Tag: popular culture (page 2 of 4)

The Politics of the Hunger Games

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the projects that I’m working on now is a book provisionally entitled “The Politics of the Hunger Games.” PM and I are overdue in submitting a full proposal to the press. In an earlier post I sketched out some provisional chapter titles. Here I provide a more complete list and a synopsis of the final chapter.

This is definitely a “crowdsourcing” post, so comments are appreciated. Details and spoilers below the fold.

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Pop Music Brings a Lot More Readers than Social Science: Follow-up on ‘Kangnam Style’

Korea_Seokguram_Buddha Now THAT is Korean art – the Seokguram Buddha; I’ve been to see it 3 times

The Internet has slapped down my arrogance. I told myself I wouldn’t write about k-pop, but that post on ‘Kangnam Style’ drove so much traffic to my site and twitter, that here is a response to all the comments. It’s kinda of depressing how my posts on Asian political economy or what-not get little traffic and a lot of yawns, but K-pop brings huge numbers. It’s like those Facebook posts on something you find interesting that no one bothers to look at, but put up a pic of yourself blotto on a beach, and everyone ‘likes’ it.

1. I am not sure K-pop is really ‘family-friendly,’ as one of my commenters argued. I hadn’t really thought about that, but I guess it’s nice to have light, fluffy lyrics instead of gangster rap or Robert Plant screaming that he’s ‘your backdoor man.’ But if you watch the performances and look at the appearance of these ‘bands,’ it is highly sexualized and teasing – and that is obviously far more important the music itself, which just comes from a music machine. These band members can’t play instruments, but they do look like sex symbols and swing around on poles wearing leather boots like strippers. (*sigh* you see why I wanted to avoid writing about k-pop?) Is that what you want the kids watching? What kind of signal does that send?

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Call for Papers: Popular Culture and World Politics

Flyer below. Posting does not indicate endorsement. But it does look cool.


Bear cam

Have you wasted any time viewing Bear cam? This Wired story explains:

Media company Explore has teamed up with Alaska’s Katmai National Park to install webcams that will deliver live video feeds of brown bears catching salmon in a popular feeding ground.

Each year, around a hundred bears travel to a stretch of Brooks River to fill their bellies with salmon. Now anyone with an internet connection can witness this gathering thanks to four high-definition cameras that have been set up in this remote part of Alaska. 

One camera is positioned at Brook Falls, where the larger male bears fight it out for salmon that are desperately trying to leap their way upstream.

This is the link to that camera: Brown Bear & Salmon Cam – Brooks Falls – Bears – explore

Warning: this is highly addictive.

Compare that to this 1980 Reagan campaign commercial to see how far we’ve progressed in our tolerance for bears (right?):

Yesterday, I watched as two bears postured somewhat violently towards one another. Meanwhile, a nearby bear was dining on salmon. This demonstrated that the two in the foreground learned nothing from the 2012 Republican primaries.


“Have foresight and it’s real”: Carly Rae Jepsen And The Problem of Asymmetric Information

The logic of inappropriateness

Below, Scott Weiner argues that Carly Rae Jepsen’s song “Call Me Maybe” is an illustration of the dynamics of standard game-theory models, specifically the prisoner’s dilemma and stag hunt. Weiner assumes that Jepsen is a rational actor, that both Jepsen and her beau are better off being together than being apart or with different partners, and that Jepsen is rationally choosing to communicate her availability to facilitate their coming together. I share these assumptions, but as I demonstrate Weiner misses the key points of the song. If, as Weiner suggests, both Carly and the boy are better off together than apart, then why signal that “this is crazy”? And why is the song called “Call Me Maybe” instead of “Call Me Right Now So We Can Be Together”?

The answer is that Carly is trying to communicate that, despite her forward approach to the boy, she is nevertheless suitable for him. Sometimes, disclosing more information hurts rational actors, and for Carly to disclose that she is interested in the boy after having just met him could signal to the boy that she is an undesirable partner—not just because of old-fashioned notions (“she’s not wife material“) but also because an aggressive partner of either sex might not be interested in a long-term relationship (Hall and Oates, 1982).

