Mr. Brokaw… I’m Ready for my Close-Up

October 8, 2008

Right now, American political discourse is enjoying some sort of metaphysical afterlife along with God and Punk. It’s been dead for quite some time now, but only in this current election has the stench become so  obvious. Much can be said about how mass media (I won’t say bourgeois media) has transformed (I won’t say eviscerated) political discourse, in terms of how it is owned and funded by the capitalist class, or how it forces passive consumption of news and issues, or how it limits debate within ideological boundaries, or how it has privatized a traditionally public sphere of debate, yada yada… but this is a whole other story.

I started writing this post because I hate the feeling I get after watching election debates. There is an overwhelming sense of futility in paying attention to the debate itself because, ultimately, the quality of the arguments don’t matter. This is why I’ve been drinking straight Jack during the debates. It’s not about who wins the debate, but who wins the American Idol performance contest. The debates are more of a casting call. In the same way, voters don’t elect a person for president, but the image of a person. What interested me is how now, more than ever, the language of a candidate’s debate performance is informed by the debate’s visual medium of presentation. The performance game is becoming more like a screen test. Take the Vice Presidential debate, which many have called a “stalemate”, even though Sarah Palin barely managed to deliver completely unrelated memorized tidbits in response to Biden’s charges. Rhetorically, it was quite an absurd event. But those conservative people reacted to her, because she actually spoke to the American people. Unlike Biden, who looked at his opponent or the moderator, Palin had her eyes right on the Camera. She smiled and winked. It was like watching an infomercial… and we know how infomercials can convince us to buy just about anything. In that sense, Palin’s screen language was successful, she was a trained beauty queen.

So what about yesterday’s debate between Obama and McCain? I venture to say that Obama outperformed McCain during the screen tests. Whenever Obama watched McCain answer a question, he reminded me of this video of Frank Sinatra and Tom Jobim:

I was struck by Frank Sinatra’s body language: how he fondles a cigarette, leans back on his chair, smokes, and opens his chest with nonchalance. Meanwhile, Tom Jobim, leaning over his guitar, strums the songs he composed, humming and and singing in portuguese while Sinatra takes a drag of his cigarette. Although Sinatra provided the face, the voice, and the image; Jobim was the engine, well attuned to Sinatra’s nicotine rhythm. Take a look at these two-shots of Barack during last night’s debate:

I would say that Obama embodied both Sinatra and Jobim, both the cool and the rhythm. Obama attentively watched and smiled, but he didn’t lean back on his chair as the smug Sinatra did, he was poised for attack, ready to jump in. McCain on the otherhand, scuttled around, scribbled, fidgeted and compressed his face. Look at the two-shots in the video below:

Compared to Obama’s height advantage and more youthful fluidness, McCain appears more like an angry troll. His referring to Obama as “that one” was so poorly delivered, that McCain came off as a petulant teenager. To top things off, the debate ended with McCain leaving an Obama handshake hanging center screen.

So what does this reading amount to? Not much. This debate can only help Obama’s rise in national and state polls. Voting in the US has devolved into a choice between brand names instead of policy positions, too many voters relate to candidates as abstracted images of themselves, in the same way consumers choose designer labels to complement their self-image. At least, my reading attaches some semblance of a methodology in assessing these image-people. Which may be enough to calm my earlier frustration and occupy me until the Jack drains away.

– s

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City of Phlegm

October 3, 2008

Many visitors liken São Paulo to an organism, with its cinder and cement follicles and thick avenues pumping grit, labor and oil. They call it a city of indigestion. But I disagree with that metaphor, for its notion of specificity, of traceable limits. São Paulo is more like a metaphysical trick, a cinematic trick, in which all its images are strikingly similar and unmistakably unique. Its streets branch randomly –almost absurdly— in nervous patterns, so that the routes in between images, its guiding algorithms, coalesce in my mind as dreams do.

And what are the textures of such dreams? The dusty pallor of concrete laid flat against the grey-blue-yellow sky opaque like construction paper… the murky rivers soaking up tattered metallurgical hopes, chemical memories, the heavy consciences of industry… the hues of dilapidation, rotting tiles, human mold, and the sweat of modernization: the marbled shanty skins of the outskirts… the collage of cars, their European visages and monogamous colors, under languishing traffic lights, and delivery boys on cheap Japanese motor bikes weaving through automotive fabric, buzzing like infernal wasps… the facades of bakeries, shops, and boutiques arranged as delicate elements in a composition… I remember all these images and their subtitles, air sprayed on the margins of edifices, sometimes even speaking the language of commercials.


