“Authentic Occupy” is in (e)bookstores now!

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Thought Catalog has released my new e-book just in time for Occupy’s two year anniversary! You can pick up Authentic Occupy from Amazon or iBooks for less than the cost of a latte! From the book description:

Everything you know about Occupy Wall Street is wrong. The criticisms you heard the media repeat over and over again—”the protesters don’t know what they want!,” “why don’t they just rally around a leader?”—come from a fundamental misunderstanding of who the occupiers were and what they sought to accomplish. In this lively mix of memoir and analysis, writer-activist Travis Mushett takes you inside Occupy and demystifies a movement that was difficult for even its supporters to get a handle on. Pushing past the bromides, Mushett locates the source of this confusion.

We’ve come to expect that our politics will be mediated by slick advertisements, corporate cash, and elected officials who may or may not represent our interests, but Occupy Wall Street embodied something different, something highly unusual in postmodern America: a politics of authenticity.

Sounds interesting, you’re thinking, but what do smart people who’ve read it have to say?

“In this sprightly, insouciant, and deft account, Travis Mushett conveys the life of Occupy Wall Street—not what it was supposed to be, but what it was. A delicious read.”
Todd Gitlin, author of Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street

“Travis Mushett takes an intriguing look at cutting-edge media theory through the lens of his experiences with Occupy Wall Street. Engagingly written, with an eye for detail and the telling anecdote, this is a great read for occupiers and media types alike.”
Nicholas Mirzoeff, author of
The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality

If you’re still not sold, check out the Thought Catalog piece I wrote about Occupy’s 2nd anniversary. And if after that you decide you still don’t want to read Authentic Occupy, then, well, I guess that’s something we’ll both have to live with. (Seriously, though: it’s $3.99 on iBooks and $3.19 on Amazon. A steal!)

HAPPY S17!

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For Frank

Frank

I lost a mentor & a friend Saturday night. Frank Moretti, a professor at Columbia University and head of the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, passed away after a lengthy fight with cancer. On Sunday morning, I posted the tribute below to my Facebook feed. Since Frank deserves to be honored in every venue available, I’m pasting it here, too.

In an essay about his friend & colleague James Carey, Frank Moretti wrote about the way the voice of a good teacher rattles around in your head for years or even decades after you’ve lost them. Frank passed away yesterday, and this morning I can’t get his voice out of my head. I’m sure a lot of you–his students, friends, employees, family–have similar echoes bouncing around your skulls right now.

Frank once theorized that a major project of education as the process of figuring out who you were before you even had a choice in the matter. How have the great churning wheels of history, culture, and institutions made us into that person in the mirror? How have limited us, or given us opportunities? It’s bitterly ironic that on his last day on earth, a brutal miscarriage of justice–the result of a situation caused by those same churning wheels–occurred in a courtroom in Florida. But Frank taught us that it isn’t enough to know you’re history; you must be a living, breathing, laughing, crying, smiling, shouting rebuke to everything sinister in this world. Even–especially–when things seem their most bleak, you have to put your shoulder to the wheel. Pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will.

Frank didn’t just pontificate. He embodied his ethos. He personified both clear-eyed thought and radical love. And there are people around the world who are missing him right now.

I had the honor of taking his classes, teaching beside him, drinking whiskey with him, knowing his family. He sent me to Egypt, and slipped me a $50 to help with printing costs for a pamphlet I wrote during the height of Occupy. I listened to him rant about what a terrible movie “Prometheus” was, and I sat beside him, knuckles white, as he toted me around Manhattan with driving skills that were less than pristine. (The conversation was always where Frank put his attention.)

We miss you, Frank. And we love you. You, more than most anyone, were unafraid of discussing mortality, the end that we’re all going to face. Knowing that we’re not going to live forever–really knowing it in our bones–helps us to be more alive in the years we have.

So I’ll end with some lines from Frank’s beloved Homer:
“Everything is more beautiful
because we’re doomed.
You will never be lovelier than you are now.
We will never be here again.”

We will never be here again. Frank knew that, and he lived like it. And through his profound engagement with the now, he changed us all. Now we’re left to do the same. Let’s do Frank proud, guys. I doubt if his voice, still present for so many of us, will give us any peace if we don’t.

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So it’s been six months…

…of radio silence, and while the site stats for Curriculum Veto don’t suggest that there are thousands of you out there in webspace gnashing your teeth, bellowing for more posts till your throats go raw, and weeping at the petulant silence I kick back in your faces, I thought I might check back in at CV, and generally try to do a better job keeping the site something close to current.