So we are left with a puzzle. If Jepsen is rational and can assume her potential partner is as well, why pursue a strategy that both stresses her availability (“call me!”) while highlighting her ambiguity (“maybe?”) and stressing that the situation is causing her to behave in an unusual way (“and this is crazy”)? The answer lies in the fact that dating is a game played under asymmetric information, which changes the dynamics of the interaction in ways Weiner does not appreciate. I provide an informal treatment below.

Assume there’s some distribution of types of potential dating partners in the world, “worthy” and “tragic.” (We assume that the dating game is multiple-shot; as is well understood, one-shot romantic games have dramatically different properties.) The preference of each player, worthy or tragic, is to find a worthy partner and to avoid ending up with a tragic partner. Worthy partners would rather be alone than with a tragic partner; tragic partners would rather be with a tragic partner than alone.However, although every player knows his or her type (that is, whether they are themselves tragic or worthy), they can’t know with certainty whether other players are. Consequently, players who advertise themselves as worthy may be lying, and there’s no way to tell in advance.

How, then, for worthy partners to advertise themselves as being worthy? As Schelling and others would point out, there has to be some sort of credible signal. This, however, is likely to be reticence, since tragic partners are made much better off by being with anyone than by being with the right partner. Consequently, the dating scene is likely to be made up of tragic partners pretending to be worthy ending up with each other. (Game theory is often realistic that way.) This is a perverse equilibrium: The only players left on the scene are the ones who shouldn’t be dating anyone, because all the worthy partners know that trying too hard puts off other worthy partners.

Let’s assume, however, that Carly and her boy are both worthy. If Carly comes off too strong, then the boy may assume that she is tragic. So she instead engages in signaling by saying that she’s not normally this way, that the situation is highly unusual, and that she’s putting off all the other boys who are interested in her to talk to the boy–all signals that she is interested but not tragic.

Unfortunately for Carly, the ploy is unlikely to work if the boy is a worthy partner. While Weiner does not provide an independent assessment of how likely Carly and her object of attraction are to end up together, his analysis suggest that they will be happy together because they are better off together. Alas, my analysis suggests instead that all such posturing will be dismissed as merely cheap talk.


Call Me, Maybe: Cooperation and Coercion in the Music of Carly Rae Jepsen

This is a guest post by Scott Weiner, a PhD student in Political Science at George Washington University.

One of this summer’s most popular hit singles is “Call Me Maybe” by pop artist Carly Rae Jepsen. In the song, Carly attempts to score a date with an attractive male by giving him her number and asking him to call her in order to set up the outing. This strategy is eventually successful, and while the male “took his time with the call,” Carly “takes no time with the fall.” This outcome is puzzling given that existing accounts of the scenario might predict a sub-optimal outcome given Carly’s strategy. Why does Carly Rae Jepsen give the boy her number despite her own realization that “this is crazy?” Why does Carly Rae Jepsen tell the boy, ambiguously, “call me, maybe” when her preferences are not at all ambiguous given that she very much wants him to call her? How can scholars understand the successful outcome of this strategy?

Existing literature understands the basic scenario presented in “Call Me, Maybe” as a prisoner’s dilemma. In the prisoner’s dilemma, two rational actors who cannot communicate with each other are given a choice of cooperation with each other or defection, with a system of rewards and penalties for each:

In the basic prisoner’s dilemma, the optimal strategy is to defect since the cooperation of the other actor cannot be guaranteed. Each actor’s payoff will be better by defecting regardless of the choice of the other player. Since Player A cannot guarantee the cooperation of Player B she will choose the best course of action for herself regardless of B’s choice.

