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it’s hard times all around (default)

October 29th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Skinny Puppy: HanDover (2011)

A couple of days ago I decided to resist the magnetism of screens and attend to some repairs and removals, mostly in the garden. Many plants, thoroughly ravaged by the summer heat, had become dead things that just needed to be buried in a dumpster. Coming home after a long day at the university, I noticed on the short walk from the patio gate to the back door green things had returned. And among the green things were dead things, too far gone (long past gone and neglected). I reasoned the sight of brown and crinkled leaves was somehow crafting an unconscious graveyard mood as the days passed, a mood suitable for Halloween, of course, but not everyday. Strong winds had blown down the mirrors I had hung on the western wooden wall to create a sense of space. After I dumped half a dozen exoskeletons formerly known as flora, I set about to rehang the mirrors. Hammer in hand, I steadied myself on an acacia wood bench and lifted my arm when I soon realized—or rather, retroactively realized—that I was falling; I thrust out my harms and hands to save face. My left palm cleft, confronting a concrete jutting and I scraped the skin off of my knuckles on the right hand.

I slumped on the hard, cold patio floor and thought about it. At first there was no pain. That took a few seconds to come. And in that tiny span of time I remembered impaling a wrist on a barbed wire when I was eleven, the curly spire poking out of my palm, and then the nausea that washed over me, and then resisting the urge to throw up. But I didn’t feel that same nausea, just remembered it. And then I remembered all the things I had to do before bedtime and reasoned I should simply just get up and wash up and move on.

When I have nightmares they almost always involved disappointing someone. This week: forgetting some birthdays. I dreamed a parent and then a friend were upset with me. Only after the dream did I recall I had missed the birthdays. Still, aside from letting others down, my nightmares involve bodily traumas: drowning or car accidents. Trauma, often a blunt one. Falling reminded me of these premonitions, however briefly. Not so much parting flesh; I will not die by cutting, I don’t think. So: get up.

A leg on the bench had rotted and it collapsed under me. I bled—too much for the scrapes, I thought. The bench ended in the dumpster along with former geraniums. The baby blue pajamas I wore took on a brown, polka dot pattern in spots.

The garden looks better without the dead. There’s always a slight sense of guilt when dumping the dead; it’s as if I should leave the carcass in the garden to remind myself of the failures (gardens often appear like resumes, don’t they?). The mirrors are hung, and scabs have formed on fingers and knees. Still, there’s nothing quite like a simple fall to remind one of the smell of trauma—those heightened senses, that retroactive doubt about one’s sense of security (or immortality, as infantile as it is). You know the feeling: the inchoate sense of dread that says, for a millisecond, “I’d rather be in bed reading a book than falling on the concrete right this moment.” No one enjoys falling on concrete, even for the memories the falling might provoke.

The clutch on my car went out this week. Things, you know, fall apart.

My friend’s mother, I learned at dinner, is back in the hospital. I’d say such news “comes with age,” but really, it does not. I simply think such news is more in mind as we age.

A student’s father was in a hit-and-run accident and she missed class. Another student reported her mother had a stroke last week, and she was busy tending to her. A friend of mine in the Midwest reported that one of his students was killed a couple of weeks ago. This is one week.

It’s hard to worry about students’ assignments when you find yourself saying, “don’t worry about class; you need to focus on what’s most important, and that’s your family.” What is this call for “accountability” in higher education when we are caused to consider the personal lives of students? Does accountability make exceptions for making exceptions? Is it ever alright to attend to the green things instead of the screens, and if so, can you measure that attention? The dead and dying are invisible on screens and pages.

A friend of mine teaches fifth grade. She says aside from the challenge of teaching her bilingual students to take the “no-cog-left-behind” exams, one of the most pressing problems of teaching is head lice (and getting it once a year from her students).

“Accountability” is not, it would seem, a word that is synonymous with responsibility. Response-ability: the capacity or faculty of response and recognition, and some would argue that this capacity entails an obligation to attend to the dead. Response-ability is a quality, a character trait, something that is cultivated, like a virtue. Accountability has become, more or less, a term for surveillance measured in number. Accountability has ceased to be response-able. In the world of policy, accountability my be obligatory, but that obligation is compulsory, or at least seems increasingly so.

And if I return to screens and pages, there is a toad in the garden. A poisonous toad. I read with some interest Rick Perry’s “interview” in Parade this past Sunday; his smug portrait appears on the front. He believes global warming is a “fiction,” among other things you might expect him to believe. He also quipped that making severe changes in the department of education (presumably modeled on the slashes he made to public services in Texas) would reduce the national deficit. He is proposing a “flat tax,” that fantasy of equity that appeals, much like Ayn Rand’s writing, to the firm exhilaration of negative liberties: it does not matter that your lover has smacked you across the mouth, drawing blood. Of course, it’s violence, but what matters is that the blow was good for you—it even turns you on a little. Everything is in its place, like the imagined scenes of domesticity in the Pottery Barn catalog.

As Benjamin once warned, the aestheticization of the political aims at the beautification of death. We should be wary of leaders who hold out infantile fantasies of omnipotence. When death looks pretty the ugly death will come.
There are no lice in the Pottery Barn. Or gurneys.

it’s synth-pop friday!

October 28th, 2011 by slewfoot

what’s a regent? continued . . .

October 23rd, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Nine Inch Nails: Ghosts I-IV (2008)

Last May I reported that I didn’t quite understand the role of the Board of Regents in governing the University of Texas and that I would spend the summer poking around to figure it out. I’ve come a little closer to getting a handle on their role, which has invited the national spotlight because of Perry’s bid for the presidency and a number of high profile, political appointments in various state education agencies. The short answer is that the regents are political appointees and wield tremendous power in the UT system; they are constrained only by popular, political sentiment and legislative will. The Board of Regents has the power to hire and fire the university president, and the chancellor of the UT system also serves at their pleasure. The chancellor is the figurehead, both a policy pusher and a fundraiser—key person for the administration and corporate side of things.

