23 November 2006

Studio 60 is not so bad after all

Gavin Edwards uses the latest Rolling Stone (November 30, page 44) to talk about what ails NBC’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” except he misdiagnoses the problem. His solution is to make the sketch comedy, in case you do not follow “Studio 60” is a show about a Saturday Night Live-like sketch comedy show, funny. This is not the problem, rather I think it speaks to a larger desire Edwin has, and that is the real problem for NBC.

If Edwards’ theory is correct then it means people tune into an hour long show for a glimpse of A joke (usually at the end of the show.) I doubt that is what motivates people and consequently I doubt making that change would keep people coming back for more. If the sketch comedy were funny maybe there would be more viewers in the last half hour, just as SNL these days is viewed exclusively (at least by my friends) for the first half hour, but this seems to be a pretty low mark in quality that I doubt would make any show’s producers happy.

There is another problem with Edwards’ theory. I do believe the American public is able to watch TV with a necessary suspension of disbelief, not everything has to be an accurate representation of our current world. People know the sketches are supposed to be funny in the world of “Studio 60.” This is the same world where Matthew Perry’s character is established as a comic genius. This is the same world where everyone in Pahrump, Nevada is a country yokel. This is not our world and yet Edwards’ basic complaint is that it is too different. “Lost,” “Battlestar Galactica,” and “30 Rock” are some of the success stories that disprove Edwards’ need for realism.

The real problem of “Studio 60” is that it is based on SNL, a successful SNL. I suspect Edwards longs for the good-old days when SNL was funny. I suspect it is this appeal which compelled NBC to buy Sorkin’s latest text book - writing text books is what Sorkin does. “West Wing” was his way to educate us about politics. “Sports Night” was an education about ESPN. And this should teach us about SNL. The problem is that SNL is an anachronism. Maybe the quality has dropped and that has led to its demise as a cultural force, or maybe its importance was declining which is why it is no longer a quality show (maybe both) but the result is the same.

“Studio 60” is held on by NBC not as a vehicle in itself to make profits, but also as a way to invigorate a once great NBC institution. I will admit I watch SNL more than I used to because of what I am learning from “Studio 60.” While I think the comedy writing for “Studio 60” is not funny, I do not think it should be. SNL is based not on just being funny but also on being witty (even though those moments do not make it onto the greatest hits highlights). People know what is funny, they need to be taught on what is witty and why it is witty. “Studio 60” does a great job teaching that. The last episode contained a brilliant running commentary on humor, Quentin Tarantino and gore. I feel smarter having seen the last episode.

People are judging the show based upon the show it purports to be, a SNL that is a cultural force. No show airing these days matches up to that standard and a new comparison for profitability needs to be found.

That better model for “Studio 60” to follow is “ER”. The big concern then was if people would watch a show that was steeped in medical knowledge and refused to dumb it down. But people watched, learned and loved it for a long time. Surely the educational quality was not the sole reason people watched but regardless it was a bold gamble. I am confident the “Studio 60” gamble will pay off. It could be funnier and have more of a draw, but I am happy with the show and I will continue to come back to NBC on Mondays.

If I were at NBC I would wait until the show was losing money before pulling this plug. It may take some time, but I think it will pay off. This is, after all, what leadership and being a cultural manager is all about. Sometimes you may think things can be better, that does not mean you can just plod ahead, but you need to plow through resistance. I am confident people will come around.

17 November 2006

Connolly 2002

These are some rough ideas of something I am trying to work out. But given the timliness of Bush's comments to what I am thinking I felt it important to put something out there for some feedback:

The worst thing to happen to the War in Iraq is for Bush to have gone to Vietnam and to see things working well. It has become for him proof about the power of democracy and freedom to prevail in the fight over evil and (Islamic) Fascism. I really these terms are nuanced and not all applicable to past or present Vietnam, but this is how Bush sees the country. There is an obvious reply here, if freedom prevails in Vietnam even though we left it to be under the heel of a communist regime, does that not prove we do not need to be in Iraq to bring them freedom? Possibly, but with Bush in the White House that argument needs not be fleshed out because we will be in Iraq to bring them whatever it is we bring them.

