Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Robinson Crusoe Faces Retirement

Having been cast away in my wretched condition for the better part of seven and forty years, as best I could reckon by my calendar post, I found it necessary to provide certain machines and contrivances to make allowances for those physical dysfunctions which accompany the advancement of old age. Nor could I rely too heavily on the albeit willing assistance offered by my still loyal and devoted man, Friday, whose life span seemed to be a great deal shorter than mine, whether owing to his nurturance in the primitive wilds, or to some personal peculiarity, and thus was feeling at his younger age similar impairments and disabilities as I was suffering under due to my more advanced age. Taking this into account, and realizing that things would get worse as time went on, our mortal condition being what it is, I exercised as much foresight as possible to supply not only for my present needs and wants, but also for those which could occur thereafter, although my careful consideration proved insufficient for certain emergencies, especially regarding my man, Friday, as will be seen shortly.

As for the bounties provided by my island, and God's great mercy, they continued as much and as plentiful as ever. My goat herds increased and prospered. I never suffered a single crop failure, though such good fortune rarely blesses the farmers of England, or any other country I have knowledge of. I still had my supply of raisins, limes and other fruits which 50 such men as myself could not have begun to deplete. Through careful marshalling and rationing, I kept a good supply of rum, though not nearly so much as I had started out with. And most important, and most gracious of God to whom I did not miss one day falling upon my knees to thank and praise, and whose words I continued to instruct Friday in, I still retained my two front teeth, without which I would have been hard put to enjoy most if not all of the aforementioned bounties.

The contrivances I found necessary took a great deal of thought and much painstaking labor until I had achieved to my satisfaction their construction. Chief among these was a chair with wheels, or a wheel-chair, which I now found necessary in order to get around my island. The construction took many months of labor, it being hardest to hit upon a feasible means of creating the two wheels without which the whole machine was useless. I finally solve this problem by finding a straight hardwood tree whose trunk was of the diameter I desired, and then very painstakingly cutting and sawing until I had two equal cross-sections of that trunk, which served me very well, and were as perfect as any wheel that could have been fashioned by a carpenter or a blacksmith in England. Along with this, I found it necessary to abandon my methods of fortification, and cut a threshold through the two walls protecting my domicile, as my old method of climbing up a ladder and then pulling it in after me was no longer feasible. It was, in fact, this necessary alteration which led to the dire and tragic circumstances of which I will now treat concerning my man, Friday.

Since I could no longer rely on sheer strength and the impenetrability of my wooden hedge for my security, I resolved to resort to disguise and the various wiles necessary to make up for the weaknesses under which I now suffered. With this in mind, I sent Friday, who though old, still had use of his legs, out in search of those broad palm leaves which graced the trees of the far side of the island. I intended to use the broadness and hugeness of these leaves to fashion a covering for the entrance to my cave which would make it indistinguishable from the surrounding foliage, except upon a very close inspection, and yet would allow me a quick and easy ingress or egress.

Friday had been gone on this errand for the better part of a week when I began to worry and take notice of his absence. The island was still visited occasionally by savages from the mainland, and I became afeerd lest Friday should have fallen into their clutches, and in his enfeebled condition have become the main course of one of their cannibalistic feasts. With the passage of another week, I resolved to set out in search of my faithful servant and companion, carrying with me those weapons I thought necessary in case my worst fears proved to be real, vis., two muskets, several hand pistols, a saber and an assortment of smaller knives, plus sufficient supply of shot and powder. These I carried by means of containers and straps I had fastened to the back of my chair, my arms of needs being left free to provide propulsion for the wheels.

It was with great difficulty that I navigated the rough terrain between my fortress and the aforementioned area where the palm trees grew in abundance. Many time I had near escapes from running into trees or toppling over into a ditch, and so I made my way as carefully as possible, though I knew time was of the essence, it was not to be helped unless I wished to be the casualty and have Friday come searching after me. I paused overnight at my country retreat, and on the morning of the third day since I left my fortress, I arrive on the shore where the palms were at hand. After a careful search, which I feared would be fruitless, I fairly stumbled upon poor Friday, lying beneath one of the largest of the trees, several of it huge leaves still clutched in his hand. I was at a loss at first to discern the nature of his affliction. From the manner in which he lay, it appeared that he had been suddenly afflicted, though no spear lay with his flesh, nor did any blood show to stain his garments, so I put any fear of an attack by the cannibals out of my head. It was possible that he had been struck by some tropical ailment of which I was ignorant, or possibly the random unlucky dropping of a coconut from the very tree beneath which he lay. Upon careful examination, I discerned that he was, in fact, still alive, though barely breathing, and I decided it was of the utmost urgency to transport him back to the fortress where I could care for him properly, and put off discovering the cause of his misfortune until he himself could tell me.

With this in mind, I returned with all due haste to my fortress with the intention of fashioning some contrivance to transport Friday home. Feeling more and more the desperate nature of the situation, I did not bother with refining or perfecting my design, but set out to construct it as quickly as possible. What I had in mind was simple enough, and the materials for its construction were readily at hand. Here is what I decided upon: a stretcher fashioned out of good, sturdy wood; and some of the canvas that I still kept in my cave. I did not consider then some of the obvious difficulties that would ensue, which will be recounted shortly.

