It’s a Myth So Let’s Blow It Up: The Pleasures of Mythbusters
Janet Staiger / University of Texas at Austin

cast of Mythbusters

The cast of Mythbusters

Several issues ago in Flow, Ann Johnson provided an excellent analysis of the hypothesis-testing structures of Mythbusters (2003-). (( “Can Rational Thought Be Entertaining,” Flow 12, no. 1 (3 June 2010).)) I have seen nearly every episode of the program and agree. An episode starts with a “myth” (actually usually two which are presented through cross-cutting), a discussion of some of the science that might be involved, a building of an apparatus or set of procedures to test the myth, and then its confirmation–or not. While the production team certainly is counting on “a faith in a public appetite for reason” as Johnson phrases it, this is not quite the Watch Mr. Wizard (1951-65) of my childhood. Three characteristics beyond rational reasoning enhance the entertainment value: the use of the formulas of the detective genre, the narrator’s commentary, and, most of all, excess.

Puzzle-Solving: The Tropes of the Classical Detective Narrative

A Mythbusters narrative arc almost always begins with someone bringing a myth to the team to solve. From the start the “first” team has been Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage; over the series other teams have developed so that for the last several years the “second” team is Tori Belleci, Kari Byron, and Grant Imahara. A test dummy, Buster, assists.

Buster helps the investigations

Buster helps the investigations

Those bringing the myth are often viewers who send in suggestions; however, even President Obama asked Jamie and Adam to re-investigate the Ancient Death Ray myth which had been busted in an earlier episode. ((“President’s Challenge” (air date 8 December 2010). The myth remained busted.)) Just as clients or Inspector Lestrade or an important person from the royal family may initiate a case with Sherlock Holmes, most of the jobs come in from the outside. Drawing on their areas of expertise (both Jamie and Adam have been movie stunt men), the team considers the known facts and works out methods to solve the puzzle.

At times the team members can be put into danger, creating the pleasurable affect of suspense. In “Sinking Titanic” (air date 22 February 2004), Adam needs to sit on a boat to determine if he will be sucked down when it sinks, and Jamie is in murky San Francisco waters trying to attach cables to the boat to bring it back up for further tests. Our empathy is, as in the detective genre, with the investigators, and with the exception of a few minor scraps, everyone has been okay. For viewers, the detective-genre pleasures also involve using our own intelligence and knowledge of science to speculate in advance about the results, either being confirmed in our evolving hypotheses or surprised. One scholar of detective fiction states that the genre’s narrative trajectory involves “a battle of wits between the curious reader, who endeavors to beat the author . . . to the solution, and the author who does his utmost to mystify, misdirect, and baffle him.” ((Meir Sternberg, Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 180.)) Here, everyone–team and viewers–wonders about the outcome and is rewarded at the same moment.

The Personable Narrator

Although not always a pleasure for me, the producers of Mythbusters have used a voice-over narrator (Robert Lee in the U.S.) to explain, recap, and comment about the action. Many of his remarks are (to me, silly or gratuitous) jokes about the team members or puns about what is happening. Given that at least two myths are being pursued in parallel and that commercial breaks interrupt the action, recaps are useful as is explanation beyond the conversation among the team members. I imagine the comedy is pleasurable to many people. Its saucy tone does create some intimacy as the narrator reveals and reminds us about the personalities of the investigators. It also is quite at a distance from the hard-boiled detective genre’s objective narration. This easy, not-much-is-really-at-stake tone also supports the third pleasure.

We’ve Busted the Myth but . . . .: The Value of Excess

If an episode ended with “busted,” “plausible,” or “confirmed,” the program would probably be successful. However, I do not think that is what draws spectators to watch. It is not rational hypothesis-testing and puzzle-solving but the excess that happens after that. As Jamie remarks in “Salsa Escape” (air date 23 February 2005), “This has got nothing to do with the myth. It’s just a big boom.” Anyone who scans the episode descriptions will notice how many times explosions are featured. As the narrator remarks in another episode, “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” ((“Sinking Titanic” (air date 22 February 2004). The myth involved a firecracker in a trombone. Eventually the team and explosion experts packed it as fully as possible with explosives.)) Most narrative arcs–at least in terms of spectacle–end “too soon.” The team justifies this “going-on” by changing the question from whether the myth is true to what it would take to replicate the results the myth implied.

For example, in “Salsa Escape,” one myth being tested is whether people can clean out a cement truck using a stick of dynamite. After pouring out cement, a crust of one to two inches develops in the interior of the drum. So, rather than hand-chipping it out, can explosives do the job? Jamie, Adam, and explosive experts start small: a cherry bomb and then an M-80 (equivalent to 1/4 stick of dynamite). Nothing happens. As a team member says, and which will be said in many more episodes, they “need to step it way up.” They move to a one-pound black powder bomb. Only once they try explosives equal to a one-and-one-half sticks of dynamite does a result occur. In fact, it seems to clear off the cement crust, and the team labels the myth plausible.

However, that was fairly boring. We’ve seen a few pops of smoke out the top of a cement mixer and the resultant small slabs of freed cement. But we can step it up. Earlier in the episode, the question arises, what happens if a truck is caught in traffic before it can reach its worksite? Cement will harden in about ninety minutes. So, what will it take to clean out a truck full of cement? During the experiments with the caked-on crust of cement, the team also had tried to loosen a half-load of cement that was accidentally left to set. None of the small explosions had any effect on that. So, the team decide to deal with the truck: they will “blow [up] that sucker . . . [a] bigger boom than we’ve ever done before.” They drive the truck to a deserted site, even shut down a nearby highway, move away over one mile from the site, and use 850 pounds of commercial explosives, one-thousand times larger than any previous Mythbuster explosion. As Jamie says, “This has got nothing to do with the myth.” They are just blowing up a truck, and we enjoy the excessive spectacle with them.

Before the explosion


During the explosion


After the explosion


Adam and Jamie

Adam (center) and Jamie (right) examine what little is left.

Mythbusters is a program that has “a premise based on reason,” and the average viewer learns lots of science along the way. I, for one, now know that I can escape bullets by diving into water. ((“Bulletproof Water” (air date 13 July 2005). )) I do watch it for the science, and, as Johnson notes, it may lessen “unnecessary fears.” However, other pleasures that make the program entertaining are likely the draws for most audiences: a certain gaming competition about predicting the outcome, the growing appearance of intimacy with the investigators, ((Hyneman and Savage are now well known celebrities. In their recent visit to the University of Texas, their event sold out within two hours of tickets being available so I could not obtain any.)) and the spectacles of excess. All of these extras do not come without caveats, of course, but stretching the mind in some ways is a very good outcome on the whole. As Johnson, asks, “can rational thought be entertaining?” Mark that one confirmed.

Image Credits:
1. Mythbusters website
2. Author’s Screencap
3. Author’s Screencap
4. Author’s Screencap
5. Author’s Screencap
6. Author’s Screencap

Please feel free to comment.

Sometimes a kiss is just a kiss: (not) responding to the Richard Gere-Shipla Shetty controversy in India

by: Shanti Kumar / University of Texas-Austin

Shilpa Shetty, it appears, cannot stay out of controversy and news headlines these days. Shetty, a well-known Bollywood actress in India, shot to international prominence after appearing as a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother in the U.K. in January 2007. The British reality TV show was engulfed in a major controversy when Shetty became the target of racist remarks and bullying by some of her housemates led by the now infamous Jade Goody. When Shetty went on to win the show, she not only became a household name in Britain, but was also the focus of attention in many newspapers, television channels and online sites around the world.

Shetty was back in the global news headlines in April 2007, when she was embroiled in another controversy, this time in India. At an AIDS awareness campaign organized in Delhi to benefit truck drivers, the American actor Richard Gere planted a series of kisses on Shetty. Although taken aback by Gere’s actions, Shetty reportedly laughed it off with a comment directed to the truckers, “yeh thoda zyaada ho gaya” (“This is a bit much.”)

Shipla Shetty and Richard Gere

Shipla Shetty and Richard Gere

Condemning the kiss, Prakash Javadekar, the spokesman for Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) proclaimed, “Such a public display is not part of Indian tradition.” In Mumbai, members of the right-wing Hindu nationalist group Shiv Sena stormed onto a set where Shetty was shooting a film, set fire to her photographs and burned effigies of Gere. Poonal Chandra Bhandari, an advocate in the city of Jaipur, filed public interest litigation accusing Gere and Shetty of committing “an obscene act” in a public place. Conceding that the kiss at the public event was “highly sexually erotic,” Dinesh Gupta, Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate in the Jaipur Court, issued an arrest warrant against Gere and summoned Shetty for appearance on May 5, 2007.

Sensing trouble due to the growing controversy, Gere tried to set the record straight with an apology. In a statement addressed to “My dear Indian friends,” and released to the media, Gere wrote, “What we thought was a very successful HIV/AIDS event has taken a sad turn. The evening and event in question was intended to celebrate courageous people and partnerships in the supremely important fight against HIV/AIDS, a worldwide pandemic which has afflicted over 5 million Indians and is still increasing.” Applauding Shetty for taking a leadership role in the fight against AIDS, Gere said, “I assure you, I have utmost respect for her, and she knows this. Of course, I’ve felt terrible that she should carry a burden that is no fault of hers. The burden is mine and no one else’s.”

Shetty, on her part, strongly defended Gere saying, “He is such a gentleman. He is incapable of indecent behaviour.” Lashing out against her critics, Shetty argued, “It was just a kiss on my cheek! What’s the big hue and cry about?” She explained the reason for the kiss as follows: “Earlier during the day during lunch we were teasing him about a dance step in Shall We Dance? When he suddenly bent me down on stage he was doing that whole step from Shall We Dance? I was as taken aback as the people who saw it. It was nothing but a joke and not pre-planned at all.”

But some critics of the kiss seemed unwilling to accept either Gere’s apology or Shetty’s explanation. “The indecency might have been purposefully done as a publicity stunt,” argued Lily Agarwal, a BJP member of the Bhopal City Corporation. Supporting the protests, Agarwal said, “An Indian woman’s greatest asset is her modesty, her reputation and dignity. Shilpa’s lack of any protest only confirms that we are still slaves of the ‘White.’ We will tolerate all humiliation just because we feel the ‘White’ is our master.”

In many postcolonial nations like India, the myth of a homogenous and homogenizing (white) Western culture is a convenient reference point for many political parties and ideological blocs struggling to establish their hegemony in the very diverse terrain of culture. As the noted postcolonial critic Ashis Nandy argues, the myth of “the West” has engendered (and has in turn been engendered by) three responses in colonial and postcolonial India; or more precisely, two responses and one non-response.

The first response, writes Nandy, is to model Indian culture on the idealized myth of Western culture. However, there is more than mere imitation or mimicry involved in this process: It involves “capturing, within one’s own self and one’s own culture, the traits one sees as reasons for the West’s success on the world stage.” This process is seen as a liberal synthesis of “Indian” and “Western” cultures, and justified in terms of universal principles such as “democracy” and “civilization.” In the Gere-Shetty controversy, for instance, some in the Bollywood fraternity embraced this view in their defense of Shetty. Noted Bollywood director Mahesh Bhatt declared, “When the mother of civilisation gets obsessed with trivia, you can be sure doom is around the corner.” Actress Celina Jaitley asked, “If she [Shetty] does not have an objection, why should others be bothered? She is above 18, is grown up and knows what she is doing. I really wonder what has happened to the world’s biggest democracy where every citizen has the right to expression and this reaction from fundamentalists groups is really uncalled for.” Shetty also seemed to endorse this view when she said, “I don’t want the Indian media and Indians to look foolish to the outside world.”

In a similar vein, former attorney general, Soli J Sorabjee criticized Judge Gupta for behaving like the “Taliban moral police,” and opined that “the order is unsustainable and makes us look ridiculous.”

The second response to the so-called clash between “Indian” and “Western” cultures is that of the fundamentalist zealot whose sole aim is somehow to defeat Western culture at in its own game. Examples of this type of response abound in India; the over-zealous moral policing of the Gere-Shetty episode by Hindu “fundamentalist” groups like the Shiv Sena in the city of Mumbai, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the national level being only the most recent. The strategy of the Hindu fundamentalist groups is all too evident. As Nandy puts it, the goal of the Hindu fundamentalists is to:

[D]econtaminate Hinduism of its folk elements … then give it additional teeth with the help of Western technology and secular statecraft, so that Hindus can take on, and ultimately defeat, all their external and internal enemies, if necessary, by liquidating all forms of ethnic plurality — first within Hinduism and then within India, to equal Western Man as a new ubermenschen.

Many liberal-minded Indians who are embarrassed by the political manipulation of religion by fundamentalists tend to classify the response of the Hindu right wing groups as “a retrogression into primitivism and as a pathology of traditions.” But look closely, argues Nandy, and there is nothing “fundamental” about the “fundamentalists.” The almost complete lack of tolerance of the fundamental principles of religion, and the inability to accept the diversity of cultural traditions demonstrate how Hindu right has morphed into a highly modern political machinery that seeks to create an “Indian” culture which not only equals but ultimately surpasses Western culture.

The third response of postcolonial Indians to the myth of a Western culture, writes Nandy, is a non-response. This (non)response emerges from a pragmatic recognition of the cultural and historical continuities and tensions between the “colonial” and the “postcolonial,” “Indian” and the “Western” or the “traditional” and the “modern.” This non-response, according to Nandy, is voiced by a majority in postcolonial India and is based on the belief that diverse cultures in India have known how to live with each other for centuries. This belief emerges from a cultural consensus that religion is not a tool for political manipulation but is a way of life with its own principles of tolerance.

