Participatory Culture

Without my iPhone I feel bare and socially vulnerable. I know it sounds dramatic, but I would rather forget my wallet at home than forget my iPhone. If I forget my wallet at home I could use my iPhone to find the nearest branch of my bank on Google Maps, get walking/subway/car directions to the branch, and withdraw money. I could text message my next appointment that I’m running late, or even skype with the meeting participants from the bank’s lobby. With the iPhone I’m an active participant of communities and social networks, where I could creatively handle many situations, consume and produce information in various media formats.  My name is Pazit Levitan and I’m a participatory culture junkie – I have become depended on Web 2.0 in living my everyday life.

In his interesting video lecture (Jenkins, 2007), and Technology Today column, “Convergence? I diverge” (2001), Henry Jenkins refers to convergence and relates it to participatory culture – people conversing, blogging, creating communities, participating and producing the media, as opposed to merely consuming media.

Not only does personal communication change as a result of the new storytelling format, but the business landscape at large adapts to participatory culture.  In the video presentation Jenkins refers to Yochai Benkler’s book “The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom” (2006), where Benkler refers to the mix of amateur culture, commercial culture, government culture and the non-profit culture interplay, and how it all comes together as today’s grassroots media production (i.e. facebook media production and celeb<ration> of the self), mixed in with corporate agenda (i.e. facebook customized advertising – see inserted image).  This creates a new type of ever-complex ecology of the media, afforded by the web-based social networks and their dynamics.  We are participants in such dynamics – as producers of the media we shape and ask for particular forms and content (according to Johnson – our brain reacts more to form than content).  Nevertheless, are we fully-sighted?

I agree that today’s convergence culture is different than communications culture of previous generations (i.e. teenagers have the TV on mute, while listening to their iPod and texting).  On the other hand, Steven Johnson’s assertion that today’s media makes you smarter (“Everything Bad is Good for You”, 2007) has not been proven true.  People get more acquainted and trained to ‘better fit’ the Web 2.0 generation.  Does that mean that they (we) become smarter?

As a mother for two young boys (6 and 4 years of age) I observe my kids play video games (on my iPhone!), master participatory culture and even introduce me to new types of intuitive participation with media (i.e. playing a “Labyrinth” game by raising the phone up and down quickly for another type of movement that I didn’t know existed as game controls, having been raised with linear media…).  Despite my academic and professional training my kids seem to be born as organic citizens of today’s media culture.  However, does it really make them smarter?

My view is that being media savvy in today’s participatory culture is more for social, economical and political survival, and less for the ‘the smarts’ (well, we already know that IQ does not necessarily relate to a high social, economical or political power).  Without my iPhone I would have not been ‘less smart’; In fact, I might have improved some of my problem-solving skills in a non-technological, ‘smart’ learning manner, a skill that would probably have been more useful in the jungle than in New York City.  Having said that, I would have probably been less socially, economically and politically competent; hence, my initial feeling of social vulnerability when going out without my iPhone – my armor – out of the house and into the street of survival.  Is it all a Capitalist conspiracy?

October 2, 2010. Columbia University Doctorate. 1 comment.

Final Blog: The C (See?) Factor of Communications

Question: 9/11 was akin to an asteroid that hits earth and causes extreme perturbations. Assuming all the material effects of the event–death war etc., 9/11 also affects in diverse ways the communications ecology of humanity, the way we communicate and what we communicate. What can you say about 9/11 that you can derive from our study together?

I find the term “Communication Ecology of Humanity” complex and intriguing, especially when attempting to relate it to the 9/11 event.  In order to associate a portion of the insight derived by our study together to the 9/11 phenomena and its affect on the communication ecology of humanity, I shall reflect on the term briefly and subjectively using related terms that could shed light on the connectivity between the communication ecology of humanity and 9/11: Community (Capitalism & Corporatism), Commerce, Creativity and Critical thinking.  By relating the “C factors” to a few of the ideas that came up by the texts and in class, my limited perception of the 9/11 event and its aftermath would hopefully integrate some of ingredients of contemporary communications ecology into a more comprehensive understanding.

1. Community:  9/11 took place in Corporate America, a Capitalist society:

“At all of these companies that my mom worked for she was extremely successful; for many years she made the most money on her train desk, but she never got promoted to management.  Part of that was because she was a woman, she felt, but part of that was because she wasn’t diplomatic… she had a lot of friends, but she had people that didn’t like her because she wasn’t there to kiss ass to the executives… she came home and said ‘I wish that I could suck my tongue because I know that it would be good for my career’”.  (Nick about his mother who died on 9/11, “Project Rebirth” footage).

