Junk

I grew up when America was first discussing “junk food”: ready-to-eat foods that were filling, and tasty, but neither nutritious nor healthy.

I feel like we’ve glided past the discussion of “junk news”: media which leaves the audience feeling informed, and feeling good, but actually makes audiences less informed than those who consumed no media, at all.

There are studies. It’s not subjective.

We should discuss it more. The body politic can also become weak and vulnerable as a result of a diet of “junk news”.

The Long View on YouTube

If we take the long view, YouTube is a platform for artists – outsider mostly, many of whom make art about their own lives – and educators.

The “how” YouTube did it (dynamic ad insertion, the introduction of smartphones with video cameras, on-demand* serving, Google’s search dominance) is less interesting than “what” they did.

Because of YouTube, there is more much more art today than there was in 2005, and art is also much more diverse.

For sure, aestheticization is historically linked to fascism. And YouTube has put profits over people, with dire consequences for liberal democracy and human rights around the world.

Also, it’s business model has been so relentlessly simple as to distort the communication between artist and audience. (“Don’t forget to like, comment and subscribe!”)

But, on the whole, it ushered in an age of mass creativity without historical parallel.† It’s engendered a cultural shift that we are just beginning to understand, as the first generations to grow up with its aesthetic possibilities turn their attention to stickier questions: mortality, morality, tragedy, comedy, etc.

Whether or not these fruits bloom on YouTube, or elsewhere, won’t matter much. The shift in visual language, and in narrative storytelling, will continue to ripple out for some time to come.

That’s a remarkable occurrence that is easily forgotten given how much attention is devoted to the business of the platform, as well as its baleful effects on liberal democracies.

Footnotes

*Whether the “upload” is a five-hour loop or a 5-second shot, what matters is that there is no preset form, no prescribed length. While some discursive games benefit from tight rules (TikTok, Vine) the game of performing on YouTube has worked because of its open-endedness. Yes, there are many copies of copies. But there are enough sui generis concepts to make it a vital cultural force.

† Maybe not since the printing press and mass literacy?

latines

Latines is a gender neutral term that is pronounced as it’s written, in both English and Spanish. 

The “e” can also be used to make other nouns gender neutral. For example: amigues for friends or abogades for lawyers.

Gender-inclusive terms like doctores and gobernadores are already used widely throughout Latin America and other Spanish-speaking communities. 

that migrant life

When you’re a migrant, be it a refugee or an immigrant, you’re forever an outsider.

You’re no longer fully of the culture you left and you’ll never be a true native in the one you’ve joined.

On the one hand, this can be a source of anxiety and insecurity. The desire to belong is encoded in our very bodies: it’s in the shape of our vocal folds and the size of our neocortex.

On the other hand, it can be a lowkey permanent ecstasy – ek stasis: to be or stand outside oneself.

To be uprooted, is to be ungrounded and thus free from the assumptions that often prevent us from understanding why we are the way we are.

Thus, challenges engender advantages.

because

therefore

I have never shared most of the childhood references of my cohorts.

I study the way that culture bonds us with greater interest than an anthropologist.
I was not raised with the same historical memory as the nation to which I pledge allegiance. I do not assume – as most do, incorrectly – that society shares my political beliefs.
I have never known a before without alienation; there is nowhere I can “return” to. I believe progress is possible but not inevitable; I don’t believe there is a golden era in our past.
I had to find the equivalent of words to communicate and often mangled aphorisms. I encountered language as opaque, rather than transparent; as a social construct rather than a neutral medium. I developed a habit for etymology.
I did not view the characters on TV and in movies as familiar. Relatable characters are predictable, boring. I expect characters to expand and challenge my sense of the world, rather than mirror and confirm it.
I am so accustomed to imposter syndrome that I understand it is as natural, necessary. When I conceive of subjects, protagonists, I instinctively imbue them with skepticism.

