Saturday, April 22, 2006

rhetoric, propaganda, and the archive

An archive, like a history, is an abstraction: a product of selective omission. Through a process of critical decisions, certain pieces of information are selected for inclusion. Those pieces of information that are included (or excluded, as the case may be) present to posterity the attitudes and values that informed the decision making process.

The general problem presented by the archive is neither the collection nor the collation of information, but rather, the retrieval of information: an archive requires an interface, or a set of conventions, whereby the user is able to determine what information is important, and how to access that information.

Using Mumia Abu Jamal, a journalist, as a symbol for the primacy of the word, the Voyager CDROM Live from Death Row archives a man’s extensive critique of political authority in order to critique that same authority.

Live from Death Row exploits the conventions of various media formats to establish the perception of authority for its rhetoric. Framed within a window on the computer screen, the graphic composition of the archive resembles the familiar cinematic technique of mise en scene. As is particularly well evidenced in the “Background” portion of the disc, the synchronic features of the mise en scene consistently segregate interface elements that control how the user navigates the disc’s hierarchy (on the left in “Background”), and those that control what audio/visual information the user can access on a given level of the hierarchy (on the right). The diachronic features of the mise en scene (with one notable exception I’ll later discuss) provide visual feedback (context clues such as rollover effects or background changes) as the user navigates through the archive. This clarity of visual order authoritatively establishes the capability of the archive to effectively convey information, yielding the impression that the disc is a type of reference material, and underscoring the position that information itself is of value. Furthermore, the selective use of full motion video, as in the “Death Penalty” portion of the disc, invokes the authority of the documentary format in television and cinema; and the strong narrative thread running throughout the “Background” section of the disc invokes the power and authority of the storytelling tradition, abundant in the motion picture arts (as elsewhere). Another important use of full motion video on the disc is Mumia’s 1989 interview in prison, which includes footage of the cameraman adjusting framing and focus, to invoke the value as authority of unedited footage as record.

Beyond the use of cinematic devices to ground the archive’s rhetoric, the disc presents people involved in Mumia’s case as authorities on the subject, and makes extensive use of text and sound to emphasize the primacy of the word (since Mumia is, after all, a journalist, symbolizing the power and authority of the word). The sheer volume of Mumia’s writings amassed on the disc demonstrate that his positions are not arbitrary, but well-reasoned. The sheer volume of words spoken in impassioned tones points towards the power and authority of the voice, which predates the written word, and is near (if not at) the root of all artistic (and archival) traditions that followed. And – this notable exception to the consistent implementation of the interface’s idiom – when we are presented with the archive of Mumia’s writings, the visual formatting conventions of the disc change. In the “Live from Death Row” portion of the disc, it is as though the authority of the word has undermined the cinematic interface conventions that are employed in the “Background” portion of the disc: the graphic design of the disc here resembles a magazine layout, and when the user chooses to hear Mumia read these words, every last interface metaphor has been supplanted by the spoken word, and the “pages” of this “magazine” turn for us as Mumia reads.

Using the movie camera as a symbol for the primacy of the image, Man with a Movie Camera archives images from disparate times and locations to explore how cinema can reveal human truths. It is possible for a person to mean to say one thing and have those words understood differently; Vertov grounds the authority of his rhetoric in the unequivocal formal properties of the image, thereby critiquing words as a suitable medium for the conveyance of human truth. The advantage of the image over the word is that it is unequivocal: the eye is democratic, and everybody sees the same pictures on the screen, whereas a word like “tree” will call to mind a different image depending on who reads that word. Vertov concluded from this premise that a grammar of imagery would lead the way to a more absolute truth than the word can supply.

Although Man with a Movie Camera lacks many elements common to cinema, such as staging, characters, and dialog, it makes extensive use of various formal devices to demonstrate the authority of the image. Like most cinema, Man with the Movie Camera is carefully organized to excite certain impulses in the audience at various times: there is a glory in the way Vertov photographs machinery in motion, and a humor in the mannerisms of couples getting married and divorced. And despite Vertov’s rejection of any literary influence on cinema, Man with a Movie Camera has a clear beginning, middle, and end: a narrative orientation of sorts, constructed of a series of distinct vignettes. His use of mise en scene is used to compare movement through space to movement through time is a manner that expresses the dynamism of the industrial age. Vertov’s selective use of these cinematic devices allows the audience to orient themselves within the film, and his consistent use of montage focuses the audience’s attention of the specific juxtapositions of images as the primary source of meaning in the film.