Most of the canvas was rotten. However, I did find one piece of sufficient strength and proportions for my purposes. My next problem was to find two study poles to attach my canvas to and so complete my project. I was at first torn between choosing a hard wood or a soft wood. I finally decided that soft wood poles would not only be easier to cut and alter, but would also better support the strain of carrying a man's weight. With some difficulty, and several false starts, I cut and refined the wood for the poles. Then, at a great expense in time and effort, I sewed the canvas onto the frame--the task being all the more difficult as I had neither needle, nor thread--until it was good and strong, and would have supported not just the weight of one man, but several, if the need should arise. All this labor cost me many weeks, at the end of which I was all the more eager to set out, my fears for Friday being all the more increased. However, it was the start of the rainy season, and even if I had braved the storm and dangers of wind and rain, I would have found the way so muddy and treacherous that I could not have helped but made for two casualties, rather than one. Therefore, I could only sit within my cave, and wait for the rain to end.

During my time of enforced confinement, I gave much thought to the calamities which can befall a man when he least expects it. I thought of poor Friday, who, while not in his prime, still maintained a good physical condition, and could look forward to many more years on our wretched island. When I thought of him lying beneath that tree, I wept bitterly, and then realized that no matter how miserable my condition, I could nonetheless be worse off, as the unfortunate circumstances of Friday's misfortune attested to. I further reflected on how God, in His great mercy, had let me find Friday before it was too late, and then supplied me the wherewithal to affect his rescue. Nor did I fail to give thanks and praise to Him.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Shock and Awe, Financial Division

In her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein documents how the Republican Neocons have perfected the use of shock and awe to get what they want. Briefly, Klein's doctrine describes how using the uncertainty that surrounds a crisis situation (9/11 Attack, Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina etc. etc) Republicans push through rules, decisions and laws that otherwise would be too unpopular to attempt (Patriot Act, Removal of Habeas Corpus, approval of torture...sorry enhanced interogation, privatization of the army in Iraq, warrant-less eavesdropping on American citizens, etc. etc.)

I have one question.

Is this week's financial meltdown another example of shock and awe? On the one hand we have the irony of the Neocon Republican oligopoly presiding over the largest imposition of socialism in our country's history.

Nixon in China anyone?

On the other hand, the end result of their attempts to save us from another Great Depression is the propping up of financial managers who guessed wrongly in their gambling of shareholder assets and the transfer of $700 Billion in taxpayer dollars to the aforementioned private sector to benefit those managers and possibly their shareholders.

Can anyone help me out?

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Elementary Structures of Political Kinship

There have been some questions concerning my previous post where I suggested that John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running "mate" was both profound and perverse. By selecting a woman who is both unknown and unqualified to serve in national office, John McCain is not asking us to view his choice in terms of her own personal merits or any pre-existing attitudes we may have towards her known accomplishments. McCain's "message" is that knowledge, experience, even temperament are not necessary qualifications for Presidential office.

The thunderclap of attention that has accompanied Palin's political ascent is not the admiration appropriate to an accomplished public sector administrator but rather the adulation due a mother-goddess figure. Republican groupies and media sycophants reacted to Palin as an archetype, not as an individual. By suggesting this political liaison, McCain used Palin's gender to achieve his political ends and in doing so reified age-old practices where women were treated as commodities that are exchanged to balance and confirm the social order.

In his study of pre-modern cultural practices, Structural Anthropology, French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss called the marriage arrangements of pre-literate societies a type of "slow" communication:

"Each human society conditions it own physical perpetuation by a complex body of rules, such as the prohibition of incest, endogamy, exogamy, preferential marriage between certain types of relatives, polygamy, or monogamy--or simply by the more or less systematic application of moral, social, economic, and esthetic standards. By conforming to these rules, a society facilitates certain types of unions or associations and excludes others." (Structural Anthropology, p. 353)

When we define appropriate marital liaisons, we determine the course of human evolution and complete the transition from nature to culture. By the way, Lévi-Strauss' characterization of kinship strictures as a type of communication is not totally unfamiliar to Media Ecologists. In The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman wrote:

"Children are the message we will send to a time we will never see."

By describing children as a "message," Postman challenged us to imagine what medium is being used to convey these messages. Though Postman's focus was on our education systems and how electronic media redefine notions of childhood, a broader view places children "messages" within the "medium" of kinship systems and matrimonial proscriptions.

Marital restrictions have loosened in our post-industrial society, though they have not disappeared entirely. But clearly, as women approach social equality with men in our era, the archaic limitations placed on women's aspirations, the so-called glass ceiling, has developed cracks. John McCain's attitude towards women, as manifested in his partnership with Sarah Palin, is an attempt to cement over those cracks.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Why Women Wear Makeup: Sarah Palin As A Medium of Communication

I missed my 9/17 posting. I'm working on a comment connecting Sarah Palin's annointment to "VP wannabe" with Levi-Strauss' view that marital relations in pre-modern societies are a form of slow communication, with women being the medium, but I haven't been able to pull together the appropriate citations. The basic idea is that, by selecting Palin, "Grandpa" McCain tapped into primal notions concerned the exchange of women and incest taboos.

