Review: Hacksaw Ridge

Combat medic Desmond Doss pulled 75 wounded men to safety in the Battle of Okinawa – without carrying a weapon. Let that sink in, because dear crap that’s amazing.

Doss’ bravery and commitment to non-violence* (*in service of violence) is a heck of a story, in a way of a sort that hasn’t been picked over endlessly in American cinema. American public life lacks a developed vocabulary to question the necessity, nuances of effects of its own state-sponsored violence. This is, of course, is partially why the one mainstream film concerning a conscientious objector is a freaking *war* film. It’s also how two years ago American Sniper launched a thousand think-pieces about whether it glorified its subject – an efficient killing machine who parlayed a lack of public introspection into a career on the conservative media circuit. Sniper was preceded by Lone Survivor (2013) and followed by 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016, directed by explosion-meister Michael Bay) – all December/Jan releases ‘based on true stories’ prominently used by Conservatives as political bludgeons. These films [at least the former two; I didn’t see Benghazi] may allow nuanced critical readings. But if we’re being honest, their prime audiences are flag-waving conservatives, and they are constructed so that audience can feel like a variety of nebulous political concerns are validated.

That is to say Americans are scarcely asked to go to the movie and contemplate themselves as anything less than the ‘good guys’; we’re very adept at finding stories that allow ‘real’ soldiers to be simultaneously celebrated as spree killers and victimized underdogs; and any subtle critique of war’s practice or premises (conceptual or specific) must be bathed in deferential gushing about the sanctity of the American soldier. Say what you want politically, but the dramatic possibilities are notably constraining.  An important caveat: the not-near-talked-about-enough Fury (2015), which portrayed soldiers late in World War II as calloused from years of fighting – or at least,  for its first 2/3. Then the genre demands (and likely, studio notes) took over and it became a pretty good action movie, largely unrelated to what preceded it. Also, maybe, the technically-experimental Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016), which Google tells me is finally playing once daily at my local multiplex.

So I came to Hacksaw Ridge not expecting a great film, but with a curiosity about where the limits of American cinema intersected with Mel Gibson’s torture complex, aptly manifest in his other directorial efforts (Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and Apocalypto). In Gibson films, righteous men suffer. I assumed Hacksaw would partially re-inscribe non-violence in the service of violence (that is the premise), but I was more intrigued by how little ethical conflict is of concern in Hacksaw Ridge. For being a movie concerning a *conscientious objector* in *wartime*, it’s remarkable how every American’s value systems get along within the movie. True to American and Gibsonian obsessions, war just is in Hacksaw, immutable. Even conscientious objectors find it beyond critique. This doesn’t exactly un-write the language of dissent, but it does significantly configure it in support of conventional goals.

True to this recent genre, Hacksaw Ridge opens with a title card declaring it “a true story” (not based on, but simply “a true story”). To clarify:  Hacksaw Ridge is neither a documentary nor peer-reviewed. It’s an artistic interpretation and often a narratively pat one at that.  It’s generally accepted that these kinds of movies sand off the real-life rough edges of their subjects while leaving their authoritative air of ‘reality’ intact, but it’s remarkably blatant in Hacksaw, which continues another trend in some of the above-described movies of sticking archive footage of the real-life subjects in the closing credits. ‘You can’t argue with conviction’ one says of Doss’ drive which – I’ll be discussing – is really the frustrating crux of the film’s moral universe: nobody questions much except Doss’ bravery (about which, of course, they are mistaken).

The first act of the film is a grab-bag of genres as Hacksaw runs through bits of domestic drama, courtroom procedural, and a romance seemingly driven by the leads never having otherwise experienced sexual attraction. Functionally, of course, it exists to give the audience a reason to root for Doss before going off to battle, but it doesn’t develop either character much beyond being an unassailably upstanding golly-gee yokel and Rachel Griffiths as the ‘girlfriend’. Andrew Garfield’s Oscar nomination for Best Actor is confounding; there’s little to the character beyond being super-duper and not too bright. On another level, the overall package is an actor-y ode to American pieties of the sort well-represented at the Academy Awards.

The dynamics among the movie’s men are just as perfunctory, but they have some pleasantly complicated layering to them. The drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and other commanding officers shift effectively between being hard-asses, and explaining such apparent cruelty’s purpose in creating group cohesion. Vaughn, in particular, gives a damn good performance. The military itself seems realistic enough as an elemental combination of training camp, functional bureaucracy, and boy’s club. Doss’ drunken father (Hugo Weaving) is a theatrical condensation of war’s psychological cost: scarred by his experience in The Great War and coping by beating his wife and children, talking to tombstones, demanding to be killed, and telling literal gut-busting tales at dinner.

As for the reasons why one might not want to serve: Doss’ father doesn’t want his sons to enlist based off his own experiences. Vaughn’s drill sergeant seems un-ironic enough when he tells the other trainees that they’re fighting for others’ rights – including, to refuse to fight. Doss mentions two boys from his hometown were declared unfit to serve and killed themselves because they couldn’t live with it – not exactly a ringing description or endorsement of principled non-involvement from the movie there. Yet these potential dramatic hooks are mentioned in passing compared to the time expended on the question of whether or not Doss will physically touch a weapon.

How not carrying a gun is qualitatively different from supporting others who do is beyond the film’s nuance. Provided he doesn’t physically have to touch a gun, Desmond Doss is as morally serene as the Buddha himself. As such, his conscientious objection is constructed so as to not actually be in conflict with war. He doesn’t reflect on his conviction; the movie never challenges it. And so, his ill-articulated objections to organized violence are mostly configured as another venue for wartime machismo. He’s pretty much a guy with a few idiosyncratic ideas about combat ethics who found his moment to shine.

Also unexamined: what value the military’s vaunted group cohesion is in combat exercises where they’ll likely die horribly for ambiguous gains. If the commanding officer says to climb a cliff face and muck about in fog and gunfire for… [reasons unarticulated], well, ours is not to wonder why, as the poem goes. Or how Doss’ blessed conviction is different from that of the Japanese soldiers or Nazis (the latter of whom go un-mentioned). It goes without saying that the Japanese combatants are largely unexamined, portrayed as duplicitous, threatening, and – at their most human – afraid.

This is in contrast to that other 2016 movie where Andrew Garfield plays a devout Christian attempting a Japanese intervention. The ethical crises of Silence haunt me; its characters enter the mission field with good intentions and wind up being involved with extensive, unintended suffering. Silence is a movie where there are no easy ways to do ‘right’, and one’s capacity to act effectively narrows; Hacksaw is one where the ‘right’ paths are never in doubt or beyond achievement.

I don’t know if it’s better or worse that there are, genuinely, about 20 minutes at the start of the big battle scene that’s as horrifying as anything I’ve ever seen on film. Bullets flying, heads exploding, men dying, corpses rotting – it’s a vision of hell.  Gibson’s progressed since Braveheart, in which the action scenes are mostly close-ups of impalements. And it does come off as a really arbitrary, stupid way to settle a conflict, as my friend Dave said, selling me on watching the movie (time well-spent for its moments of excellence). But for the movie as a whole, that horror becomes suspenseful, and the tension shifts to the audience wondering how clever Dossy going to survive the moment. By the end, Hacksaw Ridge is an outright action movie as the (morally unimpeachable) Doss hauls his friends to safety while they machine gun the ‘nips’ to hell. The more the film revels in spectacle, the more Doss’ commitment to non-violence seems akin to the ethical codes of TV’s Dexter ‘only kills serial killers’ Morgan or the ‘I won’t kill you but I don’t have to save you’ Batman of Batman Begins. Ethical conviction is pretty adaptable if you really, really need a bunch of people to die for the sake of country and genre conventions.

And so, Hacksaw Ridge becomes another ode to soldierly bravery. Doss’ bravery and commitment to the war effort remain aptly presented; his (or others’) non-violent convictions and their relationship to conflict, not so much.

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Review: Silence (2016)

At the start of Silence – the second film adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel – the Tokugawa Shogunate has closed Japan to Christianity (and the ‘West’ more generally). Word reaches Macao that Catholic missionaries are facing torture and death, and two young priests are shocked to hear their mentor Ferreira has recanted the faith and adopted Japanese ways. The priests would have been raised on stories of the heroic sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross; the suffering of the early saints at the hands of the Roman Empire; and Elijah cheekily defeating the priests of Baal. We know how the story ends: after temporary suffering comes eternal victory. So they go on a quest to find Ferreira and save his soul.

I read what happens thereafter as a variation on the Garden of Eden story. In Genesis, eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge brings suffering. In Silence, the introduction of Christianity to Japan forces missionaries and locals to define themselves in relation to it. Embracing or refuting the religion – publicly or privately – brings suffering.

