Monday, November 26, 2007

My Blogging Milestone (Part 5): What Dick Cheney and I have in Common

Updated below

In conjunction of the Associated Press’s report that Dick Cheney has been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, here is my slightly updated May 27 post concerning my own AF:

If your heart is pounding, it may not necessarily be love. Or in the case of Dick Cheney, oil.

I was at dinner with my family in 2001 when my heart started beating rapidly. No, it wasn't because we were having meat loaf for dinner. It turned out that I was experiencing an episode of atrial fibrillation, which is defined by the American Heart Association as follows:

Atrial fibrillation is a disorder found in about 2.2 million Americans. During atrial fibrillation, the heart's two small upper chambers (the atria) quiver instead of beating effectively. Blood isn't pumped completely out of them, so it may pool and clot. If a piece of a blood clot in the atria leaves the heart and becomes lodged in an artery in the brain, a stroke results. About 15 percent of strokes occur in people with atrial fibrillation."
Atrial fibrillation, or "afib", is more likely to occur in the elderly, or in patients whose heart has been compromised by illness or surgery. I don't fit any of the regular profiles, and as my cardiologist said, other than the afib, I have the heart of an eighteen-year-old (the bad news is he wants it back!) Since that initial episode, I have taken a variety of medications in an attempt to control my afib episodes and I have undergone two cardiac ablations:

Radiofrequency ablation may be effective in some patients when medications don't work. In this procedure, thin and flexible tubes are introduced through a blood vessel and directed to the heart muscle. Then a burst of radiofrequency energy is delivered to destroy tissue that triggers abnormal electrical signals or to block abnormal electrical pathways.
After my second ablation failed to completely curtail my heart's fibrillation, my perplexed cardiologist suggested that I have a "mutant" heart. I'm still waiting for the super powers. As these two "non-invasive" procedures have only been partly successful, I remain on beta blockers and blood thinners to control the worst of the symptoms.

I relate this information, not to solicit sympathy (although I am accepting any and all donations), but rather as an introduction to a piece I wrote concerning the heart as a metaphor that I presented at the 2005 Media Ecology Association Convention, and a version of which I have posted at The Heart of the Matter.

As I was lying on my back after my first ablation (you must remain still for eight hours after the procedure), I began to think about the heart, an organ which most of us take for granted. That didn't help me get to sleep, so I began to think about the heart as a metaphor. It occurred to me that the heart, as related in popular culture, performs functions other than the pumping of blood.

The metaphor of the heart is not about the circulation of blood or the regulation of physical health. As portrayed in popular culture, the heart is the site of emotions, of certain deep thoughts that correspond to the true beliefs of an individual. The heart is also portrayed as a source of wisdom that can be tapped if we pay attention to it.

This did succeed in making me drowsy, but I was able to begin a line of thought about the reason why conceptual metaphors, like that of the heart, persist in our culture, despite changes in dominant media forms, social structures and languages.

Heart Songs: When Janis Joplin (1999) sang “take another little piece of my heart” , she wasn’t discussing cardiac ablation. The references to the metaphoric heart are the rule rather than the exception in most music, popular, classical or traditional. Singers admonish us not to “break my heart,” or to have pity on an “achy, breaky heart.” Even Bob Dylan, who generally avoided the romantic traditionalism of music lyrics in his use of metaphor could tell us “I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul.” (1967)

The Poetry of the Heart: Nor was Emily Dickenson concerned with anatomy when she wrote:

The heart asks pleasure first
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering.

Imagine if we substituted the word “brain” for the “heart” in Dickenson’s poem. How would we react to the poem if we change that one word?

Heart Literature: To the protagonist of Antoine de Saint Exupery’s classic, The Little Prince, the heart was a perceiving organ, not a biological pump:

"One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes."
How would we react if the quote was: “One sees clearly only with the brain. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” This one change makes the quotation seem ridiculous. Clearly the metaphoric associations for the brain differ from those of the heart.

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin’s Elizabeth Bennet rejects a marriage proposal with a heartfelt reply:

"Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart."
Elizabeth also uses her heart as an input device:

"(she) found the interest of the subject increase, and listened with all her heart; but the delicacy of it prevented further inquiry."
References to the heart as a metaphor can be found almost everywhere you look in literature, regardless of the period, the language or the genre surveyed.

Heart Movies: A brief scene from the highly successful Lord of the Rings illuminates the portrayal of the metaphor of the heart in many films and on television:

Aragorn: No news of Frodo
Gandalf: No word. Nothing.
Aragorn: We have time. Every day Frodo moves closer to Mordor.
Gandalf: Do we know that?
Aragorn: What does your heart tell you?
Gandalf: (meaningful pause) That Frodo’s alive. Yes. Yes, he’s alive.
(The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2004)

What if Aragorn had asked Gandalf: “What does your brain tell you?” It just doesn’t sound right.

In each of these examples, the metaphoric heart stands in for aspects of cognition that we resist assigning to the head. One would expect that in our computer saturated era, the heart would lose traction as a site of cognition.

