Water is Life Walk of the Housatonic River, May 15 – June 13, 2018

I am honored and humbled to be a part of organizing this 8th Annual Water is Life Walk led by Grandmother Carole Bubar-Blodgett.

Please visit the Water is Life Walk website for more information, to volunteer, or to make a donation. Thanks!

Crane Talk

Must one inquire into the issues that delay or block resolution? Love must be learned, and learned again and again; there is no end to it…Cranes dance in southwestern petroglyphs. Old Crane Man taught the Tewa how to dance.

”        ”

Graham started this with an empty quotation: he did not even include a period. The rest of him was right out of a Marvel comic – muscles on muscles. “Hey!” someone shouted from a hospital bed, interrupting the researcher who insisted on summarizing the findings eloquently and thoroughly, armed with a gun and a knife and some matches. “Two out of three. You’re doing fantastic.”

On the surface, both “Buying My Condo” and “Living Fully” are fairly straightforward, one point following another just like in sign language interpreting, where everything referring to the present is signed just in front of the body. Indicating sequences into the future, however, requires other maneuvers: how then, quickly, could Sylvester McMonkey McBean put together a very peculiar machine?

Must one inquire into the issues that delay or block resolution? Love must be learned, and learned again and again; there is no end to it. The tofu gains much flavor this way, despite those who mock it as an “open -and- shut case.”  I believe, asserted Fletcher, this is a result of suppressing and ignoring – if I am honest, of actively rejecting – my natural psychic ability to ‘see” beyond the physical world.

“We’ll talk later,” Jack said. “We need to get back to the car before the storm pours buckets on us.” There were students finishing at the school for the deaf who wanted vocational training. Many are capable, of course, of comprehending that conservation of energy does not contradict Newton’s laws, and in fact, is derivable from them, and so from a strictly mathematical point of view it adds nothing to Newtonian physics. The Deaf also know about communication.

When animals and humans still shared the same language, the Cree recount, Rabbit wanted to go to the moon. Rabbit asked the strongest birds to take him, but Eagle was busy and Hawk couldn’t fly so high. Crane said he would help. He told Rabbit to hold onto his legs. Then he went for the moon. The journey was long and Rabbit was heavy. Rabbit’s weight stretched out Crane’s legs and bloodied Rabbit’s paws. but Crane reached the moon, with Rabbit hanging onto him. Rabbit patted Crane in thanks, his hands still bleeding. So Crane got his long legs and blood-red head.

Back then, too, a Cherokee woman was courted by both Hummingbird and Crane. She wanted to marry Hummingbird, because of his great beauty. But Crane proposed a race around the world. The woman agreed, knowing Hummingbird’s speed. She didn’t remember that Crane could fly at night. And, unlike Hummingbird, Crane never tired. Crane flew in straight lines, where Hummingbird flew in every direction. Crane won the race with ease, but the woman still rejected him.

All the humans revered Crane, the great Orator. Where cranes gathered, their speech carried miles. The Aztecs call themselves the Crane People. One of the Anishinaabe clans was named the Cranes—Ajijak or Businassee— the Echo Makers. The Cranes were leaders, voices that called all people together. Crow and Cheyenne carved cranes’  leg bones into hollow flutes, echoing the echo maker.

Latin grus, too, echoed that groan. In Africa, the crowned crane ruled words and thought. The Greek Palamedes invented the letters of the alphabet by watching noisy cranes in flight. In Persian, kurti, in Arabiac, ghurnuq: birds that awaken before the rest of creation, to say their dawn prayers. The Chinese xian-he, the birds of heaven, carried messages on their backs between the sky worlds.

Cranes dance in southwestern petroglyphs. Old Crane Man taught the Tewa how to dance. Australian aborigines tell of a beautiful and aloof woman, the perfect dancer, turned by a sorcerer into a crane.

Apollo came and went in crane form, when visiting the world.The poet Ibycus, in the sixth century B.C., beaten senseless and left for dead, called out to a passing flock of cranes, who followed the assailant to a theatre and hovered over him until he confessed to the astonished crowd.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Hera and Artemis turn Gerania into a crane, to punish the Pygmy queen for her vanity. The Irish hero Finn fell off a cliff and was caught in the air by his grandmother, when she changed into a crane. If cranes circled overhead above American slaves, someone would die. The First Warrior who fought to create ancient Japan took the form of a crane at death and flew away.

Tecumseh tried to unite the scattered nations under the banner of Crane Power, but the Hopi mark for the crane’s foot became the world’s peace symbol. The crane’s foot—pie de gruebecame that genealogist’s mark of branching descent, pedigree.

To make a wish come true, the Japanese must fold a thousand paper cranes. Twelve-year-old Sadako Sasaki, stricken with “atom bomb sickness,” made it to 644. Children worldwide send her thousands, every year.

Cranes help carry a soul to paradise. Pictures of cranes line the windows of mourning houses, and crane-shaped jewelry adorns the dead. Cranes are souls that once were humans and might be again, many lives from now. Or humans are souls that once were cranes and will be again, when the flock is rejoined.

Something in the crane is trapped halfway, in the middle between now and when. A fourteenth-century Vietnamese poet sets the birds forever in the air:

Clouds drift as days pass; Cypress trees are green beside the altar, The heart, a chilly pond under moonlight. Night rain drops tears of flowers. Below the pagoda, grass traces a path. Among the pine trees, cranes remember The music and songs of years ago. In the immensity of sky and sea, How to relive the dream before the lamp of that night?

When animals and people all spoke the same language, crane calls said exactly what they meant. Now we live in unclear echoes. The turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming, says Jeremiah. Only people fail to recall the order of the Lord.

They arrived at nightfall, just as lanterns were being lit in the grounds to illuminate the driveway. “We can make this the ‘summer only’ lunch table,” she said, adapting to the circumstances. I am not allowed to have tattoos yet–which is unfair–so for now, I just draw things on my arms so I don’t forget them. Meanwhile, the fairy king took one last look at his daughter and returned to his kingdom beneath the water, knowing he’d better hang up and start reading.

