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

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Keepin' It Real?

Cora Daniels's incisive new book Ghettonation laments our society's increasing tolerance for low expectations, signaled by the way the ghetto has been transformed from an actually existing place into a mainstream lifestyle or "mind-set." The ghetto (noun) remains a site of racial oppression and economic poverty for some, but for the vast majority of Americans "ghetto" has come to mean a way of doing things, a style, an adjective used to describe the qualities (or lack thereof) of someone or something -- as in, "That's sooo ghetto."

Daniels reminds us that most Americans are not concerned in the least with alleviating the depressed socioeconomic conditions that characterize minority-dominated ghettos in our inner cities. Rather, in a perverse, consumerist twist (or collective "fuck you" to those actually languishing in ghettos), "ghetto" has become sheer mask and performance, a way for people of all races and classes to "play" poor and black.

One example of such playful, anti-materialist spectacle stands out in Daniels's research. It is Gizoogle.com, which translates any website address you enter into its search engine into "ghettospeak," an urban, rap-inflected, and decidedly raced ("black") slang. (A more "neutral," race- and class-variable "dictionary" of youth and urban slang is the user-edited Urbandictionary.com.) This is how the website translates two passages from my previous posts:

Me: I wonder what the implications of such overseas profitability are for domestic jobs. It's true that U.S. corporations are profiting from high sales in Europe and Canada, but I'm not sure if that necessarily translates into more jobs or better employment conditions (e.g., wages) for employees of those corporations.

Gizoogle: I rappa what tha implications of such overseas profitability is fo' domestic jobs n shit. It's true tizzle U.S. corporizzles is profit'n fizzle hizzy sales in Europe n Canada, but I'm not sure if T-H-to-tha-izzat necessarily translates into mizzy jobs or playa employment conditions (e.g., wages) fo' employees of those corporizzles fo' sheezy.

Me: But then Bauerlein makes this unusual concession: "The problem isn’t the inclusion of sociopolitical forensic per se. Rather, it is that the selections fall squarely on the left side of the ideological spectrum. They are all more or less radically progressivist. They trade in group identities and dismantle bourgeois norms. They advocate feminist perspectives and race consciousness. They highlight the marginalized, the repressed, the counter-hegemonic."

Gizoogle: But then Bauerlein makes this unusual concession n shit: "izzle problem isn’t tha inclusion of sociopolizzles forensic per se. Brotha it is that tha selections fall squarely on tha left side of tha ideolizzles spectrum , chill yo. They is all more or less radically progressizzles. They trade in group identities n dismantle bourgeois norms . Nigga get shut up or get wet up. They advocate feminist perspectizzles n race consciousness. They highlight tha marginalizzles, tha repressed, tha wanna be gangsta."

Admittedly, Bauerlein's stodgy prose is made so much more amusing by this translation. I especially love that it automatically translated "the counter-hegemonic" to "tha wanna be gangsta" because the latter, in fact, captures the precise meaning of the former with its ironic undertone. Bauerlein, of course, is taking critics to task (unfairly, I think, but still...) for appropriating a kind of counter-hegemonic "cool," which is, in a different context, something like a gangsta pose.

At any rate, you can see how the mainstreaming of ghettospeak can be utterly entertaining, often hilarious, and yet remain troubling somehow. Just what kinds of assumptions are we making about race, class, and even gender when we "playfully" submit to talk like this? Who are we trying to be -- what are we trying to say about ourselves -- when we end every other sentence with "fo' shizzle"? From whence this desire to call a close friend or confidant "my nigga"? All of which is to ask, What histories do we elide in such flights of raced fancy?

Whose ghetto is this anyway?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

I'll Show You My Exchange Rate If You Show Me Yours

Here's a fine article from Slate.com on the economic implications of a weak U.S. dollar. Its author, Daniel Gross, points out that a weak U.S. dollar has meant an increase in tourists who visit the States to take advantage of comparatively cheap (with regard to other developed countries) goods, services, and investments (including real estate). Gross writes, "The money tourists spend helps put a dent in our chronic trade deficit. So do exports, which, thanks in part to the weak dollar, soared 11 percent between May 2006 and May 2007. For the first five months of 2007, the trade deficit actually fell 7 percent from 2006."

