Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Dr. Strangeblog

My friend Justin Izzo alerted me to a bizarre court case from Boston, Massachusetts, where a pediatrician on trial for malpractice was caught blogging about the proceedings -- or, more specifically, a fictional trial that bore a striking resemblance to his own -- under a pseudonym. The doctor's blogs on the trial were so revealing, and opinionated, that, once the prosecutor "outed" him in court, he was forced to settle the case out of court or face a now highly suspicious jury (of whom, unsurprisingly, the blogs are highly critical).

The Boston Globe (via relays the story of Dr. Robert P. Lindeman, of Natick Pediatrics, who was sued by the parents of Jaymes Binns after Jaymes died from a severe condition known as diabetes ketoacidosis. The Binnses' case rested on the fact that Dr. Lindeman had failed to diagnose their son with diabetes six weeks before he died.

Throughout his trial Dr. Lindeman kept a blog, now taken down, in which he commented on his case using the pseudonym "Flea," a nickname supposedly given by surgeons to pediatricians in training. Globe writer Jonathan Saltzman points out that "In his blog, Flea had ridiculed the plaintiff's case and the plaintiff's lawyer. He had revealed the defense strategy. He had accused members of the jury of dozing." He had also given the character based on the Binnses' lawyer the name "Carissa Lunt" -- which, it goes with saying, is vulgar yet sooo Ally McBeal. Perhaps most important, though, Flea had steadily garnered sympathy for his side of the story (in this fictional case) among the many visitors to his blog.

When news of the blog reached the prosecution, I imagine they recognized it for what it was: a damning indictment of the doctor's character, regardless of his "intentions" in writing it. Shrewd, flippant, a self-styled victim: Flea may have had a sound case to make, but his attitude left much to be desired.

For example, in one quoted passage from the now-defunct blog, Flea writes, "We've said it before, and we'll say it again: If the basis of this case is that Flea is an arrogant, uncaring jerk who maliciously neglected a patient, resulting in his death, the plaintiff will not win, period...As much of a cocky bastard that Flea may appear in the blogosphere, the readers who have a personal acquaintance with the real 3-D doctor understand how such an approach cannot succeed."

And yet it did succeed -- the prosecution was able to cast doubt on Lindeman's character -- precisely because "Flea" and "the real 3-D doctor" turned out to be the same person, the same "cocky bastard." Here Lindeman's metacommentary doesn't realize its own ironic condition of possibility: that forcefully stating the difference between Flea and the "real" doctor only serves to underscore their inextricability. (You know the type: "Really, I'm not like that -- in fact, I did it just to remind myself how different I really am!") This rhetorical move amounts to Lindeman denying his very real investment in Flea as both a cathartic release and an agent, however modest, of public opinion.

I don't know the details of the malpractice suit against Dr. Lindeman, and so I refrain from judging his "character" based on the Binnses' claims. Furthermore, I don't even have that strong of an opinion about his decision to publish a blog about his case. It may have been an ill-considered decision with regard to "winning" the case, but I don't think Dr. Lindeman did anything ethically dubious -- it was at most a costly strategic error in legal maneuvering (and public relations).

I'm writing this entry, then, mainly to draw further attention to this dynamic of virtual embodiment -- how what we know as a "real" person is becoming increasingly figured as a networked, virtual entity. In this case, a man's inhabiting the blogosphere to reflect on his "real world" situation ultimately confuses the two, rendering them inseparable. That "he" (Flea, Dr. Lindeman) continued to maintain their separation was not so much an act of deception as a lack of perspective.

"Dr. Lindeman is Flea": this is what the prosecution said. But the situation seems to me more complex: Dr. Lindeman and Flea, the "real" world and the virtual, are each other, and though Dr. Lindeman's very real pocketbook will take a massive blow from the settlement, Flea will always have his secret desire. Of Ms. Lunt, Flea ruminated, "Wonder if she's a pillow biter, too?"

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

O Captain, My Captain

The 2006-07 Barclays English Premiership season ended last weekend. Manchester United captured its ninth title since the formation of the league in 1992. Two-time defending champions Chelsea came in second, with Liverpool and Arsenal rounding out the top four. Watford and Charlton endured shambolic seasons and were relegated to the drop before the last day of action; Sheffield United joined them after a 2-1 home loss to Wigan on that last day.