Monolingualism is an aberration

Julie Tetel Andresen in The Allusionist:

Monolingualism is an aberration – most people have been multilingual…

The human body and brain is quite well adapted to multilingualism. So the ideology of monolingualism is a fairly new phenomenon, only the last couple of hundred years. It’s such a distortion…

Think of the language situation before the mid-18th century. There were empires, multilingual conglomerations, whose borders waxed and waned with marriage and war; nobody cared about linguistic diversity, the great threat to unity was religious diversity. When the state decided to mobilise language as a resource for creating the nation, you got the ideology of the monolingual nation state, where we want linguistic borders to coincide with national borders. But of course they never did.

First families

I slept fitfully and repeatedly dreamed of the migrant family, as enshrined by Christianity.

La familia sagrada.

The holy family versus Herod, the king. The family as a bulwark against the state.

But even the liberal state, which replaces the primacy of clans with intentional communities, is the sum of countless families.

The interplay between, and within, families is a perennial topic of our political coverage, be it “hard news” or entertainment.

And yet… a great deal of formal political discourse still relegates family affairs to the fringes, or “special interests”; primarily, to those concerned with the patriarchy – its proponents and detractors.*

If feminists are on the fringes, it’s because they are leading the way.

Justice starts at home. Equality starts at home. The pursuit of life, liberty and happiness starts at home.

I know these truths have long been known but they remain in a kind of “closet”.

*postscript

Eric Levitz:

Thus, the bedrock logic of the alliance between social conservatives and reactionary capitalists was this: One valued “small government” because it (supposedly) enabled the patriarchal family (and/or racial hierarchy), while the other valued the family because it enabled “small government.”

*p.p.s. Feb 19, 2019 

Jonathan Cohn:

In 1971, Congress passed a major child care bill that looks a lot like Warren’s today. Nixon, responding to conservative advisers, vetoed it and said it was anti-family.

postscript mar 25, 2019

Katelyn Burns:

Several Trump administration officials, congresspeople, and anti-choice activists recently attended a “Make Families Great Again” conference hosted by the Hungarian embassy to discuss policies to entice women to “have more babies.” 

 

 

Boundary issues

Friston draws a carefully regulated boundary around his inner life, guarding against intrusions, many of which seem to consist of “worrying about other people.”

…In Friston’s mind, the universe is made up of Markov blankets inside of Markov blankets. Each of us has a Markov blanket that keeps us apart from what is not us. And within us are blankets separating organs, which contain blankets separating cells, which contain blankets separating their organelles. The blankets define how biological things exist over time and behave distinctly from one another. Without them, we’re just hot gas dissipating into the ether.
– Shaun Raviv, The Genius Neuroscientist Who Might Hold the Key to True AI

Emphasis mine.

In a recurring motif in your Neapolitan novels, Lila is beset by what you call episodes of “dissolving margins.” As you wrote in My Brilliant Friend, “She said that on those occasions the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared.”

… You yourself steer us toward the possibility of collaborative origins, emphasizing in Frantumaglia the “highly composite, immaterial organism” to be found in the pages of your novels, “made up of me who writes and of Lenù, let’s say, and of the many people and things she narrates.”

The quest for Elena Ferrante, as your emphasis on dissolving boundaries would suggest, need not entail deciphering a clear-cut process of co-authorship—quite the contrary. We readers may never know the precise divisions of labor that have gone into the creation of you, the author, any more than we could identify which qualities in a child come from which parent’s DNA.
– Rachel Donadio, Elena Ferrante: Who Is Behind the Pseudonym?

Catholic Celibacy and Cuban Communism

In the early 1960s, two very different regimes attempted to remake humanity:

Still, the revolution was most astonishing not for its radical redistribution of wealth and resources, its abolition of most forms of private property, or its successful confrontation with the empire at its very doorstep. Its deepest ambition went further: to completely reform the individual. Thus the Cuban Revolution promised nothing less than the reinvention of humankind. The revolutionary leadership envisioned the creation of a “new man,” one tirelessly dedicated to the collective rather than driven by individual seIf interest.
Revolution within the Revolution, Michelle Chase.

When Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962, bishops from many parts of the world hoped that the church would finally change its doctrine and allow priests to marry. But John XXIII died before the council finished its work, which was then overseen by his successor, Paul VI (one of the popes most strongly rumored to have been gay). Paul apparently felt that the sweeping reforms of Vatican II risked going too far, so he rejected the pleas for priestly marriage and issued his famous encyclical Humanae Vitae, which banned contraception, overriding a commission he had convened that concluded that family planning and contraception were not inconsistent with Catholic doctrine.

Opposing priestly marriage and contraception placed the church on the conservative side of the sexual revolution and made adherence to strict sexual norms a litmus test for being a good Catholic, at a time when customs were moving rapidly in the other direction…

The obsession with enforcing unenforceable standards of sexual continence that run contrary to human nature (according to one study, 95 percent of priests report that they masturbate) has led to an extremely unhealthy atmosphere within the modern church that contributed greatly to the sexual abuse crisis.
The Sins of Celibacy, Alexander Stille

Both projects are modern, though they invoke the future and the past as justification.

They are examples of what Michel Foucault has described as biopower:

During the classical period, there was a rapid development of various disciplines—universities, secondary schools, barracks, workshops; there was also the emergence, in the field of political prac­tices and economic observation, of the problems of birthrate, longevity, public health, housing, and migration. Hence there was an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations, marking the beginning of an era of “bio­ power.”

Moohairies

A song from 1998, inspired by julio iglesias and the walking scenes from “Hopscotch”. this was the first Pepito song, done with Reason, SoundEdit 16 and SimpleText on an iMac G3.

video: VCV Rack FullScope module, Quicktime screen capture, iMovie, Photoshop.

quasi-public spaces

From my Facebook account, July 23, 2015:

[note: I saw a man, apparently homeless, using a Starbucks cup to justify his occupying space in an outdoor seating area.]

A slow yielding of public to private spaces (an old ebb and flow) led to a tremendous opportunity for Starbucks in the early 1990s: not to sell coffee but to rent public space.

To rent a Starbucks public space you purchase a disposable token (a white Starbucks coffee cup) and place it near your person. The cup contains a complimentary drink. The tokens – cups – are uniform in outward appearance but can be filled with various liquids which are sold at different prices to allow the consumer to signal who they are. The liquids may be consumed.

It’s understandable that Starbucks would attempt to program a discussion of race throughout its chain of “public squares.” The effort failed but I bet they’ll try again, perhaps by allowing regional or individual stores to set the agenda and partnering with established brands.

I was reminded of Starbucks’ trade in public spaces by the below short history of anti-theft devices in medieval libraries:

Do you leave your e-reader or iPad on the table in Starbucks when you are called to pick up your cup of Joe? You’re probably not inclined to do this, because the object in question might be stolen. The medieval reader would nod his head approvingly, because book theft happened in his day too.

From my Facebook account, April 18, 2018:

Basically, Starbucks coffee shops are so prevalent, they’re a quasi-public space.

Meanwhile, there’s very few public spaces being built. So where do you go meet a friend? What public space can you occuppy?

And when you’re in a private space, the rules are different. In principle, the police exist to serve and protect THE PUBLIC but, in practice, they often serve PRIVATE interests – i.e., those of businesses.

We need more public spaces. Not co-working spaces, not chill bars, not coffee shops. Public spaces that faciltate a vibrant civil society. No transaction needed.

And, yes, private companies that provide a quasi-public service (this web site [Facebook] included) should be held to the highest standards – i.e., those of our public sites.

Also, more / better: A conversation about Starbucks, white fear, and being black in public.

postscript

Patrick Skinner, via Twitter:

People in my precinct need more public places to hang out without fear of ‘loitering’. The commercialization of our common spaces & criminalization of sidewalks has made ‘hanging out’ a crime. I support anything that gets neighbors out & active in their streets. They live there.

