Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Life in the Pissant Swamp: We Are Writing to Inform You That Pharoah Has Requested...

It is amazing to think that within the short space of my academic life, academia has changed dramatically. In the 1970s, when I matriculated into university to study for a bachelor of arts degree 67% of university faculty were tenured. In 1970 adjuncts constituted 20% of all higher education faculty. Tuition at some colleges and universities like the University of California Berkeley and the University of Texas at Austin (two of the finest premier research universities in the world) were so low that they were almost free. A professor from my department at IU, Religious Studies was finishing up his two year stint as Dean of Arts and Sciences by the early 1980s. Grants and loans were readily available, regulated, and reasonable. I received a loan for college from a bank that actually where people knew me as this was when banks were local, the owner of the bank lived locally, and there was a division between commercial banks and casino capitalist vampire banks.

Things had begun to change when I started teaching in the 1990s. Between 1998 and 2008 spending on instruction in America's colleges and universities had risen by 22%. However, in a harbinger of things to come, spending on administrative staff rose by 36%. At the massive University of Minnesota alone administrative hires were up 37% between 2001 and 2012. Between 1985 and 2005 elite administrative hires rose 85% while the administrative staff of elite administrators rose 240%. By the 2000s the professor who served as dean for two years and then returned to teaching had become largely a thing of the past. Todays deans are brought in from other schools, make their name by transforming departments or programmes (not always or even usually in positive ways), and then move on to other schools just as long as the job involves a move up the class and status ladder and hopefully, for them, ends in a college presidency (sound like corporate America? It should). At the same time as bureaucrats increased at American universities student numbers increased at American colleges and universities by 56%. College and university tuition has risenat a rate higher than inflation since the 1970s. Since the 1980s alone it has quadrupled. As for spending in the 2010 and 2011 school year colleges and universities spent $449 billion dollars. 29% of that went to instruction, 35% went to administrative costs even after you subtract college food, housing, hospital, and independent operation costs.

Since the 1990s I have been adjuncting in various universities across the United States. These days I adjunct at MicroMegaStateUniversity where I receive a paltry $2500 dollars per class taught. I usually get two or three classes. Teaching part-time, by the way, is not a part-time job. I have to prepare for classes by writing lectures, preparing materials for class discussion, generate tests, generate paper assignments, grade all of them, answer student queries in person and by email every day of the week, do tasks set me by the bureaucracy--to justify their existence they have to create more and more things for us to do--not to mention teach classes which require as much energy as performing in a Shakespeare play. What makes it all worth it is the benefits we in the MegaStateUniversity system four year and research colleges get for doing all this work for meagre pay. As of April of last year my retirement pension was vested. As of December of 2015 I will have my health insurance after retirement. Hopefully the Koch Brothers and their ilk won't have gotten their hands on both by the time I hit 65. After December of 2015 I hope to never have to teach again.

Teaching is just not worth the hassles, the hassles of whinging kids, grade inflation, holding your tongue while students threaten and abuse you. And than there are the administrative hassles. I just learned that one of my American History 2 classes, US History from the Gilded Age to today, has been "randomly" chosen for the Social Science "College’s Spring 2015 General Education assessment process". What this means is that I have to fill out a bunch of forms written in bureaucratise--bureaucracies have to develop specialist discourses or languages to justify and legitimise their existence and convince interested onlookers that they are doing something worthwhile and scientific (without even realising that hermeneutics put the last nail in naive positivism's coffin long ago)--all for no increase in pay. As one college bureaucrat put it "[p]erforming General Education assessment is an expectation for teaching faculty...there is no extra service compensation for this activity." By the way, I can't imagine a college bureaucrat being asked to do anything similar.

So what does the union that we adjuncts are part of, the UUP, doing about all of this? Very little as far as I can tell. They asked for a raise for adjuncts during recent contract negotiations. They didn't get it and they clearly didn't pull out all stops in order to help us lowly slaves at the bottom of the faculty ladder move even a half step up. In the era of the ever increasing power of the boards of directors (filled to the brim with bankers, capitalists, lawyers, and such) and their administrative underlings all of us, the decreasing numbered of tenured faculty and the increasing numbers of adjunct faculty are working for the Pharaoh and his ever more numerous princes and viziers. Liberal Arts college, RIP. Where is Moses when you need him?

Any resemblance between this blog post and reality is coincidental.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Life In the Pissant Swamp: Slackers of the Student World Unite and Take Over

There are a zillion stories in the Pissant Swamp.
This is one of them.

Once upon a time I taught courses at UAardvark. UAardvark is a state university, one of four research universities in the MegaStateUniversity system of the Northeast United States. UAardvark fancies itself a first class research university but in reality is and always will be a third class American research university in the same class as Ball State University or Kent State University. At UAardvark I taught courses in Cultural Anthropology, History, and Communication. The course I taught in the last, The Idiot Box: The History of Television, had proven quite popular with Communication students and beyond though as time went on the ability of non-Communication majors to take the class diminished.

Because of the popularity of my TV course I was asked by the Journalism programme to do a course on Non-Fiction Television. I agreed to do the class. In retrospect this was one of the worst decisions I ever made in the course of my academic life. I was not prepared for Journalism students, Journalism students who had trouble making sense of the syllabus, Journalism students who had difficulty figuring out that in a class of 100 total points 20 points was the same as 20%, Journalism students who proved to be rude and threatening when I told them something about the Canadian health care system that conflicted with what they had probably heard from some right wing American radio demagogue, and Journalism students who thought that a Twitter post was the future of journalism. The future of journalism 140 characters may be but that doesn’t mean that barely skimming the surface journalism is good journalism. All in all my experience teaching Journalism at UAardvark convinced me that if social media journalism is the future of journalism than good riddance to it. Don't worry dear readers and unreaders, I do realise that UAardvark is hardly the first or last word on Journalism Education in the United States.

But back to my sad tale: Long story short some of these rude students complained about my supposed lack of clarity when it came to what was expected in class. I was called on the carpet by the English Department of which the Journalism programme was a part. I was able to show that everything the complaining students said I didn't tell them was contained in the syllabus for the class which they had apparently not read or not been able to, for some reason, make sense of. I taught the same class in the spring term though it was as dismal as the class I taught in the fall. Controversies surrounding my Journalism sojourn also affected my employment in the Communication Department. I was called on the carpet in that department as well because, according to the Departmental Chair, some students had complained about me. Many of these complaints were similar to those of the Journalism students. Some claimed the syllabus was unclear and that the electronic component to the class was confusing.

The fundamental problem in both cases was that the students did not read or did not comprehend what they read in my syllabus. Additionally, students, who surprisingly at least to me, were largely computer illiterate had great trouble accessing the Blackboard components of the course. I put up all my lectures on Blackboard. I put up links to assigned TV shows students had to watch on Blackboard. I put up discussions on Blackboard that I had to use the carrot and stick to get students to engage in. I had students submit assignments on Blackboard. For whatever reason--they didn't expect a traditional class to have a tech component?--the electronic component to the course which I thought would make the course easier and more interactive, made it harder and more less interactive.

There are several things I have learned in my thirty plus years of teaching. Lesson one: in general students don't read or watch the assigned material before class discussion. When students don't read the material they were supposed to in order to prepare for class discussion the class doesn't work as well as when they do. One has to wonder why these students are in college. Lesson two: students have difficulty navigating electronic components to a course be it Blackboard or Blogger. This observation, by the way, has relevance for what is happening in cash strapped higher education today which sees high tech as its salvation, is that computer components of courses are no replacement for traditional face-to-face classes. In the past, as I noted, I have used high tech in class quite extensively. Currently I use Blackboard sparingly, basically for collecting assignments. Even with the sparing use of Blackboard students still complain and some have actually asked me to return to the old collect the papers in class ways. The problems associated with on-line teaching, by the way, is a lesson I don't expect higher education to learn. It is too "cost effective" to them. Lesson three: students resist referring to the syllabus. Whether I have students read the syllabus on their own, whether I read large chunks of it in class, or whether I have the students affirm that they read the syllabus, students throughout the course of the term ask me questions that are answered in the syllabus. It makes one wonder why faculty even bother to spend hours writing the syllabus. Whether these problems are the product of laziness--when asked why slippers had become prominent attire on campus many students said the reason they wore them was not because some celebrity wore them in public but that they wore them because they were lazy--and technological illiteracy--students are cell phone not computer literate (a variation on the laziness theme?)--and/or something elses, all of these are problems in the contemporary college classroom. They also suggest that the slacker do it for me culture has a strong foothold in the culture of contemporary youth. Lesson three: Part-timers like myself have no job security, a conclusion that is perhaps the least surprising of all these lessons. I was offered another class in Communication conditionally but since I thought I was being treated unfairly I didn't accept the conditions and moved on. When I inquired about whether my services were wanted by Communication in the future I was told that the department was not hiring at the moment, a polite corparatese way of saying piss off. I did. I had no choice.

I know dear readers and unreaders, you are thinking that I wouldn't get in such trouble if I just became a yes man, if I strived to become miss congeniality, and if I just did what I was told. But I can't. That is not who I am or who I will ever be. I guess I am fated in life to be a dissident wherever I go. I blame it on the first book my mum ever bought me and made me read. This book opened up an intellectual horizon for me that continues today. It is an intellectual horizon that doesn't confuse what is with what things should always be. It made me eventually, in other words, into a social and cultural constructionist who realises that much of what is, is the product of power.