Stitched together from quotes shared on Facebook for International Book Week.
Some are modified, most are not.
FYI: This event seems to have spawned from the Edinburgh International Book Festival:
Bully for them!


Supermileage Vehicle Competition Builds Super Character

“Gangster metal fab” and a “ghetto look” set the tone as unassuming team members who had managed side projects throughout the year stepped up and delivered. Breaking out a football and Frisbee, downplaying endangered species rescue, noticing other cars’ idiosyncracies but always turning the lens back on themselves (why did our windshield look that way?!), this team built a supermileage vehicle from scratch and made it run.

Society of Automotive Engineers Collegiate Competition
Marshall MI

When the joke is on you….

Team Members en route to  Registration, Day 1
Zoom-Mass Team Members en route to Registration, Day 1

It might be because of the Canadians (in this case, definitely not the Cubans – nor the Russians!) Or perhaps it’s about J.R?  This story is definitely about a Hobbit and some douchebags, including a few who didn’t come along for the ride. It involves bolts, assorted bodies, and those who actually go to bed at a time calculated backwards from when they want to rise.  (This may or may not be cultural.)

There was a poker game, lake slime, and roadkill. Variable sleep. Some drinks.

“You’re not working now!”
“I kinda am!”

The government was involved (paperwork trouble at the border), as was private business (as sponsors) and charity. No problematic moments (technically speaking) were observed, although there were multiple small- and large-group dynamics. No interpretations were censored. Soul-searching intercultural conversation was initiated.

On the return drive from Coldwater to Detroit’s airport, Dr. J.R. noticed more live deer than the eight carcasses we’d seen going. (Not to mention the four indeterminate raccoon-sized remains, and Lola’s addition of multiple blood-stained splotches sans corporeal evidence.)

Site, Scene, and Sponsor of the Supermileage Vehicle Competition
Site, Scene, and Sponsor of the Supermileage Vehicle Competition

“Our luck must be changing,” he said, but in fact the team had already managed multiple misfortunes without casualty.

“I wanna see an SMV crash.”

Our driver endured several mishaps including a crash that should have shaken her to the bone. However, Ruta did not hesitate for a second to put herself back out on the track.  In the end, the dreaded DNF (racing version) was avoided, despite periodic speculation about a DNR. The first day’s amazing achievement of being third to pass inspection faded into ancient history as the team teetered on the edge of doom throughout the second day, confronting everything that could possibly go wrong.

“Mass-prepared as usual.”

Competition Day was interrupted by a thunderstorm before any of the twenty-seven supermileage vehicles touched the track. For the UMass College of Engineering’s 2011 SMV Team, the storm was prelude to a serious crash followed in relentless succession by two flat tires,

alignment and other tools
alignment tools

another thunderstorm, and a second crash. The single successful Zoom-Mass SMV run (six laps around a specified high performance testing track) was accomplished at the very end of a wet and chilly day; the uncomfortable weather enhancing the potential for gloom to crush the team’s spirit.. Although the judges were willing to hold the track open just long enough to allow a second run because “we like UMass so much,” “good karma” intervened to drop the damaged left front wheel off the car at the starting line, just before Ruta began to hurtle again around the track.

“Oh man it stopped raining already?”

Charlie’s quip on the first day (pre-inspection) was echoed by Nick on the second: “At least it’s just drizzling.” The downpour, thunder, and lightning had been predicted for afternoon: every team was rushing to get their vehicles running in advance of the weather.  The forced pause allowed the Zoom-Mass SMV Team some extra fine-tuning of the brakes and more precise wheel alignment.

Balancing: Team Members walked the track during practice laps, discovering & saving an endangered baby bird. "There's only three left!".
Balancing: Team Members walked the track during practice laps, discovering & saving an endangered baby bird."There's only three left!"

Then came the first attempt. After four successful test laps the previous day (during which the non-driving members of the team reunited a baby whooping crane with its parents), it was a shock to see Ruta and the car returning in the back of one of the rescue pickups.  Forty mile per hour post-thunderstorm gusts had ripped the windshield loose. Designed to withstand normal specified engineering tolerances, the extreme doubling of force gyred the windshield off its latches and under the left tire, sending the car into a 30 mph donut spin, and shearing off the bolt holding the left wheel to the axle as the car skidded to a screeching stop.

“Some crazy things happened” [J.R.]

Dr J.R summarized the team character: “Our response to adversity was great.”

The second attempt was delayed by the first flat tire. Seeking a correctly-sized inner tube added texture to the sense of tragicomedy. Ruta finally got the car around the track a lap and a half before another flat forced her to pull over for a second salvage ride in the rescue pickup (baby powder, it turns out, is essential equipment). One of the guys laughed, “They haven’t even seen us on the track, that’s how fast we are!” Dry humor peppered the team’s steady, focused response.

Ruta held up half the team. Photo by Jimmy Hsu.
Ruta held up half the team. Photo by Jimmy Hsu.

Those who were good

Optimizing air pressure
Optimizing air pressure

at the required tasks simply buckled down and worked out solutions. No one questioned or hesitated when asked to get this or do that. Ruta herself never blinked: she got back in a vehicle damaged from the crash, with a known design weakness – that had been repaired but not re-engineered due to the constraint of available time. There was a single brief flare of frustration from a team member naming an obvious oversight – which was respectfully acknowledged (later) by the responsible party. “Oh yea, about that…” Otherwise no one displayed their upset: team members took every obstacle in stride. “In the end,” Matt explained, “we all want the same thing.”

“In the zone” [J.R.]

“The time has come,” pronounced Andrew.

“I’m feeling good about this one,” said Charlie.

Trying to work the rub out
Trying to work the rub out

“This is when the praying starts, “ offered J.R as the Zoom-Mass SMV rolled out onto the track “held together with Bondo and duct tape” for the third attempt.  The Team did not hit their mileage target, but this “Apollo 13 of SMV” finished despite extensive damage to the aerodynamics of the body, including a persistently rubbing tire.