In our fantasy football league, Blue Devils United, hosted by the official website of the Premiership, Justin Izzo came in first by the slimmest of margins: 8 points. The final table looks like this:

1. Duke United FC Justin Izzo 1944
2. Young Boys Durham Kinohi Nishikawa 1936
3. Durham Hamnets Rod Frey 1793
4. aljarrin Alvaro Jarrin 1638
5. The Hurt Enver Casimir 1263
6. toon army mike league 1190
7. Epinal FC Pablo Perez 1175
8. Phillies Finest Julie Mikolajewski 1103
9. toon army mike leitner 1003

My personal stats read: #11 in the Peru league (where, at my peak, I ranked as high as #2) and 20,235 out of 1,272,176 users overall.

Justin and I were neck-and-neck for most of the competition. We traded turns leading the league until April, when I made costly errors in transfers, captain-selection, and starting 11-selection. Justin's strong performances during that month, owing mainly to his shutout-prone defensive lineup (and most especially Liverpool's Jamie Carragher), allowed him to secure first place for good. I managed to scrape my way back into the competition in the last few weeks, and though a strong Arsenal showing at Portsmouth on the final day could've seen me slip into first, a 0-0 draw with the south coast team meant that my much-admired midfielder Cesc Fabregas didn't pick up the points I needed to achieve that.

For not being a regular Premiership follower, Rod Frey finished a respectable third. If he had had the time or desire to make transfers on a weekly basis, he could've well challenged for top spot. Portsmouth goalkeeper David James was probably his key asset all season.

Alvaro Jarrin came in with the disadvantage of not having regular access to the Internet for the first several months of the competition. His moving to Rio de Janeiro for his anthropological fieldwork meant that his starting 11 (and captaincy) remained relatively static for a lengthy period of time. In fact, Alvaro didn't make his first set of transfers until December 1! But once he got that valuable WiFi in his apartment, Alvaro surged into fourth and consistently produced numbers that challenged Justin's and my own. A Chelsea fan, Alvaro had a great run with the trio of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, and Michael Essien.

I learned a lot of things about the nature of online fantasy sports gaming by participating in this season-long league. From a technical standpoint, I got a feel for the wide range of strategies these gamers employ to maximize points from a determinate set of conditions: a maximum of three players from one team, a starting 11 that had a minimum of three defenders, and a designated captain who would earn you double the points for that gameweek. I also learned the extraordinary value of saving one's "free transfer" gameweek for when one really needs it. I stupidly used mine very early on in the competition, making only three transfers (where one would already have been "free" anyway) when Bolton seemed to be in a good run of form back in November. Of course all extra transfers thereafter cost me dearly: 4 points per second transfer per gameweek. In total I lost 36 points from extra transfers this season, 32 of which came after I used my free transfer gameweek.

I also learned the necessity of getting "more bang for your buck" from players who don't hail from the big English squads. Indeed one of the key elements of online fantasy sports gaming is knowing not only which teams are in form and which aren't but also which players are in form and which aren't. At first I stuck by players from traditionally strong teams such as Chelsea and Arsenal. And though it's probably a good idea to stick with defenders from the strong teams (because it's usually the strong teams that can keep the most clean sheets), strikers are a different story entirely. Though hailing from mid-table teams, the likes of Blackburn's Benni McCarthy and Middleborough's Yakubu/Viduka pairing scored goals aplenty -- it's just that their teams also let in lots of goals, often in losing efforts. And despite his team's disastrous defensive record, letting in 111 goals, more than any other team, Tottenham's Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov had an outstanding second-half to the season, sometimes garnering 10 to 20 points per gameweek. The lesson here? It's probably a good idea to spend good money on a strong defensive lineup. But it also makes sense to shop for bargain strikers (and attacking midfielders), several of whom are likely to come from teams that don't do (nearly) as well as the Manchester Uniteds and the Chelseas.

Finally, and in my opinion the deciding factor between my season and Justin's, is the role the gameweek captain plays. As I said before, a captain's point total is doubled for the gameweek. At the beginning of the season, it was difficult to determine just which players would score the goals, make the assists, and earn the bonus points that are the stuff of good captains. I stuck by Arsenal's Thierry Henry for at least two months, in part (I admit) because of his formidable reputation as a striker who can score multiple goals in any given game. What we know now is that Henry endured a subpar season because of niggling injuries and, more important, the fatigue that set in after France's epic World Cup 2006 run. Justin was more daring and figured out early on that Manchester United's Portuguese midfielder Cristiano Ronaldo was producing consistently excellent displays.

