Redemption lies in us (not Avatar)

Newitz confuses whiteness with skin color and Itskoff goes right along. Whiteness is an ideology that imbues an attitude of privilege in most people with white skin, but the assertions, aims, and theories of whiteness can be found in people of any ethnicity in any part of the world. Perhaps not often in some places, but commonly enough in many. In general, whiteness is associated with “white people” but not exclusively: to assume an automatic equation between ‘being white’ and ‘whiteness’ would be stereotyping.

4-dimensional timespace

I got excited by the January 20th NYTimes movie blogentry, “You saw What in ‘Avatar’? Pass those glasses!” because I scooped Dave Itskoff by two days. Really!  He wrote:

That so many groups have projected their issues onto “Avatar” suggests that it has burrowed into the cultural consciousness in a way that even its immodest director could not have anticipated…

“Some of the ways people are reading it are significant of Cameron’s intent, and some are just by-products of what people are thinking about,” said Rebecca Keegan, the author of “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron.” “It’s really become this Rorschach test for your personal interests and anxieties.”

I wrote:

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.

Itzkoff did more homework than me: he provides three categories of protest and lists about a dozen specific critiques offered by particular groups or individuals representing diverse perspectives.  I have one bone to pick regarding the quote he uses from Annalee Newitz in which she seems to back off from the strength of her critique, “When will white people stop making films like ‘Avatar’?

“Just the idea of whiteness is a local phenomenon,” she said. “It’s certainly not in parts of the world where white people are not dominant.”

Newitz confuses whiteness with skin color and Itzkoff goes right along. Whiteness is an ideology that imbues an attitude of privilege in most people with white skin, but the assertions, aims, and theories of whiteness can be found in people of any ethnicity in any part of the world. Perhaps not often in some places, but commonly enough in many. In general, whiteness is associated with “white people” but not exclusively: to assume an automatic equation between ‘being white’ and ‘whiteness’ would be stereotyping.

Avatar as a different kind of opportunity? Really?

“I read your blogpost,” a friend confided recently. “I can see that academics would be pissed.”  Another friend continues to critique what he calls my ‘rescuing’ of the film, explaining that all cultural products provide that same kind of blank screen/projection effect, so this fact hardly makes Avatar special. But so many people are engaged with it, that’s my point!  Bah, he shrugs it off. “That’s just because of the hype.”  (shhhhh…I suspect some academics are pissed because they fell for the hype; we’re supposed to know better. Dammit.) At any rate, Itzkoff’s interview with Gaetano Vallini confirms the hype factor. Vallini writes for the Vatican, and also seems to backpedal a bit from the assertions in his critique of Avatar:

[Vallini’s] assignment to write about “Avatar” was not an attempt to advance a particular agenda, he said, but rather “a compulsory choice” given the anticipation surrounding the film.

The western tendency to valorize “understanding”

I don’t assume that friends in fields other than Communication would be aware of this, but I’m surprised how many of my colleagues seem to be operating under the assumption that we can only talk with each other if we already share a known, recognized basis of understanding. Chang’s Deconstructing Communication makes a compelling case that misunderstanding is also a legitimate starting point for communication. And who could forget Professor Cronen’s story of the couple who consistently misunderstood each other and because of that were able to maintain their relationship?!

My thesis is that the challenge presented by Avatar is not how well or poorly so many groups come to use, misuse, or abuse it, but what we do – specifically how we talk with each other – about the fact of such diversity. If the assumption is that no conversation is possible without a priori or telepathic understanding, well that’s the end of it, eh? But if some curiosity could be cultivated, perhaps some new connections could be forged. Not theoretical linkages (although these may be there, too) but bonds of human relations arising out of the material use of a common reference point – egregious though it may be.

Meanwhile, back in school…

A friend shares:

“I haven’t seen Avatar yet. Speaking of imperialism, capitalism, private property and China, I heard and found it disgusting that in China it would cost 200 RMB, more than US$30, for one to see this movie. That is about a seventh of the monthly pension of my father, who had worked more than 30 years in Socialist China and who thus fares far better than the worst cases.”

And another sends a link to Avatar: The Abridged Script: “Sure it’s easy to poke fun at Avatar.  But it’s so entertaining!” The abridgement does dual oxymoronic labor: transforming “lazy screenwriting” into pop cultural commentary while laying bare a host of scientific contradictions and technological implausibilities. It is fun! But – – a dead end if a few good laughs is all it gives.

Finally, on the first day of classes this semester, in an engineering course on manufacturing processes:

“Don’t pick unobtanium as a material if its only available in North Korea.

We don’t get along very well.”

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.

References/Resources:

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

Persisting In Place: A strategy of socioeconomic survival

Dr Arturo Osorio refines Florida’s popular “creative class” model from its static premises, turning the notion of a creative class from a thing (an aggregation of people who fit required characteristics and are rather singularly motivated) to an on-going, interactive, socially-dynamic “process whose potential emergence may or may not be sustained over time.” Osorio pulled an audience of seventeen on a late fall day to listen to him tell a tale of a town where personal actions and associations coalesced into creative class organizing that generated a range of positive consequences for the community that continues, today, to feed back into organizing and interpersonal/professional community ties.

