Spoilsport: Political Training and Distraction on the Field and in the Stands

Below please find my final term paper for my Spring 2012 media theory class called Media Studies: Ideas, taught by Barry Salmon at The New School.

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Spoilsport: Political Training and Distraction on the Field and in the Stands

I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? I mean, I don’t know anybody on the team you know? …They have nothing to do with me, I mean, why am I cheering for my team? …It doesn’t make any sense. 

– Noam Chomsky, in Manufacturing Consent

            In America, the government and large corporations spend a significant amount of time and money each year to support the sports industry.  There is a huge profit to be made by these endeavors.  However, for these leaders of free market capitalism, there are more than just financial benefits to be reaped from the continued success of the sports industry.  The encouragement of participation in and watching of sports can be seen as a means to distract citizens from their political powerlessness and social class as well as to train them for their competitive lives spent in submission to authority.  While these political benefits may not be as overt and direct as money in the bank, they are still very much present and powerful as citizens engage in the American sporting life.

As Noam Chomsky notes in the documentary Manufacturing Consent, there are indeed additional uses for the success of sports beyond the fact that we as humans enjoy physical play, competition, and community-building.  “If you look closely at these things,” he says, “I think, typically, they do have functions and that’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.”  Corporate sponsorship is integral to the industry as it allows for these events to occur and for the media to cover them, which further cultivates interest.[i]  Sponsorship also puts a good taste in the mouth of the viewers, as they will associate their favorite activity with a brand.[ii]  The government provides licenses to companies and leagues for sporting events to occur and may provide subsidies or sponsorships to the sports industry in various ways.

Although on the surface kicking a ball into a net may appear to be an escape from the rat race, the whole of the sports industry can be seen as serving an agenda proliferated by large corporations and the government.  In this sense, the sports industry serves a similar purpose to what Chomsky and Edward Herman say of the mass media, “It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society.”[iii]  When we interpret sports under this model of propaganda, we are accepting a focus on the “inequality of wealth and power” as well as the symbiotic relationships between large corporations, the mass media, and the government.[iv] From the World Cup to the Little League World Series, the government and companies take advantage of our love of the game.

The organizations, which are led by very wealthy members of society, have an interest in keeping things the way they are – that is, they prefer to stay wealthy.[v]  Wealth is not just ensured by selling soft drinks and sporting equipment to the masses, but also by influencing and shaping citizens’ thoughts and behavior.   As Adorno and Horkheimer relay in “The Concept of Enlightenment,” “The countless agencies of mass production and its culture impress standardized behavior on the individual as the only natural, decent, and rational one.”[vi]  Standardized behavior amongst citizens allows for ease of control for those in power.  But, how could watching the game – something so simple, something that just feels “good” – be so tainted?

According to Louis Kampf in his article “A Course on Spectator Sports,” the origin of organized competitive sports started in the United States during the boom of the industrial revolution, “By 1850 it had become a diversion for the urban masses.”[vii]  From the beginning, organized sports were used to occupy citizens’ time and expend energy that could otherwise be spent “causing trouble,” whether politically or otherwise, in the eyes of those in power.[viii]  In the Enlightened State in which we very much believe ourselves to live, “anything which does not conform to the standard of calculability and utility must be viewed with suspicion.”[ix]  Thus, sports are a way to guide the behavior of the masses into a manageable state while distracting them from thinking about things such as the quality of their live and the state of affairs in the nation.  If someone is kept otherwise occupied during the day at work and at night during his “leisure” hours, he does not have time to think about his political position and he is less likely to organize in discontent amongst others.

Theorists such as Chomsky have noticed a great deal of brainpower, focus, and creativity dedicated by citizens to fandom of professional sports teams.  People are allowed to develop a confidence-boosting sense of expertise, and they even have the ability to argue about the happenings of the games with the coaches via such venues as talk radio and the Internet.  Chomsky laments: “If only… people would do the same with their politicians, if only they’d stand up to their ‘commander-in-chief’ when he lies to them, or if they’d call their ‘leaders’ when the strategy they are using is leading to obvious failure.”[x]  The presumption is that there is no time to write one’s Congressman while one is busy filling out one’s March Madness office pool.  Although there may not be a group of rich white men conspiring about the MLB while sitting somewhere high up on a hill in a swanky office, the dominant culture that has developed as a result of the capitalist economic system and this distraction is supported whole-heartedly.  In “The Culture Industry,” written by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the reader is faced with the argument that, no matter what, the monopolistic nature of our capitalist society dictates that, “all mass culture. . . is identical,”[xi] which includes everything from Britney Spears selling Pepsi to Derek Jeter hitting another homerun to children playing for a church’s Little Tots Basketball League.  Adorno and Horkheimer would say that sports are just another, “sensitive instrument of social control.”[xii]

