Blind Man with a Pistol

High Noon

In 1894, Fredrick J. Turner articulated his famous American frontier thesis:

American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West.

The ‘Great West’ in the American consciousness is not a geographical location, but a manufactured horizon perpetually out of reach. After all, the ‘Great West’ never needed to be ‘discovered’; it was already there and hundreds of indigenous societies called it home. Its construction as an uncivilized frontier remains an essential ingredient of economic expansion and legitimized the eradication of Native American cultures across the continent and the subsequent accumulation of wealth, natural resources and property. Unfortunately, arrival at its opposite coast and pan-national colonization did nothing to quench America’s desire for expansion and settlement. In fact, once America was confronted with physical evidence that the frontier that had motivated their historical narrative had disappeared, Western culture developed a cultural anxiety, almost an identity complex: once the end has been reached, once the West is no longer wild, how do we proceed?

The answer? Invent a substitute. Hollywood created a new, imaginary frontier in film, television and pulp fiction to retame and to recolonize. The trajectory of the cinematic Western follows the incessant progression of the locomotive, a potent symbol of modernization. From John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) the locomotive lumbers on in an increasingly modern landscape; its arrival at the coast in Leone’s epic coincides with the death of Cheyenne, the classic (and nostalgic) frontiersman archetype, who succumbs to a wound inflicted by Morton, the railroad tycoon. Filmgoers witnessed their filmic West become civilized, settled and modernized, gradually weaned of its coarse and savage past. Seven months after the release of Leone’s final Western, Sam Peckinpah released The Wild Bunch (1969), a film set decidedly in the modern era, in 1913, complete with machine guns and automobiles. Colonization of the American Western was now complete.

This tactic of imaginary colonization was repeated with the emergence of cyberpunk. It was as if by the end of the 1970s, Western art had run out of revised histories to colonize, so it turned to the future. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) remain seminal texts for the new genre. Cyberpunk remains a curious cultural phenomenon. By 1993, only nine years after the publication of Neuromancer, Wired Magazine had already declared cyberpunk dead. Even contemporary films with clear allegiance to cyberpunk’s legacy, like the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003, 2003) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) remain dissociated from the earlier cyberpunk canon.

The blinding speed with which cyberpunk completed its colonialist project is telling. What is notable about cyberpunk fantasies is their uncanny resemblance to contemporary global capitalism. They are like the present, only more so. Cyberpunk artists tend to tease out the latent material of our consumerist, fragmented society in a frenzied, amplified paean to postmodern life. The dystopic cityscapes of Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, saturated with corporate advertisements and giant digital screens might not concern a viewer who has visited New York’s Times Square in this century. Gibson is also credited with coining the term ‘cyberspace’—the ‘consensual hallucination’ of transglobal corporate commerce. The only difference between Gibson’s cyberspace and ours is that his vision of the corporate potential for profit were far too conservative.

Capitalism, having not yet realized its fullest desires in its own time, tips its hand with cyberpunk and colonizes the hereafter—or, in the parlance of Max Headroom, ‘20 minutes into the future’. The cyberpunk future collapses in on the present, which now seems a cruder, less civilized version of itself. The West has turned its settlers into natives; modernity needs to catch up and there’s no time like the present. ‘The wilderness masters the colonist,’ Turner wrote more than a century ago. ‘It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe’.

What is important to keep in mind, however, is that the space being colonized is not imaginary, but an actual, physical space in society. Just as colonizing the imaginary, filmic Wild West in fact colonized twentieth-century America with the expansion of the film and pulp literature industries to help establish a commodity culture, the preparation and subsequent colonizing of cyberspace facilitates the proliferation of offshore outsourcing, limitless free trade and the establishment of a post-industrial economy. Telecommunication companies colonize the real West with broadband cables and fibre optics, broadcast towers and satellite dishes. The fantasy, articulated by cyberpunk, of a decentralized, boundless, radically free market is purchased by a concentration of infrastructure and a focalized, urban population eager to make use of it.

So, finally, we are left with a new manifestation of Turner’s frontier: a vast, unnavigable space promising opportunity and expansion on one side; and a centralized, civilized posse of venture capitalists with an eye for profit. Only now, we don’t have to worry about that pesky Pacific ocean…

Carbon Taxes and Double Indemnity

Stéphane Dion released his ‘complex and politically risky’ carbon tax plan yesterday. I’ve already written what I think of market-based solutions for the climate crisis, but I’m a big fan of repeating myself. By creating a carbon market, which, effectively, both a carbon tax a cap-and-trade system will implement, we begin to turn our environment into an economical resource. Sure, we kind of do this already, but such a move will make the marketability of our planet much more explicit.