Isenberg School of Management

University of Massachusetts Amherst

Organizational Strategy

Creative Community Co-Construction

Tooling around Nantucket over New Year’s weekend, I was struck by the sense of place evident in the care given to the landscape, not to mention our host’s keen interest in birding – a demonstrably popular island activity. Twin ethics of conservation and continuation, combined with a robust sense of humor, reminded me of the work of Dr Arturo Osorio, whose dissertation defense explored the intersection of economic geography, economic sociology, and strategic management as a town re-creates itself as a community of and for artists, composed of members who utilize local resources to co-construct themselves as a creative class.[1]

Finding_ArtLooking at a place (Easthampton, MA) through an integrated analytical lens, Dr Osorio applied a collaborative multi-firm network theory[2] in which relationships are interdependent with the environment (conceived broadly) and the environment (including the embedded and implicit relationships) is inseparable from any given company, firm, or business. This fluid and dynamic model disallows sharp divisions between, for instance, “the company” and “the market,” or “employees” and “residents” and those whose physical residence is beyond town lines but whose livelihood is firmly founded within the community. While organizations are purpose-driven, the core economic transactions are deeply social – interpersonal, cognitive, cultural, and political. All of the activities of a company and the community that hosts it are intricately intertwined.

Dr Arturo Osorio refines Florida’s popular “creative class” model from its static premises, turning the notion of a creative class from a thing (an aggregation of people who fit required characteristics and are rather singularly motivated) to an on-going, interactive, socially-dynamic “process whose potential emergence may or may not be sustained over time.” Osorio pulled an audience of seventeen on a late fall day to listen to him tell a tale of a town where personal actions and associations coalesced into creative class organizing that generated a range of positive consequences for the community that continues, today, to feed back into organizing and interpersonal/professional community ties.

Choosing to contribute to a place

The most interesting point that I found in Dr Arturo Osorio’s dissertation defense was a question his results raised about why people may tend to identify themselves more on the basis of language than of the place where they live. Such as speaking Spanish, for instance, rather than English. The matter came up in relation to limits on extending Dr Osorio’s findings to more urban, mixed areas, although it caused me to wonder about rates of bi- and multilingualism in/around Easthampton.  Language fluency is a separate indicator than skills – Easthampton has above average concentrations of people with skills that are recognized as creative regardless of industry, as well as an above average concentration of people with skills that are used in industries recognized as cultural or creative. I wonder if diversity of language can contribute to creativity? What Dr Osorio studied are the interrelationships of skilled people who consciously grew a creative culture by recognizing and validating the various skills everyone had to contribute, and interweaving them into a strong and vibrant economic community.

Unfolding_of_a_Creative_ClassDr Osorio supplements Florida’s depiction of the creative class, which has come in for its own share of criticism. Florida describes the creative class through a lens akin to the hard sciences, as a concrete thing composed of particular elements which, if put together according to the right equation will reliably reproduce the desired end result. Osorio’s view is more nuanced, recognizing the role of variation and emergence in modes of self-organization when elements catalyze in ways that are not necessarily predictable. Because Osorio is focused on the combination of social factors along with economic factors, he is able to highlight the ways in which individuals can cohere positive socioeconomic changes in specific civic locations over measurable spans of time.

“It takes a community to build a creative class”

~ Dr Arturo Osorio

Dr Osorio conducted an extensive participatory ethnography and a complex social network analysis to demonstrate the relationships among narrowly-defined cultural groupings and broadly-defined socioeconomic structures.  The sociality is not always visible, but operates nonetheless. While the generic public is presented with the closed doors of artists at work, the artists themselves engage each other vigorously on all manner of concerns, including finding common cause and mutual gain with other community groups, such as persons with disabilities. As one might expect, the closest relationships are formed on the basis of homophily – emotional affinities, shared values and perspectives on issues of mutual concern, and enjoyment of similar kinds of people and events.

DSCN0336 But, a crucial element in generating a creative class, artists in Easthampton reached out beyond these most comforting relationships to learn about the needs and concerns of different artists and other community members in diverse affinity groups. Then they all consciously used this knowledge to proactively strike up alliances and strategize agreements to satisfy everyone’s desire to live/work in a community that promotes their individual, independent ability to be a certain kind of person. One of the novel discoveries of Dr Osorio’s work is that the key question in Easthampton’s successful transformation from an old mill town to a thriving artistic community is that the key question motivating collaboration was not “Where do we want to go,” but rather, “Who do we want to be?”

The process was not free of conflict or contradiction, however the influence of the artists (a widely-inclusive category in Osorio’s frame) on the economy and standard-of-living in Easthampton is proving to be resilient and sustainable, because – as an organizational process – it was always ground-up, involving multiple instances of grassroots, indigenous effort that culminated in a process that, in retrospect, can be identified by normal science.  Dr Osorio calls it “a fragile plural phenomenon” in order to emphasize both the inherent organic quality of self-organization as well as the necessity of continuous nurturance and commitment if the collective benefits are to be retained over the long term. This can conceivably happen if town planners traditionalize the collaborative approach to problem-solving that has characterized the rise of Easthampton’s creative class to date.

Sound utopian?

Mutually_Co-constructing_processesWell, it is a small town in Western Massachusetts rather than a massive urban area.  “The Planning Dept is two people,” explains Osorio, who are “doing mediation not planning.” They accomplish so much, so effectively, “not through dictating policies but by addressing specific problems and issues as they arise and working them through collaboratively – which [is what] generates policy.”  Can this model be extended? I guess those are the experiments we all are waiting for.  Dr Osorio affirms, “…[creative class] cohesion can only be reached, not by dictatorship but by communication.”  An important question is the extent to which western Massachusetts is unique: few other places will meet similar contextual criteria that define this region (such as the proximity of several elite colleges, museums, historical/traditional work in the arts, etc).

