Tag Archives: social policing

Drumming Up an Urban Wilderness Experience

A dispatch from November

rhythms multiple permeated grass-tastic groupies who let it absorb laying, staring, points of negative dancing in the skies with unmoving whisps of clouds and softly swaying tree needles and then hoisting up, supporting behind the self gazing on the circle of spontaneous rhythm

A woman circles herself beneath within the central tree’s clearing made cooperative with its overhanging branches and makeshift seating rounds surrounding surrounded humans backwards. She fixtures, twining moving stilling, dancing in the dust made beautiful by her swirling feet bare, the easy confidence of her cloth hugged hips, the unstudied grace of the ever-altering lines of her lined arms. She is familiarly watched, fleeting between measures, up and down with the ease of someone who has been part of this for time numerous and long contained in this moment. We on the outside see her most of all; those creating the beats she stamps out lovingly take her movements for granted. We are all, old and new, grateful. We are one another made musical, made growing warmth and undulationally whole with ever flowing ecstasy externalized experienced internally eternally

“Hey, watch your cigarette.”

A non-random warning pierces our discordantly noisy quietude; emitted by the man chained to himself through orifices natural and once added, wearing a shirt of potential self-referential fractal infinity, fading yet more present than any. Realness embodied future past present personified. He embraces our senses by overwhelming them. Caretaking. Though the circle has no leaders, he is one of those with seniority. Experienced authority of autonomy collectivism rhythmic mayhem of togetherness. His sounds are listened to as other sounds surround. The bystander sitting next to two women one wheeled was lucky. Lucky to have heard this wisened warning through the rhythms changing ever to others but yet cacophonously magical in their unity with us. Though there were detractors to each set–participants with differing views–they all nevertheless joined as one sound of many sounds creating together a great harmonious dissonance.

And then the truck. The warning’s promise fulfilled. The white truck with red lights accusatory, parked upwind and menacing. Its occupant stalked us all–participants, groupies alike. We watched as he watched us. Watched him circle the beautiful circle, wary of any line-crossing any may have perpetrated as he dared to cross ours. The man’s cigarette had long been rubbed against blades damp–extinguished in expectation of this raid of harmonious dissonance. We watched. Watched as he, uniformed, circled with outsiderness. Circled suspiciously as some ignored his sunglass-veiled gaze of removal, as some glared back pretending to ignore, suspicious of his suspicion, watching for those who kept beating, unwilling to watch, watching for each other that we are not part of but are joined to more than joined to this suspicious outsider in sanctioned uniform. Unwelcome but welcomed nonchalantly as expected disturbance to the peace-making rhythms of dissonant unity. He was not done circling soon enough; we watched each other watching, hoping the other had not noticed the surveillance. He circled slowly our circle our outer circle our hipster picnics of bicycled ignorance. He in hegemonically uniformed out-of-place-ness in the place he had been made to patrol. Patrolling our invisible being he had made it visible. Had crossed our lines. But our lines will not remain broken.

And the cigarette remained out. The truck with white red lights atop left us to ourselves to our being. Left us to each other. We came back together having never been apart, repairing the invisibility of our harmony. Overwhelming the air with enormous sounds breathing in winding around the glorious rhythmically dissonant back again and ever

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Filed under Art of all Kinds, Contemporary

The 2011 Protester and Occupy Movement Uptake

A few weeks ago, Time magazine revealed its Person of the Year (a trope that has gained a lot of self-aggrandizing authority over the years as a touchstone of the state of the world and America and all that) to much mass-mediated fanfare. It was The Protester. A masked one. The image was a little sinister. To scare the white “normal” American public that reads Time and takes it seriously.

Who is the “protester” for Time, anyway? The cover is confusing and exploitative, simultaneously raising up and trivializing and making a public menace actual protesters…and differently for different audiences. How to even think about this?

Now, to be fair, the story that goes along with the cover is a little more nuanced and gives good space to the revolutions of the Arab Spring, but the protester on the cover image seems to be more of a young American anarchist.*** And readers should fear this anonymous being with its dark eyebrows and hand-knit cap and bandana-hidden face standing in front of a red back-drop, ready to charge at your magazine-reading self. That protester is going to set fire to your lawn and ask about social justice. RUN!!!

The cover of “Time” magazine for the week of December 26th 2011/January 2nd 2012

Time‘s “Person of the Year” (the protester) was being reported by local and national news websites, TV stations and radio stations as if this yearly revelation were news, but Time magazine itself purports to be news. How incestuously layered, congratulatory, and self-promoting. Its own advertisement. Making itself an event by framing itself as such and getting other news outlets to do the same. Saying it makes it true: yay, performativity! We (some of the “normal” public and the mass media it listens to) wait with bated breath to find out who Time thinks is the person of the year, thus giving it the authority to say with definity who it is.