My education concerning the regency mostly comes from a book recommended by Rosa Eberly, The Tower and the Dome: A Free University Versus Political Control (1971) by former UT president Homer P. Rainey, who served the University of Texas from 1939 to 1944. An outspoken defender of the tenure system and academic freedom, Rainey was fired by the Board of Regents for defending the university from politicization. Although the story is long and complicated, the trouble started when Texas governors W. Lee O’Daniel and Coke Stevenson “staked” the regency with appointees opposed to “New Deal” legislation. During Rainey’s tenure, a number of the regents called on him to fire four full economics professors for teaching “radical” views. Rainey refused, citing tenure protections and the principles of a “free university,” where upon a many-year struggle ensued, eventually going public. The regents began meddling in the UT curriculum and fired three untenured economics professors, leading Rainey to make charge the regents with sixteen violations that he publicized. Despite widespread popular support, Rainey was ousted. Rainey eventually moved on to the University of Colorado and had a productive career, publishing The Tower and the Dome as a principled account of the controversy (the book is full of memos, speeches, and policies).

Rainey explains the power structure of the regency this way:

The University of Texas is a constitutional university; that is, it was provided for by the Constitution of Texas and not by legislative statute. It is controlled by a Board of Regents of nine members. These members are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. Appointments are made for six-year terms which are staggered in such a way that the terms of one-third, or three Regents, expire every two years. The Governor is elected for a two-year term [today it is four years]; consequently, each time a governor is inaugurated he has the privilege of appointing three regents. If a governor is elected for a second term, two-thirds of the Board will consist of his appointees, and by this process he can if he desires, secure control of the Board by appointment men committed to his policies.

As Rainey tells the story, high-level meetings were held in the late thirties by politicians to “take control” of the university system, expressly for the purpose of controlling what is taught. This resulted in “staking” the regency to push forward policy reform that comported with what has come to be known as “conservative” values (at that time, “anti-Communist” values and profound disdain for New Deal reforms).

The comparisons of the current regency to the one appointed during Rainey’s time are plain; all nine regents and the student representative were appointed by Perry: Alex M. Cranberg, James D. Dannenbaum, Paul L. Foster, Printince L. Gary, Wallace L. Hall, Jr., R. Steven “Steve” Hicks, Brenda Pejovich, Wm. Eugene “Gene” Powell, John Davis Rutkauskas, and Robert L. Stillwell. Of course, Perry has been governor forever, so it makes sense he would have appointed the whole board. Nevertheless, one can easily understand why there is high tension in the current higher education environment in Texas.

That the board is awash in Perry appointees explains why there is so much controversy about higher education reforms in Texas: the governor—an office that is relatively weak compared to other states—can push through pretty drastic changes should he want to do so. This makes, of course, the university president’s job an especially tricky one, taking history as our measure. This may also explain why the Chancellor has “given in,” so to speak, to the demands of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s “seven breakthrough reforms” stressing higher accountability and “more” productivity. The agenda has been set: increase enrollment, decrease tuition, teach “blended” classes (which is to say, adopt the University of Phoenix model), and stop supporting “frivolous” scholarship. Scholarship like mine, of course, which takes popular culture as a serious academic subject.

it’s synth-pop friday!

October 21st, 2011 by slewfoot


October 19th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: HTRK: Marry Me Tonight (2008)

Witnessing the worldwide ruckus now widely reported as the Occupy Movement, surely I am not the only one who has been thinking of R.E.M.’s song, “Welcome to the Occupation,” from 1987s Document (if you don’t know the song, I recommend a listen). Back in the late 80s, I always thought the song was about the dispiriting discipline of the “office collar” job, beating the “teen spirit” out of ya: “You are mad and educated/primitive and wild/ welcome to the occupation.” Back then, I enjoyed my afterschool job working at Little Caesar’s Pizza. It didn’t pay very well, but the owner was kind (he often worked along side us and just as hard) and there was a fun camaraderie among the folks who worked there. No hierarchy, very little at stake, and minimal politics. We made pizzas. They were cheap. People got happy.

Watching the protests in New York spread across the globe this last week, it seems the movement has finally achieved traction in the mainstream news media. As Kevin DeLuca argued in his book Image Politics over a decade ago, social movements have been drifting toward a kind of postmodern politics of representation, harnessing the power of mediated circulation as a or the means of mobilizing affect. Although I’ve always had some trouble with DeLuca’s argumentative particulars, I think he captured the emergence of a new form of global political organization; his and Peeple’s subsequent notion of the “public screen” certainly seems apropos in this moment, especially when we take up the oft-heard question, “but, what do they want?” What is, in other words, the signified that would anchor all this unrest into a series of demands? (Notably, one of the original posters for the Occupy Wall Street protest deliberately leaves the questions unanswered).

Comparisons to the Tea Party movement have been common—or rather, have been often denied, which is the acknowledgement of a comparison. This had led me to think about what, exactly, the basis of any comparison might be. Aside from the obvious role of information technology and the “swarming” mobilizations this has enabled, we might say both lack a clearly identified leader. Protests to the contrary from the Tea Partiers—or rather, just a few fiery ones who are “friends” on a social networking site—both also lack a clear set of demands. I don’t consider calls for “smaller government” or an end to corporate greed a demand. Prima facie, it would seem that the bedrock commonality is a brand of political nihilism in which the movement is defined against an established or projected order of one sort or another (for one, the illusion of liberal conspiracy; the other, the reality of global capital).

I’m still thinking. But, like a treasure hidden in plain sight, I do find it surprising that few commentators and critics are talking or writing about the concept that has helped to organize so many: occupancy. The original call to “occupy Wall Street” signified, on a basic level, putting bodies in a certain space as a metaphorical squatting (“bring tent,” the original flyer says). The term also has militaristic connotations of property seizure and violation of ownership. Even the term “occupation,” now metonymy for one’s profession or even class-identification, derives from a person located in a particular space. Unlike the Tea Party movement, which seemed to organize an inchoate swirl of rage, xenophobia, and classic “American” paranoia, the Occupy Movement started as a political gesture of space. This marks it as something more—or perhaps something other than—a politics of spectacle.