As the committee hurled questions at Dr Osorio, DSCN0341_2it became apparent how momentous is the potential in his work. His chair commented on “the open-endness of what you’re doing” – a comment clarified by Daphne, another Management graduate student: “The ‘creative class’ is an empty signifier, you can fill it up in different ways.” This rather blows Richard Florida out of the water (IMHO). Instead of a precise configuration of ascribed statuses available mainly to the elite and those brilliant few from historically disenfranchised groups who manage to thread the needle and arrive in the top ranks, Osorio brings membership in the creative class within reach of all of us.  We just have to decide to begin working with each other, in specific and targeted ways that are rooted, anchored, and otherwise defined by a real physical place.  This may mean facing down racial antagonisms and divisions constituted by language/identity difference and infrastructural oppression. Dr Osorio’s dissertation research suggests the bridge is to build value and meaning into the physical, geographic place where you live or work.


[1] Richard Florida, 2007 also Gibson & Kong, 2005:542

[2] Miles, Snow & Miles 2005

Choral Tribute to Elaine J Kent

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Albuquerque Sky

As the plane taxied from the gate in Dallas/Fort Worth to takeoff en route to Albuquerque last Friday, the sunset evoked Mom’s favorite landscape. As my brother said, mom found her peace here. Missing Frontier Restauranther these past few months has been odd, a sensation I rarely felt: I don’t recall experiencing homesickness, our bond just wasn’t like that. The intimacy of our relationship grew gradually over the years, culminating in a slow summer full of sweetness followed by a precipitous ten-day dive.

Decades ago, inspired by some radical crip friends of mine (notably Mary Frances, and one or two others) and motivated by a penchant for creative fiddling, Mom had wanted me to apply for a patent on her over-the-shoulder bag that allows for the equal distribution of weight to the front and back. At the time, I was as intimidated by the process as she was, and it wasn’t too long before somewhat similar designs began to appear on the mass market.  I always felt that I had missed that moment for her; a regret that I carried even before she died. But otherwise there are relatively few, a tribute, I believe, to her insistence in carrying forth her mother’s ethic of not imposing on her children. At least, that is how Mom explained, in her last coherent conversation with me, the hands-off approach to parenting that was a source of angst for much of my life.

wood in snowNow, in retrospect, I discover depths of dimensionality that were obscure to me while she was alive, such as her singing with the New Mexico Women’s Chorus.  It was a bold move for mom to branch out from choral singing with church groups to join a group composed mainly of lesbians, whose eclectic choices of material ranges rather far afield from the Christian hymnal. As George said in the Chorus’ tribute to mom, “Elaine always tolerated our choices,” elicited a low rumble of appreciative laughter from the audience who had just been regaled with such numbers as the “Menstrual Tango” (by Jamie Anderson, this was Sangria Girl’s favorite), “The Lesbian Second Date Moving Service” (David Maddux), and a liberal adaptation of Paul McCartney’s “(Now) I’m 64.”

Reciprocal Tolerance

It is probably unwise to dwell too much on what an odd bird my mom was.  “I know she was awkward,” I told one member of the chorus. She responded, “That’s a good way to put it.” Then she told me how Mom often came to rehearsal with her own mini-electric keyboard, which she played according to some logic that had nothing to do with the numbers being practiced by the chorus.  “Everyone remembers her for that!” Oh boy. I couldn’t help but wonder at potential parallels: how often am I plinking away at my own tune at the edges of some group who’s trying hard not to let the annoyance get to them?! But Mom was usually responsive to feedback (hopefully me too!), and she brought interesting music from her background for the group to consider.

DSCN0589DSCN0543

I can’t imagine Mom acting in any of the skits. That would have been something to see!  But it seems she did break out and display her independence every now and then. “If she liked a different part, she just sang that one.”   The most common adjective used to describe her was quirky.  “She had her quirks, but then we all do,” one of the Directors told me. “That’s alright,” Emilio observed. “People remember odd people.” Some people really did click with her, and several appreciated that I had come to share, vicariously, in that part of Mom still reverberating in the rhythms of this vital community.  “I appreciated her sense of social justice,” a public school teacher told me, “she was always bringing me articles from Teaching Tolerance. It was her way of learning and passing it on.”

Singing for our Lives

DSCN0569

There were several numbers that really got to me.  The whole trip was emotional, of course, although I had not anticipated when, where, or how the grieving would strike: such as walking off the plane into an airport with no mom to greet me. Still, the loss was compensated for by an incredible sense of gain. This group of women whom I had only heard about in the barest sketch from Mom welcomed and embraced me – just as they had done, for several years, with Mom herself.  Living the talk, sharing the walk.

The chorus had chosen a beautiful song by Jane Siberry to dedicate to Mom, Calling All Angels. On the night of the performance however, a few soloists were ill and they weren’t able to sing this one.  Luckily I had heard it during rehearsal the night before. I was surprised at the first point that caught me in the throat during the concert. I have always enjoyed Dar Williams, but I don’t think I’d ever carefully listened to the lyrics of When I was a boy. The last stanza makes a surprising shift, from a woman’s gender assertions to a man insisting “when I was a girl,” and then recalling moments he had shared with his mother.  My brother leapt immediately to mind. You were there, Rich, in all the ways that matter, during childhood and now.

