Voices of Women – Against Silence in “Alias Grace”

 

For people who study media, a production like Alias Grace has much of interest. I look forward to reading and hearing about what it discussed about how the act of speaking is constructed in amazingly complex webs of power, and the possibilities for self-representation for women who are so completely caught in these webs.

In some ways AG is the anti-Downton text, removing the justification of proper social location from the manor house to the Warden’s house. The escort from prison cell to domestic space, conducted by men enforcing the will of the state, becomes an opportunity for routine micro-assaults from the guards.  Director Mary Harron brilliantly brings us so close to Grace, but at the same time respects the character’s self-possession. As a viewer I felt apart from her, but that distance felt respectful, necessary, even admirable. Quite an accomplishment for a character imprisoned for two murders. What, after all, really is a confession?  What does it mean for a woman to take the chance of telling the truth of what happened? Would she be believed?

Among Grace’s domestic responsibilities, she has lengthy conversations with a doctor, who acts as if he is interested in her story. And much of this story is told, all while Grace works on her quilt.

But it is not just one story. We hear and see what Grace says–choosing her words carefully and tailoring them for her audience. Then there is what Grace tells us in direct address as she narrates her situation to the audience. Finally (no spoilers), there is the voice that never gets to speak, that is inside Grace but can only get out when she is shrouded–like she is speaking though a veil that is both marital and funereal. It is amazing and terrifying and liberating when this voice is freed.

It is quite special to experience a story so thoroughly deep in the woods of patriarchy. And it should not be that unusual. The disruption of traditional legacy production models has produced opportunities for storytelling in visual media since the measure of success is so different.

This program remains an exception, but we can hope that it is becoming more likely that stories demonstrating such a clear understanding of patriarchy through displaying its failures can and will be produced.

Marvin Bell – The Book of the Dead Man – a start

Martha bought me this collection. She said I needed more poetry in my life. She said she doubted that I would get to it.

I am getting to it now.

The Dead Man of the title reminds me of a thought from Kenneth Burke: “What are we to make of the Dead Man’s reference to Keats? That poetry should come, as Keats wrote, “as naturally as the Leaves to a tree”? To this the Dead man has added the dimension of the minus.”

Burke’s definition of (hu)man states “Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal, inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative), separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order), and rotten with perfection.”

It is the “inventor of the negative” that makes us all the Dead (hu)Man, moralized by the negative. And Bell write that through ‘perfected fallibility” the fragment is more than the whole…

The whole is an answer; the fragment a question. And…

When I Go Away

This Levon Helm performance of When I Go Away is a telling example of what to make of the idea of “swing”. Swing can be the tension around on or off the beat.

There is a Dixie Hummingbirds version of this song as well (go to about 3:00 on the video), but this Helm version is the one that got me. It’s a great notion of what Helm could do.

The highlight is the bridge section, which goes into a four-part vocal that plays with the beat, creating tension over where the rhythm swings. And it works because this song is upbeat but morbid…in other words, perfect as a memorial of the tensions of being both good and bad, deserving and undeserving, sad and joyful. Home to leave my troubles in the graveyard…

The O/\ and the Intersectional

The Hollywood Reporter had an interview  (spoiler warning) with the co-creators of Netflix’s The O/\, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij.  In the interview Batmanglij says this:

“What is the finale other than hypermasculinity meets hyperfemininity?”

I’m interested in how intersectionality figures in this story. It is a story about storytelling, about the authority of a woman to tell her own story, how we judge the truth of the story…most importantly, her control over who she tells the story to and for what reason.

I see a striking contrasts between what we do alone and what we strive to do together. Family is positioned as an organization of relationships that should be interrogated.

Over and over, in this story I see the struggle to gain one’s life and identity in an ecology constantly challenged because of masculine struggles for power. We see the struggle among power as a Faustian bargain for knowledge, as a Frankenstein desire to control life and death, as bullying of several different kinds, and also as a Feminist notion of intersectional transcendence.

I’m very interested in how other people from different subject positions read this text. I’m suspicious that most of what I read online is coming from the same kinds of people (too many like me). I hope there is a wider diversity of reaction to this story than what I’m seeing initially.