Silence dramatizes reformers coming dramatically up against the limits, encountering a hostile environment that transforms from agentive forces to reactive ones. They start out trying to effect a change for the better; they end up trying to minimize harm. This ought to resonate with (and provide deep challenges for) anyone with plans to change the world, for whatever defensibly righteous reasons: the political protestor; the secular global ‘development’ worker; the PhD student – and not least of all myself, stuck between all these categories, seeking to provide design and policy recommendations based on research on refugees’ online privacy needs.

However we may regard the characters’ goals, the ethical dilemmas they experience seem analogous to what various international aid-type workers experience, as well as those my (mostly Lutheran) pastor friends have discussed with me: with what do you do when your congregation’s heartfelt beliefs are heretical? What do you do when your presence appears to be hurting more than helping? What do you do when your conscience conflicts with the institutional line? To what extent can you trust that God (or the system) is playing the long game effectively – in spite of immediate, visceral feedback to the contrary? How do you handle being co-opted by a variety of systems, playing your naiveté to their advantage? Is admitting powerlessness abdicating responsibility? Is pursuing your conscience mere narcissism?

In the movie, this plays out in debates between the priest Rodrigues and the local inquisitor, representative of the shogunate, concerning the cultural compatibility between their respective visions of Japan and Christianity. The specific options available to Rodrigues narrow until they become a series of singular choices among bad options. Visually, as the characters move from the expansive cityscapes of Macao to Japan, the cinematography eschews sweeping crane shots of dramatic landscape in favor of the compact, foggy and claustrophobic. The more I think about it, the more I see how the film embeds challenges to the narrowness of the characters’ worldviews. Both the inquisitor and Rodrigues are, of course, fighting losing battle on behalf of purity – syncretic mixes of local and external influences develop, as they always do.  Yet within the film, the precision of their wills is convincing in its immediacy.

Nonetheless, the film remains largely from the missionaries’ perspective, with ‘Japan’ (and the suffering Christians therein) considered in its relationship to them; the country is an operatic hell-scape that reflects their own failings back at them. This is reinforced by their limited ability to communicate with the local Japanese Catholics. While I think the film ultimately critiques this – the condescending ‘white savior complex’ mission/outreach model is an oft-critiqued, oft-resurgent bad idea – from our own contemporary moment, this certainly opens Silence to the criticism that it uses Japan as a prop for three white men’s spiritual crises. To this, I’m really interested to read how the movie has been received in Japan.

In a sense, missionaries have it easier than aid workers; the “not of this world” nature of Jesus’ kingdom allows wiggle room between apparent material circumstances and the spiritual kingdom that awaits at some later date. Artists’ ability to gauge their successes is somewhere in between. At a meta-level, Nick Ripatrozone at LitHub notes, “the apparent cross of Scorsese” is “trying to perfect an idea than wrangling with personal belief”. While the obvious comparison point for the (Catholic) director is the Last Temptation of Christ, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky  writes that Rodrigues is also a “typical Scorsese narrator in that he can’t stop voicing his admiration or disgust for other characters”. This attention to mediation – to the layers of perception at work – I see as an insightful engagement between Catholicism and artistry.

To go back to the above challenges to global do-goodery, however, Silence poses harsher critiques to those who would separate their piety from others’ material circumstances. Here, the refrain is “they’re suffering for you.”  This is especially pertinent to the American cultural landscape and its homegrown varieties of evangelical Christianity, recent ill-regarded cinema from which have tended to offer easy answers to many of the difficult questions posed (and left unanswered) in Silence. In this genre, characters often have their faith confirmed with little risk to their middle-class material security and social status. True to Max Weber’s protestant work ethic, the correct spiritual choice is often closely related to secular middle class success. A protagonist must, say, choose between worldly prestige or mere personal fulfillment and eternal life, a choice remarkably similar to the archetype of the mid-level management executive who must choose between the career-making presentation or his child’s soccer game.

That’s the American pulpit and cinema. We know how the story ends. The good guy wins. You are the good guy. You always win. Iron Man saves the day.

Silence received only one Oscar nomination, for Rodrigo Prieto’s aforementioned cinematography. At least three Best Picture nominees, by contrast, fit into the ‘triumph over adversity / following your dreams’ genre.

In the face of all those self-serving tales of comfort and affirmation, Silence offers a human story worthy of the spiritual one, a direct accusation to both the active and uninvolved, and a final act in which God and Man accuse each other, asking to what (human and divine) silence in the face of all these failures testify.

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Review: Kate Plays Christine

Kate Plays Christine is a film without a subject. This is partially both the point and the hook: the film revolves around Sarasota, Florida news anchor Christine Chubbuck, who left almost no public record except urban lore of her on-air suicide on July 15, 1974, inspiring Network (1976). To cinematize this mix of limited material and interesting subject matter, Christine documents actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to portray Chubbuck for a fragmented film within a film. It’s a framework that could illuminate any number of things – about acting, identity, voyeurism, gender dynamics, cinema and who knows what else. Unfortunately, the documentary fails at most all of them. Kate Plays Christine is a movie in which the filmmakers set themselves up with a difficult task, can’t think of an interesting approach beyond their high-concept hook, half-ass the execution and blame the medium and its audience for their own failings. The result is a self-satisfied ode to its own solipsism.

It’s shitty as history. If one takes ‘Chubbock’ as the subject, it is notably constrained by its limited sources, mostly Chubbuck’s childhood journals and a few era news reports. It is apparent, however, that nobody involved did much background reading (Sheil’s prominent copy of Durkheim’s 1897 classic Suicide aside). The result is the first hour is mostly unfounded, unfocused speculation from Sheil and others about Chubbuck, the 70s newsroom, and suicide – despite how much has been written on the latter topics. Factual claims – that Chubbock was descendent from screen icons Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks – are voiced, but neither confirmed or refuted. Grasps at theoretical framings are half-hearted. Murmurs about sexism and Chubbuck’s probable difficulties with it underscore the masculinity of the media professionals she meets, but also underscore the extent that everyone is mostly creating projections about Christine. The latter seems to be the film’s primary point, which (again) might have broader applicability if the filmmakers weren’t conspuously trying to avoid empirical evidence.

It’s shitty as a portrait of craft. As an exploration of acting, it devotes a notable amount of time to superficial actions; ‘getting into character’ is mostly represented by purchasing a wig and buying contact lenses so Sheil might better resemble Chubbuck. She goes to the office building that was once an old TV studio, but doesn’t go inside. Beyond that, Sheil doesn’t say particularly insightful things – which, fair enough, not everyone can explain their own particular genuis. But if what Sheil says isn’t enlightening, neither is the process of watching Sheil say un-insightful things illuminating. The direction and editing doesn’t compensate.

If one takes the movie as examining the process of creation, it doesn’t show much in the way of how historians, directors or film editors continually reflect and revise throughout their work. This is underscored by the film’s best moment of drama: when Sheil meets with people who actually knew Chubbuck, one-time co-workers who challenge Sheil’s assumptions and the filmmakers’ motivations. By that point, however, one is left to wonder why the filmmakers didn’t seek such pertinent input earlier in the process. Whether academia or cinema, you edit your drafts until they’re good, and if you only have enough good footage for a 20-minute documentary than that’s what you make. The movie neither serves as a record of reflective choices made throughout its production, nor gives an indication it was paired down to reflect the best thinking resulting from those choices.

It’s shitty as cinema. Moments of heartfelt reflection on the challenges of acting are displayed – particularly one actress relating an unstable emotional moment to how she imagines Christine may have felt, and an actor’s speaking of the constant rejection that comes with the job. These, however, are in service of a project conspicuously ill-advised. Speculation on Chubbuck is mostly a parade of quasi-professionals venturing obvious, surface level interpretations of her actions. May have extraordinarily hesitant connections to Chubbuck (an employee at the gun store where Chubbuck bought the weapon) who seem reluctant to be interviewed. The ‘scenes’ of Sheil acting as Chubbuck, the ‘film within a film’, are furthermore extraordinarily stilted, shot almost entirely in over-exposed close-up and assembled from clichés and the most literal record. Watch, as Christine’s family tells her they’re worried about her! Watch, as she heroically confronts her editor about bumping her ‘important’ stories! Then, there are the scenes that deliberately blur the line between when we’re seeing ‘Kate’ and ‘Christine’, such as one in which she goes for a swim in her all-important wig, which naturally falls off. The camera lingers. The physical explanation runs: it’s difficult to swim in a wig. The symbolically-minded one goes: it’s because cinema is fake. The wig is the movie in a nutshell – an argument about the artificiality of cinema, as represented by an actress wearing a wig, as evidenced by the fact that the wig is not waterproof.