Occupancy harkens to street marching politics of old in a way that flies in the face of theories of digital mobilization or virtuality. What the Occupy Movement seems to be harnessing, however paradoxically, is a strange, postmodern politics of invisibility made possible by postmodern regimes of publicity. What I mean by this harkens to Hakim Bey’s conception of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, in a sense: insurrection occurs in spaces that have gone “unmapped” by the state. Or to use Henri Lefebvre’s notions of representation, the Occupy Movement seems to be pointing up the distinction between “representations of space” (which serve the dominant class) and “spaces of representation,” the latter concerning how people actually occupy the world with their bodies, often in ways that do not comport with dominant conceptions of space. The territory of lived lives—the structures of feeling and being in the world—exceeds what is capable of being represented.

For example, consider how long it took the MSM to get around to representing the Occupy Wall Street protest: it took almost two weeks for screen-time to reflect what New York citizens were experiencing in Manhattan. This “lag” time in “mapping” the movement represents in a homologous way the “lag” between representations of the experiences of “everyday folks” and what is perceived as consensus-reality on our many screens. My point is that Tea Party mobilization was conducted largely on the terrain of virtuality (despite some modest rallies and a Fox-News sponsored DC thing), whereas it appears that the Occupy Movement is manifesting quite differently—adding a spatial component to the temporally bound logics of publicity and circulation. In other words, occupancy is the central tactic, and the image politics of the tactic is secondary. Of course, this was the strategy of uprisings in the Middle East, presumably in countries with less sophisticated technologies of mediation and representation; clearly, however, a number of those involved in the Occupy Movement believe the spatial tactic is crucial. Those who study social movements in postmodernity would do well not to lose sight of occupancy as a strategy.

Evidence enough that the Occupy Movement is engaging in a territory map struggle are the attempts of those “on the right” who would force it into a state-sanctioned map. Consider, for example, George Will’s conclusion in a recent column:

As Mark Twain said, difference of opinion is what makes a horse race. It is also what makes elections necessary and entertaining. So: OWS vs. the Tea Party. Republicans generally support the latter. Do Democrats generally support the former? Let’s find out. Let’s vote.

Isn’t the reduction of social struggle to the ballot precisely the mechanism occupancy seeks to combat? Martin Luther King comes to mind . . . .

it’s synth-pop friday!

October 14th, 2011 by slewfoot

halloween pr for the aus-vegas mothership

October 12th, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Jesca Hoop: Snowglobe EP (2011)

Because of my “expert profile” on the media relations pages of my employer, about the second week of October I start getting requests for interviews about all thing that go bump in the night. I’ve done a lot of interviews on the topic of Halloween and ghosts (this year some show called Ancient Aliens called, but they seemed to want me to say some things that I would never say). Often journalists ask the same questions, and it’s difficult not to use the same answers, since they’ve almost become memorized scripts. It’s an odd thing.

A slightly higher profile interview will be going out on ProfNet’s Newswire subscription service, which alerts journalists to experts on everything from sniffing underarms to bunny sniffs. Maria Perez of ProfNet interviewed me over the weekend, and I’ve been asking if I could write my answers lately (so I can check the language; memory is choosey when speech is involved). Because this is taking up the last two hours of the week I try to reserve for blogging, I asked her if I could post our interview here. She said agreed, as long as I provide a link to the actual story. That won’t be out for a couple of weeks, and I’ll provide that here as soon as it is official on the Intertubes. Meanwhile, here is a preview:

What led you to teaching about this topic?

The answer to this question depends on how far I go back in my personal history. If I were to stay in recent history, I started teaching a course on the paranormal and occult because I find the topic fascinating, of course, but also for pragmatic reasons. I’ll explain.

For my first job as an assistant professor at Louisiana State University, I had to teach the courses of the person I replaced. One of them was titled “Rhetoric and Religion,” a course I would have never taught by choice. Because at the time I was finishing a book on occultism, I decided I could still achieve the goals of the course—cultivating a respect for different viewpoints, understanding the character of faith and how we talk about it, and so on—by going at the topic slantwise. I soon realized that having students read about more unusual beliefs ironically helped them to maintain an open mind. Then, at the end of the course, I ask students to think about how strange their beliefs actually are. Yes, Whitley Strieber’s alien abduction story is very strange, however, so is the narrative of the deity who came to earth for the purpose of being tortured to death. Students really seem to dig this approach–the devoutly religious, especially. I teach courses on celebrity culture, popular music, and rhetorical theory. My course on the supernatural and paranormal has been and remains the most popular. I think that popularity says something about the purchase of the supernatural in our culture, and more specifically, two persistent human obsessions: mortality and the problem of evil.

So, I teach about these topics because I find it is a great way to reach students for the sake of the “bigger picture.” And, of course, owing to our longings for immortality, the supernatural intrigues people because it flirts with some confirmation of life after death. In the end, the supernatural and paranormal are implicated in religious belief. These topics seem tangential, and are often culturally coded that way, but I think they are in fact central to the “big questions” of life.

Now, if we go way back in personal history, my interest in researching and teaching on these topics is rooted in childhood. I grew up in an evangelical church that taught young people that any interest in the supernatural and occult was “of the devil,” even that one could be possessed by seeing a horror film or enjoying heavy metal music. I believed in spiritual warfare until my early or mid-teens (cars and sexual awareness were the route of my growing doubt). So, part of my interest concerns wrestling with my own “demons,” deep-seated fears about what I once thought was a supernatural force, but now believe is essentially human: evil. Popular culture narratives about the paranormal, supernatural, and so on help us as a culture work-through the stark and often disheartening realities of adulthood, as well as help us to craft something or someone else to blame (aliens, the devil, reanimated deceased pets, the in-laws). I think working-through is good, and that’s how I teach material on the supernatural and paranormal. Still, as much as the spooky stuff represents a culture working-through its traumas, it can also be used for harm and displace responsibility (e.g., did the devil really make you do it? Is the person you want to execute really possessed by a supernatural force?). Too much concrete evil is done in the name of fighting an abstract Evil. As a species, humans routinely turn other people into monsters. It makes them easier to kill. This is the ugly side of the supernatural, and that needs to be taught as well.