The main problem with the War in Iraq is how US policy is grounded. Clearly there are some issues about planning that need to be examined. But there is something larger at work. The goal that Bush wants has been turned into such a mythic figure of happiness that it now stands as the coercive utopian ideal. These ideals are so powerful that any sacrifice becomes worthwhile and any deviation is seen as the embodiment of evil.

William Connolly discussed this in his book about the effects of St. Augustine. While the passage I am about to re-cite is discussing polytheism as opposed to monotheism, it is applicable as Bush’s war of a value versus the all of the different fanatics and their polyvalent (the individuals may not be fighting for multiple values, but the aggregated enemies of the US are polyvalent). This clash is automatically predisposed to not only resistance but also to a violent response to such resistance.

The key defect in the multiple, limited, disputing pagan gods is that they did not have enough power, separately or in combination, to hold out the realistic prospect of eternal salvation to hu8mans, a prospect “which is the essential aim in religion.” Augustine endows his god with omnipotence to enable it to deliver on the promise of salvation. He endows it with care for humanity to make it want to do so. When these three demands are combined (omnipotence, care and salvation), you generate a god who must be the author of an intrinsic moral order and you have a moral order under powerful pressure to constitute itself restrictively and coercively. (The Augustinian imperative. NY: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p. 48-9).

14 November 2006

Zizek 2003

What, then, does the self-beating in Fight Club stand for? IN a first approach, it is clear that its fundamental stake is to reach out and reestablish the connection with the real Other, that is, to suspend the fundamental abstraction and coldness of the capitalist subjectivity best exemplified by the figure of the lone monadic individual who, alone in front of the PC screen, communicates with the entire world. In contrast to the humanitarian compassion that enables us to retain our distance toward the other, the very violence of the fight signals the abolition of this distance. Although this strategy is risky and ambiguous (it can easily regress into proto-fascist macho logic of violent make bonding), this risk has to be assumed – there is no other direct way out of the closure of the capitalist subjectivity. The first lesson of Fight Club is thus that one cannot pass directly from capitalist to revolutionary subjectivity: the abstraction, the foreclosure of the others, the blindness for the others’ suffering and pain, has first to be broken in a risk-taking gesture of directly reaching toward the suffering other – a gesture that, since it shatters the very kernel of our identity, cannot but appear as extremely violent. However, there is another dimension at work in the self-beating: the subject’s scatological (excremental) identification, which equals adopting the position of the proletarian who has nothing to lose. The pure subject emerges only through this experience of radical self-degradation, when I let/provoke the other to beat the crap out of me, emptying me of all substantial content, of all symbolic support that could confer on me a minimum of dignity. Consequently, when jack beats himself in front of his boss, his message to the boss is: “I know you want to beat me; but, you see, your desire to beat me is also my desire, so, if you were to beat me, you would be fulfilling the role of the servant of my perverse masochist desire. But you are too much of a coward to act out your desire, so I will do it for you – here you have it, what you really wanted. Why are you so embarrassed? Are you not ready to accept it?” Crucial here is the gap between fantasy and reality. The boss, of course, would have never actually beaten up Jack: he was merely fantasizing about doing it, and the painful effect of Jack’s self-beating hinges on the very fact that he stages the content of the secret fantasy his boss would never be able to actualize. (Slavoj Zizek. 2003. The ambiguity of the masochist social link. In Rothenberg, Foster & Zizek, eds. Sic 4: Perversions and the social relation. 112-25. 116-7.)

This passage sums up to me why psychoanalysis is such a fun literature to pursue. It possesses a creative and penetrating gaze into events, with a startling ability to explain what is going on. However, it is a reductionist science (read: too creative) and denies the possibility of many differing interpretations (assuming the main principle of psychoanalysis that intent is not important.)

My reading of the scene Zizek discusses is different and probably more in line with the simpleton’s reading: Jack wants to extort money from his boss and fakes a beating to force his boss to give in to the demand, because the boss’s description of how Jack was beaten up by himself would not be credible to anyone except for Zizek.