Regarding Man with a Movie Camera as an archive that represents the values of Dziga Vertov is advantageous to the time-specific meaning of the film (as part of a larger movement in art and cinema), but problematic to the intentions of the filmmaker. Although the images Vertov combines are formally unequivocal, divorced of its social and historical context, the meaning of Man with a Movie Camera becomes muddled. The juxtapositions of changing traffic lights against a couple getting a divorce can be read (from the present historical context) as a statement about how the technology exerts a controlling influence on us, and is breaking down traditional forms of social order (rather than as a wry statement about what remains undeniably human amidst rapid technological advances). The mise en scene sequence of a worker packing cigarettes can be read as a statement about how the division of labor is like a cancer, reducing humans to mindless machines (rather than as a rhetoric extolling the beauty of human movement, or the desire for a more perfect man in the machine). Aside from the formal enthusiasm for movement, the meaning of Man with a Movie Camera ultimately requires reference to Vertov’s critical writing, which would undermine the authority of the image Vertov attempts to establish. It is possible that this changing of meaning in Man with a Movie Camera could be seen as a dynamism similar to that which Vertov sought to encapsulate in his film, but in such a case, the meaning of the images is not unequivocal, and no more privy to truth than the word.

The use of authority for rhetorical purposes is a large part of propaganda. Both Live from Death Row and Man with a Movie Camera exploit authority not only to make a point, but also to motivate audiences to accept that point. Both seek, by propagandizing, not only to motivate future actions that audiences might make, but also each seeks to contradict the past, informing the present thereby. Live from Death Row seeks to influence future attitudes towards incarceration and political authority by critiquing a legal case that took place in the past; this dialectic of past and future comments on the current state of political affairs. Man with a Movie Camera seeks to influence the attitudes of future filmmakers and audiences by critiquing the state of film at the time, thereby affirming the objectives of the film (towards establishing conventions for a new cinematic tradition). The public library is an example of an archive that does not serve a propagandizing function: the Dewey Decimal System (as an interface for the library) is not a rhetoric that seeks to mobilize the information the library houses in order to incite the user to accept Mr. Dewey’s values as authoritative.

Even the archive itself is a sort of authority: it imposes a type of logical necessity upon a set of objects (as in, what it logically means for an object to be a member of a particular archive), establishing a relationship between those objects which, in the absence of the archive, would cease to apply. In the case of Live from Death Row, there is a definite narrative that comes through the way images, sounds, and text are grouped together, and how the hierarchy of the disc suggests a linear direction for the navigation of the material; where it not for the disc, that particular narrative implementation would not exist. For Man with a Movie Camera, its nature as archive requires that certain images be sequenced in a certain way: if the frames of the movie were organized differently, the frames would constitute the same film. The inherent authority of the archive furthers its value as propaganda by providing a tautological justification for a specific rhetoric.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

logically consistent poetry

“The Painted Word” is a satirical essay by Tom Wolf that considers the consequences of how, in contemporary art, artists often produce works of art in order to illustrate particular critical statements.

Tom Wolf’s notion of the painted word finds corollaries in the writings of such aestheticians as Arthur Danto and George Dickie. Arthur Danto has discussed at length how, in contemporary art, it is no longer possible to determine if a given object is art or not based solely on appeal to the formal properties of that object (a common illustration of this point is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain). In “Art, Philosophy, and the Philosophy of Art,” Danto uses Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Box” as a case study in the importance of theory in contemporary art (a demonstration of the total equivocality of art objects). Danto wonders:

"why were his boxes works of art while the almost indistinguishable utilitarian cartons were merely containers for soap pads? Certainly the minor observable differences could not ground as grand a distinction as that between Art and Reality!"

George Dickie, in his essay “Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis” offers as a reply that an object may qualify as art if it is recognized by intellectual art institutions as art; the way in which a given object garners the status of art object is often by appeal to critical justification.

Like many trends in contemporary art, the painted word was prefigured by various figures in the Dada movement. The justification for the aesthetic concerns of, for example, Hugo Ball, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst, was an implicit ideology that required an explicit articulation given the art-historical context and the expectations of the art-going public of the time. Although for a lack of political convictions Kurt Schwitters was not permitted to officially join the Dada, the work of Kurt Schwitters demonstrates a virtuosic array of aesthetic and technical concerns. Schwitters indulged in the realms of surrealist and opto-phonetic poetry, expressionist painting, collage, and assemblage. Through association with such prominent artists as Theo Van Doesburg, who was connected to both De Stijl and the Bauhaus, Schwitters demonstrated a highly refined sense of geometric formalism; Schwitters also produced work bearing a strong resemblance to the neoplasticism of Piet Mondrian.


is the critical statement Schwitters printed in the periodical “G,” No. 3, 1924, Schwitters included a treatise on the subject of “Logically Consistent Poetry.” A structural linguistic analysis, Schwitters’s statement on logically consistent poetry assumes that “it is impossible to explain the meaning of art,” and in his construction of a critical reductio-ad-absurdum proceeds to postulate that “the basic material of poetry is not the word but the letter.” To quote Schwitters:

1. The sequence of letters in a word is unequivocal, the same for everyone. It is independent of the personal attitude of the beholder.

2. Sound is only unequivocal in the spoken word. In the written word, the sound depends on the capacity of the beholder to imagine it. Therefore sound can only be material of the reciting of poetry and not for the writing of poetry.

3. Meaning is only unequivocal when, for example, the object signified by the word is actually present. Otherwise it is dependant on the imaginative capacity of the beholder.

4. The association of ideas cannot be unequivocal because it is dependent solely on the associative capacity of the beholder. Everyone has different experiences and remembers and associates them differently.