And indeed Ronaldo and Chelsea's midfielder Frank Lampard emerged as the two best candidates for holding gameweek captaincies for the majority of the season.

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One week Ronaldo would score a goal and make two assists; the next Lampard would essentially equal that tally. And vice versa. The bonus points came flooding in as Ronaldo and Lampard were consistently named most or second-most valuable players for the games they played in: Ronaldo ended up with 36 bonus points for the season; Lampard with 23. Only Cesc Fabregas beat Ronaldo in bonus points with an amazing 54 at the end of the season. The young Spaniard didn't score nearly as many goals, though, and ended up finishing with 182 total points to Ronaldo's 244. Lampard finished with 202 points.

Soon Justin and I were trading the lead based almost exclusively on whether we chose the "right" midfielder (Ronaldo or Lampard) for a particular gameweek. On the few occasions that I happened to stray from this pairing, I suffered the consequences: Arsenal's Robin Van Persie played a full 90 minutes against Sheffield United and not only didn't score but received a yellow card as well; he got 1 point, and I got 2.

While the Ronaldo-Lampard strategy worked for several months, I now realize it became almost too routine, blinding me to other captaincy possibilities, particularly late on in the season when Manchester United and Chelsea rotated their squads more regularly and their star midfielders were given much-needed rests. In the final double-fixture gameweek (where some teams play twice), for example, I stuck with Ronaldo as my captain. While he earned 8 points in his first match, he didn't even play in Manchester United's second, as the team had already secured the championship and wanted to give the usual benchwarmers a chance to prove themselves. Berbatov, meanwhile, earned an impressive, and potentially (for my season) decisive, 19 points between Tottenham's two matches.

All in all, though, this season's competition was totally fun and utterly absorbing. Bourdieu reminds us that the logic of practice (where a specific maximization of interest [or points] always takes place within determinate conditions, as in a chess game) is such that you don't get a feel for the game unless you throw yourself, head first, into it: you learn, in other words, by doing. Better put, the learning is in the doing. And so for now I'll take comfort in his advice, which is also a theory, and simply say that I'll be back next year.

Izzo, between the World Cup and the Premiership this past year, you and I are tied, 1-1. (There is, Bourdieu might add, a certain amount of shit-talking in any game.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

To Have and Have Not

Three passages from Ernest Hemingway's 1937 novel To Have and Have Not: potent examples of how literature can appeal to visceral experience, to the body's being-in-the-world, and of how language, crafted just so, can move us in powerful ways.

1. Hemingway describes Harry Morgan leaving his wife, and her bed, for the last time:

She watched him go out of the house, tall, wide-shouldered, flat-backed, his hips narrow, moving, still, she thought, like some kind of animal, easy and swift and not old yet, he moves so light and smooth-like, she thought, and when he got in the car she saw him blonde, with the sunburned hair, his face with the broad mongol cheek bones, and the narrow eyes, the nose broken at the bridge, the wide mouth and the round jaw, and getting in the car he grinned at her and she began to cry. "His goddamn face," she thought. "Everytime I see his goddamn face it makes me want to cry." (128)

The cadence of Harry's footsteps is matched by the cadence of Hemingway's prose, ambling, patient, "moving, still..." When Harry grins, and his eyes meet hers, the sentence stops to devastating effect: still, now, Marie is brought to tears by his quiet strength.

2. Helen Gordon gives her husband Richard a tongue-lashing during a lover's spat:

Everything I believed in and everything I cared about I left for you because you were so wonderful and you loved me so much that love was all that mattered. Love was the greatest thing, wasn't it? Love was what we had that no one else had or could ever have. And you were a genius and I was your whole life. I was your partner and your little black flower. Slop. Love is just another dirty lie. Love is ergoapiol pills to make me come around because you were afraid to have a baby. Love is quinine and quinine and quinine until I'm deaf with it. Love is that dirty aborting horror that you took me to. Love is my insides all messed up. It's half catheters and half whirling douches. I know about love. Love always hangs up behind the bathroom door. It smells like Lysol. To hell with love. Love is you making me happy and then going off to sleep with your mouth open while I lie awake all night afraid to say my prayers even because I know I have no right to any more. Love is all the dirty little tricks you taught me that you probably got out of some book. All right. I'm through with you and I'm through with love. Your kind of picknose love. You writer. (185-86)

Repetition and description, to have and have not, a game of adding detail and subtracting sentiment. With that devastating final insult: "You writer."