Zizek’s reading of the scene, however, attributes the same fantasy to both Jack and the boss – to beat Jack up. This is the psychoanalytic tradition: reducing human desire to a basic immutable truth. While desires fluctuate across situations, there is not an allowance in this dyad for differing desire. There is not account in either the movie nor in Zizek’s re-presentation of the movie of the boss wanting to beat Jack up. This is an asserted desire on Zizek’s part and it is understandable why, if the boss does not share jack’s desire then Zizek’s argument falls apart. The boss is no longer a coward. The boss is no longer demonstrating the gap between fantasy and reality.

10 November 2006

The al Qaeda trick

What about Pan Am flight 103? Was it also the result of terrorism rhetorics? The tragic incident over Lockerbie epitomizes, for the American public, the ultimate proof of terrorism’s extreme danger. What is altogether missing is a public appreciation of the extent to which terrorism discourse itself might have contributed decisively to the tragedy. Pan Am flight 103 was preceded by the downing, “by mistake,” of an Iranian passanger [sic.] airliner by the American warship Vincennes. Most experts and family members of the Pan Am victims remained skeptical with the official version that blamed two Libyan officers; the clues pointing to Iran were simply too obvious to ignore. In any case, what made the crew of the Vincennes commit so grave a mistake as to sacrifice with impunity the lives of 290 airline passengers? Isn’t this the reality-making force of a discourse that allows itself to act as it assumes the enemy will? In doing so it provokes as well the self-fulfilling reaction from the enemy that proves that it was the feared monster after all. Nevertheless, the incident that has turned into the paradigm of terrorism for the American public has been viewed by some terrorism experts as a type of “blood feud.” It is by forgetting the symmetry between the Iranian airliner and Pan Am flight 103, and by erasing the assumptions and justifications surrounding the Vincennes’ “error,” that terrorism discourse conceals its own self-generating logic. (J. Zulaika & W. Douglas. 1996. Terror and taboo: The follies, fable sand faces of terrorism. NY: Routledge.)

I know I have cited and discussed from this Zulaika & Douglas book before, but I try to choose these nuggets at random. Besides, I really liked this book. It was fascinating to read and that was before September 11 and our current (pre)occupation in the War on Terror (hereafter called WoT.) Some dismiss the writings before September 11 as anachronistic, but these writings are now timelier than ever as they address the exact same problem but do not reflect the trauma we are so fixated on trying to suture. The same reason doctors should not operate on their children is a reason why these writings are so valuable: we are too emotionally involved to see clearly.

There is a clear parallel to draw between the cover-up Zulaika & Douglas reference to the current WoT. This is not to say it was the US government’s doing, I do believe the al Qaeda story we are told, but there is a government dismissal of why al Qaeda did what it did. Some will dismiss, they have when others said it, what I am about to say as sympathy for the evil-doers but it is not sympathy. No matter how cruel al Qaeda thinks we have been to them and their cause it does not justify what they have done, but we should take some time to at least understand why they did what they did. Unfortunately, Bush is happy to dismiss this as hatred of America and as sympathy for them.

I contend al Qaeda is in the midst of a civil war within Islam. Unable to gain ground in this war because of the riches of it’s enemy, al Qaeda has sought out the source of it’s enemy’s wealth: the US. We prop up the Islamic modernists with our patronage of oil and our military assistance. Thus al Qaeda, like the IRA, needed one of two things to happen. If al Qaeda could convince us to remove our patronage or to get us more involved so other Muslims would then see just how involved we are then they would gain ground in this internal conflict.

Al Qaeda’s plan then needed a way to catalyze us into action. They did what we have done, attacked non-military religious targets. Fundamentalists see our western mechanism of development and trade and commerce as a direct attack upon traditional Muslim values. Al Qaeda thinks our religion is money and so they struck at what seemed to the ultimate symbol of that religion, the World Trade Center. There is a reason the only 2 foreign-born terrorist attacks on US soil targeted the same place. The towers (still) hold symbolic value and we reacted exactly in a manner they wanted. Bush says those of us that disagree with him are giving in to what they want by conceding the fight. While conceding the fight was a desirable outcome of the attack, so is what Bush is doing. His binary black/white world fails to see the world is at least tertiary (black/grey/white.) A third way should have been sought out.

