To Protect and Tweet

There’s been some discussion recently of the NYPD’s initiative to educate members of the force in the best practices of social media. On more than one occasion, police officers have used their personal social media accounts to share controversial or inappropriate ideas and information. The NYPD also attempted to use its Twitter account to engage the public in a positive way by soliciting followers for stories about experiences with officers, which went completely off course…as one might expect.

The article linked above gives an update about the NYPD social media education, noting:

The training, which is accompanied by a 34-page Twitter manual, advises dad humor, animal rescue photos, and hashtags. It warns against seeming insensitive and fighting with trolls. “Twitter combat is unwinnable and it’s pointless,” Zachary Tumin, a deputy commissioner, told the Journal. So far, police are pleased with the results — they’ve grown their Facebook fans 40 percent and their Twitter following 80 percent since January 1st. There are now more than 40 official NYPD Twitter accounts, and the department says that dozens more are coming.

All of this got me thinking. The authority of the police department is built on more than a legal mandate. The citizenry has to buy into the authority of the police department in order for officers to do their jobs. At the heart of this “buy in” is trust and faith. The social media failures of the NYPD have more to do with a loss of trust and faith than they do with social media protocols. Beyond all that, though, the authority of the police department is built on a fragile set of symbolic tools. Although the police are, in theory, “of us,” as citizens on patrol, they are necessarily distinct from us in their training and the privileges and responsibilities that go along with it.

Police have the unique right to detain, arrest, or even kill other citizens, as circumstances dictate. It’s imperative that the public recognize and respect officers’ right to do so, and so they wear a uniform and a badge. The uniform and the badge are differences that make a difference, symbolically speaking. The uniform and badge distinguish each officer as 1) an authority separate from the typical citizen, and 2) a member of a broader system of authority trusted with the care of the community. The symbolic association is crucial and so officers have very specific protocols for wearing their uniforms and strict guidelines for the use of their badges and weapons.

In turn, the public recognizes the authority vested in the uniform, badge, and weapon and agrees to cooperate and obey commands. Of course, the reality for too many folks is that the uniform, badge, and weapon have become symbols of antagonism, racism, and corruption.

Twitter, and other forms of social media, are biased towards the familiar. They bring celebrities and politicians closers to their fans and constituents. This frequently backfires because celebrities carefully cultivate an image, which can be destroyed in a heartbeat with a single inappropriate posting, or the revealing of private photographs, as in the unfortunate case of Jennifer Lawrence and company. Politicians are similarly afflicted. The closeness of Twitter and other social media is what makes them compelling. Authority is undermined as the previously unreachable and unattainable interface with the public in a way that resembles “rubbing elbows.” This has created a new reality when it comes to fame, but it also poses a dilemma for institutions like the police department.

The struggle for police departments today is the public’s increased exposure to brutality, corruption, and the inherent racism in the system. Every incident involving an officer roughly, brutally, or fatally assaulting a civilian erodes the authority we’ve tacitly agreed upon. Our new windows into corners of the world, far flung and distant, has open our eyes to the experiences of others and the horrors of power. NYPD thinks social media also contains the antidote to this dilemma. Certainly, the old thinking about Public Relations would suggest that damage control must counter negative coverage. Meet the negative with an overwhelming positive to spin reality and you can win the PR war. In fact, the closeness of social media can’t help but undermine further the authority of the police because it’s in the nature of the technology itself. Fuzzy kitties and dad stories will meet stories of brutality on the battlefield of social media, but the content hardly matters as much as the bias of the medium. The public will no longer recognize the uniform and the badge as distinguished marks of authority, whether they feel antagonism or delight. Social media (and really electricity is the lifeblood here) guarantees the elbow-rubbing and the dispelling of old illusions cast in the guise of uniforms and badges.

Tweet away, NYPD….for all the good it will do you.

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A Tale of Two Cities

Well…actually this is two tales of one city…or two tales from one block in one borough of one city…but you get the point.