And then, after all that, the film ends with [spoiler-ish] an admittedly tense final monologue in which Sheil the actor-character looks straight at the camera to decry the ‘fucking sadists’ that are the film’s raison d’etre. To the extent that Sheil and Greene accuse the audience more than themselves, it’s a bold claim to make given how sloppy the whole production has been. And indeed – given scenes that are eminently readable as Sheil’s reluctance to ‘act’ for the camera – there’s certainly a case to be made that she, at least, mostly meant director Robert Greene & co.

But Christine’s biggest problem is that it’s just shitty at being shit. As critic Michael Atkinson suggested, I wouldn’t rule out that all this half-assery is a deliberate create choice, a statement about the laziness of documentaries and biopics. If so, I’m sympathetic to the impulse, but it’s dour, unoriginal, and self-satisfied execution reads like a film-school provocation that should be beneath seasoned professionals. ‘Art’ is short for ‘artifice’. Every documentary –-every film ever – is compromised. These ideas are not novel. They’re premises, not conclusions, and the interesting part comes in what the filmmakers do with them.

There are numerous interesting, innovative documentaries about frustrating subjects and failures. Director Joshua Oppenheimer said of The Look of Silence that he expected his direct subject (a man confronting his brother’s killers) would ‘fail’, but that he expected the way it failed to be interesting. Silence and its predecessor, The Act of Killing, brilliantly used its interviewees’ mix of reluctance and bravado at the murders they committed to illuminate how performances (everyday and cinematic) might and might not be ‘authentic’. Errol Morris’ films routinely interrogate the layers of storytelling at work between his agenda as a filmmaker and his interviewees’ – applied in The Unknown Known (2013) to a frustratingly unreflective Donald Rumsfeld. With regard to the specific subject of acting, Maximillian Schell turned Marlene Dietrich’s willful obscurity and idiosyncratic demands into abstract art in Marlene (1984). Documentaries about questionable movies are genre unto themselves: American Movie (1999), Lost in La Mancha (2002), Overnight (2003), Lost Soul (2014), Audience of One (2007)

A core message of Kate Plays Christine is that looking at images tells us much less than we might hope. Yet as a statement about the limits of documentary, empathy, and cinema, it is notably constrained by its own ignorance. It takes its own questionable creative choices as evidence that cinema itself is questionable, coming off like the kid in class that calls everyone else is stupid because s/he didn’t do the assigned reading. As an audience, we do trust films to mediate some sort of experience, and they often fall short. Noting that a film is aware of its own artifice, however, isn’t the same as saying it engages with that artifice effectively. Christine, of all films, should know that. Unfortunately, you can’t accuse cinema of deficiency through a film that seems committed not to function.


*FYI: Over the years, I’ve used this blog as an irregular dumping ground for various written pieces that otherwise might not have a home.  I still do film reviews over at The MacGuffin, but as the 2017 awards season is gearing up and I’m otherwise working on my PhD, I thought I might distract myself distract myself by writing some reviews of films that have already been critically picked-over. They won’t all be negative – and I’ll admit that the above could be the most negative thing I’ve ever written about a movie, I cringe reading it, and should anyone involved with the production happen across my humble blog I sincerely apologize. Somewhere, I believe, there could be an alternate edit of Kate Plays Christine that is much much better.

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Los Angeles Pleasures Itself: Against the ‘art’ of La La Land

Hollywood celebrates itself, bullshit and all. Especially the bullshit. That’s a known fact, and I would have been naïve to go into La La Land not expecting a healthy dose of it. It’s also a cliché that any near-universally acclaimed awards frontrunner can expect a backlash. With this in mind, I’m reluctant to blog here and rain on everyone’s love-fest for a nice little movie my mom will probably see and like. Still, criticism is staking a position, so here goes: La La Land embodies ideas about art I find objectionable in both content and its burgeoning position as an awards contender. There are fine lines between celebrating the dreamers, validating their self-absorption, and exploiting the lot of it for commercial purposes, and La La Land conflates all those impulses – admirable and awful – together in a big ball of masturbatory stardust.

Simply put, in La La Land, creating cinema is closely equated with moving to L.A. and being employed in ‘the industry’, and it gives much less attention to the creative aspect than to the professional one. The result is you’re not rooting for the characters to make meaningful art so much as gain employment in a willfully exploitive industry.

While that may pay the bills and amount to reasonable professional aspirations, as a vision of the pinnacle of artistry I personally find it highly unsympathetic. It never occurs to Stone’s character that she could maybe act in a low-budget, independent production. It never occurs to Gosling’s character that he could reach out to fellow jazz traditionalists. In fact, no one in this movie seem to have ‘friends,’ just romances, flat-mates, relatives, professional connections, dreams and an industry that’s shutting them out. It never occurs to them that they could make art outside the industrial systems against which they’re chafing, and which they are not shown expressing justifiable resentment towards. As the movie being fawned over this year as 2016’s pinnacle of the cinematic art form, it’s frustrating.

There is a certain current awards-season narratives positions Land as a film of privilidge, contrasting Land’s heterosexual white leads against Moonlight’s queer African-American ones. I see the privileges La La Land celebrating as running deeper: the privilege to move to L.A. and spend years *aspiring* to work unreflectively making American commercial culture. Which is to say, I think we’re supposed to watching the opening musical number – set in a routine traffic jam – and think wow, Los Angeles is awesome but difficult, whereas all I could think was – dear crap, how much gas must all these cars be burning? Why exactly should the audience care which of these interchangeable aspirants get to ‘make it’? Couldn’t they maybe take the damn bus and work in regional theater? Why are we celebrating this horror?

To be fair, as an examination of creation, what the film has – and I suspect, a big part of why it has garnered a lot of its support – is sympathy to challenges faced by the laborers on the edge of the Hollywood system. In the words of the movie, it “worships everything and values nothing”. I appreciated how the final half hour (the film’s best section), raises questions about where personal and professional concepts of success might diverge. These challenges often go unacknowledged within films, including films that take place even more narrowly within the Hollywood matrix (2011’s Best Picture winner The Artist, 2016’s Hail, Caesar!), whatever other critiques they raise. Yet when watching those, I get the sense that they more clearly demarcate their subject matter as concerning the Hollywood system unto itself. While La La Land acknowledges the difficulty of Hollywood, it ultimately takes the position of a successful insider who eventually succeeded. Even its nuanced counter-point to Gosling’s jazz traditionalism (“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.”) is gently voiced by a character whose ‘revolutionary’ thinking is in the service of making a slick commercial product with broad four-quadrant appeal.

It’s here that La La Land’s intense devotion to frustrating ideas about professionalism stand in contrast to the film’s under-developed treatment of art. Gosling and Stone’s characters are clearly passionately committed to their respective ‘ideas’ about jazz and acting, but they never articulate much about what those ideas are. This is similar to criticisms leveled at Damian Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash (2014), that it didn’t ‘understand’ jazz. I didn’t buy those criticisms because I never thought the audience was supposed to take Whiplash’s leads’ boneheaded ideas about art-as-personal-sacrifice as valid, so much as read them as justifications for a mutually self-destructive relationship. It produces artistic results at a great cost. I can’t argue, however, that La La Land shares that same sense of perspective. As such, I’m inclined to suggest that putting an Ingrid Bergman poster on your wall or watching Rebel without a Cause are actions so iconic that they’re largely bereft of meaning, and merely clocking in the requisite name-check doesn’t entitle you to shit.

Similarly, there’s little attention to the process of artistry (in which, I find Richard Brody more convincing than I did in regard to Whiplash). Here, let’s examine how the film depicts the art of writing, gallingly underdeveloped in light of Gosling’s assertion that you “need to see” jazz to understand it. Late in the story, Stone’s character writes a play. It’s a one woman show, based on her childhood, called Goodbye, Boulder City – the individuated narcissism of such creative choices going unremarked upon in La La Land itself. We get only fleeting glimpses of the play’s creation and production, mostly related to her character announcing ‘I’m writing a play’, though one could surmise it’s drawn from various anecdotes she mentions throughout the movie. We see nothing of her artistic choices, how she has shaped a particular telling of her story for the stage, the edits she made and the revisions she did. The film cuts between her preparing to perform and its reception afterwards, further reinforcing the play’s primary value in terms of its relation to industry. The play is treated as valuable not as an act of Stone’s self-expression, nor as art unto itself worth of audience attention. Rather, its value is that it’s an audition piece for the movie industry. Her childhood, the subject of the play, is by extension most valuable as preparation for Los Angeles; leaving the city to return to her hometown is equated with abandoning her art altogether.

