Friday, December 19, 2014

Giving Thanks for Hanukkah

So, back on December 5th, I had another op-ed appearing in the Jewish Standard, this one entitled, From Thanksgiving to Chanukah. You might note the different spelling of the Jewish holiday between the title of this post and the title of the article, and that's because there is no one correct way to spell Hanukkah, since it's a transliteration of a Hebrew word written in the Hebrew alphabet.

Also, by way of contextualization, Thanksgiving was on November 27th this year, which means that this article was published just over a week afterwards. And the first night of Hanukkah was December 16th, about a week and a half after the article appeared. So now that we're in the midst of our Festival of Lights, it seems like the perfect time to share the piece here on Blog Time Passing. Note that a few minor corrections have been made from the published version, and the fourth poem, which was cut for reasons of space, is restored here, as well as some images added. So here goes:

With the celebration of Thanksgiving still fresh in our memories, and quite possibly our waistlines, and Chanukah a little more than a week away, we might recall last year’s rare, indeed almost impossible confluence of the two holidays.

Remember how the event was met with a bit of bemusement, resulting in the neologism Thanksgivukkah, in images of turkeys with tails that turned into Chanukah menorahs, and meals that combined stuffing and cranberry sauce with latkes and sufganiyot?

At first glance, it might be tempting to say that this year Chanukah has been restored to its rightful place in the secular calendar, ending as it does on Christmas Eve. But Christmas is one of the two most important holidays on the Christian calendar and, in all honesty, our minor holiday does not work all that well as the Jewish alternative to Christmas. As much as Chanukah is our Festival of Lights, it pales in comparison with the religious celebration of the birth of the Christian savior through divine incarnation. Neither can we offer an equivalent to the iconography of Christmas trees, sleighs, stockings, and jolly old Saint Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus.

And can we really take pride in the fact that Chanukah has been incorporated into the secular “Holiday Season,” which has become an enormous celebration of materialism and an orgy of consumption, beginning with Black Friday, now pushed back into Thanksgiving itself, followed by Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday? Or that the one favorable comparison that we can make is that we get eight nights of presents instead of just one?

Don’t get me wrong. I love Chanukah, and I fully recognize and understand the challenges that we face in growing up Jewish and raising our children as Jews in America. I bring up the problematic nature of Chanukah’s association with Christmas simply to underline the fact that last year, more than a few people commented that Chanukah actually fits better with Thanksgiving. After all, Thanksgiving is a harvest holiday and Chanukah originated as a delayed celebration of the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. Thanksgiving incorporates a modest amount of nonsectarian spirituality and Chanukah is at best a minor religious holiday; both are occasions for families to gather at home, rather than in a house of worship.

Thanksgiving is a distinctly American holiday, a ritual of national unity, albeit muted in contrast to the Fourth of July. Chanukah is a celebration of a successful national revolt against the Seleucid Empire, a small celebration of freedom in contrast to the Passover commemoration of the Exodus. Indeed, insofar as it began as the celebration of a military victory, Chanukah might well be compared to the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo. Although many non-Mexicans mistake Cinco de Mayo for Mexico’s Independence Day, which actually falls on the September 15, the Fifth of May merely commemorates the Mexican victory over the invading French army of Napoleon III in the Battle of Puebla in 1862. (By 1864, however, the Mexicans had lost the war, and Emperor Maximilian I was installed as their monarch. He ruled until 1867, when the Mexicans, aided by the United States, ousted the French.)

Even more than Cinco de Mayo, Thanksgiving and Chanukah have been somewhat tainted by subsequent events. Thanksgiving presents us with the ideal of co-existence between the English colonists and the Native Americans they encountered, but that ideal has proved to be elusive in practice. Chanukah’s rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and independence in ancient Judea was associated with civil war among our people, and the theocratic rule of the Hasmonean dynasty.

What is most important, however, is that both Thanksgiving and Chanukah are celebrations of survival against overwhelming odds. Both represent a message of hope that is always welcome.

Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. That same Civil War inspired a 14-year-old Jewish girl to start writing poetry. That was Emma Lazarus, a native New Yorker and a true American. Her father was Sephardic, her mother Ashkenazic of German descent, with ancestry in New York on both sides of her family, dating back to the American Revolution. Lazarus grew up to become one of the great American poets of the 19th century, maintaining a literary friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson. She died in 1887, at age 38.