I routinely walk the length of Fordham University’s campus on the outside, along Fordham Road. As in love as I am with my academic community, I’m equally in love with the very different community that lives and works just outside the fences. I could go on and on about the things I love about the Fordham section of the Bronx and the many people I’ve come to know in my day-to-day dealings around “the office.” This is a small slice of life, and nothing more.

I jumped off the train in front of Fordham’s campus gate and began to walk up the block as I do most days. Not long after my little walk began I spied a woman in a pink t-shirt leading her 6 or 7-year old son by the hand. As I got closer, I could make out the design on the front of her shirt. It was a take on the popular “Thing 1″ and “Thing 2″ red t-shirts from Dr. Seuss’ “Cat in the Hat.” Instead of “Thing 1,” however, the woman’s shirt read, “Bitch 1.”

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 2.06.54 PM

I can’t pretend to know why the woman bought the shirt, or why she would wear it proudly with her son in tow. From a distance, it’s easy for me to wonder what kind of lessons the little man might be learning about women and respect and life. Still, I couldn’t help but think of the 1995 KRS-One track “Ah Yeah,” an ode to black militants as were many “conscious” tracks of the mid-90s. KRS-One says, “Black woman you are not a bitch, you’re a goddess.” The woman I saw was not black, but the sentiment still rang true to me regardless of race. “Woman, you are not a bitch, you’re a goddess.” I moved on….

Closer to my building, I approached a man from the rear. He was walking side by side with his 7-year old son, who I would later learn is named Nicholas. The man was wearing a black leather vest with a lot of embroidery work on the back. At the top, the vest read, “Super Stunna,” and below was a logo for the “Stunt Auto Club” of the Bronx. As I caught up to the man, I told him I liked his vest. He stopped walking and talked with me for a few minutes about the auto club. It turns out they do non-profit community work around the Bronx and even did a car show on Fordham’s campus in June. The man, “D,” told me that his son was one of four kids, and that he was taking care of a fifth as if he were his own. He talked about the importance of doing good works, and being involved with his children and his community. 

This isn’t so much a story about the good and the bad of the people I saw on Fordham Road. I don’t assume I know either of them well enough to make informed judgements. It’s a story about how a few moments’ experiences can connect and start a process of thoughtfulness. The mundane moments of life flow and intersect in ways that produce meaning. You just have to observe and participate in life to get the benefit. That’s what living the good life is all about.

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The “Quantum Imaginary”

The term “global imaginary” is associated with Global Studies scholar Manfred B. Steger, who describes the phenomenon in his 2009 book “The Rise of the Global Imaginary and the Persistence of Ideology”:

Let me suggest that there is, indeed, something genuinely new about today’s isms. These shared mental maps that help us navigate our political universe no longer correspond neatly to our familiar mental and geographical spaces built over two centuries on the foundation of sovereign and self-contained nation-state. Instead, ideologies have begun to translate into political programs and agendas of what I call the ‘global imaginary’. What I mean is a shared sense of a thickening world community, bound together by processes of globalization that are daily shrinking our planet. The rising global imaginary finds its articulation not only in the ideological claims of political leaders and business elites who reside in privileged spaces around the world. It also fuels the hopes, disappointments, and demands of migrants who traverse national boundaries in search of their piece of the global promise. In fact, the global imaginary is nobody’s exclusive property. It inhabits class, race, and gender, but belongs to neither. It is an impressive testimony to the messy superimposition of the global village on the conventional nation-state.

Of course, Steger’s idea finds some roots in the work of Benedict Anderson and his notion of Imagined Communities. Anderson relies, in part, on the idea that nations are communities that rely on mediated communication, on mass media, for their coherence rather than geographic proximity. The scale of a nation is too large to rely on face-to-face socialization, and so imagination comes into play. Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism “the global village,” seen in bold above, describes the intensification of relations brought about by electronic communication, where the perception of time and space are transformed, producing a new social arrangement…a new imagination. This is all fairly standard fare in media and globalization circles for the most part. My work involves all of these concepts and then some, but the truth is, I feel as though I’m looking in a rear view mirror, to borrow from another McLuhan wordplay. Electronic technology has been with us for generations now. The evolution of the form has smacked us all in the face, and we’re now seeing an incredibly intense manifestation of electric speed and range today. It’s a very conscious turn of events for the time being, although it’s been with us for a century.