For the purposes of this model, we can assume Carly Rae Jepsen is a rational actor. She begins the song with the words “I threw a wish in a well / don’t ask me I’ll never tell.” This indicates a clear set of preferences. The fact that she will not reveal her wish under any circumstances indicates that these preferences are constant throughout the game. Carly also sets up a ranked order of preferences, noting “I’d trade my soul for a wish / pennies and dimes for a kiss.” This monetization of kisses indicates her ranking is in fact quite sophisticated.

However, assuming the boy is a rational actor as well (which Carly does) the prisoner’s dilemma would predict that her optimal strategy is to defect. Since she cannot guarantee the boy will call her, the prisoner’s dilemma predicts she should not give him her number, and that her actions are, in fact “crazy.” What accounts for not only Carly’s actions, but also the success of her strategy? To answer this question, we must look beyond the constraints of the prisoners dilemma. Other models may in fact lend more explanatory leverage on the issue.

I. A Shadow of the Future

One of the most important rules at play in a classic prisoner’s dilemma is that it is a one-shot game. However, if the game is played over and over with the same actor, this is known as an “iterated prisoner’s dilemma.” In this case, since the game is repeated, each actor will have to live with the consequences of his actions after the first round is over. This added condition is called the “shadow of the future.” When a shadow of the future is present perpetually (i.e. the game does not have a set end point), the optimal strategy ceases to be one of defection and instead becomes a “tit-for-tat” strategy, in which the actors try to mirror each other’s actions (see Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Strategies in the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma“)

Carly opens the game by giving the boy her number, which is cooperation. Since if they were to date the game would repeat without a definite end-point, Carly calculates that it is in the boy’s rational interest to call her. Until the point that either Carly or the boy defect from the game, cooperation is the optimal strategy according to the model.

However, the reality is not quite so simple. Rationally, Carly should signal every intent to cooperate to the boy in order to maintain her credibility. Yet she deliberately tells him “Hey, I just met you / and this is crazy.” What explains this puzzling signal?

II. Signaling Intentions In The Stag Hunt

Carly’s predicament could also be explained via a model known as the stag hunt. Originally developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the stag hunt involves two players who get a small payoff from hunting two rabbits separately but a large payoff from hunting one large stag together. Hunting stag requires a different weapon than hunting rabbit, however, and the weapon choice of the other player is unknown.

In a sense, Carly and the boy in question are in a sort of stag hunt. We assume for the purposes of the game that both Carly and the boy would prefer to go on a date over not going on a date (“Before you came into my life / I missed you so bad”). However, they also do not want their time wasted by trying to score a date with someone who is uninterested in going out with them. We can model the payoff structure of the game as follows: 

As the matrix reveals, there are two equilibria in the game, but one has a higher payoff than the other. When such a payoff structure exists, actors will try to communicate their intention to cooperate (ie, go on a date) in order to try to induce cooperation from the other party. Communication is a highly theorized area of international relations, which involves signaling capability, resolve, and credibility. How can we understand Carly’s communication in this regard?

Carly’s statement “Hey, I just met you / and this is crazy” is an attempt to communicate both intentions and resolve. In particular, both statements are intended to highlight the costly signals Carly is giving of her intentions. Were Carly not interested in the boy, giving him her number after having just met him, an admittedly “crazy” action, would incur significant costs. By doing so regardless, Carly is communicating that she is in fact interested in having him call her. Her willingness to challenge social norms is an attempt to communicate resolve, especially given communication difficulties implicit in the situation at hand (“It’s hard to look right / at you baby”). That is, she is in fact interested in the boy and does in fact want the boy to call. Carly supports this signaling regime by noting that “all the other boys / try and chase me” a statement that she is committed to exclusive cooperation with the boy at hand.

The addition of the word “maybe” at the end of her signal is a tactic designed to highlight the choice which the boy now has to make between calling and not calling. Schelling would categorize “maybe” as as a “trip-wire,” in which one actor sets up an automated series of events which the other actor will trigger with a certain action. Since the first actor, Carly, has already chosen a risky course of action and the decision is out of her hands, it falls to the boy to pursue a strategy with the lowest risk for himself. This also turns out to be the one with the biggest payoff for Carly as well. As it happens, the boy does eventually call, and both Carly and the boy achieve their Pareto-efficient equilibrium.

