Power-Knowledge in a ‘Post-Truth’ World
Roopali Mukherjee / CUNY, Queens College


Joe Heenan’s satirical art pokes fun at Trump’s rhetoric

Days after the 2016 US elections, The Poke invited readers to send in renderings of famous Western artworks that photo-shopped or otherwise incorporated newly elected Donald Trump into them. Collected under the hashtag #TrumpArtworks, scores of images, smarting with sarcasm and contempt, poured in, among them Joe Heenan’s revision of the 1942 Edward Hopper work, Nighthawks. In a send-up of Trump’s “alternative fact” about the size of the crowd at the inaugural ceremonies, Heenan’s revision seats Trump at the iconic late-night diner, announcing to the few patrons there: “This place is packed!”

Answering Trump’s bluster that the inaugural ceremonies would gather his supporters in a rally that “would be the biggest of them all!,” mild-mannered Bernie Sanders responded with a side-by-side visual comparison, tweeting a rare jab: “They didn’t. It wasn’t.”

Sanders Tweet ASanders Tweet B

Images comparing the crowd sizes for 2017’s Presidential Inauguration and Women’s March

Within hours, CNN unveiled the now famous split-image comparison of aerial shots of Trump’s 2017 and Obama’s 2009 inaugurations, which showed, quite unequivocally, that the Obama crowds far outnumbered those that had assembled for Trump.


Images comparing the crowd sizes for Obama’s 2009 inauguration to Trump’s in 2017

Gleefully re-tweeted across social media circuits worldwide, these responses join a nightly barrage of sharp-tongued television satire as well as a string of public condemnations – Meryl Streep, John McCain, and others – contributing to a glut of blistering commentary and satire. A catalogue of Trump’s characteristic lapses into invention and exaggeration, these rejoinders track prognoses of an alarming new “post-truth” or “post-fact” world. [ ((Belluz, Julia. June 28, 2016. “Do Brexit and Donald Trump prove that we’re living in an era of fact-free politics?” Vox. http://www.vox.com/2016/6/28/12046126/brexit-donald-trump-facts-politics))] [ ((Drezner, Daniel W. June 16, 2016. “Why the post-truth political era might be around for a while.” Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/06/16/why-the-post-truth-political-era-might-be-around-for-a-while/?utm_term=.9d9bce8b42bc))] [ ((Egan, Timothy. November 4, 2016. “The post-truth presidency.” New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/04/opinion/campaign-stops/the-post-truth-presidency.html))] [ ((Holland, Justin. November 30, 2015. “Welcome to Donald Trump’s post-fact America.” Rolling Stone. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/welcome-to-donald-trumps-post-fact-america-w452917))] [ ((Krugman, Paul. December 22, 2011. “The post-truth campaign.” New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/23/opinion/krugman-the-post-truth-campaign.html))] [ ((Manjoo, Farhad. 2008. True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. New York: Wiley.))] [ ((Sirota, David. March 3, 2007. “Welcome to the post-factual era.” Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-sirota/welcome-to-the-postfactua_b_42527.html))] The willful spread of “rumor bombs” [ ((Harsin, Jayson. 2010. “That’s democratainment: Obama, rumor bombs and primary definers.” Flow, 13(1). http://flowtv.org/2010/10/thats-democratainment/))] [ ((Harsin, Jayson. February 2015. “Regimes of posttruth, postpolitics, and attention economies.” Communication, Culture & Critique, 8(2): 327–333.))] and “contrary facts of dubious quality and provenance” [ ((Fukuyama, Francis. February 23, 2017. “The emergence of a post-fact world.” Project Syndicate. https://www.project-syndicate.org/onpoint/the-emergence-of-a-post-fact-world-by-francis-fukuyama-2017-01))], the dangerous masking of propaganda as “fake news” and “alternative facts” [ ((Soll, Jacob. December 18, 2016. “The long and brutal history of fake news.” Politico.com. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/12/fake-news-history-long-violent-214535))] [ ((Stanley, Jason. 2015. How Propaganda Works. Princeton University Press.))], each underscores the stakes of the post-truth/post-fact crisis. A sign of its permeation within the cultural milieu, popular use of the term “post-truth” grew by approximately 2,000 percent over the year, a spike that so distinguished the term that Oxford Dictionaries named it the 2016 Word of the Year.

These shifts toward distortion, misrepresentation, and hyperbole have, in turn, spurred reprisals of a vehement facticity – vigilant repositings of verified and verifiable claims – via news reports, blog posts, social media updates, op-eds, scholarly commentaries, fact-check services – and a parade of data-heavy empirical forms including charts, graphs, interactive maps, timelines, testimonials, photographs, video and audio recordings, surveys, and interviews. Thus, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s HateWatch maps [ ((Southern Poverty Law Center, Spring 2017. Active Hate Groups in the United States in 2016 (Map). https://www.splcenter.org/hate-map))], Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King’s crowd-sourced USA Election Monitor [ ((King, Shaun. 2016. USA Election Monitor (Interactive Map). Ushahidi.com. https://usaelectionmonitor.ushahidi.io/views/map))], the Pew Research Center’s sobering graph showing anti-Muslim hate crimes escalating to post-9/11 levels [ ((Pew Research Center Fact Tank, 2016. “Anti-Muslim assaults reach 9/11 era levels FBI data show.” http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/21/anti-muslim-assaults-reach-911-era-levels-fbi-data-show/))], the Center for American Progress’s fact sheet on the costs of Trump’s deportation policies [ ((Edwards, Ryan and Ortega, Francesc. September 21, 2016. “The economic impacts of removing unauthorized immigrant workers: An industry- and state-level analysis.” Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/reports/2016/09/21/144363/the-economic-impacts-of-removing-unauthorized-immigrant-workers/))], the Reuters/Ipsos poll that documents high levels of anti-black sentiments among Trump supporters [ ((Reuters/Ipsos. June 30, 2016. “Racial attitudes of Presidential candidates’ supporters” (Chart). http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/USA-ELECTION-RACE/010020H7174/USA-ELECTION-RACE.jpg))], each offers a painstaking compilation of figures, statistics, records, and documents as a demonstration of, and a prophylactic against, the administration’s dangerous disregard for facts and evidence.

SPL Hate Map

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s HateWatch maps track active hate groups in America

Pew Anti-Muslim Assaults

The Pew Research Center Fact Tank found that anti-muslim assaults are at highest level since 2001

Reuters/Ipsos Poll

Reuters/Ipsos’s poll documents high levels of anti-black sentiments among Trump supporters

The steady drumbeat of these data-heavy responses suggests a foreboding, a widespread unease, as if their testimonies must bark to drown out Trump’s machinery of dissemblance and exaggeration. Belting out refrains of reliable and replicable evidence, they labor to assert the disciplinary modalities of facts and truth as if, somehow, the formidable authority of these epistemic forms now needs shoring up and reassurance. Reiterating the ethical necessity of empirical, fact-based truths, each is, at once, an inoculant against and a wary admission of the bewildering specter of a post-truth/post-fact world.

Certainly, the fast-and-loose proclivities of the new administration deserve nothing less than relentless vigilance for they are, quite without doubt, opportunistic, irresponsible, and dangerous. But the post-truth/post-fact crisis also invites insights about a whole terrain of epistemic contestation that marks the authority of official knowledges precisely in their encounters with unpalatable counter-knowledges. The stakes of the current crisis, then, also allow us glimpses of the disciplinary modalities of facts and falsehoods themselves as categories of power-knowledge embedded within struggles authorizing some truths and repressing others, and enlisted to maintaining the dominant order.


The earliest salvo in Trump’s arsenal of reckless “truthiness,” as Stephen Colbert terms it, repeated the widely discredited but viscerally effective birther lie that the nation’s first black President was foreign-born. His assertion that Mexican immigrants are “rapists” and “criminals,” likewise, struck a chord, needing little factual footing to cement support for his candidacy. His claim to have watched “thousands and thousands of people” cheering in Jersey City as the World Trade Center buildings collapsed on 9/11 drew discursive life not from any basis in truth but from its cynical wink-and-nod appeal to anti-Muslim sentiment. Each of these declarations links Trump’s spectacular ascent to a series of racial, and reliably racist, assertions, each one resting not on the power of evidence but on that of gut-level, intuitive beliefs. The propagandist, know-nothing excesses of the Trump edifice, then, track, and are themselves tracked by, the genealogies of racial, and racist, epistemic orders, which with visceral obduracy – in the face of incontrovertible countervailing evidence – have long organized truth and fact as profoundly raced categories of power-knowledge.

How does the post-truth/post-fact crisis engage and mediate this racial order of things? How might we understand the predicaments of truth and fact, marked and haunted by racial counter-knowledges, which remain, in the main, repressed, dismissed as laughable, odd, impossible?

In a January 11, 2017 episode of the ABC sitcom Black-ish, the protagonist Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson), confronted by a white co-worker despairing after the election, responds with an impassioned enumeration of bleak everyday truths about black life. [ ((“Black resilience in America” (Post-election Anthony Anderson monologue). Black-ish (TV series, Season 3, Ep. 12, “Lemon”). ABC, New York, January 11, 2017. ))] In a monologue accompanied by a montage of images representing black experiences, and featuring Billy Holliday’s brooding anti-lynching anthem Strange Fruit on the soundtrack – in effect, dossiers of stirring visual and sonic evidence – Johnson reposits the shameful record of the nation’s racial crimes to explain that Trump’s victory is no cause for heartache to a people for whom the system has rarely worked, and who have long suffered its brutality.

Black-ish screen grab

When confronted about the election, Black-ish‘s Dre Johnson responds with an impassioned enumeration of bleak everyday truths about black life

The scene choreographs a spectacular encounter between dominant and marginal truths, dramatizing the epistemic force with which empirical, fact-based evidence of enduring and persistent racial inequalities remain, for the most part, subordinated to dominant national scripts of a square deal and a fair share bolstered by smug Obama-era conceits of racial progress. Like the “Election Night” skit on NBC’s Saturday Night Live that aired days after the election, in which host Dave Chappelle pokes fun at the visceral sway of authorized truths about racially tolerant rather than blinkered white liberals, and sentimental attachments to an innocent rather than shameful national past, these are counter-knowledges that resonate within black public spheres but which remain, for the most part, assiduously silenced and marginalized.

Labored reiterations of empirical, fact-based truths in the current moment, then, are symptomatic, as the Black-ish episode proclaims, of “knowing what it [feels] like to be black,” of knowing the truth – about climate change, mass deportation, the Muslim ban – despite its dismissal or repression as laughable, odd, impossible. Confronted with challenges that have long bedeviled unpalatable racial knowledges, the current crisis underscores the ethical necessity of “deconstructive jolts” to the disciplinary modalities of what counts as fact and falsehood, and the hard work of opening to skepticism the armature of distortion and erasure necessary for maintaining the epistemic order of a post-truth/post-fact world.

Image Credits:

1. Joe Heenan, January 23, 2017. “This place is packed!” @ThePoke #TrumpArtworks. Author’s screen grab.
2. Bernie Sanders, January 20, 2017. Twitter.
3. CNN, January 20, 2017.
4. Southern Poverty Law Center, Spring 2017.
5. Pew Research Center Fact Tank, 2016.
6. Reuters/Ipsos. June 30, 2016.
7. Black-ish (TV series, Season 3, Ep. 12, “Lemons”), ABC, January 11, 2017. Author’s screen grab from YouTube.

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A Pedagogical Experiment in the Era of Black Lives Matter
Susan Courtney / University of South Carolina

Image 1-column2

Class Facebook Group Page of “Mediating Ferguson, USA” at the University of South Carolina

While academics typically recognize the publication of research as the most permanent form our work can take, the work we do in the classroom can feel by turns endless and ephemeral. This ephemerality has real benefits, teachers and students know, be it in the restart button we can press at the beginning of each class or in the knowledge that every term, no matter how grueling, will come to an end in a matter of weeks. Yet this always-passing time of teaching can make it easy to forget classroom moments worth remembering. Such a moment — a powerful, semester-long moment, but a moment nonetheless, in a special topics course entitled “Mediating Ferguson, USA: 1915-2015,” on “race, justice, and popular U.S. film and media in the 20th and 21st centuries” — inspired me to mark it with the permanence of publication. For in this class, at a predominantly white institution where students are often hesitant to talk about race, an unusually diverse group of undergraduates came together, day in and day out, for exceptionally open, incisive, and productive discussions about race and its intersection with a host of social dynamics, on screen and off. With these columns I hope, at least, to honor this remarkable community of students, who made our sixteen weeks together among the most meaningful in my nearly two decades of (rewarding) teaching at the University of South Carolina. I also write fueled by a sense that some fundamental questions about teaching race and media studies — questions about how we do it, why we do it, what tends to work and not work, and for whom, where, and when — are being profoundly reshaped by histories still very much unfolding.

In my first column, I sketched the historical moment, locally as well as nationally, of the months and weeks leading up to the course, because that backstory so shaped it, and in ways that far exceeded any frameworks my syllabus or pedagogical habits might have provided. As one friend’s visiting relative put it of Columbia while visiting here in the summer of 2015, it felt then like we were at the “epicenter” of a convulsing national crisis around race and violence. The community this class became was forged in the urgency of that moment. And our awareness of how unusually and acutely our work within the classroom was being shaped by histories unfolding beyond it had little chance of diminishing over the course of a semester punctuated by more viral videos of police brutality and a rise of student activism, here as around the country. One such video, from Columbia’s own Spring Valley High School, made the “school to prison pipeline” shockingly vivid, and once again brought painfully home our own undeniable place in what we might describe as the newly vivid, albeit unofficial, network of institutional forms of racial injustice being mapped on our screens through such videos from points throughout the country. And when students, including some from our class, organized a walkout and marched to the President’s office to deliver a list of demands for improving inclusivity on our campus, the class understood this, too, in the context of both particular local histories (the list began with the “demand that our university acknowledge that this institution was built on the backs of enslaved Africans”) and a larger national surge of student activism that fall. In the midst of all this, it thus became routine — and often felt necessary—to begin class by checking in on the latest relevant developments, which students readily connected to our assigned materials, even when the syllabus could not have.


Students Demand Greater Inclusivity, On Screen and Off

In part because of so many structuring contingencies beyond my pedagogical control, it seems worth reflecting on some deliberate strategies that also played a part, regarding the course’s title, syllabus, and some assignments.

What I initially recognized to be a certain risk in the course title, “Mediating Ferguson” — that it would appeal to a self-selected group and might turn off “students who most need” a course like this (as we educators sometimes and perhaps too condescendingly put it) — I came to understand only later as also having had tremendous benefits. For the title’s self-selectivity brought together a group of students at once eager to engage and unusually diverse. Whereas media studies classes here are usually, like our institution more generally, predominantly white, nearly a third of the students in this class were African American. Students also routinely spoke, and thought, from positions marked by genuinely diverse socioeconomic, sexual, and geographic experiences. In short, not only were we not slowed down, or derailed, by stubborn resistance or routine reluctance to engage, but the students who were so eager to engage had both a safe space and an excellent group of peers with which to do so. The class discussions that resulted (I almost never lectured) were thus routinely probing and robust, and we all had daily opportunities to seriously listen and respond to others with sometimes profoundly different experiences and insights from our own.

