Monthly Archives: May 2005

Salford Quays (and more)

The Salford Quays are being billed as the new cultural centre in Manchester. That’s where the Lowry theatre is, it’s where the fancy new Imperial War Museum North is, and it is pretty darn close to that football stadium, Old Trafford, and that humongeously big shopping centre, the Trafford Centre. I’ve taken some pictures to illustrate the fancyness of that area.

Main entrance of The Lowry

The Lowry seen from across the Manchester Ship Canal. You can’t see it from these pictures, but despite the apparent fanciness of this building, the interior is done in the most hideous purple-and-orange colour scheme that you ever saw. The whole of the main theatre is purple: Walls, carpets, chairs, everything.

The bridge crossing the Canal, connecting the Lowry with the Imperial War Museum (and the Peel Holdings building, pictured – Peel Holdings controlled most of the traffic on the canal, and set about turning the area into this fancy thing).

Ah, the Imperial War Museum North. Designed by famous architect Daniel Libeskind – also known for the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the 9/11 Memorial in New York. Apparently, the idea is that the three arches represent war on land, on sea and in the air.

Right.

The Trafford Centre is a truly amazing place. Built to resemble a late 19th century World Exhibition, it contains an incredible range of fake scenery. Apart from the New Orleans-inspired food court, and the China Town inspired ditto in each wing, there is is this really big open space meant to look like the sun deck of an ocean liner, complete with fake swimming pool and proper dance floor where lots of 60-somethings enjoy a bit of Foxtrot on a lovely Thursday afternoon. The shopping mall aesthetic is taking to an extreme (I hope), and it really begs a question or two. I recommend Mike Davis’ City of Quartz for an examination of the rise of the Shopping Mall, though not of the actual aesthetics used.

Finally a couple of pictures from a recent sunny day in Manchester.

(This final picture is scaled down, and can be downloaded and used as a background merely by right-clicking (unless you’re using a Mac, of course 😉 )

The End of the Moon

This Tuesday, I went to Manchester’s fanciest theatre venue, the Lowry, built on the remains of Manchester’s old industrial harbour at the Salford Quays, some two miles outside the city centre.

I went to see a show, part music, part poetry, part storytelling, with one of the world’s most interesting and famously obscure (but then again, aren’t they all?) performance artists, Laurie Anderson. The show is called The End of the Moon, and is centered on her two years as “Artist in Residence” with NASA. No, really.

She was as surprised as everybody else when they offered her the position as artist in residence, and none of the NASA dudes seemed to have given much thought to what she would actually do as an artist in the hi-tech temple of the final frontier.

So she milled about, saw the jet propulsion lab, mission control, take off centre and so on, asked questions and studied files, until they finally asked her to make a report on her findings. Since she was fired halfway through her first draft, as some senator stumbled upon the words “Artist in residence” in the NASA budget, and didn’t think that that looked too good, she decided to change directions with that report, and this show is meant to be it.

It’s just Laurie on a dark stage, covered with candles, playing her violin and telling anecdotes about NASA, life in general and odd bits of pseudo-philosophy. Her voice is the focal point of it all, so soothing and dreamy, that alone would be enough.

But of course, it helps that she is occasionally witty, occasionally poetic and mysteriously intense all the time. I quite enjoyed it.

Paul Ricoeur RIP

The French literary theorist and philosopher Paul Ricoeur died this Friday, aged 92.

Ricoeur worked dialectically, drawing upon hermeneutics, phenomenology, existentialism, as well as historical and literary theory, not so much to create theoretical synthesis, but rather to juxtapose the differences of the various ideas. He combined these ideas through what he called a hermeneutic arc – drawn between two antithetical positions, to show how they could go together by linking them together in a way that marks the place of one position in the context of the other.

This unique method of non-synthetic mediation is central to Ricoeur’s thinking, and very enlightening, though sometimes frustrating to read. The way he respects the plurality of voices and questions of others while still searching for his own answers is a surprisingly humble and balanced method of enquiry. Someone out there likens Ricoeur’s mediation of philosophical debates to a good referee calling a game: he doesn??t get in the way of the play and he usually makes the right call.

His work was definitely some of the most interesting and compelling theoretical stuff I’ve read during my time studying Comparative Literature. And the humility and honesty with which he wrote indicates a thoughtful and considerate man whose voice will be sorely missed.

Prequels

LUKE: No, my father didn’t fight in the wars. He was a navigator on a
spice freighter.

BEN: That’s what your uncle told you. He didn’t hold with your
father’s ideals. Thought he should have stayed here and not gotten
involved.

LUKE: You fought in the Clone Wars?

BEN: Yes, I was once a Jedi Knight the same as your father.

LUKE: I wish I’d known him.

BEN: He was the best star-pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior.
I understand you’ve become quite a good pilot yourself. And he was a
good friend. Which reminds me…

Ben gets up and goes to a chest where he rummages around.
As Luke finishes repairing Threepio and starts to fit the
restraining bolt back on, Threepio looks at him nervously.
Luke thinks about the bolt for a moment then puts it on the
table. Ben shuffles up and presents Luke with a short handle
with several electronic gadgets attached to it.

BEN: I have something here for you. Your father wanted you to have
this when you were old enough, but your uncle wouldn’t allow it. He
feared you might follow old Obi-Wan on some damned-fool idealistic
crusade like your father did.

THREEPIO: Sir, if you’ll not be needing me, I’ll close down for
awhile.

LUKE: Sure, go ahead.

Ben hands Luke the saber.

LUKE: What is it?

BEN: Your fathers lightsaber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not
as clumsy or as random as a blaster.

Luke pushes a button on the handle. A long beam shoots out
about four feet and flickers there. The light plays across the
ceiling.

BEN: An elegant weapon for a more civilized time. For over a thousand
generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice
in the Old Republic. Before the dark times, before the Empire.

Luke hasn’t really been listening.

LUKE: How did my father die?

BEN: A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he
turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi
Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father. Now the Jedi are all
but extinct. Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force.

LUKE: The Force?

BEN: Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy
field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us.
It binds the galaxy together.

Artoo makes beeping sounds.

BEN: Now, let’s see if we can’t figure out what you are, my little
friend. And where you come from.

LUKE: I saw part of the message he was…

Luke is cut short as the recorded image of the beautiful
young Rebel princess is projected from Artoo’s face.

BEN: I seem to have found it.

Luke stops his work as the lovely girl’s image flickers
before his eyes.

LEIA: General Kenobi, years ago you served my father in the Clone
Wars. Now he begs you to help him in his struggle against the Empire.
I regret that I am unable to present my father’s request to you in
person, but my ship has fallen under attack and I’m afraid my mission
to bring you to Alderaan has failed. I have placed information vital
to the survival of the Rebellion into the memory systems of this R2
unit. My father will know how to retrieve it. You must see this droid
safely delivered to him on Alderaan. This is our most desperate hour.
Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.

There is a little static and the transmission is cut short.
Old Ben leans back and scratches his head. He silently puffs
on a tarnished chrome water pipe. Luke has stars in his eyes.

BEN: You must learn the ways of the Force if you’re to come with me to
Alderaan.

… maybe Lucas should just have left it at that.

Having now seen all three of the prequels, I find that between them, they only have enough material for 2 films at the most. The story is stretched thin, reaching and exposing foregone conclusions of the original Star Wars trilogy, positively ruining all the plot twists and surprises of those films, as well.

By adding the three prequels, the total six films now put focus on Anakin Skywalker, a hero turned villain. The prequels were to describe his rise to power and fall to the dark side. Potentially good stuff – high drama and space opera of the best caliber.

But no.

The first film is pissed away with Jar-Jar Binks antics, pod-racing and similar irrelevancies, introducing Anakin, but hardly making him very interesting (annoying, rather).

The second film introduces romance, saber-fights, lots of action and digital effects, but no nerve, lots of building up, but no climax. All of it suffering from bad dialogue, lack of humor and a distinctive cartoonish feel. Now a teenager, Anakin is an even more annoying sulk whose inner conflicts of unallowed love, ambition for wondrous abilities to change what he cannot bring himself to accept and lack of belief in the jedi code completely fail to capture the audience.

The third film (and this is the meat of the matter) is meant to be the climax of the series. The Peripeteia of Anakin’s fate. Amidst all the colourful digital effects,
the love story, the story of hopeful ambition to change the for the better, the story of a failing democracy are concluded to some degree. Anakin is now grimly determined young man, but he appears even more one-dimensional than farmboy Luke ever did, and his expected destruction lacks the epic drama hoped for. His teenage sulk skips mature anger in order to go straight to homocidal insanity.

All the way through these prequels, it feels like Lucas is just going through the motions rather than wanting to tell the story that could be. It all feels very forced, very uneven and very, very dumb. Sure, the characters of the original Star Wars weren’t brilliant, but they were believable in a way that the characters of the prequels simply are not. It often feels like Lucas prefers doing the action sequences as he won’t have to actually write any dialogue. And the dialogue he does produce is really, really bad:

Man: “You’re so beautiful.”
Woman: “It’s only because I’m so in love.”
Man: “No, it’s because I’m so in love with you.”

Argh.

All the way through, the actors aren’t allowed to act, as much as they have to say precisely what they feel at any given moment: I love you, I hate you, I loved you, You betrayed me.

It’s comically thin, and it’s an awful shame. All the epic, shakespearian potential for drama and criticism of American war-mongering is easily drowned in special effects and headless directing.

And though it probably would make a good computer game, I’d rather have been without it. The grandeur of just hinting at great battles and bold heroism is ever greater than spelling it out so unconvincingly as here. And perhaps that is the biggest trouble with these three films. They’re telling stories already hinted at, already imagined by thousands of fans – and in this case, film is indeed a weak aid for the imagination.

Evil empire?

George Lucas finally admits to the political undertones in Star Wars:

Asked whether Star Wars Episode III openly alluded to the Iraq war, he said: “When I wrote it Iraq didn’t exist. We were funding Saddam Hussein and giving him weapons of mass destruction. We were going after Iran. But the parallels between what we did in Vietnam and what we are doing in Iraq are unbelievable.”

Maybe he’s just being anti-imperialist because he’s currently in France promoting his new film, but it is a big step to put the entire Star Wars mythos into a current political context. Good stuff.

Being a geek, I will hope to see the film sometime Friday, but until then, you can test your mad Jedi skillz here.

Oh, and in completely unrelated news, I’ve turned in three essays so far, leaving only the one on time and technology which is due on Thursday. Summer is beckoning.

David Graeber, ph.d

One of the few radically politically active anthropologists today is David Graeber, currently of Yale University. He has written some brilliant articles on the new generation of “anti-globalization” radicals, among who he has been doing some informal fieldwork of late.

Among his articles I can recommend his look upon the role of anarchism as a leftist ideology in the 21st century, his analysis of the original meaning of the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss’ classic article on reciprocity and his review of the development of a global anti-capitalism movement.

All of his writings are fiercely anti-capitalistic, wonderfully passionate, witty, honest and unusually easily read for such heavy academic material. I read his small book, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology last year, and I found very it well worth the time.

If you like his articles, even if you do not agree with all of his ideas, maybe you would be interested in signing the petition started by local students to keep him at Yale, where the administration and faculty have refused to renew his two year teaching contract – apparently because of his political views.

Young egos hurting

Despite all of my exam induced disciplinary reading of only the most relevant of materials, I still managed to find to read Tom Wolfe‘s latest book I am Charlotte Simmons which was recommended to me by my stepfather.

It’s a novel telling the story of one young ms. Charlotte Simmons, arriving from her outback North Carolina village at the prestigious Dupont college on her ambitious way to the stars of modern academia, and finding that college life isn’t quite what she had expected. With promiscuous sex, drinking, drugs, massive ambitions and weekly worship ceremonies of the local sports teams, Tom Wolfe, now 74, describes American college life based on extensive research through numerous American campuses.

It’s funny how a man that old finds college life, even though he does his best to tell his story through the perspective of his characters in the style indirect libre, his ironic amusement with the complete self-absorbed hedonism of these young people seems evident.

The book has received very mixed reviews, some praising its sharp criticism of how the colleges with their heavy focus on sports teams, often more so than any actual research, others have slated it for being too focused on the sex and alcohol, unfocused and overly long. I think both groups of reviewers miss the mark by a certain length and that Wolfe most of all seeks to make a subtle statement about “young people” today, rather well wrapped in apparently shocking sex and drugs.

I had good fun reading the book and comparing it to Madame Bovary which seems to be Wolfe’s main stylistic inspiration. Just like Flaubert, Wolfe never actually judges the moral actions of the characters but rather hides behind the individual perspectives of the characters to describe one another. And these American teenagers are immensely cruel.

As Charlotte’s rich, intolerable Paris Hilton-lookalike roommate explains it, there’s a system of sarcasm meant to keep people in their place. Wit and coolness are as important as anything in this system. The system breaks down like this:

“Sarc One is when I look at you, and I say, ‘Ohmygod, a cerise shirt. Cerise is such an in color this year.’ That’s just ordinary intentionally obvious sarcasm.”

“… in Sarc Two you say the same thing, only in a sympathetic voice that sounds like totally sincere. ‘Oh, wow, Bev, I love that color. Cerise. That’s like so-o-o-o-o cool. Unnhhh…no wonder it’s so like…in this year.’ By the time you get to the ‘so in this year,’ your voice is dripping with so much syrup and like… sincerity, it finally dawns on the other person that she’s getting fucked over. What you’ve really been saying is that you don’t love the color, you don’t think it’s cool, and it’s not ‘in’ this year. It’s the delay in it dawning on her that makes it hurt. Okay?”

“Okay. In Sarc Three you make the delay even longer, so it really hurts when she finally gets it. We’ve got the same situation. The girl’s getting ready to go out, and she has on this cerise shirt. She thinks it’s really sexy, a real turn-on, a she’s gonna score big-time. You start off sounding straight – you know, flattering, but not like laying it on too thick. You’re like, ‘Wow, Bev, I love that shirt. Where’d you get it? How perfect is that? It’s so versatile. It’ll be perfect for job interviews and it’ll be perfect for community service.'”
(pp. 133-134)

Sarc 4 is only hinted at, but I think Tom Wolfe would like to think that his book is operating on this level, enveloping the bigger sarcastic remark in a smaller one. By focusing on the extremes of American college life, the Jocks and the geeks, the Fraternity and Sorority crowds and innocent freshmen shocked and fascinated with it all, he creates easily recognizable stereotypes that it’s easy to relate to and make fun of. Yet, by accepting these stereotypes and that fun, we as readers at the same time have to accept more and more of other elements as the novel progresses, slowly peeling away at the egotistical and vain onion that is young people today, whether they want to save the world or not.

Charlotte is the obvious main character, with her complete faith in her own abilities and her impending success (at any time she suffers a setback of some sort, she steels herself to the words: I am Charlotte Simmons, and no wrong can harm her. She will succeed). In this way, the book attempts to put poor young Charlotte into a role much like that of Emma Bovary: Innocent, yet tempted by all the wonders she sees, she slowly grows bolder until her teenage passions and fascination with the cool crowd make her vulnerable to the inevitable sarcasm, plunging her into deep depression.

But also her three suitors – the popular basketball player Jojo, frat dude and coolness incarnate Hoyt, and the ‘millenial mutant’, geek and would-be intellectual Adam – are all just as self-centered as Charlotte, driven by uninhibited social ambition to rise up beyond their sad lower middleclass or working class backgrounds. They all attempt to play by the different sets of rules offered them in their various arenas of interest (ghetto-attitudes and disinterest in learning, cool-factor and disinterest in learning, political and social consciousness and interest in learning, respectively). While, at the same time either giving into or abstaining from their sexual drives as might fit them.

Wolfe has a field day combining young cool and ambition with the inherent insecurities and unfazed self-centeredness of that age. And it does work quite well. Through Charlotte’s Nobel-prize winning Neuroscience lecturer discussing the extent to which our genetic code decides our actions, Wolfe indirectly introduces a lovely metaphor for the social and cultural inheritance nested in the hopes and ambitions that all of these young people bring with them from their parents:

“If anyone should ask me why we’re spending so much time on Darwin,” he was saying at one point, “I would consider that a perfectly logical question. Darwin was not a neuroscientist. His knowledge of the human brain, if any, was primitive. He knew nothing about genes, even though they were discovered by a contemporary of his, an Austrian monk named Gregor Johann Mendel – whose work strengthens the case for evolution tremendously. But Darwin did something more fundamental. He obliterated the cardinal distinction between man and the beasts of the fields and the wilds. It had always been a truism that man is a rational being and animals live by ‘instinct.’ But what is instinct? It’s what we now know to be the genetic code an animal is born with. In the second half of the last century, neuroscientists began to pursue the question, ‘If man is an animal, to what extent does his genetic code, unbeknownst to him, control his life?’ Enormously, according to Edward O. Wilson, a man some speak of as Darwin the Second. We will get to Wilson’s work soon. But there’s a big difference between ‘enormously’ and ‘entirely’. ‘Enormously’ leaves some wiggle room for your free will to steer your genetically coded ‘instincts’ in any direction you want – i there is such a thing as ‘you’. I say ‘if’, because the new generation of neuroscientists – and I enjoy staying in communication with them – believe Wilson is a very cautious man. They laugh at the notion of free will. They yawn at your belief – my belief – that each of us has capital-letter I, as in ‘I believe’, a ‘self’, inside our head that makes ‘you’, makes ‘me’ distinct from every other member of the species Homo Sapiens, no matter how many ways we might like them. The new generation are absolutists. They – I’ll just tell you what one very interesting young neuroscientist emailed me last week. She said, ‘Let’s say you pick up a rock and throw it. And in midflight you give that rock consciousness and a rational mind. That little rock will think it has free will and will give you a highly rational account of why it has decided to take the route it’s taking.’ So later on we will get to the ‘conscious little rock,’ and you will be able to decide for yourself: ‘Am I really… merely…a conscious little rock?’ The answer, incidentally, has implications of incalculable importance for the Homo Sapiens’ conception of itself and for the history of the twenty-first century. We may have to change the name of our species to Homo Lapis Deiciecta Conscia – Man, the Conscious Thrown Stone – or, to make it simpler, as my correspondent did, ‘Man, the Conscious Little Rock.'”
(p. 283)

Apart from showing the immense verbosity of Wolfe’s prose (which stretches for more than 650 pages. It’s an easy read, but it is far too much. Though he will probably claim that it is necessary to bring the direct language, the ‘Fuck Patois‘, of the American youth to full effect and drive the drifting perspective based narrative on, it is still too much. He has some good ideas and interesting points but any good editor could easily have chopped two or three hundred pages off it without losing any of them), this passage touches upon the ever-interesting theme of social ambition, as well as the more obvious theme that Charlotte herself also recognizes: The hormonal and instinctual rollercoaster that we all board and ride through puberty, accelerating into adult life to the point where we get better at controlling it, though not at slowing it.

Both themes are central in both “Madame Bovary” and “I am Charlotte Simmons”, though I would hardly say that the latter comes anywhere near matching the former.

Just too bad I’m not writing an essay comparing Charlotte Simmons with Madame Bovary, the continuity in petty bourgeois self-centeredness, social ambition and sexual freedom between mid-19th century France and 21st century America – sounds like Wolfe’s point could well be that some things never change…

For completeness’ sake I should probably note that as I publish this on my blog, the virtual shrine for the celebration of all things me, that I do appreciate the irony. 😉

Essays, he says

I’ve just finished my third of four essays. Leaving me with just one. Of course, since I haven’t actually turned any of the first three in yet (they’re not due until the 13th of May), there’s still ample room and chance for improvement.

Therefore, I’ve made the three essays I’ve finished available in .pdf-format. Helpful comments, criticism and the odd bit of slander are all welcomed at: lloydinho (at) gmail (dot) com.

Montage, Ethnography and Representations of Post-socialist Realities – is mess but a constructive one at that. It is a rather hopeful and curious attempt at examining the cinematic principle of montage in ethnographic representations through a montage of its own.
It is written for my Images, Text and Fieldwork course which has a regional focus on post-socialist Siberia and Mongolia, so the ethnography are based on those regions.

Technology and Western Perception of Time – is also overly ambitious, but is at least stuffed with interested facts about the history of western perception of time. It is a Longue Durée view at how time technologies and measurement have influenced western everyday perception of time. In 10 pages or less. Argh.

Credit or Debit? – is a short essay analyzing the history and impact of plastic cards on consumer culture. Pretty straight forward, really. Both of these essays are for my Technologies of Everyday Life course

It may be noted that true to form, all of these essays are slightly longer than they ought to be, mostly because whenever I delve into something interesting I would like to write rather wide-spanning analyses combining all sorts of interesting stuff than merely the short elements suggested by my lecturers. It feels like I’m trying to write the synopsis for a book everytime I begin on an essay.

Not good, I know, I promise to do better on my last one which is due on the 16th of may. It’s for my high brow Perception, Knowledge and Cognition course, and plan to “Discuss to what extent, and in what ways, language may structure our perception of the world”. Now, the world is relatively big, so I’ve decided to just focus on computers, programming languages and the differences of perception between programmers and ordinary computer users. Sounds good, no?