Monday, May 16, 2011

IMF Chief Takes Charge too Literally

I originally thought that the IMF chief had simply chased a maid down the hall -- now that I know more I want to apologize for this completely inappropriate entry ...

As nations across the world have complained since the 90s, the IMF seems more interested in screwing them then actually helping them recover. And it appears the IMF chief, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, took this charge too literally, chasing a maid down a hallway in his swanky New York hotel to try to, well, screw her in less ambiguous ways (CNN Story). The neoliberal, "Washington Consensus" policies propagated by the IMF since the 80s have been blamed by many (including Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz) for not only undermining the national sovereignty of developing and underdeveloped countries across the globe, but for making the situation of the countries and their citizens worse -- under the now almost absurd notion that liberalizing markets alone leads to economic growth and development. Under neoliberal policies (first envisioned by the Trilateral commission in the 70s), income inequality has grown, poverty has increased, the number of crises has risen and instability and insecurity have become the norm. But some multinational corporations and capitalists have done quite well under these policies, so it's probably a wash in the end. And if the chief of the IMF is going to screw all of us, maybe we should be happy he's at least trying to personalize the experience.

Footnote: I'm not making light of the horrible situation the housekeeper was put in, of course. It was just too compelling a metaphor to ignore.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Knowledge and Power

I am going to start considering an issue of my own research here -- the relationship between knowledge and power. To start this series of entries, I wanted to set out the terrain of the discussion. In a couple of papers I'm working on, I argue that one of the key projects of neoliberalism is to constrict or delimit the knowledge that is available to the public. I will expand on these ideas in coming posts, but here are the main arenas I'm considering:

1. K-12: the move to a focus on standards and testing is severely constricting what knowledge is focused on in schools (predominantly basic skills). Not only does this move away from more holistic notions of education, but severely limits spaces for creativity and true critical thinking. This is coupled with the tendency to focus schooling almost exclusively on economics and global competitiveness, legitimating the new global order and the training and sorting functions of schooling. And it is backed by the notion that teaching and teacher education can be improved through rationality and science, and that diversity and social justice are anathema to contemporary aims.
2. At the university level, similar pushes are underway. First is the attack on radical, or even progressive professors, through a number of channels. Second, is the push to vocationalize higher education, thus pushing its focus toward training high skilled workers and away from the humanities and any attempt to transform society or question entrenched knowledge. Third, it involves attempts to impose accountability and standards in college classes (together with increasing class size in many universities) -- taking away professor's autonomy. And crises are used in both cases to solidify these imperatives, by draining funding from any non-value-added programs and departments (e.g., those associated with liberal arts education and the humanities).
3. In the media and public sphere, there is a push toward "objectivity" that involves the contention that reporters are only supposed to report the news, not analyze it or hold those making news accountability for the truthfulness of their claims. I reported on the attacks against Anderson Cooper for calling Mubarek a liar -- which might have crossed the line a little, but can't the media take any position anymore? One wonders what happened to the spirit Woodward and Bernstein once inspired in the mainstream media to challenge entrenched power?
4. This is part of an overall perspective that certain types of knowledge are implicitly dangerous. In shifting the elites from those with money and power to professors, conservatives played on the hubris of too many leftists. They backed this with their reactionary project and a closed-mindedness to any alternatives. But I believe it exists among progressives and on the left as well -- as for example supporting free speech but trying to block speakers they don't like from college campuses and other forums. Parents and the general public too have fallen prey to this ideology -- that politics can and should be eliminated from education and the news. There seems to be a general meme that instrumental rationality should dominate not only education but all public policy -- with experts the sole determinant of decision-making.

Some initial thoughts that I will expand upon in the coming weeks ...

Modern American Male

I was just reading an old article by Malcolm Gladwell about the successful marketing of Dockers in the 80s and 90s. The advertisers used a strategy that challenged the ideas of masculinity, but only on the margins. Their first series of ads focused on an issue of great importance to baby boomer men -- male friendship. There was a general lack in the midst of the family and work lives, the inability to maintain close relationships with their friends. My disembodying the Dockers and having the actors engage in "natural" but fragmented conversation, it attached the pants to this abstract notion of friendship and a casual style that wasn't really stylish at all. Later, as sales began to fall, they moved to a new campaign -- based on creating an Ideal-Other that sort of cared about fashion, but without being emasculated in a serious way or becoming a fop. The Dockers ads sold conformity, through a general disinterested interest in style and fashion. The non-descript, safe Dockers needed accessories and thus expanded the fashion market for men by over 20 percent.

