Politics – Antenna http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 Fall Premieres 2015: The Daily Show with Trevor Noah http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/10/06/fall-premieres-2015-the-daily-show-with-trevor-noah/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/10/06/fall-premieres-2015-the-daily-show-with-trevor-noah/#comments Tue, 06 Oct 2015 14:00:06 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=28520 By the end of his run with The Daily Show, Jon Stewart had been both credited by some with doing more than anyone else to save American politics and journalism, and damned by others for doing more than most to destroy the very fabric of democracy. How does Trevor Noah compare? A group of experts on political entertainment and/or comedy discuss his first week as host.

First, some quick introductions:

  • Jonathan Gray (University of Wisconsin-Madison) co-edited Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era and is author of Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality.
  • Amber Day (Bryant University) is author of Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate.
  • Chuck Tryon (Fayateville State University) wrote for many years at his blog The Chutry Experiment on political television, and is author of the forthcoming Political TV.
  • Geoffrey Baym (Temple University) is Professor Colbert himself, having written many of the canonical treatments of Colbert, and is author of From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News.
  • Ethan Thompson (Texas A&M-Corpus Christi) co-edited Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era and is author of Parody and Taste in Postwar American Television Culture.
  • Nick Marx (Colorado State University) is co-editor of Saturday Night Live and American TV and is currently editing a reader on comedy studies.


Jonathan Gray:

With each of the other major change in hosts of the various late night shows in the last few years, the new host has been given considerable scope to change the show considerably. It may still be called The Late Show, therefore, but the set’s different, the band’s different, Colbert’s not doing Top Ten lists, Rupert and Biff are gone, etc. What struck me immediately about The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, therefore, was the same old voice announcing the date, the camera swooping over a fairly familiar looking set, while the same ol’ theme song played. Interestingly, then, while a lot has been made about whether Noah can “replace” Jon Stewart, in fact he seems only to have been asked to fill the chair and role of convenor, as Jon’s show, style, and feel are very much still in play. This extends even to Noah’s comic style at time: I’ll discuss a few differences, but so much of his delivery, his play with the camera, his faces at the on-screen bad punny section titles, and so forth felt very “Stewartian.” Even the crappy, unfunny, politically sterile segment about police racism and brutality on Wednesday night’s show feels like the junk that Stewart’s lesser staff members phoned in some times.

I wonder, though, how much of this continuation is a bridging strategy. I think here of the advice I give to grad student lecturers, to teach the regular professor’s class as the professor did, and to leave changes to the second time they teach it. Maybe Week 10 or Season 2 of Noah’s Daily Show will look as different from Stewart’s Daily Show as Colbert’s Late Show is different from Letterman’s, but for now it’s a shrewd move with a not-entirely-popular choice for replacement to keep the machine running rather than reinventing it.

And run it did. Noah is good at this job. He’s funny, he mixes groany dad jokes with edge with skill, as did Stewart. He has good chemistry with the camera. He exudes an intelligence becoming of the role. Nor is he just aping Stewart completely: his own segments seem to move quicker, his delivery and pacing crisper; his relative youth means he doesn’t need to adopt the patrician mode that Stewart did increasingly; and like John Oliver, he can use his non-Americanness to great comic and satirical effect. I was not one of Noah’s many detractors, but I still expected far less than he provided in those first three nights.

Still, though, he’ll need to improve with interviews to keep me from turning off the TV half way in. While the experienced Colbert was booking Jeb Bush and Joe Biden in his first few days, The Daily Show’s bookers either lost their mojo completely, or were savvy enough to give Noah training wheels, opening with Kevin Hart then moving to the founder of a new dating app. Even Chris Christie was a wise first “real” interviewee, since one can count on Christie to know the audience and show and move the interview himself. Even then, in the interviews Noah has been feckless, clearly out of his depth, starstruck, wooden, and a far, far cry from Stewart. Admittedly, Stewart was a superb interviewer, and it’s early days, but the beauty of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was the two shows in one — critique of the news, then an interview with bite — and unless Noah is a quick study, and as much as the producers may have kept a lot of the old Daily Show, the new one may be only half its former self. I’ll definitely stick around, though, and I don’t begrudge Noah the need to improve.


Amber Day:

This first week of Trevor Noah’s tenure on the Daily Show has had its ups and downs, but I do think that the host shows a good deal of promise.

I agree with Jonathan that the interviews have been disappointing.  In particular, the first two interviews both began with what seemed like a pre-rehearsed (or pre-agreed upon) opening joke that fell so flat as to be almost unintelligible (Kevin Hart’s supposedly disappointing gift of ties and the Whitney Wolfe conceit that interviewer and interviewee were on a date).  Like Jonathan, I may well end up turning off the program half way through (or more likely, cherry picking segments to watch on the Comedy Central website), though I do acknowledge that being a good interviewer is a skill that is entirely different from delivering a tight monologue, and one that will almost certainly take some time to develop.

On the other hand, I think that the comedy portions of the program this past week were well done.  Noah’s self-deprecating bits about the perils of trying to fill Jon Stewart’s shoes struck the right opening note, while momentum continued to pick up as the week progressed.  Here, the one segment over which I disagree with Jonathan was the correspondent piece about racial profiling and police brutality.  I thought the segment did a very good job of highlighting the radically divergent ways in which the majority of white Americans versus black Americans view the police force, while very deliberately allowing the spokesperson for a police anti-bias training program to make a case for why such a program is necessary and what it is meant to accomplish, a message that slipped through in the background while the correspondents clowned in the foreground.  Though it was certainly gentle, I think it was a form of advocacy journalism tailored for an exceedingly touchy subject.  I happened to be watching that episode with my mother-in-law, whose political views are widely divergent from my own, but it felt like a conversation starter that we were both comfortable with, while it did still have substance.

The other highlight of the week for me was the extended story on Donald Trump being akin to an African president, detailing his striking similarities to notorious military strong-men and megalomaniac dictators like Gaddafi or Amin.  Though Trump is certainly an easy target, the piece allowed Noah to use his own background and knowledge to provide global context for the American political race, while also producing a very funny segment.

Going forward, Noah will, of course, have to grapple with the ins and outs of American party politics, but he would do well to continue to draw liberally from his strengths: an international perspective, as well as a heightened sensitivity to contemporary race relations.  If he can manage to bring some of that savviness to his interviews, he will have it made.


Chuck Tryon:

During the opening monologue of his debut episode on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah promised to uphold the legacy of Jon Stewart by continuing the “war on bullshit.” For those of us who became accustomed to Stewart’s relentless attacks on cable news, however, Noah’s contributions actually look quite a bit different, at least so far. Thus far, Noah has generally offered a much more genial perspective, one that draws on his experiences as a non-U.S. native to denaturalize some aspects of American political discourse rather than focusing excessively on cable news (although he did offer a mildly humorous critique of cable news’s tendency to focus on distractions such as “pumpkin spice” season). That being said, like Jonathan and Amber, I also see plenty of room for Noah to grow into the role of Daily Show host and to adapt the format to his comedic strengths, in much the same way that Stewart refocused the show away from Craig Kilborn’s sterile, apolitical humor.

