Worse than Katrina? Anti-density bombs over Detroit

September 28, 2010 at 11:25 pm | In cities, futurismo, land_use, politics, scandal, social_critique, urbanism | Comments Off on Worse than Katrina? Anti-density bombs over Detroit

Caught a Sept.23 post by David Byrne today, Don’t Forget the Motor City (found via a tweet by Richard Florida). Byrne writes:

This is a city that still has an infrastructure, or some of it, for 2 million people, and now only 800,000 remain. One rides down majestic boulevards with only a few cars on them, past towering (often empty) skyscrapers. A few weeks ago I watched a documentary called Requiem For Detroit by British director Julian Temple, who used to be associated with the Sex Pistols. It’s a great film, available to watch on YouTube, that gives a context and history for the devastation one sees all around here. This process didn’t happen overnight, as with Katrina, but over many many decades. However the devastation is just as profound, and just as much concentrated on the lower echelons of society. Both disasters were man-made.

That film Byrne references – Requiem for Detroit – occupied a chunk of my evening. It’s truly haunting – unbelievable, except it’s true. (The link Byrne gives goes to Requiem for Detroit in 10-minute segments; the link above goes to the entire 1hr.16min.45sec. film – not sure how that was uploaded to Youtube, but I hope it stays up).

Byrne includes this photo, a google maps overview of a couple of “city blocks” in Detroit today …no density, hardly any houses (most have been razed, the city is trying to “shrink” itself), a sorry accompaniment to the more frightening destruction that has taken place in other areas:


I believe it was in his 1740 essay The Anti-Machiavel that Frederick the Great wrote that the Netherlands, with its small land mass but large population of educated citizens, was far richer than Russia, with its vast but sparsely populated land mass – a population furthermore kept in servitude and ignorance due to a feudal system that enshrined serfdom.

People – engaged, educated, integrated – matter more than machines or raw land. Looks like land use policies (racist) and factory practices (automobile production) came together to make Detroit turn into 18th century Russia instead of Holland.

Cynicism, laughter, and not enough time

August 17, 2010 at 11:57 pm | In comments, just_so, social_critique | Comments Off on Cynicism, laughter, and not enough time

Davin Greenwell asked me, via comments, to elaborate on yesterday’s blog post, Cynical sex/uality – he posted his comment about an hour after I published my entry, but by then it was past 12:30am and I wasn’t going to stay up to answer.

So, I thought about his question (“I thought about it, but I don’t quite get what you’re saying about Olivia. Can you elaborate?”) on and off today, and had some crazy idea about how I was going to find the time both to respond to it and write a new blog entry tonight.

As it happened, I ran into Davin tonight as I was rushing out to a meeting – and my day had been one of those stupid days of running from one thing to another anyway, with no time for posting any replies (or answering emails or doing other desk-related things), but we had a chance to talk for 5 minutes about cynicism, laughter, and the differences between laughing with versus laughing at.

It’s all still just half-thought-out in my own mind, but after settling down at about 10:30 tonight (post-meeting), I did end up writing a response to Davin’s question. And my post for today is simply going to be a pointer back to my response.

Cynical sex/uality

August 16, 2010 at 11:39 pm | In health, just_so, media, offspring, social_critique | 3 Comments

Interesting article in Macleans Magazine this week: Outraged moms, trashy daughters (How did those steeped in the women’s lib movement produce girls who think being a sex object is powerful?), by Anne Kingston.

On beauty “standards”:

“It’s worse than the 1950s,” says the mother of a 24-year-old, referring to the ubiquity of Photoshop and cosmetic surgery creating beauty standards more unattainable than ever. (source)

Kingston references the work of Susan Douglas, author of Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done, who might well be leaning on Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason. Sloterdijk explains cynicism as an “enlightened false consciousness”:

…a sensibility ‘well off and miserable at the same time,’ able to function in the workaday world yet assailed by doubt and paralysis. (source)

