Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Monday, January 11, 2016
But one of the biggest surprises for me as a lifelong fan was when I discovered his song "Loving the Alien," while researching pop culture references to the crusades. I was working on an exhibit for Robbins Library entitled The Crusades and Western Cultural Imagination, and was amazed to find a Bowie song that talked about holy war, templars, saracens, and the cyclic nature of cultural and religious violence. It was a song that, it seems to me anyway, imbricates cultural moments as a gesture of both frustration and near despair over how little things seem to have changed—especially in terms of how religious fervor is so frequently harnessed for violent ends.
The first version I encountered was the stripped down arrangement performed on the Reality Tour, and it nearly brought me to tears. I will confess that the original music video, by contrast, baffled me to the point of weeping laughter. Though, having just watched it again, I think it's a deliberately unsettling response to contemporary events and to the concept of religion's capacity to inspire violence and oppression. . . consider the moment when he stands as a crusader caught on fire, for instance. But that's the thing I perhaps love most about Bowie as an artist: his ability always to unsettle me as an eager listener and receiver of his work. I love the fact that I oftentimes don't "get" (or sometimes even like) what he's produced on a first, second, or seventeenth listen or viewing. It's always signaled to me that he was unafraid to take his art in directions that ran the risk of alienation and failure. And that, just as much as the songs and albums I've come to adore and cherish, never ceases to inspire me in my own work.
As he said before he performed "Loving the Alien" on the DVD performance from the Reality Tour, he felt that the 2003 arrangement was "the way it should maybe always have been done," and so I'll share that version with you here. I think it's worth noting the cultural moment in which this arrangement was performed too: Dublin, 2003. Just two years after 9/11 and just months after the invasion of Iraq, a war that—based on erstwhile quotes from President Bush, patches worn by certain members of the U.S. armed forces, and many other examples—was regularly feared to be a form of crusading. Given that, this particular arrangement can—and perhaps should—be viewed as a powerful response to its cultural moment. A call, perhaps, to remember that history—as some unknown person once said—tends all too often to rhyme.
RIP, Mr. Bowie. You are so very missed.
Thursday, November 12, 2015
Long ago, good King Richard of England departed for the holy land on a great crusade. During his absence, Prince John his greedy and treacherous brother, usurped the crown. Robin Hood was the people's only hope. He robbed from the rich to feed the poor. He was beloved by all the people of England. Robin and his merry men hid in Sherwood Forest to...
there's been a heap of legends and tall tales... about Robin Hood. All different too. Well, we folks of the animal kingdom have our own version. It's the story of what really happened in Sherwood Forest. (emphasis mine)
So what can we make of all of this? Admittedly, Robin Hood was a rather hastily-constructed cartoon, so I do have my doubts over the amount of time the writers spent laboring over this particular plot point. Nevertheless, the representation of crusading (or at least the motivations for it), struck me as compelling, because the contradictory and disjointed allusions to Richard's crusade seem to reveal, if nothing else, a discomfort with the matter of crusading — and perhaps even a desire to find a way to tell a children's version of this story and maintain the heroic status of Richard and Robin Hood without implicitly championing crusading and holy war.
Friday, August 7, 2015
I chanced upon this interview with Sebastian Thrun, Udacity's CEO, a little while back, and it bothered me deeply for a whole host of reasons. Don't get me wrong. I am hardly anti-online ed, having taught at an online institution for several years and having seen the tangible good it did to the many servicepersons who otherwise would have had a near-to-impossible time getting a college degree. But I developed -- over the course of my time there -- a deep aversion to and distrust of said institution's privileging of quantifiable vs. qualifiable teaching methodologies, not to mention its treatment of students as consumers who can and should dictate the ins and outs of their educational experience -- which resulted, for instance, in the mandatory intro to college-level writing course being shaved down to a mere 8-weeks because, I was told, students just didn't want to take a longer version.