In conclusion, Carly’s strategy is actually a rational one given the payoff structure she faces in the given situation. While such an explanation cannot explain her decision in the music video to wash a car in 5-inch heels, it can explain her actions as the outcome of a rational strategy. Further research should examine the generalizability of the argument by accounting for critical cases such as “Payphone (explicit)” by Maroon 5 (ft. Wiz Khalifa) and “Wide Awake” by Katy Perry. Ultimately, such inquiry serves to provide scholars with a deeper understanding of the complex world of interpersonal relations as relayed through pop songs.

UPDATE: Duck contributor PM provides an an alternate model of Carly Rae Jepsen’s song.

Ed. note: as a bonus, here’s the Star Wars version of the song:


Academic Rigor in the Classroom: Time to Get Serious?

Star Trek convention Las Vegas 2009
Charli, Dan and Patrick at ISA 2013?

The academics/educators who write this blog often locate their research and teaching interests in texts from popular culture. Dan has co-edited a book on Harry Potter and IR. Patrick teaches a course on science fiction and social science. Dan offers a course on science fiction and politics. Charli blogs frequently about science fiction and has a working paper on “Security or Human Security? Civil-Military Relations in Battlestar Galactica.” I’ve frequently taught a class on “Global Politics Through Film” and am working on a project about “the comedy of global politics.” I could go on and on, referencing most of the bloggers on the sidebar.

But you already get the idea. Nerdy Duck of Minerva bloggers like to think about popular films, television series, and novels through the lens of international politics. Resistance is futile. We are serious about nonsense, or at least that is likely how critics and skeptics would view these efforts. The other bloggers at the Duck have frequently explained why they do what they do, but I’d like to revisit the issue in light of some recent social science research.

So, here we go again: Given what we know about the ability of higher education to achieve its aims, are we letting our students and colleagues down by focusing on battle stars, death stars, dark materials, the dark side, hunger games, super-heroes, wizard worlds, or zombies?

I have sometimes heard colleagues in the hard sciences snicker at the unusual titles and subjects of courses, papers, and conferences in the social sciences and humanities. Many assume we are all practicing post-modernists, dedicated perhaps to the reification of fantasy. Many colleagues in IR want all of us in the field to spend much more time thinking about the policy relevance of our work. Even sympathetic friends in the social sciences fear that paying parents will be unhappy when they hear about the courses their offspring are taking next term. We had a big debate about this at Louisville when trying to name the new Peace Studies program.

Granted, much of this is familiar ground on this blog and elsewhere. Thus, I’d like to consider the topic in terms of basic student learning outcomes.

A few weeks ago, I attended a talk by Richard Arum, one of the co-authors of Academically Adrift, the much-discussed recent work demonstrating that colleges are failing a huge portion of their students. Perhaps even worse, the work explains the problems Arum and colleagues identify by finding that too many college classes lack basic rigor. Long-time readers may recall that I previously blogged about Arum’s work with Josipa Roksa back in February 2011.

For those unfamiliar with their study, Arum and Roksa used “measures developed by the Collegiate Learning Association (CLA)” to determine what students are getting out of college. They tested students entering school and then tested them again two and four years later. The results were troubling as more than one-third of respondents ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ over four years of college.

Keep that basic point in mind: apparently about 35% of students are wasting tens of thousands of dollars and four years of their lives to gain almost nothing from higher education.

It gets worse.

While speaking in Louisville, Arum revealed that he and his colleagues have continued to follow the student cohort that they started studying in 2005. In other words, they have data from the sixth year after entry into college and now know more about graduation rates, (un)employment, and graduate school entry.

