Saturday, February 24, 2007

In Defense of Imagination as Camera

It often presents a conundrum to have an aesthetic preference that is not only in the minority, but that prevails upon hardly anyone else. What do you say when you like rainy days, and upon encountering someone else on such an occasion, they make a comment about the undesirability of the climate? Do you acquiesce for simplicity's sake, or do you defend your principles? What if, as a general rule, the only movies you watch are comic book adaptions, and someone asked you if you saw a certain non-comic book film? Do you demur with a simple "no," or do you additionally explain your general antipathy to an entire media, at the risk of seeming alarmingly out of touch with the culture?

These are just two examples of dilemmas that I am often confronted with, bu there is yet another: I have a general dislike for personal photographs. I believe I took some Polaroid snapshots as a kid, but I think it has been about twenty years since I have taken a photograph without coercion or irony. I am particularly unenthused about the idea of photographs as mementos. I've never carried a photograph of a loved one with me (come to think of it, I've never carried a wallet, either, which is another odd aesthetic preference I'd have to admit to holding). My students find it odd that I don't have a picture of my wife on my desk. Now, I'm not a total cad. I don't prohibit my wife from displaying various photographs of us around our home, though if were up to me I'd rather look at pictures of chewpacabras.

When one holds to such an unpopular aesthetic preference, it can be incredibly validating to discover any kind of support. Such came to me when I ran across a folk-pop singer named Richard Julian, who has a song called "Photograph" (not to be confused with the Ringo song.) He sings "I prefer a memory to a photograph" and notes that the latter is two-dimensional, while the former is three-dimensional. I would actually go one step further and assert that the memory is four-dimensional, since it can include the element of time.

Some may argue that memory is notoriously fallible, and that photographs offer an objective record. I would certainly agree that memory is fallible, but I would assert that when discussing sentimentality, objectivity is hardly necessary. I'm glad photographic technology exists as a way to document certain things (such as mug shots or items up for ebay auctions), but I'll never agree that family vacations need an objective record.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I question the true historical objectivity of even "candid" photographs. Given that many photographs are staged in some way, they could be seen to be simulacra--a copy of something artificial to begin with. And even if a photograph captures a perfect fidelity of the physical nature of a scene, there is always a litany of contexts that it can never capture. The viewer of the photo will map that meaning onto every subsequent viewing of the photo. The problem is, if the purpose of the photo is to arouse a remembrance of the original event, its very artifice can overdetermine how the event is remembered. Rather than becoming an aid to recall, a mere tool, it becomes the vehicle. It forces the gaze of the viewer, it communicates to the viewer what should be considered, it replaces the nearly limitless power of the imaginative faculty with a narrowed imperative.

Plus, it can be really boring to sit there while someone forces you to look at dozens of boring travel pictures.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Geo-Cultural Anxiety

In the comments section of a previous post, I made a crack about North Dakota. In hindsight, I wonder why I did that. No doubt I was motivated to say something that some might construe as humorous and witty, and the Peace Garden State had already been mentioned, and I had heard the state being mocked in the past. So, almost like an awkward 7th grader, I joined in deriding something I knew little about just for the sake of appearing "cool."

I probably wouldn't have given any of this a second thought, had I not run across this Time magazine commentary after the Super Bowl. The gist of the piece is that people from the Indianapolis area are vindicated by the Colts' victory, and no longer need to feel as if their city is inherently inferior to Chicago. I had never realized that this was an issue for the denizens of that city, but the more I reflected, I recognized the line of anxiety the columnist described as a national pandemic. I think I'll call it "geo-cultural anxiety," and define it as the deeply held suspicion that one lives in an area of cultural inconsequence. Furthermore, I will assert that a majority of Americans have it.

Indianapolis is the 34th largest Metropolitan area in the country, and we can glean from the Time commentary that this city is infected with this plague. The top 33 metro have a combined population of about 143 million. That leaves 157 million people left over, the vast majority of whom likely live in areas that feel the anxiety. That's not to say that the top 33 metro areas are automatically free from it. I will once again invoke the analogy of middle school students. You have an "in" crowd and an "out" crowd, but there are precious few in the "in" crowd who never have to fear losing their social standing. Those would be the New Yorks, the L.A.s, Chicagos, and Miamis. Many in the "in" crowd, though, are in a weird way less secure than those out and out rejected. The people of Cleveland probably experience more geo-cultural anxiety than the people of Butte .

