Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

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“Making a Murderer”: Authoring Fear through Authority

December 28, 2015

propaganda_questions

Using authorship in a position of authority without transparency is an abuse of power. Authorship allows for the author of a narrative to have creative autonomy, or freedom. Often associated with the idea of the author who writes a book, the concept of authorship is founded on the idea of the author being in complete control of the world of the text, a pseudo-deity of their tempestuous landscapes. While the author is an authority of their work, not all authorities are authors. An authority is invested with power through the consent of a group. Whether the group is led by the matriarch of a family, a minister of religious affiliation, or the president of a country, authority acknowledges that an individual has the power to make decisions, often to lead and to enforce boundaries. Ideally authority is given through a process of democratic consent, however it also has historically been obtained through consent bullied through violence and/or intimidation.

When authorship is knowingly wielded by authorities to create narratives with the intention of manipulation there is cause to fear. This may be done through creating a narrative that appeals to logical fallacies, such as by eliciting strong emotional responses that trump logical analysis, appealing to vanity, de-contextualizing experiences to distort truth, or by assuming the moral (and/or intellectual) high ground. On a large scale this is the foundation of propaganda. For a time, the aesthetic beauty of Leni Riefenstahl films of Nazi Germany inspired positive emotional responses to the Third Reich with the outright intention of deflating the less aesthetically appealing logical opposition[Political Rites: Initiating Art]. While political propaganda is one of the most historically acknowledged ways that authority may abuse authorship, it is present in all layers of society.

Most recently, the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer is a clear example of how the abuse of authorship by an authority may have dire consequences on both the individual and societal levels. Released in December 2015, this series follows the legal struggles of Steven Avery over a thirty-year time period. The documentary was created by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos and must be questioned in itself as a piece of authorship. However, prior to those concerns, the case of Steven Avery as presented by this documentary reveals how many people in authority struggle with imposing authority in authoring events due to feelings of morality, vengeance, superiority, and hate.

Everyone knows that ideologically a lawyer fights for the truth, but practically a lawyer’s job is to create narratives using evidence. In criminal cases, the defense must show that the defendant is innocent either through proving their inability to commit the crime, or by someone else’s guilt. The prosecution must create a narrative that is irrefutably more convincing, responding to these assertions of innocence, and offering proof clear proof of the defendant’s culpability. The narratives that both sides create do not represent the 100% truth of the situation, however they pull on concrete evidence and testimonies. Authenticity of evidence is both objective and subjective and is weighed by jury and judge.

In the history of Steven Avery, the audience witnesses, not once, but twice the manipulation of evidence through abuse of authority to convict him of crimes. In the first instance, he was accused of the attempted rape and brutalization of a local woman and was convicted of the crime despite the fact he had a substantiated alibi and that there was a convicted sex offender with greater probable cause. After serving eighteen years for the crime, he was found innocent through DNA analysis and released.

While in the process of suing the country for his wrongful imprisonment, he was once again arrested, this time for the murder of a woman. Though there was evidence that would include him amongst many possible suspects, it was also possible that some other perpetrator could have scapegoated him. However, rather than analyzing these possibilities, a multitude of situations allowing for the abuse of police, detective, legal and media authority led to Steven Avery and his sixteen year old nephew being the prime (and only) suspects. The coercion of confessions, the continued abuse of the moral high ground by prosecutors, the assumption of guilt before innocence that was encouraged to the media by the police prior to the trial, and the repeated witnessing of evidence being manhandled, and/or manipulated is a nightmare for any practitioner of critical argumentation. He was found guilty and is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. However, even after his convictions, the jury members commented that when they entered their deliberations 7/12 members began with him being innocent. One jury member had to leave due to a family emergency and three had reportedly entered the trial with the outspoken conviction of his guilt. In addition, even though he was found to be innocent of his earlier crimes, his reputation as a criminal clearly influenced the perception of his moral character as he stood for sentencing in front of the judge.

