Culture

Barbara Ehrenreich on Our Obsession with Aging

Earlier this week on WNYC’s newish program, Midday on WNYC, Barbara Ehrenreich spoke with guest host Kai Wright about her new book Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. (Buy through this link and I’ll get a commission, or get it from her website.)

There were a lot of great insights into this interview, especially her critiques of medical testing, wellness, fitness, and mindfulness that mirrored a lot of Michel Foucault’s work, particularly that which deals with surveillance, discipline and what he calls “discourse,” knowledge that is produced by a power structure. Here are a few takeaways from the interview:

  • Ehrenreich characterizes the escalation of medical testing to surveillance over the body, bringing to mind Foucault’s critical history of the panopticon as a technology of surveillance.
  • Ehrenreich describes the dedication to fitness as a kind of control one exercises (ha!) over the body. In an age when people feel powerless over various social and economic conditions, exercise acts as a mechanism to maintain a sense of power.
  • Ehrenreich argues that the contemporary obsession with wellness can function in two ways, largely dependent on economic class.
    1. For the working class, it acts as a form of Taylorist surveillance for the employer to manage the employee’s health. This is done in the name of reducing health insurance payouts but in effect trains the employee to shape his or her behavior.
    2. For the upper class, wellness is a form of conspicuous consumption, where rich people can show off their commitment to fitness through expensive workout regiments and pricey foods and nutritional practices. While Ehrenreich illustrates this trend with a wellness coach who advocates eating pearls to combat aging. I immediately thought of the boutique gyms that pepper affluent cities and communities that were the subject of a recent Washington Post article. The article describes a diversity problem—a disproportionate number of young, rich, and white people in an otherwise demographically diverse cities—at expensive, boutique gyms. However, I think that the diversity problem is largely due to the uneven distribution of wealth, especially among younger people who have ascended economically since the Great Recession of the last decade. Hence, these gyms function as a token of affluence and commitment to health.
  • Ehrenreich also critiques the recent surge of mindfulness as Silicon Valley’s solution to the problem they created with digital devices and their distracting platforms. What began as a spiritual ritual practiced by Buddhists has been emptied of any religious properties and reduced to an app on a smartphone or Apple Watch.

I do quibble with one of her suggestions: to Google your health questions and add a few keywords such as “controversy” or “evidence based.” I think one of the reasons that so many people have become followers and practitioners of junk science is because of this very practice. On the Internet, good information and quack-pot theories are almost indistinguishable, especially to many who lack the training or experience in doing research.

Overall, however, I do appreciate her larger message that I would paraphrase as this: life is too short to worry about death.

A Lot Has Changed at KCSB, A Lot Has Remained the Same

The older I get, the quicker time passes, and it’s quite unbelievable to think that it’s been over twenty-three years since I first went to an informational meeting to began doing a radio program on KCSB. I started as a trainee on the closed-circuit AM station in 1994, moved up to an on-air program on the FM-broadcast station and also worked as the publications director in 1995, and was then elected general manager of the station in 1996. Having peaked early in life, I began my steady decline including being less involved with the radio station. After 1997, I remained an active volunteer and still did my radio show, Die Social Misfit, but I ultimately left the station around 1999. I passed on the tape archives of my last program to a friend. I don’t know if she still has them.

A lot has changed in the twenty-or-so years since I left KCSB. In the 2014 KCSB video made Film and Media 103 students, I noticed that some visible changes that have occurred over the years. Some things I noticed include:

  • a new mixing console in the FM control room, although it looks like the same microphones we had in my day.
  • a new computer system that probably does more than just play electronic CARTs, which was why we installed computers in the control rooms in the first place.
  • a new title for the internal music director, who is now called the “Librarian.”
  • a newish KCSB advisor named Marta Ulvaeus. I guess she was around before Ted Coe took the reigns.
  • new paint and new stickers on the walls.

I last visited in 2008, when the Console-ing Passions TV studies conference was held at UCSB, so it’s possible that many of these “new” improvements are themselves over a decade old.

Yet, there are somethings that remain unchanged. In the video, KJUC manager Madeline Kardos references how she spends downtime at the radio station. I did the same. As a young adult, I gravitated towards the radio station offices after I finished classes and after I finished working. It was a great gathering place for other people, and I found a nurturing community there. It was also, in an age before smartphones, a place to read and write emails. I’m sure there are tons of places like that on every college campus, and I’m glad that KCSB was there for me during those years.

