Sunday, December 22, 2013

Finishing Deconstructing Brad Pitt

I am currently working (hustling might be a more accurate term) to assemble the final manuscript for this book, a collection of essays about Brad Pitt. 

The book started out as a joke more than ten years ago in Montana, existed as a sort of academic shaggy dog story during the time I was a PhD student at UC Davis, and then became a real project after I moved to New Orleans. And now it's almost complete. 

The book includes some excellent essays on the expected and unexpected facets of Pitt, both as an actor and as a celebrity. It's been a bewildering process, though, because the book can't possibly encompass—not to mention keep up with—the roles, appearances, and disseminations of Brad Pitt. But that's part of the point...

If everything goes smoothly from here on out, and with a little luck, it will be in airport bookstores a year from now.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

13 Very Short Airport Stories

1. Lucy was scanned by the dynastic x-ray machine, and then she strolled into a simulated cedar grove leading away from the terminal.

2. A cheerleading squad assembled near the baggage carousel, waiting for shiny equipment to arrive in unremarkable duffle bags.

3. Stepping through a red glow, Lars inserted his credit card into the self check-in kiosk, and the computer retrieved his itinerary to LGA. Did Lars want to print his boarding passes?

4. The Starbucks line was long. There were only 9 minutes until Priority Boarding. Li hesitated, looking down the concourse toward gate 64.

5. Georgette knew the way to the Admiral's Club. She knew that there were two more moving walkways until she would see the frosted sliding doors.

6. Lena preferred Lufthansa because it was a good german airline, because the planes had blue tails and there was no better way to fly, really.

7. In the bathroom near the F gates, Paulo couldn't decide whether to use a paper towel after he'd washed his hands, or the Dyson Airblade.

8. Suddenly Robby was elated to discover an unexpected power outlet nestled between the Eames Tandem sling seats; his Samsung Galaxy would be charged for the flight.

9. Elizabeth deftly maneuvered her carry-on bag around the bookshelves and past the magazines, looking for something to read during the two-hour layover.

10. The garbage can at the juncture of the C and D concourses overflowed, and a Smoothie King styrofoam cup clattered to the ground.

11. Charlene loved to scold the passengers who reported their luggage lost. She scolded them hard, shaking her head as she processed each claim, entering information into the computer.

12. Four baggage carts were parked in a snaked line. One cart's vinyl curtain flapped in the jetwash of an Airbus taxiing away from gate E14.

13. The overhead speakers called for a Mr. Spartenbot to pick up a white courtesy phone. But nobody heard the announcement.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

On Nature & Planes in World War Z

Part I

About thirty minutes into World War Z, we find Brad Pitt's Gerry Lane on a military cargo aircraft with Elyes Gabel's Dr. Fassbach, a "virologist from Harvard" who has been tasked with figuring out the cause of (as well as a cure for) the wildly contagious zombie disease spreading over the planet. They are flying to South Korea, on a rumor that the zombie outbreak began there. En route, Fassbach pontificates about the subtlety and craftiness of Nature, musing on how "she loves to play tricks," and "she's a bitch." He even compares Nature to a serial killer. Toward the end of this airborne, spontaneous lecture, Dr. Fassbach gets a maniacal expression on his face, and Brad Pitt looks pensive if also a little disturbed.

This whole time, after all, they are sitting in a U.S. Marine cargo aircraft on a last ditch effort to save the species, and here this young doctor of medicine is philosophizing about Nature—and more, seeming to get a kick out it (talk about a tenured radical). Dr. Fassbach's part in this film is rather hugely built up, only to be cut short in the next scene: he slips on the rain-slicked aircraft ramp and accidentally shoots himself in the head. But his words live on, coming back into the mind of Pitt in a voiceover later, when Gerry Lane is on the verge of solving the problem of the zombie apocalypse.

Is it really a problem, though, if indeed the zombie outbreak is an extension of Nature? The thing about zombies is that they have supposedly broken from the natural order: they are the un-dead, they (non)exist beyond an allegedly 'natural' human timeline of life and death. The zombies in this film click their teeth and sniff the air as if they are hungry, but they really just want to bite people—and only then to turn them into similar creatures. It's not about eating; it's about community, and a kind of asexual and finite reproduction.

Furthermore, they seem to have achieved a state of weird biological equilibrium, the sin qua non of certain ideas of ecology: this humanoid sub-species doesn't need to extract resources, exterminate other species, or build things—they just like to hang out. For when there are no more healthy non-zombie people to bite, the zombies go dormant, simply standing around and jerking occasionally (as we see later in the film). They don't have to work or struggle, they can just chill. Given contemporary culture's everyday wish images of vacation, retirement, off-time, and vegging out—does zombie life really sound so bad?

Nature is a strange problem that lurks throughout this movie. Nature plays a double role, both the background and the foreground, the riddle to solve and the inescapable condition. It is what causes the zombies in the first place (as a virus of some sort); yet it also, according to Dr. Fassbach, holds the keys and clues to the mystery. Nature in World War Z is something to 'catch' in a double sense: as a virus, and as an culprit who causes the virus. The reason they've sent a virologist on the mission is to figure out the disease and come up with a solution, a cure. Nature is figured as dynamic, adaptive, generative of new viruses and forms of life; some of this is threatening to human life, and thus humans push back, to keep the species from changing too much (or too quickly) or becoming extinct (at least not in our lifetime). At the same time, Nature is something to be held in check, perceived and controlled as an external entity.