For any non-metaphoric heart that is in AF for more than 48 hours, an electrical shock will often bring back a regular beat. If not, there are a variety of drugs (none of which worked for me). Another option is a cardiac ablation which involves snaking a thin wire from a vein in the groin up to the heart and applying a cauterizing jolt of electricity to the offending nerve.

With his history of heart ailments, it is not surprising that Cheney would develop atrial fibrillation. While not life-threatening itself, the irregular heartbeat can be unpleasant, and as the AP reports:

...if the irregular heartbeat continues, it eventually can cause a life-threatening complication -- the formation of blood clots that can shoot to the brain and cause a stroke.
What's unusual about Dick Cheney's AF is that I thought he was already on a defibrillator, which usually would control any AF symptoms. It will be interesting to see, as the story develops, if the White House doctors explain how Cheney's defibbed heart can go into afib.

UPDATE: It has also been noted that this irregular heartbeat is not the only type of a fib that Cheney has been involved in.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My Blogging Milesone (Part 4): The End of the American Republic

The recent Pakistani constitutional crises provides me with an opportunity to reiterate some political observations concerning our own democracy.

Those of us who were required to take civics classes in high school learned that our constitution provides sufficient checks and balances to fend of the aspirations of a would-be king or a monolithic political party. The salient point of my June 14th article was this: the enduring legacy of this radical neocon Republican era may be the formulation and proof of the idea that our constitutional form of government can be overthrown from within.

Republicans in the Nixon and Reagan eras nipped away at Constitutional safeguards; the present Bush/Cheney administration neocons have swallowed them whole. While we may have weathered the current crisis, the anti-democratic institutions are still in place to try it again some time in the near future.

So here once again is my recipe for overthrowing the American Republic:
  1. Subvert the news media: It is clear that the major media outlets, and their journalists and editors, have been compromised in various ways. Not only have they become self-editing, but also the administration is adept at playing the news cycles. News organizations focused on the bottom line have closed overseas bureaus, cut experienced staff, depleted research resources and pandered to the gossip mongers. Without a truly adversarial Fourth Estate, this administration has led us into war, politicized public agencies, committed any number of felonies and thumbed their noses at the other branches of government.

  2. Stack the courts with anti-Constitutional judges: This is not an issue of left or right or conservative or progressive. This is an issue of upholding and defending the Constitution, as it was intended by the Founding Fathers. Republican appointees who put party above the Constitution allow the Republic to fail.

  3. Distract the public: This may be contingent on #1. The main stream media fill their airwaves and pages with non-news trivia. These modern bread and circus pageants distract the population from understanding and pursuing the own best interests.

  4. Cripple the military: The Iraq adventure has accomplished two key things. It has severely stretched our professional military and it has depleted our national guard resources, both in manpower and material. It has also allowed the creation of a large private army that is loyal to their corporations ahead of their country. The Romans had their Praetorian Guards. We have Blackwater.

    Another unintended consequence of the occupation in Iraq is the filtering of any senior military opposition to the administration's agenda. Military yes-men have risen to the top, the naysayers have taken early retirement.

  5. Weaken the middle class: With more of us scrambling to meet our financial obligations, fewer of us have sufficient time to devote to investigating political wrongdoing and participating in its correction.

  6. Game the political process: Republicans have been adept at filling local election positions with those key players who can help stack the deck in their favor. Control of local election oversight positions has been used to influence election rules, purge voter lists and swing close contests to their party. Districts have been gerrymandered to ensure reelection of the incumbent.

The current takeover attempt has failed due to corruption and incompetence spread throughout all three branches of our government. It isn't too hard to imagine a future in which a more competent, less corrupt cabal of political radicals succeeds where their predecessors failed. The blueprint for a future successful takeover of the United States has already been created for them.

What would a Media Ecology patriot do?

Clearly the field of Media Ecology has a lot to offer in the analysis of what is happening in our society, if not a solution to the problem. Championed by Terry Moran as a part of the NYU program in Media Ecology, the impact of propaganda on our public discourse has always been a key aspect of Media Ecological analysis. Neil Postman's Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk and Amusing Ourselves to Death, provide us with cogent arguments concerning the degradation of public discourse brought on by the sloppy use of language and unthinking acceptance of broadcast media-based news programming.

Other key Media Ecological figures like Lance Strate and Paul Levinson have provided a solid foundation in the Media Ecology tradition concerning the various attacks on our Constitutional rights and the impact of media biases. A hint: Media Ecologists are pro civil rights and anti media biases.

So what should an ME patriot do? Clearly analysis must be balanced by action, and I'm happy to say that among the honors granted annually by the Media Ecology Association is an award for the best example of Media Ecology praxis. Following the lead of Strate and Levinson, Media Ecologists should make greater efforts to publish in the various popular print media and make their presence known in broadcast and new media. Now more than ever, Media Ecologists should participate in the election cycle, lending their expertise to any candidate who champions the Constitution over party politics. This would include fact checking, media production skills, technology assessments and yes, practical approaches to counteracting propaganda and political dirty tricks.

To repeat: Our contemporary neo-cons have succeeded in introducing the idea that the our Constitutional form of government can be subverted from within. The immediate threat may be abating, but the danger remains.