Not news at all, but another way to sell more magazines. Capitalizing on the major mass-mediated news stories of 2011 (the revolutions big and small, international and local) by turning it into another mass-mediated message. And the “normal” public eats it up. Or at least is exposed to it over and over.

The “revolution” has been televised. And thus, the real revolution has been largely silenced in terms of how many “normal” ears its message falls upon. Its message, its narrative, was co-opted almost immediately by those in power, those of the establishment, those of the mass-media. The mass media, after all, is where most “normal” Americans go for their answers, for their news. What “normal” person has time for much else than those neat little soundpicturebites? They trust the familiarity of the mass media–not the chaotic voices of those in the trenches.

It is difficult to say with any certainty how these mass-mediated messages are received by the “normals.” But since many of them seem to fill their conversations with regurgitated sentences and viewpoints heard and read from mass-mediated news sources, I feel it safe to say that they take up much of the repeated narratives without a lot of questioning. They believe the mass-mediated narratives of what’s going on around the world. Their opinions are not their own. (And in a society that is ostensibly all about the unique and sovereign individual, that would seem to be a problem, wouldn’t it?)

And in this mess that is the ownership of narrative, who speaks for the actual protesters? The varied ones that the image on the cover of Time is supposed to represent. The “normal” public certainly does not let them speak for themselves. Not for long. (It could be argued that at first, the Occupy movement really did change the conversation, or at least brought more attention to the massive dissatisfaction Americans were feeling about the state of the nation and their own lives. The mass media even seemed sympathetic with the movement at first. But then it went on too long. It got bored and started reporting it from the perspective of the 1 percent that owns the news outlets. The conversation went back to the status quo, and the movement lost its ability to speak for itself to the “normal” public, at least through the mass mediated outlets that many of the “normals” turn to for guidance. Turn to to make sense out of what’s going on. Turn to to find out what’s going on, even if it isn’t. Even if they leave a lot out.)

No, the “normals” prefer the mass media to wrap up the complicated messages in easily digestible sound-bites of recognizable size and flavor: Crazy hippies. Bored rich kids. Rioting poor people. Naive college students. Uppity and inarticulate African-Americans. Dangerous and dirty transients. Entitled Native Americans. Basically, everyone who’s not falling into line. Not playing by the white, upper-middle-class rules.

The Occupy movement is doomed (assuming they want to affect change on a scale larger than themselves) if the “normals” keep listening to the mass-mediated take on what’s going on and investing these sources with the authority to speak for the movement. If the “normals” keep tuning out what the people on the ground, the actual protesters/members of the movement, are saying. If they keep letting the media speak for the many complicated and different individuals on the ground trying to call attention to the many issues our large society has. It’s easier to think that these issues don’t exist, or that they can be solved by placing even more stock in the status quo. It’s easier to listen to the mass media.

We really do have an impressively strong hegemony here. We think we’re free, that our society is  free, but the minute someone questions the status quo, the citizen police are out in force, squelching the questions with blindly accepted structure. This is the way things are; get a job. Stop ruining city hall’s lawn. We’ve decided it’s time for you to stop questioning the status quo: stop protesting and go home.

Because it’s not 99 vs. 1. The 1 may have all the money, but most of the 99 are helping to keep the structures that allow for the rich 1 to exist strong. Many of the 99 believe so deeply in those structures that they cannot see them–these structures have become naturalized: it’s just the way things are. And we must all operate within this system if we are to keep on keeping on, never mind get ahead. And this deep-seated belief in the invisible structures is one of the reasons the Occupy movement is in so much trouble. They aren’t speaking for the 99; most of the 99 are unwittingly in cahoots with the 1.

The Occupy movement can’t gain traction without the “normals” who are (now half-heartedly if at all) gazing in on them either listening seriously or joining. And the “normals” won’t do either when the messages of the movement have been co-opted by the mass media. As a closeted radical on the outside of the movements that are happening around the country, I feel (ashamedly) more in touch with the perspective of the “normals” than I do with the movement that I politically and socially identify with. So allow me to speak a little for them (they have no problem at all speaking for you, after all, and you won’t like what they say).

The normals hear what the media says about the movement and lets the media speak for it. The movement is too “radical”, too “disorganized” for them. “What do they want? If they just had an agenda…/Why are they wasting time holding up signs when they could be out looking for jobs? Why do they hate America?” etc. For the movement itself, I think it’s great that it’s somewhat lacking in clear leadership, instead thriving on some disorganization, anarchism. It seems invested in listening to everyone’s concerns. But for things to change–or for the national conversation to permanently change in any meaningful way–the movement needs the “normals” on board, and the “normals” like the very structure that the movement is trying to question.