Joshua Greshin Gunn has a relevant post at his Rosewater Chronicles blog:

The appeal of the Palin pick to a certain set of conservatives is, however, not really postmodern at all. The contrast between Palin and Clinton is. If we focus on Palin alone, we find that a very “primitive” form of communication is in play: the exchange of women. However flawed we have come to learn Claude Levi-Strauss was (e.g., he falsified his data), his central observation about kinship systems remains uncontested: for whatever reason, society as we know it is based on the exchange of women; it is based on the circulation of women as objects. From a theoretical standpoint, there is no reason that men or children are not exchanged, it just happens that women have been the object of value, for good or ill (mostly ill). The Palin pick is an indirect reminder of this basic, social dynamic. To denote its special status as an event, let us capitalize: the Palin Pick.

In her monumentally influential study Psychoanalysis and Feminism, Juliet Mitchell bends over backwards to protect Levi-Strauss from the charge of anti-feminism. It’s amusing to read, but we must remember this study is almost forty years old and published in the last gasps of the second wave. Nevertheless, she correctly underscores that Levi-Strauss’ theory of kinship understood familial relations as a form of communication, a dynamic establishment and reestablishment of society through the exchange of signs:

Levi-Strauss has shown how it is not the biological family of mother, father, and child that is the distinguishing feature of human kinship structures. . . . The universal and primordial law is that which regulates marriage relationships and its pivotal expression is the prohibition of incest. This prohibition forces one family to give up one of its members to another family; the rules of marriage within “primitive” societies function as a means of exchange and as an unconsciously acknowledged system of communication. The act of exchange holds a society together: the rules of kinship. . . are society.

Contemporary society as we know it is a displacement, or rather a metonymy. Carol Pateman’s book, The Sexual Contract, advances a very convincing argument that this “primordial” exchange is the basis of contractarian theory itself: the so-called “social contract” is at some mythic remove the law of exogamic exchange. Pateman argues this is also what Freud was after in his recovery of Darwin’s myth of the primal horde. It all comes back to an agreement or promise made over an exchange, and historically, the object has been the body of woman.

Seen in this light, the appointment of Palin goes beyond anti-feminist. By resurrecting the notion that women are objects of exchange, McCain's selection completely denies the feminist movement and is an attempt to reintroduce women as chattel.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Republican Cognitive Dissonance

It not just the financial markets that we are watching crash and burn. The Republican Party, lead by two candidates who are not fit to run for office, much less run the country, are hitting bottom. As they witness the fruits of almost 30 years of Republican economic policy, the cognitive dissonance they experience must be deafening. Wikipedia defines cognitive dissonance as:
"an uncomfortable feeling or stress caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a fundamental cognitive drive to reduce this dissonance by modifying an existing belief, or rejecting one of the contradictory ideas."

Let's see. Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin gave us a good example of this phenomenon in one of her speeches today:
"Guys and Galls, our regulatory system is outdated and it needs a complete overhaul...Our economy will grow and we will get government out of the way of private sector progress."

So we can have increased regulation and also get government out of the way. We can have conservative values and also trash the Constitution, increase the Federal deficit and engage in nation building overseas.

While the Republican Party flounders we are also witnessing the demise of Rovian campaign tactics. When the master himself calls John McCain a liar, is there any doubt that the American public by and large is no longer swayed by wedge issues and distractions?

As a final note, I'd like to share with you a video produced by Andrew Postman that examines the decline and fall of John McCain.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Your Assignment

In today's New York Times Health section, in an article title "Limiting, and Watching, What Children Watch," Lisa Guerney quotes Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Columbia University:

“Marshall McLuhan was wrong when he said the medium is the message,” she said. “It’s the content. It’s what’s in the medium.”


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Doomed to Repeat History

As a model Media Ecologist, I seldom put on my finance MBA hat, earned almost thirty years ago from NYU's Stern School of Business. I am putting on that hat now to comment on the demise of Lehman Brothers, the sale of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America and the continuing jeopardy of AIG and Washington Mutual. So far we haven't had a stock market crash like the one credited with precipitating the Great Depression, but it is clear that our economy teeters on the brink of a comparable collapse, and that the wisdom and actions of financial leaders and government officials over the next several months will determine whether we follow in the footsteps of our great-grandparents or dodge the silver bullet this time.

Think about the types of things that FDR's administration put into place to pull us out of the last Depression: federal programs like social security; public works to employ those cast out by the tanking economic infrastructure; and a clear commitment to regulate financial markets and curb the most egregious activities of financial movers and shakers. For example, we take for granted the presence of auditors overseeing the financial presentations of our corporations. There once was a time when corporations could report financial results in whichever way they wanted, with no necessary connection to actual performance or liquidity. Though abuses still abound, most corporations and investors appreciated the level playing field that financial transparency provides.

That's the broad picture. From a Media Ecological perspective it will be interesting to see how the current media confront the bad economic news and whether they help or hurt efforts to deal with the unavoidable decline of American economic might. Populations prior to the great Depression depended on print, radio and film both to gain an understanding of what was going on, and also to escape it from time to time. We add to these television and the internet, plus the wisdom gained from 75 years of comtemplation of what went wrong before.

