Archive for the ‘media’ Category

The “Real” Tibet

February 15, 2010

It’s fair to say that the goal of articles in Foreign Policy magazine is to clarify, to elucidate, to let the light of rationality shine upon some murky issue in the field of foreign policy. This being the case, I was intrigued by the recent article “Tibet is no Shangri-La,” which has no penetrating vision or fresh policy prescription; instead, it simply asks us to think about Tibet as if it were a real place.

The essay opens by taking Westerners to task for creating hopelessly nostalgic “new Orientalist” representations of Tibet and glorifying the famous Dali Lama. It then points out not only that Tibetans aren’t all orange clad Buddhist monks, but also that some Tibetans seek to profit from the Western image of “Tibetan-ness” by creating old-timey Tibet theme tourist traps. The essay also notes that folks who consider themselves ethnic Tibetans in fact hail from various locales in the vast expanse of western China, and that, while they tend to be practicing Buddhists, they’re not necessarily pulsating with noble religious fervor 24-7. (Nor are they, as the Chinese media would have you believe, separatist terror mongers.) Instead, they have fairly reasonable grievances against the Han settlers and the Chinese government, which quite clearly discriminates against them. To the degree that there’s a point, it is that Tibetans inhabit reality, not some colorful metaphysical realm.

I would like to take add a couple points about how we formed this image of Tibet in the first place: when the Dalai Lama and his followers escaped Tibet in 1959, they got a few inches of print in Western newspapers — but that was it. The US was ambivalent; the CIA secretly provided weapons and funding to Tibetan guerrillas during the 50s and 60s, but the Dalai Lama was consistently refused a US visa and occupied essentially zero space in the American “popular imagination,” if you’ll allow the term. After Chinese rapprochement in ’72, the US was happy with this obscurity. After decades of activism, along with media coverage of demonstrations in Lhasa in 1987 and 89, Tibet still wasn’t the cause celebre that we know today. It was only in the early 90s, when Richard Gere and others (most notably Steven Segal) became interested in Tibetan Buddhism, that Joe Sixpack saw these sad images of Himalayan tranquility. What I mean to say is this: it wasn’t just traditional “Orientalism” that made us suddenly feel sentimental about Tibet — it was a sustained and expensive PR campaign orchestrated by Hollywood insiders who happened to be enthusiastic about Buddhism. In this way, the DL was annointed as as a public figure (in the West) and began to receive his controversial White House invites.

On a related note, I once read a pretty neat article about how Tibet activists try to constantly manage and negotiate the image of the Dalai Lama. In particular, some of them are angry that “culture” and Buddhism are the main elements of Tibet discourse in the West, and hope instead to re-brand the DL as a political leader — which, from their perspective, he obviously is.

In sum, I enjoyed this FP essay, but I think it should have talked about how the prevalent image of Tibet is actually a commodity. The article seeks to challenge false images of Tibet, but it doesn’t talk about how those images were amplified and perpetuated by a massive PR campaign. (Meanwhile the Chinese are waging an equal and opposite PR campaign, but that’s another story.)

Psychology, Biology, Politics of Food — take the course!

February 2, 2010

Not only has Food (with a capital F) become a big draw for punditry and political debate in recent years, but food (with a small f) is also probably the thing I love the most. Having come to this realization, and having run afoul of a glaring lack of watchable TV (at least until new episodes of Glee and Mad Men come out), I’m going to be using some of my free time to “take a course” on food and related topics over at Open Yale courses.

If you too are unemployed, you should take it as well! Hopefully it’ll be fun. And given the recent controversy surrounding China and its poorly enforced food processing sector(s), this course may even generate ideas for a viable term paper…hmmm…

Fresh Propaganda from the Washington Post

November 29, 2009

The front page of the Post today featured a cloying human interest piece on Marine training at Quantico. Here’s my response, a short passage from the classic novel of meaningless warfare All Quiet on The Western Front:

“We were trained in the army for ten weeks and in this time more profoundly influenced than by ten years at school…At first astonished, then embittered, and finally indifferent, we recognized that what matters is not the mind but the boot, not intelligence but the system, not freedom but drill…With our young, awakened eyes we saw that the classical conception of the Fatherland held by our teachers resolved itself here into a renunciation of personality such as one would not ask for of the meanest servant…We had fancied our task would be different only to find we were being trained for heroism as though we were circus ponies. But we soon accustomed ourselves to it.”