Schwitters concludes that “a logically consistent poem evaluates letters and groups of letters against eachother.” To this end, he composed his “Ursonate,” which clocks in at about 45 minutes when recited, and requires an elaborate system of graphic notations to indicate what sounds correspond to which symbols on the printed page.

Although Schwitters ultimately demonstrated the compatibility of critical insight with aesthetic beauty, he also demonstrated the limitations of critical methodology by using his art to illustrate the way in which critical elucidation often leads to satirical consequences or blatant absurdity. In composing his “Ursonate,” which is linguistic gibberish, Schwitters was able to make an extremely articulate statement about art and criticism in conjunction with his writings on methodology.

While it is possible to illustrate the subtlety and complexity of Schwitters in the context of a deconstructive analysis of the dissolution of the boundaries between


while a work of art may seem meaningless or pointless, for better or for worse, it can (and often is) related to a very specific subjectmatter in a very specific way that is mediated by critical methodology.


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

addiction to oil

one obstacle to overcoming america's addiction to oil is the internal combustion engine itself.

the best internal combustion engine designs are only 30% effecient: this means 70% of the energy in gasoline is lost as ambient heat due to friction between moving parts. moreover, much of the energy used in accelleration is also lost as heat during breaking.

a novel mechanical solution is to use flywheel technology to convert linear motion into angular momentum during breaking, and then to convert this angular momentum back into linear motion at driving speeds, thereby reducing the load on the engine.

another solution is to invest in quality mass transit and walkable neighborhoods. grocery stores and park spaces within walking distance of homes are key to walkable neighborhoods, and increased taxation on the wealthy (mass transit tax on luxury vehicles) is key to creating quality mass transit.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

structure of religious experience

there are two fundamental types of religious experience, each with a distinct structure.

the religious experience common in semitic/christian traditions is of the structure subject-content-object, that is, the subject (worshiper) has an experience (a prayer answered) of a particular object (god). in this model, the content of the experience is evidence that the object (god) exists if the causes and conditions of the experience accord with the attributes of the object (god).

the religious experience sought after in buddhism is of the structure subject-content, that is, the subject (adept) has an experience of enlightment or satori, which has no particular object necessarily. in this model, the cause (object) of the experience (content) is irrelevant; all that is relevant is that the content of the subject's experience accords with attributes consistent with enlightenment or satori.

the latter type of experience can be found in semitic/christian traditions in the concept of time (and causality) found in the old testament book of ecclesiastes. it is akin to poetic truth, which is different in kind from logical truth, but literal in much the same sense.

paul valery wondered why defunct philosophical theories are still studied as having philosophical value, while defunct scientific theories are relegated to history. he concluded with a certain idea of poetry, a poetry of ideas...

a poetry that transcends the forms of art, to live through its very own being...

to embody even wretchedness, because there is no distinction between samsara and enlightenment...

because distinction is entirely arbitrary when confronted with the truths of the soul...

when the truth of the soul is seen from afar, and whose presence is felt with a sublime pious terror...

when all one can do is follow this truth, and revel in the beauty of the world...

mere ideas struggling to inhabit the world with this beauty...

Friday, April 14, 2006

change as process

from eddies in turbulent flows to fractures in glass to ion doping in semiconductor design it is imperfections that form the fabric of our existence. friction is imperfection. psychologically friction is a metaphor for frustration, conflict - but in the absence of friction, there is no motion either. no progress without imperfection. how to learn to adapt intuitively to imperfection, to pattern a whole mode of constructive discourse around the imperfections we ourselves may cause or contribute to...

the notion of a "wicked problem" has a general applicability in describing nonlinear sorts of problems like one often finds in sociology; for example, it came as a great surprise to traffic engineers a couple decades ago when they tried to relieve traffic congestion on interstates running through cities by making the highways larger: rather than ease congestion, the larger highways just made more people drive, leading to more congestion, more pollution, and a socio-economically destructive de-urbanization...

how to bring about positive change...

spirit and practice.

despite being an irish catholic jewish zen buddhist by both upbringing and practice, i have mixed feelings about ritualized religion; i do think with some certainty that being religious about things has a great deal of value. i am trying to be more religious about always cueing my videotapes to the end of my recording so whenever i have a tape sitting in or near my camera i can just pick up my camera and record should the spirits move me. i am quite religious about always carrying a notebook and a pen. religiousness is a way to emotional certainty.

public service

it bothers me to hear how defensive administration officials become when confronted wih criticism of the wars in iraq and afghanistan. public servants should serve the public, not the other way around.

i would like to see a prewar cost-benefit analysis that considers the effects of proactive programs to strengthen governments in moderate and progressive middle eastern states like lebanon and jordan.

i would like to see footage from multiple angles of the plane that hit the pentagon.

i would like to know why the world has seen over and over the world trade center collapse, but why nobody has seen even a single clear image of the attack on the pentagon.

i would like to know why effective inter-city and inter-state mass transit is not a national security priority: 40,000 people die every year on highways.