In the beginning of the semester Professor Frank Moretti introduced the structure of a society by the collective symbols that it creates, based on historical and social perspectives.  Corporate America, embracing the Capitalist economic system strategizes the communication ecology of humanity on the goal of profit making.  Nick’s mother coming into the office 8am-6pm wearing a suit, a firm smile and a “can do” attitude, obsessed with the creation of seductive spreadsheets that display a more effective plan to expand the company’s profit margin are all patches of the communication quilt.  Her “unrelated” creative endeavors, personal pain and individuality can only stand in the way if it does not lend itself directly and instantaneously to private monetary gain – and it is never enough – the earning cap is infinite.

Therefore, when the suicide hijackers crashed the Twin Towers, they also aimed to crash the collective memory of Corporate America – symbols of power and wealth.  Whether it was due to hostility by those who perceive American corporate achievements with envy, or a rebellious act requesting moral justice, 9/11 was a clash and a crash between at least two collective ecologies of humanity.

How is communication embedded in our dynamic landscape of multi-directed ideologies?

Every community defines its own communication ecology according to its subjective, collective and accumulative memory of the “history”.  Dewey (1927) claimed that modern society will never become a “Great Community” because we are using communication technology inappropriately, despite its potentiality to form a more inclusive and flexible discourse between different communities of interest.  Realistically, “there are too many publics and too much of public concern for our existing resources to cope with” (p. 126), so interest-clash will turn into violence.  Destruction and pain are inevitable.  Therefore, it was predicted that some publics would mourn after the 9/11 event, while other publics would praise it, define it as heroic act, and would keep constructing history based on its collective memory.  As Frank Moretti mentioned in class – “a weapon of one group is a critique of another” (January, 2010).

2. Commerce:  

The third dictionary definition of the term “commerce” was new knowledge to me.  However, I would like to refer to first and the second definitions of “commerce”.  It seems that “social dealings between people” has been hijacked by digital communication in the past decade, and that new technologies are revealing their dark side, associated with interpersonal relationships.  In the western world a person who is not connected to other human beings through instantaneous, web-based or mobile communication devices is generally considered anti-social.  Individual who does not read news updates when walking, socializing or toileting is considered out of touch with “reality”.  When have we got time to think? Reflect? Be private? Be silent?  It was a nice exercise in class to feel the silence for one minute… we rarely do that in the public sphere.  Since we now welcome the public sphere into our most personal space, a pause and silent communication are becoming a ‘distinct species’.

Our study together highlights the burden of persistent communications and the enormous amount of commercial output it overloads humanity with.   Most of the theorists we read in class refer to communication technologies in a critical way.  Appadurai (2006) sees the dark side of globalization and communications as allowing for “predatory identities”, social exclusion and the creation of social anxiety, connecting his theory to political intent.   Marcuse (2004) suggests that we live our life as the engine of Capitalism in every aspect, and that engine is based on energy of things being destroyed, so new things can be created for the mass, leading to a “creative destruction”.  We are manipulating the mass into producing persuasive artifacts for us and by us – a system, which is brilliant in its creative destruction capacity.  As a result of such engagement with artifact production, according to Marcuse, there is also a deterioration in human ability to rebel, since there is no resource left in human collective consciousness to revolutionize.  We are too occupied with investing in the performance of Capitalism, so that protest (such as 9/11) is under-valued and under-estimated.

3. Creativity

Creativity can be explored both as advantageous from a democratic, market production perspective (Benkler’s view), as well as from an anxiety-driving viewpoint (Lanier).  On the one hand 9/11 could trigger creative expression that can serve as healing process to the individual – to the creator (such as filmmakers and interviewees in “Project Rebirth” or the author of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”, Jonathan Safran Foer), and also to the consumers, who currently have easier access to creative production via one click, anytime and anywhere.  The challenge, however, happens when political agenda kicks in, and blurs the naïve and objective nature of “art for art sake”.  This notion brings to mind Benjamin’s argument that the mechanical reproduction changes the nature of relationship between the creative production, its creator and the recipient.  According to Benjamin new forms of communications would be based on the practice of politics.

