comment (newsletter #02)

Last weekend I spent a few days in and around Joshua Tree National Park. I planned the trip several months ago, before I knew that the U.S. government would be in the midst of one of the stupidest shutdowns in geological history.

Fortunately, the park was mostly open during my visit (despite the apparent flood of assholes that had spilled into the park throughout the previous weeks), and none of my flights were delayed by security or air traffic issues. But that didn’t stop Trump’s tantrum from casting a pall, especially with the Mexico border just a few miles south. There was a sense of dread hanging in the air (much like the botulistic haze of the Salton Sea, another toxic testament to American superiority and great fodder for #ruinporn). This must be how the villagers in the Dark Ages felt whenever the king came down to the town square and publicly executed another editor from the Failing New York Times.

This constant, latent dread adds the suspicion of superfluity to intellectual exercise. What’s the point of reading a book, asking a question, suggesting an idea, or sparking a conversation, if the garrote twists tighter around the throat of common sense every fresh day? What’s the point of feeding the mind if sensibility, like history, becomes nothing more than a myth agreed upon?

Exercise is about knowledge, and in dark times, knowledge is the lodestar. Even if the accrual of knowledge leads to the revelation that true knowledge is unattainable, it at least teaches us towards humility, which some say is where wisdom begins.

That’s Proverbs, by the way. From the Bible, which has more to say about where wisdom begins but less to say about where it ends. Which brings us to the beginning of this week’s #linkdump:

What People Actually Say Before They Die
Insights into the little-studied realm of last words
By Michael Erard @michaelerard

“Famous last words” are the cornerstone of a romantic vision of death—one that falsely promises a final burst of lucidity and meaning before a person passes. “The process of dying is still very profound, but it’s a very different kind of profoundness,” says Bob Parker, the chief compliance officer of the home health agency Intrepid USA. “Last words—it doesn’t happen like the movies. That’s not how patients die.” We are beginning to understand that final interactions, if they happen at all, will look and sound very different. (Read the whole, fascinating essay in The Atlantic.)

Read More

joshua tree, january 2019 (photo essay)

In January 2019, my wife and I took a long-planned trip to Joshua Tree, not knowing that Trump’s idiotic government shutdown would be happening at the same time. The fear was that flights would be delayed and that Joshua Tree National Park would be a wasteland. Fortunately, neither was the case. We stayed at a great AirBnB in Morongo Valley, hiked the park, drove across the Mojave Desert (including a stop at the Kelso Dunes), and explored the ghost towns of the Salton Sea before spending the last night at a hotel in Palm Springs. Then we came back to freezing Chicago, because that’s the life we’ve chosen for some reason.

Read More

trying something new(sletter)

When I started teaching communications last fall, I had one goal for the class – to explore how ideas move through the world.

On paper, my class is about public relations. But when you strip away the myths, pseudo-sciences, and caricatures of the field, PR – and strategic communications, more broadly – is about self-awareness, creative thinking, and creating connections between disparate ideas.

These are the same values that have helped me build my own career in communications. I didn’t have the fortune (or maybe the curse) of coming into my profession through a standard pipeline. I didn’t go to a big state school and get a degree in marketing or journalism. I didn’t have any internships. I didn’t have well-connected family or friends. I didn’t even like communications – or the little I knew about the field, anyway.

Read More

failure and the fast track to cult success

Cultism has evolved throughout history in the bacterial space between symbiosis and parasitism. It is not an extraterrestrial phenomena, but always contingent on the boundaries of the cultural present. Whatever the dominant culture deems to be heretical or subversive, in any given age, is the place where cultism congeals.

The location of the fringe constantly mutates under the humid politics of power respired by the dominant culture. Decorum looks different from one generation to the next, but culture always has a place for dissent. Orthodoxy needs heterodoxy, and heterodoxy needs orthodoxy.

Read More

powerviolence, or how to play punk with a hammer

A few years ago I wrote an essay about the history of powerviolence, an obscure sub-subgenre of punk rock that originated on the West Coast but has since spread to all corners of the world. It’s part of “The Punk Reader: Research Transmissions from the Local and the Global,” an edited collection published in November by the University of Porto in Portugal, and it’s a truly international collection. Happy to see this essay in print, but I am a little embarrassed by my preamble, which I clearly wrote while I was still in grad school. Who the hell in their right mind uses words like “prolegomena” in a normal sentence?