In terms of projects I’ve pursued since the last post:

  • Blunderbuss Magazine is operational. Several co-conspirators and I launched this webmag in March, and I’m really proud of the stories, poems, comics, and other bits of aesthetic shrapnel we’ve published in the months since. Blunderbuss’ orientation is one that we’re calling “visceral humanism,” an ethos we put to words in our founding manifesto. Most of my work has been behind the scenes, but I have posted three stories to the site: an interview with artist (and friend) Jessica Feldman,  a missive in defense of rude political protest, and a look at how the uncomfortable race & gender politics of The Great Gatsby is woven into the fabric of the book.
  • Edits on my first novel Where the Devil Don’t Stay are back in progress. By summer’s end I’ll be spamming the literary agents of NYC with query letters and manuscripts. Suggestions, advice, and blatant nepotism are all welcome as I throw myself at this process.
  • Just this week I signed a contract with Thought Catalog, the Brooklyn-based media brand that helped pushed Tao Lin to stardom (or was it the other way around?). They are starting a line of short media studies e-books, of which my essay on Occupy Wall Street, mediation, and authenticity will be among the first. Look for on the virtual shelves of internet bookstores later this summer.
  • My dissertation, also Occupy-themed, is underway.

On a personal note, Laura the girlfriend, Hugo the French bulldog, and I have all moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn. The new place is great, and as an added perk, we have the dulcet tones of the M-train and the mariachi-avant-thrash of the pentecostal church across Myrtle Avenue to ease us to sleep, whether we want them to or not. Seriously, though. I’m happy to be back in North Brooklyn after a four-year hiatus.

More to come. I promise not to leave Curriculum Veto festering for another half year!

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The Coming of Blunderbuss Magazine and the Future of Curriculum Veto

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If you’re even a semi-regular visitor to Curriculum Veto, you have likely noticed that it’s been awhile since I’ve updated this blog, and longer still since I’ve kept up a regular weeklyish clip of fresh content. There is a reason for this.

Along with the poet-journalist Alex Howe and writer/designer/comic book artist Kevin Tang (who has occasionally graced the posts of CV), I am in the process of founding Blunderbuss Magazine, a webmag scheduled to go live in March 2013. Like the weapon from which we take our name, we intend to shove our muzzles full of whatever is at hand, make lots of noise, and fire in seemingly random directions.  What will tie together the essays, stories, poems, photographs, reportage, comics, and other bits of aesthetic shrapnel found at Blunderbuss is a common attitude of visceral humanism. We want to splash in the mud of lived experience, to battle for a radical empathy, and to provide a megaphone to howling assertions of human subjectivity. A little vague? Sure. But we promise you’ll start to get our vibe as time goes on.

Getting Blunderbuss off the ground has proven no small task, and it has sapped most of the energy that had formerly been allotted to Curriculum Veto. Honestly, that’s probably going to continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. Updates here are going to continue to be infrequent, and the posts that do show up are likely to fall at the two poles of the deeply personal/crassly self-promotional spectrum, with anything in the middle migrating over to Blunderbuss.

I’ve deeply appreciated your readership over the past 10 months or so. It’s been exciting to see this site grow, but if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve found here, I invite you to keep tabs on the progress of Blunderbuss Magazine. To stay updated on our developments, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook. And keep an eye on CV. I promise to let you know what’s going on, both with me and with Blunderbuss.

Again, a sincere thanks to all of you who have read Curriculum Veto. But get excited; this next project is much bigger.

Best,
Travis

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Ancient Aliens, Scientism, and the Need for Myth: What the Paranormal Edutainment Complex Tells Us About Scientific Imperialism


Giorgio Tsoukalos, star of the History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens,” father of an internet meme, and owner of a great head of hair.

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“As we know from ancient Egyptian history, [UFOs] are manifestations of psychic changes which always appear at the end of one Platonic month and at the beginning of another. Apparently they are changes in the constellation of psychic dominants, of the archetypes, or ‘gods’ as they used to be called, which bring about, or accompany, long-lasting transformations of the collective psyche.”
~Carl Jung
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I’ve spent hundreds of hours of my life watching documentaries about things that I don’t believe exist. There is a sizable stretch of cable television dedicated to deadpan explorations of ghosts, aliens, Bigfeet, psychics, and dozens of other creatures of dubious reality, and judging by the cultural footprint of these shows, it’s clear that I’m not alone in my regular excursions onto this paranormal turf. The History Channel’s Ancient Aliens—arguably the crown jewel of the genre—has inspired an internet meme, provoked a South Park parody, and put up ratings that top Real Housewives and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. If you’re an American with cable TV, odds are good that you could find an episode of MonsterQuest, Paranormal State, The Nostradamus Effect, or Ghost Hunters airing right now.

These programs form a kind of Paranormal Edutainment Complex (PEC) that incorporates the audience, the studios that put out these shows, the channels that air them, the talking heads that reappear across different programs, and a cottage industry of books, films, and tourism centered on the featured subjects. Even Hollywood has seized the opportunity to make some cash by blurring the line between its own sci-fi and the PEC’s psi-sci. Last summer, Universal Pictures collaborated with Ancient Aliens to create a tie-in episode based around the big-budget camp spectacular Cowboys & Aliens.

