Fight Club Soap, Sold by SD-6

June 10th, 2010 § 3 comments § permalink

Bethany Nowviskie has aptly summed up the current standoff between the University of California system and the Nature Publishing Group as a case of fight club soap. Bethany explains the metaphor much better than I can (I urge you to read her post), and she boils it down with even more economy on Twitter: “Fight club soap = our own intellectual labor sold back to us as a costly product.” As Bethany elaborated in another Twitter post, it’s an allusion to “overpriced soap [in the movie Fight Club] marketed to rich women, made from [the liposuctioned fat of] their own bodies.” In the case of Nature and other scientific journals with premium subscription models, it means “universities buying back the labor they already paid for.”

As news about the conflict was making the rounds, Tom Scheinfeldt noted that the “Nature Publishing Group is a division of Macmillan, the company that played hardball w/ Amazon over ebook pricing.” Inspired by Bethany’s pop culture metaphor and Tom’s observation about the corporate structure of the NPG, I recalled a scene from the first season of JJ Abrams’ television series Alias. Secret agent Sidney Bristow has begun working as a double-agent for the CIA, trying to take down SD-6, the spy organization Sidney works for and which she thought was a legitimate government entity—but which, it turns out, is a criminal organization. In the second episode, “So It Begins,” Sidney draws a map of SD-6′s structure for her CIA handler, Michael Vaughn:

Sidney naively believes her diagram represents the entirety of SD-6. To Sidney’s dismay, however, Vaughn reveals that her legal pad rendering is a tiny piece of a much larger organization:

This is honestly the only scene I remember from five seasons of Alias. For some reason it stuck with me through the years. Perhaps because I see that larger map as a metaphor for all of JJ Abrams’ work—incomprehensible conspiratorial structures bound to collapse under their own weight.

Why am I digging out the metaphor of SD-6 now?

Because this is how the publishing industry looks (minus the criminal activity, mostly).

If we were to draw a corporate map of the Nature Publishing Group, it would look more like Michael Vaughn’s intricate diagram than Sidney Bristow’s crude—I’d say quaint—sketch.

The Nature Publishing Group is owned, as Tom points out, by Macmillan. But who owns Macmillan? The answer is Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck—the Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. I won’t list all of what Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck controls here, but it includes many of the biggest names in publishing: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Palgrave Macmillan, Picador, Tor, Bedford/St. Martin’s, and of course Nature and a host of other academic journals.

Aside from realizing after all these years that Alias was a send-up of corporate America rather than some post-Cold-War spy drama, there is an important conclusion to draw here.

[pullquote align="left"]We have privatized the distribution of knowledge. We have blackwatered knowledge.[/pullquote]

Thinking about the relationship between Nature and the sprawling multinational corporation that owns it reveals the extent to which we have privatized the distribution of knowledge. We have blackwatered knowledge. Knowledge that should belong to the people and universities that produced it.

The government has increasingly outsourced many services to private outfits like Blackwater, KBR, and Halliburton; in the same way, universities, colleges, and libraries have let go of whatever tenuous grasp they once held over their intellectual property. Public and private institutions of higher learning have ceded control to profit-driven enterprises like the Nature Publishing Group, EBSCO, and Reed Elsevier. And like SD-6, whose tentacles are wide-reaching yet difficult to trace, these publishers ruthlessly dominate their respective markets, leaving students, researchers, librarians, and journalists few alternatives.

Yes, I have just likened the publishing industry to a fictional criminal organization. The real question is, what are you going to do about it?

Unthinking Television Screens

October 3rd, 2009 § Comments Off § permalink

Last spring I participated in an interdisciplinary symposium called Unthinking Television: Visual Culture[s] Beyond the Console. I was an invited guest on a roundtable devoted to the vague idea of “Screen Life.” I wasn’t sure what that phrase meant at the time, and I still don’t know. But I thought I’d go ahead and share what I saw then — and still see now — as four trends in what we might call the infrastructure of screens.