The last stanza of the song, May I Suggest, rendered by soloist Kathy Morris , also brought tears to my eyes. The wonderful thing that I have always experienced at both gay men’s and women’s choruses is the mix of humor and poignancy about real life.  So, while one of the Directors earned a posterboard advertisement – “Director Needs 1st Date” – from a helpful DSCN0540 member of the chorus, another member’s boss snapped photos of her in pap exam stirrups while she bewailed the rigors of maintaining the reproductive organs (“Women’s Health Medley” by Lisa Koch). I don’t think too many other members of the audience were crying in-between laughing, but there is a spirit of communality that can be felt when everyone is simply paying close attention – it generates a force invigorating the mix of joy and pain we all experience while living these, our precious and irreplaceable lives.

In lieu of the planned dedication number, Mom got the whole concert dedicated to her before the final song, an original piece by Director Liz Lopez, “I Remember Falling.” I am hopeful the audio-recording comes out because it is quite a beautiful piece. And then, according to tradition, the New Mexico Women’s Chorus closed by inviting the audience to join in the singing of a popular civil rights anthem:

We are a gentle angry people, and we are singing, singing for our lives.”

Thanks Mom, for singing with and for us.

Bluebirds? “Only in my mind.”

Nantucket Island

Due to winter weather, it took us more than nine hours to make I-195 Eastthe drive from New York City to Hyannis. As it happened, at least one of us (STFU) understood the need to be on Nantucket for New Year’s Eve, because such an opportunity truly doesn’t happen too often in a lifetime.  So we managed the drive, caught the fast ferry and arrived to a full panorama of downtown lights only 12 hours after departure. We enjoyed a midnight meal, plenty of good cheer, and a long leisurely sleep to usher in the new year.

Nearly all of the “new year” accounts I have read express relief for the change of year and also for the turning of the decade. Only one suggests that the future may be worse than the past. Daniel Gilbert writes in a NYTimes Op-Ed, “Ours may be the last generation of Americans to suffer for return — to remember events that took place when place still mattered.”

How place still matters

Optimism is reputed to be a survival trait; humor even more basic. I witnessed both in abundance at Nantucket’s annual Audubon bird count meeting on the evening of New Year’s Day. More than thirty serious birders gathered at the UMass-Boston Field Station to report tallies of birds sighted by volunteers who spent the entire day outdoors, scanning island skies, thickets, and beaches for hints of wing. I hardly qualify as even a novice birder, so the sense I make of what I heard is certainly suspect…nonetheless, as I listened to the rote calling out of bird-names and the response in numbers from each designated area’s representative, my attention was captured by the reactions of these hardy experts. An image began to emerge in my mind of an incredible ecosystem of avian life – I would love to see an accurate animation of bird flows over time, specific to geographic regions and types of bird. It would be beautiful, I’m sure. And alarming.

The concern with place presented by Gilbert has to do with the human ability to fix memories. As individualized shops give over, increasingly, to chain stores promising the same product everywhere, the ability to associate key events with particular places anywhere becomes blurred. We will still remember, he says, but in a displaced fashion:  “… reliving experiences that are located in time but dislocated in space. ” At the bird meeting, someone asked, “When’s the last year we had a bobwhite?” “I keep hoping,” was the scorekeeper’s reply, while someone else answered, “Thirty years.”  It looks like their range is typically south of Massachusetts, although bobwhites have been common here in summer. I was surprised by how many summer birds are in the count, such as 2,328 American Robins! Imagine the double shock when someone commented, “A little lean, that!” and another echoed, “It’s got to be low.”

“Anyone hear a fish crow today?” “No.” “Well said.”

I am sure I missed many jokes whose point was based on insider ornithological knowledge. There were more birds named that I have never heard of (especially varieties of ducks and gulls) than those I know I’ve seen, but I was pleased to be familiar with a bunch of songbirds, woodpeckers, and hawks. More than half of the reported bird counts did not inspire commentary one way or the other. Either the numbers were in the range to be expected, or whatever change was apparent did not warrant verbal exchange. Sometimes there was an audible sigh, or a slight deepening of silence. But most of the banter was intended to keep the mood light and you wouldn’t know (unless you know) that there may be cause for concern. Besides, some of the counts were higher than anticipated – evidence of adaptation that will yield its result only as changes (whether of climate or development) continue to unfold.

DSCN0472

Note: this is not a full account of all
reported birds, only those to which
there was active response
from the birders.

There was “a pile” of black ducks (596), and a “crapload” of coots (@41?). I know there’s quite a developed scientific vocabulary for these things, so I checked technical terms for groups of specific birds. Nope. I was relieved – the whole meeting would not be conducted in jargon I couldn’t understand! “Crapload” would come between a covey of grouse, partridges, ptarmigans or quail and a deceit of lapwings. And “pile” is missing between a peep of chickens and a pitying of turtle doves. Isn’t language marvy?! There were 19 harlequins (“Wow! Nice count!”), and 24 gadwalls (“Holy cow”), but the Old Squaws seemed to have disappeared. “There was no flight this morning – that was weird.” “There were more than 22,000 over Barnstable the other day, where did they go?” “What?! Have you been drinking again??” “That’ll get ’em wondering.” “They’re somewhere, we just don’t know where.”