PEC shows share an at least aesthetic adherence to the trappings of hard science and of heavily scientized fields of research like archaeology. Their “evidence” is designed to resemble, well, evidence. You’ll see, for instance, plaster casts of Bigfoot footprints, EMF readers beeping at spectral presences, and carvings of Mayan gods interpreted as records of alien contact. The kitsch factor of these shows is undeniable—observing prophecy expert John Hogue’s physical transformation into a facsimile of his beloved Nostradamus has in itself provided enough entertainment value to make my time spent with this genre worthwhile—but I think there’s more going on in the PEC than goofy fun and paranormal wish fulfillment. In their style and aesthetic, these shows are embodying and responding to cultural anxieties about science and its privileged role in arbitrating what does and does not constitute knowledge.

PEC programs promote a kind of epistemological populism. Mainstream scientists are cast as either drones blinded by their own assumptions or conspirators actively covering up the truth. The role of hero is reserved for amateur and outsider researchers. These researchers proudly tout the supposed evidence they collect and the alleged rigor of their methods, suggesting that it’s not science qua science that the PEC takes issue with, but scientists as a class. Science qua science, after all, has established itself as the gold standard for knowledge. Its tangible accomplishments (penicillin! man on the moon! cloned animals!) are flabbergasting. They appear concrete and legitimate in a way that the diffuse and discursive achievements of the arts, humanities, and spiritual endeavors do not. The resulting dominance of science—questioned in May by Philip Kitcher’s “The Trouble with Scientism” in The New Republic—has essentially forced non-scientific groups to at least superficially adopt scientific language and style of presentation. Even Christian fundamentalists, often framed as the enemies of science, seem to have conceded that they’ve lost the battle over rhetoric. Intelligent design theory, for example, paints a patina of science over religious creationism, and bestsellers like A Case for Christ attempt to make an empirical argument for the divinity of Jesus. Even if the impetus for their beliefs comes from a place of blind faith, fundamentalists realize that appeals to science are necessary when they venture outside the church and deal with skeptics and fence sitters.

Though most scientists might scoff at these efforts as they scoff at the claims put forward by the PEC, the fact that Christian groups are using this rhetoric represents a kind of victory for rationalism and reason. Even those with the most unscientific claims feel compelled to justify themselves through the language of science. Pointing to the Bible or to one’s own perceived experiences with the supernatural is no longer enough to make a valid claim to knowledge. You need evidence, and this evidence’s credibility is determined by its apparent adherence to parameters laid out by science.

This dominance is complicated, though, by the reality that, for most Americans, science is something of a black box. Scientists (God knows who) conduct experiments (entailing God knows what) and then issue reports that detail their conclusions (arrived at God knows how). Imagine that someone handed you two scientific reports, one that supports the concept of human-driven global warming and one that disputes it. Without falling back on the presumption of a scientific consensus for the former, could you determine if one study was sound and the other faulty? If you could, wonderful, but I suspect that the vast majority of us—myself included—could not. The esoteric nature of sciencespeak makes it an incredibly pliable social instrument. Since most of us are unable to differentiate what constitutes good science or bad science, we simply find a scientific-sounding explanation that supports whatever it is that we want to believe, even if that something is the existence of Bigfoot.


Check out the sweet science gear on these Bigfoot hunters.

And it’s important to realize that even if we could scour every inch of the Pacific Northwest and conclusively show Bigfoot doesn’t exist, Bigfoot would not go away. Many of us want to believe in myths. A world full of monsters and a sky full of aliens feels rich and mysterious in ways that the material banality of scientized existence does not. Even beyond this aspect of simple pleasure, folkloric thinking has value. Ghosts help us to consider our mortality and give shape and focus to the traces our loved ones leave behind when they die. The apocalyptacism of Nostradamus provides a chance to meditate on time, history, and free will and to vocalize anxieties about a world that pretty much always feels like its about to fly off the rails. The Grey ETs—those huge-headed, almond-eyed space invaders—can themselves be read as imaginative responses to the dominance of an unreflexive scientific mindset. They look like us, but with bigger brains, astonishing technological prowess, and an amoral lack of concern for their abducted subjects/victims during their sinister experiments. Like literature, myths provoke and help us to process important concerns, and like literature, myth has been largely demoted from its former status as an important tool for understanding life and the world.

Many of us, however, are not finished grappling with the issues surfaced by myth or with the evocative images and narratives that myth provides. Polls generally show that one-third to one-half of Americans believe in ghosts and God knows how many others, like me, would prefer to believe if it weren’t for the gnawing condemnation of the scientific establishment and the attendant fear of being thought an idiot. We want ghosts, dammit, and we want them taken seriously by the culture in which we live (meaning neither horror movies nor academic essays on The Turn of the Screw are enough). But if the only way that the mythic can find voice is through the language of science, then we shouldn’t be surprised when people start chasing spirits with infrared cameras, and we shouldn’t scoff either.