3. An anonymous "sixty-year-old grain broker" endures a sleepless night worrying that his tax-evading past has finally caught up with him. During the Great Depression, he was thankfully not one of those "have-nots"; their fate he imagines like so:

Some made the long drop from the apartment or the office window; some took it quietly in two-car garages with the motor running; some used the native tradition of the Colt or Smith and Wesson; those well-constructed implements that end insomnia, terminate remorse, cure cancer, avoid bankruptcy, and blast an exit from intolerable positions by the pressure of a finger; those admirable American instruments so easily carried, so sure of effect, so well designed to end the American dream when it becomes a nightmare, their only drawback the mess they leave for relatives to clean up. (237-38)

Damning irony, again pointed up by way of Hemingway's style: the measured repetition of "some" in the first three clauses giving way to a prolonged, wandering discourse on "those" (repeated twice) quintessentially American instruments of dream-brokering. To have and have not.

Hemingway wants you to feel his writing in your bones. He wants you to experience his words.

Special thanks to Ursula Grisham, fellow CSI enthusiast and Dartmouth (soon-to-be) grad, for letting me borrow her copy during the two months we lived together in Lima.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Midwich Cuckoos, or, A Confusion of Thoughts on Reproduction, Evolution, and Reading

I just finished reading a great science fiction book, John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos. Originally published in 1957, the novel was later adapted into the movie Village of the Damned (1960). It tells the story of how a small, sleepy village in England is "invaded" by unwanted "Children," beings who have an enormous capacity for learning and who are intent on dominating their bewildered hosts.

The Children are, we might say, forcibly born to the village's women -- the story begins with a mysterious "Dayout" in which the lives of Midwich's inhabitants are brought to a halt, an invisible forcefield is set up around the village, and the women become pregnant overnight. Wyndham was no feminist, but there are kernels of a radical critique of reproduction (heterosexual or otherwise) in the way he explores the community's reaction to the mass insemination. Mrs. Zellaby notes to her husband, "It's all very well for a man. He doesn't have to go through this sort of thing, and he knows he never will have to. How can he understand? He may mean as well as a saint, but he's always on the outside. He can never know what it's like, even in a normal way -- so what sort of an idea can he have of this? -- Of how it feels to lie awake at night with the humiliating knowledge that one is simply being used? -- As if one were not a person at all, but just a kind of mechanism, a sort of incubator..." (71-72). Mrs. Zellaby's pregnancy was forced upon her, to be sure, and yet the language here is slippery enough, I think, to suggest that she's touching on a more common sentiment, or malaise, or dread, that might be characteristic of "carrying child."

Once the Children are born, the villagers soon realize that they can't escape them -- that these beings exert a pull on them that doesn't allow them to leave Midwich. When people try to leave town by car or foot, there's a point at which they are compelled to turn around and come back to the Children. Even more sinister is the fact that any harm done to the Children, whether intentional or not, is redoubled and thrown back at those who committed the harm. Early in the story, one Mrs. Welt accidentally pricks her baby with a pin. Soon after, "the baby had just looked steadily at her with its golden eyes, and made her start jabbing the pin into herself" (83).

This deliciously sadistic pulsion defines the novel's narrative arc. It also helps explain Wyndham's choice of titles. In one of Mr. Zellaby's many discourses on the Children, he claims that they bear some resemblance to the apparently vicious nature of newly hatched cuckoo birds: "Now, the important thing about the cuckoo is not how the egg got into the nest, nor why that nest was chosen; the real matter for concern comes after it has been hatched -- what, in fact, it will attempt to do next. And that, whatever it may be, will be motivated by its instinct for survival, an instinct characterized chiefly by utter ruthlessness" (89). And indeed once the villagers accept their lot as trapped hosts for these Children, the question becomes, How to get rid of them? This question allows Wyndham to delve into matters of evolutionary theory: he's interested in imagining what humans might resort to when confronted with beings that are paradoxically more advanced (they are highly intelligent creatures) and less mature (they are nonetheless "children") than they are.