In other words, enlightened false consciousness (or cynicism) is that awful, gooey, nudge-nudge-wink-wink sort of “enlightenment,” where you get to joke about your chains …because you’ve already given up on ideals like freedom or equality – including freedom from constant “doubt and paralysis” about your looks…

“Enlightened sexism” makes an awful kind of sense in a world already furrowed by cynicism. The seed is easy enough to sow. From Kingston’s article, quoting Douglas:

“Enlightened sexism” is Douglas’s term for this new climate, one based on the presumption that women and men are now “equal,” which allows women to embrace formerly retrograde concepts, such as “hypergirliness,” and seeing “being decorative [as] the highest form of power,” she writes. What really irks her is how a Girls Gone Wild sensibility has been sold to women as “empowerment,” that old feminist mantra. But in this version, men are the dupes, “nothing more than helpless, ogling, crotch-driven slaves” of “scantily clad or bare-breasted women [who] had chosen to be sex objects.”

Douglas says she was inspired to write the book after noticing what seemed to be a glaring disconnect between the prime-time shows aimed at her generation—Grey’s Anatomy, CSI, The Closer, all featuring tough-talking, assured women who don’t use their sexuality to get what they want—and the programming aimed at her daughter. Eventually she came to believe both kinds of shows were perpetuating the myth that feminism’s work was over: “both mask, even erase how much still remains to be done for girls and women. The notion that there might, indeed, still be an urgency to feminist politics? You have to be kidding.” [emphasis added] (source)

There’s a resonance with cynicism in the embrace of “hyper-sexualization” that suggests to me that we’re talking also about economic and class issues, as well as socialized power structures (peer groups), both of which can exert pressures independent of gender issues (even as they’re expressed at that level).

Re. the latter (peer groups): As readers of this blog know by now, I home-schooled my son and daughter (which, depending on your point of view, makes us very odd or puts us at the cutting edge of edu-punking the school system). Both of my kids (aged 19 and 16) are now at university, entering their 3rd and 2nd years, respectively. (That is, they’re not chained to the bed-posts in their rooms, or otherwise hiding or being hidden away from “society” – just thought I should make sure that’s understood…)

And: we also don’t watch TV (except for what we can watch on the internet or rent at the video store – but no cable for us). This cut out two immense forces of peer pressure and homogenization – forces that are often negative. (I’m not a fan of the alleged “socialization” provided by the K-12 factory school setting.) Reading about girls who think it’s ok that MTV uses as promotional material a clip of Snooki (a female participant in Jersey Shore) getting punched in the face by a guy makes me wonder if we’re all living on the same planet. My 16-year-old daughter wouldn’t agree with 15-year-old Olivia, quoted in Kingston’s article:

“It’s so ridiculous, it’s funny,” she says of the show. “I don’t relate that to my life at all. I wonder, ‘Why would you do that?’ But it’s enjoyable to watch.” [emphasis added] (source)

If you think about it, you have to conclude that Olivia is cynical – full of enlightened false consciousness.

And then you have to ask yourself why a 15-year-old girl could be cynical – and what will that look like when she’s several decades older.

Potted economy

August 6, 2010 at 10:22 pm | In addiction, crime, politics, social_critique | 2 Comments

Everybody is talking /writing) about pot, including pot in Canada, it seems. Nothing new, really: every Canadian (especially every British Columbian) knows it’s a resource and a big economic contributor.

Now a recent Guardian article by Douglas Haddow, Marijuana may cause Canada’s economic comedown, prompted even our local press conglomerate to publish a pretty good piece, Could legal California pot send Canadian profits up in smoke?, that takes a closer look at what’s surely a most interesting ecosystem of resource and distribution.

It’s not news to read that marijuana production is a big piece of British Columbia’s economy. And it’s not inspiring to read that we could kneecap the criminal element with the stroke of a pen (by legalizing marijuana production and distribution, and controlling it, the way we control and tax alcohol and cigarettes). I don’t care for pot myself – haven’t smoked it in decades, mainly because it’s not like wine, which goes with food (and I like my pleasures well-rounded!). That said, wine isn’t entirely harmless either, is it?