In popular perception and, at least to some degree, in reality, science is an imperial project, seeking to colonize every crevice of the human experience and explain it on its own terms. Love and altruism are configured as evolutionary adaptations. There are scientific journals dedicated to “empirical studies that apply scientific stringency to cast light on the structure and function of literary phenomena.” We’re told that the abstract artworks we like best are attributable to their 20% redundancy of elements. I’m not saying that there is something inherently sinister about quantitative work on topics that have generally been the purview of the humanities. My concern is that numbers will continue elbow qualitative thought out of the conversation on issues that cannot be adequately interpreted through the scientific method. Whether the folklore centers on Mt. Olympus, faeries, or of Little Green Men, there is insight to be gleaned by interpreting the world poetically and mythopoetically. And when the myth feels forced to resort to the language of science, both myth and science lose.

Science, too, has suffered from allowing its rhetoric to become ubiquitous. Since we all have to use scientific language anytime we make a claim to knowledge, we’ve bent it to a point of near limitless flexibility. We’re all so accustomed to using it as a tool to argue for pre-existing and predetermined beliefs that never needed to be scientized (ghosts, God, the goatman) that on issues where science is invaluable—proving that climate change is real and human-driven, for instance—it can feel natural and, for many Americans, even convincing to fall back on whatever science-ish arguments validate the side of an argument they’d prefer to be on. It bears mentioning that not every scientist is trying to drain the world of its spirit and its mystery. There are chemists who love Romantic poetry, physicists who are religious mystics, and biologists who believe in ghosts. This problem is cultural. The popular press, politicians, everyday people, many mainstream scientists, paranormal researchers—we’ve all given science a special claim to knowledge that its never fully earned.

The PEC is, in its way, a product of the scientific project of attempting to synthesize the unsynthesizable. We need access to the fantastic, not just on the order of individual pieces of fiction, but on the order of myths that we absorb, co-create, and reimagine collectively. They give us a cosmic, cognitive toolkit to work through life and love and death and disappointment. They give us a language to discuss these things that feels suitably epic and mysterious instead of anesthetic and reductionist. I doubt if these impulses can be successfully integrated into the scientific style of knowledge-craft. Capital-S Science is unlikely to ever welcome prophets and monsters into the fold, and yet prophets and monsters will never disappear. By resorting to science’s own rhetoric, the PEC works to buttress the monopoly on understanding that we’ve largely ceded to science. However, it also subverts it. It questions the right of any small cadre, no matter how smart or educated, to dictate the substance of reality. The PEC won’t let them take away our ghosts, our mystery, our magic, and for that, I guess I owe Ancient Aliens a debt of thanks.

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More than Rednexploitation: In Which Honey Boo Boo Asserts Her Subjectivity


Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson.

Like 2.8 million other Americans, I tuned into Wednesday night’s season finale of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Ever since I discovered the show in August, I’ve enjoyed being party to the couponing, farting, pig-chasing good times of Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson and the rest of her family, headed by the quick-witted and good-natured matriarch June Shannon. I’ve also read a lot of the press about the show, much of which has been, well, less-than-kind. No. It’s been mean. It’s been condescending. It’s been bigoted. Entertainment Weekly called the show a “rural reality cringefest.” The Hollywood Reporter goes absolutely hysterical, trying to pin the show with responsibility for “the dehumanization and incremental tearing down of the social fabric.”

The truly mean critics are easy to counter. Joe Lyons, writer of what he dubiously calls “funny things,” gleefully bashes the family for MamaPop, a site that desperately pretends to be the home of “opinionated, brainy writers” but can more accurately be described as an armory of cruel, easy jokes aimed in the direction of low-hanging fruit. Lyons apparently had some reservations about his meanness, but justifies it thusly:

I understand that some of the descriptions and generalizations that I make below can be construed as “mean.” I only feel free making them because the people involved agreed to do this type of show and are more than aware of how they knowingly carry themselves.

Yes. Little bitty Honey Boo Boo has thought deeply about how she knowingly carries herself. And as for the others, why don’t they just be good overweight Southerners and stay out of our sight? Hell, they should feel bad for forcing Joe to insult them by daring to show themselves on television. Anyone who isn’t conventionally attractive and prefers driving ATVs on mud trails over good middle-class hobbies like pilates ought to do us a favor and stay the hell invisible, because if they step out of their hovels then poor Joe HAS NO CHOICE but to behave like a smug, condescending, deeply unfunny asshole. Screw you, June, for bearing your face in public and making him call you “the result of when Divine from Pink Flamingos and a catcher’s mitt had an unwanted pregnancy and then left the infant at the doorstop of a Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s.” (And after that awkward abomination of phrasing, Joe has the nerve to mock the verbal acuity of the June and her brood.)

