Punk, Disco, Porn—The Deuce ’77—Part 1
Matthew Tchepikova-Treon / the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


The Deuce Season Two Poster Art
The Deuce Season Two Poster Art

Beginning in 1977, five years on, Season Two of The Deuce extends the show’s thoroughgoing investigation of the sex industry in porno-chic New York City. HBO first advertised the new season with an image of late-1970s 42nd Street under a caption that read: “Punk, disco and porn.” Beyond signaling a certain pop culture milieu, these three words signify a sort of cipher for the show’s complex audiovisual world-building techniques. Because, from punk shows to ad hoc discos to female-directed arthouse porn to a cabaret-styled gay bar battling “noise complaint”-based zoning restrictions, The Deuce continues to present a story largely focussed on the labor of (sub)cultural production, the sonic production of social spaces, and the power dynamics of an exploitative capitalist logic working to absorb or silence them.

Similar to the invocation of Curtis Mayfield’s aestheticized sociological critique during the first season’s title sequence,[ (( Matthew Tchepikova-Treon, “What Kind of Bad?: Curtis Mayfield and The Deuce,” Jump Cut, no. 58 (2018). ))] The Deuce S2 similarly applies “This Year’s Girl” (1978) by Elvis Costello & The Attractions—a satirical number criticizing the commodification of women’s bodies through the circuits of mass media—with singer Natalie Bergman’s voice added into the multitrack master tapes from the song’s original recording for heightened tension.

Punk. The word itself reaches back centuries and even carries with it an etymological link to prostitution. In Shakespeare’s 1603 play Measure for Measure, a young woman engaging in a bed-trick[ (( A common plot device in the playwright’s early tragicomedies, see: Julia Briggs, “Shakespeare’s Bed-Tricks,” Essays in Criticism, Volume XLIV, Issue 4, 1 (October 1994): 293–314. ))] tells an inquiring duke that she is neither a wife, widow, nor maid. The duke replies, “Why are you nothing then?” Another man then follows the duke’s misogyny-whisked grouse with: “My Lord, she might be a Puncke.”[ ((William Shakespeare, Neil Freeman, and Paul Sugarman, The Applause First Folio of Shakespeare in Modern Type (New York: Applause, 2001), 81. ))] Centuries of varied utterances transformed the word from prostitute into a verb denoting the act of sodomy, then referent for a male homosexual, and eventually a general signifier for social ‘trash’ and debauched street youths, etc.[ ((Also see: Tricia Henry Young, Break All Rules!: Punk Rock and the Making of a Style (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989), 7. ))] Seventies punk culture, with its embrace of aesthetic excess, social transgressions, and explicit gender reformations, embodied all aspects of the word, including its attendant ideological contradictions. But further still, as Adam Krims argues in his study of music and cities transformed by “post-Fordist” modes of capital accumulation, Seventies punk and new wave also “announced different perceptions of city life, in which squalor and class-based rage could no longer be denied or contained.”

Abby’s Jukebox

The Deuce set up its engagement with punk’s historical future back in 1972, through a scene in Season One involving NYC musician Garland Jeffreys at the Hi-Hat performing the Continental organ-driven classic “96 Tears,” a song written and originally recorded in 1966 by ? and the Mysterians, whose sound and style motivated Creem magazine’s Dave Marsh to first use the term “punk rock” (in popular print) while describing the band in 1971, years after hearing them live.[ ((Creem, Vol. 3, No. 2 (May 1971). For Marsh, the value of the band’s “new sound” paradoxically came from its return to a street-inspired form of rock before the age of arena-sized spectacles. Charlie Gillett makes the anachronistic suggestion that “96 Tears” might have been “the last pure punk record,” probably on account of Marsh’s original claim. See: The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), 35. ))] During the scene, Abby mentions to Vincent that she first heard Jeffreys and his band playing a rent party down at St. Marks Place. Along with calling up the origins of “punk” in early rock criticism, this pop culture citation looks ahead to the first wave of punk bands who would soon populate the East Village, while also nodding back to 1920s Harlem and the city’s long tradition of underclass tenants organizing early blues and jazz apartment shows to battle slumlording tactics and help pay rent.[ ((See: Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 89-125. ))] Such a moment demonstrates not only The Deuce’s intricate use of music-history-cum-urban-geography, but also works to identify the social stakes involved for the show’s characters.

In 1977, with the music’s antibourgeois teeth now on full display, Season Two finds Abby managing the Hi-Hat and operating the bar as a material nexus of NYC punk’s “subcultural capital” now flowing through Manhattan alongside political influence and boffo profits from prostitution and porn. As Sarah Thornton reminds us, subcultural capital always emerges from particular social spaces,[ ((Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996). ))] and in this season’s first episode, Abby uses the bar before opening hours to meet with a young self-described “feminist dancer”[ ((The show’s writers here artfully gesture toward second-wave feminism’s important debates between anti-pornography activists and anti-censorship feminists concerning the cultural forms and social functions of porn. For a detailed account of this history and a thorough analysis of these debates, see: Linda Williams, Hardcore, 16-30. ))] experiencing “labor hassles”—which Vincent dismisses as “Chairman Mao bullshit”—after organizing strippers at the Metropole Cafe near Times Square to stage a three-day walkout. Abby suggests that they “book a band, do a fundraiser” at the bar and donate cover charges to the dancers for lost wages during the strike. After their meeting, Abby goes to the jukebox, now stocked with period-perfect records, and plays “Prove It” (1977) by Television, Richard Hell’s band forever associated with the forging of New York punk at CBGB. Throughout the season, we additionally hear The Runaways (“Born To Be Bad”), Iggy Pop (“Sister Midnight”), Wire (“1 2 X U”), Siouxsie and the Banshees (“Hong Kong Garden”), T. Rex (“The Slider”), Wyldlife (“The Right!”), The Patti Smith Group (“Ask the Angels”), the Ramones (“You’re Gonna Kill That Girl”), X (“Adult Books”), etc. Later in the same episode, recalling the Hi-Hat’s early punk permutation by way of “96 Tears,” we similarly hear a band perform the 1976 underground hit “New Rose” by The Damned.[ ((In a 1982 Rolling Stone interview with Greil Marcus, Elvis Costello, when asked about his cultural and discursive associations with punk music, said, “The Damned were the best punk group, because they had no art to them… They were just—nasty.” ))] The first of the London punk bands to tour the U.S., The Damned did in fact perform at CBGB in 1977, but the scene’s effectiveness comes in part from the (unanswered) question whether or not this is The Damned or another band covering their song.

A punk band at the Hi-Hat performing “New Rose” during a labor strike fundraiser show.
A punk band at the Hi-Hat performing “New Rose” during a labor strike fundraiser show.

Photo by Ebet Roberts.
The Damned playing at CBGB in 1977.

On the level of formal aesthetics, Abby’s jukebox and Hi-Hat concerts underscore how, through deeply informed diegetic sound design, The Deuce uses punk music as a means of sonic verisimilitude that remains attuned to the labor involved in punk’s radical cultural production writ large. However, this is no utopian enterprise. The Deuce effectively utilizes punk culture by aligning the music’s inherent contradictory impulses with, rather than against, the hierarchical forces of capitalism at work throughout the show. After all, the same 1970s media coverage that originally hyped punk’s moral panic to sell newspapers not only likewise helped sell records, but Dick Hebdige, in his classic subcultural study of punk style and society, even dates the commencement of this coverage to a particular incident in 1976, when a young woman was “partially blinded by a flying beer glass” during a punk show in London’s own red-light district.[ ((Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen, 1979), 142. ))] The Damned performed at that same show.

Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 5, “All You’ll Be Eating Is Cannibals.” (author’s screen grab)
The Deuce addresses punk’s vexed relationship with commerce in comedic terms at one point when Candy, in need of further funding for her porn feature, Red Hot, asks Abby, “All your friends, with their music and their film, and their gallery shows—where do they come up with the money?” Behind a side-eyed smile, Abby replies, “Most of them get it from their parents.”

Eating Cannibals

In a 1979 Village Voice column examining the shared aesthetic between NYC art-punk bands and “new wave” filmmakers (who also often shared exhibition spaces), J. Hoberman observed: “Drifting across the Bowery, fallout from the 1977 punk ‘explosion’ continues to spawn art-world mutations.”[ ((J. Hoberman, “No Wavelength: The Para-Punk Underground,” Village Voice, May 21, 1979. ))] And part of what Hoberman identified was a politically powerful style “shot through with fantasies of punishment and revenge” and sexual violence he compared to “the aestheticized violence of 42nd Street,” referencing both the Deuce proper and the fast-burning exploitation films of the era that circulated through its so-called grindhouse theaters. By the end of the piece, Hoberman concludes that punk’s shared cultural project, predicated on shock-and-awe absurdity, had perhaps unintentionally produced a form of social realism instead. We hear a sonic representation of Hoberman’s suspicion during a particularly affective scene late in The Deuce Season Two.