War Games, Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove

In 1998, there were two movies about a natural catastrophe: Armageddon & Deep Impact.

In 2006, there were two movies about magicians living outside the reality-based community: The Prestige & The Illusionist.

In 1964, there were two movies about systems failure and nuclear war: Dr. Strangelove & Fail-Safe.

You’ve probably never heard of the second one even though it was directed by a director whose movies were widely seen (Sidney Lumet) and starred actors with long careers: Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman and (!) Dom DeLuise.

Both movies end with catastrophe – nuclear annihilation – because humans (men, really) can’t get it right before the system they’ve built kills them.

Dr. Strangelove came out first and did better. But I suspect that part of the reason why it’s better known is that it was funnier and used symbols more effectively.

War Games was released almost 20 years after both movies (1983). I consider it iconic and I think many would agree (“Would you like to play a game?”).

Like Dr. Strangelove, War Games is not only funny, it works as both a realistic drama and an allegory.

In War Games, the system is a more developed character: it’s physically embodied as a computer (that gets plenty of close-up’s!) and even has two names. The military calls it WOPR but its inventor names it Joshua – after the creator’s dead son!

One day, Joshua, the computer, strikes up a friendship with a real boy who likes to play with computers and… hijinks ensue!

The relationship beween the computer boy and the real boy not only drives the movie, it gets us to a very different ending.

The human boy teaches the computer that some games are not worth playing. The computer then teaches this lesson to the serious adults in the room by giving them a nuclear war scare (simulation).

In other words, in War Games, humanity survives by letting young people lead the way (as Ally Sheedy convincingly argues: 17 year-olds really want to live).

I just saw War Games again last night and I found it to be just as good for the 45 year-old Jose as for the 12 year-old me. Really, it’s excellent.

The comedy is very dry and the jokes come fast. I think it could be grouped with Dr. Strangelove, for sure, but also Robocop, among others.

I’m in the middle of writing a kind of update and I was pleasantly surprised just how much this movie influenced me.

Images “attached” are scenes from Fail-Safe (1964) and War Games (1983)

 scenes from Fail-Safe (1964) and War Games (1983)

Underground

Magicians show you things you don’t know you’re seeing. Prosecutors tell you things you don’t realize you’re hearing.

Movies use a similar ploy: they make you feel smart and perceptive about details they want you to regard as facts.

In other words, they hide clues in plain sight. (Like the Purloined Letter)

This can make moviegoers feel superhuman; like they can see into the future and under the surface of things.

A great movie will exploit this feeling to hide a greater truth under an obvious fiction.

The moment in Black Panther (2018), when the ship flies into the dusty ground of an impoverished nation and emerges under blue skies, above a hidden kingdom of peace and wealth: that was some deep, deep shit.

GIF from the excellent recap: Wakanda Future Do You Imagine?

the normal

I just scanned the most recent issue of “14 y medio”, a banned / clandestine news digest from Cuba.

You won’t be surprised that the stories are about struggle.

It reminded me of feedback I got recently about a TV pilot I’m writing, set in a Cuban island, with a Cuban protagonist.

The advice came from a good friend, with experience: “There’s so much struggle. You have to give the protagonist some success earlier on.”

I did. But it’s worth noting that middle-class Americans (the idealized audience for TV entertainment) simply don’t understand what life is like for most everyone else.

Moreover, struggle is not depressing, per se. Struggle is not a defeat. Struggle is the baseline – the foundation for comedy, desire, nostalgia, hope, frustration, etc

The extent to which TV is cast from the perspective of people who expect the glass to be full is remarkable. Even when the show depicts suffering, this bias colors the tone: the pain is tragic, all-consuming, debilitating.

In reality, the pain is constant but so is the perseverance. And ingenuity. And passion.