So, in sum, I’ll thank the editors of the Post not to bombard me with nonsense, or at least to kindly relegate such nonsense to the Sports section.

Supermodels were annoying enough *before* I saw this video

November 20, 2009

Once again I’m baffled by a youtube video and I don’t know what to do except post it here; this time it’s a promo for 350.org featuring models disrobing in support of climate change legislation (??)

What the hell? It’s asinine and annoying. And you could argue that it reinforces the patriarchy’s preoccupation with gazing at female flesh, and that the women involved could pass for young girls and should probably eat something — but those are baseline critiques for the fashion industry in general.

In this case I’m more annoyed because this is actually a serious issue re-cast in the trivial language of sexy advertising. Why do you see this for climate change but not for health care reform or, like, foreign policy objectives?

But I’m MOST annoyed at myself because I actually clicked on it and watched the thing! (Dejected sigh)

The Discreet Charm of “This American Life”

November 15, 2009

Back in September the folks from This American Life did a financial crisis recap episode (which I’m just now getting around to, since I’ve been listening to my podcasts via Google Reader, which seems to rub TAL the wrong way for some reason?)

Anyway, here’s a snippet of dialogue between Adam “Planet Money” Davidson and a guy called Glen, a “mortgage company sales manager” i.e. one of the people who used to package risky mortgages together and make oodles of money selling them. Glen has since lost most all of his money and undergone something of a transformation:

————————

Glen: I’m driving a car now that has no paint on it…you know, it’s a piece of junk. And…I used to think that it mattered, you know? But, it doesn’t.

Adam: I’m picturing an alternative Glen — the Glen from the world where there was no bubble bursting, the Glen who’s still making $100,000 a month, who still has that lifestyle…and I’m picturing meeting that Glen today. And I feel like I like this Glen a lot more!

Glen: Yeah, without a doubt. Well, because…how do I explain this? Other than…that Glen was about Glen. And this Glen, is about what I can bring to — trying not to sound cliche — society. What I can bring to my family. What I can do to make sure that we don’t keep creating that Glen. You know?

—————————

It is very emotional stuff. The jarring change in Glen’s life forced him to essentially create a new Glen. This allowed him to look critically at his old identity — particularly as he had performed it through wildly conspicuous consumption.

There’s an old sociological conundrum here: how much of our identity is unequivocally our own? How much is produced as a “role” by the social institutions and ideological structures around around us? Further, what powers benefit from enforcing those institutions? I mean, my liberal arts alarm bells really went off when I heard that sentence in bold, because it was Glen acknowledging that society had something to do with creating “Glen.”

But…I also suspect that TAL as a text wants me to have this reaction. If you listen to the whole podcast, the hosts are very careful to shift blame away from Glen or any of the other individuals profiled in the show and towards “society” or “culture.” I do think this is appropriate in this instance since the financial crisis was clearly an institutional crisis — but I also think that this bemused, albeit well informed, detachment is part of the TAL brand. Like, they are clearly not going for outrage and righteous indignation, the bread and butter of Rush Limbaugh and legions of other ultra conservative talk radio hosts. Instead, the antidote to that — there is really no discussion of politics at all!

We are supposed to identify Glen as having fallen victim to American “rugged individualism” gone haywire, or the craven “corporate culture” of Wall Street financial firms — views which, incidentally, I agree with. But of course I’m the ideal white middle class listener!

Also note that we’re not really supposed to bridge our analysis into any kind of action, nor are we supposed to hold Glen (ourselves) accountable. No, the corruption and redemption of Glen is a narrative arc that fits neatly into the TAL genre which, largely by masquerading as realism, gives us listeners pleasure.

I will go even further out on this limb and claim that we’re supposed to internalize Glen’s plight as we work towards a greener, more diverse and democratic (community-friendly) capitalism — the supreme symbol of which is Barack Obama! Yay America! etc.