Another thing that appears unchanged about KCSB is its commitment to diversity and eclecticism. Cutting my teeth at KCSB was a blessing for me because it made me curious about what else there might be out there: be it for music, TV shows, films, etc. It is important not only for the young people who do programs at the station but also for listeners in a rapidly gentrifying and homogenizing Santa Barbara–area.

Finally, another thing about KCSB hasn’t changed is the phone number for the request line. There’s something musical about “893-2424,” and anyone who had a radio program will have recited that phone number hundreds, if not thousands, of times.

The Smoker: A History of Stag Films at Light Industry, but No Smoking, Please

As I get older, I forget about some of the things I’ve done that not many others have. Case in point: I took two pornographic film classes as part of the my film studies curriculum.

The first was as an undergraduate at UCSB that was taught by Constance Penley, who Rolling Stone called a notorious professor in 1998. By the time I took the class, it had been taught several times and was not the hot-topic around campus as much as it was when it was first offered. Nonetheless, Penley ran the class as an historical survey of pornographic film, no different than any other professor would teach a survey of animation, documentary, or French cinema.

The second class was as graduate student at NYU, although our instructors were a bit sly about the subject matter of the class. They called it Explicitly Independent, insisting that we were studying experimental, independent film that pushed the boundaries of representing sexuality. This class was not meant as a broad survey of explicit film, as my undergraduate class was, but instead was meant to address a number of topics that our instructors were studying.

Both classes made clear a couple of facts about pornographic film:

  1. it has been around a long time: about as long as motion pictures themselves have been around.
  2. more people consume pornography than you think: it’s pretty much close to 100% of film viewers.
  3. a stylistic history of pornography tracks closely to the stylistic history of cinema at large: the golden age of pornographic film is in the 1970s, which is the same decade as the golden age of New Hollywood.

Light Industry is presenting nine short films on Tuesday, February 20, beginning at 7:30 PM: a program they call The Smoker: A Brief History of the Stag Film. The term “smoker” refers to the smoke-filled rooms where men—and only men—would watch sex on film as part of some weird homosocial ritual to prove that each guy wasn’t “a homo.” If you ever wondered what your grandfather did with his buddies at an Elks Lodge meeting on a Saturday night, it was probably watching these films.

As someone who watched a lot of these kinds of films with an audience that isn’t there for sexual gratification, I will tell you will initially feel a bit awkward when you recognize the situation of watching porn while sitting next to strangers.

Light Industry seems to recognize this. They will screen the films silent in the spirit of historically accuracy. It was common for men to hoot-and-holler while these films played, and indeed, Light Industry’s website notes “in the spirit of smokers past, we encourage attendees to provide their own soundtracks.”

I would go a step further and encourage you to provide your own beverage, too. But, remember that this is the twenty-first century: there no smoking during these smokers.

A Letter to the World: Experiments in Essay Filmmaking, Workshop at UnionDocs, September 8-10

The folks at UnionDocs is offering a three-day intensive workshop on the essay film, called A Letter to the World: Experiments in Essay Filmmaking, between September 8 and 10, to enable artists to articulate their ideas and explore new methodologies in crafting their work. The workshop will be led by filmmaker Lynne Sachs and will feature guest instructors Alan Berliner, Akosua Adoma Owusu and Roger Beebe, with scholars Timothy Corrigan and Nora M. Alter, co-authors of the book Essays on the Essay Film.

The workshop is open to filmmakers, students, artists, scholars, etc.

The workshop is currently sold-out, but you can join the waiting list at https://uniondocs.org/event/2017-09-08-explorations-essay-filmmaking/.

Fifty Years Ago Today… We Learned About a 19th Century Circus

Fifty years ago today, on June 1, 1967, the Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in the United States. (The UK release was a few days earlier on May 26.)

You will no doubt hear a lot about this anniversary in the coming days, if you haven’t done so already. As a kid, I vividly remember the twentieth anniversary being a big deal, partly because because the opening lyric to the album’s title song is “It was twenty years ago today / Sgt. Pepper taught his band to play,” and because Capitol-EMI had released a digitally remastered CD of the album. CD was state-of-the-art in 1987. In that same spirit, Capitol EMI Universal Music Group released a newly remixed and remastered super-deluxe edition of Sgt. Pepper’s that includes a bunch of extras, such as some studio takes, a video documentary and a mono mix of the album. (There’s also a mere anniversary edition that won’t set you back $120.)