Having a favorite sport, sports team, or player is one of the few opinions one can have almost completely without embarrassment or reservation.  This identification with sports figures and other fans runs deep – even through social classes.  A Yankee fan could be someone watching the game from their luxury box or listening on a transistor radio in his or her mobile home, yet they both “belong” to the same community.  Awareness has shifted from one’s social class to one’s pick for the World Series.  Class consciousness loses its bearing, which is very beneficial to the wealthy.[xiii]  Debates about sports can often become heated, but unless a fan researches the performance of every single player on every team and analyzes every team’s dynamics, there seem to be no significant differences to be found between the different teams in a league.[xiv]  However, local and state loyalties most commonly prevail, and thus there is a team provided for each citizen with whom to identify.  “The advantages and disadvantages debated by enthusiasts serve only to perpetuate the appearance of competition and choice,” say Adorno and Horkheimer when discussing the culture industry.  The same goes for sports as people are tricked into thinking they have significant choices.  Play becomes intellectualized and amusement “becomes an ideal.”[xv] Fans build a connection with their favorite teams and each other, thus creating intense meaning behind their sports.   This serves the very real human need for community, a need which tends – historically speaking – to be exploited by the elite.

Audiences of spectator sports serve as a commodity for advertisers to buy and sell.  The advertisers buy people’s capacity to do work by paying for commercial airtime during sporting events.  To advertise during sporting events is a safe way of reaching a large captive audience.  Sports, unlike other television and radio programming, are not controversial and thus more attractive to advertisers.  It is, in a sense, the audience’s “job” to absorb all of this content and file it away for future purchases.  In American society “there is no such thing as free time devoid of audience activity which is not preempted by other activities which are market-related.”[xvi]  All so-called “leisure activities” such as miniature golf or watching a match at Wimbledon have turned into commercial and political activities.

The notion that one participates in the sporting life during his or her “free time” is laughable, as “free time” does not exist in society, as it stands today.  Most people are doing “work” all of the time, whether that “work” is interpreting advertisements to figure out what to buy, keeping track of the results of sporting events, or kicking a ball.[xvii]  In a capitalist society, “free time” is supposed to be used to recharge our human batteries in preparation to go back to our “real work” the next day.  Recreation has become an important duty, and thus it is no longer “free.”[xviii]  Similar to what Adorno and Horkheimer suggest about entertainment in “The Culture Industry,” sports are “the prolongation of work under late capitalism… sought by those who want to escape the mechanized labor power process so that they can cope with it again.”[xix]  Sports and leisure then become tied up in the concept of instrumental rationality.

In his article, “Adorno on Sport,” William J. Morgan elaborates on the concept of instrumental rationality within.  He suggests that, “Sport is to be understood as a modern form of adjustment to bourgeois society…sport molds human beings to the machine.”[xx]  Playing and watching sports becomes the great equalizer in our society, serving as a “social lubricant.”[xxi]  Businesses buy large quantities of tickets as a treat for their employees and meetings are often held over golf games.  Quickly, sports become merely an imitation of the labor conducted during one’s official workday.[xxii]  When someone is not a sports fan, they are often looked down upon because they are not outwardly fulfilling their “duty” as an American renewing their capacity to labor.  By not being a sports fan they are not conforming to the standardized behavior set forward, which means their time and minds may be a little too free to think.  For those elite in capitalist power, this is a dangerous thing.  Just as anyone who is “disconnected from the mainstream, he is easily convicted of inadequacy.”[xxiii]

The financial benefits of the sports industry for the capitalist elite are significant, but it is important to note that another agenda at work is to “mass market legitimacy of the state and its strategic and tactical policies and actions, such as election of government officers, military thrusts against states which show signs of moving toward socialism.”[xxiv]  In addition to serving as a “leisurely” distraction, sports have also been described by Noam Chomsky as “a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements – in fact, it’s training an irrational jingoism.”[xxv]  When he sees a crowd booing at the other team, what Chomsky actually sees are actions that all too closely resemble nationalism, which he finds to be very dangerous.  One cannot help but “recall the horrors of what nationalism or patriotism have led to in this country.”[xxvi]   Giant media corporations construct narratives within the various sports via newspapers and sports television; there are good guys and bad guys, triumphs and defeats.  Winning is patriotic.  Fans congregate behind the coaches, athletes, and teams as authority figures.   They are able to do things that regular people cannot do, and thus regular people look up to them.[xxvii]  They are the physically talented heroes sent to fight for our cause – to beat “The Other Team.”