Moving from obvious to less obvious, these four emergent structural changes are:

  1. Proliferating screens
  2. Bigger is better and so is smaller
  3. Screens aren’t just to look at it
  4. Our screens are watching us

And a few more details about each development:

1. Proliferating screens

I can watch episodes of The Office on my PDA, my cell phone, my mp3 player, my laptop, and even on occasion, my television.

2. Bigger is better and so is smaller

There is a much greater range in sizes of screens that we encounter on a daily basis. My high definition videocamera has a 2″ screen and I can hook that up directly via HDMI cable to my 36″ flat screen, and there are screen sizes everywhere in between and beyond.

3. Screens aren’t just to look at

We now touch our screens. Tactile response will soon be just as important as video resolution.

4. Our screens are watching us

Distribution networks like Tivo, Dish, and Comcast have long had unobtrusive ways to track what we’re watching, or at least what our televisions were tuned to. But now screens can actually look at us. I’m referring to screens that aware of us, of our movements. The most obvious example is the Wii and its use of IR emitters in its sensor bar to triangulate the position of the Wiimote, and hence, the player. GE’s website has been showcasing an interactive hologram that uses a webcam. In both cases, the screen sees us. I think this is potentially the biggest shift in what it means to have a “screen life.” In this trend and my previous trend concerning the new haptic nature of screens, we are completing a circuit that runs between human and machine, machine and human.

Tony Soprano Did Not Get Whacked

June 16th, 2007 § 2 comments § permalink

It seems that public opinion is shifting toward the idea that Tony Soprano was whacked in The Sopranos series finale after the screen went black. That possibility can never entirely be ruled out, which is part of the brilliance of the abrupt, unsatisfying final seconds of the series.

I want to suggest, however, that the blank screen signifies something other than Tony’s death.

In fact, the final seconds of a black screen forever hold Tony’s death in abeyance. It can never happen now. But more fundamentally, the sudden disruption of the Journey song, the disconcerting jump cut to the black screen—these remind us that we are watching television, that our visit with Tony has been mediated all along. Think of the the sudden silence and black screen as a kind of Brechtian moment of estrangement, shocking the viewer out of the usual mode of passive consumption.

We might think of the entire episode (called “Made in America”) as a contemplation upon the habits of the television-watching public. Upon a second viewing, this theory seems obvious, as multiple times we either catch characters on The Sopranos watching television themselves or we the viewers are forced to watch a TV within a TV:


What to make of all this, aside from the commonplace grievance that our lives are mediated, that representation has replaced reality? I think Chase is doing something far more politically charged here. Note that the final shot of a television shows President Bush, famously dancing in April 2007. Chase is clearly mocking Bush, who becomes a Nero figure, fiddling while Rome burns to the ground. When you consider the dozens of references to the War in Iraq and the deadly SUVs in this episode (the Ford Expedition smashing Leotardo’s skull and A.J.’s firebomb of an Xterra), it doesn’t take much to imagine that Chase is making some very serious indictments about American arrogance and American hypocrisy, embodied in everyone from President Bush down to Anthony Soprano, Jr.

Add in the fact that the only things the characters watch more intently in this episode than television sets are gas stations (where Leotardo might use a pay phone), and we have an explicit political statement about Bush’s follies abroad:

The juxtaposition of the American flag and the Gulf truck is surely intentional. As is the display of the American flag every other time in the episode a gas station appears.

Chase seems to be proposing an antidote to the Bush administration’s own mediation of itself, which links Bush to patriotism by always placing him near a Stars and Stripes.

By replacing Bush with the gas station, Chase lays bare the nature of the relationship between the United States and the War in Iraq. It is about oil.

But to say this is to say nothing new. So Chase makes it fresh by making it subtle. He again catches us off guard—so focused are we on those 11 seconds of black space where Tony and his family should be at the end of the episode, we do not recognize what’s really going on. Instead of asking what happens to Tony, we should be asking why are there seven flags at this gas station?

