Creative Magic

By David Trend

“The central question upon which all creative living hinges is: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures hidden within you?” With this entreaty, author Elizabeth Gilbert introduced her recent bestseller Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which offered an artistic cure for an anxious American culture.[i] Speaking directly to widespread feelings of disaffection and powerlessness, Big Magic romanticized artistry in Gilbert’s signature blend of sentiment and cliché––packaging familiar views (human creativity, divine creativity, etc.) with a self-help twist about creating one’s “self” in new and better ways.  While one easily can write off Big Magic as yet another feel-good advice book (which it surely is), I think it’s time to take Gilbert’s approach to creativity seriously and ponder why such ideas now get so much traction.

Publicity doesn’t hurt. Reviewers effused over Big Magic as a “book-length meditation on inspiration” (Newsday) to “unlock your inner artist” (Woman’s Day) and “dream a life without limits” (Publishers’ Weekly).[ii] This message resonated well with the rising chorus promoting creativity as an innovation engine and economic tonic.  While no one would dispute the positive benefits of a little artistic dabbling, at what point does such wishful thinking begin to border on delusion? Or put another way, when does fantasy paper over reality? Might it be that America’s fondness for make-believe is party behind the nation’s political confusion and disaffection? Do fairy-tale versions of life infantilize a citizenry that should know that answers don’t always come easily?  Certainly the fantasy-version of reality offered by certain politicians would fail any thoughtful analysis. But instead, many leaders continue treating their constituents like children, with entire governments encouraging populations to set worries aside and simply “Be Creative.”

In Magical Thinking and the Decline of America, historian Richard L. Rapson took a long look at the nation’s romantic idealism. “Probably in no other society of the world can one write the script for one’s life as completely as United States. This fact has made the nation the ‘promised land’ for much of the world over the past two centuries,” Rapson wrote. “The flight into endless self-improvement and innocent optimism has a long lineage in our past.”[iii] Perhaps anticipating Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sloganeering, Rapson pointed to the disconnection between America’s self-image as an “exceptional” driver of human history, and the growing evidence of the nation’s falling fortunes. This has led to what Rapson described as a growing “flight from knowledge and reality into faith and fantasy,” resulting in large part from “an American public increasingly in thrall to the fairytales told by the mass media.”[iv]  It also promotes a “cultural fixation on the individual, the personal, the biographical, the confessional, and, all too often, the narcissistic,” and hence the rise of new “magic words” like “self-awareness,” “personal growth” and other aphorisms promoting everyone to “be all that you can be.”[v]

Individualism lies at the heart of American idealism, dating to the country’s Enlightenment Era origins, when the autonomous subject was invented as a counterpoint to deific and royal authority. Necessary as individualism was (and remains), no one could have predicted how its value could be magnified and distorted in neoliberal times.  The initial affirmation of personal identity, which encouraged people to vote and participate in society, soon morphed into “striving to get ahead” and “winning at any cost.” Eventually the “self” would become an American obsession of theological proportions. “The purpose of nearly all the current gospels is to put believers ‘in touch’ with themselves,” Rapson further explained.[vi] This new brand of secular “faith” also comports well with the religiosity many Americans still profess, especially evangelical strains that promise economic gain to dutiful worshippers. Continue reading “Creative Magic”

The social commentary of Yoshua Okón’s “Salo Island”

Writing in OC Weekly, Dave Barton writes of the new exhibition at UC Irvine of a work by Yoshua Okón, entitled “Salo Island.”

“The Marquis de Sade was rotting away in the Bastille of pre-revolutionary France when he wrote one of his first pornographic novels, 120 Days of Sodom.beach

: “A mind-boggling litany of sexual perversion, the plot is about a foursome of wealthy French elite—a Judge, a Bishop, a Banker and a Cardinal—who kidnap a group of boys and girls, take them to an isolated castle, and then humiliate, rape and murder them. Heinous masturbatory material that it is, it’s also a grimly funny social commentary, with the degenerate Marquis pointing fingers at fellow travelers in his own social class, people who were doing things he only fantasized about.