Here, I partially realize how different my own preferred cinematic myths are. Growing up, I romanticized the origin stories of directors like Peter Jackson, Robert Rodriguez, and Sam Raimi who spent weekends covered in fake blood, with limited budget and no distribution guarantees, working on masterpieces far outside the Hollywood system. Other B-movie directors who never ‘made it’ within the system still made films – terrible ones, sometimes, but they made something and showed a lot of heart in the process. In that mode, I thought 2016’s Sing Street a delightful film in which Irish teenagers start a band, fight the power, make some listenable-but-imperfect songs, and follow their dreams against long odds.

So anyway – what I’m saying is, follow your dreams, find a job, and make your art – and by all means buy tickets to the work of the other creative laborers who do. Nonetheless, Hollywood is but one exceptionally-privileged venue of many, and don’t equate its commercial constraints with what cinematic art is or should be. See an independent film; make one of your own. America’s media industry doesn’t need more validation from within or without.

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CRISP group photo

Photo from CRISP’s blog post about the summer school

In June I attend the third annual doctoral summer school from the Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance & Privacy (CRISP) in Edinburgh, Scotland. My PhD program assigned me to share my experiences for others who may wish to join summer school four next year – or five, or 55. As we all know, every byte is forever and will return to haunt us – in its worst possible, out-of-context light – just before we finalize employment contracts, wedding licenses, bids to become head-of-state, etc…

Or not – the longevity of digital information is complicated in practice (as is what we can do to protect it). I attended the CRISP school because (on a related note) I’ve read a fair amount of academic literature about privacy, broadly defined as individuals’ control over their personal space and information. I went to the summer school hoping to gain a perspective on privacy related to surveillance – the acts of observation (via garden-variety voyeurism, CCTV, digital meta-data collection, etc) often thought to endanger privacy.

In regards to that surveillance perspective I hoped to gain, thinking in terms of security helped place me in a more ‘active’ head-space. Privacy is often envisioned as a defensive concern, related to preventing others from gaining access to oneself. Reflecting on the action of surveillance reminded me that many privacy measures are no less proactive. Furthermore, it reminded me that the action of surveillance is situated within its own concerns, which are not directly conceptually opposed to privacy. As CRISP academic and school organizer Charles Raab argued in a paper and summer school seminar, privacy and security (the freedom from danger often invoked for surveillance) are not opposite poles on the same sliding scale. One doesn’t necessarily gain security by giving up privacy, or lose security by enhancing privacy. This fits in with critiques I’ve been developing to present at another summer school in August  on Privacy and Identity Management.

Of course, volumes have been written on these topics – the above is merely my own immediate take-away. Just what ‘surveillance studies’  is was a perfunctory controversy on day one, as we were all jokingly asked if we considered ourselves ‘surveillance scholars’ to an (expected) lukewarm reception. This wasn’t for lack of interest (we all chose to spend the week there, after all) but rather a statement of the complexity of positioning oneself in a multi-disciplinary field. Just what are we as professionals, and how do we study whatever we study?

While this identity anxiety was expected, the week’s conception of multi-disciplinarily was a welcome refresher – as was the flexibility in what surveillance studies can be. I earned my bachelors’ degree at an American liberal arts school, where taking courses on a variety of subjects is the modus operandi, all rooted in humanities-style critical thinking. By contrast, I’ve found that some of the UK’s disciplinary heritages to be more singular – in the case of my own department, reflecting the underlying epistemologies of Computer Science, Human Factors, and Human-Computer Interaction. I felt at home in a place that incorporated technical discussions; a panel of journalists and activists; a film screening (2006’s Galsgow-set Red Road); and two talks that related theology to surveillance. At the CRISP school and July’s Digital Economy Network Summer School, I further noted that the American imports (either academic staff at UK institutions or invited speakers) tended to talk about their teaching as a particularly integral element to their careers (often discussing it in relationship to their own research), which further made me feel a bit ‘at home’ in regard to academic values.

This attention to breadth also speaks to the CRISP week’s overall quality. It was apparent that everyone involved cared about fostering an informative experience for us students, who chose to make the trek from across Europe, North America and Oceania (Asia, Africa, and South America were not represented in students and under-represented in content, in contrast to my current home at the Horizon CDT – where the student body is nearly 50% Chinese if one considers it as part of the same whole as the IDIC program). It was well-scheduled, alternating between seminars and coffee, with a field trip mid-week to Glasgow Community Safety’s CCTV command centre. Even general seminars on topics like ‘publishing in top journals’ and ‘research ethics’ managed to keep a personal and practical voice and focus. Some bits of useful advice I’ll pass on: 1) stop reading when you’re only making marginal gains. 2) Become a part of the review process if you really want to learn the intricacies of how a journal’s conventions. And two talks by journalist Duncan Campbell about mass surveillance (who was prosecuted in 1978 for journalism related to the publicizing the existence of GCHQ – who today, together with various international intelligence organizations, are likely collecting your data as we speak) reminded me of the importance of well-founded paranoia all over again.

Furthermore, I have to hand it to CRISP for its creative branding: part of its promotional propaganda includes ‘CRISP privacy devices’ (‘do not disturb’ hotel-style door-hanger) and packages of CRISP-branded crisps.

Anyway – it was a great summer school, and do consider it if you’re a PhD student considering learning more about surveillance, information and privacy!

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On sharing refugee artwork with my Iowan hometown

I’m an American living in the UK, conducting research on how refugees use social media. I grew up in small town Iowa. It’s a distinct, stable and generally friendly place, surrounded by fields that stretch in all directions for lengths comparable in size to the entirety of England.

I’ve viewed connecting my present life and work to where I grew up as something of an opportunity and necessity.  About 3,000 people live in my hometown. Contrary to stereotype, supposedly ‘isolated’ areas often have complex relationships with the world at large. I’ve met Clarion friends (and friends of friends) traveling and living abroad. For locals, the international residents they encounter are primarily Mexicans who have arrived to work in the local industrial farms and foreign exchange students who spend a year at a time at the local high school.

Meanwhile, America is highly mediated society, the vast majority of which is produced in coastal centers like New York and L.A. These films, television shows, news programs and publications filter through to the massive interior, a highly unequal communication relationship that, I feel, discourages locals from feeling meaningful agency in the world at large. You hear many things in a small town; others scarcely have much interest to listen. At the national level, however, the current refugee crisis is partially caused by American foreign policy that was enacted by official elected by wide swathes of the country. When I return, I’m dismayed at the casual national security fears, underscored by the ambiance of Fox News on public television sets – the sense of threat that is normalized amid the geo-political safety of America’s interior.  It is particularly obscene to see refugees, travelling on immediate threat to their lives, being publicly dismissed en masse on the unprecedented contingency that some might be terrorists.

That’s its own form of privilege – the fear of the abstract and distant – and freedom of travel is among mine. I was on a leisure trip to Budapest, Hungary, last August when a friend’s friend (Mark Szabo) showed me some paintings some refugee children had made with his help. The kids and other refugees had been staying outdoors in II. János Pál pápa tér (Pope John Paul II Park). On August 7, Mark and a group of his friends had decided to spend the day painting. When one of the children asked him for a slice of melon, the day’s activities grew to incorporate them.

Refugee art shrink

The artist, with the picture. Photo by David Bodnar.

For Mark, the painting was one in a stack. For me, it was not particularly unique either; any child could have drawn it. I got it framed for my hometown in the hopes that in displaying it, I could build a bit of international empathy. I don’t want to overstate my involvement in the picture’s creation or a contentious local situation I briefly visited. The frame of this blog post is, in part, a fulfillment of academic credit. Seeing the painting in a locally-crafted wooden frame looks obscene, the contrast between the sturdy woodwork of the frame and the moment of instability it captures. But such is art; it is valuable because we have decided its value; and the figurative or literal frame, as Erving Goffman famously described, is a what gives us that point of reference. It took a photo of the dead body of three-year old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi (far from the first child to die) to give international media an empathetic rallying point late last year; here, with this picture, and the story of its transit, I thought I could build a more direct, albeit modest, bridge between my hometown and a crisis that will last until some form of long-term settlement prospects are realized.

Budapest, summer 2015, marked a unique moment in the ongoing migration. In late August, Germany announced it would welcome refugees.  Many who had been staying in Hungary immediately boarded westbound trains. The painting represents a moment that has now passed into memory. The artist who painted this was among the over one million displaced persons who crossed into Europe that year. These charts from the BBC explain the scope of the ongoing ‘crisis’, which – despite its recent increasing prominence in the news – is not new. The refugees in Europe represent a small percentage of people around the world displaced by conflict and natural disasters, which totaled 65.3 million by the end of 2015, up from the mid-2015 totals of 59.5 million. Nonetheless, just 272 refugees had gone through the initial settlement process as of the end of 2015. As we approach the middle of 2016, few have been offered opportunities for long-term settlement. Many are still living in temporary camps.