Yet if Nature is something that at times needs to be recuperated or set in balance (à la those "Take Back America" bumper stickers), then it is precisely the humans who are ill-directed here: they should join the zombies, for the zombies have achieved a stable state within a dynamic system, a state that would seem to be able to exist in perfect harmony with the rest of Nature even within a broader state of flux. Humanoids as an entirely stable population of sloths: it's progress at its apex, satisfaction pretty much guaranteed.*

Except that this is the foil of 'Nature' as a concept. As Nietzsche describes it in Beyond Good & Evil, the desire to live according to Nature is incoherent, or at best tautological, as it sets up an opposition that always immediately collapses.** It's like saying you want to live according to life. Well, how could it be otherwise? Such too this mad mission of a species (humans, i.e., Nature) to rid Nature of something it generated, the zombies (again, Nature).

Part II

The setting of Dr. Fassbach's Nature lesson is hardly coincidental. World War Z is in part, in fact, a startling and savage critique of modern air travel.

Earlier in the film, Gerry Lane's former boss Thierry Umutoni, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General (played by Fana Mokoena), briefs Lane on the situation and mentions offhand, concerning the virus, that "the airlines were the perfect delivery system..."

Later in the film, Gerry Lane barely escapes an overrun Jerusalem, enplaning onto a Belarus Airways wide-body jetliner at the last second before it takes off.

Lane makes it out in the nick of time: from the airplane window on ascent, we see the teeming masses of zombies and the devastation below.

Never mind: everything seems fine on the flight—a little relief, at last. That is, until the plane is making its descent into Cardiff, Wales, and Lane hears/feels some thumping toward the back of the plane. He cautiously strolls down the aisle to check it out.

What I want to seize on here is the total banality of this scene: it is the pinnacle of modern progress, summed up in the interior space of the commercial airliner. But when Lane peeks through the divide that separates Business from Economy Class, he sees an awful sight: there was a zombie stowaway on the plane that finally broke loose from the nether regions of the aircraft, and is wreaking havoc and thus multiplying.

On the one hand, this is a terrifying scenario. On the other hand, though, does it really look all that different from a normal scene of boarding, wherein we jockey for seats, armrests, and carry-on stowage? Incidentally, this whole episode was all the fault of a particular flight attendant: to wit, the crouching beige-clad woman in the mid-foreground, who unknowingly freed the secret sharer from a storage elevator in the rear galley. When she raises her head in preparation to attack Lane, we are presented with one of the exciting face-to-face moments in the film:

Now having worked at an airport for a few years earlier in my life, I am fairly sympathetic to the grueling labor of air travel, and I do not wish to make fun of airline workers. But this sequence seems to me to be a clear jab: is this look so distinct from how we encounter (or at least hyperbolically imagine) irate, snippy flight attendants in so many mundane disciplinary contexts onboard commercial airliners? Sir, turn that phone off immediately!

At this point Lane's only recourse is to hurl a hand-grenade (how he got it is another story, not important for our purposes here) back toward Economy section of the cabin, and duck. This rather takes care of the immediate zombie problem, but it doesn't bode well for the plane.

And here we are back at Nature, which arrives in pristine form around a stunningly spectacular plane crash:

This is something I have written about elsewhere, but it is as if to say, You want Nature? You got it! It's all around: in the mountains, the white barked aspens, the firs and pines, the heavy clouds—it's a ridiculously scenic vista, re-marked as it were as a 'scene' where Nature really resides. Human flight always comes crashing back to the ground. The wild landscape frames this disaster, and clears away something of a blank slate for the human subject qua survivor, in the singular form of Brad Pitt.***

The tree trunk in the foreground of this shot reminds us that here, amid the redundant wire tangles and calamitous wreckage, we're in the realm of Nature. This is where we can start fresh, back at ground zero. It is no wonder that the crash scene is precipitated by a sequence that wonderfully and uncannily calls to mind Edward Norton's own mid-air collision fantasy in Fight Club:

parallel plane crash fantasies in World War Z and Fight Club

These are fantasies of getting back to Nature, to real experience—in Thoreau's words, "Contact! Contact!" Yet if we really wanted this immediacy in the context of World War Z, we would need only allow ourselves to be bitten. The zombies aren't struggling against—or to get closer to—Nature. They are it. As are we. 

And here is the harsh critique of air travel: just when we thought we were farthest from Nature, nestled in our elaborate techno-cultural tubes of flight, we were in fact closer than ever to it. We can fly, but we cannot hide. Work that into your Nature lecture, Dr. Fassbach.


* It really doesn't look all that unfamiliar to other forms of life we know. For instance, Baz Luhrman's sick and gas-pumping "Wilson" (on the left, below) in The Great Gatsby adopts a similar posture and aura. And as in Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Filling Station," we discover an eccentric ecosystem thriving at this greasy juncture.

** You desire to LIVE "according to Nature"? Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves INDIFFERENCE as a power—how COULD you live in accordance with such indifference? To live—is not that just endeavouring to be otherwise than this Nature? Is not living valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavouring to be different? And granted that your imperative, "living according to Nature," means actually the same as "living according to life"—how could you do DIFFERENTLY? Why should you make a principle out of what you yourselves are, and must be? In reality, however, it is quite otherwise with you: while you pretend to read with rapture the canon of your law in Nature, you want something quite the contrary, you extraordinary stage-players and self-deluders! In your pride you wish to dictate your morals and ideals to Nature, to Nature herself, and to incorporate them therein; you insist that it shall be Nature "according to the Stoa," and would like everything to be made after your own image, as a vast, eternal glorification and generalism of Stoicism! With all your love for truth, you have forced yourselves so long, so persistently, and with such hypnotic rigidity to see Nature FALSELY, that is to say, Stoically, that you are no longer able to see it otherwise—and to crown all, some unfathomable superciliousness gives you the Bedlamite hope that BECAUSE you are able to tyrannize over yourselves—Stoicism is self-tyranny—Nature will also allow herself to be tyrannized over: is not the Stoic a PART of Nature?... But this is an old and everlasting story: what happened in old times with the Stoics still happens today, as soon as ever a philosophy begins to believe in itself. It always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise; philosophy is this tyrannical impulse itself, the most spiritual Will to Power, the will to "creation of the world," the will to the causa prima.  (trans. Helen Zimmern)