This “outsider” status was powerfully displayed in the inspired segment in which Noah compared Donald Trump to a laundry list of African dictators. Like Amber, I appreciated this segment, in no small part because it provided a more global perspective on American politics, but also because it brought a fresh perspective to the Trump parodies, which have become overly obvious in recent weeks. Other segments were somewhat less successful. I was somewhat ambivalent about the police brutality sketch, in that its politics seemed somewhat incoherent to me, but that’s likely a product of the writers finding their stride, rather than any limitations on Noah’s part. The “Panderdemic” segment also showed promise, as Noah worked to pick apart the ways in which politicians seek to appeal to specific voters, often in disingenuous ways.

Perhaps the biggest concern about Noah has been his performance during interviews. But it’s worth remembering that Stewart, especially during his early career, seemed equally star-struck during interviews. And while I’m no fan of Chris Christie, Noah was probably better served by taking a relatively genial tone with him. In fact, Noah did offer a subtle pushback against one of the common tropes of conservative politics, in which presidential candidates campaign against “the government,” even though they are part of that government. He also managed to tease out some of the absurdities of Christie’s draconian immigration policy. These moments suggest that Noah may be a quick study on American political discourse, and I’m willing to give him time to develop his skills as an interviewer while waiting for Colbert to start.

Ultimately, I think Noah will grow into his role as host of The Daily Show. It’s unfair at this stage to hold him to the high standards established by Jon Stewart, who seemed to become the political conscience of cable television over the last few years, but given time, I’m hopeful that Noah can bring a unique perspective to the fake news genre.


Geoffrey Baym:

I want to build briefly on Jonathan’s suggestion that Trevor Noah has kept “the machinery running” through his first week.  While it is right to consider what changes Noah will make to the program as he settles in to the role, I’m also quite interested in the power of the machine to operate as designed.  Or to put the point differently, we’re seeing what I would characterize as the institutionalization of the form.  When so many of us began paying careful attention to The Daily Show more than a decade ago, it seemed like something unprecedented and risky – a novel mechanism for engaging with and interrogating the public political conversation that had more to do with the particular vision and talents of the host than it did the power of formal convention or institutional lineage.  And the host himself long insisted that he was an institutional outsider, a jester throwing spitballs, rather than the opinion leader and influence broker he so clearly became.  That of course is the point of the long-running joke: “From Comedy Central World News headquarters in New York, this is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Unlike those long-established and institutionally entrenched news outlets on the other channels, Comedy Central of course had no “world news” operation, nor a “headquarters” where nationally significant command and control decisions could be made.

Notably, that intro line remains – the only difference being the last two words (“with Trevor Noah”) – as does the swooping camera motion, the spinning globe, and the theme music.  All of this suggests that the joke has taken on new complexities, it seems now to fold back in on itself.  Like the institution of nightly news it long imitated, The Daily Show truly has become more than the personality and skills of its host. It is an institutional product – conceptualized by a team of producers and writers, governed by production conventions and audience expectations, and located in a particular cultural milieu.  It may have a new set, new font, and a new graphics package, but those are the same kind of cosmetic changes that all news operations make periodically, just as they bring in new anchors and new correspondents from time to time.  Certainly, Noah’s personality and interests will begin to shape the content.  Chuck and Amber are right that the Trump-as-African-Dictator gave us a glimpse at the more global and ethnically nuanced discourse most of us are expecting to see from Noah.  And of course, his interviewing skills are far from where they’ll need to be.  But through a wider lens, this Daily Show is remarkably like the last Daily Show (or the one that John Oliver hosted while Stewart was on leave directing Rosewater), and that continuity is for me the major take-away here.

Finally, there are important linkages to be made between the institutional consistency of The Daily Show and the work that Colbert (and Stewart apparently) are doing on CBS.  After nearly a month on air, the Late Show looks a lot like a more grandly theatrical, if perhaps slightly less subversive, Colbert Report.  Just the other day, John Oliver sat with Colbert for an interview, with the two explicitly positioning themselves as former Daily Show correspondents.  Oliver, of course, has taken the genre of news parody in a new direction on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, devoting 18 minutes per episode to deconstructing often obtuse public problems.  Meanwhile, back on Comedy Central, Larry Wilmore (formerly The Daily Show’s Senior Black Correspondent) is still holding on with his panel discussion program, The Nightly Show.  Scholars of TV and political communication have long been looking for “The Daily Show effect,” and finally I think we can identify one.  Jon Stewart’s show spawned numerous copycats, both in the US and around the world, but more importantly, it has seeded the landscape of political television and created a new kind of media institution while doing so.

TV STILL - DO NOT PURGE - The Daily Show - Trevor Noah (CREDIT: Peter Yang)

Ethan Thompson:

A few minutes into Trevor Noah’s first interview with Kevin Hart it hit me, and I felt oh-so-stupid for not realizing it sooner: the shift from Jon Stewart to Trevor Noah is first and foremost a generational shift.

Stewart was 37 when he started back in 1999. Have you seen a photo of him recently? Noah is now just 31. Stewart’s departure was a chance for Comedy Central to reset the show with a new host who might appeal to a more youthful demo. The olds will keep tuning in anyway, and if Noah isn’t quite suited to their (my) tastes, there’s always Oliver, Wilmore, Maher, Colbert, and/or Myers to queue up on the DVR or switch the channel to later. The Daily Show may be the house that Jon Stewart (re)built, but Daniel Tosh has done more for Comedy Central in recent years, and I expect that that is the audience the network hopes to attract. I wish them luck.

I could think of at least a half dozen people I would have rather seen taking over the anchor spot, but that’s because I was thinking of established people in the post-Boomer/Generation X cohort. Dumb me, and smart Comedy Central. I thought Noah’s first week of programs was solid. He has the presence and personality to carry the show as host, and the various correspondent pieces showed that the program can sail on without Stewart’s guiding hand. I’m glad that Comedy Central is investing in Noah as a host who might cultivate another generation of satire fans.

Noah’s biography is compelling and much has been said about the potential his global perspective might bring to the show. This amorphous “global” perspective was rightly ridiculed on his first show. Still, the standout piece of the first week for me (and apparently the others writing here!) was Donald Trump: America’s African President. Whether or not this was a product of Noah’s global perspective, it was both meaningful and funny.

Television satire, especially the fake news variety, is expected to live and die by the personalities of the performers. Ever since Chevy Chase transitioned from Weekend Update host to movie star after the first season of SNL, fake news has been a springboard, with Colbert’s ascension from Daily Show correspondent to the Colbert Report to his CBS show the corresponding bookend. Stewart’s tenure is an anomaly.

The truth, of course, is the other writers and producers are largely responsible for making the show funny and meaningful on a consistent basis. I hate to take too much credit away from Noah, because I do think he has done a good job and it would be a different show without him. However, I think what Geoffrey Baym describes above as the institutionalization of news satire may ultimately be most interesting to consider. Comedy Central can choose a youthful host without a track record because the form has gelled enough that the program is not dependent upon the host the way it once was. There won’t be anything revolutionary about Noah’s Daily Show the way Stewart’s once seemed. The form, and not just the viewers, have matured.