She composed her best known work, “The New Colossus,” in 1883. It was not until well after her death that the poem was engraved in bronze and mounted on the State of Liberty’s pedestal. Most of us are familiar with the final fives lines of the poem, but the sonnet is worth repeating in its entirety:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Although she was particularly concerned with the treatment of Jewish immigrants flooding in from Russia and eastern Europe during the late 19th century, Lazarus was able to universalize that experience to cover immigration in general, and to emphasize the establishment of the United States as a refuge for freedom and a nation of immigrants, truly a cause for thanksgiving. We might note the subtle incorporation of Jewish motifs in this poem, notably the reference to immigrants as exiles, also the use of the torch and the lamp, perhaps the similarity between the “mighty woman” and the biblical judge, Deborah, and certainly the comparison with the Greek Colossus of Rhodes, an implied contrast between the Hellenic and the Hebraic (which also is a main source of conflict associated with Chanukah).

Around the same time that she wrote “The New Colossus,” Lazarus also wrote another poem, “1492,” that has a similar but more overtly Jewish theme. “1492” contrasts the tragedy of the expulsion from Spain with the hope spawned by the discovery of the New World as a home for the exiled:

Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,
Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,
The children of the prophets of the Lord,
Prince, priest, and people, spurned by zealot hate.
Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state,
The West refused them, and the East abhorred.
No anchorage the known world could afford,
Close-locked was every port, barred every gate.
Then smiling, thou unveil’dst, O two-faced year,
A virgin world where doors of sunset part,
Saying, “Ho, all who weary, enter here!
There falls each ancient barrier that the art
Of race or creed or rank devised, to rear
Grim bulwarked hatred between heart and heart!”
Without a doubt a major American poet, Lazarus dealt with many overtly Jewish subjects in her work. She translated works by the early 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine and the Hebrew poets of medieval Spain, Moses ben Ezra, Solomon ben Judah Gabirol, and Judah ben Ha-Levi, into English. Although she did not live to see the formal birth of the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century, her writing expresses the longing for a Jewish homeland associated with Theodor Herzl. As much as the United States had opened its golden door to the Jewish people, Lazarus was well aware of the anti-Semitism that existed in American society, and the plight of the Jewish people elsewhere throughout the world.

In that context, her poem “The Feast of Lights” conveys to us a different, more militant meaning of Chanukah than we are accustomed to:

Kindle the taper like the steadfast star
Ablaze on evening’s forehead o’er the earth,
And add each night a lustre till afar
An eightfold splendor shine above thy hearth.

Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Blow the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn;
Chant psalms of victory till the heart takes fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born.

Remember how from wintry dawn till night,
Such songs were sung in Zion, when again
On the high altar flamed the sacred light,
And, purified from every Syrian stain,

The foam-white walls with golden shields were hung,
With crowns and silken spoils, and at the shrine,
Stood, midst their conqueror-tribe, five chieftains sprung
From one heroic stock, one seed divine.

Five branches grown from Mattathias’ stem,
The Blessed John, the Keen-Eyed Jonathan,
Simon the fair, the Burst-of Spring, the Gem,
Eleazar, Help of-God; o’er all his clan

Judas the Lion-Prince, the Avenging Rod,
Towered in warrior-beauty, uncrowned king,
Armed with the breastplate and the sword of God,
Whose praise is: “He received the perishing.”

They who had camped within the mountain-pass,
Couched on the rock, and tented neath the sky,
Who saw from Mizpah’s heights the tangled grass
Choke the wide Temple-courts, the altar lie

Disfigured and polluted—who had flung
Their faces on the stones, and mourned aloud
And rent their garments, wailing with one tongue,
Crushed as a wind-swept bed of reeds is bowed,

Even they by one voice fired, one heart of flame,
Though broken reeds, had risen, and were men,
They rushed upon the spoiler and o’ercame,
Each arm for freedom had the strength of ten.

Now is their mourning into dancing turned,
Their sackcloth doffed for garments of delight,
Week-long the festive torches shall be burned,
Music and revelry wed day with night.

Still ours the dance, the feast, the glorious Psalm,
The mystic lights of emblem, and the Word.
Where is our Judas? Where our five-branched palm?
Where are the lion-warriors of the Lord?

Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Sound the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn,
Chant hymns of victory till the heart take fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born!

Lazarus issued a similar call for renewal and rebirth inspired by the Chanukah commemoration in another poem, “The Banner of the Jew”:

Wake, Israel, wake! Recall to-day
  The glorious Maccabean rage,
The sire heroic, hoary-gray,
  His five-fold lion-lineage:
The Wise, the Elect, the Help-of-God,
  The Burst-of-Spring, the Avenging Rod.

From Mizpeh’s mountain-ridge they saw
  Jerusalem’s empty streets, her shrine
Laid waste where Greeks profaned the Law,
  With idol and with pagan sign.
Mourners in tattered black were there,
  With ashes sprinkled on their hair.

Then from the stony peak there rang
  A blast to ope the graves: down poured
The Maccabean clan, who sang
  Their battle-anthem to the Lord.
Five heroes lead, and, following, see
  Ten thousand rush to victory!

Oh for Jerusalem’s trumpet now,
  To blow a blast of shattering power,
To wake the sleepers high and low,
  And rouse them to the urgent hour!
No hand for vengeance—but to save,
  A million naked swords should wave.

Oh deem not dead that martial fire,
  Say not the mystic flame is spent!
With Moses’ law and David’s lyre,
  Your ancient strength remains unbent.
Let but an Ezra rise anew,
  To lift the Banner of the Jew!

A rag, a mock at first—erelong,
  When men have bled and women wept,
To guard its precious folds from wrong,
  Even they who shrunk, even they who slept,
Shall leap to bless it, and to save.
  Strike! for the brave revere the brave!

With the State of Israel now 66 years old, it is easy to forget the longing for a homeland that the Jewish people felt before Israel’s Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1948. Chanukah, then, might be an occasion to consider what Israel’s independence means to us, especially in this troubled moment in our history, and at the same time as we, as American Jews, give thanks for the safe harbor we have enjoyed here in the United States.

In doing so, we can recall the meaning of Chanukah as a Festival of Light, and a celebration of survival—and hope.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Moses Motif

Back on October 30th, the Jewish Standard published another one of my op-ed pieces (in case you're wondering, I write them on their request), and with the film that I use as my jumping off point now out in the theaters, it seems as good a time as any to share it here on Blog Time Passing. The title of the piece is The Moses Motif, the subtitle being, "The savior theme in modern TV series," and here's how it goes:

Ridley Scott’s latest film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, won’t be in theaters until December, but it already has generated a bit of controversy.

According to Christianity Today, the actor who portrays Moses in the film, Christian Bale, had this to say about the dominant figure in Jewish religious tradition: “I think the man was likely schizophrenic, and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life. He’s a very troubled and tumultuous man who fought greatly against God, against his calling.”

Living in a free and open society, Mr. Bale is free to express his opinion, and to do so safe from the fear of any punishment or persecution. The biggest fear that his remarks have generated is the potential effect they may have on the movie’s box office returns, especially among the large Christian market in the United States. Of course, we in turn are free to characterize his statements as ignorant and erroneous. We also are free to express our doubts about whether he has any chance of displacing Charlton Heston as the personification of Moses, especially since Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments” has been broadcast on ABC every year around Easter for the last four decades. And we are also free to say that Mr. Bale should go back to playing Batman, a character better suited to his temperament.

And speaking of comic book superheroes, we might recall that the first of this genre, Superman, was the creation of two Jewish teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, back in 1938. As an answer to the idea of the Aryan “superman” trumpeted by Nazi ideology, their Superman was the ultimate immigrant, born on another planet but raised as an American. He was the ultimate orphan, too; his home world, Krypton, was destroyed, mirroring the Jewish immigrants who came to the United States to escape the destructive forces of discrimination and anti-Semitism, the arrests and expulsions, not to mention the pogroms, putsches, and purges. This was not an exclusively Jewish story, but one shared by many immigrant groups during the 19th and 20th centuries. This no doubt had much to do with the character’s popularity in the United States.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster

The immigrant experience is reflected in the depiction of the character’s double life, as well. Unlike Batman, whose real identity is Bruce Wayne, Superman doesn’t wear a mask, but instead puts on glasses to masquerade as Clark Kent, the Anglo-Saxon name he uses as he tries to blend in with humanity. And although he is never entirely outed, he often comes across as awkward, shy, and clumsy in his attempt to pass as an ordinary man. As Superman, however, his Kryptonian ethnicity is openly on display. He is in his own element, set apart from the mainstream, which is the way that immigrants and their children might feel in the privacy of their own homes, or at shul, or safely tucked away in their own community or ethnic enclave.

