November 29, 2011

Suggestion

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 2:12 pm

A series of blog posts focused on a topic suggests. The suggestion thread together by dates (Nov 18, Nov 28…). The series could argue (I have grown tired of arguments, though). It could illustrate (but to illustrate would be to claim, and I don’t want to illustrate or support an argument I do not have). I’ll believe (for now) that I am suggesting something here.

Social media have revived argumentation. These arguments, however, occur not in well supported claims or through documented evidence, but in fragmented moments of anger, displeasure, disgust, alarm. As Bradley points out, outrage dominates. At any given moment, out of 20 – 30 Facebook updates I read on my stream, at least half are moments of outrage: a state’s local politics, gender, occupation, race, the national government’s politics, the military, a country’s indiscretion, higher education’s indiscretion,  Google’s indiscretion, scandal, and so on. We are not only forever involved; we are forever outraged. We are outraged by the suggestion (often, not by the proof) of a moment. A moment suggests a problem, our response, to paraphrase the Comic Book Guy, is to express our outrage online.

Everything is an argument? Or everything is an outrage. What if we switch from our demand to argue and to argue around outrage to a concern (not a demand) with suggestion. I’ve been suggesting as such by briefly focusing on the suddenly canonical image of a cop pepper spraying protesters at a university campus. Arguments quickly become canonical. Repetitive. An argument becomes a story we tell over and over until it is believed. In outrage, we are trapped in the same argument circulated as novel, but it is frequently a repetition of a previous argument. The image repeats. It becomes canonical. It becomes an argument on the basis of its repetition.

The logic of repetition: Say it enough, and it has meaning.

Vilem Flusser tells us that writing – as opposed to imagery -  resists suggestion. “Writing set out to explain images, to explain them away. Pictorial, fanciful, imaginative thinking was to yield to conceptual, discursive, critical thinking.”  For many, the image I am interested in of violence done to protesters does not suggest; it argues (“we are a state dominated by brutality” etc). Arguments often are not imaginative. In their contemporary form, they are the products of writing. Once we are trapped in repetition, we have no need to imagine. Detroit is in ruins. Detroit is on the brink of rejuvenation. Such were the arguments that motivated my writing about Detroit. Casinos will save an economy; casinos will continue to devastate an economy. These are also two Detroit arguments. They are picked up as well in a recent Slate article, “In the Heartland, the Occupation of the Near Poor”:

Predatory capitalism follows the failed service economy. Across America there appears to be a direct relation between the casino economy and poverty. Depressed economies from Detroit and upstate New York to Mississippi and Washington have turned to some form of state-sanctioned gambling, which now exists in 41 states. It’s no accident that as inequality began widening in the 1970s, states turned first to lotteries and then to video poker, gaming rooms and full-fledged casinos in the following years.

Casinos are good. Casinos are bad. Barthes was interested in binaries for the ways they posed paradigms; he also was interested, however, in working between the paradigm, not in embracing it as reality or argument. That in between/seam state, for him, posed a space where another meaning occurred that the binary could not provide.  In the casino/economy/poverty argument, we can replace – as the author of the Slate piece does – Detroit with Kentucky.

The rolls and folds of the inner bluegrass are partitioned by winding white-washed fences, which Morgan explains signifies wealth because they are harder to upkeep than black fences. Sprawling manors are tucked away from the road and sublime thoroughbreds nibble at the grass. But the idyllic landscape hides an ugly “back stretch,” the area behind the racetrack where abusive conditions are the norm. It’s one of the deadliest sports for horse and animal alike, with 24 jockeys having died during races in the 1970s alone. Morgan describes frequent drug abuse and deaths as jockeys struggle to make weight of 112 pounds.

This argument is as follows (and it could be found in any other space): what seems lovely, innocent, and wonderful (sport) is really marked by something horrible (death). Or the argument could be (as one reads the passage in full): what looks beautiful (homes funded by the horse economy) hides what is ugly (immigrant labor that goes without benefits and proper compensation). Switch this formula to the current argument circulating: What we thought was a vibrant economy we all contribute to and benefit from is really controlled by the 1%. The puppets have strings. Let’s pull back the curtains. X is really Y.  Barthes also called this imagery or representation “mythology.” What seems natural really hides a history.  Only, Barthes did not advocate deconstructing or breaking mythology in order to be more aware (you can’t do so, he tells us, because we still believe in myths even after we decode the myth); instead, he proposed mythologizing the myth. Or, we might add, suggesting. We can critique the Occupy movement for its inconsistencies, but that critique does not cause the movement to stop, reconsider its position, and move on. Nor does a critique of capital stop capitalism or a critique of oppression stop oppression or a critique of representation stop problematic representations. Outrage continues.