My unease with quantifiable teaching methods being imposed on humanities courses, the quickness with which slow learning is dismissed, and the "student-as-consumer" perspective translates directly into my concerns over Thrun's approach to education. I could go on and on, but will just leave a few thoughts-in-progress here for now:
1. Thrun states in this article that he wants Udacity to be the Uber of education. Both of these companies, "use a network of freelancers paid per piece of work that they perform." He's perfectly content to boast that one such freelancer makes $11k/month at this work, but I'd be very interested to know how the rest of his corps of "adjuncts" fare, especially since we know from recent reports how poorly Uber drivers fare in their own work. He seems either oblivious to or callously dismissive of the ethical implications of this kind of educational model.
2. Thrun also compares Udacity to Ikea, saying the following:
He claims it would be harder to develop such a business in another part of the world and certainly not in an existing academic institution. “People in education are risk averse,” he says. “They want to build Steinways. I like to think of us having the impact Ikea has.”First, the metaphor doesn't even work. Steinway doesn't build furniture, and Ikea sure as hell doesn't mass produce pianos. But even if that was the case, what he's essentially saying is this: because "academics" value slow and meticulous learning and craftsmanship, he doesn't want them involved. He wants people willing to sign up for his vision of swift, mass-produced education. Udacity's name for its degrees -- nanodegrees -- all but speaks for itself. Now, I'm not trying to vilify what Udacity offers in any wholesale way. There are several examples of how these nanodegrees have served Udacity's students well. I harbor concerns, however, over how his perspective reflects broader attitudes towards higher education -- how it stands as such a clear symptom of much larger and wider-reaching problems, problems that have a direct impact on how the humanities are being devalued at present.
3. The description of academics as "risk-averse" all but makes me froth at the mouth. Not only does it imply/assume that corporate business models can and should be imposed on academia writ large, but it also is wildly insulting in an even broader sense. It creates a hierarchy where the speed with which a degree is earned takes precedence over what is learned along the way, where the end result is of greater value than the learning process, where the quantifiable is always, already of greater worth than the qualifiable.
This points to the central concern I have with Thrun and his mogul/corporate approach to education. Nowhere in this interview does he express an interest in the student's experience at Udacity (beyond the speed with which they earn their nanodegrees). And nowhere is there any consideration of the ethics of the work that they are doing and will do as they venture into their careers. To that end, in labeling brick-and-mortar academics as "risk-averse," he demonstrates his complete misunderstanding (I want so much to believe it's not intentional disregard) for the ways in which slow learning cultivates empathy and, as Marion Turner stresses so beautifully, "encourages us constantly to question assumptions; in particular, perhaps, to question the idea that any part of how we live and how we are is natural, or self-evidently superior."
I sympathize with students attending college right now -- the pressure to make their time in college vocational is real, and I understand all too well why they don't feel as free to pursue their intellectual interests as I did back in the early 2000's. But, I've said it several times here and on social media, and I'll keep adding my voice to the chorus of humanists until I'm blue in the face: the humanities, and the slow learning that they require, teach us how to be decent human beings. They might not teach you how to code, or lead directly to making $100k right out of college, but they can, if you let them, enhance your capacity to move through the world more ethically. We need entrepreneurs, progressive thinkers, start-ups, and boom towns, to be sure. But we also need those same people/organizations/spaces to think past their own proverbial noses to consider the broader ramifications of their actions. I see that lacking out here in Silicon Valley in so many, many ways, which is why I feel such a sense of urgency in my current work (i.e. teaching humanities-based critical thinking courses to incoming freshmen at Stanford, many of whom will never take another humanities course in their time here). And to be blunt, if Thrun had any understanding of what's actually at stake in a college education, and what professors regularly put on the line when they commit to their teaching, he might have hesitated before using that term.
Wednesday, June 17, 2015
For me, Children of Men, I would say that the true focus ofthe film is there in the background, and it's crucial to leave it as a background. Here comes the true art, Cuaron's. It's the paradox of what I would call this anamorphosis. If you look at the thing too directly at the oppressive social dimension, you don't see it. You can see it in an oblique way only if it remains in the background.What he's referring to is the film's masterful ability to keep viewers from becoming inured to the horrors of the world the protagonists inhabit. Unlike V for Vendetta, another dystopian film roughly contemporary to Children of Men, the nihilism and absurdity of the world is rarely foregrounded. As a result, it leaves a much deeper, lasting impression. I see Martin doing something similar in his books, and I know for a fact (again, using Children of Men and, hell, even Mad Max: Fury Road as examples) that film can successfully deploy/encourage similar forms of anamorphosis. The Game of Thrones franchise, however, regularly fails to do so.