The three responses outlined above are inextricably linked in the political, religious and cultural realms of everyday life in India. But, paradoxically enough, both the enthusiastic admirers of the “West” and their over-zealous opponents in the Hindu right wing would like to believe that the third response is merely a minority view. However, the non-response is clearly in evidence as a majority of Indians ignored the controversy over the Gere-Shetty kiss and the protests organized by Hindu right wing groups fizzled out with a whimper – notwithstanding the excessive media coverage in India and abroad. But the perhaps the most powerful impact of the non-response by a majority of Indians to the Gere-Shetty controversy has been that Judge Gupta (who issued the warrants against Shetty and Gere) was quietly transferred from his post in Jaipur to the small town of Kishangarh several hours away. A spokesman for the Court claimed that the transfer was “routine,” but he also said that Judge Gupta acted on a “frivolous” public interest litigation, and noted that the transfer order came from the state’s Chief Justice. Although it is not clear what effect the transfer will have on the Gere-Shetty case, one can only surmise that the judiciary has recognized that the non-response to the controversy is indeed a majority opinion in Indian public culture.

Effigies of Richard Gere burn in India
My dear Indian friends, I’m surprised: Gere
Richard Gere cannot do anything obscene
Gere has apologized: Shilpa
Nandy, Ashis. “The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance,” Alternatives, XIII (1988): 186.
Gere has apologized: Shilpa
Indian judge who ordered Richard Gere’s arrest transferred: report
Nandy, 187.
Ibid., 188.

Image Credits:
1. Shipla Shetty and Richard Gere

Please feel free to comment.

“Cibercultura” y cibercultur@

por: Jorge A. González / Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

(for English, click here)

Gráfico del sitio web Imaginify

Gráfico del sitio web Imaginify

La concepción de la cibercultur@ que presento aquí no necesariamente está ligada con el mundo de las computadoras o a las redes de Internet, como ya se le entiende en todas partes, sino que resalta las tres direcciones de sentido de los elementos que la componen: el prefijo griego “Kyber” (ciber), la palabra latina “cultur” y el signo tipográfico “@” (González, 2003).

• Tomo literalmente el sentido de director y timonel del vocablo “Kyber”, pues desarrollar cibercultur@ implica generar, incrementar, perfeccionar, mejorar y compartir las habilidades para conducir, dirigir y “pilotear” relaciones sociales, en un ejercicio de autogestión colectiva, horizontal y participativa.

• Tomo el sentido original de “cultivo, cuidado, atención y desarrollo” de la palabra “cultura”. La habilidad para pilotearse y dirigirse con otros hacia soluciones más inteligentes frente a los enormes retos del siglo XXI, se puede aprender, se puede compartir y se puede cultivar con otros y para otros.

• El signo de la arroba “@”, que hoy se ha vuelto familiar entre quienes utilizan la red, y precisamente por su semejanza gráfica a una espiral, utilizo “@” por su semejanza para representar un bucle de retroalimentación positivo, un proceso abierto y adaptable que genera una respuesta emergente que surge de la densidad de las relaciones del sistema y no se reduce a la suma de sus componentes.

Propongo el neologismo cibercultur@ (con la arroba “@” incluida) para designar una serie de procesos específicos que implican una doble cualidad complementaria y simultánea: cibercultur@ entendida como un objeto de estudio y cibercultur@ entendida como un valor de desarrollo y empoderamiento social.

Cibercultur@ como objeto de estudio

Como objeto de conocimiento, el estudio de los fenómenos de cibercultur@, se dirige a describir, analizar y explicar los diversos procesos de relación entre las ecologías simbólicas de sociedades determinadas en el tiempo y en el espacio con el vector tecnológico.

Con la noción de ecologías simbólicas designo el conjunto total de relaciones de sentido que en una sociedad se construyen en la historia con un entorno físico, biológico, psicológico, social y cultural a través de la actividad cognitiva y sus dimensiones más complejas, como la mente, el discurso, y la actividad modeladora y adaptativa de las identidades y alteridades de los diferentes y variados colectivos sociales. Esta dimensión cognitiva y simbólica sólo se puede lograr dentro de un ecosistema de soportes materiales de la actividad de representación de la sociedad. Sin ellos, la eficacia de la cultura en la construcción de identidades, en la reproducción de la sociedad, en el establecimiento de las tradiciones, en las vanguardias es, impensable.


La especie humana es la única que para poder sobrevivir necesita construirse diestramente una “segunda naturaleza”, a todo título sígnica y plena de actividad interpretativa, es por eso que la historia de los ecosistemas materiales de la cultura debe ponerse en correspondencia con la historia de la generación de sus públicos, es decir, la historia de la distribución social de las disposiciones cognitivas para operar en esos ecosistemas.

El concepto de ecologías simbólicas intenta dar cuenta, tanto de las formas sistémicas (estructuradas y ordenadas), como de las formas enactivas (en proceso de estructuración) de la signicidad, tal y como la ha definido Cirese desde la antropología cultural italiana.

Por la interrelación intensa entre los significados, las normas y el poder, me interesa estudiar esta relación desde la perspectiva de las sociedades que han sido desplazadas y excluidas en el espacio social, y ello significa que han sido (o están siendo) explotadas en lo económico, dominadas en lo político y dirigidas en lo cultural. Excluidos desde la noche de los tiempos de los beneficios de la globalización, a enormes sectores sociales dispersos por todo el mundo sólo se les ha globalizado la miseria y la degradación, y se han convertido en lo que Castells llama “los agujeros negros del capitalismo informacional”. En la perspectiva que propongo, describir, analizar y explicar los procesos sociales e históricos de la génesis y desarrollo de las modulaciones simbólicas de la relación de estas dos dimensiones, es crucial para potenciar cualquier desarrollo científico que, además de interpretar y teorizar el mundo, busque la transformación del mismo mediante el empoderamiento de los sectores sociales más numerosos y deprimidos.

Con el nombre de vector tecnológico denomino todos los procesos y efectos socio-históricos de fuerza con dirección que se han verificado y verifican cotidianamente en procesos de adopción, adaptación, imposición o rechazo de dispositivos y complejos tecnológicos entre sociedades con recursos y posiciones disimétricas y desniveladas en la estructura desigual del espacio social mundial.

Me interesan en particular dos de las dimensiones más agudas y que verifican un crecimiento exponencial de dicho vector, a saber, las llamadas tecnologías digitales y los procesos de comunicación mediada por computadoras debido a la difusión y penetración de capilaridad creciente que se experimenta en todas las esferas de la vida pública y cotidiana de las sociedades contemporáneas.

Las ventajas y potencialidades que aporta la forma digital de procesar, empaquetar, enviar, recibir y acumular la información, se ven incrementadas por la comunicación instantánea a través de redes de computadoras que — con el acceso al conocimiento y práctica que requieren necesariamente para su operación funcional — permiten coordinar, dirigir y orientar con toda destreza la dirección y sentido de los flujos mencionados. Estos dispositivos o complejos socio-técnicos, conforman parte crucial de los resortes tecnológicos que generan la aparición y la dispersión global del “cuarto mundo”, de los excluidos y los prescindibles que han sido diseñados desde arriba del sistema como terminales tontas:

“…en este proceso de reestructuración social, hay más que desigualdad y pobreza. También hay exclusión de pueblos y territorios que, desde la perspectiva de los intereses dominantes del capitalismo informacional global, pasan a una posición de irrelevancia estructural” (Castells, 1999a).

No hay tal periferia pura, ni centro inmaculado de este proceso — verdaderamente global — de exclusión social potenciado por la tecnología, que lejos de ser meros aparatos, implican toda una fuerza constituida con dirección y con efectos constituyentes multidimensionales más allá de la técnica, muy poco estudiados en tanto que innovaciones radicales. El vector tecnológico es producto del movimiento de la sociedad mundial y al mismo tiempo configura y ayuda a producir los mundos sociales que progresivamente toca y transforma y desde luego genera resistencias múltiples en sentidos diversos y “aberrantes” e inesperados. Por ello mismo, no se debe tomar esto como una denuncia de un plan organizado y conciente de dominación y sometimiento del mundo a los “malos” del “centro”: una vez que despegó históricamente, el desarrollo tecnológico ha adquirido sus propias “leyes”, su propia autonomía e impulso, con costos y beneficios, que desde luego nunca — y menos ahora — se han gozado aquellos, ni pagado éstos, de manera equitativa en el mundo moderno.

Lab Complex

Lab Complex

Esta primera delimitación de la cibercultur@ como objeto de estudio, comporta varios supuestos y antecedentes.

• Por un lado, partimos de un complejo cognoscitivo caracterizado por la desigualdad de la estructura de relaciones del sistema mundial, en el que observamos vastas y múltiples zonas pluri-distribuidas del planeta, históricamente colonizadas y depauperadas por relaciones sociales de explotación, dominación y exclusión, que proveen y nutren de energía social (capital) a diferentes ciudades/nodos atractores de enormes e intensos flujos de personas principalmente, pero no solo a través de la migración y los consiguientes flujos de capitales financieros. Estas “ciudades/nodo” (ciudades Alpha) del sistema-mundo además de ser concentradoras de volúmenes inmensos de capitales, también concentran crecientemente a millones de miserables (y otros no tan miserables)[i] que se desplazan para vivir mejor hacia tales ciudades/nodo. Estos centros globales que capturan crecientemente los flujos de personas y capitales, operan también como generadores y difusores masivos de flujos permanentes y “globales” de información e imágenes mediados tecnológicamente y que sirven como materia prima básica para metabolizar y representarse de diversas formas el mundo, quién es cada uno y cada cuál de los actores sociales y de qué forma se hacen visibles o invisibles en el escenario de la vida pública.

• • Estos procesos de elaboración discursiva y simbólica son indispensables para poder narrar los hilos y editar el valor y el significado de los hitos de la memoria social, las definiciones de la situación presente, así como la factibilidad y densidad de otros mundos también posibles.

• Con y desde estos procesos simbólicos se establecen en la historia diversas relaciones sociales de hegemonía, subalternidad, alteridad, resistencia y en algunos casos y períodos determinados, se establecen también relaciones de contra-hegemonía que requieren y generan formas emergentes para la organización de diversas estrategias simbólicas que buscan atraer y modular el discurso social para la dirección intelectual y moral de toda la sociedad, como bien lo señaló Gramsci en el siglo pasado.

El aluvión inicial de mano de obra barata, no calificada y con escaso “cosmopolitismo” que se ha movido históricamente en los flujos migratorios, por efecto de la globalización forzada ha ido “enriqueciéndose” con el alarmante desangramiento en sus países de origen de profesionistas calificados, pero desempleados o con un gris futuro laboral, como lo documenta la migración educada de Ecuador y otros países del sur de América hacia los servicios domésticos en España y en general a la Comunidad Europea (Pellegrino, 2004: 12 y ss.).

Castells, Manuel (1999). La era de la información. Economía, sociedad y cultura: La sociedad red, Madrid, Alianza Editorial.

Cirese, Alberto (1984). Segnicitá, fabrilitá, procreazione. Appunti etnoantropologici, Roma, CISU.

Gramsci, Antonio (1976). Quaderni del carcere, Roma, Einaudi.

Pellegrino, Adela (2004). Migration from Latin America to Europe. Trends and policy challenges, International Organization for Migration, Migration Series, No. 16

González, Jorge (2004). “Cibercultur@ como estrategia de comunicación compleja desde la periferia“.

González, Jorge (2003). Cultura(s) y Cibercultur@(s). Incursiones no lineales entre complejidad y comunicación, México Universidad Iberoamericana.

Lab Complex (Sección productos realizados)

1. Gráfico del sitio web Imaginify
3. Lab Complex

Jorge A. González es profesor en la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Favor de comentar.

by: Jorge A. González / Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

Against the current conceptions of cybercultur@ I propose here a sort of meaning that is not necessarily related to the universe of computers or to the Internet. Instead, I shall emphasize three directions of meaning from the elements that compose the neologism: the Greek prefix “Κψβερ” (cyber), the Latin word “cultur”, and I will take analogically the spiral form of the sign “@”.

• I take from the word “Kyber” the meaning of steersman, because developing cybercultur@ implies to generate, to increase, to perfect, to improve and to share the abilities to steer, to direct and “to pilot” social relations in an exercise of collective, horizontal and participative self steering.

• I will also take the original earthly meaning from culture, understood as the action of cultivation, taking care, paying attention and motivating transformations from the soil. The first junction between Kyber and Cultur, points to the ability to pilot ourselves and to go with others towards more intelligent solutions facing the huge challenges of the 21st century; it is possible to learn, to share, and to cultivate along with others and for others.

• The sign “@”that today has become familiar between those who use e-mail, and precisely by its graphical similarity to a spiral, I use “@” by its similarity to represent a positive feedback loop, an open and adaptable process that generates a range of emergent answers that arise from the density of the relations of the system and it is not reduced to the sum of its components.

Given that, I propose the neologism cybercultur@ (with the sign “@” included) to designate a series of specific processes that imply one twofold complementary and simultaneous qualities: cybercultur@ understood as an object of study, and cybercultur@ understood as a value for development and social empowerment.

Cybercultur@ as an object of study

• As an object of knowledge, cybercultur@ implies the study of complex phenomena in social, historical, symbolic and contextual levels than can be described, analyzed and explained facing multi level processes of relations between the symbolic ecologies of specific societies with the technological vector.