Please don't argue about our contradictions. All arguments include contradictions.

After all, it is no secret that immigrant labor is oppressed labor. I know that. I agree with the argument. And yet, immigrant labor is still oppressed labor. And those Kentucky homes still look beautiful. And the horses continue to race and be sold for outrageous amounts of money. Might we suggest rather than argue? To do so does not imply a weak response (“if you would please stop oppressing, that would be great”) but possibly a return to Flusser’s understanding of the image. What, then, would the imaginative, suggestive approach (as opposed to its possible binary opposite, argumentative approach) look like? I feel I must suggest such an approach….and not just a response to an approach. Such is the nature of practice. We need “fanciful, imaginative thinking” as opposed to critical thinking. A job for the Humanities? Finally.

November 28, 2011

The Whole World is Watching

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 2:54 pm

The image intrigues for another obvious reason:

The narrative of the image is not entirely, as the memes dictate, the pepper spraying. The narrative of the photograph is also this:

The presence of photography. The moment is being watched. “The whole world is watching,” demonstrators chanted outside of the 1968 Democratic Convention.  They knew that their beatings were being filmed for the nightly news. Watching would occur, but delayed. We get a sense of that “watching” toward the end of Medium Cool where the accident is incidental to its coverage:

The world is always watching, these images tell us. The world is watching demonstrators pepper sprayed. I state the obvious: The framing of the pepper spray incident suggests a watching. How was the cop not aware of this watching as cameras photographed his act? Maybe he was. Maybe the response to a protest was amplified because of the watching. The protestors are aware of the photographers. They are aware that they are being watched. We can assume the same about the cop. In the age of information, McLuhan wrote, we know too much about each other. We are too aware. We are aware of our awareness.

Even though we are aware of this watching, the suggestion is the accident is other. Though somewhat countered by Medium Cool’s narrative of personal involvement or Normal Mailer’s coverage of the 1968 Democratic and Republican Conventions, accidents or events or other moments’ meaning is formed out of suggestion. The whole world is watching; thus, I am watching. I am participating by watching. My watching suggests to me what happened (as anyone who deals with the issues of representation already knows). This is the basis of McLuhan’s notion of involvement. Suggestion is powerful as I make associations with other events or moments. I am involved in a chain of representations, each acting upon the next so that I feel that I understand a meaning. With that feeling, I affirm a given knowledge (a knowledge based on suggestion). Even if, for instance, I am not in Wisconsin, I identify with the representation of labor protest for what it suggests (as an academic, I realize that the suggestion, too, is obvious).

We connect social protest to watching because, obviously, if it is not watched, it does not happen. Still, whatever happened happens to us because of what it suggests, not because of what occurred. A group of kneeling students were pepper sprayed. We know that occurred. But our reaction is based on the suggestion the spraying creates, not the pain the individuals felt (i.e., the larger implications of a given social protest in the context of the situation it is located within – with all of its associated meanings at play).

I find the first image intriguing because the watching is not captured by accident or chance. It is there with the accident from the start. The Occupy social movement begins with the media: advertising motivated campaigns based on immediate watching. The cameras are there waiting for the moment to watch. The cameras are in the moment that bothers us. They are already a part of the image they produce. The spraying bothers us, it upsets us, it repulses us. But the cameras are right there with the spraying. We cannot read the spraying without reading the cameras as well as connected to this event.

November 20, 2011

The Immediacy of Image Response

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 12:09 pm

This photo intrigues:

It intrigues not only because of the sense of moral outrage it evokes, an outrage best summed up as “police brutality” or as one organizer of the UC Davis protest comments, the suppression of “free speech and peaceful assembly. ” All of this may very likely be true. And the photograph obviously intrigues those commentators for such reasons. But, for me, it intrigues because this photograph merely, like all photographs taken in the name of a given political moment, suggests. The photo does not tell us what actually happened (prior to and following). It suggests what happened.  Suggestion, as an enthymematic enterprise, is the focus of the response to this or any similar photograph. We make assumptions based on what is not present as much as we do based on what is present. Whether it is a child running from a napalm attack in Vietnam or a female soldier pointing her fingers at an Iraqi prisoner whose face is covered by a bag, the information of the image gets quickly reduced to suggestion. The suggestion in the above photo is brutality and oppression. There is, as well, a sense of communal wounding by this suggestions. That wounding sparks public outrage.