Chomsky refers to the players as, “gladiators fighting for your cause, so you’ve got to cheer them on, and you’ve got to be happy when the opposing quarterback gets carted off the field a total wreck.”[xxviii]  This type of thinking greases the wheels for the government and large corporations to employ similar tropes in situations that actually affect the country and the lives of its citizens.  It can pave the way for citizens to more easily accept the sometimes-alarming behavior of the state.  Something very powerful is tapped into when it comes to a group of people banding together in opposition to “the enemy,” and sports are a way to “arouse the desire for conquest, but they themselves cannot satisfy that desire.”[xxix] When wars are framed in similar terms of competition, of black and white, evil and good, they are more easily justified to and digested by the people.  As William J. Morgan would add, speaking through the lens of Adorno, “The acts of greatest human violence and destructiveness have arisen not for personal aggressiveness or nastiness, but from self-transcendence in the form of seductive, mindless identification with a group.”[xxx]

A major facilitator of this self-transcendence and identification is the discipline that sports encourage.  This discipline is both social and self-inflicted and, as Michel Foucault states, “The chief function of the disciplinary power is to train.”[xxxi]  To be a successful goalie, point guard, or shortstop, one’s body must be put through years of intense physical training.  In Discipline and Punish, Foucault suggests that the human body is an extremely political entity since, “power relations have an immediate hold upon it, they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.”  The principles of discipline that Foucault speaks about in terms of prisons can be compared to the happenings on the field, for example, the soccer field: 1) Time-table for activity: the length of the halves.; 2) Temporal elaboration of the act: the set-up of the field and rules of play; 3) Correlation of the body and gesture: the maintenance of proper formation of a team running on the field and honoring of positions; 4) Body-object articulation: the position of the foot to execute different types of kicks.  Training one’s body in the name of such activities that are now wrought with societal implications becomes a political act.  Thus, the body becomes “useful” to those in power if it can run fast and score goals, but it is also useful just by being present in the stadium doing the wave – as long as that body is showing evidence of being controlled.

Another tool employed to train the behavior and thinking of citizens in the sports industry is the stadium.  Through the range of seats and ticket prices offered, stadiums also reinforce citizen’s social class.  The privileged and the less fortunate are separated in a very visual way.  Everyone is made aware of their place in society by the color and amount of cushion on their seat.  In addition to this, an eerie comparison can be made between sports stadiums and Foucault’s description of the Panopticon, a type of prison building designed in the late eighteenth century.  The Panopticon design consists of a supervisor located in a tower in the center while the “periphery building is divided into cells” which surround the tower.[xxxii]  An average sports stadium has a similar design: spectators’ seats in a circular arrangement facing the middle.  In the case of the modern sports stadium, the infamous Jumbotron serves as the central tower.  In both designs, the spectators and inmates are never sure if they are being observed, which regulates behavior.  This is also the case in a stadium, where everyone is simultaneously watching each other, while wondering if they are being watched themselves – “each inmate is perfectly individualized and constantly visible” in a certain sense[xxxiii].  This concept applies to the players on the field as well.  Since “visibility is a trap,” one must obey the social order, they must “act normal” according to the protocol of the particular sporting event.  At a Yankees game, one never knows if their face will appear on the big screen.  When this does happen, the perpetrator’s try to act appropriately, whatever that means to them during that particular moment.  This induces in the spectators and players “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.”[xxxiv]  Constant unverifiable visibility coupled with the presence of armed guards – also known as umpires and referees, etc. – even further solidifies the comparison between two seemingly very different spaces.

Through various discussions with friends and family, I have found out that the concepts posed in this paper are quite controversial.  This is most likely because participation in the sporting life – both playing and viewing – is of great personal value to a high percentage of American society.  For many, sports are intertwined with our memories of childhood, our family life, friendships, and personal achievements.  Physical exercise feels good and helps us stay healthy.  As humans, we cannot deny that pleasure exists in disciplining one’s self physically, which is a prevalent aspect of playing sports.[xxxv]  A certain form of pleasure, plaisir, occurs during sports playing and watching.  It is a term that was coined by Roland Barthes and mentioned in John Fiske’s article, “Productive Pleasures.”  Plaisir refers to pleasure that is “socially produced, its roots lie within dominant ideology; it is concerned with social identity, with recognition.”[xxxvi]  There are many benefits to being a part of a team or group.  It is easy for someone to feel a sense of purpose when gathering around a common purpose of play, especially when the skills required of individuals fielding different positions is so highly valued.

Since the players are together so often, teams can provide family-like support and validation.  Sports teams are also a way for children to learn how to work with different personalities towards a common goal.   Rooting for your team from the bleachers with thousands of other fans during a big championship can be a moving experience.  Watching sports in groups has the potential to aid in the formation of support networks and serve as a common denominator for bonding across generations.[xxxvii]  Although it does appear that large corporations and the government have much to gain from the audience of the sports industry being distracted, exploited and politically “trained,” this does not mean most sports fans are completely mindless.   There are many American intellectuals who find the time to stay politically active while maintaining an interest in The Big Game of their choice.