Nick Marx:

Geoffrey’s description of the “institutionalization” of satire television and Ethan’s observation about generational shifts echo a lot of what I thought about the Stewart-to-Noah transition before last week–that The Daily Show has more or less become Saturday Night Live at this point.  That’s intended neither to slight nor compliment either show, but to highlight how both have been integrated into political, industrial, and social discourses beyond the programs themselves.  Noah’s hiring (like that of SNL’s Sasheer Zamata, Leslie Jones, or short-lived Daily Show correspondent Michael Che) was less about late-night transitions than it was about race, gender, and televisual representation.  It’s been heartening to see Noah, then, arrive in Stewart’s chair with little else around him changed and instantly shine.

Conversely, I was often much more appreciative of the way Stewart’s Daily Show shaped broader public deliberation about important topics™ than I was of his on air presence (good riddance, exaggeratedly-Jewish-Jerry-Lewis voice!).  Noah seems to be, at least so far, a much more conventionally funny and likable stand-up comedian.  I expect that we’ll see a lot more bits rooted in Noah’s race and nationality (like the Trump-as-African-dictator segment), and I hope the show will continue experimenting with correspondent segments in act one, or even entirely interview-free episodes.  Like Colbert’s Late Show, The Daily Show is clearly still struggling to find a new voice while paying proper homage to its predecessor.  Fortunately, it’s also got the charismatic ringleader to find that voice quickly.  Here’s to hoping Noah doesn’t jump ship after seven or so seasons to make buddy comedies with Will Ferrell.


http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/10/06/fall-premieres-2015-the-daily-show-with-trevor-noah/feed/ 1
“Aren’t We Such a Fun, Approachable Dynasty?”: Clinton’s Presidential Announcement, Cable News, and the Candidate Challenge http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/04/17/arent-we-such-a-fun-approachable-dynasty-clintons-presidential-announcement-cable-news-and-the-candidate-challenge/ Fri, 17 Apr 2015 12:35:00 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=26086 Clinton's Announcement Video

Clinton’s Announcement Video

In case you missed it, Hillary Clinton is running for president. On Sunday, April 12, Clinton announced via YouTube video that she would be making a second run for the Oval Office after being narrowly defeated for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 by Barack Obama. Clinton’s announcement had been anticipated for a few days, once Clinton’s team signed a lease to rent office space for its campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, but on another level, her intentions to run again had been expected for years, a fact that essentially meant that a number of media outlets and political activists already had pre-existing narratives in which Clinton’s candidacy could be framed. In fact, Clinton’s decision to announce on Sunday via social media was so widely anticipated that Saturday Night Live actually managed to parody Clinton’s web video outreach during their cold open even before her video went online.

These narratives reflect what Lance Bennett has identified as a tendency to impose reality television frameworks onto election coverage. Specifically Bennett seems to be talking about the so-called “gamedocs” or competition reality shows, such as Survivor, Fear Factor, or Big Brother, in which contestants are forced to undergo challenges in order to demonstrate their worthiness of winning the competition. For Bennett, such “candidate challenges” actually obscure substantive policy considerations, instead focusing on more superficial storylines. Bennett’s framework, I’d argue, helps us to understand how Clinton can be depicted, from both the right and the left, through similar, but strikingly contradictory narratives as someone who is at once a “celebrity” and also, simultaneously, disdainful of the news media that seemingly create her celebrity status through fawning profiles, and also as someone who is simultaneously too controlling of her messaging and incapable of crafting an effective message about herself. Finally, critics made coded reference to her age, turning her experience as a Senator and Secretary of State into a liability. Thus, for Hillary Clinton, the “candidate challenge” created by different media outlets, is to assume a contradictory set of performances that will meet all of these goals.

It should come as no surprise that the most overt attacks on Clinton’s announcement video came from Fox News. It is no longer controversial to suggest that Fox News has crafted an explicitly conservative approach to narrating the news. Fox has successfully cultivated a large conservative audience in the era of what Natalie Jomani Stroud has called “niche news.” But what is significant about Fox News is what Jeffrey Jones refers to as the news channel’s use of performative language that actually produces a reality in the guise of reflecting on or analyzing it.

Fox News on Clinton's Announcement

Media Buzz on Clinton’s Announcement

This type of performativity functions powerfully in shows such as Howard Kurtz’s Media Buzz, which purports to analyze the media frames that are shaping politics. However, Kurtz’s segment openly reinforces several of the existing narratives used to shape Clinton’s persona independently of any political views she might have. The segment opens with Fox News contributor Mary Katharine Ham gleefully dismissing the announcement as a “snoozefest,” promoting the perception that Clinton is too boring to win the presidency. Similarly, Washington Examiner columnist Susan Ferrechio pushed the idea that the video was an example of Clinton “controlling the message” because she made the announcement via social media rather than during a live speech—despite the fact that most Republicans announced in a similar fashion. Further, by focusing on perceptions of Clinton’s personality, Ferrechio was able to deflect attention away from the actual content of the video, which emphasized (however vaguely) Clinton’s desire to fight for working families. Meanwhile Kurtz himself trotted out the frame (also imposed on Barack Obama) that Clinton might be “covered as a celebrity” even while suggesting, almost in the same breath that she had been “disdainful” of the media. Later that day, Brit Hume, again with little evidence to back up his argument, asserted that Americans were tired of the Clintons’ “weird marriage” and that their story was “old news” and therefore uninteresting to reporters seeking out the next bright, shiny object that  could distract them.

Notably, both Kurtz and Bill O’Reilly used the SNL sketch, in which Kate McKinnon, as a simultaneously naïve and controlling Hillary Clinton, attempts to make a selfie video announcement, to attach her to these existing media frames. A clip of Darryl Hammond as Bill Clinton joking about his sex life stands in as evidence of their “weird marriage.” Hillary stumbling repeatedly to be sympathetic reinforces the idea that she is controlling and out of touch. While I did find the SNL clip funny—and think it’s more subtle by far than Fox News’s use of it—it provided Fox with the shorthand to criticize Clinton, even while allowing the network to be in on the joke for a change when it comes to political satire.

That being said, even ostensibly liberal supporters of Clinton placed unrealistic obstacles on her announcement. Bruce Ackerman, among others, writing for The Huffington Post, blasted the video as a “capitulation” to Madison Avenue—i.e., controlling the narrative. Once again, we must turn to Jon Stewart to find a way to navigate the utterly absurd narratives that have been imposed on her. Stewart debunked many of these narratives for their absurd use of dystopian and apocalyptic imagery, pointing out that they vastly exaggerate Clinton’s center-left voting history, even while they also produce a reality for the Fox viewers who are the intended audience.  The reception of Clinton’s announcement video can tell us quite a bit, then, not just about perceptions of her as a candidate or the conservative efforts to derail her candidacy. It can also tell us quite a bit about the role of cable news in constructing artificial “candidate challenges” that do little to inform us about how that candidate will actually govern.