The next “big thing” on the horizon, despite what you may hear about Google cars, robots, and uploaded consciousness, is the turn in quantum communication that’s likely to transform everything we currently know about the transmission of data. In communication scholarship circles, we frequently note the limitation of the transmission view of communication as essentially an engineering perspective, but it’s noteworthy that most communication breakthroughs occur in the solving of problems related to transmission, and later manifest culturally in the ritual forms that shape who we become as a result of our new capabilities. We’re just screwing our heads on about what digital communication means, culturally, but “the future seems to be now” with respect to quantum forms of transmission. If Sputnik ushered in the era of the global theater, as McLuhan argued, what does this quantum turn bring about? I’m going to jump out ahead of this and argue that some form of quantum imaginary will become important to our worldview. Zooming out produced a sense of unity during the global era. It’s argued, for instance, that the environmental movement owes much to the Earthscape photo that showed us, once and for all, that we’re part of a single matrix of air and water and earth. Is the quantum level too obscure to expect the same shift in perception? The fact that we can’t recognize the building blocks may limit the imagination, or perhaps it will make the imagination run wild. After all, it is our human tendency to create impressions of the things we can’t perceive or articulate with our standard senses and language. Will the quantum turn be marked by an inventiveness of language that captures the microscopic level, for better or for worse?

I’m going to keep my eyes on this because it’s what I do and the whole thing is super intriguing. I have more floating around in my noggin’ with respect to the quantum imaginary, but I’ll let it marinate and release it from time to time. Feel free to chime in….

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Let Me Clear My Throat

Recently, I’ve had occasion to teach the first several chapters of Joshua Meyrowitz‘ 1985 book “No Sense of Place.” The premise of the book is that new media produce new situations, if I might take the liberty of boiling an excellent and complicated argument to a blog-friendly little nugget. Our lives are filled with specific situational definitions, or social contexts, in which specific patterns of typical behavior can be observed. Most of the time the relationship between the situational definition and the corresponding pattern of behavior is intuitive and invisible, and so we just go about our business, mainly oblivious to all the little markers of congruent and incongruent behavior.

Take, for instance, a fight. Imagine you happen on a couple of adolescent boys wrestling on the ground. Their faces are red and intense. How is it that we assess the situation to determine whether or not the fight is real or play? Most of us will stand a safe distance from the fight and feel our way through the event, finally deciding something about its nature. “Ahhhh, they’re just messing around,” or, “Wow. Someone’s going to get killed.” Yes, occasionally our assessments prove to be false, but we’re actually pretty good at playing detective in those instances. Why?

The everyday assessment relies purely on intuition and prior experience with both actual and play fights. Unconsciously, we pick up subtle hints about how people communicate verbally or non-verbally during either situation. When we attempt to describe the clues, the game becomes much more difficult, but begins the work of the social scientist, in earnest. That’s the detective game of the trained observer. 

One of the other interesting games is the “paralleling” of social acts between different environments. Identifying the purpose of a particular gesture, allows us to relate it to similar gestures in different situations. The keys to human communication are found in this little game. Meyrowitz offers a few examples that we played with in class. Before opening the front door for a visitor, many people primp their hair and adjust their clothing. This is related to an idealized form of self-presentation required when meeting a guest. Clearing one’s throat prior to making a phone call is similar. The idealized vocal tone and presentation of voice (all you’ve got of yourself on the phone) necessitates the gesture. Meyrowitz is relying on Erving Goffman for this point, as Goffman argues that impression management involves the separation of a front stage and a back stage. The front stage is where our public performances take place, and the back stage is a place for rehearsal and private behaviors. Meyrowitz argues in the book that electronic media have blurred the lines between front and back stages. His concern is primarily television, given the mid-80s date of publication, but I think it’s easy to see how these things play out online, perhaps even more clearly 30 years later.