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I picked up this book from my hostel in Huaráz. I began reading it there and finished it here, a month later, in Lima. I'm writing about it in this blog to register some of the themes (reproduction, evolution) that piqued my interest as a reader. But just what kind of reader am I? Under what circumstances do I read? Why this book, in Peru, over the Easter weekend, and not another? Are the comments above of an academic nature, or are they things someone who reads The Midwich Cuckoos for "fun," while backpacking, might reflect on as well? Who "owned" this British edition of the book (a handsome trade paperback whose cover features the haunting stare of a baby set above the gray bar that signals it to be part of the Penguin Classics series) before leaving it at the Benkiwasi hostel? Did he or she retrieve it from some other traveler, from some other hostel or book exchange, in South America? Is English even the first language of this imaginary traveler? And what will happen to this book now? Who will read it next as I leave it somewhere in Lima, sometime next week, when I pack up my things and return to my "grad student" life back in the States?

Reading and experience, reproduction and evolution, dry British humor and quiet British terror. The other day, a fellow traveler from Seattle, Emily Jump, and I had a wonderful conversation over Mediterranean food about reading both within and outside academic contexts. We talked about the pleasures of reading for "fun" -- that is, reading for experience, reading as an exercise of the imagination, and not reading as a means of reducing literature to hyper-specialized academic prose. But Emily also took care to recognize that we possess the education and wherewithal ($) to "enjoy" literature of a certain type. Which is to say that even our leisurely enjoyment of literature is always already conditioned by a certain educational background and a certain privileged interest in reading as a practice. And so ultimately we, Emily and I, move between the desire to read beyond what we already know and the acknowledgment that our reading practices will always bear the trace of a certain privileged "appreciation" of what literature can do -- how reading books can take us beyond what we already know.

A classic double-bind? Not necessarily so. I, for one, have come to appreciate deeply the possibility of reading with an eye toward experience and understanding rather than as a means of confirming what I think I already know. Yes, Emily and I are both highly educated people. We enjoy good books. We read some books that academics read. But we resist (and here she's got a head start on me) processing what we read through a self-defined "intellectual" lens -- reducing what we read to a preconstituted "theory." We don't (like to) read as professionals, in other words. Or, at least in my case, being an academic isn't mutually exclusive (I hope!) with one's appreciation for experiential reading. The issue I have with the academy is that most professional literary critics will never admit to the inherent hermeticism of their profession (though they like to claim that all other professions are hyper-specialized).

So there's a profound difference, a valuable difference, between ways of reading among highly educated subjects. Where acknowledging one's position of privilege becomes important is precisely at the point where it's most tempting to judge the way "other people" read. These "others" could include educated people who critique academic professionalism, but they more often encompass the wide swath of readers who don't read books, or who read romances and crime fiction exclusively, or who (worst of all, in some circles) read "middlebrow" books usually associated with sentimental femininity and (therefore?) a complete lack of "taste." While attesting to her own tastes (for good books that a college graduate like her can appreciate), Emily took care to point out that her preferences didn't at all imply judgment of what other people read. People read for different reasons, and these reasons are conditioned by factors such as educational background, disposible income, access to literary resources, and so forth. Thus, to dismiss or even condemn (see certain critics' shrill responses to Oprah's Book Club) certain forms of reading on the grounds of taste confuses a personal "choice" for the divergent and variable social conditions of reading.

Small wonder that Emily has been my best dissertation-interlocutor (even considering the brevity of our conversation over late-lunch!) during my time in Peru. After giving her a layman's rundown of my topic, Emily basically said, "So you're arguing that black pulp fiction made (the practice of) reading a book interesting, worthwhile, and affordable for a community of traditionally overlooked readers." The ethical and political implication of which is: we bracket judging the content of these books in order to understand that their popularity suggests profound truths about racial and economic inequality in the United States.

Emily stated her interpretation of my "point" in such a clear and efficient way that I felt embarrassed revealing how long it's been taking me to finish writing my dissertation. What good reason did I have for taking so much time when the elements of my thinking were so easily communicated over kebabs that afternoon in Parque Kennedy? Was my block a matter of laziness, confusion, needing to read more, needing to research more, or simply being unable to write "academically" about books, people, and themes of the "street," those arguably at the furthest remove from the ivory tower?

