Friday, March 20, 2009

Ruminations on Metadata

If metadata is merely data about data, then I believe that our class discussion has thus far not fully explored the broader concepts of this idea. While David Weinberger in Everything is Miscellaneous uses again and again the example of the library in organizing, quite well in fact, I feel that with the ability to tag and identify pieces with descriptions and keywords much longer than the original piece itself makes for some interesting analogies on how the web is essentially all data and all metadata at the same time. For my discussion here, I am using a somewhat looser definition of metadata than Weinberger, for instead of thinking solely of cataloguing purposes, I also am including material that can be used for a greater understanding of an item on pretty much any level.

This first began to crystallize with me as I read Jonathan Boyarin & Martin Land’s Time and Human Language Now, an epistolary examination of time relating to language that was much more complicated due to the quantum physics than I had originally realized. The two friend email each other extended discussions about the nature of their respective fields of research, at one point mentioning that these files were being sent not as emails themselves, but instead as Word attachments to a sort of cover email explaining the contents. While the epistolary form that makes up the book has an easy to identify audience, Boyarin when Land is writing and vice versa, it also is geared towards being readable by strangers to the lives and disciplines of the two men. But these cover letters have only one audience since they were not included in the book, and I began to think that reading this book digitally would allow the cover letters to be included as a sort of metadata: they are information about the information. I began to ponder.

When President Obama released his NCAA tournament picks earlier this week, I was a bit surprised. One would hope that with all the other issues on his plate, this is a minor one, but he is a basketball fan and I suppose it is a god way for him to show that he is ‘just like us’ to the average guys who bet on the tournament (guys like me, go Memphis). Then a reader of Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog wrote in analyzing the president’s bracket from a political stance. The president only selected three underdogs, and of the three favored teams picked against, two are from California (
a Democratic lock in 2012), while the other was from (possibly unwinnable) Arizona. Two of the underdogs picked were from political swing states Pennsylvania and Virginia.

I wondered how I might store all this information in the perfect electronic system. If someone’s research led them to President Obama’s selections, it would be interesting to have the add commentary of people like Sullivan’s
reader. Basically, metadata for the primary data of the brackets. But perhaps someone is instead researching how politicians in power court votes, and they find this comment about the president’s picks. Then the actual brackets themselves would be the metadata.

Perhaps this isn’t anything revolutionary, but I started to think about all the information contained on the internet and how it could be applied in these sorts of scenarios. If I am reading an article about the issues in Gaza as it relates to the Israeli/Lebanese War in 1982, I could easily click over to an article that would help me put that war into context since it happened when I was only three. In fact, with the wealth of information available, practically every single thing on the web is simultaneously data and metadata. One has hundreds of places to look for information about the information they are reading.

Even this post is a perfect example. It is a response to books by Weinberger and Boyarin & Land, it comm
ents not only on President Obama’s NCAA picks but also on a response to those picks, and it serves as an example of the sort of posts that go up on this site. Yet it stands on its own as data too. Many of these connections will likely never be used, but the point is that they can be not that they will be, and I would imagine that the future will see ideas like these played out.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

David Mack & My Destiny Reviews

It was pointed out to me yesterday morning that Star Trek author David Mack had read my reviews of his Destiny trilogy and was writing about it in his LiveJournal account. (You can read the relevant reviews here, here, and here.) I am grateful for any author to take the time and read my thoughts on their book, even in this case, where the reviews were negative.

I intended to comment in Mack’s LJ, but he preemptively blocked me from posting (I don’t believe I’ve ever commented there previously). Rather than wanting any sort of discussion, he aired his opinions not here, but in a format in which he can control which people can respond and whether what they say will be visible for others. There is of course nothing wrong with this, but if I do believe that if one is going to work in a censored forum, it ought to be made aware to those who post there.

