Category Archives: Uncategorized

New website

In the last few years I have not posted on this site which marked a movement for me away from blogging to the use of twitter and short form blogging on tumblr where I keep a number of bookmarking sites on different topics. This was in part driven by engagement with these new social media tools but it also due to time pressures as I embraced the final years of my PhD research.

I have recently cleaned up the site as an archive but in future I will will be posting at marcusodonnell.comScreenshot_13_01_13_12_12_PM

Incestuous Amplification

The wisdom from political commentators last night seemed to be that Rumsfeld would be given a reprieve in spite of the election results. The history of the Bush regime shows heel digging as a common response to critique. But maybe the decider has just had enough this time. He admitted to reporters today that he lied when asked about Rumie last week because it was the only way to get them to go onto the next question in pre-election week. No one has made much of this admission – it seems that it is suddenly acceptable for the president to lie to reporters when it is politically expedient.

The rules of the political-media game used to be that you could obfiscate and avoid but never lie. But Bush seems quite happy to admit to this lie and expects everyone to understand its necessity.

Lying in politics takes different forms it is not often presented as blatantly as this. One of its forms is what John Stauber calls “incestuous amplification” – the repetition and reinforcement of political spin by a tight cadre of players. WMD is the prime example. But a lot of the talk during Rumsfeld’s resignation today is similar, even people like McCain who have had huge disagreements with him over war strategy felt the need to compliment him.

Rumsfeld himself, of course, praised the President:

“The great respect that I have for your leadership, Mr. President, in this little-understood, unfamiliar war– the first war of the 21st century. ” Rumsfeld said. “it is not well-known, It was not well-understood. It is complex for people to comprehend, and I know with certainty that over time the contributions you’ve made will be recorded by history”

The first draft of such history is already being written and as we all know is no where near as complimentary. I am currently reading Woodward’s State of Denial and “dysfunctional” – the word that everyone is using – does not even cover the half of it. Rumsfeld comes across as a deeply neurotic control freak and George – I go with my gut – Bush as something like the Moousketeer-in-chief.

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More than craft plus

Stumbled across NYU’s Zoned for Debate: section again while buzzing around the web. Lots of good stuff. This from NYU prof Ellen Willis struck a chord:

The first step toward reinventing the journalism curriculum is to recognize that serious journalism–in all its genres and forms–is in itself an intellectual activity. While it may draw on academic knowledge, it has its own distinct character as an intellectual enterprise: it is a transdisciplinary inquiry into the present, which takes place not in scholarly journals but in a non-specialized public conversation. A serious journalist is by definition that figure so much discussed in the academy—the public intellectual. Craft is integral to all kinds of journalism—as it is, for that matter, to scholarship—but it is a means to an end: promoting a rich, nuanced, complex and diverse public conversation on contemporary affairs. How can journalism education contribute to this end? This is the fundamental question Columbia and all journalism programs must address.

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Treasonable journalism

There has been quite bit written about Pulitzers for Treason by right wing columnists in the US, following the Times‘ award for breaking the story about the NSA domestic wiretaps. But MarketWatch media columnist Jon Friedman got a shock when all of the reader responses to a recent column were anti-Times. Here’s some of the comments:

“Your last piece on the Pulitzers includes this gem: ‘If anything, the Pulitzer vindicates the (New York) Times as a hard-hitting and public-spirited news operation.’ No, it simply shows them to be law-breaking cowards (yes disclosing this program by using the sources they used is a violation of the law). How you can conclude that an award handed to a MSM (or “mainstream media”) outlet by a totally MSM-stacked committee shows anything other than the completely out of touch nature of the MSM is beyond comprehension!”

“You couldn’t have gotten it more wrong!” another reader named Steve Dansker wrote.

“First off, the Pulitzer is a popularity contest among those that constitute the Board. Look at the orgs these folks come from: most Awards seem to go to folks on the same papers (or is it just my imagination?).”

He added: “Get real: the ‘breaking of the NSA story’ was not a ‘break’ at all. It was in fact a traitorous act. The authors couldn’t have given more of a damn who it hurt or KILLED! They just wanted to (1) blacken the eye of a Republican Administration, and (2) get some notoriety. Do you really think this story would have been written if Gore had won? I think not!”