“In 1975, Marxist Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini used the infamous book as source material for his film Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, considered by many critics the most controversial movie of all time. Changing the setting from France to the last Fascist holdout of Mussolini’s Italy, Pasolini’s film doesn’t have the Marquis’ mordant sense of humor; playing things deadly serious, the bold visualization of the novel’s atrocities turns the political tract into cinema’s first torture porn.

“Shortly before the film’s release, Pasolini was brutally murdered, supposedly by a teenage male prostitute who ran over him with his own car on a desolated beach. Believed at the time to be a sex deal gone bad, the murderer (who had right-wing ties) has since recanted his confession, claiming Pasolini was assassinated for his politics, as well as his open homosexuality. Fascists apparently don’t take kindly to portrayals of themselves as ass-licking, shit-eating, child murderers. Continue reading “The social commentary of Yoshua Okón’s “Salo Island””

And all is always now

imgres-2By now, you’ve probably heard people call themselves “slaves” to their phones or their computers. We all know what that means — but why are we allowing ourselves to be slaves to the very instruments of technology we’ve created?

Douglas Rushkoff, who spends his days thinking, writing and teaching about media culture, says it’s time for people to stop chasing every ping and start using technology in a way that makes us feel more free. NPR.org today discusses “Rushkoff’s latest work is called Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. He joined NPR’s Audie Cornish to talk about the book.

“Most simply, ‘present shock’ is the human response to living in a world that’s always on real time and simultaneous. You know, in some ways it’s the impact of living in a digital environment, and in other ways it’s just really what happens when you stop leaning so forward to the millennium and you finally arrive there.

“In my life, it’s sort of the experience of being on Facebook and seeing everyone from my past suddenly back in my present. And the inability to distinguish between who may have been friends of mine in second grade, and people who I’ve met just yesterday, and people who are actually significant relationships. That collapse of my whole life into one moment, where every ping, every vibration of my phone might just pull me out of whatever it is I’m doing, into something else that seems somehow more pressing on the moment.” Douglas Rushkoff founded the Narrative Lab at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, and lectures about media, art, society and change at conferences and universities around the world. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

” ‘Digiphrenia’ is really the experience of trying to exist in more than one incarnation of yourself at the same time. There’s your Twitter profile, there’s your Facebook profile, there’s your email inbox. And all of these sort of multiple instances of you are operating simultaneously and in parallel. And that’s not a really comfortable position for most human beings.It’s interesting — I was at Disney World and I saw this little girl who was looking at one of those signs that said, like, ‘Forty minutes until you get on this ride,’ and she looked up to her dad, and she said, ‘What’s a minute?’ And I thought that, you know, in the industrial age, and in analog clocks, a minute is some portion of an hour, which is some portion of a day. In the digital age, a minute is just a number. It’s just 3:23. It’s almost this absolute duration that doesn’t have a connection to where the sun is or where our day is. It’s this very abstracted way of experiencing time. And what I’m arguing in Present Shock is that that timelessness is very characteristic of living in the digital age, in the age that we’re in. And it’s very hard for us to orient ourselves, to look forward to things, to join movements with goals, to invest in the future, to think about our long-term careers. We’re just kind of in this moment of pause.”

More at: http://www.npr.org/2013/03/25/175056313/in-a-world-thats-always-on-we-are-trapped-in-the-present

The House I live In – The “War on Drugs”

Over the past 40 years, the War on Drugs has cost more than $1 trillion and accounted
for over 45 million arrests.

The U.S. holds 25% of the world’s prisoners, yet accounts for
only 5% of the world’s population.imgres

Black individuals comprise 13% of the U.S. population and 14% of drug users, yet they are 37%
of the people arrested for drug offenses and 56% of those incarcerated for drug crimes.