It is clear that a proactive program of public works, a new commitment to regulation of markets and corporations and a bolstering of the social safety net will be necessary if we are to weather this current economic storm. Look for clear pronouncements from the various candidates of what they will do and what specific steps they will take immediately to meet this challenge. Note which media are used to lift our spirits, confront recalcitrant citizens and communicate a vision for a post-Depression II America. FDR used the radio for his Fireside chats to confront fears and to unite the disparate regions and social classes of Depression era America. How will his successor use contemporary media to the same ends?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Synagogue As A Multi-Media Environment

Vestigial elements of past cultures persist within our own and affect our public discourse and our artistic creations. This notion is the basis of my recently published paper The Heart of the Matter (Proceedings, 2005 Media Ecology Association Convention) where I trace the concept of the heart as the seat of consciousness through various times and different media. An enhanced version, with illustrations is available here. Though we know today that the heart is not the organ of thought and memory, our casual expressions reveal the hidden vestige of past beliefs. We speak of memorizing “by heart.” Our song lyrics remind us that our heart is an open book, or a window into our true feelings and emotions.

Another good example of this principle of persistence can be found in most synagogues. Visit any Saturday morning Torah service at any synagogue and you will witness a multi-media environment that manifests traces of all the pre-modern media eras of mankind.

In my congregation, the Rabbi leads the service, but most of the heavy liturgical carrying is performed (literally) by the Cantor. The Cantor himself is a bard, a remnant of the oral culture of our ancestors. His chants employ mnemonic devices and multiple repetitions to enhance comprehension and memorization. He recites the Torah from a manuscript scroll to an audience who, while they aren’t busy making copies as would have monastic scribes in the Middle Ages, respond orally just like members of any pre-literate culture. At the same time, with all these pre-literate vestiges evident throughout the ceremony, Jews are characterized as the “People of the Book.”

While several media are represented in the Jewish service, they are all word based. Images are proscribed by the Second Commandment, and so pictures, paintings and sculptures are not allowed. No illuminated texts. And of course, no film, no video, no Powerpoints. So it could be argued that Judaism acts as a counterpoint to our modern mass media-saturated culture.

Neil Postman argued in Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century that our schools should operate as conserving opponents to the continuous non-discursive bombardment of electronic media in order to preserve and perpetuate the beliefs and values of the Enlightenment. These values include such things as individual liberty, rational discourse and democratic decision making. Along with the Sabbath and Holiday liturgy, other aspects of Judaism demonstrate a conserving characteristic very much in sync with Postman's suggestions. The Jewish holidays reflect remnants of the rituals and living conditions of earlier societies. Harvest festivals, year-end story-telling cycle celebrations, days of atonement and renewal, commemorations of significant historic events may not signify in modern cultures what they did to early farmer/shepards, but they act as reminders of other times and other places. Jewish males are circumcised, passing through a ritual of physical mutilation or transformation that corresponds to those of pre-literate societies all over the world. Jewish dietary restrictions also reflect those of pre-literate cultures, which, according to Claude Levi-Strauss, have less to do with what is good to eat, than what is good to think with.

Whether we will ever see a K-12 curriculum founded on Postman's suggestions is debatable. However, it is clear that the liturgies and rituals of Judaism perform this very function. By excluding non-discursive media, by copying and disseminating the manuscript form, and by actively promoting the practices of pre-literate chanting and poesy, Judaism confronts modern media-generated attitudes and beliefs and offers alternatives based on tried and true social and cultural practices.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Presented For Your Consideration: Why Women Wear Makeup

Headline: Hey, Is That Eva Longoria? Yes, It Is

posted: 2 HOURS 28 MINUTES AGO
comments: 7
filed under: Gut Reactions, Movie News, Photos, TV News

(Sept. 12) -- Eva Longoria's dinner trip on Wednesday night is making gossip headlines not because of who she went with or what she wore ... but what she didn't wear.
The 'Desperate Housewives' starlet stepped out wearing zero (or at least much less than normal) makeup, showing herself in a way the public rarely gets to see. While still looking quite pretty, she bore little resemblance to the red carpet diva Eva we're all used to.

The original article can be found here

One could make the case, as Naomi Wolf does in her book The Beauty Myth, that women wear makeup because they buy into the patriarchal notion that there is a "Professional Beauty Qualification" without which a woman can't succeed. Besides providing a litigation-free way to discriminate against women, Klein notes that the PBQ proposes three "vital lies":

"(1)'Beauty' had to be defined as a legitimate and necessary qualification for a woman's rise in power.

(2) the discriminatory purpose of vital lie number one had to be masked (especially in the United States, with its responsiveness to the rhetoric of equal access) by fitting it firmly within the American dream: 'Beauty' can be earned by any woman through hard work and enterprise. Those two vital lies worked in tandem to let the use of the PBQ by employers masquerade as a valid test of the woman's merit and extension of her professional duties.

