Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Why I hated Avatar.

I suspended my disbelief and chained it to the dining room table. I chose a low-tourist location during school hours and sat in the center. I remembered that if people rave about the 3D, they have nothing to praise about the rest. Really, I was prepared to like Avatar.

The 3D effects worked fine during the interminable cheezy commercials. Minimally, they worked during the film itself, but they were never breathtaking or disruptive to my sense of space. Perhaps some delicate miscalibration between the screen surface, the print of the film, the 3D glasses, my eyeglasses, and my aging eyes? No such problem at other 3D experiences -- the best being the battle scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Admittedly, that was an IMAX 3D experience, so the comparison is unfair. But since the 3D-ness of Avatar didn't enchant me, I had 2h40 to catalog the 1D-ness of the sci, the fi, the characters, and the underlying fantasy.

I say, when you violate familiar laws of science, either come up with an explanation, or else be so visually and poetically overwhelming ("The Matrix"), or have such a brilliantly original story and cast ("Being John Malkovich") or be so endearingly quirky ("eXistenZ") that we forget to care. If I had only known to suspend belief in gravity, time, biology, and physics, I wouldn't have asked how those flimsy stand-alone plastic masks enabled the Earthling "sky people" to survive the toxic atmosphere. I wouldn't have doubted that animals and vehicles so incongruously shaped could fly at all (let alone turn on a dime), nor cared how islands floated. Magical terms like "vortex," earnestly invoked, were not plausible stand-ins even for "movie" science. No one explained how a raw material mined from a remote planetary system would even be relevant on Earth four light-years after its extraction.

But if the movie was lazy on the "science," it was completely AWOL on the narrative. We forgive a long movie if a compelling storyline needs time to be resolved, and suspect that many great scenes have been left on the cutting-room floor. Not so here. If anything, the creators were like the new instructor grasping for content to fill the allotted class time. Even the characters' names signal their origins in central casting: "Parker Selfridge" is the rep for capitalism (ably played by Giovanni Ribisi who has little room for maneuver in the straitjacket). Whole modules are imported from stock libraries and thrown together in a shambolic mash-up. For example:
  • the noble-savages-victimized-by-Western-capitalism module, where the indigenous population borrows scripts from the cowboy & Indian drawer
    • warrior culture in deep harmony with Mother Nature
    • bows & arrows & sleek, bareback horsemanship
  • the new-kid-in-town-steals-girl-away-from-her-BF module running scripts from every teen movie from the past half century
    • new BF is awkward dork who moved here from out-of-town
    • he falls off horses and steps on people's tails as old BF glares and plots
    • new BF gets his mojo on and bitch slaps old BF back to the playground
We have also the module where the scientist, funded by military-industrial complex, struggles with principles. Most prominent is the Rambo module: patriotic ex-soldier, screwed by system he defended, goes wacko in the jungle. Notice that Jake's idealized avatar physique is a nod to the Rambo icon, and that, back home in his real disabled veteran's body, the VA won't pay for the spinal surgery that would allow him to walk again.

The forces protecting the extraction operation are mercenaries rather than enlisted soldiers, so the movie dodges the inflammatory image of the hero killing his own comrades-in-arms. But more insidiously, it evades the disquieting picture of the nation's own military -- and you know which nation is being pictured -- directly involved in the rape of a developing society. And that brings us to the context in which this movie appears, and on which it constitutes a commentary.

The faintly sketched-out back story here is that planet Earth has so thoroughly depleted its own natural resources that the human race survives only by plundering those of distant celestial bodies. But don't look for any environmentally friendly moral. When "tree-huggers" and advocates of a "diplomatic solution" are dismissed as sissies by the commando-banker coalition, we naïvely assume that this machismo will be discredited by the action of the story. After all, the mercenary rapists mock the paraplegic volunteer as "meals on wheels," and such harassment is not PC. But what happens in the end? It's diplomacy that unequivocally fails, and armed struggle that prevails. The mercenary force launches a massive incursion, what Ronan Crowley calls a "preposterously fantastic restaging of 9/11 as experienced by oversized blue (Native) Americans" (or are those Native Arabians?). Their violence paves the way for the next expedition -- who can doubt that it's on the way? -- to obtain the unobtanium. If the blue folks gain a temporary victory, it's not because they negotiated, it's because they seized their bows and arrows and waged war, exploiting their own superior numbers and familiarity with the terrain. Sound familiar?