Working with former prostitute, Dorothy, to address the dangerous conditions of sex work on the streets, Abby decides reluctantly to use payout money from Vincent’s mob-backed sex parlor to fund free health clinics for the women. In due time, however, a group of pimps murder Dorothy once her work becomes bad for business. Soon after, another prostitute walks into the Hi-Hat and through tear-glassed eyes silently communicates Dorothy’s death to Abby behind the bar, the camera trained on these women’s faces. In this moment, we hear only the erratic fits of electric feedback and metallic dissonance from a punk band checking their sound off screen.

Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 9, “Inside the Pretend.” (author’s screen grab)
During Season Two’s closing montage, after Dorothy’s murder, Abby sits with envelops of cash as Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders sings, “Mystery achievement, you’re so unreal.”

Image Credits:
1. The Deuce Season Two Poster Art.
2. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 1, “Our Raison d’Etre.” (author’s screen grab)
3. The Damned playing at CBGB in 1977. Photo by Ebet Roberts.
4. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 5, “All You’ll Be Eating Is Cannibals.” (author’s screen grab)
5. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 9, “Inside the Pretend.” (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

Not Your Grandmother’s “Super”: Julia, Olivia and Waning Black Exceptionalism
Bambi Haggins / Arizona State University

Two Generations of

Two Generations of “Supers”

When Diahann Carroll and Kerry Washington appeared together onstage at the 65th annual Emmys, the nature of the pairing seemed historic: Carroll was the first African-American woman nominated for an Emmy for her role as the original Super Negro in the situation comedy, Julia (NBC 1968-1971), and Washington’s performance as “Olivia Pope” in Scandal (ABC 2012-present), arguably, the Super African American 2.0, had earned her the first nomination for Best Actress in a Dramatic Series. In terms of optics, the appearance of these two Black actors being showcased for their exemplary roles would seem to signify how far we have come in terms of Black female representation but, of course, it’s not that clear cut.

Putting aside the ways in which these characters play into stereotypes associated with Black femininity, I intended for this brief discussion of Julia and Olivia, the female Super Negro and Super African American 2.0, respectively, to question how and whether Black exemplarism informs the televisual construction of Black women. After all, both roles have exemplar status in terms of their character construction, their style, and their ability to assimilate (and excel) in the societal mainstream. Separated by decades, Julia and Scandal are very different in terms of genre and the popular mores they reflect. However, to some extent, both conform to idealized notions of race relations in their given era. Just as significantly, the construction of these Black female leads establishes them as “credits to their race” in response to era-appropriate notions of respectability politics. However, I wonder whether the new exemplars actually are “the best and the brightest constructed so as not to challenge or threaten the American mainstream.” [ ((Aniko Bodroghkozy. “Television and the Civil Rights Era.” African Americans and Popular Culture: Theater, Film, and Television (2008): 221.))]

The Politics of Respectability

The Politics of Respectability

As the distant ideological cousin to the “City Upon the Hill” ethos of American exceptionalism, this notion of Black exemplarism is tied to a pragmatic imperative which, for many American Blacks, is driven by the old familial tenet, “You have to be twice as good to get half as far.” On some level, exemplarism has traditionally informed the aspirational desires of Blacks in America—from DuBois’ Talented 10th to the neat, almost formal appearance of civil rights protestors, from the de facto prohibition against President Obama looking too “angry black man” to the continued investment in the need for “positive” representations of Blackness. Efforts to control the image are ongoing —from the NAACP boycott of Blatz Beer that forced Amos ‘n’ Andy off the air in the 1950s to the late 1990s threatened “brownout” against network television regarding the dearth of quality representations of people of color. Nevertheless, because the medium of television has the greatest ability to impact “the hearts and minds” of mainstream America, the struggle over televisual representations of Blackness, in general, and Black femininity, specifically, continues. While Julia Baker and Olivia Pope each signify that a certain amount of overcoming has taken place, they are reflections and refractions of the Black American condition through the lens of industrial conventional wisdom.

As the designer clad, Mrs. Miniver of color (when not in her beautifully tailored nurse whites), Carroll’s Julia was the kind of ideal Negro that (at least theoretically) much of middle America wouldn’t mind moving in next door. In 1968, former Beulah writer, Hal Kanter, created Julia in response to Ralph Bunche’s call for more “positive” representations of Negroes on television. By the time the series premiered, MLK and RFK had been assassinated and the visions for social justice and peace associated with the sixties were fading. Into this milieu, this series about a widowed mother and her son living happily in a fundamentally white Los Angeles, may have marked a historic moment, but it seemed to speak to a different and more optimistic time in the decade. Indeed, there was blowback from Black and white audiences: the former because Julia was fundamentally cut off from a larger Black community and the latter, particularly in Southern markets, because of the naturalized depiction of integration.

In 2012, Shonda Rhimes, the Black show runner extraordinaire, had already gained acclaim for the success of Grey’s Anatomy and its use of colorblind casting when she created Scandal. [ ((For an excellent analysis of colorblind casting, see Kristen J. Warner, “The Racial Logic of Grey’s Anatomy Shonda Rhimes and Her ‘Post-Civil Rights, Post-Feminist’ Series.” Television & New Media (2014): 1-17.))] Inspired by the crisis management expert, Judy Smith, who worked with the George H.W. Bush administration, Rhimes gave us Olivia Pope, whose “…life is full of contradictions and innumerable complexities, the likes of which we haven’t seen in black women’s lives as represented in mainstream culture.” Yet, as Mia Mask asserts, “Even in communities of color, folks are not certain whether Rhimes’ Scandal is a progressive step in an anti-essentialist direction or a regressive move backward toward a reconstituted Jezebel-in-bed-with-Massa stereotype.”[ ((Mia Mask. “A Roundtable Conversation on Scandal” The Black Scholar (2015 )Vol. 45, No. 1: 3–9.))]

Indeed, 2012 was a year of contradictions. The first Black President had been re-elected. Anti-Black racism was being exhibited with greater impunity (including overtly racist anti-Obama propaganda [ ((Bumper stickers stated “Don’t Re-Nig” and chairs were lynched. The latter was inspired by Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican National Convention, in which he spoke to an empty chair (President Obama, in absentia).))]). The killing of an unarmed Black teen in a hoodie by a neighborhood watch volunteer acted as the catalyst for a hashtag, a moment and a movement: #BlackLivesMatter (BLM).

Black Lives Matter Protest

Black Lives Matter Protest

As Alicia Garza, one of the movement’s co-founders, explained the movement was “a call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed. It was a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society.” [ ((Alicia Garza, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.” The Feminist Wire October 7,2014 http://www.thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/. Accessed December 23, 2015.))] BLM, started by three Black queer women, challenges tenets of Black exemplarism in terms of its leadership and by rejecting assimilationist impulses to succeed and survive: this is not your grandfather’s civil rights movement.

Thus, the construction of the Super African-American 2.0 is complicated in terms of socio-historical context and industrial imperatives. As I mulled over how one might characterize this new iteration, it occurred to me that the Super’s mixture of exemplary qualities had to be cut by moral ambiguity. After all, in the new millennial quality television, some moral ambiguity is required: the anti-hero is the new hero. You don’t get to Olivia by simply creating a character with greater agency than Julia, and less perfection personified than the Super African American 1.0, Clair Huxtable. Arguably, this conflicted, new exemplar is not your 20th century Super Negro. Olivia Pope, the best political “fixer” in Washington D.C., “wears the white hat” as she “handles” crises (usually for elite clientele) while also wielding power and claiming privilege. On a personal level, Olivia functions best amidst emotional turbulence and perpetual dysfunction.[ ((The unreasonable loyalty of her “the gladiators in suits, ”and the love of powerful white men, including the married President (Tony Goldwyn), defy reason as does her relationship with father (Joe Morton), who seeks to control (and protect) her, while running an all powerful secret government organization.))]