But wine is legal, and we have a culture of wine – whatever culture of pot actually exists doesn’t yank my chain, but that, too, speaks to the importance of cultures, which are created and nurtured, never given in a vacuum or created ex nihilo.

Right now, we’re creating a culture of pot that’s not exactly desirable.

I’d like to see a rational approach to “soft” drugs like marijuana especially, which would knock the legs out from under organized crime and gangs. And then, by all means, let’s go after the a-holes that produce and spread crack and meth (which imo is total poisonous garbage).

See, my take is this: Lumping all the qualities – the various drugs – together as a similar quantity is a huge, huge mistake. Instead, differentiate and sort the qualities: there are differences between pot versus crack or meth or IV drugs. When the legal system makes these very different qualities into the same thing, no one wins. I don’t want to get into discussions around legalizing hard drugs and garbage drugs – it seems to me (and this may sound cruel) that they affect such a small percentage of the population as to warrant a different approach that excludes accommodation. Marijuana, on the other hand, is total mainstream – has been since I was a kid, and I’m all grown up. Wasn’t a gateway back then for most of us, and isn’t a gateway now – the dastardly bastard organized crime element, however, is: they’re a vector for evil. They’re a gateway, no doubt about it, but it’s one that’s easy enough to close …through legalization.

My two cents.

Tenure “what-if”

July 8, 2010 at 10:31 pm | In education, social_critique | Comments Off on Tenure “what-if”

Of course the question of tenure has crossed my mind repeatedly. Having nuked my academic career by becoming a home-schooling parent instead of a professor, I relinquished claims to respectability long ago – ten years ago. But even that long ago, the question of tenure seemed an obvious problem to me, even if it wasn’t, at the time, getting much attention (I could never figure out why it wasn’t getting attention: it seemed like such a canary in the whiskey bar – a fat bird singing: anyone could hear it!).

I had friends who, like me, were highly qualified, but were scrambling to cobble together teaching gigs at various underpaying colleges in the region – one extremely qualified woman was driving hundreds of miles weekly to teach at a couple of cheap (pay-wise) and far-flung colleges in Boston and another in faraway Fitchburg. I could count on two fingers of one hand the number of friends who got tenure-track jobs. The year I received my PhD (1991), the Mellon Foundation published some flapdoodle trend paper about how we were going to be the golden generation who would step into the positions opened up by the cohort of upcoming retirees. Well, the upcomers didn’t retire, and the universities didn’t re-hire. At least not on the tenure track. The universities hired adjunct teachers instead – the excuse at the time was that the recession of the late 80s had finally caught up with academe.

I’m not sure what the excuse was in the intervening years, when the economy bubbled into hyper-drive. God knows many colleges were positively giddy about their bulging endowments. Yet the trend to adjunct teaching continued, and tenure kept shrinking.

Is this a question also of “brand” schools gutting themselves from the inside out?

If that’s the case, then parents – shelling out huge sums of money – are paying for a chimera.

See Tenure, RIP (Chronicle of Higher Education):

Making the obscene seen

June 7, 2010 at 10:36 pm | In ideas, scandal, social_critique | 4 Comments

I chose a couple of redesigned BP logos to illustrate yesterday’s Sunday Diigo Links Post, even though my links weren’t related to the oilspill. They just struck me as appropriate. One in particular caught my attention:


The design is part of LogoMyWay’s BP Logo Redesign Contest. It was submitted by Gremlin (no further information logged about this designer, except s/he’s in Australia).

Anyway, it’s a damn good piece of work, to my mind, and it caught the attention of melanieb (also in Australia, coincidentally) who reads and comments often on my posts. She wrote:

I’m so old! I know that first reworked BP logo. It’s the south vietnamese police colonel assassinating a burglar (dressed up in the propaganda as a viet cong) in the street. I don’t know quite why, but I don’t think even BP deserves that.