Rather than respond directly to a single one of my numerous criticisms, he instead pulled quotes and listed them, often losing the context and therefore meaning of the words themselves. For exa
mple, when I wrote that ‘nothing much happens’ in Mere Mortals, I then explain the progress of the various storylines to defend such a statement. I will admit that my comment on his surprising ability to ‘resist prison-style lesbianism’ may have been out of line, yet other than this I stand by each of my criticisms. It would have been nice to read a response to specific points rather than a rant.

In the comments of his post, Mack implies that I accuse him of being juvenile and racist in my reviews. That is not true. I specifically refer to certain examples in Mack’s prose that I felt were juvenile and racist. Having a character shit her pants when an alien plays an impossibly low musical note, in my opinion, is juvenile. And referring to a character as having ‘Eurasian features’ seems no different than describing a character as having ‘African features,’ which may not be racist (in the politically charged sense of the word, at least) but does focus exclusively on race and ethnicity at the cost of individual description. (I did find it amusing that Mack left out the part about a character shitting her pants when he pulled the quote from my review.) And I know literally dozens of people to whom English is a second language, and none of them have a problem mastering the words ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Just because Scotty did it in the 1960s television show does not mean that it should be done today.

Mack also called my review of Keith DeCandido’s A Singular Destiny ‘fellatorily effusive,’ striking through that apparently after Keith complained (of course, striking through something is basically the equivalent of doing nothing in such an instance). He adds that no disrespect was meant to Keith, implying that disrespect was specifically meant for me. Taking a swipe at my sexuality (again, something rather juvenile), he basically asserts that my review of A Singular Destiny didn’t reflect my true opinions, but instead was written as a way to ingratiate myself with DeCandido. The truth is that I barely even know Keith, and he was apparently unaware of my review until the link was posted by Mack. In fact, while I did like the novel, I don’t believe my review was effusive, as would be apparent to anyone who reads it. Mack quotes from the review: ‘A Singular Destiny … goes a long way to making something worthwhile after the mess that was David Mack’s Destiny trilogy.’ Yet the entire line from the review reads as such: ‘A Singular Destiny is an entertaining if slightly flawed novel that goes a long way to making something worthwhile after the mess that was David Mack’s Destiny trilogy.’ Calling a novel slightly flawed in summation doesn’t seem all that effusive to me.

I’d be happy to continue this discussion with Mack or anyone, assuming the conversation could remain civil. As always, this forum will remain an open one, with the only restrictions being on personal attacks against myself or others. I am appreciative that Mack took the time to read my reviews of his work, and as I have been trying to gain a greater readership here, his links were appreciated. I have zero interest in creating some sort of feud here for may reasons: for one, I just don't care enough, and two, I surely have better uses of my time.

I've reread the reviews a few times, and I don’t think anything I wrote was personally insulting to Mack. I would also add that bad reviews are a part of the business, and if one and one’s publishers are happy with their work, it might be best to take comfort in that (for that is all that is really important) rather than to search through the Internet looking for reviews.

Friday, March 13, 2009

More on Far from Heaven

On Wednesday I posted my thoughts on Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven and later in the afternoon shared them with my colleagues in my Feminism & Film class. Based on that discussion, I rewrote the end of my short essay for clarification and amended the entry here to reflect that. Yet I still didn’t feel that I had managed to convey my thoughts adequately, that some essential piece was missing. While I stand by what I wrote before, it seems not to be the conclusion I had in mind because I didn’t leave myself enough time to fully explore the ramifications of my argument.

The place in mainstream (or conservative in the nonpolitical sense) society of the homosexual community and the place in the community for relationships between black men and white women are so marginalized as to be unacceptable, repressed, and in the case of the latter, relatively nonexisten
t. Cathy (Julianne Moore) is firmly situated within this conservative society, being married to Frank (Dennis Quaid) a successful advertising executive and living as an example of society being represented as Mrs. Magnatech in ads for the company. Since the movie is seen through her eyes, the audience sees the way that society views these sort of shadow societies.