Gross also reminds us the weak dollar has benefited those U.S. corporations that rely heavily on foreign sales:

If you—or your mutual fund—own shares in large American corporations, you're a winner in the weak-dollar sweepstakes. Based on data culled from 238 constituents of the Standard & Poor's 500 Index, S&P analyst Howard Silverblatt concludes that the typical member of the index garnered 44.2 percent of its sales outside [emphasis mine] the United States in 2006. Translating cash received from those sales into weaker dollars puts some fizz into earnings. Last week Coca-Cola's stock bubbled to a five-year high after it reported a fantastic quarter. Foreign sales accounted for 65 percent of Coke's beverage business. Other ur-American companies profiting from this trend include McDonald's (65 percent of sales overseas) and IBM (56 percent).

So if U.S. corporations are able to produce goods that sell comparatively higher in Europe than they do in the States (again, owing to the weak dollar), then Coke and its internationally friendly ilk are not terribly troubled by the current state of the U.S. dollar.

I wonder what the implications of such overseas profitability are for domestic jobs. It's true that U.S. corporations are profiting from high sales in Europe and Canada, but I'm not sure if that necessarily translates into more jobs or better employment conditions (e.g., wages) for employees of those corporations.

One thing is for sure: there's no better time (or excuse) for all my European and South American friends to come and visit me in Durham, North Carolina -- especially Durham, where you can buy a pack of Camel Lights for under $3.50; you can buy a decent used car for under $3,000 (as I did recently); and you can order, until 3am, 7 days a week, a meal "tray" consisting of a burger, two sides, and a drink for $3.99 at our local drive-thru, Cook-Out.

Or: you can meet in Hawaii when I visit my family in December.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Strokin'

For your viewing pleasure, I present the music video for Clarence Carter's 1991 cult hit, "Strokin'." Featuring the immortal lines:

The other night I was strokin' my woman
And it got so good to her, you know what she told me?
Let me tell you what she told me. She said:
"Stroke it Clarence Carter, but don't stroke so fast
If my stuff ain't tight enough, you can stick it up my..." WOO!
I be strokin'!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

I Heart Fernando Torres

In eager anticipation of the start of the 2007/08 English Premier League season on August 11, I've been doing some online research on recent summer acquisitions by English clubs. In particular, I've been reading up on El Niño (The Kid), Fernando Torres, a superstar striker from Madrid and lifelong supporter of his local club, Atlético Madrid. Up until last season, the talented 23-year-old had only played for Atlético, both on its youth and senior teams. But the great English club Liverpool, which is coached by a Spaniard (Rafael Benítez) and features superstar Spanish playmaker Xabi Alonso, recently signed Torres away from Madrid for a whopping £20.2 million.

I remembered Torres as the flashy, tattooed youngster who made quite the impression at last year's World Cup finals in Germany. Torres scored three times during the qualifying stages of the tournament (once against the Ukraine and twice against Tunisia). He celebrated each goal with a trademark gesture of dropping to his knees and raising his arms to the sky. The gesture almost tricked me into believing Torres was some Polynesian seafaring god.

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Torres was unlucky not to see Spain get past the now-revered plucky French side, led by Zidane, which eventually lost the tournament final to Italy.

Torres's record as a goalscorer at Atlético is no less impressive, amassing 82 goals in 214 appearances. For his pace, determination, and finisher's touch, Torres has attracted the attention of Europe's biggest clubs, hoping to lure him away from Madrid. But prior to the summer, Torres remained loyal to his local team and was seen as being an outstanding player on a consistently mediocre squad.

All this made me excited to see some footage of Torres's best goals from his years at Atlético. Naturally I turned to YouTube as my primary source of bootlegged, independently edited videos of great footballing moments. All I had to do was type Torres's name in the search engine and a list of results appeared almost almost immediately.

