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
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.


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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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‘Electric Circus’ XLVII

Marshall McLuhan would have loved Super Bowl XLVII. Not that the Canadian had a particular taste for American football, but rather because this Super Bowl spectacularly featured a break down in the medium. A local transformer blows after several hours of hype and pomp, and the field is largely thrust into darkness.

Every time there are televised political debates, I repost a video of McLuhan on the Today Show in 1976. The debate between Ford and Carter featured a break down in the microphone amplification which thrust the circus into silence. McLuhan famously says in his Today Show commentary, “With the breakdown in the technology the audience finally got in on the act.” This is a popular McLuhan refrain, which can be best understood in combination with his assertion that all environments are invisible, like water to the fish.

When the lights go out, so do the microphones in the play-by-play booth and the TV audience sees the man behind the curtain, if only a glimpse.

If only the whole thing would have happened during Beyonce’s halftime show, we would have been treated to an even more spectacular revelation of the circus, but the show went on and in its own technicolor dream coat fashion wove a spell over its audience.

Truly a shocking development. Are you not entertained?

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No really, the map is not the territory, people.

Disputes between nations over territory is nothing new. It’s the stuff of ancient wars, tribal conflicts, and modern diplomatic headaches. Kashmir is a high profile example, as is the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, to say nothing of Israel/Palestine. Part of those conflicts are actually horizontal, where the spaces in which people live, work, and negotiate their culture make up the basis for the fights. Other parts are political, where the symbolic importance of the territory takes over, even trumping the strategic considerations or resources.

The Pacific islands that the Chinese call the Diaoyus, and that Japan calls the Senkakus, are the source of a very interesting cultural battle that has spanned a couple of generations now. “There’s oil in them thar hills” and so a fight has persisted over the claim to the small islands populated by crabs and sea birds. There are several such conflicts between China and Japan, as well as between South Korea and Japan, and Russia and Japan. Lots of symbolic value is placed on these conflicts in the general populations of the nations in question. In Tokyo, for example, one might observe ominous black trucks outfitted with megaphones and sign placards that announce the demand that the Sakhalin and Kuril Islands be returned to Japan. These are far right wing nationalists that find their business entangled with organized crime. Tough, uncompromising, racist, and loud.

China’s rise has prompted new waves of anti-Japanese protesting, and sometimes violence, to the extent that pictures fairly frequently make the evening news in Japan. This morning, as I was enjoying coffee and the Huffington Post, I came across a story that shows how anti-Japanese fever makes its way into the culture of everyday people in China. It’s a perfect example of Alfred Korzybski’s famous aphorism “the map is not the territory” because…well…it’s about actual maps and territory.

One of the hottest items currently sold in Chinese bookstores are maps of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands claiming them as Chinese territory. The notion that people would be so swollen by their nationalist fever to purchase such maps en masse is testimony to the power of symbols in culture. First, those islands bear little importance to anyone in either nation in any practical way. Yes, there are resources that could be exploited and so they have market value, but for two economies of such large scale it’s unlikely that whatever’s there would make any noticeable difference in the everyday person’s lifestyle. Second, it’s not like the islands are going to suddenly host portions of either nation’s population, since they’re just craggy outcrops in the middle of nowhere. This whole thing is about politics, nationalism, and the resurgence of ancient regional pissing matches.

For people to be so invested in the idea of the dispute is comical, were it not so aggressive and violent. I can’t speak to the extent to which the population of China is wrapped up in this symbolic exercise. I know the Sakhalin dispute in Japan is a concern, but only a fringe minority drive black trucks through Tokyo after all. I won’t take sides in the present dispute except to say that rising nationalism is always worrisome, especially when it occurs in parts of the world with large populations.

So, remind yourselves China, when you think about buying a map to show your fever for the cause, it’s not the territory. It’s not the islands, and it’s not the power dynamic between nations that can only be resolved by mutual understanding and compromise. It’s just a picture on a piece of paper.

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Facebookus Interruptis

With a hat tip to my friend Alix Howard, news that a hostage taker in Pittsburgh has been “live-blogging” his own evolving situation has crossed my desk. My first thought was that we’re seeing a 2012 version of Dog Day Afternoon with Al Pacino, but the media ecology thought that immediately came behind the pop culture reference was this Neil Postman quote from 1974:

I might add here, in case you are interested, that in the competition among media for people’s attention, the telephone wins hands down in just about every context . We even have testimony to the fact that the act of love can be terminated instantly by the ring of a telephone. In Media Ecology, we call this telephonis interruptis. Less serious but equally revealing is the fact that on two occasions in the past year, bank robbers in the actual process of being surrounded by police took time out to answer phone calls placed by curious reporters . One of the bank robbers actually said, ‘Could you call back later . I’m busy now.’

Our hostage-taker is just following the rules of the dominant cultural practices as shaped by the communication environment of the 21st century. I’d be curious to know how compelled he feels about updating his status during the ordeal.

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Don’t Worry It’s Just Like the Internet

Some time ago I posted a video of Neil Postman talking in 1985 on PBS about his thesis for the book Amusing Ourselves to Death. In the course of his discussion, Postman notes that USA Today, the nation’s most successful daily paper, had shifted the news sensibility in its daily press run to reflect the new imagistic expectations of an American public more accustomed to interacting with information via television. More graphics, colorful pictures, shorter articles, etc… He even notes that the news box on the street looks just like a television, assuring customers that there’s nothing to worry about, it’s just like TV.

This morning, USA Today announced a “reboot” of their format (interesting and vert telling word choice) for the first time in a generation. To look at the new paper, one is immediately struck by how much the paper looks like a website. The original notion, that a newspaper would take the sensory experience of television was remarkable, but the new iteration is more remarkable still. Websites, which took newspaper as their content, are now seeing newspapers take websites as their content, which represents the odd reversal of a newspaper taking a representation of a newspaper as its new form. Don’t worry it’s just like the Internet.


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