While so much of this, to be sure, had everything to do with the particular students in the room, one syllabus experiment seemed to help. While I routinely begin media history classes with contemporary material — to draw students in and to prime them to look back at media from the past with eyes and ears open for reverberations with the present — in the Ferguson class I expanded the scale and goals of the opening contemporary unit. We began with three weeks of immersion in contemporary material, with several aims: (1) to give the class a shared set of materials with which to join the current “national conversation” about race (including viral videos, some excellent journalism, and Lawrence Bobo’s, “Somewhere between Jim Crow and Post-Racialism: Reflections on the Racial Divide in America Today”); (2) to equip students (who came to this class from several different majors) with key concepts in media studies for thinking about cultural formations of whiteness and blackness (including work by Richard Dyer and Herman Gray); (3) to invite them to begin to consider distinct ways of thinking and feeling about race afforded and/or discouraged by distinct media forms and practices (in addition to the materials already mentioned, we watched Fruitvale Station [2013], a superb group of young black poets on campus performed a reading of their work in our class, and each student had to “curate” a digital media post to the class’ Facebook Group—finding something online they thought would add to our conversations and pithily explaining why); and (4) to cultivate habits for generating productive questions for further inquiry and research. This last goal involved two kinds of tasks, the second of which expanded (and enhanced) the work of reading responses. First, in a series of daily assignments, they were asked to pinpoint key arguments and insights from the readings and generate specific critical/conceptual questions of their own in response. Then, having done this for several weeks, they had to submit a revised, edited list of questions (refining, expanding, etc. those previously drafted) that seemed important to continue thinking about in the course and/or (potential) future research.

These four aims fed each other, and encouraged students from the start to articulate, sharpen, and develop the questions they found most urgent and productive. And by the end of this first unit, they each had not only an arsenal of potential research questions, but also a method for how to develop these. I also invited them relatively early in the semester to think about what kind of research and/or creative work they might want to do to pursue their questions. Or, as I put it to them more than once: “How do you want to mediate Ferguson, etc.? What kinds of things do you most want to say and/or to show? And to whom? And which media forms and practices might best help you reach your audience(s)?”

Also vital to the success of this first unit, and the rest of the course, was one of our earliest discussions — grounded by the Bobo reading with all the specific examples, and data, he provides — in which I asked them to specify what we are talking about, exactly, when we talk about “institutional,” “structural,” or “systemic” racism. Once we had established a concrete understanding of the kinds of historical and contemporary social practices these terms refer to (we covered the board with them one day), I could then ask them to think in specific ways about the work of distinct media forms and practices in relation to such systemic inequities. Right away, they recognized how the viral videos coming across their screens from seemingly everywhere made visible the institutional, systemic nature of police brutality. These early conversations also set us up to then look back at a diverse set of media histories with eyes and ears more attuned to discern their specific, varied, and shifting forms of mediating race.

Image Credits:

1. Author’s Screenshot of Group Facebook page, with cover photo of protesters with JR’s image of Eric Garner’s eyes, from JR on Twitter.
2. Photo from The Daily Gamecock of phone with image from an online petition of the student activist group, USC 2020 Vision, taken at the start of a student walkout at the University of South Carolina on November 16, 2015.

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Biden Memes and “Pussy Grabs Back”: Gendered Anger After the Election
Hollis Griffin / Denison University

Biden Meme Example

An example of Biden memes where Vice President Joe Biden plots the planting of booby traps for President-elect Donald Trump.

Like a lot of self-avowed lefties, I have been collecting Biden memes to cheer myself up after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. These memes feature snippets of dialogue over pictures of Vice President Biden meeting with President Obama. In some, Biden plots to keep President-elect Trump out of the White House: hiding keys to the locks, laying booby traps. President Obama then talks Biden down as you would a friend who is getting ready to drunkenly punch someone in a bar, telling him “Stop it, Joe,” or “Joe, seriously.” In others, Biden hatches schemes to embarrass or frustrate the incoming President: changing the White House’s wifi password, calling attention to Trump’s (allegedly) tiny hands. President Obama then chides Biden like a weary parent, saying “We can’t do that Joe,” or “Joe, go sit down.” Although I find masculine bluster off-putting, I can’t help but feel affection for Vice President Biden. He’s the uncle who called you “the little shithead” when you were growing up but still snuck you beer on Thanksgiving. While I am wary of feeling too warmly about politicians, Vice President Biden is rough around the edges and appealing for that. After an election in which “shooting from the hip” meant little more than spouting misogyny, racism, and xenophobia, the Biden memes point to an adjacent form of masculine truth-telling, one rooted in an ethos of respect and integrity more than one that trades in divisiveness and shit-talking.

Memes provide good fodder for thinking about masculinity because their repetition works like gender does more generally. Gender becomes legible through its recurrence; it creates legible patterns through evermore citations that can also deviate and take new forms. [ (( Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge NY: 1990). ))] The permutations of text and image found in memes operate by way of that tension between variety and sameness seen in gender: new text is laid over familiar images or similar ideas are communicated through different pictures. Part of what makes the ideas about masculinity seen in the Biden memes so refreshing is the trouble they create with neat gender categories. With its white working-class evangelical base, the Republican Party is often characterized by a no-nonsense masculinity, as though its members and leaders are the true defenders of “freedom” and “liberty.” In contrast, Democrats are often painted as being more conventionally feminine; they are constructed as being accepting, sensitive, empathic. As a politician identified with the Left, Biden provides Democrats with a masculine archetype not often attributed to them. The caricature in these memes is assertive and confident—a tough guy who will bloody his nose in the interest of inclusiveness and care for the other. The Biden memes communicate the sentiments I hear again and again from lefties about the 2016 election—anger, indignation—and demonstrate just how facile gendered explanations for political identification can be.

U.S. culture often demonstrates deep contempt for traditionally feminine values. Respect for others and sensitivity to issues of difference were frequent rallying cries among Democratic politicians in the recent elections. These appeals to voters promise to transform the persistent, masculine values at the center of U.S. politics. In the value system most prevalent in those politics, striving for coalition is weak, seeking collaboration is lame, and aiming for cooperation is condemnable. In sum, Democratic candidates made appeals to voters that were rooted in vows to transform the masculine fabric of national identity. Unfortunately, the conventionally feminine values of care and reciprocity are not as laudable as the traditionally masculine associations made with freedom and individual responsibility. Needless to say, U.S. culture values the latter far more than the former. As such, Donald Trump’s particular breed of masculinity dovetails with longstanding ideas about what constitutes Americannness. That fact made his worldview seductive because it vowed to protect a set of beliefs that many people see as both deeply American and under attack. It also provided his appeals to voters with a distinctly macho tone that he was able to ride to a victory in the Electoral College.

Another Biden meme example

Another example of Biden memes where Vice President Joe Biden remarks about another popular meme, the size of Donald Trump’s hands.

True, Biden memes issue a rejoinder to the venom of the 2016 election season by offering a different idea of masculinity than the one offered by Donald Trump, but they recapitulate gendered dynamics of power more than they rewrite them. The Biden memes are funny because they are a sword fight between old white guys about what the U.S. should be and who should get to decide. In that way, the Biden memes participate in an ongoing call and response from right to left and back again. This back and forth rarely alters the shape of the political conversation in which it participates nor the gendered symbolic that helps keep it in motion. In their play with ideas about masculinity, memes display an ambivalence that both critiques and reveres. [ (( Linor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013): 76. ))] As seen in the Biden memes, the Vice-President is part alpha-male badass, part ill-behaved manbaby. As cultural forms, memes convey information humorously and in a timely manner; they multiply and travel because they are current and funny. The Biden memes are evidence of how gender mutates and how political energies circulate and, because of that, they are evidence of how difficult it can be to both reimagine political energies and rewrite gendered scripts. It is no accident that the memes featuring Biden are funny because they depict him wanting to start a fight. If the memes were to feature Biden wanting to discuss coalition-building or attempting to create a dialogue about care for the other, the caricature would not be terribly masculine or all that funny—or rather, not masculine or funny in a way that would resonate well in the contemporary moment.

Third Biden meme example

Another example of Biden memes. Anger about the political climate is presented in humorous forms through Biden memes.

Yet, I am too depressed in the wake of the 2016 election to dismiss the Biden memes entirely. I have been trying to think of them as objects that might reveal useful ideas for leftist politics in the Trump era. In these memes, Biden’s anger is funny, yes, but it is also motivating. I think Biden memes are so popular because they involve both anger and humor. Affects become “sticky” on the internet because they travel quickly and are contagious; as forces, they gather more weight the faster they travel. [ (( See Ken Hillis, Susanna Paasonen, and Michael Petit, eds., introduction to Networked Affect (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015): 1-26. ))] Like all affects, anger and humor morph and change shape over time. So anger can become funny, at which point it bursts and then dissipates. [ (( Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003): 103. ))] When it does that, anger does not exist long beyond the moment in which it is felt. In fact, in precipitating laughter, anger cum humor encloses political energy in a feedback loop that feeds itself more than anything else. [ (( Jodi Dean, “Affect and Drive,” in Networked Affect, 89-100. ))] In contrast, anger that remains anger nags as it moves; it needles, annoys, and persists. As a result, this sort of anger retains a potency that hums on, like a sound with a shrillness that does not crest or ebb. And when anger morphs into fear, it grows in scope and magnitude, like a sound whose intensity is increasing so much that you cannot help but try to stop it. [ (( Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, 103. ))] Anger as anger and anger cum fear are phenomena that move bodies and rewrite energies over time. They are powerful forces in politics precisely because they are experienced durably and intensely.

Because anger is more motivating than humor, I keep thinking: why cede anger to masculinity? Rage about the way the world is not the sole domain of Donald Trump, nor is it the exclusive territory of the angry white men who (in part) elected him. Truly, women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBT people have plenty to rage about—and did so well before Donald Trump won the election. For the left, an important task is how to use anger in ways that generate new modes of organizing and activism. At this point in time, these activities must be reimagined to meet the demands of a decidedly different, newly challenging political environment. For that reason, the Biden memes are most useful when they can be seen as angry more than goofy, and not solely evidence of masculine bluster. After all, Biden himself has displayed more than a few feminist tendencies. That and, if gender is a “copy without original,” there is nothing all that masculine about anger or any feeling or activity associated with it in the first place. [ (( Butler, Gender Trouble. ))]

Pussy Grabs Back meme

The “Pussy Grabs Back” meme served as a feminist rallying cry before the November 8th election and references President-elect Trump’s history of attacking women.

While the gendering of anger is a cultural construction, it is also concrete. Like all affects, anger is corporeal and that is what makes it motivating. It is a bodily phenomenon that jolts frames and rearranges limbs. In the case of anger, people experience it as a quickened pace of the heart or a pain in the pit of the stomach. One of the angriest memes I have seen is related to the unique risks weathered by women at the hands of the particular breed of masculinity cultivated by Donald Trump. The meme features the phrase “Pussy Grabs Back” over the image of a snarling cat pouncing on its prey. As a feminist call to arms, the meme expresses anger about the President-elect’s cavalierness regarding his history of attacking women in order to rally voters ahead of the November 8th election. Although my experience of it can only be empathic, the meme showed up in my Instagram and Twitter feeds repeatedly in the days leading up to the election. The meme communicates a distinct rage embodied by women and, because it is so angry and explicitly sexed, I think it is a crucial reminder of what is at stake after the recent election. If the list of Trump’s appointees to various posts in his administration is any indication, there’s no time to giggle and titter about Joe Biden exiting the White House. I am hopeful that the “Pussy Grabs Back” meme lingers beyond the Biden memes because it pries anger loose from its conventionally gendered trappings and places it squarely in the grip of people who must remain motivated no matter how depressing things seem right now. Joe Biden is leaving office and his memes will likely fall out of circulation shortly thereafter. I suspect that the “Pussy Grabs Back” meme will stick around because it contains an energy that harasses and persists—and because it offers a crucial reminder: pussy must grab back until 2020, at the very least.

Image Credits:

1. Biden meme
2. Second Biden meme
3. Third Biden meme
4. Pussy Grabs Back

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Shake My Turban: Alter Egos and Altering Perceptions in Trump’s America
Suzanne Enzerink / Brown University

description of image

The Sequined Sikh Elvis

In the midst of this year’s election season, a 1986 short documentary called Rockin’ with a Sikh resurfaced on social media. The twenty-six minute profile starred Peter Singh, an Indian-born Sikh who ran a hybrid curry/English takeaway restaurant in Swansea, England, by day, and transformed into a Sikh Elvis at night. With songs like “Turbans over Memphis” and “Who’s Sari Now,” Singh modeled that being a devout Sikh and idolizing mainstream American pop cultural icons were not mutually exclusive—in addition to the turban, Mr. Singh sported a full beard in adherence to kesh, one of the five outward manifestations of Sikhism, the practice of allowing hair to grow naturally. “I don’t smoke dope/ I don’t drink Bourbon/ All I want to do/ is shake my turban” became Mr. Singh’s most popular catchphrase, garnering him a cult following that remains to this day. Sikh Elvis was a positive enunciation of a Britain that was globally-oriented and could embody difference without demanding full assimilation. It was a facile multiculturalism, in a way, one able to celebrate ethnic difference superficially whilst ignoring the racism that already permeated Britain and the U.S. in the 1980s— “Everyone especially loves my spicy food. I wish Elvis could taste my spicy foods. I’m sure he would love the papadums,” Singh said for example—but the move remains powerful, symbolically accommodating both religion and popular culture, the national and the global, rather than casting these metrics as in tension.

Fast forward to 2016, and these tensions have yet to be resolved definitively. Large segments of the population still need to be reminded that being an American and being a Sikh — or a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu, etc., for that matter — are not mutually exclusive or oppositional identities. They are, in fact, wholly compatible, yet the vitriol aimed at Captain Khizr Khan’s family by Donald Trump and his supporters readily demonstrates that the potent mix of Islamophobia and Anglo-Christian entitlement still produces a highly exclusionary idea of who can lay claim to the label of “American.” Tangled up in this is an injurious stereotyping of Muslim and Muslim-perceived Americans as terrorists, circulated widely in cultural productions in the aftermath of 9/11. Members of this group are guilty until proven innocent: Donald Trump’s proposed registry and loyalty test are the most blatantly Islamophobic incarnation of this, yet even Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that we need “American Muslims to be part of our eyes and ears” and “part of our Homeland Security” dangerously fuses patriotism with surveillance. As Jasbir Puar and Amit Rai note in their study of how contemporary media has constructed the South Asian, the turban works to “produce the terrorist and the patriot in one body, the turbaned body.”[ ((Jasbir K. Puar and Amit S. Rai, “The Remaking of a Model Minority: Perverse Projectiles under the Specter of (Counter)Terrorism.” Social Text 22.3 (Fall 2004): 82.))] It is through excessive nationalism and self-surveillance that the turbaned subject must seek to redeem itself, but always in vain within this exclusionary white vision of America.

What could be a more powerful critique, then, than taking one of the nation’s dearest and most widely-circulated characters, the very embodiment of American values, as a way of challenging this wounding and decentering its monolithic whiteness? The most compelling and viral challenge to white nationalist definitions of Americanness during this election season came in the form of a beloved American hero, Captain America. Like Sikh Elvis, the iconicity of Captain America lends itself perfectly to show that the idea of Brits or Americans as white males was always a fiction, and an increasingly fantastical one. Sikh Captain America, the alter ego of Vishavjit Singh, a cartoonist from Washington, wears the classic star-spangled costume with a turban, an “A” boldly emblazoned on it. His cartoons—or Sikhtoons—challenge the rhetoric of fear espoused by Trump, the myth of the perpetual foreigner, and misconceptions about turbans, all crucial elements that render Sikh and Muslim Americans “suspect” in the eyes of many Trump supporters.