These comments don’t just attest to a fractious blue/red America, they highlight serious trouble facing the media. Surveys have for a long time shown that consumers have an uneasy alliance with media they read/watch. Many seem to believe that journalists are in the same category as used-car salesman when it comes to trustworthiness.

But these comments about the Pulitzers show something very disturbing about the current media environment. I think the last comment is most telling. It comes from a particularly skewed fantasy about journalism.

As a journalist I know that a big newspaper would have published the wiretap story no matter who it concerned because it is such a shattering story. I know nothing about the personal politics of the Times reporters who broke the story but as professional journalists no matter what their colors they would have been aware of the enormity of the story. In the end – and this can be both a good thing and a bad thing – the ideology of the big story, over rides all others for journalists.

But maybe this is not so different to Watergate when, at least initially, Nixon’s supporters were dismissive of what they perceived as biased liberal press attacks. But if the ideas expressed by Friedman’s readers are widespread this does not bode well at a time when the whole relationship between journalism, government, their sources, their respective privileges and responsibilities is under deep scrutiny.

News, Community Service and TV drama

Monday’s episode of 24 began with a casually dressed Kiefer Sutherland and a message for viewers:

“Hi. My name is Kiefer Sutherland. And I play counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer on Fox’s ‘24’. I would like to take a moment to talk to you about something that I think is very important. Now while terrorism is obviously one of the most critical challenges facing our nation and the world, it is important to recognize that the American Muslim community stands firmly beside their fellow Americans in denouncing and resisting all forms of terrorism. So in watching 24, please, bear that in mind.”

The episode continued the story line of an American Muslim sleeper cell who had been planning a massive attack on the nation’s nuclear power plants for years. One of the focuses of the episode was the attempt by one of the lead terrorists to find and kill his fifteen year old son who had begun to have cold feet. He says to his distraught wife: “We can allow nothing to interfere with what we have worked for. We will have time to mourn later.”

The episode was as usual punctuated with ads for the news, which concerned terrorism. This connection to wold events was firmly made with the extended “news break” that was shown at the end of the program. The lead items included: the arrest of one of the London bombers and discussion of his statements that the second attacks were only meant to scare, this was disputed by a legal expert who speculated that this was only a ploy to establish a good story for court. This was followed without a break about the case of a local muslim Qantas baggage handler who was being tried for terrorist links, he was shown handcuffed and in arabic garb. Next we were told that PM JH had contested the assertion of those on trial for the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta that the attack was payback for Australian involvement with Iraq.

Where as 24 presents its transitions between the simultaneous events being narrated with breakout frames and multiple screens, the news coverage of these three events was presented with a continuous stream of images and voice over and only verbal transitions such as: “In London/In a sydney court/in Indonesia”. One of the effects of this breathless presentation is to collapse the events into a single narrative and the narrative is not about possible motivations or the events themselves it is about the overarching story line of “Muslim Terrorists”.

The news then segued into another program: Threat Matrix, also about an elite counter-terrorism unit and in one of the early ad breaks Kiefer Sutherland was again urging us not to stereotype Muslims.

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24 Season 4

Jack Audrey Heller Driscoll

The synergy between news and entertainment was apparent in the Australian premiere of season 4 of 24 tonight.

The first episode begins with a train bombed and derailed by terrorists, then, cross to the first ad break: a news update which leads with the latest on the London subway bombing.

The double episode ended with the usual promo for next week with the announcer urging us to tune in to see “what lengths the terrorists will go to”. After the credits Seven led into an extended news update which included footage of London’s mayor Ken Livingston catching a train and a “back-to-work-we-wont-let-them-win” theme.

The dialectic between the visceral build up of tension produced by the “live” structure of 24 and its hero’s inevitable triumph is mirrored in the contrasting message of terror and hope embodied in a grim-faced Livingston boarding a train. Although 24 plays the traditional hero myth it also re-wrote the rules of this serial genre by allowing the death of key figures such as Jack’s wife in series one. We know that Jack will win but we can no longer be sure at what cost.