• With the notion of symbolic ecologies I designate the total set of relations of meaning that in a specific society are constructed along history with physical, biological, psychological, social and cultural environments. Through the cognitive activity and its more complex dimensions, like the mind, the speech, and the modelling and adapting activity of social identities. This cognitive and symbolic dimension can only be generated within a kind of ecosystem of material supports that make possible the activity of symbolic representation of any society. Without them, the efficacy of culture in the construction of identities, in the reproduction of the society, in the establishment of traditions and avant-garde movements is just unthinkable.

The human species is unique in that, besides the satisfaction of the material needs (feeding, covering, drinking, housing…) in order to survive it must generate a totally meaningful “second nature,” composite by simple and complex signs, texts and discourses that shape the human interpretative activity.

That is why the history of the material ecosystems of culture must be related with the history of the generation of its audiences, that is to say, the history of the social distribution of the cognitive dispositions operating in those ecosystems.

The concept of symbolic ecologies gives account, both of the systemic forms (structured and ordered) and of the enactive forms (in structuring processes) of the “signicity” (segnicitá), as has been defined by Cirese from Italian cultural anthropology.

In the intense interrelation between meaning, norms and power, I am interested in studying that relation from the perspective of the societies that have been moved and excluded in the social space, and it means that they have been (or they are actually being) economically exploited, politically dominated and culturally directed.

Excluded from the beginning from the benefits of the globalization, enormous and dispersed social sectors have been “globalized” by the misery and the degradation, and they have become which Castells calls “the black holes of informational capitalism.”

In the proposed perspective describing, analyzing and explaining the social and historical processes of the genesis and development of the symbolic modulations of the relation of these two explained dimensions. It is crucial to harness any scientific development that, besides to interpret and to theorize about the world, looks for the transformation of the world itself seeking the empowerment of the more numerous and depressed social sectors.

With the concept of technological vector I describe the socio-historical processes and effects of forces with direction that have been verified in processes of adoption, adaptation, imposition or rejection of technological complexes and devices between societies with resources and dissymmetric and uneven positions in the unequal structure of world-wide social space.

I am particularly interested in two of the more acute dimensions that have prompted an exponential growth of this vector: the so called digital technologies and the processes of computer mediated communication. Both have a large diffusion and penetration in public sphere and into everyday life of contemporary societies.

The advantages and potentialities provided by the digital form of processing, packing, sending, receiving and collecting data are increased by the instantaneous communication through networks of computers that — with the access to knowledge and practice that they necessarily require for its functional operation — allow coordinating, directing and orienting skilfully the direction and meaning of the flows. These socio-technical complexes shape a crucial part of the technological springs that generate the appearance and the global dispersion of the “fourth world”, of the excluded and disposable social settings that have been designed top-down of the system as dumb terminals:

“… in this process of social reconstruction, there is more inequality and poverty. Also there are exclusions of villages and territories that, from the perspective of the dominant interests of global informational capitalism, occupy a position of structural irrelevance” as Castells has pointed out.

There is nothing as pure periphery, and no immaculate center of this process — truly global — of social exclusion prompted by the technology, that far from being mere mechanical utilities, implies a constituted force with direction and multidimensional constituent effects beyond the technique. These aspects have been little studied as radical social innovations. The technological vector is an outcome of the movement of the world-wide society and at the same time, it forms and helps to produce the aberrant and unexpected social worlds that touch and progressively transform, and generates multiple resistances. This is precisely why this should not be taken as a conspiracy plan organized and conscientious for domination and submission of the world to the “bad ones” of the “center”: once it took off historically, technological development has generated its own “laws,” its own autonomy and impulse, with costs and benefits, that never have been enjoyed in to an equitable way within the modern world.

This first boundary of cybercultur@ as object of study implies several assumptions and antecedents:

• On the one hand, we depart from a cognitive complex, characterized by inequality of the structure of relations of the world-system, in which we can observe vast and multiple multi-distributed zones of the planet, historically colonized and impoverished by social relations of exploitation, domination and exclusion, that provide and nourish of social energy (capital) to different cities/enormous attracting nodes of intense flows of people, but not only through the migration and the consequent flows of financial capitals. These “cities/node” (Alpha cities) of the world-system in addition to concentrating immense volumes of capital, also concentrate increasingly millions of poor (and others not so poor)[i] moving towards such cities/node in order to get a better life. These global centers that increasingly capture the flows of people and capital, also operate like generators and massive diffusers of permanent and “global” flows of information and images technologically mediated that serve as basic raw material for metabolizing and for representing the world, who is who and everyone of the social actors and how they become visible or invisible in the scene of the public life.

• • These processes of discursive and symbolic elaboration are indispensable to be able to narrate the threads and publish the value and the meaning of the landmarks of social memory, the definitions of the present situation, as well as the feasibility and density of other also possible worlds.

• With and from these symbolic processes, relations are established and transformed in history, social relations of hegemony, subalternity, alterity and resistance, and in some cases, counter-hegemonic relations that require and generate new and emergent forms of organization of the diverse symbolic strategies trying to attract and to modulate the social discourse for enabling the intellectual and moral direction of all the society, as Gramsci illustrated so well in the previous century.

The initial excess of cheap and unskilled handwork with scarce “cosmopolitism” that has been historically moved into the migrant flows by means of forced “globalization,” has been “enriched” by the flight of “qualified professionals” (but still unemployed or with rather grim higher wealth expectations) from their original countries, as documented by the “educated” migration from Ecuador and other Latin American countries to Spain and in general to the European Community (Pellegrino, 2004: 12+).

Click here to see the author’s Bibliography

Image Credits: (located in primary Spanish text)
1. Graphic from the website Imaginify
3. Lab Complex

Author: Jorge A. González is a professor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (the National Autonomous University of Mexico).

Região, Raça, e Clase Social: Recepcão de TV na Salvador, Bahia

por: Joe Straubhaar / University of Texas at Austin

(for English, click here)

TV Globo

TV Globo

Os que estudam televisão no Brasil veem a TV Globo, que tem mais que 50 porcento dos telespectadores, como poderosa e hegemônica. Um dos aspetos mais problematicos disso é o tratamente de raça por TV Globo, mostrando poucas pessoas negras ou mixtas na tela num país onde mais que metade da população é negra ou mixta (Araujo 2000). Pesquisadores e ativistas tem criticado isso, mais a discussão de raça na televisão tem sido diminuido por uma ideologia nacional de que Brasil tem uma problema de imobilidade de clase, mais não de racismo. Porem, en entrevistas em Salvador (2004-2005), encontrei pessoas dizendo, “Não vejo tanto a Globo mais porque não vejo pessoas como eu na Globo.”

Um taxista de clase operaria e afrodescendente disse que estava assistindo mais SBT, en vez da Globo. (SBT, o segundo rede nacional, tem como publico alvo a clase media baixa e operaria desde que realizou que não pode concorrer com a Globo para a audiencia geral (Fadul 1993).) Perguntei ao taxista se ele queria dizer que a Globo não tem atores negros suficientes na tela e que SBT tem mais. Ele disse que isso faz parte, mas não parecia comfortable falando explicitamente de raça, bem com alguns outros entrevisatados quando perguntei o que eles queriam dizer com comentarios similares. Foi muito mais facil para eles falarem que as pessoas na TV Globo foram sempre ricos demais, não como as pessoas na realidade. E eles foram capazes de articular um senso de como Rio, onde a maior parte das novelas da Globo são situados, é um lugar bem diferente que Salvador; de que eles são baianos em vez de cariocas.

Paraiso tropical

“Paraiso tropical”

Tres niveis de identidade sairam das entrevistas. Primeiro, muitas pessoas abertamente articularam um senso de diferença de clase social com as pessoas que veem na televisão. Segundo, muitas falaram de um sense de distancia cultural, baseado em geografia cultural, que as pessoas na tela vivem num parte do paîs bem diferente com uma cultura muito diferente (La Pastina 2003). Terceiro, alguns poucos articularam a percepcão de que mais pessoas na tela são brancos do que em Salvador, onde a maioria são afro-brasileiros.

As pessoas que entrevistei tiveram difficudade em pensar suas proprias identidades entre raça e clase. Algo lhes interessem porque são negros ou porque são da clase operária ou pobre? Esta problema reflete a ideologia brasileira do seculo 20 que raça não é uma problema no Brasil de raça mixta, mas que clase é a problema verdadeira (Crook & Johnson 1999). Porém, movimentos contemporáneas de ativistas negras na cultura e política buscam criar mais consciência de raça como um aspeto importante de identidade no Brasil, particularmente na Bahia, onde um numero de bem conhecidos blocos de carnaval tem sido notavalmente afrocentrico nas suas temas, imagems, e discurso desde o começo da decada 1980 (Guerreiro 2000). Encontrei este movimento refletido nas minhas observações e entrevistas em 2005. Eu assisti Fama, um concurso regional e nacional de cantadores na Globo com um grupo de pessoas da Banda Femina Didá, um bloco afrocentrico para mulheres e adolescentes. A cantadora principal do grupo estava concorrendo com sete outros para uma das tres lugares representando o nordeste do Brasil. Somente tres das sete foram afrodescendente, enquanto a maior parte das pessoas na região provavelmente são. Um concorrente negro que as pessoas de Didá chamava de negão e dois brancos ganharam. A cantadora de Didá e uma outra mulher de raça mixta com muita carisma e um voz poderosa foram ambas eliminadas no concurso regional. Quando as outras regiões do Brasil tambem votaram, o fundador da Banda Femina Didá, um musico conhecido como Neguinho da Samba, ficou revoltado com a predominância de nove contadores brancos no total de doze. Ele olhou para mim e disse, “Olhe, professor, ao preconceito que ainda existe neste país,” e saiu da sala.

Uma variedade de forças economicas estructuram posições da audiéncia em termos de clase social, capital econômico, e cultural. Industrias culturais poderosos e muitos outros estruturas sociais reforça os sensos da audiencia em termos de geografia cultural, clase social, genero, ethnia, idade, e religião. A televisão nacional ainda parece poderosa, ainda no começo no seculo XXI, quando a coerénçia das nações parece declinando. O estado nação, onde fica poderoso, ainda tem muitas armas para moldar o discurso de televisão. No Brasil, até recentemente, o estado tem trabalhado duro para diminuir a emfase na raça como um foco de discurso ou atividade political. Por exemplo, o governo militar em 1978 prohibiu á TV Globo de passar a miniseria Roots, porque eles temia que ela ia promover um discurso mais confrontácional sobre raça dos Etados Unidos para o Brasil (minhas entrevistas em Brasília, 1978). Porém, ação individuo ou grupal, como á ação das ativistas musicais afrocentricas na Bahia, tambem constrói e cambia estas forças sobre o tempo, como a leitura crítica da televisão dada pelas ativistas acima reflete.

Vidas opostas

“Vidas opostas”

Em suma, nas minhas entrevistas parece que espaço e “lugar” foram pontos chaves ou niveis de identidade para orientar o consumo dos meios e identidade cultural dos entrevistados. Segundo foi clase social. Raça e etnia é um outro nivel fundamental de identidade, mas o discurso social brasileiro tende a enfatizar a clase social em vez de raça como uma referencia contemporanea de identidade, mesmo que os brasileiros falam abertamente sobre a mixtura de raças na formação histórica das identidades brasileiras. Descobri que os brasileiros também fala sobre região ou “lugar” numa maneira implicitamente informada pelas identidades raciais. Um senso de região se torna uma maneira para falar sobre a raça; pessoas na Salvador falaria das suas diferencias de outros partes e povos do Brasil por falar de ser Baiano em vez de ser prêto, mas eu frequentemente recebeu um sentido distinto eles foram falando de ser prêto, também, usando um vocabulário menos confrontacional.

As vezes é dificil para entrevistados verbalizar que forças formam suas escolhas e ideias. Então levo muito a seria os niveis de identidade que as pessoas articulam diretamente, mas eu acho que nos também temos que inferir outros de aspetos estruturais das suas vidas, tais como a combinação complexa de região, clase e raça no Brasil que me leva a pensar que as pessoas foram as vezes falando sobre raça utilizando a vocabulária de lugar ou região e clase.

Clique para ver a Bibliografia

1. TV Globo
2. “Paraiso tropical”
3. “Vidas opostas”

Por favor comente.

by: Joe Straubhaar / University of Texas at Austin

Most people who study television in Brazil see TV Globo, which has at least a 50 percent share of viewing, as powerful, even hegemonic. One of the most problematic aspects of this has been TV Globo’s treatment of race, showing very few Black or visibly mixed race characters on screen in a country where well over half of the population is Black or mixed race (Araujo 2000). While academics and activists have criticized that, discussion of race on television in Brazil has been muted by a widely accepted national ideology that while Brazil has a problem of class immobility, but not racism. However, in interviews in Salvador, in the largely Afro-Brazilian northeast of Brazil (in 2004-2005), I found that a number of people were saying, “I don’t watch TV Globo so much anymore because I don’t see people like me on Globo.”

A working-class Afro-Brazilian taxi driver said he was increasingly watching SBT, instead of TV Globo. (SBT, the No. 2 national network, has explicitly targeted lower-middle-class and working-class viewers since its management realized it could not compete with Globo for the general audience (Fadul 1993).) I asked the taxi driver if he meant that Globo did not have enough black people on screen and that SBT had more. He said that was part of it, but he seemed uncomfortable talking explicitly about race, as were several others when I asked them what they meant by similar comments. They had a much easier time talking about how the people on TV Globo were always too rich, not like the people they knew. And they were able to articulate a sense of how Rio, where most of TV Globo’s telenovelas and other programming is set, was a very different place than Salvador; that they were Baianos (people from Bahia) as opposed to Cariocas (people from Rio).