Which leaves us at a stalemate. What kind of strategy can overcome this divide? Can we look to the relative successes of the revolutions of the Arab Spring for any tactics and strategies that can be adopted for our own cultural context? How can the movement get the “normal” public to join them in a conversation that isn’t mediated by the mass media? Is that even possible?

Where do we go from here?

***A Tardy Update: a link and a digression into self-critique***

Over at Al Jazeera, Larbi Sadiki has a different interpretation of the Time image as he deconstructs its many meanings. The various issues and details he points out are interesting and I think the piece is worth a read. He also pays attention to the fact that the image on the cover “veiled” the protester, and what implications that visual choice has, given the climate we live in and the many conflicting associations veiling has in the Western world (not to mention the cultures that actually wear variations of a veil).

Perhaps I’m implicitly guilty of demonizing the veil in my own interpretation when I talk about the image as a “scary” one of the hipster-anarchist…for which I apologize. That was not my intent, but it nonetheless points to the negative associations our culture has when it comes to images of people with their faces partially or fully obscured. Veils, burqas, bandanas and the like shouldn’t be signs that incite fear, because then this fear is displaced onto the person wearing these pieces of fabric and can often, as Yoda taught us, lead to hate. But for many Americans they are signs that incite fear. And when I interpreted the visual cues of the Time cover in this way, I was tapping into that negative stereotype that has been harmful to particular populations, especially post-9/11. Even though the dark red cover is also a menacing sign, I do believe I was wrong to not see that the image, as Sadiki points out, is also one that indexes Americans’ fear of cultures and populations who wear variations of a veil. I apologize for my insensitivity.

All of which goes to prove that meaning is located in the one who does the interpretation, not necessarily the one who produces. Intention has little weight. Uptake! Use! How can we determine what the producers of this image intended it to mean when there can be such radically different interpretations of it? Obviously, the producers of the image operate within the same systems of symbols that allowed for both Sadiki and my interpretations of it…but it is difficult to critique them without knowing which (or both?) the producers meant to “speak” to their readership. Either way, both of our interpretations find it problematic that the image contains overwhelmingly negative signs that cause the (white?) American viewer to call up culturally negative associations.

And I’m going to stop before this discussion spirals out of control in a vortex of fractally circular argumentation.

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Mouthing Off: Using the Absence of Sex to Sell

Linguistic anthropologists do it with words. And so do advertisers.

“Practice Safe Breath.” That’s the tagline of an ad campaign for Dentyne Ice gum. It’s a clever conceit: in these commercials, couples are usually getting hot and heavy, or it’s implied that they want to. Then there’s the inevitable pause: did you, um…remember the, uh…? Shit, I’ll be right back. A race to the roommate’s room. Please, buddy, just this once, I’ll get you back. She’s super hot and what’s even better is that she’s actually on the couch. Disinterested roommate motions to the top drawer of his night-stand, where the hero gratefully extracts a…pack of gum. Whew! First base shenanigans can continue without fear.

This is all designed to evoke the culturally sanctioned practice of having “safe” sex with condoms. And this association is designed to be viewed as a clever twist on the familiar, thereby making consumers want to buy this particular gum because its ads are clever-funny. By triggering these now-ingrained cultural associations with the phrase “practice safe breath,” this commercial effectively implies the existence of sex by withholding it; by providing a twist ending to its little romantic vignettes: haha, dirty-minded viewers! You thought we were talking about condoms but we were really talking about gum! Aren’t we clever and hip?

The very existence of this ad campaign, and the reason its commercials work and make sense, is due to the fact that practicing safe sex has become mainstream–it’s solidified in our cultural vocabulary and social practice. So much so that it is now assumed that everyone knows they should (ah, prescriptive society…) use some sort of protection and shouldn’t have to be told via PSAs or Trojan commercials with pigs standing in for men who don’t carry condoms. (I will avoid digressing into a tirade on the use of nonhuman animals as representative of negative human character attributes, so count yourselves as lucky. This time.)

On another level, these commercials work (in that they may contribute to a rise in the company’s sales) by catering to the social fear of ruining one’s romantic chances with a perceived bodily imperfection. Our bodies, our anxieties. Advertising has a long history of creating problems for which there just happens to be a commodified solution–and ads are so ubiquitous that they end up influencing social opinion and practice by hammering at these invented problems.

Take our cultural obsession with fresh breath, to which this Dentyne Ice campaign owes its existence. The social problem of “bad breath” was effectively produced by advertisers in the 1920s, and maybe earlier, I’m just too lazy to check my sources on this. A slew of print ads ran in highly circulated magazines and newspapers showing beautiful but sad-looking young women in front of mirrors, wondering why they weren’t being courted like their friends. What’s wrong with me? Alas, it was because of an invisible problem: halitosis! Thankfully, there were products to cure her of this (invented) ailment. And she got knocked up happily ever after. Thanks, advertising!