i would like to know why those who rely on mass transit pay a larger percentage of their transportation costs compared to those who commute by car.

i would like to know why mass transit is viewed as something subsidized by the weathy for the poor, but roads that are subsidized by the poor for the wealthy are viewed as an entitlement.

i would like to know what sacrifices the president has made for the wars.

i would like to know why there is a bounty on osama in the tens of millions, but we've spent hundreds of billions to get saddam, who never did anything to us.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

fragment on information economies

as a general rule it is easier to produce or store information than it is to retrieve or identify relevant citeria for the retrieval of information. as economies deindustrialize and information becomes a primary economic exchange commodity, data mining will become an increasingly valuable service.

the shift in america to an information economy is evident: who marries who on a sitcom, who swindles who on the news, novels, stock prices, and music are all consumed simply as different types of information...

thinking ain't illegal yet.

too many white americans are afraid to face the truth that institutional racism is not only real, but requires more than opening up one's wallet to address. we need to open our hearts, to see that there is not just white america, black america, hispanic, asian, etc., but privelaged, underprivelaged, and oppressed america.

the fact is that those in power have an incentive to keep the privelaged anesthetized with a constant onslaught of costly entertainment, and to keep underprivelaged and oppressed working three jobs while raising kids and still stay poor: if enough americans had enough time to sit around and think about what is going on around them, it would be so painfully obvious that the ignorant privelaged couldn't live with themselves.

a well educated populace is the greatest single threat to a fascist regime.

there are third world living conditions all over here in america.

thought is not free.

sacrifice is not just a word used in political speeches.

psychology is not a marketing strategy.

Lost Highway and Mechanized Warfare

David Lynch's Lost Highway is an allegory about the horrors of modern mechanized warfare. While it is tempting to read Lynch's sanitized world of ritualized action and wooden speech as representing a defense mechanism against a world of physical brutality, sexual violence, and sublimated subconscious impulses, Slavoj Zizek in The End of Psychology argues that exactly the opposite is true.

In modern warfare, soldiers may or may not be aware of whether, how, or when they've killed an enemy. Zizek argues that, therefore, soldiers must construct fantasies about killing opposing soldiers in face-to-face situations as a defense mechanism against the knowledge that technology shields them from any sort of verifiable account of what acts they’ve committed in battle. Censored images of brutality in the news therefore make war more horrible, as do fictionalized depictions of bloody battles, because both cases deny the psychological reality of modern armed conflict. Such a denial is especially harmful in mass media because it collapses the boundaries between the private suffering of individual soldiers and the public awareness of what suffering takes place. David Lynch’s film mirrors this conflation by deliberately confusing alternate narratives: experienced reality is often less convincing than constructed reality.

I find Zizek’s argument quite appropriate, particularly because it agrees with intuitive accounts of why a given individual’s expectations may motivate an individual to act contrary to “objective” accounts of reality (because reality constructed from a set of expectations can be extremely convincing). Zizek also provides an account of why efficient mechanized warfare as a political endeavor is inherently immoral (I personally believe we’d get into far fewer wars if we fought like the Viking Berserkers, who ate large quantities of psychedelic mushrooms and tore opposing warriors apart with their bare hands), and provides prescriptive actions for public servants and the owners of media outlets who are responsible for shaping public opinion about armed conflict. Zizek’s account moreover describes why control of media is important in modern authoritarian states: as more people get more information about the world from mass media, the control of mass media becomes an increasingly useful tool for manipulating the constructed realities of large numbers of people.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

metaphysics and linguistics

whether knowledge and belief
entail the same type of truth value,
or whether one entails the other...

if one knows something must one also believe it?

are knowledge and belief subject to
different standards of validity?

knowledge is traditionally defined as
true justified belief...

what if one overhears a stranger using
bigoted language? one may then believe that
this other person is a bigot. how can one then
acquire knowledge of whether or not one's belief in this
case is true (such a belief is justifiable, since it
is supported by linguistic evidence) or whether
one's anger at hearing such language is

in a sense, one's orientation towards such a
situation is entirely dependant upon what is
in one's own mind: it is a product of both
what one has heard another person say and do,
as well as what one believes oneself.

one is then left with a metaphysical problem
and a practical imperative: one may feel one ought
to address the use of bigoted language without
being as radical oneself (lest one be hypocritical,
or more intollerant than that which offended one
in the first place).

although one, in such a situation, may be uncertain
how best to behave - in part, perhaps, for fear of
causing a scene over what may be a bad joke -
one may be left with the sense, however one
chooses to behave, that one ought not to have been
faced with such a problem in the first place.

bigotry is rooted in corrupt language.
a practical approach in a collective sense is
to take the power of bigoted language away from
the bigots. this effort was advanced by parts of the
homosexual community with words like "fag" and
"queer." by using these words freely themselves,
many homosexuals advanced a program to "normalize"
derogatory terms, to defuse this language of its incindiary
power. such an approach is fundamentally american
in its sensibility: if one american can use a word,
any american can. connotation is to an extent
consensus. there ought not be any privelaged
vocabularies: we all speak the same language, and
we're all americans.

this is not to suggest we ought to be frivolous or
irreverent with words that have a painful history,
but merely that exclusivity - in language as well as
economics or politics - breeds a power that will be

a practical approach in a personal sense is to
remind oneself of the importance of tolerance:
the use of bigoted language by one person, if
addressed reasonably, may inspire another to
change his or her habits. otherwise, anger just
breeds anger, and anger is blinding.

if one is angry all the time, it is hard
to let love life beauty and satori into one's
life, and the bigots win.

a good place to start perhaps is by discussing
language, by finding out what a word means to
the person using it, what that person understands
his or her words to mean...