Any resemblance between this blog post and reality is coincidental.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Life In the Pissant Swamp: The Bureaucracy and the Peon...

There are a zillion stories in the Pissant Swamp.
This is one of them.

I hope you realise by now dear readers and unreaders that there is a lot of pettiness, backslapping, piss arse power struggles, strangeness, bizarreness, and even surrealism of the Kafkaesque variety that goes on behind the ivory gilded halls of the Pissant swamp. One of the most bizarre and surreal, at least in my opinion, is the mandate that faculty submit their grades within forty-eight hours of the last exam during finals week at MicroMegaState University. I quote an email I received from the College Registrar, "Please remember that final grades are due 48 hours (including the weekend) after the final exam meeting time."

The MicroMegaStateUniversity 48 hour deadline sometimes feels a lot like that the deadline cop and con were under in the Walter Hill film, 48 Hours. As this school terms comes to an end I feel a little like Cates and Hammond in 48 Hours. I have two exams on the last day of finals, the second one ends at 4 o'clock, This means that I have little turn around time to get my finals in. This means, in turn, that what I used to prefer when I tested--essay exams or journals--is no longer practical or possible given the 48 hour deadline. And this means that the emphasis on trying to implant critical skills in our students has become more and more difficult if not impossible in the Tayloresque university. Fill in the blank tests, the kind of test I now give during finals week, has become the test of choice for an old liberal arts dinosaurs like me who thinks that critical thinking should be at the heart of the liberal arts college. The fill in the blank test just isn't a test that sharpens critical thinking.

But this is not the only problem that we faculty labourers have in contemporary academic institutions. There is an additional problem that those of us who teach at MMSU have at the end of the term, namely, accommodating students from the Division of Disability Student Services (DDSS). DDSS allows students with a varieties of disabilities to take exams in their offices ensconced in a building on one of the far edges of the campus. Historically, I have allowed any student who requested that he or she take the exam at the DDSS offices no questions asked. Since I have to give the exam on the last day of finals, however. Since that exam lasts until 4 pm. Since I am now 60, have severe asthma, have osteoporosis thanks to my asthma medication, have failing knees and legs, and have a failing back, and work three jobs to make ends meet I asked DDSS to accommodate me for a change. I requested that they post the exam to my home 82 miles from campus in Capital City. They replied with what I thought as an imperial NO. I then requested that the office mail the exam to the departmental office via campus mail and that I would give the student an incomplete (an I) and change the grade as soon as I was able to get the exam. On a part-timers salary it is simply not rational to drive 180 or so miles to pick up an examination. Again, I got the royal NO. We were finally able to come up with a compromise the DDSS bureaucrats would accept: the departmental secretary would pick up the exam and pdf a copy to my email address so I could grade it without having to drive three hours. Ironically, the student who had taken the first exam in class--somehow DDSS did not receive copies of these I sent though I found these emails sitting comfortably in my sent box indicating I did indeed send them to them--decided to take the second exam in class.

But back to the 48 hour rule, this mandate is simply one of the things that is increasingly turning colleges into high schools these days. If and when America's MegaBusinessGods ever decide to do to public colleges what they are doing to public schools--taking them over in the name of reform--the real reason they are getting into the public school business, of course, is that just like the bloke who founded the for profit University of Phoenix they see money, mammon, their green god, in them there educational hills. Ironically, if and when private for profit interests begin their takeover of public non-profit colleges they will find that others have already laid the groundwork for them by fatally wounding if not killing the liberal arts college and university. RIP, liberal arts college. We all hardly knew ye.

Any resemblance between this blog post and reality is purely coincidental.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Life In the Pissant Swamp: The Incident of the Politically Correct Feeling...

There are a zillion stories in the Pissant Swamp.
This is just one of them.

I don't remember quite when it was. A year ago? Two years ago. However long ago it was doesn't matter. What does matter and what is very revealing about life in the Pissant Swamp these days is that it did happen.

I was teaching a comparative history class at MicroMegaStateUniversity. I happened to mention something I heard from a friend of mine who gave a lecture at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He said that what happened after the lecture revealed quite clearly to him that compared to the tensions and battles between modernists and traditionalists, the "secular humanists" and "the penguins", the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians was small potatoes.

A few weeks or so after I mentioned this in class as an example of tensions between "moderns" and "traditionalists" in ostensibly secular modern societies, I got an email from a lawyer-bureaucrat at MicroMegaStateUniversity. He said a student had expressed a concern about something I said with his office, I don't remember what the office was called but it had some typically pleasant sounding bureaucratic name. What I do remember is that his office dealt with student complaints about alleged prejudicial statements made at MMSU. The lawyer didn't tell me what the complaint was or who made the complaint. He did say he wanted to meet me.
After email tag and problems associated with bad weather in the Northeast, the lawyer and I met in my office in the Campus Library. The lawyer brought the head of Hillel with him, the same Hillel that is engaged in discrimination against certain Jews who hold views at odds with their when it comes to Israel these days. They told me that a student made a complaint about my use of the term "penguins" as a description of traditional or Orthodox Jews. That I was repeating what someone else told me about his experience at Hebrew and that it is a fact that at Hebrew and in Israel seculars often call traditional black and white clad Jews "penguins" was judged immaterial. I was informed that an official complaint had not been made and that I needed to be careful in the future about what I said in class. Political correctness.

Beyond the issue of political correctness, and let me remind you at this point that political correctness can come from the "left" and the "right", I couldn't help but wonder if this is what the ever shrinking liberal arts university had come to. Has the American college and university become hostage to the tyranny of student feelings? Do student feelings trump empirical reality? The story I told, after all, was a real story and traditionalist Jews are called "penguins" in Israel. My answer to this question. It has and it is. And this is just another nail in the liberal arts coffin and another nail in the coffin of critical thinking. Welcome to the modern Pissant Swamp. It's been good to know you liberal arts education.

Any resemblance between this blog post and reality is purely coincidental.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Life In the Pissant Swamp: Don't Take No Plug Nickels and Don't Try to Give Students Extra Sympathy and Empathy...

There are a zillion stories in the Pissant Swamp.
This is just one of them.

Once upon a time I created a magical and romantic vision of college teaching. I came to believe that because I still had an intellectual's and a student's mentality, that I, should I ever become a college teacher, could have this wonderful relationship with those who I might have the opportunity to teach. Well I became a college teacher though, by the 1980s, it was largely against my better judgement. By that time I had grown more than disillusioned with academia and had, by that point, came to understand what the ivy tower really was, a provincial place dominated by pettiness, Machiavellianism, political correctness, cocktail activism, and a variety of other sillinesses I saw during graduate school. By the 1990s I had also grown disillusioned with students. This semester has reminded me why I had become so cynical about students in the first place and why I came to believe that one shouldn't try to be too sympathetic with students because that sympathy will be repaid many times over with sophistry, anger, threats, and whinging on a soap opera scale.

I remember that day in the 1980s--it was an Introductory Cultural Anthropology class--on which I discovered something about students I had not known previously or even imagined about students. It was in the 1980s that I had a student come to my office hours and cry because she had received a 16 out of 20 on an assignment that was one-fifth of here total grade. Well things haven't changed in the pissant swamp because this year I had a student do the exact same thing as that student some thirty years before, I had a student cry about his grade on a paper that once again was one-fifth of his grade once again.

For some reason I wanted to travel back in time and try to be less cynical about students. This semester despite what my syllabus said I did not follow through on my policy of not accepting late papers. This cynic, apparently, still has a hard time having such a negative impact on a students educational life. I allowed students to do extra credit papers in order to raise their participation score. I allowed students to go to any one of three of my final exam dates.

So what did I get from admittedly a minority of students in return for what I thought was sympathy and empathy? I got myself much more work but no more pay, which is meagre at MicroMegaStateUniversity. I got bit in the arse. I got in the vicinity of ten students hand their last assignment in late. I had around 6 students who handed it in wrong. I got a student who did his first three Blackboard assignments right but got his fourth assignment wrong on Blackboard. When given late points he went to my Departmental Chair, threatened to go to the Dean, and claimed that others whom he talked with about his situation said they agreed with him not me. He claimed not to know what "write submission" meant in the Blackboard assignment page. He yelled at me. He screamed at me. He said in effect that my job made me unsympathetic to his, a poor person's, plight. Ironically, I am a part-time teacher partially by choice, and I make a pittance for being a college teacher. I got a student, in other words, who would not take responsibility for his failure to do something the right way on Blackboard and who wanted me to restore points to his grade thereby, in effect, asking for special treatment because he did not ask me to restore the points to other students who did exactly the same thing he did. I got several students who did not participate in class but who still expected a good grade in the participation component of their grade. I got students who again and again did not tell me which of the three classes they were in when they communicated with me via email. I got students who failed to find the classroom in which my Wednesday final took place. I got a student who may have stole one of my exams and who may be planning to give it to the students who have not yet took their finals. In this term and in previous terms I got students who committed plagiarism and a few who continued to do so even after I gave them a free get out of gaol warning the first time around. The plagiarism got so bad that I had to turn the plagiarists in to the student affairs bureaucracy on campus.

