Posts Tagged ‘narrative’

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“Making a Murderer”: Authoring Fear through Authority

December 28, 2015

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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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“Museum of Me”: Architecting Identity and Walter Benjamin’s Historical Materialism

June 13, 2011

A museum is defined as a building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and displayed. Already known for being the architects of what is inside your computer, Intel is now branching out to what is inside of you. Specifically, this is being achieved through an application that filters your Facebook activity and regurgitates it into a virtual “Museum of Me” (or you, depending). On the cool side of the spectrum, it is pretty fascinating to see the lineage of relationships, portraits, and taste. Aesthetically, the “Museum of Me” paints a pretty picture of who you are, or who you would like to think you are.

The Intel App creates a video tour of your Museum. Featuring your name, photos, friends, likes, and networks, the video is a visual summary of everything you have ever clicked on while logged into Facebook. If the information were to be presented outside of a “museum” context, such as for corporation research or consumer profiling, the shear amount of information available would be overwhelming. Not to mention the horror if the “Museum of Me” were being used as a visual introduction to potential employers. In short, the “Museum of Me” project articulates just how impossible it now is to filter which parts of your identity your friends, family, businesses, and employers have the ability to access.

But does this breaking down of filters mean that we are able to more consistently be who we are? For some it is enough, but for others the “Museum of Me” fails to fit. And here are the reasons why:

If history is a narrative constructed from selected cultural artifacts, the question is who, or what, is to decide what is significant? In “On the Concept of History” Walter Benjamin asserts the importance of blasting historic structures and reveling in the pieces, separate from an architected structure. In this regard, he states the following:

The historical materialist cannot do without the concept of a present which is not transition, in which time originates and has come to a standstill. For this concept defines precisely the present in which he writes history for his person. Historicism depicts the ‘eternal’ picture of the past; the historical materialist, an experience with it, which stands alone. He leaves it to others to give themselves to the whore called ‘Once upon a time’ in the bordello of historicism. He remains master of his powers: man enough, to explode the continuum of history.”

Central to the concept of historical materialism is the paradox of the transition of time, where time is simultaneously beginning and ending. If time is constantly narrowing and expanding, then the experience of the present cannot be roped into a single narrative (there must be at least two for the beginning and end of time, if not an infinite amount of other possible twists and turns!). In contrast, Historicism argues for the limitation of historical perspective and an authoritarianism to interpretation. More crassly, Benjamin likens the historian who writes an objective history from a set perspective to a whore who gives up the goods for capitalist interests. In contrast, the historical materialist blasts the narrative of history and through this action ascends his power.

Now, how does this relate to Intel’s “Museum of Me”? Intel has created an App to reflect the activities, faces, friends, and likes that are logged into the Facebook world. This is a historical narrative of your life, and on a literal level is accurate. Intel is not lying and the narrative has been built on tangible evidence. However, when a blast of historical materialism is applied, there is no more Museum, simply refuse from the explosion. A discarded photo, or shard of familiarity no longer represents the set narrative. However, the potential for meaning has been exponentially expanded. Because authentic significance is simultaneously a beginning and an end of time, the encounter with historic artifacts is unlimited once the form of Historicism has been dissolved.

In terms of identity, one of the joys of Facebook is that it allows the individual to create a public face. To make photo portraits, post relevant articles, network, search, and comment to our hearts delight. However, is this the entire picture? One narrative says yes, but for some this is not enough. The narrative deconstructs, the spiral toward Self shifts, and suddenly we are once again left with the Other—unknown possibilities abound.

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The Rigors of Anna Akhmatova

June 11, 2011

Born into pre-revolutionary Russia, Anna Akhmatova lived through nearly every epoch of life within the Soviet Union. A poetess first published in her early teens, Akhmatova was well-known as a thinker and muse amongst the intelligentsia. However, while her ability was clear prior to the revolution, it was her role as witness that has made her legacy. Executions, imprisonment, abandonment, suicide, and slow death defined day-to-day living. Oppression of thought through spies and bugs were typical. And memory became the greatest tool of rebellion.

At one point in this history, for seventeen months Akhmatova waited outside a prison each day to bring food to her son, or to advocate for his release. Published in the St. Petersburg Journal in the New York Times is an account of the day she was recognized:

“One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

‘Can you describe this?’

And I said: ‘I can.’

“Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”

Central to this retelling is the ability of the poet to stand as a witness to the misuse of power and the horrors of reality.

Which leads to the question of how can poets be witnesses? The poetry throughout the ages has served different services. Whether to convey liturgical material, regional news, or to instruct, poetry has been a mode of communication steeped in tradition. In classical times, the poetic emphasis lay in form and craft—as seen in both epic works and smaller sonnets (Homer or Sapho). However, the closer one moves toward Modernism, the more the emphasis moves from transcendental romantic themes, toward symbolism—which argued that art should represent absolute truths which could only be described indirectly. Metaphor and the liberation of technique from tradition were both central to the Symbolism Manifesto.

Maturing into the beginning of the 20th century, Akhmatova came into the poetic world just as Symbolism was becoming popular in the western world. Even prior to the revolution, the divide between east and west was strong, and the poets of Russia headed in a different philosophical direction. Developed in 1910, Acmeism was a school of poetry, which focused on the Greek root for acme, “the best age of man.”

Acmeist poetry celebrated craft and rigorous form over the mysticism of imagery—permanence over transience. Choosing not to emigrate, Akhmatova was harshly censored and closely watched throughout the majority of her life. However, her classical diction and direct details revealed not only the factual authenticity, but represented the stark emotional grounds the country was traversing internally.

Here are two examples of her poetry:

Song of the Last Meeting

My heart was chilled and numb,

but my feet were light.

I fumbled the glove for my left hand

onto my right.

It seemed there were many steps,

I knew—there were only three.

Autumn, whispering in the maples,

kept urging: ‘Die with me!

I’m  cheated by joylessness,

changed by a destiny untrue.’

I answered: ‘My dear, my dear!

I too: I’ll die with you.’

The song of the last meeting.

I see that dark house again.

Only bedroom candles burning,

The yellow, indifferent, flame.

Shade

‘ What does a certain woman know

                               of the hour of her death?’  Mandelshtam

Tallest, most suave of us, why Memory,

forcing you to appear from the past, pass

down a train, swaying, to find me

clear profiled through the window-glass?

Angel or bird? How we debated!

The poet thought you translucent straw.

Through dark lashes, your eyes, Georgian,

looked out, with gentleness, on it all.

Shade, forgive. Blue skies, Flaubert,

insomnia, late-blooming lilac flower,

bring you, and the magnificence of the year,

nineteen-thirteen, to mind, and your

unclouded temperate afternoon, memory

difficult for me now—Oh, shade!

In these poems, we can clearly see how the emphasis in Acmeism of traditional form provides a container for the chaos that ensues within the lived world. Rhyme scheme, meter and verse counter the stress and harsh reality of the themes explored there in. Likewise, the use of realistic imagery creates a simple relationship with a reader. The identification of the audience with the author finds common ground in windows, homes, and flowers—possibly the only commonalities available between 21st century America and revolutionary Russia, they allow for some type of identification throughout time and cultural boundaries.

The rigors of Anna Akhmatova are confined to the strict structure of her poetry. The discipline that the Stalinist Soviet Union instituted on its people is paralleled in her craft. However, the themes and hidden memories bear witness to the tears that have fallen, vanished love, and loneliness of lost time.

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My Half Orange is Kind of Blue

June 9, 2011

What can’t be said about this album? Iconic and brilliant it has single handedly made generations of musicians and listeners fall in love—to fall in love with music, with Miles, Jazz, each other, it is all unavoidable. While the musicology of the album, the history of the musicians, and the it’s evolution within the genre are fascinating topics, what this article is going to focus on is the question: why the love?

This review is not going to have anything to do with chords, improvisation, technique or rifts. Rather, it is just a look and a listen of one song “So What,” simply as if it were a person. It is THE person; the half orange; the blue heart; the love and the life.

All music exists in and out of time. We’re either together, or a part. Wanting more or wanting less. Longing, holding, leaving, and silence. So much of love takes place in the silent, lonely moments apart. Even when things are close, intimate, and continuous, the silence works it’s clever way into conversations, mornings, and late nights.

And that is just it, the silence and space that defines “So What” mirrors the rhythms of love. The times when you need to listen, when themes over lap and octaves rise in response. They are all there: the breath that comes from listening, the synchronization that comes from nearness, the familiarity of the notes is shared.