The painting I had framed was displayed at my local high school for the last several weeks of school in May. It then went on display at their annual summer “Festival in the Park” – celebrating the 151th anniversary of the town’s founding; it was incorporated one year before my historically-recent ancestors’ moved from Germany to America. From there, it will be circulate the local churches throughout the summer, the town ministerial committee having offered to guide its movements. An article was written about in the local newspaper, where I served as editor and primary reporter in 2014 before starting my PhD at Horizon.

I’ve also perhaps realized something of the practicalities of artwork, and why one would want to put a piece on ‘loan’ rather than donate. Permanent gifts may both create an awkward storage challenge for the recipients, one that may end with a permanent installation in the Town Hall janitor’s closet. So a loan is a way still have a bit of agency back there, even as (in another sense) it’s also a reminder of the limits of my tether to life back home. But life itself is made up of connections like those, and I hope the painting helps a bit to make more visible.

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Bright New Minneapolis

The cover of Separation Sunday, an album that mostly takes place in Minneapolis: Maspeth Avenue and Conselyea Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

The cover of Separation Sunday, an album that mostly takes place in Minneapolis: Maspeth Avenue and Conselyea Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

And when we hit the Twin Cities

I didn’t know that much about it

I knew Mary Tyler Moore and I knew Profane Existence

– from “Stevie Nix” on Separation Sunday

I don’t know if The Hold Steady have casual fans.

Then again, this summer I got a text from a friend at a Morrissey concert asking me what I knew about Morrissey, so even the most famously cultish acts must have new listeners drifting through their concerts. Flow among shows and scenes is certainly a topic in plenty of Hold Steady songs, pieces of vivid, narrative-heavy rock opera about young Catholic hoodrats traveling between concerts, cities and parties past when the thrill has gone. Throughout, they keep a balance between nostalgia for the immediacy of old moments, and a wider, melancholic (but non-judgmental) perspective that the old times weren’t really the best and leave every generation with their own (literal and figurative) multitudes of casualties.

My own youth was pretty straight-laced – with a soundtrack by bands that already split or died – so I don’t directly share that nostalgia for ‘the scene’. Every once in a while, though, I get to see a band I just completely love, like when I got to catch up with The Hold Steady at their Oct 14 show at Sheffield, England’s City Hall Ballroom. Singer/songwriter Craig Finn told the crowd that the show is a place “to get together, meet old friends and maybe make new ones,” and in his lyrics and interviews you feel like he just believes the concert is a sublime event, and – onstage, flailing his arms toward the crowd – is overcome with joy that he gets to be at the center of that.

The band played a 20-song set that drew most prominently from Boys and Girls in America. Pushing 30 myself, I looked to be at the lower end of the attendee age spectrum. I stood near the front – the sing-along section, I suppose – joining with a crowd who seemed to know the notoriously wordy songs by heart (sometimes disruptively, as with the guys jumping ahead on the spoken intro to “Hornets! Hornets!” )

I’d wondered what that would be like, since I realized I’d be hooking up with their 2014 tour in the UK While The Hold Steady bills itself as a Brooklyn band – Finn’s lyrics frequently geographically fixate on the Twin Cities with extreme specificity, otherwise nondescript street and neighborhood names (Stillwater, Osseo, the Cedar-Riverside apartments, the Quarry, Hennepin, Lyndale South, Lowry East, Nicollet, …) forming such a vivid, scattershot background that the Internet has produced at least one Wiki index and two infrequently updated maps charting Hold Steady Twin Cities references (plus another national one). The lyrics to that night’s set-closer – the druggy treasure hunt “Southtown Girls” – practically form a MapQuest printout.


For me the Minneapolis-St.Paul metro is where current friends and family live and some relationships variously started, played out and concluded. So as someone for whom the place references are integral to the music’s experience, if only as a backdrop (hey! I drove past there! A lot…), I had wondered how the band plays internationally.  While the Twin Cities had a few music acts that made it international – most notably Bob Dylan, the Replacements, and Prince – they arguably don’t have a stronger media image internationally (a la New York or L.A.) than Mary Tyler Moore looping on some classics channel (which of course, arguably makes the lyrics sound all the more personal). In the midst of the show, I was happy to see how obscure specifics can translate into emotion; the words mean something to you because they mean something to the musicians. As Finn said about Minneapolis at the show – “even if you’ve never heard of it, you know somewhere like it” – before singing the lines:

She said City Center used to be the center of our scene

Now city center’s over

No one really goes there

And we used to drink beneath this railroad bridge

Some nights the bus wouldn’t even stop there were just too many kids

The Quarry shopping center

The Quarry shopping center

But if I know the place, I don’t necessarily know the experience. I’ve never been – as the “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” narrator is shortly thereafter – attacked, then probed by the police for illicit substances. I’m also naïve enough to find it odd that in my current city, Nottingham, the drug culture is so blatant that dealers pass out business / loyalty cards (five stamps and your sixth “bag” is free!). For that matter, I’m not Catholic and despite how enthusiastically the band name-checks the Youth of Today and the 7 Seconds, I’ve never bothered to explore the influences which they reference with reverence.

That emotion-through-extreme-specificity style is close to the opposite of another song I’ve listened to frequently over the last few years: “Time Spent in Los Angeles” by Dawes, whose emotion I connect to through vagueness:

 You’ve got that special kind of sadness

 You’ve got that tragic set of charms

 That only comes from time spent in Los Angeles

Songwriter Taylor Goldsmith said in an interview:

I feel like there in an ineffable quality to a person from a certain place, and when a bunch of people are in a room together you can kind of feel that connection and all the people from L.A. can kind of pick each other out, and I feel like that is the case with people from everywhere…

I’d like to think a show can something like that – bring people together in a room, where you can all imagine you’re from a certain place of mind, whichever city centre you’re recalling.

Sheffield City Hall Ballroom, waiting for the show to start

Sheffield City Hall Ballroom, waiting for the show to start

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(Mostly) In Defense of Templeton Rye

I generally describe Templeton Rye as the only whiskey I’ve found “drinkable,” a statement of positivity and willful, deflective naivete. I generally don’t go for whiskey, but I like Templeteon, and lest I believe I was suckered in by the marketing, I’m going to stand by that half-flippant flavor assessment amid recent controversies over the beverage’s origins that have now resulted in a lawsuit.

During my own life as a university alumni-publication journalist-marketer, however, I interviewed and wrote a 2011 piece on one of the company’s founders, Keith Kerkhoff, and have subsequently referred to it in at least one blog post that details my RAGBRAI trip through the town. As such, I thought I’d offer some insight, context and thoughts on the whiskey’s origin controversy, Iowan identity and the state’s increasingly prominent distilleries, wineries, and breweries.

In short: the quibbles over many of the controversy’s specifics are somewhat overstated, though it does raise questions of media, agricultural distribution, small places, and identity. Which I guess is my field, so every damn thing raises those questions.

Templeton Rye rose to prominence on the strength not just of its flavor, but on a heckuva marketable story: that present-day Templeton Rye(tm) is based on Prohibition-era ‘white lightning’ so good that Al Capone asked for it by name, and it earned a 300-resident farming village the nickname “Little Chicago.” This is, of course, the sort of story that one could reasonably expect to be heavily garnished, though the idea of some connection between our legally-sold contemporary beverage and an old Templeton-area recipe has been maintained as foundational to the brand’s image.

The company’s website presently, prominently phrases its beverage as being “[b]ased on the original Prohibition era recipe and aged in charred new oak barrels.” Due in part to U.S. laws requiring alcohol to be sold state-level distributors, Templeton Rye’s first batch was sold primarily in Iowa, and Iowa factors heavily into the beverage’s marketing campaign. The booze’s label has heretofore said: “PRODUCED AND BOTTLED BY TEMPLETON RYE SPIRITS, LLC, TEMPLETON, IOWA.”

So Templeton has happily draped itself in Iowaicana, though as for what it has specifically claimed, at least one of the self-described “revelations” that the Des Moines Register and the Daily Beast have been describing have long been knowable (if downplayed by Templeton’s branding), and in fact was mentioned in my puff piece (which gives a good primer on the company’s legend, founding, and early successes): that it is not, in fact, distilled  in Iowa, but a facility in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

During my discussions with Keith, he portrayed Templeton as his physical home, the spiritual (figuratively speaking) home of Templeton Rye, the home of Templeton Rye Spirits LLC, a useful marketing tool, and a place in which some bottling and/or labeling happened. It was clear that the connection was personal and symbolic, though limited practically.