*** The nexus of Brad Pitt and crashing is a topic I take up at greater length in Deconstructing Brad Pitt.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Plane Sighting, Found Essay

The other day I overheard a DJ on our local radio station talking about how President Obama was in New Orleans that morning. I was reminded of this a couple hours later when, while sitting in the backyard playing with Julien, Air Force One came rumbling by directly overhead. You can't mistake this plane, a 747-200 with its distinctive pale blue belly and four jet engine roar.

Air Force One sighting over my backyard

close up

On this subject of seeing planes pass by, an essay of mine called "Plane Sighting" was published over at InVisible Culture, in their latest issue called "Blind Spots."

This brief sighting of Air Force One reminded me of an old essay I wrote on the Presidential plane: it's something I've wanted to resuscitate for a while now, and so I went rummaging around various hard drives to see if I could find it. I didn't find it—it's on an old computer up in my office, I think—but I did find an essay on the film United 93 that I had forgotten about. I liked this essay, and even while it's more of a provocation than a fully developed thesis, it was encouraging to read it and realize I'm still puzzling over some of the same issues. So much pops up and fades in the day-to-day of reading, writing, tweeting, and teaching—it's nice to find something from many years ago that I'm still basically interested in, if in new ways. So I'll put this essay below, and I'll keep looking for the essay on Air Force One...

Not What Nietzsche Had in Mind: United 93 and the Problem of Playing Ourselves

Among other philosophical problems, the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche struggled to understand how humans perform essentially as actors, playing elaborate roles based on intricate networks of fictions that accrete into ‘truth’—in other words, how humans function as creative subjects who convert everyday fictions into true realities. Can we ever become objectively aware of our reliance on fabricated truths? Would such awareness lead to enlightened being? Or madness? Or merely result in a nagging sense that living requires certain epistemological blind spots? In his essay “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense,” Nietzsche wonders, “What do human beings really know about themselves? Are they even capable of perceiving themselves in their entirety just once, stretched out as in an illuminated glass case?” The implicit answers to these questions seem to be that humans know very little about themselves; and, no, humans cannot perceive themselves in their entirety, “as in an illuminated glass case.” 

Yet Nietzsche also glimpses an unsettling total vision, of sorts, in his stringent critique of ‘truth’ later on in the same essay: “What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short, a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation, and decoration, and which, after they have been in use for a long time, strike a people as firmly established, canonical, and binding….” Given this assessment of truth, how do we proceed to live according to conventions that we know are fictions—particularly when we must come to terms with a certain event’s truth, and our roles in making this truth—how else to put it—come true?

While one might suspect that cinema vérité offers a unique way to view human life in its entirety, as if “in an illuminated glass case,” I do not think this is exactly what Nietzsche had in mind. Nevertheless, Paul Greengrass, in his 2006 film United 93, perhaps unintentionally rejuvenates Nietzsche’s musings about how people might become aware of playing themselves amidst “a sum of human relations” that we call truth. This film recreates the events of 9/11, specifically to dramatize the final hijacking that day aboard the eponymous United 93. To make this film, Greengrass cast many non-actors who play ‘themselves’ in their roles as laborers on the day of 9/11. That is, the movie includes many actual “professional” workers who willingly recreated the roles that they played on September 11, 2001. 

In the director’s commentary on the DVD, Greengrass articulates his project, and his claims on behalf of real people, re-creation, and non-professional actors raise a series of problems and questions. To be precise, I would like to put some pressure on the idea of real people playing themselves. What is at stake in Greengrass’s conception of a cinema that can get closer to the lived truth of the everyday? What does it actually mean to be able to play oneself, to desire to re-create a past moment on the screen? Here is part of Greengrass’s commentary: 
…it was important to me that this film seemed to be about people who were just like anyone of us…part of the idea of 9/11 is that it is an event that engulfed US…it didn’t belong to a rarified world of movie stars…it belonged in the everyday, in the here and now…[the presence of professional air traffic controllers] gives this scene a special veracity…because…in the end…who better to play air traffic controllers…who better to bring this thing to realistic screen portrayal than professional people themselves?
A film that seems to be about people “just like anyone of us”—that is, a film that doesn’t even come off as a film, but as life itself? How would we even recognize ourselves as audiences to such a mundane show? This seems to be an awkward imperative for how to live as if one’s life is routinely insignificant—yet also always harboring a potential for great cinematic truth. The “rarified world of movie stars” is differentiated from the everyday; but isn’t it precisely this rarified world that does occupy audiences everyday, in cinemas around the world? Can we actually pull apart these two ‘worlds’ as if they are distinct? Finally, where is the “here and now” of flight United 93? This airline specific designator has been engulfed by the aura of filmmaking; it has been re-spectacled within a double frame of serious entertainment. Have the particulars of this flight been made more real or less real—or differently real—by its having been simulated for the screen? And how do these professionals, these non-actors, contribute to this reality shift?

