Archive for March, 2010

Beam Me up, Google!

March 27, 2010

Perhaps $200 000 is a reasonable price to pay for that weightless feeling and a view of the Great Wall of China, but Kulturbot beat them to it with a ten dollar bottle of Shiraz and the help of Google maps.

But we’d much rather see what’s what at the local skateboard park. Judging by the now vanished wooden obstacles, this photo was taken sometime last summer.

It’s strange how the fantasy of omnipresence offered by, say, the Star Trek teleporter has now become possible via the magic of the internet. Just a few clicks offers the impression of one’s having “beamed down” to the surface for a quick peak at the terrain. I imagine a team of Dr. Spocks in Google Inc. uniforms materializing for brief moments, making their unobtrusive panoramic photos, and then quietly dematerializing in a shimmering haze. They obey the Prime Directive of not interfering with the development of the cultures with which they come into contact, until someone in the population catches drift of what’s going on, and the overwhelming sensation of being continually watched suffuses the people’s experience of their world with a sense of hyperreality.


Outdoing Ozymandius

March 26, 2010

The view from an ice age condo

From a tiny fragment of finger bone found in a Siberian cave in 2008, researchers have surmised the existence of another species of human who might have walked the planet alongside Homo neanderthalis and the Homo sapiens from whom we moderns have descended. The cave, apparently, was a pretty good spot, because people were living there for over ten thousand years. But the strange fact of the sliver of a finger being the only trace remaining of an entire species of hominid leaves one to wonder about the transience of life — not to mention the question of whom else might have disappeared whilst we waited for the ice to melt.

Who Said it?

March 23, 2010

“Perhaps the value of an idea lies not in whether it is true or not, but in what the assumption of its truth or falsity makes possible.”

Nietzsche? William James? Patti Smith? Whoever might have said this (even if not in so many words), it is the Kulturbot Credo of the Week.

Thicker than Water

March 18, 2010

When I was jobless and living in Victoria, B.C., I had very little to do each day save for skateboard and make dinner for my girlfriend, who was working at a call centre. It was extremely hard for “out of towners” to find work, and we were just scraping by. One night, we splurged and went out to see the documentary The Corporation, which was playing at a local theatre. After the film, the director was actually there to answer questions, and after he was done talking, the radio station that sponsored the event had some prizes to give away. As luck would have it, my ticket was one of the ones called, and I went to the front of the theatre to choose my prize. There were an assortment of mostly CDs which must have been sent to the radio station as promotional items, and which they were giving away as prizes. In the semi-darkness of the theatre, I picked one that had an interesting looking cover. It turned out to be the Thicker than Water soundtrack to a movie about surfing made by musician and surfer Jack Johnson. My then girlfriend, who has excellent taste in music, was very happy with my random choice, as she had been looking to own that album for some time. It was just a little thing, but because we were so broke, it seemed like a major windfall.

So whenever I hear songs from this album (there’s one or two that make it on the radio, or the Starbucks’ feed from time to time) I associate the music with a sense of the Pacific Ocean, skateboarding, unemployment and the feeling of being very far from wherever it is that one is meant to be. The light, ethereal songs collected on the album carry for me a kind of nostalgic feeling for a time when being utterly lost held a certain liberating appeal.

The reason I’m thinking about all this, is that for the past couple months, I’ve been contemplating which of two projects to pursue for my PhD thesis. I was leaning, recently, towards a revised project that looks at the undead and film, whereas my original proposal that studies the political and community aspects of skateboard culture was seeming less interesting. But then today in a class where we were looking at Ranciere’s rather narrow redefinition of the political, we were asked to come up with some local examples of political action that would fit Ranciere’s template. My suggestion of skateboarding came under some heavy criticism from a fellow student who couldn’t see how the struggle of a skateboard community to gain control over a historic skateboard spot could be considered as in the same league as, say the struggles of the Zapatista movement in Mexico. And there is a difference in scale between the struggles of skateboarding youth to frame a recognized identity and sense of agency, and the fight of a displaced indigenous population, but I also saw in the student’s inability to recognize the skateboard community’s plight as a political one a symptom of just the kind of “lack of visibility” of the “people that have no part” that Ranciere is talking about.

This exchange left me with the conviction that the political dimensions of the struggle of disenfranchised youth to have both their historical narrative and sense of agency recognized within the larger social realm (what Ranciere calls the process of “subjectification”) is a narrative that needs to be written, and so I am now leaning towards my original proposal, with the hopes that the undead will continue to haunt popular culture long enough that I can come back to them at a not-so-distant date.