The results are again disturbing, especially for the students who did not significantly improve in college:

Graduates who scored in the bottom quintile of the CLA were three times more likely to be unemployed than those who scored in the top quintile on the CLA (9.6 percent compared to 3.1 percent), twice as likely to be living at home (35 percent compared to 18 percent) and significantly more likely to have amassed credit card debt (51 percent compared to 37 percent).

They also found that their results had political implications, at least for those of us interested in the responsibilities of citizenship, the state of deliberation in the public sphere, etc.

Graduates who exhibited high academic engagement/growth in college were significantly more likely to read the news and discuss politics and public affairs compared to students who displayed low academic engagement/growth. Graduates who scored in the highest quintile on the CLA in their senior year were more likely to read the news and discuss politics and public affairs compared to students in the bottom quintile.

Obviously, the students entering college in 2005 started exiting college at a particularly bad time, economically.  Indeed, the latest  news about college student unemployment is even worse than Arum and colleagues report. From the Associated Press:

According to the AP’s analysis of government data, about 53.6 percent of Americans who have bachelor’s degrees and are 25 and under are unemployed or hold lower-wage jobs, like waiting tables or serving as office receptionists, that don’t require a degree. That translates to about 1.5 million young people who have not, or not yet, gotten the payoff they expected from a college education.

Who should be blamed for all this misery?

As they do in their book, Arum and colleagues continue to argue for more rigor in the college classroom. The standard employed in the study is not all that difficult to meet — 40 pages of reading per course per week and 20 pages of writing per course. Arum emphasized in Louisville that there is nothing magic about these particular numbers, but they they found that many students had actively sought out courses to avoid anything like this kind of workload. And generally, students had no difficulty finding plenty of courses that do not require them to work very hard. This is true even at good schools as fewer than half of seniors in the sample had completed over 20 pages of writing for a course in the prior semester.

To reiterate, colleges are failing their students because too many instructors fail to make their courses sufficiently rigorous — and many students are flocking to them so that they can complete degrees (and likely earn high grades).

In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa point out that a liberal arts education is highly correlated with rigor and learning. Students pursuing traditional liberal arts majors showed “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time.” Oddly enough, students pursuing degrees in practical and applied fields — business, education, social work, and communications — were more likely to be at the bottom of the rankings.

So, what does this research say about the politics of popular culture? When Duck of Minerva scholars take these texts seriously, they think critically and ask their academic audience and students to do the same. Indeed, in the classroom, they ask students to read a healthy amount of material with the aim of analyzing and applying abstract theoretical ideas to texts that they might enjoy reading or viewing. The students read and write and think. Getting serious in the classroom is a matter of critical and analytical pedagogy, not a matter of studying practical and serious subjects.

According to the analysis of Arum, Roksa, and colleagues, the Duck of Minerva bloggers are apparently on the right track.

Live long and prosper. May the force be with you. Yada yada yada.


Pop Culture Narratives in World Politics: A Bleg

I will be on a panel at 1.45pm in Indigo A with the following description:

There has been a growing body of work in world politics that relies on or analyzes fictional narratives. To what extent can cultutal phenomena like Battlestar Galactica or Harry Potter be used as for pedagogical purposes in the classroom? How useful are such narratives as data points to either explicate or substantiate theoretical claims in world politics? This roundtable weighs the costs and benefits of using popular culture narratives inside the classroom and in publications.

Charli Carpenter will be discussing her work on the intersection (PDF) between Battlestar Galactica and real-world politics. I assume that Patrick James will tell us about his forthcoming book on teaching international relations through The Lord of the Rings. I expect that you all can guess what Dan Drezner’s role on the panel will be. I’m not at all sure what Jonathan Cristol will present — perhaps something on Philip K. Dick?