It’s also another example of what is made possible by the slightly (but still inadequately) increased diversity of our current media environment.

How should we Think about VR? And Media Learning?

 

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In her 10/6/16 piece Not a Film and Not an Empathy Machine How necessary failures will help VR designers invent new storyforms, Janet Murray offers some compelling points for thinking critically about virtual reality as a media form. The center of her thinking is the idea that VR practitioners are artists and learners, that they are experimenting with the form.

I would hesitate to call the experiments failures, much less call them terrible as she does. Suspending such value judgments are an important risk I think we should take to get to understand how the medium works.

Teacher and novelist Stuart Kaminsky taught me that worry about judgement–about whether something was good or bad, and whether I liked it or not–was a sure way to kill thoughtful conversation. Instead of being about the experience under discussion, the focus shifts suddenly to the speaker and their judgement.

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But Janet Murray’s intention is to talk in helpful terms about what VR could do to create meaning for viewers. Her identification of two central “confusions” sheds light on important questions. She says:
“Confusion One: VR is not a film to be watched but a virtual space to be visited and navigated through.”
Great thought, but I would argue that it is discussion-ending. To prevent that, think of it as a question instead:
“Question One: How is VR a film, and how is it not a film? What is the relationship between something we watch and a virtual space to be visited and navigated through?”
Watching a film is not anywhere near thoroughly understood, not in content, not in form. (Honestly, nor is photography, fiction, music or any other media form that is still changing. And they are all still changing.) I would suggest that, frequently anymore, “TV” is now “film”, and film is now spectacle (See debord).

DebordSpectacle.com

How do we make these determinations? I think it’s less in the thing experienced and more in the way we experience them…or in the way we think when we are creating them (at least in that moment). Or how we think about eating when we are eating them.

Her second point is equally complex:
“Confusion Two: Empathy is not something that automatically happens when a user puts on a headset.”

To misquote the Singer in Merchant of Venice, or Gene Wilder/WW,Image result for wonka where is fancy bred

“Tell me where is empathy bred,
Or in the heart or in the headset?”

Empathy is part of storytelling or imagining, but it’s not all of it. Stories also place us in existential terror, and longing, and the stranger things of desire and repulsion (again, think Wonka). Here Murray is critical of the “You Are There” approach to VR, and its possibilities for eliciting empathy through juxtaposition. Kenneth Burke would have it that we construct ourselves with the experience, and become consubstantial. So maybe Question Two would be: What happens to our position or location when we don the headsets?

Or, “Tommy, can you hear me?”

 

Katerina Cizek’s 10/6/16 response to Murray, Towards a VR Manifesto An Immerse response, takes on some of the “VR is not film” argument (see Confusion One). She talks about what works and what doesn’t work, that the experiences feel like incomplete films, like prototypes. Cizek wants to see more identity and agency in VR spaces. And see more carry-over from games.

I would suggest that we also consider injecting in the VR Manifesto process a significant measure of attention to learning and digital media literacy. Before we get to the point where VR participation is measured as  a precognitive physiological 6x9-webpageresponse (you can see the labs of wired participants approaching now, can’t you?), and the Cartesians take over, we should consider metacognitive possibilities. How do we see ourselves seeing the virtual? What happens to my thinking/sensing when I am in a solitary confinement cell in 6X9?

And in all cases, we should strive for a social justice approach to the medium. Be sure that the people who get to tell stories and make arguments in and about VR represent all of the participants. It would be nice to not have to point out that women aren’t seen or heard, that black art matters, or that we don’t think enough about Sexual Identities and the Media.

Sexual Identities and the Media: An Introduction (Paperback) book cover

“Southcliffe” and the Portrayal of a Journalist

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American culture will eventually have to make up its mind what it wants out of the information-providing professions. I would include “entertainment” in that group, since much of our understanding of culture comes through a combination of real and fictional storytelling. Our understanding becomes accessible in the “truth” of a particularly well-performed role, through a synthesis of real and not real.

The 2013 four-part series Southcliffe (Warp Films/Channel 4) included a central character of a journalist, David Whitehead, portrayed by Rory Kinnear. He’s a great actor to watch, between his moving presentation of The Creature in Penny Dreadful (2014-) (where his power and his vulnerability are performed at the same time), and his turn as Prime Minister Callow (subtle name, eh?) in the first episode of Black Mirror (2011). Callow, as it turned out, was a moment of fictional television getting a little too close to the truth, or perhaps a little too close to what people would like to be the truth but it really isn’t (now memed “Piggate”).