A few words about Star Trek

May 27, 2009

I hesitate to cast myself as a truly hard core Trek fan, because of the negative connotations surrounding convention goers and the like, but I have in fact been a devotee since I can remember. (I have a super retro poster signed by Roddenberry himself.) What with the recent arrival of JJ Abrams’ revamped prequel, I’m positively bubbling with enthusiasm for all things Trek.

BUT unfortunately for whoever reads this, the liberal arts student in me wants to to apply some (totally unoriginal) cultural criticism to the subject. Here we go:

The world envisioned by Star Trek is the ultimate goal of the Enlightenment project, it’s the “positive” end of logical positivism, it’s the future triumph of science, technology, and rationalism. Egalitarianism has been enshrined, money (for the most part) no longer exists, nor does poverty. In Marx’s terms, humanity is no longer shackled to the means of production hence social class disappears. Meanwhile the military, such as it exists, pursues an altruistic mission of peace and understanding.

Mark Twain, who appears on a *great* two part episode of The Next Generation, raises the classic post-colonial objection: “I know what you say, that this is a vessel of exploration, and that your mission is to discover new worlds. That’s what the Spanish said… and the Dutch, and the Portuguese…” And (to jump the gun) that’s what we’re meant to believe about contemporary US foreign policy. Like the US, Starfleet is supposed to be the benevolent peacekeeper of the universe (though each starship is armed to the teeth) and Starfleet values egalitarianism and diversity (though of course it operates according to a strict hierarchy and values conformity among its agents)

Another contradiction: Starfleet crew are meant to uphold cultural relativism via the prime “non-interference” directive. They aren’t meant to interfere with other cultures or intercede in their development. But during pretty much every episode (especially of the original series) the crew steps in to set things right and teach the aliens a thing or two about correct values. As scholar Valerie Fulton has pointed out, Starfleet’s multiculturalism has clear boundaries, since the Federation only really tolerates cultures that have internalized their vision of modernity. The Klingons, Romulans, and Vulcans are suspect — Worf, Spock, Data, and the other non-human crew members are always being put in moral dilemmas in which they must prove themselves loyal to Starfleet and its values.
Similarly, as countless ethnic studies scholars have argued, the “melting pot” welcomes immigrants, but only if they subordinate their own values to those of white middle class culture.

As Katey Rich points out, “Everyone knows that sci-fi and fantasy operate as metaphors for our current world.” Accordingly Trek writers have invented ways to address our own social anxieties within the metaphor that is Star Trek — primarily by re-asserting the Federation (the idealized US) as the best social system in the galaxy. Those episodes of the original series that can be said to be about anything other than crappy stunts were about mind control, watered down expressions of 60’s paranoia. Trek IV is about environmentalism (sorta), Trek VI is about the Cold War, The Borg represent our fear of corporate sponsored techno-media induced conformity, the Kardassian/Bajoran dispute elaborated in DS9 is a thinly veiled allegory for the Israeli Palestinian conflict, etc. The latest installment in the franchise features a fanatic villain (clearly marked as “other” by his speech patterns, tattoos and whatnot) remnant of a fallen empire, driven to terrorism by his mad desire for a return to an arkane social order. Sound familiar? (He is actually something akin to the famous Kahn, whose acquisition of the Genesis device in Trek II perhaps expressed latent fear about the dangers of nuclear proliferation)

It is hardly a spoiler to reveal that the the new Trek movie re-invents the original Trek using a time travel trope, setting it up to become the infinite sci-fi franchise. (It’s only potential rival in this regard, the now discredited Star Wars)

I have officially spent too much time writing this, but I will conclude by quoting
a recent conversation with my friend Tracy: “what with time travel and alternate realities, each new generation can rewrite the star trek narrative to express the aspirations and insecurities of its times …forever. It can be a permanent cultural form.” Yes! Trek has proved very flexible to adaptation, partly because it is just cool and partly because it reinforces the fantasy of benevolent colonialism and justified violence, ideals which carry over neatly from the largest American mass media cultural form, the Western.

As Mr. Spock would say, “Fascinating.”

The Plight of the Unfriended

February 26, 2009

I have a random acquaintance who, apparently having decided that the “random” part of the equation now significantly outweighs the “acquaintance” part, revoked our claim to facebook friendship.