Good news first

There were 190 Lesser BlackBacked Gulls. “Is that a record high?” “First time we’ve had that.” “It’s pretty phenomenal.” “It’s up there!”  Seven Hairy Woodpeckers were spotted: “that’s of a lot of them, a lot for us,” and 91 Flickers: “Seems like a good flicker year.” There were also “a lot of crows here today” (704), and another potential high: 1,026 chicadees. Eleven golden-crowned kinglets. “That’s amazing; they’re kinda scarce.” Someone saw a tundra swan: “Who is that guy?!”

A murmur greeted the single viewing of a pied-billed grebe, “a rarie” and “good count” for the 46 hornbilled grebes. One bittern: “Wooo, nice.” Eighteen Great Blue Herons was exciting (“Wow!”) There were six blackbelly plovers and a single snipe, “Good job,” and one Glaucus: “Way to go! Thank you!” Two dovekeys were seen, “Yea!” “Exciting!” “So dramatic!” and 252 Razorbills, “Wow!” “Whew!” “Woohoo!” “Sweet!” for seven seen Barn Owls, and another “whoo” for the single Longspur. And so it went, for about an hour, with these highs punctuated by lows intermixed with unremarkable counts in a syncopated rhythm larger than all of us.

Not such good news

DSCN0492Not a single killdeer, a fact greeted with a low groan followed by a few seconds of silence. At the news of only three Black Legged Kittywegs, there was a sharp, collective intake of breath. A bird whose name I missed had a very low count: “That’s pretty puny. Horrible.” No ringnecked pheasants had been seen: “Bummer. There are some around.” It was “too much to ask for” a blue wing shoveler, although there was a sole pine warbler: “Good job, they’re scarce this year.” No pippins. “Just thought I’d ask.” There was a veritable protest when no one reported a Kestral. “Ahhhhh!” “I thought we had one!” “It was a rumor.” “Who started that one?!”  Thirty-six redtail hawks, however, was “not so bad.” Overall though, “the songbirds are not strong. This is really weird. Songbirds are really down this year.”  Seven towhees. “That’s low too, isn’t it.” Field sparrow? No. “Oh, just checking.” Eleven savannah sparrows: “Really crummy.”

About halfway through the meeting, the group had a moment on the edge… there was an eider of a type I didn’t catch but the question was posed, “King or Queen or One Who Wasn’t Sure?” [Seen at the museum the next day: ‘Captain, the lad’s a girl!’ about a sailor who fooled the crew for eight months until she became sick.] Meanwhile,”We had a bird we think’s a hybrid,” regarding which they decided to count “1/2 of each.” Clearly, evidence of a natural drama is discernible between the lines of these birder’s spare and functional statements and dry humor.

Signs of Change

Erosion of the island has been occurring at an increasing annual rate for the past several years. Houses have been lost to the sea; others have been relocated to their innermost property line in order to persist as long as possible. Scientists suggest that within 600 years, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard both might be gone. Birds will find other habitats, of course. Unless they lose elements of native habitat required for survival. See “Life in the Boundary Layer” for a taste of what some of these elements might be.

The Gillmont? “Going once, going twice….count week.” It took me a few follow-up questions to understand the system.  The “week” of the official bird count is centered on a region’s chosen date.  For Nantucket this is January 1, which means the full week for the official, annual birdcount is December 29 to January 4, but because this is an inexact poll, bird species seen during the three days before and after count week can be added to the final tally. Last year, there were 134 species in the literal count and 142 with the additional days before-and-after. This year, so far, only 117 species have been counted during the official week, with another 8 that were seen in the three days prior to the start of the official week, that’s 125 total. If no additional species are seen before January 7th, the overall species count will be down by 17.

The Faraway Place

Despite the zero count for Tufted Ducks, “I feel in my bones there is one here. Stay on your toes.” Zero Egrets inspired a pun, “No regrets,” which got quite a chuckle, “It’s so late,” apologized the scorekeeper. No Common Mergansers drew a whistle (of dismay?) and the absence of Ruddy Ducks (“Uh oh”) led to, “We know what we’re looking for tomorrow.” As with many things in life, much comes down to being present at the “right time, right place” in order to see (as did one lucky soul) a Short-Eared Owl.

There will be a tomorrow. As these birders showed me – reinforcing life lessons from friends – how we get there (enduring the weather, teasing each other, sharing passions), and what we make of it once we arrive, is up to us.

under construction (and foolishness)

cyberspace

Am in the process of transforming my ‘old’ blog categories into tags (in this new incarnation of Reflexivity) and also setting up “series” that re-present certain types of blog-entries in chronological order. One of the original conceits in deciding to write in this fashion was to create a record of intellectual growth.  Whether or not there’s been any is an open topic…

Social FAIL

Wild Buffalo Wings, Hadley Mall

Who would have thought that our fallback position from arriving too late to acquire tickets to the 3d showing of Avatar would be malling in a sports bar?  It was an ill-fated venture from the start.  Later we learned we didn’t even have the movie’s start time correct! In the moment we just thought it had sold out.  Trying to order a Twisted Margarita to salve someone’s disappointment generated a series of telepathic maneuvers which deteriorated from early success to an unpalatable beverage.  And how many graduate students does it take to split and pay a bill?  Ok ok, so there was friendship involved, after all.  Geez.  At least that!