I digress from Zulaika and Douglas. We can see this pattern of war fought in Saudi Arabia against the very people that become al Qaeda. Modern forces there terrorize the conservative Muslims. They do this terrorism with US made thumbscrews, with US made tanks, with US soldiers looking on, with US led sanctions against infrastructure development in Iraq. Even if we do not do all the things al Qaeda claims we do, the material conditions in those places are such that those claims have credibility. Why is that? It is this credibility, not the actual truth of the claims, that needs to be fought and countered. Yet Bush seems to have fallen the al Qaeda trick.

08 November 2006

Windschuttle 2006

In the ensuing controversy, Churchill was exposed by real American Indians as a fake. The American Indian Grand Governing Council said “Ward Churchill has fraudulently represented himself as an Indian, and a member of the American Indian Movement and … has been masquerading as an Indian for years behind his dark glasses and beaded headband.”

More importantly, a University of New Mexico specialist in Indian law, John Lavelle, accused Churchill of fabricating evidence in no less than six books and eleven published academic articles.

That the work of such a moral [sic.] bankrupt and scholarly charlatan could be paraded as weighty commentary by the editors of Australia’s leading journal in Aboriginal history is a good indication of what an intellectual shameless this subject has become.

The anti-colonialism of these historians is also highly selective in that it ignores empires other than those of Europe. The truth is that all great civilizations have absorbed other peoples, sometimes in harmony, sometimes by the sword. The Islamic world, so often portrayed today as victims of British or American or Israeli imperialism, is hardly innocent. The Ottoman Turks conquered and ruled most of the Middle East for a thousand years. The British and the French displaced them in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, with the approval of the Arabs who by then wanted liberation from Ottoman rule. In India, Muslims from Arabia and Persia were imperial overlords for eight centuries until the British arrived. The British overthrew Muslim rule, with the active cooperation and grateful applause of the Hindu population.

I am torn in the debate about indigenous peoples. This passage is from Keith Windschuttle, a conservative historian in Australia. While my politics are more in line with Windschuttle’s than with Churchill’s, I find Windschuttle’s, and many other conservative historians, arguments to be inadequate in the face of the criticisms lodged against them.

Churchill makes an indictment about Indian identity, that the definition of an Indian is a government controlled definition, a definition that forces Indians into a marginal position. Yet, Windschuttle feels it compelling to point out that Churchill does not meet this government definition of Indian-ness. An argument that is clearly non-responsive to Churchill’s criticism and may actually prove the scope of the problem Churchill identifies. As for being a member of the American Indian Movement, it may be accurate that Churchill claims to be a member and yet is not. It could also be that Churchill claims to be a member of the American Indian movement and Windschuttle confuses that with the American Indian Movement. One is a structure and the other is an informal community bound by shared ideas. While this difference may not explain away the argument, it is a nuance that I would not be surprised, given the quality of his work, to find Windschuttle not realizing.

I am curious about the supposed fabrication Windschuttle alludes to, but it is important to note that Windschuttle references merely an accusation by a single person, not a finding and not even an accusation by a group. This fabrication issue is also potentially suspect given Churchill’s indictment of the history of American Indians. A discrepancy in Churchill’s and the official’s record may be called fabrication by Lavelle yet in Churchill’s account may actually prove his argument. I will admit that this debate is a passing fancy and not important enough for me to spend time researching and investigating.

The final argument in the Windschuttle passage is about the history of colonialism. I will posit his condition (even though it seems suspect) that all civilizations (great civilizations?) absorb others, yet that does not absolve the US of what it has done. Churchill does focus on the US ‘absorption’ but that does not constitute the selective charge Windschuttle issues. Claiming the US did something wrong is not a valorization of the Ottomans or other non-Western empires. This argument is a sophomoric link of omission argument.