As America remains embroiled in conflict overseas, a less visible war is taking place at
home, costing countless lives, destroying families, and inflicting untold damage upon
future generations of Americans. In forty years, the War on Drugs has accounted for
more than 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer, and damaged poor
communities at home and abroad. Yet for all that, drugs are cheaper, purer, and more
available today than ever before. Continue reading “The House I live In – The “War on Drugs””

The Punk Syndrome

The Punk Syndrome is the title of a recent independent film about musical band made up of people with intellectual disabilities

This attractive Finnish film brings to mind the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America, a zany comedy about a terrible Finnish rock group touring the States, reports The Guardian.imgres-2 “The difference, however, is that Kärkkäinen and Passi’s film is a documentary about a real punkquartet called Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day, a genuine punk quartet made up of the autistic duo of Pertti Kurikka (lead guitar) and Karl Aalto (singer), and the Down’s syndrome duo of Sami Helle (bass) and Toni Välitalo (drums). Continue reading “The Punk Syndrome”

Making the invisible visible

 The Invisible War has done something exceptionally rare. Rather than tackling an issue that’s safely in the past, Kirby Dick and his subjects have confronted an ongoing culture of sexual violence and grotesque indifference in one of the country’s most respected institutions, reports todays Daily Beast.“And instead of being dismissed as Hollywood liberalism, or creating a temporary spike in awareness that dissipates shortly after its release, The Invisible War is helping push forward action in Congress and substantive reform in the military itself.imgres

“It’s one thing for a movie in Oscar contention to get snared in politics, or to seek out political relevance as a way of linking a film to a larger narrative. … Since The Invisible War’s release, federal action on sexual assaults in the military has instead accelerated. On January 23, the House Armed Services Committee held hearings on the investigation into Lackland Air Force Base, the site of the Air Force’s basic training: a staff sergeant stationed there was convicted of rape and sexual assault last summer, and 32 instructors are alleged to have sexually coerced or formed relationships with their students that violate military regulations. The New York Times wrote “that they are doing so is in large part a tribute to” The Invisible War, though Dick said he was frustrated that so many congressmen left the hearing to attend a vote, skipping the part of the program where assault survivors testified about their experiences.”

 

Full story at: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/02/07/the-invisible-war-how-oscar-s-military-rape-documentary-might-change-everything.html

Acting, disability, and visibility

Michael J Fox’s continuing role on “The Good Wife” and other programs has been a singular example of an actor willing to reveal a disabling illness, testifying to Fox’s professional commitment and his openness to disclosure.imgres-2

Both things are praiseworthy, but the latter is remarkably rare in a media economy so predicated on bodily perfection and endless youth. Ben Brantley writes in a recent New York Times review of several theater groups that are doing similar work, however – as they foreground forms of disability and “difference” among actors that typically never get revealed or seen on stage or screen. As Brantley writes,

“Theatergoers generally expect actors to abide by certain longstanding conventions, and if actors fail to oblige, it usually isn’t intentional. Continue reading “Acting, disability, and visibility”

Where did the Asian characters go?

Mainstream movies continue to minimize or exclude Asian characters, even when depicting historical events about Asia itself.imgres-1

Is this authorial racism, a market-driven response, or part of a broader ethnocentrism in audiences?

These issues are taken up in a recent essay by David Cox appearing The Guardian entitled “Attempting the Impossible: Why Does Western Cinema Whitewash Asian Stories?” Opening paragraphs of the story are below:

“The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 killed at least 227,898 people. Around a third of these were children. The economy of coastal south-east Asia was devastated, with the loss in some places of two thirds of the boats on which fisherfolk depended. The environment was irreversibly defiled. Since many of the bodies were never found, psychological trauma was compounded by the tradition in many of the areas affected that the dead must always be buried by a family member. Continue reading “Where did the Asian characters go?”

Sugar is the new tobacco

Among the least likely viral megahits on YouTube is a 90-minute lecture by the food scold and pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig, entitled “Sugar: The Bitter Truth.”