Strangely, we are not too far from one of the more recorded responses to the events of 9/11, when people responded to the World Trade Center explosions with the incredulous observation: “It was just like a movie.”

Indeed, United 93 does not hesitate to recycle the recorded real-time perception—as well as its mediatization—of this filmic moment. At one point in the movie, when the second World Trade Center tower is hit, Greengrass uses ‘real’ news footage from 9/11 to re-capture from the expressions of real people (“who were there”) the disbelief and alarm in the New York air traffic control tower and in the military command center. The middle shot that takes up the entire screen is the CNN footage, replete with the iconic red logo in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. 

I am not critiquing the merits of Greengrass’s filmmaking here, nor am I trying to flare up the controversial status of these clips; rather, I am intrigued by the conception of human life forwarded by such images. What is this film saying about what it means to be a human? Are we being called upon to realize just how enmeshed we are in a “society of the spectacle”—or does this film get even more tangled up as it tries to puncture the surface of images with the sharpness of the really real? The layers of mediation are dense and interpenetrating. 

At another point in the film commentary, Greengrass explains his goal for this film as such: “[If we] could create a film that allowed an audience to walk through 9/11…at eye level…that would give us some basis for evaluating this enormously important event.” Greengrass’s idea of walking through 9/11 “at eye level” is a fascinating one, given our geographic displacements and replacements throughout the film: in Newark airport, in the flying plane, and in multiple air traffic control rooms and military command centers on the east coast. While the camera angles are, in effect, positioned at eye-level, and often handheld, the overwhelmingly significant comportment of 9/11 is not perambulation—it is the mechanical action of flight. And, on another level, it is the technical reproducibility of video. United 93 exists for us to evaluate the Event; yet, as we have seen, part of the event was its non-exceptionality on many fronts—it was just another day at the office that became increasingly chaotic.

This complex arrangement calls to mind one of Walter Benjamin’s observations in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” where he states:
By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. 
It would seem that United 93 carries out these twin movements in spectacular form. On the one hand, the film explores “the commonplace under the ingenious guidance of the camera”—for instance, Greengrass used a pulley system to move the camera up and down the aircraft aisle to achieve a fluid, eye-level effect. We see the “hidden details” of the cockpit, the galley, and even the lavatory when the would-be hijacker constructs a fake fake bomb above the toilet. The film “extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives”—so not only is the everyday exposed, but it is also reinforced, normalized, accepted as such. But this is not so much even in the content of the film as it is in the idea of what it means to act like ourselves. Thus the film also assures us of the “immense and unexpected field of action” that we call life—the movie heightens our expectation for drama even as it insists on the banal.

What does one hope to achieve by seeing ‘real’ people in the place of actors? What does one get from having the Event of 9/11 essentially compromised in its own representation—that is, reproduced in such a way that we can watch how it really must have felt, how it really happened? Not only that, but we can watch this film over and over, being reassured of its reality—its Event-ness. For whom was 9/11 an Event, and what different types of events are at play here?

Back to Nietzsche, albeit in a roundabout way. One of Nietzsche’s aphorisms from Beyond Good and Evil perplexes me every time I think about it: “Human maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play.” One possible way of reading this is as a joyous prompt to remain childlike even when an adult: I act the most ‘mature’ when I am playful, inventive, and silly. Another reading, however, mocks the very notion of human maturity: it is no more than what we felt years ago when we were children playing in a sandbox—as adults we just have that feeling in air traffic control rooms, in military command centers, and on airplanes. We call it maturity, but it is more like a forgetfulness of who and where we are, and what we are doing in any given moment. And a lot of these moments are taken up by work.

As we see consistently throughout United 93, one of the things that 9/11 variously interrupted and highlighted was work. (David Simpson alludes to this point in his shrewd, pithy book 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration.) 9/11 heightened the sense that what people were working for—vacations, mobility, family, work itself—was suddenly on pause, and in certain cases violently threatened. The non-actors in United 93 show us this through their acting. Yet understood as such, does acting show us the really real of work, or is it the really real of work? Paul Greengrass stresses that there is “a special veracity” in this film. I wonder if the truth of United 93 is nothing more and nothing less than work itself: everyone’s job is to act professional. The film United 93 almost seems to rephrase Nietzsche’s aphorism as such: “human maturity consists in finding the seriousness one has as an actor, at work.” We are left with the problem of playing ourselves, whether on the screen in lights, or in the darkening real of everyday life. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fall trips & other things

It's startling how fast photos can pile up in an iPhone.

My colleague Tim Welsh wrote a really smart essay about Instagram that was published over at Media Commons in a cluster on "The New Everyday." I have a short piece in this series too, about the Mississippi River.

I was thinking about the photos on my phone, though, because I recently returned from two trips—to South Bend, Indiana, and to Uppsala, Sweden—where I presented papers at two very different (both fantastic) conferences, and I took pictures along the way. A lot of airport shots (Stockholm Arlanda airport: amazing!), and a few of the Mississippi River from above as my return flights cruised in over the city on approach to Louis Armstrong International.

In South Bend, at the annual conference for the Society of Literature, Science, & the Arts, Tim Welsh and I presented a paper we wrote together that merges my interest in air travel with his theory of "mixed realism." The latter is an exciting critical concept that Tim is finishing a book on: he considers an array of literary texts alongside videogames to show how virtuality and reality get entangled in different media forms, and the implications of these entanglements. At SLSA it was great to reconnect with many old friends from Davis, including Tim Morton who I'm going to be bringing to Loyola this coming February to give a talk and meet with faculty and students. (I just got my copy of Tim's latest book, and am excited to dig into it.)