Here’s my question: what should I talk about? I don’t have any interest in revisiting the substance of Harry Potter and International Relations, which leaves four options:

  1. Methods and Methodology. In essence, I could discuss my thinking — six-years on — about the framework Iver Neumann and I developed for HP&IR. If Steve Saideman will allow me to present last, this might be a nice way to close out the disparate panel presentations.
  2. The Hunger Games. My guess is that I would talk about the series from the perspective of the four  approaches to popular culture and politics referenced in the first option.
  3. Interstellar Relations: The Politics of Speculative Fiction. The substance and pedagogy of the class I teach, with ample kudos to PTJ’s influence.
  4. Strange IR: International-Relations Theory as Speculative Fiction. A discussion of a paper idea that PM came up with after we finished a brief comment on whether the nineteenth century was the most important  (.doc) “turning point” in international politics. In brief, why a number of over-the-horizon developments — the “great convergence,” climate change, the end of the “Age of Efflorescence” — might alter the constitutive rules of international politics and how coming to grips with that requires practical science fiction. 

Feedback would be greatly appreciated.


Friday Nerd Blogging

Just in time for Game of Thrones‘ Season 2 (which happens inconveniently right in the middle of ISA), Foreign Affairs has posted this constructivist riposte to the foreign policy commentariat‘s realism-worship-fest from last Season (warning: contains Season 1 spoilers):

Commentary by foreign policy analysts on the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones stressed its supposed underlying theme of political realism. Thus one writer claimed that the TV show and the George R.R. Martin novels on which it is based “clearly demonstrate the power of might over right,” and another agreed: “In this kind of harsh relative gains world, realpolitik should be the expected pattern of behavior.” But a closer look of Game of Thrones suggests a different take.

To be sure, life in Westeros is poor, nasty, brutish and short, and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and David Benioff’s television program are laced with Hobbesian metaphors, Machiavellian intrigues, and Carr-like calculations of power. But the deeper message is that realism alone is unsatisfying and unsuccessful — that leaders disregard ethical norms, the needs of their small-folk, and the natural world at their own peril. Jockeying for power by self-interested actors produces not a stable balance but suboptimal chaos; gamesmanship and the pursuit of short-term objectives distracts players from the truly pressing issues of human survival and stability.

Read the whole thing here; and Kelly DeVries’ excellent historical treatment here. And, if you’re not caught up on Season 1, here’s a helpful recap and commentary. And now, a fresh video:


BREAKING NEWS: Brian Ratbun Exposed As Secret Mastermind Behind Recent Rockumentary; USC Concerned About Contract Violation, Mental Health


“All the fake news that’s fit to print.”

— Los Angeles*

A political science professor at University of Southern California came under fire this week for the role he may have played behind-the-scenes on a recent documentary about the heavy metal band Metallica. Administrators at the university are investigating whether Professor Brian Christopher Rathbun’s participation in the project may have violated rules permitting faculty to consult no more than one day a week on projects outside the university.

The film in question, Some Kind of Monster, is described by Rotten Tomatoes as

“a documentary about rock stars in therapy… the band works through difficulties in group dynamics, personal demons, and relationship issues.”

Although the film portrays the supposed relationship between Metallica and psychologist Phil Towle (who they hire to help work out some group tensions during the making of their album St. Anger), Rathbun is alleged to have convinced the producers to invent this storyline to make the documentary more appealing to 80s-era metal-heads who are now themselves raising children and struggling with identity issues.

An anonymous source formerly associated with the production process on the documentary corroborated this story in an exclusive interview to the Canard:

“We were originally going to just do a film on the history of the band, you know, a concert film. Then Professor Rathbun approached us with the concept of a psychologist who would help former metal icons working through mid-life crises. He said a film like this would resonate with the ‘disillusioned-former-metal-head’ market. It seemed like the perfect angle for the documentary, plus he’s a professor of political psychology specializing in trust, so we went with it.”

Rathbun’s involvement undercover with the film came to light after his recent confession to having been a “metal-head” in high school. The post was read by a former student who contacted the Canard after putting two and two together, recalling Rathbun’s near-obsessive interest in the documentary and his frequent Metallica references in an international relations class she took with him in 2005.