I remember the flux of people, day laborers, executives, children selling peanuts at intersections, young girls in shopping centers, old women browsing fruit markets, football games in courtyards, tumultuous bars and restaurants, and the over-arching dissonance of sighs and voices seeking respite… it was night, cool and crisp. I saw the trail of street lights curve down a hill like an elegant glowing necklace. I remember meeting a girl whose eyes were faded green like frozen grass and vibrant yellow like the bands of a yellow jacket. Her name was Patricia, every Wednesday she walked to an evangelical church to pick up a free basket of provisions for her two parents, four brothers, two sisters and three grandparents. I remember how my ears swelled, my eyes burned and reddened, and my throat inflated like a phlegmatic balloon.


A Checkup on that Palinoscopy

September 11, 2008

“That’s not change, that’s just calling some of the same something different. But you know, you can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig.”

– Democratic Presidential Nominee, Barack Obama

These comments by the Illinois Senator set liberals a’clappin and the McCain Campaign a’cryin “Sexism”, “Sarah Palin ain’t no piggie!”. Of course, the bourgeois media quickly took up this vapid discourse, even though Barack was talking about the McCain campaign, and the Republican nominee himself said the same thing about Hillary Clinton’s health care proposals. But is that quote actually calling Sarah Palin a pig, in light of her RNC speech?

As I wrote in my last post, the humor of Sarah Palin’s “lipstick” joke revolves around implying sameness through a superficial non-difference. In the case of the joke, the non-difference and the punchline was “lipstick”. Considering the structure of Sarah Palin’s joke, the signifiers of “Sarah Palin” were the words “Hockey Mom” and “Pitbull”. The “lipstick” was merely the non-differentiating agent, and Palin’s joke in no way implies that lipstick is unique and essential to either Hockey Moms or Pitbulls. Therefore, the notion that Sarah Palin was called a pig is utterly false. If that notion were true, that would also imply that anything wearing lipstick is Sarah Palin: Vultures, Rabbits, Shirt Collars, Tetris, Tugboats, etc.

If anything, Obama’s quip reinforces the idea of sameness that Palin was coyly pushing. In that case, any equivalence between the two jokes lies in their rhetorical usage rather than their signifiers. Obama’s quote is a scathing critique of Sarah Palin’s rhetoric, jabbing at the pretention of differentation. Even if you are convinced that the Obama quote referred to the Sarah Palin identity (although the context implicates the McCain Campaign’s borrowing of the “change” motif), Obama wasn’t saying “Sarah Palin is a pig”, but rather “Sarah Palin is full of shit”.

– s


A Painless Palinoscopy

September 5, 2008

“You know what they say is the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.”

– Republican Vice-Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin

This unscripted quip by the Alaska Gov’ner and VP Nom drew cheers at the RNC and punning headlines all throughout the media. Not that I’m one to take anything a politician says seriously, but this impromptu joke is worth some critical assessment, not because I’m trying to prove anything about Sarah Palin, but because I think the joke isn’t funny.

Let’s begin with the speaker. I imagine that Sarah Palin was looking to bolster her own aggressiveness within the context of maternal responsibility, more vulgarly, she was going for the “I’m a hot bitch and a small town mom at the same time” impression. What better way to do this, than witha a punchline? Within the context of the speech, the joke came as she was transitioning from the nowhere USA working class credentials, to the political resume. She wanted to spice it up with the notion that the fight (rather than the flight) is essential to her.

The humor of the joke lies in paradox between the superficiality and uniqueness of the stated difference. Because the joke is all about “differences”, the sameness that it actually conveys becomes masked. Sarah Palin was just a shade of grey away from saying “Mothers are bitches”. The phrasing of the joke seeks to shift the responsibility of the content away from the speaker with a downright sophism, hence the “they say”. Sarah Palin doesn’t actually say “mothers are bitches” (although she does), they do. The anonymity of the source is as much a projection of self as it is an affirmation of content.

Then there are the terms chosen:

“Hockey Mom” – a media-fabricated label for white bourgeois women. According to Slate, the median income for Hockey Moms is around twice the national average. On the “Mom” scale, being a soccer mom is a step below, since youth soccer leagues tend to be cheaper and filled with minorities of all shapes and smells.