But wait -- they had these advantages all along, and yet were losing. If they achieve a temporary victory, it's only because they are led by an Earthling who betrays his own team and exploits the tribes' superstitious belief (= what we call other peoples' religion) in their legendary hero. In other words, left to their own devices, these quaint, folkloric natives present no threat to the imperial agenda, which can only be defeated by treason from within. Notice, moreover, that the hero's hybrid DNA is outwardly manifested by the dual perspective he acquires during his immersion among the "enemy." This understanding itself is despised by headquarters as a taint, and the racial purity of the imperial leadership, in evidence on the flight deck, shows how far they are from any such corruption. How weird was it on a warp-speed space ship not only to find no Vulcan or Scotsman, but no Indian, no Chinese?!? And this ship presumably comes from the post-national Earth of the future.

The distracting thing about sci-fi fantasy is that the interesting fantasies have nothing to do with defying gravity or getting to live twice or dodge bullets by freeing your mind. Rather, they work as wish-fulfillment applied to non-fictional reality. At this hour, and not at four light-years' distance, military and paramilitary forces are clashing with pre-industrialized societies over mission-critical raw materials. (Or should I say lifestyle-critical, or fortune-critical?) The wars come down to house-to-house, hand-to-hand combat and hopeless forays into terrains known intimately to the defenders. Over time, it seems inevitable that the wars will be waged over essentials -- water, food, aerable land -- and that famines and environmental disasters will create millions of environmental refugees.

The fantasy escape that Avatar offers is, in effect, that "united we stand." We, the consumer-society ticket-buying public, don't really want to see the blue people retain control of their unobtanium, for then how will we power our appliances? We can get sentimental for a few hours over the plight of the outer-space natives, but that catharsis gives us the fortitude to go on ignoring their terrestrial counterparts, safe in the knowledge that the next space ship will get the job done, if only we can maintain our solidarity and racial purity.

I bet you're glad your 3D glasses worked for you, and sorry, no doubt, that mine didn't work for me.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Imperative reading

When governments want people to adopt a new behavior without going so far as to require it, they build campaigns of public persuasion using familiar tools, some from the high shelf and some from the low. None is quite so flattering to the citizenry as the appeal to reason. By imagining that people will adopt a behavior if only its advantages can be clearly set forth, officials betray an endearing confidence in human rationality. No such delusion clouds the minds of private-sector marketers, who know that image and fantasy trump consumer reports every time.

In France, that most rational of nations, three campaigns of public persuasion now being waged forego reason altogether in preference for more subtle -- one might say devious -- approaches. All around Paris, for example, there are green plastic trash bags affixed to matching metal hoops. If such bags were to have a printed message in America, it might be "Don't litter!" or "Keep our city clean!" Here, the message is VIGILANCE, PROPRETÉ (vigilance, cleanliness). The call to vigilance, all too familiar at home, alas, is in prominent sight in public transit corridors, where the slogan is Attentifs ensemble! ("Alert together!"). But it's the association of vigilance with propreté on the garbage bags which is so striking. It insinuates that proper disposal of one's croque-monsieur wrapper, by increasing propreté, enhances security. Meanwhile, those who leave their wine bottles under the park bench slide down this spectrum toward the status of public enemies. The foes of propreté become the targets of our vigilance. The bags support an anti-littering campaign, to be sure. But they reinforce -- is this their main mission? -- the association of the dirty with the dangerous, a topos dear to Mr. Sarkozy who promised, as minister of the interior, to take a firehose to a public housing project in Corneuve, and to cleanse France of its scum.

Vigilance, propreté

Propreté is the theme of another campaign's more explicit exhortations which appeal both to shared community standards and to environmentalist chic. Its two visually striking posters are targeted at those who denounce the destruction of rain forests and pristine beaches while casually degrading their own actual habitat. One poster shows a lush forest whose sylvan harmony is disrupted by the presence of a broken-down major appliance. "Scandaleux?" asks the poster. "A Paris aussi!" But if Parisians are urged not to leave their trash on the sidewalk, trash is by no means the most offending deposit. The second poster features an otherwise magnificent tropical beach marred by a steaming pile of what official French politely refers to, at least until the French official steps in it, as déjection canine. "Dégoûtant?" asks the poster. Is it disgusting? You betcha.

