Saturday, September 29, 2012

when a joke becomes serious seriously


the nytimes published this update on 9/28/12:
Last Update, 3:17 p.m. Apparently unaware of the unwritten rules of both ethical journalism and satire, an Iranian news agency published an edited copy of a report from The Onion on Friday, without crediting the original or acknowledging that it was fiction.
what this means is that fars news agency took onion's joke seriously. why do i stress joke?

because the reason fars falls for the onion's joke is not a joke. thus, the new york times' "seriously" explains:
The episode might also reflect how it is increasingly easy to come across information online that has been intentionally or accidentally denatured through copying as it is passed along from one site to another, or one social media user to another.
the issue is online information susceptible of becoming either natured or "denatured" (where natured rules out "denatured," or accident and/or misinformation).  

oddly, the new york times also "falls" when it quotes fars' onion quote (that is to say, the context of fars' taking the onion seriously plus the nytimes' "update").

unless information and misinformation are not as cleanly separate as the new york times make them appear. we need a hand from a serious joker, jacques derrida:
either the contextual difference changes everything because it determines what it determines from within: in this case, it can hardly be bracketed, even provisionally. or it leaves certain aspects intact, and this signifies that these aspects can always separate themselves from the allegedly "original" context in order to export or to graft themselves elsewhere while continuing to function in one way or another... (limited inc. p. 78, derrida's own italics)
let's interrogate the quoting sequence to try to get something out of it:

1- is the onion's quote really a joke? which is something the new york times problematically glosses over. it reads: "rural whites prefer ahmadinejad to obama," its subtext conveying  -between joke and serious- the likely stereotypical white-rural tea-party's truism, i.e., "anything is better than a N... as president").
2- is fars' quote serious? perhaps, but our reading, as presented by the nytimes, isn't. yet, as mere iterability, isn't fars' quote (merely by "seriously" quoting the onion's double entendre) putting us on? 
3- how about the nytimes' quoting of fars'? it's meant as a joke on fars', the latter's falling for the onion's "joke" presented as a "serious" instance of denaturing information. yet, surprisingly, the nytimes' ("serious") explanation becomes now a joke.
4- finally, is my own quoting 1-, 2- and 3- "serious" or "joke" or both? am i not "falling" as they fall, their brackets tottering a-la-dérive?

so, what's left?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

for an open minded secularism


we know the story: 1- a mediocre film (laughable?), financed by an individual (who happens to be an egyptian coptic christian), finds its way through You Tube. the film vilifies, distorts sacred tenets of the muslim faith. this is a fact.  2- caveat: if a desecrator knows he can get you, that's exactly what he/she'll do over and over (this french satirical magazine just published cartoons mocking the prophet mohammed). 3- the film achieves its goal of enraging believers throughout the muslim world.

in a situation like this one could expect a vicious cycle of guilt-by-association misperceptions. so, coptic christians have become targets. in pakistan violent protests have left 23 dead and hundreds injured, a christian church burned; even a minister puts a bounty on the film director's head! on the other hand, muslims are presented by the western media as violent, intransigent and dogmatic people. not all protesters have the same goals and motivations. not all protesters are fundamentalists.

 is this newsweek cover telling the truth or hiding it?

these events happen at a moment of perceived denigrations of muslims and their faith by the US's military, which are detailed extensively in the arab news media: the invasion of iraq on a discredited pretext, the images of abuse from the abu ghraib prison, the burning or desecrations of the koran by troops in afghanistan and a pastor in Florida; detentions without trial at guantánamo, the deaths of muslim civilians as collateral damage in drone strikes, etc, which justifies this comment:
“We want these countries to understand that they need to take into consideration the people, and not just the governments,” said Ismail Mohamed, 42, a religious scholar who once was an imam in Germany. “We don’t think that depictions of the prophets are freedom of expression. We think it is an offense against our rights,” he said, adding, “The West has to understand the ideology of the people.”
granted. but killing people & destroying property on the grounds that the film is blasphemous -or that it was made in america- becomes as obtuse as the film itself. the counterargument to this is: "you don't understand our anger" which self-defeats (denying me, a westerner, the understanding such muslim has of me, us). is there a middle point? (more of this later).

blasphemy is as old as human civilization. when will we learn to live with it?