As this year-old article from Wired magazine, who just celebrated fifteen years of pushing their technological and capitalist utopian fantasies, explains: Carbon? Hell, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

People understand the economic value of nature’s goods because we constantly pay for them: seafood, timber, copper, cut flowers, natural gas. But nature also provides services that stabilize spaceship Earth. Insects pollinate crops, wooded hillsides purify water, trees sequester CO2, and wetlands buffer cities against storm surges. How much are those services worth? Who knows. They’ve always been free, or treated as such. Nature has never submitted an invoice.

But they’re not free, of course. We can tell by the enormous price we pay when they decline or disappear. Think Hurricane Katrina, unpollinated crops, and deadly mudslides caused by deforestation. As the new age of environmental awareness dawns, people and governments are starting to put a dollar value on these services. In practice, that means paying to protect the land where services are most concentrated. And whoever owns the land can reap the profits.

Essentially, the carbon market is the first step in turning ‘spaceship Earth’ into a post-industrial economy: from a manufacturing-based environmental economy to service-based one. Things are getting a lot more complicated without any noticeable improvement in lifestyle. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that creating a carbon market will do anything to reduce emissions—in fact, such a strategy actually entrenches pollution in our economy. We can’t eliminate carbon in a decade anymore than we can eliminate the tar sands now: it will cost jobs to hard-working Canadians.

The carbon tax holds up green collateral in an insurance racket with massive risk (and massive profit potential). And here’s what Walter Huff, insurance salesman from James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity (1936) has to say about his business (and if you recognize the picture in my banner, you’ll know I’ll quote from this guy whenever I get the chance):

You think I’m nuts? All right, maybe I am. But you spend fifteen years in the business I’m in, maybe you’ll go nuts yourself. You think it’s a business, don’t you, just like your business, and maybe a little better than that, because it’s the friend of the widow, the orphan, and the needy in time of trouble? It’s not. It’s the biggest gambling wheel in the world. It don’t look like it is, but it is, from the way they figure the percentage on the 00 to the look on their face when they cash your chips. You bet that your house will burn down, they bet it won’t, that’s all. What fools you is that you didn’t want your house to burn down when you made the bet, and so you forget it’s a bet. That don’t fool them. To them a bet is a bet, and a hedge bet don’t look any different than any other bet. But there comes a time, maybe, when you do want your house to burn down, when money is worth more than the house. And right there is where the trouble starts.

The difference between me and the Liberal party, and anyone who views a market-based solution as anything more than a stop-gap measure, is that I don’t think our future is worth the wager. There’s a reason why ‘nature has never submitted an invoice’: because it doesn’t play on our crooked wheel. It doesn’t want in, but we call the bet just the same. The money should never be worth more than the house, but you can’t seem to convince Canadians of that.

Oh, and the thing to remember about James Cain novels? The narrator is already dead.

The Blog Driver Waltz

The Associated Press has had it with bloggers. Or at least, they are expressing concern that bloggers might be playing too fast and loose with “fair use” copyright, and frequently cite and repost AP stories without paying for it. “As content creators, we firmly believe that everything we create, from video footage all the way down to a structured headline, is creative content that has value,” Jim Kennedy, vice president and strategy director of The A.P, says in the NYT article linked to above.

Fair enough. The excessive reproduction of articles and editorials wholesale is intellectual theft, and essentially amounts to mindless proliferation of information without critical engagement. The best quality of blogging is its capacity for pluralistic, independent analysis of political and cultural events, not simply blogging for the sake of it (of course, it’s funny how close those two approaches come sometimes). The A.P. has a right to protect itself and its journalists, and they do seem to be approaching it in a thoughtful and considered way—they plan to meet with members of trade group Media Bloggers Association, among others.

But in their lawsuit against the Drudge Retort—which spawned this whole mess and has yet to be withdrawn—they target a post that quoted eighteen words from an A.P. article plus a 32-word direct quote. Here is the passage in question:

Hillary Rodham Clinton says she expects her marathon Democratic race against Barack Obama to be resolved next week, as superdelegates decide who is the stronger candidate in the fall. “I think that after the final primaries, people are going to start making up their minds,” she said. “I think that is the natural progression that one would expect.”