But it isn’t just the sharing, it is the perfection that comes from listening. The rewards of looking at a person, not as a reflection of yourself, but as a being who is sharing a grand experience simply because that is what they want. The being-ness of life, not the spontaneity, but the depths and long moments all packed together.

How incredible it is to wake up in the morning and know that the person there has made that choice. Not for how you look. Not for how you feel or what you do. But because of all of it, and nothing. Because there is space and time to listen. That is the choice that Kind of Blue makes. There is pain, sadness, and longing. But there is love and there is choice. Kind of Blue wants you, and only you. It calls to you for love, and love knows how to listen.

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Man Ray: Nude Dialectics

June 7, 2011

The Dada movement was founded on anti-war politics and was a direct response to the established standards and manifested these ideas by responding to accepted concepts of art with the creation of anti-art cultural works. The goal was to reveal meaning it what was being discarded as meaningless in the modern world.

Continuing after WWI, Surrealism evolved from original Dada manifestation. Defined by Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, Surrealism is:

Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.

The concept of Surrealism was explored in photography, art, film, literature, music, and continually addressed the question of what is conscious and unconscious, often with strong socio-political themes. Deconstruction and Post-Modernism are descendents from Dada and Surrealist thought.

Writing in the 19th century, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a philosopher whose approach has been critical to the course of 20th century thought. Hegel asserted that there is an original argument, a Thesis. This Thesis automatically generates an opposing argument, the |Antithesis. The interaction between Thesis and Antithesis bring forth a third, and new idea called the Synthesis. Furthermore, the foundation for Hegelian Dialectics is developed from four concepts:

  1. Everything is transient and finite, existing in the medium of time.
  2. Everything is composed of contradictions (opposing forces).
  3. Gradual changes lead to crises, turning points when one overcomes its opponent force (quantitative change leads to qualitative change).
  4. Change is helical (spiral), not circular (negation of the negation).

Dialectical reasoning has been a central strategy for communicating philosophical challenges since it’s conception. As a written strategy, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis are a familiar framework for essays. Likewise, there are reverberations in art, literature, music, etc.

However, just as the structure of Dialectics argues for an antithesis, so is there a counter-response to this approach. Though acutely articulated in Derrida’s theory of Deconstruction and in the Post-Modern exploration of film and literature, there is a unique space in the early twentieth century where the conception of an antithesis to Dialectics is being visualized adjacent to it’s origin.

Photographer Man Ray was born in Philadelphia in 1890. Arriving in Paris between WWI and WWII, Man Ray was a central figure in the practice and philosophy of Surrealism. Central to the socio-political experience of Europe during this period is the question of how to live in a world after the devastation of war. Not only the destruction of infrastructures, but the knowledge that that destruction was generated and enabled by the continental communities. The horrors of war could not withstand cultural boundaries. All types of hell were made possible by the hands of man.

First Dada and then Surrealism emerged as expressionist responses to this new psychological realization. Dada is a Dialectical response to being the anti-war to war, and the anti-art to traditional art. The emphasis on automatism in Surrealism opens the discussion to both cultural and personal exploration. Automatism is defined as the performance of actions without conscious thought or intention. If war is the strategic plan to conquer, divide, and/or destroy, than surrealism is the unconscious response. But, unlike Dada, this response is not obviously anti-war (or peace). Though consciousness and unconsciousness are practically a dialectic opposition, their content does not necessarily follow the same rules. What is found in the unconscious may be better explored through the process of Dialectics, but it resists definition, categorization, or compartmentalization.

A visual example of this is seen in Man Ray’s photographs “Le nu en photographie,” or “Two Nudes” composed in 19 37. In this image we see two nudes, one facing the viewer the other with her back to the audience looking into the distance. The portraits are not mirror images, but the juxtaposition of a light and dark background establish that the images are linked, representing united, but contrasting concepts. Black is the antithesis to white and vice versa. Put them together and the visual contrast creates an experience that is not achieved when viewed separately.

Likewise, one nude faces forward, the other showing her back. This is another example inviting a Dialectic comparison. Though, here is where it becomes clear that this strategy is being intentionally broken. While the black-white backgrounds and poses lead the interpreter toward their familiar Thesis, there are several factors that disorient this process. Almost mirror images of each other, the differences in poses convey different messages. The lighted nude faces forward, intimately meeting the eyes of her audience; Her arm is raised to reveal her breasts and the curve of her figure. She is fully conscious of her physicality and allurement. The second nude shows her back to the viewer and looks into the darkness. Her figure is highlighted, but it is not being displayed for an audience. Both arms are lowered and her focus is unknown.