Really, really dégoûtant.

Both the subtle pairing of words and the jarring intrusion of the unclean into an idyllic landscape might be thought of as arguments, discursively more paratactic (relying on simple juxtaposition) than syntactic (articulating logical relations between words). But neither enlists reason, or invokes authority, except as an afterthought. Indeed, the extreme images of the poster campaign almost suggest the desperation of an opposition party rather than the authority of those in office. The campaign comes from the municipality, where the desire to maintain power makes its visible exercise too dangerous.

A reticence to exert power directly may lie behind the status of the imperative voice in French, and a third recent public campaign underscores this problematic. Signs posted throughout Paris show stick-figure dog owners walking behind their pets with little shovels and bags. What would the sign say in New York or San Francisco? "Pick up after your pet," or maybe "Please pick up after your pet," and very likely, "$250 FINE for not picking up after your pet." In the U.S., only a French major would hesitate to use the imperative, or take offense to hear it. Indeed, in America there is scarcely an order so overbearing that it cannot be adequately attenuated by the word "please." We may imagine thousands of recent letters: "Your delinquent mortgage loan has been foreclosed by your bank. In preparation for auction, please remove your belongings within 48 hours." Or new instructions at the airport security zone: "If your name is called, follow the two guards to the dressing room and in preparation for a full body cavity search, remove all your clothing and jewelry. Please."

In Paris, the poop-scooping stick-figure sign says, "J'aime mon quartier. Je ramasse." The equivalent in English defies the imagination: "I like my neighborhood, I pick up!" This first-person-singular construction is ubiquitous in the transit system. "I give up my seat for handicapped passengers," "I validate my ticket."

J'aime, je cooperate.

The phenomenon is surely a manifestation of France's historical ambivalence over the imperative voice. Where an American would say "Please connect me to Mr. Martin," a Frenchman could just as easily say "J'aurais voulu parler avec Monsieur Martin, s'il vous plaît" (or "I would have liked to speak to Mr. Martin, please."). Upon arrival at the terminus, Messieurs et mesdames les passagers are beseeched ("priés") to descend from the railway car. Public signage in French virtually never uses the imperative, but prefers instead an infinitive construction: ne pas se pencher au-dehors, prière de ne pas fumer. The exception which best proves the rule is the archaic veuillez, from the verb vouloir meaning to want. It is used in the most polite of all the evasions of the imperative: "Veuillez aggréer mes sentiments distingués," literally: please deign to accept my distinguished sentiments -- a formal way of closing a letter. In most of the circumlocutions, "you" are not mentioned at all, not even invoked by the verb form. In the formal, public sphere, it is simply too assertive to give orders; the imperative is a raw power grab, in poor taste, inadmissible.

But what to make of the new first-person-singular imperative? "J'aime mon quartier je ramasse" sounds at once patronizing and eerily invasive, as though the thoughts I should be having are being supplied for me, pre-configured for immediate playback in my head, a free download and auto-install from any billboard. This approach seems utterly unfathomable. Did someone think that an indoctrination campaign would be less coercive than a direct instruction?

Mesdames et messieurs my readers are kindly entreated to respond with evidence, contrary and/or supporting, interpretation, perspective, and further cross-cultural notes, while deigning to accept the expression of my sincere respects.

Added after original post:

From Geneva, thanks to alert reader/traveller Janelle Olmer, this amazing sidewalk mosaic:


Ok, now that I've caught my breath, I have three questions.

1. Which explanation is the more absurd: that the municipality of Geneva is installing hand-laid mosaics at dog-eye level around the city, or that a crazed zealot with a closet of ruined shoes has painstakingly crafted this installation?