I commented back, consequently thinking a bit more about what, exactly, made that redesign work for me. Let’s look at it a bit more closely…

First, here’s the famous photo by Eddie Adams that “Gremlin” references:


I can’t remember when I first saw it – I was 12 in 1968 and didn’t become aware of it until several years later. But take yourself back to an age perhaps more reserved, consider what is shown (a man being executed), and something new comes into focus.

In my comment I wrote, “…the designer latched on to something important: that photo seems to be the first instance of mainstream [media] obscenity, and linking the obscene to what’s happening in the Gulf seemed somehow right.” Then I tried “thinking out loud” about what I meant by “mainstream obscenity”:

I think this photo might be the first time that we saw an image in “respectable” mainstream media of a murder – a death – as it happens. Until then, people heard about pornographic films in which victims were actually “snuffed” out, but only sickos would seek out a snuff film (or produce one). Showing the act of murder was too much of a taboo, literally ob-scene. So for me, this photo marks a divide between what was unacceptable and what was acceptable to depict: it literally wrenched the goalposts into new territory.
The connection to BP might be that the current disaster, while it competes for First Place in the Hall of Shame (that is, other disasters have happened or are happening right now that compete for top prize), is going to do something similar: move the ob-scene into the scene/seen, and force us to deal with it. For years, environmental despoliation has been going on in Nigeria. For years, we’ve been burning these hydrocarbons and pumping the waste into the atmosphere – to the point where we’re now facing climate change that has potentially catastrophic consequences for us as a species. We’ve managed to cover these obscenities up, make them invisible. The BP disaster might change that, as Eddie Adam’s photo did.

Somewhere in the back of my head, my thinking was informed by feminist theory I read decades ago, but I had a hard time finding the right references online. Typing variations of a search string that included the words “obscene seen scene” into google wasn’t generating helpful links…

Finally, out of the googly blue, in Romanticism, Materialism, and the Origins of Modern Pornography, a 2001 article by Bradford K. Mudge (U. of Colorado, Denver) about George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a useful definition of the obscene-ness I was thinking of came up. Mudge quotes a passage from Middlemarch (p.92), in which Eliot describes Lydgate’s intellectual epiphany. The key sentence (from Eliot’s novel):

A liberal education had of course left him free to read the indecent passages in the school classics, but beyond a general sense of secrecy and obscenity in connection with his internal structure, had left his imagination quite unbiassed, so that for anything he knew his brains lay in small bags at his temples, and he had no more thought of representing to himself how his blood circulated than how paper served instead of gold.

From here, Mudge describes how the passage (it’s a longer passage than my extract above) offers “a series of artfully managed oppositions,” the most important of which is between the known and the unknown. Mudge writes:

Of particular interest is Eliot’s choice of the word “obscene.” (…) From the Greek meaning “off or behind the stage,” “obscenity” suggests that which is visually prohibited—because of its violent, coarse, or sexual nature—but that which is indispensable to, if not the cause of, the staged events.

Visually prohibited, obscenity belongs to the unknown (until it is seen, erupting as full-blown obscenity) – but, even though existing off-stage (un-seen, off-scene, ob-scene), it is “indispensable to, if not the cause of, the staged [seen] events.”

That’s the definition of obscenity I was looking for when I typed my comment, and it applies to Adams’s photo.

The photo is obscene: it reveals a visually prohibited aspect (full-frontal murder) of what was “indispensable to, if not the cause of, the staged events” conveyed by more traditional media representations of the war. And its obscenity made it an anti-war icon: it marks a watershed in what was henceforth allowed into mainstream representation, wrenched the goalposts into new territory by making it impossible to stop seeing the ob-scene. What was off-stage moved on-stage. …Of course we could now quibble and say, “well, if it’s no longer off-stage but on-stage, it’s not obscene,” but that’s just part of how the goalposts have moved. Obscenity is notoriously like art: you know it when you see it.

What’s the relation to BP and the oilspill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and why do I think appropriating Adams’s photo makes sense?

The current oilspill clusterfuck in the Gulf is obscene: an eruption onto the stage (into the scene/ the seen) of what was off-stage as far as the oil-guzzling public is concerned, even as its obscene-ness was (is) “indispensable to, if not the cause of, the staged [seen] events” (i.e., our habitual consumption of petroleum).