“slower, deeper, softer”

With unfailing precision, solar observatories around the globe and through the history of humankind offer tribute to this primal source of existence. If life as we know it depends upon the parameters determined by earth’s orbit, then “what,” my friend asked, “does the orbit of the earth depend upon?” “Gravity,” I offered, “which they’re still trying to figure out.” Later, a voice out of memory nudged me to add, “and electromagnetic forces.” These are two different categories of what the physicists call “fundamental forces.”

Winter Solstice
Earth

“Winter after winter
I never cease to wonder
at the way primitive man arranged, in hewn stone,
such powerful symbolism.”

~ George Mackay Brown (about Maeshow)

sun sets south of eastA handful of friends humored me in the middle of the longest night of the year, ‘toasting’ the earth with our lit candles.  Earlier in the day, one of them accompanied me to the Sunwheel, where UMass astronomer Dr Judith Young explained the placement of stones marking the rising and setting of the sun at the furthest edges of its annual arc across the earth’s sky. The setting of the Winter Solstice sun occurs at its most southern position on the western horizon (for those of us in the Northern hemisphere), visibly marking the physical point in the earth’s orbit when our angle to the sun shifts away from the slow gathering of longer and longer nights to the gradual return of lengthier days. Although the coldest days of the year still lay ahead, they are just the tail of the momentum generated at the other end of the earth’s orbit, when the Summer Solstice marks the peak of daytime. These moments of transition are ancient and inexorable. They representative the constituting limits of life on earth.

With unfailing precision, solar observatories around the globe and through the history of humankind offer tribute to this primal source of existence. If life as we know it depends upon the parameters determined by earth’s orbit, then “what,” my friend asked, “does the orbit of the earth depend upon?” “Gravity,” I offered, “which they’re still trying to figure out.” Later, a voice out of memory nudged me to add, “and electromagnetic forces.” These are two different categories of what the physicists call “fundamental forces.” Perhaps, I mused to myself later, my friend wanted to know if I would say God? It could be that “god” is a name referring to the same thing, being a word created by people using various languages to label a recognizable (if inexplicable) phenomena.

Solstice observatories are ancient and evident on most continents, including Newgrange (in Ireland), right stone marking winter solstice sunsetwhich is older than Stonehenge by some 1200 years, and Maeshow (Orkney Islands, Scotland). The oldest one in the Americas was confirmed within the last decade at  Chankillo (Peru, a Zapotec site), and another one exists at Building J (Mexico). Chaco Canyon’s famous sun dagger (United States) is another type of solar observation mechanism. The Inca built Rumicucho (Ecuador – which boasts some incredible equinox sites, see “Where No Shadow Falls“) and Machu Picchu (Peru, see this virtual tour of the Sun Temple).

There are also ancient solar observatories in Asia. The Uglugbek Observatory in Kazakhstan may be the inspiration for a Sun Plaza apparently under construction in Astana City.  This beautifully-laid website by candlegrove, Ancient Origins: Solstice, lays out a panorama of solstice celebrations from around the globe, supplemented by visitors’ comments about Dong Zhi (Chinese), Soyal (Hopi), and Yalda or Sada (Iranian). The site includes borrowings of contemporary religious holidays (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) from earlier pagan rituals and (very exciting!) a lead to information about the analemma (watch the animations!) which explains the Equation of Time and provides great visual diagrams and definitions of ecliptic, true & mean sun, the celestial sphere & equator, and the vernal equinox (which heralds spring).

Our Celebration (Talents, Appreciations, Environmental Goals)

meThis year’s talent pool was tiny but special. Impromptu performances included a fried vegetable and egg dish (Albanian), creative wine pouring (where?! courtesy of South Africa), and cake made exclusively from dry mix and seltzer (Sikh). Quasi-rehearsed performances included ASL interpretations of Power to the Meek (Eurythmics), Hammer and  a Nail (Indigo Girls), and I Gotta Feelin’ (Blackeyed Peas). [Note: The first two came off alright but I failed to make the last song’s crucial rhythm change visible. (Signs of middle-age?!)]  The Mexican contribution (“I’m f*ckin’ brilliant”) was a poem by Pablo Neruda, read first in English then in the original Spanish.

If You Forget Me

Finally, English translations of works by two Romanian poets, Nichita Stanescu (in keeping with Neruda’s relational mirror) and Marin Sorescu: Asking Too Much and (for me, smile) Translation.

A Poem

by Nichita Stanescu

Tell me, if I caught you one day
and kissed the sole of your foot,
wouldn’t you limp a little then,
afraid to crush my kiss?…

TRANSLATION
by Marin Sorescu

I was sitting an exam
In a dead language
And I had to translate myself
From man into ape.

I played it cool,
First translating a text
From a forest.

But the translation got harder
As I drew nearer to myself.
With some effort
I found, however, satisfactory equivalents
For nails and the hair on the feet.

Around the knees
I started to stammer.
Towards the heart my hand began to shake
And blotted the paper with light.

Still, I tried to patch it up
With the hair or the chest,
But utterly failed
At the soul.