Anyway, that’s a long way of saying that the jerks who mock Honey Boo Boo and her family for being fat or poor or for not speaking like news anchors at the BBC are, indeed, jerks. Did June and her partner Mike “Sugar Bear” Thompson know that they’d receive snide cracks from pricks like Joe Lyons by allowing their lives to be taped and televised? I’d imagine so. I’d also imagine that they’re used to these cracks, seeing as how they’re alive and heavy in a culture that sees a few extra pounds as a crime worse than cruelty. They’ve just chosen to not allow the haters to shame them into the shadows.


June Shannon, not giving a shit about what Joe Lyons has to say.

In contrast to the genuine assholes, there’s another vein of criticism directed at Here Comes Honey Boo Boo that comes, I think, from a well-meaning place. In this category falls the previously-alluded to Tim “Incremental Tearing Down of the Social Fabric” Goodman from the Hollywood Reporter. He calls the show “transparently heinous” and “visual exploitation” since it gives the “green light to laugh at rednecks and fat people.” To some measure, of course, Goodman is right. TLC worked a fart into the opening credits and likes playing up the Southern-fried otherness of the Shannon/Thompson clan. That said, Goodman and critics view the family as objects as surely as the assholes do, but instead of objects begging for our ridicule, he sees them as the helpless objects of TLC’s exploitation.

For good-hearted liberals like Goodman, we need to “draw a line” against the “never-ending onslaught of reality television.” If you feel this way, let me encourage you to watch the show, again or for the first time, before you draw that line. (TLC’s showing a HCHBB marathon on Sunday starting at 2pm.) Try to suppress your personal distaste splashing in mudpits and cuddling with pet pigs, and take care to notice how this family interacts. They have fun with each other and support one another. Sugar Bear–bad teeth and all (I bet Lyons finds it hilarious when people don’t have access to proper dental care)–works seven days a week to support June and the four girls, three of whom aren’t even his by birth. The whole family–much, I’m guessing, to the shock of Northern audiences–adores and accepts Sugar Bear’s gay brother, Lee. As other writers have pointed out, these chubby girls appear wonderfully un-preoccupied with hating their bodies. And even the child pageants that Alana competes in seem more a product of her own interest than any motherly malfunction. In the season finale, June explicitly says that Alana will keep competing as long as she wants to and no longer, and her involved-but-not-obsessed behavior over the course of the series gives us no reason to doubt her.

Basically, I’m encouraging you to get beyond the aesthetics. Maybe you can’t imagine owning a pet pig named Glitzy or participating in anything called the Redneck Games (BTW, if you can’t see the joyous self-parody in these Games, you’re either inattentive or have hopelessly convinced yourself that playful irony is the exclusive property of the bourgeoisie). But people like different things, and hewing closely to an arbitrary definition of “normal” isn’t what makes for a healthy family. Love and mutual support is, and Honey Boo Boo & Co. have that in spades. Just because they’re from a specific socioeconomic milieu doesn’t mean that they need us well-meaning liberals to swoop in and whisk them back to the safe invisibility of the McIntyre, Georgia. They’re not ashamed to be seen; it’s the well-meaning liberals who have marked them as something shameful.

In his brilliant book Freaks Talk Back, sociologist Joshua Gamson convincingly argues that tabloid talk shows in the late 1980s and early 1990s were, on the aggregate, good for the LGBT community. Though the shows’ producers did lure audiences by playing up the “freak factor” of gay guests, the programs inadvertently provided a public platform by which these guests could speak for themselves. And being real, live humans–not objects in need of scorn or rescue–they often appealed to the humanity of the audiences. They were no longer displayed as only political objects to be hated by conservatives or pitied by liberals. They were shown to be subjects capable of joy, sadness, wit, and self-invention. Exploitation was certainly part of the talk shows’ game plan, but perhaps to their own surprise, they wound up serving as a vehicle for the humanization of an objectified class.

I think that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo functions in much the same way for the members of the much maligned Southern working poor. TLC might be aiming to exploit the Shannon/Thompson family–the sequences dedicated to June’s eccentric sneezes and the wholly unnecessary subtitles serve as cues for mocking laughter–but as Julia Bricklin of Forbes points out, “there’s no true dysfunction here.” I’ve heard a number of none-too-clever cracks about how TLC should be ashamed to call itself The Learning Channel, implying that the mating rituals of leopards or (endless) documentaries about Hitler are the only things that need to be taught. But watching HCHBB can remind us that nobody, regardless of class, should be treated as an object or as part of an undifferentiated, helpless mass. And that, I believe, is a lesson worth learning.

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Hiatus Over: New Post About Burning Man and Education on Formative Justice


The playa at sunrise. Black Rock City, NV. Photo by Kevin Tang.