I’ve seen this kind of thing happen before, and I have no problem with it in principle. Friendship on facebook, as in real life, is a relationship based on feelings — an arrangement that depends on mutual esteem or fellow feeling. Of course the surreal nature of facebook allows one to accumulate “friends” without actually *being* friends, and this is generally harmless. But when the feeling of friendship is completely absent, its only visible remnant a fake facebook connection lodged somewhere in the digital void, then yeah, sure, unfriending makes sense.

But here’s the rub: every time I log on to facebook, the little “friend suggestions” tab features this person’s face along with the innocent declaration that “You and _____ went to Wesleyan.” Yes, facebook. I know this. What are you trying to imply? Frankly, I find your “suggestion” a little tasteless.

When you’re not friends with someone anymore, you don’t want to be constantly reminded of that fact. It’s awkward. But I think there’s additional weirdness here that comes from another source: the obvious disconnect between real life and facebook. In real life, there’s (usually) no decisive, permanent moment of “un”friendship — you just lose touch, you “stop speaking” as it were. On facebook, however, you are privy to a permanent, written notice, and in this case a near constant reminder, of mutual apathy. This taps into the coolest aspect of online communication from an English major’s perspective, which is that digital “speech” strikes a middle ground between the verbal and the written. And when the permanence of online stuff runs up against social convention of casual verbal communication, it produces dissonance. This is particularly true because facebook has become key to the way I interact with others — it’s part of how I socialize.

Of course I’m taking this insight straight out of the ethnographic work of the incomparable Jenny Ryan, so I’ll just go ahead and quote a paragraph from her amazing MA thesis:

“While many of my informants condemned social networking sites for contributing to a perceived decline in face-to-face interaction, by and large these sites serve simply as extensions of preexisting communication practices. The ubiquity of social Internet use among younger generations has given rise to the use of online social networks for expressing friendship bonds and group affiliations, lending an explicit affirmation of belonging in the world. In one of my interviews, a student related to me that before she came to college, her older sister informed her that “you don’t exist if you’re not on Facebook.” It is precisely this mentality that may lead some to depend on these visual articulations of their social worlds, especially in times of loneliness and depression. Online social networks enable the virtual expression of longstanding offline obsessions with effectively performing one’s identity, demonstrating one’s popularity,and acquiring information about romantic interests.”

The performance of identity is a key theme of current anthropology and cultural/ethnic studies — and Jenny points out that it applies perfectly to online social networking. People are very concerned with how they present themselves, crafting a digital persona or self to perform in the online arena, just as they do in everyday life. When being “friends” with someone no longer really fits with the self you see yourself as, then you shelve the friendship. It’s perfectly natural. I just wish facebook wasn’t in my face about it all the time!

Beyond Good and Evil: The Postmodern Batman

September 12, 2008

OK check it out:

Czech author Misha Glenny recently wrote a book concerning the globalization of organized crime entitled McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld. She maintains that, “criminal corporations aspire to penetrate markets the world over, mirroring the global goals of legal entities such as McDonald’s.” Just how would they do that?

When the Kremlin fell Russia became, in Glenny’s words, “a chaotic scramble for riches and survival that saw virtually every citizen sucked into a vortex of violence.” Apparently crime became a very profitable enterprise for a new class of capitalists just coming into their own. The shadow market, in everything from narcotics and weapons to cigarettes and sex workers, saw tremendous growth. The resulting explosion of capital, “traveled well beyond the Soviet Union’s borders into all continents of the world as money poured out of the country, looking for safe havens, some legal but most decidedly dodgy. Throbbing at the heart of these extraordinary events was Moscow.”

Because of continuing financial liberalization, it was fairly easy for the international mafia to mix its profits with legitimate capital. Indeed, “according to figures culled from the IMF, the World Bank, and research institutes in Europe and North America,” Glenny says, the worldwide shadow economy — including tax dodges, black market trading and other criminal activity — “now accounts for between 15 and 20 percent of global turnover.”

Glenny admonishes: “If we fail to construct an adequate regulatory mechanism — that is, some form of global governance — then organized crime and corruption will combine with protectionism and chauvinism to engender a very unstable and very dangerous world.”

Ah ha! This is an excellent example of the dark side of globalization — an undesirable global phenomenon which eludes regulation under current law.  Glenny suggests that to combat this, we need some kind of global governance which represents the interests and cooperation of every country.  We all know this is a pipe dream.