I had fun skimming the highlight videos, all of which showcased Torres's undeniable talent. But after watching several of these, I began to notice a recurring theme: along with the goalscoring, Torres was being celebrated for his equally undeniable hotness. The editing of these videos underscored his boyish good looks, displayed both on and off the pitch, and the soundtracks sometimes featured pop hits that were gushingly fawning, as in this example:



That was Avril Lavigne's "My Happy Ending," for the record. "You were everything, everything that I wanted / We were meant to be, supposed to be, but we lost it / All of the memories, so close to me, just fade away / All this time you were pretending / So much for my happy ending."

Watching this particular highlight video, which was posted on April 14, 2006, I couldn't tell if this fan was heartbroken (as the song in toto suggests), smitten (as certain lyrics could suggest), or just plain awestruck (the lyrics don't matter here; it's more about the depth of feeling Lavigne expresses in her singing).

Whatever the case may be, I have to say: I was taken in by this video. I was absorbed. I too began to realize that Torres was "hott," so to speak. (That's an added "t" for emphasis.) I don't know whether it's the beauty of the goals, the brashness of his youthful masculinity, the adoration he commands among the faithful. But this independent video-maker surely did the trick in turning me on to Torres.

Realizing this, I recalled that, in truth, most of the Spain national team from World Cup 2006 was quite good-looking. Not least was the versatile, long-haired defender Sergio Ramos, who had a great tournament until he ran into a France side that put three past Iker Casillas to move on to the quarterfinals. Here's a picture of Ramos at a press conference:

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Ramos plays in the center of defense for giants Real Madrid (Madrid's big Other club). For a central defender, Ramos is unusually spry and a fine goalscorer. He's likely to figure as one of Real's mainstays as the club rebuilds over the next several years.

So after watching the Torres videos, it shouldn't be a surprise as to what I did next. I searched for "Sergio Ramos" on YouTube and the item at the top of the list was this:



Note that this video makes no pretense of being a highlight reel. It is an unabashed, adoring tribute to Ramos-as-hottie. No football footage; just photographs and stills of Ramos in all his beauty. And the soundtrack is the song "Everytime" by Simple Plan: "Everytime I see your face / Everytime you look my way / It's like it all falls into place / Everything feels right." These guys make Avril Lavigne sound like William Blake!

And yet. And yet I have to admit that there was something endearing about this video too, something that was just ecstatically passionate about its love for Ramos. (The video was, as its end credit notes, made by one "Eleninha.") It thus became clear to me that this video only literalized what the Torres ones kept mostly subtextual: whether male or female, real or hyperreal, fans have a passionate attachment to (sports) stars, and especially attractive Spanish footballers, that's expressed as a celebration of skill, determination, brashness, youth, and the male body all at once. These videos were, and are, technologies of desire.

Importantly, such desire does not have a proper "sexual" referent: "straight," "gay," or what have you. This is, rather, unbridled, object-confused desire; a confusion of desire. What do we find appealing about these sportsmen? Exactly what attracted me to Torres and Ramos? Again, a field of possibilities arises: technique, command, charisma, but also facial features, hair, and muscle. The "proper" response, then, might be: "All of these, and more."

**********

As if fate had been standing over my shoulder, looking at my laptop screen, I came across this video shortly after watching the Sergio Ramos tribute. Considering all that's been said here, I can only describe this as that final turn of the screw which seems to unlock the mystery of my desire for Torres and Ramos, only to shroud it with yet another veil of indirection.

I present the bilingual masterpiece: "Fernando Torres and Sergio Ramos: Which One Would You Choose?" (They are, it turns out, not just teammates but best friends.)



[Alvaro Jarrin briefly indulged my fascination with the Spain national team last summer. Maria Vaalavuo talked to me about her crush on Italy's Fabio Cannavaro on our travels during the Peruvian summer. I thank them both.]

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Memories from EPL 2006/07

Football365.com's end-of-season awards came out in two installments in May, but I accessed them only recently through a link on BigSoccer.com. This huge online community of football, or soccer, fans throughout the world has provided me a great way to indulge my passion for the game, especially now that I don't have cable (Fox Soccer Channel). Thanks to Justin Izzo for pointing it out to me.