A reproduction of the 20th anniversary CD of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band released in 1987.

I first listened to Sgt. Pepper’s in the aftermath of the twentieth anniversary in 1987. One of the songs that always stuck out to me was “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” The song might not be the best one on the album, but with its circus-like atmosphere, achieved through a variety of archaic musical instruments and through innovative multitrack recording and mixing, it was a song that transported me to altogether different time and place. Curiously, the song also features the Andalusian Cadence, although I did not know that at the time.

The fiftieth anniversary remixed-and-remastered recordings are available on streaming services, such as Amazon, Spotify, and Apple Music, and after listening to the remixes, which do in fact sound richer than what was previously available on CD and digital formats, I revisited “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” What on earth is John Lennon signing about in this song?

In case you need a refresher, here’s the lyrics that open the song:

For the benefit of Mr. Kite
There will be a show tonight on trampoline
The Hendersons will all be there
Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair—what a scene
Over men and horses, hoops and garters
Lastly through a hogshead of real fire!
In this way Mr. K. will challenge the world!

Writing in Smithsonian Magazine in 2011, Mike Dash wrote explains many of the references in this song, especially “Pablo Fanque’s Fair”. He explains how the song lyrics were based on an antique poster than John Lennon bought in Kent. The poster was “to benefit” a circus performance in 1843 run by Pablo Fanque, who was not only a very successful circus performer but was, in the golden age of the circus in Victorian England, a black man who owned his own circus(!).

A reproduction of the 1843 poster that inspired John Lennon to write “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” in 1967.

Looking at the poster, you can see how Lennon assimilated the various elements of the poster into his song. There’s of course Pablo Fanque’s Cirus Royal, the Hendersons, Henry the Horse dancing the waltz, the “somersets” (somersaults) and trampoline, and, of course, Mr. Kite himself.

But beyond the connection to the song, the article provides a deep and engaging historical account of Pablo Fanque and his circus. It’s worth a read to learn about the circus and the “entertainment industry” in Victorian England.

Last month, the longest running and last remaining American circus of the Victorian era closed. But the atmosphere of the circus, in general, and the story of a black circus entrepreneur, specifically, might not be entirely forgotten. Perhaps, because of the anniversary reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s, some curious listeners will hear “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” we will remember this odd Victorian-era entertainment and wonder what it was like to see Pablo Fanque’s Fair.

Forward Nation Radio

One of my former students at Queens College has been producing something really valuable lately. Forward Nation Radio launched in March as a videocast and podcast that the producer refers to as a “progressive show with ‘bite.'” The program arose as a response to what I would call the “fake news” echo chamber. This is where the commercial press publishes something critical about the president and then he and his surrogates cry “fake news.” The commercial press responds with “no, you’re fake news!” And on it goes…

The latest episode starts with a skit of a childlike Donald Trump character inviting his pal Sergey, presumably Sergey Kislyak, to come over to his White House for play. He entices him with a few secrets that he wants to tell him. It reminded me of what Harry Shearer does on Le Show, voicing several characters in humorous but chilling skits about current political topics.

The episode continues with a news summary, responding to listener feedback, and interjecting a healthy dose of political opinion. The host, David Leventhal, is undoubtedly a political progressive but offers well-reasoned and critical counter arguments to what you normally hear on commercial print and television media. And it is certainly a lot more thoughtful and educated what you get on right-wing propaganda outlets.

Leventhal’s finest moment in the episode came when he responded to an op-ed about the “lack of diversity” on campus, apparently written by one of Leventhal’s colleagues at Queens College. (Departmental infighting, anyone?) He immediately deconstructs the questions, noting that it is not referring to ethnic, gender, religious, or even income diversity. He quick identifies that the question is referring to ideological diversity: a balance between liberals and conservatives on campus. Leventhal draws on his professional experience to debunk this question: this was “bullshit” and “propaganda” thirty years ago, and it is “bullshit” and “propaganda” today, he says.

Leventhal take a long view about the purpose of labelling college campuses as liberal havens to undermine the value of education. He correctly identifies that what passes as conservative media is actually propaganda. The only way to counter propaganda is through education, he says. When quote-unquote conservative media rally against liberal bias in the media and in education, they are really trying to undermine the professional investigative methods of journalism to uncover truth and, at the same time, undermine the research methods and expertise of academics. In other words, quote-unquote conservatives aren’t represented on campus because those quote-unquote conservatives are actually propagandists who spread “alternate facts,” and Leventhal concludes, those “alternate facts…are not what should be peddled on college campuses.”