One example of creative manipulation of media communications for the sake of political propaganda is the embedded YouTube clip, where Rudy Giuliani, “the most frequent guest on CNN’s ‘Larry King Live’” (King on air, May 5th, 2010), who was also named “America’s Mayor” as the New York mayor during 9/11 (a member of “The Power Elite”, Wright, 1956) articulates his diagnosis of 2009 New Year day’s intended terror incident by using the psychology of fear and misguiding by a heavily biased and inaccurate comparison, a known strategy of advertising and propaganda, while relating 9/11 to self celebrating and the dismissal of Obama’s leadership (January 16th, 2010):  

4. Critical thinking

We concluded the course with the reading of Plato’s “Republic” (360 B.C.E.), Latour (2004) and Sen’s (2006) commentary about the Allegory of the Cave.  We do not understand how easily we get manipulated, and how we are engineered to forego our critical thought.  We are distracted by excess communications, overwhelmed by ever-increasing output of commerce, misguided that we are a free market, and immersed in the political agenda of the rich few.  However, this is who we are: We are in the cave, where it is messy, chaotic, multi-layered and driven by multiple collections of memory and history.  We share the cave with suicide bombers and arrogant microphones who claim that they know what the poor and underserved mass would need.  Nevertheless, just as Nick accepted his father’s refusal to participate in his mother’s annual memorial gathering with a critical but non-judgmental approach, we should do the same with the communications ecology of humanity – voice our critical thought creatively, confidently, but not violently.

May 7, 2010. Columbia University Doctorate. 2 comments.

Feeling the sense of loss

This week we read a Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” (2006).

“Does it break my heart, of course, every moment of every day, into more pieces than my heart was made of, I never thought of myself as quiet, much less silent, I never thought about things at all, everything changed, the distance that wedged itself between me and my happiness wasn’t the world, it wasn’t the bombs and burning buildings, it was me, my thinking, the cancer of never letting go, is ignorance bliss, I don’t know, but it’s so painful to think, and tell me, what did thinking ever do for me, to what great place did thinking ever bring me?  I think and think and think, I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.  (pg. 17 from Thomas’s letter to his unborn child, 1963).

The theories we read make us think relatively to making us feel.  This book and the 9/11 “Project Rebirth” footage make us feel, relatively speaking.

‘nough said.

April 28, 2010. Columbia University Doctorate. 1 comment.

Thorstein Veblen’s “The Theory of the Leisure Class” (1899)

Over 110 years ago Norwegian-American Sociologist and Economist Thorstein Veblen coined terms that are still used in our culture and society – “Conspicuous Consumption”; “Conspicuous Leisure”; “Vicarious Consumption” and “Vicarious Leisure”.  In a nutshell, Veblen argues that people in society consume for the sole purpose of displaying their wealth, and therefore elevate themselves in the eyes of others.  The fact that society is engaged in pursuing industrially “useless” skills suggests that people value a showoff of lavish consumption over practical products that serve better human development and economic growth.

Two questions came to mind when reading the text:

1. What part of Veblen’s argument is still applied today?  Do people who live in a Capitalist democracy with a bigger middle class (well, recently shrunken…) than early 1900’s in Europe seek a different lifestyle that is supposedly afforded to a bigger mass?  Veblen’s claim is that people would always want to display more wealth, and that the individual suffers from a “chronic dissatisfaction” (pg. 20).

2. Reflecting on my choice to pursue a doctoral degree at an ivy league university, what part of my decision relates to my desire to belong to the leisure class?  Veblen writes about scholarly and artistic professions (pg. 29):

“The criteria of a past performance of leisure therefore commonly take the form of “immaterial” goods. Such immaterial evidences of past leisure are quasi-scholarly or quasi-artistic accomplishments and a knowledge of processes and incidents which do not conduce directly to the furtherance of human life.  So, for instance, in our time there is the knowledge of the dead languages and the occult sciences; of correct spelling; of syntax and prosody; of the various forms of domestic music and other house-hold art; of the latest proprieties of dress, furniture, and equipage; of games, sports, and fancy-bred animals, such as dogs and race horses. In all these branches of knowledge the initial motive from which their acquisition proceeded at the outset, and through which they first came into vogue, may have been something quite different from the wish to show that one’s time had not been spent in industrial employment; but unless these accomplishments had approved themselves as serviceable evidence of an unproductive expenditure of time, they would not have survived and held their place as conventional accomplishments of the leisure class.”

While one could argue that education today integrates more practical skills into the scholarly curriculum, it is still a privilege of the wealthy to expenditure years on scholarly or artistic development.  Moreover, later when pursuing a job, a graduate from an ivy league, private school has more prestige (and not always justified) over the same degree from a school that costs less. Eventually, according to Veblen, such prestigious display of wealth not only elevate one self on the social ladder, but acquires the individual self-respect and greater sense of self efficacy. This, in my opinion is something we must seek to change.

“only individuals with an aberrant temperament can in the long run retain their self-esteem in the face of the disesteem of their fellows… so soon as the possession of property becomes the basis of popular esteem, therefore, it becomes also a requisite to that complacency which we call self-respect” (pg. 20).

As a society, our mission is to change the value that more money brings about more self-respect. Could we do that in the face of capitalism, materialism, commercialism and mass media?

April 21, 2010. Columbia University Doctorate. 1 comment.

Midterm analysis of the film “Metropolis” (Lang, 1927)

A match made in heaven

I chose to include our mid-term essay in my “journal of useful ideas” not only because I enjoyed revisiting Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis” and connecting it with the theories that we are reading, but also because part of the essay’s tasks was coming up with our own question (and then answering it), which I thought was wise and useful to us as educators.

Q: A meaningful film can be analyzed from personal, social, political and self-reflective perspectives.  Select one or more of the theorists that we read, and analyze the film “Metropolis” (Lang, 1927) from the four perspectives, connecting between the textual argument of the author(s) and the cinematic artifact.  Support your argument by integrating video segments from the film into your essay.

“Metropolis” was co-written (with his wife at the time and the “Metropolis” novel author, Thea von Harbou) and directed by Fritz Lang, who attended a technical school, but later was trained as a painter and graphic artist, and professionally practiced architecture, acting, writing, and film direction (  The intersection between technology, art, and human communication serves as one of the course’s themes, which is addressed by many theories that we read.  It is also a personal interest of mine.

In this essay I discuss the relationship between human beings, technology and creative expression from the personal, social, political and self-reflective perspectives, related to the film “Metropolis”.  For the personal and social perspectives I focus on John Dewey’s theory, for the political perspective I refer to Charles Wright Mills, and for the self-reflective analysis of “Metropolis” as a cinematic work of art I discuss Walter Benjamin’s theory.  As I deepen the argument with written and video examples from the film, I integrate my own views and questions related to the current dynamics of technology, creative expression and human interaction.

A Personal Read of “Metropolis”

Although a personal read of “Metropolis” could also be analyzed through social and political lens, a significant theme that became evident throughout the film is Freder’s search for a personal voice, and the tension between pursuing individual voice and the “expected” voice, articulated by family and social values.

Freder’s search is inter-related to his personal history – the loss of his mother who died when she gave birth to him, Freder’s rebel against a cold and dictating father, his connection to the workers (“my brothers”), his fascination with the human-machine interaction (“I want to trade lives with you”), his respect to his father’s architectural achievements (“Your magnificent city, Father”), and finally, his search for love.  Does Freder succeed in finding his unique voice despite rooted obstacles? And more broadly, could people separate the sense of themselves as individuals from their sense of belonging to a public?

Dewey, publishing his book “The Public and its Problems” in the same year that the film “Metropolis” was released (1927) argues that people have a sense of themselves only as belonging to a public, and that actions in both private and public contexts might have indirect effect on others.  According to Dewey’s theory, Freder’s way of expressing his individual voice is by forming a public with a similar common voice, and such public is formed only when “indirect, extensive, enduring and serious consequences of conjoint and interacting behavior call a public into existence having a common interest in controlling these consequences” (Dewey, 1927, p. 126).  Therefore, according to Dewey’s theory, Freder can find a personal voice only if he integrates his views in a communal agenda.  Action takes place when such community feels an urgent need to react.

In “Metropolis”, although Freder is willing to collaborate with the working class, he does not find a community (a “public”).  When approaching his father with a concern that the workers could turn their back on him, his father dismisses him (and never regains trust in him), and when attempting to integrate into the working class Freder is not accepted by the workers.  When they recognize him as Joh Fredersen’s son, the workers ask to kill him (segment).

A Social Read of “Metropolis”

Furthermore, Dewey suggests that technology (including film) is a distraction to the people, holding the public from regaining a sense of itself, and ultimately becoming the “Great Community”.  While democracy and open communication is fundamental for the society in order to participate in a public discourse and articulate people’s needs, modern society is distracted by machinery.

In “Metropolis” the machine is presented like a human monster – a woman, with mortal features, such as a temperature meter and a life-span displayed by the clocks.  Unlike a woman though, the machine in the film does not produce life.  On the contrary, the machine does not produce anything of value to the people.  It is a threat to human’s wellness, and ultimately brings chaos, illness and death (segment).

Everyone is consumed with the power of technology – the workers operate the M machine around the clock, appearing small and insignificant next to the machinery power, and the ruling class is also consumed with the machine.  Fredersen cannot build, control or monitor the city without technological power and the work-flow of information supported by technology.  He depends on technology for his control (segment).