My New Year's Resolution this year is to stick to my guns and not accept any late papers, not allow students to do extra credit, and not allow students to come to the final of their choice. Next term I may be next years Ebenezer Scrooge or Mr. Burns if I only have the cojones. Bah humbug.

Any resemblance between this blog post and reality is purely coincidental.

Life In the Pissant Swamp: The Princessa and the Peasant...

There are a zillion stories in the Pissant Swamp.
This is just one of them.

On and off during my time blogging during the last three years or so I have written about the surreal bizarrity and peculiarity that is the academy. I want to continue to reflect on my life in the academic wasteland where the intellectual life is more an accident than a planned commodity under the general rubric of Life in the Pissant Swamp. So off we go.

The Pissant Swamp is a term I first heard in reference to academia in Andrew Davies wonderful television programme, A Very Peculiar Practice (1986-1988). This BBC television programme, which ran for two series, was based on Davies experiences while teaching at the University of Warwick. Like me he apparently found academia a very peculiar practice. Ironically, I was admitted for post-graduate work at the same University of Warwick, though I never had any intention of matriculating there. But enough of TV cabbages and university kings. I want to go back to the pissant swamp in the rest of this blog and talk about one of the more than one million tales I could talk about in the pissant jungle, the story of a Princess and one princess in particular, the Princessa.

I met the Princessa for the first time in 2012 if memory serves. In that year all of the History adjuncts and all of the English adjuncts were stacked like sardines into an office in one long narrow room in the Campus Library. There were, if I remember correctly, four or five computers and one printer for the English adjuncts and three computers and one printer for the History adjuncts. I dare say this was symbolic of the relative status of both groups. At any one time three or four adjuncts might be hanging around the pissant swamp at any moment making it rather difficult to study, grade, or even prepare for class. For this very reason I usually didn't try to do any of the above. I usually simply tried to relax after my one hour and a half commute from Albany to the pissant swamp.

It was an entirely different fairy tale story for the Princessa, however. Before I get to that, however, a bit of prologue. The Princessa and I didn't really hit it off. She was a bourgeois living the bourgeois dream. She and her academic hubby had a nice little home and one bright little one child, or so she told me. But she wanted more. She had a Ph.D and she dreamed more than anything else of that fantasy so many of the legion of PhD's that are being overproduced (syllogism: too much supply, too little demand) by graduate schools these days, she wanted a full-time job in the academy. And the academic life she fantasied became a kind of reality for her. When she was in the office she spent most of her time conversing with another History adjunct about her bourgeois life, her bourgeois husband, and her divine bourgeois semi-domesticity. I was, I understand in retrospect, apparently supposed to bathe myself in the brilliant bourgeois light radiated by the Princessa and bow before it and her.

But I was and am not a proper bourgeois who spends hours politely barking out banal bourgeois niceties about nice little husbands, bright little children, or the joys of the weather. I am instead an intellectual who finds the academy about as far from the intellectual life as one can get. When I said this I think I hurt the poor Princessa's feelings. I now had the honour of being the first person in the Princessa's life who, or so she once again said, did not like her. Apparently the Princessa also Mrs. Bourgeois Congeniality for time and eternity.

Anyway, my relationship with the Princessa blew up once upon a time ago. On one fateful day I was first into the office. The Princessa and one of the English adjuncts came in later. As I commute to campus from a city 90 miles away and as I don't have the dreamy bourgeois life of the Princessa, to make ends meet I have to work three jobs. One of them, to digress a bit, is a cashier job at the Co-op in Albany, a job that is far more intellectually stimulating than any I have experienced at any of the bourgeois university I have taught at. But back to that day of horror: To prepare for class, preparation I had been unable to do because of my busy schedule and commute, I was watching a documentary I had asked the class to watch as part of their homework. The Princessa came in and demanded in royal tones that I turn the documentary off because it interfered with whatever she did during office hours. Point: Note that she didn't ask me whether her bourgeois conversation with her bourgeois colleague about the joys of the bourgeois life interfered with what I was doing. It did. I have been annoyed by the banality of contemporary culture since my Holocaust seminar but I found it absurd to complain about a situation that brought a bunch of academics together in the same strange place and at the same strange time. Anyway, long story short I refused to turn off the video though I did turn it down from the already low volume I had it at. Supergrass that the Princessa was is she ran with metaphorical tears in her eyes to the Department Chair complaining that I had threatened her and that she now feared for her sweet little bourgeois life. Needless to say such a fantasy scenario seems to come more from one of those multitude of soap operas that permeate American life than it does from reality and that says a lot about the Princessa.

The Department Chair, needless to say, sided with the Princessa. She is apparently one of his favorites. I was ordered not to watch videos even if they were preparation to the classes I teach in the sardine office. I don't know whether the Princessa was told that her attempt to grade, study, or prepare for class in an office full of any number of adjuncts at one moment was more than a bit looney but I do know that English adjuncts were, for obvious reasons, provided with an office in the Library to which they could take students for consultation. And I do know that two years later History adjuncts were given offices in which there was less adjunct traffic and as a result were more reasonable and rational places to have office hours. I also know the Princessa now refuses to deign to talk to a prole like me. I, however, couldn't give a toss. Bourgeoisie with aristocratic attitudes, absurd demands, and fantasy delusions, are not by cuppa anyway. I learned that long ago when I did a term at another fantasy land full of fairy tale delusions, Cantab.

Needless to say I won't miss any of this silliness when I (hopefully) gain my pension and my health care pension after the fall term of 2016. I look forward to doing something I like much more than the peculiar job of teaching in academia, thinking. Thinking is, after all, the best way to travel...

Any resemblance between this blog post and reality is purely coincidental.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Fog of the Web: Musings on Posts on The 100

I have recently been reading the posts of many fans of The 100 (CW, 2014-) at web magazines such as the AV Club, IGN, ET, and others out there in cyberspace. What is remarkable about a lot of these comments is their almost total historical illiteracy.

Recently, a lot of the comments about the show have centred on one of the 100--now the 47--Finn Collins. In the fifth episode of season two Finn suddenly becomes a torturer, a murderer, and a massacrer of Grounders, one of the groups of humans the youngish 100, when they are sent to earth as punishment for their crimes by the adult leaders of the ark in space on which they had been imprisoned. Many say they no longer like the character of Finn. Others don't understand why most of the Sky People, who are now on the ground, are willing to forgive him. Still others say they never liked Finn in the first place, can't understand what Clarke (Eliza Taylor), another of the 100, ever saw in him, and hope the character isn't around much longer and that Clarke and Finn never get back together.

What these posters don't seem to understand is that soldiers can and have suddenly cracked during war. And Finn is a warrior. He fought the Grounders during their epic battle in the finale of season one. Another thing they don't seem to comprehend is that Vietnam hovers in the background of The 100. Recently I read an interview in which Jason Rothenberg, the creator of The 100, says he has been studying the Vietnam War and the My Lai massacre in particular. If memory serves many commentators ascribed the massacre to soldiers who had cracked under the pressure of rarely ever seeing the enemy that harassed them. Additionally, if memory again serves, the US military, after denying that there ever was a massacre at My Lai, circled the wagons around those involved in the massacre including Lt. Calley, the man who eventually faced court martial for the mass killings in a Vietnamese village, once the truth willed out. Many on the pro-war front said Calley had done nothing wrong and turned him into a hero flavour of the month. Many on the anti-war side saw Calley as a scapegoat and thought the massacre went higher up the officer chain. The moral: My Lai seems to be the broader context for the massacre committed by Finn and the response by others to the massacre. By the way, a similar story would play out when Oliver North became the hero and villain flavour of the month during the Iran Contra debacle of Reagan's 1980s. History ever repeats?

The 100, by the way, is, in my opinion, one of the best shows on US television at the moment. As the AV Club recently said of The 100 in its largely excellent review of the most recent episode of the series, "Fog of War"--a title that recalls the title of Errol Morris's documentary about Robert McNamara, JFK's and LBJ's Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War--"The 100 moved from being a solid but unremarkable dystopian teen drama, to a complex, intricate musing on morality, politics, colonialism, and bureaucracy. Almost halfway through its second season, the show is using its detailed world building and cast of characters to explore the physical and psychological costs of war." And this review doesn't even mention the large number of important, strong, and powerful female characters in the show nor does it touch upon the show's investigation of fascism at Mount Weather. I only wish more people were watching this truly outstanding show.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

When No Means Yes?

Hello again, dear readers or unreaders. Your intrepid part-time academic, full-time intellectual, full-time gadfly, and part-time token dissident is playing reporter again. It is the holiday season again. American Thanksgiving and Christmas, that most important of secular consumer holidays, is BAAAAACK. Given that it is the holiday season mass capitalists are going all orgasmic again since it is during these secular holidays that American businesses big and small, make fifty percent of their profits if not more.

It is no different at the Honest Weight Food Co-op despite the hope of the first generation of coop builders that coops would offer an alternative to the for profit growth at any cost businesses and industries that dominate America. And truth be told there are twists in holiday shopping season at the Co-op (and presumably other food coops as well) that one would not find in other for profit businesses in the US, mom and pop, small, and big, and that is the controversy over chicken broth. Chicken broth?