My assertion is that Haynes is commenting on the world of 2002 by displaying the world of 1957 in the movie. In the intervening years, the gay rights movement has made significant advancements and that community no longer seems so hidden. While there is a long way to go before being fully accepted by the mainstream, steps have already begun in that direction. The contrast between the ways homosexuality is treated in the 1950s versus today is monumental. I believe that Frank was treated as a stereotype of the repressed homosexuals of that era in order for Haynes to say to is audience that despite all the advancements that have been made in the gay rights movement, essentially the homosexual community is just as ostracized today as they were back then. The contrast is jarring, but it is meant to be in order for the director to get his point cross.

That Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) is depicted as the opposite of a stereotype is also telling. He seems to be too perfect, an as a result, completely unbelievable as a character. But the struggle for Cathy in being with a man she has an emotional connection to and defying society or letting him go is the crux of this plot. By depicting Raymond the way he does, we aren’t able as an audience to view their inability to be together as a function of 1950s society, but look at their relationship as being a bit tragic since it seems to be ideal and unable to be consummated because of their opposing races. Haynes uses their relationship in order to comment on society in 2002 much the same way that he did with Frank: their relationship was nearly impossible to be accepted by society just as black men and white women have trouble being accepted by conservative society today.

I suppose the words I couldn’t quite articulate two days ago is that Haynes uses the stereotype of a cruising, repressed homosexual in the 1950s because it helps the audience see a more striking contrast between the way the gay community is perceived today and it was back then, not to point out progress but instead to show how little progress has actually been made. Raymond is depicted against type in order to show how cruel society is to keep two people apart solely based on their race not only in 1950 but in modern society as well. Haynes doesn’t allow these relationships to be viewed as a commentary of the social mores of the setting, but instead viewed as commentary on society at the time the film was produced, creating a subversive film that has a lasting impact on its viewers.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven

In Far from Heaven, Todd Haynes’s melodramatic homage to the films of Douglas Sirk, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is a suburban housewife in 1957 whose husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is a closet homosexual, and in the process of dealing with this revelation and the disintegration of life as she knows it, she befriends her new gardener Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), a black man. Haynes forces the audience to relate to his characters in two distinct ways: exploiting the modern perception of the 1950s, and using the lens of modern society in order to view the film. This causes a couple of surprising characterizations to form, the first the purposeful separation of Raymond from the typical stereotype of a black man in 1957 and the conflation of Frank with the effeminized homosexual, causing one to question how progressive the characters in Haynes’s movie truly are.

As we are first introduced to the character of Raymond, it is obvious that he is not the stereotypical N
egro of the late 1950s. His dialect is refined and educated, not surprising after we learn that he as obtained a business degree. In fact, he runs a successful small business in addition to the gardening operation his father ran before his death. When they encounter each other during an art exhibition, Raymond spends an inordinate amount of time intelligently discussing the modern art scene with Cathy, showing him to be cultured as well. After being struck by her husband, an occurrence in the 1950s that seems not to be as frowned upon as today, he is displayed as progressive enough to offer his sympathies, firmly making the stand that spousal abuse in wrong. These ideas help the audience identify with the character, for he seems a man out of the present day as much as a man from the 1950s, but this depiction also serves a more important purpose.

Though the idea of miscegenation was taboo during the film’s setting, it remains an issue in the present day. While no longer a taboo subject, interracial relationships today still provoke a level of discomfort even among self-identified progressives. Therefore, depicting Raymond as an intelligent, cultured man with the sen
sibilities and attitudes of a modern audience (at least their idealized attitudes) helps to persuade the audience that in fact this particular relationship between a black man and white woman is nonthreatening and to be approved. Yet Raymond’s depiction also adds the necessary verisimilitude to explain why Cathy would be attracted to him in the first place: he not just another Negro, he’s a practically perfect one. Only by fracturing his identity and separating it from the idea of the 1950s Negro is Raymond’s relationship to the world and to Cathy a believable one. While this is not an altogether complex way of looking at race, the 1950s setting gives this straightforward presentation more weight than it would have set in another period.