Three layers of identity emerged in the interviews. First, many people openly articulated a sense of class difference with the people they saw on television. Second, they are openly aware of cultural distance, based in cultural geography, that those people on screen live in a very different part of the country with a substantially different culture (La Pastina 2003). Third, a few articulated the point that more people on screen were white than in Salvador, where most people are Afro-Brazilian.

People I interviewed had a hard time sorting out their own identities between race and class. Does something interest them because they are black or because they are working class or poor? This reflects 20th-century Brazilian ideology that race is not a problem in mixed-race Brazil, but class is a real problem (Crook & Johnson 1999). However, contemporary Black cultural and political activist movements seek more awareness of race as a layer of identity in Brazil, particularly in Salvador, Bahia, where a number of well known Carnival music groups have been notably Afrocentric in their themes, imagery, and discourse since the early 1980s (Guerreiro 2000). I found this movement reflected in my observation and interviewing in 2005. I watched a TV Globo national singing contest, FAMA (“Fame”), with a group of people at the Banda Femina Didá, an Afro-centric samba group for women. The group’s lead singer was competing with seven others for one of three spots representing northeast Brazil. Only three contestants were Afro-descendent, although most people in the region probably are. One black contestant, whom the Didá people called a negão (handsome black man), and two white people won. The Didá singer and another apparently mixed-race woman who had a lot of charisma and a great voice were both eliminated in the regional contest. As the other regions of Brazil also voted, the founder of Banda Femina Didá, a musician widely known as Neguinho da Samba, became disgusted with the predominance of nine white singers in the winners circle of twelve. He looked at me and said, disgustedly, “Look, Professor, at the bias that is still there in this country,” then walked out of the room.

A variety of economic forces structure people’s positions in terms of class, economic, and cultural capital. Powerful cultural industries and many other social structures reinforce senses of cultural geography, class, gender, ethnicity, age, and religion. National television still seems to be powerful, even at the beginning of the 21st century, when the seeming coherence of nations is breaking down in many ways. The nation-state, where it is strong, still has many tools and levers to shape television discourse. In Brazil, until very recently, the state has worked hard to de-emphasize race as a focus of discourse or political activity. For example, the military government in 1978 prohibited TV Globo from showing the mini-series Roots, because they were afraid it would bring a more confrontational discourse about race from the United States into Brazil (my interviews in Brasília, 1978). However, individual and group agency and action, such as the action of Afro-centric musical activists in Bahia, also construct and change these forces over time, as the reading of television given by the activists above reflects.

Overall, it seemed from my interviews that space and place were key anchoring points for media consumption, and cultural identity. Next was class, the second major layer for Brazilians. Race and ethnicity is clearly another fundamental layer of identity, but Brazilian social discourse tends to emphasize class over race as a contemporary marker of identity, even though Brazilians talk freely about race mixing in the historical formation of Brazilian identities. I found that Brazilians also seem to talk about place in a way that is implicitly informed by racial identities. A sense of place becomes a way to talk about race; informants in Salvador would discuss their differences from other parts and peoples of Brazil by talking about being Baiano (Bahian) rather than being black, but I often got the distinct feeling that they were talking about being black, too, using a less charged vocabulary.

It is sometimes hard for interviewees to verbalize what forces shape their choices. So I take very seriously the levels of identity that people articulate, but I think we also have to infer others from structural aspects of their lives, such as the complex combination of place, class and race in Brazil that leads me to think that people were sometimes talking about race using a vocabulary of place and class.

Araujo, J. Z. (2000). A negação do Brasil: o negro na telenovela brasileira. Sao Paulo, SP, Editora SENAC São Paulo.

Crook, L., & Johnson, R. (Eds.). (1999). Black Brazil: Culture, identity, and social mobilization. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Fadul, A. (1993). The radio and television environment in Brazil. Unpublished manuscript, University of São Paulo (Brazil), School of Communication and Arts.

Guerreiro, G. (2000). A trama dos tambores [The web of the drums: The afro-pop music of Salvador] (R. J. Straubhaar, Trans.). São Paulo, Brazil: Editora 34.

La Pastina, A. C. (2003). Viewing Brazil: Local Audiences and the Interpretation of the Nation. media in transition 3, MIT, Cambridge, MA.

Image Credits: (located in primary Spanish text)
1. TV Globo logo
2. Paraiso tropical
3. Vidas opostas

Author: Joe Straubhaar is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Awkward Conversations About Uncomfortable Laughter

Mary Douglas\' Implicit meanings

Mary Douglas’ “Implicit Meanings”

In her book, Implicit Meanings, the anthropologist Mary Douglas explores the roles jokes play in mapping points of tension or transition within a culture. Only a thin line separates jokes and insults. The joke gives expressive form to an emergent perspective within a culture — something which is widely felt but rarely said. When a joke expresses a view already widely accepted, it becomes banal and unfunny. When a joke says something the culture is not ready to hear, it gets read as an insult or an obscenity. The job of the clown is thus to continually map the borders between what can and can not be said. This is why a good comedy routine is accompanied as often by gasps as by laughter.

I was reminded of Douglas’s perspective on jokes when I recently participated in a screening and discussion of Sarah Silverman’s new film, Jesus is Magic. For those of you who have not heard of her yet, Silverman is a former Saturday Night Live writer who sparked national controversy in 2001 when she told a joke about “chinks” on Conan and when she defended the joke on Bill Mahr’s Politically Incorrect. The Silverman controversy has resurfaced in recent months both because of a rather memorable appearance in The Aristocrats and because of the release of a film documenting her standup comedy show. She has recently been profiled in The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly and is currently shooting a pilot for her own series on Comedy Central.

To understand the controversy, we have to return to the now infamous joke she told on Conan in 2001. She was explaining that her various efforts to escape jury duty and her friend’s suggestion that she could try to come across as prejudiced on the questionnaire by writing “I hate chinks.” Silverman pauses, suggesting that she would consider being embarrassed to make such a comment, even in jest, and so instead she wrote, “I LOOOVE Chinks — and who wouldn’t.”

Greg Aoki, the president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, argued that the network showed a double standard in allowing the word, “chink”, to air when it would almost certainly have bleeped “nigger.” The network and host later apologized for the decision to air the joke but Silverman refused to apologize, contending “it’s not a racist joke. It’s a joke about racism.” The controversy is one which looks differently depending on whether our focus is on the words used (Aoki rightly sees “chink” as a word deeply entwined in the history of racism in America) or the meaning behind them (Silverman is right that her comedy ultimately raises uncomfortable questions about how white people “play the race card.”)

Writing in Asian Week, columnist Emil Guillermo argues that rather than seeing Silverman’s joke as “fighting words,” they should use it as “talking words,” as the starting point for discussing the current state of American racism. This is not what Aoki experienced when he tried to challenge the appropriateness of Silverman’s joke during their mutual appearance on Politically Incorrect, where the host and guests questioned his sincerity, made fun of his name, called him names, and cut him off when he tried to link the jokes to recent incidents of racial violence. And it is not what Silverman experienced when her critics simply label her a “racist” without exploring what she was trying to say.

How can we distinguish between racist jokes and jokes about racism, especially with the deadpan irony that is Silverman’s hallmark? Most of us have no trouble thinking of cases where jokes have been directed against minorities as a racist exercise of power. Yet we should also keep in mind the many different ways that comedy has been used to challenge racism — think about the first generation of African-American comics who went into black, white, and multiracial clubs and confronted their audiences with words and concepts that were designed to create discomfort; think about the ways that underground comics like R. Crumb sought to “exorcise” the history of racial stereotypes in his medium by pushing them to their outer limits; think about shows like All in the Family which exposed the ways that previous generations of sitcoms had remained silent about the bigotry which was often at the heart of American domestic life. And then there are jokes which are funny simply because they are “politically incorrect,” that is, because they thumb their nose at anyone who would set any limits on speech whatsoever. Perhaps most strikingly, there are jokes which deny the reality of both race and racism simply by refusing to talk about it at all. When was the last time that you heard a joke on a late-night talk show (Okay — outside the Daily Show) that you remembered the next morning, let alone one which provoked debate four years later.

Critics have read Silverman’s comedy as simply “politically incorrect.” There are plenty of times when Silverman’s jokes are, to use Douglas’s definition of obscenity, “gratuitous intrusions.” Yet, at its best, her comedy reflects on the problems of living in a culture where old racial logics are breaking down and new relationships have not yet taken any kind of definitive shape and where there seems to be no established language for speaking to each other across racial lines. Her most consistent target is a white America which is so busy trying to watch its step that it falls on its own face. Several deal with the challenges of negotiating mixed race or multi-ethnic relationships. For example, she gets upset when her half black boyfriend objects to her “innocent compliment” that he would have made “an expensive slave” because he has “self-esteem issues,” smugly insisting, “He has to learn to love himself before I can stop hating his people.” This is after she has suggested it would be more “optimistic” to say that he was “half white” rather than “half black.” At another point, she describes a particular audience as “black,” then corrects herself to say that it was “African-American,” then decides it was “half and half.” Or again, she talks about how she and her Christian boyfriend will explain their religious beliefs to any future offspring: “Mother is one of the chosen people and Dad believes Jesus is magic.”

Sarah Silverman

Sarah Silverman

Silverman’s jokes do not in any simple or direct way represent her personal views; rather, she has adopted a comic persona (perhaps multiple personas) through which she reflects confusions and contradictions in the ways that white America thinks about race and racism, much the way some hip hop performers have argued that the views about race, criminality, and sexual violence they express through their songs are attempts to make visible some of the issues confronting their community. In both cases, critics have tended to read such personas literally. There are no words to describe whiteness which have the same sting as “chink” or “nigger” and so she has to perform whiteness, against a backdrop of other racial identities, so that it can recognize itself in all of its insensitivity and self-centeredness.

Consider, for example, a Silverman routine about her lust for a jewel which is formed by de-boning and grinding own the spines of starving Ethiopian babies. There is a level to the joke which is simply funny because of the cruel and insensitive way she is speaking about human suffering; there is another level, however, which works not unlike the way that Jonathon Swift’s similarly-themed, “A Modest Proposal,” works, exposing the infinite flexibility with which we can rationalize and justify the exploitation of the third world. Silverman delivers the joke with what New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear calls “quiet depravity”: “The expression that lingers on her face is usually one of tentative confusion or chipper self-satisfaction, as if she had finished her homework and cleaned up her room, and were waiting for a gold star.” She doesn’t smirk; she honestly thinks she has no real prejudice or animosity even as she bases her everyday decisions on gross stereotypes. Hers is the face of what cultural critics have called “enlightened racism,” the smug satisfaction with which white Americans excuse ourselves for our own lapses in taste and judgment as long as they do not become too overt or openly confrontational. As she describes this jewel, she hits a moment of conscience, realizing that they probably exploit the “unions” which mine the babies’ spines, but then concedes, “you have to pick your battles.”

Early in the jewel routine, she describes her acquisitiveness as “so JAP,” then pausing to explain that she doesn’t mean “Jewish American Princess” (a stereotype which she has self-consciously embodied throughout the routine) but rather “Japanese.” Instantly, she moves from a stereotype which is more socially acceptable (if only because she would be making fun of her own group) and into one which is totally unacceptable (and the joke only works if we recognize the offensiveness of the word). Indeed, she plays often on the ambiguities of her own status as white and Jewish — sometimes speaking as a member of an oppressed minority, other times blending into a white majority, and often making this desire of Jews to escape their minority status a central theme in her work. It crops up for example when she makes bitter comments about contemporary Jews who drive German-made cars or when she tells a joke about Jews who want to escape racist charges of having killed Christ by blaming the Romans (and then pushing this historical scapegoating one step further by suggesting that personally she blames the blacks.)

Silverman’s comedy depends upon the instability created as we move from thinking of race in black and white terms towards a multi-racial and multi-cultural society. A previous generation of comics would not have made jokes about Asian-Americans or Hispanics because they simply were not part of the way they envisioned America. Much contemporary race theory has sought ways to move us beyond simple black/white binaries in the ways we think about racial diversity. As recent demographic trends suggest, America is rapidly moving towards a time when Caucasians will be in the minority but they are not being replaced by a new majority culture: rather, America will be more ethnically diverse — some would say “fragmented,” “balkanized,” or “disunified” — than ever before and there has been few successful attempts to build coalitions across those diverse populations.

A musical number in Jesus is Magic self-consciously maps the fault lines in this new cultural diversity: dressed like a refugee from an Up With People concert, strumming a guitar, looking her most wide-eyed and innocent, she wanders from space to space, gleefully singing about how much Jews love money, how little blacks like to tip, how well Asians do at math, and ends with a particularly choice lyric about blacks calling each other “niggers.” Then, the little white woman looks over and sees two angry looking black men who glare at her for a long period of silence; then they start to laugh and she tries laughing with them; then they stop laughing and glare at her even more intensely and for an agonizingly long period of time. It is hard to imagine a comedian who is more reflexive about the nature of their own comic practices or more insistent that the audience stop laughing and think about the politics of their own laughter.