We promote a great deal of behavior that was once reserved for the backstage. People Instagram their meals, and Facebook their feelings, and Tweet their opinions on religion and politics. Got foot fungus? Show the world. It’s not to say that there are no boundaries between front and back stage. Clearly, the person who shares the photos of their feet risks “unfriendings” and negative feedback. We all live for ‘likes’ and ‘favorites,’ which are positive reinforcements, and react poorly when sanctioned by people in our extended networks. A lot of traditionally back stage behaviors have moved to a middle region, often tweaked before becoming part of our public performance, but a lot of other things must remain hidden. For instance, when posting about religion or politics the risk of sanction is great enough that a bit of “throat clearing” must take place before promoting one’s private opinions to the public performance. When posting a photo of the 50 stitches you received in the back of your head, you parse the multiple images that might be shared, looking for the right angle that reflects the drama you hope to communicate without any unnecessary gore. The back stage must move forward. It’s the nature of our digital media environments, but it would be a mistake to think that traditional behaviors have been completely lost in the process. We just don’t recognize them anymore. All that work you do to edit your status updates and tweets before sharing is just another throat clearing exercise. When you finally post your cleverest of thoughts and discover that you’ve spelled ‘your’ as ‘you’re’ it a bit like having cleared your throat only to sneeze when the other party picks up the phone on the other end.

 

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Mine/11

I was thinking about the anniversary of 9/11 last night with some classmates, and felt overcome with emotion about my memory of that day and the many difficult days after, watching loved ones of the victims hold up photos in the streets. There were so many photos everywhere. The train stations were like living art installations. Mainly, I walk through life trying to forget how I felt in those days and weeks, but it slips back and I welcome it. I find that I need to forget what I witnessed, especially in this world of the recording, but that it’s so important that I don’t forget my personal memory in the face of so many others’ memories and recordings. I’ve posted this in previous anniversaries, but it seems like a thing to do…my own recording….my own shadow of the day….an e-mail that I tried to send as I was in the moment. The e-mail couldn’t ‘send’ as phones and Internet were down all over lower Manhattan, but I have it and ‘send’ it in remembrance…again.

—–Original Message—–

From: Mike Plugh
Sent: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 11:47 AM
To: XXX XXX XXX
Subject: Sad day

As I entered the 23rd street office of this small marketing and promotions firm, my mind was cluttered with the lengthy commute, and the sardine can conditions of the subway car in which I had just spent over an hour.

My bagel was a dollar, and I squinted as I noticed the stingy amount of cream cheese that had been smeared onto it.

I prepared myself for another typical day at the office, turning on my computer and mumbling, “Morning,” to whoever passed my desk.

It was a few moments before 9am, and word rang out in the office that the World Trade Center had been bombed again. A quick correction indicated that a plane had struck one of the two towers. My heart sank, as I called up the photo on the front page of CNN.com. It was a sight that no one could prepare for. It was a horror.

The more frightening part of this tale was the reality that struck, as I made my way down the elevator and onto the corner of 23rd street and 5th avenue. A billowing black smoke poured into the Lower Manhattan sky as passers-by informed me that a second plane had struck the tower. A million disaster films raced through my memory in which Manhattan was destroyed by Hollywood imaginations. A tidal wave, or an alien attack would leave audiences thrilled, and on the edges of their respective seats.

This was no illusion, and there were no thrills, as normal blase’ New Yorkers gaped at the burning landmark of our city, something so easily taken for granted. The terrible scene was a spectacle so awesome that one was inclined to forget the many thousands of lives that must have been lost in the mix. Conjuring that part of the experience was a difficult emotional moment for me, and I can’t help but feel deeply saddened everytime I recall it.