writer salman rushdie

in iran the bounty for salman rushdie's head rose to $3.3 million (though rushdie has nothing to do with the film). this is the statement from the ayatollah hassan saneii:
As long as the exalted Imam Khomeini's historical fatwa against apostate Rushdie is not carried out, it won't be the last insult. If the fatwa had been carried out, later insults in the form of caricature, articles and films that have continued would have not happened.
in case you're interested, here is rushdie's answer.  what sort of religious argument that is not redundant and self-defeating would condemn rushdie to death (again?) over a film produced by someone with no connection with the writer. rushdie and his books have already been a target of bombings (this is before 9/11, before the word "terrorism," as we use it today, was coined). he survived an attack on his life when a bomb exploded prematurely, killing the perpetrator (this site identifies a mostafah mazeh &amp justifies his action).

the dogmatic side of religion is nothing new.

the unforgivable insult is related to heresy (any belief "outside" the authorized limits). blasphemy is already "outside," the unequivocal force of religious dogma (those "untouchable," "unalterable," core truths). historically, dogmas are constantly challenged, provoking the big religious schisms: mahayana vs. vajrayana (in buddhism), catholics vs. protestants (in christianity), sunnis vs. shia (in islam).

for a neutral observer outside of the fray the question is: how could a self-avowed christian -or muslim- be a "heretic" for another christian -or muslim- unless someone is setting incontestable theological limits?  time and again these factions end up persecuting and killing each other. the sad state of sunni/shia relations in countries like iraq & pakistan reminds one of europe's thirty years' war, though one shouldn't rule out other factors besides religion, as marx would point out, such as class struggle, political equality, etc. even as they seem antipodes, the lesson is that religion (against the received view) has never been far removed from people's political aspirations.

in fact, the possibility of an alliance between powers that be is always forthcoming, which makes the more difficult to know whether religion -as it describes and defends "the nation" as a whole- is a freestanding and well integrated body of belief and practice, or merely a rhetorical dimension of the polity. it's hard to know whether one is dealing with the religious aspects of the political system or the political aspects of the religious system. 

an open minded secularism

let's propose this lemma: once a principle becomes sacred, "enforceable by law," it opens up the  possibility of its desecration. the sacred would not have to be incontestable unless there was a possibility of challenging it. looked at it this way, desecration is immanent to the absolute sacred.  

being that the multiple tensions between different religions over matters of doctrine and blasphemy, desecration, etc, are ideologically and metaphysically unavoidable, the limit beyond which nothing is permissible becomes automatically up for transgression.

take the case of new york artist andrés serrano's desecration of christian symbols with his piss christ (late 1980's). one even could make the broader point that his desecration helped us have an important discussion about the limits of freedom of expression vs. institutionalized religion & politics. the tension is ongoing, which is a good sign.
secularism asserts the right of people to be free from religious rule and interference, and the right to freedom from government's imposition of religion upon the people. the state is neutral on matters of belief. having said that, to construe religion and secularism as total opposites, is to be blind to the very metaphysical tenets that i have already suggested above. secularism sets limits which, metaphysically speaking, are meant to be challenged by religious rule.

is there a more interesting way of being religious and/or secular? let's think of religion and secularism as an economy, an ongoing process of exchange. 

so, how do you deal with this loony by the name of terry jones (above) who has attracted some attention by burning korans in his backyard in florida? that one disagrees with his bigoted views doesn't mean that he deserves to be imprisoned or to die.

is this my view as a non-muslim "westerner"? that's ridiculous. there are pro-secular muslims that agree with me.  imagine now a muslim imam burning bibles at the entrance of a mosque in the US. would the imam be granted the same leeway we defend for mr. jones?  if terry jones got killed by an avenging muslim fundamentalist, his killer would be as bad a bigot, plus a murderer. one cannot claim to have a right he/she denies the other.

we must protect the other's rights to ensure that mine -and yours- have a space, which means we'd have to protect the right of the imam to burn bibles as much as we protect jones' right to burn korans. this symmetric -childish- tit-for-tat must be guaranteed. 

can so-called freedom of speech be changed a little? erich bleik writes in al-jazeera:
Freedom of speech is a core liberal democratic value. It must be upheld even when words cause offense. And no amount of violence should intimidate the United States into changing its laws. But it is vital to recognize that America is a dramatic outlier when it comes to the freedom to express inflammatory, hatemongering, racist speech. In this regard, we are different from virtually every other liberal democracy; we are different from what we used to be; and we are different from what many Americans want us to be.
the problem here is that tweaking free speech is already suppression of speech.

racist speech cannot carry the day. who believes in hate speech? the community of hatemongers, which is why KKK has so many fans? we already lived through hate speech during slavery and a good part of the 20th century in america! the problem back then was that discrimination against blacks was encouraged by the status quo. discrimination & freedom of speech are not the same. the first denies what the second defends (which is not to reject that discrimination exists and the more reasons to fight it).

this is the proof. who would think the ACLU would take the side of the KKK? in a secular atmosphere, even an enemy may deserve the space he denied others, which guarantees the symmetry of a perfectible justice. 

and so,         

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"we need to keep a balance." -- tony goldman r.i.p.


