For the Art of News


geo- (“earth”) + -gram (“something written or recorded”) n.  earth-record

Growing up, I was always fascinated by the news, and as a child, television news was the earliest form accessible to me.  The 24-hour news cycle was taking its first unsteady steps as I toddled through mine, and although the parade of pearl-toothed half-bodies had not always coursed through our living room (cable still being something of a luxury), the synonymity of news and the unfurling of the day was a phenomenon whose maturation paralleled my own.

Like others of my generation, I grew up with my particular news families, anchored (literally!) by mom and dad delivering the news (or two dads or two moms, clearly an early attempt by the librul media to infiltrate our homes and draw us into the moral abyss).  I was devastated when one of them would sit us down in front of the set and announce it wasn’t our fault but that they would soon be snuggling up with some upmarket audience while I enjoyed my Kraft with the remaining parent’s new thing.  I was a child of news divorce.

Despite the philanderings of news personalities, the stories remained.  Always and never the same, the servings of terrible weather puns, state fair costumes, substance-enhanced sports reports, and death–always death–were placed neatly alongside the mac-and-cheese and the Cheerios during my daily meals.  The early coincidence of mealtimes and broadcast news shows reinforced that news was for consumption.

Once we finally had cable consistently, these neat blocks of stories began spilling out into an ever-lengthening stream of reports, updates, analysis, re-analysis, and don’t-miss-it bumpers.  Though novel at first, the news soon was like the flower vase on the table was or my impenetrable biology homework was.  Following 9/11, news was-ed in much more paranoid, sinister ways: we now always waited for the figure in the decorative painting against the wall to move, for the Event to explode from the mundane.

Mostly, however, the news was boring. Newspapers and magazines had been largely for grownups through adolescence, something to peer over glasses at and smoke to.  Because my wealth equaled exactly zero throughout childhood, I didn’t contribute to the bills that brought TV news into my world: it was free.  Newspapers were for adults because newspapers weren’t free.  Their appearance in our household was subject to parental financial discretion, and at times there were more pressing concerns like, you know, food and utilities.  Occasionally you could pick through scraps on Sundays, but that was usually for comics, with serious reading reserved for the books I tore through for recreation and to amass Accelerated Reader points.  My favorite pastime growing up was libraryhopping, but the dusty periodicals in the front were but pennies to the riches of tales of long-ago frontier life, imaginative Canadian redheads, and disorders of the mind.  Magazines were more interesting and visual than newspapers but were largely limited to soap opera rags hidden surreptitiously behind Sports Illustrated or muscle car covers at grocery checkouts.

And then, the Big Bang.  The second, technically, but of only slightly less significance than the first.  Whereas the first brought into being all of spacetime and its accompanying physics, this one brought into being an information-time, if you will, that fundamentally changed our relationship to knowledge, time, reality, and each other.  Information was now a part of a medium whose tendency bent towards its generation and openness, though there has been no dearth of regimes–political, economic, and otherwise–attempting to wrestle it down.

As the Internet became more than something to wrestle the phone line out of family members’ grip for, the written word returned with much bigger artillery to challenge the primacy of television as an information and entertainment source.  For one, there were more options; and two, I controlled when and how I accessed the information.  I was no longer dependent on the editorial choices of a select number of production outfits; I was dependent on the creative and editorial forces of a wide range of production outfits, some of whom were not even affiliated with major publications or channels.  Even I could be one of those outfits: my early participation in the fledgling yet vibrant community of online soap operas (another story for another, faraway time) demonstrated as much.  As an aficionado-ling, I still depended on the work of others to point me in the direction of quality, relevance, and trustworthiness, but continual engagement ensured that I was soon able to tailor content to my tastes.  Before long, technology itself began assisting with curating the massive amount of information pouring into the World Wide Web.

The love only grew from there.  Heading to college, I became more dependent on the Internet to keep me connected to the happenings of the world.  Televisions were mostly for twentieth-screenings of Wedding Crashers and weekly viewings of reality masterpieces like I Love New York.  Print journalism was steadily losing step, and social networking platforms, the rise of online video, and increasingly sophisticated web design were slowly turning stories into “content” just as my newly minted college degree transformed me into a full-fledged adult (purportedly).