Was it something you studied before or after you became a professor?

Perhaps because the paranormal, occult, and so on were taboo in my youth, I’ve always found these topics interesting. I did not formally study them until graduate school, however, and mostly as topics for term papers.

What really pushed me to start writing and publishing about these topics was the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999. Many journalists in the mainstream news media were reporting the gunmen were practicing Satanists or occultists; I noticed an explosion of discourse on the Internet (at that time, newsgroups were big) about demonic forces, the apocalypse, and so on connected to the shootings. Most of these sorts of claims turned out to be patently false, and I wanted to understand the larger, cultural processes that set them into circulation. Why was the claim that the gunmen were practicing Satanists credible in the first place? That’s an interesting cultural question to me. As a communication scholar in a college anchored by a journalism school, I know a little bit about how journalists are trained; that a journalist would publish that sort of thing says as much about our culture as it does the journalist.

Since that time, the best answer I’ve come up with to questions like these is simply this: we have a rather large vocabulary for discussing good things. We have a very poor and limited vocabulary for discussing the negative—for discoursing on evil. Television shows, movies, and stories about strange-goings-on are, in some sense, a kind of cultural compensation for this poor vocabulary. Or alternately, these have become our vocabulary for giving expression to that which we fear and have difficulty talking about. In this respect the occult, supernatural, and paranormal are a kind of poetics, a human striving to make sense something ineffable that we all feel but cannot name.

Do you incorporate horror/subculture studies into your classes? For example, do you assign your students horror movies to watch for homework?

Yes, but just for my paranormalism course (“Rhetoric and Religion”). The class covers the topics of spiritualism and psi phenomena; demonic possession; apocalyptic cults; and alien abduction narratives. I don’t require students to watch the films (they are, after all, scary), but I suggest if they can bear it they should see The Legend of Hell House; The Exorcist; and Close Encounters before the appropriate week, because I draw examples from these films (and many others). Films are profoundly important for providing the collective imagination with images that circulate and, in a way, anchor narratives about the supernatural.

For kids today, Halloween is all about dressing up and trick-or-treating. What else should they know about the holiday? What are its origins? 

I am going to assume by “kids” you are not referring to anyone’s age. Halloween is precisely a holiday for kids, especially the middle-aged! I’ll come back to this.

A lot has been written about the date of Halloween, its links to various harvest festivals (Samhain) and so forth. What a lot of folks don’t know is that, like a lot of things imported to the United States, we have made Halloween our “own.” We know the celebration comes to us from the Irish and Scots, which may explain why Halloween was originally a class affair. David Skal in his 2002 book on Halloween (Death Makes a Holiday) argues the holiday has a lot to do with class division. The Great Depression ended the largely upper-crust practice of ladies carving pumpkins and getting glimpses of their future beloveds at midnight when disgruntled, rock-throwing youngsters started “tricking” them. As Skal tells it, in New York City and related areas in the northeast, it became common practice for poor kids to beg for change on Thanksgiving. For some reason, the previously generous upper classes stopped giving handouts, and the “ragamuffins” started pranking and vandalizing rich folks’ homes. The story goes that the more well to do got the idea to open their homes on the night of the pranks, feeding the young people apples and cider and so forth to avoid vandalism. Offer a treat, or you’ll get tricked—and how! The practice drifted toward October over time. Of course, that’s just an explanation for the practice of trick-or-treating, and a lot more feeds into the way the holiday evolved to the way it exists for us today.

Regardless, I think that the class-based tension underlying the holiday is still with us, both in terms of its association with the working class, but also psychologically. On what other day is a young person empowered to demand a gift? It’s the only holiday I can think of when a young person—the most disempowered of almost all cultures—gets the upper hand on the grown-ups. This power play is part of the joy, and perhaps why so many of us “regress” to our childlike selves when celebrating the holiday, or when reliving it through our children’s eyes. It’s the same dynamic that makes Maurice Sendak’s children’s books so enjoyable to children-kids and adult-kids alike: Max, denied dinner, becomes King of the Wild Things and commands all of them to have a “rumpus!”

Have you ever witnessed an exorcism/demonic possession? 

Yes, many times. Bob Larson, the head of the Spiritual Freedom Church in Denver and the most visible exorcist of the Deliverance Movement (an off-shoot of Pentecostalism), routinely holds weekend seminars and forums in cities across the country in which he exorcizes people. Many of the seminars and forums are free and open to the public, and I’ve been to number of the forums in which he exorcized people. For a fee, you can also take a class to learn how to do it yourself. I’ve not taken a class because I’m cheap. Still, it’s quite something to witness—folks behave much like the possessed do in Hollywood films. Notably, the exorcisms are much less profane than the ones often portrayed in films. The possessed rarely drop a curse word.

I was once contacted by a student who believed she was possessed; we had a very unusual series of email exchanges and phone conversations. I gave her the name of a Shaman who performs exorcisms in town, as well as encouraged her to seek medical attention. I also contacted her dean, who got in touch with her parents. It turned out she was schizophrenic and had gone off her meds.

I mention the Larson exorcism and the woman who contacted me together for a reason. Many people have asked me if I believe in demonic possession. Personally, I am an agnostic on the issue of angels or demons. But really, what I believe is beside the point. The fact is that people do believe that they are possessed, and they are seeking help. Someone who reaches out for help is someone who can be helped. I don’t doubt that those who have exorcisms feel better, or that some are moved to happier lives. And that’s why I offered the troubled woman my Shaman contact. I admit, as an educator and as a person my preference is psychotherapy and psychiatrics for possession cases. Even so, most therapists will tell you that you do not help someone who believes she is possessed by denying her reality. For the possessed, the demon is real, and one must start with that assumed reality.

