Saturday, February 06, 2010

Friday Full Fare (Reed on Precious, 2.0 + Embodied Cognition + Killer Phones + Free Stuff)

I still haven't seen Precious, Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, though I suppose I'll get around to it eventually. Having read the book, I really have no desire to see the movie, though many people whose opinions I value, including a notable Black filmmaker, have told me not only that Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique (at right, Lucy Nicholson - Reuters), like others in the cast, turn in excellent performances, and I believe them, because Mo'Nique could act her way out of a lead safe, but that they thought the film was very good.

My old prof, Ishmael Reed, isn't having it, nor is he having Hollywood's praise for and hyping of this film, nor, for that matter, producers Tyler Perry and Oprah [Winfrey]. Back in November I mentioned (and updated in December) his full-blast critiques of the movie, and he breaks it down, in much more condensed form, in today's New York Times: "Fade to White." A sampling:

Redemption through learning the ways of white culture is an old Hollywood theme. D. W. Griffith produced a series of movies in which Chinese, Indians and blacks were lifted from savagery through assimilation. A more recent example of climbing out of the ghetto through assimilation is “Dangerous Minds,” where black and Latino students are rescued by a curriculum that doesn’t include a single black or Latino writer.
Yes sirree.

Any surprise that this film is also high on the Oscar buzz list?

About three weeks ago while discussing orality and literacy I was trying to make a point in class and reached for a name I usually can utter without pausing--UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff--but what came to mind was a completely different scholar and intellectual, George Landow (the hypertext guru, of Brown University) ["I said Landow when I meant Lakoff" almost sounds like a line from a Michael Palmer poem, doesn't it?], so I offered a verbal ellipsis, to be filled in later, to the class, and proceeded to the next point.

Lakoff is probably best known for his important linguistic insights and, perhaps more widely, for the brief moment of public attention he received when the Democrats, who for a host of reasons, are incapable of sustained effective messaging, turned to him after their 2004 electoral disasters to help craft their appeals to voters. New York Times writer Matt Bai even wrote a longish Times Magazine piece about it. Lakoff's ideas on "framing" incurred some caricatures and ridicules--he wants the Democrats to use special words and phrases to gull people was the gist--but his larger ideas, about how people cognize ideas and why frames are so crucial, how metaphors are embodied, and so on, which in fact would have and should be internalized by every liberal commentator, though they still aren't, got lost in the shuffle. (Cf. "Jobs bill" vs. "stimulus package," "Employment spending" vs. "Deficit growth," etc.) Republican messengers--"death tax," "death panels," "welfare queens," etc.--long ago figured this out.

More stuff + the free joint after the jump!

Despite the dismissals, Lakoff and his predecessors (Goffman, etc.) are onto something, as anyone who has spent any time reading his or similar work, in cognitive science and psychology, linguistics, literary studies, and so forth, might realize. Earlier this week, the New York Times's science writer, Natalie Angier, published an article about "embodied cognition," and the powerful corporeal effect that metaphors in particular--more than just artful figures of speech--have on us. In fact, it's more powerful than you might imagine; the effects are often direct, and physical. To quote:

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen found that when people were asked to engage in a bit of mental time travel, and to recall past events or imagine future ones, participants’ bodies subliminally acted out the metaphors embedded in how we commonly conceptualized the flow of time.

As they thought about years gone by, participants leaned slightly backward, while in fantasizing about the future, they listed to the fore. The deviations were not exactly Tower of Pisa leanings, amounting to some two or three millimeters’ shift one way or the other. Nevertheless, the directionality was clear and consistent.

That is, our bodies process--embody--abstractions, involving directionality, temporality, temperature--physically. Or, as Angier notes, none other than William Shakespeare indelibly dramatized it in a way none of us will ever forget: "Out, damned spot! out, I say!" It isn't just thought, but the body itself, that feels and reacts to these metaphorical concepts, which thus have a cognitive and epistemological. (Here's a YouTube video of Lakoff, in a 2008 speech, talking about how we build up a storehouse, by an early age, of physical responses to metaphors, as part of the learning process.)

Angier goes on to discuss several other examples of this, concluding with the point that certain kinds of manual gestures can even help children who're experiencing difficulty grasping arithmetic or geometry. Now to some of the other things lightly weighing on my mind today....