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

soviet montage

Sergei Eisenstein’s dialectics in a larger philosophical context are subject to critique from the perspective of the relationship of his politics to psychology.

In Battleship Potemkin Eisenstein's politics is overtly addressed through his dialectics – and not only in virtue of his Party affiliation, nor his State commission to produce the piece. He seems more than willing to criticize the Party to which he credited his support: the revolutionary soldiers – even as the heroes of the revolutionary tale – on their first glorious military excursion destroy only one thing: the opera house. This would be an odd statement for an artist with Eisenstein’s beliefs to make (considering his use of metaphor generally: as with the ideogram, musical terminology, or visual sensibilities (rotten meat)) if he didn’t mean to present a subversive critique of the Party. If he showed willingness elsewhere to interpret history for the sake of his tale, he might also have changed the target of the revolution’s attack (that is, being an artist using the opera house as a symbol for his own vocation. the historical authenticity of that event in the film is not unequivocal for me; subjectivity, unlike objectivity, can explain human fault; objectivity can only describe our failings as humans without offering any rational suggestion for how we might improve our lot: useless!); perhaps, this curiousity is an unavoidable demand of his dialectic methodology: thesis and antithesis, as in, a film that portrays its own destruction – or impossibility. Eisenstein could be using his political dialectic to speak anagogically, as the Dada spoke about the destruction of art; or he could be speaking literally, as in, “this is what happened 20 years ago,” or, “these are the formal possibilities of the medium (sheer potential to be sudden, to shock with the impact of an explosion, to record movement, to be edited in various ways)”; he could be speaking allegorically, as in, simply using an arbitrary overt politics to call attention generally to the fact this film is not just a tale about the revolution, and to thereby imply any number of possible interpretations.

About shot and montage as a dialectic of the physical and mental (critique of dialectical materialism?). Pavlov’s conditioned stimulus-response model could be interpreted as relating the societal understanding of cinematic technique (external conditioning/the shot) to the mind’s understanding of a particular experience of cinema (internal response/montage), in virtue of the fact that (as Kuleshov demonstrated) the juxtaposition of various images is understood by humans in ways that are somewhat definite and regular. Stimulus is objective (external: other people are objects in a way that “I” am not), response subjective (internal: language has objectively described syntax with definite physical corollaries (the shapes of letters) – none of which is ever influenced by the meanings they convey, and thus can be used to describe the meanings they convey (by definition) without being required to explain the meanings they convey. In the sentence “I saw a truck,” the word “truck” stays the same as if it were in the sentence “I’ve never seen a truck.” “Truck” is a syntactically vital descriptive word in the sentence “I saw a truck,” but the sequence of letters ‘truck’ does nothing to explain what a “truck” is, nor does it shed much light upon what it is to see.). Shot is objective, physical: it, although not like a block or a letter, is not unlike a word, or an idea, or a house. Shot is contiguous in many ways similar to our experience of consciousness. The shot is the causally-related material origin of any particular experience of cinema. The montage, however, is what the individual spectator sees and understands. It is like how, when one reads a word, one understands the word rather than each individual letter in order; or the meaning of a sentence supercedes the meaning of a word. The film (both a strip of celluloid as well as an idea in minds) is therefore a dialectic of shot and montage.

Interesting to note that Eisenstein’s understanding of montage has tremendous descriptive strength insofar as it describes how the individual relates to film as a mass media; Eisenstein’s view, however, suffers from an important shortcoming of behaviorism generally. Behaviorism is very strong descriptively, but has no explanatory strength without an implicit appeal to cognitive terms. By analogy, Eisenstein’s view of cinema makes no room for much of experimental cinema (which can be art in virtue of the critical statement that informs it, while at the same time lack any formal property that would identify it as art (this point is discussed at length by Arthur Danto. Common examples of art objects that cannot be identified as art objects based solely on appeal to physical properties, or material rules of causality: Fountain, by Marcel Duchamp (who denied that he was an artist or that he was making art); The Brillo Box, by Andy Warhol (who replicated consumer goods and had other people paint his paintings)) – unless elements other than shot and montage (or any element whose meaning can be understood by appeal to physical properties, for that matter) – are sufficient to qualify a film as being cinematic (or to have meaning in relation to cinema by implication).). A similar problem afflicts behaviorism: to understand why a person steps out of the way of a moving vehicle – a person who, in such a case, responds to a material stimulus in a conditioned way without any sort of causal relation that resembles the way a rock falls from a cliff, or a protein interacts with an enzyme, or a person when burned recoils from fire – requires appeal to cognitive terms that find no material analog, such as, understood, believed, or was afraid. Any psychological state montage in film causes for a spectator can with equal validity be said to have been caused by the film. Science derives its value from predictive strength. Behaviorism and the stimulus response model – if for nor reason other than the sheer range of past experiences spectators bring with them to movies – cannot relate a film

a definite seor any spectator; the syntax of film is not unequivocal. The spectator, to Eisenstein, was not a part of the cinema. If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody is around to hear it, of course it makes a sound.