“Pit bull” – a domesticated dog that’s a breed of a bulldog and a terrier. Since they are tough, sturdy dogs, they have been used for ranching, hunting, rescuing, as well as cocaine sniffing. Pit bull’s have recently gotten bad press, they are used in illegal dog-fights and have been known to kill babies. Wikipedia states that “with guidance from its handlers, [Pit bulls] are obedient and show a high desire to please. However, when left without direction they can become stubborn and may become aggressive”.

“Lipstick” – although it’s been around since ancient Mesopotamia, most people associate lipstick with its modern form, that is, as a commodity that enhances superficial appearances.

Given Palin’s motivation, these qualifiers are rather odd. First, there is the choice of “Hockey Mom” rather than “Mom” (a term that’s profoundly universal). A Black mother of two in Alabama and a Orthodox Jewish mother of eight in Williamstown don’t fit the qualifier, unless their kids play hockey. They are excluded from this representation of toughness, determination, etc. Then there is the “Pit bull”… Sure, people think pit bulls are “badass” or whatever, but they are domesticated animals designed to be subservient to their masters. That Sarah Palin chose a small domesticated animal over a wild one (Bear! Tiger! Penguin!) is telling. It’s also interesting that Pitbulls aren’t even a pure breed, they are a cross. They bear the indignity of design (essence preceding existence). Finally, there’s the “lipstick” punchline. Considering the mechanism of the joke, “lipstick” carries the weight of “the difference” between white woman and domesticated animal. It’s interesting that she chose “lipstick”, a symbol for female superficiality, a commodity fetish. For the punchline, Sarah Palin could have pointed to her breasts and said “these” (although she was at the RNC), or she could have said “chap stick” (a more poetic choice), or “birth control” (but she’s evangelical), or any number of things… So what does this all add up to?

“You know what they say is the difference between a bourgeois white mother and a domesticated animal? Lipstick.”

Probably the reason why I didn’t care for the joke isn’t that Sarah Palin says she’s a bitch, but that she’s someone’s bitch. She manages to convey both bourgeois entitlement and a dehumanized submission. All with reductive and dehumanizing qualifiers. The way the media is treating Sarah Palin, and it’s own sexist treatments is an issue unto itself. What bothers me about Sarah Palin isn’t that she’s a religious conservative, or that she’s inexperienced or slightly fascist, or that I would rather die than have her as my mother… She’s bound to the paradox of a woman with a pregnant teenage daughter who flies around with a special-needs baby about to be born and returns to work three days after its birth, that’s to say, a woman who forsakes being a human mother to being a political mother… Surely, she’s entitled to seek political office while raising five kids (more power to her!). She also happens to think that she’s entitled to everyone’s reproductive rights and to ban books, but that’s another matter… What bother’s me about Sarah Palin is that she seems to be nothing more than strategic advertisement for the McCain campaign, down to the Juno-esque pregnancy and the snowmobile racing husband. She chose to become an image, a commercial. You can argue the same for Barack Obama, although I find him a much more compelling image because of its historical implications.

If Sarah Palin had been a reincarnation of Descartes, she would have probably said:

“You know what they say is the difference between a bourgeois white mother and a domesticated animal? Reason.”

Whether she wanted to or not, Sarah Palin touched on an essential question. What separates us from animals? This summer, I read “The Lives of Animals” by J.M. Coetzee. In it, a fictional character named Elizabeth Costello gives a rather radical lecture about animal rights at a university. What interested me most about her arguments was the refutation of the Cartesian argument that reason separates us from animals. This notion of reason is unprovable. Testing the “intelligence” of animals with mazes and puzzles, only forces them to think the basic thoughts we want them to, such as “how the fuck do i get to my food?”. A more essential thought would be “why am I here?”, “why has this scientist taken me from my home?” or “how do I make him return me to my home?”, which is harder to prove, if at all possible (Kafka wrote a great short story about this). It’s just an absurd methodology as if we threw people in a jungle and see how well they “reasoned” things out. That we are different from animals is so obvious to us, yet so hard to pinpoint. A classical Marxist would say that Sarah Palin’s joke has truth to it, if it’s spun properly. That is, if “lipstick” were taken to mean a totality of social processes rather than a fetish. Marx believed that the difference between us and animals was in the fact that animals at most collect while men produce. While, I think this thought goes in a good direction, it’s not an entirely satisfying answer… What about language? Or society? How would this be tested given the complex and variable relationship between self and environment…

I digress… all this for a joke? you may ask. It’s only a fucking joke!

Yeah… i guess.