“Public reception of Lustig’s new book, Fat Chance, will likely be just as divided,” reports todays Salon.com. imgres-2 “The book repeats and expands on the main point of contention in the sugar wars: whether our bodies treat all calories the same. The old guard says yes: A calorie is a calorie; steak or soda, doesn’t matter. Eat more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight. Continue reading “Sugar is the new tobacco”

New James Bond and western decline

Western readers may not especially like the treatment the latest James Bodh smash hit Skyfall got in today’s edition of Al Jazeera. In a review-essay entitled “James Bond’s Skyfall, or the decadence of the West,” Patricia Viera writes that the film is just chock-full of references to the “post-American world,” not to mention the post-European world. Excrepted below are a few paragraphs paragraphs.

Continue reading “New James Bond and western decline”

Veterens Day

On this Veterens Day we can say that if recent U.S. involvements have taught us anything, it is that the no one comes back from war unchanged. Gone are the Vietnam days of heckling returnees or earlier beliefs that combat is just another job. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, the undeniable truth is that military service is a serious and often dangerous business––one that frequently takes an unacknowledged toll on those who serve and their families.

FOCUS (Families OverComing Under Stress) is one of a number of notable efforts that have emerged from this new ethos. FOCUS provides resiliency training to military children and families. It teaches practical skills to meet the challenges of deployment and reintegration, to communicate and solve problems effectively, and to successfully set goals together and create a shared family story.

Youth in revolt

Young people made a critical difference in the recent U.S. election, turning out to in massive numbers to reject the misogynism, homophobia, and ethnocentrism of the Republican platform. Put another way, the recent election smashed the myth of a dysfunctional and alienated youth population.

Henry A. Giroux takes up the new spirit of activism and resistance in among teenagers and young adults in his new book Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future (Paradigm, 2012).   In the book Giroux describes how American youth have demonstrated en masse about a variety of issues ranging from economic injustice and massive inequality to drastic cuts in education and public services. Youth in Revolt chronicles the escalating backlash against dissent and peaceful protest Continue reading “Youth in revolt”

Addiction, television, and courage

Alcoholism and addiction are two the biggest categories by which people are “othered.”  To many a substance abuser is a celebrity, a skid-row drunk, or maybe your crazy Uncle Bob––but it’s always someone else, not you or the person sitting next to you. Hence, there is shame attached to this illness for the afflicted  and those close to them. The fact is the one in ten people have problems with drugs or alcohol, numbers that tend to be much higher within creative communities. And most of them battle heroically with this problem in the face of a society that views them as derelict, dishonest, or morally bankrupt.

Users don’t fit typical stereotypes, as over 75% are productively employed and many highly successful. Among people who get flashes of brilliance from occasional mania, the numbers go to 85%.  Science has recently shown that genuine addiction (as opposed to occasional binging) results from faulty brain wiring that those afflicted can contain, but never correct (See forthcoming DSM V).

This is why a TV show like Rehab with Dr. Drew should be a good idea––a program that treats addiction as the illness that it is. Continue reading “Addiction, television, and courage”

Writing about saving the world

Now we can add Sandy to the list of reasons to worry: about the environment, our bad habits, other people, and where all of it may be leading. And certainly lots of recent evidence seems to suggest that we have plenty of reasons to worry. But let’s be careful here. History shows that panic and fear have a way of infecting human thought, often feeding their own destructive patterns. In a recent essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, K.C. Cole juxtaposes two works that manifest both the alarmist end-of-days perspective and a more nuanced consideration of the human mind. The essay entitled “How to Save ourselves from Extinction (One System at a Time)” begins thus:

“No one in their right mind would deliberately create the means of their Continue reading “Writing about saving the world”

America on the brink

Historian Morris Berman began writing his trilogy before the 2000 election, 9/11, the Iraq War, and the Bush economy––subsequently producing the books The Twilight of American Culture and Dark Ages America. As we all know, the picture hasn’t been pretty for much of the last decade and Berman has remained one of the most astute commentators on the tortured journey of a nation that once stood for more than greed and political paranoia. Berman’s new book, Why America Failed, is reviewed in the current issue of TruthOut in an extensive essay by David Masciotra entitled “America: What Happened?,” Summarizing Berman’s points, Masciotra lists four key themes:

1. Accelerating social and economic inequality .
2. Declining marginal returns with regard to investment in organizational solutions to socioeconomic problems or, in other words, the political system becomes dysfunctional .
3. Rapidly dropping levels of literacy, critical understanding and general intellectual awareness.
4. Spiritual death, what Berman calls the “emptying out of cultural content and the freezing of it in formulas, kitsch.”