The same sort of thing happened after both episode nine and ten aired. Most of those commenting about Episode 9, for instance, focused on Shireen's death (and not without reason), but I saw little to no commentary on Meryn Trant as serial pedophile (and child-murderer?). While I found Shireen's death traumatizing to watch, my stomach turned all the more once I realized where Meryn Trant's and Arya's story arc was headed. To recap: he asks the madam in (thinly) veiled terms for an underage girl. She does not have one, but dashes out of the room and enters with a hastily rouged and clearly confused young girl. The girl is roughly the same age and size as Arya, who we are made to fear for given her proximity to Trant and the unfolding scene. Trant roughly escorts the girl out of the room, but not before demanding that the woman have a "fresh" one for him the next day. We are made here to wonder whether he simply wants another virgin to brutalize or whether he plans to kill each child he rapes.
What is simultaneously horrifying and effective about this scene is how it plays on audiences emotional responses and draws our empathetic limitations into sharp relief. We are encouraged here to pity the girl being led away by Trant but to feel relief that Arya's avoided that same fate. In other words, we are ultimately encouraged, I think, to question (even chide ourselves) for our ability to care for one more than the other.
There's reason to think that the showrunners are thinking along these lines. Consider the following from James Hibbard's interview with David Weiss:
When I asked Weiss the question that fans surely have tonight: “How could you do that to Shireen?” Weiss philosophically noted you could “flip that question” into a larger debate about how we’re all highly selective about which characters deserve our empathy. Stannis has been burning people alive for seemingly trivial reasons since season 2, yet we’ve still tended to regard him as a great leader—at least, by Westeros standards.
“It’s like a two-tiered system,” he noted. “If a superhero knocks over a building and there are 5,000 people in the building that we can presume are now dead, does it matter? Because they’re not people we know. But if one dog we like gets run over by a car, it’s the worst thing we’ve we’ve ever seen. I totally understand where that visceral reaction comes from. I have that same reaction. There’s also something shitty about that. So instead of saying, ‘How could you do this to somebody you know and care about?’ maybe when it’s happening to somebody we don’t know so well, maybe then it should hit us all a bit harder.”
Consent mattered in medieval culture just as it does in modern culture. Yet modern rape statistics demand that we recognize that it still happens with alarming frequency. The debate on whether Sansa Stark's rape was worth showing hides both how modern medieval culture was and how medieval our own culture still is. As Sarah Mesle in the Los Angeles Review of Books wrote, "This episode of Game of Thrones does to viewers what the world so often does to women: It mistakes presence for consent." The sexual reality of Game of Thrones is, in fact, our own.
Saturday, June 13, 2015
Cachey, Theodore J. (ed. and trans.). Petrarch's Guide to the Holy Land: Itinerary to the Sepulcher of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002.
Connolly, Daniel. "Imagined Pilgrimage in the Itinerary Maps of Matthew Paris." The Art Bulletin (December 1999): 598-622.
Ehrenschwendtner, Marie-Luise. "Virtual Pilgrimages: Enclosure and the Practice of Piety at St. Katherine's Convent, Augsburg." The Journal of Ecclesiastical History (January 2009): 45-73.
Newhauser, Richard C. and Arthur J. Russell. "Mapping Virtual Pilgrimage in an Early Fifteenth Century Arma Christi Roll." In The Arma Christi in Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture. Eds. Lisa H. Cooper and Andrea Denny-Brown. Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. Pp. 83-112.
Swanson, R. N. Indulgences in Late Medieval England: Passports to Paradise? Cambridge UP, 2011.
Yeager, Suzanne M. Jerusalem in Medieval Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.