This Week on Flow … Rita’s Paradox

When I first signed up to pen this issue’s intro comments, I thought I’d discuss my recent fascination with Machinima (aka machine cinema), trying to make sense of it by way of Henry Jenkins’ notion of convergence culture. But little did I know that we’d be running a fine feature column on that very topic by game scholars Judd Ethan Ruggill and Ken McAllister. For those unfamiliar with this game studies duo, you can find more of their research at the Learning Games Initiative, and read up on their recent job search experiences on The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required). Ok, so I’ll leave the Machinima discussion to the experts, and instead tackle more pressing concerns.

I need to make a public declaration: I cannot turn off the hurricane coverage … and I don’t know why. I’m not sure if this is a damning confession (expressing unconscious schadenfreude), an all-too-common heart-felt reaction (an empathic need to connect), or self-preservation. It almost feels as though not exactly knowing why I incessantly watch, is worst than questioning whether (no pun intended) I should watch at all.

Instead of trying to identify a precise answer to this question, I’ll share some of my disparate impressions of the cable news coverage thus far. In no particular order …

I am captivated by the sophisticated techno-science of storm tracking. I love the real-time tracking of Rita’s eye, its fluctuations in barometric pressure, its ever-shifting “cone of uncertainty,” and the ubiquitous clip of the pixilated vortex slowly retracing its ominous route through the gulf’s impossibly colored digital waters … again … and again, in its endless loop. And why does this graphic look more like Munch’s The Scream, than any electronic tool of meteorological divination?

Like Katrina, Rita has emboldened cable news reporters. Even the pre-Katrina-talking-head species now willfully challenge politicians on their disaster relief choices, and cable news channels have actually started producing investigative content. For example, immediate and vociferous public outrage at witnessing 1.5 million citizens making their agonizing stop-and-go exodus out of Houston encouraged the Texas Department of Transportation to open its southbound lanes to the congested northbound traffic. Furthermore, answers were demanded of Governor Rick Perry (Rep.) as to why these empty lanes weren’t made available earlier. CNN has also been running an investigative piece on the New Orleans Police Department, asking whether officers looted private residences following Katrina’s devastation. And many of the cable networks have aired extended interviews with poor survivors, many who are also people of color. This practice, on some level, is commendable.

These natural disasters have ruptured wide fissures of social desperation. Political chicanery, poverty, race and its undeniable intersection are available for public discussion and scrutiny … well, at least for the time being. Both New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s wrenchingly naked plea for assistance, (which is just about the most un-politician-like diatribe I’ve ever heard), and the Bush administration’s bold-faced attempt to spin their pathological commitment to politico-corporate cronyism, evidence the power of natural disasters to highlight the trite and inhumane quality of the political discourse that’s crafted for most news narratives.

Austin has been more directly affected than many other cities in the domestic South/Southwest during these successive calamities. Yet, we Austinites are still able to successfully insulate ourselves from the enormity of the situation (e.g., we don’t have to donate food or money, or visit the convention center). We can experience this televised spectacle as we do most; vicariously, from the safety of our own domestic spaces. But as I anxiously waited in long lines today for gas, batteries, ice, and water (which I have still not located) this hurricane event suddenly became a much more visceral, and lived experience.

I named these remarks after Zeno’s Paradox, the famous pre-Socratic philosopher who engineered a number of paradoxes concerning movement and motion. Zeno’s most famous paradox (the dichotomy paradox) states that one can never get from point A to point B because you must always arrive at a midpoint, and that there are an infinite number of successive mid-points between any two fixed points (i.e., between 0 and 1 is .5, and between 0 and .5 is .25, etc.). Ergo, motion is impossible.

For me, Rita’s Paradox has a similar frustrating quality, though its motion (or lack thereof) has more of a moral than metaphysical quality. The paradox is that our televised news coverage has recently had its most resonant moments of clarity when faced with abject travesty. That is, that the disintegration of social support networks and infrastructure offer the greatest catalyst for respectable and responsible journalism. The challenge of Rita’s paradox, as I see it, is to fuel additional and continued televised news reform (i.e., honest, progressive movement) without relying on hellish acts of god.

Please feel free to comment.

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