At any rate, here are a few of my favorite stories from the English Premier League 2006/07. (The "awards" are but named placeholders for recounting the previous season's highs and lows, oddities and surprises.)

Description Of The Season
*Winner: "I nearly swerved off the road. I yelled down the phone. I was so incensed. I was trembling with anger. I couldn't believe what I had heard" - Ashley Cole recalls his reaction to Arsenal offering to increase his wages to a paltry £55k per week.
**Runner-Up: "No maturity and respect, maybe difficult childhood, no education, maybe the consequence of that" - Jose Mourinho puts Footballer of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo in a different perspective.

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Jose Mourinho Quote Of The Season
*Winner: "I always knew one day I would not be a champion" - Jose reflects on a strange year.
**Runner-Up: "It is like having a blanket that is too small for the bed. You pull the blanket up to keep your chest warm and your feet stick out. I cannot buy a bigger blanket becuase the supermarket is closed. But I am content because the blanket is cashmere. It is no ordinary blanket" - Jose refuses to be downcast by January's injury crisis.


Villain Of The Season
*Winner: Graham Poll. Wrecked more decent matches than a Fifties chaperone.
**Runner-Up: Cashley Cole. The embodiment of everything that is wrong with modern-day footballers.


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Injury Of The Season

*Winner: Preston winger Simon Whaley being ruled out for the rest of the campaign after attempting to heed a call of nature in the middle of the night during a mid-season training trip to Spain. Unfortunately he banged into a coffee table in his hotel room, which in turn resulted in the marble top of the table falling off and breaking his toe.
**Runner-Up: Everton's Tim Cahill suffering knee ligament damage after being inadvertently fouled by team-mate Lee Carsley in a match against Aston Villa.

Best Goal Of The Season Which Didn't Win The Goal-Of-The Month Award
*Winner: Thierry Henry's double act with Cesc Fabregas at Blackburn in January.

**Runner-Up: Matt Taylor's 40-yard volley against Everton a month before.




New-Fangled Sitting Position Of The Season
*Winner: The Eggert Magnusson - in which the sitter disappears lower and lower in his seat at the same rate as his side slide towards the bottom of the table before only the top of a shiny head appears, like the top of a boiled egg above the cup.


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Money-Maker Of The Season
*Winner: David Beckham after signing a four-year deal with LA Galaxy worth a reputed £128m.
**Runner-Up: Alan Pardew, who reaped around £2m in compensation upon being sacked by West Ham in December and then signed a £4m contract with Charlton two weeks later. It's a tough life at the bottom of the table.


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Monday, July 16, 2007

Politics in/and the Humanities

Emory English professor Mark Bauerlein has written a piece for the online magazine Inside Higher Ed titled "An Anti-Progressive Syllabus." Bauerlein complains that the humanities today are characterized by partial, polemical discourses on social theory and politics. English departments, for one, have replaced disciplinary study of "actual" literary texts with anti-discipilnary models of social and cultural criticism (this is also the argument of Bauerlein's 1997 book Literary Criticism: An Autopsy).

Bauerlein surveys the literary theory anthologies he's been exposed to as a student and then as a professor of literature and concludes: "The problem lies in the sizable portion of the contributions that bear a polemical or political thrust. These pieces don’t pose a new model of interpretation, redefine terms, outline a theory, or sharpen disciplinary methods. Instead, they incorporate political themes into humanistic study, emphasize race/class/gender/sexuality topics, and challenge customary institutions of scholarly practice. When they do broach analytical methods, they do so with larger social and political goals in mind."

But then Bauerlein makes this unusual concession: "The problem isn’t the inclusion of sociopolitical forensic per se. Rather, it is that the selections fall squarely on the left side of the ideological spectrum. They are all more or less radically progressivist. They trade in group identities and dismantle bourgeois norms. They advocate feminist perspectives and race consciousness. They highlight the marginalized, the repressed, the counter-hegemonic."