Inside the mood was sullen, as employees scrambled for their cell phones. The land lines had been put out of commission, and it seemed as though everyone knew someone working in the Financial District. Some had family, and others like myself, friends. I still have no word from my best friend Cairo. I can only hope that lateness to work has spared him injury or worse.

The news in our boss’ office carried the saga of plane attacks and bombings. No real word from the president, the mayor, or the governor. Undoubtedly they are all hunkered in some bunker strategizing, while chaos reigns the streets. Many of my co-workers have gone out into those streets, walking their way home, or in caravan to friends’ homes. I may attempt a trip to Brooklyn via Queens and the 59th Street Bridge at some point, an apartment of boxes and half packed items awaiting me and my imminent move scheduled for week’s end.

Another part of me wants to be with my girlfriend Ari, safe in our empty new apartment. That’s a far longer trip, and one I’m not sure is even possible given the state of emergency that exists to this very moment. I’ll be making that decision shortly, but the mundane life that I pantomimed my way through this morning, has been shaken, and that lengthy commute would be a welcome bit of normalcy in this uncertain existence that awaits me from this point forward today.

I can’t seem to get the picture of those towers collapsing out of my head. Icons that I had so closely associated with my everyday are gone, and with them a feeling of security that we all shared until this terrible day.

Where do we go from here? How will our lives change as a result of this terror?

It may sound hackneyed and a bit rah rah, but we’re Americans, and I’m a New Yorker. I’d like to think that we are built tougher than to let this day linger. I’d like to think that those towers will be replaced by something so awesome that words cannot capture it. That’s the way we do things, and I have no reason to believe that anything will be different as the days and months go forward.

The rest of my day in unclear. I don’t know where I’ll end up tonight. I’ll be safe, and I’ll be strong. That’s all I know right now, and I guess when it all boils down to the very basic nature of our lives, that’s all we can really count on day to day anyway.

I’ll call you all when I get this mess figured out, and I love you very much.

Mike.

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The Animal in Man

Warning: This is a critique of the new film “The Wolverine” and it includes spoilers.

In 1982, as an 11-year old, I bought my first X-Men comic. It was issue #161, published in September of that year. Not long after my introduction to the X-Men Chris Claremont and Frank Miller collaborated on the 4-issue limited series, simply called “Wolverine.” That short window at the end of 1982 represented a pivotal time in my love affair with comic books and superheroes. Until I encountered Claremont’s work with X-Men, I’d been a child. I’d fallen in love with the witty, uber-responsible Peter Parker and his web-slinging Spiderman. I knew the campy Batman of Adam West and the colorful and patriotic Wonder Woman of Lynda Carter…the Superman of Christopher Reeve.

X-Men was something altogether different. Yes, there were the colorful costumes made popular in the comic genre when colored ink was first made possible. Yes, there were familiar plot lines of good versus evil. Yes, the arc of the stories still moved towards justice. The key difference in X-Men was the complexity of the characters. They were more nuanced, more flawed, more human. Their powers often prevented them from fitting into mainstream society. Even the most goody-two-shoed of the team, Cyclops, couldn’t live without his special visor, lest he unleash terrible destruction on the ones he loved most. This was his recurring fear. Nightcrawler looked like a demon and was forced into hiding after being hunted, literally with torches and pitchforks. And then there was Wolverine.

When Wolverine was first introduced to the world, in fact, the character was called Weapon X, a Canadian secret agent. It wasn’t long after the character was introduced that Claremont got his hands on him as a member of a new team of X-Men, introduced in 1975. As the story goes, Wolverine was a background character and some discussion was had about eliminating him altogether. As the popularity of the new X-Men grew, so too did interest in the character. It wasn’t until the 1982 limited series, however, that the character began its full realization. In might be said that the Claremont-Miller collaboration made Wolverine, and propelled him onto the comic book stage as a marquee character.