Ironically, for a nation that at one time celebrated rugged individualism and frontier culture, we have become obsessed with avoiding unironic presentations of backwoods idioms. (The president himself seems to be a curious exception to this rule). I use the word "unironic," because it is not at all uncommon for people from non-elite geographical areas to invoke humor in discussing peculiar geographic "markings" (such as speech, dialect, etc...). Indeed, most of the national discourse surrounding this topic takes refuge in the realm of comedy. The put-downs levelled by population centers toward other areas are crouched in supposedly good natured humor, while those from the non-elite geographical areas often engage in self-deprecating put-downs. Freud argued that, like dreams, humor is a method through which the unconscious deals with anxiety. It would seem to follow that the plenitude of geographical humor in America indicates a corresponding plenitude of geo-cultural anxiety.

Aside from arguing that this anxiety exists, I would also like to make the brief argument that it is unnecessary. Obviously, technology is changing the very nature of what it means to live in an isolated or unpopulous region. The economic, social, and recreational advantages of living in close proximity to others is becoming minimized. Continuing to perpetuate myths that standard of living is intrinsically greater in certain parts of the country does no good and could potentially do harm. Therefore, I vow that next time the opportunity arises, I will not mock North Dakota. Though I do think Peace Garden State is a really dumb nickname.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Cultural Literacy: The Promise and the Reality

The term "cultural literacy," as far as I know, comes from a guy named E.D. Hirsch, who in 1987 wrote a book called Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. It has inhabited the fringes of educational theory ever since.

To be brief, Hirsch's theory holds that the health of a society is contingent on its having intellectually curious people who have a shared foundation of cultural knowledge. Hirsch and his adherents argue that our educational system needs to establish such a foundation. They argue that in the quest to emphasize "concepts" over "trivia," we are jettisoning important facts that people "need" to know. His solution was to create a gargantuan list of stuff (from people's names to bodies of water) that he felt should be taught in schools. It is important to note that mastery of such a list isn't the end of education, but just the beginning. Once the basic knowledge is acquired, one can start to analyze and evaluate.

Hirsch's theory has been embraced by some, but overall it hasn't had much of an impact on how schools operate. Even if schools never do accept it, though, it would seem that technology is opening new possibilities for cultural literacy. People who don't understand an allusion or lack the knowledge to join a conversation can quickly bridge a gap. While reading The Great Gatsby recently, I came across a reference to a book called Simon Becomes Peter. When I first read the novel several years ago, I must have glossed over that. This time, though, I reached over to the computer and in literally seconds learned the significance of this relatively obscure novel.

However, I think this golden age of cultural literacy is highly theoretical. I would guess that most people use the Internet to solidify knowledge bases they are already proficient in, while largely ignoring the ones they aren't. I know I do. What is emerging in our culture is a possibly unprecedented development of geekdoms--we are becoming masters of a few trades and jacks of hardly any (if that makes any sense). In the old days, if you were a baseball fan, there was still a limit to how much baseball information you could consume, and there was a limit to the amount of conversation you could have about baseball. You would have been forced to at least explore some of what else was out there in the world. As an eleven-year-old, I literally watched or listened to every baseball game I could. (This isn't as absurd as it might seem today--there was no baseball on cable until I was 12, and even then I didn't have cable until I went to college). I checked out pretty much every baseball book from the public and school libraries, and I talked baseball when I could, which wasn't often considering that few people I encountered had the passion that I did. I shudder to think what would have happened had I had the Internet. Between baseball sites and message boards, would I have ever developed any other interests?

How cruelly ironic that just as we have obtained the means for average people to be self-taught "Renaissance Men," we have a culture that encourages specialization, not only in professional capacities, but in private lives as well.

You can test your cultural literacy here. Here's how I did:
Excellent--American Lit, World Lit, Quotes and Phrases, Myth and Religion, American History, and Econ/Math (my showing in that last category was a bit of a shock to me)
Good--Civics, Geography, and Life Science
Fair--Physical Science, World History, and Famous Authors (I demand a recount in the last category).
Time for Training--Art/Architecture, Music, and Technology

What are the odds that I forgo visiting comic book message boards in favor of using the Internet to study architecture?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Indecision 2008

Since the blogosphere is generally regarded as an outlet for political ruminations (save for the odd mp3 blog), I would be remiss if I didn't let this outlet serve as a valuable tool for creating an informed citizenry. In other words, it is time for this blog to do its part in shaping American politics. And I fear that I am already behind the rest of the media, which has been covering the '08 Presidential election for the last couple of years.

With that in mind, last week I e-mailed all of the candidates who have already filed with the FEC. I decided not to take advantage of this blog's influence in political circles, and simply used my private e-mail account to e-mail candidates through their campaign websites. I e-mailed one question, asking who the candidate considers the best and the worst U.S. president in history and why. I figure with 43 presidents already establishing precedent, no one will be likely to break the mold. Anyone who is elected will likely resemble somebody who has already come before; the key is to figure out what model you'd like to see repeated and which one you'd keep on the shelf. In fact, the more I think about it, if you know your presidential history, you don't really need to ask any other question to determine who you would want to vote for.

