Thoughts on the New Republic Trigger Warning Article

The other week I read an interesting piece on the New Republic website about how trigger warnings have risen from the annals of the Internet and are now being used by prominent institutions such as universities. Trigger warnings are small messages before something (e.g. an image or a message) is displayed in order to allow people to not have to view something they don’t want to see for fear that it might induce post-traumatic stress. On the whole I think these are good things to have much like having censorship warnings on material that might be considered obscene to certain people. The initial purpose of these warnings was to ward off people from clearly disturbing subject matter such as suicidal ideation, experiences with eating disorders and other similarly heavy subjects. Now it seems that these warnings are merging into broader and more prominent arenas such as colleges and news outlets. At Rutgers University it was suggested that there should be a trigger warning put on an English syllabus with The Great Gatsby. It would have warned prospective readers that the book contains themes of suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence.

The New Yorker article goes on to argue that trigger warnings are threatening discussion about many of the proverbial “hard topics.” This is an interesting line of thought to consider but it wasn’t the one that sparked my attention and got the cogs in my brain churning. I was profoundly more curious about whether trigger warnings being placed on cultural artifacts would hinder the production of what has been considered “good culture” and more broadly what effects growing concerns about problematic experiences will have on the production of popular culture. By “good culture” I am referring to cultural artifacts that are widely considered to be of cultural merit or repute. Upon quick reflection of many of the movies, art works, stories, etc… that I would call “good” all involve difficult subject matter (this is likely the same for you). Good in this instance is not a moral good but rather descriptive good. It’s not that culture ought to be this way but rather empirically how has been and been judged. These cultural artifacts are also not good because they depict such subject matter, otherwise The Faces of Death would be the pinnacle of American cultural achievement. A good example of what I have in mind is The Wire.

I am convinced, as many other people are, that The Wire is the best television show ever made. That claim still hasn’t taken down from Wikipedia, so it must be true. But if you watch The Wire what you will see along with the masterful storytelling are many jarring incidents. There are murders, sexual assaults, heavy drug use, racism, sexism, and just about every other imaginable troubling occurrence in life. I could see the showing being quite triggering to people who have lived what the show displays. Moreover, much of the content in the show could easily be understood as problematic due its depictions of life in West Baltimore. Very few reasonable people would say that many of the events in the show are good from a moral point of view. Yet, from a storytelling perspective the show is a masterpiece. I think this is the crucial tension between trigger warnings and many of our prized cultural artifacts, namely that they are fundamentally opposed to one another. The cultural artifacts we as a society are often drawn to and consider worthy of substantial acclaim seem to be the ones that are also perturbing. I am not entirely sure what to make of this. I do not think it is a rule that something has to have a triggering capability or problematic to be aesthetically good.

I do not mean to insinuate that trigger warnings and growing concerns about problematic content will stop these sorts of cultural artifacts from being produced or prevent people from consuming them. More interesting to me is the idea of producing cultural artifacts that can still be good without containing potentially triggering subject matter and to an even further extent not containing problematic subject matter. This strikes me as the big challenge and/or frontier for activists to deal with.

An Observation Bout That Cultural Appropriation

As we as a society move forward towards the ideals of equality and freedom for all, we become aware of how certain practices are or might be understood to be, for lack of a better word, problematic. The hottest topic in this regard is cultural appropriation. Discussions about cultural appropriation are everywhere on the internet. In fact, there isn’t a major online news source that doesn’t cover the topic of cultural appropriation regularly. Of course, I am thinking about websites like the Huffington Post, Gawker affiliates, and, probably at this point, Buzzfeed. There are certainly many more blogs that cover cultural appropriation when it happens or feels eerily near. This is a good thing. It is worthwhile for people to know when they are acting offensively, or at least have it published on the web should they ever be curious about their effect actions. The coverage of cultural appropriation is also a little peculiar, at least in one regard. Much of the coverage of cultural appropriation hinges on appropriation of pure, unproblematic or sacred cultural artifacts or practices. In contemporary culture, we see this in debates about wearing moccasins, the harlem shake, twerking, dreadlocks, septum piercings, and the list(s) goes on. Discussions of cultural appropriation almost ubiquitously focus on these intersections and not those intersections that occur at the morally problematic edges of culture, for instance gangsta rap culture. To my mind, gangsta rap culture is the largest and most neglected culturally appropriated phenomenon in contemporary society. That may seem like an over stated claim but let’s just consider the use of slang and the incorporation of the trap rap sound in popular music.