Not exactly scintillating, Watergate-type stuff. The original post, however, now removed, incited 108 comments. How, exactly, can the A.P. pursue this lawsuit with a straight face?

What’s more, as City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis points out, it’s a bit rich for The Associated Press to pretend such self-righteousness when their raison d’être is the homogenization of original, diverse journalism into the A.P. style and brand.

This complaint comes from an organization that leaches off original reporting and kills links and credit to the source of that journalism. Yes, it has a right to reproduce reporting from member news organizations. But as I point out here, the AP is hurting original reporting by not crediting and linking to the journalism at its source. We should be operating under an ethic of the link to original reporting; this is an ethic that the AP systematically violates.

In fact, as Jarvis points out elsewhere, The A.P. made a deal with Google that effaces the work of the original journalist and makes Google the effective content producer. The deal allows the Internet software behemoth to display new stories not from the source, but from the wire. Perhaps, then, this latest attempt to short-circuit unique, independent and multivocal analysis and comment is part and parcel of the overarching strategy of the Associated Press after all. No sourcing unless it’s to us, no writing unless it’s bland, undistinguished and branded.

The good news is that whatever the A.P. tries to do, I have a suspicion that bloggers won’t hold much truck with it. Stand up for fair use, Associated Press. It is the only principled position you’ve got.

Hat-tip to skdadl at Bread n’ Roses.

Virtual Victory

First: Go read Michael Geist on why Jim Prentice’s digital rights copyright bill is a betrayal.

Then: register your disapproval here and join the facebook group here.

What is most interesting about the mobilized outrage protests against Bill C-61 (what Geist cynically refers to as the Canadian version of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the less strict American digital rights bill that the U.S. defeated) is that they have proven the viability of online, virtual protests. It appears to be a very real possibility that the growing facebook group, the online petition, and the automatically generated emails to MPs will change this bill. Even if the bill passes (with the Liberal Party of Canada’s usual strategy of sputtering anger followed by abstention) the online protest has educated thousands while inspiring political action and demand for change.

When politically motivated online protests emerged a few years ago, they were dismissed as a watered-down version of the marches and sit-ins of the 1960s. This is possibly true, but it is also true that contemporary politics are a watered-down version of their postwar counterparts. In fact, it was easy to be cynical about current marches against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Slavoj Žižek is fond of pointing out, most protests nowadays are virtual and toothless.

The big demonstrations in London and Washington against the US attack on Iraq a few years ago offer an exemplary case of this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protesters saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimise it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!’

Žižek is the comedic provocateur of philosophy, so perhaps it’s best to take him skeptically. But it is difficult to rid ourselves of the defeatism and pessimism that came with the failure of the anti-war protests to actually stop the war. And while it appears to me that there is a significant disparity of degree between protesting the slaughter of hundreds of thousands and digital copyright, the chance for success for the (actually) virtual protest is greater than the (virtually) actual one.

It is possible that this virtual action is finding traction because it occurs in the medium it affects. But more than this, I think it demonstrates that there is no virtual anymore.  Or, rather, it’s all virtual. After all, isn’t the intention of the digital lock provisions in C-61 in part, to make the virtual physical property? To deny digital proliferation online and shore up its singularity and uniqueness? I’ve always been suspicious of appeals to the “real world” (perhaps, as a graduate student of literature, that’s a matter of psychological denial) and this latest online protest seems to confirm those suspicions. Virtual political action isn’t opposed to the real world, it is the real world.

The Ongoing Militarization of Cyberspace

TomDispatch reveals the latest move by the U.S. Armed Forces in their ongoing project to militarize cyberspace.

Air Force officials, despite a year-long air surge in Iraq, undoubtedly worry that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s “next wars” (two, three, many Afghanistans) won’t have much room for air glory. Recently, looking for new realms to bomb, it launched itself into cyberspace. The Air Force has now set up its own Cyber Command, redefined the Internet as just more “air space” fit for “cyber-craft,” and launched its own Bush-style preemptive strike on the other military services for budgetary control of the same.

If that’s not enough for you, it’s now proposing a massive $30 billion cyberspace boondoggle, as retired Air Force Lt. Col. William Astore writes below, that will, theoretically, provide the Air Force with the ability to fry any computer on Earth. And don’t think the other services are likely to take this lying down. Expect cyberwar in the Pentagon before this is all over.

I’m not sure why this should come as a surprise. Tom Engelhardt references William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) which, before AOL even knew what it was, conceived of cyberspace as territory ripe for colonization and profit by a militarized corporate hegemony. Internet precursor ARPANET was a project of the United States Department of Defence and the people that brought this technology to the public were members of a corporate elite. Raymond Williams said of television broadcasting that it “was developed not only within a capitalist society but specifically by the capitalist manufacturers of the technological apparatus” and the same could be said of Internet technologies. Certainly the latest controversy about Bell Canada’s packet throttling indicates that it is corporations and not citizens who police cyberspace.

Donna J. Haraway’s polemical “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1991) offers a slim hope to override the hostile trajectory of cyberspace corporatization and militarization. While her terms are somewhat outdated (substitution of “cyberspace” for “cyborg” will stave off its expiry date slightly), Haraway employs the harnesses cyberspace’s unique ability for dissent and subversion of its founding structures. “The cyborg is the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism.” By virtue of its illegitimacy, cyberspace offers the promise of democracy, plurality and liberty we always hoped was there. “Illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins,” Haraway continues.” Their fathers, after all, are inessential.”

With the military and corporations trying to reclaim their lost sons and daughters (who have not been nearly prodigal enough) there is greater immediacy to flaunt the bastardhood of cyberspace. This latest cyber-incursion by the U.S.A.F. is a flawed and toxic homecoming. It’s difficult to conceive of sufficient strategies of resistance in a space where the boundaries are already defined, but those less cynical might point to recent mobilization of digital advocacy in a growing global concern for online democratic rights. Meanwhile, we can shore up the democratic spaces that do exist on the web and resist the colonization of cyberspace which is part and parcel of the West’s interminable effort to militarize the planet, virtual or not.

Sex in the City

As Shameless points out, there is something sexist about the kind of criticism coming out about the new (and ubiquitous) Sex and the City movie.

Why isn’t anybody calling out movie producers for their assumption that all it takes to get male movie-goers to the box office is car chases, explosions and breasts? If thousands of men flock to see the latest action flick, why isn’t that film’s very success suddenly a mark against it and proof that all men are shallow and vapid?

It’s a good question. So-called “chick lit,” for example, frequently makes the rounds on talk radio in a highly pitched discussion over whether or not it is worthwhile, whether or not it is “good for women,” and whether or not it should be read at all. Action movies, on the other hand, are taken as given, for what they are, and never have to endure bouts of soul searching or self-justification.

The problem arises because action flicks and macho video games never have a progressive politic incorrectly ascribed to them. It is characteristic of a society so terrified of feminism that any display of female empowerment, however stereotypical and however much it serves the interest of patriarchy, immediately earns the label. As a result, those who wish to buttress the term against erosion are compelled to join an almost frivolous debate: is Samantha’s “gut” feminist or not? In fact, it is in patriarchy’s best interest to enact this mischaracterization, to call what is expressly not feminism, feminism, because it subsumes dissenting voices in an act of self-affirmation. Meanwhile, the kind of feminism that gave women the vote, that pressed for equal wages and employment, that protected a woman jurisdiction over her own body, is relegated to the sidelines.

Consider the trajectory of the original series. Four strong , independent women decide to repudiate the stereotypes that society imposes upon them and live the lives that they want. So far, so good. There is a lot to be said for the subversive potential of public sex. If you believe that sex and gender politics are informed by sexual acts, then relegating sex to the bedroom, to the private sphere, is an ideological maneuver to keep us from discussing such implications. In their essay “Sex in Public,” Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner argue precisely this point.

The [heterosexual] sex act shielded by the zone of privacy is the affectional nimbus that heterosexual culture protects and from which it abstracts its model of ethics, but this utopia of social belonging is also supported and extended by acts less commonly recognized as part of sexual culture: paying taxes, being disgusted, philandering, bequeathing, celebrating a holiday, investing for the future, teaching, disposing of a corpse, carrying wallet photos, buying economy size, being nepotistic, running for president, divorcing, or owning anything “His” and “Hers.”

By refusing to keep sexual acts in the (imaginary) private sphere, sex in the city becomes a political act. Consider how gay and lesbian sex in public places is such an affrontry to our sensibilities. If we rescue the shame, intimacy and pleasure from the bedroom, we can introduce these impulses where they could really shake things up.

Intimate life is the endlessly cited elsewhere of political public discourse, a promised haven that distracts citizens from the unequal conditions of their political and economic lives, consoles them for the damaged humanity of mass society, and shames them for any divergence between their lives and the intimate sphere that is alleged to be simple personhood.