In Uppsala, I was a plenary speaker for the Nordic Association of English Studies, whose conference this year was themed around "places and non-places." I presented some of my latest thinking about airports, in particular musing about my own local airport and its current plans for renovations and reconstruction. Uppsala is a charming college town north of Stockholm; the people were so friendly, and the scholars I met from the university were wonderful. I hope to return someday. Bruce Robbins was also a plenary speaker at the conference, and I so enjoyed getting to know him over many meals, and I have fond memories of ambling through Uppsala at night back to our hotel after late (delicious) conference dinners and drinks, walking along the cobblestone streets in the crisp night air discussing David Foster Wallace and a plethora of other topics. I'm scheming to bring Bruce down to New Orleans next year, as his excellent and lucid work intersects the interests of numerous colleagues at Loyola. It will also be fun, which is actually an important part of why we do these things.

On my iPhone I have hundreds of pictures of all sorts of things from the past month of travels: a gray Lego block I found on the grass of the campus of Notre Dame; airplane meals on Air France; the fall colors flying into Stockholm; people pushing prams around Uppsala; the curves of Charles de Gaulle; other delirious visions inspired by jet lag....

But the iPhone is currently sitting next to my bed, in the back of my shotgun home, and since it's late and everyone is asleep, I don't want to tread across the creaky heart pine planks to get the phone. I'll hold the photos in abeyance for now.* Anyway, most of the good ones are already on twitter—it's so much easier, and I love to see the nearly immediate feedback from other people, often surprising. I am relatively disinterested in online education, and yet in a weird way I've also been embracing it on twitter, it occurs to me now.**

I feel obligated to keep this blog somewhat fresh, but increasingly it seems like a burden and a hassle. Yet it's still an archive of projects, connections, ideas, and other things.*** So I'll continue to ambivalently update this blog from time to time, even as it seems to creak sort of like the century-old wood beneath my feet.


* Later I retrieved some of these photos from my phone, and while I do not want to compromise the point of this blog post, I cannot resist retroactively including one picture I took inside the magnificent Stockholm Arlanda airport. I'll make it small, so as to de-emphasize it: 

** Here's the strange thing about twitter, though: it becomes so total and can stretch and flex so well to account for different thoughts an impressions—scholarly, slapstick, sarcastic, serious, playful, passing, pleasantry, poetic, preening—that it makes just writing like this feel somewhat stultified, rigid. I find myself wanting to include in this post everything I did over the past month—all the great conversations I had, people I chatted with, papers I heard delivered, etc...then realizing I could look back at my twitter feed to see just exactly what all those things were, but then realizing "what the hell, I've already written about it on twitter, why do it again?"—but then thinking "oh but that tweet was just a reminder to write about it later"...all of which spins into a vicious circle of reflexivity and reflection. (Or have I just read too much David Foster Wallace?)

*** Like this: A really nice review of my book was recently published in the journal Organization Studies

Sunday, September 8, 2013

River Notes

As I've been spending more time standing in and walking along the Mississippi River on recent mornings, I've also been thinking back to an earlier time in my life when I worked as a river guide in Wyoming for a couple summers, toward the end of college and directly after.

I remember the thrill of learning to navigate the twelve-foot inflatable rafts, which were nothing like the canoes I'd grown up paddling on Lake Michigan. Those old aircraft-aluminum canoes have keels that cause them to maintain a fairly straight course, and if you can manage a clean J-stroke you rarely even have to switch sides to paddle. They cut through the waves and are incredibly lightweight for their size.

Although I found the rafts to be entirely different creatures, squirrelly and sluggish compared to a canoe on the lake, I nevertheless found my paddling skills adaptable, and I learned to sit on the stern of a raft and steer while commanding paddling passengers and negotiating fast and varying currents. (It occurs to me now that the crash courses in paddling we gave our guests before each trip were also pedagogical training for me, prior to graduate school: I was learning to be an instructor.)

I recall a breakthrough moment when I learned how to use a "ferry angle" to move upriver—you can see ducks doing this, swimming at approximately 45 degrees against the current, in order to move upstream. You actually use the water's flow against itself, using the angle of the boat to slide counter-current, say if you want to slip into an eddy to rest or talk about lodgepole pines or bank swallow habitat.

That was on the Snake River, just south of Yellowstone National Park. There were two sections of the river that I primarily guided on: a short whitewater trip that went through a sheer canyon; and a longer, meandering scenic tour that ended up on Jackson Lake. We used bigger, eighteen-foot rafts for the latter scenic trips, and you rowed those boats instead of using a team of paddlers as on the whitewater. I don't have any photographs from those days, but here's one I pulled from the OARS (who I worked for) website—this was me (or someone like me), thirteen years ago, on a scenic stretch of the Snake River:

My river guiding days involved something of a script revolving around natural history and riparian ecology of the region. The daily grind got to me after a while, and I realized that guiding wasn't really for me as a long-term profession. But the more I think back on those summer days, the more memories flood back into my mind—freak storms, weird sightings, fun and spontaneous evenings with my fellow guides going on all sorts of adventures...I'm having a hard time keeping up with the memories even as I write this sentence. At any rate, it was quite a different kind of river experience from what I'm doing these days, wandering among the mud, rocks, metal pipes, and other stuff that gets exposed as the river level drops. I'm not exactly on the river, like I was in Wyoming. It's more like the river is getting on me. There's a Jim Harrison poem called "River VI" in which he alludes aptly to this feeling:
The water slips around your foot like liquid time
and you can't dry it off after its passage.
I'm getting used to—and used to looking forward to, but not being able to control—the surprises that await me each time I go to the river. Surprises such as the perfect butternut squashes the other morning that were scattered along the bank, having fallen off some boat en route from Honduras.