Clearly, this is just a very brief summary of what transpired over decades (and I could not more highly recommend watching the series on either Netflix or Youtube and reading up on it through other sources), the troubled legal life of Steven Avery demonstrates the power of authority over authorship. Even when Avery was clearly telling the truth, he could not stand up to the legal narratives that convicted him. This leads us to two important questions: 1) How can we develop critical thinking skills to question, respond, and search for the authentic truth rather than the attractive and easy truths? 2) How can the methods of authority be more clearly derived from critical transparency, authenticity, and ethicacy? Through watching Making a Murderer we learn more about the function of power in our modern, American society. Regardless of Avery’s ultimate guilt or innocence, the abuse of authority through the manipulation of narrative (or authorship) is clearly present throughout this documentary. It presents a depiction of authority that all citizens should be concerned by and not accept as the status quo.

Now, before concluding this article it is essential that we look at the source that inspired this discussion. Everything that I know of this case was presented by two documentarians. After immersing myself in a little over ten hours of the history, I can’t say that I have not been seduced by the aesthetics of the film. If you were to ask me now, I would say from the evidence I saw, there is serious doubt to Steven Avery’s guilt, and if I “theoretically” had been on the jury, I could not have voted to convict.  However, my opinion has been developed through the context of the film that (while extensive) is only ten hours and does have an author’s bias.

So, how does the manipulation of the documentary’s narrative differ from the manipulation that happened during Avery’s trial? First of all, the audience knows that they are watching a documentary that has been pieced together in retrospect. Secondly, the documentary makers are not authorities in the legal system and even if they do take liberties with the narrative they are not sworn to the same ethical obligations. The job of documentary filmmakers is to inspire their audiences to reveal untold truths by asking interesting questions. At the time of Avery’s trials he was not given the question of guilt or innocence by the public, he was only met by social outrage. Now, at the time of this documentary, it is my belief that he will be offered the chance to have the status of his guilt publicly questioned. In addition, new questions regarding authority figures will also be asked—as they specifically relate to the case, and as we accept them in general within our society. So, yes, the documentary is a work of authorship. But, it is not an abuse of authority because it clearly reveals its methodologies, and, rather than leading to one clear response, it calls for critical reform and accountability.

Making A Murderer: Trailer

 

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Book Review: The Borgias and their Enemies by Christopher Hibbert

April 12, 2010

Christopher Hibbert writes like an experienced academic–self conscious, solid and consistent prose, unadorned by rhetorical bouquets and ready to get the job done. While his skills are respectfully utilized, it is not his writing that keeps the reader engaged.

Rodrigo Borgia, patriarch of the Borgia dynasty and also known as Pope Alexander VI, is the source from which interest in this book is propagated.  Between his own history and that of his progeny, the audience is simply wowed with the extent to which ambition can soar when opportunity is abundant. I would first like to raise some conceptually provocative questions about the importance of the Borgia dynasty in relation to the contemporary church, and then will  provide a short summary of their influence on history.

Currently, the Catholic Church is being faced with a barrage of sex scandals. For years, it has been clear that there is an association between repressed sexuality and sexual abuse. However, it was unclear whether this was a cultural (as in “American”) problem or something universal.

Now, it is clear that sex abuse is a universal problem. Naturally, these scandals have led many people to question their faith: how can I belong to a church that harbors such atrocities? However, the fact is that the Church has always been corrupt.Not that this fact should be celebrated, but it leads us to wonder why this corruption is less tolerable right now. No, there is no excuse for what has been committed, but crimes such as these (and even worse) have been going on for centuries.

So why are these crimes being publicly acknowledged now? And, is the light of the Catholic faith stronger than the crimes of it’s representatives? Questions such as these accompanied my reading of  Christopher Hibbert’s book, The Borgias and their Enemies.

During the Italian Renaissance the power of the city lay with the Pope and the Pope was not necessarily Italian. This is true in the case of Rodrigo Borgia, originally from Valencia, Spain (Borja in Catalan), who became Pope Alexander VI and ruled from January 1, 1492-August 18, 1503. One might note that this also the period in which Ferdinand and Isabella united Spain into one country and sponsored Christopher Columbus’ explorations (approximately 1492). Nepotism, bribery, and untold amounts of manipulation landed Rodrigo the position of Pope.