One thing I do know is that my craving for new experiences, experiences beyond what I think I already know, is incentive enough for me to commit to finishing my doctoral degree by March of next year. The question remains whether and how I will manage to write the Experience of black pulp fiction in an academic dissertation.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Violence & Attention

My friend Jorge Riveros forwarded me an opinion piece that was published in the Washington Post shortly after what's come to be known as the "Virginia Tech massacre." In "What the Killers Want," novelist Lionel Shriver reflects on Cho Seung-Hui's demand for media attention in an almost unprecedented display of posthumous self-indulgence and terror.

As you can read for yourself, Shriver's basic claim is that violent acts like Cho's are, in part, made possible -- even encouraged -- by a media culture that feeds off sensationalism and extorts emotional baggage. It's a culture that capitalizes on shock and awe even in the midst of tragedy. It's a culture that somehow validates "being seen" at any cost. Shriver writes, "In an era that has lost touch with the distinction between fame and infamy, so driving is the need to be noticed -- for any reason -- that even posthumous attention will do."

What I like about Shriver's piece is that it doesn't shy away from asking tough, critical questions about the way we've received news about this no doubt horrific event -- how it's been framed, in what ways we are led to crave more information, and so on. Of course it's not that we shouldn't receive news about unpleasant events at all; the issue, rather, is how to avoid legitimating (by consuming) the very culture of media sensationalism that contributed to Cho's belief that he really could be a quasi-martyr. Much attention has been given to the influence violent Japanese manga and the South Korean film Oldboy might have had on Cho. But perhaps the better analogy is to Oliver Stone's satire Natural Born Killers, in which a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde go on a killing spree that the media covers obsessively and effectively wants to go on.

Shriver is less convincing, I think, when she says there's absolutely nothing that can change this culture of media sensationalism. It's highly unlikely (a "pipe dream"), she says, that the media will cease giving "blanket coverage and banner headlines" to these killers. And because, thankfully, we don't live in a police state (though the post-9/11, Patriot Act States would seem to challenge that assumption), the simple fact of the matter is that "Whenever we walk out the door, we take the chance that malice will rain on our heads."

It may be the case that nothing can change the media's voracious efforts to "grab" the audience's attention, no matter what the cost. But if this is the case, it seems to me much more effort should be put into media education -- that is, learning to observe, consume, and participate in media as critical subjects. A key component of this type of knowledge, I would argue, is the Marxian/Debordian understanding that consumer society renders us alienated subjects and has the potential to exhaust our ability to rely on ourselves, and each other (i.e., human contact), for emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical sustenance. Whenever we don't feel sustained in our human relationships, we turn to sundry consumer outlets -- not least mass media -- to again feel whole, or perhaps to be distracted for a while, or even to replace that lack with a fleeting desire (i.e., shopping).

In Cho's case, it's clear he had found "real life" to be so harsh and unwelcoming that he accepted he had no other choice but to stage a (posthumous) media frenzy that would grant him the attention he so desperately sought. Cho was, in short, a thoroughly alienated soul. Further pathologizing him as a "wacko" or "kook" or even a "South Korean," not American, national ("It's not us, good heavens!") neglects Cho's rather common affliction: wanting to be wanted in a hyperreal world.

Monday, May 7, 2007

A Dirty Shame: Partial Law & Strict Interpretation

My friend Tyrone Kapricorne brought to my attention a lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C., that exposes the corruption of the American legal system by frivolous, "bad faith" torts. Most amazing (aside from the amount of money being requested in damages) about this suit is that it was filed by a D.C. judge himself.

You can read about the suit yourself in this article by AP writer Lubna Takruri. The suit was filed by one Roy Pearson, an administrative hearings judge for the D.C. circuit. Two years ago, Judge Pearson brought several suits that needed to be altered to a dry-cleaning business owned by a Korean immigrant family, the Chungs. When one of the judge's pants went "missing" a few days later, Pearson set in motion a series of events that culminated in his $65 million suit against the Chungs.

Now at first Pearson demanded that the Chungs reimburse him for the price of the suit (of which the pants was a part), more than $1,000. But one week later, the Chungs recovered the pants, without any damage, and simply wanted to return it to the judge. Pearson refused to accept this and, after several months of rejecting settlement offers by the Chungs (as much as $12,000!), instead filed his lawsuit.

How Judge Pearson arrived at the extraordinary figure of $65 million is too complicated (and too loathsome) for me to summarize here. So I'll defer to Lubna Takruri's excellent account:
Because Pearson no longer wanted to use his neighborhood dry cleaner, part of his lawsuit calls for $15,000 — the price to rent a car every weekend for 10 years to go to another business.