Adjusting the safety/escape latches on the windshield
Adjusting the safety/escape latches on the windshield

“Gangster metal fab” and a “ghetto look” set the tone as unassuming team members who had managed side projects throughout the year stepped up and delivered. Breaking out a football and Frisbee, downplaying endangered species rescue, noticing other cars’ idiosyncracies but always turning the lens back on themselves (why did our windshield look that way?!), this team built a supermileage vehicle from scratch and made it run.

Here’s to the Team!

“A free Corona for the first person to hit their call button,” announced a flight attendant on my Southwest flight home.

Ya'all are great!
Ya'all are great!

Visions of UMass Students Today

Midterm Video Projects for”Media and Culture” (COM121)
submitted to Michael Wesch’s Digital Ethnography Project:
Visions of Students Today (2011)


“It is appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

Six students use this famous quote by Albert Einstein, comparing their experience of today’s technology glut with nuclear disaster.” Why are they so afraid? Einstein is an interesting source of wisdom, especially combined with Kimdelehanty‘s quote from another scientist, Carl Sagan:

“We live in a society

exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which

hardly anyone knows anything about

science and technology.”

What was the setting and context of Sagan’s quote? “Hardly anyone” implies a ratio – who are the people included in “everyone”? Whose society is encompassed by “we”?

MrChadb0urne argues that Change Isn’t All Bad: “Technology’s not that bad, if you use it in moderation.” In a soothing voice, he offers this advice: “If it’s too much, take a break. No one’s gonna judge you for it. If they are gonna judge you for it, they’re too involved in technology and they need to calm down.” BrittRoo agrees, offering individual, meditative-type solutions: Balance. Slow down. See. Breathe.  AlPal13 suggests immersion,  “First step… drown out the rest of the world [with music].”  Hannah Cohen asks, “…if you can’t beat them, join them?”

“We no longer search for the news, the news finds us.” Demifo14 hints at narrowcasting and plays with identity as a reflection. Her mirror imagery is partly explained by wbectler3: “Like all structures, [technologies] have been developed by humans and, subsequently, both enable and limit human action” (wbectler3 quoting from the course text).

“Better hope you’re not alone,” sings Jack Johnson-Hope to beccasiminoko’s lament for fifth grade. tashk013 poses the question about choice given the unrelenting advertising bombardment, and kalf917 brings in Karl Marx: “The production of too many useless things results in too many useless people.” But what if it is up to us? “We become what we behold, we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us,” jakehoffman4 quotes Marshall McLuhan. Ktrychon questions and celebrates simultaneously, arguing “You Get What You Give,”and  “Let’s Stay Connected,” while claiming: “We live in a society that lacks passion.” (Where does passion live?)

Does cdanoff’s being “Caught Up In The Media” automatically preclude passion? Or is it only education that fails to inspire? “My teacher was having trouble figuring out the projector in class…but then finally figured it out.” It is unclear what csilv117 thinks about that struggle. Two students picked the same song by Citizen Cope, “Let The Drummer Kick,” to emphasize the war for consciousness. Two students (jakehoffman4 & mamciedupie503) also picked the same quote by Marshall McLuhan: “All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values.”

Artificial and Arbitrary?

How do you spend your time?” asks ddavies315, while hdanfort wonders “What were they thinking?” Both questions are posed literally, but can be extended to apply in wider fashion. Jamar points to rescue from hip hop artists Kid Cudi and Common, and gets a call out from the premier digital ethnographer and creator of the Visions of Students Today video documentation project, Dr Michael Wesch. Dr Wesch also commented on tashk03 and Ktrychon’s videos (previously linked). Air23JordanXXIII, please feel free to tell Ryan, no sweat – I got a spot for him in my next class, you bet. “Ducks!

Who remembers the course prompt and our transmedia storytelling model? sbaez1440 pulled out a quote from The Matrix that omits a physical sense: “If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” Why might this be of interest?

The most challenging task as we move toward the two final projects will be deciding what articulations to emphasize (ideologically) and how much experimentation to conduct. What could we gain, for instance, by exploring the nationalism of natefoy’s “God Bless America” screenshot with Carlos123Mencia’s dormroom poster of Malcolm X?” Does it come down to a decision about whether or not we believe, as Hunte46 asks, if we can defeat the machine? Is competition the only frame possible? Is “the real danger … not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers.” – Harris (quoted by smorlando3). Will we see/perceive differently enough if, as ckmetz suggests, we take the red pill? Sgershlak tells us we must adapt to succeed, but what adaptations are a) necessary, b) realistic, and c) ultimately functional? When simultaneity is the rule of the day, as when Csi describes seeing all three phases of water, “the vapor, the rain, and the ice” at the same time, how do you decide what truly guards you?

In the comments to follow, students will be responding with observations and identifications with various juxtapositions and articulations presented or hinted at in the preceding teacher’s analytical sampling. They’ll be working with the patterns and outliers evident in this collection of our class’s Visions of Students Today to produce two final videos.


Spaces (transportation):

  • hallways (also stairs, elevator, doors)
  • roads
  • walking versus driving, skateboarding
  • outdoor shots of campus, esp library
  • indoor shots of library, dining hall, dorm rooms, classrooms (large lecture halls, smaller classrooms), dorm entrance (security), gymnasium, campus center, kitchens, Collegian staff office
  • computer monitors, cell phones, television/videogame controllers
  • music

Time (temporal dimension – where identities are made):

  • statistics
  • activities: FaceBook, UMail, Spark, Spire, Tumblr, Twitter, UMassWiki, Google, news, iTunes (and other music apps), basketball (viewing and playing), XBoxLive, classwork, eating, texting…

Content Themes

  • control
  • time
  • the Matrix
  • pros/cons of technology (some exaggerated claims & stereotypes)
  • dread/hope (“key” – from Hymes’ rubric for analyzing an interpersonal situation communication situation; what equivalent analytic for video?)

tweaking the turns: resilience is systemic

Resilience requires, among other things, “distinguish[ing] between those catastrophes we can repair and those that require us to face a new reality” (p.35). I’m interested that “resilience” is typically invoked as a counterpart to crisis, as if it only emerges spontaneously in the face of a sudden unexpected event rather than persisting as a durable property of a system. Resilience is also most commonly described as a characteristic of individuals rather than groups. How we comport ourselves when wounded, however, is a matter of relationship that is fundamentally inseparable from the co-occurring internal psychological struggle.