Popular Culture and Politics: The Hunger Games 3-Finger Salute in Thai Protests http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/06/04/popular-culture-and-politics-the-hunger-games-3-finger-salute-in-thai-protests/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/06/04/popular-culture-and-politics-the-hunger-games-3-finger-salute-in-thai-protests/#comments Wed, 04 Jun 2014 13:52:07 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=24135 On June 2, 2014, news about protesters in Thailand holding up the Hunger Games 3-finger salute began proliferating across news networks and websites like The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Global Post, Quartz and others. Across the coverage, reporters and commenters seem unsure of what to make of political action that draws inspiration from a fictional story. Drawing from my research on popular culture, rhetoric, and fan-based civic engagement, I offer a contextualization for the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games 3-finger salute. In a blog post over at Rhetorically Speaking, I examine how the protesters appropriate the 3-finger salute to signal resistance and critique. Here, I want to offer a framing of the Thai protester’s use of the 3-finger salute by articulating the relationship between popular culture and politics and by placing the Thai protests within a history of fan-based civic engagement.

blog post katniss 3-finger salute

Journalists covering this story have struggled to frame the protests within a broader relationship between popular culture and politics in the real world. Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Reason.com says, “If I say the phrases Hunger Games and ‘life imitates art’ in the same sentence, you might start to worry. But this is actually an inspiring appropriation of the practices of Panem.” Ryan Gilbey at The Guardian points toward critics’ concerns that films inspire violent copy-cat behavior. Both Brown and Gilbey frame popular culture as a causal mechanism, but in doing so they undermine the agency of actors. This is particularly problematic when popular culture is connected to political action. In these cases, we ought to understand popular culture as resources. We must recognize that popular culture does not cause political action, while also recognizing the incredibly important role popular culture plays in offering up the choices we have for political resources.

The YouTube ID of hceO-SUoitk#t=35 is invalid.
Reporters also seemed to position the Thai protesters’ use of popular culture as relatively uncommon. Gilbey from The Guardian says, “You’d have to go back to the film adaptation of the graphic novel V For Vendetta, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, to find a comparable crossover between on-screen behaviour and widespread political iconography.” But the use of popular culture in politics is actually quite common. In fact, Thai protesters aren’t even the first to utilize the Hunger Games 3-finger salute. In 2013, Senator Miriam Santiago from the Philippines used the 3-finger salute in a speech lambasting Senator Enrile in the Senate. The Harry Potter Alliance used the 3-finger salute in its Odds In Our Favor campaign, which critiqued economic inequality, particularly in the US.

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 9.03.51 AMPopular culture has always functioned as resources for politics. For example, Nan Enstad describes how American women factory workers at the turn of the century used dime novels, films, and fashion to come to see themselves as both ladies and workers, and thus as deserving of fair working conditions. These women staged labor protests in unexpected numbers. Today, we see examples ranging from Harry Potter to football. In January 2014, Chinese diplomats used Harry Potter metaphors to make arguments about regional power in Asia. In the fall of 2013, the TeamMates’ Coaches Challenge campaign invited Nebraskan citizens to volunteer to mentor by connecting mentoring with being a Nebraska football fan, beating Kansas, and joining the Nebraskan team. During 2012 and 2013, DC Entertainment led a campaign named “We Can Be Heroes,” calling Justice League fans to donate money to charities working to end hunger in Africa. These are just three examples from this academic year alone. Indeed, there are many more.

What I hope this contextualization provides is a framing that enables us as audience members, reporters, and citizens to take seriously the Thai protesters’ Hunger Games salutes. While not all political appropriations of popular culture are necessarily ethical, desirable, or effective, we cannot dismiss such uses of popular culture out-of-hand. Jonathan Jones at The Guardian takes this problematic approach when he asserts that the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games salute “reveals something about the bankruptcy of political beliefs in the 21st century.” But Jones is missing the point because he’s got the context all wrong. The protesters aren’t claiming allegiance to the Hunger Games. They are using the symbol of resistance in the Hunger Games as their own, imbuing it with democratic meaning and critiques of the Thai government. Popular culture is a resource, combined and recombined with other resources, appropriated and changed through various performances. This framing is absolutely necessary to understanding the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games salute in a complex and full way.


http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/06/04/popular-culture-and-politics-the-hunger-games-3-finger-salute-in-thai-protests/feed/ 2
Sucks to Be Ru: America’s new Russian Other http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/02/21/sucks-to-be-ru-americas-new-russian-other/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/02/21/sucks-to-be-ru-americas-new-russian-other/#comments Fri, 21 Feb 2014 21:49:20 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=23667 0208-Sochi-opening-rings_full_600

For years, America has lacked a true constitutive “other”—the sort of competing entity that can represent everything we are not and thus help us agree on what we are. Yes, the Muslim world has played the role of Enemy of the State for the past decade, but the varied, decentralized and complex nature of that entity has prevented anything approaching a consensus among the American populace. What we have missed is the simple (and, of course, oversimplified) Soviet—a militarized, soulless Ivan Drago to our informal, scrappy Rocky Balboa.  And while that pre-millenial foil is gone forever, the Sochi Olympics has brought us something perhaps even better.  The unending string of hilarious #SochiProblems and daily stories of government gluttony filling our Facebook feeds have positioned Russia not so much as America’s polar opposite, but instead as a sort of shadow version of the American Way of Life.

In putting on the Sochi winter games, Russia has expended an absurd amount of resources—about $50 billion worth—with the expectation of fundamentally repositioning the country’s place in the global imagination.  And although much of the media coverage surrounding Sochi has focused on the tremendous amount of graft and waste it took to ring up such a bill, the Russian government is unlikely to view the event as anything but a success.  Above all, President Vladimir Putin wanted to use the Sochi spotlight to disrupt the unipolar, American-centric geopolitical map that has emerged since the fall of the Soviet Union.  And in some small way he has.  It takes a terribly powerful man to waste such a terrible sum of money.  The cost may have been surrealistically high, but for Putin it was a one-time-only opportunity to demonstrate that he has the surplus of power and the utter lack of conscience one needs to make a play for international hegemony.

The United States, however, has gotten a much better deal, at least in terms of buying an improved sense of national identity. Russia, in no small part due to Sochi, no longer embodies a set of virtues—extreme discipline, ideological orthodoxy, etc—that we choose to reject.  Instead it has come to stand in for all of those vices that we fear we may have but would rather not face.  No longer Drago, Russia has become America’s drunken Uncle Paulie, a bumbling, wasteful reminder of what we could become but never will.  Whenever Rocky is down, he can always look to Paulie’s blubbery ineptitude and realize he’s not in such bad shape.  And now, whenever Americans fear their government may be dolling out favors to corporations or spending money on all the wrong things, well, at least we don’t build Dadaist toilets when the whole world is watching.

This narrative received a wholly unexpected boost last Sunday with Michael Sam, a mid-level professional football prospect, announced that he is gay.  The reaction from the National Football League has been predictably tepid, with nearly every team echoing the standard neo-liberal take on gay rights.  Discrimination cannot be tolerated if it is going to get in the way of profits or, in the case of an NFL team, winning football games.  Of course, America in general and its sports culture in specific still have a long way it to go when it comes to eliminating discrimination over sexuality.  The discussion should be less the sports media’s preferred “where will Sam be drafted?” and more “why does only one player feel safe enough to be open about being gay?”  However, in comparison to our Other Russia, America looks positively enlightened.  When faced with the medieval anti-gay laws and mockable public statements (“We don’t have [gays] in our town”) on display in Sochi, it’s easy to give America a pass.  Russia’s backwardness on the issue provides the perfect backdrop against which to avoid asking truly tough questions about ourselves.