Now, what Claremont knew was that Wolverine was an interesting lead because he represented the struggle between animal and man. The ordered and dutiful life of a secret agent and a superhero, familiar to comic book audiences, could be challenged by the berserker in Wolverine, the animal that could emerge as vicious and unforgiving and brutal. The duality of our humanity in its rawest form came out in the Wolverine story line. It’s worth noting that the Nightcrawler character also played on the duality of his demonic appearance and the deeply Christian character inside the body.

The Claremont-Miller limited series is a masterpiece of storytelling because it’s about good vs. evil on the surface…a hero against a villain…but it’s really about the thin line between man and animal. It’s about the thin line between civilization and chaos, represented in a complex plot line about Japan. It’s a story about duty and honor in conflict with freedom and self-actualization. For the adolescent, in particular, this is a powerful struggle. On the surface, the reader is confronted with beliefs about right and wrong, good and evil, and justice…the old hero story. It’s about overcoming all odds to restore order from chaos. Beneath the surface, the story is about the conflict in all of us. It’s Id vs. Superego. The human capacity for destruction and vengeance and bloodlust is pitted against the thin veneer of control that keeps us from murder when confronted with conflict or injustice. What is that line? When would you cross it? If you won’t, do you long for someone who will on your behalf?

This tension is at the heart of the Frank Miller revival of Batman as the Dark Knight some years later. It’s at the heart of the anti-heroes represented in Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano. What is it you admire in the vigilante? What part of the mob boss satisfies your thirst for order at whatever cost?

When I sat for “The Wolverine” I had some trepidation about whether a big budget superhero film would deal with complexity or fall into the trap of the simpler and less interesting story arc. Would the film follow Claremont’s lead and challenge the audience to love Wolverine despite his brutality? Would the tension between the order of Japanese culture and its historical brutality play as the backdrop for the story? In fact, this is where the film fails at its worst.

“The Wolverine” is a film about a claw-wielding superhero who kills without shedding blood and turns off the animal at the moment it’s no longer needed. He’s troubled and haunted by his past, but he never really broods. He wakes up from vivid nightmares every night, often with claws protracted, but the audience learns to see it as normal, as apparently does Wolverine.

The chief villain in the film is the grandfather patriarch of the Clan Yashida, who Wolverine saved from the atomic blast at Nagasaki. As a prisoner of war, Wolverine witnessed the blast from up close and helped his captor, Yashida, hide in the well in which he was kept prisoner. Despite this intimate relationship with Japan, somehow modern day Wolverine can’t speak a word of Japanese and plays as a sort of gruff Bill Murray from “Lost in Translation” as he fumbles his way around many things Japanese. The Claremont-Miller series wisely makes Wolverine fluent in Japanese and expert in Japanese culture, adding incredible depth and interest in the character and his relationship to the backdrop of the story. They are one in the same. The film relies on Japan as a sort of exotic seasoning to the thrill-fueled spectacle of the superhero story.

There was purpose behind this character point, as Claremont describes in an excellent interview with Sean Howe appearing in “Vulture“:

[T]he samurai culture embodied all the conflicts that made Wolverine what he was. The struggle chronicled in Chushingura, and in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. In this movie, I kept waiting for Logan to start spouting perfect Japanese. He’s been to Japan before, and he’s a warrior. The first thing you do is learn the landscape and the language. In the comic, he spoke Japanese like a native — it had nothing to do with him being brilliant, but with him blending in. It also would have taken him another step away from the traditional superhero.

In fact, the character of Wolverine owes a lot to both of Kurosawa’s ronin films, “Sanjuro” and “Yojimbo.” Those films are masterpieces precisely because they play on the juxtaposition of the unrefined and brutal and the just and heroic. The opportunities to show this complexity in the film were squandered. Wolverine goes so far as to stab an unethical hunter in the hand with his own poisoned arrow, but chooses to walk away when convinced by a persuasive Yukio, who he’d only met for the first time. In that scene there was hope, but too often the rest of the way the audience is spared the true brutality of Wolverine’s wild side. In another scene, he interrogates a corrupt politician, punching him repeatedly in the face. He finally tosses the man out a high rise window, but the man lands safely in a pool below. The Wolverine stabs and slashes, kills and maims, with his claws. He’s confronted by tattooed Yakuza and mercilessly dispatches them, but the carnage is invisible. The audience isn’t asked to pay the price for loving The Wolverine. The audience isn’t forced to deal with the death or the viscera. In fact, his love interest, as a witness, is never forced to confront it either. It’s all too clean.