Despite his vows, Rodrigo did not hesitate in acknowledging his numerous children. He is famous for his ambitious match making that united his family with the royalty of Europe. His oldest son Cesare entered the papacy and later left to pursue the more lucrative and politically powerful positions available through marriage. Though handsome in his youth, through his uninhibited sexual exploits Cesare contracted syphilis that eventually led to terrible facial scarring and, what some would consider, madness. Cesare would eventually go beyond the influence of his father in his aspiration for power. Cesare is most widely familiar as one of the principle models for Machiavelli’s book The Prince.

While Rodrigo had several children, the second most famous is his daughter Lucrezia. Married, divorced, and with several lovers Lucrezia remained staunchly loyal to her family–despite her brother murdering her favored husband. She was scandalous in her affairs and at times rumored to be a lover to both her father and brother. It is also speculated that she was a murderess and had poisoned numerous individuals. However, in the later part of her life she also put much energy into redeeming her reputation. Because of her scandalous affairs, multiple marriages, and ambitious family she has been the inspiration for many films and books.

Though the Borgia family were able to maintain the powerful hold on Italy, parts of France and Spain while Rodrigo was alive, Cesare lost the protection of the Pope when his father passed away.  Cesare had been a Cardinal, Bishop, Captain General, Confalone, Lord, Count, Prince and Duke. However, after the death of his father he lost his holdings, was exiled, and died. Throughout the years the Borgia family had inspired the enemies through their repressive rule. The Borgia dynasty dissipated rapidly and little remains. In Spain, the Borja palace can still be visited in Gandia, Valencia and the neighboring countryside is reminiscent of its ducal history.

Armas de Borja

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Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

April 11, 2010

This is a book that reminds us of what the function of literature is: the weaving of narrative into questions that relate the reader to the nature of being in the world.

Rather than succumb to the temptation to underwrite the complexities of love and death, Niffenegger is able to create a composition that may hold both reader and reality. The duality of symmetry and chaotic emotion is essential to this balance. The repetition of physical doubling does not imply neatness or psychological symmetry. Instead, we find that where death should bring peace, discord resonates.

A typical trope in literature that is graphically explored in the film noir genre is that doubling foretells death. It is as if the act of the individual witnessing itself is too much and the Self cannot handle so much actuality and must retire. Doubling is a process where the Self becomes the Other, who in turn returns to the Self.

The desire for the Self to be merged with the Other, or a love object, is familiar to all cultures across time. To become one, to be completed by love, to fully be consumed is the root of sex, but on in a larger sense directly related to our drive toward death. Death is that ultimate consumption, le petit mort of sex becomes a metaphor for the ultimate union that is all of our fates.

Niffenegger presents these topics in the relationship of the twins. At once the twins have what we all desire, to know another completely. But through their union, so are they destroyed by their desire for sex and love. The overshadowing of death is made uncomfortably clear when Valentina sees death and reincarnation as the solution to their dilemma.

In addition, something that is interesting to note and might not be commonly known is that while Niffenegger thoroughly researched Victorian burial rituals, she also put in her time learning about the afterlife. Her concept of death, and understanding of spiritual impetus are educated by scholars, channelers, and shaman who make it their business to perceive these realms. While I naturally cannot validate the authenticity of these perspectives, I can say that Niffenegger’s concept of the afterlife is grounded in a collective concept and not solely based on her own imagination. Having had my own studies lead me through many of these texts, it was fascinating to see Niffenegger navigate the concepts in a new, creative context.

This book was fabulously written, provocative and continues to resonate within my mind. Niffenegger’s balance of structure and content is true craftsmanship and I look forward to future endeavors. If you are looking for a more complete review of the literature you can check out the New York Times Book Review at the link listed below. A funny coincidence to the NYT review is that it is written by Susann Cokal, who taught at Cal Poly, SLO while I studied there:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/books/review/Cokal-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1