We had both struggled through adolescence in the ’90s and ’00s.  I through ill-fitting pants, unattractive glasses, acne, and braces.  Contemporary news through awkward cable shows and the wild terrain of the early Internet (is this a news chatroom or a “news” chatroom?).  But we’re both still here somehow and still deeply connected, though we look a bit different from our earlier selves. It’s that deep connection I am looking to explore now.  Though no journalist by trade, I have always believed in the possibilities of the news: to inform, to educate, to inspire, to connect, to imagine, and most powerfully of all, to tell stories.

Many of our most critical historical transformations as a species have resulted from transformations in our abilities to tell stories to ourselves.  Our lives were altered when the monopoly on news was wrested from oral culture with the introduction of writing, later paper, later still the printing press, and on through the explosion in communications technologies of the last two centuries leading to our current digital era.  A fundamental instrument in our ability to construct shared values and histories and articulate what doesn’t yet exist but could be, storytelling–in whatever form–provides a bedrock from which to build family, community, and society. It makes possible the web of interconnections that, taken in its entirety, defines globality, or a truly planetary whole.

In its attention to current events and the “world-as-is,” journalism is a unique form of storytelling. Its early history is long and at times ill-defined: from the administrative decrees issued and recorded in ancient times for the purposes of the exercise and maintenance of power to the rise of business- and economically focused broadsheets and pamphlets of the early modern period to the eventual appearance of politically minded publications and the daily in the early moments of the industrial era, a wide range of activities look, in hindsight, to be “the news.”  Its coalescence as an industry over the last two centuries, however, has been marked by its diversification and entrenchment in civil and political society to the point of inextricability.

Which brings us back to the beginning of this story.  The contemporary history of news has been one of its continuing permeation of all aspects of everyday life.  The 24-hour cycle, social media, virality, and mobile computing have all in some way contributed to a plugged-in journalism that emphasizes speed, breadth, accumulation, and openness.  It’s a journalism of circulation over dissemination, collaboration over autonomy, and the former stalwarts still struggle to keep up.  Its expanse and the extent to which it connects farflung peoples leads us to the second part of this story.

Growing up, I was mesmerized by geography and all of its paraphernalia.  Maps, atlases, globes, and other cartographic treasures could arrest my attention for hours on end.  The symbolic, scaled-down representations of the world around me struck an early chord, prefiguring later fascinations from language theory to transportation systems and beyond.  Somehow, the entire stage on which the greatest historical acts to the smallest everyday gestures played out could be held between my two hands: observed, known, and felt.  My mother still jokes that it worked out that we didn’t have much money since what I wanted could be bought for a few dollars at a gas station (thanks, Rand McNally!).

Maps in the ’90s were curious artifacts.  Each one was a historical record of a dynamic moment where our understanding of the oversized islands we billions inhabit was in flux: wars, strife, and diplomatic accords pushed borders this way and that, cleaving and yoking disparate peoples and naming and renaming lands in the furious making and unmaking of nations in the new world order of the late 20th century.  One atlas might have Zaire while another the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Your hand could brush part of Yugoslavia on one globe and Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia on another.  Enclaves and exclaves freckled the world to varying degrees depending on what you had managed to get your hands on.  Yet ultimately the globe was still round and the lands still their funny little shapes in every map.  An aphorism found early meaning for me: the more things were changing, the more they could only stay the same.

Though I never traveled beyond the borders of my country as a child, I could at times grasp that life on my small patch of the globe was different from other places.  Some places had the tan shading indicating that the dense brush covering the hill behind my grandmother’s house was nowhere to be found, while others were the deep green cut with bright blue lines that held wet, forested wonders beyond my comprehension.  Still, there were people in those places, and they–like me–ate, slept, awoke, and lived, which somehow blew my preadolescent mind.  Rather than one world, there seemed to be an unimaginable number of parallel worlds vibrating in this great planetary cauldron.  Images of these parallel worlds poured in from–you guessed it!–the news, their meaning neatly articulated by the headlines, ledes, captions, and talking heads.  The news populated the maps that so captured my imagination, bringing the world back down to scale even as it referenced faraway places.