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Vishavjit Singh’s Sikhtoons

The former are especially vulnerable, as their turbans made them targets for profiling even before 9/11. Sikh Captain America’s role reversal, from terrorist to hero, then powerfully resonated. #sikthoons trended on social media, and sources like Slate, The Washington Post, and The Huffington Post covered Singh during the primaries, and during his trip to the Republican National Convention. With Trump in office, he feels his mission more urgently than ever; his presence is more needed than ever to counter the overt racist displays circulating widely.

Social media propelled Sikh Captain America to fame, but with its relative lack of oversight and lightning quick dissemination, it has also been one of the main outlets for perpetuating stereotypes. After the attacks in Nice, a photoshopped selfie of a Sikh Canadian man named Veerender Jubbal was circulated identifying him as an “Islamic terrorist.” The same thing had happened to Jubbal after the 2015 Paris attacks. Only by bringing into circulation competing narratives, and challenging who gets to define what America(n) is, the turbaned terrorist will begin to erode as the dominant image. By giving the turban positive visibility, Sikh Captain America is simultaneously educating Americans and debunking racist associations.

He is not fighting alone. Actor Riz Ahmed and Heems of rap duo Swet Shop Boys also tackle profiling, both lyrically and visually. Their 2016 song, “T5,” tongue-in-cheek remarks that they “always get a random check when [rocking] the stubble,” highlighting again that hairstyles can impact how others read us racially or ethnically, and how they attempt to glean our political leanings from such readings. The visual work of Sikh Captain America, the uncoupling of the beard and turban with terrorism and coupling it instead with patriotism, thus has direct effects.

The trope of the terrorist is not unique to the United States, and the Swet Shop Boys also ask us to consider how stereotypes travel. Ahmed is British Pakistani, Heems is Indian American. In “T5,” they reference newly-elected London mayor Saadiq Khan as a positive model while simultaneously disparaging Trump. The video opens with audio describing Trump’s proposed “loyalty test” for Muslims, while Riz MC later raps that “Donald Trump wants my exit, but if he press the red button to watch Netflix, bruv, I’m on.” The South Asian diaspora is equally affected by xenophobic impulses, not confined to national borders for inspiration or protected by them from threat. The line also highlights a central irony: Americans will consume productions starring Muslim or Muslim-perceived Americans without hesitation, but this has not yet translated into shifts in thinking that can see beyond stereotype and accord them complexity, diversity, and humanity.

Certain representations complicate things, raising the specter of terrorism only to then challenge it. Scripted shows, for example, have also made efforts to stop the equation of terrorism with brownness, but more mutedly so. ABC’s Quantico, for example, resorts to hypernationalism to offset its criticisms—the FBI trainees of season 1, and CIA recruits of season 2, are willing to risk their lives to protect the safety of the United States, even if the country has conspired against them and wronged them. Priyanka Chopra’s Alex Parrish, an FBI agent of mixed Indian and American descent, is framed for a terrorist attack on Grand Central station. Yet when asked by an Anonymous-inspired group aiming to exonerate her what she would like to tell the 12 million viewers of the live broadcast, she replies: “I love this country.” Even though Alex knows that the real attacker chose her because “in this country I’m an easy person to blame,” a move that relies on an association of brownness with terrorism (as Alex says, “they framed the brown girl”), she never faults the country as a whole for its structural inequalities or racism. In the realm of Quantico, America is not to blame, but certain malevolent actors within it are. It is thus through a hypernationalism that they frame their critique, but for a primetime TV show, it is a gesture at challenging the stereotype of the brown terrorist nevertheless.


Quantico‘s Critique of Muslims-as-Terrorists

Such efforts are especially crucial to diversity and increase the representation of brown Americans who are hypervisible as terrorist stereotypes yet often marginalized when it comes to discussions of discrimination. In October, New York Times-writer Michael Luo was told to “go home to China” by a woman unknown to him on the street. In response, the Times collected and chronicled racist incidents of a similar nature via #ThisIs2016. The hashtag was so powerful—flooding Twitter for days—that The Times invited some respondents to star in a video to tell their story. None were South Asian or Filipino. Invisible again, a group of brown Americans wrote an open letter, noting that their erasure was painful as “our brown skin activates different kinds of stereotypes in this country.”

The stereotypes are generalizing and dangerous. When asked by Lt. Brian James Murphy, who was shot fifteen times by a white supremacist when he responded to calls of an ongoing massacre at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, how he would protect the rights of minority groups, Trump’s answer only included the need to combat “radical Islamic terror.” Even Murphy’s remark that 99% of turban-wearing men in the United States are Sikh and not Muslim, was cast aside by Trump. Muslim or Muslim-perceived, American or not, right-wing media and candidates make all of them potential terrorists. The first victim of the last spike in hate crimes in the U.S before Trump., in the aftermath of 9/11, was not coincidentally also a Sikh—Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner, was killed on September 15 by a man on a mission to shoot “some towelheads” in retaliation for the attacks.

Caught between such spectacular misrepresentation and invisibility, Sikh Captain America really is the hero these United States need, and brown Americans especially. I taught his ‘toons this semester, together with music by Swet Shop Boys. Their transnational archive highlights the interconnectedness of global crises that have seen a rise in hate crimes and increased popularity of the far right (white supremacy) across nations. It is not just Donald Trump or Steve Bannon. The global reach of contemporary media, be it social or entertainment, has provided complexity and visibility where it was lacking. It also supplements scholarly works that have dealt with the same question—by showing their prevalence in current political and media discourses, students were able to discern and dissect stereotypes constructed across genres, that powerfully and detrimentally determine how groups of people are perceived.

Twenty years after Sikh Elvis asked the Brits to embrace his turban as part of the British fabric, rather than at odds with it, #sikhtoons and #ThisIs2016 effect the same here for (South) Asian Americans—but rather than a question, it is now a demand for the full humanity that Trump and his ilk seek to deny them.

Image Credits:
1. The Sequined Sikh Elvis
2. Vishavjit Singh’s Sikhtoons
3. Quantico‘s Critique (author’s screen grab)

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It’s the Political Economy Stupid: The Case for Media Industries Studies in an Era of Fake News
Christopher M. Cox / Georgia State University


The Fake News of InfoWars

Alex Jones describes himself as a “trailblazer of new media.” He is less apt to apply the moniker of “fake news” to his affiliated brands (such as websites InfoWars.com), even though CBS News shows less restraint – it recently counted InfoWars among fake news sites.

Fake news itself isn’t a recent phenomenon. Disingenuous information has long plagued journalistic inquiry and endured despite efforts to instantiate professionalized ethics, institutions, and training related to news reportage. These undertakings seek to curb the deleterious effects of information that has no reliable claim to empiricism yet flourishes as a means of ascertaining truth, as in the case of the recent Pizzagate conspiracy theory that identified Hillary Clinton and her 2016 presidential campaign chairman John Podesta as participants in a child sex-trafficking ring operating through Comet Ping-Pong Pizza, a Washington D.C. pizzeria.

While these claims have been thoroughly debunked by outlets ranging from The New York Times to Fox News, the widespread dissemination of this fake news led to real material consequences in the form of a gunman who entered the pizzeria with an assault rifle and fired a shot in order to “investigate the claims” made by Pizzagate adherents, including Alex Jones. Even after the incident, the shooter “refused to dismiss outright the claims.”


“Pizzagate” Moral Panic

Indeed, much of the online commentary around fake news focuses on the need for such dismissal, particularly on the importance of developing tools for media consumers to identify fake news, dismiss the underlying claims, and seek out reliable sources. To the extent that these efforts address what constitutes fake news and what to do about it, this essay seeks to widen the lens in order to address how and why fake news originates and the motivating factors as to its inception.

With this in mind, I argue for media industries as a disciplinary and methodological framework highly adept at accounting for the underlying circumstances that shape the production, dissemination, and consumption of fake news. In what follows, I make some brief observations about fake news and suggest some ways in which media industries studies’ indebtedness to political economy paves the way for a more assured assessment of circumstances that make fake news a profitable commodity and venture, circumstances that in turn illuminate how fake news can be distinguished from reliable journalistic enterprises. To the extent that Trump’s election was an economic mandate, political economy is a necessary mandate for scholars and critics as a counterbalance to the forces that enable fake news to shape political and economic realities.

Fake News is Clickbait.

As Melissa Zimdars recently noted after her list of fake news sites received widespread online attention, “fake news is cheap to produce…and profitable.” This profitability stems from a digital ecosystem that enables clickable interaction (searches, shares, likes, etc.) to become part of a broader commodity reflective of consumer interest and therefore attractive to third-party advertisers and marketers. Content, then, is often tailored to what will garner the greatest number of clicks, whether it’s clicking on an article itself or clicking a like or share button. Even though journalistic enterprises undertake internal checks and balances to help ensure informational integrity, professional news reporting on social media competes for clicks with entities that neither internally scrutinize their content nor find themselves subject to scrutiny by the platform in question.

While professional journalism has long wrestled with a tension between profit motivation and pro-social aims, fake news encounters no such tension. In the absence of institutional values, ethics, and gatekeeping mechanisms applied internally or externally, fake news is the neoliberal dream writ large: minimal production costs and practically zero regulatory measures. In this way, economics is the most drastic distinction between journalistic enterprise and its facsimile. Nothing distinguishes the online spread of real news from fake news more than the economics on which they thrive. Tracing economic relations thus not only helps to discern between fake and trustworthy information, but also identify connections and motivations behind emergent industrial actors that have an economic stake in the promulgation of fake news.

Fake News is Vertically Integrated.

InfoWars is more than just a space for Alex Jones to exult his worldview – it’s also a storefront that sells a diverse array of products from coffee to teeth whitening gel to apparel promoting Trump. The diversity and prolificacy of products offered through InfoWars suggests a commercial enterprise undergirded by an economic structure in which mediated content is both product and promotion, a digital commodity form in its own right and a means to advertise more tangible goods.

As one example, the below video dedicates the bulk of its runtime to discussing the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, yet opens with Alex Jones himself inducing watchers to visit the InfoWars storefront. It’s also not an isolated incident, as Jones’ YouTube videos regularly promote products for sale on the InfoWars site.

The InfoWars Storefront

On Dec. 7, 2016, the channel posted a 5-minute video dedicated to Jones promoting the InfoWarsLife brand of ingestible supplements, a line of products regularly promoted as breakaway embeds within the Alex Jones Show. The Dec. 8, 2016 show, for instance, breaks away at just over one hour to briefly roll video of InfoWarsLife products. InfoWarsLife is also promoted in the description accompanying the video, as more than 20 InfoWarsLife products are listed with accompanying links to their respective page on the InfoWars store.

The commercialization of news reportage has long troubled the institution of journalism and its critics and remains a locus for critical analysis. But whereas the economics of journalism often place commodities and their promotion at a remove from news content, the InfoWars example demonstrates no such buffer, neither between the commodification of content or commodities promoted within such content. The integration of vertical markets and associated products is therefore a critical means of assessing the motivations to develop tight relays between content and commodity and the economic drivers that make such relays a profitable venture.

Political economy is especially important when such content and commodities situate among technologies that can be gamed to replicate journalistic forms.

Fake News is Code.

Melissa Zimdars’ documentation of misleading and clickbaiting sources includes a caution against URLs that end in “.com.co,” since they are often fake versions of legitimate news sources, advice echoed by FactCheck.org in their guide to spotting fake news. URL suffixes such as “.co” are available to anyone who registers a site name not currently taken, even if a portion of that site name replicates the URL for existing news sites.

A prominent example is ABCNews.com.co, a site created by noted fake news propagator Paul Horner, who typically earns $10,000 a month in advertising sales from the uptake of his fabricated content. The site reproduces the URL, look, and form of ABC News, with only slight variations to the logo and other indicators of institutional affiliation. Its allegation that Trump protestors were paid $3,500 to protest Trump rallies caught the attention of former CNN contributor and Donald Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who (as shown in the below screencap) spread the post via Twitter before later deleting it, but not before it found widespread purchase in the social media ecosystem.


Spreading the Fake News

Given that 62 percent of U.S. adults get their news from social media, the majority of news is not consumed from the source itself but from secondhand aggregators such as Facebook and Google, each of which perform algorithmic generation often agnostic to content that emanates from ABC News or ABCNews.com.co. In the wake of the election, both Facebook and Google have made gestures towards altering their technical configurations to weed out fake news, including Facebook updating the language of its Audience Network Policy to more directly account for fake news.

In their own way, they seem to be taking steps to address their role as informal regulators of aggregated content. What remains to be seen is whether or not – in the spirit of Lawrence Lessig’s admonition that “code is law” – more formal regulation is placed on entities such as domain registry services and third-party hosting services that enable fake news to mimic the URL, form, and function of legitimate news sources.

Going forward, emphasizing media industries approaches that examine the role of regulatory frameworks (both governmental and informal), in conjunction with the economic incentives that underpin digital platforms and their technological affordances, can not only cut through the complications of an increasingly nebulous media ecosystem, but offer tools to better understand relationships among various enterprises (journalistic and otherwise) increasingly bound within an expanding market of commodifiable digital forms.

What I have offered here is by no means exhaustive. It is, however, a means to underscore the fact that understanding the foundations of media industries methodologies runs parallel to the ability to understand and address deleterious effects of fake news.

Image Credits:
1. The Fake News of InfoWars
2. “Pizzagate” Moral Panic
3. Spreading the Fake News

Please feel free to comment.

The Scourge of Fake News
Richard Van Heertum / New York Film Academy

The Scourge of Fake News

In the wake of a party-changing presidential election or collective traumatic event, there is a tendency for bold proclamations of a sea change in the cultural milieu. In recent history, there are two rather profound examples, the short-lived incantations of a “post-ironic” age after 9/11 [ (( Randall, Eric. “The ‘Death of Irony,” and Its Many Incarnations,” The Atlantic. September 9, 2011. ))] and the rather absurd “post-racial America” discourse that followed the victory of Obama in 2008. [ (( See, for example, the NPR piece “A New ‘Post Racial’ Political Era in America” (All Things Considered, January 28, 2008), or Toure and Dyson, Michael Eric, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What it Means to Be Black Now. New York: Atria Books, 2011. ))] With the election of Donald Trump last month, a new narrative has developed, proclaiming a “post-truth” world, where fact and fiction are indistinguishable and “fake news” has sullied the public sphere beyond recognition. [ (( See Egan, Timothy, “The Post-Truth Presidency,” New York Times, November 4, 2016; Holland, Justin, “Welcome to Donald Trump’s Post-Fact America,” RollingStone, November 30, 2015; or Glasser, Susan, “Covering Politics in a ‘Post-Trust’ America,” Brooking Institute, December 2, 2016. ))]

Unlike the stories of a post-ironic or post-racial age, there appears to be less hyperbole in the more recent arguments around the inception of a “post-fact” America. In fact, there is growing empirical evidence to support these claims. One such source was BuzzFeed, which showed that fake news stories on Facebook, in some cases passed along by Russian hackers, may have fooled a rather large percentage of the electorate into voting for a man who does not appear to have their best interests at heart. They found that during the final, critical months of the campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook, compared with 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments for the top 19 articles from reputable sources. [ (( Silverman, Craig, “This Analysis Shows How Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook,” BuzzFeed News, 16 November 2016. ))]

Total Facebook Engagements for Top 20 Election Stories

While it is difficult to quantify the effects of inaccurate or false information on individuals voting behavior, a poll released by the PPP on December 9 provides some rather startling findings that do support a voting bloc less informed than their peers. Among the results, Trump voters were far afield of the 50% who have a favorable rating of Obama (45% unfavorable) with a mere five percent holding a favorable view of the outgoing President versus a full 90 percent who see him in a negative light. More troubling were the false beliefs they held about his presidential legacy. Under Obama, the Dow has risen from 7,946 to 19,615 and unemployment has fallen from 7.8 to 4.6 percent. A majority of Americans are aware of both facts, but not Trump voters. Among them, 39 percent say the Dow has actually dropped under Obama and 67 percent believe unemployment has risen. On top of this, 40% of Trump voters believe their candidate won the popular vote, 60% believe millions voted illegally, 73% believe George Soros is paying protestors to take to the streets post-election, and an astounding 53% have inexplicably decided that California’s electorate should not count in the popular vote tally.