2. Why is the dog's front left paw mangled, and was his injury the consequence of an infraction?

3. Finally, is the dog pointing to France?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Project Bamboo: Meeting 1d

Here in the Friend Center of Princeton University, the break-out groups reconvene to report on their morning conversations. We're at the last of four meetings (hence the "d" in "1d") collectively described as a "listening tour." What's being listened to? Recommendations on technical support for humanities research. The premise, as articulated in Project Bamboo's Mellon-funded grant proposal, is that a widely consultative process can lead to the development of standards, tools and services to be shared across institutional boundaries. Subsequent meetings ("2" and beyond) will distill all this feedback and move forward. So far so good, though participants worry, some vocally, that we are using a distributed community-based grass-roots open-source-modeled process to produce a highly centralized set of products and services. John Unsworth, voice of reason and lead author of the ACLS report on cyberinfrastructure for the humanities and social sciences, responds to group discussion by urging unity, and he reminds us of Benjamin Franklin's admonition to the Founding Fathers that they hang together lest they hang separately.

It's not clear how the hundred aught participating institutions will be winnowed down to the smaller number which will interpret and sift through the findings and propose next steps (and subsequent grants). The wide-spread expectation is that the have-nots will drop out once institutional commitments are requested, but the "hanging together" may take the form of virtual participation of some kind. There is a call for a more diverse international perspective; already one of these four meetings was held in Paris, and there has been talk of a fifth in Hong Kong. Oxford and Cambridge are said to be lining up for meeting 2. Oddly, given their achievements in humanities computing, Canadian institutions are almost entirely absent. I'm curious that the NEH is not more visibly engaged -- if anybody knows how many times the wheel has been reinvented (and with taxpayer dollars), it's surely the primary funding agency for the humanities in this country. Missing from the roster are the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, the American Philosophical Association, and the American Library Association.

The engagement -- and transformation -- of the disciplinary societies will surely be required for the successful creation and maintenance of infrastructure for humanities scholarship. The disciplinary societies have some influence over the training and career prospects of the young humanists who will function in the "ecosystem." I opine that the Bamboo grant proposal focuses too much on transforming the research, and not enough the researcher; channeling Stephen Ramsay, I say that our inveterate resistance to math and science, of which we make a badge of honor, is both anti-intellectual and isolating. "Who has ever heard a scientist boast about being unable to write?" as Steve has asked. Greg Crane ups the ante, saying that we don't want to waste our energies arming for the last war: if there are to be humanities departments in the future, they will exist only because their members have found a way to engage with and have an impact on the world outside, and that is a challenge which any new humanities consortium will have to face. I recall James O'Donnell's remark that humanities faculty aren't hostile to technology -- only to the latest technology. Serge Goldstein, Princeton's Associate CIO, shrewdly observes that technology that has become familiar -- photocopying, e-mail -- is no longer "technology."

We are doing That Thing We Do, which is to go at a problem by (1) going at the problem while (2) endlessly critiquing our way of going at the problem. This must drive the engineers nuts.

During his "4-6" presentation, entitled "What can we do that is different when it's all on-line?" Greg Crane asks who was the most influential classicist of the 20th century, and not entirely in jest proposes the Ayatollah Khomeini, a careful reader of Plato. He calls for a revival of tool-creation as a respectable area of humanities scholarship as it was when dictionaries, concordances, and critical editions were common elements in a tenure dossier. I'm pleased that we're bringing him to Buffalo in September, and eager to hear him speak for more than four minutes. (But I think we should change his assignment: he is a cogent agent for change, so why force him to rehearse familiar tales?)

I am not a fan of break-out / report-back meetings, so I mutter during the exercises. The assignment (here slightly edited for syntactical coherence) had been circulated in advance:
[Speaking from] your personal perspective as a researcher, librarian, IT professional, computer scientist, etc., [explain what you do] during a really good day, term, research cycle, etc. in relation to humanities research, and how you accomplish these tasks/practices.
Now, the break-out groups have been studiously balanced so that humanities faculty, IT support professionals, and librarians are all equally represented, but the assigned question was ill-suited to this demographic diversity. It would have been vastly more productive to ask these teams to describe the environment and life cycle of humanities research projects. Each constituency could then have described the phases it knew best: intuition, suspicion, validation, research, feedback, publication, dissemination and archiving. IT and library professionals share their frustration with being asked, for example, to "design a database" when a database is not the optimal platform for the research project. I think, but don't say, that it is equally maddening to be told by support people that they are the ones who know how your problem should be solved, and that you're not to worry your pretty little head with the technology. One library colleague helpfully proposes the "reference interview" model, during which the librarian and the researcher together identify the best resources through an iterative process. I found JSTOR's CIO Tim Babbit to be a brilliant interlocutor... if only there could have been more unfettered interlocution.