(3) The working woman was told she had to think about 'beauty' in a way that undermined, step for step, the way she had begun to think as a result of the successes of the women's movement." (The Beauty Myth, 2002, p. 28)

My contribution to the discussion relies on Claude Levi-Strauss' distinction between nature and culture. In order to move from nature to culture, and therefore to be acceptable as an equal (or near equal) in patriarchal society, women must engage in all manner of diet, exercise and surgery to attempt to approximate a beauty ideal. Whatever transformation can't be accomplished by those means is masked over with makeup.That Eva Longoria appearing in public without makeup is gossip-worthy just underscores the disparity between men and women.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

In Memoriam

Thinking about those lost on 911 and the families and friends left behind.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lipstick on a Pig

Actually, I don't have anything to add to the ongoing Republican kerfluffle over Barak Obama's use of a well-known phrase (which incidently has also been used by John McCain). I've just put this in to annoy "Artiefacts" who takes exception to my suggestion that women use makeup to become equal culturally to men.

To my regular readers, I promise to return to more worthwhile posting tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Losing Middle America

The turning point in the Vietnam war, at least from a public support perspective, has often been attributed to the decision in 1968 by then CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite to come out against the war. An the end of his evening news report on February 27, 1968, Cronkite concluded an uncharacteristic commentary criticising our involvement in the war with the following words:
"To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."

Upon being told of Cronkite commentary, President Lyndon Johnson is quoted as saying "That's it. If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."

Last night I think I witnessed a similar turning point, not in American opinion concerning the Iraq War, but rather concerning global warming. On his nightly Late Show, comedian David Letterman launched into an uncharacteristic tirade concerning CO2 levels, global warming and human prospects for survival that skirted the border between comedy and drama. Opining that we have not had any real Presidential leadership on global warming for the last 30 years, Letterman concluded his discussion of current climate change with the following:
"We are so screwed. If everybody in the world right now began riding bicycles... Leave your limo in the garage...Everybody...bicycles, and we cut carbon emissions 100%. No more carbon emissions. And that was improving the layer of carbon around the atmosphere. If everybody did that, the planet... and you're thinking, "That would be great wouldn't it?" Yes it would be great, but the planet would continue to heat at precipitous levels for 60 years. We are SO screwed."

If "Mr. Middle America" David Letterman can come out so forcefully against obfuscators of the perils of climate change, can overwhelming public opinion be far behind?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Post Convention Coverage Relief: The Best Media Ecology Joke, Ever!

It seems clear that, with a few notable exceptions, the mainstream media are going at this election with the same lazy journalistic habits used in previous campaigns. Eric Boehlert at the blog Media Matters explains why mainstream media coverage of both the Democratic and Republican Conventions has given him a headache:

It's impossible to escape the conclusion that journalists for much of the week in Denver weren't informing news consumers about the unfolding event, they were purposefully misinforming people. (Bill and Hill might snub Obama!) Think about where journalism is heading when an entire industry knowingly adopts a false narrative and pushes it for days simply because it likes it; because it gives journalists a good storyline.

Fifteen thousand journalists in Denver and they couldn't even report what actually happened there. Instead, they invented a storyline of their liking. And (surprise!) it was one that demeaned Democrats.

Marshall McLuhan noted that all jokes are grievances. On the Media Ecological premise that the journalists aren't totally to blame, but that, inevitably, political discourse on television will degenerate into entertainment, I invite all Media Ecologists, or would-be Media Ecologists to come grieve with me:

Several students of Media Ecology consult a famous psychic in order to contact Marshall McLuhan and finally get a clear explanation of his writings.

The seer goes into a trance, but says nothing for several minutes.

Losing patience, one of the students cries out, "Dr. McLuhan, are you there? Why won't you speak to us?"

A deep voice replies, "The Medium is the Message!"

Take this joke or its equivalent two times a day and call me in the morning.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Culture vs. Nature Part II: Why Women Wear Makeup

In my post on September 3, I commented on the joke Sarah Palin told at her RNC VP acceptance speech:

"How are hockey moms different from pit bulls? They wear lipstick."

Governor Palin, her face expertly made-up (including lipstick), her hair perfectly coifed, her outfit fashionable and figure-complementing, is herself an example of the division between the sexes that persists in our culture.

That women still want to wear makeup reflects a failure of the feminist movement in particular and the immaturity of our culture in general. Makeup is a mask that allows women to tap into corporate power. I don't mean corporate as in business, but rather corporate as in the power of the group versus the individual.

Men achieve this power by actually belonging to corporations - whether they are lodge brothers, corporate raiders or political standard-bearers. Women counter by painting their faces. Hiding physical imperfections or accentuating certain features makes sense only if the result is more power for the individual, whether sexual, social, or corporate.

Why makeup? The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once asked a native informant why his people tattooed their bodies. "Because we are not animals," was the reply. That women still use makeup is a reflection of their continuing status as not-quite-human. To put it in a more Lévi-Straussian mode, women without makeup are still seen as "natural," while men without makeup are seen as "cultural."

By acceding to cosmetic industry standards of beauty, women who wear makeup promote a status quo that says women are not equal to men. Men can be "cultural" just by showing up. Women, to participate in the culture, must put on a corporate mask. While a woman who uses makeup is considered "cultural," a man who uses makeup is considered absurd. Mass media meditations on masculine makeup — like Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, and Mrs. Doubtfire — are always comedies.

Madison Avenue-driven cosmetic companies have made some inroads into the use of body fragrance by men, but they have not yet found the right inducement for men to paint their faces, highlight their eyes, and gloss their lips. My suggestion is that advertisers market tattoos as acceptable body paint for men. Invent a tattoo "makeup" that needs regular renewal but involves some pain to apply, and your fortune is made.