Bauerlein's solution to this putatively "radically progressivist" slant in the humanities? Not to question the role of sociopolitical commentary in humanistic inquiry but to forge a reprensentative "range" of political viewpoints in the humanities curriculum: to wit, merely adding to our syllabi texts by conservatives and neoconservatives like F. A. Hayek, Leo Strauss, Francis Fukuyama, Irving Kristol, and even the loathsome, scholar-hating David Horowitz. (The full list of readings may be found in the link above.)

Confused? I was, upon first reading this decidedly partial piece. On the one hand, Bauerlein bemoans the humanities' drift toward sociopolitical commentary in the wake of 1960s and '70s social movements and the culture wars of the 1980s and early '90s. The basic point of his book Literary Criticism is to caution scholars against such "excesses," in part because they run roughshod over disciplinary methods of inquiry. I'm far from agreeing with Bauerlein on this point (I'm a self-described interdisciplinary [Bauerlein would call me anti-disciplinary, I'm sure] researcher myself), but I do respect his intellectual beef with those who use research objects (literature, history, etc.) to confirm or academically legitimate their political beliefs.

Where Bauerlein's essay loses me is this idea that somehow assigning conservative and neoconservative authors will "correct" the "imbalance" that he claims is endemic to the humanities curriculum. Bauerlein offers a set of materials that he says will correct "liberal bias" in the universities. But note: by saying these specific texts and authors will do this or that for humanities scholarship, Bauerlein is no better than the political propagandist who tells us exactly how to read. This is unapologetic, dogmatic prescription: "Gramsci on Tuesday? Try some Hayek over the weekend! A unit on Angela Davis and social activism? We'll be looking at David Horowitz for an 'alternative' viewpoint next go-around. Trust me: with this regimen, you'll feel politically balanced by the end of the term."

Nowhere in his piece does Bauerlein acknowledge that the academy, and humanities departments in particular, are among the preciously few spheres for funded, dissident critical thinking in this country. Not once does he question exactly why the likes of Hayek, Strauss, and Fukuyama are taken seriously as shapers of public and foreign policy (often to disastrous ends, as we can see with neoconservatism's flirtation with evangelism in George W. Bush's war in Iraq), whereas Marx, Gramsci, and feminist philosophers are taken seriously only in the academy.

What I'm trying to say here, in response to Bauerlein's reading list, is that 1) there are very good reasons -- historical, political, social, financial -- why there appears to be a so-called "liberal bias" in the U.S. academy, and 2) no sort of dogmatic political prescription (left, right, or otherwise) belongs in a classroom setting. Bauerlein is guilty of the very thing he purports liberals of perpetrating. A though I'm a liberal myself, my principles bind me to persistent critical thinking in my pedagogy, and I hope never to sink so low as Bauerlein's "fair and balanced" (Fox News, anyone?) syllabus.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Resign

On July 3, 2007, MSNBC political talk-show host Keith Olbermann demanded that President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney resign.

This clip has been making the rounds online. There is a flurry of mixed metaphors here, but it's the most biting and impassioned critique of the administration I've seen in the mainstream media.

Handcuffing Scooter

In all the hubbub generated by President Bush's commutation of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's prison sentence, I found Michael Kinsley's opinion piece "The Lying Game" to sound a balanced, well-reasoned argument. Kinsley begins by drawing a comparison between Libby and former President Bill Clinton's impeachment over lying about the Monica Lewinsky affair. The comparison is unusual in that most (conservative) critics have referenced Clinton not because of Lewinsky but because of the eleventh-hour pardons that Clinton granted to rather unsavory business-type criminals. The comparison is thus really between Clinton and George W. Bush.