Much of the Silverman controversy centers around what anthropologists often call joking relations: in any given culture, there are rules, sometimes implicit, often explicit, about which people can joke with each other, about what content is appropriate for joking in specific contents. During times of social anxiety, these rules are closely policed and transgressions of these boundaries are severely punished. Yet, in times of greater security, cultures may suspend or extend the rules to broaden the community which is allowed inside a particular set of joking relationships. But who determines which jokes are safe and permissible? She openly courts such questions by appearing on The Jimmy Kimmel Show, doing verbatim versions of Dave Chappel skits. Can a white woman make the same jokes as a black man or does changing the race of the performer change everything?

Comedy in the 1990s seemed often about securing boundaries as comedians emerged who could articulate the self perceptions and frustrations of different identity politics groups: Asians made Asian jokes, Blacks made black jokes (and sometimes about white people), Jews made Jewish jokes, and white comedians mostly avoided the topic of race altogether. This places an enormous burden on minority performers not simply to speak on behalf of their race but to bear the weight of any discussion about racism. And of course, when black comedians made jokes about black people, they often did so in front of white or mixed audiences. Just as white comedians were uncertain whether they could joke about race and under what circumstances, white audiences were uncertain whether they could laugh about race and under what circumstances. Silverman has thrust herself out there, saying it is time for white comics to joke about race, and has faced the inevitable push-back for trying to change the rules of discourse.

Contemporary cultural theorists have been urging a move away from identity politics towards one based on coalition building: race will not go away simply because we refuse to talk about it and we cannot meaningfully change how we think about race as a society by remaining within our own enclaves. Consider, for example, Frank H. Wu’s Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White. Wu is an Asian-American professor who has chosen to teach at Howard University Law School, a historically black institution, because he wanted to create a context where Asian-Americans and African-Americans can learn to communicate across their racial and ethnic differences. Wu argues that for such coalitions to work, one has to put everything on the table, confront past stereotypes, examine historic misunderstandings, give expression to fears and anxieties. We can’t work through the things that separate us until we feel comfortable discussing them together. This isn’t simply something that has to take place between different minority groups: there has to be a way where whites can express their own uncertainties about the future without being prejudged.

Jokes may fuel such social transformations because they force us to confront the contradictions in our own thinking. They are valuable precisely because the same joke will be heard differently in different contexts and thus can help us to talk through our different experiences of being raced. As Wu writes, “Race is meaningless in the abstract; it acquires its meanings as it operates on its surroundings. With race, the truism is all the more apt that the same words can take on different meanings depending on the speaker, the audience, the tone, the intention and the usage.” Mary Douglas similarly suggests that the reason our culture has such trouble drawing a fixed line between jokes and obscenity is that unlike traditional cultures, we do not occupy “a single moral order” and there are no agreed-upon boundaries.

And that brings us back to Guillermo’s appeal that Silverman’s “chink” joke might be used as “talking words.” From my perspective as a white southern-born male, Silverman is raising important questions about race and racism which white audiences need to hear if they are going to come to grips with a multicultural society. From Aoki’s perspective, the same joke evokes a painful history, using words that many Asian-Americans hear too often. At the risk of sounding naive and idealistic, maybe that’s something we should be talking about, however awkward the conversation is apt to be.

Rotten Tomatoes
The New Yorker on Sarah Silverman

Image Credits:

1. Mary Douglas’ “Implicit Meanings”

2. Sarah Silverman

Please feel free to comment.

Hegemony on a Hard Drive

by: Robert Schrag / North Carolina State University

Apple Logo

Apple Logo

The big sucking sound I had just heard was my Canon i9900 printer swallowing a 19×13 inch piece of photo paper. It then proceeded to dedicate its eight ink cartridges to printing only half of the image down the right hand side of the sheet. Damn, damn, damn! Apple + . Apple + . Cancel, Cancel! Abort! Abort! Aoougah! Aoougah! Dive, dive, dive!

I hate it when that happens.

I had printed images this size at the office, no problem. Well, OK, slight problem. The printer wouldn’t accept a “print landscape” orientation, so you had to get Photoshop to rotate the image 90 degrees and print in portrait aspect. Other than that – piece of cake. So I glared balefully at the printer, blinking and burping away there on the side table in my home workspace. I began to run through the variables that might be dorking around with my image. One of these solved the problem: moving the image from a remote hard drive to the laptop hard drive and printing from there, or switching the printer from the USB port to the Firewire port that was now free since I didn’t need the remote hard drive, or using a standard paper size setting instead of a custom size. I don’t know which did the job because I did them all simultaneously and the image printed. Maybe I needed all three.

“It shouldn’t be this hard,” I thought. “Art and my computer should be better friends.” And it’s not just visual material; life doesn’t get any easier when we consider audio. Singing, poetry, anything better heard than read; they are all part of that “digital trunk in the attic” I wrote about. Trying to create those messages in the digital environment runs us into more tool concerns:

I have a pretty small, pretty awful, USB microphone. I play no instrument – assuming we do not count the kazoo. Garageband sits gathering nanodust on my hard drive. Yes, I have a friend who is an excellent keyboardist and vocalist who has offered to share her skills, her keyboard, and her high end USB microphone if I teach her how to use Garageband. But I don’t know how to use Garageband, yet. And my office tech guru tells me that “If spend another 80 bucks in software, and get a mumbo-jumbo yadda yadda 100 dollar interface, you will have really excellent sound. Plus processor speed isn’t an issue because the CPU will either choke or it won’t. Probably won’t. And the interface is clean – just like Garageband!” Whew, I feel a lot better now!

It shouldn’t be this hard.

But there is a bigger issue than my personal frustration. Before the expressive digital genie has even wriggled her way out of the bottle, we are lopping off appendages, willy-nilly. The intricacies of hardware and software are selectively marginalizing various communicative modalities, and particular voices. In my classes, I call it communicative hegemony. We tend to think of hegemonic inclinations as advantaging a specific worldview. I’d take that particular paranoia a step further. The communicative technologies that come to dominate any point in history advantage some modes of expression over others, and those advantaged expressive modes are uniquely inclined to favor a construction of reality that carries embedded assertions about the nature of existence and expression.

There are two primary areas of ware dominance – the communicative hegemony made possible a convergence of software and hardware – that concern me. The concern can be framed thusly: What expressive ware enables and advantages particular constructions of messages, particular groups of message makers, and hence specific perceptions of reality/truth/value?

Garage Band

Garage Band

The tradition in expressive message software – visual processing packages such as Photoshop and Illustrator and audio packages like ProTools and Cakewalk Sonar – is to create powerful, full-featured applications for “media” professionals. I have two significant objections to that tradition. First, it unduly influences the whole area of what is the “allowable” structure of an expression. And second, it nudges the creative impulse toward the slippery slope of commodification.

Let’s address the “allowable structure” notion first. I have two friends who are “real artists.” He is primarily a sculptor, she a painter. Both refuse to use Photoshop any longer. They quit early in the version 2.0 years. She originally used it to do a variety of “color treatments,” experimenting with various color schemes on a preliminary sketch without using reams of paper or pots of paint. She quit because the software became too complex; it got in the way of her painting. He used it for similar reasons, to look at various glaze ranges and do some manipulation of digital images of “pieces in progress.” But he stopped using it for a very different reason. A computer-science professor in his previous professional life, he walked away because Photoshop got “Way too cool. I was afraid I’d never go back to the studio.” Those are two sides of the same coin – the software began to assert its own agenda into the creative process. By foregrounding certain processes – sometimes literally in the tools palette, sometimes figuratively as in the abundance of filters and effects available in drop down menus – the software advocates certain expressions more than others.

The software designers would be quick to point out that they use “feedback from their customers” to decide which tools to foreground and which features to provide. Which takes us directly to the issue of commodification. Expressive software packages – graphics, music, sound – that sell for $500.00 to $10,000.00 are not designed for the personal expression budget. They are designed for professionals. Folks who do work for profit or for hire. And those are the customers the software designers ask what features to foreground or include. Hence, the software packages advantage techniques and tools designed for commercial products, and in doing so, further establish the artistic language of the commercial artist as the accepted language for any artist wishing to employ that particular medium. And, if that weren’t enough, the software advantages output in forms that are particularly salient to the marketplace. Jpegs for websites and online stores, “save as html” to provide the “copy,” .ram files for your PC Real One Player – click here to upgrade! “It’s easier to build an online business than you ever thought!” Again, product for profit, not process for expression.

Now, my friends over at IT tell me that there are plenty of freeware, shareware, cheapware, options I can use. A few even work on my Mac, a few I can get up and running in less than 12 or 15 hours, and some will actually output sound or video or images to a format I can print, play or display. Some I might be able to figure out myself. That is significant progress. I can still remember when they didn’t want to talk to me if I wasn’t using a UNIX box and couldn’t program is C++. Still –

It shouldn’t be this hard.

Apple is making an honest effort – I think. Their iLife suite tries to walk the thin line between commerce and creativity. But it is a very difficult razor on which to balance. Look at GarageBand, for example, which I have played with more since starting this essay. Version 1.0 leaves you at the mercy of your own skills with an instrument or the loops and samples provided with the software. Version 2.0 – just out – seems to move further along the road toward enabling the consumer; but the price is a significant leap in the complexity of the software. And it still exports to iTunes, which shows an uncomfortable inclination to shuffle me off to the iTunes Store.

Jef Raskin, who died about a month ago, was largely responsible for the original Macintosh user-friendly interface/mouse tandem. He wouldn’t like that. He always asserted that computers should serve people – not the other way around. He ALWAYS thought it shouldn’t be this hard.

And it is our fault. When I say “our,” I mean those of us in universities. Our love affair with technology has led to tools of awesome power, wonderful capabilities. Our research, our fascination with what might be possible, has created the electronic phantasm that is the 21st century. But in acquiescing to the “off the shelf” ware solutions provided by our graduates in the industry, we have unwittingly added a new deep trench to the digital divide. We have allowed our genie to build walls instead of bridges between the creative impulse and the digital environment. The tool now dominates both the process and the nature of the product. It is time to wrap our academic robes more firmly around us and figure out how to reverse that paradigm, because — all together now – It shouldn’t be this hard!

Image Credits:
1. Apple Logo
2. Garage Band


Please feel free to comment.

Overhaulin’ TV and Government (Thoughts on the Political Campaign to Pimp Your Ride)

by: James Hay / University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign

Pimp My Ride

Pimp My Ride on MTV

These days, the expression “overhauling” is in the air (and “on the air.”) Among journalists’ and politicians’ accounts of what the United States can expect from George W. Bush’s second term as president, “overhauling” has become the term du jour for his and fellow Republicans’ plans to achieve a broad array of reforms that will reinvent the role of government (and the role of citizens) under the banners of various slogans: Ownership Society, the Conservative New Deal, or the New New Deal. Some of the most prominent programs targeted for overhauling–for cultivating an Ownership Society — include Social Security, federal taxes, and federal and corporate-sponsored health insurance. This particular vision of reinventing government and citizenship is not necessarily new, having developed out of the “supply-side economics” or “trickle-down economics” of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution,” and the “welfare reform” of the Clinton administration’s second term — all of which considered decades-old national programs of social welfare to be impediments to localizing, privatizing, or personalizing the administration of social welfare in the U.S.

“Overhaul,” however, has become the operative program and plan — the key word for making sense of the circular reasoning of W’s claim in his recent inaugural speech that “in America’s ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character [and that] self government relies on the governing of the self.” Indeed overhaul, make-over, radical surgery, and the reinvention of government all involve not only our primarily cutting back on services previously administered through federal programs, but redefining the responsibilities of government as well as the responsibilities of citizens — and (following Bush’s mantra over the last four years) “advancing freedom” in this way. In the U.S., particularly in these times, the advancement of individual rights and liberties is predicated upon the advancement of personal responsibilities — upon refining the techniques of independence, as a means to overcoming states of dependence.

Today, what exactly are, and where do we find, the techniques, technologies, and guidelines of self-government and of freedom as a private (or personal) responsibility, as a measure of good citizenship to which we are expected to “own up” in an Ownership Society? In the past weeks, several contributors to Flow have offered thoughtful accounts of the recent array of make-over programs on television. In this article, I suggest that the various political programs promising to reinvent government have had something to do with the reinvention of television (and the reivention of the “TV program”) as techniques, regimens, and technologies for self-government — for looking after and taking care of oneself, for maximizing personal responsibility, for becoming as self-directed as possible, and thus for becoming a good citizen within the current reasoning about government.

Make-over TV (the television make-over and TV’s own reinvention) is not simply about the idea of freedom, citizenship, and self-governance, it is about demonstrating the specific techniques and technologies for acting and behaving as independent, self-governing citizens, about the performance of citizenship by applying these techniques in daily life, about recognizing our entrepreneurial skills and resources, and about empowering citizens in these ways. Granted, there are significant differences between series such as The Swan, America’s Next Top Model, Nanny 911, Extreme Makeover (and its Home Edition), Queer Eye For the Straight Guy (and Girl), Renovate My Family, Judge Joe Brown, Curb Appeal or Mission Organization, Fit TV (a channel for physical fitness), Suzie Orman’s financial advice, the Food Channel’s Molto Mario, and things learned on the Learning Channel. But that is the point. We have a lot to work on, a lot to be responsible for in these times. We are asked to maximize our flexibility as workers, citizens, and viewers of TV. TV, meanwhile, has been reinvented to demonstrate the multiplicity of little challenges, the little techniques for taking care of ourselves, and the big results of making ourselves over — and in this way, to make the televisual programs of self-help relevant and matter within the political programs for reinventing government.