Southcliffe presents a journalist who is a great point for conversation. Reporter Whitehead is put on the mass shooting story because the location of the incident is the town where he grew up, and–as we learn–a place he hated and escaped from because of a personal childhood tragedy. So he covers the story because of the connection, but eventually becomes the story for related reasons.

I won’t spoil anything, except to say that the series made me think of how our expectations of journalists have changed, but not settled down. What difference does it make when a reporter covering, say, Orlando is LGBT? Or the reporter comes from a Muslim cultural background? Or what if the reporter’s dad was an anchor?

Perhaps the demands of “professionalism” would suggest one answer, but audiences seem to want something else. Perhaps viewers need to be clearer about what they want out of their non-fiction and fiction information sources. We watch Whitehead pursue the story about the mass shooting, feeling some disgust at his opportunism. But we are watching a series, knowing some of what it is about, in a way that makes us complicit in his actions. We live in a time where it is simply too easy to despise and discredit “the media” without ever feeling a responsibility to know and communicate what we want from it. And how we are going to sustain it.

I would be interested in what other media scholars make of this character in Southcliffe.

Sad Dissolution of MSNBC

MSNBC and MHP – fading fast a Washington Post account of the latest state of MSNBC’s “transformation”.

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The organization is abandoning the diversity of its program hosts, who are a very talented group. At the same time, the are trying to “up” their “breaking news” profile by joining in to the horse race coverage of the presidential election, and focusing on Brian Williams. Why? Good question. I don’t have a clue. Does he feel self conscious about his damaged reputation? Is he required as the figurehead “mansplainer”?

My best guess is that they are after the revenue generated by thriving conservative TV operations. Perhaps their plan to extend “Morning Joe” will encourage the retired breakfast set to tune in.

But there are two desperately sad observations I would offer. Melissa Harris-Perry does some of the best discussion next to Amy Goodman at Democracy Now. She is a public intellectual, which is so rare these days (peace to Umberto Eco). She always covered things other (white, mainstream, legacy) news operations did not. And even when the territory overlapped, is was presented from points of view that were broadly representative and often unheard (and speaking of OU Unheard, here is a bit about OU Unheard on MHP).

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As she mentions in her staff email,

“After four years of building an audience, developing a brand, and developing trust with our viewers, we were effectively and utterly silenced. Now, MSNBC would like me to appear for four inconsequential hours to read news that they deem relevant without returning to our team any of the editorial control and authority that makes MHP Show distinctive. The purpose of this decision seems to be to provide cover for MSNBC, not to provide voice for MHP Show. I will not be used as a tool for their purposes. I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head. I am not owned by Lack, Griffin, or MSNBC.”

So now here is the lineup in the “news channel” block on the AT&T U-Verse for my information purposes:

CNN, HLN, fusion, BBC, One America Network, Fox News, Fox Business, MSNBC, CNBC, Aljazeera America, NHK, Bloomberg.

Or…

used-to-be-news, hair-like-nancygrace, 1980s-MTV-wannabe, BBC (still the standard), wants-to-be-Fox-by-being-a-little-more-conservative, IS-Fox, IS-Fox-for-pure-capitalism, MSNBC (the subject in question), NBC-for-pure-capitalism, soon-to-be-gone-in-April, what’s-up-in-Tokyo, and (finally) pure-PURE-capitalism.

(Cut to scene of bolt cutters approaching coaxial cable…)

My hope is that Al Jazeera English will return, since, as Jarvis pointed out about al Jazeera America:

They wanted to make respectable cable news.Though that sounds like a decent goal and motive—CNN for smart people, CNN that actually covers the news—the project fell off the cliff when it assigned old-style American TV news people to make old-style American TV news. They were well-intentioned but given the wrong mission: fixing old TV rather than inventing new TV and making American TV rather than making international TV.

Someone (CNN) ought to consider (CNN) making MHP (CNN) an offer (CNN) since quality content would be a good move. CNN. CNN?