I do begin wondering if Project Bamboo is an effort by humanists to solve problems we have identified in our own environment and practices, or a rescue mission driven by IT leadership exasperated by the challenges of humanities research support. The people in charge are fantastically intelligent and engaged: Steve Masover, data architect, was an English major, and has written a novel. Rich Meyer, Project Manager, comes from a background in Anthropology. Chad Kainz and Sara Ware are accomplished and sharp. Co-director David Greenbaum runs the workshop, and remains relaxed and cordial under what must be great pressure (his day job looks quite demanding). The co-PIs (not visibly present at the Princeton meeting) are Janet Broughton, humanities dean at Berkeley, and Chicago's CIO, Gregory Jackson. At lunch I meet the Mellon Program Officer with oversight responsibility for Bamboo: Ira Fuchs, natively a physicist/computer scientist, formerly CIO at Princeton. I'm encouraged by the presence and endorsement of some of the most accomplished humanities computing people, but keen to understand whether "we" are at the heart of this effort, and if not, what that might portend for its eventual pertinence for the intended beneficiaries. In other words, are we co-pilots, or are we passengers whose preferences are diligently solicited?

I've met fascinating people who have traversed several disciplines in their own careers. Among them is an erstwhile chemist, now professor of French at Johns Hopkins, named Wilda Anderson, who says she runs an informal "summer camp" for her graduate students at her home. She teaches not only Photoshop, but also the history of mathematics, assigning Jean Dieudonné's Pour l'honneur de l'esprit humain, and the history of computer science (her own father having played a role in this history which I did not entirely pick up). Then she shows students her backyard pool and pours them lemonade. Here is a woman who has taken affairs in hand! A scholar who holds an endowed chair at a Prestigious Institution reports having asked his own university's humanities center for funds for a major GIS project. What's GIS? He explains that it's a database of geographical information. What's a database? He defines it. It is finally conceded that he may make a presentation to the group, but he is instructed not to bring scientists with him, lest the humanists' ignorance cause them embarrassment! Similar jeremiades enliven dinner table conversation throughout the meeting.

The Princeton campus is as it ever was, only more so. East Pyne Hall has been completely redone, and in a very elegant way. A new science library by Frank Gehry is nearing completion. Serge Goldstein offers guided tours of campus highlights.

I swim on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings at 5:30 with the Princeton Masters Swimmers, at the Princeton Community Pool, way down Witherspoon. This is the pool where, after 5-6 pages of dissertation drafting, I used to come swim and hang out on the grassy "beach" with the other graduate students.

I walk down Chambers to the gate through which Debbie Norden and I would come back home to the house on Greenholm Street where we rented third-floor rooms thirty years ago. During our endless animated conversations in the tiny kitchen, Debbie taught me what architects mean by "charrette," and why the Chrysler Building is to be admired above all other New York City skyscrapers. And then I learned the cost in remorse of perpetually deferring the effort to reconnect with old friends, who are not, as we imagine, suspended in a timeless orbit waiting for our call.

Lionel Gossman very kindly took time to have coffee on Monday afternoon. As always, he's working on a dozen things, and seems most enthusiastic about a project to publish and translate the works of an Austrian countess who was a devout Catholic, and who then became an energetic socialist, seeing no discontinuity between the two "gospels" of care and respect for others. And what do you know? He is publishing a substantial piece online with Cambridge, and is very conscious that such choices by established senior faculty will make these outlets respectable and safe for junior scholars. I believe that he has been involved in persuading the APA to do digital publishing.

Bamboo would do well to seek the collaboration of distinguished and generous senior humanities scholars who, by the interdisciplinarity of their mature scholarship, demonstrate a willingness to advance the frontiers of possibility for the humanities.