It took me a while, however, to grow into the significance of what I was seeing, the daily struggles packaged into clips and trafficked before my eyes. I soon connected stories of the billions of impoverished people around the world to the people I witnessed suffering on the streets of my own cities, found similarities between the struggles of persecuted minorities of unheard of name to access resources and dignity and the struggles of U.S. minorities to achieve full recognition and enfranchisement, wondered what our responsibilities were to people thousands of miles away when so much of what our world had materialized into had been built by their hands.  The world was becoming smaller but our obligations ever larger.  There was an increasing sense that the abstract wonder of tracing borders in my grandmother’s atlases no longer sufficed.

Every map is a story, and there are limitless ways to draw our interconnections to one another and the world we live on.  But ultimately, the atlas is a call not merely to knowledge, but to action.

Calling the Fight


An expression of remembrance delivered at my grandmother’s funeral on April 15, 2014

My grandmother was born right in the middle of  the worst economic depression this world has ever seen.  For farmers like her family, the global catastrophe was compounded by a drought that seemed to want to drive agricultural activity from this country for all time.  She was also born at a time without a Civil Rights Act, where the basic human liberties of folks who had just a little too much melanin were under daily threat and attack by paler folks who had for centuries treated the others as no better than articulate cattle.  Women, in 1933,  had only enjoyed the right to vote nationally for 13 years.  They were still routinely barred from much of public life, and in the home were often treated as little more than tools for domestic upkeep and reproduction.  So to look into the face of a college-educated, professional African-American woman in midcentury America like Angie Lee McCann, you can imagine, was like staring at a 10-ton pile of TNT.

She was also the fifth of nine children.  Now, I’m an only child (so this is all hearsay for me), but I understand that middle children are often the fighters of their family.  Not quite in the oldest group and not quite in the youngest, she often felt the need to fight to have her presence recognized.  Now, whether this was objectively true or not is beside the point.  It was  her reality.  Everyone in the family knows –and she herself would tell–the stories of how much she hated her brother Prince, who came just after her, in the beginning.  And it got ugly.  She’d gotten comfortable with the perks of being the baby in the family, and here came this boy–the first in the family–taking all that away.  So in the family, she always felt she had to fight for her share.

Her struggles continued in her personal and professional life.  She dealt with a relationship that tore at her both emotionally and physically and suffered the sudden and untimely loss of her son, yet her stride never broke.  She found herself at the summit of her career as the first black woman in the principalship of one of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s major correctional facilities in a town that felt  in the beginning that a black woman had no place occupying that kind of role.  And we don’t even need to speak of the daily challenges of managing the school system of a men’s facility like that.  Having seen the look in her eyes when she would return home from work firsthand, it was difficult.

So when people say my grandmother was tough, defensive, or a fighter, you can understand why.  When you’re born into a world as hostile to your well-being, progression, and success as she was, you have to come out swinging just to stay on your feet.  But for all of us, there comes a time when the fight has to be called.  And when she finally unclenched those fists after 80 years of fighting, she let her family take those weary hands and let go to let love do its work.  As she knew her words would soon fail her, she brought us close and said her goodbyes.  To me, after I thanked her for being the vigilant bricklayer she was for my own success, she brought me close and said, quietly yet distinctly, “I’ll never forget.”  And it is our responsibility never to as well.  It’s a testament to the strength of her presence to see all of these faces from places near and far here to celebrate her life. There’s a lot of value in conjoining those flung far from one another by circumstance, chance, and excuse. In reminding us of the value of struggle, effort, and care.  May she now walk triumphantly into the night in peace knowing that the worth of her work is the sum of  the work we continue in her absence: remembering, passing on, and loving in turn.


Mining Dada

High-Res Stock Photography: Three miners wearing headlamps in mine shaft…

It wasn’t exactly the sexiest job I could have had, to be sure.  Compared to scrubbing thousands of dishes or unlocking the dorm rooms of drunk students ready to go vomit supernova, though, I felt like I was married to Denzel Washington.  Actually, I rather loved my on-campus job in college.

For a young comparative literature major who liked books viscerally but often found himself squirming through the tedium of reading, the idea of working in a manuscript archive was pretty damn romantic.  Tucked away in the shadowy floors of the library were rows upon rows of manilla boxes containing all sorts of illicit pleasures.  They had it all: handwritten notes from foreign heads of state, the quotidian correspondences of the midcentury American political elite, coursebooks from long-forgotten students–everywhere you turned there was some treasure begging for rediscovery.  All of this was fascinating, particularly as I saw just how lonely these relics were.  Their soundless solitude plucked at a loneliness I felt in my own existence, and certainly at the fear of being lost and forgotten.