Now, however, we’ve all seen that huge obscene mess, and just as Adams’s photo made it impossible to pretend that obscenity wasn’t “indispensable” to the events on stage, the Gulf spill makes it impossible to pretend that our obscene dependence on petroleum can continue unchecked.

A bird is mired in oil on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast on Thursday, June 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) (source)

Gentrification 2.0?

June 5, 2010 at 11:22 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, cities, homelessness, housing, innovation, jane_jacobs, land_use, social_critique, vancouver | 2 Comments

The title of my post is semi-serious, semi-ironic. I’m ambivalent about gentrification: if it means unslumming, I figure it’s good; if it means homogenization toward a single class (typically privileged) at the expense of economic diversity, it’s probably not-so-good, right?

When I write “Gentrification 2.0,” I’m saying that I’m not sure how this particular example – The Woodward’s Project in Vancouver – will play out. It’s 2.0 insofar as it’s not unslumming in Jane Jacobs’s sense, nor is it private market gentrification. It’s an interesting hybrid.

Canada’s National Post newspaper has started a series of articles about the Woodward’s Project. The reporter is Brian Hutchinson, who focuses on the neighborhood (Downtown East Side) and the social implications of putting a spiffy mixed-use high-rise development into its center. This is an unusual development, however: it has “125 fully equipped apartments reserved for low-income singles, and 75 spacious units reserved for families; 80% of the family apartments are rented at below-market rates” (source), while at the same time it also boasts market-rate condos valued at over $1million and provides the better-off residents with rooftop luxuries that afford (to use a word Hutchinson used) “bacchanalian” excess.

I wrote about the Woodward’s Project after taking my daughter to lunch in Vancouver for her birthday. It’s a fascinating project, and I’m looking forward to reading the entire series. Hutchinson is “embedded” at Woodward’s for a whole month.

Women in movies: where are they?

May 27, 2010 at 11:00 pm | In arts, guerilla_politics, ideas, media, social_critique, women | Comments Off on Women in movies: where are they?

Last night, while I was scribbling away on my “-ectomy” post, the spouse and son popped My Man Godfrey into the DVD player. We’ve all seen the movie multiple times, but it has such great dialogue that it’s a cinch to watch often.

Tonight, I’m not writing the blog post now in my (imaginary) “must-write” queue (namely, a follow-up to Salim Jiwa’s presentation at Social Media Club Victoria) because I went to PechaKucha Night Victoria Vol.2. Instead, tonight’s post is a quickie about movies.

So I’ll just leave you with a short video I watched this afternoon, The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies (only 2minutes 2seconds long). It made me wonder how well My Man Godfrey stands up to Bechdel’s test.



Even though My Man Godfrey is a classic romantic comedy where everything revolves around the girl-gets-guy story, I’d say it passes the test. Cornelia and Irene (sisters) talk to each other – often enough it’s sibling rivalry and they fight about men, but they also talk about other things; Angelica (mother) converses with her daughters; and Molly (maid) talks to Irene – albeit about Godfrey. Godfrey certainly does, as per the film’s title, dominate many of the conversations, but at least the women have personalities and can talk to one another about different topics.

Then what’s with the slew of more recent films that fly by in feministfrequency‘s video – all of which fail Bechdel’s test?  Have men become more immature in recent decades and lost their balls (or are we – all of us – too culturally adapted to “swallowing” cartoonish men)? Even Princess Bride – a wonderful film – fails the test. Sure, it’s tongue-in-cheek, but let’s prick the fairy-tale balloon for a sec. It’s as if Buttercup is a proto-mommy, a mother in waiting, on the cusp of taking care of the boy who ran away to become a pirate.

Women don’t have conversations amongst themselves on topics not related to the little boys who are the apples of their mommies’ eyes (stuck in some strange mirror stage)… It’s segregation, a mono-culture (one-dimensional), over-processed (like Wonder Bread) – comfortable, goes down easy, practically digests itself.