 [i] Michael Sleap, “Commercialism and Sport.” Social Issues in Sport. (New York: St Martin’s, 1997) 200.

[ii] Sleap 196.

[iii] Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. “A Propaganda Model.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Ed. Meenakshi Gigi. Durham and Douglas Kellner. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001) 257.

[iv] Chomsky and Herman 265.

[v] Chomsky and Herman 260.

[vi] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. “The Concept of Enlightenment.” Dialectic of Enlightenment. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972) 21.

[vii] Louis Kampf. “A Course on Spectator Sports.” American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives. Ed. Donald Lazere. (Berkeley: University of California, 1987) 591.

[viii] Kampf 592.

[ix] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. “The Concept of Enlightenment.” Dialectic of Enlightenment. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972) 3.

[x] Robert F. Barsky. The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower. (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007) xii.

[xi] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Ed. Meenakshi Gigi. Durham and Douglas Kellner. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001) 95.

[xii] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer 120.

[xiii] Louis Kampf. “A Course on Spectator Sports.” American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives. Ed. Donald Lazere. (Berkeley: University of California, 1987) 592.

[xiv] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Ed. Meenakshi Gigi. Durham and Douglas Kellner. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001) 97.

[xv] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer 114.

[xvi] Dallas W. Smythe. “On the Audience Commodity and its Work.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Ed. Meenakshi Gigi. Durham and Douglas Kellner. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001.) 272.

[xvii] Smythe 261.

[xviii] William J. Morgan. “Adorno on Sport.” Theory and Society 17.6 (1988): 813-38. (JSTOR. Springer. Web. 27 Apr. 2012.) 838.

[xix] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Ed. Meenakshi Gigi. Durham and Douglas Kellner. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001) 109.

[xx] Morgan 878.

[xxi] Morgan 878.

[xxii] Morgan 818.

[xxiii] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Ed. Meenakshi Gigi. Durham and Douglas Kellner. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001) 106.

[xxiv] Smythe 256.

[xxv] Barsky xi.

[xxvi] Barsky xi.

[xxvii] Barsky xi.

[xxviii] Barsky xi.

[xxix] Bill Brown. “Waging Baseball, Playing War: Games of American Imperialism.” Cultural Critique 17 (1990): 51-78. (JSTOR. University of Minnesota Press. Web. 27 Apr. 2012.) 57.

[xxx] Morgan 7.

[xxxi] Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (New York: Pantheon, 1977.) 169

[xxxii] Foucault 200.

[xxxiii] Foucault 200.

[xxxiv] Foucault 201.

[xxxv] John Fiske. “Productive Pleasures.” The John Fiske Collection. (London: Routledge, 2010.) 49.

[xxxvi] Fiske 54.

[xxxvii] Barsky xi.

WORKS CITED

Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Ed. Meenakshi Gigi. Durham and Douglas Kellner. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001. 71-102. Print.

Barsky, Robert F. The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007. Print.

Brown, Bill. “Waging Baseball, Playing War: Games of American Imperialism.” Cultural Critique 17 (1990): 51-78. JSTOR. University of Minnesota Press. Web. 27 Apr. 2012.

Chomsky, Noam, and Edward Herman. “A Propaganda Model.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Ed. Meenakshi Gigi. Durham and Douglas Kellner. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001. 257-294. Print.

Fiske, John. “Productive Pleasures.” The John Fiske Collection. London: Routledge, 2010. 49-68. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon, 1977. Print.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. “The Concept of Enlightenment.” Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972. Print.

Kampf, Louis. “A Course on Spectator Sports.” American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives. Ed. Donald Lazere. Berkeley: University of California, 1987. Print.

Morgan, William J. “Adorno on Sport.” Theory and Society 17.6 (1988): 813-38. JSTOR. Springer. Web. 27 Apr. 2012.

Sleap, Michael. “Commercialism and Sport.” Social Issues in Sport. New York: St Martin’s, 1997. Print.

Smythe, Dallas W. “On the Audience Commodity and its Work.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Ed. Meenakshi Gigi. Durham and Douglas Kellner. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001. 253-277. Print.

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Let’s! Go! Jingos! (clap-clap, clap-clap-clap)

The end of this semester is less than two weeks away.  In two weeks I have to write a documentary proposal using the Sundance Film Festival Format, create a new trailer for my documentary, and write a term paper for my Media Studies: Ideas class.  This week I’m going to focus on the term paper.  I hope to finish it by Monday.  