Providing for and taking care of ourselves (preparing citizens to be managers of their own security, welfare, health, and happiness, “freeing ourselves” from a “cycle of dependency” associated with older and purportedly broken vehicles of state-sponsored welfare) requires regimens, programs, and technologies designed for the body, personal finance, work habits, home organization and improvement, and entire towns (as in Town Haul) — endless retraining to enable us to lead fulfilling lives within the new reasoning about work, leisure, and self-management. The car-overhaul is one of the most important of these programs because the automobile has long been the technology, the vehicle, that liberal democracy in the U.S. has valued most–automobility as the self-reliant, self-directed, fully transported (free) self, and the fully transportable TV viewer. Tele-vision, after all, has developed through technologies of transport, portability, and automobility.

For the population that Bush’s overhaul of Social Security is most supposed to empower, Pimp My Ride has become over the last year one of the most successful programs on MTV, and has become a template for car and motorcycle make-over programs on other networks (including The Learning Channel’s Overhaulin.) In the MTV series, a young man or woman wins a competition to have a Los Angeles-based custom body shop not just rehabilitate her or his car but address her or his personal requirements for becoming self-sufficient and self-directed by enhancing the synergy between driver and her/his mode of self-transport (i.e., by having her or his “ride pimped.”) In many cases, the cars’ owners justify their need for an overhaul in terms not only of how their social mobility (their ability to find a job or to work effectively, their ability to perform routine tasks for themselves, friends or family, their ability to socialize or date), but also of how their ability to help themselves, have been impaired by the pathetic condition of their car. A primary objective of car enhancement, therefore, is providing a set of technologies for managing the everyday tasks associated with professional and social mobility in an environment that requires young workers, revelers, consumers, and citizens (viewers of MTV) to have and display the means of self-sufficiency as automobility.

In an episode from the spring of 2004 and regularly repeated, Logan, a young, African-American man, wins an opportunity to have his 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme overhauled. The first part of the episode tracks various problems with the car’s appearance (its lack of paint, its dents, its having become a trash can for wrappers, soiled clothes, and uneaten food) and its functioning (a malfunctioning radio and an inoperable driver’s-side window that forces him to retrieve fast-food from drive-throughs by stepping out of his car). Not only is the condition of his car preventing him from achieving his goal of becoming a business man and of starting his own company, but he fears that travelers on L.A.’s freeways wrongly will perceive him as dangerous, “as up to no good — a drug-dealer or a gangster.” The Cutlass, he surmises, is the model of and for a 1980’s generation of entrepreneurs, and its restoration would bring him closer to that path of taking control of many facets of his life: “Back in 1986, Hugh Hefner and all the pimps were rollin in this car; it’s an American legend.” A young African-American man’s valorizing (and rehabilitating) the successful White entrepreneur as pimp is now no more strange or contradictory than the largely White consumers of MTV being instructed on the arts of self-help and social mobility by the predominantly African-American customizers and body-experts of Pimp My Ride.

Although Pimp My Ride involves an identity transformation (of driver and car), the refashioning of the car involves not simply designing but customizing and personalizing the technological vehicle for self-realization. Logan’s life may require the intervention of experts, but the TV experts’ design respects and encourages Logan’s individual requirements for self-actualization.

Of all the make-over programs, the car overhaul as a televisual program for self-realization (auto-mobility as the technology of the fully mobile self) recognizes the current technological link between driver and TV viewer/listener, between car, communication technology, and TV. Having one’s ride pimped — technologically reassembled or reconditioned — acknowledges the current requirements of video and audio in and from the car. Logan’s car is outfitted with a new CD-player/radio, dual video monitors in the backseat for video-gaming and DVDs, a karaoke system (and pop-up video screen) in the trunk, and a speaker-system that, after the car in Knight Rider (a TV series from the same era as his Cutlass), allows the driver to speak to pedestrians. And Pimp My Ride regularly features even more elaborate (though always personalized) video and audio accoutrements than Logan apparently required. Pimp My Ride puts on display and demonstrates that the practice of freedom and that the road to self-actualization (taking control of and more effectively directing one’s life) is not simply about watching TV anymore, but about applying oneself through a synergy between communication and transportation technologies, through the transformation of the car and audio-video systems into a more mobile and flexible vehicle of self-realization and self-government. Fashioning a “smart car” (a well-designed and pleasing car, as well as an assemblage of intelligent media/communication technologies) becomes a multi-media vehicle for getting where you want to go.

While The Learning Channel’s Overhaulin is more cautious (demure perhaps) about representing car-makeover as “pimping,” the two titles collectively underscore one of the important strategies of instruction and demonstration in the current reasoning about government and citizenship — a lesson not lost on Logan when he invokes a Cutlass-driving Hugh Hefner as a vital model of entrepreneurial citizenship. As I write this article while Bush delivers his State of the Union speech, I wonder whether my students are watching the speech, Pimp My Ride, or Overhaulin, whether (or how) one program matters more than the other, and whether (or how) it matters where they are watching or listening to it — in their car or their apartment. Bush concludes the State of the Union speech referring to the uncertainties and risks along “the road of providence” that leads (where else?) “to freedom”. The current State of the Union affirms predictably that overhauling is tantamount to mobilizing (or auto-mobilizing) a TV citizenry, tantamount to social mobility in a Society of (Auto-)Ownership (of citizen-drivers rather than passengers), and tantamount to “advancing liberty” along the “free”-way of televisual citizenship, even as the president’s cocky smile, and the glint in his eye, suggest that he wants to pimp my ride.

(Thanks in particular to Laurie Ouellette and Jeremy Packer for our on-going conversations about these matters.)

Further Reading

James Hay, “Unaided Virtues: The (Neo-)Liberalization of the Domestic Sphere and the New Architecture of Community,” Foucault, Cultural Studies, Governmentality, ed., Jack Bratich, Jeremy Packer, & Cameron McCarthy, SUNY Press, 2003.

James Hay & Jeremy Packer, “Crossing the Media(-n): Auto-mobility, the Transported Self, and Technologies of Freedom,” Media/Space, ed. Nick Couldry & Anna McCarthy, Routledge, 2004.

James Hay, “Toward a Spatial Materialism of the ‘Moving Image’: Locating Screen Media within Changing Regimes of Transport,” Cinema & Cie, November 2004.

Laurie Ouellette, “‘Take Responsibility for Yourself’: Judge Judy & the Neoliberal Citizen,” Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, ed. Susan Murray & Laurie Ouellette, NYU Press, 2004.

Image Credits:

Pimp My Ride

Please feel free to comment.

Right Turn: Talk TV and Contemporary Politics

by: Rhonda Hammer / UCLA and Douglas Kellner / UCLA

Talk TV 20/20

Talk TV – 20/20

Talk television has become increasingly political in the past years. Since Bill Clinton appeared on the Arsenio show and MTV during the 1992 presidential race, presidential candidates regularly appear on TV talk shows. In 2000, both Al Gore and George W. Bush were featured on the Oprah show, acknowledging the importance of daytime talk television, and both Bush and John Kerry appeared on the Dr. Phil show in the 2004 campaign. Moreover, in 1995 the conservative coalition, Empower America, comprised of both Republicans and Democrats like William Bennett and Joe Lieberman, condemned talk shows for promoting “cultural rot.” Since then, there has been a decline of the “trash talk” television of shows like Jerry Springer and an increase of advice shows like Oprah and Dr. Phil.

The content of talk TV has engaged a wide range of political topics over the past decades, addressing controversial issues of gender, race, class, sexuality, war, religion, and other issues of the day, while often taking a partisan caste. Crossfire and The McLaughlin Report in the 1980s initiated highly partisan left vs. right shoutfests, usually pitting hardcore conservatives against softer liberals, to the detriment of the latter.

While Phil Donohue initiated a liberal mode of daytime TV discussion shows focusing on individual and social problems in 1968 and Oprah Winfrey’s show from 1986 to the present has probably been the most successful and influential TV talk show in history, over the past decades, talk TV took a number of bizarre turns to the right. As David Brock recounts in his indispensable 2004 book The Republican Noise Machine, Mort Downey introduced a rightwing populist shout show in the late 1980s, featuring an angry and belligerent host who vented deep resentments against women, people of color, gays and lesbians, and liberals. Shot before a live and handpicked TV audience, raucous fans chanted “Mort! Mort! Mort!” as Downey would attack “pablum-puking” liberals and “liberal slime,” vituperate against gays and women, or shout “Shut up, you old hag!” at an elderly woman (Brock pp. 220f), providing an earlier incarnation of Bill O’Reilly.

Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh

The 1980s and 1990s exhibited the remarkable rise of rightwing talk radio figures, who would eventually make their way into television through extremists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean O’Hannity. As Brock points out, by the late 1990s there were over four hundred major rightwing talk radio shows contrasted to a handful of liberal ones, with one rightwing activist claiming that by 2003, there were 1,700 rightwing talk radio hosts (Brock, p. 273). Furthermore, “today the top five radio station owners in the country, controlling forty-five powerful radio stations, broadcast 310 hours of nationally syndicated rightwing talk every weekday. Only 5 hours of nonconservative talk are aired nationally on those stations” (Brock 2004, p. 300).

The imbalance may be slightly corrected with the rise of Air America Radio, but, nonetheless, the almost total hegemony of talk radio by conservatives is astounding and subversive of genuine democracy. Rightwing talk radio savaged Clinton during his presidency, excoriated Gore during the 2000 election, and rabidly defended the George W. Bush administration while relentlessly disparaging John Kerry during the 2004 election (see Alterman 2003; Brock 2004; and Kellner 2005). It is well-documented that rightwing talk radio shows would coordinate their themes and messages of the day with the Republican party, and that the most influential rightwing hosts often received daily faxes from the Republican leadership (Brock, p. 285).

Rightwing talk radio became the shame of the nation, spewing racist, sexist, homophobic, and hateful anti-liberal discourse, while stigmatizing well-known liberals and relentlessly pushing conservative candidates and issues of the day. In addition to rightwing talk radio, the 1990s exhibited a new form of “trash talk television” in which Jerry Springer would display a wide range of exotic members of the underclass, people of color, and sexual deviants who would often engage in verbal conflict and even fist fights. These shows put on display the nightmare of traditional conservatives, the underclass and people of color out of control and needing discipline, if not incarceration.

By the 2000s, many of the trashier daytime talk shows were cancelled, Oprah continued to reign, and liberal shows like Rosie and, later, Ellen seemed to be ascendant. But during the Bush administration, Dr. Phil has emerged as the most visible and perhaps influential TV daytime talk show. In early January 2005 he featured New Year’s Resolutions week, including the “Dr. Phil Ultimate Weight Loss Challenge.” With his audience decked out in identical sweat-suits exhibiting the weight loss theme of the show, Dr. Phil put on display a number of overweight individuals who looked to him for salvation. Hawking his weight-loss book as shamelessly as Bill O’Reilly uses his show to promote his wares, Dr. Phil engages in endless self-promotion.[1]

Dr. Phil

Dr. Phil

Indeed, Dr. Phil uses his TV show and web-site to relentlessly sell his books and himself as the solution to America’s problems. Presenting himself as Savior, Dr. Phil tells his audience that he can solve their problems if they just follow his advice. The audience, primarily women, bestows adoring looks of submission on Dr. Phil as the guests extol his wisdom and guidance, promising to do exactly what he advises. As Michelle Cottle points out: “Dr. Phil relies on much the same exploitative freak-show format as Jerry Springer or Jenny Jones, with everyone from drug-addicted housewives to love-starved transsexuals spinning their tales of woe for a salivating audience. But to help himself — and his audience — feel less icky about their voyeurism, Dr. Phil exposes America’s dark side under the guise of inspiring hope and change. In Dr. Phil’s formulation, cheating couples who air every nauseating detail of their sex lives on national television aren’t shameless media whores, they are troubled souls courageous enough to seek help.”[2]The chanting of the day’s slogans and group behavior and Groupthink on the early January 2005 Dr. Phil programs was reminiscent of the 2004 Republican convention and the adoration of George W. Bush. While conservatives once exhibited individualism, independence, and critical thinking as virtues, contemporary conservatives engage in Groupthink, as when followers of talk radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh call themselves “dittoheads” and repeat his lines of the day, however ill-documented and partisan. Exemplifying what Herbert Marcuse (1964) condemned as one-dimensional thought and behavior, Bush conservatives reproduce the slogans of their master and deify a president who has rarely had a thought of his own and reads and performs the scripts of his handlers (see Douglas Kellner’s “Wired Bush” Flow column).

Hence, in addition to the right turn in talk radio and political talk shows documented by David Brock in The Republican Noise Machine, there has been a right turn in daytime talk television. Talk TV is parasitic on social problems and misery caused in large part by social inequalities and the damage of poverty and lack of education. Yet the major programs dedicated to advice and everyday life target individual failings and offer largely individual solutions to a wide range of problems, solutions that reproduce dominant ideology and forms of thought and behavior. Moreover, on daytime talk television, the majority of the guests are women and girls or feminized men, while the host and experts, regardless of gender, embody and uphold traditional patriarchal and dominant middle class codes. The class bias makes working class people feel inferior and sets up middle class and professional people as the social norm and ideal. Importantly, the politics of difference, especially in relation to class, race, gender and sexuality are effectively obscured and depicted as one-dimensional, psychological, personal problems, which tend to blame the victim rather than critique the socio-political and economic contexts which mediate these kinds of pathologies.