Excerpts from Resilience
by Elizabeth Edwards

Sixty pages in to this Christmas gift, I found myself enjoying it more than I at first anticipated.  Some malicious news/gossip drifted within the realm of my awareness some months or a year or two ago about Elizabeth Edwards selling out some part of her soul either by publishing this book or – maybe it was going on a talk show circuit afterwards or… I don’t recall the details. It was a reflection of one of those distasteful, distressing tendencies of the media spotlight to grind away at character, seeking and exploiting flaws of integrity, as if there are so many of us who could withstand such scrutiny well.

Context: Whiteness

The back cover sports a quote from pp.37-38, in which Edwards admits a preference for avoiding difficult things in life while reconciling herself to the fact that they are going to happen, no matter what. By this point, she has already painted the picture of herself as a person living a dream and believing it could continue unabated. She had noticed tarnish, but not allowed it to dim the glow of her idealized vision, such as (among other things) recognizing “that the color of your skin gave you a whole different, less hospitable country” (p. 15).  Edwards attributes most of her fantasy to growing up in a magical-military lifestyle framed by Armed Services Radio. Seems like a classic example of how lives become meaningful within a context shaped by media.

It is my interpretation to lay her idyll at the feet of whiteness – not the simplistic version of white skin privilege, but the attitudes and assumptions of whiteness – which can be embedded in any human body of any ethnicity, given enough socioeconomic privilege and cultural conditioning.  You may consider the evidence sketchy, but when Edwards describes how she is changed after the infidelity of her husband (coming very soon after a diagnosis of breast cancer, and some years after the life-altering death of her teenage son), I thought to myself, this is what whiteness shields you from:

“I was not wounded, not afraid, not uncertain before, and

now I always will be.”

Many pages later, discussing a transformation in her Christian faith necessitated by the death of her son, she writes:

“I had believed that God would intervene to protect the innocent. How, at forty-six, having seen what I had of the world, having walked around the site of the children’s hospital at Hiroshima, near the epi-center of the atomic bomb, having seen injustice and misery reposed among the innocent across the globe, I still believed this, I cannot say. I only know that I did…” (p 110).

Whiteness enables this kind of magical thinking.

“What we know is apparently no match for what we need” (p. 70)

Faith is a kind of map that orders a belief structure, enabling coping mechanisms and strategies for survival and – if accompanied by luck – individual and social thriving. “In my life,” Edwards admits, “the map has almost always been wrong.” She is referring to a saying of her friend Gordon Livingston: “When the map does not comport with the ground, the map is wrong” (p. 32). In lieu of a god who protects the innocent and guards the righteous from random trauma, Edwards comes to believe in a God who “promises only salvation and enlightenment,” continuing:

“This is our world, a gift from God, and we make it what it is. If it is unjust, we have made it so. If there is boundless misery, we have permitted it. If there is suffering, it came from man’s own action or inaction” (p. 111).

Later, she adds:

“I remind myself: This is the world we made; its flaws are our flaws; its shortcomings are our shortcomings; and the degree to which there is injustice or unprovoked suffering is just a reflection of our failures…God gave me this world, and He gave me free will. It is my world, and now, if I am able, I have to fix it” (p. 119).

Resilience requires, among other things, “distinguish[ing] between those catastrophes we can repair and those that require us to face a new reality” (p.35). I’m interested that “resilience” is typically invoked as a counterpart to crisis, as if it only emerges spontaneously in the face of a sudden unexpected event rather than persisting as a durable property of a system. Resilience is also most commonly described as a characteristic of individuals rather than groups. How we comport ourselves when wounded, however, is a matter of relationship that is fundamentally inseparable from the co-occurring internal psychological struggle.

a small slice of the middle (or, in-between the turns)

In the subfield of Communication that studies language and social interaction, one of the things we pay attention to are turns at talking: who talks when, how much, after who, about what, how often, and so on and so forth. Turn-taking is a particularly intriguing subject of study because transitions require a rather complex coordination (rarely thought about because the norms for how to do it are so internalized). Edwards quotes a line from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, Interim, about turning the world back a click or two, “just a turn and…” this or that would not have happened, “just a turn and…” we would be living some other reality. Living in the wishfulness of turning something back, however, is not resilient.

“In time, I learned that I was starting a new story. I write these words as if that is the beginning and the end of what I did, but it is only a small slice of the middle, a place that is hard to reach and, in reaching it, only a stepping-off place for finding or creating a new life with our new reality…” (p. 31-32)

Perfection is not a requirement (p. 9)

Effective systems have safeguards and backups in case of normal accidents. It seems like an oxymoron, but accidents do happen. Accidents occur with enough irregularity that they cannot be predicted and controlled, thus any comprehensive system assumes a certain “normalcy” to the fact that accidents will need to be managed. If one adopts the stance that, loosely, accidents are normal, one’s map is already prefigured to minimize damage by building resiliency in. One adapts as best one can, as soon as one can, in the best ways one knows how given the circumstances. This includes recovering from shock, such as Edwards describes:

“The Greatest Generation from World War II was not simply too humble to take credit for their accomplishments in battle (though they were often that), they were also good men too stunned that what they had seen was now part of their own life story” (p. 27).

We are all living our own life stories, and to varying degrees – depending upon exposure and attention – aware of unspeakable inhumanities being done by human beings to other human beings. We need to be resilient, not just in our own self-centered orbits but as persons in relation with the people whose lives we interact with daily, whether through the products of their work or because of direct contact.

the fullest breath (p. 17)

“The only contest we have,” Edwards concludes, “is with ourselves” (p. 212). She is mainly referring to how a parent finds the way to go on after losing a child, but she also means how a spouse recovers from the infidelity of their partner, and how one chooses to glean the most from every moment in the face of a terminal illness. Her answers, she emphasizes repeatedly, are hers alone, and every one must find their own ways to continue living in the face of pain and challenge. Resilience, however, is not only a feature of the the solo, noble human spirit, but of the community and relationships and ways of talking that guide and nurture the spirit through.  Yes, so much rides on single moments, and yet, with each breath, there is a new moment imbued with new possibilities, new paths leading to new and different places.  A friend just taught me this Albanian saying:

The minute does not determine the year.