“Lentius, Profundis, Suavis”

These words in Latin were often spoken by an inspiring Italian leader of the European Greens, Alexander Langer. They seem appropriate to me as descriptions of the institutional effects required globally in order to stem the worsening of climate change and create decent living conditions for people in all societies.

Life in the Boundary Layer

Dr. Ambarish Karmalkar was careful not to be alarmist as he reported findings on experiments forecasting regional climate changes in Costa Rica and its neighbors. Dr. Karmalkar explains: “The frequency of temperatures in the future is something we have not experienced in the modern period.” In the case of Central America in general, and Costa Rica in particular, he was referring to a probable future increase in the average temperature of 3-4 degrees Celsius (roughly 5-7 degrees Fahrenheit) before the end of this century.

Geosciences (Climatology)
159 Morrill South, UMass
Amherst

“I just want to congratulate Ambarish on a very nice thesis; I enjoyed reading it.”

~ Dissertation Committee Member Dr. Henry Diaz

I enjoyed the extremely detailed presentation too, but I must confess that chills ran up and down my spine on a few occasions. Dr. Ambarish Karmalkar was careful not to be alarmist as he reported findings on experiments forecasting regional climate changes in Costa Rica and its neighbors. Dr. Karmalkar explains: “The frequency of temperatures in the future is something we have not experienced in the modern period.” In the case of Central America in general, and Costa Rica in particular, he was referring to a probable future increase in the average temperature of 3-4 degrees Celsius (roughly 5-7 degrees Fahrenheit) before the end of this century. If this does not seem like a big deal, compare it to the temperature fluctuation that accompanies El Nino – a mere one degree – and all the weather we (US Americans) blame on that. Then imagine that already species are becoming extinct in the subtropical rain forests. The suddenly extinct (since 1989) Golden Toad, for instance, was once abundant in the Monte Verde Cloud Forest of Costa Rica.

Climate Change Predictions for Central America:

A Regional Climate Model Study

by Ambarish Karmalkar

Specifically, Dr Karmalkar’s dissertation research involved testing the reliability of the general circulation model that is used for regional climate modeling: PRECIS. He chose the region of Central America for a few specific reasons:

  1. more studies on biodiversity and climate change have been done in Costa Rica than anywhere else (so he has lots of material to compare and contrast in terms of results already collected)
  2. there is severe impact from changes in precipitation in the Yucatan (the ‘top’ or northern edge of Central America, dividing it from North America)
  3. Costa Rica meets the criteria for being a biodiversity hotspot: meaning it has a large number of endemic (local/native) plant species , and has “lost at least 70 percent of its original habitat.”

Dr Karmalkar’s paper will be published soon enough, I trust, and will give much more detail to those with deep knowledge about this kind of predictive mapping. For now I can only summarize, from a layperson’s perspective, the major points that I gleaned from his analysis. The PRECIS model works at two levels (atmospheric and on-the-ground) to try and predict the impact of climate changes on the selected global region.

Because PRECIS is measuring a part of the whole (a region of the earth, not the entire planet), it is a limited area model. This means a lot of the work of calculation has to occur at the boundaries – basically, at the edges or sides of the area. This involves figuring out the lateral boundary conditions (air and ground) and also the sea surface boundary conditions (especially its temperature). Dr Karmalkar ran two experiments (each one requiring seven months!) to confirm or deny the validity of PRECIS.  Basically, do its results match up with reality?  First, the baseline test involved validating whether the model could take information from the past and run through its algorithms to turn out a prediction matching what is actually happening now, in the present.  He plugged in 31 years worth of observed data from ongoing measurements made in real time from 1960-1990. Given these values, the PRECIS model successfully generated a ‘prediction’ that accurately described current conditions of temperature and precipitation.

Changes in Seasonal Rainfall a Serious Concern

central america wet and dry regions

I highlight preciptation because I realized that I have been thinking naively about climate change in terms of temperature alone, but it is the combined effect of increasing temperature with changes in amounts of precipitation that is of serious concern. PRECIS simulates surface air temperature correctly, although there was a long discussion about differing warm- and cold-biases of the comparison data sets – CRU and NARR – at low and high elevations. The PRECIS results seem to highlight these biases. Perhaps this information will help designers improve the modeling. Nonetheless, Dr Karmalkar and his advisors agreed, “despite the challenges of a topographically complex region, PRECIS is not doing a bad job simulating temperature.” However, it is the annual cycle of precipitation that most defines the climate of Central America. Historically, there have been two rainy seasons generating peaks of rainfall in June, and again in September-October, with a bit of a dip in-between (July-August).

PRECIS is underestimating the wet season by 40-50%. A higher resolution model will help improve the simulation, and there may be a problem with how the model simulates storms.  There are many interacting variables in this dynamic system, including mean annual sea level pressure, the subtropical high pressure systems (Atlantic and Pacific), low pressure in the eastern Atlantic NASH (North Atlantic Subtropical High) which defines the direction and speed of trade winds that carry the precipitation, effects from the Borealis force, sea surface temperature, and low level circulation of the atmosphere modified by the topography (mountains, valleys and such).

Comparing the Baseline and a Future Scenario

Once the baseline is established as accurate, its trajectory is run out to a point in the future without changing anything.  If things were to continue only along the path that has already been created (nothing added, nothing taken away), then a certain climate can be projected to the end of the 21st century. To actually get at prediction, that extension of the baseline has to be compared with a possible projected future which includes changes we can anticipate (such as percent increase in greenhouse gasses – increasing at a rate of 3% a year since 2000 – more than double the rate in the 1990s).