Similarly the news is constantly telling us that “we” will win even though we can no longer be sure “what lengths the terrorists will go to”.

Other news included John Howard’s denial that Britain was preparing a withdrawal from Iraq which would necessitate Australia sending more troops but a confirmation that Australia would be sending further troops to Afghanistan. This reminder of the nexus between Australian, British and US military operations highlighted the “reality” of the 24 terrorists claim that this was an “us” (muslim) against “you” (western nations) battle.

In this new world the best we can do is get up and get back on the train. Just like Livingston. Just like Jack.

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New Keanu Film

I’ve just been reading about the new Keanu Reeve’s film: A Scanner Darkly. It’s an adaption of a Philip K Dick novel set in the not too distant future where “we have lost the war on drugs” and Keanu plays an undercover cop/addict in a junkie squat on the track of “Substance D”.

Hopes are high for the film in the sci-fi community. And the Philip K Dick family trust have given it the thumbs up. As one sci-fi site proclaims:

It’s Keanu Reeves in one of author Philip K. Dick’s greatest novels. Whoa!

Even though Philip K. Dick’s work inspired some of the best-known and most beloved sci-fi movies there are (such as Blade Runner, Minority Report and Total Recall) the truth is that the true Dick-ian (don’t snigger you!) movie — reflecting the author’s metaphysical obsession with what reality is and what makes one human — has yet to be made.

The movie version of A Scanner Darkly might just be that movie.

For starters, it is based on one of Dick’s best works, one informed by Dick’s own painful experiences in the drug culture of California in the 1970s. It neatly balances Dick’s own autobiographical experiences, the narrative’s plot requirements and infuses it with Dick’s customary black humour. Yes, despite its bleak subject matter it is also quite funny.

What makes it particularly interesting to me is that it extends Keanu’s sci-fi/metaphysical hero journey begun with Johnny Mnemonic and continued into the Matrix and Constantine. But not only that, like the Matrix it also extends the mythology of technology in and of film-making with its innovative techniques.

Keanuscanner1-1 Keanuscanner3 Keanuscanner2

It has been written and directed by Richard Linklater with his trademark combo of live acting overlaid with animation. Linklater used this technique in his 2001 feature Waking Life which was also a metaphysical tale about dream and reality. The trailer looks startling translating what I take to be the character’s hallucinatory engagement with reality into realistic images that have a literal fluidity on the screen. This combination of new high-tech method to translate a vision of the future is an interesting example of what I am calling a “multi-media mythic cluster” where the lineage, the medium(s) and the narrative all combine to proclaim a mythic message.

Here we have an interesting lineage with the ouvres of Dick, Linklater and Reeves all contributing to the underlying discourse about technology, the future and the hallucinatory self. The filmic technique – which of course is always integral to any cinematic narrative – also foregrounds notions of technology and “the new”. The official site describes it like this:

Like a graphic novel come to life, “A Scanner Darkly” will use live action photography overlaid with an advanced animation process (interpolated rotoscoping) to create a haunting, highly stylized vision of the future. The technology, first employed in Richard Linklater’s 2001 film “Waking Life,” has evolved to produce even more emotional impact and detail.

In an interview with the Austin Chronicle one of main animators talks about the task as following the actor’s elasticity:

“With A Scanner Darkly, we’re trying to be much more cohesive, because we’ve got A-list actors and those guys need to be recognizable. If you’ve got somebody like Robert Downey Jr., who is made of elastic – there is nothing on him that is stationary at any time – capturing all of his expressions and doing justice to someone that great an actor is a real challenge. It’s interesting to see him in particular, because you never really notice how much goes into acting until you see a guy who is going into the scene that way and you see every little nuance that goes into each little piece of his performance. It’s incredibly complex and detailed, and we’ve really got to capture that in the animation.”

There is clearly a fascinating multilayered construction going on here and from the little that I have seen on the trailer the mirroring that occurs back and forth between texts – script/actor/animator/viewer – is quite powerful.