But what if there was some kind of mysterious, totally independent actor with practically unlimited resources, not sponsored by or accountable to any organization? What if it acted only according to its own version of vigilante justice, unrestrained by “slave morality” or state-sponsored doctrine? Wouldn’t we all be better off?

I’m speaking, of course, about Batman.

If you haven’t seen The Dark Knight yet, I’m loathe to point out that there are spoilers ahead — I’d argue that at this late date, you should be expecting them. So this is what I mean: the mob in The Dark Knight can transfer capital across state borders effortlessly. Meanwhile, local law enforcement, restricted by the geographical limitations of state power, can do nothing. Bruce Wayne, the ultimate ad-venture capitalist, must sweep in to the rescue!

Batman Begins has Bruce Wayne return to Gotham City to discover his company in the hands of petty bureaucrats who, no doubt adapting to changes in global demand, are now using Wayne capital to manufacture and sell heavy weapons. (Iron Man Tony Stark’s revelation, that his company’s weapons have fallen into the hands of terrorists, is an interesting parallel here.) At the end of the movie, Wayne uses financial trickery to buy the company back on the open market and puts in his friend Fox as CEO — thus he has won back his control from the suits, who remained for the most part nameless and spineless throughout the film.

In Dark Knight, which picks up more or less where BB left off, we see Wayne using his new found corporate clout to case a corrupt Chinese company, in a way that government agencies would never be able to do. (Indeed, unless there was some kind of strategic or profitable reason to probe into the machinations of Chinese companies, the state wouldn’t *want* to do so) But Bruce Wayne and Batman both operate well outside of the traditional justice system — as well as the predictable motives of the self-interested corporate/state apparatus.

Unable to predict (and hence control) Batman, the mob establishment hires The Joker to murder him — unaware that Joker is also a totally independent actor and will not respect the unwritten code of mob activity.  What is this code? Enthusiasts will remember that Hermine Falcone, the mob boss from the first installment, reveals its essence: Power.  In his off-the-cuff retort to the naive Bruce Wayne, Falcone insists that the criminal underbelly thrives on “power that you can’t buy” i.e. the power of fear.

It’s worth noting that this sort of power is the estranged cousin of that which the state relies upon — the power of “moral legitimacy.” The Joker is immune to fear, hence he cannot be controlled by his mob cohorts. Batman does not accord moral legitimacy to anyone except himself, hence he cannot be controlled by his police cohorts.  Batman’s goal is justice; the Joker’s is anarchy — yet neither one of these goals can be fit completely within a prescribed category of “good” or “evil”.  The comparison to Neitszche’s ubermench is irresistible.

Actually, if I *really* want to indulge in quasi-academic metaphors, which appears to be one of the primary purposes of this blog anyway, then I’ll go ahead and say thatThe Dark Knight is the first superhero film that uses realpolitik to tell the story. That’s what cool about it.
The Batman Begins screenplay foresees this approach because the Nolan brothers successfully created an atmosphere of paranoia in that film — no one can be trusted. But there remained the implication that Batman, with his “good” violence, Bruce Wayne with his “good” capitalism, Rachel with her “good” maneuvering the justice system, and Gordon with his “good” law enforcement, could triumph over rampant crime and corruption. The Dark Knight poses a strong challenge to this idea (epitomized by the brutal transformation of Harvey Dent.)

My general point about the Batman Begins/The Dark Knight movies is that, going way beyond what any previous super hero franchise has done, it portrays a Good vs. Evil, Cold War-esque system that then becomes totally unstable with disastrous consequences. This situation makes one question what morality is in the first place — I think Alfred’s comment about burning down the jungle to catch a thief, certainly a veiled Vietnam reference, is very telling in this regard. Now in the first part of this post, I wanted to relate the movie to the apparent “globalization” of mob activity for several reasons: it’s a phenomenon which sprang up after the Cold War, it doesn’t get a lot of publicity, and it goes along with the film’s re-imagining of Batman’s traditional crime fighting purview. It appears also to require Bruce Wayne’s newer tools, drawn from the playbook of global capitalism, i.e. corporate espionage. Evidently Batman, and the role that he plays in the Gotham universe, has changed a lot.