Similarly, if anyone thinks that what they’re buying in stores is close to what Capone himself swilled, that would betray a strong lack of knowledge about history and booze. Scale-produced whiskey is distilled at length (for Templeton, four years) and standardized in ways it wasn’t in the Great Depression’s backyard stills. For analogous info and more background reading, I’d recommend Ambitious Brew by Maureen Ogle (who, incidentally, teaches at Iowa State University) which discusses standardization of output as one of the primary challenges of the American beer industry through the 20th century.

So these concrete things – the Lawrenceburg distillery and the modifications to the recipe – don’t strike me as terribly problematic. However, all of this does rely on an origin point, the idea of some connection – often and presently stated in Templeton’s materials – that the present-day beverage bears some unique, deliberate, specified relationship to a beverage that was being made in Templeton, Iowa, in the 1920s.

And the challenge to that is the accusation “stock MGP recipe,” which – if found to be true – I will find problematic, because it would mean the company crossed the line into outright peddling bullshit rather than leveraging the fuzziness of myth.  As best I can tell at present, however, the phrase originates in the Daily Beast article as an insult hurtled by “one micro-distiller who actually makes his own whiskey.” I will note that something I wanted for my 2011 article (and was not able to get) was more info on how the olde recipe was adapted. At the time, I chalked it up to the process being proprietary.

So basically, Templeton Rye Spirits, LLC, is a company that was founded by a few people from Iowa. One of them was Keith Kerkhoff, of the town of Templeton, which may have had a reputation for good un-aged whiskey in the 1930s. He inherited a whiskey recipe from his grandfather through his father, and as Keith told me the story, that recipe was the reason that Vern Underwood and larger-scale distiller MGP chose to contract with their start-up. These things were not secret. From there, MGP did their thing, and Templeton Rye ran with the original story for the marketing. What ‘their thing’ is will likely be uncovered in greater clarity in the near future.

So, is Templeton Rye ‘Iowan’? is it ‘Prohibition-era’? Is Iowa hip enough now that companies want to be us? Am I still ‘Iowan’ now that I’ll be in England for another four years? Is whiskey actually generally kind of a terrible-tasting beverage and we’re only now just able to admit it?

These are questions that I’d leave to you, dear reader, to ponder.  The outward-facing story of Templeton Rye is a heckuva story – our reaction to the stories behind it speaks to how we juggle the romance of myth with the ambiguities of how the whiskey-sausage gets made. It is also the challenge of marketing, a process which smooths over the rough edges and ambiguities of reality that I find interesting, then flounders as the complexities of life inevitably appear.

In the years since I wrote on Templeton, I’ve seen an expansion of small breweries, wineries, and distilleries in Iowa. I saw a pizza pub in my little hometown of 3,000 people decide it was going to stock 127+ bottles of beers.  I’ve met representatives from Iowa boozeries at various tastings, and they are certainly very aware of (and talkative about) how and where their ingredients are sourced and processed (its often multiple places). If you meet them, ask them about it!

I also toured the Mississippi River Distilling Company, which makes a rye whiskey – Cody Road – distilled in Iowa with German technology. The name itself is taken from their homebase LaClaire’s most famous native: ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, a showman who adapted the myths and practices of his preceding era, the Wild West, and made a career indulging both. The name “Cody Road” is a tribute and permutation, a riff on the past, a tapping into the collective American and global consciousness – and of course, indirect. The whiskey has little to do with William Cody the man or his era, but rather, makes a small claim in the heritage of place. Honesty is clarifying that connection and its claims, while culture and identity are having the latitude to indulge the soft edges of myth.

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Writing tips I have after reading my friends’ anthropology dissertations in draft form

because wordpress is refusing to upload pictures actually relevant to my dissertation

Somehow, this must become words, if it’s what your dissertation is about.

A year and a month ago, I finished my MSc dissertation in Digital Anthropology, on a topic I usually simplify to ‘atheist summer camp and how digital technology is (and isn’t) used there.’ The 16,000 words I submitted at 3:00 AM on the last grueling day may eventually become a right proper ‘publication;’ in the meantime, I shortened it to a blog post for Material World (one of several recent anthropology-themed posts of mine).

The following year (which is to say, recently), a number of my friends went through the same process, and I helped with revisions. I hope my advice was useful to them; for me, it was also an opportunity to reflect on the process of writing and editing, and emerge with what I hope are useful insights on writing composing a large, multi-draft dissertation-type document that involves theory, research, and personal experience.

The Great Draft of the Internet abounds in generic writing and productivity advice, which one could, ironically, waste a lot of time reading. Some of it’s useful, some crappy, some usefully tongue-in-cheek, some implicitly extrapolable from the exemplarily productive, including censorious dictators. As such, the aims of this document are rather modest: writing’s a personal, contextual, and highly contingent thing, and it’s probably best to learn by doing and then reflecting. However, in terms of communicating knowledge of the writing process, de-contextualized useful advice has a tendency to sound both heroic and generic, speaking to ideals while bypassing the messiness of the writing process. Also, generally speaking, it’s difficult to remember what’s commonly taught in high school, to speculate on what may or may not be taught in school internationally, and judge what’s practical and what are the (rational and irrational) bugaboos of English majors and house styles.

Drafts are liminal: never meant to be displayed, and yet, necessary to write (and then, read) to make something deliverable and definite. The finish may be pleasantly beyond one’s original vision, though – if working in good faith – also inevitably compromised by (at best) the impossibility of depicting the whole of reality, and likely: time, inexperience, fatigue, apathy, and the tendency of the present to demand your attention. As David McDougall wrote on ethnographic film, in his essay “The Fate of the Cinema Subject”:

“For the filmmaker, the film is an extract from all footage shot for it, and a reminder of the events that produced it. It reduces the experience onto a very small canvas. For the spectator, by contrast, the film is not small but large: it opens onto a wider landscape.”

Similar arguably goes for all experiences one shapes to share – and the fieldwork-based anthropology dissertation with which I’m familiar (broadly speaking) adds the challenge of considering that experience in light of a theoretical framework. The form bleeds through unevenly in the process of production, at times barely comprehensibly – especially if you’re writing on complex topics. The overall multi-draft production process involves grasping at insight where it’s thick and cogent, while at the same time keeping an eye toward potential directions as yet unknown, as well as the expectations of your readers. One could compare the writing process to participant-observation itself: being in the draft, but not of it, one eye towards the immediacy of experiences (both the writing itself and the remembrances it describes) and the other towards a larger picture, saved insights you must sort through in retrospect. In short, writing is a chronological mess of past, present, future, aspiration and practicality. It’s living inside a non-linear test of Zeno’s Paradox, moving in multiple directions but never quite reaching the end. And then (in more ways than one) you submit.

These are some of the reasons why creative work is challenging, as the dissertation writer is essentially called on to do the work of a seasoned professional, whatever his/her level of comfort or interest in the creative process itself. If you don’t much like writing, the drafting process can make you feel like an introvert delivering a wedding toast that goes on for months. This is why drafts exist: because it is impossible to do all these things at once – and why the process of writing can feel imposing and the end product can turn out pretty satisfying it you work at it.

So get to work. The earlier you start, the better. Slacking off, surfing the web, getting more coffee, re-arranging your pens – we all do it, and (like complaining) it’s an integral part of staying sane. But the actual act of writing is what contributes to the end product, and the foremost contingency of the writing process is actually doing some damn writing, after which, I promise, you will feel better. The more time you spend writing, the more room there is for you to address the content of your ideas. As suggested above, this is a matter of finding both time and energy to write. So when you have the time, be sure it coincides with the energy to be productive. And if you have time but not the focus, consider taking a break lest you spend inordinate time staring at a screen, producing nothing, and calling it “work.” Then get to actual work and don’t beat yourself up, just write.

Don’t consider it “writing” until your words form complete sentences. There was probably more pressure in the days of paper to write in complete sentences, though now the temptation is great to vomit non-linear thinking into a word processor in the hopes of re-arranging it into complete thoughts later. A computer can be a great place to store half-finished thoughts for later, but it’s also a lot of mental work to re-input gibberish back into your mind for processing, much more exhausting than if you did the filtering and processing the first time around. So, where possible, get your thoughts into complete sentences and paragraphs ASAP. No matter how hard you work, you’ll likely spend a certain period of time pre-submission working furtively revising, so it’s best to get as far as you can before you get to that final stretch.