KUBARK on 24

February 22nd, 2007 § Comments Off § permalink

Jane Mayer, an uncompromising journalist who’s become a thorn in the side of the Bush administration (for her reporting on current U.S. torture tactics and the method of “extraordinary rendition”), has written a New Yorker profile of Joel Surnow, one of the creators of the hit television show 24. Her profile focuses on Surnow’s support of torture and his show’s over-reliance on what security experts call the “ticking time bomb scenario”—a hypothetical situation used in 24 to justify torture, but which has never occurred in real life.

In her article, Mayer reveals that “several copies of the C.I.A.’s 1963 KUBARK interrogation manual can be found at the ’24′ offices.” I find this simply amazing. The KUBARK manual, which I mentioned in an earlier post on the CIA , is infamous for its straightforward tips on how to conduct coercive interrogations. Even more amazing, the lead writer for 24 admits that most of the torture scenes in 24 are not inspired by the CIA. Gordon tells Mayer, “for the most part, our imaginations are the source. Sometimes these ideas are inspired by a scene’s location or come from props—what’s on the set.” Gordon goes on to say that he (and reportedly Kiefer Sutherland, who plays Jack Bauer) are running into torture “fatigue.” They’re getting tired of it.

Maybe they should, as U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan (who also happens to be the dean at West Point) suggests, “do a show where torture backfires.” Because in real life, that’s what happens. Not only is torture illegal and unethical. It simply doesn’t work.

Here is Mayer herself, talking about torture in 24:

Terrorism Means Never Having to Say Your Sorry

February 16th, 2006 § Comments Off § permalink

I’ve been on the blogging equivalent of radio silence for several weeks now, waiting for my handlers to issue the code for me to go on active status. Last weekend was it: Vice President Dick Cheney shooting a 78 year-old man in the face with a shotgun. That was my signal. (Or, close enough: it was The quail flies at dusk, which is basically the same thing.)

Now, I know this important political issue of vital national security has been covered professionally and responsibly by the news media in a very measured way. I have nothing new to add. Except for an email exchange between my friend (and occasional SampleReality commentator) Stephen and myself:

Me:

I wonder if Dick Cheney is Jack Bauer [of 24] in disguise?

Stephen:

But has Jack Bauer ever shot someone by accident, hmm?

More to the point: has Jack Bauer ever wasted ammunition on someone he wasn’t planning to a) kill or b) torture?

Stephen is absolutely correct. And add to this that Jack Bauer has never had to apologize for killing or torturing (except for that unfortunate electroshock thing with his lover’s estranged husband in Season 4–but that was, like, totally a misunderstanding).

So Jack Bauer never has to say he’s sorry. But apologize is something Dick Cheney had to do.

Or sort of.

This is the closest Cheney comes to saying “I’m sorry. I did it.”:

“Ultimately, I’m the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry.”

Hello, Mother Goose! This is the cat that caught the rat that ate the malt that lived in the house that Jack built.

Lyrical beauty aside, this is the linguistic equivalent of saying, I only pulled the trigger. The gun did the rest. Or really, if you get down to it, it was the round, not even the gun that did it. (So it remains true: guns don’t kill people.)

And what’s with “I’m the guy who”–instead of simply “I pulled the trigger”? As my students pointed out today, that’s like saying, I just happened to be there. It could’ve been any guy. And it just happened to be me. Wrong place, wrong time kinda thing.

Puzzling over the flight home

January 15th, 2006 § Comments Off § permalink

How many passengers on a transatlantic flight play Sudoku?

Apparently all of them.