Yes chicken broth. Once upon a time Honest Weight and other American coops, including the one I first joined in the 1970s, Bloomingfoods in Bloomington, Indiana, were truly alternatives to mainstream grocery stores. Initially in coops members had to work. Only food considered healthy was sold to members. Meat was forbidden given the role in plays in the global food and energy systems. Then coops grew big. No longer did all members have to work. Staff was hired. Foods that might sell to those who weren't attached to the coop ideal were stocked including meat and sugar rich candies. Profits soared at these non-profits. Some began to hope that profits soared more.

Back to Honest Weight. Some members of Honest Weight remembered the "good old days" of the late sixties and early seventies. They have voted--someone correct me if I am wrong out there--four times not to allow a national brand chicken broth which will remain unnamed (the Co-op, by the way, carries a locally made frozen chicken broth that is on the store shelves) on the sales floor. For a time it was on the shelves in the stock room and could be requested by shoppers. Last holiday season, however, the Leadership Team--at Honest Weight the power centre is a trinity of three--with the Board s imprimatur--the same Board that is supposed to represent the membership and act as a check and a balance on the LT--allowed the national brand chicken broth to be brought on the sales floor. Controversy resulted. It was ordered off the shelves by another Co-op committee, then just as suddenly it reappeared fully resurrected. The justification I heard for this was that the bylaws of the Co-op allowed for wiggle room if a product we didn't carry on the shelves was in a national coop advert and the chicken broth was in the national advert flyer.

Well it is a new holiday season and the chicken broth is back on the shelves again despite the protestations of some at the Co-op. Is this because the broth is advertised in a national coop advertisement? Is it, as one member of the Co-op Board claims, because the six membership votes are not specific and would put in jeopardy other meat products sold on the shelves of the Co-op and god forbid that they do because that would mean declining profits. Gee, wouldn't it be nice if there was more transparency at the Co-op, the same Co-op that claims in one of it's ten commandments--or is it eight?--that the membership is the final arbiter of Co-op governance? Might that not help clear up the confusions?

Dear readers and unreaders it is time for me to take off my reporter cap and put on my intellectual--historical, sociological, anthropological, theoretical. Here are my observations: The notion that the Co-op is democratic makes sense only if we define democratic as akin to what Renaissance Florence had under the Medici (sadly the Co-op's artistic culture does not even come close to that of Medici Florence). The Co-op has a political and governing structure that is, objectively speaking, not that different from Albany Medical Centre, the government of Albany, New York, or General Electric. Today's Co-op and today's coops, in other words, are very similar to the forms, the less humane economic and political forms, they hoped to replace. They are hierarchical. They have, as the Willy Street Coop website puts it, "a management structure similar to more traditionally run businesses" (props to Willy for telling it like it is and for not hiding behind the doublespeak discourse of coops being democratic). The national food brands they sell mimic the look and the distribution networks of national mainstream brands. They are hierarchical. They have a national association that parallels that of mainstream mass capitalism (National Cooperative Business Association). They have national advertisement flyers. They have national coupon books full of coupons that look just like those of mainstream mass capitalism. They have a national distribution network that runs on petrol (UNFI, United Natural Foods). They have staff meetings led by representatives of the powers in the back offices that are more symbolic than real. Politics is often symbolic isn't it? They have paid staff some of whom are not even members of the Coop. Some employees like those at Outpost in Milwaukee and Bloomingfoods in Bloomington, Indiana have responded to these new hierarchical realities and an increasing sense of powerlessness by unionising just like their worker forebears in the mid-19th to 20th century did. The moral: Meet the new boss much the same as the old boss or almost?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Even Idiots? Respect and Intellectual Talk...

I love the British comedy/drama Outnumbered a lot. In one scene in the show, part of which is improvised, young daughter Ramona, when her parents in culturally correct fashion say all views should be respected, asks them even the views of idiots? The answer, of course, to Ramona's question is no. From the mouth of babes...

The climate deniers, who are a very small minority in the scientific community, are like the automobile companies and cigarette companies of the past. Automobile companies said putting seat belts in cars would be expensive and not really effective. Cigarette company bureaucrats and their paid shills claimed cigarettes hadn't been proved to be harmful to the smokers or second hand smokers heath. Of course, both knew what they were saying was patented bullshit or gobshite.

Many who deny climate change aren't making an educated empirical analysis of the data. Most are simply parroting the crap they hear from right wing demagogues in the media or in person. When one looks at the data it is clear the planet has warmed significantly since the industrial revolutions. Temperatures have regularly increased. Glaciers have retreated. Ice is melting in the North. Islands are disappearing bit by bit. When one looks at the data it is clear humans have contributed to climate change by their actions--things related to industrial revolutions and capitalism--to this state of affairs. Anyone who denies this reality is blind, ignorant, or has an ideological reason to do so. No one has to respect the idiocies that come out of the mouths of these morons anymore than one has to respect the views of misogynists, bullies, or flat earthers.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Systematic and Analytical Thinking is Not the Best Way to Travel

Yesterday at Honest Weight I was reminded yet again that most humans, even humans with a degree of intellectual capabilities, just can't think.

There are two major problems that underlie the "intellectual" abilities of so many out there in Americaland. First, fetishisation. Far too many confuse how they feel and think with how others feel and think. Just because you feel that the Democrats that the Democrats aren't "leftist" enough doesn't mean that this is how voters in North Carolina or Louisiana felt when they went to the polls on the fourth of November 2014. Just because you get all soap opera emotional doesn't mean that everyone else gets soap opera emotional.

Another major problem with contemporary intellectuals is the tendency for many to go all postmodern on human behaviour. Yes, the social and cultural construction of reality is a factor in how many humans see the world and human behavior in it. That doesn't mean, however, that there is no reality out there, that global warming, for instance is an ideological fiction. It isn't. What it does mean is that even "thinking" humans are rarely able to think critically about the ideologies they reproduce in intellectual discourse.

A third problem is the inability of may to cite specific empirical evidence for their claims. If you are going to argue or suggest that all science is the product of economic factors such as monetary political support you need to show how Albert Einstein's theory of relativity or that Nate Silver's model of electoral analysis is the product where they get their money from. Vast and vague generalisations simply won't cut mustard.

While it is true that many "intellectuals" cannot escape the fetishisistic and reality is a fiction cages their minds of trapped in, there is a way that we humans can achieve a more "objective" grasp of the universe and human action within that universe: analytical and systematic reasoning that is dispassionate (more analytical and systematic than emotion laden). It is a pity that most humans, even some of those who do use their minds in more systematic and analytical way, can't achieve this empirical path to intellectual understanding. C'est la vie.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Dizzyingly Surreal World of Honest Weight

You just have to shake your head and smile that vacant smiley smile at the goings on at the Honest Weight Co-op in Albany, New York. Either the Co-op is incredibly incompetent, it is hiding something behind its Wizard of Oz curtain, or both.

Anyway, we had a recent election at the Co-op for the self-proclaimed Staff Advocacy Team. I never received a single email or a single bit of information about this little clique whatsover, during the last year and half. I gather, however, that six people, all who were part of the group of insiders who created the SAT in the first place, were nominated to become the officers of the SAT, all, intriguingly, with the apparent imprimatur of the Leadership Team at the Coop.

Today I was finally informed as to who "won" the "election" (I put quotation marks around "won" because most of us have no idea what winning meant in this "election", percentage of the vote? majority of the vote?). An epistle arrived in my email proclaiming proudly that 25% of the staff voted the SAT--actually this is pretty pathetic compared with those who vote even in US general elections and the number of staff signatures that were obtained by those who wanted to unionise the Co-op--and that four people had been elected to do whatever the SAT is supposed to do. Unfortunately, that which has been plaguing the Co-op for some time, a lack of transparency and communication, reared its ugly head again in this email once again. Only the winners were given in the missive unlike in "democratic" elections in say, Great Britain, where the vote counts of all candidates who are running are given. Others receiving votes apparently disappeared into the black hole of oblivion.

I wasn't going to vote in this virtually largely predecided "election" but I did in the end. Why? Because I decided to write in candidates who I thought would do a great job on the SAT (though I still don't quite understand what do it is they are going to do), a privilege the SAT clique did not even provide to lowly staff members like myself. I voted for Daniel Morrissey and Kirk Moore and then cast a protest vote for Zia McCabe of the Dandy Warhols (bohemian like me).

I am glad I voted in the end for it turned out to be yet another learning experience. Slowly but surely I am finally beginning to realise that the Co-op works by the sin of omission--no vote count totals for the Board candidates were provided to members like me either when that election announcement was made--as well as that of commission--the commissioning of the SAT by the powers that be. I find this a pity and it is why I intend never to vote again in a Co-op election. I will no longer provide any degree of legitimacy to what is happening at the Co-op, itself increasingly a misnomer since the "Co-op is a business and is not consistent with what a Co-op meant in the late 1960s and 1970. Still, it a great company to work for.

"In this town you need a bulletproof heart..." Oh and by the way, unlike the controlled and filtered HWFC website and discussion forums anyone can post here at anytime as long as they keep it clean and thoughtful.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Welcome Back My Friends to the Down the Rabbit Hole That Never Ends...

I love working at the Co-op. I really, really do. That love, however, doesn't blind me to what I can see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears. Taste, touch, and smell don't come into it at all as far as I can see. God I love empiricism.