Olivia Pope

Olivia Pope

Is Olivia Super African American 2.0? Maybe. However, as the idealized and messy, the best and beautifully broken, and the privileged champion of the elite and the underdog, she is also, to use the vernacular, kind of “shady”—and there is something genuinely compelling about that. I will expand upon this in my next essay, “Olivia, Annalise and Cookie: Three Shades of Shady.”

Image Credits:
1. Two Generations of “Supers”
2. The Politics of Respectability
3. Black Lives Matter Protest
4. Olivia Pope (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

Indigeneity for Life: Bro’town and Its Stereotypes

by: Ilana Gershon / Indiana University


Brotown Creators and Characters

Bro’town creators and characters

The South Park sensibility has traveled all the way to New Zealand. Bro’town, an animated television series clearly influenced by South Park and The Simpsons, focuses on five schoolboys, four Samoan Pacific Islanders and one indigenous Maori, and their adventures in an urban working class neighborhood called Morningside. When this show first aired in September 2004, controversy quickly bubbled around it. Academics such as Melani Anae and Leonie Pihama argued that Bro’towns’ portrayals were racist and enforced widespread and unwelcome stereotypes about Pacific Islanders and Maori. Journalists began to raise this question in every interview with the show’s writers, asking whether Bro’town was racist. The writers uniformly responded by pointing out that they make fun of everyone on the show. This isn’t a terribly satisfying answer to the accusation of racism — equal opportunity stereotyping only seems to sidestep the issue. Here I want to discuss how Bro’town disavows many of the principles structuring ethnic identity in New Zealand. Through this rejection, the show provides a critique of how what it means to be ethnic ends up limiting people’s interactions.

In New Zealand, issues of indigeneity haunt every relationship the nation has with a minority group. Since the late 1970s, the indigenous Maori have been increasingly successful at persuading the New Zealand government to heed its obligations to respect and promote Maori well-being. This is widely acknowledged to involve seeing New Zealand as a bicultural nation first and foremost, and a multicultural nation only within the context of Maori’s prior demands for social justice. Practically, this means Maori are the dominant group shaping the New Zealand government’s policies towards minorities. This takes two forms. First, the gains Maori have made in gaining funding and infrastructure support are eventually also provided to other minorities. When Maori receive government support for language pre-schools or funeral leaves from work, other minority groups will have the same opportunities a few years after Maori do. Second, and what I focus on here, what it means to be a minority is largely shaped by how Maori politicians and activists have explained to a general New Zealand public what it means to be Maori. The ethnic in New Zealand is a Maori-inflected ethnic.

Maori have had to pay a price for their relative success, they have had to engage with the New Zealand nation’s politics of recognition. It is not just the state that is being called upon to recognize certain groups’ rights or histories. The groups themselves have to perform in a way that is recognizable. People constantly and repetitively demonstrate the already agreed upon markers of their ethnicity — that in acting as themselves they are also engaging with the range of stereotypical qualities linked to the identity that people attribute to them. Now that does not mean that people have to perform their stereotypes in their entirety or without parody. But to be properly recognizable, people have to engage with these stereotypes, and have to engage with these stereotypes in such a way that does not challenge the most fundamental assumption of a nation’s politics of recognition — that people possess ethnicity, race, or culture in an inalienable way. In short, ethnics are asked to perform an essentialist relationship to identity.

Brotown characters

Bro’town characters

In New Zealand, the self-mimicry that ethnic groups have learned to perform in response to the government’s “Hey you” emerges out of a historical dialogue Maori have had with the government in their efforts to change government policies. For indigenes more than any other ethnic group, radical cultural difference of a particular type frames the ways in which they can articulate their claims on the state. Indigenes are presumed to have knowledge of what traditional laws and other social practices used to be prior to colonialism or other encounters with a transformative modernity. They do not live according to these principles currently, because they are forced to navigate the treacherous demands of modern life, such as the capitalist market. Not all nations demand that ethnic identity has operates in this way. But in New Zealand, every ethnic group’s identity is framed in relationship to Maori — the indigenous functions as the ur-ethnic in this particular ethnoscape. As a consequence, when the NZ states asks — “how are you an ethnic group?” — every ethnic must respond with an explicit account of what their culture is in terms already agreed upon between Maori and the NZ government.

What is striking about Bro’town is the television series’ systematic refusal to do this. When I first started watching Bro’town, I was caught by the ways this show never addressed many of the concerns about culture that I kept hearing about while doing fieldwork with Samoan migrants. The show never refers to fa`alavelave, the Samoan ritual exchanges that everyone who goes to a Samoan church or a Samoan wedding or funeral comes in contact with. The show never discusses concerns widespread in Samoan communities that Samoan children are not learning how to be properly Samoan. Or portrays Pacific Islanders with large extended families — the only person with a complicated family is Jeff the Maori, who has eight dads and one mother — a parody of the nuclear family instead. In short, the show skirts questions about what it means to be culturally Samoan, focusing instead on the consequences of being a relatively generic brown minority with Pacific Island markers in this particular ethnoscape.

But the show does more than simply avoid answering with culture to the question of ethnic identity. The show also depicts every character as a pastiche of phrases, with characters often recycling other people’s words or sayings. This primarily takes place through code-switching — characters are constantly peppering their language with words or phrases that mark their ethnicity. Characters don’t only codeswitch ethnicity markers — they reference songs or other people’s catch-phrases. These juxtapositions happen not only at the level of words, but also in terms of who populates the series. Every Bro’town episode opens in Heaven, with Jesus portrayed as a slightly annoying teenager and God as a tolerant and wise, and very well-built Samoan father — marked especially as Samoan by the tattoos. Jesus has frustrating interactions with various historical figures, and God always has to intervene with words of wisdom. When John Lennon shows up in heaven, the point of the scene appears to be to insert as many John Lennon song lyrics as possible into an intelligible conversation. With scenes like these, Bro’town writers avoid making ethnic markers the only source of codeswitching. Ethnicity becomes merely one of many markers that the characters animate and juxtapose.

The white characters on Bro’town are an intriguing exception. They too will make pop culture references, but the other codeswitching they do is invariably about the ways they engage with racism. The white teacher of Maori language is constantly using Maori words, and then defining them immediately afterwards in an attempt to visibly accept Maori and other Pacific Islanders. Intriguingly, she is the only person on the show who codeswitches ethnic markers that are not her own. Other white characters are also defined largely in terms of how they treat people of other ethnicities. For example, the white South African teenage bully is invariably portrayed both as a sycophant and as a racist, someone who is bringing a racism fostered elsewhere to New Zealand. In this case, his racist comments are phrases that circulate from another ethnoscape.

Brotown cast

Bro’town cast

While Bro’town does not do away with stereotypes altogether, the show does provide an alternative to the ways New Zealanders construct ethnic identity. It offers a vision of ethnicity that does not rely on essentialized cultural markers. Instead, ethnicity is one marker among many that people recycle through their words and practices. In addition, the show offers a strong critique of any attempts to make ethnic relations hierarchical — no ethnicity should be privileged over any other ethnicity. Throughout the show, government representatives in particular are frequently criticized for trying to position some ethnicities as more valued than others. For example, whenever the police are called, they inevitably suggest that the boys or parents call back when any other ethnicity other than a Pacific Islander is in trouble. Capitalists too are attacked for implicitly trying to insist on ethnic hierarchies. The villians of very first episode of Bro’town were a secret wealthy white cabal who wanted to rig a quiz show for high school students. They did not want brown students to be successful, and sought to maintain an unequal ethnoscape. In short, Bro’town uses pastiche as a rebuttal to any effort to value ethnicities in relation to each other. The show insists instead that ethnicity can be but one of many ways to express differences that distinguish but in the end do not determine people’s futures or friendships.

Bro’town explores the question: is it possible to engage with stereotypes without being racist? In exploring this question, the writers insist on a distinction between stereotypes used to reinforce historically and economically grounded inequalities and stereotypes used to indicate differences without consequences. Through various plots, the writers insist that difference alone is not enough to spark violence or economic disparities. The show offers the possibility that ethnoscapes in themselves do not necessarily disadvantage people. Too fittingly, this is an animated show that uses cartoon drawings as a vehicle for arguing for the possibilities and advantages of flat ethnic relations in real life.

For futher reading:
Bro’Town’s website

Fairburn Dunlop, Peggy, and Gabrielle Sisifo Makisi, eds. Making Our Place: Growing Up PI in New Zealand. Palmerston North, NZ: Dunmoore, 2003.

Sissons, Jeffrey. First Peoples: Indigenous Cultures and Their Futures. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.