Hi all. My blogging hiatus is officially over. The latest draft of my novel is finished, I have returned from my trip West, and I’m in the swing of my teaching/TAing gigs. My first venture back into the world of blogging is up at Formative Justice. An excerpt from “What It is to Burn: Affective Education at Burning Man“:

Cynics will point out that Burning Man isn’t really an antidote to consumerism or to a society obsessed with acquisition. After all, aren’t we just buying a bunch of stuff before we go out into the desert to give it away to each other? Isn’t it all just playing pretend? The answer is yes. We are playacting, pretending we’re already living in the world we want to live in. Where I differ from the cynics is that I think this playacting is more valuable than self-deluding. It is important for people to have the opportunity to feel the joys of communal, creative living, and to see that it is possible on a deeply impressive scale. Some attendees do come to Black Rock City for a week, gawk at the freak show, and go home unchanged. But many–perhaps many more–don’t leave their experience on the playa. Stories abound of people finally gathering the courage to leave unfulfilling careers, to end unhealthy relationships, and to pursue the lives they’ve always aspired to in the wake of Burning Man. People realize that their option set is wider than they’ve been conditioned to believe, and they find a community that will be there to support them. (A whole social network has risen around Burning Man, with parties, gatherings, and “regional burns” taking place around the country. San Francisco is the epicenter, but Burner scenes can be found all over.) Few will argue that Burning Man will on its own usher in an Age of Aquarius, but as a means, space, and culture to conceive of personal and sometimes community alternatives, it has real value.

I plan to return to a regular posting regimen from here on out. Hope your entry into fall has been a smooth one, and please stay tuned!

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(Temporarily) Hanging Up My Spurs (Sort Of)

If you are among the handful that follow Curriculum Veto with any consistency, you may have noticed that it’s been a couple weeks since my last post. There is a reason for this. I am currently wrapping up work on a novel under the pressure of a semi-self-imposed deadline. Three summers worth of work will be effectively completed by the time I make my way west for Burning Man on 8/24. I’m starting to feel the time crunch, so it’s getting harder and harder for me to justify spending an afternoon on a blog post. I’m not promising that I’ll never post–although I honestly hope I can resist the temptation to procrastinate–but if I do, these posts will be infrequent and probably racked with guilt.

I’ll be back to CV in earnest after Labor Day, and if you find yourself missing my staggering wit and ferocious insight, check out my Twitter feed @CurriculumVeto.

Hugs,
Travis

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A Sunday Collage XII

Every other time I go out to eat with a group, be it family, friends, or acquaintances of whatever age, conversation routinely plunges into a discussion of when it is appropriate to pull out a phone. People boast about their self-control over not checking their device, and the table usually reaches a self-congratulatory consensus that we should all just keep it in our pants. The pinnacle of such abstinence-only smartphone education is a game that is popular to talk about (though I’ve never actually seen it played) wherein the first person at the dinner table to pull out their device has to pay the tab. Everyone usually agrees this is awesome.

What a ridiculous state of affairs this is. To obsess over the offline and deny all the ways we routinely remain disconnected is to fetishize this disconnection. Author after author pretends to be a lone voice, taking a courageous stand in support of the offline in precisely the moment it has proliferated and become over-valorized. For many, maintaining the fiction of the collective loss of the offline for everyone else is merely an attempt to construct their own personal time-outs as more special, as allowing them to rise above those social forces of distraction that have ensnared the masses. “I am real. I am the thoughtful human. You are the automaton.” I am reminded of a line from a recent essay by Sarah Nicole Prickett: that we are “so obsessed with the real that it’s unrealistic, atavistic, and just silly.” How have we come to make the error of collectively mourning the loss of that which is proliferating?

~Nathan Jurgensen

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~Baschz Leeft

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In all of these cases, the hashtag is nothing more than an emoticon of sorts, says UC Berkeley Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg. And this explicit See what I did here? hashtag use is plain “stupid,” Nunberg laments, because any trace of irony is neutralized once you point to it with a big honking #. Why write something excitedly when you can lazily throw in #excited? Why not just say “I miss you” instead of #missingyou? Why put a sentence through this kaleidoscope of formatting horse shit instead of just saying something? Say anything. The bar is set so head-imploding-ly low—just write a statement that doesn’t require me to retroactively apply a hashtag to get the gist of what you’re saying. Once the hashtag has been applied so sloppily, killed as a form of interesting metacommentary, “it’s not doing what it’s meant to,” says Nunberg. It’s broken and gratuitous.

~Sam Biddle

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“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
“Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”
“Is Pinterest Making Us Blind?”
“Is the Kindle Making Us Illiterate?”
“Are Houses Making Us Homeless?”
“Is This Dress Making Us Look Fat?”
“Are Paperweights Making Our Papers Fly Away?”
“Is Mom Making Us Dinner Tonight?”
“Are Inner Tubes Making Us Sink?”
“Is Artisanal Coffee Making Us Douchebags?”