anarchism and decentralizaition

anarchism is a democratic form of governance that emphasizes a decentralized socialist economy, regional political autonomy, freedom of association, and the importance of a free press. anarchist society comes to resemble a federation of federations, and promotes both individual and corporate diversity, while promoting cooperation for the good of the whole.

one feature separating anarchism from communism is decentralization: this removes incentives for political leaders to amass individual power by diminishing the ability of powerful individuals to manipulate large numbers of individuals and corporations.

among the benefits of this type of decentralized organization are economic and political redundancy and efficiency. redundancy and efficiency may seem like contrary notions, but their agreement is this: by having multiple individuals and organizations working to solve the same problems, there exists an additional resiliency to catastrophe, multiple sources to supply a commodity, and an increased probability that a given problem will be solved (in virtue of a greater number of different individual or corporate sensibilities working on the same problem).

this type of distributed infrastructure is key to the longevity of many of the planet’s oldest and most successful animal species. the termite exists in a decentralized colony that, although containing a queen termite, operates without central direction from the queen. ant colonies are similar: through the arbitrary behavior of a large number of independent agents, extremely efficient and complex behaviors emerge from the collective behavior of the many ants.

for example, an ant colony seeking food will send out many ants to accomplish the task. as the ants wander around looking for food, they leave behind a trail of chemicals called pheromones. when an individual ant finds food, it follows its trail back to the nest, reinforcing the strength of that trail, and adding an additional pheromone that indicates food has been found in that direction. when another ant who is also wandering around looking for food comes across the trail of the first ant, the second ant follows the first ant’s trail, further strengthening the pheromone trail. when hundreds and thousands of individual ants are involved, their chemical trails evolve extremely efficient routes to the nearest food resource. this efficiency is not the product of the behavior of any individual ant, but is product of the collective behavior of many ants; furthermore, there emerges from this collective action a sort of goal-directed behavior, without any central direction. it is the multiplicity of individuals, each behaving individually within a structured environment (structured by the formal properties of pheromones), that is important.

Monday, April 10, 2006

paranoid landscapes

Passed the ruined avenues
again, where the pale fingers
rest now on the broken glass,

while the curtains
through moonlight
flow endlessly away...

The thin American closed his eyes
as though crippled by some
disease of motion,
which has this need of the morning...

As for the fixity of powers,
to salient genitals abundantly
turns the residential night,

and with the attempt at smell,
our lady of a thousand bleeding eyes
might not fail to classify the influence of morning.

It shall come to pass
there fell upon the gentle disassembly
by shades a desperate stillness assailed,

by some bastard wisdom for an orphan prayer brought upon

this gradual damage, unanimous once again, where
pale fingers rest now against the broken glass...

The thin American closed his eyes,
stricken with some vulgar predilection to motion:

as for the fixity of powers,
neither the mutilated genitals
of banking institutions,

nor gently compared the residential night
should but fail to classify the influence of the morning.

Yet to admit only shadow, the thin
American dreaming closed her eyes while thinking
against the plenum echoes of defeated names:

rusting iron shackles and
crumbling marble statues
of men who have died
hungry tired poor and

Description remains, partial to pushing in
the narrow leaf. If some respite remaining
for this desperate stillness,

with neither need nor reason,
but a violent symmetry assailed...

The dreamer as though
ignorant of his own
perverse violence, which

beneath the burning rivers assailed
by arms to split open factories
and set fire to sea,

wanting only this one consolation:
to listen at the soft disorder.

So reconciled to the phantom traumas
of oxygen and light,

hours passed thus beneath
the burning rivers. While Henry
Kissinger, in love and tender,

dreaming in desperate stillness,
by moonlight when first
broke through the human silence

a subsequent hunger, assuaged
until the residential nightfall should
fail to classify the influence of morning...

And whole days spent in shadow, as shadow
(if I was awake or dreaming)

while reflected in windows along empty streets
at dusk, the blue glow of endless day

and the tangled bowels of machinery
torn from the bleeding wall.

short poem

an infinite reflexivity
everything arriving
everything receding
the universe speaking
in complete gestures
is silent

Saturday, April 08, 2006

steroids in baseball

since steroid use is an undeniable fact in the history of professional american baseball, perhaps it ought to be embraced and contained, and attempts to regulate it with unenforceable policies abandoned.

if the national league, for example, were to permit steroid use, and the american league were to forbid it, fans could choose to see either an "extreme" or a "conventional" game; this would also put a new spin on the world series and the all-star games, similar to the chess match between gary kasparov and ibm's deep blue computer.

this way, players who wanted to play the game straight could have fair competition, and players more interested in the performative aspects of the sport could have a fair outlet as well. consumers would be given more choice.