Ellis Island was notorious for changing immigrant’s names, and immigrants themselves commonly changed their names to Americanize them. They often gave their children Anglo-Saxon names like Clark Kent. And just as Jews often have Hebrew names that differ from their official given names, Superman has a Kryptonian name: he is Kal-El, son of Jor-El. The last name, El, is a common element of Hebrew names, translated as God, while Kal might be taken for the Hebrew word for all, or for voice. Perhaps there is also a connection to the name of the biblical hero Caleb, which also can be transliterated as Kaleb, one of the 12 spies sent by Moses, and the only one, aside from Joshua, to act with courage, loyalty, and integrity. The important point, however, is not the specific translation, but rather the way in which the idea of Superman’s Kryptonian name is drawn from Jewish experience.

But Superman’s origin also was clearly inspired by the story of how Moses was saved from the Egyptian edict that all male children born to the Israelites should be killed, how he was put into a basket to float on the Nile River, where he was found and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. The story of Superman begins when he is an infant. His parents place him in a small rocket, just the size of a cradle, and send him to the planet earth just before his planet is destroyed. Although Siegel and Shuster drew on science fiction themes rather than myth, fantasy, or allegory in telling this story, there is no denying the seemingly supernatural quality of the hero, or his role as a hero and a savior.

The same Moses motif is apparent in the ABC television series Once Upon a Time, created by two Jewish writers, Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, and now into its fourth season. The ABC network is owned by Disney, and Once Upon a Time draws on Disney’s long history of fantasy and fairy tale films, reworking and merging the characters and plots, and giving it all a twist. This is along the lines of the popular TV series Lost, for which both Kitsis and Horowitz wrote.

As the series opens, all the fairytale characters are under a spell cast by the Evil Queen (the one from Snow White), living ordinary, unchanging lives in the real world in a small town called Storybrooke. They have forgotten their true identities and earlier existence in another realm called the Enchanted Forest. Just before the curse took hold, however, Snow White and Prince Charming placed their infant daughter in a magic wardrobe, which transported her to our world, free of the Evil Queen’s curse. She grows up as an orphan, ignorant of her origins. The series opens with the daughter, now an adult named Emma Swan, arriving at Storybrooke, where she eventually is identified as the Savior. This makes it possible to reverse the spell and rouse the inhabitants from their fantasy of assimilation.

A darker version of the Moses motif appears in the HBO series Game of Thrones, adapted from George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels by two Jewish writers, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Here too the motif is applied to a female character, Daenerys Targaryen. As the young daughter of a deposed king, she is saved from being slaughtered, exiled to a part of the world that resembles the middle east, and forced into an arranged marriage with the leader of a nomadic tribe. Rescued and adopted into royalty, she loses everything when her husband is wounded and dies. But, like Moses, she has a supernatural encounter with fire (becoming “mother” to three newly hatched dragons) that sets her on the path to becoming a leader in her own right, and a redeemer. During the series’ fourth season this spring, her liberation of slaves was shown to great dramatic effect. It is also clear, however, that she is a flawed savior, and her dragons are a dangerous weapon that can cause harm to the innocent.

Superman, Emma Swan, and Daenerys Targaryen all draw upon the powerful story of Moses in different ways. But they all convey the same profound theme of the Moses motif. That’s unconditional love, as parents sacrifice everything to save their children. (How many times has that story been enacted in real life?) As Neil Postman so eloquently put it, “children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” And what the Moses motif reminds us of is that children are the saviors who will liberate us from the tyranny of the past, and lead us into the freedom of the future.

And that's the end of the op-ed, but as a bit of an epilogue, I was in the audience for a taping of the Late Show with David Letterman last month (and it is sad to see that come to an end), and as part of the warm up before the show began, he told the following joke: What do you call a Batman who stops attending church? The answer was, Christian Bale...


Thursday, November 6, 2014

Rock On, John!

In my last post, I mentioned John Lennon in passing, and that reminded me that he was also mentioned in passing in the moving new song by my friend John Watts, aka Fischer-Z, which I thought I'd share here. But first, a warning, there is "strong language" as it's euphemistically stated in parental advisory messages, which is to say that the song contains what is commonly considered a curse word, a fairly common one in the English language, here used to make a strong statement I might add.