“Homeland’s” Muslim problem

Muslim and Arab stereotypes are nothing new in American media. From Ali Baba to Aladdin, negative images have persisted in children’s stories. Then came 9/11 and Hollywood’s need for an all-purpose post-Cold War villain––and the stage was set for the universalized charicature of the terrorist. Regrettably, this year’s most celebrated television drama series, Homeland, is fueled largely by such xenophobic ideology, which it serves up with troubling representations of sexuality and race. And yes, Homeland is our beloved President’s favorite show. A wonderfully thorough discussion of these issues appears in the article “Homeland, Obama’s Show” appearing this week in Aljazeera.com.

For readers unaware of the program’s premise, Homeland is an updated Manchurian Candidate narrative about a brainwashed former Marine who becomes a congressman. As discussed in the Aljazeera.com article by Joseph Massad, “The racist representation of Arabs is so exponential, even for American television (and this Continue reading ““Homeland’s” Muslim problem”

Gaga feminism

“In Gaga Feminism, instead of pitting bodies with vaginas against bodies with penises, I argue that we are living in a new world where the categories of male and female are rapidly being updated all around us,” writes Jack Halberstam is an essay in the  Los Angeles Review of Books. As Halberstam puts it, “Truth be told, gender and gender politics nowadays have little to do with simple genitality and are much more connected to new social arrangements, diverse households, and innovative classifications of identity, community, and desire …  In a world of sperm banks, in vitro fertilization, queer families, butch daddies, transgender men and women,  and heteroflexible women, pretending to be offended by the use of the word “vagina” in a public speech or making insupportable claims about rape and pregnancy are not just quaint and old-fashioned: they signal a deep ignorance about the world we live in and the enormous changes that have taken place within it in the last two decades. Continue reading “Gaga feminism”

The science of forgetting

As the baby boom generation ages towards retirement, attention grows over how people can remain mentally sharp. Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia make  boomers start to worry when they lose their car keys or stumble over a name. At the same time, Internet search engines
and home data storage have made the actual need to remember less important. Add to this the rapid pace of media and the public’s seemingly relentless focus on immediacy over history, and it seems like a wholesale assault on memory is sweeping the culture. So a story like “The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories” recently appearing in Wired magazine would seem to support the current culture of amnesia. Continue reading “The science of forgetting”

Fibber might change your mind

There are lots of theories about how people get wrong-headed ideas or vote against their own interests. Now game designers are trying to do something about it. Fibber is a game about political deception and voter self-awareness. It’s a political “strip guessing” game where players try to determine whether the candidates for the American presidential election of 2012 are telling facts or fiction. The goal of the game is to raise self-awareness and personal fact checking in a world inundated with misleading political ads, social media, and personal bias. Fibber was created by Seek Change, an organization dedicated to using technology to advance self-empowerment and personal well-being. Continue reading “Fibber might change your mind”

Becoming transreal

Here is the scenario. You find yourself in a virtual game-world where you can be anything you want––say, a princess, a superhero, or maybe a dragon. Enter Micha Cárdenas.  The question is this: in assuming a new identity, are you really leaving behind the actual “you”? Nearly two decades ago, a now-famous New Yorker cartoon made popular the adage, “On the internet, no one knows you are a dog,” referencing the presumed demarcation between virtual and real personas. But this begs the question of where the expression of the self resides, inasmuch as identity is a largely mental process. Continue reading “Becoming transreal”