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The Governator

One of the fascinating sessions in the Superheroes conference was the keynote by Louise Krasniewicz about the Arnie factor (check out her Arnie hypertext project). Titled “True Lies Superhero: Do we really want our icons to come to life?” it rehearsed many of the themes from her great book Why Arnold Matters?

She made the point that even the serious media was obsessed with merging the movie characters Arnold has played, his movie star persona and his emergence as a politician in coverage of his campaign in the Californian recall election. They did this by relying on easy recourse to “Governator” imagery and commentary. This is still the case, as she showed with a recent clip from a California daily on the governor’s falling poll ratings. After 12 months in office this story – which has nothing to do with movie star Arnold – is still illustrated by a Terminator still.

An article in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald showed this very clearly and even imposes the action man figure into local NSW politics.

What can NSW learn from Arnold Schwarzenegger? When it comes to energy it may be a fair bit. After booting out the Democrat governor Gray Davis for taking California’s energy system to near collapse, The Governator stormed in and has begun the essential rebuilding of the state’s electricity system….With the focus and vigour of his most famous screen character, Schwarzenegger recently made public a 10-point plan for a modern 21st century energy system. Some in the old guard urged him to focus only on supply oriented alternatives for keeping the lights on in the country’s biggest state. However, his plan relies on a combination of new and old, of supply and demand.

The story is actually about the success of sophisticated multiple rate devices which encourage consumers to use cheaper energy during off peak periods but what is fascinating about the piece is the portrayal of governor Schwarzenegger as an action hero: it’s all about his kinesthetic body: he “booted out” Gray Davis then he “stormed in” and started “rebuilding”. The inescapable paradox of this language comes in the next sentence which explicitly references “the focus and vigour of his most famous screen character”. What was the result of this Terminator like vigour: a ten point plan, which is not an action response but a typical bureaucratic response. So while we are treated to an image of the heroic Schwarzenegger doing something new this action sequence masks his actual response which is typically cautious and orderly.

The other fascinating thing is that this op-ed piece is written by someone who has an interesting pedigree herself: “Cathy Zoi is group executive director of Bayard Capital, a private investment group. She was previously chief executive of the NSW Sustainable Energy Development Authority and chief of staff of Environmental Policy in the Clinton White House.” The Bayard group is now running a trial of the metering devices in NSW. So while this is situated as an op-ed piece on policy options from a former government policy advisor it is essentially using the Arnie factor as a celebrity endorsement for a scheme her company hopes to convince the NSW government to take-up.

Both Zoi’s position with the group and Bayard’s involvement in NSW are mentioned in the article and the connection is there to be made by careful readers. But like the contradiction between the imagery of the governator and the reality of his political actions, the blur between Zoi as policy wonk and policy salesperson are also blurred by this kind of journalism

Bush on good and evil

Howard Kurtz has an interview with Bush’s former press secretary, Ari Fleischer about his memoir Taking the Heat. Mostly a critique of the “liberal media” but one interesting insider insight on Bush:

“Taking Heat” makes clear that Fleischer is a true believer who got a thrill from such things as playing catch with the president on the South Lawn. The book does contain one hint of disagreement with the boss, though, when Fleischer, two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, told the president during a limo ride that the issue of terrorism “was more complicated than ‘good versus evil.’ ”

“If this isn’t good versus evil, what is?” Bush replied, adding that Ronald Reagan didn’t go to Berlin and tell Mikhail Gorbachev to take a few bricks out of that wall.

“The president has a morally declarative speaking style that makes millions of people nervous,” Fleischer says. “It also makes millions of people inspired.”

Although this is clearly reflective of the Bush approach, another comment in the interview also rings very true and shows this dichotomising approach is reinforced by the theatrical adversariality of contemporary press/politics relations:

Pressed about his penchant for robotic spin, Fleischer says both he and White House reporters have become performers since the White House began allowing the daily sessions to be televised: “The modern-day briefing room has lost a lot of its value. The press is playing its aggressive role and the press secretary is playing a defensive role. The press focuses on, ‘Isn’t everything wrong?’ and the press secretary, myself included, focuses on, ‘Isn’t everything good?’ “

Catholics vote Bush

Interesting new poll data from a Pew survey about religious affiliation and voting patterns:

Among
non-Hispanic Catholics, Kerry won the support of 69 percent with those
with liberal or "modernist" beliefs, while 72 percent of
"traditionalists" favored Bush. But importantly, 55 percent of the key
swing group of "centrists" picked Bush over Kerry, who was criticized
by bishops for his support of abortion rights.