Consider the fact, which Bill first pointed out to me, that The Dark Knight is the first truly “post 9/11” superhero movie. Not only does it deal with radical terrorism, forcing Batman to create an ingenious and very intrusive surveillance system in order to catch The Joker, but also it forces Batman to face the grim consequences of the “escalation” process that Gordon outlines at the end of BB. (“We buy kevlar, they buy armor piercing rounds…etc.”) The assumption on the part of the United States that they enjoyed unquestioned dominance of world affairs — hence could ignore the consequences of arming the mujahideen in Afghanistan, among other inflammatory and originally anti-Soviet measures in the Middle East, was smashed on 9/11. (Thus began what Benazir Bhutto calls “World War IV”.)

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks so I’m not saying anything lighthearted here. What I am saying is that The Dark Knight, in all of its extreme darkness, approximates the way the world is today. This is why, even beset as it is with clunky dialogue from time to time and the tragic lack of Katie Holmes throughout, it is a *great movie*.

Phew!

Late Night w/ Degrassi — An Inquiry into Values

July 9, 2008

Unable to sleep the other night, one of my roommates and I stayed up watching this Canadian teen drama called Degrassi: The Next Generation on cable.

It was a roller coaster of a show.

Really, I can’t stress this enough: it was absolutely insane.

This show is teen drama on steroids. Watching this show is like being beaten to within an inch of your life with the drama stick. Every scene is relentlessly awkward, thoroughly awash with gossip and secrets and fragile teenage bonds being tested on the mantle of everyday life; the adolescent joy, fear and sheer adrenaline in this show is palpable. You can’t help but be sucked in because every moment is a set up for the next — and you’re waiting for it with bated breath. Wow!

I mean, the popular teen drams when I was a kid were crude and quite obviously silly. But Degrassi is genuinely compelling and incredibly sophisticated. Not only that, Degrassi is edgy — the show deals with real issues! Gone is the saccharine world of Saved by the Bell, where caffeine pills are the hardest drugs out there. Now we’re face to face with complicated real-world situations. (For Peter Jackson nerds out there, I think it’s fair to say that Beverly Hills: 90210 is to The Muppet Show as Degrassi: TNG is to Meet the Feebles.)

Media educator Sharon Ross also happened to discover the show at random late one night and was immediately impressed with its depth and realism — she proceeded to watch episodes featuring “date rape, cutting, relationship violence, school shootings, parents with cancer, abortions…all with minimal preaching and maximum information. The kids were played by kids, the issues weren’t resolved in a half hour (nor did they involve special characters coming in for one episode to “be the issue” and then disappear)… How in god’s name had this show ever made it onto my TV set? ”

To answer this question Ross took a trip to Toronto and talked to the creators of Degrassi TNG, the latest installment in 25 years of wildly popular Degrassi shows. “Writers Brendon Yorke and James Hurst spoke about the importance of writing so as to make a point: not ‘let’s do this because it’s a hot button issue,’ but rather, writing to demonstrate that ‘if you understand your neighbor,’ you’ll see that there is always some other side to a story — some angle you might not have considered. This, dare I inject some academia, is the cultural forum I constantly seek in TV…some sense that TV can and should provoke discussion and debate.” That’s right — TV that seeks discussion and awareness rather than simply consumption.

One sub-plot that I watched featured a girl who, after struggling to deal with a history of sexual abuse, built up the courage to have consensual sex with a boy she liked — who turns out to be secretly HIV+. When she tells her friends about it tearfully, one cries, “oh my god, did you use protection?!” to which she responded “of course I did! But there’s still a risk!” She then searched the internet for more information.

There you have it. Complex feelings (betrayal, fear, anger, etc.) frank portrayal and discussion of female sexuality (girls are both rational and enjoy sex), mixed with a positive public health message (*of course* I used protection!) In her book The Lolita Effect, M. Gigi Durham cites Degrassi: TNG as a shining example of progressive media which serves to resist pervasive (and oppressive) stereotypes about women, girls and their sexuality. I concur!