~Zachary Pincus-Roth

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Opponents of the law have endlessly invoked “socialism.” Nothing in the Affordable Care Act or any part of President Obama’s challenges the basic dynamics of market capitalism. All sides accept that some of us should continue to enjoy vastly greater comforts and pleasures than others. If you don’t work as hard as Mitt Romney has, or were born less smart, or to worse parents, or enjoyed worse schools, or invested your skills in an industry that collapsed, or suffered any other misfortune, then you will be punished for this. Your television may be low-definition, or you might not be able to heat or cool your home as comfortably as you would like; you may clothe your children in discarded garments from the Salvation Army.

This is not in dispute. What is being disputed is whether the punishments to the losers in the market system should include, in addition to these other things, a denial of access to non-emergency medical treatment. The Republican position is that it should. They may not want a woman to have to suffer an untreated broken ankle for lack of affordable treatment. Likewise, I don’t want people to be denied nice televisions or other luxuries. I just don’t think high-definition television or nice clothing are goods that society owes to one and all. That is how Republicans think about health care.

~Jonathan Chait

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The danger of “destructive tolerance” (Baudelaire), of “benevolent neutrality” toward art has been recognized: the market, which absorbs equally well (although with often quite sudden fluctuations) art, anti-art, and non-art, all possible conflicting styles, schools, forms, provides a “complacent receptacle, a friendly abyss” (Edgar Wind, Art and Anarchy (New York: Knopf, 1964) p. 101) in which the radical impact of art, the protest of art against the established reality is swallowed up. However, censorship of art and literature is regressive under all circumstances. The authentic oeuvre is not and cannot be a prop of oppression, and pseudo-art (which can be such a prop) is not art. Art stands against history, withstands history which been the history of oppression, for art subjects reality to laws other than the established ones: to laws of the Form which creates a different reality–negation of the established one even where art depicts the established reality. But in the long struggle with history, art subjects itself to history: history enters the definition of art and enters into the distinction between art and pseudo-art. Thus it happens that what was once art becomes pseud0-art. Previous forms, styles, and qualities, previous modes of protest and refusal cannot be recaptured in or against a different society. There are cases where an authentic oeuvre carries a regressive political message–Dostoevski is a case in point. But then, the message is canceled by the oeuvre itself: the regressive political content is absorbed, aufgehoben in the artistic form: in the work as literature.

~Herbert Marcuse

 

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Life, Death, and Moral Contemplation in the Arena: The Hunger Games and the Ambiguity of Violence


Katniss Everdeen, as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games. Pic from Adventures in Poor Taste.

As I’ve mentioned before, my grad program’s lack of summer funding has pressed me into service at the CV Starr East Asian Library at Columbia University. This means a lot of shoving book-loaded carts through the stacks and returning each book to its designated shelf. (An aside: if you flip through a library book and return it to the wrong spot, YOU RUIN EVERYTHING! Set it on a table, drop it off on the circulation desk, hell, throw it on the floor, but if its in the wrong place on a shelf, a book is as good as lost, and I hate you.) The library work isn’t what you’d call intellectually rigorous, but on the upside, I can do a lot of it with my headphones on. So over the last few weeks, I’ve managed to listen to the complete audiobook recordings of The Hunger Games trilogy. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting–probably something akin to Twilight-meets-Mad Max–but what I found was a surprisingly nuanced take on war, revolt, and moral ambiguity. Some of the weaknesses that you’d expect from YA literature are present here–the prose can be clunky and the teenage love triangle is tiring–but it’s treatment of violence was more thoughtful than most fiction geared toward an adult readership.

Let me start with a quick description of the series for those of you who are unfamiliar. (SPOILERS AHEAD!) The series centers around Katniss Everdeen, a girl living in post-apocalyptic society that grew out of the ashes of the USA. This country–called Panem–consists of 13 districts that are subjugated by the Capitol. To affirm its dominance, each year the Capitol holds the eponymous Hunger Games, an event that culls one male and one female teenager from each of the districts to engage in a grusome battle royale on national TV. Katniss wins the 74th Hunger Games and, through various acts of televised rebellion, inspires the districts to revolt. A civil war ensues, and Katniss–now the symbol and figurehead of the rebellion–is forced to deal with the ethical ambiguities of war.

It’s to the credit of author Suzanne Collins that the violence in the series is treated with the weight that it deserves. Deaths, even those of Katniss’ opponents and enemies, aren’t celebrated as victories or even skated over as regrettable necessities. Instead, Katniss mulls over the ethical implications of each death. She’ll kill if she must, but she’s constantly meditating over these killings as tragedies and atrocities. The Careers–combatants from the richer districts who have trained for the Hunger Games since early childhood–are certainly presented as unsympathetic and even sadistic, but the novels never let the reader forget that these are teenagers who are forced to kill for the entertainment of others. The cries of the once-menacing Cato from District 2 as he is mauled by genetically altered wolves inspire Katniss to kill him out of an impulse of pity rather than of malice or even self-defense. And even then, Cato’s death continues to haunt her dreams.