Slang is heard everywhere everyday in many incarnations. In some contexts it might be called jargon, in others it might be called regional linguistic differences, but insofar as people are using words in an metaphorical or localized fashion, they are using slang. For the most part, slang from gangsta rap culture refers to the simple pleasures of drinking, doing/selling drugs, getting money, and having sex. Some examples might be “pouring a four,” drinking “rosay,” “flipping pigeons,” “a stack,” and “chickenhead” (not all of these examples have had ubiquitous adoption). Then there is slang about killing people because this is gangsta rap after all. Slang like “caught in traffic,” “bussin,” “187,” “smoke,” and more. Not so peculiarly, of the examples above only “rosay” and “stack” might be heard outside the context of gangsta rap culture because it is just rosé wine and money, two objects that occur unproblematically outside of rap. Recently, there has been one phrase which has been used over and over again in a culturally appropriated fashion, including by Miley Cyrus of all people. That phrase is “Bout That Life.” “Bout that life” is sort of a wonderfully ambiguous phrase because all it denotes is that you are very into a lifestyle such as partying, this is how Ms. Cyrus uses the phrase. “Bout that life” actually refers to something very specific: life in the proverbial streets. A quick google lyrics search for the phrase “bout that life” will yield a number of gangsta rap songs that discuss being “bout that life” in reference to cooking crack cocaine, shooting at people, and generally being reckless. To be “bout that life” precludes having a good time building french fried skulls for music videos and jumping around a house you made from years working as a Disney child icon.

Second, there is the sound of gangsta rap which has now permeated much of contemporary popular music. I cannot give a full history of the sound of gangsta rap, and while it is certainly true that it borrows from different styles of club music and was not created in isolation from other music, it was honed and developed in the poverty stricken inner cities of America. It was fashioned by young people attempting to create melodies and rhythms that could echo the aggressive verses of the artists they were produced for. While the sound of gangsta rap has changed, it is still just as difficult to imagine Waka Flocka on smooth jazz beat as it would be to hear Dr. Dre. Consequently, the sound of gangsta rap, in its many incarnations, can essentially be distilled into aggressive percussion mixed with loud bass and a simple repeating treble synth line or two. There are songs in the genre that are indeed different, but this has been the hallmark of gangsta rap with the exclusion of the mid 90′s gangsta rap a la Mobb Deep, Nas, Black Moon, Big L, etc… Recently, the biggest trends in gangsta rap have been an almost excessive use of impossibly fast hi-hats and 808 bass. In tandem, the hi-hats create a sense of rapid movement in the songs while the bass allows the song to breathe as the bass note decays. This music is referred to as trap rap because of the content matter of the artists rapping about dealing drugs out of trap houses. This method of production has been notably borrowed by the electronic music genre “trap,” which is like dubstep but not and most recently by Beyoncé. I do not think there are interesting implications regarding the appropriation of the electronic genre but there might be some for Beyoncé. Particularly, I am thinking of her song “Flawless.” This song is a feminist banger. The lyrics empower women while the beat makes it enjoyable to bump and get down to. But it seems like an interesting choice to borrow the sound of a highly socially regressive genre of music and make it positive. Perhaps the beat doesn’t matter that much, but if it did, what would it belie Beyoncé’s project? I am not prepared to answer that here.