There are, of course, minutes that do change years, moments whose occurrence changes lifepaths irrevocably and forever. Moments that teach “what it means to scream” (p. 17). But any moment, even those that require years from which to heal, does not have to foreclose the future. It may not be the future one dreamed, but it can still be worthy, happy, and whole. In a recent talk on Resilience: Talking, Resisting, and Imagining New Normalicies into Being (Journal of Communication 60, 2010), Patrice M. Buzzanell argues that “resilience is developed, sustained, and grown through discourse, interaction, and material considerations,” and lists five specific communication processes, all of which are evident in Edwards personal story.

Social relations and ways of talking contribute to individual resiliency but it is still, in the end, the individual who has to learn breathe deeply – either again, or perhaps for the first time.  If Elizabeth Edwards’ life had played out along her original fantasy script, she admits:

“I don’t know..if…it would have occurred to me that I had never taken the fullest breath I could. It had been diaphragmatic breathing, matching my inhaling and exhaling to some rhythm I wanted, some song that fit my life at the time, or I thought did. I had never had to find my own rhythm, never needed to search for my own cadence…For all of the times that followed those carefree days…for all of the pain I endured, at least I learned … what it meant to breathe for myself.”

Dedicated to Alec Kent
and the family who survives him

Avatar and Academics

3-dimensional timespace

A Golden Globe for best drama? Ouch. Most of my friends and colleagues will be disgusted. There is barely even a story in Avatar, because the re-presentation of the colonizing logic that elevates white men as heroic figures is left completely unproblematized.

I am not supposed to like Avatar. There are so many problems with it.  Really. And I did not enjoy watching much of it.  I winced, squirmed in my seat, felt bored, and was not even enthralled by the visual effects.  The three-dimensionality is pleasing at an aesthetic level, yes, and may deserve awards, but to consider Avatar drama is to cheapen the real human lives of actual indigenous peoples, women, environmental activists, and anyone else who applies their conscience to the experience of watching this film. Drama involves, by definition, “serious subject matter…usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue.” As a buddy keeps reiterating, there was not a single surprise, no unexpected twist, no nod or wink of any kind from the director, actors, script-writers, camera-operators or graphic artists of Avatar to a socially-intelligent audience.

A Window upon Us?

The drama of Avatar is less about the movie itself than how it serves as a blank screen for viewers to project a firestorm of passionate support and cynical disdain. There is a principle of feedback usually applied to interpersonal communication: whatever someone tells us about ourselves is more informative about the feedback giver, a window upon their perception – such as what they value and what assumptions they use to interpret behavior – than it is about ourselves as the target of feedback. As social and cultural critics, many academics in the social sciences/humanities believe it is our job to pounce upon popular culture to try and dismantle what we see as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the public sphere. It does not matter if the object of analysis is classified as ‘high’ or ‘low’ art, was intended for our explicit consumption, or purports to promote or hide overt political intentions. The debate over Avatar, however, is dramatic because it complements the very dynamics critical analysis intends to combat.

I cannot – nor do I want to – dispute the specific criticisms made of the racism, sexism, ableism, colonialism, out-of-control capitalism, and militarism in the film. I agree with these analyses. The question I’ve been mulling is whether this mythic representation of a glorified white male savior has an equivalent meaning in today’s world as it did in the historical world that postcolonialist, social justice, cultural studies, and critical communication scholars and teachers rightly deplore? I think not. I suspect that by assuming these images and representations “mean the same” as they did in the past, i.e., that they will lead to the same kinds of attitudes and behaviors, uneven relationships and hierarchical oppressions as has enabled white domination in recent centuries, then we contribute to “making” them mean what they used to: we collaborate, discursively, in co-constructing the social continuation of stereotypical hierarchies and inhibit processes of identity development and social change.

We. Perhaps I should resist writing in the plural, but what I mean to admit and expose is that I am also part and parcel of these discursive dynamics. Does my whiteness make me more susceptible to the folkloric elements in this classic story? Am I more willing to forgive egregious excess because I overvalue the seeds of incremental change? Perhaps. What might have improved the story of Avatar would have been for Jake Sully to support and affirm Tsu’Tey (Laz Alonzo) as the heir to Aytucan (Wes Studi) instead of competing to replace him. Or he could have given the idea of riding the monster raptor, Toruk, to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and supported the matriarchs in leading completely and openly.

Calibrating to another timespace

The running debate I’ve been having with friends involves things like how so many of us got suckered by the hype, and whether or not there is any redemptive value in the film, and if so, what the heck could it possibly be? My attention was originally captured by a fan review posted by a friend on Facebook, which was followed in quick succession by a blistering anti-racist critique and a thoughtful examination of prosthetic relations and doubled consciousness. I continued reading and listening somewhat incredulously as the debate rose in pitch, arriving even to the edge of tension with friends. I keep wondering to myself, how can so much be at stake? And what do these arguments “do” as communicative work in the world? SEMP suggests the furor is evidence of addiction, an intriguing hypothesis that reminds me of how I interpreted the panic of the monied class in the early days of the financial crisis.

Here’s what I perceive. It is (on the one hand) the same ol’ same ol’ white supremacist myth but with a twist (on the other hand) that matters. The audiences who are most responsive to the positive message of ‘going native’ are among some of the ones who most need to get it: young people (mostly men and some women) who have had enough privilege and/or culturally-constructed desire to experiment with the alternative realities invoked by videogaming.  Many have grown up in such insulated conditions that patriotism (to nation, to the profit imperative, to so-called legitimate uses of violence – to name the most obvious) is so embedded as to be unquestionable.  Yet these same young people are a bit freaked out (if they’re paying attention whatsover) to the inevitability of climate change, the sensationalism of terrorism, and subsequent threats to the security and comfort that is all they’ve ever (really) known.