It is the Alice in wonderland stuff that happens at the Co-op that inevitably sticks with me the most since, at the age of 60, I am a cynic. C'est la vie. Life in all its kafkaesqueness, voynivichness, and Alice in wonderlandishness, has made me a cynic and an appreciator of the bizarre which just keeps of giving. So what down the rabbit hole things have I seen and heard at the Co-op recently. I saw and heard a staff meeting where a lot of things got said, including problems that need resolving and ways to resolve problems, but these problems never seem to get resolved (the idea of sending problems back to the places who haven't dealt with them for years is a stroke of kafkaesque and voynivichian genius). In one of the very few things that actually came out of staff meeting discussions I see a small group or clique which calls for an election to a staff group (presumably as an alternative to the union movement afoot at the Co-op that the leadership team overreacted to earlier; the powers that be reaction to this call for a vote has been totally different)--they call it the SAT, the Staff Advocacy Team. The problems with the SAT "election" are that it could presumably be an election in which very few staff members vote since the SAT committee (volunteers) set no rules as to what percentage of the staff would need to vote in the election for it to be valid (I would suggest the same percentages required by law for a union vote), that those who established the SAT are the only ones who are being allowed to run for office, no nominations from staff allowed, and that staff have no ideas about the competencies of those running for office since they did not provide voters with statements of competence or hold a meet the SAT candidates meeting (quite Stalinesque). As for me I will not vote in this sam the sham election because voting gives this "cooperative" enterprise the air of legitimacy and I won't do that. Nor will I recognise the outcome of such an "election" given all this and as a result the SAT will be of no use to me.

Again, I like working at the Co-op. It is one of the few places I have, over the course of my screwed by neoliberal capitalism life, I have really felt connected to and comfortable at. While I love the Co-op, however, this emotion hasn't blinded me to the fact that the Co-op is not perfect. Of course, nothing human is.

More, more, more...
I love ironies as you know by now dear unreaders. So I found it wonderfully ironic that Clique SAT, a group that ostensibly wants to diminish conflict, has brought about conflict in its wake. When I arrived at the Co-op on Saturday several questions had been posed on the poster announcing the election to the SAT which the SAT had placed in the staff bathrooms. These posts asked why staff could not nominate candidates of their own for the election to the SAT. They asked why the communication between the SAT and the staff was so poor. I asked the questions I posed during the staff meeting: why, given that the Co-op does this during other elections (e.g. board elections), was no benchmark of percentage of staff voting set before the election was considered valid (I think it should be the same standard as set for union elections since the SAT is an alternative to unionisation) and why there were no meet the candidates forums or published statements of the candidates and their competencies in the area of mediation distributed, put on the website, or hung up somewhere in the store. Isn't transparency and knowledge a good thing?

I would urge the SAT to do several things immediately. First, make the unedited minutes of your meeting public. Transparency in a "democratic" and "cooperative" setting is a good after all, isn't it? You can, I presume, put these on the HWFC website. Second, post the names of candidates and give us some idea about their competencies to mediate. Again, transparency is a good isn't it? Third, tell us how many people are being elected to the SAT and whether, as with the Board, victors will be decided on the basis of percentages or whether, as in a winner take all system, only those four candidates with the most votes will serve on the SAT. If everyone on the ballot is going to win election to the SAT what is the point of the election? Doesn't a predetermined election smack of Calvinism and Soviet election practises? Fourth, tell us whether you thought about establishing criteria by which to judge the election as valid and whether you thought about releasing candidate information and statements. I have heard from one member of SAT that you apparently didn't think of the former despite Co-op precedent while I read a statement posted as a reply to the queries in the bathroom which seems to suggest that you did. Which is it? Is it simply amateur hour or something else? Either way it really raises questions about the competencies and the motives of the SAT board.

I think I will be cashing in my HWFC membership soon. The SAT clique fiasco and the fact that the staff meeting is more symbolic--a nostalgic imaginary that allows some at the Co-op to believe the fiction that HWFC is a co-op rather than a business much like any other capitalist enterprise these days--and the tendency of the powers that be to pass the buck back to the source of problem are the straws that finally broke the camel's back.

Even more, more, more, how do you like it, how do you like it???
Fascinating, interesting, and very revealing things continue to happen at the Co-op. Last Tuesday or Wednesday a large announcement of the SAT elections appeared in both staff bathrooms. Many, including myself, raised questions, valid questions, about a number of aspects of the SAT elections in annotations on this announcement. This Tuesday (23 September) I typed up a letter which summarised these objections and raised others. Following precedent I was going to put this letter next to the SAT form in the staff bathrooms but lo and behold the SAT announcement had disappeared after remaining in place for a week or so. Did the SAT take it down because they didn't want anymore debate? Did the powers that be, the LT (the Leadership Team, i.e., the management) collectively or individually take it down, because they didn't want debate over a group they seem to have embraced (something that can and must be counterpointed against their attack on the idea of a union at the Co-op)? I don't know. What I do know--god I love empiricism--is that put my letter up and my letter disappeared within hours of posting. I suspect it was taken down by the LT or a member of the LT.

As I mentioned I find this all incredibly revealing. I think that what has happened says much about Honest Weight and about the Honest Weight powers that be's commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of debate--it is not particularly great--and says volumes about the notion that Honest Weight is a Co-op owned by its members--a fiction since I am a member, I posted a letter in a place that a campaign poster was put up and my letter was summarily taken down without any discussion by the powers that be. The only conclusion I can draw from all of this is that Honest Weight is not a Co-op other than in name only. It is a business with a hierarchical power structure that has almost absolute power and absolute power of discretion. This is why I will very likely be turning in my membership. I will continue to work at Honest Weight but I will work under the more realistic assumption that Honest Weight is a business and not a co-op. And while Honest Weight really isn't a co-op in my opinion, it is a great company to work for. It is a company I really enjoy working for.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Amazon Just Keeps Wanking On and On and On...

As you know dear unreaders there are a lot of things I dislike about Amazon. I despise that they have increasingly become a monopoly and that they are using that monopoly power. I have that they take reviews of CD's and DVD's and apply them to new CD and DVD releases assuming in the process that there are no difference in CD or DVD releases. I hate it that so many of Amazon's reviews are simply drivel. And I hate the fact that Amazon puts up photos of products that are not fully pictures of the products they have for sale.

Recently I purchased two CD sets from I-Deals through Amazon's marketplace, Alice Cooper: Original Album Series and The Cars: Original Album Series. Before I purchased these items I looked carefully at the photos on the Amazon.com website to make sure that like the Sony Original Album Series the box sets in the WB series were made in the EU. I then ordered the two box sets.

You can imagine my surprise, therefore, that when I received these items I discovered after opening them that they were not made in the EU but made in the USA. I contacted Amazon directly or rather their online customer service representatives in India, Bangladesh, or Pakistan, and pointed out that Amazon had the wrong photos up and requesting a refund since the pictures were up on the Amazon website. They responded with the usual customer service drivel. I give you a sample below:
"I've checked your items and see that the picture shows the item to be made in the EU. I've checked further details of the items and see that the item is sold by different sellers. Please find on the page that although most of the sellers ship the items from United Kingdom, the seller i-Deals ships the item form US. Please note that the items from i-Deals just shipped from Kentucky, US, but not actually made there."

This is, of course, not only disingenuous but it is utter bullshit, utter Amazonese. Amazon, one of the largest retailers in the known universe, knows that CD's are often produced in different nations for sale in different regions. They knew that Alice Cooper Original Album Series and The Cars: Original Album Series were made in the EU for the EU market and made in the USA for the US market. Amazon knows that the photos, which IT undoubtedly "borrowed" from its European vendor, are misleading and are examples of false advertising. But Amazon (I am shocked, shocked) won't take responsibility for their own misdeeds. And that is why Amazon is one of the leading wankers and one of the leading purveyors of wankerness in the universe today.

Postlude:
I sell some of my DVD's and CD's on Amazon and got this missive from them this week:
Amazon Sep 18, 2014 12:53 PM
Greetings from Amazon Seller Support,

Thank you for your interest in selling on Amazon.com. As part of your application to sell in the Video, DVD, & Blu-ray category, we require additional information.

Please submit the following documents:

•Three legible, scanned, or clearly photographed invoices or purchase orders for the products you intend to sell in the Video, DVD, & Blu-ray category

•A brief summary of processes you have in place to prevent inauthentic goods from entering your inventory

NOTE: All pricing information should be removed from the invoices or purchase orders. We are not currently accepting store receipts for review.

Your invoices or purchase orders must
(i) be dated within the last 180 days or show an item delivered or purchased within the last 180 days and
(ii) include the following:

•Your name and contact information or your company’s name and contact information

•The name and contact information of the company that provided the invoices or purchase orders

•The names of the products you purchased and the quantity of each product

Please attach the required documentation to your email response (e.g., as a PDF file or an image file). We reserve the right to verify all submitted documentation including contacting any vendors identify in your application.

We will respond to you within 48 hours after you provide this information.

Thank you for selling with Amazon,

Needless to say, the irony of a corporation that is on a mission of world domination asking me for documentation on the DVD's I sell when they can't even get their products photographs correct is amusing and yet another instance of Amazon double standards. Power allows you to mislead your consumers about your products but yet demand that your private sellers, business and individual, supply them. Amazon, wanker par excellence.

And the wanking continues:
I ordered a copy of Vivaldi Masterpieces from Amazon. The item pictured says "made in the EU". The item I was sent says "made in Canada". I ordered Vivaldi Masterpieces based on this photo. The item I received was NOT the item I ordered. As such I will be returning it because I ordered this item based on Amazon's false advertising. Caveat emptor.