However, this leads into the big question why. Why is it that gangsta rap is never (ok it’s the internet, seldom might be a better word) referenced in discussions of cultural appropriation? I think there might be a few reasons, some more interesting than others. Reporters may just not know about gangsta rap culture. Many people today still discuss Notorious BIG and Tupac like they were releasing new music and the genre never progressed. Perhaps, it is because there is a tacit agreement that artists like Beyonce and Miley Cyrus who draw on aspects of gangsta rap culture are subverting it to achieve an greater ideal (dubious). Cynically, the audiences they write for are interested in preserving the notion of a pure culture untouched by past and contemporary American societies. Thus, in a feedback loop the full breadth of cultural appropriation isn’t discussed because readers and writers are pushing themselves towards page views and clicks. Lastly, it may be because gangsta rap is socially repulsive that no one wants to look at the ways it is culturally appropriated because cultural appropriation arguments are almost inherently defensive/preservationist. This might be the biggest problem though because it fails readers by not letting them understand the full range of culture being drawn on and smashed up in contemporary popular media. Thus, a path forward will be to understand, as best we can, all aspects that are being drawn on.

Water Under the Bridge Over Troubled Water

Water under the bridge over troubled water.

This might be the greatest thought I have ever had. It might be the greatest thought I will ever have. I have tried to conjure similar turns of phrase like: if all roads lead to Rome, than when are we not in Rome and when should we not do as the Romans do? Of course, that doesn’t even make a whole lot of sense nor does it flow with nice rhythm. It may something about enjoying your life at all times as opposed to living it up every once and awhile, but I digress.

Water under the bridge over troubled water feels like a total palindrome, but don’t read it backwards.

The phrase loops back in on itself as effortlessly as it rolls off the tongue. Say it slowly, it still sounds good. You might have noticed that each word and word set (e.g. the bridge) has two syllables. That seems bizarre doesn’t it? But it is not a mistake because if any of the words and one word set had more than two syllables the phrase would have deep structural flaws but this way the phrase is balanced!

More importantly, the meaning of the two phrases are essentially the same but they relate to time differently. Water under the bridge suggests that something has happened and it can’t be changed so one might as well get over it and move on, let that event pass beneath them. “Hey, we’re friends and I am sorry I cheated on your girlfriend but we’re still friends right?” A bridge over troubled water suggests the same thing but is actually different. A bridge over troubled water comes after. “Hey, that was your girlfriend? But we both really like Robert Altman movies so we should still be friends.” There are events and relationships in life that we experience, endure, and overcome in the interested of being decent civil-minded human beings.

Understood as a sentence with two distinct thoughts, the phrase has a palindrome-esque meaning and rhythm. But when the two phrases are brought together the meaning changes a little bit, maybe. There is a sense in the phrase that the water is static, if only because the water appears in the beginning and end of the phrase. What’s more, water under the bridge over troubled water suggests that the natural process of the event slowly becoming a non-issue is awkwardly already that way. Instead, it just sits and lingers. It’s as though the bridge is over a circular pond of very tense water or very copacetic water. It captures the deep existential feeling that nothing is important and we build bridges over things that do not matter because in the end all anything is is an object in relation to another object.

I’m sorry that progressed out of hand so rapidly. I am not really a person often struck by existential dilemmas. I may have just been left alone thinking this thought for too long on a Barton Fink sort of life of the mind. Uh oh, here comes John Goodman to break my door down in this burning hotel building.

Diagnosing Current Micropublic Political Sentiment and Discourse

It is the small things in life that we are most passionate about because they the things that we are most attached to, and rightly so. The big battles are still waged, but they are waged by the few in the name of the dormant many. But I am not just referring to the social-political battles that are judicially fought in city halls, state capitals, and Washington DC. I am discussing the grand battles fought everyday in news papers, blogs, and small discussions. Routinely we form and participate in public dialogues. These forays are public both in the sense that they not solipsistic and in that they reflect and focus on the larger societal dilemmas of the day. These topics are often engaged with a high level of intimate expertise from personal life events. For instance, while only Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman experienced the events the night of Trayvon’s death, many others have witnessed and experienced similar events. When the story of Trayvon became a nation story, citizens everywhere engaged the story privately. Private/micropublic engagement usually involves a sense of personal attachment. As a society, we are bad at acknowledging that people experience things for themselves as unique persons. As a society, we are also bad at disassociating ourselves from people with overlapping interests. For instance, in recent talks with friends of mine that own guns, my friends abhor the idea that there is a category of Americans that are referred to as gun owners particularly because I state, in the line of my sister’s research, that guns are on the whole dangerous things to own and most people shouldn’t own them. Well, my friends are quick to point out they are not psychopath murderers (don’t worry for my safety – they aren’t) and they claim that no one should speak about gun owners as if they were fear worthy group on the whole. Of course, they are right about this but in being so stringent to declare one statement thoroughly bankrupt, they miss the basic point that guns do increase risk. This is the problem with micropublic engagement a lot of the time. In attempt to win small arguments, the argument itself becomes more and more polemical because a quick specious argument is likely all that is needed to convince one mind. Played out thousands and thousands of times all across the nation and the micropublic political discourse we have becomes extremely rudimentary. This is the problem with American society today. We have moved too far towards the idea that a fast simple victory is what is needed. We do not seem to be in the short run anymore but rather we exist in the 40 yard dash run, politically speaking at least.