Image Credits:
1. Bro’town creators and characters
2. Bro’town characters
3. Bro’town cast

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“. Cibersociedad.net.

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
2. Cybersociology.com
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
2. Cybersociology.com
3. Lab Complex

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

Xenofobia y Mitos en la Cobertura Televisiva de la Selección Nacional Mexicana

por: Jorge Alberto Calles-Santillana / Universidad de las Américas, Puebla

(for English, click here)

La Federación Mexicana de Fútbol

La Federación Mexicana de Fútbol

En enero de 2003, Ricardo Antonio Lavolpe fue nombrado director técnico de la selección nacional de fútbol, cargo que había dejado vacante Javier Aguirre después de la Copa del Mundo de Corea-Japón. La Federación Mexicana de Fútbol (FMF) anunció el nombramiento luego de que Luiz Felipe Scolari — quien dirigió a la selección brasileña que se coronó campeona en Corea — y Hugo Sánchez — el mejor jugador mexicano de los últimos 30 años — retiraron sus candidaturas a pesar de haber participado en una primera etapa de entrevistas con los federativos. Pocos días después, Hugo Sánchez emprendió una guerra verbal en contra de Lavolpe argumentando que su carrera había producido resultados pobres. Sin embargo, el enojo de Hugo era producido por la profunda enemistad que él y Ricardo habían desarrollado a finales de los 70s, cuando jugaban, él para la Universidad Nacional y Lavolpe para el Atlante, y que profundizaron cuando, a su regreso de España, Hugo jugó para el América, bajo la dirección de Ricardo.

La cobertura deportiva, especialmente la de la selección nacional de fútbol, ha sido un área de disputa entre las dos cadenas nacionales de televisión más importantes de México, Televisa y Televisión Azteca. El fútbol es el deporte más popular de México y la transmisión de los partidos de la selección nacional genera un ambiente emocional como ninguno otro evento nacional, incluyendo la celebración de El Grito de la Independencia y el informe presidencial. Las televisoras apelan a ese contexto emocional para atraer audiencias, patrocinadores y ganar credibilidad. Televisa es la empresa dueña del equipo América y promueve fuertemente sus intereses al interior de la FMF para favorecer los negocios relacionados con su equipo. Televisión Azteca, por su parte, forma alianzas con grupos políticos opositores a Televisa al interior de la Federación. La selección nacional deviene, por tanto, en objeto de luchas políticas y simbólicas. La designación del técnico nacional, sus convocatorias y resultados han sido por muchos años, arenas de batallas entre las empresas.

Ricardo Antonio Lavolpe

Ricardo Antonio Lavolpe

El período de Ricardo Antonio Lavolpe no fue la excepción, pero tuvo sus particularidades. Lavolpe, argentino de nacimiento y naturalizado mexicano, es ampliamente reconocido en México por ser, quizás, el entrenador activo del medio con mejor conocimiento del juego, sus técnicas, tácticas y estrategias. Sin embargo, también es conocido por su personalidad ruda y su carácter voluble e irascible. En sus ataques iniciales, Hugo Sánchez destacó que la personalidad de Lavolpe era inconveniente para asumir la responsabilidad de dirigir a jóvenes que representarían al país y, sin expresiones xenófobas explícitas, dijo que había “entrenadores mexicanos más capaces que él”. A partir de allí, la época de Lavolpe se vería afectada por expresiones xenófobas, unas veces más obvias que otras, y la discusión sobre el futuro de la selección mexicana quedaría enmarcada por argumentos nacionalistas y xenófobos. Dado que el debate fue iniciado por Sánchez, la discusión reforzaría el mito del papel de los “grandes hombres” en el desarrollo de la historia. Una presuposición presente en el discurso era que la selección no progresaría liderada por un argentino. Tendría que hacerse cargo de ella un mexicano probadamente exitoso, como Hugo. Las diferencias de opinión de las cadenas televisoras no fueron claras en este caso. El discurso nacionalista fue retomado por comentaristas de ambas empresas. En ambos lados, también, algunos comentaristas — los menos — rechazaron las premisas excluyentes del debate.

Por sus resultados, el período de Lavolpe fue de claroscuros. La selección obtuvo importantes éxitos. Consiguió por primera vez Ens. Historia, por ejemplo, ganar un torneo oficial de la FIFA (Copa Confederaciones), ser clasificado como el cuarto mejor equipo del mundo y ser considerado cabeza de serie en sorteo de la Copa del Mundo de Alemania. Sin embargo, también tuvo tropiezos muy fuertes. Su pobre actuación en la primera fase del Mundial, seguida por una rápida eliminación en octavos de final. También fue incapaz de superar a los Estados Unidos en su territorio, en la fase eliminatoria hacia la Copa del Mundo.

Sin embargo, los comentaristas y aficionados se ocuparon mayoritariamente de los fracasos y prestaron poca atención a los éxitos. Tras cada fracaso, Sánchez encendía la mecha del discurso xenofobito y los programas deportivos le hacían eco. En 2005, Lavolpe convocó a Antonio Naelson “Zinha”, jugador de origen brasileño, nacionalizado mexicano, para la fase eliminatoria propiciando que el debate alcanzara su punto álgido. Comentaristas de ambas cadenas expresaron su desacuerdo y echaron a andar encuestas sobre si los jugadores nacionalizados deberían ser convocados o no. La mayoría estuvo en desacuerdo. Asimismo, los noticieros deportivos incluyeron entrevistas callejeras en las que la mayoría de los entrevistados se oponían al desplazamiento de jugadores “mexicanos” por “extranjeros.” Las secciones deportivas de las páginas electrónicas de los diarios nacionales y los blogs deportivos se cargaron de comentarios xenófobos y referencias despectivas a la nacionalidad argentina de Lavolpe. Varios entrenadores mexicanos fueron también entrevistados y sólo unos cuantos rechazaron la xenofobia, destacando Manuel Lapuente al calificar de discriminatoria a cualquier política que excluyera a jugadores nacionalizados.

Hugo Sánchez

Hugo Sánchez

Tras el fracaso de Alemania, la Federación no renovó el contrato a Lavolpe e inició un nuevo proceso para elegir director técnico. Tal como se esperaba, Hugo Sánchez fue escogido a pesar de que su historial como entrenador no es tan bueno como el de jugador y que sus últimos resultados habían sido negativos. El anuncio fue hecho de manera espectacular en ambas cadenas, las que han llamado al período “La Era de Hugo”. Los comentarios en las páginas electrónicas y los blogs están, ahora, cargados de elogios para Sánchez. La mayoría de los aficionados da por sentado que el asenso de Hugo, “el gran hombre”, repercutirá, por necesidad, de manera positiva en la futura actuación de la selección.

Este episodio ilustra cómo la cobertura del fútbol en México no está exenta de valores culturales. En una época en la que las comunidades imaginarias nacionales pierden capacidad de apelación y son sustituidas por múltiples representaciones culturales, las competencias deportivas internacionales adquieren un poder simbólico especial. En México, la cobertura de la selección nacional de fútbol se ha convertido en un evento importante para la recreación del nacionalismo. Pero, como hemos visto aquí, el potencial semántico de los discursos a través de los que la identidad nacional es construida puede conducir a las audiencias a confundir nacionalismo con chauvinismo y a desarrollar actitudes y conductas discriminatorias. En los últimos cuatro años, la designación de un director técnico argentino de nacimiento, de personalidad ruda e irascible, motivó manifestaciones xenófobas entre los miembros de la comunidad futbolística y los aficionados y reforzó mitos que por mucho tiempo han formado parte de la cultura mexicana y, particularmente, de la cultura política.

El asunto reclama la reflexión de los profesionales de los medios y la comunidad académica.

1. La Federación Mexicana de Fútbol
2. Ricardo Antonio Lavolpe
3. Hugo Sánchez

Jorge Alberto Calles-Santillana es profesor en la Universidad de las Américas, Puebla.

Favor de comentar.

by: Jorge Alberto Calles-Santillana / Universidad de las Américas, Puebla

In January, 2003, Ricardo Antonio Lavolpe was appointed as the head coach of the Mexican national soccer team, filling the vacancy left by Javier Aguirre after the World Cup in Korea-Japan. The Mexican Soccer Federation (FMF because of its initials in Spanish) made the anouncement after Luiz Felipe Scolari — who served as the head coach of Brazil, the world champion — and Hugo Sánchez — the most important and famous Mexican player in the last 30 years — withdrew their candidacies even though both had interviewed with the searching committee, in the first stage of the process. A few days later, Hugo Sánchez launched a verbal war against Lavolpe claiming his career as a coach had produced poor results. However, Sánchez’s anger stemmed from an ancient animosity he and Lavolpe had developed in the late 70s, when Hugo played for the National University and Lavolpe for Atlante, and deepened when their paths coincided again in América [a Mexican team], Sánchez as a player and Lavolpe as a coach.