The Washington Post’s Max Fisher has called for Americans to avoid the temptation of Russophobia when engaging in discourse about Russia.  It can be all too easy to mock a population that has long been the target of so many stereotypes and Internet memes. In general this is good advice.  However, it by no means suggests that we should hesitate to condemn the authoritarianism and corruption that Putin’s Russia has put on display in its effort to make the world it seriously. Just as important, however, is that we use the opportunity as a means of interrogating the weaknesses of our society, not as an excuse to ignore them.


http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/02/21/sucks-to-be-ru-americas-new-russian-other/feed/ 1
Net Neutrality is Over— Unless You Want It http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/01/17/net-neutrality-is-over-unless-you-want-it/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/01/17/net-neutrality-is-over-unless-you-want-it/#comments Fri, 17 Jan 2014 15:27:01 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=23424 series_of_tubesOn Tuesday, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals tore out the heart of net neutrality. In the landmark Verizon v. FCC decision, the court struck down the FCC’s Open Internet rules— the hard-fought regulations passed in 2010 that prohibited broadband providers from blocking or discriminating against internet traffic. Without these protections, network operators like Verizon are legally empowered to not only interfere with the online activities of their users but alter the fundamental structure of the internet and change the terms on which users communicate and connect online. The court threw out the no-blocking and nondiscrimination rules but left intact the transparency provision, so now the company you pay to get on the internet can mess with your traffic as much as it wants, as long as it tells you so. The ruling is not a surprise, but not because the Open Internet rules were not legitimate or net neutrality is a bad idea. It comes down to this: broadband providers are common carriers but the FCC can’t regulate them as common carriers because they didn’t call them common carriers. (I’ll explain in a second.) So if we want net neutrality, what should we do? Well, tell the FCC to call broadband providers common carriers. It really is that simple— not easy, but simple.

First, what’s actually at stake here? Well, the end of the open public internet and the beginning of separate but unequal private internets, under the control of the giant phone and cable companies in possession of the pipes and airwaves we depend upon for access. The FCC’s Open Internet rules left much to be desired but they were minimum protections to count on and a significant beachhead in the net neutrality battle. Without them, what do we get now? A network where Verizon can charge extra to prioritize traffic and block any service that refuses to pay a toll to reach its users (that’s what it said it would do if it won this case). A network where Comcast can derail video distribution that threatens its cable television business (that’s what it did when it blocked BitTorrent and what it does in favoring its Xfinity service— even though it’s obligated to abide by net neutrality until 2017 as a condition of its merger with NBC-U). A network where AT&T can cut deals with the biggest content providers to exempt their apps from counting against monthly data caps but squeeze out the innovative startups that can’t afford to pay (which it just announced last week with its new Sponsored Data plans). Networks — with pay-to-play arrangements, exclusive fast lanes, unfair competition, and prepackaged access tiers— where that independently-produced web video series, that nonprofit alternative news site, or your own blog are left behind in favor of those that can pay protection money to network operators. In other words, a network that is not the internet as we’ve come to know it— an open network where users can be participants in the creation and circulation of online culture, rather than a closed content delivery system for corporate media. While net neutrality proponents’ rhetoric might seem a bit overblown, we are much closer to a “nightmare scenario” than most realize.

The DC Circuit’s ruling was not against net neutrality itself, but rather the twisted way the FCC attempted to enforce it. The majority opinion actually went out of its way to describe why net neutrality regulations are necessary to curb abuses of power by network operators. It ruled that the Open Internet rules themselves were sound— they were just implemented the wrong way. Coming into the case, the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband at all was in doubt, after the agency was handed its hat by the same court in the 2010 Comcast case. The FCC tried it again this time with a slightly different tack (“even federal agencies are entitled to a little pride,” the majority wrote— federal appeals court humor, folks) and, amazingly, the court bought it this time around (while Verizon called the FCC’s argument a “triple-cushion-shot,” the judges pointed out that in billiards it doesn’t matter how much of a stretch the shot is if you actually make it). However, even though the court affirmed the FCC’s legal ability to regulate broadband, it found that it can’t regulate it the way the Commission wanted to in the Open Internet rules.

The court ruled that the FCC’s net neutrality policy treated broadband providers as common carriers, but that it couldn’t do that because it didn’t have those services classified in the common carriage portion of its legal framework. Basically, it all goes back to the FCC using the term “information service” rather than “telecommunications service” to define broadband starting in 2002. That’s it— this is a case where the importance of discourse, and the power to dominate discourse in the policy sphere, could not be more plain.

Net neutrality is essentially an update to common carriage, the centuries-old principle of openness and nondiscrimination on publicly essential infrastructure for communication and transportation. The FCC has regulated general purpose networks of two-way communication as common carriers since its inception with the 1934 Communications Act (at that time the focus was telephone service). Beginning in the 1980s as part of its influential Computer Inquiries and legally formalized in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the FCC distinguishes between these basic networks, defined as Title II “telecommunication services” (think pipes), and the content made available over those networks, defined as Title I “information services” (think water flowing inside those pipes). Under this framework, the FCC regulated internet access (the connectivity) as common carriage to ensure equality and universality, but could not regulate the internet itself (the content). As telecommunications services, internet access providers’ job is to pass communications back and forth to the internet, while the information services on the internet are publishers with editorial rights to control content. This all changed during a deregulatory binge at the FCC in the 2000s: cable companies called their broadband connections “information services” (pay no attention to their actual cables), conspicuously not subject to regulation, and then-FCC-Chairman Michael Powell was happy to define broadband that way, too (he’s now the head of the NCTA, the cable industry’s trade group, by the way).

Now, because broadband internet access is not classified as “telecommunications,” it cannot be regulated as common carriage. This means that, as the DC Circuit recognized, since net neutrality is basically common carriage, it cannot be implemented as long as broadband is still defined as an “information service.” So, even though broadband is now the essential general purpose communications infrastructure of our time, there can be no openness and nondiscrimination protections for it until the FCC is willing to change the label it has applied to it in its regulatory terminology. The answer, then, is reclassification: the FCC just needs to call broadband the telecommunications service that it is before we can have enforceable net neutrality policy. The policy really is that simple— it’s the politics that are difficult. The reason that the FCC built the Open Internet rules on legal quicksand is that it lacked the political will to go through with its reclassification proposal amidst a firestorm of pressure from the telecom industry and its allies in Washington.

If we want net neutrality, we should put our own pressure on the FCC. We don’t have the money and the lobbyists that the telecom industry does and we can’t count on the clout of any big corporations whose interests overlap with the public’s on the issue— Google already sold out to Verizon and other big online content providers are now backing away from it (the Amazons and Facebooks of the world have deep enough pockets to dominate the payola market of the future, so they seem willing to play ball at this point). It’s up to us, then, to push the FCC to do net neutrality right this time.


http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/01/17/net-neutrality-is-over-unless-you-want-it/feed/ 3
On Leaving the Game Early http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/06/20/on-leaving-the-game-early/ Thu, 20 Jun 2013 13:00:21 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=20609 The dominant storyline that emerged in the wake of Tuesday’s thrilling victory for the Miami Heat in game six of the NBA Finals was not Tim Duncan’s second half disappearance, Ray Allen’s clutch three, or even the victory of LeBron James’s hairline over his headband. It was the fact that several hundred Miami fans headed for the exits early when it appeared the San Antonio Spurs were on their way to victory, then tried to re-enter the arena upon discovering the game had gone into overtime. The Internet exploded with paroxysms of e-finger-wagging, and justifiably so, for the most part. It’s one thing for Hollywood executive-types to duck out of Chavez Ravine after a couple of Dodger dogs, but it’s another thing entirely to skulk toward your car when Earth’s greatest sportshuman has 30 seconds left in an elimination game.