Now, one can understand that a major motion picture has to pick and choose its battles when it comes to drawing an audience. Blood and guts make Wolverine a different sort of hero for a mainstream audience. He can’t be the equal of Spiderman or Superman in the eyes of a public who’d rather put yellow ribbon bumper stickers on their cars in support of the troops than really understand the death and brutality that keeps veterans up at night. “We support you, but we don’t want to know too much.” That’s the bargain that most folks make with soldiers. Spiderman and Superman make that bargain palatable for us, which is one of the chief points of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight graphic novel. The Batman is a brutal, dirty vigilante that break bones and smashes faces. He’s a terrorist. Superman is a patriot because he lets the public believe in freedom and justice and the American way. Clean, neat, painless.

If we accept the limitations of the blockbuster summer film and forgive the cleanliness of Wolverine’s killing, there’s still plenty of room to mourn. The limited series plays Wolverine against two women, the high society Mariko, daughter of the protagonist Yashida, and the “furio” – wild child – Yukio. Wolverine loves Mariko, from whom he desperately hides the animal. She wouldn’t understand that part of him, and would most certainly reject him if she saw it. He’s the samurai to her, rigid, controlled, honorable. Yukio is an imp. She’s the enabler of Wolverine’s Id. She’s a thrill seeking woman of the streets. She rejects the formality of Japan. She’s poor and she doesn’t much care. Her poverty and her recklessness are her freedom. She uses that to her advantage in tearing Wolverine away from Mariko and for a while he likes it. The conflict between those two, very different sides of Wolverine and of Japan are compelling.

In the film, Mariko and Yukio grow up together. Yashida, the father in the comic, is the grandfather in the film. Mariko’s film father is a heartless and cruel heir to the grandfather’s crime syndicate. He’s essentially dimensionless. He confuses the plot and does very little to add depth to the other characters. Mariko is well educated and traditionally formal in many respects. Yukio is her opposite in appearance, with red hair and thigh high boots, but the film neuters one of the most important parts of the Claremont story. Yukio is adopted to the Yashida family, plucked from the streets and from poverty, as a playmate for Mariko. They’re sisters. There’s no conflict for Wolverine. One is a love interest, the other a companion and bodyguard. The animal isn’t coaxed because we never really see the animal. The missing blood and viscera and rage are measured and controlled and largely invisible. Mariko’s horror never materialized because Wolverine is simply acting as any hero would in pursuit of a damsel in distress. Yukio is similarly neutered. There is no imp. There is no Id. She’s the sister and companion to Mariko, and like Wolverine, only resorts to violence of the “Bam,” “Pow” kind as justice dictates. She doesn’t spend her days and nights playing chicken with trains or jumping off buildings for the thrill…for the escape from Japanese order. She wears both red hair and a kimono.

Instead of Claremont and Miller’s complexity, we’re asked to accept Wolverine as a “cheekier” version of our other blockbuster heroes. The naughty Iron Man, played by Robert Downey, Jr., gets to be a flashy, billionaire playboy but his alcoholism is a minor blip of a plot point in the sequel to the excellent Iron Man debut. It’s a small obstacle to overcome, rather than a potentially debilitating character flaw that adds a human dimension to the man under the armor. “The Wolverine” similarly ends up a film about a guy lost in Japan, chasing the tormenters of his love interest, aided by her adopted sister, and foiled by a dying old man with super armor and his one dimensional venom-spitting vixen. It’s a film about those things, rather than about the animal in man or the tension between order and chaos, duty and freedom.