The broadcasting of sports, especially of the national soccer team, has been a field of disputes between the two largest and most important television networks in Mexico, Televisa and Television Azteca. Since soccer is the most popular sport in Mexico, its broadcasting develops a unique emotional appeal as no other national event, including the celebration of El Grito de la Independencia and the annual presidential speech on the state of the nation. Both networks take advantage of that emotional environment to attract audiences, sponsors, and build credibility. Televisa owns América, one of the most popular teams in the national league, and promotes its interests within the FMF in order to propel its América-centered bisinesses. Television Azteca, on the other hand, aligns with political groups that oppose Televisa within the Federation. The national soccer team becomes, consequently, an issue for political and symbolic struggles. The selection of the head coach, his lists of players called to the team, and the team’s results have been, for a long time, a field of war for both networks.

Ricardo Antonio Lavolpe’s tenure was not an exception, but had its particularities. Lavolpe, widely recognized in Mexico as the active coach who knows the game the best, its techniques, tactics, and strategies, is an Argentinean-born and naturalized Mexican. However, he is also well known by his rude personality and his volatile and irascible temper. In his first verbal bursts, Hugo Sánchez evaluated Lavolpe’s pesonality as non-suitable to the responsibility to lead a group of young people who would represent their country and, without explicit xenophobic remarks, emphazised that “we have plenty of Mexican coaches better than him.” From that on, Lavolpe’s tenure would be affected by xenophobic comments, some times more explicit than others, and the discussion regarding the future of the Mexican soccer team and league would be framed by patriotic and xenophobic arguments.

Since Sánchez kicked the debate off, the myth of the role of the “great men” in the making of history would be underscored throughout the discussion. An important assumption was that the national team would not progress under the leadership of an Argentinean. A Mexican with a successful track record, like Hugo Sánchez, should take over. The differences of opinion between the two networks were not neat in this particular case. The nationalist discourse was taken up by commentors in both institutions. Some commentors in both networks — a minority — would reject the excluding premises of the discussion.

Because of its results, Lavolpe’s tenure was characterized by ups and downs. The team obtained great victories and was able, for the first time in its history, to win an official FIFA-organized international tournament, to be ranked as the fourth best team in the World, and to deserve a number one-seed in the 2006 World Cup lottery. However, it also had remarkable failures. A poor performance in the first round of the World Cup, followed by a quick elimination in the second round, was the most relevant of them. In addition, Lavolpe’s team was not able to defeat the United States in its territory in the qualifying process to the World Cup.

However, the networks’ commentors and fans focused mostly on the failures and ignored the successes. After every bad result, Sánchez relit the wick of the xenophobic discourse and the television sports programs would echo him. In 2005, during the qualifying process, Lavolpe called to the team Antonio Naelson, “Zinha,” a Brazilian-born player who had naturalized as Mexican, escalating the discussion up to its pick. Commentors in both networks disapproved of Lavolpe’s decision and launched surveys on whether the naturalized players should be called to play for the national team. Most of the people disagreed. Sports newscasts included a number of on-the-street interviews where the majority of people did not accept that “foreign” players displaced “Mexican” ones. Sport sections in the websites of national newspapers and sports blogs were loaded with xenophobic remarks and derogatory references to Lavolpe’s Argentiness. A number of Mexican coaches were also interviewed and just a few rejected the xenophobyc discourse. Among them, Manuel Lapuente, head coach of América at that moment, was the most explicit. He said that any policy excluding naturalized players was discriminatory.

After the failure of the team in Germany, FMF did not renew Lavolpe’s contract and began a new search for a head coach. As expected, Hugo Sánchez was selected even though his career as coach does not equal his career as a player and his last results were really negative. Both networks made the announcement in a spectacular fashion. They have called this new period as “Hugo’s Age.” Now, websites and sports blogs have plenty of praised comments on Sánchez. Most of the fans take for granted that the appointment of Hugo, “a great man,” will affect positively the future performance of the national team.

This episode illustrates that soccer television broadcasting is not exempt from carrying cultural values. In an age when national imagined communities are losing appeal and are substituted by a number of particular cultural representations, the symbolic power of international sports competitions increases. In Mexico, the coverage of the national soccer team has become an important event for the display and reinforcement of nationalism. But, as illustrated, the semantic potential of the discourses that shape the national identity can drive the audiences to conflate nationalism with chauvinism and develop discriminatory attitudes and conducts. During the last four years, the appointment in Mexico of an Argentinean-born head coach, with a rude and irascible personality, prompted xenophobic bursts from members of the Mexican soccer community and fans as well, and reinforced myths that for long time have been part of the Mexican culture and, particularly, the political culture.

This phenomenon deserves attention by both media professionals and the academic community.

Image Credits: (located in primary Spanish text)
1. The Mexican Soccer Federation
2. Ricardo Antonio Lavolpe
3. Hugo Sánchez

Autor: Jorge Alberto Calles-Santillana is a professor at the University of the Americas, Puebla.

Everybody Hates Chris and the (Overdue) Return of the Working-Class Sitcom

by: Tim Gibson / George Mason University

Everybody Hates Chris

Everybody Hates Chris

One of the best things I’ve seen on television recently was shot from the perspective of a garbage can. This particular shot comes in the middle of the pilot episode of Everybody Hates Chris, a semi-autobiographical sitcom that chronicles the middle-school experiences of comedian Chris Rock in early 1980s Brooklyn.

In the pilot, we learn the basic premises of EHC. It is 1982. The Rock family has just moved out of the projects and into their new home—a two-level apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Young Chris is excited about the move and the adolescent adventures that await him now that he’s turned thirteen. His excitement vanishes, however, when his mother informs him that he’ll be taking two buses everyday to become the only black student at Corleone Middle School—all the way out in white working-class Brooklyn Beach.

In this way, two social spaces generate most of the show’s comic energy. Class issues are largely explored in Chris’s home life, while the show’s writers use Chris’s travails at Corleone to foreground questions of race.

This brings us to the garbage can. Early in the show, we learn that Julius Rock, Chris’s father, works two jobs and counts every penny. Julius, it turns out, has a particular talent for knowing the cost of everything. When Chris goes to sleep, Julius tells him, “unplug that clock, boy. You can’t tell time while you sleep. That’s two cents an hour.” When the kids knock over a glass at breakfast, Julius says, “that’s 49 cent of spilled milk dripping all over my table. Somebody better drink that!” And when someone tosses a chicken leg into the garbage, we see Julius peer over the rim, grab it, and exclaim, with a pained look on his face, “that’s a dollar nine cent in the trash!”

To be sure, as a former early 1980s middle-schooler myself, I enjoy the retro references to Atari, velour shirts, and Prince’s Purple Rain. But what I like most about EHC is how it foregrounds the experience of class inequality. Unlike other blue-collar comedies (e.g., According to Jim, Still Standing and King of Queens) which signify their characters’ working-class status via lifestyle choices (i.e., wearing Harley shirts, drinking beer, listening to Aerosmith, etc.), EHC generates much of its comedy directly from the class-based experience of struggling paycheck to paycheck and never having enough to pay the bills.

And so, in one episode, we see Julius buying the family’s appliances from Risky, the neighborhood fence, because the department store is simply out of reach. In another, Julius and Rochelle (Chris’s mother) agree to give up their luxuries (his lottery tickets and her chocolate turtles) in order to pay the gas bill. Things go haywire, however, when Rochelle (now reduced to getting her sugar fix from pancake syrup) catches Julius sneaking out to play the Pick 5.

And during one dinner, when Chris finally gets up the courage to ask for an allowance, Julius delivers a lecture familiar to every working-class kid. “Allowance? I allow you to sleep at night. I allow you to eat them potatoes. I allow you to use my lights…Why should I give you an allowance, when I already pay for everything you do?!”

Terry Crews as Julius Rock

Terry Crews as Julius Rock

What makes this focus on class all the more remarkable is that it comes to us in the form of a so-called “black sitcom.” As Timothy Havens notes in his study of the global television trade, international buyers looking to pick up American sitcoms strongly prefer “universal” to “ethnic” comedies (their words, not Havens’). As Havens quickly makes clear, however, the term “universal” is essentially code for white, middle-class, family-focused shows of the Home Improvement variety.