The upshot: A one-time Democratic mainstay, Catholics gave Bush an overall edge of 53 percent to Kerry’s 47 percent.

Overall, the mainline Protestant vote split evenly, the poll found,
with a Bush decline of 10 percent from 2000 and the best showing for a
Democrat since the 1960s; results before then are unclear.

Divisions between religious liberals and conservatives were even more stark than they were four years ago.

"The American religious landscape was strongly polarized in the 2004
presidential vote and more so than in 2000," concluded the team of four
political scientists, led by Akron’s John C. Green.

 

The scholars said Bush’s religious constituency included Christian
traditionalists in all categories, Mormons, Hispanic Protestants and
religious centrists among Catholics and mainline Protestants.
 

This last point is the interesting one. "Traditionalists" may now form
a broad category that stretches across specific faiths and links
theological traditionalism witgh political conservatism

Snow

I have just come across Snow the seventh novel from the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk in the NYT list of 10 top books for 2004. According to Margaret Attwood who reviewed it for the NYT:

Although it’s set in the 1990’s and was begun before Sept. 11, ”Snow” is eerily prescient, both in its analyses of fundamentalist attitudes and in the nature of the repression and rage and conspiracies and violence it depicts.

Like Pamuk’s other novels, ”Snow” is an in-depth tour of the divided, hopeful, desolate, mystifying Turkish soul. It’s the story of Ka, a gloomy but appealing poet who hasn’t written anything in years. But Ka is not his own narrator: by the time of the telling he has been assassinated, and his tale is pieced together by an ”old friend” of his who just happens to be named Orhan.

I must follow up on this because I have been looking for a series of non-American texts that might form a counterpoint to my analysis of mainstream American blockbusters. Interestingly Attwood situates Pamuk in a genre she calls the “Male Labyrinth Novel” and places him in the company of DeLillo and Auster who I have also been looking at.

The twists of fate, the plots that double back on themselves, the trickiness, the mysteries that recede as they’re approached, the bleak cities, the night prowling, the sense of identity loss, the protagonist in exile — these are vintage Pamuk, but they’re also part of the modern literary landscape. A case could be made for a genre called the Male Labyrinth Novel, which would trace its ancestry through De Quincey and Dostoyevsky and Conrad, and would include Kafka, Borges, Garcia Marquez, DeLillo and Auster, with the Hammett-and-Chandler noir thriller thrown in for good measure.

Attwood also suggests that narrative is an essential element to Pamuk’s novelising:

If Ka were to run true to the form of Pamuk’s previous novels, he might take refuge in stories. Stories, Pamuk has hinted, create the world we perceive: instead of ”I think, therefore I am,” a Pamuk character might say, ”I am because I narrate.” It’s the Scheherazade position, in spades. But poor murdered Ka is no novelist: it’s up to ”Orhan” to act as his Horatio.

Myth and structures of feeling

Over at the ever interesting Revealer, Gregory Grieve expands on an earlier post about "moral values" as a Barthian myth.

The
category of “moral values” was rhetorically powerful because it
operated as an empty signifier, similar to Barthes’ notion of "myth,"
onto which people are projecting their conceptions. As Barthes writes
in "Myth Today":
"The signifier presents itself in an ambiguous way: It is at the same
time meaning and form, full on one side and empty on the other."

What is it that gives this empty form authority? “Moral values” are
empowered by "scripturalism," a pattern of mediation that represents
texts as ahistorical and uses them to legitimize a specific regime of
practices and beliefs. Scripturalism rests upon a transcendental
understanding of religious texts. Scripturalism differentiates itself
from other forms of understanding those religious texts by accusing
them of idolatry—the worship of material human constructions.