– s


Cannibals & Soccer Balls

August 16, 2008

Man is a product of history, many histories in fact
tugging at the corners.
I am succumbing to a history at this very moment,*
while watching a live Olympic soccer game, between Brazil and Cameroon.
We Brazilians don’t watch our national team because we hope them to win,
we watch them because we expect them to play well -that is to say:
queremos ver um futbol bonito -to play beautifully.
We become indignant with am ugly, malaccomplished victory,
and such expectation is a product of our history,
our Pele history, our generation of World Cups,
when the soccer game crystallized into moments of authentic grace,
small ballets with a ball, transcending mere display:
the triumphant perfection of the act of football as an aesthetic act.
Our history is a heavy burden for a football team,
when Brazil lost the World Cup to France and three goals,
we defined such an ugly loss as a conspiracy of sorts,
the machinations of capitalists… our players were drugged!!!
You may find us arrogant for such an attitude,
but what about the nation that names its basketball team the “dream team”,
as if their men were beyond history,
as if they were some conjured product, some Hollywood fantasy.
Then again, America wouldn’t take a day off for a world cup match.
Proud and drunk as we are, we aspire to our own history.
Our absurd nationalism is backed up by our absurd playing style:
Our aim isn’t to defend ourselves from football,
from the joy of it, the pass, the dribble…
Our aim is our history and our history is one of cannibalism
-that is, of appropriation.
At its best, our style is a kind of jazz:
the joy of the instrument, the ecstasy of the moment, the authenticity of the player
-that is, at its best.
Football is a human sport
and with our history we tend to become complacent with ourselves,
with our own technique, with our niches in Europe.
Our football team has never won an Olympic gold medal
-five world cups but no gold medals.
It’s true, not all of our famous players are on the Olympic squad,
most are under twenty-three,
but we’ve never cared that much for gold medals,
never cared beyond complacency.
Come to think about it,
FIFA has a good stake in our history

-s
* – if I were a film, this statement would always be true


Olympathy for Pretentious People

August 12, 2008

For the first time in my life, I am actually enjoying Olympic coverage. That’s because, for the first time, coverage isn’t limited to what Thomas Paine called the “tyranny of the tube”. NBCOlympics.com has been providing live streaming coverage of a multitude of sports, all at a click’s length. While the live coverage is only reinforcing my nocturnal lifestyle, the difference is unquestionable. For one, I don’t have to be force-fed taped Olympic coverage through the television stations focusing on America-centric competition. Besides, I don’t care less about Michael Phelps or track and field… even gymnastics have lost their luster. I want to watch handball, badminton, fencing… futbol. But the best part of the online coverage is how wonderfully bare-bones it is: there are no talking heads, no flashy graphics, no blocks of commercials (except for some offensively bad spots by GE), there’s not even any commentary. All you hear is the sound of the game, the mingling of languages, the swelling audience. Visually, the shots are surprisingly well composed, and the usual replays and close-ups render the sports as a naturalistic aesthetic experience (compared to the artificial grotesqueness of a Super Bowl).

Personally, I’m captivated by the details… by the Spanish pep-talk given by the Brazilian Handball coach, by the eyeliner on a female Hungarian Handball player, by the way an injured Japanese Judo fighter was carried away like a cradled baby, by a Korean fencer’s lime green nail polish, by the bloody hair of a Kiwi Field Hockey player and the star forward telling his goalie “it’s me and you” after a win, by the syncopation of whistles… I could go on. For an added effect, I like to play music along with the live footage, providing rich atmosphere and subtext whenever the rhythm of music complements the rhythm of athletics. Case in point: the tense last minute of the women’s individual foil gold medal match set to the drumscapes of Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick”, or the Brazilian soccer team’s final counterattack and goal accompanied by the Cadenza from the Adagio of Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez”. At this exact moment, A women’s soccer match between North Korea and Germany is being illuminated by Charles Mingus. I’m cheering for North Korea, since their players are more likely to be sent to a labor camp for losing.


The Maccabean Theater of Judgment

August 4, 2008

There is much talk within film scholarship about the complicit passivity of audiences… Complicit in that the audience’s eyes aligns with the camera’s gaze, and passive in that the alignment (the images on the screen) and its direction doesn’t at all care for the audience’s agency. In a sense, watching a film is like stepping into a different world -or better yet, like taking a guided tour of another world. Stanley Cavell talks about how there is a moment of awakening after a movie ends, the audiences realigns with reality. Walter Benjamin likens the aesthetic experience of film to that of architecture. While it seems that film theorists like to talk about the passive audience as if it’s a “film thing”, something similar can be said about audiences at a classical music concert (just try coughing during one!) or even at a play. The big danger with this whole logic, is when it begins assuming that observers are essentially passive. Such an assumption belies a Eurocentric tradition of a non-participatory audience, where they can aspire to be, at most, loud tomato-throwing critics without any bearing on the course of what they are observing. In all this, different traditions are obscured. A notable exception to this entire passive audience talk is “the Maccabean Theater”.