Monday, August 11, 2014

My Personal Slayer: A Review of Anne Billson's Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I like writing book reviews. I really, really do. So why do I like working in such a looked down upon by academics genre like the book review? The answer to that question is simple and easy for me to answer: When I read books I often get angry at what someone else has argued or said and it is this anger that stimulates the muse in me. Additionally, it is in book reviews that my theoretical and methodological approach and perspective and my critiquing skills--what few I have--become most clear. Needless to say, I really, really, really like theory, method, and intellectual critique. I just wish more people, academics included, partook of critical, critical thinking more often. Anyway, I hope you enjoy my book reviews here on my blog site. Good reading.


Buffy the Vampire Slayer: a Critical Reading of the Series
Anne Billson, 2005
London, British Film Institute / Berkeley, University of California Press
pp. 154, index, bibliography, illus., £9.00 / $19.95 (paper)

Building on the success of its monograph series’ on ‘classic’ and ‘modern’ films the British Film Institute has recently decided to move into the classic TV show market as well and has begun publishing a series of monographs on television shows. The first monographs released in the BFI TV Classics series include Kim Newman’s study of the long running BBC TV show Doctor Who, Ben Walter’s exploration of the BBC show The Office, Michael Eaton’s monograph on the BBC’s Our Friends in the North, and Anne Billson’s work on the American TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Buffy might seem a surprising and unlikely candidate for a series on “classic” TV shows to many in the ivory tower. However, since Buffy appeared on the air in 1997 on the fledgling WB network and later on UPN in 2001 the show has garnered more academic interest than any other TV series past or present—something itself probably worthy of analysis. Currently there are over 400 academic essays, over a dozen academic books, and two academic websites—-Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies and the undergraduate online journal Watcher Junior—-devoted to the show with more coming every year. Billson’s monograph is one of the latest.

Like the monographs in the BFI Film Classics and BFI Modern Film Classics series Billson’s book is lavishly presented and includes a number of colour stills from the series. The monograph is divided into ten chapters. Chapter 1 allows us to tag along with Billson as she reflects on her journey through the jungle of British and American popular culture and TV in search of a strong female role model. Chapter 2 explores the prehistory of Buffy—the vampire films that preceded it and presumably influenced it and the film that was its direct predecessor. Chapters 3 through 9 discuss the seven seasons of Buffy each beginning with a plot summary followed by a “personal” and “critical” reflection on each season. Chapter 10 briefly explores the life of Buffy after the series finale in 2003. The book closes with a list of Billson’s favourite episodes. It is the “personal” aspect of Billson’s study that I find most problematic about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Not all of this perhaps is Billson’s fault. Unlike the Classic Film and Modern Classic Film series, the TV Classics mission statement calls for authors to offer their personal responses along with critical readings of the classic TV shows they are writing on. The problem is that Billson interprets the ‘critical’ directive of the series in a very ‘personal’ way as well. For instance, in the chapter on season four of Buffy, the season in which Buffy and the Scoobies leave high school for college, work, and various life crises, Billson’s “critical” reading of the season involves criticism of Riley for being too “vanilla” (p. 86), criticism of Tara for being all “sweetness and light (p. 90), and criticism of the Initiative for being too X-Filesy (p. 84). Unfortunately this personal criticism, at least in my opinion, is quite far off the mark. The Riley Billson accuses of being “vanilla” is the same Riley who has a melt down at Willy’s and comes terrifyingly close to killing someone who doesn’t fall into the its dangerous category and who in the fifth season will find dark excitement in allowing female vampires to “bite” him. The Tara Billson accuses of being all “sweetness and light” is the same Tara who sabotages a magic spell she and Willow perform to try to find Adam, an Initiative frankensteinian uberman “botched science experiment” on the loose. The Initiative Billson accuses of being too X-Filesy is the same Initiative that is part of a secret military/governmental/ academic complex which brooks no questioning of its mission as Buffy (the character) finds out. In her attempt to be critical in a personal way Billson misses several things that are really important in Buffy: that while Riley was meant to be, as one of Buffy’s writers put it, the Jimmy Stewart of the Buffyverse he doesn’t, as is the case with virtually every major character in the Buffyverse, remain stuck in “vanilla” gear for long; that while Tara does have a sweet and light side she also, as is true for virtually every other major character in the Buffyverse, has a dark side—she fears, thanks to a family stuck in 1950s patriarchalism, that she might be a demon; and that while the Initiative is a secret organization in the X-Files mode—-though the X-Files did not pioneer conspiracy theories in American popular culture—-it is also one of the few explorations on recent American TV exploring the dark sides of American militarism and its relationship to academe. Time and again throughout the substantive chapters of the book Billson makes similar problematic personal critical assertions.

If season four has a fault it is, in my opinion, that it is too short. Creator Joss Whedon and company tried to do too much in too short a period of time—-exploring the sometimes difficult transitions to college life, the impact college life can have on high school friendships, the fears Buffy, Willow, Xander, Oz, and Giles continue to deal with, the dark side of academe, and the dark side of the military mentality with its macho no questions asked mode of operation as opposed to the Scoobies more collective decision making approach—-one of the military men from the Initiative calls it anarchic. The arc of the Scoobies drifting apart only to get back together at the end of the season was, in particular, far too brief and, as a result, of far less impact than I am sure was intended. While the crossovers between Buffy and the first season of the Buffy spin-off Angel—-at least five first season episodes of Angel weave in and out of season four episodes of Buffy—-helps fill in some of the gaps of season four and for this reason every analyst of Buffy should watch both simultaneously and in broadcast order—-this really doesn’t allay my feeling that season four was far too dense and far too rushed.

I’m not sure who the intended audience for Billson’s monograph is. If it was aimed at the Buffy scholar-fan community it is too short and too light to displace works like Nikki Stafford’s in-depth analyses of the show in Bite Me and Once Bitten or the numerous in depth analytical essays which range from explorations of the existentialism of Buffy at scholar fan sites like All Things Philosophical in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel the Series to issues surrounding Spike’s redemption at scholar fan sites like The Soulful Spike Society. If it was aimed at the Buffy fan-scholar then it is far too critically light too add much to the enormous volume of academic discourse that has been generated on Buffy’s feminism, Buffy’s supposed sexism, Buffy’s suppose post-colonialism, and Buffy’s ageism in contemporary Cultural and English Studies. If it was aimed at the general non-Buffy audience I am not sure they are interested. All I can say in conclusion is that a show which has garnered the massive scholar-fan and fan-scholar attention deserved better than this from the BFI the enjoyable prose and pretty pictures notwithstanding. Still, all this said this book is often more insightful and certainly more enjoyable than most of the jargon filled tomes and articles that come off of academic word processors these days.

This review appeared in somewhat different form as “Review of Anne Billson’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 27.4 (October 2007), pp. 601-602.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Pop Video Comes of Age?

I was, as I mentioned previously on I, Ron, eek!, born before the media revolutions of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. I was born BC8T, before the eight track. I was born BCT, before the cassette tape, I was born BCW, before the Sony Walkman. I was born BCD, before the CD, BDVD, before the DVD, BCP, before the cell phone. And I was born BMV, before the music video.

Popular music videos come in several varieties. One of the earliest and probably one of the most extensive is the faux concert music video. Exhibit A the 1981 AC/DC video for the song "Hell's Bells". Here the Australian/Scottish band simply sing and play like they are playing this song at a concert. There are variations on this type of video. Exhibit B AC/DC's "Rock and Roll Train" from 2008. This video follows the in concert model but inserts footage of vintage trains in between scenes of the faux concert.

Type two: artist or artists lip synching to their song at home, in the studio, on a beach, in the streets, wherever. Exhibit A this video of "Waters Part" (1984) by North Carolina's Let's Active. One very prominent variation of this type of video is what might be called the artist as film or TV star video. Here the artist or artists are in virtually every frame of the video acting out the song as if they were a star in a Hollywood film or television show as in this video of Michelle Branch's "Are You Happy Now?" from 2003. A variation on this type is the controversial video which usually revolves around sex. Exhibit A, King Missile's "Detachable Penis". Unfortunately, not all the videos in this subcategory--"raunch" videos by Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, and Nicki Minaj, for example, aren't as wonderfully parodic and satirical as this song and video by King Missile.

Type three: the collage or montage video. Exhibit A Inspiral Carpets's "Two Worlds Collide" from 1992. Here the Inspiral's lip synching of "Two World's Collide is sat within a collage or a montage of psychedelicy science fictiony scenes. Exhibit B REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" from 1987. Here a teenager picks through and displays some of the detritus of the end of the world as we know it in an abandoned house.

Type four: the action video. Exhibit A Michael Penn's "Try" from 1997. Here director Paul Thomas Anderson takes a lip synching Penn from one end of a hallway (the longest one in the US in LA) to another without any cuts. There are a number of references to Burt Reynolds, the films They Shoot Horses Don't They and Boogie Nights, the changing of the seasons, and death in this superb video. Exhibit B the Ramones "I Wanna Be Sedated", directed by Bill Fishman from 1988. Here the Ramones sit at a table in a relatively sedated state while speeded up action goes on around them.