We want to create a community development corporation that is designed to create a balanced vision between experimental, low-cost commercial facilities as well as housing and studio space. Tony Goldman

here's my interview with tony goldman for the miami new times back in 2005.

tony cared for sustained, incremental development & had the right view for wynwood. here is an excerpt (still to be fulfilled).
How's the future?

TG: We need to keep a balance. The development is good insofar as it promotes and enriches the interaction of the protagonists in situ. Development needs to go in the direction of "gentlefication." We don't want the national chains coming and taking over. There must be a judicious diversity. I'm in favor of heterogeneity as opposed to homogeneity. We need more Bakehouses [the Bakehouse Art Complex], more artists' housing as live-work studio space that ensures the artistic community prospers -- this together with the blue-collar community and the service community that will work to support it. The area should maintain an edge. It doesn't have to be perfect. I think it has to be unpredictable, with an air of danger, so you don't become complacent.
can tony's dream still happen for wynwood?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

who c___ for whom?


art's most recent fad spills onto the world. it is presented as a symptomatic cultural matter, but the presentation reveals exactly what it hides. npr correspondent scott simon writes this piece & opens thus,
How do I love thee? Let me curate the ways...
as verb, word, cipher, "curate" did not just "hit the spot." it had to happen at a time when art has lost its aura and becomes as redundant as information. the public must be guided through the art noise. only he/she who has the expertise can "heal" art by giving it an aesthetic order ("curate" comes from curare, "to take care of") .  

art is materia prima. huge quantities of generic artfair art, supplied without qualitative differentiation is just artstatic. aesthetic commodities need to be processed, cogitated, conceptualized & publicized. art needs arthoodication (a complex task performed by art experts). at this juncture, to curate means to make something better than it was (artmaking is secondary to its presentation).

on this point, übercurator hans ulrich obrist is very clear:
exhibitions have become the medium through which art becomes known (...) exhibitions are the primary site of exchange in the political economy of art, where signification is constructed. (a brief history of curating, p. 6)
curators present an "order," i.e., the exhibition: the embodiment of the curator's deferred presence. they produce cultural spectacles (not unlike the phenomenon of the human voice, a kind of medium for a non-present subject). not really present and yet, the curator's exudation becomes -the more- manifest: a disembodied "order of things" given in absentia. in an age of virtuality, who doesn't want a part of that?

simon quotes a john mcwhorter, who gets it backward:
John McWhorter, the distinguished linguist, told us he thinks curate abuse is "part of the rejection of elitist categorization in American life ... one can claim to 'curate' the mundane and take on the implied prestige of the art expert.
only that this "rejection of elitist categorization in American life" is exactly the campaign's goal! elitism (i.e., arthoodication) is sold to the masses as a democratic (repressed) desire. said differently, you end up "loving" what you really (hate) want & cannot have.

one last but crucial point: though he plays as the artist's ventriloquist, the curator is another puppet. there is always someone behind, pulling the strings. this ventriloquist really is camera-shy. guess who? 

curators of the world, curate!* (while the market rules). 

* let's abuse (instead of avoid) the c__ metaphor. the best way to get rid of a bad metaphor is to wear it out.   

issue #2 of the miami rail

check it out!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

animals without faces

what's behind this face?

my previous post brings forth a different conversation that needs to happen. after the cambridge declaration a carnivore pet owner cannot say "i love animals" without a moral contradiction.

modern cities exclude all animals except for pets, which are kept confined. there is a possibility that as human animals ourselves, we seek non-human animal company. what does it mean to love animals? i don't mean love as ego-projection. for instance, pet-rearing in america, which boils down to a social practice of ornamental narcissism (thus the resemblance between pet and owner).

but there's an important difference: our faces are different. the metaphor is used by emmanuel levinas: a face for levinas, brings a more basic, essential connection. the face-to-face encounter means 1- the possibility of bridging a friendship, 2- the encounter opens up all sort of ethical possibilities.