In this sense, the language in advertisements is perlocutionary–the phrases work performatively to create the problem for which the product being advertised is the solution in situ. Saying it makes it so.* I’m not claiming any of this is my idea (see Marchand 1985 and Strasser 1989 for the ad stuff, and Austin 1962 for the problematic performativity thing)–I’m merely pointing to the Dentyne Ice campaign as a recent example of it.

To go back to the first point, where the idea of safe sex has been taken up and re-worked within the context of the campaign to evoke both its origin (safe sex) and to mean something different that still lies within the parameters of canoodling. It’s a wink to everyone in the cultural know: see what we did there? We changed one word and made you think of gum as a conduit to sex. The implication is that “safe breath” leads to “safe sex” even as it remembers it as its phraseological parent. Or at least a second date and maybe second base, for which there are other commercially advertised products that can answer to even more invented bodily “problems” you will encounter there.

Dentyne Ice’s website even has a large banner now that expands on the whole play-on-PSAs/Trojan commercials trope: Society for a Safe Breath America! This is your mouth on ice. All the familiar phrases are there “responsibly,” “taking a stand,” “show your support.” It’s like a MADD-AntiDrug-PlannedParenthood mashup of slogans over there. All being taken up, placed in a new context, given newish meaning, (and effectively made fun of) to sell gum. Language and our very cultural concepts are here but tools of the capitalist machine, placed in the hands of advertisers to help us see the error of our ways and offer us help to correct them…for just $1.49

So keep worrying about your bodies, everyone, because we your friendly advertisers all know what you really want (sexy fun times) and we aren’t afraid to feed all these anxieties we’ve so generously given to you so we can offer relief in the form of commodities. You’re welcome.

*I’m ignoring the other, very important side of this, which is uptake, because this analysis is a reading only, not an exploration of how people interact with these advertisements. This aside has been brought to you by the wish to nip a certain intelligent PhD candidate’s inevitable critique of my half-hearted analysis in the bud.

References

Austin, John L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Marchand, Rolland. 1985. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity 1920-1940. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Strasser, Susan. 1989. Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Wordplay

Art, Deviance, and the American Imagination

It was someone’s off-handed description of something as “very noir” that got me on a haphazard brain-storm about deviant behavior and where we Americans tend to compartmentalize it and allow for it in our culture. Those compartments seem to be art and humor (and verbal abuse, with thanks always to E. Leach). (We’re not going to deal with outright derision, just those phenomena that index deviant behavior’s status as deviant from the socially mandated norm.)

It seems as though an awful lot of art–literature, music, visual art, movies, etc–is devoted to topics that showcase deviance. Deviance means interest–it’s almost an obsession. Film noir, which takes ordinary people and places them into seedy situations with the criminal underground, is one obvious example. Or any contemporary action movie or thriller, which generally involves a protagonist navigating some odd subculture or two while avoiding the “bad guys” and trying to solve some conspiracy, well-plotted or otherwise. There are more books about the extraordinary, the strange, the wrong, than the mundane and good. We love being voyeurs of that-which-is-not-officially-condoned. As members of the socially responsible majority, we cannot help but be fascinated with these alien underbellies that we would not dare participate in other than through the consumption of art.

The deviant Other is indeed in the savage slot. We imagine it as so close, yet completely removed from our own lived experiences, and we indulge our imaginations with graphic depictions of what these Others must be like. These anti-social savages with their disregard for social norms. We make joking, disparaging references to them in daily discourse–perhaps slyly comparing a similarly mainstream compatriot to a deviant Other of choice. And it is in the joking that we call attention to the fact that these Others are in fact deviant. It is in the joking that we signal our simultaneous fascination and discomfort.

Perhaps this is a vestige of puritanical culture-policing (because why not make tenuous discursive connections to that historical narrative?). Because deviance is not condoned in polite, everyday society, we have outlets for it; outlets that are clearly marked as not real; just art. (Art, of course, is real and a cultural product, but art that has deviance as a subject is often marked as deviant itself, depending on how puritanical or Victorian the climate is at any given time.) Such deviant art is both a reaction against and a validation of the existence of social-control strictures that we all embody and internalize, albeit not always consciously. Hegemony is everywhere and nowhere, man. We are all participants in the mass indoctrination and the mass-creation of our culture and its social norms. Deviant art is partially an acknowledgment of this, and also a place to let those normal among us experience–or look at or talk about–what we are not strictly supposed to experience. Art and jokes as outlet, as compartmentalization, as keeping-safe, as drawing boundaries between that which we condone, and that which we do not but enjoy by proxy. There will always be spaces for hedonism, even if they are explicitly marked as such, and bad to boot.

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Filed under Art of all Kinds, Contemporary, Historical