The Maccabees were a Jewish fundamentalist terrorist organization seeking to liberate the holy land from the foreign occupation of the Greek empire-state (well, the Seleucid Dynasty). They were ultimately successful and today they are mostly known for two Apocryphal books and a surprisingly effective energy sustainability policy (even though they blew all the energy saved on a party). Little is known about “the Maccabean Theater”, probably because it wasn’t an actual theater. The Maccabean Revolt was as much of a struggle against an occupying empire as it was a civil war between Jewish Nationalist and Jewish Hellenists. Violence against the Hellenists was widespread, it was so common that it gave birth to a curious tradition. Maccabean fighters began rounding up Hellenists on an elevated platform, forcing them to act out their profane gentile rituals, utter prayers, and prepare offerings. As the captive Hellenists acted as they were told to, the Maccabees would shoot arrows and throw spears at the actors. Some would even rush up to the platform, bloodthirsty sword in hand. These performance ritual were also cleansing rituals, fervent homages to the High Priest Phineas (Pinchas). They grew in popularity and became more and more elaborate. The forced reenactment of rituals evolved into the forced reenactment of histories and mythologies. Thus was the “Maccabean Theater” born, a theater of sentencing, a theater of judgment and execution.

Unlike the Roman gladiators, who were mere spectacles, the Maccabean Theater reached a brief peak before the newly liberated Jewish theocracy ushered its decline. None exemplified the apex of the Maccabean Theater better than Zedekiah the Danite. While many question the historicity of Zedekiah, reasoning that he represented a small amorphous collective movement, his projects sought to elevate the performance purges to a different level. Zedekiah often crafted his own reenactments, binary morality tales based on Jewish struggles. He created a reenactment of Book of Esther where all the captives played Haman. There’s evidence that suggests that Zedekiah even trained some captives to act, as the more capable actors were often killed last to greater general enthusiasm. Zedekiah reasoned, that if the audience were to play G-d’s will and punishment, the reenactments shouldn’t simply be some glorified shooting gallery. There must be a dynamic between the audience and the actors. So Zedekiah the Danite began toying with sympathetic gentile characters (how much longer will the divine arm let this sinner live?), but then he wanted to take a step further. He imagined an opulent Passover pageant, in which the story would change according to the death of each captive. This task was harder than imagined, since a vast array of plot permutations had to be planned and rehearsed. Zedekiah would have also required captives with significant acting experiences, capable of memorizing all possible outcomes and improvising smooth transitions, as a captive never really knew when the “Will of G-d” would smite again. The historical record doesn’t indicate whether Zedekiah’s plans ever came to fruition, although it’s said that one time, as a big finger to Hellenic culture, Zedekiah staged a minor comedy by Menander.

With the liberated Jewish state and the decline of heretical crimes, the Maccabean Theater became less about killing the actors and more about letting the better actors live. Crowds began sparing the better performers before killing off the inferior ones. Once the Romans took over, even the hands-on killing started to cease, as the Roman state usurped the state’s judicial power of execution, and death by stoning made a rollicking comeback among smaller religious courts. By then, the performance rituals forsook plots and stories, to become a kind of holiday variety show, where the most popular captive criminal act would be spared execution. Such was the case when Jesus Christ competed against Barabbas one Passover morning (a detail the gospels poorly address). By choosing a majestic silence over the actor’s craft, Jesus was promptly dispatched to the nailing yard, while the thief Barabbas was set free (according to Luke, Barabbas beat out not only Jesus but two others).

While largely forgotten, the Maccabean Theater of Judgment does have some spiritual children of sorts. The concept of torture as theater is probably more common than it’s been in awhile, thanks mostly to the Bush administration, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. It’s in no way limited to post-9/11 politics. Take, for example, the shitty Korean movie Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, or Jean-Pierre Meville’s 1969 masterpiece Army of Shadows. But I think what best inherits the tradition of the Maccabean God-audience is the current fad of judge based reality TV shows, such as American Idol, or the one with the fashion designing cooks. The audience retains a faint semblance of Maccabean empowerment. The leap from Zedekiah the Danite to American Idol is certainly long, but as any good Czarist would attest: the Jews own the media.

– s