By the end of the series, however, all four protagonists pair off into heteronormative couples, some with children, most with typical soap opera lives. Any political potential has dissipated, any subversiveness vanished. It is perhaps what viewers always wanted, but the city registers a sense of disappointment that pervades the final season. When Samantha convinces her “steamy love interest” Smith Jared to pose for a billboard advertisement for Absolut Vodka, his nakedness is only tempered by a strategically placed Absolut bottle. Essentially, the commodified image of the vodka has replaced the sexual organ that had such primacy at the beginning of the show. We no longer have sex in the city (or even simply its promise) we have its trademarked image, a Times Square billboard of public sex utterly drained of political (and libidinal) potential.

Pulp fictions like Sex and the City are thus doubly anti-feminist. They advertise feminist dissent while selling its cosmetic image (and the companion martini); and such a bait-and-switch trick invites further attacks by weighing feminist fantasies on a harsher scale than masculinist ones, on the off-chance that such fantasies might actually empower women. As a result, in the popular imagination, Sex and the City becomes synonymous with feminismwith the cynically useful side-effect that once the show’s feminism disappears, so does ours.

Crtitical Hostility

The latest foray of conservatism, this time from the Wall Street Journal, in its interminable hostility towards critical theory:

Priya Venkatesan taught English at Dartmouth College. She maintains that some of her students were so unreceptive of “French narrative theory” that it amounted to a hostile working environment. She is also readying lawsuits against her superiors, who she says papered over the harassment, as well as a confessional exposé, which she promises will “name names.”

The trauma was so intense that in March Ms. Venkatesan quit Dartmouth and decamped for Northwestern. She declined to comment for this piece, pointing instead to the multiple interviews she conducted with the campus press.

Ms. Venkatesan lectured in freshman composition, intended to introduce undergraduates to the rigors of expository argument. “My students were very bully-ish, very aggressive, and very disrespectful,” she told Tyler Brace of the Dartmouth Review. “They’d argue with your ideas.” This caused “subversiveness,” a principle English professors usually favor.

Ms. Venkatesan’s scholarly specialty is “science studies,” which, as she wrote in a journal article last year, “teaches that scientific knowledge has suspect access to truth.” She continues: “Scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct.”

The agenda of Ms. Venkatesan’s seminar, then, was to “problematize” technology and the life sciences. Students told me that most of the “problems” owed to her impenetrable lectures and various eruptions when students indicated skepticism of literary theory. She counters that such skepticism was “intolerant of ideas” and “questioned my knowledge in very inappropriate ways.” Ms. Venkatesan, who is of South Asian descent, also alleges that critics were motivated by racism, though it is unclear why.

So, this “journalist” throws a few scare quotes over “problematize,” “heteronormativity” and “deconstruction” in a gleeful stitch-up of academia while casually dismissing claims of sexism and racism on the part of the school’s administration and student body. What never seems to come up in these conversations about the absurdity of academic-speak (as if scholars of literature have no stake in promoting clear and concise writing) is that they are almost always directed at radical leftist writers from conservative or bourgeois liberal corners.

Forget the ignorance or sheer refusal to study the fundamentals whence this kind of theory issues, such decontextualization highlights the very political motivation such critical theory attempts to foreground in areas it is presumed not to occupy. It is no accident or act of providence that the most widely used technology was developed as military projects, nor is it simply an interest in bettering grammar and scientific logic in his readership that compels this “journalist” to attack Dr. Priya Venkatesan (referred throughout the “article” as “Ms.”). When Dennis Dutton premiered his “Bad Writing Contest” in the (conservative) culture journal he edits, he curiously targeted some of the most radical leftist thinkers in North America, like Judith Butler and America’s premier Marxist critic, Fredric Jameson.

This is not to say that bad writing or suspect comprehension of science is not a problem in literary scholarship, on the contrary, the publish-or-perish mentality of many young academics generates all manner of futile text. But the underhanded treatment of Dr. Venkatesan (by an administration that refused to support her when it presumably knew what kind of research she was involved in) underlines what is at stake when such ignorant attacks are levied at studies in the humanities: the freedom to challenge the conservative, regressive tenets that underpin our society with which as progressives, we should ceaselessly seek to dispense. It is anti-intellectualism at its worst: a profound expression of ignorance, entitlement and fear.