This change of direction was affirmed on my way home from dinner at a friend’s house tonight (although I should probably sleep on it before making any firm resolutions). I had my new skateboard with me and caught a late bus “down the mountain” as they say around here. The bus was empty save for a few people, including a couple of St. Patrick’s day revelers, scantily clad and clutching text-messaging devices. I made my way to the back corner seat (always my favourite spot). Sitting in the opposite corner was a lanky, older man in jeans and a grey shirt. He had long, oily brown hair and thin features, and was listening to music on some kind of portable MP3 player with a tiny speaker that was clipped to his shirt. It was hard to hear anything but the tinny beat over the dull roar of the bus engine, but when the bus stopped I was surprised to make out the familiar moog effects from Dark Water & Stars…one of the memorable tracks from the Thicker than Water soundtrack. (Could this have been one of Hamilton’s fabled surfers who ride the waves on the breakwater beneath the Burlington Skyway?) When this atmospheric song ended, and My Guru started (the next song on the album), I was having a hard time believing the uncanny manner in which this music, and the sense of unearthly displacement affixed to it in my mind, had tracked me down in the back seat of a Hamilton bus tilting its way down the escarpment, with the lights of the city spilled out below like so many flickering constellations.

Picture in Need of Caption

March 17, 2010

Note to Self

March 16, 2010

Keri Kettle, a Marketing student at the University of Alberta’s School of Business, has demonstrated that people tend to perform better when they expect feedback on a given task to be more immediate. His reasoning is that the fear of disappointment is such a strong motivator that the threat of immediate bad feedback will motivate people to perform, whereas the knowledge that possibly disappointing or negative feedback will be delayed acts to relax our drive to perform.

I’ll have to remember this when next I’m called upon to provide feedback to a student for one of my TA assignments: the sooner, the better. But by the time one reaches grad school, one would hope that it is not the fear of negative feedback, but rather the anticipation of encouragement that acts as the mainspring for producing good work. And then there is the idea of doing good work for its own sake, as its own inherent reward; this, I think, would confound Kettle’s conditioning-based model altogether.

Ride the Ides

March 15, 2010

Yes, I went skateboarding today, and now my back is a little sore. But wrist guards and my new *phat* Mark Gonzalez special deck kept me from doing too much damage. The Gonz is modeled after an oldschool deck design: wider than your average modern deck, and with a tapered tail and pointed spoon nose. It’s got a good heft, and for a tall rider it doesn’t flip out from under one’s feet too easliy. It’s odd how much difference an inch or so of extra deck space can make–I think I’ve found the perfect plank after all these years of riding!

After an hour or so of shredding, a couple of the local Beaz crew made a noisy appearance, riding into the downtown skatepark on their customized “low rider” white-wall tire wheeling, banana-seat slinging, souped-up bikes, which had just recently received the added customization of…motors! These things can go up to thirty klicks, and don’t require a license to operate just so long as there is also the option of using pedal power. But why peddle when you’ve got petro-burnin’ metal?

The winter has been hard on my system. I had to take numerous breaks from skating today just to catch my breath. My asthma is worse than ever…a combination of not swimming, too much sedentary reflection, excessive caffeine, and the everyday Hamilton smog cover. My little excursion today just might have saved me from serious pulmonary trauma. I continually tell myself that it’s time to turn in the ‘ol wheelieboard and consent to becoming dignified and portly. But then the sun comes out, the pavement appears from under its blanket of winter sludge, and I just can’t help busting a move or two.

The new game at the park is called (if I remember) “1 up” and is a variation of the older game SKATE. A rider does a trick, and then the other riders must follow suit, landing the same trick or they get a letter “S”. But once all the other riders have landed the trick, then the first rider must land the original trick and an additional trick, with the other riders following at the risk of getting another letter (“K”, “A”,”T” etc). The game proceeds in this manner with the original rider attempting to land the increasingly long string of tricks and the other players copying him or her, until the original rider fails to land a trick. Then the next rider has to land all of the original rider’s tricks, plus a new one of his or her own, with the other riders following suit until the new leader fails, and so on until everyone but one rider has spelled out “SKATE”. I would say this is a fun game, and an improvement on the original move-for-move version of SKATE. Players get to build on each other’s runs, and practice a line of tricks over and over until they get it. Kind of like the way a video game gets increasingly complicated and challenging the longer you play them.