“He knew a lot about metal, about Metallica and about the film, which was kind of hot. When I saw the film, and how it was about a psychologist helping the band through a mid-life crisis, I sort of connected the dots, you know, between Prof Rathbun, metal and psychology theories. Then when I noticed the ‘consultants’ in the credits, I realized that he was probably just working under a pseudonym, probably to avoid getting in trouble with his department for taking on extra-curricular activities. But he’s tenured now, so…”

Although the Canard has not been able to reach Rathbun for comment, colleagues in his department spoke anonymously about his potential motivations in working on the film.

“He’s always loved the metal subculture, students say he plays Iron Sabbath or whatnot at the start of every IR class, and he has a gift for seeing the connection between culture and politics. But I think this was also about doing something edgy and pop-cultury as a social scientist without attracting the nerd label. So many IR types who study pop culture just deal with geeky topics like sci-fi. I think it was really important to Brian to engage with this kind of subject matter in a way that avoided that kind of label and that kind of crowd.”

Indeed this view is consistent with Rathbun’s own recent blog posts on the subject, in which he both described his mid-life angst over his heavy metal past and reiterated his radical anti-nerd agenda.

“I am not a nerd. I have tried to make this abundantly clear. My anti-nerdishness in high school expressed itself much differently – I was a metal-head… We didn’t like you and you didn’t like us. Don’t pretend otherwise. There were 1800 people in my high school and a total of 20 owned the “Blizzard of Ozz.” If you don’t know what that is, you have proved my point. Now go play your Duran Duran albums and get out of my face. NEEERRRRDDDDSSSSS!”

Sociologists, however, counter the idea that nerds and metalheads are actually distinct and oppositional subcultures. According to Dr. Aya Nohsalot, Associate Professor of Adolescent Sociology at Trewth University, nerds and metal-heads are birds of a feather:

“In fact members of both groups share a common lack of conformity and disregard for the social norms of more popular peers.”

Though Nohsalot’s research on this topic is as yet unpublished, evidence abounds on the Internets to support her theory. The Urban Dictionary’s definitions for “metal-head” (persons who ‘tend to have a powerful dislike towards the close-minded and mainstream’) are similar to “nerd” (a person who does not conform to society’s beliefs that all people should follow trends and do what their peers do). Uncyclopedia also describes “progressive metal-heads” as “typically tall, skinny, white and usually long haired and extreemly nerdy” [typo in original]. “Nerd/Metalhead” is also a specific social category in itself one can achieve by answering certain questions on an online quiz. And according to the popular Facebook page “Metalhead Nerds”:

“Metal and being a Nerd goes together like Han Solo and Leia. Being a Nerd is like a nice cake frosting on top of death.”

Hence, as an avowed metal-head, Rathbun’s anti-nerdism is puzzling to some. Noted IR scholar, former metal-head and self-identified geek Alex Montgomery, who was recently seen in full Colonial dress at an ISA panel on Battlestar Galactica, commented:

“That’s funny: I, too, had a mullet in high school and my music was later used by PsyOps teams to torture Iraqi POWs, but some of my best friends are nerds.”

One possibility is that Rathbun has been watching too many YouTube videos. But according to Professor Nohsalot, he may instead be suffering from a syndrome identified by Freud by which a person expresses outward hatred toward things they secretly love, but believe are bad. A recent study reported in Psychology Today invokes this theory to explain relatively high rates of sexual arousal to gay porn in homophobic men. (It also explains the particularly virulent anti-cyborgism of Cylons hiding in the Colonial Fleet.) “It’s entirely possible that Rathbun is actually a self-hating in-the-closet nerd, who is projecting his own fears of ostracism on the wider nerd community in order to avoid acknowledging his own inner nerd,” says Nohsalot.

Rathbun’s co-bloggers at the Duck of Minerva find this theory at least plausible. When asked how nerdy Rathbun actually is, Steve Saideman pointed out:

“Well he did join the Duck of Minerva. That says something.”