New technology takes over the attention of both inter-personal relationships and social activism.  For example, when Freder comes to share with his father his view about the social injustice that takes place in the city of the workers, and his concern about their rebel, he longs for communication and discussion with his father.  Instead, Fredersen is more concerned about the inefficiency of his staff – he overlooks his son’s pleading for communication and human embrace, and blames his secretary for hearing about the explosion in the city from his son and not from his managerial staff.  The curtains close as a metaphor to the interruption of human communication by the machine, suggesting that technology’s over-bounding status in modern society is harmful (segment).

A Political Read of “Metropolis”

Lang’s cinema is replete with authoritarian figures projecting conservative-nationalist values. His overblown, mystic-mythical iconography is underpinned by fables offering proto-fascist solutions to economic and social crises. Human relations revolve around power, control and domination and the individual is a mere puppet of hostile forces, malevolent tyrants, master criminals or super-spies (Kracauer, “From Caligari to Hitler”, 1947).

Many of the theorists we read throughout the semester address the segregation between the “have” and “have nots”, and the political structure that feeds such a gap and maintains it through its structure of power and resources.  Despite attempted riots that are initiated by Freder (a member of the ruling class), the segregation remains in “Metropolis”.  Fritz Lang orchestrates the film montage, music, camera angles and narrative development in a way that intensifies the contrast between the life of the workers and the life of the rulers so vividly, that when Fredersen and Rotwang look at the crypt they do not recognize Freder, when dressed as one of the working class slaves (segment ).

Charles Wright Mills  (1956) suggests that a small group of people from the corporation, government and military elite make up the rules, shape the “lesser institutions” and mold them in such a way that they support the big three.  In “Metropolis” we see that centralized approach in the Arian ruling playground, when we learn that Fredersen is the not only the person who conceived of the M city, but also built it and now controls it with a few confidants (”the professional politicians of the middle levels of power” according to Mills) who serve him and the power elite.  Grot and Josaphat bring the plans to Frederson, the builder and the ruler of the city (segment).  They are the “experts” who make sure the corporate branch (money, resources and technology), government (making the rules) and military (carrying out the rules in the city of workers) are ingredients of one dictatorship.

The opening scene is a clear example of the consequences of the authoritarian political structure, portraying the workers as faceless and powerless slaves of the system, while the small ruling class enjoys perceived leisure and benefits of absolute political power.  Contrasted music, lighting, costumes, facial expressions, body movement in space, and type of activity illustrate the difference between a mass of faceless, exhausted, automated working class ‘puppets’ and a dressed in white, freely moving, playful and erotic Arian ruling class (segment).

This type of cinematic treatment exemplifies the potentiality of the medium as a carrier of social and political message, essentially a communication channel for propaganda.  Indeed, Fritz Lang’s “architectural” use of human character as a cinematic technique got the attention of Goebbels and Hitler, who offered Lang the post of the head of the film industry in Nazi Germany (1933), a position which was later accepted by Leni Riefenstahl.  After Lang’s refusal to take the position, he fled first to Paris and then to Hollywood, partying from his wife, who joined the Nazi party (

Self-Reflective read of “Metropolis”

Is Lang’s cinema, then, the “ultimate metaphor” because it can speak about the cinema as a locus of power and thus, through the cinema, warn about cinema? (BFI: “Fritz Lang: The Illusion of Mastery”; Sight & Sound, Jan 2000).

“Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does their mode of perception.  The way in which the human perception is organized – the medium in which it occurs – is conditioned not only by nature but by history” (Benjamin, 1935).

Walter Benjamin argues that every new medium, especially those with new power of reproduction and outreach to wider audiences, such as cinema creates new types of forces and power in the world.  Specifically, the film “Metropolis”, using an unprecedented, high-budget, detailed sets and science-fiction context to explore a political theme of the day may place the viewer in the position of “mimesis identification” (Moretti in class, 2010).  The film character (actor) no longer acts in front of a live audience, and therefore takes away the ‘aura’ in the interaction between the creator, viewer and the work of art.  The actor now performs for a mechanical contrivance, and not for ‘art for the sake of art’.  Therefore, the artistic message is composed with an agenda; a propaganda.

Despite Benjamin’s critical view about the penalized effect of film as a new technology, he also acknowledges the potentiality of the medium as a progressive communication form in the future.  In terms of the affordances of the cinematic as a medium, Lang composes pure “cinema montage” throughout the film, with allegorical meanings and dramatic aesthetics. One example is the creation of Rotwang and Freder’s vision, poetically addressing their charge with the seven deadly sins, Maria, the new Hel and the Mother City (segment).