Of course, this is an extremely partisan series, but honestly, it was refreshing to listen someone use a balance of fact, reason, and emotion to argue against the attacks on journalism, academia, democracy, and even our own government that the right-wing is seeking to dismantle.

The Jobs Americans Do

Take some of the abundant leisure time that our post-industrial society has afforded you to read a series of nine portraits of working-class men and women in America, published last week in the New York Times Magazine. The article challenges the image of working-class jobs, which today are no longer in manufacturing as they were throughout most of the industrialized twentieth century.

The decline of the old working class has meant both an economic triumph for the nation and a personal tribulation for many of the workers. Technological progress has made American farms and factories more productive than ever, creating great wealth and cutting the cost of food and most other products. But the work no longer requires large numbers of workers.

But it’s not as if there are not any jobs. As we’ve known for decades, the working-class jobs of today are in services: health-care, education, hospitality, transportation, and customer service. Not only have the jobs changed, but they faces so have the faces of the American worker. “The emerging face of the American working class is,” as Binyamin Appelbaum succinctly summarized in the introduction to the article, “a Hispanic woman who has never set foot on a factory floor.”

A different author writes each of the stories. On a personal note, I was thrilled to see that a college chum and fellow KCSB alumnus, Eric Steuer, penned one of the stories, about a customer service representative at Zappos in Las Vegas named Sandi Dolan.

Nicholas Baer: Siegfried Kracauer & the Historical Film at New York University

Partly to torment my students with a long reading, but also to perhaps have them reflect on contemporary issues, I assigned Siegfried Kracauer’s “Mass Ornament” essay to my students in my History of Film class this week.

By a great stroke of luck, Nicholar Baer is delivering a lecture about Kracauer’s writings and film on Wednesday, February 15, at the department of Cinema Studies at New York University. The students in my Tuesday class may get a chance to hear this lecture, but the students in my Wednesday class will not. Our class meets at the same time as this lecture.

The announcement from NYU Cinema Studies is reproduced below.

Abel Gance's Napoleon Playing at Apollo Theater

Nicholas Baer: Siegfried Kracauer & the Historical Film

This presentation will examine how Siegfried Kracauer addressed the relation between history and poetics in his film-theoretical writings. I will argue that insofar as Kracauer came to define the medium’s “basic aesthetic principle” in terms of engagement with the singular and transitory occurrences of physical reality, he obfuscated Aristotle’s opposition between history and poetry, paradoxically locating the poetics of film in its potential as a historian of contemporary life. Notably, however, the genre of the historical film was problematic for Kracauer, given its efforts to visualize a past that is by definition no longer present. Rather than showing “how things actually were,” in Leopold von Ranke’s famous words, the historical film can only envision “things as they could have happened.” An examination of Kracauer’s extensive writings on the historical film will shed new light on his film theory and illuminate significant developments in his thought from Weimar Germany to 1960s New York. Not least, Kracauer’s texts will provide an occasion for considering cinema in relation to historical-philosophical debates on the dissolving distinction between empirical reality and fictional construction, the history and the story, and the true (das Wahre) and the verisimilar (das Wahrscheinliche)—issues of renewed concern in our own “post-truth” era.

Nicholas Baer: Siegfried Kracauer & the Historical Film

  • February 15, 2017
  • Michelson Theater, 721 Broadway, 6 Fl
  • Free

A Week Later

A week ago, it seemed like the US was on the cusp of having its first woman president of the United States. We had been preparing for this moment for a very long time, and as early as May, well before the party nominations were wrapped up, the New York Times published this map. They projected Clinton to carry these states.

It didn't work out this way.

It didn’t work out this way.

As you know, things didn’t turn out that way.

Were Clinton voters and democrats living in a filter bubble, similar to the one Mitt Romney supporters inhabited that made their candidate’s loss in 2012 unthinkable? Did the Democrats think that they could just run anyone against Trump and that the voters would reject an emotionally unstable, intellectually vacuous, and bigoted white man from New York?