Another observation from the flight…One of the in-flight movies was The Dukes of Hazzard. I assume this movie was supposed to appeal somehow to the retro-seeking, nostalgia-desperate Gen Xers like myself, who spent many Friday nights in the eighties watching The Dukes and The Incredible Hulk. Like other attempts to create new franchises from recycled television shows, the movie was, well, I can’t say a disappointment, because I didn’t expect anything at all in the first place. But the spirit of the movie was all wrong, fundamentally misguided. Bo and Luke Duke, the good guys, were buffoons, played for laughs, while the bad guys–Boss Hogg, Roscoe–were played straight. This is the opposite of the original series.

Of course, I’m overanalyzing a movie that is obviously meant to be taken lightly. Still, I think it’s worth pointing out that this inversion of the comical and the serious seems to happen a lot in the adaptation of seventies and eighties television shows for the big screen in the new millennium. It’s as if the old shows–Incredible Hulk, Starsky and Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard–weren’t campy enough, so the remakes have to be in camp-overdrive. Or rather, as if to prove we once took the originals seriously and didn’t conceive of them as camp at the time, we have to produce remakes with even greater camp value.

The single exception to this trend seems to be the Sci-Fi channel’s remarkable reimagining of Battlestar Galactica. In this series, what was once camp is now deadly serious. And that’s what makes Battlestar one of the best television shows around right now.

Lo Mejor de Elmo

January 7th, 2006 § Comments Off § permalink

After much grave, serious debate and heart-wrenching soul-searching, we finally bought Lo Mejor de Elmo from the media megastore FNAC in Madrid.

This was a major decision.

Our son has watched maybe ten minutes of television in his whole life. And we plan to keep it that way. But Elmo is so tempting. Despite never having seen a single minute of Sesame Street, our son knows all the characters by sight and can name them as if they were family. Bert, Ernie, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, even–and this is eerie–the long-dead Mr. Hooper. It’s as if Sesame Street were in the air, or maybe there’s just something in the water.

Irregular around the Margins

April 8th, 2004 § Comments Off § permalink

I’ve been a devoted follower of The Sopranos ever since I borrowed the entire first and second seasons on VHS from a friend, back in 2000. I’ve managed to see every episode since, even without having HBO, by begging, borrowing, and sometimes just showing up unannounced, uninvited at the right place at the right time. At times my desperation to see the show bordered on mania. Before Season Four began I even had a nightmare in which Tony Soprano came to me, snarling in my face, spit flying everywhere, yelling, Why the f**k don’t you have HBO? You better get it, you sad little freeloading f**k.

Ah, gotta love the sinner and hate the sin.

Now, with the fifth season in full swing, I’ve been thinking, is it really all that? Would the world end if I never saw the show again? Up until last Sunday’s episode I would have said yes.

But the episode–Irregular around the Margins–aired and blew me away. Without a doubt, it was the best episode this season and possibly the best of the past couple seasons.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that the show was back to focusing on family rather than crime. After all, The Sopranos is ultimately a family drama. The rest is just window dressing. Too often this season ancillary tensions between ancillary characters have been competing with the more compelling storylines. The brewing war between Johnny Sack and Little Carmine, the sociopath Feech and his territorial piss-posts–these plots are at best distracting and at worse like watching a bunch of local villagers squabble over a goat while outside the village gates the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse silently annihilate entire civilizations.

Face it, Tony and his troubling familial relationships–the civilization of Tony–are what we come to watch: Tony’s disintegrating relationship with his wife, his distant relationship with his children, his antagonistic relationship with his sister and uncle, and now, with this episode, his uneasy reconciliation with his own nephew, Christopher, whose fiancee, Adriana, Tony had nearly slept with.

The writing of this episode was so hewn, the symbolism and allegory so finely wrought, that I think it brings into relief why cultural critics should pay attention to The Sopranos. And this depth and richness is the second reason why the show blew me away. Its incest plot and the struggle between generations–Tony versus Christopher, whom Tony is grooming to be his successor–transforms the show into something reminiscent of a Greek or Roman tragedy.