Then there was the alligator yesterday morning, just hanging out about twenty feet from the bank.

I've had the ridiculous thought of wearing one of those sporty video cameras on my head to record all the crazy (or just mundane yet somehow profound) things I've been seeing on the river. But the iPhone camera is enough (until I drop it into the river, which fate I fear I'm tempting), so I'll stick with occasional grainy photos and this brief prose for my river notes.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Jet Bridges

neither airport nor airplane...

My Object Lessons essay on jet bridges was published this week at The AtlanticHere are a few additional images to ponder...

A completely bland jet bridge interior appears in a passing scene in the film Killing Them Softly; this scene (above) reverses the jet bridge's use in Punch Drunk Love (below), but they both achieve a similar effect of denoting some drama on the verge of happening:

And here is a still from the security camera footage of a jet bridge at the Sendai airport during the 2011 tsunami:

As the rogue wave advances the jet bridge holds as a strangely stationary object, while other vehicles and things are swept across the tarmac, like so many children's toys at the beach. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Object Mississippi River

the river at 6

In my literature & environment courses this semester, I'm having my students choose a single thing to write about for the entire semester, once a week or so. The writings will range from observational to research-oriented, and from lyrical to prosaic. The point is not to achieve exhaustive mastery or a complete history of an object, but rather simply to stick with something for a period of time, returning to it at different times and in different lights. To write about some thing, to get to know it, in a cumulative and perspectival fashion, and to experiment with different rhetorical strategies by way of seeing how environmental literature works. Throughout the semester I'm going to do this, too—and my object is going to be the Mississippi River. This is my first entry.

I leave the house at 5:45AM and walk 20 minutes to the river. By first light I am standing in the current up to my knees on a sandy shelf of submerged willow saplings, their leaves (and other things, from tissuey Rite-Aid shopping bags to torn sweatshirt sleeves and other slimy things) swirling around my legs and feet. I'm here to fly-fish.

first light

Fish are exploding all over the surface of the water, some of them rocketing six-feet high, repeatedly shooting out and slapping back in (they don't change angles enough to actually "dive" back in). Some of the fish look more like monsters, enormous scaly backs breaching the surface. The lights from the warehouses and docks across the river cast eerie reflections on the smooth water. I catch a few small lady fish and a white bass. A couple days later, I hear someone at the fly shop describe lady fish as "poor man's tarpon." I also learn that their family name elopidae comes from the Greek ellops, for a kind of serpent. And they do have a silvery serpentine quality, especially when they are schooling, as they seemed to be that morning. These fish may well require further inquiry.

flopping blurry lady fish

But catching fish is really only a small part of this adventure, an excuse or structure to stand in this place and notice other things—like seeing the clouds stack up across the river, and exploring the weird riparian ecosystem under dense willow canopies. Someone has left a shrine of some sort in a willow stump, a carefully arranged (now burned down) candle, with attendant unidentifiable trinkets.

cloud stack

One of the things that strikes me as I fish is a strangely beautiful tinkling music fading in and out; upon investigation, I realize that it is the sound of broken glass from thousands of hurled beer bottles intermingling with myriad shells and stones washed up from the river, both of which gently collide with the wire retaining mesh holding up the riprap. The sound is barely audible, but arresting once you hear it. It's a postmodern version of an Aeolian harp, I guess.

glass shells stones

Another sensation arrives with the silent approach of a giant crude oil tanker bearing the name Eagle Torrance, which glides by me heading upriver. After the ship passes, an enormous wake comes rolling in, really impressively huge waves that disturb the fish and send them scattering and jumping like crazy. The swells take me by surprise and I get wet up to my waist, but the disturbance is somehow delightful, changing the feel of the river suddenly and dramatically. I think of my student Stewart, who is working on a thesis project on surfing, and I wonder if anyone surfs the waves created by ship wakes on the river—the swells are really that big and strong, when they surge. 

the Eagle Torrance before its wake hits me

I owe this experience to a mystery person named Brian, whom I've seen fly-fishing down here for several years, now. One day I finally worked up the nerve to climb down the riprap (cradling my little boy) and chat with him; Brian turned out to be the nicest guy, and he intrigued me with his articulate knowledge of the river and his low key approach to fly-fishing. I've always been like this myself, fishing as more of something that just comes naturally to me rather than treated as a high tech, tricked-out form of sport or leisure. I have a couple fishing shirts, but they are hardly recognizable as such. Anyway, Brian encouraged me to join him, and so, after spending the summer picking up my fly cast again in the lakes and beaver swamps of northern Michigan, I was ready to try it—and I'm so glad I did. I'm going to make it a regular thing, recording the river as I go. Thanks to Brian.

Brian, upriver

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What I Did This Summer: Connections & Reconnections

This summer has been a series of connections and reconnections for me. I've been up in Michigan, where I had planned to work on my book on the region, which I'm tentatively calling Notes from the Sleeping Bear. But instead of writing much on this area, I did a lot of what we might call "field research." More on that later.

The summer started with the ASLE conference, where I connected with some terrific people, including Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Eileen Joy, Daniel Burke, Lowell Duckert, Steve Mentz, Cary Wolfe, and Ron Broglio. I also reconnected with some old friends from UC Davis: Clara Van Zanten, Andy Hageman, and Megan Kaminski. The conference was fantastic, and I look forward to the next one in 2015.