He goes on to define scriptualism in relation to his own area of specialty, South East Asian religious movements,  and notes that it is "an
idolized notion of scripture that by denying the materiality and
history of the text, authorizes a vision of Christianity that is far
from moral".

Far from being a neutral taxonomy,
scripturalism tends to structure knowledge so as to benefit a elite,
educated, conservative worldview. It tends to privilege the linguistic,
the discursive, and the cognitized over the visceral and tacit. For
instance, in South Asian religions, scripturalism has forced local
traditions into a "world religion’s" echo of Christian theology. While
in the 19th century the scripturalism may have been solely a Western
concern, by the 20th century scripturalism had become one of the most
powerful rhetorical tropes of Hindutva fundamentalist political groups
such as India’s religious nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

In another Revealer post Omri Elisha proposes a different yet complimentary way  of understanding the rhetorical force of evangelical Christianity. If Grieves is interested in the broad discursive level Elisha focuses on the intimate language of believers:

I’m
not an evangelical, but I study them as an ethnographer. I listen to
the desires, fears, and ambitions of white, conservative evangelicals
in the so-called red state of Tennessee. I’ve come to know the
evangelicals who are the focus of my research very well, and I’ve
learned to anticipate their sentiments the way that one anticipates the
reactions of a close friend. If nothing else, I can speculate on a
particular structure of feeling that made many American evangelicals
rally their support and their blessings behind the President because,
rather than despite, the fact that his life before September 11, 2001,
seemed to contain so little that would have prepared him for what was
to come.

In a beautifully written piece Elisha argues that evangelicals see Bush not as a Messianic harbinger of Armageddon but as a reluctant Queen Esther, "called for a time such as this" as Laura Bush has described her husband in a widely circulated letter to evangelicals and as Esther is described in the Old Testament. Just as Michael Moore has done in a different context, Elisha tries to envision what Bush might
have been thinking while he sat in the classroom looking bewildered for seven minutes after learning that a second plane struck the Twin
Towers:

What remains significant is how conservative evangelicals read that
moment, and every presidential moment since then. If we come at this
from a perspective that they might take, it follows that evangelicals
did not see a bewildered politician, a man in over his head, stymied by
his own inexperience and geo-political entanglements. Rather they saw
the reluctant Queen Esther struggling to come to terms with the abrupt
realization that she is implicated in a drama much larger than herself.

At that moment, Bush, like Esther, represented the evangelical’s
greatest ambition and anxiety — that one day he/she will be called
upon to surrender him/herself to an irreversible state of being where
personal faith and historical destiny become one and the same. The
higher the stakes, the tougher the personal challenge. Consequently,
the firmer the resolve to follow through — regardless of obstacles or
substantive realities — the greater the faithfulness.

Elisha links this specific Biblical reading into the broader ways in which the American media dramatize and personalise public life

On September 11 we all watched the towers fall, and those who see the
world through particular kinds of dramaturgical lenses — biblical,
cosmic, or nationalistic — also saw what they believe to be the birth
of an unwitting commander. This may be why so many Bush supporters seem
to care less about his past indiscretions: his substance abuse,
questionable service record, and spotty corporate career, for example.
All of that happened before. I don’t just mean before he was “born
again” — this is about a lot more than washing sins away. I mean
before the whisper in his ear that told him “America is under attack,”
and before everyone else saw it happen.

Three years later, people who support Bush are still waiting to see how
the drama will play itself out. Even those disappointed with his
presidency want to know what happens next, how the story will be
resolved. As for evangelicals, they are clearly deeply invested in the
Bush drama for a host of theological and political reasons. But Bush’s
appeal to evangelicals is tied to a particular structure of feeling,
one that expresses itself through scriptural allegories that evoke
notions of obedience, sacrifice, and piety, and affections of
sentimental affinity, barely distinguishable from that which makes
evangelicals feel spiritually connected to that ancient Persian queen,
the one who knew when “such a time” had come.

It is this set of "sentimental affinities" this "structure of feeling," which evolves through public media portrayals, interpretive communities, sub-cultural practices, conversations and private sense making processes, that makes the broader "scripturalist" discourse resonate so powerfully.