Type five: the story video. Exhibit A Nickelback's 2003 "Someday". Here Nickelback "in concert" scenes are interspersed with a narrative about lost love with a surprise ending. Exhibit B "Breaking the Law" by Judas Priest (1980). Here Judas Priest are criminals who are breaking the law. Exhibit C Johnny Cash's incredibly moving video of his cover of Trent Reznor's (Nine Inch Nails) "Hurt" from 2002 directed by Mark Romanek. Here Cash looks back over his career and reflects on his faith as death draws near.

Type six: the theme video. Exhibit A the Finn Brothers "Part of Me, Part of You". Here Neil Finn and Tim Finn, who are present in the video along with members of the Finn clan, reflect on the themes of family, brotherhood, and home (Te Awamutu).

Type seven: the musical music video. Exhibit A the Dandy Warhols "Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth". Here the director turns this song about heroin abuse into a colourful, humourous, and terrifying Busby Berkeleyish dance number.

Recently I ran across a couple of videos which I think take the pop video into more artistically mature and much more aesthetically exciting, territory, Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" (2010) and The Civil Wars "The One That Got Away" (2013). "The Suburbs", directed by Spike Jonze, tells a tale of suburban teen play, boredom, love, pain, bullying, and violence set amidst an expanding police state. "The One that Got Away" directed by Tom Haines tells a tale of a young female outsider who rides the rails looking for work. The video's young woman is a kind of neo-hobo in yet another depression age who wonders through the landscapes and detritus of the American South. As she does she recalls the things she saw, the people she met, and the love triangle she became entangled in. Both videos deserve to have greater attention paid not only to their narratives but also to their mise-en-scenes. In neither video are Arcade Fire or The Civil Wars present in any way, shape, or form.

While the more artistically mature mini-film video seems to be a rarity at the moment in the industry those of us who prefer our art, whatever that art may be, thoughtful and aesthetically interesting can only hope that Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs", The Civil Wars "The One that God Away", and Johnny Cash's "Hurt" are the tip of the iceberg of greater artistic things to come, even if that greater artistic things to come seem unlikely given the commercial nature of pop music videos.

Friday, August 8, 2014

An Open Letter to Kathy Sheehan, Mayor of Albany, New York

Dear Mayor Sheehan,

The other day as I was walking along Holland Avenue in the city of Albany, New York I spied something with my two little eyes taking place at that lovely old apartment complex on Holland between Walgreen's and Delaware Avenue. The beautiful shrubs which had not been trimmed in ages had become stubble sticking up out of the ground. The windows that once were in place in the apartment building had been replaced by plywood, you know that ugly plywood made out of wood shavings and paste. The plywood that replaced the windows didn't fully cover the space where windows once were making it likely that the elements can and will undermine the apartment complex. As I was thinking about this as I was walking I couldn't help but think of the historic Tudor homes lying intentionally vacant for years on the other side, the southside, of Holland Avenue across from Walgreen's and the VA.

The reason that both the apartment complex and the Tudor homes are lying vacant and have been left to decay is not difficult to fathom. Now that Holland Avenue and New Scotland Avenue have been transformed from more residential areas into areas zoned for business at the behest, no doubt, of Albany Medical Center and its cheerleaders, owners of these properties, worshipers of the great golden green god Mammon, see dollar signs in them there properties. All the while the city of Albany twiddle their thumbs in wonder and look the other way making one wonder if they too will accrue profits from the destruction of these properties thanks to that old time American past-time of the greasing of palms.

I have learned a lesson from my excursions along Holland Avenue. The lesson I have learned from all of this is that Kathy Sheehan the supposed Democratic reform candidate that many believed would be the messiah that Albany had been waiting for for seventy some years who would finally turn over the tables of Albany's old machine politics moneymakers and bring back life once again to this once great ancient city by the Hudson was yet another of those false messiahs. Meet the new boss, new mayor Kathy Sheehan, much the same as the old boss, former mayor Jerry Jennings.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Into the Black: Review of Investigating Firefly and Serenity and Special Issue on Firefly and Serenity edited by Rhonda Wilcox and Tanya Cochran

Investigating Firefly and Serenity
By Rhonda Wilcox and Tanya Cochran (eds.),
London, I.B. Tauris, 2008, xiii + 290 pp., 13: 978-1845116545 and 10: 1845116542
$22.50, £14.99 (pbk.)

"Special Issue on Firefly and Serenity"
By Rhonda Wilcox and Tanya Cochran (eds.), Slayage 25, winter 2008 [7.1]

Books on the television and film work of Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Serenity, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along-Blog, Dollhouse) continue rolling off the presses rivaling even those published on those old film warhorses Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. Investigating Firefly and Serenity edited by Rhonda Wilcox and Tanya Cochran, the latest in Tauris’s Investigating Cult TV series, and its companion special issue (issue 25, winter 2008) found at the online journal Slayage: The Online International Journal of Whedon Studies focusing on Whedon’s hybrid sci-fi/western Firefly and the film based on that short lived television series, Serenity, are among the latest.

For those unfamiliar with the series Firefly (Fox, 2002) is the brainchild of creator/writer/director Joss Whedon and creator/writer/director Tim Minear (X-Files, Wonderfalls, Drive). The show debuted in the dreaded Friday night time slot on the Fox network in the US on 20 September 2002. It lasted for eleven episodes before Fox gave it the axe. The TV graveyard didn’t spell the end of Firefly, however. When Fox released all fourteen episodes of the show on DVD in December 2003 it became a hit in the first weeks it was offered for sale. Universal took notice and three years later released the Whedon written and directed film Serenity (2005) which reunited the Firefly crew in an adventure set sometime after the events of the television series.

Firefly, as I mentioned earlier, is a science fiction/western and more—Whedon’s shows are invariably genre blenders. The show is set in a 26th century where the two remaining superpowers, China and the US, have merged to form the Alliance. There are essentially two worlds in this future, the antiseptic “utopia” of the wealthy core planets and the “primitive”, “dystopian” poverty stricken planets of the new wild frontier (metaphors for the first and third worlds of today?). On these frontier planets settlers, out of necessity, live in frontier towns, ride horses, speak in a kind of nouveau western slang with a bit of Mandarin thrown in now and again for good often expletive deleted measure, and engage in an awful lot of good old vigilante “justice”. As we learn in the first episode (Fox didn’t broadcast this until the end of the shows run) there was a civil war between the Alliance and the Browncoats (many fans of the show refer to themselves as Browncoats). The Alliance won. The show centres around the crew of nine aboard the Firefly class ship Serenity (at least two of whom fought for the Browncoats) who sail “the black” trying to stay out of the way of the Alliance all the while trying to eek out a living through a variety of barely legal and not so legal means. Lurking in the background of Firefly is the mysterious Blue Sun corporation which, as we find out in Serenity, works in tandem with the Alliance to create the warrior/spies of the future. Like all of Whedon’s work Firefly is full of dense and complex narrative and character arcs and themes revolving around existentialist social ethics, chosen families, friendship, love, conflict, disillusionment, and the possibility of redemption. And like all of Whedon’s work it contains his trademark wit and humour.

The essays in both Investigating Firefly and Serenity and the Slayage Special Issue on Firefly and Serenity reflect a growing international interest in the work of Whedon. In both scholars from the US, Canada, the UK, and Italy explore the representation of gender (Beadling, Aberdein, Magill, Buckman), the representation of race and ethnicity (Mandala, Lerner), the representation of the “savage” (Curry, Rabb and Richardson), orientalism (Brown), contemporary politics (Jencson, Bussolini), genre (Battis, Jowett, Money), themes (Battis, Jencson, Sutherland and Swan, Wilcox, Erickson, Pateman), character (Gelineau), music (Lerner, Neal), design (Maio), rhetoric (Masson), fandom (Abbott, Cochran), the resurrection of Firefly as Serenity (Abbott), and even Whedon Studies itself (Cochran and Wilcox).

Some of the essays in both collections reflect unfortunate tendencies in some contemporary media explorations of television shows and films. Cynthea Masson’s “‘But She was all Naked! And All Articulate’: The Rhetoric of Seduction in Firefly”, for example, reflects a trend in media studies to use popular culture as a way to talk about academic subjects (a trend particularly prominent in Open Court’s Philosophy and Popular Culture series). Masson uses rhetorical analysis to explore the character of Inara in Firefly and Serenity and the nature of companionship in the Firefly verse. The essay reads more like an academic introduction to rhetorical analysis than an analysis of Firefly. Neil Lerner’s “Music, Race, and Paradoxes of Representation: Jubal Early’s Musical Motif of Barbarism in ‘Objects in Space’”, essay reflects the trend in much contemporary popular culture analysis to jettison primary source research beyond the text in favour of a kind of text as crystal ball approach, an approach which sees the text as a crystal ball revealing all about itself, its production, and its contexts. Lerner, despite having interviewed Firefly composer Greg Edmondson, focuses exclusively on a textual reading of the Firefly musical text and links musical motifs in Firefly to previous musical motifs and their ethnic and racial connotations in previous film and television texts. Not only does Lerner fail to explore the possible contradictory nature of musical motifs both from a production and audience perspective, but he fails to make use of the potentially rich vein of primary source material for television analysis.