Yet while the fracturing of Negro identity to raise up the individual is necessary for Raymond, Haynes deploys the opposite approach with Frank. A closet homosexual with a family and a lot to lose, Frank is arrested for loitering (cruising) and later is shown in a gay bar, stereotypical behavior of a gay man in this era. His character arc in the movie is well done, yet completely unoriginal. As he struggles with his homosexuality, he is caught by his wife, attends therapy in order to repress the urges, seeming is on the right track, and then finds true love with an
other man, forcing him to admit to himself that he is in fact a homosexual.

However, this characterization is not just a product of the story arc, but also of the way Frank speaks and is spoken about. After his sexuality is discovered by Cathy, a drunk Frank teases Cathy in front of guests by saying that their life is nothing but ‘smoke and mirrors,’ telling the men that they should see Cathy before she ‘puts on her face.’ His body language when saying these lines is akin to that of the flamboyant yet technically closeted homosexual portrayed in the mass media (as one critic suggests, Paul Lynde).

Frank is earlier conflated with the typical effeminate homosexual when Cathy’s friend Eleanor describes an art dealer (responsible for the aforementioned art show) as a ‘bit flowery for my taste…a touch light on his feet?’ Eleanor, like most men and women of the era, prefer ‘all the men I’m around to be all men.’ Rather than depicting Frank as an individual who happens to be homosexual, he is conflated with the typical perceptions of homosexuality in the 1950s. And though Haynes is able to due this to an extent because modern views are a bit more progressive, for instance most people would admit that there are all sorts of personality types among homosexuals as there are among any sexual, racial, or ethnic group, there is still enough oppression and stereotyping today to render this approach insufficient.

What does the embrace of one stereotype coupled with the rejection of another say about Haynes’s movie? He shows that certain social groups are confined to one area of society, and some have no place whatsoever. Since he made the film in 2002, we must ask ourselves what message he is trying to impart to a contemporary audien
ce. In my opinion, Haynes is attempting to show that both the homosexual community and the members of society that are a part of mixed race marriages are as excluded in our society now as they were forty-five years earlier. Yet since the gay rights movement has gained more traction and it is fairly common to see men and women who are openly homosexual, it may have been necessary to remain with the stereotypical depiction of Frank’s character to demonstrate how isolated the gay community was from mainstream society in the 1950s in order to achieve this distancing effect. While existing, it was more of a shadow society that existed hidden on the fringe of what was considered acceptable at the time.

Yet in contemporary times the Civil Rights movement has done much to change mainstream societ
y, there still is friction between most of mainstream society and the relationship of a black man and white woman. This friction also usually isn’t between people and the interracial couples they know, but a response to strangers instead. Therefore, an audience might have been more receptive to Raymond’s relationship with Cathy since he is portrayed as the opposite of many black stereotypes. Not only does this add some verisimilitude to their relationship, for it seems unlikely that Cathy would have found a connection with the stereotype, but it also allows the audience to judge the relationship as being between individuals rather than as one being merely between a white woman and black man.

While this reading is fairly disheartening and bleak look at contemporary society, I believe it does address the issues of why one stereotype was used while another was turned on its head. That said, Far from Heaven is a complex film working on many different levels, and such a critique of society may not hold up among a broader examination of the film.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Photographing Atrocities

Last week my Film & Feminism class had a guest speaker, James E. Young, a professor of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Professor Young is an expert on the Holocaust and the memorials various peoples and nations erect in its remembrance. What began as an informal lecture turned into a night where my paradigms were shifted, especially with regards to photojournalism in general and of the Holocaust in particular.