There is an official Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that created four different possible scenarios. Dr Karmalkar picked the scenario called A2, which comes with an associated “storyline” – the context of human activity that makes the numbers used in the scenario plausible. The A2 storyline is conservative: of the four choices it is the one that seems the most “like” the way our world really is, now:

…a very heterogeneous world with continuously increasing global population and regionally oriented economic growth that is more fragmented and slower than in other storylines.

In this story about our possible future, economic values outweigh environmental values, and regional development is pursued more than global strategies.

“There’s a cockroach.”

It is the difference between the two tests – the baseline and the potential scenario – that generates the actual prediction. The finding shows temperature becoming higher and the distribution narrower: the future “lies well outside the present day” and “that,” says Dr Karmalkar, “is a significant result.” Remember that long discussion about bias?  The results for all regions show a cold bias – which means (if I understood this correctly), that the prediction itself is conservative, i.e., that the reality could well be worse than these particular results predict. Warming in Central America is higher than the global average. Not only this, but the wet and dry seasons in Central America are going to be seriously effected. The model isn’t doing as well with precipitation as it is with temperature, but – even limping – what it suggests is grim.  Basically, amounts of rainfall during the wet season are going to decrease, some areas might even lose one of the rainy seasons entirely. In other areas, perhaps the second wet season will be extended and last longer, enabling a small increase in precipitation, but the overall loss of rainfall over the sea will trigger other effects, shifting pressure systems, decreasing sea level pressure and strengthening trade winds – all of which will decrease precipitation.

Horizontal precipitation

It gets worse.  Dr Karmalkar did not say that. He would not.  He represented the science calmly, engaging an impressive display of slide jujitsu by answering every question posed during the defense with a quick scroll through his hundred (or more) back-up slides, pulling up the exact one to respond with precision to every query.

One of the most important sources of precipitation in Central America comes from clouds. The landscape orographic cloud formationincludes tall mountains that touch the clouds: moisture condenses directly onto the vegetation. (This is where the Golden Toad used to live.) Twenty to 22% of the total annual precipitation in Costa Rica comes from this direct source of moisture. Clouds form as a function of relative humidity, which is a function of temperature and pressure. Can you guess?  The temperature goes up, which draws the ‘ceiling’ of relative humidity up too.  Clouds no longer form at the usual altitude, but higher up.  Bye bye horizontal precipitation.  What killed the Golden Toad?  Possibly a phenomenon called moisture stress.

No Time to Lose

Again, this is my voice, not Dr Karmalkar’s.  When pressed by his committee whether “it is appropriate at this point to press the alarm and get the word out to conservation organizations and such?” Dr Karmalkar responded:

“Yes, we do have enough information to, maybe not press the alarm, but enough to say that something needs to be done…the Golden Toad disappeared in 1989, its population dramatically declined after the El Nino phase of 1986-87. If you look at the temperature anomalies of El Nino, they are only of a degree or so. If one degree of change is effecting the species in the area, then certainly four degrees warming is definitely large.

One of the other important things is that species do adapt to changes in climate. There are cases where plant species have migrated upslope, but that’s constrained by topography. In some cases, I talked of the cloud base heights going up, but another problem is deforestation, which has led to an increase in surface sensitive heat flux. Land surface use alone can drive cloud bases even higher than the highest mountain peak.

We do have information to make the case that climate change of this magnitude might be serious.”

How does race matter?

pedagogical investigations
University of Massachusetts Amherst

It is a brilliant question.

Not “why” does race matter, but how?

Nearly 400 undergraduates have participated in three dialogues on race this fall.  I was fortunate to be invited in as a last-minute substitute for one of the final sessions. Some of the facilitators met for an hour in advance to try and anticipate challenges with delivering the curricular design (see the facilitator’s blog). We engaged the thorny problem of how to teach about whiteness without contributing to self-fulfilling prophecies about the presence/absence of racism.

Two tensions emerged in the discourse dynamics among the facilitators. One involved the tension between supporting/embracing students ‘where they are’ and the need to intervene when ‘where they are’ is patently offensive or otherwise misinformed.  We are teaching, after all, but if we fall into rote instruction we lose the students’ attention (if not also their respect), yet if we don’t trust students to find their own way through the confusing process of coming to grips with uncomfortable knowledge then we’re simply trapped in the communication paradox: if we don’t talk about race we ensure structural inequality is never addressed, but if we keep talking about race then we risk never being able to move beyond it.

What struck me the most was – not competition, that reduces the complexity way too much – but the desire of facilitators to exert control over how the process will unfold.  Energy in the room increased significantly while brainstorming strategies for moving students from new learning into the remaining task of application.  What action can students take, using hard-won new knowledge in ways that really make a difference?  For perspective, realize we are not talking about revolutionary change, but the immediate implications for individual identity and the kinds of relationships possible with others.

Differences in pedagogical philosophy, the use of tactics, and long-term strategies were on display as facilitators advocated for ‘this’ or ‘that’ approach, sharing examples of successful interventions (when the usual pitfalls were avoided) and also describing missed opportunities (those moments that always happen when one is caught off-guard or events are moving too quickly to formulate an appropriate response). The mix of generosity and humility among this group of dedicated educator/activists was impressive. I learned a lot in a very short time!