through the cities of North America on telescoping metal legs, I doubt that the sense of tension and unreality in the store would have been any less pronounced.

At the check-out counters, all the staff had little temporary Olympic tattoos on their cheeks, and the cashier who was ringing through my goods commented on how tense she felt just at that moment. The game had just gone into overtime, though I’m not sure how anyone could have told from the announcers account, unintelligible as it was from distortion of the sound system.

When we arrived back home with our groceries, there was flag waving and horn honking on the street, and I marveled at the manner in which the sense of impersonal community is formed through sports rituals such as Olympic hockey. Happily, it is a largely innocuous form of collective celebration, and offers no threat of actually awakening people to a sense of their solidarity and power to change the world for the better.

Bourdieu on the Olympics

February 28, 2010

A parallel can be seen [between] artistic production [and the Olympics]. The individual artist’s directly visible actions obscure the activity of the other actors—critics gallery owners, museum curators, and so on—who, in and through their competition, collaborate to produce the meaning and the value of both the artwork and the artist. Even more important, they produce the very belief in the value of art and artist that is the basis of the whole art game. Likewise, in sports, the champion runner or javelin thrower is only the obvious subject of a spectacle that in some sense is produced twice. The first production is the actual event in the stadium, which is put together by a whole array of actors, including athletes, trainers, doctors, organizers, judges, goalkeepers, and masters of the ceremonies. The second show reproduces the first in images and commentary. Usually labouring under enormous pressure, those who produce on the second show are caught up in the whole network of objective relationships that weighs heavily on each of them. (Bourdieu, On Television 81)

Bourdieu goes on to call for an investigation into the processes of production behind the Olympics, so that we might collectively take control of the event and return it to the humanistic, universalist values at the heart of the project. How could this investigation be accomplished? It might be interesting to make a documentary about the media industry that produces the Olympic spectacle, but would that simply be adding another level of media encoding to the original event? It seems that a good way to capitalize on the spectacular apparatus is to make the culture industry itself the star of its own ancillary spectacle. In this way, the revenues generated by the Olympics could be extended just that much further, even after the Original event is over.

Human Currency

February 21, 2010


I find this commercial interesting for the manner in which it objectifies Olympic athletes by equating them with the mechanized process by which money is created. Most astounding is the absolute lack of shame with which this commercial depicts people as equivalent to cash in the Olympic context. While ostensibly attempting to express how much Canadians value their athletes, the ad’s visual message serves to objectify and dehumanize the Olympians, unintentionally offering a critique of the manner in which the Olympic culture industry transforms athletes into human capital.