In this, Katniss mirrors the trauma felt by real conflict survivors. Near the end of the series, we find her so devastated by the Games and the war that followed that she is unable to speak, unwilling to eat, and contemplating suicide. Refreshingly, this isn’t presented as evidence of some inborn feminine fragility. There are no unbreakable heroes in The Hunger Games universe, male or female. Katniss’ (male) mentor Haymitch has anesthesized himself through his alcoholism. Her (male) friend and sometime lover Peeta is driven to madness by the torture he experienced at the hands of Capitol forces. Peeta’s case actually reads like an account of severe PTSD. He struggles to interpret reality and sees sinister motivations everywhere. He’s prone to unpredictable violent episodes, and, like many soldiers, these are often directed at the woman he loves. In one of the series’ most disturbing passages, he mistakes Katniss as a threat and attempts to choke the life out of her. In spite of this, Collins paints him sympathetically. Though he must be subdued for the safety of the other characters–Peeta willingly spends most of the third book in handcuffs–it’s clear that he hasn’t “become evil”; instead, he’s a young man beaten and broken by torture.

Though the Capitol and its sinister President Snow are the villains for most of the series, the rebel forces are shown to be capable of atrocities that rival their enemy’s in terms of callousness and cruelty. Like a pair of futuristic Oppenheimers, two of Katniss’ friends spend days in the lab devising weapons to use in a fight that they see as moral. Once the weapons are crafted, though, decisions about using them are out of the pair’s hands. They watch, helpless, unbelieving, as the rebel forces employ their double-explosion bombs in a false flag operation that kills a crowd of children and then the rebels’ own medics, including Katniss’ younger sister. Without imposing a false equivalency–the necessity of toppling the tyrannical Capitol is never seriously debated, Peeta’s occasional and possibly coerced calls for a cease-fire notwithstanding–the rebels are shown to be capable of profound evil in pursuit of goals that are arguably just. Revolutions aren’t magical, purifying flames in Panem. In fact, Katniss’ arrow is all that saves Panem from a possible Stalinist post-revolutionary dictatorship under President Coin.

This shades of ambiguity here are something rare in books targeted at Young Readers (and, for that matter, old readers). While Dumbledore might’ve had a slightly checkered past, can you really imagine the Order of the Phoenix orchestrating a plot to kill innocent children, even if they thought it might hasten the demise of Voldemort and his Death Eater regime? And Aslan the Lion? Would he consider such a slaughter? This isn’t a testament to the robust values of the Harry Potter and Narnia series; it’s indicative of their distorted representation of war and conflict. I know that we read popular fiction–maybe especially fantasy and sci-fi–at least in part to escape from the complexities and banalities of day to day life. I enjoyed the Potter books. It’s satisfying to participate in conflicts that are Manichean, even if you’re only participating via the proxy of fictional characters. It’s pleasurable to support a side that is faultlessly noble while your enemy embodies practically Satanic levels of evil. Or, at least, it makes it less complicated to celebrate the former’s triumph and the latter’s annihilation. But what makes for satisfying entertainment can also make for a warped view of war. If the stories we tell our children about violence present it as an ennobling endeavor where the good struggle to vanquish the wicked, how many steps are they from buying into concepts like the “Axis of Evil” or “they hate us for our freedom”? Stories don’t just end when the book is closed. What we read and watch, especially at a young age, helps establish cognitive frames that we’re likely to think with for the rest of our lives.

The experience of reading (or, in my case, listening to) The Hunger Games largely avoids these simplicities and lures its readers into the complexities its stories. Even as we’re disgusted by a culture that could hurl children into an arena to fight, die, and murder, we realize–or at least we should–that we’ve been seduced by just a repugnant entertainment. Much of the drama and the tension of the first two books, much of what keeps the pages turning, is a high stakes plotline of violence and intrigue worked into a reality show format. We might never want to see such an event implemented in reality, but if it was, the books ask, could we trust ourselves to look away?

The Epilogue of Mockingjay, the series’ final book, ties together a few loose ends, but unlike the tidy, gift-wrapped turd that ended the Potter series, it doesn’t give a rosy view of a happy post-war world. Yes, Katniss and Peeta marry (could we once see a blockbuster YA series end with the hero not marrying a teenage sweetheart?), but their recovery from what they’ve endured is wrenching. It took years for Katniss to trust him again and years more to even be willing to consider bringing children into the world. As we leave her, she worries about how she’ll explain her involvement in the Hunger Games and the rebellion to her son and daughter. For Katniss, as for many who experience war first hand, there is life after trauma, but it’s not the easy peace of the “suburban dads and Quidditch moms” that Harry & Co. suddenly become in the last pages of book 7. Instead, it’s a difficult process of picking up the shards that war has scattered, and choosing life in defiance of a world built on death.

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