A simple interpretation would read this as the lighted nude represents what is conscious and the darkened nude is the unconscious. However, Man Ray’s technique of inducing photographic polarities deconstructs the obvious. The light nude is highlighted in black; the black nude is highlighted in white. Each nude displays characteristics of the unconscious and conscious. The direct sexuality of the first is generated in the primal ID, clearly nestled in the unconscious. The reflective gaze into darkness implies active cognition. Though the initial invitation is to define each woman as being black or white, conscious and unconscious, this Dialectic interpretation is destabilized the more one participates in the portraits as a conversation between opposites. The more one tries to define the images—both technically and symbolically, the more impossible it becomes to reduce the images to a single narrative.

Man Ray’s photograph, “Le nu en photographie” (“Two Nudes”), is an example of how Dada and Surrealism struggled with the strictures of Dialectic thought in the 20th century. It is an exemplification of an experience that is both defined by opposites and irreconcilable to being pruned into familiar and rational forms.

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Joan Didion: Exercising Narrative Rights

June 5, 2011

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C-Span Interview with Joan Didion

In a 1996 C-SPAN Book TV interview, Joan Didion speaks about her body of written work. Incredibly the interview lasts for three hours and includes a huge space for viewers to call in and ask her questions. (As a side note, it is incredible to see such a large amount of time, audience participation, and interest in writing being dedicated by a network. What does this say about the change in audience participation and attention spans?) In this clip, Didion speaks specifically about her first experience of being published and her first encounter with the American political process.

Publishing her first novel at the age of 28, Didion is asked about her first experiences with writing, publishing and rejection. Considering the continuity of her writing career, the interviewer is surprised that Didion had ever been rejected at all. Didion’s response is to articulate that the experience of being rejected is inseparable from the experience of writing, and that somehow the writer gets through it. At the end of the clip, Didion is asked if she likes speaking about her writing. She responds that she does not mind speaking about what she has already written, however she does not talk about what she is currently working on, or thinking about.

Though this is only a brief clip, two points about Didion’s writing process are made clear. Firstly, that the experience of rejection (whether literally or psychologically) is apart of writing. Rejection is an active part of presenting creative work to an audience. Secondly, the process of actively writing is private and that there is a clear boundary between what will be shared and what be kept private. Clearly, a boundary is being established to protect her writing process from being overwhelmed by the projected expectations of others. The line between the individual and the group enables the potential for new perspective.

The second theme of the discussion focuses on the American political process. Having not encountered this process until being assigned a reporting job, Didion reminisces that the experience was jarring. Why? Because “the narrative is already in place.” The dialogue that takes place within conventions, tours, debates, and candidate speeches has a known goal, effect, and script. There are no surprises, which in itself, is the surprise.

Who is the author of the American political process? Is it a narrative defined by the needs of the people? An institution?  In an additional interview taken earlier in Didion’s career, she states that one of the reasons she likes to write is that she is “in control of this tiny, tiny world.” Does the predictability of the American political narrative provide a sense of control through its consistency? The issues vary little, and the polarity between the Democrats and Republicans is only becoming more streamlined. The narrative is less and less a debate and more and more a binary divide, yes or no.

The challenge of the writer is to establish engagement with his or her audience. Engagement may come from new content, different forms, or extraordinary craft. The goal is to create an experience that the reader can interact with, feel, or find new perspective from. Conversely, the narrative structure of American politics does not change either form or content. Which leads us to question if engagement is part of the plan. And if not, then what purpose is being met?

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Facebook and the Move Toward Accountability

April 30, 2010

The days of anonymity, faceless criticism and random bitchiness are numbered as Facebook, Yelp, LinkedIn and a variety of other online profile sites become intertwined. No longer do comments fade into the abyss, rather they stay linked to staged and candid profile picks, uncensored friend comments, and a variety of moody updates. The boundaries between family, friends, colleagues, and professional networks are fading faster than we are able to perceive new ways of filtering our interactions.

How is the consolidation of online identities changing how we interact online? Will this affect how we view our online characters? Will there be a more authentic link between the lived self and the web-self, or will the veil between cyber and soul remain obscured?