Anyway, the video is over on YouTube under the title of L.U.T.W. with love & peace, and obviously the initials were needed because spelling out the "F" word would probably spell doom for the video. So, here it is:

And again, warning, warning (add "Will Robinson" here if you are of a certain age and remember the old Lost in Space TV program), because here are the lyrics which again include strong language:

I've had enough of this
I can't sit back and watch this go on any more
Mothers are crying children are dying people are lying lying and you know what?
Jesus and Mohammed never meant this...

People are so hung up on reporting what they call the news
and sending it in pictures around the world in to get 'views'
They support their position and call it the truth
We are becoming a world of voyeurs and ghouls..
We are becoming a world of voyeurs and ghouls..

No politician no general no army and no multinational party
Can put a stop to the escalation of this desperate situation.
There is no victory... the cost is inhuman
It's an insurmountable problem
Made by them, and with them and of them.
Till the forces of love can amalgam
We must love one another or die-
love one another or die

Once upon a time there was an angry man from Liverpool
Who was prepared to get naked and make himself vulnerable.
Prepared to go on the world's front pages
To hammer home an important message...
‘Love is all we need’ never changes.

The news is rolling in 24-hours a day
it's virtually unavoidable
Searching for the next big big atrocity
Racing International

Fuddy-duddy Old school national news
struggle with the blogger,blogger propaganda views
Vengeance by the smartphone, hatred travels fast -
fascism and fatwas...
All fall down
Down from the mountain

10 years and countin’
Life’s endless fountain

International thought police struggle hopelessly
with the Internet Leviathan
Squeezes all the life out of truth & honesty
Within minutes… sometimes seconds

Governments and nations are knee-jerk to respond
to the fast unfolding media
Losing their perspective, Best interests slide & fall
Political Amnesia

All fall down
Down from the mountain

10 years and countin’
Life’s endless fountain

This is is no answer
Nothing is changing
it’s just rearranging this generation
The culture of self

Beyond everything else
Beyond ideals and dreamers... and innocent screamers
The Message is hatred
The message is terror
The Message is fear

For ever and ever
Fear begets aggression
Aggression begets conflict
Conflict begets pain, suffering and death.

And while I'm on the subject of John Lennon, I have to say that I was really moved by Bob Dylan's song, "Roll on John," from his outstanding 2012 album, Tempest. If you haven't heard it, here, give a listen:

I would assume that many of you have given up on Dylan a long time ago, but Tempest really is one of his best albums, at least of his post-60s work, up there with Blood on the Tracks in my opinion.

And here are the lyrics for "Roll on John":

Doctor, doctor, tell me the time of day
Another bottle's empty
Another penny spent
He turned around and he slowly walked away
They shot him in the back and down he went

Shine your light,
Move it on,
You burned so bright,
Roll on John

From the Liverpool docks to the red light Hamburg streets
Down in the quarry with the Quarrymen.
Playing to the big crowds
Playing to the cheap seats
Another day in your life on your way to your journey’s end

Shine your light,
Move it on,
You burned so bright,
Roll on John

Sailing through the trade winds bound for the sun
Rags on your back just like any other slave
They tied your hands and they clamped your mouth
Wasn’t no way out of that deep dark cave

Shine your light,
Move it on,
You burned so bright,
Roll on John

I heard the news today, oh boy
They hauled your ship up on the shore
Now the city’s gone dark
There is no more joy
They tore the heart right out and cut it to the core

Shine your light,
Move it on,
You burned so bright,
Roll on John

Put on your bags and get ‘em packed
Leave right now you won’t be far from wrong
The sooner you go, the quicker you’ll be back
You've been cooped up on an island far too long

Shine your light,
Move it on,
You burned so bright,
Roll on John

Slow down you’re moving way too fast
Come together right now over me
Your bones are weary you’re about to breathe your last
Lord, you know how hard that it can be

Shine your light,
Move it on,
You burned so bright,
Roll on John

Roll on John, roll through the rain and snow
Take the right hand road and go where the buffalo roam
They’ll trap you in an ambush before you know
Too late now to sail back home

Shine your light,
Move it on,
You burned so bright,
Roll on John

Tiger, Tiger burning bright
I pray the lord my soul to keep
In the forest of the night
Cover him over and let him sleep

Shine your light,
Move it on,
You burned so bright,
Roll on John

An interesting side note, at least interesting to me, is that the title of the song is almost the same as the title of a folk song Dylan sang back in 1962, before he went electric, "Roll On, John" (note the older title has a comma, while the John Lennon tribute doesn't, and yes, punctuation does make a difference).