In politics, the play of the game depends on who makes up the rules. Republicans are expert in framing arguments in their favor, in starting whisper campaigns to malign opponents while maintaining deniability and in lying with impunity to advance their candidates.

In gender relations, the play of game depends on who rules the makeup. Though it may be true that Hilary Clinton's unsucessful presidential campaign left 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, until women can be "pit bulls" without the lipstick, they will not succeed in breaking through.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Your Gut Feeling

The ancient notion of internal organs as cognitive resources has resurfaced in discussions this week on the process by which John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running partner. For example, on August 30 the Los Angeles Times commented on McCain's selection:
For a candidate known to possess a quick temper and an unpre- dictable political streak, the decision raises questions about how McCain would lead -- whether his decisions would flow from careful deliberations or gut checks in which short-term considerations or feelings outweigh the long view (emphasis added.)
Ancient peoples in general believed that thought and consciousness presided in the gut, not in the head. Greeks of the Classic period believed that consciousness resided in the lungs, with the heart contributing emotional content. Lacking our modern knowledge of the circulatory system, Classic Greeks believed that aspects of human consciousness didn’t reside just in the lungs, but were distributed throughout the chest, with different organs contributing different attributes. Expressions like “venting our spleen” when angered represent the residue of these kinds of beliefs. During the process of mummification, ancient Egyptians discarded brain tissue as unnecessary for existence in the afterlife, but preserved the intestines, liver and other organs in special canopic jars for the journey. The heart, thought to be central to the individual’s “self” or consciousness, was left in place.

What appeared to classical societies as a characteristic of human anatomy has slowly, over the ages, become a metaphor. No one today believes that the seat of consciousness can be found in the heart or lungs, and yet the references persist. We refer to the act of memorization as "learning by heart." An example from popular culture illustrates this head/gut opposition:

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)

In conditions of primary orality people assigned different aspects of cognition to different organs. We are content, in most cases, to let the heart represent all feeling or emotion and to assign to the “gut” an ability to intuitively grasp the proper solution to a problem. When placed in opposition to the head or intellect, the gut prevails in modern cultural references as the deeper source of wisdom and the more reliable arbiter of reality.

Here is the problem. If there is a deeper seat of wisdom that we all possess, why should anyone listen to academic specialists or experts of any type? Much of our current public debate between a faith-based versus reality based orientation may be a manifestation of this head/gut split. If the United States can be governed “from the gut”, what need is there for subject matter experts on foreign policy, economics or political agendas?

By pointing out this reification of archaic beliefs, a "gut-check" if you will, the media suggest that John McCain does a disservice to the American voter in particular and to subject matter experts in general. As Sarah Palin's qualifications for office become more apparent over the next few weeks of campaigning, it will be interesting to see whether the American voter wants four more years of gut feelings, or prefers a more deliberative path.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Problem With Myths

Many cultural analysts believe that a culture's myths are the stories that are told containing cultural archetypes, heroic figures, epic confrontations and/or magical occurrences. As represented by such scholars as Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, and Marie-Louise von Franz, this approach to the study of myth assumes that the various aspects of mythology represent externalizations of internal, psychological processes in humans and by studying the content of myths as archetypal examples we can better understand the stories of our own lives and the assumptions we make about ourselves and our interactions with other people. For them, the archetypal content is the thing.

The term "myth" for French structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss has a different meaning. Myths are stories because, in an oral culture, storytelling is the means by which cultural information is transmitted from one person to another and across generations. The mythic heroes and monsters, magical activities, and impossible events are presented because they are memorable; they need to be to preserve the information being transmitted. But it isn't the content of these tales that's important, its the structure.

In his series "Mythologiques", Levi-Strauss has suggested that myths are not important because they present archetypal images; myths are important because they demonstrate an externalization of structure of human thought processes. Levi-Strauss assumes that since we are all members of the same species, that the thought processes of less technologically advanced peoples are the same as our own, just applied to different objects. With our modern sensibilities, we look at the absurdities and inconsistencies of fairy tales and myths and assume we have discovered evidence that "primitive" thought processes are illogical and immature when compared to modern thought. Levi-Strauss suggests that by interpreting the logic of myths, we can understand how the human mind works.

It is also assumed that individual myths that have been passed down to us may be incomplete. In order to understand the "message" we must contrast and compare multiple variants of the same tale. The true message of a myth is revealed when one is familiar with its place in the total cultural context that generated it. The overall structure reveals the true message, and by implication, gives us a window into the structure of our mental processes.

What isn't as apparent is how advertising functions in modern society the same way storytelling functioned for preliterate people. Advertising presents us with of the vast body of examples of our culture's mythology. Advertisements are constantly changing, constantly reflecting current cultural conditions, and self-validating through sales trends. Advertising is generated by many individuals, is often memorable and perhaps most important of all, is inherently multi-media.
Advertisements work over space the way myths work over time. Mythic stories survive over time because they resonate with the population. An individual advertisement may have a much shorter shelf life, but, because it has to be distributed throughout a large population, it must also resonate with a large number of individuals to be effective.