The ultimate problem of the Windschuttle piece is where he attacks Churchill. This is also where I draw difference with both Churchill and Windschuttle. While I find Churchill’s prescriptions na├»ve and overly simplistic (how do I live my life as if the US did not exist?) I find his descriptions of what has happened depressingly accurate and sobering. Windschuttle, however, is focused almost exclusively (at least in this piece, I do not want to commit the same link of omission error he does) on Churchill’s descriptions instead of his plans to change the world.

07 November 2006

Tatchell 1997

To-day’s passage from the backfiles is one of the better arguments I have stumbled across in quite some time. Not only is a well-structured argument, but also I find the writing to be good: it is concise and yet the language is not too lofty and obscure. Peter Tatchell is a British human rights activist and I am also assuming he is gay, proud and pissed off. After reading this passage his anger seems not only understandable but also justified, I especially liked the portion that talks about how our society does not protect queers:

Such a statement sums up the way the just demand for an end to homophobic discrimination by the armed forces increasingly has become an unjustifiable endorsement of militarism and war. The experience of being marginalized by society as “abnormal” and “deviant” ought to give us queers a more critical attitude towards all social institutions, including the military. Instead of blithely assuming that everything straight is wonderful, we should have a healthy skepticism towards straight culture. No hetero institution is more deserving of our skepticism than the armed forces. It denies democratic rights to its own members, tolerates bullying, lacks mechanisms for public scrutiny and accountability, discriminates against lesbians and gay men (and women and black people), and has a been used frequently to suppress popular movements for social justice and national liberation in countries like Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Aden and Ireland. Above all else, the military is a straight institution. It is organized and dominated by the hetero majority. Part of the function of the military is the defence of a society ruled by straights (as well as big business). It serves straight interests and upholds the macho straight values of violence and homophobia. Everything about the military is inimical to queer freedom: hierarchy, domination, prejudice, aggression, conformity and authoritarianism. Moreover, the military is an instrument of State power. The State is homophobic, enforcing legal discrimination against lesbian and gay people. As a part of the repressive apparatus of the State, the armed forces embody this anti-gay discrimination, banning queers from joining the military and forcing out those it discovers within its ranks. In defending the State, the military also implicitly defends the anti-queer repression of the State, including the unequal age of consent, the arrest of gay men for victimless cruising, the ban on the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities, the denial of legal recognition to queer partnerships, and the lack of redress against homophobic discrimination in housing and employment. Lesbians and gay men have a right, and even a responsibility, to refuse allegiance to a homophobic government and its homophobic military apparatus. Faced with unjust laws that discriminate against homosexuals, queers are duty-bound to deny legitimacy to the straight governing elite and to withdraw all consent and co-operation from governmental institutions such as armed forces. According to liberal theory, rights carry with them responsibilities. But in the absence of civil and human rights, the duty of reciprocal responsibilities ceases to exist. This means that we queers are under no obligation to join the military to protect those who refuse to protect us. Instead, there is an onus on us to withhold our loyalty from the institutions of a homophobic State, such as the armed forces, and to do everything in our power to sabotage the straight system which treats us as second class citizens. You don’t have to be a queer revolutionary to realize this, just a homo with a bit of common sense and self-respect. The idea of queer non-compliance with homophobic institutions like the military is rooted in the civil disobedience tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. They argued: unjust laws must be broken, not obeyed. When governments deny human rights, those excluded from full citizenship have a moral right to rebel against tyrannical rulers. These principles are just as relevant for lesbians and gay men today as in Britain as they were in the past for the Indian independence movement and the US black civil rights struggle. The armed forces do not respect gay rights. Why, then, should we enlist and serve? Is there any reason for queers to give a damn about the fate of the straight State? We homos (and our straight allies) have no obligation to defend the fraudulent democratic system that denies us equality. On the contrary, the queer self-defence requires that we subvert and destroy the hetero institutions that hold us down. Collusion with a homophobic State and a homophobic military is collusion with anti-gay discrimination. To do the bidding of those who victimize us betrays the cause of queer freedom. That’s why all queers everywhere have a responsibility to refuse collaboration with the oppressive military system. By so doing, we can help strike a blow for lesbian and gay emancipation, and against oppressive militarism and war. (1997, Why we shouldn’t’ march straight. Queer Words, issue 3)