Thus, in the international TV marketplace, a white, middle-class experience becomes universalized as something that will appeal to “everyone.” Steeped in this discourse of whiteness, distributors reflexively brand as “too ethnic” any shows that deviate from this norm, including especially sitcoms that, as Havens writes, “incorporate such features as African American dialect, hip-hop culture…racial politics, and working-class…settings.”

Given the important role played by international sales in the profitability of American television programs, this hostile distribution environment makes it less likely that shows with African-American casts will be produced in the first place.

The breakthrough success of The Cosby Show in the 1980s, of course, pointed a way out of this particular cultural and commercial box.

As Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis note, Cosby struck an implicit bargain with white audiences in the Reagan era. In exchange for white viewers inviting the Huxtables into their homes, the show’s producers would banish explicit references to the politics of race and keep the narratives focused on “universal” family themes. You’ve seen the show. Theo gets a “D” in math and receives a stern lecture from Cliff. Cliff’s attempt to cook dinner for the family ends in disaster. A slumber party for Rudy gets hilariously out of hand.

But, equally importantly, because white audiences have historically associated poverty with “blackness” and coded middle-class status as “white,” The Cosby Show placed these family-friendly stories in a context dripping with wealth and class privilege. In the end, this complex interpenetration of class and race in the dominant cultural imaginary allowed many white viewers (who might otherwise have been reluctant to watch a “black sitcom”) to read the Huxtables—an upscale African-American family focused on the peccadilloes of everyday life—as “white” and therefore “just like us.”

The commercial fortunes of The Cosby Show have thus left an ambiguous legacy. Its path-breaking success has undoubtedly provided subsequent producers of African-American sitcoms with rhetorical ammunition to take into the pitch room (“Cosby made $600 million in its first year of syndication!”). In an industry built on the endless repetition of past success, this is no small contribution.

Yet the middle-class, family-focused formula for African-American sitcoms—the model that signifies “universality” to international distributors and buyers—has also proven to be an ideological straight-jacket. To get on the air, in short, class must be dismissed. Thus, shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Bernie Mac Show, and My Wife and Kids reproduce the upscale Cosby formula in exacting detail. Even programs like Girlfriends—shows that jettison family-focused themes for a more hip and youthful sensibility—nonetheless take great pains to place characters into high-end, even lavish, settings.

This raises the question of how EHC got on the air in the first place. Undoubtedly, the star power of Chris Rock, the show’s co-creator and narrator, played a central role. This said, I would love to know more about exactly how artists like Chris Rock draw upon their accumulation of symbolic capital—including their professional prestige, their network of connections, and their track record of commercial success—in order to overcome the ideological limitations of the industry’s commercial “common sense”

Indeed, perhaps this is a question that future political-economic work in television studies could productively explore. If we knew more about the conditions in which such accumulations of symbolic and social capital can be strategically applied to open new ideological spaces in the industry, we could create cultural policies that encourage this process.

In the meantime, I’m rooting for the future success of EHC. Admittedly, I’ve only seen the first season DVDs, so disappointments may be waiting. Still, for placing the struggles of working families at the center of its narratives, and for presenting the working-class experience as more than a matter of consumer choices, EHC has earned a valued place in my Netflix queue.

Chris Rock and Tyler James Williams

Chris Rock and Tyler James Williams

Timothy Havens, “‘It’s Still a White World Out There’: The Interplay of Culture and Economics in International Television Trade,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 19, no. 4 (December 2002): 387.
Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis, Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992).
The $600 million revenue figure came from Yahoo.

Image Credits:
1. Everybody Hates Chris
2. Terry Crews as Julius Rock
3. Chris Rock and Tyler James Williams

Please feel free to comment.

Why Do I Love Television So Very Much?

by: Alan McKee / Queensland University of Technology

Federico Fellini 8 1/2

Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2

[This document is an RFC. The RFC–Request For Comment–was the mode by which information was shared in the design of the Internet. Designers put out proposals, not claiming that they were the absolute truth, but offering them as suggestions, for others to agree, disagree, or use to think with. The idea appeals to me as a model for discussion in the humanities. By disseminating my own way of seeing culture as an RFC, I can avoid both arrogant assertions that this is the truth about a medium on the one hand; and a solipsistic ‘anything goes’ attitude on the other. I’m not telling people that this is the truth; I’m asking if anybody else thinks the same way, or finds this a useful approach. If so, let’s get together and agree that this is how we see the world.]

Why is television my favourite medium? Moreso than cinema, radio, even than books? An evening on the couch, mug of tea in my hand and the TV guide in front of me, favourite programs marked in yellow highlighter … This I love more than anything.

Why is that?

Can I find any insight in my relationship with other cultural forms? With art, say? Why does art make me so angry, television so joyful? Why is it, for example, that my experiences of art make me want to sign a petition calling for all its public funding to be cut?

No, that’s not quite true. Not all art makes me angry. After all, I like The Simpsons and Buffyand The Amazing Race, all of which are clearly art. Rather, it’s Art that upsets me – the institutions of turning beautiful things in culture (The Simpsons, Buffy, The Amazing Race) into something that must be regarded with reverence. The museums and galleries and Art magazines, university courses on Art Theory and people who call themselves ‘Artists’ as though that were an identity – these are what upset me. They make me want to scream.

Why is that?

The cast of Battlestar Galactica

The cast of Battlestar Galactica

I try so hard not to be prejudiced. I try to approach Art with an open mind. But I find, over and over again, that lovers of Art resist explaining their affection in terms of their relationship with their love object. They won’t simply say, I love this, this moves me, this excites me, this makes my life better – the kinds of insights that show a person’s humanity and promote fellow feeling. Rather, so often, in telling me about their passions they want to frame them in terms of their own superiority. Not only do they want to say, ‘I love this’, but also – ‘and if you don’t love this, then there is something wrong with you’. Not only, ‘This moves me’, but also, ‘and it moves me in a way that entertainment doesn’t move you’. Not only ‘This makes my life better’, but also, ‘If your life doesn’t have this in it, your life is less worthwhile than mine’. And when I say, but Big Brother moves me in the same way as Fellini moves you, I have had Art lovers tell me that it doesn’t. That there is no way that my response to that text could possibly be as subtle, as profound, as meaningful as is theirs to 8½. When I tell them that Battlestar Galactica excites me just as much as Barbara Hammer’s films do them, they disagree. They tell me that I’m wrong. That I don’t know true sublimity. As though they have lived inside both of our heads, and they know from comparison that their sensibilities are more profound than mine. Which makes me want to swear.

Watching television makes me a better person. It reinforces my best qualities. When I’m watching television I’m genuinely interested in the lives it shows me and the ways that are different from mine. I am joyful in the encounters it offers with difference. Because television doesn’t make Art’s claims that those who have different pleasures are inferior. Television is, as John Hartley puts it so well, the ultimate ‘cross-demographic’ medium, the host of ‘the smiling professions’. Television doesn’t want to put anybody offside. Television wants to bring everybody into the audience, smiling. Come in, sit down, laugh with me (except, of course, for Fox News. That’s an exception. It doesn’t represent television). The Simpsons may, quite rightly, mock intellectuals who think they are superior to everyone else (‘But you can’t hate me!’, yells Homer after his retreating friends, when the removal of a crayon from his brain boosts his IQ to genius levels and renders him an unbearable snob: ‘I’m your better!’); but it also includes jokes that only Art lovers will get (Thomas Pynchon appears in the cartoon, but only with a paper bag over his head). It speaks to different people, in different ways, at the same time. Television likes it audience, and flatters its viewers that their opinions matter – tell us what you think, says television, performing the belief that democracy is true and that what the individual thinks is important. And for television, it is true. It is a generous, warm, inviting, kind medium–defined by its desire to reach out and draw communities together. It is the ultimately civilized medium in that sense.

Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons

Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons

Television is civilized. But Art isn’t. If television is the natural home of the smiling professions, then Art is the world of the scowling professions. If television flatters its audience, then Art shouts at us. It tells me that I’m stupid, that I’m vulgar, that I’m not as good as Art lovers. That I have no soul and no insight and that therefore my opinions and views and loves and passions don’t matter. That I should leave the business of running culture–and, in an ideal world, politics and the public sphere as well–to my betters. To the poets and Artists who hate me and who will tell me what is good for me and what I am allowed to consume. All the while frowning and saying ‘should’ and waving their fingers at me angrily. Art–as I have experienced it in my years of study and social interaction with Art lovers–is about divisions, drawing lines in the sand–here is Art, here is not–and telling people that they are stupid and shallow and insensitive if they don’t like the same things as the Art lovers do. Art is, in this sense, barbaric. It’s full of hatred and it’s looking for a fight. It does not show us the best of ourselves. It shows us the worst. It makes me angry–pouring out expletives and invective in a way that lowers me as a person. Art brings me down to its own level. It makes me no better than itself.

While television shows us love and joy and intimacy and domestic lives and people listening to others.

Which may be at least one reason that I love television so very, very much.

Image Credits:
1. Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2
2. The cast of Battlestar Galactica
3. Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons

Please feel free to comment.

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.

Living Life in TiVo Time


Like most people, it usually bugs me when I am wrong. However, this time I draw some comfort from what I now think may have been an erroneous conclusion. You see, I was afraid that the world was slipping mindlessly into boorishness. Perhaps because I have now lived in the South for a quarter of a century, I set significant store by manners. You really do open doors for others male or female. You say “please” and “thank you” always. Someone may set every nerve in your body on edge, bless their heart, but you smile and ask how they are. I am not, however, foolish enough to believe that my adopted region of the country is any less intolerant than the rest of America. But here in North Carolina, when regrettable human inclinations do rear their ugly heads, they are usually expressed far more gently and with greater grace than I was accustomed to in my native Midwest, the brusque environs of the Northeast, or the rustic West. The New South gilds the rank lily of social discord.

So I was distressed to note, over the last few years, what seemed to be a decline in that tradition of gentility. I teach a large undergraduate class in Communication and Technology about two hundred students. At the beginning of each semester we talk about the fact that we don’t have much time together, and that disruptive behavior deprives their classmates of the opportunity to absorb content that is, a) of important to their education and will, b) in their eyes, more importantly, be on the test. I tell them if they cannot resist the urge to chat among themselves to just not come to class. I don’t want them there. It is a strategy that drops attendance, but increases the quality of my interaction with the students who show up ready to shut up and pay attention. This semester there seems to be a heightened disconnect between those instructions and class behavior. They come, but still chat among themselves with no semblance of restraint, let alone shame or remorse. They do not see their behavior as aberrant.

“Rude, foolish undergraduates,” I thought. And then I went to my graduate class. Seventeen students, most over thirty years old, most employed, adults, you know what I mean? Even in that group there are several that see nothing wrong with striking up “parallel conversations” during class. “Very weird,” I thought. And then I went to a faculty meeting — twenty or so PhDs, all of whom are deeply invested in the business being conducted. But they, too, feel entitled to address issues of concern with the colleague sitting next to them, regardless of whom actually “has the floor.” “What the hell is going on!?” I thought, “Is civility dead?”

Then I realized it may have nothing to do with manners, it is all about TiVo, technology, and the fracturing of interpersonal time and space. Think about it. TiVo is not about the digital recording of video. That is only part of it. TiVo commercials tell us that TiVo is all about being able to “pause live TV.” We can be watching something unfolding “in real life,” — a hurricane striking the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana, or the Hurricanes playing hockey — and then a parallel real life” intrudes. Your spouse needs help, a child cries, the dog scratches at the door, the phone rings, whatever. No problem, you hit a button and the “live event” on the TV screen freezes. You then tend to the more immediate reality. Afterwards you return to the screen, hit a button, and resume the frozen reality.

It is an increasingly common scenario with very uncommon implications. The notion of the “here and now,” that usually seems so solid, just got a bit strange. The question of “Which ‘real life’ do you mean?” is no longer the sole property of philosophers or absurdist playwrights, it has wiggled its way into our living rooms and our classrooms, into the coffee shop and the faculty meeting.

Here is what I think is happening. Reality now flows around us in a variety of different streams. There is the physical reality of my location and the events unfolding in that location, but there are also the parallel realities outside that location that are now in accessible electronically, digitally. My computer, my cell phone, my pda, my Blackberry, my iPod, my Bluetooth prosthesis, all let me select a preferred experience from among those intertwining realities. And TiVo goes one step further, letting me choose which time to designate as “live.”

The power to select from a rack of potential realities makes the designation of “here and now” an idiosyncratic option. I choose my reality on the fly, and utilize the communication protocols appropriate to that choice. The results are not always polite. When varying individual realities share the same physical space there is inevitable friction.

Ipod Guy

Ipod Guy

Consider the person standing next to you at the metro stop who has chosen the reality of their hands-free, ear-bud cell phone. He cradles his hands in his face moaning, “Baby, how can you say that? She means nothing to me.” You sidle down the platform a bit and sit beside a suit enmeshed in Blackberry. Her fingers flicker over tiny keys while she mutters phrases that sound, at the very least, confrontational — in a language you do not understand. You move again, and find yourself the unwilling partner of an iPodded youngster, moving in what you can only hope is sympathetic rhythm to the music in his head. And, as Sonny and Cher asserted decades ago, the beat goes on.

It is, I believe, this phenomenon of the unthinking selection of incompatible social realities that results in what I initially interpreted as rude and boorish behavior — in my classes and among my peers. The problem, of course, is that rude and boorish behavior is always a matter of perception. If your behavior is perceived by those in your immediate physical environment as being rude and boorish, then it is — no matter what your intention — still rude and boorish.

Social norms and mores, of which manners are an irrefutable part, have one primary function in human society — to smooth the inevitable conflict between personal inclinations and the comfort of the group. The current 21st century technology-enabled environment gives us unparalleled personal power to pick and choose the reality of the moment. It advantages the unique reality of the individual. It inclines me to “suit myself.” That invites conflict with the more social, group-centered norms of the 20th century — norms that emphasize social cohesion and personal restraint, norms with which most folks over 30 were socialized. The resultant friction is both uncomfortable and unnecessary.

What we need is a conscious reconfiguration of communicative etiquette for the 21st century. Increasingly we focus on the mechanical efficiency of digital communication systems, but at the expense of human sensibilities. We need a set of guidelines for respectful interactive behavior in an increasingly complex — from both an existential and a technological perspective — world. We need new social conventions that will simultaneously acknowledge and employ the increasing communicative power of our interactive environment, while retaining the grace of softer times. I do not know what that should look like, but I strongly advocate one guideline: courtesy. Acceptable communication in the 21st century, mode notwithstanding, should attend to the comfort of the other, every bit as much as it champions the choices and expressions of the individual.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Image Credits:

1. TiVo

2. Ipod Guy

Please feel free to comment.

The Los Angeles Misanthrope

A Cover of Entertainment Weekly

A Cover of Entertainment Weekly

In my book, Engaging Film Criticism, I argue for the importance of academic critics intervening into the reception of films while they are still being attended to by the general population. One of the terrific things about on-line publication is that it allows for such interventions, since the normal channels of refereed academic publication are simply too slow to allow for it. Of course, popular film reviewing has the benefit of such contemporaneous intervention, but its function is to serve taste culture — will Roger Ebert’s readership find spending money on a particular film worthwhile — rather than to generate knowledge and understanding.

Of course, when it comes to television, there is not nearly so well developed a critical apparatus. Popular film reviews are ubiquitous, while television reviewing is limited to a few newspapers. Entertainment Weekly is really the only major popular publication that treats television as thoroughly as film. However, the same problems with academic interventions into the critical landscape of television exist as they do with scholarly film reviewing. Academic journal articles and books on television take far too long to intervene into discussions about the potential meanings of shows while people are watching them with enthusiasm. While there are websites, like Television Without Pity, which analyze each new episode of favorite shows, such as The Simpsons, the discourse on these sites is not necessarily bound by the rigor of scholarly analysis. This is not to say that the reception of shows on these web sites is without value; on the contrary, these sites provide tremendously valuable data about the reception of television, data which any film reception studies scholar would drool over were it available for, say, the 1930s films of Frank Capra.

As with film reviewing, we need a middle-ground institutional space where today’s television shows are discussed using the historical and theoretical tools of academic media studies. I think the success of FLOW will lie in its ability to produce such middle-ground criticism about shows that are usually too new to be engaged by academics at the time when such interventions would actually matter. The extensive thread that has developed in response to Jason Mitell’s two articles about Lost is, I think, a very encouraging sign about the success FLOW is having. I have been sharing these discussions with my friends outside of the academic circuit, people who love to watch and talk about Lost with me. If I were to have these conversations with these friends three years from now, when the academic articles on Lost will finally start circulating beyond the ephemerality of academic conference papers, these interventions would be far too late.