Possible solution? Go to film festivals and watch movies outside the Wonder Bread mainstream.


The mirror stage describes the formation of the Ego via the process of identification, the Ego being the result of identifying with one’s own specular image. At six months the baby still lacks coordination (see Louis Bolk); however, it can recognize itself in the mirror before attaining control over its bodily movements. The child sees its image as a whole, and the synthesis of this image produces a sense of contrast with the uncoordination of the body, which is perceived as a fragmented body. This contrast is first felt by the infant as a rivalry with its own image, because the wholeness of the image threatens it with fragmentation, and thus the mirror stage gives rise to an aggressive tension between the subject and the image. To resolve this aggressive tension, the subject identifies with the image: this primary identification with the counterpart is what forms the Ego. (Dylan Evans, op.cit) The moment of identification is to Lacan a moment of jubilation since it leads to an imaginary sense of mastery. (Écrits, “The Mirror Stage”) Yet, the jubilation may also be accompanied by a depressive reaction, when the infant compares his own precarious sense of mastery with the omnipotence of the mother. (La relation d’objet) This identification also involves the ideal ego which functions as a promise of future wholeness sustaining the Ego in anticipation.
The mirror stage shows that the Ego is the product of misunderstanding – Lacan’s term “méconnaissance” implies a false recognition – and the place where the subject becomes alienated from itself: the process by which the ego is formed in the Mirror Stage is at the same time the institution of alienation from the symbolic determination of being. In this sense méconnaissance is an imaginary misrecognition of a symbolic knowledge that the subject possesses somewhere. It must be emphasized again that the Mirror Stage introduces the subject into the Imaginary order.
The Mirror Stage has also a significant symbolic dimension. The symbolic order is present in the figure of the adult who is carrying the infant: the moment after the subject has jubilantly assumed his image as his own, he turns his head toward this adult who represents the big Other, as if to call on him to ratify this image. (source)

Time, from A to Z (Zimbardo, that is)

May 22, 2010 at 11:31 pm | In creativity, education, health, ideas, leadership, social_critique | Comments Off on Time, from A to Z (Zimbardo, that is)

If you haven’t seen Philip Zimbardo‘s 2008 presentation, The Time Paradox, at California’s Commonwealth Club, do yourself a favor and take the time to watch it now. If you do, you’ll understand why it’s a good idea to stop waiting for your ship to come in…

Zimbardo‘s analysis of how we parse time (how we value it, how we picture it to ourselves, what we tell ourselves about time) obviously provides insights for individuals. But he also has a lot to say about its ability to shape social groups and even economic trends.

Regarding the latter, check out this screen shot, nearly 50 minutes into his talk:


It says:

Current Financial Meltdown on Wall Street and Elsewhere

Is caused by motivated collective GREED that

interferes with wise, future-oriented decisions of

need for reserves and cautious loans and


for short-term present-focused quick gains,

failure to discount future costs against immediate

taste of the $$Marshmallow$$


Zimbardo is talking about present-oriented perceptions of time (centered on immediate gratification), which dominated the time leading to our current economic crisis. For example, in 2002, one in fifty loans were sub-prime; by 2008, it was one in three: that pervasive culture of risk-taking hadn’t been socially acceptable in earlier generations. $$Marshmallow$$ refers to an experiment with children, testing their ability to delay gratification (those who could delay correlated with more socio-economic success as adults while those who couldn’t correlated with riskier behaviors, including drug use, and socio-economic drawbacks). And by “the commons dilemma,” Zimbardo refers to despoliation of a common good (the commons) for individual short-term competitive gain (he specifically refers to the Monterey sardine fishery, now defunct because of over-fishing).

There’s lots more in Zimbardo’s talk (see also The Time Paradox website). From insights regarding how different members within my family perceive time (and what that does to inter-personal dynamics, or to issues relating to attitude, depression, and even energy), to how the place I live in has a different (and often habitually crippling) perception of time and therefore also toward change (which has immense political implications, especially here), Zimbardo’s insights are remarkably rewarding.

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