Some of these materials hadn’t seen the light of day since they were first accessioned; others were routinely trucked out to voracious researchers who would spend months hunched and wheezing over crumbling volumes and dusty photos.  The material seemed to take on a life of its own.  The short, bovine boxes of irregularly sized materials selfishly jockeyed against the tall, slender codices for as much real estate as they could, squeezing the books together until their poor covers warped and withered under the assault.  A few particularly flexible photos manipulated their mylar coats to liberate themselves from the suffocating mélange, only to find themselves trapped and abandoned in the dark netherworld between the shelves and the wall.  And the onion paper.  Frail, sickly, and antisocial, it could barely stand the touch of another without crying out and, eventually, disintegrating.

It all settled into a centrifugal listlessness, with diminishing utility imperceptibly yet steadfastly delivering it over to the crushing effects of entropy.  This was where paper and thoughts came to die.  The archive had pretensions of serving as a kind of urgent-care unit, administering emergency resuscitative measures to the most desperately ill of materials.  But this was no conservation lab, so the stopgaps were only temporary and the mauseoleic face of the archive inevitably revealed itself.

The contemporary archive is a rather tumultuous place, epistemically speaking.  Even as it does its best to encourage the respect due these materials, I soon learned in my job that a rather violent divorce is being wrought that seems to reconfigure the order of things in the accumulation of history.  I began as a student worker in the midst of a large digitization initiative, wherein specialists were digitizing aging, decrepit materials to preserve content and, if the degeneration were too complete, dispensing with the original physical forms.  Like veterinarians of knowledge, archivists diagnosed informational ailments and, in the most severe of cases, allowed for the mind to live on while recommending corporeal euthanization.  This type of dualism seemed baffling to me, for the same reasons it did in the consideration of human subjects: the thought is in the paper, is inextricably of it, and finds its content and expression entangled in one another.

Soon, the job took on a rather uncomfortable tone.  I felt complicit in a kind of paper genocide.  The clinical, high-pitched buzz of the scanner quietly yet mercilessly wrested from these dying materials the words and images graphed across their surfaces, turning them into bits of data that lived in some Great Everywhere that was, to my eyes, Nowhere.  As I watched the mutant accretions of tape and disintegrating paper fall amongst the refuse, I was struck by images of the dark, sagging shelves holding up the mountains of weary books and journals from my childhood.  Nostalgia cut piercingly into the monotony.  Who had these materials belonged to?  Who had scribbled across this now-yellowed paper?  Who had been present for and given care to these black-and-white photos now dribbling brown?  Beyond mere indices of lost times, these objects were interesting because they seemed lost.  They looked to be in search of the relationships once had with those who created them.  Their senility seemed to have overrun them, and each of their ersatz caretakers could do only so much to bring grace to their senescence.

So my love affair with media began with loss as I came of age in the transition from a paperful to a paperless society.  As barely-there pages slipped away and blindingly dynamic virtual interfaces took their place, I became interested in the investments–emotional, intellectual, and otherwise–that we as humans make in the technologies that have surrounded us from stone to screen.  Despite lamentations by critics about how Nothing Would Ever Be the Same, I somehow had a sense that this had happened before and would happen again. (Battlestar Galactica really got to the heart of human’s relationship with technology.)  Media technologies have always defined themselves through the relationships they unveil and generate between humans, their universe, and each other, but those relationships–as do all–change over time.

Beyond the technologies themselves, however, the proliferation of information must be attended to critically.  If mining is to be a productive metaphor for the lag between the generation and interpretation of information, then the sites and tools of excavation are in need of definition.  The cultural and affective fissures and connections between online and offline worlds do not always resolve themselves neatly into the data packets analyzed in information management and other data sciences.  How do we, a transitional technological generation, experientially resolve the co-presence of technologies and transitions from new to old media?  What will the equivalent moment in future generations be of feeling paper crumble or tape disintegrate between one’s fingers?  How do we live out and outlive technology?