For most of the summer, whenever I've been at my computer, I've been working on three significant editing projects. The first and most time consuming has been the Object Lessons series, which Ian Bogost and I launched in June. We've published six essays in The Atlantic's Technology Channel so far, and have five books under contract with our publisher, Bloomsbury. Here is the stunning cover art for our first book on the Remote Control, by Caetlin Benson-Allott:

Working on Object Lessons—responding to proposals and queries, and editing submissions—has lead to many new connections with a wide range of writers. When Ian and I conceived of this series, two of our goals were to create a different kind of forum for pithy intellectual writing, and to inspire an alternative form of publication for academic work. Based on my interactions with many interested and excited potential authors over the summer, it appears that Object Lessons is finding an audience and fostering productive and unexpected connections between academics and general readers. It's also been a place for reconnections—for example, it was so gratifying to work with my great friend from graduate school, Kara Thompson, on her sharp essay on blankets.

Another ongoing project has been editing book reviews for the New Orleans Review. I've always loved the form of the book review and its variations: essay-length or brief, anonymous or very personal, research oriented or reader-response in nature. It has also been a thrill to watch my colleague Mark Yakich explore different formal possibilities for the print journal, while simultaneously revamping and boosting the online presence of the journal. The journal has a long and admirable history in terms of what it has published over the years, and it has been fascinating for me to see it up close as a testing ground for how literature can fit into, adapt with, and respond to new media forms. Here, too, I've connected with a variety of writers who've written brilliant reviews and introduced me to books I probably wouldn't have stumbled across otherwise.

Editing is hard work, with a steep learning curve; I've gleaned a ton from Ian and Mark as I've edited essays, reviews, and book proposals over the past several months—and really over the past couple years,  over at Airplane Reading. It's one of the under-appreciated parts (even arts) of the profession, both on the academic side and on the publishing side of things. But having a good editing experience—as writer or as editor—is very satisfying when the final version of a piece is published.

Finally, the third editing project is the book I'm currently finishing, Deconstructing Brad Pitt (forthcoming from Bloomsbury in September 2014). I've reconnected with my good friend Robert Bennett from Montana State University-Bozeman, who I asked to co-edit the book with me. The project was becoming something of a bear (think insomnia laced with haunting visions that veer between Tyler Durden and Joe Black), and collaborating with Robert has reinvigorated me around the book and we've come up with a compelling new framework for the project, which will highlight and analyze the actor/celebrity duality of Brad Pitt. I've also been writing my own chapter for this book, which has turned out quite different than I'd planned, but far more curious and fun.

Speaking of Montana, let us call to mind Pitt's performance as Paul Maclean so I can tell you about another reconnection this summer. When I lived in Bozeman during my Masters program, I fished nearly every chance I got in the rivers and creeks that wind through the Gallatin Valley. I usually fished with my mentor and buddy Greg Keeler. Anyway, this summer, after a hiatus of ten years, I got out my fly rod and reconnected with it, with fly-fishing. And I found, like Hemingway's Nick Adams, that I "felt all the old feeling." I get a little obsessive about fishing, and it has been therapeutic to stand for hours in the water casting flies. This has also done double-duty as the "field research" I mentioned earlier. I'm situating the essays of my Michigan book around specific sites along the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, including the lakes and rivers I fished in as a kid. So as I've been fishing I've been writing sentences in my mind. But I've also realized over the summer that this Michigan book is probably a ten-year project. As I'm discovering, it's actually really difficult to write about 'place' in a critically self-reflexive way. I started writing something about poison ivy, but it has spread into a weird meditation on the existential paranoia of itching and the ecology of creeping vines. It's nowhere near finished, but hopefully it will end up as part of the book.

One of the places I tried to write about, but where I ended up getting bad poison ivy instead.

Then there was an unexpected and generous invitation from Robert Appelbaum at Uppsala University to give a plenary talk at this fall's Nordic Conference of English Studies, which is organized around the topic "Places and Non-Places of English." I'm completely giddy about this opportunity, and have been working on a talk that weaves together several recent threads in my thinking about airports and air travel in the American imagination.

In a couple weeks it's back to school, and in the meantime I'll be busy putting the finishing touches on my course syllabi for the term. I've got some exciting ideas to try out in the Literature & Environment course I'm designing for this fall—more on this course in a future post.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Where I’m Coming From

Below is a short narrative I presented to the Environment Program at Loyola this past April. We begin each of our monthly meetings with a brief autobiography from one of the faculty members affiliated with the program; I've found these to be very inspiring and illuminating. I thought I'd post mine here.