Trump Voters on Who Won the Popular Vote

Trump Voters on Unemployment Rate

Trump Voters on Stock Market

The reality of the contemporary crisis of democratic legitimacy is thus clear and yet the panic surrounding the “post-truth” America fails to acknowledge the long history of both manipulative political discourse and of radical ontological skepticism. The ability to spread false information has existed for as long as modern politics but has, ironically, risen precipitously in recent years, aided by the very tools that were supposed to provide the entire world with a free and readily available “fact-checking” sources. The foundation of the new skepticism also has deep roots whose seeds rose to prominence among social critics in the 1960s, building on ideas that go all the way back to Ancient Greece. One was Marshall McLuhan, an English professor in Toronto, who predicted the coming of an “electronic age” where retribalization would initiate a world dominated more by faith, mysticism, and mythology than science and reason. A few years later, the French Situationalist Guy Debord proclaimed the arrival of a Society of the Spectacle where all human ideas and emotions are commodified and sold back to the public in a representational field that was superimposed on top of reality. Below, I briefly consider their central arguments and relevance to examining our contemporary political malaise.

Marshall McLuhan was arguably one of the most brilliant cultural critiques of the 20th century, though his popularity in academic circles has waned in the years following his death. His seminal work, Understanding Media: The Extension of Man (1962), however, rather prodigiously predicted the world we live in today. McLuhan was the first to speak of the inchoate global village, imploding time and space through modern technology that radically alters our relationship to the social, economic, and political spheres, forcing us to choose sides in the key battles of the era (like the Civil Rights Movement). McLuhan was a technological determinist who believed that major social transformation was initiated by impactful new technologies, most profoundly the book, which commenced an age of scientific, technological, and economic advancement, before the more recent “electronic age,” which was pushing back toward the Zeitgeist of the oral tradition that preceded the “literate man.”

He argued this was accompanied by a change in consciousness that made the distant near and altered the very nature of our relationship to the world around us. Among the ways media specifically affected us was his famously misunderstood “the medium is the message,” which argued that the form of new media was substantially more important in determining its social effects than the content. To McLuhan, it didn’t much matter what you watched on television as much as the fact you were watching television at all. The reason was that particular technologies altered the nature of our sense ratios, focusing attention on some while neglecting others. McLuhan believed the electronic age, with the advent of radio, television, record players and the like, was replacing book culture and what he called the “literate man” with more tribal communities where consciousness itself became simulated and the time between action and reaction shrank to the point that there was little time for contemplation and critical thinking.

In his estimation, this change was moving society from a world of detached rationality and individuality to one punctuated by retribalization and mythology, where the individual becomes subservient to the larger social whole, undermining reason in lieu of group mythology. While many at the time pointed to the cultural revolution that soon ensued, many of his ideas were still relevant and they have only become more so in the digital/internet/smart phone world of today. Among the many prognostications that have come true are clear signs of retribalization occurring in contemporary Americans society today. Facebook and social media in general allow us to codify our friendships and business associations into well-defined groups. Specialized news outlets create political insularity where many are unwilling to even consider the arguments of their ideological foes and are often openly hostile to them. New virtual communities, based more on taste and predilection, have replaced proximity or old social lines of demarcation. At the same time, aging populations hold even more steadfastly to those old identity markers seemingly dispirited and alienated by the more diverse populations that now surround them. This has not been all bad, of course, but it has drawn ideological lines in the sand that have served the rise of right wing populism in both America and across Europe. The general decline in quality of life in the West dating back to the 1970s has been redefined in this discourse by a narrative that places white as victims of affirmative action, feminism, the liberal media, the liberal elite and, more recently, Muslims, PC culture, and immigrants. Trump played on all of these narratives at once, using white resentment as the foundation to spread misinformation and lies, largely immune to truth as the very institutions that could challenge those ideas have been disparaged as biased and thus untrustworthy. The end result is that mythology replaces science and reason as the defining founts of truth and echo chambers supplant balanced, reasoned, and civil debate.

From a more Marxist/postmodern perspective, Guy Debord took these ideas even further in his 1967 work The Society of the Spectacle. In the book, Debord argued we live in a world where representations of reality had replaced reality itself and relationships between humans had been largely replaced by relationships between humans and commodities. In this new configuration, commodities have colonized social life with social relationships between people mediated through images, leading to an impoverished quality of life and a lack of authenticity that distort human perceptions, degrade knowledge, and hinder critical thought. Debord believed the new channels of knowledge production were employed to assuage reality, with the spectacle obfuscating the past, imploding it with the future into an undifferentiated, never-ending present that disarms the channels for dissent and social transformation. The vast right wing news empire perfectly fits this description, cultivating a siege mentality that dehumanizes the many others, victimizing the power elites and treating all knowledge as a battleground of perception.

Still from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983)

Many are indirectly aware of these theories as channeled through the work of the famous French philosopher Baudrillard in The Matrix Trilogy [ (( See Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. ))] or the translation of McLuhan’s worldview in David Cronenberg bizarre 1983 film Videodrome. Both provide a compelling visual metaphor of a world that is not lived as much as it is relived, with the average American spending countless hours daily surfing through the hyperreal miasma of popular and celebrity culture, the manufacturing of desire in the worlds of advertising and televisions and the shift to news as infotainment. For almost every social phenomenon, there is an almost endless array of narratives that describe both its contours and potential solutions, with a readymade shield to protect us from inconvenient truths that might challenge our deeply held shibboleths.

With McLuhan, Debord, and Baudrillard, we see three related theories on how reality has been distorted into subjective pods where an individual can live cocooned, comfortably oblivious of news or information that could shatter their worldview. The result has been a dramatic increase in political insularity that cuts off the channels for dialogue and debate, of conspiracy theories that distort real world problems and solutions, and a resultant deep cynicism, all working to undermine democracy and redefine the relationship of the public to our social and political institutions. Believing is seeing today, as the documentarian Errol Morris put it, with the average American more likely to see the world through their ideological beliefs as to alter those beliefs based on the empirical world around them. With the election of Trump, we have seen the culmination of these trends, as the thin line between truth and fiction disintegrates into an epistemological jungle where just about anything can be considered true. With a President Elect who finds little reason to adhere to traditional notions of truth, no problem is too big to be washed away in a tidal wave of half-truths, lies, and mythologies, altering the very contours of our reality and, in the process, the path of our collective future.

Image Credits:

1. The Scourge of Fake News
2. Total Facebook Engagements for Top 20 Election Stories from BuzzFeed News
3. Trump Voters on Who Won the Popular Vote (author’s screen grab)
4. Trump Voters on Unemployment Rate (author’s screen grab)
5. Trump Voters on Stock Market (author’s screen grab)
6. Still from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983)

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Ownership Anxiety, Race and Ambivalent Cuteness in The Secret Life of Pets
Anthony P. McIntyre / University College Dublin

guardian kittens

The Guardian helps readers cope with the results of the 2016 election (with kittens)

In their coverage of Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the recent US Presidential elections, the Guardian news website set up a liveblog in order to help people cope with the political bombshell. Entitled, “Cheer Corner: How to Cope with the New World Order (with Kittens)” the blog featured multiple posts featuring fluffy cute (mostly pet) animals purportedly in order to help readers emotionally adjust to the (for typical Guardianistas, at least) unsettling political reconfiguration. As co-editor of the forthcoming volume The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness [ ((Dale, Joshua Paul, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre, and Diane Negra, eds. The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness. New York: Routledge, 2016. Print.))], the presence of cute fluffy creatures being posited as a salve to a contemporary source of anxiety came as no surprise. Indeed, recent traumatic news stories such as the urban lockdown of Brussels in 2015 due to information of a potential terrorist attack and a botched death penalty in the state of Oklahoma in 2014 are notable examples of how cuteness emerges as a prism through which such events are mediated. In the case of the Brussels curfew readers’ pictures of their cats posed as jihadis were celebrated across a number of news media websites as a commendable strategy of affective resistance, while John Oliver notably bookended an in-depth consideration of the death penalty in the wake of the Oklahoma killing, with the promise of showing his viewers a recent viral YouTube video of “tiny hamsters eating tiny burritos” if they stick with him to the end of the segment, a promise he kept.

In all these cases cuteness emerges as an affective resource, a consolatory modality that gains particular traction in conditions of uncertainty. Indeed, given the societal divisions along lines of race, class and political stripe, not to mention the impact of economic precarity on widening swathes of society that the recent election has thrown into such stark relief, it is no surprise that in our present era cuteness is thriving. However, as scholars of the cute have noted, this is not an innocent aesthetic, but one that at its heart relies on highly uneven power differentials to deliver those comforting affective hits that buffer us from the latest disturbing news stories. It is our consumption of vulnerability in others that provides us with such affective succor. In the analysis that follows, I am going to trace such uneven power differentials as they manifest in a recent animation on the topic of pet ownership.

The Secret Life of Pets is a 2016 animated feature from Universal Studios. The studio was responsible for the surprise hit Minions (2015) and is therefore no stranger to the lucrative potential of cute-driven animation. Indeed, cuteness has long been characterized as first and foremost a commercial aesthetic, and with the studio already drafting plans for a theme park based on the movie prior to the release of Pets (plans since put into effect along with a sequel scheduled for 2018) such confidence paid out as the July-release film generated the highest box office opening so far for that year. The early profitability of the nascent franchise should come as no surprise given that Pets exists at the conjuncture of the continued proliferation through a wide variety of media of this highly commercial aesthetic and the hyper-commodification of pet ownership, two contemporary phenomena that in our book we argue are symptomatic of alienated conditions of emotional and financial precarity that are the attendant in the current phase of neoliberal capitalism.

This conjuncture of pet cuteness and media representation has produced an abundance of texts from the ubiquitous cute cat videos that populate YouTube, as well as an array of reality-based pet ownership advice shows such as The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan (2004-13, National Geographic), My Cat from Hell (2011–, Animal Planet) and even a UK show sharing the title The Secret Life of Pets (2014, Channel 5). This expansion of pet media reflects the increasingly central role of the pet in contemporary society, a phenomenon indicated by the huge amount of money spent on pets, as well as the changing relationalities implied in the facts such as, as David Grimm notes, the amount of people who refer to themselves as their pets’ “mom” or “dad” rather than “owner” has increased from fifty-five to eighty-three per cent in the last 20 years. [ ((Grimm, David. Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs. New York: Public Affairs, 2014. Print.))]

Pet ownership, as the term denotes, of course, is marked by the very same power differential that is key to cuteness, even as owners increasingly seek to rhetorically jettison the term. As Yi Fu Tuan wrote in his influential study of the topic: “Dominance may be confined with affection, and what it produces is the pet.”[ ((Tuan, Yi-fu. Dominance & Affection: The Making of Pets. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984. Print.))] The unease we may feel at this combination of affection and dominance arguably provides the main emotional anchor for Pets‘ audience. The premise of the film is that it gives us a window onto what our pets do in our absence, and predictably the narrative, after briefly showing a disconsolate Ben (Louis C.K.) staring unwaveringly at the door waiting for his owner to return, provides a depiction of animal bonding and suppresses the separation anxiety that is a common affliction of the house-bound pets that populate the film. Although, the idea that these animals may have “secret lives” goes some way to assuage the more troubling aspects of this relationship between unequals, the film is never able to entirely banish some of the more uneasy aspects of pet ownership, and in part, I argue this is intricately linked with cuteness, its ability to aestheticize powerlessness [ ((Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.))] [ ((Harris, Daniel. Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism. New York: Basic, 2000. Print.))] and its historical roots. [ ((Merish, Lori. “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple.” In Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: New York UP, 1996. 185-203. Print.))] Lori Merish, in a key essay on the topic, argues that cuteness is a “racialized style” with forms of power and coercion at its core. Describing the staircase tap-dance scene from the movie The Little Colonel (1932) which placed the cute Shirley Temple alongside Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, she argues: “The alignment of the cute Shirley Temple and the body of an African American male evokes the history of slavery and its coercive appropriation of the body—a body forced to work, to reproduce and at times, to sing and dance, at the white master’s will.” [ ((ibid.))]

Bill Bojangles Robinson

From The Little Colonel

It is through the character of Snowball in Pets that cuteness’s proximity to both historical and contemporary instances of racial domination manifest– a parallel drawn with pet ownership that threatens to disturb the affective equilibrium of the film. Voiced memorably by black comedian Kevin Hart, Snowball is a white fluffy bunny, the epitome of cuteness, yet depicted in the film as the ruthless gang leader of the Flushed Pets (motto: “Liberated Forever, Domesticated Never!”).

Hart’s Snowball from The Secret Life of Pets

The film’s overt references to slavery—evident in the usage of terms such as “owners” and “liberation” as well as the parallels it draws with the gang violence that has decimated many black communities in the US, mean that Pets struggles to adequately marshal the discourses of domination and subservience that its analogies inevitably evoke. At the end of the movie Snowball is picked up by a little girl and (despite his initial protests) seduced by some petting on the head and the girl’s promise to love him “forever and ever and ever.” Thus, arguably the film’s most morally questionable move is in its evocation of a radical energy that is so neatly contained by the end of the narrative. The ending suggests that the best place for a pet is in the home.

nick wild talking to judy hopps

Zootopia‘s Nick Wild (Jason Bateman) and Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin)

The tensions evident in Pets may be due to the fact that often such animations try to secure a coalition audience of parents and children through casting and edgier content aimed at the older viewers. However, a number of recent cute-inflected texts make a similar move with varying degrees of success, suggesting that in treating overtly cute topics or characters there is a latent potential to invoke relations of domination and subjection. In Ted 2 (2015), for instance, the eponymous cute-ified, pot-smoking, lascivious bear (Seth MacFarlane) tries to gain legal status as a person in order to adopt a child with his partner Tammy-Lynn (Jessica Barth). The film stresses the commonalities between Ted’s situation and that of Black Americans before the abolition of slavery and its failure to impress at the box office, was attributed by a number of critics to this somewhat insensitive premise. [ ((McIntyre, Anthony P. “Ted, Wilfred, and the Guys: Twenty-First-Century Masculinities, Raunch Culture, and the Affective Ambivalences of Cuteness.” The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness. Ed. Joshua Paul Dale, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre, and Diane Negra. New York: Routledge, 2016. 274-94. Print.))] A more subtle parallel is made in a snatch of conversation in the animal animation Zootopia (2016). When cynical con artist fox Nick (Jason Bateman) refers to his crime-solving rabbit partner, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) as “cute” she takes offence. Her reply, “A bunny can call another bunny cute, but when other animals do it…” trails off, indicating Judy’s hurt feelings. The parallel this draws with one particular inflammatory term will be quite clear to adults in the audience, but in the small piece of dialogue the vulnerabilities such instances of language can provoke is also raised in a manner suitable for a children’s movie.