Embedded in these questions is the need to attend to much less easily reduced points of experience–a “dadum” rather than “datum,” if you will–whose visibility comes through the intersection of a number of complex personal and historical narratives.  As technological change accelerates, obsession with utility, productivity, and innovation obscure in these narratives the continued presence of the inconsequential, the irrelevant, and the unproductive in the field of the mundane, where most of us spend our time living.  Contemporary artists certainly take this as a privileged domain, but some practices risk falling into a reactionary recalcitrance that expends more energy proclaiming its own obstinance than teasing out the complexities of this transitional existence.

Perhaps these types of considerations are best left to the liminal space of personal blogging, where personal considerations are presented in public ways that can be of as much or little consequence as readers need it to be.  So rather than take technology at its word, the work I do mines the seemingly ineffectual gestures beneath the surface of our mediated worlds.  It searches for the ways we use these gestures–both real and apparent–to style our identities, online and off.  It combs the periphery of hypermediated experience in search of existential conflicts, insuppressible differences, and actual people making actual history.  It looks beyond information as a collection of data and searches for those disruptive moments of wonder, absurdity, paradox, illogic, and unrest–in short, those human moments–in the technologized mundane in which we now find ourselves.  It searches for those left behind and documents those whose backs form the bridges across which the privileged march into a hallucinated Utopia.

And through it all, this work searches for its own voice as it wanders the fields of electrons zipping to and fro.  It stops and starts in its journey into the abyss of words, sounds, and images that populate our electronic universe.  Virtual as that universe may seem, however, this work never forgets the clicking and tapping of fingers on keys and screens, never misses the eyes darting across those dynamic flat surfaces, and never sheds the feeling that all of this–like the crumbling paper in the manuscript library–can die, and will someday.  This endeavor is the eulogy for a funeral to come.


Image source: Getty Images

On the Line, Online

Sometimes the best writing is born of frustration. Rather than self-indulgent pontifications on the meaning of writing and the claims my personal interventions are staking in this cluttered landscape of words and images, a response to a troublesome proposition will suffice.  I’d originally wanted my first post to be fluff, so let it be disclaimed that shaking my cane at Internet writers is not how I envision this project continuing.  But since this fell out of the sky, let’s go.

Additional disclaimer: for all the tl;dr folks, this is nt;ma (not Twitter; move along).

“The only way to create change is by…putting something on the line.” – Bryan Moylan

The anxiety over a perceived culture of passivity growing out of the proliferation of social media platforms has taken on a cachet not unlike the cultural obsession with taking hipsters down a peg or twelve.  The prevailing philosophy seems to be that for something to be “on the line,” it can’t be online.  Digital media promote anonymity, a dissolution of accountability, and political laziness.  So, dissatisfied with the sea of pink equal signs on red backgrounds flooding his Facebook feed (and sometimes including a festive Grumpy Cat or Neil Patrick Harris for decoration), Bryan Moylan launches a scathing takedown of the latest Internet meme in Vice magazine. Vice is known for not just fanning flames, but throwing gasoline on them and yep, pretty sure that’s surveillance footage of them piling together the charcoal.  In “The Red Marriage Equality Sign on Your Facebook Profile Is Completely Useless,” Moylan takes to the Internet equivalent of the porch rather than the streets to declare, “This is just another form of passive activism that isn’t advancing the cause.” Instead, Moylan suggests we donate to nameless “gay rights organizations,” head to the Supreme Court to protest (because like Congress apparently, the Court operates at the behest of public opinion), or go back in time to lobby that one Californian we met at summer camp ten years ago to vote “no” on Prop 8. Had we, all of these legal shenanigans could have been avoided and we’d be the better for it.

The quips rain like arrows down the page, but at their core, Moylan’s words attempt to wrest one of the bars from the viral image, turning a symbol of equality into one of subtraction, detriment, and debilitation. But is any of this true, like the assumption that if you change your profile pic to show support as the Legion of the Old and (Questionably) Wise convene to hear these monumental cases, you’re offending not only the eyes but the sensibilities of those engaged in the roiling battle for civil rights? Or, perhaps more condescending and egregious, that “you’re just sitting there at your desk thinking that something you did on social media is freeing the oppressed”? That the path to visibility begins and ends with the solicitation of congressional authority and lobbying batty old grandmas and Bible bee superstars?