The lack of any sophistication at all in Avatar’s storyline (a major bone of contention from erudite friends) allows the alternative message to shine: endless consumption has to be reckoned with, and there must be other options than fighting-to-death over natural resources. As caricatures exaggerating some of what is ‘good’ (albeit in a culturally-biased and fragmentary way) and ‘bad’ about the types of people cultivated by the present global political-economic system, it seems clear that the primary intended audience of director James Cameron’s “story” is not graduate students or intellectuals – by assuming that we are Cameron’s target we miss the potential use of a culture’s particular and situated mythology to generate change from the inside.

Interrupting kneejerk belief in the bad

I was intrigued to learn that the cast was contractually forbidden to discuss the storyline. I am definitely prone to finding silver linings, and I’ve always been drawn to the underdog – just as I’m glad the Na’vi survive, I am unsettled by the intensity of academic attack, not on the film per se, but on the viewers of the film who are inspired by its story of betrayal to the military-corporate ethos. Because, ultimately, the critiques say nothing “to” the inanimate film or its characters. Whether or not they are rendered in two- or three visual dimensions they are merely symbols. What matters are the uses to which these symbols are put, and I am concerned that the main thing being accomplished is the reinforcement of cynicism and general hopelessness in the face of perceived inevitabilities.

Avatar is not science fiction; it is fantasy. Fantasy asks for the willing suspension of disbelief. Fantasy evokes a temporary reality, a vision of possibility premised on a vein of reality – emphasize the hope or dwell on dread, its your choice. I prefer to support the chance that plunder and profiteering can be made methods of the human past, rather than surrender to the empty promise of a futile future.


Barbara, Speculum de L’Autre Femme, Why critics of Avatar are missing the point
Rob Beschizza, boingboing, What storytelling risks could Avatar have taken?
Mary Bustillos, The Awl, I Hated ‘Avatar’ with the Fire of a Thousand Suns
Mary HK Choi, The Awl, Flicked Off: Avatar
Adam Cohen, New York Times, Next-Generation 3-D of ‘Avatar’ underscores its message
Joshua Davis, (esp. language details – inventing Na’vi) in Wired, James Cameron’s New 3-D Epic Could Change Film Forever
Erkan, Erkan’s Field Diary, Avatar, the movie
Stephanie Jo Kent, Reflexivity, “believe the data”
Annalee Newitz, i09.com, When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like “Avatar”?
Lisa, Sociological Images, On Avatar, The Movie
Sr. Rose Pacatte, National Catholic Reporter: Riffing with Myth
Christina Radish, AvatarMovieZone, Laz Alonzo talks James Cameron’s Avatar
Selva, The Scientific Indian, review
The Snake Brotherhood, NationStates, The whole Avatar debate
Emmanual Reagan, merinews, Avatar a Spiritual Fantasy

ghosh on closure

Sea of Poppies
Amitav Ghosh (2009: 391)

“It was not because of Ah Fatt’s fluency that Neel’s vision of Canton became so vivid as to make it real: in fact, the opposite was true, for the genius of Ah Fatt’s descriptions lay in their elisions, so that to listen to him was a venture of collaboration, in which the things spoken of came gradually to be transformed into artefacts of a shared imagining.”

Index: references to Ghosh in Reflexivity

Originally posted June 13, 2005

“I would produce my secret treasure, a present sent to me by a former student – a map of the sea-floor, made by geologists. In the reversed relief of this map [the students] would see with their own eyes that the Ganga does not come to an end after it flows into the Bay of Bengal. It joins with the Brahmaputra in scouring a long, clearly marked channel along the floor of the bay. The map would reveal to them what is otherwise hidden under water: and this is that the course of this underwater river exceeds by far the length of the river’s overland channel.
‘Look, comrades, look,’ I would say. ‘This map shows that in geology, as in myth, there is a visible Ganga and a hidden Ganga: one flows on land and one beneath the water. Put them together and you have what is by hard the greatest of the earth’s rivers’