Me, I like the one with the comma better...

So, let's lift a glass to Bob and the two Johns, rock and roll on, with love and peace, and let's repair the world!

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Brief Post About Conceptual Art

So, I don't claim to be an expert on art, but I know what I like, at least some of the time. Now, in my last post, Maelström and Vortex, I mentioned the Vorticism movement in modern art, which Marshall McLuhan was particularly keen on. So, another movement in modern art that also influenced McLuhan, and that he influenced in turn, is called Conceptualism, otherwise known as conceptual art. Its origins can be traced back to Marcel Duchamp's 1917 work, entitled Fountain:

And if you're thinking, that's not art, that a urinal, well, yeah, that's it, you've got the concept. And you know, McLuhan did say that art is anything you can get away with

So, conceptualism is in some ways diametrically opposed to formalism in modern art, formalism being art that is about the form itself, which is to say about the medium itself, for example painting that is all about the paint and the canvas. And formalism would seem to be very much in line with McLuhan and media ecology, as the modern artist Fernand Léger expresses in the essay he wrote for the Explorations journal edited by McLuhan and Edmund Carpenter during the 1950s, entitled "Pure Color" and here are a few excerpts from that piece:

Until the pictorial realization by the painters of the last fifty years, color or tone was fast bound to an object: a dress, body, flower, landscape had the task of wearing color.

To make use of color without reservation, the wall had to be freed to become an experimental field. Color had to be got out, extricated, isolated from the objects in which it had been kept prisoner. ...

Modern publicity first understood the importance of this new value: pure tone ran away from paintings, took possession of roads, and transformed the landscape! New abstract signals—yellow triangles, blue curves, red rectangles—spread around the motorist to guide him on his way.

Color was the new object, color set free, color the new reality.

So anyway,  formalism was all about the medium without the content, which was brought to the fore as the shift from the old typographic/mechanical media environment to the new electronic media environment made at least some individuals (artists and intellectuals) increasingly more aware of media as media. And in some ways, conceptualism further reflects the new electronic consciousness by moving from pure medium to a dematerialized, ethereal sense of the medium, as in performance art.

And um, yeah, Yoko Ono is considered a conceptual artist, and the photo above is from around the time that she and John Lennon met with McLuhan in Toronto. But years earlier, back in 1965, she was a pioneer of conceptual and performance art:

And while they won't let me embed the video here on this post, please take a look at this short BBC report: Yoko Ono's Cut Piece still shocks. Here's the write up that accompanied the video:

Yoko Ono has been known for her conceptual art long before her music. In 1964 she stunned audiences were her Cut Piece where she sat on a stage and allowed people to cut clothing from her.

Now almost 50 years on she talks to The Culture Show's Miranda Sawyer about the public reaction at the time and what she sought to say through her work and what it means in a more modern context.

So, anyway, this brings me to another conceptual artist, John Baldessari, the subject of a fascinating and really well done little video entitled, A Brief History of John Baldessari, which you can view over on YouTube or right here right now:

Special thanks to my graduate student at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Anna Zepp, who is doing a blog on art called Art Around Anna for my Writing for the Internet MA course there, for bringing this video to my attention.

So, what do you think? Is it art? And did he get away with it?

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Maelström and Vortex

Edgar Allan Poe's 1841 short story, "A Descent into the Maelström," anticipates the systems concepts of chaos and complexity, and provided Marshall McLuhan with a vivid metaphor for popular culture, technology, and the modern media environment. It was invoked in McLuhan's first book, The Mechanical Bride, originally published in 1951, and McLuhan would make similar references in his later work. The 2002 documentary, McLuhan's Wake, also drew on the narrative and imagery.

The following YouTube video creatively edits together part of Marshall McLuhan's final lecture with animation featuring Eric McLuhan's reading of the Poe story, all taken from McLuhan's Wake:

It's worth noting that McLuhan was also quite taken with the Vorticism movement in modern art, the leading proponent and practitioner being Wyndham Lewis, and which also significantly involved Ezra Pound, and was associated with the publication of two issues of Blast, a literary magazine.