Do you have personal stories of experiences with ghosts, hauntings, etc.? 

Yes, but I’m always the reticent, open-minded-but-skeptic in these stories. Because my interest in the supernatural and occult is as a cultural critic, I tend to “read” stories of hauntings or alien sightings as the manifest narrative for something else. For example, a man contacted me once pleading for help concerning his haunted house. There was a persistent feeling of dread, strange noises, bursting light bulbs and so on. I usually do not get involved with those who contact me for help regarding this sort of thing. Other than listen to these stories, what I usually end up doing is providing contacts to paranormal investigators (there’s more than one ghost-hunting group in town), which I did for this man. After a second conversation, however, I suspected the haunting was about a marriage on the rocks. Still, I put him in contact with a local paranormalist and that was that. I tend to pull out of invitations to “investigate” the paranormal on a first hand basis; it’s just outside of my domain of expertise. Because I think so much of this is psychological in origin—that is, because I tend to believe there is a secular explanation—getting involved would require a scientific or medical training that I do not have.

I will say, however, there are many times in my life I have been “spooked,” especially as a young person. I used to get “night terrors” as a kid, and although in retrospect I know my hallucinations (of seeing demons, ghosts, and so forth) were psychological or biological or what have you, that did not make the experiences any less terrifying. That we all experience terror or feelings of panic is one of the reasons stories of the supernatural have such a common purchase. We can all relate to the feelings these stories inspire, and they can anchor and validate our personal experiences. It is often comforting to have a label and explanation for an intense feeling of fear, dread, or shock.

Has your perspective on all this changed since you started a career in this field? 

Absolutely. Just like any profession, academics can be hardheaded and just as closed-minded as the most dogmatic, religious zealot. When I started researching in this area (focused mostly on popular culture—films, books, and so forth), I was told indirectly and–sometimes directly–that taking the supernatural, occult, and paranormal seriously was a “career destroyer” and a waste of time. In part, that attitude is the legacy of a very long and often bloody history of freethinkers trying to make sense of the world without persecution (Galileo, for example, was accused of practicing witchcraft).

That attitude has changed a lot since I entered the academy over a decade ago, thankfully, but it still remains. Research on the supernatural is sometimes described as a waste of time, or trivial, or of interest to marginal publics. Recently outside forces, mostly political, have been critical of academics studying this kind of thing as opposed to, say, something better suited to the marketplace (vocational and professional topics). But these attitudes are precisely backwards: who isn’t intrigued by things that go bump in the night? And why are we intrigued? Cultural narratives about the supernatural and occult permeate our culture, providing not only enjoyment but also meaning for many, many people. The supernatural does things for people, helps them make sense of the world, it helps them interrogate themselves, and sadly, it helps them demonize others. Isn’t that worth studying?

I think we need to continue examining our superstitions and fears and how we choose to represent them because doing so tells us something about “human nature.” Representations of the supernatural can evoke powerful emotions in us and are more influential than many folks realize. For example, after Nine-eleven President George W. Bush delivered a number of addresses to the nation that utilized the language of spiritual warfare. Spiritual warfare is a growing belief system among many Christian faiths. The core idea is that demons exist among us and possess people. In many of Bush’s Nine-eleven speeches, the “terrorists” are described as demons or possessed with demonic forces, and whether it was accidental or deliberate, the fact remains an analysis of those speeches shows an exorcist-like narrative of purging a foreign body of its evil. I think that supernatural beliefs influenced, or at the very least justified, foreign policy. Why should we study the practice of exorcism? My answer is that it tracks a form of discourse that justified war.

Incidentally, this discourse has not left the political scene. The much discussed “Day of Prayer” headlining Texas governor Rick Perry was sponsored by the Texas Apostolic Prayer Network, a group that is at the forefront of the spiritual warfare movement. Whatever Perry’s political beliefs, the fact remains that the rhetoric of demonology is in our political discourse, often indirectly or at a barely noticeable level. But it’s there. It’s not just “at the movies.”

What impact have media (film, TV, books, etc.) had on public perception of the supernatural? 

Anything else you’d like to add?

Well, I think the assumption of the question is a false one; publics are constituted by “media.” A public does not exist without mediation.

But in the spirit of the question: because I tend to think about the occult, the supernatural, the paranormal, and related “spooky” things are fundamentally based in image and narrative, the media have been central—they are the force of impact! The story here is one of circulation.

Many nineteenth and early twentieth thinkers prophesied the end of superstition (even religion), but that has not come to pass (and I don’t think it will). Rather, we’ve seen an explosion of interest in the supernatural, the emergence of new religious beliefs, and the proliferation of conspiracy theories. This has to be, in part, a consequence of the speed of information flow, the way in which the speaker and screen can distribute a singular image to millions upon millions of ears and eyeballs at once. Stories move quickly and can engender widespread belief before any critical apparatus can come into play (e.g., “fact-checking” what politicians say in a debate, for example). Lived experience is an increasingly collective one. This entails all sorts of things, not the least of which is the erosion of the trust in authorities, a person (or institution) who can say “that is false” or “President Obama is a U.S. citizen.” The democratization of information entails a price; one of them has been a resurgence of belief in the paranormal and supernatural. As images and stories circulate to more and more communities, certain images can become ubiquitous and stay in one’s mind. An image, such as that of the World Trade Towers in smoke, can come to represent and anchor as “real” the belief that Satan’s reign on earth has begun.