More importantly, the sooner you write, and the sooner you make it understandable to others, the sooner you can seek personalized advice, and move forth into higher-order concerns about the arguments you’re making. That’s what your professors and peers are there for, though they don’t like to receive phone calls past midnight (when you’ll often find yourself working), so you’ll likely find yourself puttering around the Internet for advice (which may have been how you found your way here). Pages like this one are much less useful than personal review, which can supplement these general generic outlines with the specific examples with which you’re wrestling.

Speaking of those arguments you should be making: Don’t just mention things, marshal them towards ends. What’s been written has been written, and it’s only interesting and/or useful contextually to the new thing you’re making. Ideally, you should have something to communicate, and something to say about it. This is, of course, a huge challenge of making readable academic writing: using extant bits of information relevantly, placing them in sentences and paragraphs that convey your discussion goals, their information, and the contextual framework that fits them all together.

For short advice on how to do that: we all get better with practice and good thinking and writing doesn’t develop all at once (see above).  To improve in drafting, I would suggest an imperfect relationship-in-development among sentences, concepts, and sources is generally preferable to lists of the same, with little indication for the reviewer what you intend to do with them. In other words, after your prose is readable, make progress toward fitting the bits together usefully. Don’t let drafts linger too long as clusters of hesitantly-connected information.

To choose what to keep and what to discard, don’t ask yourself “Is this relevant?” Ask: How can I make this relevant?” And if you can’t, delete it. If it’s exceptionally beautiful and you can’t bring yourself to cut it, save it in another document and use it for something else down the line. Have a justification, however spurious, for why a statement / paragraph exists, which you can then use to judge its potential uses. If you’ve worked hard on a section and it still doesn’t feel right, you may be missing the obvious: it’s not working, and you should cut it. Or save it for another piece in another time, when maybe you can make it right.

For example: this blog posts starts with a short narrative that hopefully engages with a bit of drama, establishes my relevant experience, and accounts for the year’s gap between this and my previous post. I included other credentials (my professional writing experience and B.A. in Writing) in earlier drafts, but removed them because I felt they derailed the piece’s focus and failed at establishing credibility: mentioning I wrote a thesis establishes experience, but you’ll likely decide whether I’m full of crap based on the quality of writing in this article, my writing degree and other work experience be damned. I cut and pasted those sentences into another document, and eventually re-worked them into the text here. Had I not been discussing the mechanics of editing, I would have left them out – as I did a direct link to this other Material World article I wrote. All this is not just a narcissistic ploy to discuss myself:  see how vaguely relevant discussion – things mentioned, but not necessarily applied – grinds this piece to a halt? I had another two paragraphs elaborating on an example directly from my dissertation, and I spent an hour developing them, but cut them because they largely duplicated (even more chunkily) info in this paragraph. Anyway, continuing:

Use active voice. You may be attracted to passive voice because it sounds vaguely intellectual – or when you’re an undergrad, because it tends to pad out word counts. However, in the dissertation, you’re much more likely to have the problem of staying under word count. More importantly, passive voice is emblematic of an issue problematic for academic writing: a lack of specificity, the lack of clarity it produces around who performs an action.  One of the good reasons to use passive voice is to evade directly mentioning an action’s performers, which you should do strategically, not by accident.

The easiest way to fix the passive voice / specificity problem is to make sure your sentences have an actor performing an action. People and things do stuff to other people and other things: this advice was constantly drilled into my head throughout high school and college, and yet it’s so easy to slip into writing in passive voice that I did it in this very sentence.  I could correct it by saying teachers drilled this advice into my head.

The composition classic The Elements of Style also mentions this (like I said, probably the most common bit o’ writing-teacher writing advice) in its current 4th edition, section II.2, page 18. Have a read of the Elements of Style, especially sections II and IV, respectively “Elementary Principles of Composition” and “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused”; I regard sections I and III as more take-it-or-leave-it-English-teacher preoccupations.

Write the paper you‘re writing, not the paper you didn’t write. As you re-draft, you’ll probably find your paper deviates from what you originally envisioned. As I stated above, this is partially from the thrill of discovery and partially from inevitable compromises. A result is often loose ends you don’t have time to develop – usually beginning with the vestigial remains of story about what you set out to produce in the first place, a personal narrative that has an unfortunate tendency to lodge itself at the beginning of a draft and send the paper down a multi-paragraph dead end. In the case of my dissertation, I began wanting to research evangelical Christian robotics enthusiasts and wound up studying atheists in the woods.  It’s an interestingly ironic reversal, but to explain it in the context of my dissertation would have raise more questions than it answered, encouraging the reader’s mind to wander from the lengthy path ahead. Developing such scaffolding and removing it are part of developing a project, as is laying desolation to large chunks of text you poured your soul into.

Don’t wait until the last minute to write your abstract. Draft it early. And make it understandable to someone who hasn’t spent months writing your dissertation.  I’ve added mine to my website, I stamp it across the ‘publications’ on my CV, so it’s fair to say I see it often – and yet, the further I find myself removed from the process of writing it, the colder I regard it. Compressed language like that may be technically accurate, but it also does the forest-for-trees-missing thing.  Still, I’m reluctant to tinker with it because it is what I submitted: the description of the dissertation I submitted. It’s taken me a year to realize that in some respects that simplification I mentioned at the start (“atheist summer camp and how digital technology is (and isn’t) used there”) isn’t necessarily a bad thing for what it is: a vague intro, regrettably light on the more interesting theoretical concerns, but not a thesis unto itself.

When you write your dissertation, you’ll have been immersed in the subject matter for a good many months, and anyone reading your dissertation probably doesn’t have your knowledge. They may want to know it, however, and will decide whether to read it based, in large part, on your abstract. Your markers, too, may know the theory or general framework behind your subject, but may not have knowledge of your specific topic. So be sure your abstract is technically accurate and inviting to someone who is interested in your topic and wants to know more. By the end of writing, you’ll be more or less insane anyway – and for some time after your submission, you may be pre-occupied with hyper-thoughts of better wordings.

You likely don’t agree with a lot of what I’m saying. This is because you realized I’ve made assumptions that don’t resonate with you. Communication is inherently assumptive, and early drafts especially so. After you’ve had the productive burst of actually getting something on the page, you can go back and recognize those assumptions in your own writing, and in revision, give them more nuance. Practicing writing is also much more useful than listening to advice; I suspect the personal nature of writing makes it easier (after a certain point) to develop by doing than to resonantly communicate useful aspects of the process; I imagine this post will – against my better efforts – resonate more sympathetically with those who have written a dissertation than those who are beginning writing one.  Just as I’ve chosen not to go back, however, and attempt to strip these apparent subjectivities from this blog post (and it is a blog post and not a thesis, where less revision is a luxury, and the temptation to revise tends to lead me to create fewer posts), this is less an exhortation to strive for possibly unattainable-perfection than encouragement to writerly self-awareness: to understand the possibilities out of which to choose a position, and go forth confident and aware. If you’re concerned about anything, just write. 

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Part 3: Movement Between Cities

London, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Corfu, Meteora, Katerini

March 29 – April 18th

(Part One: Every City That Ever Was)

(Part Two: Mutual Awareness and Casual Exposure)

This series spans opposite sides of the summer: when it began, I was in London, getting ready to return to America for my masters’ fieldwork, describing a central European trip I took with a friend from Iowa. As I finish that story, I’m back in a London, dissertation complete, planning what to do next.  The time immediately after completing a degree (or any major project) can seem too much like a vacation: after long hours of hard work, structure suddenly disappears, leaving a more abstract sense of pressure with the next challenges. But just as in a job search, the harder parts of a vacation involve knowing where to look – and what to look for – in an environment that is by its nature unfamiliar.

Being in a distant city creates something of a paradox, and the city is (by nature) a creature of density and familiarity. In Flesh and Stone (1994), Richard Sennet describes bodies moving “passively, desensitized in space” (p.18) across the contemporary urban landscape, conquering ever-greater stretches of land experiencing it less vividly. “Space has thus become a means to the end of pure motion…the driver wants to go through the space, not to be aroused by it” (p.17-18). Despite his doom and gloom on the desensitization wrought by travel, Sennet’s larger point about the Western city is that its ideals were once marked by bodily contact and mutual awareness, whereas today it is a place where people can be together, separate. “Once a mass of bodies packed tightly together in the centers of cities, the crowd today has dispersed” (21), geographically, globally, idealistically. One of the ironies of travel is that even if the journey is ignored, destinations come with the obligation to observe. You can travel a distance by train or car through one countryside, without looking out the window, to take a tour bus through another.

Sennet opens with a quotation from Aristotle’s Poetics: “A city is composed of different kinds of men: similar people cannot bring a city into existence.” As a leisure traveler, one becomes ‘different people’ in perhaps the most literal sense – the one who has come because the place is different and renowned, without necessarily ingraining oneself in the community life of the area.