So, we're talking about art and media married to science and technology, all linked to a revolution in our understanding of time and space, a revolution that in science was associated with Albert Einstein, and in art with Pablo Picasso, both of whom, McLuhan argued, were in their own way responding to the new media and technological environment originating with the 19th century invention of Samuel Morse's electro-magnetic telegraph, and Guglielmo Marconi's wireless.

Now, just to make the connection, let me throw in some computer-generated images associated with the more recently developed science and mathematics of chaos and complexity:

I don't want to go into the specifics of the images here, I just think it's pretty clear how these simulacra are related to the real world phenomena of the maelström and vortex. And all this came to mind when I recently came across the DjSadhu's wonderful video, The helical model - our solar system is a vortex. Here, take a look:

Life is vortex! I love it! And it is so very true. We live on the edge of chaos, as bits of emergent order, animated by the vortex. And while the emphasis here is on the relativity of position in space, and understanding motion, underlying it all is an awareness of time as the fundamental factor, the basic dimension, of existence. A vortex or maelström is a timespace phenomenon.

So, even with that understanding, the solar system is taken out of the larger ecology of the galaxy, which is where the follow up video, The helical model - our Galaxy is a vortex, comes in:

The galaxy is a vortex! And this lends new significance to the title of McLuhan's second book, The Gutenberg Galaxy from 1962. And in the introduction to that work he explains that galaxy is synonymous with environment, so the Gutenberg galaxy, and what he also refers to as the Marconi galaxy, and a media environment in general, is a vortex or maelström.

And even with the second DjSadhu video, we miss the larger context of the galaxy itself as a vortex, and it's relation to other galaxies, the supercluster as a vortex as well, and that within the enormity that is the universe. And then, try to relate all that to the full time scale of the big bang, the mother of all maelströms!

Maelström, vortex, galaxy, environment, or if you prefer, dynamic systems characterized by chaos and complexity. And as above, so below, the metapatterns, to use Gregory Bateson's term, follow a fractal logic of self-similarity across macro and micro scale.  This is the kind of thinking, in relation to human existence and our place in the universe, that media ecology is all about. There is no way out of the vortex, but the choices we make will determine whether we sink or swim.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Not Quite An AboutFace(book)

So, back at the beginning of this month, I was quoted in TechNewsWorld on the subject of Facebook's announcement of new guidelines regarding how they should go about manipulating and experimenting on their users. You may remember that I was previously quoted on the subject in the Christian Science Monitor back in July, as discussed in my previous post, Facebook Follies. So this serves as something of a follow up to that post, so maybe you want to go read that one first if you haven't already?

Either way, this post concerns a story by Erika Morphy published on October 3rd, entitled Being Facebook Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry. And the subtitle/blurb for it reads as follows:

Facebook may seem apologetic about the way it manipulated users in a study to gauge their emotional responses to certain types of posts, but it stopped short of actually making an apology. It also didn't quite say it wouldn't do it again. In fact, the guidelines Facebook has promised to follow in conducting future research are general, vague and, well, they're guidelines.

The article then begins in earnest with a brief summary of the most recent installment in Facebook's soap opera relationship with the public:

Facebook on Thursday announced it had developed a framework for conducting research on its 1.3 billion or so users.

Although Facebook so far has revealed only the general outlines, this framework clearly is a response to the onslaught of criticism the company received this summer, when it blithely reported the findings of a study about how News Feed content affected a user's mood.

In carrying out that research, Facebook withheld certain posts and promoted others to see how users would react.

And then on to how Facebook's actions were received by most of us:

When its methodology became public, reactions were immediate and harsh.
"While all businesses of this scale constantly experiment with the factors that influence their customers and users, there's something especially spooky about the idea of being experimented on in our digital lives," said Will McInnes, CMO of Brandwatch.
Facebook apparently was caught off guard by the vitriol. 

At this point, a new section begins with the heading, "A Look at the Framework":

The new framework includes giving researchers clearer guidelines and, in certain cases—such as when dealing with content that might be considered deeply personal—putting the project through an enhanced review process before the research begins.

Further review is required if the work involves collaboration with someone in the academic community.

Toward that end, Facebook has created a panel comprised of its most senior subject-area researchers, along with people from its engineering, research, legal, privacy and policy teams to review projects.

Facebook also will put its new engineers through a six-week training boot camp on privacy and research related issues.