The scholar of myth, Joseph Campbell, critiques our attachment to the surface of stories. We often get wrapped up in the specifics of the stories we learn about Christ, or Ahab, or Luke Skywalker and forget that the reason they hold so much meaning for so many is because they challenge us to experience fundamental truths about humanity that are beyond our capacity to understand or define. The eternal truths of our myths give us something to work on during this short journey through space. Great story tellers like Claremont and Miller challenge their audience to confront these things, understanding that it’s the complexity that drives our passions. It’s the challenge of the story that makes us fall in love, that makes us live deeply. Stripping away the challenge seems like the common wisdom of most pop culture producers in a commercial environment where maximizing audiences is part of the market picture. Don’t offend. Paradoxically, the opposite is true. I doubt they’ll ever figure that out though.

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Reading is Such a Bohr

[Niehls Bohr] meant to teach us, as have other wise people, that it is better to have access to more than one profound truth. To be able to hold comfortably in one’s mind the validity and usefulness of two contradictory truths is the source of tolerance, openness, and, most important, a sense of humor, which is the greatest enemy of fanaticism. -Neil Postman (The End of Education)

I recently had occasion to assign to my students of Media and Popular Culture a selection from Neil Postman’s “The End of Education,” in which the above quote is featured. The selection, an Introduction and Chapter One, is something I consider both profound and empowering for students, and yet there seemed to be something missing in the class discussion. Now, I’m not oblivious to the type of game that students play in order to get by at universities (or other types of schools), and I expect there’s a healthy mix of students who didn’t read, didn’t read closely, read but only because they had to write a response, and of course read and enjoyed, but don’t feel comfortable speaking up in class.

The thing that was missing, beyond the aforementioned obstacles to meaningful discourse, was outside-the-book-research. For all the powers of information access we enjoy, not a single student could tell me who Niehls Bohr was, and when pressed not a single student had bothered to simply Google the name. I’ve taught Academic Reading to students in the (not too distant) past, and have always made a point, when discussing critical reading, to teach the methods. I’ve taught about previewing, skimming and scanning, writing in the margins and note-taking, and the supplemental use of web searches in finding deeper appreciation for the subject matter, including the background of the author and any references of the sort described here.

Is it that my students weren’t sufficiently trained and/or familiar with the type of reading experience I’ve mentioned? Perhaps. Were they just lazy? Maybe. I suspect that both of those things are true to some degree, but I also suspect that the problem lies at the heart of our education system. These students, you see, come from a culture of schooling that emphasizes testing and a fact-based relationship with the subject matter that favors textbooks and memorization. They’re more concerned with “what they have to know” rather than having a transformational experience through the subject matter. The outcome of the journey is accreditation and vocation. There’s nothing wrong with getting your passport stamped or rounding oneself into a desirable hire, but I suspect that the number of requirements in the system, and the culture of testing, is to blame for the perceived lack of interest in using information tools to enhance the experience of learning.

To return to the quote at the start of this post, the sentiment expressed seems to be among the top percentile of important lessons that an education can bring in a world of close-lived tensions and volatility. In an environment where selective exposure is a real issue, holding comfortably in one’s mind the validity and usefulness of two contradictory truths is a life skill worth pursuing. When exposed to that sentiment, and asked to deal with it in public, my students held back…at least at first. (They do a great job when brought out of the shell.) When distracted by the 1000+ things that they’re distracted with in life and online, how does one punctuate important truths in a way that makes schooling meaningful again? The first step is, of course, to encourage the value of reading. The second is to teach the methodologies associated with question-making and critical reading, which include the positive enhancement of reading possible through information technology. This is a current point of discussion in journalism schools, but overlaps in 1000s of important ways in discussions of schooling as well.

For the record, Niehls Bohr was a physicist and philosopher famous for modeling the atom, among other things, and for his humanitarian work in protecting European Jews from the rise of Nazism. Bohr was a philosophical father of complementarity (which informs the Postman quote further) and designed a Coat of Arms to be placed on his grave featuring the taijitsu, or yin and yang, to illustrate his commitment to a particular scientific and worldview.

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