Since our class centers around the presentation of women in film, Young began to discuss how the situat
ionality informs a new texture of history; in other words, all the Holocaust documents we have (diaries in particular) don’t vie for the correct interpretation of events, but instead enrich the overall historical knowledge of the subject. While this may seem obvious, it was important because he would transition into the different experiences between men and women in concentration camps, claiming that the different situations don’t negate each other, but inform the greater whole. And while women’s voices in the period are now being heard more clearly, especially with the recent unabridged Anne Frank diary, their voices have been oppressed in the past due mostly to traditional oppression of women.

Yet as the discussion continued, we viewed a movie produced by the US War Department and directed by Billy Wilder called Death Mills, a propaganda film that was forced to be shown before every movie in Germany while it was occupied by Americans after World War II. The violations against women were numerous. Along with rape and sexual blackmail, they were stripped, photographed, killed, and then photographed again. Any one of these events is almost too horrible to imagine, but taken together this is an overwhelming and unconscionable series of events for one person. Yet we view these pictures today, seeing through the eyes of the cameraman, perpetuating these violations ourselves. It shamed these women to be photographed naked because hey knew that strangers would be able to view
them, strangers like us.

Susan Sontag once wrote that ‘photography is essentially an art of nonintervention…the person who intervenes cannot record, and the person who is recording cannot intervene.’ Therefore, those who witness and record tragic eve
nts are in a sense responsible themselves for not intervening. Take the execution of a Viet Cong soldier by General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan during the Vietnam War. While shooting an unarmed, handcuffed soldier in the head is an unconscionable act, it was captured by a photographer and is now one of the most famous images of the war. Yet as the cover of Marvel’s The ‘Nam demonstrates, there is a missing piece to our general perceptions of the event. Since he is recording, the photographer cannot intervene; perhaps he couldn’t have changed the outcome, but the point is he didn’t even try. While we see a horrible event, the photographer quite likely thought ‘What a shot!’ Since we as viewers of the photo see through the cameraman’s eyes, we are as guilty as he for not intervening.

Maybe the most famous example of the effects of these actions upon a recorder is that of Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter. Carter's winning photo shows a heart-breaking scene of a starving child collapsed on the ground, struggling to get to a food center during a famine in the Sudan in 1993. In the background, a vulture stalks the emaciated child. Visitors to the Sudan were informed not to touch the native populace for diseases were being spread widely at the time, so instead of intervening to help the child, he snapped the photo. Shortly after winning, Carter committed suicide because of this choice.

Now what was my big revelation? The idea that as we see through the cameraman’s eyes, we assume his place. If he is recording violations he isn’t intervening, and thus we are as guilty as he for this. We are perusing his work not as detached spectators, but as if we were there ourselves. While I cannot imagine my feelings if a close female family member were stripped, photographed, killed, and then photographed again, I do know that I wouldn’t want those photos available for strangers to see. As bad as the crimes were, the fact that anyone at any time (even right now) could be looking at such a horrific event in a detached way is an entirely different sort of grief.

Perhaps this short essay is not as concise as I has intended, but I am still processing and forming my opinion about Professor Young’s discussion. Discussion is encouraged.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Paul Harvey (1918-2009)

I didn’t grow up listening to Paul Harvey, though surely he was on the radio all the time. Our family didn’t listen to the radio, except for the occasional baseball game or an hour or two of Contemporary Christian. But when I started college I had an elderly professor in New Testament Studies who often would use the famous ‘And that’s the rest of the story,’ after literally filling in historical gaps left by the Bible’s authors.

Perhaps it was only due to a new relevance, but I started hearing Paul Harvey all the time. His voi
ce was the perfect for the radio, and he always entertained me with tales of the real Johnny Appleseed or some other slightly obscure historical figure. Up until the last few years, I’d frequently catch him every now and then and smile to myself.

What I didn’t realize until the past few days is how much of an effect Harvey’s delivery had on my own storytelling. I’ve always been more prone to forming short pieces that try to surprise the reader at the conclusion, and I’d mostly based this affinity on my love of old television shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. But just as much, if not more, came from the two-minut
e pieces that Harvey narrated each afternoon. He always kept the audience’s attention and gave them a little surprise at the end. It became part of my way of thinking without realizing it consciously.