levinas didn't really think of animals as "faces" (more of this later). for now, i'd like to stretch levinas' idea to fit non-human animals. the more human the animal looks, the easier the human projection. here, walt disney is a model. the legend goes that he loved animals & introduced a legion to the masses: goofy, donald, ronno, roger, minnie, goofy, bambi. though mammal face-to-face is easier. then there is jiminy cricket. later we have kaa (a python), ursula (a sort of octopus), sebastian (a crab) & aladar (a dino!).

what am i getting at?

disney, not levinas, tackles the problem. language is the divide of human/animal face-to-face. the animal cannot protest the treatment imposed on it nor articulate its environment, which is why heidegger thought animals are poor in world. this is why levinas doesn't walk the walk with bobby (the only animal in the prisoner camp where he spent the war years). jiminy cricket talks and acts smart, loyal & generous. of course, crickets don't talk, but by imagining they could, we can speculate a face all the way down to hexapoda.

the whole idea of face-to-face is that it should presuppose otherness unqualified. if i choose my other face all i'm doing is projecting myself-as-other.

jiminy has a cute face, only too human-like

on the other hand, disney's anthropocentrism reinforces animal bias: big bad wolf is, well, bad. his goal is to eat the three little pigs. so animal-empathy ends up building animal-prejudice. how?

we hate bad wolf because we're competing with bad wolf for three little pigs' meat!

in disney's dinosaur the evil carnotaurus is a carnivore. aladar, the protagonist is an iguanadon (an hervibore). a preselected view of the animal other: hervibores are good; carnivore predators are evil. yet, we don't see that we are the top carnivores! (this is a human blind spot we need to come back to).

disney's thought experiment can be improved. being aware of the animal-as-imagined-by-a-human hermeneutic circle, let's get rid of moral simplifications of animality: animals are neither "good" nor "bad." animals are not moral beings in the sense we understand the term (how about these moments of moral convergence even sacrifice?). the received idea is that animals are not moral because they lack freedom (the question of animal -or human- freedom is too complicated to be pursued here). 

but wait, are we really moral?

is the systematization of suffering upon animals brought up by modern factory farming moral?  twentieth-century biotechnological revolution has turned against animals & the environment. can one really say that this breeding/killing race cycle is about food?  capitalist biotechnology produces cheap commodities for global trade. the intense breeding/killing cycle carries a dangerous trade off of environmental pollution and pandemics
meat eating uses about three-fifths of the world's agricultural land yet produces less than 5% of its protein and less than 2% of its calories. meat production causes global warming through its effects on deforestation, both directly through pasture and indirectly through its use of feed and forage, and also because of the methane, which comes from the stomachs and manure of cattle.

the more animals we kill, the more demand there is and the more animals we breed. as meat consumption increases our environment gets more depleted, thus, producing more need for meat. can we stop this vicious cycle? not anytime soon. in spite of the millions upon millions of animals that are killed each year, they never die. we end up having more of them.

where do they go? packaging does the trick!

it absorbs brutal suffering and waste & turns it into a clean artificial display. packaging reminds one of standard anatomical representations of the human body with insets of representations of the male or female reproductive system: a lactating breast, a vagina, ovaries; body-fragments. they appear isolated, fragmented, in a way that reminds one of pornographic magazines, fragments to be consumed, devoured a bit at a time.

the label details what's valuable: processing company, weight, price, cut, calories, fat, safe handling instructions, etc. what is missing here is the animal's life. but, is a life designed to confinement & suffering really a life? the animal becomes a meat-tasting experience: we discuss cuts, flavor, tenderness, cooking method, etc. if the animal's fate or suffering is brought up, it's considered unpolite.

wolf man reinforces the unbridgeable duality of the "animal" in us. but we can turn the metaphor on its head: wolf man is the pressing to fact coming from the inside (the "other side", our truer? face): the expression of our self-destruction 

the moment the animal face shows up we confront our bad faith. we hate the idea that our meat comes from a vicious cycle of suffering of our own design, but make no mistake, this suffering is narcissistic, i.e., briefly us-as-them in the slaughterhouse (right before the 300 volt electric shock of the captive bolt pistol). nah, what we hate the most is ourselves: our weakness at suffering their suffering.

a defense mechanism suddenly kicks in: now we wished we were animals (i.e., we want to have it both ways: as animals, eating each other in a state of necessity; as humans, enjoying the taste of meat at the restaurant). this second order of hate best expresses why human language doesn't necessarily precludes a face: having language doesn't make us any better.

is there a way out of this impasse? perhaps animals don't need language to have faces (as we conceive of language, anyhow).  
we'll try to tackle the issue in a forthcoming post.