Friday, April 07, 2006

jonesing for america

although marijuana was made illegal during the depression to discriminate against mexican migrant workers (because the mexican cultural idiom is oriented more towards marijuana than alcohol, and marijuana prohibition gave the federal government a way to deport mexicans, thereby preserving scarce jobs for americans), and has historically been kept illegal by lobbying efforts on the part of the paper and pharmaceutical industries (because hemp pulp is a more effecient than tree pulp for making paper, and the pharmaceutical industry doesn't want people to be able to produce their own medications in a backyard garden), drug policy in america is predicated on the assumption that controlled substances can be classified according to their neurochemical effects. this assumption, however, fails when the nature of the brain as an open system is taken into consideration.

the brain is a complex system comprised of individual neurons, but is just as much a system of formal connections between neurons; just as the concentration of various neurochemicals has an effect on the function of the brain as a network system, the function of the brain as a network system has its own effects on the concentration of various neurochemicals.

a simple analogy is this: just as the behavior of a human typing on a keyboard affects various electromagnetic charges in a computer, people also respond to input from the computer, so the electromagnetic charges in a computer also have an effect on a human typing on a keyboard; these effects are not prefectly reflexive, nor entirely dependant upon oneanother.

it is more than likely that many potentially beneficial drugs are controlled or outlawed simply because it is difficult to quantify their effect on cognitive processes, while their effect on biochemical processes defies description in terms of traditional mathematical models. such unquantifiable behavior is common in complex open systems, as described in depth by stephen wolfram in his text a new kind of science. this is a result in part of godel's incompleteness theorem, which states that a formal system cannot be both self-consistent and also able to express all truths about itself; when one set of relationships (as between neurons) is formalized (as in a mathematical description), that formalization is not necessarily translatable into any other formal system (while also preserving the desired behavioral descriptions, such as self-consistency, or truth).

american drug policy would benefit from more subjective controls in experimentation, which take into consideration the way different individuals' cognitive systems are attenuated. morphine, one of the first substances deliberately cultivated in human civiization, is still one of the most effective medicines known to man. marijuana, also among the oldest of cultivated crops, is largely unexamined in its potentially beneficial cognitive effects. moreover, the decriminalization of marijuana may do quite a bit to reduce the demand for more damaging drugs such as mdma and salvia divinorum.

it also seems likely there are more than a few americans who would have a more healthy homelife if they were able to come home from work and smoke a joint in front of the television, rather than drink a six pack and take out their aggression on their liver or their family.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

idiomatic expression

in language an idiom is a type of mannerism, quirk, or expression with personal meaning. cultures have idioms as well: tailgating at a brewer's game, a red light on a traffic signal, or shared linguistic expressions specific to one region or another (in milwaukee, drinking fountains are often referred to as "bubblers") are all idiomatic.

a child gave sand
to buddha
a child gave jewels
to buddha
a child gave form
to grace

the sapir-worf hypothesis in linguistics suggests that idiomatic expressions, that is, the language to which one has access, is a fundamental determinant of how one understands one's world. the ojubwe language, for example, does not use adjectives: if something is green, it is being green.

just as language and culture have idioms, the terms one uses for moral expressions can be idiomatic as well.

in america and much of the west the bible constitutes the foundation of many cultural, linguistic, and moral idioms. books of wisdom from other cultures have similar ethics to teach, but do so by employing a different idiom.

dogen, a japanese zenist from the 1200's said one must be aware of every opportunity to give; he also said a child gave sand to buddha. beyond asserting the importance of selfless giving as a sort of golden rule, dogen's statements set forth a profound metaphysical position: why does a child give sand to buddha? why would anyone give anything to buddha? simply because it is the act of giviing that is important.

according to general buddhist doctrine, all things are fundamentally equivalent; orthodox zen doctrine holds that all sentient beings are enlightened. a child giving sand to buddha is the same as a child giving jewels to buddha, or a monk alone in zazen. what is important is that giving is grace.

as a practical matter, and as a moral teaching, dogen does not mean that one should necessarily give up everything one has; what it does mean is that in order for one to realize one's nature as a bodhisattva, one ought to reflect upon each thing one possesses, upon what one finds important and why. in contemporary consumer culture it means thinking about who and what one gives one's money to, why one acuumulates money or belongings, and how one can donate those things one no longer needs (rather than simply throwing things away).

as a matter of daily practice, which dogen also emphasized as an essential part of zen, being aware of every opportunity to give also means trying to remember to pick up trash in the street (to give fellow citizens a cleaner neighborhood), recognizing that being able to give is a gift itself, and being thankful for every opportunity to give, no matter how ordinary or transient that gift may be.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Social Criticism in Modern Times and Brazil

Fig. 1. Demonstrating the use of visual allusion in Terry Gilliam's Brazil; here, a reference to the famous Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin.

Fig. 2. The workplace. Early establishing shots from Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (left) and Brazil (right).