The Lost Toy Archive

March 14, 2010

As dreamworld symbols of alienation and enchantment, then, the toys of my youth are both a sign pointing to certain social and personal wounds and a reservoir of potentially revolutionary energy. The answer to the question of how to liberate this energy from the obscurity of shoe boxes and eBay pages was stumbled upon accidentally when, instead of going through the trouble of scanning a cache of family photos assembled by my mother, I decided to make hand-drawn copies of them. In the meditative process of tracing these photos, of translating them into a new medium through the filters of consciousness and motor effort, the anecdotal material for much of this essay resurfaced. Just like the model builder in Stewart’s example, or the imperfections of the hand-made Russian toys in Benjamin’s, my tracing of the toy translates it from a product of alienated labour, a reified simulacra of the social, into a more humanized, imperfect and accessible copy of the past. […] To this extent, the process fostered Stuart’s redemptive nostalgia practice, making “further inscriptions on the landscape of encoded things” which “reopen cultural forms to history” (Stuart 232). The reclaiming of the personal and historical context behind the spectacular simulacra of my youth was one of the most exciting products of this entire process, brought to realization, it should be added, due to the maternal principle of preservation inherent in my mother’s photo archiving practice.

This paragraph best sums up the project of the Lost Toy Archive, the critical unpacking of which took me most of the weekend to revise. I suppose that near endless revising is the name of the game in academia, but this section made me feel that the process of trying to communicate ideas might be worth all the effort.

The Hermenuetics of Suspicion

March 13, 2010

The full cranial submersion of grad school has turned me into something of an interpretive monster. I can no longer seem to shut off the critical apparatus that ticks away in my head like a moth picking at the threads of an old sweater. The hermeneutics of suspicion that sees in all manner of texts (from poetry to movies to advertisements and radio spots) hidden power structures, unacknowledged interests, disavowed knowledge and systematic silences is a product of the critical tradition, from Nietzsche to the Frankfurt school and beyond that I have been immersed in for the past year and a half of studies.

So perhaps it is only natural that I should see hidden manipulation in hockey games, and that a movie I would have whole-heartedly embraced a couple of years ago should seem like the coming of age fantasy of bourgeoisie art brats. People wrongly confuse critical theory with its simple sibling, the conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories imagine that there must be someone, perhaps a small group of trans-national businessmen and political leaders, running the whole show and keeping the people down with their manipulations. Critical theory, on the other hand, helps point out concrete ways in which the dimensions of social exploitation and power imbalances are concealed in the everyday culture that we take for second nature.

The fact is, human society has, to date, always been the site of gross power imbalances and exploitation, though these social relations take on different forms in different periods. Modern mass consumer culture’s democratic myth of chips and televisions for everyone has covered over the uneven territory of opportunity and wealth distribution, making these disequilibriums appear to be random irregularities of fate on the impersonal wheel of fortune. The ideology of individualism and personal responsibility has been internalized by the people to such an extent that anyone who points out structural injustices is perceived as a reactionary conspiracy theorist (or perhaps a quaint, now harmless communist). Rather than admit to the subjugation we labour under (a realization which hurts), everyday anger and frustration is displaced on “fat people” or “welfare bums”, or SUV owners. This is the process of hegemony at work: subjugation is internalized and hence unrecognized; the true sources of our pain are projected outward, where displaced resentment insures that we never cultivate the sense of solidarity that would lead to actual community and resistance.

So even if the conspiracy theorists were in essence right, the paranoiac stance ensures that their suspicions will never lead to substantial change. Fighting the system involves, not overthrowing society as given, but establishing a co-existent counter system that disrupts the given regime’s ability to divide and conquer, and to rule by dissimulation. It is this possibility that makes me think there is an important future for the discipline of cultural studies (and for history, English, and the “human sciences” in general) as a series of techniques for decoding the sophisticated world of information and ideology that electrical culture amplifies to the nth degree. An old Zen proverb is instructive here. The poet claims that before he studied zen, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. Upon embarking on zen practice, mountains were suddenly no longer mountains and rivers were no longer rivers. But after passing through the needle’s eye of zen’s “gateless gate”, mountains became mountains again, and rivers resumed their natural courses.

A similar process seems to be playing itself out in my study of critical theory. If movies can no longer be movies, and video games no longer innocent entertainments, then perhaps it is best not to fight the process. A time may come when I can flip on the television without feeling my soul was at stake, but for the time being I’ll bury my head in some books and continue casting suspicious glances at the big screen of contemporary culture.