Saturn Devouring His Son, by Goya (c. 1819-1823)

In fact, I am reminded of Goya‘s disturbing masterpiece Saturn–a haunting painting of the Roman titan Saturn devouring one of his children. According to one myth, Saturn was later thrown from the heavens by Jupiter, another one of his children. No wonder Saturn wanted to devour them. But myth aside, the painting is of course allegorical. It doesn’t seem to be about war in the heavens so much as an awakening of primal savagery, the collapse of civilization and the rise of nothing but rage, revenge, and unrepressed urges.

Tony Soprano embodies this struggle between savagery and civilization–and the rise and fall of one or the other is inextricably linked to the destruction or rejuvenation of his own family. Tony recognizes this at some level and even seeks Dr. Melfi’s help. It’s a “breakthrough,” Melfi tells Tony, to recognize this struggle and even attempt to avert it.

But can he? One aspect of David Chase’s (the creator of The Sopranos) worldview crystalized in this episode, namely that we cannot control our bodies. Our bodies betray us. We see this repeatedly in “Irregular Around the Margins” in the three principle characters of the episode, Tony, Adriana, and Christopher.

Consider each character separately:

Tony
Tony has some sort of cancerous cyst removed from his scalp; this melanoma, unpredictable and unsettling, is what makes him feel “irregular around the margins.” It’s as if he cannot trust his body anymore. There’s also Tony’s casual drug use, which he could control if he tried, but he doesn’t. When Adriana offers him a line of cocaine, he smiles and says, “I won’t say no.” And finally, there’s his libidinal urge, his bodily lust for Adriana that he only keeps in check by luck. They’re interrupted right at the moment when they could kiss for the first time.

Adriana
Like Tony, Adriana is a casual drug user. Well, probably more than casual. The reason she and Tony are in a car accident in the middle of the night in Dover, New Jersey, is because that’s where her dealer is. More significantly, Adriana is diagnosed in the episode with IBS–Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Meaning, she can’t control her bowels and she’s beset with painful diarrhea. Her body, quite literally, is a pile of shit.

Christopher
Last season Christopher made an admirable recovery from a destructive heroin habit. The first four episodes of the fifth season Christopher had been stone cold sober. On edge and quarrelsome, but sober–no booze, no drugs, nothing but cigarettes. It doesn’t last. Hearing the rumor that Adriana had been out in Dover having sex with Tony when the accident occurred–a false rumor, it turns out, although maybe the car wreck was the only thing that stopped the liaison from happening–hearing this rumor, Christopher throws Adriana out and quickly grabs the nearest alcohol he can find, a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka Adriana had hidden in the freezer. Once again, in Christopher’s relapse we find a body that cannot control itself, an urge that cannot bear repression.

Alongside Goya’s Saturn, there is another cultural reference this episode calls to mind. It’s the car wreck–I can’t help but think of the last lines of William Carlos William’s damning critique of American postwar culture, the poem “To Elsie.” The poem begins with the ambiguous line,

The pure products of America
go crazy…

And it ends with these despairing verses:

the stifling heat of September
Somehow
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that
something
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

No one to drive the car, Williams says. No one is in control, The Sopranos says.

The Other Day

May 14th, 2002 § Comments Off § permalink

The other day: from my hotel in Rosslyn, Virginia, there is a spectacular view of Washington, DC. It’s just across the river. Nothing to do in Rosslyn itself though, so I watch some television. The local NBC affiliate closes the 11 o’clock news with a feature on Anthony Edwards, whose last appearance on ER was Thursday night. I guess he took a long time leaving? Apparently dragged out over several episodes? One of the anchors asks the reporter, So, is he really gone now? We keep thinking he’s left the show, but there he is again.

Another anchor chimed in then, part of the wrap-up banter every news show must end with, “Yeah, just like Franco.” And then the entire group of newscasters–the playfully flirty male and female anchors, the enthusiastic sports anchor, and even the blonde weatherman, they all laugh. As if they were thinking the exact same thing themselves, “Yeah, just like Franco.”