Image Credits
1: The Guardian
2: Merish, Lori. “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple.” In Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: New York UP, 1996. 185-203. Print.
3: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Please feel free to comment.

Audiovisuality and the Media Swirl: Campaign 2016
Carol Vernallis / Stanford University

Donald Trump Supporters Interviewed by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog

Why hasn’t this presidential campaign given us much in the way of music? Where are the short videos with lively soundtracks—things we’d want to share on Facebook or Twitter? Where’s the “Yes We Can” of 2016? Where are the Rick Rolls and Obama’s sung speech of “Never Letting Us Down,” or the musical ad with Romney’s “47% no income tax?” Through all the dim moments of this cycle we could use something uplifting or inspirational, a 2016 election song or video that not only moves us but encourages us to share something with others and participate more actively.

For many reasons this election cycle has felt like a lost cause. Not that Trump seemed likely to win. It’s been a track-the-clickbait nail-biter. The issues are so serious—climate change, economic inequality and insecurity, racism and police violence, the Supreme Court, the surveillance state—and the political discourse has barely touched them. Not music but comedy may be this season’s best antidote, from Triumph the Insult Dog’s harangues to Samantha Bee’s “Pussy Riot.”

Nevertheless, this campaign’s audiovisual clips reveal something about ourselves and the media swirl. It also gives us materials we may not have come upon, worth sharing over the next three weeks, spurring a few more of us to get out and vote.


The primaries were audiovisually richer than the general. Bernie Sanders’s clips were the most moving. His “America,” using the eponymous Simon and Garfunkel song, opens with establishing shots that marry new and old tech: wind farms and family farms, small-town coffee shops with Wi-Fi. These images crossfade into an unusual progression of protagonists, from young people, young couples both straight and gay, to older couples: when Paul Simon sings “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together,” a middle-aged couple dances at a Sanders rally. As the video progresses, older-styled gestures and dance-forms appear, suddenly both modern and historical, partly for the fresh-eyed cinematography, and partly for the ways these images coincide with musical articulations, as in a music video. Lines of activists share high-fives, a country-dance promenade of Sanders and his wife unfolds, a farmer and family throw hay bales to the beat, and the camera glides over a rally while Sanders sways his arm like a conductor’s from the podium. (The tenor helps us think back to fields of wheat and forward to masses of people joined together, as sensitive to one another as in a community choir.) These processes and audiovisual rhymes make possible the ways that the ad builds, gradually incorporating people and communities, dissolving them into a graph of a checkerboard nation (with people as icons), and changing them back into fully articulated crowds. Rolling Stone and The New York Times raved, with others calling it “magnificent,” and “so full of love, enthusiasm and patriotic uplift (complete with flag-waving) that it’s downright goosebumps-inducing.” As the song and ad claims, the people have all come to “look for America.” This ad creates an exquisite relation between the small and the vast.

But on the whole the primary season matched what we’ve been seeing in the general. My fellow media scholars and I have been asking why there’s little musically or audiovisually rich content this cycle. We’ve identified several possible causes. This fractious season may resemble reality television or a sporting event; in the heat of the fray, music may not be needed. Our collective feelings of dread, disgust, and anxiety may fail to provide good musical material for ads: to tap into them risks disengaging other segments of the electorate. What would such musical or audiovisual content sound and look like? There aren’t many musical correlatives for disgust, even in splatter films. And even if there were, you couldn’t use it in an ad—especially in the depths of our both-sides-do-it era.

The types of and scale of materials have shifted, too. An incendiary tweet or a racist image moves with greater intensity and speed than a song or musical accompaniment. And for the left, paradoxically, the lack of audiovisual competition may play a role: Trump and his superpacs haven’t produced big-budget, well-distributed commercials. Clinton’s advertisements can thus remain understated. There’s no true audiovisual conversation.

Clinton may also have been reticent to draw on music because it has served her so poorly in the past. In 2008, musical choices like Celine Dion’s “You and I” highlighted her age and lack of cool. (And of course Trump too is, among other things, an uncool septuagenarian.)

The Original and Official Hillary Clinton (2008) Campaign Song Video

Perhaps both camps have heeded recent research asserting that political ads are largely ineffective (including their soundtracks): campaign resources should be devoted to the ground game—operatives knocking door to door in get-out-the-vote efforts. But this may be the wrong approach. This research may already be outmoded. Its data don’t account for onslaughts of outrageous Twitter posts, or Facebook’s silos of like-minded friends.

Trump has also been a destabilizing force. His erratic behavior makes it hard to gauge how to respond, audiovisually or otherwise. (Should you fight bullying with bullying?) His constant threats to sue or have people shot also carry weight, especially in an age of surveillance that could quickly turn into something like a Stasi state.

The reasons for the muting of music seem deeper, however. If you feel frozen, you’ll have difficulty singing or performing music (think of Doris Day in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Gwen Welles in Altman’s Nashville). You may feel incapable of stirring someone with music. The constantly shifting political landscape might also paralyze musicians and directors: campaigns haven’t typically lurched from scandal to scandal, producing and destroying memes that can render a musical ad instantly obsolete.

As we enter the homestretch, more striking musical moments have been happening—right at the moment when the race seems to have stabilized. Journalists have finally summed up Trump (“that yellow troll fascist dwarf”); Sean Penn also quipped that “voting for Trump is like masturbating your way to hell.” Perhaps in some ways we’re coming together.

Hillary Clinton Pantsuit Flashmob

The best recent musical moments so far remain understated, like Mary J. Blige’s acapella singing while directly facing Clinton. I like this recent flashmob clip celebrating Hillary’s pantsuits, shot in Washington Square; it’s enjoyable even if it seems a bit too well funded for its own good. It couldn’t possibly be a Trump promo. Compare it to the Trump rally clip with the USA Freedom Kids (three young girls, who according to their father were bilked by Trump); viewers on social media likened their performance to something you’d see for Kim Jong-un.

USA Freedom Kids

The biggest political ads of this season haven’t carried much aesthetic weight. (I wonder what later studies targeting effectiveness will show.) The music in Clinton’s ads suggest a stay-the-course approach, often drawing directly on minimalism, with stripped-down piano accompaniment. Sometimes something humorously sinister sneaks in, a là Danny Elfman. The soundtrack is usually complemented by footage processed to drain Trump of physical magnetism, and the overall scene is often tinted an unnatural blueish-gray, more dystopian than The Bourne Ultimatum. The bulky sans-serif font suggests overcompensated clarity (shouting) and bargain-basement utility. Why project limited resources for the public, I wonder, when the campaign has likely been so well-funded? (In fairness, Clinton’s ad agency has a house style: “Google it/The Briefing” looks sharp.) A subset of these ads, especially targeting military vets, feel more traditional, with their sensitive strings and subjects looking into the distance. Ads of girls and women listening to or re-voicing Trump’s misogynistic assertions, and others supportive of African American and LGBT communities, are more moving. (The music often softly percolates underneath, and the LGBT-themed “Equal” nicely pivots into a fuller arrangement.) Two Hillary campaign videos worth mentioning include a Trump University infomercial’s spoof (with a faux Ivanka voice-over promising to take all your money), and an immigration ink blot series comprised of morphing black forms accompanied by a melancholic string quartet (both bloom momentarily into trains and shackled people).

Trump’s ads have almost always looked shoddier. (Was he not only tweeting late at night but also editing on free software?) One on Hillary’s coughing seemed particularly embarrassing. Trump’s first ad intimates that Clinton literally has trouble with her eyes (cloudy); once it’s finished with Mexico and ISIS, the music and image sweetens and clarifies. One of Ivanka Trump saying publicly donated money will be matched by her father feels like a late-night acne-treatment commercial. Cheap and plentiful, these were mostly distributed on Facebook.

Most of the user-generated clips circulating now seem like tired retreads of earlier YouTube campaign genres, even though they may have been funded by superpacs. Given their low view-counts we may not need to worry about them. I like a cover of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” with Trump’s lines with the tweaked hook line (“how many times can you [I] sing sorry?’”); a “Batman v Trump: Official Trailer” with Trump CGI’d in; a dance battle with the candidates heads photoshopped in; a mashed-up speech (Trump singing about Pokémon); a sung meme showcasing a single gesture, Clinton’s Debate 1 shimmy; and of course the Gregory Brothers’ songified debates. Both Trump and Sanders also appeared for SNL cameos, green-screened into Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” but only Sanders seemed to embrace all the characters.

SNL‘s “Hotline Bling” Parody

One idiom I’m particularly fond of, deriving from folk music and stand-and-deliver stars, is will.i.am’s “Yes We Can,” (2008) directed by Jesse Dylan. I now see this video as connecting with Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” There’s Joss Whedon’s “Save the Day,” a tongue-in-cheek video quickly hijacked by the alt-right. The production company Anonymous Content has just made a clip with 1,000 stars too. The promise of a tiny bit of sex (Mark Ruffalo agreeing to appear full monte) might hope to provide what stirring music once did. will.i.am has just done an amusing sendup of a debate—but it turns the music down.

Campaign-rally and convention music has also felt déjà vu. I could give a shoutout to Katy Perry for participating in Clinton’s campaign (“Roar” and “Fight Song”), and note that Trump, always engaged in the scam, used a rash of songs without the artists’ blessings (the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Queen), reminding us how Bruce Springsteen chided Reagan for misusing “Born in the USA” in an earlier race-baiting campaign. But the response to Trump’s sloppiness, the music video “Stop Playing Our Song,” with Usher and Sheryl Crow, was enervated. The original song’s intensity has been diminished, the perpetrator (Trump) remains unnamed, and no course of action is offered.

But some new turns have delighted me. During the first debate Tecate beer placed an anti-Trump commercial spoofing his “wall.” We might complain about the ad’s Eurocentrism, noting that Tecate is owned by Heineken. Primarily white men cross over a long, snaking, mini-wall at coffee-table height—good for smashing down beer cans—to another group of possibly more Latino men, whom we might assume are on the border’s southern side. The ad begins like recent film trailers, with a swiftly rising glissando, and a camera soaring above a vast, desert flanking an eagle. (Trump has been pushing that eagle.) Then we have Anglo-sounding guitar-based rock. Still, though the commercial’s weighted North, I’ve seldom seen a big corporation take this kind of political stand: it feels like we’re possibly moving into a new era, with new genres. Not only might a corporation outsource their production and merchandising, they might share out their politics.

During this election cycle, finding, sourcing, and making connections among clips can prove challenging. One sweet clip is of a mariachi band performing in the Oval Office possibly chimes with a 2008 one. (The Dems produced one mariachi tape that upset a community because the musicians weren’t in an appropriate neighborhood. Might this one help make good on an earlier oversight?) Might the YouTube-based “Fuck Trump” hip hop videos also have been funded by a Democratic superpac? (A Macklemore video is particularly wonderful.) On Trump’s side, the mashed up documentary footage accompanying his official music video with “C’Mon Ride the Train” by Quad City DJs incongruously suggests racial inclusiveness with a proletarian flare (and supposedly a prosumer created the initial cut). The singer so expressively effuses about “getting on the choo-choo” that we can imagine she’s doing the arm gestures, but Trump almost never mingles with the crowds. Perhaps some of the ad’s pleasure comes from latent content: Trump promises “It’ll be beautiful,” but we don’t know how; perhaps the singer can fill in a bit? Somehow we’ll whirl our way into the White House. Or perhaps there’s even more latent content: that Trump plane forcibly inserts itself 27 times into the crowd, perhaps foreshadowing the new revelations of his sexual assaults.

Like many academics I tend to look for political content outside of traditional or official discourse. One of the most influential videos for reading this election season may be Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Trump got into it with Beyoncé over “Formation,” and Trump surrogates have falsely accused Beyoncé of speaking vulgarly about genitalia—in one case misquoting the lines from a remix of “Flawless,” a song she performed with Nikki Minaj, in which Minaj touts her own genitalia (and doesn’t seize someone else’s without consent). SNL just spoofed Lemonade’s “Sorry” substituting in Ivanka, Kellyanne, Tiffany, and Omarosa.

Beyoncé’s Lemonade, a 50-minute audiovisual film comprised of music videos and interstitial poetry, not only confronts common marital difficulties but also provides a means to hold the American past, present, and future together. It develops historical strands about Africa, the Middle Passage, slavery, reconstruction, lynching, neo-liberalism and the disinvestment in black neighborhoods of the 70s, Hurricane Katrina, and the police murders of African-Americans. It often takes place below ground, or in confined quarters, with palpably poor air quality. As such it could be seen as existing in direct conversation with Trump’s rallies, with his circling helicopters overhead and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” (After Trump menaced Hillary during the second debate, this spatial relationship seems more strongly etched.) Lemonade expands out as Beyoncé, at the Video Music Awards, brought police-shooting victims’ mothers to the red carpet. Expanding further, some fans (including me) heard “Fuck Donald Trump” emerging in the mix during Beyoncé’s Formation tour.

My academic training also encourages me to see our culture as in need of conversation about what we’re frightened of, or have pushed aside, and to expect that these issues will bubble forth somehow, transmuted or veiled. Music video has long been a place to find the underdiscussed: shot quickly and less susceptible to some forms of censorship, tied to youth and rebellion, and relatively free from narrative demands, it can thereby allow a freer play of desires and thoughts. In recent heavily digitally processed, mind-twisting videos, artists like Rihanna, Lana Del Rey, and Allie X and Allie X often slide toward some indeterminate abyss (just beyond the frame). We watch moment-by-moment to see if they’ll endure. These clips capture the ever-present anxiety of our contemporary moment, life without a banister, caught within what Berlant has identified as the biopolitical production of precarity under post-Fordism.

Another thread in today’s music videos leads elsewhere. Empowering videos by musicians of color like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” link directly to Black Lives Matter. Women of color (Beyoncé, Rihanna, Jill Scott, J-Lo, and FKA Twigs) also seem to have been pulling out the stops—sometimes through topic, sometimes purely through self-presentation and delivery. They may sense they’re the most capable of helping us imagine a transition from Obama to Clinton. (Perhaps even European American female musicians like Sky Ferreira and Miley Cyrus have been backing away a bit to create more space for them.)

Two recent clips, Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” (directed by Alan Ferguson), fall within this last group. Solange says she wanted to show the video’s subjects, African-Americans, as regal and proud. The figures in the images simultaneously project a sense of firmness as well as telegraph an awareness of the larger cultural moment. Like Sanders’ “America” these two clips find a way to create a fit between the micro and macro. The music and image are so in sync that they project an image of our dream of democracy itself. I can’t quite say how the videos do this. Perhaps the image captures something about the music. There’s a sensitivity to fine details (the single thread pulled back from Solange’s dress), the mid-ground (the water-stained patterns on white cloth), and the largest scale (the many figures in the frame who all move in concert).

Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair”

I hope Hillary’s team is planning a final audiovisual spectacular for its get-out-the-vote effort. Perhaps they’re holding out, responding to studies that show music succeeds best as an end-game? (There’s the just released 30 Days, 30 Songs, a project delivering a new protest message every day leading up to the election.) Maybe now that Trump is imploding we’ll hear new voices sing louder. But so far one of the most moving ads is a silent video with a man using sign language. “We Shall Overcome” still feels very far away, but I’ll use some of these clips to help me make it to the 8th (not the 35th).

Please feel free to comment.

#TrumpIsRight: The Paradox of Digital Database Histories and Collective Memory
Eric Hahn / New York University


Donald Trump, the man of the hour

The Internet has served as a catalyst for the development of interactive and shared historical archives. Websites and databases like Immigrant Nation and CNN’s iReport, have approached what can arguably be understood as the democratization not only of access to historical archives but, and more significantly, to the very creation and curation of history itself. These seemingly open databases where users can effectively craft and post their own historical fragments (be it news or life stories) from unique perspectives calls into question any cohesive, teleological readings of history. While this fragmented and personalized approach to history is seemingly effective in the destabilization and questioning of dominant and often problematic historical narratives, the promise of purely democratic and multifaceted database approaches to history raises alternative and significant questions. This brief article intends to explore the progress and limitations of this digital database approach not merely in its ability to offer central spaces for collective and personal histories, but additionally in regards to the possibility or impossibility of generating “believable” and “substantial” histories. By analyzing the aforementioned sites/databases, one can begin to deconstruct and question the often over-sentimentalized prospect of participatory and democratic constructions of history and collective memory via new and emerging media.

Both iReport and Immigrant Nation function as repositories of “lived” experience. By providing basic information (e.g. name, email address, etc.) or simply linking to a source via hashtag (#CNNiReport) users are invited to post newsworthy items in the case of iReport or personal accounts of emigrating to the United States in the case of Immigrant Nation. While these two sites differ dramatically in terms of business structure (iReport being a for-profit endeavor) this difference ultimately factors little into the nature of the material stocking the databases. Indeed, a quick review of current CNN iReport stories reveals contentious and clearly unmoderated headlines at odds with the traditional fare offered by “the most trusted name in news” such as, “Will Black Lives Matter Team Up with Isis to Stop the Republican National Convention?” and a short, clearly doctored, video titled “Unexpected Jihad” in which a child on a playground explodes. While this lack of moderation seems contradictory, Devon Bissonette rightly suggests, “As long as advertising is linked to user views, media companies have a vested interest in pushing users to generate inflammatory versus informative content, as long as the former proves more salable” (394). [ (( Bissonette, Devan. “A Digital Democracy or Twenty-First-Century Tyranny? CNN’s iReport and the Future of Citizenship in Virtual Spaces.” DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media. Ed. Matt Ratto and Megan Boler. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014. 385-401. ))]


“Unexpected Jihad,” a CNN iReport video with clearly doctored content

In essence, both for-profit and not-for-profit models can be understood as utilizing fairly loose modes of moderation (of course this varies by website) albeit based on fundamentally different motives: for-profit to generate views, not-for-profits to allow for as many disparate voices to be heard as possible. Hidden within this seemingly revolutionary model in which moderation is limited or non-existent, lies a problematic paradox. In analyzing approaches to database histories that are wholly user moderated, or not moderated at all, any conception of historical “truth” is itself an impossibility. Admittedly, one could argue that historiography is a process of negotiated and mediated readings of reality therefore “truth” is inherently a problematic word. But, such an understanding ignores the fact that traditionally generated histories can theoretically be deconstructed through questioning and contextualizing the source(s) of specific histories. In essence, even problematic historical narratives can be traced (some more effectively than others) and through this process of investigation, inverted, reformulated, or challenged. Conversely, the allowable anonymity of the Internet acts as both a cloaking device for the source of the historical fragment thus problematizing deconstruction and simultaneously a means of separating the creator of a historical narrative from the consequences of such a narrative. Such an approach to wholly democratic databases can be dismissed as too pessimistic, but in briefly pointing to a seemingly innocent post on Immigrant Nation (see below), one can begin to understand the grounds for this critique.

An Immigrant Nation post: complication or experimentation?

In a post titled, “bjfdbj” by Edgar, we learn of someone who emigrated from Guatemala to the U.S. to escape civil war. Interestingly, the post itself has a picture of a carrot, followed by a seemingly random string of text. While this is certainly nothing alarming or offensive it does pose some important questions. Are the incoherent aspects of this post simply a result of a genuine user having difficulties manipulating the interface or is this perhaps a user who is simply testing or playing with the interface itself? This of course would precede the question: if this is a user simply testing or playing with the interface, can the history documented be given any credence? Again, one can assert that history is fundamentally polylogical and relative but, the anonymity afforded through digital mediation negates any possibility of tracing contextual threads that might allow for the deconstruction of the specific historical discourse. This argument points to a paradox. The Internet has allowed for disparate groups or individuals to connect and share personal or collective histories effectively questioning and destabilizing dominant historical narratives, but, the very medium that enables such a connection fundamentally problematizes the histories generated by its users. As such, the pluralization of the archives’ nomos — the law of the archive and the authority to archive [ (( Pinchevski, Amit. “Archive, Media, Trauma.” On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age. Ed. Motti Neiger, Oran Meyers, and Eyal Zandberg. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2011. 253-264. ))] — fractures any tenuous points of contact between truth and history even as it allows for a more diverse and inclusive approach to historiographical practice.

What is significant when analyzing this paradox is not necessarily the loss of grand historical narratives as such, but rather the reverberations of this destabilization. In “Past Indiscretions: Digital Archives and Recombinant History,” Steve Anderson argues that beyond the possibility of total and encyclopedic approaches to history, the significance of the digital and collective approach is the existence of “recombinant histories.” [ (( Anderson, Steve. “Past Indiscretions: Digital Archives and Recombinant History.” Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, the Arts, and the Humanities. Ed. Marsha Kinder and Tara McPherson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014. 100-114. ))] Anderson suggests, “A more provocative historiographical argument is posited in the premise of the apparatus that encourages audience members to lie—to pose as someone other than themselves—in order to generate alternative histories” (110). Anderson expounds the democratic possibility of challenging dominant histories but what is at stake here is not simply the existence of dominant historical narratives — which should indeed be questioned — but additionally the very notion of historical “truth” as relevant at all. One need only turn to contemporary political discourse to witness this (post)modern, Baudrillardian mode of existence. Specifically, presidential hopeful Donald Trump fairly recently claimed, “Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey where thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.” [ (( Taibbi, Matt. “America is Too Dumb for TV News.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone Magazine, 25 Nov. 2015. ))] Vehemently argued as a fictional account by most accredited media and news outlets, this alternative history has no doubt generated concurrent reports even leading to the creation of the hashtag #TrumpIsRight. The pseudo-news website InfoWars dedicated a page to scrolling user generated histories — much like iReport’s “database” — detailing these “celebratory displays” in agreement with Trump’s arguably false historical narrative. [ (( Watson, Steve. “I Live in Jersey and Trump is Right: Muslims Did Celebrate on 9/11 in NJ… We Saw It!” InfoWars. Free Speech Systems, LLC. 24 Nov. 2015. ))] As such, Trump’s account, although largely contested, is also forcefully supported through digital “eyewitness” channels whose users fundamentally disavow contrary reports as biased or false.


Eyewitness testimonies reported via Twitter

In essence, the digital archive functions in an interesting way. Rather than envisioning it as a Foucauldian heterotopic paradigm where “time is accumulated but not lived,” we can begin to conceive of this digital approach as “an eminently social practice, a veritable living memory” (254). [ (( Pinchevski, Amit. “Archive, Media, Trauma.” On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age. Ed. Motti Neiger, Oran Meyers, and Eyal Zandberg. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2011. 253-264. ))] It is in this vein that Pinchevski argues that this process of digital and user generated historical archives returns the notion of “collective memory” to a kind of pure existence as “the remembering community and the collective will to remember” (256). [ (( Pinchevski, Amit. “Archive, Media, Trauma.” On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age. Ed. Motti Neiger, Oran Meyers, and Eyal Zandberg. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2011. 253-264. ))] While one can indeed approach these digital databases as forms of unmediated collective memory, Pinchevski ignores or misinterprets the results of these newly generated mass histories (collective memories). Specifically, collective memory and history itself has reached a stage of pure simulacra. No longer do grand historical narratives exist to be deconstructed and analyzed, but rather, the digital database, in all its democratic potentiality, has indeed served to destabilize and democratize collective memory and history. In this new egalitarian model, all history exists in a dual state: unquestionably true and absolutely false with no room in between.

Image Credits:

1. Donald Trump
2. “Unexpected Jihad” from CNN iReport
3. “bfjdbj” from Immigrant Nation
4. Eyewitness testimonies reported via Twitter

Please feel free to comment.

Wicked Games, Part 3: Caution — Contents May Be Hot… and Hidden
Matthew Payne / University of Alabama
Peter Alilunas / University of Oregon

Cover for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Cover Art for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Case Study #3: Grand Theft Auto’s “Hot Coffee” Controversy
In our first column, we argued that Dungeons & Dragons became a convenient scapegoat in the 1980s for moralists seeking a ready-made crusade on which to pin their anxieties about children’s leisure time activities. In our last column, we made a similar argument about the cultural landscape surrounding the formation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) in 1994 and, specifically, the ways in which the gaming industry’s own marketing missteps led to the necessity of self-regulation. In both cases, we argued that the fears of “dangerous play” are always lurking, ready to surge to the surface at the slightest hint that culture — and especially children — might be corrupted.

In this, our final entry, we conclude our examination of flashpoints in gaming history by focusing on a more recent moment when the combustible mix of technology, play, pleasure, and social taboos revealed extant anxieties and fears. As with the previous columns, this case study likewise illustrates the predictable way these moral conflagrations play out in cycles of rupture, panic, and regulation. The story of the “Hot Coffee” modification of Rockstar Games’ 2005 Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (GTA: SA), represents the ways in which moral panics can never truly disappear, even with the momentary soothing balm of regulation. They can only return underground, waiting to rupture all over again.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)

Hot Coffee
Such was the case with the ESRB, which was designed in 1994 precisely to prevent any more ruptures and panics for the rapidly growing game industry. The self-regulating board would offer ratings and guidelines to parents, but, more importantly, it presented an image of concern and care for children. It kept a lid on the simmering pot of sex and violence that was always threatening to boil over. The ESRB held that lid in place, or it purported to at the least. Nevertheless, despite its sole purpose as a guardian of the moral boundaries around video games, the anxieties around content and its regulation never truly disappeared.

For example, in late June 2003, the ESRB announced it would add more descriptions, new guidelines, and bolder labels to its ratings system in an effort to make the system more visible and effective (and to continue to stem external political intervention). Senators Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), who, as we discussed in the previous column, were prime instigators in the 1990s in the effort to regulate the industry, praised the ESRB’s changes. Lieberman noted, “I have always said the ESRB system was the best rating system in the entertainment media and these changes will make it even better.”[ (( “Kohl, Liberman commend new voluntary computer and video game ratings improvements, ESRB, June 26, 2003. http://www.esrb.org/about/news/news_archive.aspx#06262003B ))] Such language is a key part of the panic cycle: the regulation structure makes the problem seem under control or “fixed” when in fact its inherent fragility might better be understood as its defining feature.

That fragility was dramatically exposed in late 2004. Rockstar Games studio, owned by Take-Two Interactive, released the PlayStation 2 version of GTA: SA in October. This was the fifth entry in the spectacularly successful open-world action-adventure series (and the second GTA game designed by Rockstar). The game’s blatantly adult content triggered cultural unease, and further criticism of the ESRB for failing to proactively protect children.[ (( Katie Hafner, “Game Ratings: U is for Unheeded,” New York Times December 16, 2004: G1, G6. ))] The ongoing ripples of panic around video games swelled up, as evidenced by Washington D.C. city councilman (and later mayor) Adrian Fenty’s effort in early 2005 to pass a bill that would prevent merchants from selling video games with violent content to minors in the city, and by the high-profile case in Tennessee in which two teenage brothers blamed GTA: SA for inspiring them to fire shotguns at passing traffic. [ ((http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2005/02/03/DI2005040308224.html ; http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=124797 )) ] Both stories became national news. [ (( For example, both were included in a CBS Evening News broadcast on February 20, 2005. http://tvnews.vanderbilt.edu/diglib-fulldisplay.pl?SID=20160418691680908&code=tvn&RC=780751&Row=480 )) ] Hillary Clinton, then Senator from New York, seized the opportunity to call the sex and violence in children’s entertainment “an epidemic,” and called for a uniform ratings system across the media industries. [ (( Raymond Hernandez, “Clinton Seeks Uniform Ratings in Entertainment for Children,” New York Times March 10, 2005: B5. ))] A familiar snowball was forming — but it was only the beginning.

Shortly after the GTA: SA release, Dutch programmer Patrick Wildenborg began sifting through the source code during his leisure time. Wildenborg and his fellow Internet-based “modder” cohort, named so for their interest in modifying video games for their own entertainment (an activity that is often supported by game developers for the way it frequently engenders robust play communities), made a surprising discovery buried deep in the software. What they found were traces of files for scenes involving the game’s characters engaging in various sexual activities. While the sex scenes were not playable in the PS2 version, the modders nevertheless created ways to visualize them. [ (( Simon Parkin, “Who Spilled Hot Coffee?” Eurogamer November 30, 2012, http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-11-30-who-spilled-hot-coffee. ))] Then they waited. The PC version, which could be examined in much more substantial detail and manipulated with greater ease by modders, would be released in June 2005.

What Wildenborg found were traces of content that Rockstar had decided not to include at the last moment. But rather than eliminate the code entirely, which would have been time intensive and expensive, Rockstar “walled off” the sexual gameplay. [ (( Parkin, “Who Spilled Hot Coffee?”; David Kushner, Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto (Nashville, TN: Turner, 2012). ))] These ghostly artifacts, buried deep in the source code, could not be accessed without special gear and know-how. To be clear: these scenes were never meant to be seen by those outside of Rockstar Games and they could not be activated with a simple cheat code. It is easy to appreciate why such a discovery would excite Wildenborg and his peers: this was the ultimate in hidden content — the stuff of apocryphal gaming legends. [ (( Hanuman Welchm, “20 Video Game Myths, Conspiracy Theories, and Urban Legends to Celebrate Halloween,” The Complex, October 31, 2013, http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2013/10/video-game-myths-conspiracy-theories-urban-legends-celebrate-halloween/ ))] It was also precisely the sort of thing that made GTA’s critics, and critics of games generally, so anxious. What started as a snowball was about to become an avalanche.

Although it has its fair share of “Easter eggs,” hidden content has never been GTA’s primary selling point. Indeed, the enduring appeal of the franchise — an element that is borne out in the marketing materials surrounding its 2004 San Andreas installment and one that the series helped to establish for the sandbox-style genre of open-world games — is its promise of free-form play.

Promotional trailer for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)

To wit, the game’s promotional trailer showcases vignettes of kinetic exploration across eclectic landscapes. The vehicular travel by land, sea, and air, is accompanied by spectacular destruction and wanton criminality, all of which is underscored by the pulsing soundtrack of Guns and Roses’s rock anthem, “Welcome to the Jungle.” The GTA games possess an aura of unscripted mayhem, and San Andreas represents an expansive terrain waiting to be explored. That promise of exploration and discovery, however, creates the opportunity for well-known questions to creep in: what else might be lurking in this game?

Hidden Coffee
Wildenborg and his fellow modders definitively answered that question within hours of the release of the PC version on June 7, 2005. Not only was the code present, it could be “switched on” and accessed with a simple patch that the group made available online for download. [ (( PatrickW, “Hot Coffee” mod, GTA Garage, June 9, 2005, http://www.gtagarage.com/mods/show.php?id=28 ))] In the release version of the game, C.J., the protagonist, must impress his various girlfriends to be invited into their homes for coffee — upon which the game would cut to the follow morning, implying that sex had occurred. The “Hot Coffee” patch created by the modders allowed players to engage in the walled-off mini-games that had been originally planned, partially developed, then abandoned. It was a bizarre and surprising discovery, to say the least. Even if it couldn’t be accessed without a fair amount of technological sophistication, what was this code doing in the game?

For a few weeks, at least, the discovery was of interest only to the tech-savvy gaming community, making the rounds on various blogs and gaming-related websites. It wasn’t until Leland Yee, a California Assemblyman (D-San Francisco), got involved that that the lurking anxieties finally exploded, triggering the seemingly pro forma regulatory reaction familiar to any entertainment-driven panic. On July 6, 2005, along with the the National Institute of Media and Family (NIMF), Yee released a statement accusing the ESRB of failing to protect children from the “explicit sexual scenes” in GTA: SA. [ (( Steve Lohr, “In Video Game, a Download Unlocks Hidden Sex Scene,” New York Times, July 11, 2005, C3. ))] The floodgates opened and within 48 hours ESRB director Patricia Vance announced it would investigate Rockstar to see if the “full disclosure” rule had been violated. “The integrity of the ESRB rating system is founded on the trust of consumers who increasingly depend on it to provide complete and accurate information about what’s in a game,” she noted. [ (( Curt Feldman, “ESRB to investigate ‘San Andreas’ sex content,” CNET, July 8, 2005, www.cnet.com/news/esrb-to-investigate-san-andreas-sex-content/ ))] Her comment captures the confluence of elements that sparked the “Hot Coffee” panic: concerns over “completeness” and “accuracy,” fears that something uncontrollable — and unknown — was lurking in a game too complicated for adults to understand, and general unease that the game’s developers had deliberately misled a naive, susceptible public. Wildenborg, for his part, sensed his discovery was already being misunderstood. To his credit, shortly after the panic set in he took the patch offline and wrote in an email to the New York Times, “GTA is not a game for young children, and is rated accordingly. [The patch] is not something it is possible to accidentally stumble across.” [ (( Lohr, “In Video Game, a Download Unlocks Hidden Sex Scene,” C3. ))] However, by that point the time-tested narratives around his discovery were far outside of his control.

description of image

‘Hot Coffee’ mod unlocks sex mini-game in GTA: SA

Rockstar’s reaction to the discovery and to the investigation was not to tell the truth, but to lash out at the modding community. On July 13, they released a statement claiming that the incident was the result of a “determined group of hackers” who, in violation of the software user agreement, had been “disassembling and then combining, recompiling, and altering the game’s source code.” [ (( Lisa Baertlein, “ ‘Grand Theft’ maker blame hackers for sex scene,” Reuters News, July 13, 2005, http://expressindia.indianexpress.com/news/fullstory.php?newsid=50636 ))] Essentially, Rockstar accused the modders of creating the scenes — which inadvertently fed the panic. It was a costly mistake. The next day, political regulation re-entered the scene. Clinton called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Rockstar, but she also spread the blame to others, including the ESRB. Describing the images as “graphic pornographic content,” she argued that “parents who rely on the ratings to make decisions to shield their children from influences they believe could be harmful should be informed right away if the system is broken.” [ (( Raymond Hernandez, “Clinton Urges Inquiry Into Hidden Sex in Grand Theft Auto Game,” New York Times, July 14, 2005, B3. ))] The NIMF released a statement in support of Clinton “demanding the truth about secret GTA: SA pornographic content.” [ (( “National Institute on Media and the Family Joins Senator Clinton in Demanding the Truth about Secret Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Pornographic Content,” Business Wire, July 14, 2005, http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20050714005395/en/National-Institute-Media-Family-Joins-Senator-Clinton ))] Here was more panicked language, more fears of the unknown, more calls for “truth,” more invocation of explicit pornography, more anxiety about vulnerable children — even though it was a group of technologically skilled adults who made the discovery and created the patch for a game rated for adults — all driving a discourse of containment and protection.

The following day, on July 15, writers for Gamespot.com sounded what would be the death knell when they confirmed that the scenes were accessible on the PS2 disc with a simple patch and cheat code, further eroding Rockstar’s insistence that “hackers” had created the problem, and adding fuel to claims that bad things were lurking in the game’s code. [ (( Tor Thorson, “Confirmed: Sex minigae in PS2 San Andreas,” Gamespot, July 15, 2005, http://www.gamespot.com/articles/confirmed-sex-minigame-in-ps2-san-andreas/1100-6129301/ ))] On July 20, the ESRB announced it had re-rated GTA: SA with the dreaded “Adults Only” (AO) label, the gaming equivalent of an NC-17 film rating, meaning major retailers would not carry the title for sale. [ (( Alex Pham, “Hidden Sex Scenes Spark Furor Over Video Game,” LA Times, July 21, 2005, www.latimes.com /news/la-fi-sexgame21jul21-story.html ))] Indeed, Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, and others — all members of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association — announced they would pull the game immediately, which by that point had reached six million in sales. [ (( Chris Morris, “‘Grand Theft Auto’ ceases manufacturing,” CNN, July 20, 2005, money.cnn.com/2005/07/20/technology/personaltech/gta/ ))] Rockstar discontinued production of GTA: SA, saying it would release a new, edited version as soon as possible.

Decaffeinated Coffee
That wasn’t the end of the panic or the regulatory response, which was by then chugging ahead full steam. On July 25, the U.S. House of Representatives, echoing Clinton’s call to action, voted 355-21 to urge the FTC to investigate Rockstar. [ (( David Jenkins, “San Andreas FTC Inquiry Given Go Ahead,” Gamasutra, July 26, 2005, http://gamasutra.com/view/news/96985/San_Andreas_FTC_Inquiry_Given_Go_Ahead.php ))] The FTC and Take-Two/Rockstar eventually settled for $11,000 in fines for any future hot coffee violations, amounting to little more than a symbolic slap on the wrist. [ (( Simon Carless, “FTC, Take-Two Settle Over GTA Hot Coffee Mod,” Gamasutra, June 8, 2006, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/100606/FTC_TakeTwo_Settle_Over_GTA_Hot_Coffee_Mod.php ))] In fact, the publisher only paid out $300,000 (to 2,676 consumers [ (( Jonathan D. Glater, “Game’s Hidden Sex Scenes Draw Ho-Hum, Except From Lawyers,” New York Times, June 25, 2008, C1. ))] ) of the $2.75 million that it had set aside to settle legal complaints. [ (( Leigh Alexander, “Opinion: Time for a ‘Hot Coffee’ Postmortem,” Gamasutra, September 8, 2009, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/115983/Opinion_Time_For_A_Hot_Coffee_Postmortem.php ))] Moreover, the company’s stock shares only suffered a temporary hit from pending suits [ (( Brendan Sinclair, “LA city attorney files Hot Coffee suit,” Gamespot, January 27, 2006, http://www.gamespot.com/articles/la-city-attorney-files-hot-coffee-suit/1100-6143276/ ))] before recovering and eventually swelling beyond their pre-hot coffee levels. [ (( Bethany McLean, “Sex, Lies, and Videogames,” Fortune, August 22, 2005, http://archive.fortune.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2005/08/22/8270037/index.htm ))]

Far more consequential than any fine, though, were the far-reaching effects of the controversy. The fear of prurient content hidden from parents and regulators precipitated renewed attempts by legislators at state and federal levels to proactively guard consumers from the threat of suspect gameplay. To wit, Senators Clinton, Lieberman, and Evan Bayh introduced the “Family Entertainment Protection Act” in December of 2005 [ (( Seth Schiesel, Video Game Bill Introduced,” New York Times, December 17, 2005, B10. ))] (it later died in committee), while similar protectionist bills were later proposed at the federal level [ (( Jason Dobson, “Upton Reintroduces ‘Video Game Decency Act’,” Gamasutra, March 20, 2007, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/104164/Upton_Reintroduces_Video_Game_Decency_Act.php ))] and were passed by bipartisan state legislators in California, [ (( John Broder, “Bill is Signed to Restrict Video Games in California,” New York Times, October 8, 2005, A11. ))] Louisiana, [ (( Jason Dobson, “Louisiana Senate Passes Video Game Violence Bill,” Gamasutra, June 7, 2006, http://gamasutra.com/view/news/100584/Louisiana_Senate_Passes_Video_Game_Violence_Bill.php ))] and Florida. [ (( Jason Dobson, “ESRB Scrutiny Proposed by Latest Video Game Bill,” Gamasutra, August 8, 2006, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/101320/ESRB_Scrutiny_Proposed_By_Latest_Video_Game_Bill.php ))]

“Family Entertainment Protection Act” Press Conference (November 29, 2005)

Hot coffee was a black eye for the industry and for its regulatory body that was, only a year prior, heralded by concerned politicians as being the model system for media content. The controversy did little to scald the game’s studio and its publisher, however. If anything, the clandestine mod and the subsequent PR crisis was a source of pride — commercially and culturally, speaking — for Rockstar and Take-Two. This flashpoint only further cemented GTA’s legacy as a good financial bet in an industry that is characterized by enormous risks (even for established franchises), [ (( Bethany McLean, “Sex, Lies, and Videogames,” Fortune, August 22, 2005, http://archive.fortune.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2005/08/22/8270037/index.htm ))] and for Rockstar as a studio that clearly benefits from its “rebel reputation.” [ (( Alexander, “Opinion,” Gamasutra. ))] Rockstar’s design modus operandi has long been about crafting taboo gameplay elements, whether it is drunk driving in GTA IV (2008), full-frontal male nudity in its The Lost and Damned (2009) downloadable content, dealing drugs in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (2009), or torture in GTA V (2013). Hot coffee was not a break with their design strategy; it was their design strategy.

Of the three popular controversies we’ve covered across three decades, the hot coffee mod presents video gaming’s critics with the most legitimate grounds for concern. The sexual mini-games hidden in GTA’s code seemingly substantiate long-standing fears that gameplay — be it mediated by a console, PC, or a tabletop rule set — is nothing but a Trojan horse prepared to surreptitiously corrupt players. The fact that those mini-games could never be played by non-hackers is beside the point, as were the specious connections between D&D and the occult before it. The hidden code validated the panic, and quickly became yet another episode in this recurring morality play.

Play is a powerful human experience. And the three controversies that we’ve examined prove that play’s ability to enrapture those within its magic circle are as attractive to those looking to lose themselves in a fiction as they are threatening to non-playing observers who fear that shared fantasies might escape their ludic bounds to contaminate the real. There will be more gaming controversies to be sure, precisely because of the dualism embedded within the play experience. Play’s essential liminality troubles and destabilizes discursive boundaries. And therein lies its nascent challenge to the existing social order. All forms of gameplay are potentially “wicked” because these betwixt and between happenings elide simplistic categorization and definition. Analog and digital games present players with alternative worlds built on alternative rules. Thus, to play a game means to play with a different way of being in the world(s). Regulation, meanwhile, promises to mitigate play’s inherent risks and to quell experiences that might lead players to consider not just the game’s rules, but those governing our reigning social order.

Image Credits:

1. Cover Art for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
2. ‘Hot Coffee’ mod unlocks sex mini-game in GTA: SA

Please feel free to comment.

“Why 2008 Won’t Be Like 1984:” Viral Videos and Presidential Politics

by: Chuck Tryon / Fayetteville State University

As a media studies scholar and an incurable political junkie, I watched with fascination this week as the drama surrounding the (initially) anonymously posted “Vote Different” advertisement unfolded. In my previous article for Flow, I addressed some reservations about the hype regarding participatory culture, while the 2006 elections clearly depicted the potential for online videos to shape political discourse.

The “Vote Different” video, in my reading, raises further questions regarding the potential of the internet to shape the political process, questions I’m not entirely sure I can answer. These questions grow out of the following dilemma: While I remain unconvinced that the “Vote Different” advertisement significantly altered the current political discourse, I still find the underlying message of citizen empowerment irresistible.

“Vote Different,” a mashup of the highly-regarded 1984 Apple Macintosh Super Bowl advertisement directed by Ridley Scott, replaces the IBM-style Big Brother figure in the Apple advertisement with footage of Hillary Clinton’s “Conversation with America” speech. The ad famously depicts a dreary world in which workers wearing identical grey clothing move listlessly through their workday while passively absorbing the messages delivered from the giant screen that hovers above them. As Senator Clinton speaks to the inert audience, an athletic woman sprints through the crowd, throwing a hammer through the screen, and by implication shattering the “politics-as-usual” she has come to represent. Edited onto the woman’s t-shirt is a modified Apple logo made to resemble an O, identifying her with rival presidential candidate Barack Obama. The original advertisement, an allegory of the Macintosh user fighting against a conformist establishment, maps neatly onto cultural desires for a more participatory political system.

The mashup is one of the first truly viral videos to emerge from the 2008 presidential election. The original “Vote Different” video had been viewed over two million times on YouTube alone, but its real online audience would be almost impossible to measure. The video has also inspired a number of imitations, including this clumsily assembled anti-Obama mashup of the same Macintosh advertisement with the Illinois Senator’s popular Monday Night Football appearance.

Of course, one of the reasons the advertisement is so successful is its creative reinterpretation of Ridley Scott’s original Macintosh advertisement, which aired only once during the 1984 Super Bowl. While the mashup attempts to align Senator Clinton with “politics-as-usual,” through the reference to Apple’s “revolutionary” brand, it has the added bonus of bringing the legendary Apple advertisement back into public consciousness (in fact, I’m not sure that I had even seen the original Macintosh ad since its 1984 broadcast).

Much of the controversy surrounding the video can be attributed to the fact that it was originally posted anonymously on YouTube several weeks ago under the pseudonym, ParkRidge47 (Hilary Clinton was born in Park Ridge, Illinois in 1947). Because the video was posted anonymously and because it explicitly identified Clinton with Big Brother, a number of readings emerged on the web attributing the video not only to Obama supporters but also to Republican activists. While the anonymity initially posed a number of interpretive difficulties, Jeff Jarvis argued in The Washington Post that the anonymously posted advertisement betrayed an important trust within political discourse, representing the possibility that attack ads could come from “anywhere.” The video’s creator, Phil de Vellis, eventually stepped forward, taking credit for the ad when it became clear that his work on it might reflect poorly on his employer, Blue State Digital, which had worked on the Obama campaign. De Vellis’s involvement with Blue State Digital certainly raises questions about whether the advertisement is genuinely the product of a “political outsider;” however, the repeated viewings certainly suggest that the advertisement has struck a chord with the groups who have been closely following the 2008 election.

Political Cartoon by Lisa Benson

Political Cartoon by Lisa Benson (3/21/07)

The debate about the advertisement also managed to attract the attention of newspaper and cable news analysts who typically argued that its popularity marked a historic shift where anyone could participate in the election process. In fact, the advertisement has prompted a number of observers to describe the advertisement as “revolutionary,” with Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute, arguing in the San Francisco Chronicle, that the ad is “about the end of the broadcast era.” However, while the ad is no doubt powerful and illustrates the potential of citizen media, I can’t help but find myself feeling skeptical when I hear phrases like “revolutionary” and “end of the broadcast era” being thrown around. Instead, it’s worth emphasizing that the ad’s popularity actually depends in part on the broadcast media that it supposedly threatens. De Vellis himself promoted this reading on The Huffington Post, commenting that “the specific point of the ad was that Obama represents a new kind of politics, and that Senator Clinton’s ‘conversation’ is disingenuous. And the underlying point was that the old political machine no longer holds all the power.”