In addition, the constellations of aberrant social types and behaviors that are the topic of many of the shows reify the demonization of marginalized groups. In particular, single-mothers (predominantly the working poor and lower classes) and youth (especially, teen-age girls) are favorite targets of daytime talk television. Discussions of genres, which Quail, Razzano and Skalli (2005) identify as teens-out-of-control [TOOC], and the escalating numbers of paternity themed shows, also tend to reinforce dominant, conservative traditional family values that maintain stereotypical gendered relations.[3] Hence, absurd and impossible imaginary standards of idealized images of fathers and mothers — and rigid, bifurcated notions of masculinity and femininity — are further reified. Racist and heterosexist assumptions are often inferentially if not overtly reproduced in depictions of heterosexual families as “normal” and gay sexuality as deviant, while extremely negative depictions of people of color and underclass people multiply.

Class, race, gender, and hetrosexualist bias, however, is often subtly communicated in these shows, masked by an ideology of democratic populism that displays a multicultural rainbow of diversity, often with hosts of color like Oprah or Montel. These hosts tend to reinforce the American myth that anyone can pull themselves up by their “bootstraps” and can overcome racial (class, gender or sexual) inequalities through individual attitude, perseverance and moral character (Jhally and Lewis, 1992).

Moreover, individual authority figures often in the guise of celebrity hosts or guests, as well as slews of so-called professional experts, legitimate the ideologies of individualism and the naturalization of elite hegemonic power, which negates inquiries into social and public responsibilities for transforming social conditions to alleviate oppression and suffering. In this sense, talk TV, as a form of infotainment (i.e. information blended with entertainment) serves as an expansive advertisement for not only its sponsors, but also for the commercial products which it incessantly hypes, as well as the books and services of the hosts and so-called experts, and the commoditization of the viewers themselves who are delivered to sponsors through their TV-watching activity.

Hence, talk television as media spectacle is itself a valuable commodity for the multinational corporations which own and produce them and the laissez-faire and individualistic capitalist values the shows espouse. Media spectacles mesmerize audiences with the sensationalistic news of the day (the O.J Simpson trial, the Clinton sex scandals, the celebrity trials of the moment, and the spectacles of sports and entertainment which dominate everyday life in consumer and corporate capitalism (Kellner 2003)). The real material conditions of the relationships between poverty, rising unemployment, out-sourcing of jobs, the decimation of social assistance and education programs, and the social conditions of escalating violence have no place in the narcissistic celebrity obsessed domain of the talk television spectacle.

Indeed, celebrities are the icons of media culture, the gods and goddesses of everyday life, and ordinary people are positioned as the worshippers of these celebrities and pawns of “experts” who tell them how to solve their problems and live their lives. In this sense, the popularity of daytime talk television serves as a mode of distraction, in that it encourages a politics of individualistic guilt, envy, and ameliorative action. Rather than teaching audiences how to think critically about the power relations which structure their world and the social conditions which help produce their problems, audiences are taught to focus on their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities and taught how to conform to social norms and dominant modes of thought and behavior.

The pedagogy of talk TV is conformist and reproduces existing relations of power and domination. Although many studies of television focus on the programs as sites of pleasure or as a democratic public sphere, Quail, Razzano and Skalli (2005) espouse a dialectical approach that examines the manner in which daytime talk television is both compelling and repellent. While talk TV promises to provide a democratic space for public debate, it often exploits its marginalized guests and presents them as abnormal and as freaks, at odds with the so-called normalized experiences and values of the hosts, experts and audience members. And this is another example of how daytime television manages to maintain dominant ideologies of power and control.

Phil Donahue

Phil Donahue

Of course, there are positive moments of daytime talk television. Pioneering talk show host Phil Donohue initiated a liberal mode of TV discussion shows focusing on individual and social problems in 1968 and Oprah Winfrey has probably been the most successful and influential TV talk host and personality in history. These shows discussed issues often neglected by mainstream media and promoted thought and dialogue on many important issues. The more carnivalesque “trash TV” of the Jerry Springer variety that mushroomed in the 1990s had transgressive moments, gave voice to individuals and issues often suppressed by mainstream culture, and dramatically presented the problem of male violence against women and family terrorism usually neglected by mainstream culture (Hammer 2002). The advice shows of even so crass and exploitative a host as Dr. Phil provides useful information, as his January 2005 series on weight reduction dramatizes the problems of obesity and the need to deal with the problem. Yet in addressing this problem, he shamelessly hawks his own book, TV show, and web-site, and thus himself as the solution.

Yet the conformist pedagogy usually preached on daytime talk TV, the imposing of experts on audiences and submission of helpless people to societal authority figures, and relentless mainstreaming of middle-class and commercial values, render the shows ultimately a means of social control and normalization. There is a strong voyeuristic dimension in TV talk shows in which audiences are positioned to gaze into the embarrassing underbelly and freak show of American life, a theme enhanced in Dr. Phil with the voyeuristic cameras that put under surveillance the transgressions, weaknesses, and failures of ordinary people. The sufferings of the underclass and marginalized people are exploited so that the host can emerge as a triumphant voice of social authority and control. Thus under the guise of liberal benevolence, talk TV functions increasingly as a vehicle of conservative power.


Alterman, Eric. What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News. New York: BasicBooks, 2003.

Brock, David. The Republican Noise Machine: Rightwing Media and How it Corrupts Democracy. New York: Crown, 2004.

Hammer, Rhonda. Antifeminism and Family Terrorism: A Critical Feminist Perspective. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

hooks, bell. Where We Stand: Class Matters. New York and London: Routledge, 2000.

Jhally, Sut, and Justin Lewis. Enlightened Racism: The Bill Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream. Boulder: Westview, 1992.

Kellner, Douglas. Media Spectacle. New York and London: Routledge, 2003.

—. Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder, Col.: Paradigm, 2005.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964.

Quail, Christine, Kathalene Razzano, and Loubna Skalli. Vulture Culture: The Politics and Pedagogy of Daytime Television Talk Shows. New York: Peter Lang, 2005, forthcoming.

When George W. Bush appeared on the Dr. Phil show during campaign 2004, one commentator noted that Dr. Phil spoke much more than Bush and Laura and repeatedly pushed his book Family First. See Tom Frank, “Bush and Kerry on Have Your Phil,” New Republic, posted online October 8, 2004. The book had also been the subject of a two-hour prime time extravaganza promoting Dr. Phil and his book. McGraw also endlessly promotes his website which promotes his various products, thus deploying media synergy to sell himself and his products.
See The New Republic cover story by Michelle Cottle, “THE BAD DOCTOR. Daddy Knows,” published December 27, 2004. The magazine cover features a picture of McGraw with the caption “Dr. Evil.”
This section of our column draws on a foreward that we are publishing in a forthcoming book, Christine Quail, Kathalene Razzano and Loubna Skalli, Vulture Culture: The Politics and Pedagogy of Daytime Television Talk Shows. New York: Peter Lang.

Image Credits:

1. Talk TV

2. Rush Limbaugh

3. Dr. Phil

4. Phil Donahue

Doug Kellner on media spectacle
Camille Paglia on talk shows
Talk shows background
Further talks shows links

Please feel free to comment.


by: Cynthia Fuchs / George Mason University

Some people do different things. Not saying that my wife would allow me to do that, but it’s just something that was done, and you move on.
–Donovan McNabb

I thought it hit at a lot of stereotypes toward athletes — black athletes in particular. I thought it was very insensitive on the heels of the Kobe Bryant situation, and I just don’t know that the Eagles PR people or the NFL would have let it go had it been a different player or a coach or an owner.
–Tony Dungy

Personally, I didn’t think it would have offended anyone, and if it did, I apologize.
–Terrell Owens

Apologizing is an art. And apologizing for tv is something else. Typically, tv apologies are designed to appease a public fury, as in the cases of Hugh Grant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bill Clinton. Sometimes they’re poorly conceived (“I’m so sorry, my band started playing the wrong song!”), sometimes preemptive (Jim McGreevey), and sometimes liberating (Natalie Maines). But they’re always performative and strangely sensational.

Consider the recent rush of apologies surrounding Terrell Owens’ cross-promotional appearance with Desperate Housewives’ Nicollette Sheridan. At first, no one seemed to notice the causal event: in a skit preceding Monday Night Football, T.O. acted like he was distracted from his manly duty (to the Philadelphia Eagles) when Sheridan dropped her towel. Within 24 hours, however, the FCC reported a flood of complaints — 50,000 is the given number, even as, Frank Rich noted in the New York Times (28 November 2004), it’s likely that these were generated, or at least encouraged, by conservative action groups.

Such upset could not go unaddressed. And so crusader Michael Powell leaped into the public fray, announcing that the Commission would investigate whether the image of the white woman’s naked back wrapped in a black man’s arms constitutes “obscenity.” In the meantime, nearly everyone involved was told to be sorry, though each party involved found a way to pass blame. An NFL spokesman called the sketch “inappropriate and unsuitable for our Monday Night Football audience”; ABC Sports said, “We agree that the placement was inappropriate. We apologize”; and the Eagles announced, “It is normal for teams to cooperate with ABC in the development of an opening for its broadcast. After seeing the final piece, we wish it hadn’t aired.” We can only imagine how much they wish.

Amid this scramble to re-comport, no one expects Sheridan to say she’s sorry, because she was, after all, only playing a role — Edie, the campy tramp she plays each Sunday night, to the delight of some 24 million viewers. Owens, however, is always playing T.O., the celebrity wide receiver who has earned praise for his excellent game and censure for his spectacular end zone showmanship. These two responses typically collide in a kind of explosion of expectations. For one thing, as Tony Dungy points out, Owens is a black athlete in a hyper-mediated world, and he needs to be aware of that chaos and deal with it responsibly. That doesn’t make Owens or any other celebrity responsible for the chaos. It only makes him a likely target within its perpetual swirl.

Owens is, after all, a black man paid a lot of money for appealing, for the most part, to white male tv viewers. No matter how terrific his performance might be on a given Sunday, his audience — voracious consumers of images and icons, heroes and playmakers — still presumes he owes something. And so, while his partnership with quarterback Donovan McNabb has resulted in 13 touchdown receptions so far in 2004 (the best in the league) and put him in line to challenge Jerry Rice’s single-year record (22), both his fans and detractors want more. More points, more TD gyrations, more outrages.

While such anticipation isn’t specific to T.O., his particular affinity for tv cameras makes him an ideal star. Youngish (30) and cocky, beautiful and clever, he repeatedly delivers on the handheld camera’s promise of notoriety and desire. He’s more than willing to play the role of thrilling victor, utterly available and indestructible. He makes his emotions visible for cameras, by yelling at teammates or coaches on the sidelines, tearfully expressing his
gratitude for the new position. And he boasts for any reporter with a mic in his face, as when he guarantees wins or mouths off on Raven Ray Lewis’s “double murder case,” a brief, admittedly brash comment that hardly compares to the exploitative hay made of the story by cable news just a couple of years ago, it was poor taste and so, he was punished for it — by sports journalists, colleagues, and fans.

Like so many other adept tv performers — say, the President of the United States — Owens is not the sorry sort. He’s proud of his end-zone parties and weekly thinks up new ones, as pleasing to his fans as the antics on Wisteria Lane are to Desperate Housewives viewers. He’s also willing to discuss any new umbrage for camera crews. And so he decided, 18 November, to follow the leads of ABC and the NFL: he apologized for tv. Like Martha Stewart and Janet Jackson have performed their tv apologies, so too has T.O. On 18 November, he took up the optimum position, pronouncing the words in an order that allowed him to appear sorry for the ruckus but retain his dignity and sense of righteousness: “I felt like it was clean, the organization felt like it was a clean skit, and I think it just really got taken out of context with a lot of people and I apologize for that.” While he doesn’t quite concede the offense to those who assumed it (and thus reveals their sense of profound injury to be overreaction, given all the other misbehaviors on the planet that might offend them), he also offers just enough contrition to allow viewers to move on if they so desire.

This possibility of moving on was simultaneously compounded and complicated by the Motown Meltdown on Friday (19 November). Suddenly, Owens and Ron Artest became poster boys for the same problem. And no matter how this problem is parsed — sex and violence, misbehaving black men, egotistical sports stars — all of it is on tv and so demands suitably public penitence. As of this writing, Artest scheduled and then cancelled an apology press conference last week. As moving on is so plainly impossible, with or without the tv apology, caution seems a sane response.

iFilm video
ABC Sports
National Football League
Philadelphia Eagles

Please feel free to comment.

Sculpting a Digital Language

by: Robert Schrag / North Carolina State University

A number of responses to my last Flow column wondered what form the “digital language” I advocated might take. The question took me back to a very non-digital experience. It was a singular moment — unexpected on two levels. First, it was surprising that the show, featuring more works by Auguste Rodin than had ever been gathered in one place, was at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Second, as a lifelong Rodin-groupie, I didn’t expect to see a “new-to-me” work. But I turned the corner and there it was, Fallen Angels. It was love in an instant. Totally blind-sided, I stood and stared. I wanted to laugh and cry. Breathing was difficult, but what little air I could inhale seemed like Spring. I put out my hand and a museum guard quickly materialized, fixing me with a restraining glare. I returned to the show many times, spending hours just gazing at the Fallen Angels. It seems paradoxical that that ecstatic experience has come to define for me what we must avoid as we seek a new language for the digital environment. But, let us begin at the beginning.

I believe in Louis Sullivan’s assertion that form follows function — in skyscrapers, scissors and language. Language should be con-formed to its essential function: manifesting the perceptual-conceptual moment. And what, you ask, does that mean? Good question.