The problem I have with this argument is its reductionism. Tatchell seems to believe homosexuals are fundamentally democratic and neither bullies nor aggressive. The military, in his world, is only used to repress progressive movements. These reductions place the military/homosexual pair as automatically opposed and impossible to coexist. I contend, however, that they are opposed in their manifestation and not in some basic kernel of their selves. Everything he says may be accurate, but that does not mean the military must be used to quash progressive movements. Was the Taliban a progressive movement? While there are some problems surrounding the crushing of the Taliban, the quashing of a movement concerned with social justice is not be one of them.

I am also curious how people in the Netherlands would view this passage since the military there allows homosexuals to serve openly. This passage seems uniquely British. An indictment of the British state, even though Tatchell attributes it to the State fundamentally, would be read differently in a different country.

I am also concerned that the bodies in Tatchell’s argument are not marked. I was told in graduate school to do the following test: whenever an unmarked body is presented (in this case the soldier and also the civilian) I should assume the body is white. Do bodies of color change the calculus of this passage? Tatchell would probably argue that does not change his call to resistance. That is the very functioning of whiteness. The military may provide a way out of certain situations, a liberatory way out. Michael Moore highlights the US military recruiting methods, targeting black neighborhoods, but we have to ask why do so many black people sign up? Even though it pains us to point out the truth (the real reason John Kerry came under such scrutiny) it is still the truth: the military can provide a better life for people on the margins of our society. Tatchell does not address these people. He has an interpretation, one which is valid, but there are other interpretations. It this essentializing of reading the military that is the problem in Tatchell’s argument.

What I am Watching: Heroes

Last night’s (November 5) episode of Heroes was an interesting one. I was able to successfully watch the show while doing some work, which means the show is not complex and not one of the better shows on TV (I would never try to watch an Aaron Sorkin show or Friday Night Lights in this manner.)

Another problem with this show is exemplified by what happened last night: there are too many “mutants” and their powers are too diverse. I place mutants in quotation marks because I fear the explanation for these strange powers will not all be mutations. This show is beginning to resemble a comic book universe with too many characters and too much going on, which is why both Marvel and DC have to periodically clean house by killing off some characters.

The other problem with these new revelations is that they are too convenient. We learn that a little boy has an ability to manipulate electronics at precisely the moment when he needs to call his mother and the pay phone just happens to be out of order. The cop can read minds but the power is not activated until the story needs a clairvoyant to find a little girl. It is just all too clean. It would make more sense for there to be a single mutation that several people around the world have, but some are more experienced in the use of the mutation. I think that would make for a better story and some more interesting scenarios. It would make for a greater constraint on the writers, which is what I (and I am guessing others) respond to, to see how the writers work there way out of problems. If there are any comic book illustrators out there, let me know as I have some rough drafts of books that need some illustrations for this plotline. I think it could be fun and entertaining and also a good seller.

Despite all of these frustrations, I will continue to watch Heroes because it is, after all, a good show. I enjoy some of the people and I am hooked by the mysteries they have yet to explain. I think there are ways to improve the story, most of these problems are not fatal and some can be uncorked, but it would require a more subtle touch than I fear the current writers possess.

02 November 2006

Ride of the Penguin

Dr. Dean, her first initial is J but I am unsure if it is Jody or Judy or what, has a great post to-day on her blog called "The Ride of the Penguin".

What makes this post so good is, of course, the story but also the slight dissection of how the story works. Being a Southerner (sort of, some family thinks being Texan qualifies me and others argue that Texans are not Southerners) myself I can relate to how Southern stories function. Being with the girl I can also relate to the desire to kidnap a penguin.