But the bulk of the $65 million comes from Pearson's strict interpretation of D.C.'s consumer protection law, which fines violators $1,500 per violation, per day. According to court papers, Pearson added up 12 violations over 1,200 days, and then multiplied that by three defendants.
Much of Pearson's case rests on two signs that Custom Cleaners once had on its walls: 'Satisfaction Guaranteed' and 'Same Day Service.'

Based on Pearson's dissatisfaction and the delay in getting back the pants, he claims the signs amount to fraud.
Remember, of course, that the pants were found, without any damage, by the Chungs only a week or two after they had presumed it had gone missing. And remember that despite Judge Pearson's clear unreasonableness, the Chungs were willing to pay as much as $12,000 to avoid going to court. The pants in question have been hanging in the Chungs' lawyer's office, untouched, for over a year. Amazingly, Pearson now claims this pair is not his, even though the inseam measurements match his own and the ticket matches his receipt.

How, then, are we supposed to judge the actions of Judge Pearson? In what ways can we understand law, and how it works, when one of its own administrators (or "interpreters") is so clearly intent on bending words and provisions and clauses to suit his personal needs? To what extent do Judge Pearson's actions reveal a larger culture of toxic litigation in the American legal system? And how uncommon is his strategy of reading, or interpreting, the law among supposedly impartial, freestanding judges and justices in a country that prides itself on having a legal system in which "justice is blind"?

Note Takruri's gloss on the reasoning behind Pearson's lawsuit: his is a "strict interpretation" of D.C. consumer law. For those unfamiliar with contemporary ideologies of legal interpretation, the "strict reading" of law is championed mainly by conservative judges who base their decisions on "literal" or "originalist" readings of legal documents. Pearson is a classic literalist when he argues that the Chungs' signs did not accord with the service he received -- he was literally "not satisfied" by his service (i.e., the Chungs couldn't guarantee his satisfaction), and though his pants were eventually recovered, this happened too late for "same day service" to apply here. And then of course we have Pearson's calculations, which inflate his assumed damages to extraordinary proportions and continue to assume that he is "damaged" every day that goes by without his pants being returned to him.

This case is a travesty, to be sure, but Pearson's legal ideology is in fact not at all uncommon. In addition to numerous judges at the state and federal levels, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas of the U.S. Supreme Court espouse extreme forms of literalism and originalism in their readings of the U.S. Constitution. For Scalia and Thomas, if the "framers" of the Constitution didn't intend something -- protection of certain rights, let's say -- in their writing up of that document, then it cannot be defended as constitutional. Scalia and Thomas have lambasted abortion rights and affirmative action policies, for example, for having no foundation whatsoever in the framers' understanding of what could be protected by law in American society. In their view, abortion is legalized by a radical reading of the Constitution's protection of "privacy" and affirmative action, which gives minorities an "unfair" advantage over whites, amounts to reverse racism and discounts the Constitution's understanding of "equal protection." Scalia defends his strategy of reading in an eloquent yet troubling book, A Matter of Interpretation. (Chief Justice Roberts is also by and large a literalist. Though I haven't the time to research his decision online, Roberts's tenure on the D.C. Circuit Court saw him uphold some form of harsh punishment for a girl who ate french fries in the subway when the subway's policy was that no food was allowed there.)

Given this thumbnail sketch of strict interpretation, what's revealing about the Pearson-Chung case, at least for me, is the way Judge Pearson's recourse to literalism is so clearly linked to a perverse pleasure in exercising power and making the law do what you say it does. I would go so far as to argue that Pearson's bad faith is in fact symptomatic of the literalist legal position: if your reading can be said to accord precisely with "what the law means" (or "what the framers intended"), and if there's an absolute coherence of your position and what you say the law says, then you confer upon yourself the authority of what Derrida calls "the force of law." You are the Law. This is the literalist ideology, and if you ask me it's not terribly different from the fundamentalist's claim that, knowing exactly what God means or intends, he acts in the name of God, with the force of God behind him. This is the literalist ideology, and it breeds hatred, disillusionment, and bad faith.

Pearson's case will be heard by D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal Kravitz on June 11 of this year. If you wish to help support the Chungs in their defense, please visit the Custom Cleaners Defense Fund.