And yet, amidst these claims that the show promotes ‘realism’ and ‘TV with values’ you have to ask, is all of this edge-of-your seat drama really an accurate representation of teenage life? Is it so progressive to portray a world where adolescent social hierarchy is the driving force behind the characters’ lives, then play 5-minute ads for super expensive acne cream between scenes?

My high school years were filled with boredom and frustration rather than non-stop anguish and romance. Teen dramas respond to this reality by implying that it is possible to be someone else, to live another kind of life altogether — and what better way to achieve this impossible goal than to go out and buy stuff? Ay, there’s the rub.

Claims that Degrassi is a new step towards “critically aware” television programming fail to understand that the show is borrowing from a long tradition of British soap operas. For example, the enormously popular and long-running show Eastenders has consistently portrayed normal looking working class Londoners living in council flats and facing real problems (drugs, AIDS, divorce, racism, bacon sandwiches) to critical acclaim and mass popularity. It is virtually impossible to find a British actor of the stage or screen who hasn’t appeared on Eastenders at some point or another. The most famous fore-runner of this kind of show is the ubiquitous radio show The Archers, which used to intersperse real farming tips with its episodes of drama among rural English folk as a public service. Realism, public service facts, and normal people — these are old hat to some markets (Canadians?), but very different generic conventions than the ones that American soap opera viewers are used to.

Portraying the world in a realistic way, such that sex and violence have real consequences, different characters have different backgrounds and perspectives, and everyday choices may have long-term ramifications, is good. But making a TV show that uses heart pounding drama to sell a conventional consumerist version of teenage values isn’t all that terribly progressive. Even with all the innovation and realism, Degrassi is still a soap opera — just an uncommonly watchable one.

Finally, part of the bizarre sensation of watching the show is this looming awareness that the marketing machinery behind it is aimed at the generation below me. My demographic is no longer the center of attention! That feels, well, kinda weird. Hmph!

Power and Domination: Sub-par Subway maps

April 2, 2008

I recently saw the jaw-dropping NYC Panorama, a painstakingly accurate scale model of all five boroughs of NYC, at the Queen’s Museum of Art. D Train and I agreed: Staten Island is huge! Queens in enormous! Brooklyn is gargantuan! Now, why did this come as such a surprise? Where could we have picked up our misconceptions about the relative sizes of said boroughs?

You guessed it! The subway. I’m like 99% sure that the MTA subway map (ahem, forgive me; “The Map”) is geographically inaccurate. Not only does it mis-represent Manhattan as running from North to South, as you can see by the little axis askew in the top left corner, but (I believe) it also significantly distorts the sizes of the boroughs.

This makes sense because the entire subway system was designed to shuttle people to and from Manhattan. (Far less consideration was given to intra-Brooklyn travel, as any Brooklynite knows!) Hence, Manhattan appears larger than it really is. Geography suffers in favor of purpose.

Communications professor Johndan Johnson-Eilola writes:

“At first glance, a map that doesn’t directly correspond to the object it’s mapping seems like a bad thing. But that’s what maps are: useful abstractions. They’re smaller than reality, less detailed, are usually two-dimensional. That shouldn’t been seen as a limitation, but added information. The abstractions suggest to us what features we would benefit from paying attention to.”

[thanks to work/space]

Ah, but who sets the agenda for what I should pay attention to? When a map becomes an icon rather than simply a tool for accessing information, this is a crucial question.

Let’s think quickly about the world map. (You’ve probably heard this spiel before…)

mercator

This is our most familiar image of the world, a Mercator projection world map, which was originally intended for nautical navigation. It distorts area or geographical size in favor of “true bearing”, i.e the Earth’s angles of a constant value are represented as straight lines for easy navigation.

Keep in mind that Africa is 13 times the size of Greenland — it certainly doesn’t appear that way on the Mercator map.

Now check this out:

petersmap470pix.jpg

This is the Gall-Peters projection world map, which represents area accurately.

You may remember the episode of “The West Wing” in which C.J. is wowed by mapmakers from a fictional non-profit the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality. These nerdy characters believe that the Mercator map, by exaggerating the size of North America and Western Europe, furthers an agenda of quasi-colonial domination by the Global North. Silly or not, you must admit that they have a point.

Are those of us who live in the so-called “outer boroughs” being subjected to a similar course of domination by Manhattanites, at the hands of the MTA?

But, of course!