The newer ads however partially diverged from the old. Playing on the notion of the "canned-laughter" problem, they built around the idea that men needed simple ads with clear, uncomplicated messaged. The "canned-laughter" research found a fundamental difference between men and women. Women tended to integrate information in making decisions, thus not being as prone to be influenced by laugh-tracks, while men tended to make choices one way or another, and were thus more apt to be influenced by laugh-tracks, even for comics they otherwise wouldn't have found funny (it had little affect on "quality" comics). Women were thus more apt to integrate or synthesize information in decision making while men were more likely to select one choice and ignore evidence that confronted or contradicted that choice. The new ads altered the nature of male advertising by allowing the sexualization of the men, as women said "Nice Pants," in a series of circumstances. However, the sexuality had to be undercoded -- so the "naive" male was actually unaware of his sexual attractiveness and didn't get the girl, thus allowing an escape from the thought that they were again being emasculated and treated as sexual objects. A form of neurosis was at play here, where the interest in style and desirability had to be partially cloaked into an "aspirational reading" that was digestible.

Ultimately, the underlying message advertisers end up embracing is one of the simple male that they must play down to. Ignoring for this short entry the essentialism at the heart of the analysis, is the troubling implications. First, if it is true that men tend to select rather than integrate, does this help explain the conservative (and I would argue liberal) penchant to simply ignore confounding information? A choice is made and then the man becomes immune to ideology critique, or openness to even questioning their underlying assumptions. This seems to be a meme toward and one that essentially undermines democracy -- and certainly the more radical democracy based on deliberation and participation. And the second implication is that advertising appears to follow the central tenet of popular culture regarding men -- that essentially they are not only stupid and incurious, but this is the best way to sell to them. The underlying anti-intellectualism then becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, if we believe that our wants, needs and desires are at least partially informed by the very consumer culture (or culture industry) that is based on these assumptions. Are films, television and advertisers constructing a male that is antithetical to the central tenets of modernity, thus constructing the postmodern man that is neurotic, alienated, cynical and disengaged? At a deeper level, what of the monomyths we have constructed in contemporary society? Are they even worse than Dirty Harry and the old John Wayne Cowboy? The brevity of this form precludes a more nuanced analysis, but the idea that we are promulgating a happily ignorant male who cloaks their deeper desires within media and advertising constructs certainly bodes poorly for not only democracy but our collective future. Does this help explain eight years of Bush and the Tea Party movement? Hmm, that sounds like one of those annoying questions that would make me think. I think I'll turn on the tv instead.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Movie Review: The Green Hornet

Yesterday I took a break from work and watched The Green Hornet, a $120 million movie that may have been the worst superhero action film ever made (though I hate to give short shrift to the equally terrible Spiderman III or the relatively dull Wolverine). Under the tutelage of the generally likable Seth Rogan (who both stars in the "movie" and co-wrote the script), the film was a disaster from beginning to end, with a narrative so tired I'm surprised it didn't put the camera to sleep during shooting and dialogue so flat it made Matzoh seem like it was bursting with yeasty vibrancy. The story, to those who haven't seen the film, revolves around a poor little rich kid (well not that little) who is lost, disappointing his father as he parties all day and night and sleeps with beautiful women that the story doesn't even bother to name. Then his father dies and our hero realizes he has to change his life, with the assistance of his father's mechanic Kato (Jay Chou) and Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz), who seems to have no role in the film but to provide some utterly uninteresting factoids about crime and a smile to Kato and Britt Reid (Rogan). The characters are as thinly developed as a finely cut slice of Swiss cheese, and the plot even less profound than an average Ziggy or Family Circus comic. Kato and Britt decide, after cutting the head of a statue of the fallen hero boss and father (Tom Wilkinson), to become criminals themselves to take down the criminal syndicate led by the Chudnofsky (played by the usually wonderful Christoph Waltz), who suffers from low self-esteem and salves this internal wound by simply killing all his enemies with a double barreled gun. Rarely has there been a less interesting evil antagonist matched against an equally uninteresting hero. The plot then turns around a corrupt politician (how original!), in this case a DA who is in cahoots with the criminal kingpin, and the attempt to stop him.