When future historians attempt to pinpoint exactly when the United States ceased being a constitutional democracy, they could do no better than to choose the years between 2000 and 2008, in other words, the second Bush administration. This may prove to be the era when the seeds were planted that led to the end of the American Republic and the beginning of the American empire.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

My 1000th Visitor

If you look to the left you'll notice that my sitemeter has just registered my 1000th visitor. Whoever you are, if you contact me offline, I will congratulate you personally.

And to mark my 1000th visitor, what could be more fitting than to continue my revue of my past posts to this blog. So, here is My Blogging Milesone (Part 3)

A recurring theme of this blog is the impact of media and technology in our everyday lives. While we are aware of new technologies like cell phones and iPods, we tend to take for granted established technologies like the phonetic alphabet, the printed word and much of broadcast media.

One thing I've always wondered about (and this builds on Paul Levinson's anthropotropic theory) is why editing in cinema works. Anyone who has recorded their child's birthday party and then tried to watch it from start to finish appreciates how film editing techniques compress time while delivering the essence of the experience.

I can see how the transition from silent films to sound, from black and white to color and possibly from two dimensions to three reflect the evolution of the film medium towards the normal human way of experiencing reality. How does the montage, the various types of edits, the use of close-ups, long shots, etc reflect our natural way of experiencing reality?

There is obviously an influence of literary narrative in film editing. We don't experience reality as it is portrayed in books either. However, except when we sleep, or are under the influence of any of a number of chemical stimulants or depressants, we mostly experience reality continuously. No cuts, no edits, no montages.

Maybe film editing represents not how we experience reality, but how we remember that experience. The technique of film editing is so much a part of our experience that we often are not aware of how conventional it is. But is it a language we've learned in the same way we learned our mother tongue, or a second language? Is "language" the proper metaphor for the experience? Do we say "the language of radio" or "the language of literature" in discussing the nature of these media? Obviously both have their particular ways of portraying reality, sometimes superceding reality and common sense, as Orson Well's "War of the Worlds" and almost any book by a neocon pundit demonstrate. But is describing film as a "language" a helpful or harmful metaphor?

Another recurring theme is the transition from a print culture to one of secondary orality. An interesting article in the Spring 2003 Hudson Review, "Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture" by Dana Gioia treats rap as the beginning of oral poetry of our culture:

"The most significant fact about the new popular poetry is that it is predominantly oral. The poet and audience usually communicate without the mediation of a text. Rap is performed aloud to an elaborate, sampled rhythm track. Cowboy poetry is traditionally recited from memory. Poetry slams consist of live performance—sometimes from a text, more often from memory. To literary people whose notion of poetry has been shaped by print culture, this oral mode of transmission probably seems both strikingly primitive and alarmingly contemporary. It hearkens back to poetry’s origins as an oral art form in preliterate cultures, and it suggests how television, telephones, recordings, and radio have brought most Americans—consciously or unconsciously—into a new form of oral culture."


"As readers turn into viewers and listeners, they naturally approach the new poetry in ways conditioned by television and radio. This epistemological change, to quote Neil Postman again, affects the “meaning, texture, and values” of literary discourse. Not least important, it transforms the identity of the author from writer to entertainer, from an invisible creator of typographic language to a physical presence performing aloud. Performance poetry and the poetry slam, for instance, owe at least as much to the tradition of stand-up comedy and improvisatory theater as they do to literary poetry. Roland Barthes, a creature of print culture, saw the world as a text and announced “the death of the author.” Anyone attentive to the new popular poetry sees the antithesis—the death of the text. American culture conditioned by electronic media and a celebrity culture based on personalities has given birth to a new kind of author, the amplified bard."
Our literate assumptions about what poetry is blinds us to the importance of rap and other oral forms as the new way to "make" poetry and the fact that these new forms have more in common with the original sources of poetry than with the traditional literary poetry. Imagine Homer rapping the Iliad or the Odyssey!

A third recurring theme is an explanation of the field of Media Ecology. Among some of the propositions I have considered in explaining my view of Media Ecology are the following:

  • Media Ecology is a meta discipline.
  • Media Ecology is itself a medium which contains all other disciplines as its content.
  • The purpose of Media Ecology is to make manifest the unconscious assumptions of a culture, assumptions which may have largely been determined by the tools the culture uses to express itself.
  • The goal of Media Ecology is to free humans from that unconscious bondage and allow them to make choices concerning their tools, to use their tools rather than letting their tools use them.
  • As such, Media Ecology would appear to contain a literate bias in that it seeks, through a logical analysis, to bring to the foreground what was hidden in the background.
  • Media Ecology seeks to replace ritual with logic and impulse with discernment.

Neil Postman would have freely admitted this, have promoted the practice of Media Ecology as a methodology, in our electronic age, to return to the literate values of the Enlightenment. However, as Marshall McLuhan demonstrated, the path to Media Ecological enlightenment can be pursued through the use of probes and aphorisms as readily as through logical discourse. In fact, McLuhan's methods may illustrate ways to find shortcuts to the true impact of technology on our culture.