I realize this all rather abstract, so let me use a concrete example—a pre-Internet example, the 1973 film The Exorcist. In his book American Exorcism, Michael W. Cuneo shows how, prior to the film, it was very rare for the Catholic Church to authorize an exorcism. After the film, the practice steadily grew. The film’s overriding message of a spiritual battle between good and evil was so powerful that it ended up providing a vocabulary (and diagnosis, really) for making sense of the cultural malaise of the 70s. It was powerful enough to inspire the Deliverance movement–the practice of “amateur” exorcisms and, I would argue, the spiritual warfare movement. Before that film, folks simply didn’t know how the possessed behaved. Before that film, certain folks didn’t have demonic possession as a possible, spiritual explanation for this or that self-destructive behavior (remember, in the film the mother pursues every possible medical explanation before she goes to the church). It’s interesting to note here that when Bob Larson holds his seminars or freedom forums, he often shows a videotape of himself performing an exorcism on someone, a sort of preview what is to come. It makes for good theatre, but it also makes for good priming. After the audience views the video, they know how to act possessed—or at least, an unconscious part of them knows.

That said, mass media, broadly construed, have the biggest impact today on beliefs concerning the supernatural (or anything, really); without the circulation made possible by contemporary media technologies, folks wouldn’t be on the same page—or better, image or sound—about da spook.

it’s dream-pop friday!

October 7th, 2011 by slewfoot

”and now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”

October 2nd, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: The Cure: Disintegration (1989)

Children’s book author Maurice Sendak has just published what I hope is not his last children’s book, and it’s been a thirty-year wait. Bumble-Ardy is about a nine-year old pig who throws himself a birthday party because he was tired of waiting for one (after all, his parents were slaughtered). I’ve not got my copy yet and plan to do so this week. If you’re like me—and many of you reading this are—Sendak has a stronghold on the youthful heart, since we all saw ourselves in Max. Adorable, mischief-making Max.

In a promotional blitz, Sendak has been doing rounds of interviews. He was on Terry Gross’ Fresh Air radio program last week, and today the Associated Press released a profile that covered much of the same ground. Bumble-Ardy is perhaps one of Sendak’s darkest books, engaging the topic of child abuse. In his characteristically charming, crusty manner, Sendak dismisses the claim this book—and many others—is inappropriate for children. He was more sharp-tongued when asked about Where the Wild Things Are back when the film version debuted. In an interview with Newsweek, he was asked about how he might respond to parents who believed the book and film were too scary for children:

“I would tell them to go to hell,” Sendak said. And if children can’t handle the story, they should “go home,” he added. “Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it’s not a question that can be answered.”

Sendak’s concern is one I’ve heard echoed by a number of academics, most notably Jack Zipes, a retired professor at the University of Minnesota. I was fortunate of take a course with Jack on Walt Disney and fairy tales, and it was wonderful and has stayed with me for over a decade. At the time I took the course, the first Harry Potter novel came out, and Zipes was highly critical of it because he thought the book represented what the culture industry has done to fairy tales. Rather than introduce children to the horrors that will greet them in the world, after Disney, fairy tales metamorphosed into utopian visions that forestalled convictions in social justice and change. As he puts it in his classic study, Happily Ever After:

Children are exposed to the social design of reality from the moment they are born. Adult versions of “reality” are imposed on children to ensure that they are positioned physically, socially, and culturally to experience their own growth and life around them in specified ways. “Reality” is held up to them as empirically verifiable and as an inexorable force. Fairy tales have always balanced and subverted this process and offered the possibility of seeing reality as an illusion. As children become aware of the artifices and machinations of their lives, they gain the sense of alternatives for making their own lives more meaningful and pleasurable.

In other words, fairy tales are, as Uncle Burke said, “equipment for living” for young persons.

Sendak understands this, and his children’s books reflect it. Parents are not always good. People are not always good. Evil is not necessarily a monster, and abuse is not necessarily avoidable. When his book In the Night Kitchen was banned from school libraries because it featured an image of a naked boy crowing like a rooster, Sendak said it “was so fatuous, so incredible, that people would get so exercised by a phallus, a normal appendage to a man and a boy. . . . We live in a different country altogether. I will not say an improved version. No.” I’m teaching a graduate seminar on psychoanalysis, and we just engaged a similar outcry that Freud faced when he dared to suggest infants and adolescents were sexual creatures. The cultural struggle here is over the romanticization of children as “innocent” beings, and the subtext of the critique, of course, is that Sendak is a child abuser for daring to suggest that children should confront issues that make their parents uncomfortable.

It’s the same subtext behind Bachmann’s suggestion Perry’s HPV vaccine order harms “innocent little girls.” My, what ridiculous political claims are made in the name of a childhood innocence that is, well, an illusion—an illusion just as any fairy tale.

One thing that strikes me about Sendak’s recent interviews, however, is his explicit sadness. I admire him for sharing that sadness with his many audiences. Just like we are not supposed to introduce our children to human sexuality and human ugliness, we are also not allowed to be sad in public (remember prozac?). Yet he makes it a point to let people know he is sad, and that there is nothing wrong about it. He is not ashamed of his sadness. On the radio interview he breaks down into sobbing at times reminiscing about his longtime lover Eugene Glynn, and friends who recently died. “Everything is over. Everything that I called living is over. I’m very, very much alone,” he says in the AP piece. “I don’t believe in heaven or hell or any of those things. I feel very much like I want to be with my brother and sister again. They’re nowhere. I know that they’re nowhere and they don’t exist, but if nowhere means that’s where they are, that’s where I want to be.”

We’re also not supposed to admit we do not believe in the immortal soul, perhaps the greatest illusion of all. Hats off to you, Mr. Sendak, for having the courage of your convictions.

Still, as much as I admire Sendak’s public sadness, his statements are somewhat devastating to me, because his books brought me so much joy in my youth—and now. I just spent some time with my copy of Where the Wild Things Are and found myself laughing aloud when Max, christened King of the Wild Things, declares it’s time for the “wild rumpus to start!” I hope (and suspect) Sendak does not believe he is very much alone. So many of us wild things have been dancing with him for most of our lives!

on cheating

October 2nd, 2011 by slewfoot

Music: Shearwater: Palo Santo (2006)

This post is about dating, test scores, and some easily confused egos (the ideal-ego, the ego-ideal, and the superego, you know).