Lots of pointless action scenes follow, of course, culminating in a final shootout and the anti-Oedipal moment of returning the head to the dead father's statue -- as we learn he was an okay billionaire after all. Yet does the protagonist really grow? Does he get the girl? Do we even give a shit? The film was directed by Michel Gondry, who crafted what I consider one of the best movies of the just past decade -- the sublime Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. Since then, like too many directors of his generation (including most obviously Wes Anderson), he seems to get worse with every movie. Aronofsky has certainly worked against this trend, but too many seem to revel in their own press too much and lose the edge that defined their early work. Like so much blockbuster fare of late, The Green Hornet, is a pointless piece of entertainment thrown together as a vehicle for the new crop of tepidly talented comedic stars. Where once we had the veritable brilliance of Eddie Murphy, John Belushi, the early Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, today we are stuck with Adam Sandler and his many brethren. Even Michael Myers has fallen into disrepair, losing his comedic touch to the point that I'm not sure he's even making films anymore (and don't really care if he is).

The deeper problem appears to be the low expectations we hold for comedy today and an underlying assumption that the American public cannot digest anything with a deeper intellectual backbone (except in Oscar season, if even then). Has the failure of the education system finally caught up with us? Has popular culture offered even a semblance of a commitment to quality? Or has America just gotten so stupid we don't know any better? I don't think the last question should be answered in the affirmative, but I fear that Hollywood has come to that conclusion -- or that it has simply lost its will to give real talent the freedom to create films really worth the $12 cost of entry.

Vampires and Desire

I have often wondered at the ongoing fascination with the Vampire. One could offer a simple analysis, that vampires inspire our dreams of immortality and beauty, of desire unbridled, of the beast that transcends the limitations of the human body -- much as the superhero does. But is there something more in the vampire narrative? Does the story relate to a deeper desire, just as Frankstein's monster augurs a fear of modernity and the forward march of technology and reason? I wonder at times if the vampire story differs from other monster tales, where irrationality is confronted and overcome -- often my science and technology, in that we find ourselves routing for the vampire. What is the deeper psychology of this relationship? I sometimes believe it is the deeper desire in humans for the antimodern subjectivity, where we escape the strictures of modern society -- the family, the church and capitalism itself. Rather than capital accumulation and romantic love, the vampire exists but to feed, to suck the life out of experience and return to the baseness of human existence (in a non-human form). Is the vampire channeling our deeper desire to find a way out of the modern, capitalist world of rationality, exploitation and domination and control? Does the vampire not only offer us eternality, but escape from religion, the administered society and notions of progress that seem to really only offer alienation and lack? The vampire is not our superego, or even our ego, but the unbridled desire of our id instantiated in the real. They live in an almost Hobbesian world of chaos and violence, but backed by the charismatic quality of Weber to rule over those who seek to sublimate it.

What is interesting, if I'm on the right track, is the way that Twilight has altered this dynamic. The "good" vampires of the narrative in fact fold back into modern human society. They sublimate their desire for blood, their very raison d'etre. They sublimate their rejection of social mores by "playing human," simply so they can live in human society rather than among their own -- without any real reason proffered for the choice. The celebration of the vampire here is as a beautiful ubermensch that has rejected its proximity to the world of nature (and Nietzsche's incantation to bridge that false dichotomy) even as it continues to rein over it. The vampires here want to be part of human society, particularly Edward who desires marriage and romantic love rather than feeding on his deeper desire. In fact, even this desire for human social normativity requires the ultimate sublimation -- in that his love for Bella is backed by an almost uncontrollable hunger for her blood. One wonders if this augurs the further cooptation of a form of resistance into the fold, a further move toward a world where every alternative is simply a false desire to escape the new "common sense" and its accompanying subjectivity. One can also see this changing nature of the vampire in 28 Days, where the vampire has lost all of its proximity to the human, and like the witch-hunts of Salem, implies that all forms of resistance must be contained, thus reinforcing the normative, even as it is critiqued. Yet I cannot help but think that those outsides, even as they are tamed, continue to dominate the creative imagination because of our own deeper neurotic relationship to the world order we live in and the pathology not only of death but of the sublimation of our very humanity into a rationality that appears to exist above us even as it exists within our own bodies, repeated over and over again though the body burst outward for an alternative.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Trump Follies