What does advertising tell us? As I noted in yesterday's post, our collective body of advertising defines what is cultural and what is natural, and offers concise advice on how we can best exist in culture rather than nature. This collective resource, acting as a sort of cultural encyclopedia, performs the same function in our age that the mythic storytelling performed for preliterate cultures. It is by becoming aware of these underlying structures in our most dominant media of communication that we can begin to understand their on importance in our culture.

This sort of approach to the study of the mass media shows that the difference between modern culture and so-called primitive culture is not so great as is supposed, and that human beings at all times tend to concern themselves with the same types of problems, the differences arising from the particular symbols and the particular media used to convey the solutions. The proper way to interpret the mythology of a culture is by understanding its overall structure, not by focusing on the particular content of a tale.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Drawing From The Internet "Memory Well"

We used to hear about news items "disappearing down the memory hole." With the advent of YouTube, blogs, Google, Lexis-Nexis, and other web-based resources, we can now draw almost anything from the Internet-based "Memory Well." And, contrary to the old saw, you can go back to the Well as often as you like.

The Internet Memory Well will redefine private vs. public areas. As Joshua Meyerowitz described in No Sense of Place:The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior, the older mass media have already blurred the distinctions between adult and child, between genders and between social classes. Even so, some areas remained more "hidden" than others.

When we lived under conditions of primary orality, human memory was the only way to transmit cultural heritage from one generation to the next. During the manuscript and print eras, written documents replaced memory as the primary means of transmitting information over time and space. In the early years of electronic media, only a few had access to external memory devices to record and preserve our culture. An electronic broadcast would be sent to many, but then disappear into the aether.

With video cell phones, cheap editing technology, and Internet access, what once was available to few is available to many. What was private has now become public. The Internet has added a readily accessible Memory Well to enable cultural recall and dissemination. Items dropped down the Memory Well no longer vanish forever. We now can retrieve video, audio, text, and photos at will. Vast server farms store everything in readily accessible form, and provide the infrastructure for perpetual retrieval. As long as our society can provide power to these vast data warehouses, the Memory Well will exist. If the power grid goes down, one can assume that there will be greater concerns than retrieving YouTube videos.

The ability easily to retrieve many if not all of our artifacts will bring about an ontological shift in our culture. For example, in oral cultures a person's word was his bond. Without written records to provide proof, people had to depend on the spoken word to bind agreements. Our political leaders must now cope with the new power the Memory Well has given to the spoken word. This has profound implications for politics, education, social policy, and mass media, including broadcast news organizations and the press.

Jon Stewart, among many others, already makes great use of the Memory Well to call our leaders and celebrities to account. Juxtaposing what they say now with what they said then generates laughter now, but will have more dire consequences in the future as the new Memory Well-based standards take hold.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Culture vs. Nature: Sarah Palin and the Pit Bulls

During her acceptance speech tonight, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin posed the following question:

"How are hockey moms different from pit bulls?"

"They wear lipstick."

Here Governor Palin unwittingly has invoked the work of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Struass who theorized that a primary function of any human society is to distinguish between culture and nature.

To help better grasp this concept, I’d like to ask the following question: Why do women in our culture wear makeup? Why does lipstick turn a pit bull into a hockey mom?

One response is that our culture still distinguishes men from women along a culture/nature opposition. The religious and scientific stories of our culture tell us that as human beings we are outside or above the constraints of the natural world. At the same time we come into this world through childbirth, we get sick, we age and die, we suffer from various bodily afflictions. How do we reconcile this contradiction?

Lévi-Strauss cites an instance where an anthropological field investigator asks his native informant why his people apply so many tattoos to their bodies. "Because we are not animals" is the reply. They complete the transition from nature to culture, they make themselves cultural beings rather than natural ones, via tattoos, and the fact that they are not within nature makes them want to do so. The implication is that they differentiate themselves from the natural order by decorating their skin.

What I am suggesting is that when women apply makeup they are doing the same thing. They are making themselves into cultural beings. By applying a corporate (meaning collective) mask, women tap into a source of collective power. Men don't need to wear makeup because they are, by definition, already cultural. Of course, much advertising operates along this borderline, and because both men and women buy their products, advertisers pitch to both sexes. Ads say “If you have a problem with a bodily function (i.e. nature) we have a cultural product that can help.”

This also applies to sexual attraction. In order to attract a mate both men and women have to look sharp by applying proper grooming aids, and smell sharp by applying proper perfumes, but women must go much further. They must color and condition their hair. They must paint their eyes, their lips, and their faces. They must remove hair from inappropriate places on their bodies. Ads never discuss (beyond the obvious sexual claims) why they must do this, only how.

Advertising in general wrestles with the same types of concerns that Lévi-Strauss discerned in the mythology of "primitive" South American Indians. That is, in a context relevant to our modern sensibilities, ads are really dealing with an opposition between nature and culture. In doing so, they provide structure to our lives, disseminate guidelines for how to look and feel, and mandate what rituals to perform to be fully human.

It may seem that economic factors and competition from new media are forcing advertisers to reevaluate how to get their messages across; to engage in product placement and other tricks to penetrate the clutter. In fact this is just the tail wagging the dog. It has always been inevitable that the "content" - what we call "ads" - would move from the confines of the 15 or 30 seconds spaces between the old content presented by traditional electronic media or the column inches of traditional print media to become involved in every aspect of our lives.