And his brand of radio reminded me of my grandparents and their view of the world. However, not the conservative view that annoys most young people when dealing with their elders, but the magical sort feeling I would get listening to stories about their childhoods. Yet Harvey also reminded me of the more serious conversations I had with my grandfather concerning his time as a POW in World War II. It’s not that his broadcasts were about these subjects, only that listening to him put my mind in a similar place.

I grew up well after the age of radio. My family was more apt to listen to a cassette than anything else when driving, and for most of my youth we lived in a smaller town. But I feel very lucky that in my young adulthood, I’ve been exposed to the sorts of conventions that have made me more appreciative of the medium. I’ve learned quite a bit at the same time too.

I can’t remember the last time I heard Paul Harvey on the radio, and I’m not sure that I ever missed his show as much as I was merely delighted to hear it. But he did more for my sense of storytelling than most would guess, and the world will probably miss him much more than they would guess too.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Reading List: February 2009

Though the content over the past month has been bit sparse, I feel like most of it has been of a certain quality that isn't always there when I write. I believe I will begin to shift away from the straightforward review and discuss books and movies in a broader context, probably influenced heavily by my studies. In fact, I am currently working on two entries that should be up in the next couple of days concerning a film and an aspect of photography that has changed the way I think about a lot of photojournalism.

Progress on the school front is progressing nicely. I have already determined a way to make the seminar
paper for my Digital Literacies class the third chapter of my thesis, easily killing two birds. However, I am struggling a bit with where to take a project in my Film & Feminism class; there has got to be a decent way to examine the depiction of women in noir comics in comparison to the much older noir films that inspired them.

Troubling to me is my seeming inability to read any long form fiction. I have shelved two or three novels this month without making much of a dent because I just am no longer inspired to keep going. Perhaps my selections just didn't jibe with my tastes, but it feels like there is a bit of a shift going on in my reading life. Especially considering the fact that I am making little to no progress in the second volume of M.T. Anderson's Octavian Nothing duology after enjoying the first so much. That said, I have committed to read Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses with some friends, so we'll see how that goes.

In February, I manged to read 17 books and graphic novels, including a manuscript for an upcoming novel written by two of my friends that won't be listed here. The rest were:
  • Ultimate Spiderman, Vol. I by Brian Michael Bendis & Bagley
  • Multiliteracies for a Digital Age by Stuart A. Selber
  • A Singular Destiny by Keith R.A. DeCandido
  • Planetary: All Over the World by Warren Ellis & John Cassaday
  • Preacher: Proud Americans by Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon
  • The Uncanny X-Men: Days of Future Past by Chris Claremont & John Byrne
  • Astro City: Family Album by Kurt Busiek & Brent Anderson
  • The Fire Gospel by Michel Faber
  • Ultimate X-Men, Vol. I by Mark Millar & Adam Kubert
  • V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd
  • Preacher: Ancient History by Ennis, et al.
  • Planetary: The Fourth Man by Ellis & Cassaday
  • Astro City: The Tarnished Angel by Busiek & Anderson
  • All Star Superman, Vol. I by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely
  • Amercian Insurgency by Roberto J. Gonzalez
  • Powers: The Sellouts by Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming
I have also experienced a severe cutback in the amount of mainstream comics I can read, mostly attributed, I believe, to my studies of the conventions and ability to spot just about anything pages before it appears. Thus, I am really enjoying Astro City and Powers who use said conventions as common knowledge and build on that foundation, rather than just rebuilding a foundation we've all seen a hundred times before.

Questions and comments are strongly encouraged. Big recommendation for Faber's The Fire Gospel, which was to be the basis of a post about the time I started to rethink this forum. I hope that this month sees a few more readers sharing in the slightly new direction.