The shock of a Trump presidency has been very difficult to process. It’s embarrassing that we as an electorate voted this way. A man who who has been a huckster and a charlatan will be a peer to the Roosevelts, John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson. A man who’s name signified tackiness enshrined in gold will be the chief executive of the country. A man whose companies have declared bankruptcy several times will be the one who will be negotiating treaties and passing budgets. (I wonder what will happen when the debt ceiling will need to be raised in the March 2017: my guess is draconian cuts to spending and an attendant economic recession.)

No matter how embarrassing it is to watch Americans install a caricature of a successful businessman in the White House, the prospect of who will be running the federal government is an even more chilling prospect. Are we setting up to live in an autocracy? It certainly seems feasible with a pliant and spineless Republican Congress who will choose party over country every time. Our only hope is that the petit bureaucrats in Washington do their thing and bring sensible inaction to their jobs, but when did they ever come through for us?

Around here, the election and the aftermath has been a lot like a death. Many of us are in mourning, knowing that a lot of the the progress we made in the last decade will almost certainly evaporate. Many us fear what will come in terms of deportations, anti-semitism, rampant racism, misogyny, science denial, and good old fashioned crony capitalism. And we are stung by the unthinkable reality of an uncertain future as a failed state. As in mourning, emotions overwhelm rational thought.

But once we start to think more clearly, weren’t we unsatisfied with Hillary Clinton as the standard bearer for not only the Democrats but also for American women. Back in the spring, I wondered whether the ascendance of Bernie Sanders as a viable candidate was partly due to women supporting him—not Hillary Clinton—because they were hoping for someone better to be the first woman president. Sanders was more aligned with their interests, despite being a man, than Clinton was simply for being a woman. It reminded me of the days when the Democrats would try to put forward someone like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton as the first black presidential candidate of their party. We deserved better. And in time, we got Barack Obama. We deserve better than Hillary Clinton and someday we will know who that better candidate will be.

And after this mourning period, we start to move on and begin to see silver linings. One such bright spot Trump’s victory is that the Democrats and the nation have finally gotten rid of the Clintons and their moderate liberalism. They not pulled this country so far right that Richard Nixon could be a liberal Democrat today, as Lawrence Lessig pointed out last Wednesday morning, they unabashedly [sold the party out to Wall Street]. He published that piece hours after many of us awoke to realize that Trump would be the 45th president of the United States, and, at the time, it was cold comfort for what the future could hold. In time, we’ll excitedly move on.

And that is what must happen after the death of a loved one or a similarly stunning loss. We will move on. Things will never be the same again, but we will cope, and as a country, we will get through it.

Lecture: Ernie Gehr at New York University

Tonight, experimental filmmaker Ernie Gehr will be giving the seventh annual Experimental Film Lecture, jointly presented by the departments of Cinema Studies and Undergraduate Film & Television at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. The pre-lecture screening is of his films in 16mm. You might want to see those while you can, lest they burn up in the projector.

The announcement from NYU Cinema Studies is reproduced below.

Gehr web

Ernie Gehr, “What Is an Unfinished Work?”

​For nearly fifty years, artist Ernie Gehr has transformed his deep knowledge of the moving image into a distinct vision of cinema’s potential for interpreting and fragmenting reality. With an astute, often humorous, appreciation for the limits and possibilities of the frame, Gehr has, since the mid-1960s, created a large, radical body of work that continues to challenge and surprise audiences. He uses his camera as a tool for creating new modes of perception. With few words, no characters, and no plots, his films, video work, and installations push us to re-imagine our own relationships to time and space.

There are a multiplicity of adjectives that fit Ernie Gehr’s experimental film and digital work: abstract, beautiful, mysterious, invigorating, utopian.

Manohla Dargis, New York Times, 11/11/11

In Gehr’s hands, the camera seems to take on magical properties, able to transform the most quotidian object or environment—the pattern of sunlight on a wall, a busy street—into marvelous and unexpected phenomena.

Ernie Gehr’s Marvelous Cinema, Harvard Film Archive

Join us for screenings at 5:30 and Gehr’s Experimental Lecture at 7:00.

5:30
Pre-lecture 16mm screening of Serene Velocity (1970), Shift (1972-74) and Rear Window (1986/1991)
6:30
Artist reception
7:00
Experimental Lecture with screenings of Lisa and Suzanne (1968-69), Untitled: Part 1 (l981), Coney Island Boardwalk (2013)

Free and open to the public.

Details

  • October 19, 2016
  • Michelson Theater, 721 Broadway, 6th Fl
  • Free