Moylan seems perturbed by the facility with which these symbols are propagated and the banality of their expression. Right-click, left-click, left-click, done.  But however over Facebook’s latest attempt to mine the data we produce we may be, Facebook and other social media are still in fact online communities where people congregate to communicate textually and visually with others familiar and unknown.  And the small communications that pop up in our ever-evolving feeds elicit the same emotions that offline interactions do: excitement, anxiety, anger, jealousy, and, yes, pride.  The pride felt when my screen became a waterfall of red and pink was real and significant.  People near and far–even those who often remain mute on political subjects–expressed support for a cause they believe in, and in doing so joined a chorus whose pitch and volume increased with each iteration of the symbol.  Temporarily yet potently, the medium itself was transformed through its redwashing.  We sometimes forget that Facebook is a commons, and its very banality is what makes these moments of collective expression meaningful and resonant.  Like seeing a slew of posts WTF-ing the power outage at the Super Bowl, a moment of visual solidarity places you in the same time and virtual space as others and makes all the more palpable the bumps and jostles of the march of history.

If what some of us LGBT folk desire access to is an everyday visibility that dismantles the closet and de-pathologizes our feelings and relationships, then all the more important that such a moment of collective expression take place in what has become the preeminent medium of the mundane.  Political activism of the sort Moylan calls for is a powerful and necessary tool in the demand for rights and civil legitimation, and the uncritical circulation of empty images is damaging to our social and cultural fabric.  But no less important is the desire to represent for the now and the later an awareness of our time and a stand against bigotry and oppression.  The representation of that awareness and unity articulates for our brethren and posterity the belief that our communities–those spaces in which we live, love, and die–are strengthened by a more complete, inclusive union.  Simple and superficial as it may seem, that moment of visual solidarity is an expression of the desire for the realization of a better community.  Some of our members literally depend upon the realization of that community as their current incompleteness as civic subjects threatens to dismantle their families and livelihoods.  However, that community does not come about solely through legal action.  It requires a fundamental respect for the lives they live and the challenges they face.  Standing and being counted gives legs to the cultural movement towards inclusion, support, and acceptance.  Not in my backyard becomes Come to the table.

At the risk of sounding too earnest, my equal sign is the expression of a commitment to that communing.  First and foremost it affirms my commitment to complete civic subjecthood.  The various aspects of myself are not put in and taken out of my identity as if it were a backpack.  If I am to be a complete citizen of this country, then that legal identity must include the way in which I form committed, long-lasting bonds with others.  But the equal sign is also a challenge to those who emphasize fragmentation and lack of consensus as essential parts of the current fight, who say that our rights need to continue to be vigorously “democratically debated.”  If I can extend a virtual hand to my physical neighbors down the street and my virtual neighbors across the continent, then there is no uselessness in the embrace of that symbol.  At a time when the social and the public have expanded to include spaces of visibility that are disconnected from the physical spaces we occupy, the language through which we express solidarity and community has changed as well.  We need activists.  And we need profile memes.  The latter cannot and should not stand in for the former, but serve their own purposes in the recalibration and progression of the everyday.  It expands–if even only slightly–the boundaries of what can be expressed and accepted.

This symbolic congregation echoes one of the most important parts of the case for marriage equality.  Irrespective of personal positions regarding the institution or one’s desire to enter into it, marriage accessibility operates as social-symbolic legitimation of a relationship not only in the eyes of the law, but of the society form which law springs. It renounces shame by declaring that the value of gay partnerships to public interest is equal to that of straight ones because our commitment to others and the stability of those commitments strengthens community regardless of the gender of its parties. It’s time to burn the cloaks of shame that have hidden homosexual relationships and weighed so heavily on the backs and spirits of men and women who have been told that their most precious and intimate emotions are degenerate, immoral, and parasitic. Darkness is as toxic to community as it is to love.  So what are putting on those two pink lines grounded solidly against the red expanse?  For some, hope for standing and equality following the long road to self-acceptance and self-love.  For others, a reminder to those of us struggling that we are supported, loved, and unabandoned.  Even for those of us who no longer need nor seek to, knowing that we are not alone is one of the most powerful messages we can hope to receive.