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 8.35.18 PM

Sports writer Bomani Jones captured Heat fans leaving Tuesday’s game early.

During the game’s commercial breaks, I browsed cable news coverage of the George Zimmerman trial, America’s most recent instance of centuries of systemic racism distilled into one man doing a very dumb thing with a gun, then cowering beneath the defense of the even dumber Florida law made possible by the dumbest amendment in our Constitution. One pundit decried Zimmerman’s defense attorneys for articulating something akin to an Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer logic in their pursuit of jurors unbiased by media coverage of the shooting last year. “What is going on in Florida tonight?”, the pundit asked incredulously. I then caught snippets of The Daily Show’s coverage of recent immigration reform debates, in which John Oliver lambasted former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and current Florida Senator Cottonmouth for deciding it might be politically expedient to curry the favor of Latino voters in order to re-color Florida red for 2014 and beyond.

I lived in Florida this past year as a visiting assistant professor at Rollins College, a liberal arts school tucked away in a tony suburb of Orlando far removed from central Florida’s exurban theme park sprawl, yet intimately bound up with it economically and culturally. As such, I’ve developed a deeply ambivalent relationship with the state’s perceived wackiness so taken for granted in American media. On the one hand, I’ve been eager to disabuse visitors of the notion that Florida is all beaches and bath salt-huffing loonies, that it has all the same amenities and experiences necessary to sustain the habitus of “enlightened” academic-types. On the other hand, I’ve often been just as eager to join the chorus of pshaws whenever something from the Florida Man Twitter feed makes its way into national news.

More than anything, though, I’ve come to embrace this ambivalence and admire Florida’s totemic hold over the American psyche. Most of us have some version of a love-hate relationship with the place we’re from or where we live, but few outside our respective hometowns have strongly held opinions about these places in the same way non-Floridians do about Florida. It has been strange to absorb outsiders’ misguided conceptions of Florida from within it this year, one that began for me with the state again playing a contested role in the Presidential election and ending with the run up to what will likely be the highest profile American court case since that of O.J. Simpson. But it has been even more heartening to see the extent to which Floridians take outsiders’ diagnoses of their home state in stride.

Florida is such a loaded signifier that any mediated discourse about goings-on within its borders is quickly sloughed off as misrepresentative of a more serious, flattering, or authentic American experience. Zimmerman’s trial thus becomes an opportunity not to examine the country’s continued racial tensions and gun culture, but to excoriate a disturbed vigilante in some lawless backwater. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush courting Florida Latinos affords us not the occasion to consider the increasingly heterogeneous cultural identities of American immigrants, but the chance to speculate wildly about the 2016 Presidential election and wonder who’ll win the state. And those leaving Tuesday’s game early are not exhausted basketball fans just hoping to sleep six hours before work in the morning, but fairweather scenesters eager to party on South Beach. As I leave Florida next week, I’ll do so with a renewed skepticism of these and so many other snap judgements about the state, knowing that there might not be a more accurate microcosm of what American culture is right now–for better, for worse, and everything in between–and what it is becoming.


What Are You Missing? Apr 28 – May 11 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/05/12/what-are-you-missing-apr-28-may-11/ Sun, 12 May 2013 13:05:45 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=19866 WAYM-Iron Man 3Ten (or more) media industry news items you might have missed recently:

1) This installment starts with news that that I’m sure no one missed. Iron Man 3 made its worldwide debut, but all eyes were on China, which put up a respectable $21.5 million on opening day. In North America, our $68.3 million opening day brought IR3 within striking distance of a half-billion dollar box office after less than two weeks of release. Keeping all of that in mind, can you really blame RDJ?  But life’s not all about the Benjamins, friends. Apparently, Tony Stark is doing good business (“business”?) among pirates, who elevated IR3 to #3 on TorrentFreak’s list of the most illegally downloaded films. Haven’t seen the movie yet? Here are some other ways to enjoy the atmosphere: becoming Iron Man, keeping up with Robert Downey, Jr., on Sina Weibo, or basking in RDJ’s charisma.

2) Speculation about NeXtBox – can we make this a thing? – is picking up ahead of a launch event set for May 21. Exact details about the release date, price, and specs are yet to be revealed, but as I get on in years, I find what matters most is that I be allowed — encouraged even — to play alone. What do we know about NeXtBox? Well, apparently it supports a projector system capable of making you wish that you didn’t have so much furniture. Don’t invest in a blank wall yet, however; Illumiroom may not be ready for Microsoft’s next-gen rollout. If you’re not on Team Microsoft, there’s always the PS4 to look forward to.

3) The future is arriving at the speed of time, and next-gen gaming systems are just the start. San Francisco played host last week to the first NeuroGaming Conference and Expo, where “ineluctable modality” was just a string of cool-sounding syllables. Commercial potential for games that track player heart rate, brain waves, pupil dilation, and a host of other physiological data is still slight, but Google Glass may help start-ups find a direction. We all saw Strange Days, right? Less pie-in-the-sky are developments in controller design. Thalmic Labs’ Myo promises “effortless interaction,” bringing us all one step closer to living out our childhood fantasies or five steps closer to saying, “Remember when…?” Also, this exists.

4) Let’s pretend this is a surprise. Google Glass is coming, presumably for people more interesting than myself, and some of the source code has been released, so developers have been put on notice. What are the possibilities? Where to start: wink-based photography, making Vine videos, making and uploading YouTube videos, ARG gaming (a covert valorization of early adoption?), Facebooking, and updating your software. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows; get a head start on worrying about surveillance, privacy, basic social interactions, keeping expectations realistic, and not looking like a jerk. And you don’t have to be excited about the tech itself to enjoy the ad campaign. White Men Wearing Google Glass has made a game of tracking down the instrument’s target demographic. So far, though, I’m most concerned about a different set of would-be users. Finally, I’m going on record. Google Glass is still only playing second-fiddle. The Large Hadron Collider (or any particle accelerator) exists; for the rest of us, there’s Google Glass.

5) First, some context: The Syrian Electronic Army has been around the digital block a few times, becoming something of a nuisance for high-profile critics of the Assad regime. The group’s latest target was The Onion Twitter account, where it posted a number of pro-Assad and anti-Semitic tweets just because they couldn’t take a joke. The Onion responded as you’d expect: one news story poking humor at the hack and another announcing tighter security. (When connectivity is a weapon, I feel compelled to point out that feelings of levity should be brief. See the end of the WaPo story for evidence.)

6) How are things at DreamWorks? Awesomeness abounds.  It’s overflowing even, so they’ve sent some to China. But is ‘awesome’ for DreamWorks ‘awesome’ for everyone? It may be for a selection of YouTube content providers. Subscription channels are coming. Big Bird may be involved, but WWE isn’t biting (for now?).  As much as things change, other things remain the same…unless this happens. That would be a fairly significant development.