But what Kinsley wants to show is that Clinton and Libby both found themselves facing what he calls a "perjury trap": an impossible choice between either lying under oath or "truthfully" answering questions that should not have been asked in the first place. Per Clinton, "He could lie under oath, and be impeached or worse, or he could tell the truth, and embarrass himself and his family, and probably still be impeached or worse." What Kinsley is asking is this: why was Clinton put in such a bind in the first place, when his "offense" was in essence a personal one and (most of us will agree) neither a political nor a security risk in the least. Of course, Newt Gingrich's Republican-controlled Congress thought otherwise, and their rabid, wasteful pursuit of Clinton's sexual peccadilloes was part of a larger smear campaign to discredit the leader of their Democratic rivals. Recollecting that sordid, sorry episode in our political history, I think a lot of us have been left asking, "Impeachment and millions of taxpayer dollars over what?!" How silly.

Kinsley's explanation of Scooter Libby's perjury trap is more complex. Unlike Clinton, Libby was indeed involved in a political and security brouhaha (or cover-up) that had grave implications for U.S. foreign policy: he was "part of the cabal that was conspiring to discredit [former ambassador and Iraq war critic Joseph] Wilson and, more generally, to convince people that Iraq was strewn with nuclear weapons." Although not a major player in that "cabal," Libby's involvement in the process is undeniable, and he merits no sympathy for contributing to the Bush administration's political cover-up and quashing of dissent in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

Despite all of this (and Kinsley makes known his own distaste for Bush, the war in Iraq, etc.), it's Libby's fate to have been handcuffed by a perjury trap that bore some resemblance to Clinton's high-profile case. Either Libby could have lied and committed perjury (which, like Clinton, is what he ended up doing) or he could have told the truth and basically admitted to leaking government secrets to journalists. In both cases, Libby is screwed. He'll go to prison for lying or he'll go to prison for leaking government secrets.

Kinsley's point rests on the notion that Libby's trap is no more acceptable than Clinton's: both were faced with impossible choices, and both were asked questions they shouldn't have been asked. After all, the very press corps that wanted to break the story about the White House leak also wanted to protect their First Amendment "right" to keep their sources (even for government secrets) secret. Kinsley writes, "It takes two to leak. How can it be fair that one party to the leak doesn't even have to testify about it, because leaks are so vital to the First Amendment, while the other party might go to prison for it?" If Libby was posed with a lose-lose situation, then, the news media had a win-win one: Libby was at once gagged (not revealing the actual source for the leak) and held up as an example of this administration's nefariousness.

If Libby had revealed the source of the leak (and who knows if he knows), it would've been seen as a huge blow to the freedom of the press. If he lied about his involvement in the leak (which, again, is what he ended up doing), he would be caught and vilified for taking part in the WMD cover-up. So you see, the news media didn't really want Scooter to talk; they just wanted him to play the role of the fall guy to a tee.

In the end, Kinsley basically wants to point out that the news media had a huge role to play in the Plame-Wilson-Libby fiasco. He wants us to ask questions of the press and not just of this goober named Scooter. Call it an open secret: the press has always been complicit in the affair; there would've been no leak if the news media didn't want it in the first place. So why (just) blame Scooter?

I tend to depart from Kinsley's opinion piece over whether questions about the Plame leak "should" have been asked in the first place. I believe they should have been and that we're better off because they were asked. What Kinsley doesn't seem to acknowledge is that all the confusion surrounding the leak (and yes, the press was knee-deep in the muck) brought to light a deeply troubling, even treasonable, manner of conducting political business by the Bush administration. We are talking about nothing less than the calculated cover-up of information and quashing of dissent which would have challenged the Bush administration's rationale for going to war with Iraq. This stuff is a far cry from a blowjob in the Oval Office. This was and is a matter of war and peace.

And so even though Scooter found himself handcuffed by the situation presented to him, it has to be said that it was a situation that called for direct, public scrutiny and nothing less. The gravity of the leak -- the security-threatening uses to which it was put -- merited, in my opinion, putting the squeeze on Scooter. Perhaps contrary to Kinsley, then, I am willing to distinguish the relative importance of some perjury traps from others. Clinton's trap was a waste of time and taxpayers' money; Libby's revealed something inherently wrong with the way our government has been operating under George W. Bush.

So yes, the news media had their cake and ate it too. But Scooter got his just desserts.