And my dog.

(My dog’s hopeful stare at around the time for dinner reminds me of my responsibility to others, and he’s giving me that stare right now—back in a moment).

Channeling Uncle Burke, I’m gunning for some perspective by way of a little incongruity. And incongruity is a nice banner for a dating story, because I have many to illustrate the ingenuous mismatch that yields insight (maybe). She was beautiful with piercing dark eyes. She could draw blood with her sharp wit. She had the uncanny ability to make a well-worn t-shirt appear as elegant as an expensive evening dress just by cracking a smile. One date began with the odd request to “borrow some deodorant,” which strangely charmed my pants off (literally).

A phone conversation, recalled and reconstructed from a summertime Thursday night:

“I don’t have a date on Tuesday.”

“But I thought you had dinner with the other guy.”

“I decided I don’t like him; I would rather you take me out.”

“Excellent! And so I shall. But what changed? Does this mean I’m the only one?”

“I guess I’m just not into him.”

“Well, I hope you let him down easy. You’re quite the catch and losing you can really bum a guy out.”

“Why do you care? You should be talkin’ shit about him. C’mon Josh. Bring your game.”

“Just because I want you to myself doesn’t mean I can’t be considerate of others. I’d hate to have others talkin’ shit about me, you know. My game is being a good person. Trying to be nice guy, at least.”

“You’re so bogus.”

That date happened—the seventh of seven—and it went very poorly. I should say it went “predictably poorly,” but love can render one pretty stupid. Still, what is to be learned?

If we think about courtship as a practice, then we might identify a number of codes, rules, and techniques central to that practice that I either observed or failed to observe in this situation. To borrow from the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, a practice is a form of cooperative human activity that strives to produce goods internal to the practice. The good internal to courtship seems to me to be a “healthy relationship” or “love between two people.” For me, that good is characterized by attraction, trust, emotional transparency, and mutual respect, buoyed by a good dose of lust and a bigger lump of caring. My understanding of courtship, and my former dating partner’s understanding, seemed to be at odds. In her world, courtship entailed a battle akin two jousting knights or fighting among rivals to “win” the honor of her person, and this may entail disrespecting a rival or dehumanizing him. “Don’t nice guys finish last?” she once quipped. “Apparently,” I responded. And apparent it was.

But then, I don’t see the practice as a game or race or joust. Why? The answer has to do with what I think is a kind of emotional cheating, or what we might term today as “manipulativeness.” Would I prefer to have a relationship with another that was achieved by characterizing other suitors as inhuman or unworthy of recognition? Does one “win” love, or cultivate it? And if the former, what does that make one’s lover? A prize, or a person? I recognize the competing models of courtship in our culture. One is sport; the other is less spectacular and perhaps best described as an evolving negotiation.

In his book on ethics titled After Virtue, MacIntyre uses the allegory of the game to explain the tension internal to all practices:

Consider the example of a highly intelligent seven-year-old child whom I wish to teach to play chess, although the child has no particular desire to learn the game. The child does however have a very strong desire for candy . . . . I therefore tell the child that if the child will play chess with me once a week I will give the child 50 cents worth of candy; moreover I tell the child that I will always play in such a way that it will be difficult, but not impossible, for the child to win and that, if the child wins, the child will receive an extra 50 cents worth of candy. Thus motivated the child plays and plays to win. Notice however that, so long as it is the candy alone which provides the child with a good reason for playing chess, the child has no reason not to cheat and every reason to cheat, provided he or she can do so successfully. But, so way may hope, there will come a time when the child will find in those goods specific to chess, in the achievement of a certain highly particular kind of analytical skill, strategic imagination and competitive intensity, a new set of reasons, reasons now not just for winning on a particular occasion, but for trying to excel in whatever way the game of chess demands. Not if the child cheats, he or she will be defeating not me, but himself or herself.

That is, there is a good internal to chess playing that can motivate learning the game, and there is a good external to chess that can motivate learning the game. One would “hope” that those who engage in chess playing do so because of the joy of the game and the skills it helps to develop. The good external to chess playing—social or gustatory—is not specific to chess. The analogy to courtship should be, at this point, obvious: does one want a relationship or a trophy? The game in-and-of itself or the candy? If the former, then the reward is for oneself. If the latter, then the reward is for others to see and for “me” to enjoy. Of course, the latter reward is ultimately about oneself too, but it is once-removed, or abstracted, to a measure that is only tangentially related to courtship, which is to say, the reward is about something else.

Since I was introduced to MacIntyre’s theory of “virtue ethics” as an undergraduate, I have always come back to it. I find it compelling as frame for thinking through moral dilemmas and trying to live what Aristotle called “the good life.” Virtue ethics also resonates for me as a good description for how we actually behave in the world.

If one does not believe in moral universals, comporting oneself as an ethical person can tempt relativism. Go with God, or you have to behave in a less certain way. MacIntyre’s “solution” without deity is to trace common threads in Western thought about “virtues,” pulling them together into a coherent framework. Masculine connotations notwithstanding, virtues are qualities of character or behavior that are cultivated in “practices.” From various traditions (including the teachings of the New Testament) MacIntyre develops a description and a prescription for moral behavior based on the cultivation of valued qualities and behaviors. He says that we learn to be good people by embodying the virtues that we see role modeled by others in practices that we also practice (or want to practice). The most obvious examples of practices are crafts or professions, but MacIntyre also means things like sport, or courtship, or raising a family. The benefit of thinking about ethics in terms of virtues is that there are no absolute rules for right and wrong, just guidelines, or rather, behaviors and character traits we see in others we admire. And because ethical comportment is based on role modeling, one is absolved of perfection (for example, even Christ was “tempted”—he was not perfect either), but rather strives toward “being good at what one does.”