It strikes me that one of the repercussions of the academic delay in writing about television is an emphasis on the overall structure of the show rather than the individual episodes through which we actually encounter it, and about which the internet fans predominantly write. I think we’ll see a number of academic studies of Six Feet Under, for example, now that the series finale has aired, and that its entirety can be assessed. At the very least, the academic will wait for the end of a season in order to speculate on the structure of the show beyond the individual episode. For example, Mittell’s articles about Lost come after the season one finale, anticipating the premiere of season two. I am not arguing against either seeing the entire series as a complete text, nor the segmentation of television into seasons. However, I think there is another aspect of television’s segmentation and flow that can be attended to if we take our reception of television shows at their most discrete level, that of the individual episode. In order to pursue what can be gained by doing so, I want to do a close textual reading of the most recent episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, “The Bowtie,” which aired this past Sunday, October 2, 2005. I think Curb Your Enthusiasm is one of the most important sitcoms ever on television. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld created in Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-1998) a highly literate version of George Etherege’s The Man of Mode (1676), a comic critique of “civilized” social relations. In his new show on HBO, David strips his earlier work of its network-induced hedges, producing the boldest examination of social dysfunction since Moliere’s The Misanthrope (1666). If I were to write the typical academic analysis of the show, that is, do what I am trained to, I would select out some of my favorite episodes and piece together an argument about the show’s overarching meaning. For example, I think the show is boldest when it tackles religion in contemporary American social life. This would lead me to the analysis of an episode like “The Baptism” (aired 11/ 18/2001) where Larry stops the conversion from Judaism to Christianity of his potential brother-in-law, much to the chagrin of his wife Cheryl’s Christian family.

Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm

Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm

Academics always cheat in this way, stacking their argument with the best possible textual evidence of their position. Instead, I propose that we put our money where our mouth is and see if our methods can be brought to bear on more randomly selected material. When I teach film criticism, for example, I have students select the film that they want to see at the movie theatre over the weekend. My challenge is to then go to the film cold, select academic reading material to illuminate it, and teach that material to the students the next week. I intend my analysis of “The Bowtie” in this “put up or shut up” spirit.

“The Bowtie” begins with Larry sitting in the office of Omar Jones (played by Mekhi Phifer), a private investigator. In the season opener, “The Larry David Sandwich” (aired 9/25/05), Larry thinks he heard his father, while lying sedated in the hospital, whisper that Larry was adopted. Larry desperately wants to know if this is true, so that, as in Freud’s “Family Romance” fantasy, he can disavow his dysfunctional parents. However, Omar is a Black Muslim, and only works for “his community.” Larry comically suggests that he could volunteer calling out bingo numbers for this community, but Omar is unconvinced: “Bingo is a distraction.”

Larry then borrows Omar’s key to the restroom in his building. There, Larry has an encounter with a man in a wheelchair. Like the best of Seinfeld episodes, Larry’s encounters will all build nuance around this theme of “community,” finally culminating in an ending scene which clearly states the show’s liberal political position. In the bathroom, the man in the wheelchair chides Larry for using “his stall,” the larger one equipped with accessibility railings. Larry tries to defend himself, arguing that “I haven’t seen a handicapped person in the bathroom, maybe ever.” After a fight about the politically correct term for the man’s condition, “handicapped or disabled,” the man wheels himself into the stall, muttering that Larry is “a douche bag.”

In yet another encounter with members of a “community,” Larry and his agent, Jeff, walk through a parking lot where they discover a man walking away from his car, parked in a handicapped spot. Larry confronts the man, “What’s with the walking?” to which the man replies, stuttering, arguing that his disability makes it appropriate for him to park in the handicapped spot. Larry loses this encounter as badly as with the man in the wheelchair: this man stutters that Larry is a “fucking prick.”

Once Larry and Jeff arrive at the restaurant, Jodi Funkhouser (played by Blossom’s Mayim Bialik), treats him very nicely, rudely ignoring Jeff. When Jeff asks Larry the reason for the differential treatment, Larry explains that “The word got out that I am a friend o’ lesbians,” that they love him “moreso than any other community, including Jews.” However, Larry soon spoils this goodwill, when Jodi’s father, Marty, explains that she is now engaged to a man. Larry responds too enthusiastically to this news, causing the lesbians of Los Angeles to scorn him publicly.

In the meantime, Larry has picked out a dog at the pound. Cheryl’s African-American friend, Wanda, comes over to their apartment to see the dog. When the dog barks aggressively at Wanda and a black workman, but not at Cheryl, Larry, or the white workman, Wanda tells Larry that he owns a racist dog. Wanda hilariously observes that Larry has chosen a perfect name, Sheriff, for “a Klan dog.”

Things continue to deteriorate for Larry’s reputation with the episode’s various “communities.” At a dinner party, a table of African-American people is being boisterous. When Larry asks them to be quiet so that he can order his food, he is ignored and ridiculed. One of the men at the table accuses Larry of being a racist because of his dog. When Larry inquires as to how the man knows about the dog, he responds, “Because we talk, Larry.” Here the episode sets up its comic critique of identity politics, building a paranoid sense of Otherness in which the members of these “communities” really are in direct contact, conspiring against Larry. A bit later, Omar calls Larry, chiding him for his behavior at the banquet, having gained a direct report from the people at the table because: “We talk, Mr. David, we talk.”

However, in a pastiche of a Seinfeld episode, the narrative of “The Bowtie” redeems Larry in the eyes of the “communities.” As Larry is talking to Jodi’s new fiance Dan, he prattles on about not understanding women’s “equipment,” arguing how brave Dan is for not being intimidated by Jodi having had sex with women. “That whole area is mysterious to me,” Larry argues, directly replicating a famous conversation between Jerry and George on the earlier show. When Larry meets Jeff the next day for lunch at a restaurant apparently staffed and attended by the lesbian community, Larry is offered dessert “on the house.” Jeff observes, “You, my friend, are back in the lesbian busom.” Larry meets his friend Rosie O’Donnell on the street, who stood up for him “at the meeting” of Los Angeles lesbians. Rosie informs Larry that now “all lesbians love you” because he caused Jodi to be “back on the team,” again replicating the sports metaphor used by Jerry and George on Seinfeld to absurdly describe heterosexuality and homosexuality as opposing sides on a baseball field.

The rest of the episode is devoted to Larry’s victory over the communities’ conspiracies against him. Larry enters the bathroom again in Omar’s office building. Having learned his lesson, he waits to use the regular stall, even though the handicapped one is free. However, when the same man in the wheelchair emerges from the regular stall, Larry takes the moral upper-hand and chides him. When the man explains that the “normal” stall was free, so he used it, Larry turns the tables on his politically correct language use: “We don’t like to be referred to as normal. We’re able-bodied.”

The show ends with a bravura statement of its liberal political position and its critique of radical identity politics. After having agreed to take Larry’s adoption case, Omar emerges out of his building to retrieve his bathroom key, which Larry keeps forgetting to return. When Larry sees Omar rushing toward his dog, he is petrified that the racist canine will ruin his goodwill with the Muslim private detective. However, Omar pets Sheriff, who is gentle. The episode ends with the dog attacking Rosie O’Donnell instead! The scene itself has already made its point against the atomization of social life into a set of restrictive communities by emphasizing that the assumption of the dog’s ability to replicate human racism was built on circumstantial evidence. But even more interesting is that this entire ending scene takes place in front of what film scholar Tom Conley, invoking Derrida, calls a written rebus, a piece of writing inside the image which provides the allegorical key to its meaning. In this case, the rebus is the name of a food vending cart in the background of the image, “Selma’s.” Here the show invokes the liberal Civil Rights movement; the fight in Selma, Alabama being one of its greatest struggles-against the bowtie-wearing black Muslim, Louis Farrakhan, whom Omar clearly parodies. The show argues for the value of liberalism over the radical and false separation of people into monotheistic identity categories. The dog, alas, has more sense than the people. Whatever Sheriff’s behavior at Larry’s apartment, on the street, he has the good sense to bark at Rosie O’Donnell, the giver of craptacularly bad talk shows, over Mekhi Phifer, a wonderful actor; as acerbic, and correct, a comment as Curb Your Enthusiasm has ever made.

Image Credits:

1. A Cover of Entertainment Weekly

2. Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm

Please feel free to comment.