7) Netflix’s streaming service lost almost 1,000 titles on May 1. Users and the media took to calling the event Streamageddon, but I was partial to Apocaflix. Netflix (see, it’s right there in the name!) has begun testing new layouts, which makes me wonder if Facebook has conditioned us to complain. Then again, Netflix has its competitors to think about, and they do seem to be cropping up. If the market gets tight, there’s always money in the banana stand.

8) A smattering of stories about trademarks and copyrights… Instagram has the dubious honor of having its name informally tacked to recent British copyright legislation. Do you think Warner Bros. performed a “diligent search” before being sued for its unauthorized use of Keyboard Cat and Nyan Cat? Barry Diller is calling broadcasters’ bluffs over Aereo, and Fox is doing its best Shredder impression, claiming the court battles are just beginning. For what it’s worth, Aereo is taking steps to keep that from being the case. Also, who has the heart to argue with Harper Lee? If Gregory Peck were still around, I bet he’d get involved.

9) What’s killing cinema? Steven Soderbergh has the answer. “[F]ive and a half hours of mayhem,” you say? It sounds so Shakespearean, but I expect it signifies more than nothing. Don’t worry about Soderbergh, though, he’s got a Plan B, available for your enjoyment here.

10) What else is there to talk about? Rest in peace, George Jones, Deanna Durbin, and Ray Harryhausen. In case you’re unfamiliar with any of them, here’s the greatest country song of all time (by some accounts), an appreciation and analysis of fan appreciation for Durbin, and a primer on Harryhausen’s work. (The pay wall won’t block the videos, so click on through!) Ender’s Game is on the way. To my father’s great shame, I’ve never read it. As for Mr. Card, he depresses me too much to make a joke. Star Wars day happened. Nielsen says welcome to the family. And get ready for some AIP remakes!

11) What?! That’s right. ELEVEN! One extra for the art and science that caught my eye. Here’s a stop-motion movie using atoms as pixels, meaning there’s at least one digital format with resolution superior to 35mm film. Roger probably would have stood his ground on this one. I know people who actively change the typeface of their handwriting every few years. Earth driving is easy. The mysteries of the cosmos are out there to be discovered, but don’t forget that people can be pretty gosh darn cool, too.


Two Futures for Football http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/01/30/two-futures-for-football/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/01/30/two-futures-for-football/#comments Wed, 30 Jan 2013 14:00:58 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=17533

Star NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide in May 2012. It was later concluded that he suffered from chronic brain damage.

Each year, it becomes a little harder to be a football fan. I have loved the game since I was 11, and I always intellectualized it, an attitude that is now rewarded with the renaissance in football analysis online.  But while I could somehow always look past the politics of the game, the new findings on concussions seem to be a whole other level of destruction visited upon the bodies of players.

It may be Super Bowl week, but concussions are in the news.  The Atlantic ran a short piece on scans showing brain damage in living former players.  Scans of Junior Seau’s brain show that he had a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma at the time of his death even though, according to the NFL, he “never” had a concussion.  The news is only going to get worse, not better, for the NFL.  Helmet technology is not going to save players, especially when there’s resistance to even marginally better helmets.  Players who have come up in the system won’t report concussions when they should (they’re the same with other injuries) and the league head office seems mostly interested in head injuries as a PR problem, a problem that continues to get worse as public figures–including the US president now–say they would not let their sons play the sport competitively.  I can imagine two possible futures for football in this situation.

1.  The first is that the game will continue to change to the point that it is substantially different from what it is even today.  Obama isn’t the first president to weigh in on football violence.  If we go back to the 19th century, people were getting killed because of the rules.  In 1906 Teddy Roosevelt threatened to ban organized football, because college students were getting killed off–the 1905 season saw 19 player deaths and countless major injuries (Roosevelt’s own son played for Harvard and suffered a malicious broken nose).  In response, the NCAA legalized the forward pass and changed several other rules, such as banning mass formations and the creation of a neutral zone at the line of scrimmage.  This was after rules changes in 1894 banning the flying wedge and other exceedingly violent tactics.

From the standpoint of concussions, we are at some point before 1894.  If someone like Seau can go through his career “without” a concussion (note the scarequotes) and probably die as a result of brain injuries, then massive reforms are needed.  I don’t have a clear program, but in essence what we’re looking at is either a transformation of player equipment to make it less possible for them to hit each other as violently as they do, or a transformation of the rules to further favor offensive players, perhaps making it more like arena football or flag football.

2.  The other future for football is visible in the state of boxing today.  Boxing was a major American sport for a large chunk of the 20th century.  Boxers were cultural icons and the sport, like football, developed a following among intellectuals.  But today, it’s fan base is heavily diminished.  It has lost a good deal of its cultural respectability, its cache with fans, reporters and writers, and most importantly, with parents whose children might go into the sport.  Part of this is a business question, having to do with boxing’s relationship with television, and the challenges it now faces from competitors like the Ultimate Fighting Championship.  But boxing also declined because its violence went from being aestheticized by sportswriters and other intellectuals–as “the sweet science”–to being deplored by those same people.  The NFL and NCAA clearly have good media sense, and it is possible that their PR machine can hold back the attacks that will come as more information about the extent and effect of player concussions is revealed.  Perhaps football will become more of a lower class sport, as parents who have intellectual or knowledge-economy ambitions for their kids move away from it.  It’s one thing to think your kid might break a bone or tear a muscle from playing a sport.  The prospect of brain damage resonates quite differently with parents.

Today, boxing suffers from an association with its athletes as members of a disposable class of society.  If football’s rules don’t change, it risks joining boxing as a sport whose athletes will be imagined as disposable people–even more than they are now.

However much I like the sport, and however much money is behind it, I don’t think we’ll see the same game in a generation’s time.


http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/01/30/two-futures-for-football/feed/ 1
The Domestic Apolitics of 1600 Penn http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/01/11/the-domestic-apolitics-of-1600-penn/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/01/11/the-domestic-apolitics-of-1600-penn/#comments Fri, 11 Jan 2013 15:00:28 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=17301 1600 Penn, is surprisingly devoid of conventional political engagement, instead relying on traditional domestic comedy in the form of interpersonal conflict.]]> 1600 Penn is not The West Wing with yuks. In fact, considering that it takes place in the White House, the pilot (“Putting Out Fires“) is surprisingly devoid of conventional political engagement. Instead, it acts more as a traditional domestic comedy with the twist that its location contrasts the mundane familiar conflicts. But while this series seems to be an outgrowth of the triumph of style over substance in presidential politics, it holds the potential to highlight the way our current climate politicizes certain personal issues.

By most accounts (conventional, moderate left) political comedy has flowered on American television in the last decade or two. And while scholarship on this phenomenon largely focuses on the more daring fare offered by late-night and cable programming, this trend is not foreign to primetime. In addition to the old stalwart Simpsons, the various Seth MacFarlane shows – especially American Dad – engage in national political issues on a near-weekly basis. Parks & Recreation offers another example, as Ron Swanson’s lovably misguided libertarianism contrasts with the lessons showing government efficacy – itself a political stance.