Did you think we lived in a right-wing paradise from 2001-2008? Did it make you as happy as you ever imagined? If not, here's the real thing: Colorado Springs, the county seat of El Paso County, Colorado, and home to over 414,000 people, has slashed taxes, and consequently services, to a level that even many right-wingers, I would imagine, might find unbearable. How severely curtailed are those services? This severe:
More than a third of the streetlights in Colorado Springs will go dark Monday. The police helicopters are for sale on the Internet. The city is dumping firefighting jobs, a vice team, burglary investigators, beat cops — dozens of police and fire positions will go unfilled.
The parks department removed trash cans last week, replacing them with signs urging users to pack out their own litter.
Neighbors are encouraged to bring their own lawn mowers to local green spaces, because parks workers will mow them only once every two weeks. If that.
Water cutbacks mean most parks will be dead, brown turf by July; the flower and fertilizer budget is zero.
City recreation centers, indoor and outdoor pools, and a handful of museums will close for good March 31 unless they find private funding to stay open. Buses no longer run on evenings and weekends. The city won't pay for any street paving, relying instead on a regional authority that can meet only about 10 percent of the need.

Good times, good times. But hey, our President thinks a budgetary "spending freeze" during a time of economic crisis is a good idea, so what's a little austerity and suffering--but lower taxes!--among such a considerably smaller group of friends and neighbors?


Last week I was speaking a colleague whose mind is as sharp and fast as a laser, and somehow or other I got to talking about how I usually find my headphone cable tangled around my arms, wrapped around my gearshaft, or nearly caught in my down coat zipper. That is, it is always threatening to be the death of me, because I am preternaturally clumsy and constantly forget, at an eyeblink, that this white, plastic-covered wired cord, is hanging down the front of my body.

Yet I refuse to stop using it because headphones, for all their potential dangers, strike me as considerably safer than pressing a phone to your ear. It seemed a few years back that many other people had come to grasp this. I can vividly recall reading in the late 1990s about several young executives who died of brain cancer, and there was some speculation about a causal relationship between various kinds of brain and mouth tumors, and cell phone use. Perhaps this was even mentioned in conjunction with the early death of business icon Reginald Lewis (Black history month, look him up). That got me using an earpiece whenever possible, which I briefly traded in for a Bluetooth piece, before opting for the headphones. Then, for whatever reason, people forgot and threw caution to the wind (and who can say what influence the cell phone industry itself has had), and now, it seems, people cannot but press cell phones, tiny glowing electromagnetic powerstations, against their ear whether they're walking down the street, driving in a car, ordering coffee at a cafe, strolling down the aisle at a supermarket, sitting on the toilet.... The 21st Century Cartesian equation is, I talk on my cell phone, thus I am.

But--perhaps we should consider that a cell phone pressed against one's brain isn't risk-free. As in dangerous. When I mentioned this to my colleague, she looked at me and laughed, and I realized I sounded a bit nutty to be so concerned. I continue to think that cell phones pressed against your ear (brain) probably aren't so safe, particularly for children and adolescents. According to the American Cancer Society, the evidence is mixed, though no extended longitudinal studies on cell phone use and cancer correlation exist. Meanwhile, the French and German governments have issued warnings about cell phone use, especially among children. The Telegraph reported last year that a World Health Organization report does identify long-term cell phone usage with a cancer link. And good old GQ notes this month that the evidence is starting to solidify. My colleague thought this last piece was funny stuff. I say, why take the unnecessary risk, when you can get those headphones for almost nothing these day.


Last but not least, in an earlier incarnation I used to amuse myself by drawing, painting, making books, and such things. (Nothing so clever as this, but I was a peasant child, what did I know?) A few years down the road I even made tiny (as in as small as my fingernail) handsewn books, a few of which are still in my possession (or a drawer in New Jersey). I hadn't made zines in years, though, and don't have a single one of the select few I assembled in those youthful days. But I recently saw an international call for zines, so I decided to assemble with dispatch some of those iPhone transit sketch studies (which is what they are) into a little folio, retitled "Subway Stories," and it turned out okay. I struggled to figure out how to rotate the drawings in MS Word 10.1.1 for OS X Leopard (I used to be able to do this in earlier versions of Word), but C suggested an excellent 2-step solution, so the next version will be a bit different, but more elegant. I will probably make a few more of this first batch, so the first 5 people who let me know in the comments section that they'd like one will receive a signed original free of charge (you can send your address here).

The (homemade) zine
The zine!

1 comment: