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A Blog About Culture

Recognition, Situation, Identity, Reality

Category Archives: That’s Life…

A friend of mine recently wrote about the common habit of “binge watching” television shows.  In her post, “My Lost Weekend Watching House of Cards,” she described the fascination she felt while watching every episode in the newly released season of a series about American politics.

I definitely feel that all 13 hours of the show kept me intellectually engaged and raised some key questions about America, politics and the nature of power. –Khaleelah Jones

Khaleelah went on to discuss several of those main questions, but since I haven’t seen the show, I didn’t really read that part. I was more interested in a Slate.com article to which she’d linked — “In Defense of Binge Watching,” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. It’s all about the differences between “mindless recreation” and “restorative experiences,” states of absorption that I guess depend on the subject matter of what you’re watching. Pang (or Soojung-Kim Pang? I’m not sure; I’m sorry) summarized a 1996 study by psychologist Stephen Kaplan on the restorative effects of nature on attention. Pang wrote:

“Restorative experiences, [Kaplan] found, share a few common features. They’re fascinating: Unlike a conference call or spreadsheet, they hold your attention without effort. They provide a sense of transporting you from your normal life and environment. They strike a balance between complexity and compatibility: They’re rich and fully realized worlds, but you can make sense of them.”

So. All of this is reminding me very much of flow theory, popularized by [hang on while I look up how to spell this guy’s name] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. And, since I’m on Wikipedia anyway, I’m going to C&P some basic information for you in case you don’t know anything about flow theory. The following quotations are from Wikipedia’s page on flow:

“Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi identify the following six factors as encompassing an experience of flow.

  • intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • merging of action and awareness
  • a loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  • a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  • experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience”

According to the theory (and as I scroll down the Wikipedia page), states of flow are usually active, goal-oriented experiences that would preclude watching TV, but I think that there are points of overlap on this. Besides the sense of agency over the situation, merging of action and awareness, and perhaps loss of reflective self consciousness, the other components in the list above could be applied to binge watching.

In fact, I’d like to comment on reflective self-consciousness. Khaleelah’s intellectual curiosity about House of Cards is what interested her in the show and compelled her to keep watching. That interest is the source of the “restoration” that she felt — the value that she gleaned from watching the series. As I think about how I watch TV, I think that self-consciousness, whether actively reflective or not, has a definite role in my viewing choices. This goes beyond relating characters to my own life. I think it’s a recognition of  the plot’s world — perhaps real, perhaps fictional, perhaps completely fantastical — and then positioning the self within it. It’s a negotiation of the self within that world. Linking the emotions drawn, the strategies or ideas followed, and the “what would I do in this situation?” affirms identity traits in the viewer.

I feel like I could /should say more on this in the future but I don’t feel like it right now.

I think there could also be a discussion on the ways in which the constructed worlds of television shows creates identity by contributing to cultural influences, but… that’s another can o’ worms and I definitely don’t feel like that either.

You should just be glad that I didn’t title this entry “Maybe We Binge Watch Because It Shows Us Who We Are.” That really almost happened.

When I was starting to write this entry –which was just a few seconds ago, since I never plan anything ahead of time– I was trying to think of a good title. That is really not a skill that I have, title-writing. I thought of: Out of Body Experiences and Going Out on a Limb because this post is going to be about my physical body, but neither of those phrases really has the right meaning or connotation of what I want so instead I just made something up that is barely even decent.

Anyway. I first thought of this post about a month ago, but I haven’t written it because I’ve been a little busy. I really shouldn’t even be writing it now; I should be sleeping. I’m sitting in the dark, tapping away on my phone because I couldn’t sleep because I ate a Clif energy bar recently and apparently they contain caffeine. I just wanted chocolate and it was all I could find. Woe. Woe.

There is no way for me to write about this without sounding incredibly privileged and spoiled, so I will add the disclaimer that I am grateful to lead an amazing life and I promise this post is not intended to be a self-indulgent affirmation, even though I guess that’s what blogs kind of are. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

So I was at my aunt’s salon, getting ready for a party. I was having a haircut, manicure, and pedicure. The unusual thing that sparked the idea for this boring post was that the ladies chose to do everything on me at the same time, so I was sitting in a chair without control of my arms, legs, neck, or head while they were doing all sorts of things that women don’t admit to so that we feel beautiful.

At one point, one if the ladies was massaging lotion onto my arm, and the way she grabbed my wrist was almost as if it were not attached to my body. It wasn’t an arm, it was something that she was lotioning. Something to which she was applying lotion. I just held my arm and my other limbs limply, letting the stylists do to me whatever they were doing. My body was not my own.

In fact, I began to feel not quite even human anymore. I was speaking, a little bit, but after a while I just felt like plywood that was being sanded, scrubbed, and produced into something else. Yes, a production. I felt like I would emerge from that salon like a butterfly from its chrysalis, gleaming like Reese Witherspoon in posters for Legally Blonde 2. In other words, not a person. A production.

I wonder… what other times do we feel like this, dissociated from our bodies? When do we feel the greatest connections to them?

I think, for me, I feel connected with my body when I’m not using my mind. When I think, there is usually a great deal of self awareness that separates the two, but actions of physicality, like athleticism, touch, or movements like dance — if impassioned enough to knock me out of my headspace– allow me to feel that connection between body and mind.

I sometimes take my afternoon tea out to the screened-in back porch to enjoy while lounging and watching my cats prey on chattering squirrels, beetles, and other unsuspecting lawn animals. I live near my old high school, and I can often hear the band practicing outside. (Their half-time song this year is Call Me Maybe — yes, really.) Last week, I was somehow still in my house at 9 pm on a Friday night, and I could hear the cheers and roars of the home football game. I’m all for school pride — I was an athlete in high school, which I like to remind people of nowadays– but I stopped in my tracks when I heard the band play the “Tomahawk Chop” after a touchdown.

Do you know what that sounds/looks like?

Of course, the song was something I’ve heard a million times before, but maybe it’s because I’m an adult now, or perhaps because I study issues of cultural ownership, representation, and politics all day errday, but this was the first time I realized how surreptitiously those racist values can change our perceptions. I always knew, of course, that the motion and song were racist. I just didn’t realize that I actually prescribed to the message that text was sending: Indigenous peoples are violent. That combination of sounds, which our media has taught us to recognize as “Indian,” evoked senses of imminent danger and ruthlessness in me, and some kind of bloodthirsty pride that we were crushing the other team.

But how did that happen? Here’s the process:

A. I’m scared — Why?

B. Because this song means I should be scared– Why?

C. Because it sounds like an Indian war chant– Why?

D. Because Indian people are warlike and scary

Ideological cultures rely on us to skip from A to D and forget the processes in between that made us think that way. Those processes do exist — just look at my reaction upon hearing that song. Just look at any kind of advertising. I want to know – what might life be like if those processes weren’t hidden? What if they just didn’t exist? I don’t think that will ever happen, but I think it’s worth it to recognize when it is. I feel guilty for having that reaction, and I also feel a little violated — because culture’s piggybacking onto me like a little leech that alters what I think.

AND:

The Tomahawk Chop isn’t even Native American; it was invented by Florida State University football fans. An article in online Slate Magazine posted the following just yesterday: “Like most professional athletic appropriations of Native American culture, the tomahawk chop and the war chant have little basis in Native American history. There is no indication that Native Americans ever made the gesture known today as the tomahawk chop. Tomahawks were historically not only used as weapons by Native Americans but also revered as sacred objects.”

My car was broken into last weekend. Hole punched into the window, a few things borrowed. I was surprised – who could expect that? – but as my friends apologized and tried to console me, I knew that I was not disturbed. Of course, filing the police report and dealing with the insurance company have been hassles (especially for them, since I had to call back with a supplement to my initial report when I realized that something of considerable value actually had been stolen), but I still don’t feel particularly shaken. I don’t feel afraid or violated by this “invasion of privacy.”

This event is far from the worst thing that has ever happened in my life. It could be easy and understandable for me to sink into fear (or at least caution), but nope. I still seem to trust the people around me, my community.

In some ways, I think that’s a little unusual. Just think about how a lot of us were raised, “Lock your doors… don’t talk to strangers,” and all that. One glance at the news  will remind us all how sensationalistic and fear-driven most of our media industry is, but I won’t go there because that’d be a broken record. The point is that our modern culture (at least one around here) fosters a certain degree of distrust in the community.

(Or rather, ‘others’ from the community, the ‘bad guys’ who can lurk anywhere.)

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with caution or pessimism or living life as an individual instead of a collective, but these are all considerations that must be included in analyses for advocacy.

When we’re talking about community engagement, we’re talking about trust. We’re talking about personal connections with the people around us – our neighbors, colleagues, children, elderly. We say “let’s support small businesses and local farmers.” These pleas are all well and good – for educating like-minded people. It’s going to take a lot more effort to break through to the people whose baselines are that basic distrust in the people around them.

Obviously I am really diluting the situation and making it seem a lot more black and white than it is, but what I would like to call attention to is the disappointing suspicion that we may be underestimating the deeply seated paradigms that we as changemakers will have to crack.

But yes, I trust my community. 😉

This is the way my stream-of-consciousness works:

1. Today a woman I’d just met asked if I’d be interested in sitting for the life drawing class she teaches. I’m considering doing it, but I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t have to be nude, because I am not down with that. (She said no; the students just do facial portraits in the class.)

2. Nudity –> the existence of pornography

3. Williams, Linda. 1989. “Hard Core Utopias: Problems and Solutions.” In Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the ‘Frenzy of the Visible,’  153-184. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

(Contains mature content.)

4. Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia.” In The Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Simon During, 371-381. 2nd edition. New  York: Routledge, 2001. (Sorry I couldn’t find it in a fancy blog box like the above.)

5. Fantasy as utopia.

6. Reality as utopia.

The above articles are all about entertainment —  including television, musicals, and the pornography industry — as providing venues for perceived escape from issues in society. They give ways to envision options for negotiating those issues safely; Dyer calls the process “playing with fire,” because while the problems are raised, there is no actual obligation to address them. But they’re there. In the very process of producing these forms of entertainment, the issues are there. (By the way, I am just summarizing any Intro to Cultural Theory class right now; don’t think that I am making this up on my own.)

What I started thinking about, though, is what about the above is a strict product of fantasy or unreality?  What about pretense as a construction of fantasy in reality to avoid social turmoil? The creation of an outward identity to mitigate the inner or the real or the Self? For some, myself included, the struggle or strain that we feel in our internal selves eventually ceases to exist if we pretend it doesn’t. (Or does it?)

Let be be finale of seem.

–Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice Cream

Looks like I should start a “Questions of Identity” label for my blog. For my life.

Feel free to comment, but none of this “be the person you are when no one’s looking” nonsense.

Or Object and Ownership

Or Communication and Existence

Or Art as Idea

Obviously this entry could very quickly run away from me. I think this is one of those situations in which I have too much to say, so really I’ll just write down one tiny little thought — the catalyst — so that it can serve as a trigger for future ruminations or wonderings or arguments with myself. And by that I mean, no, I don’t have conversations in my head or talk to myself in any way. Singing to myself is another story. (And I guess this WordPress account really is just fodder for talking to myself, but I disguise it in a tone of voice that makes it seem like I have friends to whom I’m speaking. You’re there, right Mom?)

Lizzy really has been a muse lately, mostly in that we are so comfortable with each other that we talk about a variety of subjects. These conversations set off the connectors in my head that cause me to remember other topics in that strange way that brains and memories do. So, as she showed me the website of a photographer friend of hers, my third thought (after I like landscape photography and This guy’s got great composition) led me into: What is the point of photography?

What is the point of any kind of tangible representation?

Scholars call the process “reification.” People who don’t want to seem pretentiously intellectual call it “thingification.”

Photography as an art is one thing. Art’s one thing, and I’m not going to begin to go there. That’s the stuff dissertations are made of. I’m not an artistic photographer, but sometimes I see something and feel the need to take a picture of it – not to document that it was there or that it existed, but that for a second, this is mine. This is my moment, and this is my reality.

What’s that called?

The desire to own a piece of the world, and prove that I do?

All of these thoughts were reminding me of something but it might have just been a class discussion I was half-paying attention to in 2008 (I’m fairly certain that’s what was happening) about photography and reality and reification. In a very thorough research attempt to brush myself up on visual theory (Google search), I found the following blog post quickly defining the terms “reify” and “redact” in terms of photographic excellence. That’s getting away from me, but still worth a thought or two. Maybe a blog post in the future. No promises.

Read the reference: “Reify and Redact,” by Mike Johnston (The Online Photographer)

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in irrelevant details. Whatever’s right in front of our faces is what we are going to tackle. We might think we have problems, but if they don’t affect our end goals, do they really matter?

When I was a kid I had a cavity. The dentist gave me a little gray filling, and I was embarrassed that my dental habits were apparently sub-par. Then the tooth fell out, a fairy paid me for my reject bone + putty or whatever fillings are made of, and my problem went away. I’m not sure why the dentist even filled the cavity (yes I do: $) if the tooth was going to shed anyway.

Most people have heard about the Japanese square watermelons, genetically engineered to fit on store shelves. Most people my side of the tracks already denounce them as unnatural products of capitalistic societies. A branding and marketing blog touted the watermelons as a creative innovation, example of the power of human ingenuity. A lesson in identifying a problem and coming up with a solution. While the lessons in that blog article were all well and good and I don’t know enough about business to argue with anybody, I want to point out the inherent cultural issue at hand.

The identified problem might not address the end goal. It might not matter.

I don’t know what the priorities of the Japanese stores are (yes I do: $). If increasing sales is their only motive, that’s fine. But a lot of stores seek to provide a service – to provide goods to markets that might not have access to those items. Watermelons to the people of Japan. Why? Because watermelons are delicious. Natural fruits contribute to health and wellbeing.

Some might say, “Well, now Japan can provide more watermelons to contribute to the wellbeing of its people.” To that I guess I don’t have an answer right now, except that some people are opposed to the watermelons on the principle that they are unnatural.

If your goal is provide and sell watermelons to people, for whatever reason, which should you change – the watermelons or the people? I think this is setting an unnerving precedent for the ways in which we interact with the world. There’s an ethical component to the problem-solving agenda here. Sure, come up with innovative strategies. But also keep in mind the personal responsibilities one has.

  • What can you change?
  • What shouldn’t you change? [Who decides should and shouldn’t?  (Now I’m just arguing with myself.)]
  • Is your problem actually a problem (in the world)?
  • Will your solution contribute to the problem or perpetuate it?

Read the reference: “Lessons of the Square Watermelon,” in Hard Knox Life by Dave Knox.