I stumbled across my topic while watching Manufacturing Consent, a documentary about Noam Chomsky’s view of mass media…

In my term paper I would like to explore how competitive spectator sports are used as propaganda to distract and politically train the masses in the United States.  Why would the government and corporations support sports to the degree that they do if these activities did not serve a productive purpose?  Sports in our country engage a good deal of citizens’ intelligence, such as in following teams’ and individual players’ statistics and career history.  Many people pride themselves on the ability to pick wisely in a basketball pool or recite the years during which the Red Sox won the World Series.  The energy devoted to these matters is energy not spent worrying about the things that actually affect their daily lives, such as upcoming elections or human rights issues. 

The sports industry has a far-reaching captive audience, which makes it a perfect venue for training Americans…especially in nationalism.  The belonging to and fervent following of teams helps develop the susceptibility of citizens to identify with and remain loyal to what could be considered arbitrary communities.  Some argue that competitive sports have no effect on the actual well-being of our individual lives or our country, and as a result the subordination to these authority figures is irrational.  However, avid sports fans believe – whether consciously or not – that the players they root for are fighting for their cause, to “beat” the other team, and most of the time this means they can be ecstatic when a player from the other team incurs a penalty or is even injured. This kind of thinking is dangerous since those in power (the government) can use it to justify many things, including jingoism.  Values of loyalty and group cohesion behind an authority can easily slide over into cultivating a sneaky sort of nationalism.  Nationalism is not only good in the eyes of the government, but when used to justify things such as the sale of arms abroad or other profit  matters, it is useful to large wealthy corporations as well.  The structure of the industry (large leagues, teams, coaches, etc) is completely authoritarian.  Players, and even fans, must submit to the higher powers who enforce the rules and penalties of the various games, and thus hold all of the power.  The profit made off of the sports industry and advertising is often discussed, but I argue that the mentality developed from sports activities is just as useful to the government and the wealthy elite.

The texts from my class that I’ll use to explore this topic are:

Adorno – The Culture Industry
Lazarsfield – Personal Influence
Marx – The Ruling Class and The Ruling Idea
Foucault – Discipline and Punish
Chomsky and Herman – A Propaganda Model
Gramsci – History of Subaltern Classes
Barthes – Myth Today (a less obvious choice…but myth often serves the same purpose as propaganda, it gives us conclusions right away as well as simple solutions to complex problems. Players and teams are often mythologized and serve a purpose as such.)

In addition to these I’ll be employing some additional secondary sources.

Should be a hoot!

On Mark Hansen’s Ideas of New(ish) Media

Between Body and Image: On the “Newness” of New Media Art

The Bergsonist theoretical aim of Chapter 1 as listed on the handy chart just a page before its beginning is “To liberate the body from its strict correlation with the image.”  This chapter addresses the “newness” of “new media.”  Mark Hansen realizes that the discussion in the field is limited to two opposite opinions – there usually seems to be no grey area.  There are those who believe that new media is truly radical and novel, while the others are more of the glass-half-empty type, who have a hard time believing that new media is actually offering anything “new” as the nomenclature claims.

Right away, we realize that Hansen does believe that there is something new going on with digital art.  He is using the “vocation” of Bergson, who is concerned with the relationship of the physical human body to art.  Digitization complicates the relationship between art and the body.  Staring at a painting is much different than navigating a database installation artwork.  As the media becomes increasingly multi-faceted and less specific in its form, the body has more options in interacting with it.  We no longer just look.  We click, listen, watch carefully, etc.  Information is made perceivable.  The body is more involved “as a selective processor of information.”  Along with having many choices within a digital piece of art, the body can also choose to ignore certain aspects of the work.  Another thing that often happens is that the body (user) can try to break the piece of digital art by finding its technical flaws.  This is not usually possible in more traditional pieces.  Paintings are kept behind glass or velvet ropes.  Sculptures often have museum guards.  It is not in our social behavior vocabulary to physically interact with the more traditional media.  We could start doing this, but we might get arrested.  Even digital video is interactive.  We choose to press play; we can pause, rewind, or stop watching after 30 seconds.

What actually makes new media “new” is also the fact that the “flexibility brought by digitization” provides an opportunity for the body to dictate the limitations as opposed to the medium itself.  I would like to state that my own beliefs tend to lie on the spectrum of “nothing is new” if only for the fact that as humans we have been creating for a plethora of years.  Any kind of art is based on the human experience, and we are all human.  So, really, nothing can actually be “new.”  However, I do see how, with the advance of technology that did not exist years ago, our interactions with our own human experiences can definitely be argued to be “new.”  This seems to be what Hansen is referencing.  The possibilities that the digitization of art provides us are almost infinite, but the feelings and statements being expressed are finite.  There are only so many emotions or statements we as humans ever really express.  What we think are complex emotions or statements can usually be boiled down into a few basics.