Now that all of the basic information is established, it's time for some discussion, analysis, and evaluation, and this begins a new section under the heading of "Informed Consent?":

Facebook's new guidelines appear to be missing some fundamental ingredients, starting with actual policies on what will or won't be permissible.

For instance, it is unclear whether Facebook would repeat this summer's study under the new guidelines.

The company has not exactly said that it shouldn't have tinkered with users' News Feeds—just that it should have considered other, perhaps nonexperimental, ways to conduct its research. Facebook acknowledged that its study would have benefited from review by a more senior group of people. It also owned up to having failed to communicate the purpose of its research.

And now it's time to hear from the peanut gallery, aka moi:

Facebook has not promised to inform users the next time it conducts a research project, noted Lance Strate, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University.

"Instead, Facebook is in effect saying, 'I'm sorry, I made a mistake, I won't do it again, I can change, I promise—just trust me,' while giving their users absolutely no concrete reason why they should be trusted," he told TechNewsWorld.

The irony is that Americans usually are very willing to participate in consumer research and divulge all sorts of personal, private information in focus groups, interviews, surveys and opinion polls—as long as they are asked whether they are willing to take part in the study first, Strate pointed out.

Indeed, asking permission to conduct such studies goes beyond privacy and business ethics to common courtesy and basic human decency, he said. "It's the sort of thing we teach children long before they enter kindergarten—to ask for permission, to say, 'Mother, may I' and 'please' and 'thank you.'"

Facebook's apparent sense of entitlement regarding the collection of user data and the violation of user privacy is one reason for the extraordinary amount of buzz surrounding the launch of Ello as an alternative social network, Strate added.

It is funny how there seems to be an overall decline in civility in American society that correlates to the rise of new media, and first starts to appear in relation to the electronic culture of television. So perhaps it should not come as a surprise that Facebook would be a part of this trend, and it would be reflected in the ways in which Facebook treats its users.

Thinking about the term user itself, it does suggest what Martin Buber would call an I-It relationship. And while the alternative, an I-You relationship, is based on a sense of mutual respect between participants, a mutual recognition of each other as entities, the I-It relationship is fundamentally asymmetrical. And calling us users suggests that we are the I in the relationship, and Facebook is the It. But Facebook's behavior indicates that they see the situation as quite the opposite: The users are the It, and Facebook is the I.

So maybe, rather than referring to us as Facebook users, we should be called the Facebook used?

Anyway, here's how the article ends:

That thought surely has occurred to Facebook's executive team, which might have been one factor behind the release of the guidelines, McInnes told TechNewsWorld.

"Facebook's greatest fear and business risk is a user exodus, and so it knows that the trust of users is crucial," he said. "This move represents Facebook stepping up and looking to close down the risk of such a backlash again."

So, how about we set up a pool to see when the Facebook exodus will actually occur? I'm thinking some time around 2019, but it could be as soon as 2016. I guess it all depends when the New Media Moses arrives to part the Web(2.0) Sea...

Anyway, just for the record, here's the original comment that my quotes were taken from:

The essential ethical principle for research involving human subjects is informed consent, and that is exactly what Facebook has failed to address, or apparently to accept. Instead, Facebook is in effect saying, "I'm sorry, I made a mistake, I won't do it again, I can change, I promise, just trust me," while giving their users absolutely no concrete reason why they should be trusted. The irony is that Americans by and large are quite willing to participate in consumer research and divulge all sorts of personal, private information in focus groups, interviews, surveys and opinion polls, as long as they are given a choice, as long as they are asked whether they are willing to take part in the study first. This goes beyond issues regarding privacy and business ethics to common courtesy and basic human decency. It's the sort of thing we teach children long before they enter kindergarten, to ask for permission, to say "mother may I" and please and thank you. Facebook's apparent sense of entitlement regarding the collection of user data and the violation of user privacy is undoubtedly the reason for the extraordinary amount of buzz surrounding the launch of Ello as an alternative social network, and for this reason we can expect to see continued erosion of Facebook's near monopoly over the social media sector.

Not much different from the article, Morphy did a good job with it I thought, but this way you can see my complete thought. And since then, aside from Ello, I've heard a little about another alternative, MeWe. And no doubt there are dozens of folks out there working on alternative social media platforms, hoping that theirs will be the next one to catch fire and take over as the internet's burning bush.