So far, six Democrats, four Republicans, and three Libertarians have filed papers. Of those, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter from California (perhaps best known for wanting to build a fence on the border) and Libertarian Steve Kubby (known for smoking medicinal marijuana) don't have any e-mail contact on their sites. This meant that I sent out 11 e-mails.

I got the first response back with minutes. It was an auto response from Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd (D) saying, "We will get back to you with a specific response to your inquiry as soon as we can." Still waiting on that one.

My first legit response came a few hours later from Oregon Republican Michael Smith, whose only previous poltical experience was serving on a village board. He currently works for Hewlett-Packard. Here's what he had to say:

Wow Azor,

That’s a great question. Excuse me if I ramble a bit as I think it over…

I like the fact that George Washington declined a third term and set a great precedent for peaceful, civilian transfer of power.

Lincoln is often cited as great, but some argue that he was simply at a critical point in history. I think it reveals a lot about his character that he didn’t look for retribution on the South as the war was coming to an end.

I like a lot about Teddy Roosevelt; trust-buster, environmentalist; but unfortunately rather imperialist in foreign affairs.

And we recently had cause to reflect on Gerald Ford’s courage to move the country through a peaceful transfer of power, and then try to heal the wounds of Watergate. I think has been under-appreciated.

Overall, I think Dwight Eisenhower is my favorite. He showed relative reserve in dealing with the Cold War. And for an ex-general to warn us of the military-industrial complex is incredible (why haven’t we listened). He strikes me as a modest man who was driven by a sense of duty much more than personal ego. I think he was an excellent model to emulate.

The worst?

The feelings are awfully fresh, but it’s hard to imagine that history will judge George W Bush kindly. He took 9/11 and turned a terrible tragedy into a systematic tragedy of foreign policy and civil liberties. I don’t believe he has come close to his oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Philosophically, I sure don’t like FDR. He set this country on a path that might have seemed justified by the great depression, but seems flawed by today’s measures.

I hope that helps. I wouldn’t claim to be the best historian on the Presidents, but it’s a great question to examine.


Clearly, Mr. Smith's unexciting name is a detriment to his chances, but his enthusiasm for my question makes him an early front-runner in my book.

Next up I heard from George Phillies, a Libertarian physics professor in Massachusetts. He would be a natural to throw out the opening pitch at Philadelphia's home opener, but that aside, here is how he responded to my question:

These are difficult questions.

I think a good case for "best" is George Washington. After 8 years in
office, he reached the end of his term and went home rather than trying
to be made Emperor of America. You can compare this with a vast list of
other first-term presidents of new countries who soon became Presidents
for Life.

"Worst" is more difficult. I think a reasonable case can be made for
President Buchanan, whose series of bad and unnecessary decisions led to
the Civil War.

Reasonable cases can be made for other names on either side.


George Phillies

Phillies gets credit for bringing in the ultra-obscure Buchanan, famous (in a relative sense)
for being our only bachelor president.

Next I heard from a staffer for Ohio Democrat Rep. Dennis "Eat Your Spinach" Kucinich.

Sorry Azor, I don't know the answers. I know Dennis
admires FDR; but I don't know if FDR would be his favorite

In hope and peace,

Gail Heyn
Kucinich for President

This is such an utterly sincere and guileless response that I can't even be mad that it has no
substance. Plus I talked to Kucinich when he ran for President in '04 when I facilitated an
interview with him. That's not as quite as good of a story as my brother can tell, as he did
a one-on-one interview with Kucinich about steel tariffs--with beer breath (my brother had
the beer breath, not Kucinich). This was somewhat embarrassing for my brother (who had little
prior notice of the interview) since his mouth was at nose-level with the diminutive congressman.

I next heard from the John Edwards campaign, but it had nothing to do with my question. They
sent me a spam about minimum wage. They proceeded to spam me twice more during the course of the
week without answering my question. Whatever you do, don't vote for John Edwards.

Finally, I heard from Democrat Mike Gravel, a former Alaska senator (with the emphasis on
former--he last served in 1981). Gravel wants to abolish the IRS, so that might get him
a vote or two. Here is what his staffer had to say:

I do know from having talked with the Senator that he's partial to
George Washington and has an extreme dislike for W. Bush. Hope that's

Michael Grant
webmaster for Mike Gravel

I'm still waiting to hear from Democrats Biden and Vilsack, Republicans Brownback
and Cox, and Libertarian Smith. I'll keep you posted if I hear anything from them,
and I'll also be sure to contact other candidates as they become official.