Moving images in digital media, such as in James Coleman’s film installation, are closely linked to the body and, more specifically, the body’s pulse. It is hard not to automatically relate the movement of an image and/or sounds to the rhythms of our own bodies, the blood flowing through our veins to the beat of our hearts.  Digital media definitely has something “new” to offer in this sense.  There are so many choices for the artist to make, and all of these choices – just by the nature of the digital medium – affect our bodies as we engage with the material.  We see a painting with our eyes.  We may notice our body while we are viewing – our leg may hurt from an earlier incident, we may be tired – but probably not in relation to the artwork.  When we watch a video installation or listen to an audio piece, there is movement.  We are more apt to noticing the quickening of our hearts, or that the piece matches the rhythm of our hearts.  Not every installation or digital artwork is as blatantly pulsatile, but on some level digital art always relates to bodies differently than just a surface image.

As artists engage digitally, a new set of forms, questions and concerns arises.  However, as Hansen states, we “must await the (purportedly inevitable) moment of its technical obsolescence” in order “to support an aesthetic practice.”  It is hard to notice patterns or make statements about a whole movement until it has passed, or until it has existed for a significant period of time.  Many digital artforms are still emerging and though one can begin to analyze, it is only until there is a distance of time from the work can we look back and make grander statements about digital art as “aesthetic practice.”  It is helpful to have hindsight of 20/20 within a larger context than just the here and now to truly compare what we are calling our “new media” to the “old.”  That is why, I presume, there is a large field of study called “Art History” and not “Art That Just Happened An Hour Ago.”

Politics and the African Language: A Commentary on Thiong’o’

Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature 

At the heart of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s work is the question of African identity in the face of colonialism and then neo-colonialism.  He speaks about language as a major technology that can be used to either reclaim the African identity or forfeit it via an adaptation of the Eurocentric.  The questions raised by Thiong’o that most interested me in this book were:

But by our continuing to write in foreign languages, paying homage to them, are we not on the cultural level continuing that neo-colonial slavish and cringing spirit?

What is the difference between a politician who says Africa cannot do without imperialism and the writer who says Africa cannot do without European languages?

Thiong’O used to be of the group of African writers who wrote of the African experience in English.  He called out these writers as a part of the Afro-European literary tradition.  After much contemplation, he saw a flaw in his own writing in English when it came to fighting against European neo-colonialism.  By writing in English, he claims, he was excluding the African peasantry and working class, which is an integral population when it comes to uniting against colonialism.  Only the privileged were educated and able to learn English.  On top of that, there was no hope in school to try and write in one’s own native language.  Under imperialism, these African languages were viewed as backwards and underdeveloped.   Under this system, of course they were!  If no one is “allowed” or encouraged to speak it, there is no way the language could develop.   Students were humiliated with negative reinforcement whenever they spoke or wrote in their mother tongues.  They were even encouraged to rat each other out if caught disobeying this rule.  The schools were run by Europeans who were attempting to quell any kind of unity, pride, or revolutionary inclination in the African student, thus reaffirming the “white” way of life as more advanced and preferable.  The students learned nothing of their own heritage or cultural tradition and were forced to think about their lives in the context of European literature and religion.  As a result, these students grew up with a Euro-centric worldview that pushed aside the relevance and importance of Africa and its traditions.  All of this was aimed at the continuing neo-colonial control.

The only masters of the African language at that time, according to Thiong’O, were the imperialist missionaries and the “reactionary African politician[s]… who believe in selling Africa to Europe.”  The Bible, of course, was translated to every type and dialect of the African languages.  Yet, ironically, the “African” writers of the time were not writing in any of the native languages.  How could any of the people relate or gather behind the experiences in these “African” works if they cannot access the language?  This is Thiong’O’s main concern.  This was also a concern of the imperialists, but for the opposite reason.  As soon as the peasants and the workers were speaking the same language freely with pride, they could attempt to affect change. This was when the use of African language became “subversive.”

In his eyes, the African language should most certainly be used as a political technology for breaking away from the neo-colonialism that was subjugating and killing African culture.  Some kind of universal native language was an extremely important part of the continuation and development of the African culture.   Only after one understood and felt comfortable with his or her own language and natural environment could he or she “enjoy the positive, democratic and revolutionary element in other people’s literatures and cultures without any complexes about his own language, his own self, his environment.”  This makes sense.  By knowing the significance of one’s own history and culture, one could begin to access others’.  A frame of reference is usually needed when absorbing other people’s ways of life.  How can one make sense of other worlds if one knows nothing about his own world?