This tension between a new medium’s neglect of a traditional interaction and its potentiality for new types of communication forms can be associated with today’s technologies, e.g. web-based communication.  On the one hand today’s technology takes away from the traditional art form and its “credibility” structure (e.g. blogs replacing journalism), yet on the other hand new technology provides the individual with the opportunity to create a new form of creative expression and outreach through web-based artifact production.  For example, in “Metropolis” restoration technology allowed for re-establishing the film and re-distributing it as more complete.  It is possible that such technological process contributed to a continued interest in the film 83 years after its production.

In summary, the film “Metropolis” is a multi-layered creative expression that could be analyzed from a personal, social, political and self-reflective perspectives, and could be referred to many of the theorists that we read and discuss (had I the word-count to do so…).  Lang’s thematic and stylistic choices compose an operatic work of art, which is positioned in our collective memory as an influential social allegory of its time, with personal, social, political and self-reflective associations that are still relevant today.

April 6, 2010. Columbia University Doctorate, Independent Film Production. 7 comments.

Where does academia fall? “The Power Elite” by Charles Wright Mills (1956)

The power of a credible pen

As I was reading the socialist theory written by Charles Wright Mills in 1956, suggesting that a small group of people from the corporation, government and military make up the rules, shape the “lesser institutions” and mold them in such a way that they support the big three, I was wondering where the Academia falls – back in 1956 and today.  How would C. Wright Mills position the Academia in the hierarchy of the organizations of postmodern society?

One argument would be that the Academia, despite its democratic intention of challenging conventions and its critical approach to thought and practice actually belongs to the Power Elite, as it co-exists with, and relies on funding and support from corporations, government and military, not to mention the fact that the Academia prepares students for, and takes pride of their reaching top positions at a corporation, government or military.  Such strategic dependency, as exemplified through the display of honorary degrees, board membership and the development of various funding channels from corporations and government to the Academia would strengthen the belief that the Academia, according to Wright would be related to the big three who, “whether they do or do not make such decisions (one with major consequences) is less important than the fact that they do occupy such pivotal positions” (p. 4).

Another interpretation to Mill’s text is that if the Academia does not fall into the small group of people who control a disproportionate amount of wealth, privilege, and access to decision-making of major consequence, recognized Academics may belong to “the professional politicians of the middle levels of power”, along with Congress, pressure groups and new and old upper classes who have the celebrity power to “distract the attention of the public or afford sensations to the masses… to gain an ear” (p. 4).  According to Wright Mills, these people have just enough exposure (exposed but not too exposed), so they could be pulled in as influential experts along the sequence of event and decision.

I found it interesting that C. Wright Mills touched on the nature of celebrity power and its social manipulation over 50 years ago, while today people invest a lot of time and effort to essentially feel self-celebrated (and therefore more powerful?) through reality TV, social networks and interactive communications.

The notion of “the credible pen” and celebrity power is discussed in the NYTimes article that Professor Frank Moretti circulated this week, entitled “Texts Without Context” (Kakutani, March 17, 2010).  Kakutani is suggesting that the new dynamic of web-based communication redefines authorship, ownership, credibility and celebrity, ultimately reshaping our political and social landscape.  This would include a redefinition of a traditional, more unified academic research: “online research enables scholars to power-search for nuggets of information that might support their theses, saving them the time of wading through stacks of material that might prove marginal but that might have also prompted them to reconsider or refine their original thinking.” What is the meaning of such a reshuffle to scholarly thought and to human development?

Kukutani brings together multiple perspectives about how web communications influence the social, cultural and political dynamics, most of which are skeptical about its ability to nurture deep thought due to the fragmented nature of web-based interaction, combined with the new structure of social prestige and credibility.  For example, political and legal scholar Cass Sunstein writes in his book “Going to Extremes” (2009) that “serendipitous encounters” with persons and ideas different from one’s own tend to grow less frequent, while “views that would ordinarily dissolve, simply because of an absence of social support, can be found in large numbers on the Internet, even if they are understood to be exotic, indefensible or bizarre in most communities.”

To me, this suggests that the new social power may be determined by online popularity and one’s ability to master visibility strategies.  The visible online voice may be the new celebrity power, or as Mills defines it – the “the middle level of power”, which is molded by the power elite, and feeds its goals through an harmonic, uninterrupted dance.

March 24, 2010. Columbia University Doctorate. 1 comment.