The Pleasure of Being Robbed

March 13, 2010

The title of Josh Safdie’s 2008 indie film debut, The Pleasure of Being Robbed makes more sense if one reads the hand-written notes on the folded poster that serves as an insert to the DVD release. It seems that Safdie and his friends (including the actress Eleonore Hendricks, who plays the kleptomanic protagonist in the film) were themselves victims of a New York city thief who broke into Sadie’s car and stole thousands of dollars of film equipment. We learn that this occurred on the fifth day of shooting, which precludes reading the event as the traumatic kernel that informs the movie’s plot, as one would assume that by the fifth day of actual filming, the director would already have some idea of what his film was going to be about. And yet, upon reflection, the trope of life imitating art does provide an interesting reading of the film’s narrative structure, as well as offering a possible explanation for some of its instructive blind spots.

The insert’s anecdote fits into a surprisingly common pattern exhibited by supplementary material on DVD “bonus features” which we might describe as testimonies of the uncanny way that, in the course of a film’s production, real life incidents mirror the artistic content of the film. This happens, for instance, in Atom Egoyan’s commentary to the DVD version of his 1991 film, The Adjuster. The scene in which Hera’s sister, Seta is visually assaulted by a man masturbating in her living room window (while she herself is watching banned porn that Hera has surreptitiously recorded during her job as a censor for the Ontario government) is one of the central uncanny moments of the film, wherein a “punctum” is created between the films’ different levels of representation (the taboo video fantasy suddenly becomes a startling and odious reality in her living room window). The uncanny vertigo generated by this moment is augmented by Egoyan’s commentary, which explains that the man in the window (a trench-coated figure who is seen haunting the Render family’s deserted housing development earlier in the film) was written into the script as the bankrupt developer of a suburban project that never got past the initial earth-clearing stages (the Render family, it turns out, live in one of the three model homes built on the otherwise barren plot of earth). The movie scenes that would have explained his otherwise mysterious presence in the film were left out of the final cut, but Egoyan relates how, in a strange example of art imitating life, the actual real-world developer and owner of the land and home which Egoyan had rented as a location showed up with his young daughters on the very day that the above-mentioned masturbation scene was being filmed. The consumer of the DVD commentary is thus faced with a further, startling level of simulation through which the excised sexual content (represented by the censored video being watched by Seta) makes an uncanny return to unsettle, not just the characters in the film, but the people involved in the actual production of the film itself.

To further pull any scrap of rug that might help us distinguish reality from fantasy out from under our feet, Agoyan is careful to point out that the phallus that appears in the film, and which evidently disturbed the developer and his daughters on their fateful chance appearance on the set, was fake. But this brings us back to The Pleasure of Being Robbed and the use of the uncanny “life imitating art” trope employed by the film’s insert. In the course of trying to find their stolen equipment, Sadie and his friends take a tour of New York city in which they “saw a lot of sadness” and “met characters [they] had no business with”, almost “becoming their friends”. Much in the same way the camera follows the Eleonore character in the film, Sadie’s team follow a man who lives in the same building as their alleged thief, even following him into a supermarket and going shopping with him. The real-world thief surrogate is thus subjected to the same treatment that the film’s klepto character Eleonore will also undergo. If we read the lost camera equipment in Freudian terms, as a traumatic incident of castration, then the fact that the male lead (also named Josh, and played by Sadie himself) actually sleeps with Eleonore, the thief character, makes sense of the film’s title.

Sadie’s surrogate Josh character’s act of sleeping with Eleonore (he actually “captures” her in a kind of blanket trap he has playfully constructed above his bed) becomes a symbolic act of recuperation of lost libidinal energy in the form of the stolen camera equipment, while the film itself becomes an act of symbolic retribution. The jouissance of this revenge fantasy (symbolically displaced in the film upon societal control structures like the police and the middle class) explains why depictions that would lead to some kind of understanding of Eleonore’s character or motivations, let alone the actual material conditions of her existence (how does she afford her Manhattan apartment?), are absent from the film. It also explains the lack of sympathy for ethnic minorities whom Eleonore victimizes, the best crafted example of which being the Oriental ping-pong enthusiast, whose lunch Eleonore manages to ruin in one of the film’s most amusing scenes.

I greatly enjoyed this film. It manages to capture the seemingly impenetrable mystique that is held by the everyday eccentricities of big city life, and this along with the excellent soundtrack make it a fun film to watch. The film contributes to the production of a counter-cultural habitus that attempts to come to terms with the alienation of modern life by appropriating some of its negative effects (crime, loneliness, racism). But it never delves deeply enough below the surface of these effects to provide a relevant critique, and thus seems to serve as an artfully constructed testimony to Mark Seltzer’s thesis regarding our modern “wound culture”, or the reconfiguring of social relations around sensational incidents of their breaking down.