I grew up in the woods of northern Michigan, foraging for morel mushrooms, catching bass in crystal clear inland lakes, and walking the lakeshore after storms sifting through assorted amalgams of plastic six-pack holders, driftwood, dead balloons, beach glass, and glacial rocks.
The place I call home, where my parents bought a small wedge of land in 1991, sits directly on the boundary of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore: 35 miles of sandy beaches, steep cliffs, and rolling juniper dotted dunes that back up into pine and aspen transition zones, that then lead to deep rolling hills of maple and beech forests.
When I was in high school I watched some of my favorite hillsides get logged, cleared, and built on: gaudy luxury summer mansions thrown up double-time, echoing disjointed architectural dreams from other regions, distant coasts.
Around that time I read Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, and I relished fantasies of sabotaging the Caterpillar earthmovers that decimated the giant northern red oaks I loved to climb.
A couple years later, at a small liberal arts college in southern Michigan, where I majored in philosophy and English, I was introduced to the writings of Gary Snyder and Barry Lopez, and I began to draw connections between bioregionalism and poetics—or how we tell stories about the places we live, and in turn how habitats and ecosystems get into the stories we tell.
But one of my best if also hardest courses in college was a biology class called Michigan Flora—thank goodness for a liberal arts common curriculum. There were two of us students in the class (!), and we spent hours seeking out and identifying various species of plants, trees, and shrubs in the surrounding scrub forests and roadside ditches next to vast cornfields. I took this scientific knowledge home with me the next summer, and my sense of the place I called home became even more ingrained.
Later in college I started spending the summers in Wyoming, where I worked as a river guide on the Snake River within the wild, 27-mile corridor between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park called the J.D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway. This was a beautiful area, but the lodgepole pines did nothing for me compared with the lusciously soft white pines back in Michigan, and the tourism industry of the American West made my woes about northern Michigan tourists seem quaint. My second summer in Wyoming, I also worked a stint on a trail crew for the National Forest Service, and got to know a good portion of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, clearing brush and maintaining rugged routes.
After college I was still drawn to this region, in part due to early forays into the literature of the American West, and I decided I wanted to move to a mountain town. After working another river rafting job in Arizona for a season, I found my way to Bozeman, Montana, where I had been accepted into a Master’s program in English. Every minute that I wasn’t reading for graduate seminars, working on papers, or teaching freshman writing, I obsessively fly-fished in the creeks and rivers that wind around the Gallatin Valley and eventually form the Missouri River.
In graduate school my interests in philosophy merged into what in English is called “critical theory,” and concepts from this interdisciplinary node shaped my Master’s thesis, which analyzed the strange language of ‘Nature’ in texts ranging from Terry Tempest Williams’s stark desert notes to glossy magazine advertisements for sport utility vehicles. I drew from eco-feminism, semiotics, and deconstruction in order to complicate the as-if simple messages of landscape, environment, and region embedded in literary and cultural texts of the American West.
But meanwhile, as I was working on my MA and fishing the rivers, something else weird was happening. I had taken a part-time job at the Gallatin Field Airport, eight miles outside of town, with the intention of simply making a few hundred extra bucks a month to cover my rent. But as it goes with some part-time jobs in life, I started volunteering to cover my co-workers’ shifts, and in a matter of months I learned all the various parts of the operation: loading bags, de-icing the planes, emptying the onboard toilet, operating the jet-bridge, pushing back the plane to the taxiway, creating itineraries for passengers...soon I was working nearly full-time at the airport, strange late and early hours that let me keep up with my studies (not to mention my fishing regimen).
Over time the bizarre environment of the airport mesmerized me, including all the ways that people were syphoned in and out of this signature region via the eerily generic terminal building. I worked at the airport during the state-of-exception called 9/11, and I watched the norms of air travel morph and twist with the swinging politics of that time.
When I finished my Master’s program, I turned in my United Airlines uniform and headed West once again, this time to Davis, California, where I had been accepted into a PhD program in English—this was the place to be for studying eccentric topics where nature and culture collided. At UC Davis, under the Pacific Flyway where every day the paths of migrating birds and Air Force cargo planes intermingle, I continued to study 20th-century American literature, environmental aesthetics, and critical theory.
At Davis I worked as a Research Assistant for my professor Timothy Morton as he wrote his books Ecology Without Nature and The Ecological Thought. Tim’s ideas about the construction of Nature capital ‘N’ in literary history had a profound influence on me, and consequently inspired me to ask different sorts of questions about the roles of literature, poetics, and narrative with respect to concepts of environment.
All the while, my airport work experiences were simmering in my brain. It occurred to me somewhat gradually that I had spent lots of time in a particularly rich—if also particularly fraught—kind of ecotone.
I started to notice weird airport scenes in a wide range of literary and cultural texts, and started to keep records of these strange instances, and how they depended on notions of place, space, and environmental awareness (or not). I ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on this topic, which then formed the basis for my book The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight, which I wrote during my first couple years at Loyola University New Orleans.
Over the past four years at Loyola I’ve continued to write about air travel, always coming from an oblique environmental sensibility. And I’ve started to write a book about my home, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which I’m thinking of as a sort of 21st-century Walden—modestly place-based, but rife with larger questions and puzzles about what nature means in contemporary American culture.
My interests in environment filter into all of my courses, in the sense that the detail-oriented kind of literary reading I teach is translatable to ecological perception: how different organisms and habitats interrelate and co-shape one another.
In a more literal sense, the course I taught a couple years ago called “Environmental Theory” was a philosophical adventure (for the students as well as for me), and I look forward to teaching another iteration of the course in the near future. Next semester, I am teaching a Literature and Environment course, and I’m very excited to introduce students to a range of ways that literary texts rely on, invent, and explore notions of environment.
I’m currently working as co-editor for a series of essays and books called Object Lessons: these are pithy essays and beautifully designed short books on single objects and the lessons they hold. My collaborator on this series is Ian Bogost from the Media Studies Center at Georgia Tech. He’s bringing what we might call the technological angle to the project, and I see myself as bringing an environmental or more ecological angle to the series. In brief, we’re hoping to create a series that is equally appealing to media studies scholars and naturalists—a series that productively blurs and challenges the nature/culture divide.
Ideally Object Lessons will be a long running series of essays and books covering all sorts of different things, such as honey, hurricane, heliotrope, Velcro, volvaria, copper wire, cruise ship, cilium, silt—the list
 of possible topics is quite literally endless, and cuts across the boundaries of human invention and natural dissemination. My hope is that by focusing on single things, in succinct and accessible essays, we can then better appreciate how all these things coexist (and when they don't) in this world, or in this life, or whatever it is that we mean when we call on ‘environment’ to do rhetorical, moral, or political work.