Whether de Vellis’s specific point about the Clinton campaign is true, I remain somewhat uncertain regarding the role of voter-generated content in shaping political discourse. The advertisement does little, in my opinion, to change popular perception of the two Democratic frontrunners. Clinton will continue to be perceived as the Washington insider identified with traditional political campaigns while Obama’s image as someone who will reinvigorate the political process remains unchanged. It is clear, however, that these videos are attracting audiences because they tap into larger cultural desires regarding the election process. As David Weinberger pointed out in the Washington Post article, “expressing frustration and unhappiness with the level of control that her campaign is exerting.” I certainly recognize the degree to which the “Vote Different” advertisement and its popularity is an expression of the desire to open up the election process to greater participation. And the expression of this desire may be the great contribution of “Vote Different” to our ongoing conversations about democracy and participation.

Image Credits:
1. Clinton Still from Summary
2. Political Cartoon by Lisa Benson (3/21/07)

Video Credits:
1. “Vote Different” (Anti-Clinton)
2. “Vote Different” (Anti-Obama)

Please feel free to comment.

Lessons from the Undead: How Film and TV Zombies Teach Us About War

Uncle Sam (Lustig, 1996)

Uncle Sam (Lustig, 1996)

I am the Marine, on the border of Kuwait.
I am the soldier, only God knows my fate.
I am the sailor, on the sea, where I might die.
I am the pilot, breathing hell from the sky…

The soldiers of Iraq are waiting there to die.
Both sides are still screaming the same warrior’s cry:
Why, why, why?

— Excerpt from poem written and performed by B-movie actor William Smith in Uncle Sam (Lustig, 1996).

All genres contain room for political allegory, but some have more room than others. Romantic comedies are not necessarily incapable of making statements about ecological destruction, over-population, the dangers of nuclear weapons, or militarism, but they rarely, if ever, venture into such terrain. It’s not that melodrama and other “female” genres are apolitical; rather, they tend to reveal the political dimensions of the private realm rather than the broader political actions and struggles of the public realm. Further, genres such as melodrama and romantic comedy strive to create characters who demand intense, personal identification; allegorical films, by contrast, more often create broader character types representing big issues. Men in musicals are not always exactly what they seem — they may sometimes, for example, be rather gay — but they are generally not explicitly used as didactic symbols. It is in horror and science fiction that men function as symbols of the military-industrial complex. Or cities represent typographies of postmodern consciousness. Or monsters represent the Id, Communism, or post-Fordist capitalism.

Unfortunately, most contemporary American science fiction and horror films focus more on sexed-up action than interesting ideas. So it was big news when Showtime premiered its “Masters of Horror” series, which seemed to be an homage to old-style horror. There were no flashy stars or fancy locations, just high-concept stories. This series would, in theory, take the genre back to its 1970s glory days, when horror could be scary on a low-budget without car chases or epileptic seizure-inducing editing. Showtime marketed the thirteen-part series for its scariness and invited a number of the great horror auteurs of the 1970s to participate. But the strength of ’70s horror did not lie simply in its goose-bump-inducing power. The best horror films of the 1970s were stunning not only because they were terrifying but also because they were full of ideas: about the family (The Hills Have Eyes), Catholicism (The Exorcist), Vietnam (Deathdream), consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), and even perception itself (Suspiria). Furthermore, many of the most interesting horror films, before and after the 70s, contained strong allegorical elements, using monsters as metaphors to convey big ideas about sexual difference, capitalism, or, generally, the cruelty of human nature.

Zombies are particularly apt monsters for allegorical manipulation. Depending on writer and director, they are imbued with varying levels of consciousness and desire, and unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, they don’t require heavy back stories, they can’t be sexy or develop a boring love interest, and they have no hope of achieving any kind of happiness. These undead, decaying bodies are potent ciphers by virtue of their uncanniness. They are monsters, yet so much like us. They wander about wearing clothes we might have in our own closets: business suits, wedding dresses, nurse’s uniforms, pajamas, or combat fatigues. Film and TV zombies have been particularly well used as anti-war figures, beginning during World War I and continuing right up to the current war in Iraq.

If we define “zombie” broadly to include any non-vampiric walking corpse, the first use of zombies as anti-war symbols was in Abel Gance’s J’accuse in 1919. The film ends with the dead of the Great War returning to ask why they have been sacrificed. In 1938 Gance made the film again, this time with an even stronger indictment of the politicians and industrialists who lead citizens blindly to the slaughter. The first film had used soldiers on leave, many of whom were killed afterwards in battle. The second film used veterans of the war, many missing arms, legs, and faces. No need for special effects here. The dead march straight toward the viewer, demanding to know how the world could possibly go to war again. Had they died for nothing? By 1939 the answer was clear: yes.

Unfortunately, zombies would appear in American films of the 1930s and 1940s primarily as symbols of racist and xenophobic social anxieties. These black monsters conjured by voodoo lacked agency and humanity; they functioned as symbols of “natural” white power and black inferiority. It would take George A. Romero to reinvent the zombie as a more progressive symbolic figure. In Night of the Living Dead (1968) the putative bad guys are hungry zombies, but the real villains are the living: clueless government officials, abusive middle-class patriarchs, and hicks picking off zombies like they were at a turkey shoot. The film contains imagery obviously referencing African American oppression — mobs of whites hunting zombies with dogs and guns, a funeral pyre evocative of the final stage of a lynching, a montage of news photos showing whites roughly handling a dead black body with grappling hooks. In addition, as Sumiko Higashi has argued, through its representation of television news the film subtly references Vietnam TV coverage; the news in Night includes estimates of body counts, discussion of “search and destroy operations,” and shots of Pentagon strategists feigning being in control.

Night‘s discourse on Vietnam was subtle, but Bob Clark’s Deathdream (1974, a.k.a. Dead of Night) explicitly critiqued the war, as well as taking a few jabs at the “typical” American family. In this film, a soldier dies in Vietnam, but he comes home anyway. Like so many vets of the era, he is distant, withdrawn, strange, and addicted to drugs — or in this case, human blood, which he mainlines to defer his own decomposition. Lynn Carlin and John Marley star as the vet’s dysfunctional parents — more or less reprising the role of unhappy couple they had played in John Cassavetes Faces six years earlier. It is soon apparent that a rotting son is the least of this unhappy family’s problems. Nixon’s silent majority might not have been loudly protesting in the streets, but in the privacy of their suburban homes they were screaming bloody murder.

Uncle Sam similarly aimed its sights at the mythology of the American family, but now in the context of the Gulf War. Written by Larry Cohen of It’s Alive fame, the film tells the story of an American soldier killed by friendly fire in Kuwait. Discovered in the desert sand three years later, he is sent home to his family. His nephew worships his Uncle Sam as a hero, but his wife and sister know that the real Sam was no hero; he was a horrible, abusive, violent man who joined the Army because he liked killing people. Importantly, he is not represented as an atypical psychopath. The film emphasizes that most men are dishonest, over-sexed, and potentially violent; Sam is just at the far end of the spectrum. The military needs patriarchal violence and bogus heroic myths to perpetuate itself. What is particularly striking about the film — a low-budget, earnest, poorly acted, extremely didactic production — is that it does not embrace what has become the standard line on war protest: hate the war but love and honor the soldiers. Rather, this film asks, what kind of man chooses to join the Army, knowing that he will win medals for killing complete strangers? It dares to contend that soldiers are not inherently innocent.

Needless to say, Sam does not stay dead. His first undead act is to shoot the American soldiers who discover his body, telling them, “don’t be afraid, it’s friendly fire.” Back home, he kills a Vietnam draft dodger played by George Bush look-alike Timothy Bottoms (who would star a few years later in Comedy Central’s short-lived That’s My Bush). Dressed in an Uncle Sam costume on July 4th, our hero buries alive one flag burner, runs a second one up a flag pole by his neck, and decapitates a third and barbecues his head. He takes revenge for a kid who became psychic after being horribly maimed by fireworks, he explodes a dishonest politician with fireworks, he shoots down a dishonest lawyer dressed up like “Honest Abe” Lincoln, and he impales a pot-smoking cop on a flag pole. Finally, a Korean vet (Isaac Hayes) with a wooden leg, who has explained that heroes are just crazy killers who survive to get medals, obliterates Uncle Sam with a revolutionary war cannon. And did I mention that P.J. Soles has a cameo as the mother
of the psychic burn victim? (Though octogenarian exploitation impresario Herschell Gordon Lewis is still alive, I like to imagine him rising from the grave to make this crazy film!) In J’accuse the innocent dead returned to ask “why?” In Uncle Sam the guilty dead return to tell us exactly why. War exists, in part, because men do not recoil in horror at the idea of killing others to get what they want. It takes a psychotically patriotic corpse to show us the error of our ways.

The first narrative film to critique the current Iraq war was George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005). Throughout his zombie oeuvre, Romero has encouraged us to feel for his corpses. “They ain’t doin’ nothin’! They’re like sharks,” he explains. They kill, in other words, not because they are malicious but because it is their nature to do so. It is those who enjoy killing who are most dangerous. The innovation of Land lies in further increasing our sympathy for the zombies, and in picturing them as a disenfranchised underclass. In the film’s dystopic world, a military underclass of non-zombies works for the upper-class, killing zombies and foraging for food and booze. To mesmerize zombies while they pilfer goods, the military underclass launches fireworks, which have lost all connotations of patriotism and are now called “sky flowers.” The rich live in a luxurious skyscraper, Fiddler’s Green, far removed from the zombies and poverty in the streets.

If Dawn was a critique of consumerism, Land is a critique of capitalism (and the militarism that supports it) tout court. Dennis Hopper plays the wealthy entrepreneur who owns Fiddler’s Green; he’s an obvious Bush stand-in. Unlike Uncle Sam, the film does not overtly declare itself to be about America’s wars in the Middle East, but the allegorical message is clear. Oil and greed are the name of the game. Hopper ends up trapped in his limo as a zombie who used to be a service station attendant fills the car with gasoline. Hopper escapes, only to be attacked by a former minion (John Leguizamo) who had dared to aspire to upward mobility — impossible, since he was a “spic.” Before he can be eaten alive, though, Hopper is blown up by gasoline. Iraq is never mentioned, but the gasoline inferno says it all: the greedy bastard who, earlier in the film, said he would not “negotiate with terrorists” has been hoist on his own petard.

Dennis Hopper in Land of the Dead

Dennis Hopper in Land of the Dead

Joe Dante’s Masters of Horror installment, Homecoming, offers an even more direct attack on the president and the war. Dante explains that “this is a horror story because most of the characters are Republicans.” In the one hour TV film, American soldiers killed in Iraq are reanimated because they cannot be at peace until someone who will end the war is elected president. They have no malicious intent, and they don’t want to eat people; they just want to vote. They can’t be killed, but after they vote they drop dead. At first, the panicked Republican spinmeisters salute the power of American troops: nothing can kill our heroes! A Jerry Falwell clone says these zombies are a gift from God. But once the zombies start bad-mouthing the president, they are put in orange jumpsuits and trundled off to detention camps. Now the Falwell stand-in explains that Satan sent these disloyal soldiers. A skanky Ann Coulter type calls the reanimated soldiers “a bunch of crippled, stinking, maggot-infested, brain dead, zombie dissidents.” Locking up the “formerly deceased” ends up not really fixing the problem, and since there aren’t really all that many of them, the Republicans allow them to vote (and die permanently). Many non-zombie citizens have been moved by the sight of the dead to vote against the president, but the Republicans fix the count so that the president is re-elected. At this point, Arlington cemetery explodes as the dead of World War II, Vietnam, and Korea rise to take over Washington. Dante blew it by including only veterans from the past 60 years, it seems to me, but he successfully made his points: 1) It was seeing and empathizing with the dead of the war that enabled people to vote against Bush; 2) Right-wing politicians and their machinations-“Lies and the lying liars who tell them,” as Al Franken puts it-are much scarier than zombies.

Lustig, Romero and Dante all worked with low-budgets and bargain basement actors. (Notably, Hopper and Leguizamo, huge stars for a Romero film, play important but secondary roles to keep their salaries down.) Thanks to 28 Days Later and the Resident Evil franchise, zombies have recently made a pop-culture comeback, and it was only because of this that Romero was able to get his fourth zombie movie green-lit. Political zombie movies do not guarantee big box office, and, in general, no one is going to fund a would-be blockbuster, with A-list actors and a bloated budget, that is “too political.” Speaking highly of Showtime, which offered him total artistic freedom, Dante explains, “I can’t conceive of any other venue where we would have been able to tell this story. You can’t do theatrical political movies; people don’t go to them. You can’t do them on [broadcast and non-premium cable] television, because you’ve got sponsors.” It is not in spite of such practical and budgetary constraints but rather because of them that these films were able to make potent anti-war statements.

Moreover, it was precisely because Lustig, Romero, and Dante were working within the zombie sub-genre of horror that they were able to create such terrifying political statements. Horror is the best genre for literalizing our anxieties and fears, and zombies up the ante by virtue of their very mundanity. Dracula is a fancy monster, a top-shelf creature who will look soulfully into your eyes before passionately sucking the life out of you. Zombies are rot gut, the old lady in the house coat from next door who just wants to eat your brains out. Zombies scare us because, to use Romero’s refrain, they are us. At a literal narrative level, this means that in most zombie movies anyone can become a zombie, instantly making a switch from “normal” to “abnormal” (and Romero insistently asks, which is which?). But at a more metaphorical level we are all zombies because we wander numbly through life, riding the bus to work, shopping at the mall, going through the motions of normality. And not unlike the undead of Land, we are distracted by sky flowers, pretty art films and vapid Julia Roberts movies that illustrate “the triumph of the human spirit.”

Sullivan\'s Travels

Sullivan’s Travels

Like the convicts in Sullivan’s Travels (Sturges, 1942), though, we need escapist genres. Such sky flowers make daily life tolerable. We are not stupid victims of false consciousness because Arrested Development (Fox, 2003- ) makes us laugh our asses off and Now, Voyager (Rapper, 1942) makes us bawl our eyes out. (And, further, these kinds of entertainments are not as neatly apolitical as they might initially appear.) Not all sky flowers are bad, but we also need films and TV shows about rotting, bloody corpses. The Bush administration won’t even allow photos to be taken of sealed coffins of dead veterans, much less photos of the putrescence within. Viewing the dead makes war a visceral reality. It makes our stomachs turn. In the wake of a war fought over non-existent weapons of mass destruction, it is perhaps only the dead who can function as weapons of mass instruction.

Obviously, a film like John Greyson’s Zero Patience (1993) illustrates the capacity of the musical to be overtly political. I’m not arguing that science fiction and horror are inherently more political than other genres, simply that historically they are the genres that have most directly sought political engagement.
This is not to deny the significance of a film like I Walked with a Zombie (Tourner, 1943), a compelling examination of female disempowerment and self-sacrifice within the white patriarchal family.
Sumiko Higashi, “Night of the Living Dead: A Horror Film about the Horrors of the Vietnam War,” in Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud, eds. From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990. 175-188.
Cited in Denis Lim, “Dante’s Inferno: A Horror Movie Brings Out the Zombie Vote to Protest Bush’s War.” Village Voice, November 29, 2005.

Image Credits:

1. Uncle Sam (Lustig, 1996)

2. Dennis Hopper in Land of the Dead

3. Sullivan’s Travels

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