Karl Polanyi about The Great Transformation (1944)

Approaching Polanyi’s book “The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time” (1944) I was seeking an understanding of the term “the great transformation” according to Polanyi’s interpretation.  As with other theorists that we read in class, while reading a text I attempt to set myself in the social and economical context of the author – in Polanyi’s case – a former Austro-Hungarian officer, an economic-political journalist and an intellect who examined “the market” after witnessing World War I, the Russian Revolution, revolution and terror in his native Hungary, hyperinflation in Austria and Germany in the 1920s, the collapse of the international gold standard, the Great Depression, the rise of Nazism, the New Deal, and World War II — an era of unrest unprecedented in the modern world (Professor Clark about Polanyi, 2008).  It is understandable, according to present economic theorists that Polanyi believed that free markets would lead to political and social collapse.

Are we experiencing a similar threat today in the era of globalization?

Polanyi refers to the idea of “fiction” as a product of the industrial revolution. Man and land have been reduced to a money-making instrument:  “Production is interaction of man and nature; if this process is to be organized through a self-regulating mechanism of barter and exchange, then man and nature must be brought into its orbit; they must be subject to supply and demand, that is be dealt with as commodities, as goods produced for sale”. (p. 136).

How do (wo)men and labor fit in today’s self-regulating system dictated by new technologies?  Are we once again reduced to a money-making instrument driven by ever-renewed definitions of commodity?  Such ‘dis-empowerment’ of the role of a human being in the social-economic fabric is tough to swallow.

This brings to mind other theorists that we read who also argued that the value of a commodity dictates the way we think and act politically and economically.  For example, Benjamin claims that the work of art has turned into a commodity and had lost its original “aura” and traditional form of communication.  Appadurai asserts that the information revolution produces new types of wealth and financial markets driven by “mysterious and almost magical forms of wealth”.  Nevertheless, the tone of both Benjamin and Appadurai is one of potentiality related to human development, whereas I find the tone in Polanyi’s text detrimental.

March 17, 2010. Columbia University Doctorate. 1 comment.

Art in the age of reproduction: Walter Benjamin

When Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal entitles “Fountain” to an art show in 1917 there was a big debate whether this readymade is art. Finally, the people in power (the board members of the “Society of Independent Artists”) decided to hide it from a public display in the exhibition. The notion of a urinal being displayed as an original piece of art in a gallery exhibition could not resonate with the deeply rooted tradition of the “auroral” interaction between (wo)man and art.

In 1935 Walter Benjamin once again challenged the question of  what is art, and how do major historical events, such as the capacity to reproduce art effect the interaction between (wo)man and the artistic expression.  In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) Benjamin argues that art’s traditional “aura” had been vanished with the availability of reproduction, changing the relationship between the creator, the work itself and the viewer, essentially robbing society from the “magical” and “divine” meaning, which derives from the interacting between the viewer and the original piece of art.

Last night we discussed Benjamin’s essay in class, touching on some thought provoking metaphors, such as the public (including the artist, (re)producer and viewer) being trapped in between the 24 frames per second of the film (Moretti in class, 2010), which made me wonder that if this were the case 65 years ago, trapped with friends and colleagues in a dark room being captivated by a new medium, “absent minded examiner”, how extensively are we trapped now, embedding mobile technologies in our everyday move, allowing it to be the new fabric of our culture? How absent minded are we in 2010?

I left class wondering where is the optimism in his essay, what is the potentiality of the new media’s effect on society as interpreted by Benjamin?

“The distracted person, too, can form habits. More, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit. Distraction as provided by art presents a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by appreciation” (pg. 240).

February 24, 2010. Columbia University Doctorate. 2 comments.

Seeking the “Great Community”

John Dewey’s book “The Public & Its Problems” (1927) discusses concepts and issues that have been touched upon throughout readings and class discussions, being still relevant matters 83 years after the book had been written. Some of these concepts include associated and “localized” connections between people, interactions which direct behavior, driven by policy, democracy and essentially by a relatively small group of people.  The consequences of directed behavior generate a community of interest, the role of technology, potential of communication, importance of freedom of speech and access, and finally, the unavoidable mediocre nature of all communities.

“There are too many publics and too much of public concern for our existing resources to cope with. …Our concern at this time is to state how it is that the machine age in developing the Great Society has invaded and partially disintegrated the small communities of former times without generating a Great Community.” (p. 126-127).

Dewey calls the modern society to become a “Great Community” (chapter 5), defining conditions in which it can be done.  Such conditions include individual being a member of many groups, and groups interacting flexibly with other groups (p. 147).  In that sense communication technologies have the potential to facilitate the association between people in a democratic way.  Realistically, however, the modern society has been using technology-driven communication inappropriately, causing the transformation to a Great Community impossible.