Other essays offer insight but sometimes don’t go far enough or go too far. Wilcox’s and Cochran’s excellent “Introduction: ‘Good Myth”: Joss Whedon’s Further Worlds” and Mary Alice Money’s “Firefly’s ‘Out of Gas’: Genre Echoes and the Heroes Journey” rightly note the influence of John Ford’s Stagecoach on Firefly but fail to note the influence of Hawks (the chosen family of professionals), Anthony Mann (themes of revenge and damaged men—the latter stretches from Homer to Austen and the Bronte’s through film noir and to Mann and beyond), and Richard Slotkin (regeneration through violence) on Whedon’s work in general and Firefly and Serenity. Matthew Pateman’s outstanding “Deathly Serious: Mortality, Morality, and Mise-en-Scene in Firefly and Serenity” rightly points out the omnipresence of death in Firefly (and Whedon’s work in general) but fails to place it sufficiently in the context of Whedon’s humanist existentialism with its concern for social ethics. It is this that gives death its meaning in Whedon’s work.

Academic readers with an interest in contemporary textual criticism (what David Bordwell calls therapeutic criticism) will probably find much to like in the essays focusing on representation in both collections. Academics with an interest in using popular culture to explore academic disciplines and disciplinary concerns are likely to find some of the essays intriguing and helpful. Academics with an interest in auteurism are likely to find the essays exploring Whedon’s themes interesting. Academics who believe that sound textual analysis must be grounded in extra textual primary research (like myself) are likely to be somewhat disappointed in both collections—only a few of the essays draw, in varying degrees, on primary source material usually interviews with Whedon or other writers and DVD commentaries by Whedon and Company). Beyond the ivory tower I suspect that both collections are too academic and hence too arcane for readers interested in Firefly, Serenity, or the work of Joss Whedon. They are likely to find more insight into the Fireflyverse in the two Benbella readers on Firefly and Serenity, Finding Serenity and Serenity Found both edited by Jane Espenson (2005, 2007) and in the two volume Firefly: The Official Companion published by Titan (2006, 2007).

This review appeared in a slightly different form as “Review of Rhonda Wilcox’s and Tanya Cochran’s Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier, Scope: An Online Journal of Film and TV, 18 (October 2010).

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Yeah I Like You: Watching Dandy Warhols Videos...

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s an era where rock music was for many central of us not only entertainment but central to our identities, central to the countercultural identities and communities some of us created, and central to lives. I am old enough to remember when MTV came along in the early 1980s and offered us wall to wall (in between the commercials, of course) music with videos, rock videos.

By and large the rock videos I have seen--admittedly I haven't seem them all nor do I want to--are wretched. Whether there are more wretched rock videos than films, television shows, or works of literature remains another matter and is worth investigation. Personally, I suspect 90% of works of film, TV, literature, or rock videos are crap. This doesn't mean, however, that they are not worthy of social, cultural, and historical examination.

I found much interesting in two recent rock videos I have been perusing: the Dandy Warhols "Bohemian Like You" and "We Used to Be Friends". I like satire, Twainsian satire in particular. That is why I like the Dandies video "Bohemian Like You", a tune I first hear on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No song or video, it seems to me, better captures the modern day collegy bohemian world of sex, drugs, rock and roll, fashion, narcissism, and Bacchic joy better than this song while at the same time poking fun at it. Having your cake and eating it too?.

Another Dandies song I was introduced via the small screed was the Dandies song, "We Used to Be Friends". I first heard "We Used to Be Friends" on Veronica Mars. It was the introductory theme tune for the show. There is a lot or references one can explore in this video whether it is the references to Warhol and house band at the factory, the Velvet Underground (the banana), the link between food and sex, the surrealistic mirror effect at one point in the video, the video's use of pop artish oranges and yellows, the satiric humans in the monkey house watching the video inserts, and the uber cliched band and crowd scenes thatt dominate the video. What I found most interesting about the "We Used to be Friends" video, however, is its references to and back to the video of "Bohemian Like You". The young man and woman who enter the monkey house in "We Used to Be Friends" were the waiter and customer who hooked up in "Bohemian Like You". Apparently, young bohemian "casual easy things" don't last very long at least in the world of the Dandy Warhols. And we shouldn't forget that the hulu hoop guy who briefly appears in "We Used to Be Friends" was also in the "Bohemian Like You" video. I give you intertextuality.

Whoa ho woo!

Shiny: Review of Finding Serenity and Serenity Found edited by Jane Espenson

Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon’s Firefly
Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon’s Firefly Universe
Jane Espenson (ed.), 2004, 2007
Dallas, TX, Benbella Books
pp. viii + 238 and pp. 218
both $17.95, £12.99 (paper)

The story of Firefly will always be for me one of the great tragedies in the history of American television. Firefly, the brainchild of creator/writer/director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) and writer/director Tim Minear, debuted on the Fox network on 20 September 2002 in the dreaded Friday night time slot. It lasted for eleven episodes. Despite its “failure” on broadcast television, however, Fox decided to release the show on DVD in December of 2003—all fourteen episodes in their correct running order. It became a hit, such a hit that three years later Universal and Whedon brought the fireflyverse to the big screen with the film Serenity. I wish I could say that there was a Hollywood happy ending here but there wasn’t. Serenity earned back a little more than what it cost thus making it unlikely that any further resurrection of the fireflyverse will occur. Die hard fans like myself were left to reflect on what might have been.

But what of the Firefly that was? Firefly was a SF/western (with, like all Whedon shows, a wicked sense of humour) set in a 26th century where China and the US, the two remaining superpowers, have merged into the Alliance. As is the case today the Alliance has strong ties with corporations, specifically one giant megacorporation, the mysterious Blue Sun, which appears to have united all corporations under its economic umbrella just as the Alliance has united (using force) all the planets under its political umbrella (a metaphor for political and economic monopolization common today?). There are essentially two worlds in the fireflyverse—the clean and clinical antiseptic “utopia” of the wealthy core planets and the “primitive”, “dystopian” poverty stricken planets of the new wild frontier (metaphors for the first and third worlds of today?) where the settlers, out of necessity, live in frontier towns, ride horses, speak in western slang with a bit of Chinese thrown in now and again for good [expletive deleted] measure, and engage in an awful lot of good old vigilante “justice” (Whedon was a student of Richard Slotkin at Wesleyan, well known for his regeneration through violence thesis). The show centres on a group of nine people living aboard the Firefly class ship Serenity who sail “the black” trying to stay out of the way of the Alliance and trying to eek out a living through a variety of barely legal and not so legal means. Like all of Whedon’s work Firefly is full of dense and complex narrative and character arcs and themes revolving around existentialist social ethics, chosen families, friendship, love, conflict, disillusionment, and the possibility of redemption.

The essays in Finding Serenity and Serenity Found touch on these and much more. As in the other collections in Benbella’s Smart Pop series writers, intellectuals, critics, and academics reflect on a variety of aspects in the fireflyverse and the Whedonverse. And, there’s really a little bit of something for everyone in these two collections. Fans (and really anyone interested in inside information on how TV is made) will enjoy Firefly actors Nathan Fillions’s (“I, Malcolm”) and Jewel Staite’s (“Kaylee Speaks: Jewel Staite on Firefly”), and Buffy, Angel, and Firefly special effects guru Loni Peristere’s (“Mutunt Enemy U”) memories of the series. Those interested in how TV shows work from the inside will appreciate Buffy, Angel, and Firefly writer Jane Espenson’s (Espenson, by the way, was an undergraduate and graduate student in Linguistics at Berkeley) always interesting and intriguing if far too brief introductions to each essay. SF nerds will appreciate Orson Scott Card’s appreciation of Serenity (“Catching Up with the Future”), David Gerold’s (he of Star Trek fame) exploration of character development in Firefly (“Star Truck”), and Roxanne Longstreet Conrad’s wonderfully imagined comparison of Firefly and Enterprise (“Mirror, Mirror: A Parody”). Those interested in the use of Chinese in the series will revel in Kevin Sullivan’s “Chinese Words in the Verse” and “Unofficial Glossary of Firefly Chinese”. Academics will learn much from Geoff Klock’s superb structural analysis of the episode “Out of Gas” (“Firefly and Story Structure, Advanced”), Natalie Haynes’s brilliant exploration of the portrayal of women in Firefly (“Girls, Guns, Gags: Why the Future Belongs to the Funny”), and Michael Marona’s fascinating analysis of “weaponised women” in Firefly and the Whedonverse beyond Firefly.

As with any collection some of the essays in Finding Serenity and Serenity Found are interesting though not earth shattering. There are enough interesting and sometimes enlightening analyses in both collections, however, for me to recommend both books to anyone interested in quality storytelling and filmmaking, in how social ethical concerns impact film and television, in the work of Joss Whedon and Company in general, and in everything Firefly in particular. By the way, I recommend both in tandem with the two volume official companions to the series published by Titan Books (Firefly: The Official Companion, volumes I and II). The interview with Joss Whedon in those books alone is worth the price of admission.

This review originally appeared in slightly different form as “Review of Jane Espenson’s Finding Serenity and Serenity Found”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, 29:1 (April 2009), pp. 151-153. The editor of this piece, by the way, didn't like my assertion that upon its release the Firefly DVD was a hot item. He failed to note the following statistics: Firefly DVD's at Amazon.com had average daily rankings of between 1st and 75th in 2003, 22nd and 397th in 2004, 2nd and 232nd in 2005, and 2nd and 31st in 2006 as of June 27, 2006.