Thiong’O sought to rise above “colonial alienation” which resulted in the ignorance or separation between a person and his or her own reality and replaced it with identification with, “that which is most external to one’s own environment.”  The most amusing example of this is when Thiong’O wrote about asking students to take characters from Jane Austen’s novels and relate them to their own acquaintances.   If someone is already well aware of his or her own culture this could be a useful and poignant exercise.  However, according to Thiong’O, this was not the case when they were unaware of their own heritage and thus did not have a basis with which to compare anything.   It then became an exercise of shoving one’s life into the mold of a foreign culture as if it was supposed to fit perfectly.  The students were forced to function as if Jane Austen’s characters and cultural tradition were part of the African student’s natural environment (as opposed to viewing the assignment as a complex comparative mental exercise of two different cultures).   If the students could not complete this task, they were most likely made to feel inferior.

It makes complete sense that a true African literature would need to be written in an African language.   How else could the full African experience be expressed but with the rhythms and traditions of the mother tongue?   It is also true, however, that it was useful for Africans to employ English in their writing.  It served as a kind of reclaiming of the African identity under imperialism.   It could be interpreted as a way of saying, “Look, we can express ourselves and be heard in your language, too!” These writers were sharing – to the best of their ability – the African experience in a language that would hopefully be noticed and understood at least somewhat by the very English speakers who were repressing them.

Rrrradical Mmmedia

Three weeks ago or so, I attended Paper Tiger Television’s conference on  Radical Media.  A few days before the event, some little voice inside my head told me I needed to go.  So I did.  And it was a great decision.

The morning was filled with talks by a wide variety of brilliant people.  The first up was a woman, Martha Wallner, who serves as the Media & Communications Coordinator for the Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.  She spoke about the media’s unfair portrayal of prisoners and those who were formerly incarcerated.  Since this subject hits close to home, I really appreciated her passion for helping the situation.  I thanked her for her thoughts and efforts, and she gave me a hug.

After Martha the speakers were as follows:
Jesse Drew (professor, Techno-cultural Studies, University of California, Davis), Pablillo Jose (hacktivist), Shannon Mattern (assistant professor, School of Media Studies, The New School) and Isaac Wilder (Executive Director, Free Network Foundation).

During the afternoon, we were all split up into groups for a workshop.  We were taxed with the task of designing a “new radical media.”  All of the groups came up with some pretty neat, very idealistic, “save the world” stuff.  My group named Radical Paws, however, took a different approach…

Idea #1
Wouldn’t it be great if we could break out of the same old boring routine of getting our energy from the electromagnetic spectrum? Well, what if we harvested our intercellular energy? Say, perhaps, from a cuddle puddle?  All you have to do is snuggle up and take our pharmacological remedy and you’ll be charging your macbook with the power of human chemistry in no time.  Don’t worry, lonely people, we’ve invented a device you can wear around your neck like Flava Flav to harvest your own energy when you lack another warm body to cling to.

Idea #2
“Dr. Hoot” is the premier new doctor app that makes sure you know exactly what you’re getting into when downloading other apps onto your various devices.  When you download something, Dr. Hoot lets you know invaluable information about the app and its owners.  This information includes what the company does with your personal information and whether or not the company is involved in any lawsuits.  Dr. Hoot (a cartoon owl, of course), looks to the left if you should be careful, looks to the right if you’re okay, and downright shakes when you’re about to download something treacherous.

Idea # 3
Radical Pause by Radical Paws.  This is a small round device powered by human dynamo.  You twist it, and it generates a local area connection.  With the app, you can leave and take short messages of text from the device.  It’s a digital leaflet.  The first stage of our prototype would be for use in taxi cabs.  Step 1: Someone gets in the cab and puts the device on the bottom of the seat, between their “paws.” They then exit the cab (after reaching their destination of course). Step 2: Another person gets in the cab and “checks between their paws.” If there is a Radical Pause device there, they power up the app on their phone.  They can then leave one message and take as many as they want.  These messages could be anything from radical PSA’s such as “Corporations kill!” to “My band is playing next week at Such and Such Club.” to “Check out my website! www.mywebsite.com.”  Groups could even make many of these devices with similar messages as a blanket awareness campaign about their political and community causes.

Radical Pause was designed to personalize public space.  It is an attempt to infiltrate and combat all of the media and noise we are bombarded by in public spaces, such as the screens in taxi cabs and in elevators.  Plus, doesn’t it just sound like a good time?  Like you’re a part of some secret information disseminating club… or something.

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Radical Paws was one of three groups chosen from the conference to present at the MoMA as a part of the Documentary Fortnight Festival.  Awesome.

A week or so ago, we did our presentation and it was a hit!  Everyone enjoyed our ideas, but I think they especially enjoyed that we didn’t take ourselves too seriously.  After all, it’s the MoMA and it only seemed right to be a little off beat and off the wall.  Usually, I get significantly nervous when speaking in front of people about a topic which will be opened up to questions.  Somehow, however, I got up there and adlibbed pretty convincingly and enthusiastically, much to the delight of our group leader.  I even answered some questions.  There’s something liberating about working in a group for three hours, coming up with some crazy (so crazy it just might work) idea, and then presenting it two weeks later as if it was the next iPad.  It’s so much easier to answer questions confidently about something that doesn’t even exist.