As someone who grew up in New Jersey and New York, the image of Donald Trump that immediately comes to mind is buffoon. Not only the silly hair, but his appearances on the Howard Stern show, his absurdist self-absorption, his clownish public persona. Obviously "The Apprentice" gave him the imprimatur of popular culture and the veneer of  earnestness that was largely missing from his personality before the appearance of the show. The Trump narrative is often obfuscating and the reality that he lost his fortune and got it back erases the fact that he grew up rich and often used predatory, and it appears racist, tactics as one of the richest landlords in New York City. But what does his flirtation with a Presidential run say about the state of politics today?

1) The nature of media today is so tilted toward spectacle and sensationalism that they seem to have completely lost sight of any role in being responsible arbiters of the public sphere and honest political debate. From making both Iraq Wars look like cool video games, to an irresponsible adherence to anything the Bush administration said (e.g., Gore said he invented the internet, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Saddam and 911, weapons of mass destruction, terror threat alerts, etc.), to a new belief that their jobs is just to report what people say without any checking of whether it's true (as for example with the critique of Cooper below) to their love affair with Sarah Palin, the media seems to be more about making the news interesting than deconstructing it.
2) Victimhood sells in American politics more than at any time in history. Reagan and Nixon both fed on the purported victimhood of working class men by women, blacks, unions, hippies and the government itself. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are popular based on this very tendency. Whites are still victims of blacks, of affirmative action, of a government that wants to destroy freedom, of the poor, of Muslims, of gays, of "illegal immigrants" taking their jobs, and of anyone or anything that challenges the idealized utopian past. Ironically, as is the case with many of the instruments of this reactionary, atavistic who are far from victims themselves, Trump is a billionaire who has only benefited from contemporary economic and political regimes. And yet he becomes the embodiment of this victimhood, turning the focus to the international arena -- where Americans are victims of China, OPEC, Iran, Iraq and anyone else trying to undermine our economic and political imperialism and hegemony.
3) As is a general strategy of the elite, hatred always sells -- but particularly when times are tough. And like so many pretenders before him, Trump is trying to harness that hatred and use it to catapult himself to the most powerful seat in the world. How? By feeding on the absurd ideas of the birthers and then turning immediately with the tide to say that Obama is an "affirmative action baby" who didn't merit his academic, or we suppose, political achievements. What is most startling about this is the way it ignores the more obvious benefactor of privilege -- George W. Bush (an average student who also has two Ivy League degrees).

I assume that Trump has little chance of success, but like McCain before him his turn to the right to test the waters of Republican Presidential politics shows us how extreme America is and how dangerous to our collective future that extremism might be.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Osama is Dead ... Or is He?

The President scored a major victory yesterday with the death of terrorist and Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. He received praise from most, including the Republicans considering presidential runs. But some on the far left and right have already started to question whether it was in fact Osama who was killed: Fox News. It is hard to believe that the administration would fake such a story, but it is also hard to believe that no one would have been able to challenge a non-native born citizen before he became president. Conspiracy theorists are fecund in America and it appears that their appeal with the public has only increased since 911. Now I wonder how far they will go to try to discredit a major achievement of the administration -- one, lest us forget, that Bush never accomplished. An email from a leftist friend was just as troubling, leading me to continue wondering why the left can find little more right with Obama than the right. What I think is clear is we are headed for a serious psychological engagement with the pathos that has dominated American politics since 911, and potentially the birth of a broader movement to challenge the militaristic, security state tendencies that emerged in its wake.