I often ask my students to consider the most powerful moments in their lives: when they fell in love, or realized that love had left; the birth of a child, the death of a parent; the moment they sensed a divine presence, or came to believe they were alone in the universe. Then I ask them to define what kind of a moment it was. A text moment? A picture moment? Tactile or olfactory? Musical? Eventually we agree that it was all of those at once. It was a multimodal moment.

Next I ask them where this moment occurred. Not the physical location that stimulated the perception, but where the perception bloomed. After a seemingly mandatory detour through the idea that a person with an artificial heart can fall in love, we fix this multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment [MPCM] in the brain; locked within us. Yet, we cannot leave it there. Often these peak MPCMs are communicative crystallizations, internal personal epiphanies that we are driven to share. That is the function of language. But what kind of language?

In the previous column I asserted that the evolution of communication technology is a bartered negotiation between cultural needs and technological capacity. Language, too, grows from a negotiation between society’s communicative needs and the capabilities of the media that hold language. It is most often a negotiation in which the medium — the language container — dominates; “form follows function” turned upside down. The functional ability of the container determined the form of the language. Paper holds words and numbers and images, stone and wood hold carving, instruments hold music. Thus, we began a millennia-long drift away from the ideal of a holistic representation of the MPCM. Instead we inclined towards language containers that held powerful unimodal expressions of the MPCM. The innate inflexibility of the container drove the drift; but there were other important factors at work. Among them were the tyranny of task and the hegemony of the marketplace.

Tyranny of task is the temporal pressure that accompanies every communicative need. If my sudden need is to communicate to my hunting partners that there is a mastodon the size of Montana around the bend, and I don’t want to alert the critter; sign language gains immediate primacy. If I need contracts and trade records to maintain the viability of my commercial interests, writing swiftly ascends. Painting and sculpture are effective in conveying the teachings of mystics to an illiterate populace. From the beginning of human time to Tuesday’s faculty meeting, we have always needed tomorrow’s communication tools yesterday. The driving need to get the task done puts the buggy beta version of the language swiftly into our hands. The crafting of language has never been a leisurely, reflective undertaking.

The hegemony of the marketplace becomes apparent when we realize that language systems and media do not merely facilitate commerce — they are themselves commodities. The wealthiest man in America is not Sandberg’s “Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler.” He is a communication broker — a trader in computer hardware and software. Dominant corporations no longer fabricate steel, they stretch fibers of pure glass and fill them with messages designed to amuse and beguile us. Communication — the tools that facilitate it; and the words, sounds and images that define and construct our truth — has become the primary commodity of the 21st century. And the languages that dominate in that marketplace are not those that best express the MPCM; they are the ones — from computer operating systems to blockbuster films — that generate the most revenue.

And finally, there is the intimidation of genius — which takes us back to Rodin’s Fallen Angels. Genius uses a single mode expression to instigate a multimodal perceptual cascade in the mind of the audience member. Rodin’s sculpture, O’Keeffe’s painting, Mozart’s music, Balanchine’s choreography — all communicative acts from previous centuries that pour such power and perception into a uni- or bi-modal communication container that, in a kind of holographic transformation, we respond as if we were suspended in the totality of a multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment. These are acts of expressive genius that recreate the holistic MPCM from a fragment of its parts. They leave us with the notion that such communication is “normal,” when, in truth, it is rare beyond imagining.

These, then, are the barriers that stand between the languages we have inherited, and the language we should create to fully express the multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment in the digital environment:

∑ A history of unimodal languages developed to conform to the capabilities of existing communication containers.

∑ The tyranny of task prompting a “crisis-management” approach to language development, which favored quick and dirty language solutions over elegant expressive tools.

∑ The hegemony of the marketplace that currently fosters the development of technologies, languages and content that gain primacy based on profit.

∑ The heritage of genius that implies that we already have the expressive tools we need, if only we had the necessary “gift.”

Those are daunting obstacles indeed. Which is why I advocate simply walking away and starting all over. Seriously. I look around my campus and talk with colleagues near and far, and see little chance that we will succeed in “evolving” a new language for the digital age. The old barriers are simply too high. The tyranny of task confronts most academic endeavors: Use technology to solve the pedagogical challenges we cannot fix with bricks and mortar, right now! The purely expressive endeavors — art, music and animation (even in the rarefied atmospheres of Annenberg and MIT) — presume levels of funding that only government or industry can provide. Not surprisingly those efforts often result in products that primarily profit the military, the government, or the media cartel.

So here is how I would start over — if I had Bill Gates’ money. I would build a Digital Language and Expression Development Center in the mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico. Why there? Because I like it there. This is my fantasy. Initially, there would be two populations at the Center. Since the function of digital language is to manifest the multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment, I would find the most creative traditional artists I could — in all the arts — and bring them to the Center. They are already manifesting the MPCM with damaged languages. They bring function. Then I would bring the best programmers in the world to the Center. They would be responsible for creating the digital form to contain the expressive function of the artists. But the artists would lead — form follows function, remember?

The artists would spend their days doing art, and the programmers would watch. At breakfast and lunch the artists and the programmers would negotiate the digital form to contain the expressive function of the artist’s medium. The programmers would be responsible for making sure that the various expressive digital palettes would be integrated: Musicware works with Artware with Filmware with Textware with Sculptware, etc. Eventually we get Expressionware — an open-source digital language that can contain all the elements of a multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment. Over dinner we would do “show and tell.”

Next we would conduct workshops for people from all different walks of life, painters, politicians, pursers and publicans — and jobs that start with other letters too. Each workshop would explore how Expressionware could be used in that arena, expanding it to include new or unique concerns and requirements. And thus, over the years, we would sculpt a new digital language, thoughtfully and reflectively.

I, naturally, would live at the Center, wandering, wondering, watching, and learning — because it is my fantasy.

Auguste Rodin biography
North Carolina Museum of Art
Slacker HTML

Please feel free to comment.


by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

America is making people disappear. While the “real” casualties of this administration are rarely represented on television, rituals of death are continually replayed and the sense of loss remains, haunting these texts. My subject for this first column is, appropriately, what we have lost and how we’re coping with that loss — on television, anyway. With a fall season marked by the popularity of programs entitled Without a Trace and Lost, the importance of loss as a televisual theme seems rather obvious. We can easily look back on the past few years for confirmation of this trend. For example, competitive reality programs in which the “unchosen” disappear into the night, through a ritual cab ride (as in The Apprentice or The Bachelor) or simply by going “off” camera. Others like Wife Swap exploit fears of spousal disappearance, creating fractured families who long for reconnection. And death, not love, is certainly all around in the crime procedurals that dominate prime time. These programs litter our evenings with corpses, most often women or children, casualties in a domestic war that has no name. Invisible during their lives, such bodies become sites for investigation after their death, as professionals use the latest technology to probe their flesh for clues to their untimely demise. As hard as these investigators work, however, the “losses” continue to pile up. On the one hand, these programs serve as cautionary tales reinforcing the terror warnings: we must be fearful, we must be good consumers, we must not lose the game. If we make a mistake, we shall be erased. On the other hand, these programs also enact a revealing displacement: both domestically and internationally, America is making people disappear. While the “real” casualties of this administration are rarely represented on television, rituals of death are continually replayed and the sense of loss remains, haunting these texts.

In American prime-time, such losses are not exclusively thematic; the industry itself has dramatically changed in the last four years, and the loss of socially progressive programming has been devastating to liberal producers and to the communities they serve. During the 2000 Presidential election, for example, I alternated between watching the returns and reading the reactions to them by Buffy fans on-line. That evening, we had all previously watched a new episode of the program’s 5th season, “Family,” in which Buffy producer Joss Whedon took a firm stance in support of gay couples, to the delight of fans. This year, one week before the Presidential election, Whedon unexpectedly shut down his television production company, Mutant Enemy, because, he said “I have a bitter taste in my mouth with where tv has gone the past five years.” (Variety, Oct.24, 2004). Since the surprise cancellation of Angel this year, all of Mutant Enemy’s programs are now off the air, replaced by sometimes entertaining but largely reactionary boy-centered melodramas like Smallville, Everwood, The O.C., Jack and Bobby, and life as we know it. Aside from a few female-centered programs, none of which offers the innovations Buffy did, girls (and queers) have largely vanished from prime time prominence, along with socially progressive agendas. Television’s experiments in the mid-to-late 90-s,which resulted in such gems as Freaks and Geeks, Homicide, My So-Called Life, Ellen, Oz, Once and Again and Sex and the City seems over. For their audiences, these texts represented a socially liberal space that enabled viewers to connect with alternative forms of community which may not have been available to them otherwise. Their loss (and the lack of comparable replacements) is a potentially profound one for many television viewers, who are no longer permitted the range of discussion or opportunity for community richer, more critical texts made available to them (and often encouraged by producers like Whedon).

It’s perhaps no surprise that, amidst such loss, prime-time television has turned to God (like many voters in this year’s election). While in the 90s Buffy re-appropriated religious symbols and icons to serve feminist and queer ends, and Oz acknowledged religious diversity and linked spiritual practices with broader humanitarian concerns, God has reappeared in more traditional forms in recent years, as a wise advisor or institutionalized icon. This shift to God in “straight” form has been particularly hard on female characters. The most obvious example is Joan of Arcadia, whose creator, Barbara Hall, rediscovered God after suffering a sexual assault. Hall created Joan so that adolescent girls and other viewers could turn to God in dealing with the perils of modern life. The program, however, often seems to have the opposite effect for Joan. God tells his handmaiden how to make everyone else’s life better except her own, which is continually disrupted by his bizarre requests (unsurprisingly, Joan is not permitted to know God’s reasons beforehand). Similarly, on the much-heralded new drama Jack and Bobby, future President Bobby recoils from his fiercely secular (and unfortunately shrill) mother to embrace religious life, paving the way to his becoming a minister. And last season on Everwood, local doctor Harold Abbott races to church to confess his sins after performing an abortion for a random teenage girl. While the girl herself never reappears, the point is clear: the fallen woman caused this good man to sin.

Alongside these literal references to God, the desire for supernatural or spiritual intervention has taken hold of more secular-seeming dramas as well, most notably J.J. Abrams’ Lost. Lost begins where most disaster films end — after the plane crash on the deserted tropical island. The program is particularly timely in that it deals both with lost people and feelings of loss generally, especially for a liberal-minded middle-class audience. Lost represents many of those who are normally invisible as protagonists on television (non-Americans, non Anglos, the disabled, the overweight, an Iraqi citizen, a drug user), but it also suggests the world view of American liberals who feel stranded in a land in which they have lost social power, and who are haunted by past events which have brought them to where they are. This is a potentially powerful scenario, but Lost has resisted complex interrogations of liberal alienation or American social violence in favor of more comforting supernatural band-aids.

The most successful episode, “Walkabout,” found fans absolutely overjoyed and in tears when it was revealed that wheel-chair bound Terry O’Quinn had been mysteriously healed by the plane crash. Even on such seemingly secular boards as, religious rhetoric was plentiful as fans referred, some in gingerly quotations, to the “miracle” that had occurred. While the quotation marks indicate some possible discomfort with the term, especially in relation to a program coming from generally more progressive Buffy writer David Fury and Alias/Felicity creator J.J. Abrams, they also suggest an increased willingness to entertain religious explanations. Indeed, a recent TV Guide poll revealed that 26% of viewers think that the “survivors” are actually all dead, another 23% that they’re in “Purgatory” (TV Guide, 11/14/04). Perhaps more than anything else, this poll suggests the hopelessness of many audience members who seem willing to embrace, at least televisually, some sign of a divine or at least an easy, solution to a depressing, perhaps intolerable, situation.

Remarkably, I find myself looking to a procedural for representations of the “disappeared” in which conditions of actual social violence are referenced. Without a Trace is unusual for today’s procedurals because it is the only crime program which consistently offers thoughtful characterizations, fallible detectives, failed investigations, and moments of progressive politics. The program recently departed from its procedural format to offer a pretty faithful adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich’s social critique of the situation of low-wage working women (the episode titles are “Nickel and Dimed, Parts I and II”). In this case, the “vanished” woman is a single mother, trying to make ends meet by working at “Everymart” and cleaning houses on her days off. Desperate for money for her son’s hearing aid, she works as a go-between for drug-dealers, who kidnap and eventually kill her. Single female Detective Samantha Spade empathizes with the women, putting her own life at risk in order to search for her by going undercover as a low-wage worker; Spade’s “break from common procedure” allows the program to further expose these women’s inhumane working and living conditions. In the episode’s thesis statement, the frustrated Spade angrily mourns the missing woman: “It shouldn’t have been so hard for her, you know? She deserved better. This isn’t about records or files or paper trails. The problem is she’s invisible. This woman has vanished into thin air, and if it weren’t for Jake, [her son], it wouldn’t have even made a ripple. I feel like things happen to people like her and no one notices and no one’s held accountable!” Spade’s critique is remarkable in that it exposes the blinders of our culture generally, well represented by television’s other procedurals — their devotion to “paper trails” and elaborate autopsies while larger structural causes are never addressed. While her outburst does not offer a divine or easy solution, it does significantly acknowledge the pervasive losses caused by our social system. And Spade does mourn these losses, at least for a television moment — and such moments may be the only “real” comfort television has to offer for the next four years.

ABC’s Lost Home Page
CBS’s Without a Trace Page
Religion Online
Religion and The Mass Media: Bibilographic Database

Please feel free to comment.