Think about how the average person in Homeric Greece related to The Iliad or The Odyssey. These performance/poems weren't just the "literature" of Greek culture, separate from the general experience. As Eric Havelock, Marshall McLuhan and others have pointed out, The Iliad and The Odyssey constituted cultural how-to manuals, presenting the proper ways for Greek men and women to conduct ceremonies, the proper relationship of Greeks toward their gods, and the proper things to believe about just about everything in their world. Claude Lévi-Strauss added that such cultural encyclopedias reconcile or deny the inevitable contradictions within a culture. By doing so, they promote the well-being and peace of mind of the members of the culture.

Our collective body of advertising defines what is cultural and what is natural, and offers concise advice on how we can best exist in culture rather than nature. This collective resource, acting as a sort of cultural encyclopedia, performs the same function in our age that the Homeric epics performed in classical Greece. The new media are taking our existing cultural encyclopedia and transforming it into a wikipedia. How this transformation affects our social institutions, our belief structures, and our notions concerning gender remains to be seen.

What is an advertisement in a new media website? Is it presenting a narrative, like television advertising, or is it evoking a response through a still image, like print advertising? The answer is probably both and neither. Banner ads on a web site try to be TV commercials or they try to be print ads and yet they aren’t really either. This is a prime illustration of Marshall McLuhan's assertion that we are numb to the true impact of our media. By shifting the communication paradigm, the new media allow advertising myths to burst out of the confines of the traditional media. While the new media sorts itself out, the advertising of the old media breaks out and becomes the content of our everyday lives. As the mythic avatars of our culture, advertising icons want to insinuate themselves into every aspect of our lives, and we subconsciously want them to do so.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Reel World Politics

Cinematic sub-texts shape campaigns of strategy vs. substance.

We are only half-way through the Republican Convention and there are still two months to go before Election Day, but the underlying cinematic metaphors in use by each Presidential campaign are already apparent. Although the main stream media tend to discuss election winners and losers in terms of horse racing metaphors, it is clear that for this election, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have adopted the dramatic arcs found in popular movies as their guides. The use of a movie metaphor gives the candidates a pre-written, pre-vetted script from our popular culture of what to do on the campaign in the media environments that they can control and how to react to the unforeseeable situations that inevitably arise.

For John McCain, and perhaps more pertinently, for his campaign strategists, it is increasingly clear that their motivating movie metaphor is “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” This Steve Martin/Michael Caine comedy follows the competition between two con-men. Caine is a suave, sophisticated poseur who has no trouble convincing gullible heiresses that he is a deposed aristocrat seeking funds to reclaim his rightful throne. Martin is a small-time con artist who stumbles into Caine’s scam-monde and knows a good thing when he sees it. The two antagonists decide to settle their differences by competing for the wealth of an American soap heiress (Glenne Headley). The salient campaigning example found in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is the give and take between the two con-men and the way they adapt their strategies to take advantage of the each others perceived weaknesses.

In a similar fashion, John McCain’s political campaign seems to operate purely at a strategic level. Issues of fundamental political agendas, moral constants and national priorities take a back seat to strategic imperatives. Thus the McCain solution to Obama’s commanding performance at the Democratic National Convention is not to confront issues of policy or perspective, but to trump continuing media coverage by nominating Sara Palin as his Vice-Presidential co-runner. That Governor Palin is neither qualified for the job, nor was sufficiently vetted by McCain’s advisors is not as important as winning that strategic round in the Presidential contest.

For Barack Obama, it is clear that his guiding cinematic metaphor is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” with perhaps a dash of “Indiana Jones” thrown in. Stigmatized as elitist, arrogant (code word for “uppity”) and aloof, criticized for missing opportunities to exploit faux pas and verbal gaffs of his opponent, Obama has faced speculation that he’s not tough enough to compete in the world arena. His critics miss the point. Adopting the James Stewart/Harrison Ford persona allows Senator Obama not only to present himself as the “lone” outsider battling the entrenched corruption of Washington, but also to conduct a presidential campaign that is not driven by strategic imperatives, but which raises substance and principle above strategy. Obama’s emulation of “Mr. Smith” allows him to follow the movie’s dramatic arc to ultimate success in his pursuit of the Presidency.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Marathon Begins

I've decided to spend the month of September writing for this blog. My goal is to post at least once a day, and more if possible. Some of these posts may be very brief. When possible, I will post smaller pieces multiple times per day. These may take the form of separate posts, or additions to the main post of the day.

Since this intense activity will have a negative impact on my job, my social life (such as it is) and my health, I ask my readers (Hi Mom!) to send money, love and drugs. OK Just money. Here's how you do it:

My suggestion to my loyal readers is that you begin today by donating $.01 via the Paypal "Donate" button you see to your left. Then, tomorrow, donate $.02, the next day $.04 and so on, doubling your donation each day until the end of the month. This small contribution will help to ensure quality commentary via this blog.

If you find by the end of September that you don't have $5,368,709.12 to spare, I will accept any donations in any amount.

Your generosity will ensure that quality blogging doesn't disappear from the Internet.