Such notion sounds still relevant to today’s dilemma concerning new technologies and whether it advances human thought and our association to a globalized community.  It brings to mind the 3D film “Avatar” that I viewed this week on the big screen, where technology in theory afforded the association of modern society with another community from out of space, in search of scientific research and in support of materialistic greed (some approach the task of association in a more naive way than others).  In reality, the modern white man’s invasion of the community of the natives (futuristic, utopian yet vulnerable to the warriors of modernity) aggressively destroys any mutual association.  The natives from that planet are unified with nature (ecological awareness and positive co-dependency) – they exchange essential energy from the trees which supports their survival.  However, instead of taking the communication-facilitated-by-technology potential into constructive and unified “Great Community”, the white man who is a servant of the corporate modernity (even without proactively selecting this role) is sent to destroy the natives.

“I need your help” says the visitor to the native, realizing that he is held captive in the modern society – a world of greed, power and war, where effort is invested in the development of destructive technology.

February 10, 2010. Tags: , , , . Columbia University Doctorate. 1 comment.

My Various Hats

I’m a mother, wife, independent film executive, volunteer Chairwoman of Israeliness Family Program at the 92nd Street Y, do research work with the Harlem Schools Partnership, project manage a mobile game for health, while pursuing my doctorate degree at Teachers College, Columbia University.

How can I wear all of these hats and stay sane?  I read Yochai Benkler’s “The Wealth of Networks” book (2006) and I am assured that wearing many hats simultaneously is possible, accepted and predicted.  I am not insane!  I am merely adjusting to the age of equality and democratic opportunity afforded by the Internet.  The sphere in which the removal of physical constraints on information production, the immersion in a diversely-motivated participatory system, and most of all the availability of free software (open source) provide a way for enhanced communication, organized relationships , and the creation of formal organization and new business models, based on web-based cooperation, wealth of information, speed and fluidity.

So why am I doing so much and hardly getting by financially?  How come I invested tens of thousands of dollars in a visually-pleasing, witty and edgy independent film (“Failing Better Now“, 2009), which falls into the crack of old model versus the new model of distribution, leaving the producers in wonder whether we should pursue a traditional business model (find a sales rep and a film distributor) or should we keep all rights and self-distribute the film as we go along?  Some producers argue that even after the huge investment of money, time and talent in the creation of a feature film, the current social structure driven by web-based networks would require us to distribute our baby free over the internet (see supporting NY Times article, Jan. 2010).  On the one hand, creative filmmakers can control their work’s destiny (at least in theory) when filmmakers and producers accompany their art in a self-distribution model, using the Internet as the main platform.  On the other hand, promoting and distributing your own artistic creation may keep you away from creating new work, and/or the outcome may be better when a film is placed in the hands of experienced marketing and distribution professionals.  In any rate, independent filmmakers are exploring the web as a fundamental social structure that changes the familiar model of film distribution.

What would you do if you were the co-owner of an East Village “chick flick with balls” indie that has urban appeal, festival awards and some distribution interest in Hollywood?  If you were in my shoes, would you hand the rights to a small company for distribution or would you self-distribute the film?  Would you produce DVDs and sell it online, or would you offer the film free online?

Benkler in this video interview (NYC, 2009) asks whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that it is becoming harder, maybe impossible to encapsulate information in discrete units and sell them.  How will creators ever make money (see the discussion about the film industry from 06:22 mins).

“The availability for opportunities for people to see film, respond to and care about opens up a new domain of small commercial film production; something that won’t be the primary way by which somebody makes a living, but a part of the mix of things they do for their life …to allow millions of more people to engage in film production”.

Yes, I’m here for the journey, and I am grateful for every moment of the experience of collaborating on making a feature film.  I recall my business partner Peter Schelfhaudt’s words to me when we were first considering investing in auteur filmmaker Keren Atzmon and her feature debut “Failing Better Now” 2.5 years ago.  He said that “independent cinema is a high risk business venture.  If we invest we do so for the experience, not the expected return of investment.  We do it as labor of love”.  And we did.

This brings me to a favorite quote from another text that we read for this week (Chapters 11 and 12 in Kurzweil, “The Age of Spiritual Machines” (2000) about attempting to understand how the year 2099 may feel like as an identity (or societies) in an augmented reality world where the computer brain surpasses the human brain. The native virtual AI character tells the 20th century human visitor: “Of course I’ve kept my old personality.  It has a lot of sentimental value to me” (p. 238).  This is how I feel toward independent film production.  I do it out of love of the craft, while I develop new practices (related and distant from the film production industry) as an explorer and a participant in the wealthy web-based networks.

February 2, 2010. Columbia University Doctorate, Independent Film Production. 3 comments.

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