transdisciplinary micro-macrology

The Fulbright Commission celebrated sixty years in Belgium and Luxembourg with a prestigious academic panel at the Palais de Academie in Bruxelles. I got to tag along with the more recent Schumann-Fulbright program that sponsors study of European Union institutions.
Professor Francis Balace complemented the education I gleaned a few days earlier at the Atomium’s fiftieth anniversary exhibition by describing the dearth of practical knowledge about the U.S. that most Belgians had until after the second world war when, he repeated several times, Belgium was “a good pupil” by negotiating specific policies regarding education in order to be included in the Marshall Plan. Two comments in particular caught my attention, both in the nature of an aside: one regarding the linguistic divide and another about war graves.
In the heat of WWII, and on the basis of prior history, no Belgians expected to be rescued by Americans; it was an article of faith that the British would prevail against the Nazis on Belgian soil. For whatever military and political reasons, part of Belgium was eventually freed by the U.S. and the line distinguishing those parts rescued by Britain and those by the U.S. “corresponds exactly,” Professor Balace emphasized., “with the Belgian linguistic division” of today. This is a matter of curiosity to me, as are the reasons why the Flemish Deaf Community dispensed with an umbrella label for all regional varieties of sign languages in Belgium that were once recognized as distinct from Dutch Sign Language, now describing a (supposedly) distinct Flemish Sign Language. Are the language politics of signed language communities being dictated by the language conflicts of spoken language communities? I do not know enough except to express sadness if this is the case. (See the last two paragraphs of this brief history by an external, non-deaf researcher.)
Someone in the audience felt it necessary, during the question-and-answer session, to expound upon Belgian reverence at U.S. military cemeteries – a theme that has been repeated at every official event I’ve attended since arriving here last month. The discussion that followed introduced some nuances, such as differences in memory and sentiment according to generation. The historical tidbit Professor Balace contributed was the fact of the United States government’s purchase (near the close of WWII) of “an extra five hundred graves in preparation for the next war.” This confirms the critique I offered of the U.S. Embassy film, An Invisible Bridge, of an underlying attitude of nationalistic preparation for institutional violence that might also be fed by the pomp of standing for both country’s national anthems. I did stand, of course, but uneasily. Such ceremonial prelude for an academic session felt awkward. (I find it similarly so at U.S. domestic sporting events.)
Professor Luc Reychler‘s topic echoed Minister of State Herman de Croo‘s introductory veneration of “fundamental connections” generated by the vision of J. William Fulbright, whose scholarships have enabled academics to reach high levels of influence in diverse communities across the globe. Professor Reychler described the network of 600,000 Fulbright scholars as an international brain trust, whose collective wisdom is needed to extract us from “the media crisis,” which, among other faults, promotes a counterproductive division between politicians and academics. The basis of Professor Reychler’s presentation concerning the present was a critique of the “unadaptive responses” of the U.S. government to a series of shocks since 2000. (9/11, evidence of our rich lifestyles adversely affecting the rest of the world, and the “inconvenient truth” of climate change – no doubt he used that phrase deliberately.) He summarized the cumulative effect as a “negative synergy” but sought to counter the inevitable gloominess of current global dynamics as “an unprecedented challenge” which can be successfully engaged.
Professor Reychler’s basic prescription includes a number of specific initiatives aimed collectively at improving relations and collaboration between academics and politicians. The usual dichotomy cannot be allowed to persist, regardless of whatever seeds of truth there may be in politician’s accusation that academics lack practical experience and academics tendency to cloister in the realms of teaching and research. (Just for the record, I’m adding a bit of emphasis to this critique of the academy, probably because I am operating right at that wall Professor Reychler described as the “talk about” transdisciplinary research and the effort to achieve it.)
Specifically, Professor Reychler described the 85:1 ratio of investment in military research versus peace-oriented research. Eighty-five to one!Peace building,” he explained, “requires a combination of multiple, coordinated initiatives.” Not unincidentally, Professor Reychler noted declines in academic freedom, a trend that is apparently not even being tracked. (Although it is certainly a topic of conversation in my graduate program and others, where graduate students are coached to adapt our actual interests to the narrow parameters established by funders in their attempt to guarantee that research results generate profitability and/or contribute adequately to their own predetermined purposes.)
The final panelist, Professor Alison Woodward, spoke with an eye toward the future, describing the juxtaposition of migration with our so-historically-recent ability to maintain intimate connections with family and friends in geographically distant places. Drawing upon work in the sociology of intimacy, Professor Woodward noted how emotions are entering the realm of political discourse: even in the formal academic setting of this talk (attended by U.S. Ambassador Sam Fox) “love” had already been mentioned. This “rediscovery of the personal” is interwoven and interactive with the new age of migration that is in radical contrast with migrations of the past in which intimate ties were necessarily cut.
Others are also showing ways in which communication networks challenge international politics, matters of citizenship, and “the larger political economy of design,” simply put by Saskia Sassen as “the work of making“. Professor Woodward argues,

Globalization is not only a macroproduct,
it reaches down to the level of bonds

– among families in particular, and (I would add) between friends. What so many feel as a threat of interdependency need not be perceived as an ill, rather, the increasing ability to keep bonds and forge bridges (the two types of interpersonal networks that compose society, as defined by Robert Putnam) bodes well for international relations.
The first question of the open Q-and-A session concerned the problem of dragging publics into policies before they understand them. The speaker was critical of European organization, describing it (presumedly the EU) as “weak and disorganized,” with “the European population 20-30 years behind events,” a condition which forces progress to be made “ad hoc without popular support.” I would characterize the phenomenon of knowledge lag as, at least partially, an element of the media crisis that Professor Reychler named. I am not a technological utopianist (however much I tend to come across as one), and there are problems with blaming social ills on the media, however the rituals we engage concerning what is produced, seen, heard, and distributed – whether as entertainment, advertising, infotainment, documentary, or incisive fact-based and contextualized journalism – are problematic. Surely we can do better than we are.

atoms hopping around

Barbara Capogrosso-Sansone defended her dissertation this summer, and I was lucky enough to wangle an invitation. What follows are the thoughts of a wannabe social scientist/activist who imagines significant connections between the languages of math (especially quantum physics) and human words as they are spoken and written in intentional conversation with one another. You may decide that the t-shirt John wore for the event describes me perfectly:

“I live in my own little world, but its ok … they know me there.”

On the off chance that I might be on to something, well, you’ll read what a mishmash I’ve made of Barbara’s quantum Monte Carlo study of ultracold bosons in optical lattices. My attention was captured immediately because she’s working with a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). Some folks have suggested that something like a BEC might be responsible for consciousness. (It can’t be an actual BEC, because our brains – let alone the rest of our rather incredible bodies – cannot live at the supercold temperature involved.)
The general thing that I’m thinking, as I mentioned to Don in my exuberance that day, is that we are all really talking about the same thing, we’re just using different languages to do the talking. “We” who? What “same thing”? Ah. I can’t quite answer that, yet. The “what” is something along the lines of spirit – but it goes by many, many names: energy, power, life, creativity, inspiration, vision, to name those that leap to mind today. Perhaps it is the answer E.O. Wilson seeks, a theory of consilience. Perhaps it is the miracle Wendell Berry argues can never, ever, be captured by any equation humans are able to devise. Berry, btw, is also a fantastic resource on living in the presence of fear.
As to the “we” – I’ve got a rather broad criteria that includes anyone/everyone trying to find solutions to the challenges that face humanity today. Specifically, though, I aim to include the people I’ve met at UMass Amherst, in all our varied fields and disparate ambitions. In the midst of Barbara’s exegesis on the dipole interaction and quantum phase transitions, she said there’s something intriguing occurring in these optical lattices:

atoms hop around

Mathematicians (perhaps more than any other kind of physical scientist?) deal with the observable, the measurable, the essentially reliable. Social scientists, on the other hand, strive for the predictable but are constantly having to engage the sheer diversity of actual human responses to living, i.e., the social implies the unbounded. There may be parameters to the “hopping” we can do, but the rules that determine these parameters are not yet known.
Honestly, I’m not sure I want those parameters defined too accurately, but I do think we (humanity) need to figure out the forces that can be used to alter the realities we live in, largely because the current conditions are frightening to those of us with relative privilege and still totally suck for the majority of the world’s population. My basic thesis is that language is the tool.
k through the trees.jpg

The secondary thesis (if you’ll just go along with the first one for awhile), technically an hypothesis, is that language is energy – quantum energy, in fact, full of potential that can be experientially realized. The energy is in the transformations created through the assignment of meaning – both to things said and to things perceived but unsaid. Barbara spoke of the Bose-Hubbard model (1989), and mentioned a kinetic energy term, “hopping matrix element” (“t”). Does it work as an analogy? Language operates within fields of understanding and mis- or non-understanding. We in the West, especially) tend to privilege “understanding,” but misunderstanding is a potent space in-and-of-itself (see Chang).
Listening carefully to the language of math (especially by teachers of math and scientists using math), I hear metaphors of social interaction: “onsite repulsion” (e.g., prejudice?) “localized atoms” (e.g., jargon, culturally-specific terminology?), “zero compressibility” (no range of possible interpretation?), superfluid state (meanings in flux?) “Each line,” Barbara explained a graph, “represents a particle, [these are] world-lines.” Sounds like discourse trajectories to me! There are “hopping events” and “periodic boundary conditions in time.” Could these be akin to particular complexities in conflict negotiation and other difficult forms of problem-solving?
What I find most instructive concerning the language of math that I think social scientists could learn from, is that when mathematicians come up against a dilemma, they invent a way to deal with it. Tell me the truth, what is the correlate in real life of imaginary numbers? Barbara’s work goes even further than imaginary numbers, she is working with imaginary time.* Her atoms, somehow inversed in temperature, move in imaginary time, then hop to their nearest neighbor even though they could go somewhere else. Now, I do not know the significance of this in terms of physics, but if I extrapolate to the ways that discourse works, I would say something is indicated to the effect that simply reversing the conditions leads to a similar effect. Am I interpreting accurately enough? Flip the dynamics of oppression, it’s still an equation of privilege/disadvantage. I know I am reaching here, so some of you that KNOW the math might explain how well the analogy does or doesn’t hold. Basically, (it seems) some attractive force remains at work and effectively reduces the range of possibility to only that which is closest, even though more distant positions are possible (and, socially at least, probably more desirable).
Ok, I admit I’m straining a bit since so much time has passed since the event. My thoughts now are based on interpreting my notes, rather than recalling what excited me in the actual moment. Still, Barbara is working with mechanisms (a worm algorithm, winding numbers, superfluid stiffness) that enable the sampling of topologically different configurations, generating “a mass in order to calculate superfluid stateness.” Again, it seems there is a calculation occurring across time and space that allows the identification of relativistic behavior, specifically, particle-hole symmetry.
Let me return to language, meaning, understanding and its opposite. What I say (these words I type) could be imagined as “particles”; they can only be understood if a suitable “hole” exists for reception. Gaps are crucial, of course, and low energy levels always seem a good idea (especially as we enter the age of conservation). Which means, as Barbara says,

We need to create particles and holes at the same time.

If I wasn’t excited before (i.e., driven to a higher energy state!), I got moreso as Barbara continued. Because even though the work begins in imaginary time, “the system of effective action” is translated into real time. Keep in mind that I am not making an atom-person comparison, but an atom-language comparison. “The transition,” continues Barbara, “is driven by adding or subtracting a small number of particles…[This is a] different physics – quantum fluctuations, at some point it becomes more favorable for the system to delocalize.” In other words (I think!), it becomes possible for atoms not to choose their nearest neighbor, but to behave in a truly alternative fashion. Amazing transformations then occur, such as the velocity of sound replacing the speed of light!
A bunch of people had questions at this point in the presentation; which was only (!) laying the groundwork for the discussion of results. Somehow along the way Barbara established a three-dimensional description of ground state properties, coming up with a phase diagram, information about strong coupling expansion, and a surprising finding concerning the critical region – which was bigger than predicted. What happens is a special kind of symmetry – based on the numbers (visible by graphing) and the relativistic behavior of sound itself. The symmetry is the crux (if I’ve got this right) of the transition from the mathematical world of the imaginary to the real, physical world.
The math and physics proper implications are far beyond me, but the pieces I grasp for language involve the importance of temperature (emotion may serve as the social science equivalent?), the changes from a homogenous to non-homogenous system (monocultural to mixed/multicultural?), and this discovery: “two bosons cannot occupy the same site.” Again, a reach, but no two words – even the same word – can never occupy the precise same spacetime with exactly equivalent momentum. “This model,” Barbara concludes, “is different than before, [which was] hard-core = only one (_____?) per site, and the interaction is long ranged.” The gist I took away from the presentation is that added dimensionality matters. The parameters of various electric fields (imagine the matrix of social/cultural factors that generate belonging or identity or community) can be tuned independently, via this knowledge about the hopping matrix element, such that “there is only a three-body repulsion…. [in this] system, meanfield predictions show the system undergoes a solid-superfluid quantum phase transition, [which effects the]
• Charge density wave, and the
• Bond order.”
Stick with me – or rip me to shreds! We’re witnessing (and probably participating in) huge “charges” of social density in waves (dare I say) of anti-Palinism (to give the most prominent current example). A transition resulting from this wave would be most welcome, would it not? (Well, if it goes the way we desire – I’m not sure the model provides the tools to predict which way a wave may break, yet.) But such a transformation will alter the social order – the relational bonds that tie us into certain elemental states will be disrupted, allowing the possibility for new and different bonds to form.
A Footnote:
*Stephen Hawking describes imaginary time as a “kind of time in the vertical direction,” which is “not the kind of time we normally experience. But in a sense, it is just as real, as what we call real time.” The Beginning of Time, a public lecture by Dr. Stephen Hawking.

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