Monday, May 23, 2011

Torture and the State of Exception

Politico recently reported that, according to Bush Administration speech writer Marc Theissen, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed mocked his captors at Guantánamo while being waterboarded. "KSM figured out waterboarding," Theissen said at the American Enterprise Institute last week. "He figured out the limits," and allegedly counted off seconds until his interrogators were required to pull back.

Theissen's comments seem to suggest that the problem with the Bush Administration's waterboarding policy was that it did not allow agents of the government to go far enough. For me, reading from selections of the Torture Memos provides enough evidence that this assessment is misguided at best--and insane or inhuman at worst. Yet somehow the debate about the merits of waterboarding persists.  I have been struck in the past few weeks by the quiet resumption of what I thought was a closed matter: that waterboarding yielded little in the way of useful information at Guantánamo Bay.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The High Life Man, Part II: What Women Want

In Part One of my discussion of the High Life Man, I suggested that an aesthetic transition has taken place in the portrayal of men over the course of the last decade.  Using the new Old Spice Man as my point of comparison, I suggested that the masculinity embodied by the be-toweled Isaiah Mustafa "doesn't derive from an internal code, but from the female gaze."  This ostensibly stands apart from Errol Morris's High Life Man, whose code of manly behavior comes from within: from adherence to an internal ethos of manhood.  To understand what this transition could mean, it seems appropriate to analyze what the High Life Man actually says about female desire (and women in general) and compare that to a reading of the Old Spice spot.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Oskar's Mom: Searching and Loss in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

Words Words Words
I'm not big on announcing "SPOILER ALERT!" but be that as it may, don't read this brief piece on Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel unless you're okay with knowing some things that happen in the end of the book.  Or, in other words: Spoiler Alert.

Oskar Schell never considers himself a detective in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  He's not looking for the solution to a mystery, and instead characterizes his travels around New York City as "my search," telling people he meets that he's merely "looking for a lock."  Of course, what we learn throughout the novel is that the search itself gives Oskar a means of carrying on a day-to-day life in the absence of his father.  It gives him a means of ordering and calming his otherwise inchoate body of symptoms (self-bruises, tics, obsessions about 9/11 and clothing and death, etc).  Oskar fears that the conclusion of his search ostensibly forecloses the possibility of proximity (ie: his extreme closeness) to his father.  Once Oskar finds the lock he worries aloud to his grandfather: "I found it and now I can't look for it [...] Looking for it let me stay close to him for a little while longer" (304).  Finding the lock could never have been as important as engaging in the process of endless searching.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ordinary Politics: Pictures from Michael Mergen

Precinct 7-1, Centerville, TN, 2010
Ordinary Engagement with the Political

Michael Mergen's photography hung at the ArtChicago fair this month as part of an exhibition featuring the work of 19 top MFA candidates from around the country.  Pictures from Vote, a series that reveals the often unexpected contexts in which Americans cast ballots, stood out for their documentary presentation of scenes in which everyday life becomes a stage for political participation.  A Philadelphia native, Mergen began his career as a photojournalist, and is currently a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design.  His growing portfolio of work, which has been featured in Mother Jones and elsewhere, represents an expanding inquiry into the modes of political participation in America at the level of everyday ritual and routine--not just when we feel like we are performing civic duties.  Mergen's pictures stand as an important commentary on the over-saturation of daily life by the political, exposing ways in which citizens are constantly exposed to civic imperatives in scenes of ordinary life.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

"United 93" and OBL

There are a lot of reasons to think about Paul Greengrass's 2006 United 93--not least of which is the film's complicated portrayal of Islam.  Here's my best effort when it comes to relating the movie to last week's events.

Since Osama bin Laden’s death last week, a part of the national conversation has been dedicated to determining how “we” are supposed to feel.  It’s a dilemma.  What emotions are appropriate this kind of event?  Ambivalence?  Relief?  Joy?  Satisfaction?  Perhaps more interestingly, the question of how to feel has often been framed as an accusation.  That is, it’s seemed quite common to hear people asking: “What emotions are inappropriate for this kind of event?” in an effort to disavow certain sets of reactions. I wonder why accusations of emotional immaturity and wrongheaded patriotism have been heaped with such vehemence upon crowds of White House and Times Square “OBL” revelers.  And I want to suggest that the narrative function of United 93 is in part to give us fictional space to experience these emotions without having to avow them.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Derrick Rose and Fan Highlight Reels

Derrick Rose became the youngest player ever to win the NBA's Most Valuable Player award today.  By this point, even if you don't live in Chicago, you might know why.  If not, Sports Illustrated's version of Derrick Rose Central essentially provides all the numbers necessary to make a convincing case that he was the most dominant player in the league.  I'm not going to try to express in too many words the thrill of watching Rose play (though it's something akin to watching a man run downhill and jump off cliffs over and over again for 48 minutes).  Rather, it's a good opportunity to think about the phenomenon of fan-generated highlight films--and how they are changing the nature of sports fandom.

The Built Environment and Photography

The above composite of photographs taken by Hilla and Bernd Becher appeared in the 1975 exhibition The New Topographics: Photographs from a Man-Altered Landscape at the George Eastman House in Upstate New York.  Like many of the pictures in this exhibition, the black and white documentary stare of the camera presents what seems an objective perspective on scenes of industrial production.  The majority of the pictures at the Eastman House were taken in black and white, and were starkly depopulated.  They present stark landscapes created by "man," but devoid of his presence.  Now,  a new show (that I am absolutely flipping out about since my girlfriend told me about it [I might have to go alone, I'll be so annoying])  at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Photography called Public Works demonstrates the multiple directions that artists have taken the lessons of New Topographics

Monday, May 2, 2011

The 9/11 Commission Report as Memorial

The 9/11 Commission Report stands as the government’s official take on “what happened” almost ten years ago on that infamously beautiful day on the Eastern Seaboard.  Perhaps surprisingly, it also stands as one of the most engaging narratives about the history of Al Qaeda and America’s counter-terrorism efforts.  It’s really well written—a fact that surprised many critics when it was first published.

In light of last night’s events—a kind of strange kickoff of the nation’s Tenth Anniversary of 9/11 pensiveness—I have been thinking about other ways to think of the report.  Perhaps we can think of the report, less as a government document, or even as a work of literature.  It’s an instruction manual on what, why, and how we should respect the authority of the state.  In effect, the report acts as a kind of memorial to September 11.  Memorials establish the rules for what constitutes citizenship, and confirm our participation in a fantasy of national belonging.  When thought of as a memorial, it seems possible to suggest a broader importance for this government document.