My family got lucky on the days we picked to visit my sister in Minnesota; we heard that the leaves hit their peak that weekend, which we got to see along the open fields that turn to tree-lined corridors on the drive from Iowa northward. There are valleys, trees, bends and lakes everywhere around Duluth, the city’s hillsides sloping toward Lake Superior. My sister drives past them every day on her way to work, lingering just a little less (all things considered) than the tourists in booked-up hotels who flock there on the weekends this time of year.

Duluth’s downtown is distinctly solid stone and brick, built in an industrial boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and still quite wealthy. The view over Lake Superior from its hillsides are expansive waters, a bridge to Wisconsin, industrial plateaus and residential peninsulas. Vistas like this are amazing but no less plentiful throughout the world: a lookout from on high recalls – haven’t we been here before? Water is water, right? It all flows together eventually. Such is another pardox of travel: you go to a place because its different, and find yourself only able to compare it to things that have come before. It should also go without saying that if one wants to preserve these views, they are easy to photograph casually but hard to capture in their immensity.

Devin Castle, Bratislava

Here, somewhat haphazardly, the story connects back with Europe, and a bend in the Danube at the ruins of Devin Castle, on the outskirts of Bratislava, easily accessible by the local bus lines. The remaining walls of the castle look solid, even if the absence of other walls clearly states the challenges of age, while along the road that runs along the Danube below the castle one immediately runs into an abandoned hotel. The valley and the river beyond are remarkable in how undisturbed they look, all things considered. Water, then trees on a plateau to the horizon.

When Duluth was rising, Bratislava was called Pressburg and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The fallout from WorldWar I created Czechslovakia (which encompassed Prague) and sent the majority Germans and Hungarians (split at just over 40% of the population each by the 1910 census) on a permanent vacation. Czechoslovakia peacefully split in 1992, leaving Bratislava – by then mostly Slovak – the capital of Slovakia and Prague the capital of the Czech Republic. While Bratislava is noticeably more subdued than Prague – owing, no doubt to the rain and its less tourism-centric economy – the squares of both cities were marked by Easter Markets in the season (see also, Part Two).

The Sedlac ossuary (which we visited a few days before Bratislava) can be viewed as a parody of Sennet’s ideals about the ancient city. Located at Kutna Hora (close to Prague, and like Duluth, also, a city whose wealth was tied to its mineral deposits), the church is most vividly marked by the 1870 flourishes of local craftsman František Rint: the conspicuous arrangement of the bones of 40,000 to 70,000 people, from the 13th century to the 19th , into a chandelier, stacks, coats-of-arms, and other displays.  In its immediacy, contemporary thoughts can place it terms of devotion, perversion, or simple practicality; one could find parallels, for example, in the hearts-made-of-skulls in the Paris catacombs, Ed Gein’s furniture, or (really) any number of global funerary practices. Especially around Easter it is a direct, macabre vision of the promise of the Christian resurrection. If one believes literally, this is the valley of dry bones, compacted into a single room for easy perusal. Or, as a counterpoint from one of the atheists I’ve spent time with during my fieldwork, a former undertaker – “once you’ve seen a three-day bloat, you realize no one’s coming back from that.”

Lantern lit purple for Holy Week on Corfu. On Saturday, to mark the Resurrection, the lanterns are changed to white, the color they remain until the next Holy Week.

Owing to the Orthodox Church having its Easter a week later than most other denominations’ and my travel schedule, my Easter season lasted a week longer than usual; I celebrated the holiday a second time on Corfu, a sizable Greek island off the country’s west coast. I stayed with a friend at her sister’s flat; their mom had sent a mass of food across the country (from their home in Katerini, on the east coast, and whom I would meet later in the week) with other family friends, who also shared the apartment space for the holidays.

Corfu is a holiday destination for Easter, appropriate to the mix of family, friends, and tourists that we, collectively, represented. What struck me most about the holiday was the extent to which the ritual is unified across several levels: expansively, via Christianity; nationally, via mass media; culturally, via the shared ritual; and locally, via the swelling of the city with the other friends and strangers who meet there.

The weekend is awash with the performance of traditions, including the midnight feast on Saturday following the dietary restrictions of Lent. As I mentioned, in the case of our meals, the food had been brought, literally, from the other side of the country. After this – and  throughout the weekend, at houses and in the streets – people play games of cracking hard-boiled eggs  (dyed red for Jesus’ blood) together to see whose can last the longest. The same night – with candles lit from a flame flown from Jerusalem – hundreds gathered near at the beach. We sang carols; the priest chanted beneath a gazebo, and fireworks went off, all while we tried our best to shield our flames from the salty sea breeze . These traditions – which in their immediacy, create an immense emotional, liminal effect – are reinforced as a part of things larger through the casual background noise of mass media, the televised images of celebrities, everyday people and priests throughout the country performing the same actions.

At the same time, the experience of the holidays Corfu is intensely local. The city’s bands march through the narrow, Venetian-influenced streets, performing sadder music Friday that builds to triumph on Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday morning, vases of all sizes – with messages written by local organizations – are thrown out the window of a downtown building. There are two stories I heard of the origin of the custom. One to scare off Satan in time for Jesus’ arrival; two that it was a Venetian spring cleaning custom. Whatever we’re supposed to feel about the event or the economy, the rituals throughout the weekend spill onto the sidewalks as people eat or drink, some and others not observing the prohibitions of Lent.

Corfu Streets, after the vases fall

There are so many things no one has bothered to write about in any systematic fashion. In anthropology, few people had written about play. Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1938) stood as one of the most extensive treatments, parts of which I’ve been thoroughly engaged with throughout the summer. Huizinga is, rightfully taken to task on the issue of boundaries, his portrayal of play as an activity existing in a ‘magic circle’, unbounded from ordinary existence; it is (of course) categorically not, as most famously demonstrated by Clifford Geertz’ piece on the Balinese cockfight, which described the linkages between the game and life outside, the prestige gained from one’s bird winning and the fact that people bet on their own kin group (for examples). Critiquing that same notion in modern ideas – that anything can be categorized to the point of separation – has been a recurrent theme of post-modernity; so much of modernity is the systematic putting of things into categories (“psychology” over here and “physics” over there), while post-modernity has served as an extended mediation on difficult this is in practice (see: deconstruction, Bruno Latour’s We Never Been Modern, etc etc).

Spire of St. Spyridon’s, above the markets (Corfu)

If we view Huizinga as a myth-extrapolater rather than an analyst, we can allow him some indulgences, as at least the myth of play as separate from ordinary life has remained much the same across the last century: play is often considered part of leisure, video games are considered unproductive even by those who find them fun, etc ad nausem. The points Huizinga steers his larger circle toward, further, also bear consideration: a) that play exists before other forms of communication and b) the ritual process (to him, a serious matter) shares many similarities with play: the willful assumption of other roles; suspension of ordinary norms; the entrance to a different (if not entirely separate) world; in a way, a sense of ‘pretend.’

Throughout the streets of Corfu, ritual and tourism and friends and prayer all converge and overlap. In Prague and Bratislava, tension – without a local guide to connect us to the festivities – held as my travel partner and I drifted through Easter, with the markets and their ornate, hollow delicate eggs for sale sale alongside the sex dice. Reaching Bratislava for Good Friday, we drifted through the small chapels, stopping to observe and sometimes to pray. Are we tourists, worshippers, or something in between – or are all these things not playful in Huizinga’s ? No one speaks in the chapels. If you feel a lack of belonging there, they can become an echo chamber for a (very modern Western) self-doubt in one’s own authenticity, as if anyone else’s internal thoughts could be known but to God.

Sennet rather pessimistically (or at least modestly) concludes: “In a diverse world, each person cannot explain what he or she is feeling, who he or she is, to the other….[the body’s] pain comes from God’s demand to live together as exiles” (376). Yet I would argue that in enacting the tourism pilgrimage is to play at these things, too, to experience them as inexact visions in alternate, temporary lives.

Monasteries at Meteora

Back on Corfu, my friend’s sister asked, “So you study people, right?”

We were waiting for a bus to take me to the outskirts of the city, to Pontikonisi, “Mouse Island,” a popular tourist destination and the only building on which is a small monastery.

“I do.”

I am not sure who goes to the island anymore; battered by high winds and tall waves, it seems most meant to be observed from the land.

“Aren’t people…complicated?” she asked, as the bus rolled in and the thought had to end.

See here for more pictures and detailed descriptions of:

Corfu, Meteora, and Katerini

Bratislava and Budapest

Dresden, Prague and Kutna Hora

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