With the benefits, of course, come the risks (living well is dynamic and never “achieved” until death). The thing about just about any practice is that they need resources, and consequently, are necessarily tethered to institutions. Institutions provide material (and sometimes affective) support to practices. MacIntyre argues there is a tendency toward contradiction when practices are concerned: practices work toward the cultivation of goods internal to their activity, but require the resources of the institutions that support them. Institutions by definition pursue goods external to the practice. Consequently, the pursuit of goods between practices and institutions can be at odds. Again, the obvious examples here are professions, such as medicine. The goods internal to medicine include healing, and the virtues cultivated toward that end are care and hospitality. The goods external to medicine are prestige and profit. In the current “health care debate,” for example, the story of beleaguered doctors bemoaning the pursuits of the pharmaceutical or health insurance industry are so commonplace they are cliché: medical doctors cannot practice healing and hospitality because of massively complex bureaucracy based on profit-making pursuits. The pursuit of goods external to the practice of medicine are killing the goods internal to medicine and warping the virtues embodied by the Hippocratic oath.

And so with courtship. Although the actual statistics are complicated, 40 to 50% of marriages in the United States end in divorce. Why? The answers are also complicated. I would not generalize my personal experience to this national number, nor any viewing of Bridezillas, but there’s something to MacIntyre’s theory of competing goods: some people are not getting married for the goods internal to the practice (love, a healthy relationship, and so on); some are getting married for the goods external to the practice, the institutional pursuit of social (and legal) recognition. How many of us have had a friend get married for the sake of marriage, when the spouse would seem more or less interchangeable with another?

In fact, those who have studied the history of the institution of marriage often note it started as an economic arrangement; marriage is an odd institution in the sense that practice it supposedly houses came after it. Build it and they will come? (double entendre intended)

The tension between the pursuits internal and external to the practice of committed relationships is also at the heart of the same-sex marriage debate. Those who advocate for same-sex unions argue for external goods—and these are not bad: health care rights, tax-related issues, all sorts of things are wrapped into the need for institutional status recognition. Many of us caution, however, that the pursuit of external recognition is somewhat compulsory and in a way that may in fact threaten the “under the radar,” long-term relationships forged by queer couples for centuries . . . .

Still, if once adopts a virtue ethics approach to being-in-the-world, the mundane “bad thing” of the outlook becomes cheating. In this way of thinking, cheating is the thing to be avoided. “Evil” is a rupture in practices, ultimately the irrational x-factor; psychotic eruptions are, in the last measure, unthinkable in this moral perspective. And so we have a place for rupture, a seat of chance (and the reason for grounding ethical being in something like autonomy in the sense that nothing is sewed-up in advance). Cheating, broadly construed as deliberate dishonesty to secure advantage, is the antithesis of a given practice’s virtues. This is to say, dishonestly is the “sin” of the virtue ethics approach (and “evil” is the rupture of chance). Notably and importantly, in MacIntyre’s example of teaching the child chess, cheating is placed on the side of the pursuit of external goods. Cheating represents a short-circuit, of sorts, a deliberate violation of the virtues of a practice in pursuit of external goods. And it’s not that the pursuit of external goods is bad; rather, cheating represents the pursuit of external goods in a way that violates or negates the goods internal to a practice. Cheating is a mask: cheating says that it is in the name of virtue when it actually erodes or submerges this-or-that virtue.

Dating. Chess. Standardized tests. I started thinking about making this post because of the SAT test-taking scandal that broke this week. Rich kids were hiring smart kids to take the college entrance exam for them. In the mainstream media, the motive for doing so was couched in the pursuit of external goods: rich kids needed to get into this-or-that prestigious school because prestige is . . . well, everything. The story mirrors: numerous teachers in the Atlanta public school system were changing test answers for a decade to secure recognition. External goods. The goods internal to the practice—learning, knowledge—were eclipsed by the need for external recognition (funding). And those of us who are educators are very well aware of common practice of hiring a ghost writer for term papers. External goods. Secure the grade, get a job. To hell with the virtue of understanding, or scholarship, or learning for its own stake. Education has always been a means to an end; I’m not so foolish as to believe it has been anything other than this for the century or two that public education was made a coherent pursuit. But I think only recently has the candy emerged as the motive; this is, I think, the slight of hand so central to neoliberal thought. I want to think that educators are like MacIntyre’s wanting to teach a child chess: candy is promised, but by learning the “game” the child comes to recognize that playing is the thing, and that the candy is only a spin-off benefit—and a necessary one, of course, but a spin-off benefit that makes the playing possible. The playing is the thing.

What I’m struggling with here is the permissibility of of cheating as an emerging cultural virtue, or worse, as an accepted means to an end. Culturally, it would seem that cheating has been accepted or even embraced as a norm. Ask any teacher about cheating, and s/he will tell you that increasingly this is a norm that is embraced, however cynically, by younger generations without discomfort. Cheating is role modeled increasingly as a route to success (Wall Street comes to mind). As a culture, we seem obsessed with evil, the irrational ruptures—often violent—that puncture our screens night after night on the evening news. But evil is in the register of contingency; psychosis is psychosis. Cheating seems the more insidious problem of our time, the calculated and overly rational deceiving of others for advantage or gain; the legitimacy of cheating may well be the grounding structure of evil. Well, I think it is; cheating is the foundation.

And so, here is my dog, Jesús. I’m on my patio, enjoying the cool weather. I’m barefoot, in a t-shirt and lounging shorts, plopped on a couch pillow placed on a bench and smoking a cigar. He’s sitting on the pillow with me, at my back. He growls when the sound of sirens waft in (I live next to the busiest fire station in Austin; sirens blaring is a common sound). I’ve switched from listening to Shearwater on my headphones to listening to the local radio station, KUT, on a portable radio. I’m drinking Topo Chico. The dog isn’t wondering about whether I have “game,” or if I’m making lots of money. Well, I really can’t say what he is or isn’t wondering about. But he’s here passing the time with me. He could care less that I’m writing on my blog.