A Good Action Movie is Hard to Find

I wrote this over the summer but during a lull I forgot to post it.

A Good Action Movie is Hard to Find

It’s summertime and I have not been to an action movie. Perhaps it is not hot enough. It could also be that there isn’t a movie out right now that is really intriguing to me. You might say aghast, “This surely can’t be as there are so so many movies playing, including some that are getting good reviews. There is even a new Guillermo Del Torro movie out!” Well I don’t know that I have much of retort to these statements of fact except that I am protesting Hollywood. For me, the summer blockbuster has lost its luster. I’d rather go to the movie store and rent an old classic style action movie like Speed, Die Hard, The Killer, or US Marshals than the pay the ten plus dollars to watch a new movie on the silver screen. I do not have a 60-foot screen in my apartment nor do I have a THX certified surround sound system, although I do have a comfy couch, a big – but not obnoxious – television, and a speaker system that is definitely loud enough for a living room. I really wish I did have the luxuries of a movie theater in my abode (at least I’m not watching movies on my iPhone) because there is nothing quite like watching a movie in a movie theater and there is really nothing like watching an action movie in a movie theater.

The beauty of an action movie, properly speaking, is that action movies are overwhelming, engrossing, visceral, and cathartic. They are almost always vapid and feature some guy with brawn and a babe; they hinge on plot devices that are enchanting to watch and mind numbing to repeat; when done well, an action movie moves the plot through action sequences instead of mere dialogue; they are more invested with a good scenario than deeply developed and emotional characters; in short, a good action movie will leave you at the edge of your seat with your eyes popping and making noises celebrating the triumphs of the protagonist while gasping for breath as bullets fly, punches are thrown, and love is (re)found over a close up shot of a French kiss.

To my mind, perhaps with the exception of Taken and maybe some other foreign movies (e.g. The Raid), action movies have lost their ability to keep the viewer in a frenzied state. They have lost this ability because computer generated imagery has taken away the relatable aspects of action movies, of which there are many. For instance, anyone who has driven a car has either had to swerve or has been in an accident. When we see a real car on the screen swerve or get wrecked we associate with the experience because the way it is portrayed is familiar to the viewer. When we watch a CGI car crash in super slow motion, such that we can see the ripple of effect of the car crash, it is unrelated because real time events happen much more quickly. The “principle of relatability’ is important for things many people have not experienced as well. I have never shot anyone in my life, nor have I ever witnessed a shooting; however, I am able to relate to the human body taking contact and experiencing pain in real time. Consequently, when I see a person get shot in real time or even in slow motion that isn’t slow enough to see the bullet fly I can relate to the experience of a normal paced active body. Perhaps way too much or not enough blood comes out or the blood comes out in the wrong way, and maybe it isn’t true that shotgun blasts send linebacker sized human beings across a room and into a wall twenty feet away but at least I, the viewer, know the actors are real and the events are occurring at a similar enough pace to real time. When I watch a CGI bullet fly on a perfect trajectory to an antagonists head it just doesn’t have the same je ne sais quoi.

What is to be done? This is the eternal question for so many different parts of life and it must be asked of action movies as well. I’m neither a Hollywood director or writer. I don’t have a single producer credit to my name. I’m just a fan of the way action movies used to be, so maybe I’m the wrong person to ask, but I truly believe if they used older technologies that would be better. If they did actual on location stunts, shot fake bullets, had blood packets explode, crashed real cars, and were more concerned with how these various incidents fit meaningfully together as a semi-coherent story as opposed to perfect the images on a computer… Well then action movies might become worth the price of admission again.