And it’s kinda fun, too.

Video

Vegas Ambivalence

This video uses some footage I took of the Bellagio’s fountain show plus some miscellaneous shots of debauchery from my first night in Las Vegas. Please excuse the crude camera work.

McLuhan and Me

Welcome to my Spring 2012 semester!  This semester I’m taking Media Studies: Ideas and Documentary Research Methods, both of which are already proving to be pretty useful in the production of my Connie Converse project and in the expansion of my media-making mind.

Last week my Ideas class had a discussion about Marshall McLuhan and his famous concept, “The Medium is the Message.”  I am interested in theory, but that does not mean I know much of anything about it.  I am pretty terrible about openly arguing my Ideas and ideals in public.  Situations arise in which I am forced (or I volunteer) to give an opinion or make a statement about theory, and I freeze up most of the time.  Even if I’ve read the piece a million times and have opinions about it, I can never seem to defend them or explain them articulately.  I’m hoping this class forces me out of this awful, uncomfortable shell of intellectual insecurity.  I took a big leap tonight and actually posted on my class blog about Mr. McLuhan.

Here’s what I wrote:

The medium is the message in a sense, yes. When you choose to produce something, just by choosing the medium through which you are going to distribute your message, that’s an argument in itself. Your choice is an argument or message ABOUT the kind of message (content) you are trying to share. Whether you choose to make a film, draw a picture, write a paper, play a song, sing, do a dance, produce a radio piece, etc., there are so many implicit and explicit factors that come as a result. For example, let’s say someone wanted to somehow review an album of music. That person could do this in any number of ways: write a short article, write a longer piece, create an audio piece, make a video of themselves, or even paint something, etc. The choice that person makes says a lot about what they think is important/what they want to emphasize about the music. Do they play some clips from the album in their radio piece? Do they transcribe lyrics in the article? We are in a sense limited by whatever medium we choose and we are limited by how that medium affects the receivers of your message. However, that’s just a part of it. Once you actually employ the medium you are constructing the rest of the message and putting in your own spin/content. Once someone starts experimenting with different media and tries to “use” them in “different” ways, that complicates the situation – and makes it more interesting, as well!

I’m hoping no super-smart theoretical geniuses pick apart every word and blow my humble opinion completely out of the water.  If they do, I will try and make some kind of incredibly charming and well-researched counterpoint.  Or maybe I’ll just pretend I didn’t see it.

We shall see.

Reflecting on Las Vegas

I loved it. And I did not expect this. And it was there I discovered the glory of dueling pianos. It’s everything I love about life in one place.

1) Wide variety of Music (from Elvis to Elton to Eminem)
2) Singing and Audience Participation
3) Goofiness
4) Charismatic and Crazy Talented Performers

This post is taken largely from emails I wrote to my brother-in-law and one of the dueling piano players I saw in Vegas.

The more I think about it and talk with others, the more I know that dueling pianos/piano players is an excellent subject for a documentary film. Before I saw the show in Vegas I had of course heard of dueling pianos, but the shows really struck me. Since then I’ve been to a couple more, including one in NYC, and my interest has been growing exponentially. There’s so much great stuff to cover in a film, from the origin of the form, to how the “bits” were developed, the state of the shows/community today, and – most importantly – the players themselves. The players are by far the most interesting aspect. The skill, confidence, talent, patience, and intuition required is immeasurable. I feel like anyone who has ever performed as a dueling piano player must have a pretty intriguing story/personal philosophy/outlook on life. That’s just my inclination, at least. I’ll be quiet about it now until I do more research.

Since I’ve just really started thinking about the dueling piano project, I am honestly not sure when it will actually happen. But do I have the same feeling about this project as when I realized I needed to do a Connie project. Obviously, this one won’t happen until the Connie project is done with or well under way or if I am in a position where I can make some kind of “short” to be later developed. Pre-production and research take a long time, anyway, so it’s good to have it on my and others’ radars now.

Sesame Street had it right.

We brought my littlest niece to the doctor’s office to check out her ears. It’s Christmas Eve and I’ve been feeling a little unsettled and wistful. Then I found this in the waiting room. Thank you, Jim Henson and crew.

I’m ready for next semester!

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Friday Morning Post-Class Thought

If I could play the drums in any way even remotely approaching what Glenn Kotche does here, I’d be a very happy media studies student.  I better keep practicing.

This song needs to be used as a soundtrack for something. Maybe everything.