As a subgenre of rock ’n’ roll, punk rock has itself spawned various sub-generic musical and subcultural followings – or cults, of a sort. While many of these sub-generic reinterpretations of punk rock – Oi!, crust punk, skate punk – can be connected to a single musical group or geographically collectivized group of musicians with an associated coterie of cult adherents, the way in which these sub-generic movements impact or affect the greater punk rock ‘scene’ is far more difficult to quantify. It is with this prolegomenon in mind that this essay will investigate the phenomenon of ‘powerviolence’ (Man is the Bastard, Infest, Mind Eraser, Iron Lung, etc.) by first tracing the musical and social provenance of the subgenre and then analysing it in its present form, which is both sub-subcultural (and localized as such) and internationalized (Yacøpsæ, Fuck on the Beach, Merda, etc.) in its sub-subculturalism. There is little documentation and no accessible scholarship on powerviolence, either as a musical and cultural genre or as an instantiation of punk rock. As such, this essay will compile and analyse the current documentation available regarding powerviolence, and perhaps not surprisingly, most of this documentation is available almost exclusively online. Varied in both form and articulation, that this material is primarily accessible through online avenues is also telling of the way powerviolence has not only survived as a genre but also how it has grown in its reception and realization.

Check out the full book here, and if you’re curious what powerviolence sounds like, here’s one of my all-time favorite cuts:

New article for the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy

I’ve got a new article posted at the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy: “Facebook is a media company, but what’s a media company?

When Facebook says that it’s a tech company and not a media company, a silent shudder echoes across the internet.

It’s like the reaction that, say, Morton Salt would get if the C-suite was to declare that it’s running a logistics company, not a salt company. The audience might nod and applause (as they often do whenever Facebook makes a public statement) but under their breath, they’d be laughing. How can we not be a salt company? That’s literally part of our name.

The same irony applies to Facebook, a company synonymous with social media. Key word: media. But this didn’t stop Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg from putting her foot in her mouth last fall when she went on record with Axios, confidently declaring that Facebook is not a media company. “At our heart we’re a tech company,” Sandberg said. “We don’t hire journalists.”

Read the rest here.

Cult Cinema Bibliography

When I completed grad school in 2015, I was awarded a Media Studies Award from Oxford Bibliographies (Oxford University Press) for my work in cult cinema.

After nearly three years (because academic publishing moves at a glacial pace), Oxford finally posted my bibliography for cult cinema. Here’s the intro:

Though relatively young in the world of film studies, the research and analysis of cult cinema and cult film culture continues to grow as a robust, interdisciplinary field of scholarship that crosses critical theory, media studies, sociology, psychology and even theology. While some scholars see this scholarly versatility as an advantage for studying cult film, others suggest that it is symptomatic of cult cinema itself, which has no universal definition.

Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik, two of the leading scholars of cult film, suggest that these films are unified by their shared transgression of “common notions of good and bad taste.” Other scholars and historians, such as Umberto Eco, suggest that that for a film to earn cult status, it must merely have “some archetypal appeal.” For even others, such as Bruce Kawin, cult films are best understood as generic subcategories, subdivided into broad “programmatic” and “inadvertent” categories. Under this rubric, cult films on one end of the spectrum are deeply exploitative or blasphemous, while others are experimental, reverent, or just plan “bad”—or, colloquially, “so bad it’s good.”

By fundamentally defying simple categorization or consensus, cult film studies are equally as diverse and often conflicted. Similar to how the appeal of cult cinema is the result of a sophisticated and well-read media diet, affective scholarship of the field must be similarly liberal, requiring a deep background ranging from classical film and media studies to philosophy and theology and, ultimately, industry and economics. This bibliography should serve as a broad entry point to the field, representing scholarship that either directly or tangentially complements an understanding of cult movements and countercultural media while remaining applicable to an even broader range of cultural research, criticism, and conversation.

Check out the rest here.