Fig. 3. Entangled in society’s problems. Gears in Modern Times (left) represent the Victorian sensibilities that led to the commodification of labor, and systems of social manipulation based on the control of access to labor (and hence corporate conflict with the unions). Wires in Brazil (right) represent the insights of industrialization (such as innovations in communication and management spawned by the railroads) that led to the commodification of information, and systems of social manipulation based on the control of access to information.

Fig. 4. Guards and gates controlling access to labor in Modern Times (left, at a factory); metal detectors and automated ID checks controlling access to information in Brazil (right, at the Ministry of Information).

Fig. 5. Closing shots from Modern Times (left) and Brazil (right). In both cases, the protagonists are seen leaving behind them long straight roads across relatively featureless terrain, and heading into scenic mountain country. Note the telephone wires at the road edge in Modern Times, compared to the advertisements at the road edge in Brazil; in either case this detail can be read as prophetic of coming battles or as suggestive of a course of action. In the case of Brazil, the final shots imply a strong cynicism, while Modern Times ends on an optimistic note.

Fig. 6. Penned-in by the demands of society. Note the picture of the Great Emancipator on the wall in Chaplin’s cell (left).

Social Criticism in Modern Times and Brazil.

Satire is a popular form of social criticism in part because humor can diffuse attacks on social practices to which audiences are often a party. Modern Times used satire to criticize the industrial infrastructure that keeps so many people in poverty (by controlling who gets to work), and Brazil used satire to criticize the information infrastructure that keeps people ignorant of the ways in which they are manipulated (by controlling what people are able to know about their own lives).

Both films, which use cinema to communicate their critique, use a medium that is in many ways synonymous with social manipulation: the earliest Soviet theorists recognized the potential of cinema for mass indoctrination just as well as contemporary marketers recognize the potential of cinema for the broad manufacture of consumer demand. Humor, then, is also a way of addressing potential charges of hypocrisy in satire.

A Contemporary perspective suggests a certain irony in Chaplin’s use of cinema for his critique: cinema was emblematic of industrialization, a marvel of technical innovation and precision, and a cultural phenomena. The manufacture of the image, control of the image, and demand for the image moreover are the sustaining forces of capitalism (brand is image).

Paul Valery suggested that the prehistoric valuation of the image was related to both:

1) the degree to which "prehistoric" representations were abstracted from reality (more valued the less recognizable),

as well as

2) the infrequency with which "prehistoric" peoples encountered images.

The image, photographic media, and the motion picture in particular represent both the bleaching of the sacred from the image (at 24 frames each second, in the case of motion picture film), and the commodification of the sublime (through the mass-re-production of the image, which was originally the product of sacred behaviors).

A strange new medium - which, from this perspective, is so thoroughly corrupt - would seem an odd choice for a message with the social conscience of Modern Times. Likewise Brazil, for its criticism of advertising and marketing, would have had no hope of communicating with anybody were it not for the advertising and marketing infrastructure that brought the film to theatres.

Moreover, the use of video surveillance systems figure prominently in each film at times, signifying to audiences that it is not lost on the filmmaker that the moving image figures prominently in broad attempts to manipulate society. The two filmmakers seem to have shared a prescient vision of how it feels to live in a society dominated by policing behavior. The Pavlovian manipulation of behavior in either film depicts the effects of the surveillance society on the individual. Each film controls the image to indicate how the image is used to control individuals. The films are not ironic, but cautionary.

It is precisely control that is at issue in either film: each film argues for the rights of the individual, but places the protagonist in an environment that overwhelms him with opposition. Like the protagonist in George Orwell's 1984, the preoccupations of either film's protagonist concern a struggle to find some small bit of private comfort. The protagonist in either film, however, is left with very little control over his own life: the Tramp is continually put out of work, can’t find a place to live, and society wants to deny him his love. Sam Lowry throughout Brazil is in a constant state of confusion, can’t keep his house in order, and society doesn’t want him to love what he loves. Both protagonists take new jobs for the sake of their love; and both protagonists are denied by systems of social control the happiness they seek.

Issues of control in each film center on what each filmmaker viewed as the vital commodity that power structures seek to exploit. In Modern Times, the most important commodity in industrialized society is labor. To regulate the efficiency of the workforce (such as with the automated feeding machine in Modern Times, or in Brazil Sam Lowry’s automated apartment connected to his alarm clock), industrialists sought to control the commodity value of labor by manipulating supply and demand. Of course, demand always increases -- both for access to the means of production and for the product -- but if workers can be made to be more efficient, then the same amount of labor can yield more product, and the retail value of labor itself can be manipulated.

In Brazil, we are shown a society that is regulated like a bureaucracy which controls information to control the cost of controlling the populace. Information retrieval charges, arrest charges, and interrogation charges describe a society that places a premium value on information; at the same time, the movie is populated with characters who don’t know how to perform their jobs, who can’t afford to find out where the Gestapo have taken their loved ones, and who are left without any real information whatsoever, and thus entirely unable to take control of their own lives (because information, in Brazil, IS control).