Government Money

Government Money

Recently there has been a lot discussion of the government shutdown and the government default should the House and Senate fail to pass an agreeable bill to raise the debt ceiling. Much of the discussion centers on political issues such as what is President Obama’s problem for being so stubborn and what are the House Republican’s problem for being so stubborn. I am of course interested in those questions but not right now and not right here. Instead, I just want to think about how much money the government deals with on daily basis. It is an unreal amount of money. In 2012, the US Government spent 6.2 trillion dollars. The sum total is absurd when you think about it. 6.2 trillion dollars is enough money to buy anything in the world. Forget Master Card, for everything else there is the US Government. Today I bought a pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks for $4.55. It was a splurge but I felt worth it, if only for today. The US Government has that money all day every day. It throws 10 million dollars around like its buying drip coffee from Dutch Bros. So why can’t we just agree to raise the budget and have everyone get money? Why is our spending so political when we have so much? Why cant everyone just get a slice and be happy? Well, I guess it is just because 6.2 trillion isn’t enough for a nation of 300 million. But how crazy is that. How much do we really need?

This is just a thought I have been having and I know there are plenty places and reasons for why this money isn’t as much as it seems but still.  6.2 Trillion dollars.  What would you do with that much money?

The Problem with Endings

Spoiler Alert:

This past Sunday Breaking Bad, the show about a high school chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine overlord, aired its series finale officially bringing an end to a series that has climbed massive story heights. Please allow me to reiterate. Massive story heights. For instance, in the show Walter White blows up buildings, robs secure facilities, and plans out incredibly elaborate plots to over come the many obstacles in his way. It goes all the way up until the 5th season in which he has amassed more money than god and is out of “the game” except he can’t leave. Walter White has a reverse Marlo Stanfield problem. He tries, he really does but with so much money and blood thirsty Nazi’s on the line, he cannot possibly escape the world he has boxed himself into over the narrative arc. So of course, the only answer to go out like a man wild bunch by machine gun an entire room of Nazis with a remote control rig out of the trunk of an absolute beater, a true p.o.s. However the great genius Walter White, and he really is referred to and talked about like a genius on this show, cannot escape a fatal bullet that catches him and the gut so he walks to the nearby meth lab and lies down to die.

Everything I have said is for the most part accurate. I may be fudging a detail or two but I am going off what I remember about the show because my memory about the show, while marginally imperfect, is what informed my understanding of the show. It is the archive I can refer to feel happy bout the parts I liked. My memory is my impression of the show. It is what I like(d) about the show and ultimately it is why I didn’t like the ending of Breaking Bad. It is the reason why I usually don’t like the endings of just about any narrative series. I come to like things about the show and they are not resolved in a satisfactory way. But I know that I am partly at fault for never liking the endings of fantastical narrative arcs. It is my fault, along with the fault of many other viewers, for creating the atmosphere in which you have to develop an increasingly insane plot. What if I could have been happy with Walter White the 10 lbs a week meth dealer instead of Walter white the 100 plus pounds a week meth dealer. On Lost I could have been happy without a million different plots twists and loose ends but I really did like the feeling of not knowing what was going to happen and hopelessly making logical guesses at what might happen next. And so, with television (and some movies) I/you/we demand for more and more insane developments to top the previous ridiculousness until the wheels come off the car or the show jumps the shark because I/you/we are also so selfish to expect closure from mind-bogglingly complex plots. But how can you close a monster in the form of a good television show? Well, you can’t really. Either everything is made up or its Deus ex Machina but that’s frustrating. This of course is informed by the fact I just finished rewatching Lost and watching Breaking Bad but I have felt this way about many other shows (e.g. The Wire).

So I suppose the best thing to do is just be happy with the plot arc and take the end with the knowledge that it was great until it had to stop. I mean, you can’t be entirely upset just because things don’t work out the way you want them to. That’s just life.