Judging by the pilot, NBC’s new 1600 Penn does not fit into this historical trajectory. Instead, it relies on traditional domestic comedy in the form of interpersonal conflict. Admittedly, the officious situation of this Bill Pullman and Jenna Elfman-starring situation comedy adds a level genre contrast. This amplifies the inherent humor in stock conflicts like those between a button-down father and mischievous child implicitly, and by the press secretary’s attempts to minimize the scandal. However, even in the one plot that is explicitly political – trade negotiations between the U.S. and Brazilian leaders – there are few points to be made about anything explicitly political except for throwaway asides (“Your trade deal will crumble like your nation’s aging infrastructure,” taunts the Brazilian president). Instead, the respective presidents’ machismo exacerbate tensions that are ultimately resolved more by personal appeals and pathos than economic reasoning. And while this resolution is ostensibly political, it serves the narrative more as a way to resolve personal conflict.

To this end, 1600 Penn invites comparisons to That’s My Bush, the short-lived 2001 Comedy Central sitcom parody by South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone. That’s My Bush operated on a similar conceit of contrasting the high seriousness of the presidency with idiotic sitcom plots, but did so with a sense of gleeful absurdism. Even so, Parker and Stone managed to insert trenchant political points about abortion and capital punishment into their show despite the fact that the primary target of its parodic satire was not politics, but rather the sitcom style itself.

But in its own way 1600 Penn serves as an interesting document regarding the presidential politics of the last fifty years. Historians like Mary Ann Watson and Barbie Zelizer point to Kennedy’s friendly relationship with television as foundational to the current familiarity we have with presidents. Indeed, the recent 2012 presidential election was at least the sixth in a row where discourses surrounding the losing major party candidate focused on his personal squareness and/or stiffness in contrast to the winning candidate’s relative personability and/or coolness. In a world where the personable has become political, we should not be terribly surprised that a television show taking place in the White House can act largely as an nonirionic dom-com.

On the other hand, elements from the pilot show promise to engage with significant political issues. Two seemingly burgeoning serial plots involve female sexuality in instances where the personal is explicitly political. As the first episode draws to a close, the thirteen-year-old daughter reveals that her crush is named Jessica. Will the first dad (Bill Pullman) be persuaded at the last minute to veto some piece of anti-gay legislation because he comes to understand the issue through the eyes of his daughter’s innocent and inherent love? Or will this become a comedy of hiding her scandalous sexuality? It is difficult to imagine this narrative element not becoming a more pointedly political issue as the series develops.

Similarly, we discover in the pilot that the elder teenage daughter is pregnant, and not by choice. Assuming it lasts long enough, the first season could also offer this plot up as a point for political discussion regarding reproductive rights and unplanned teenage pregnancy or it may become a comedy of bad excuses for morning sickness and loose-fitting blouses. If the latter, it will be obvious that 1600 Penn is explicitly avoiding political engagement of any depth. And if that is the case, why does this show exist?


http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/01/11/the-domestic-apolitics-of-1600-penn/feed/ 1
Crowdsourcing as Consultation: Branding History at Canada’s Museum of Civilization (Part II) http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2012/12/19/crowdsourcing-as-consultation-branding-history-at-canadas-museum-of-civilization-part-ii/ Wed, 19 Dec 2012 12:00:27 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=17024 Canadian Museum of Civilization IIIn Part I of this entry, we discussed the recent announcement by the Ministry of Canadian Heritage that the flagship Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) will undergo a major transformation by 2017, becoming the Canadian Museum of History (CMH). The newly revamped museum will discontinue three longstanding installations to make way for a large exhibition focused on national history, which will constitute about half the museum’s total exhibit space. As we noted in yesterday’s post, the museum’s new focus on showcasing national “achievements,” “accomplishments,” and “treasures” appears to be a way to elide objects and events from the country’s past that tell a less positive or celebratory narrative.

What is also clear from the estimated date of completion in 2017 is that the government is placing symbolic considerations over practical ones. The CMC and Heritage Minister James Moore’s insistence that the renovated CMH will be open to the public by Canada’s 150th birthday indicates that they must either already have significant plans in place, or they have dramatically underestimated the amount of time it takes to design and curate a major exhibition. This only highlights the lack of serious consideration of the process of public deliberation. While museum staff have been holding community meetings in cities across the country to solicit ideas, their ability to take such ideas seriously based on their timeline is unlikely. Moreover, it’s unclear who exactly will be included in community meetings: citizens must express interest by clicking on a link on the museum’s website and then wait to be invited.

Consider the consultation process that took place during the development of the First Peoples Hall. When initial plans were deemed “too traditional” as a result of the controversy surrounding “The Spirit Sings” exhibit in the 1980s, museum planners went back to the drawing board. While the CMC’s inaugural exhibits opened in 1989, it took the museum about 14 more years to finally open the First Peoples Hall in 2003. Among the factors contributing to the delay was the formation of a consultation committee with First Nations people in accordance with recommendations from the Assembly of First Nations and Canadian Museums Association. In the case of the First Peoples Hall, First Nations participants actually helped to shape the themes and content of the exhibit from the planning stages.

As another point of comparison, the Museum of Anthropology of British Columbia (MOA) was similarly involved in a major design and renewal project titled “A Partnership of Peoples.” Collaboration was key in MOA’s case as museum staff worked with Musqueam and other local communities to design physical and digital museum spaces. Plans were in place in the 1990s for an expected completion in 2010 to allow ample time for collaboration and creation of spaces that would be useful and accessible to those communities represented within them.

CMC curators know very well what it means to participate in meaningful consultation and the benefits it can have for curation, if taken seriously. Many of the museum’s curators are talented, creative and in tune with some of the most important museological shifts occurring over the last 30 years, including the sensitive issues concerning exhibition and Canada’s First Peoples. However, it is not necessarily those talented museum staff who are driving the CMC to CMH transition, and whether those staff will be there throughout or after this transition is uncertain.

This too is troubling. Although the CMH plans to continue to include Aboriginal histories in the new exhibit, it is likely to include them only as they pertain to the teleological drive and accomplishment-oriented focus emphasized by the Canadian Government. The Heritage Minister’s vision for the museum includes a history told from the perspective of a conservative, non-First Nations majority. This suggests a convenient amnesia about past curatorial shifts in Canada toward meaningful consultation and collaboration with First Peoples and with Canadian citizens more broadly.

In the meantime, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has threatened to take the federal government to court for failing to hand over documents related to residential schools in violation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Despite the millions of dollars allocated to the CMH reorganization, the National Research Centre, which will house some one million records related to Canada’s Indian Residential Schools legacy in accordance with the TRC’s Mandate, remains unfunded by the government. While the CMC’s “What is the Canadian Story?” timeline currently lists the closing of the last residential school in the 1990s as a seminal event marking the nation’s history, what of the 120 years prior to that when the schools were in operation? The testimonials of residential school and intergenerational survivors about abuses in these state-mandated institutions are not in line with the discourse of national “accomplishments,” “achievements” and “treasures” which are apparently to constitute Canadian history in the new exhibit. Perhaps this is why the CMC claimed they did not have the resources to support the TRC’s collection. In this context, it seems that meaningful conversations about historical issues that are actually formative of Canadian culture are less compelling than the $25 million incentive that comes with the tunnel vision of the Ministry of Heritage.