Suggestion may, in fact, match a set of moments that occurred. Or it may not. I’m reminded of one set of images broadcast years ago on one of the major networks that showed two separate moments as one: An elderly Arab man walking down a series of steps in Jerusalem; two Israeli soldiers firing tear gas. Two separate moments were juxtaposed for suggestion (despite the two moments occurring separately). Intellectual montage, as Eisenstein argued, is powerful. In the political moment, this form of juxtapatory suggestion often leads to emotional outrage.

The pepper spray photograph, however, brings together a present image (the police officer spraying kneeling and arm locked protesters) with a series of images not present: the Occupy movement up until now. Added to that series is another set of images not present: 1960s protest on California campuses (the emotional connection is obviously present, even though the period is not since this photo occurs on one such campus, and California is an emotional focal point of American protest because of the 1960s). What we understand, then, is a suggestion based on one momentary representation (the spraying) as it is juxtaposed with other non-present moments.

That is not necessarily a faulty way to understand a moment. But it is also an immediate way to believe one has understood a moment. Saying that, I don’t deny the moment occurred or that the moment is problematic. I’m more interested in the image’s ability to interact with non-present images so that a network of meaning occurs, a network that has a largely emotional component or response to these actors. As legitimate as the critique may be, then, it can also be problematic since immediacy is not the best means toward understanding (consider Richard Jewell as one obvious example).

With the spraying photo, we immediately “know”  that someone should be fired because of this immediacy of emotional response. Barthes might call this response the arrogance of affirmation. Regardless, and as many note regarding the sense of immediacy or involvement digital dissemination allows for, we believe we know. We believe we know many things, but as the Occupy movement continues to demand attention, we believe we know this moment. We know based on a single image of a man pepper spraying kneeling protesters.

These are rhetorical questions and not value based questions. And they deserve some meta attention as well: The blog response, too, participates in such immediacy. I immediately blog in response to the photograph. My emotional response is different than what is publicly expressed regarding the photography, but it is still immediate (a focus of Internet critique – we don’t think through our ideas). Overall, then, I’m intrigued by immediacy in ways others are as well – via the blog or the photo. Immediacy is central to digital expression and understanding. We may not entirely understand that point yet.

November 8, 2011

Commonplaces

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 10:57 am

Supercut.org makes explicit what we deny to ourselves culturally at times: Meanings are tied up in commonplaces. What appears to be a novel argument or narrative is often a repeated commonplace (Lyotard’s insistence on narrative as recitation).  Waxy does a nice overview of the supercut genre.Waxy’s point is that YouTube made the genre easier to engage in (locating, downloading, cutting up, uploading video). But we have always been caught within this system of repetition (a point The Daily Show often drives home). Roland Barthes called this practice “phraseology.”

“Contemporary myth is discontinuous. It is no longer expressed in long fixed narratives but only in ‘discourse’; at most, it is a phraseology, a corpus of phrases (of stereotypes)” (Image Music Text 165). The pleasure of the text, as Barthes writes, is the stereotype.

Phraseology is funny when applied to popular culture. It’s humorous to watch Robin exclaim holy:

And its humorous to watch the zoom and enhance scene play over and over across story lines:

But commonplace repetition extends far beyond TV and film montages to politics (“uprising,” “revolution,” “change,” “restore”), culture, art, and so on. We have to draw on familiar story lines whatever the narrative we adhere to may be. Waxy, however, shows little interest in the rhetoric of the supercut (my interest) and instead examines the work involved in producing such texts. “The average supercut is composed of about 82 cuts, with more than 100 clips in about 25% of the videos. Some supercuts, about 5%, contain over 300 edits!” When Dan Anderson was here at UK recently, I pointed out that the student mashups he showed were more than homage or recognition of genre. They were revisions, revision in the sense of revising the concept (and not revision at the level of word or sentence correction).  Revision, as many teachers struggle to note, is a difficult process; its difficulty increases when posed to new writers whose command of language is still be learned (or as Nancy Sommers famously writes, when teacher response is lacking). But the contemporary, online media texts many students are familiar with (posed as memes or YouTube sensations) are complex revisions with 100s of edits and changes. To do a supercut revision takes a considerable amount of time.

The move from commonplace (at the level of idea or even of revising practice) to supercut might be a worthwhile gesture to make. Time consuming, but worthwhile.