Charli Carpenter commented:

“It’s true that every time I’ve spoken to Brian he’s been wearing loafers with his collared shirt perfectly pressed and every hair in place, but on the other hand he does watch Game of Thrones…”

Dan Nexon added:

“I’d say his nerd credentials are pretty solid, he just likes to dress well and watch football. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

The Canard caught up with Stephanie Carvin on a transatlantic flight from Britain to Canada and was told over a hot toddy:

“Poor Brian, he’s brilliant but so complex, dark, so tormented. If only he could embrace his own nerdiness. It can’t be easy living in the closet. Too many mothballs.”

It remains unclear whether Rathbun will be able to invoke his psychological condition in his hearing with the University Ethics Board, or how he would score definitively on a “Which Stereotype Are You?” test. One thing is certain however: the world is better for thirty-something former metal fans thanks to this documentary. Rathbun’s co-bloggers have offered to testify on his behalf, if necessary, ‘anti-nerd’ or not; and are reportedly considering an intervention to help him accept his true identity.

*Illustration created by Alexander Montgomery.


Friday Nerd Blogging

Last week I posted the trailer. Yesterday, Volkswagen released its much awaited sequel to its “Vader Kid” Super Bowl Commercial from last year.

The original:

Which do readers think is funnier? Personally I think the “The Bark Side” wins. NPR considers what this ad strategy tells us about the future of marketing.


Robots and Prejudice

At ThinkProgress Alyssa Rosenberg shares a lovely new short film about robots and prejudice:

No Robots from YungHan Chang on Vimeo.

Rosenberg draws a distinction between the representations of robots in this film and the scarier representations in much popular culture:

Often, when we see robots in popular culture, they’re actually more powerful than we are. If the Cylons were a metaphor for, say, Irish immigrants to the United States, they’d be telling a story about workers rising up from the slums and engulfing us all in whiskey and potatoes. These metaphors tend to legitimate the fears of privileged class rather than debunking them. But a movie like No Robots has a different power differential. The shopkeeper is angry at a robot who is physically smaller than he is, who is annoying rather than intimidating. He commits an act of terrible violence against that much more vulnerable actor. And then he discovers that things he’s conditioned to want to protect and find adorable—kittens—are emotionally dependent on the robot, who has been stealing milk to feed them. It’s a narrative that questions the shopkeeper’s prejudices and assumptions, rather than suggesting he’s right to be angry and afraid of a new element in his environment.

I think she may overstate the case: there are an awful lot of pop culture archetypes of robots as a vulnerable, altruistic underclass even in the West (remember AI? Wall-E?) and in Japanese culture the Terminator/Cylon archetype is far less prevalent than a view of robots as cute, cuddly and benign. But still, on this blog at least we’ve certainly focused more on war-bots, and this film is a healthy reminder of the many ways robots can be used as metaphors for complex social relations and hierarchies. Kudos to the producers.


Hu’s Culture War

Building on PM’s earlier post, “Cultural Weapons and International Relations” I’d like to look at an example that helps to illustrate the ways in which Realism misunderstands the role of culture in global politics. In his blog post titled, “China’s War Against Harry Potter,” Stephen Walt analyzes President Hu Jintao’s attempt to defend Chinese culture by increasing its production of local culture. What is interesting is that Walt has plenty to say about culture, but he wants to separate cultural production from the state and to portray the state’s attempt to manage culture as irrational.

First, Walt argues that cultural and artistic production is something which authoritarian states cannot manage well. He writes, “What Hu doesn’t understand is that you can’t just order creativity up by fiat or by making a cheerleading speech.”  For Walt, the cutting edge of creativity comes autonomously from the state.

Walt’s argument is flawed because all states are involved to varying degrees in cultural production, including liberal democratic states. Canada and France are perhaps the most prominent examples of states that seek to enhance and shape cultural production through bureaucratic regulations. Other states effectively subsidize the arts and cultural activities through tax codes as well as national institutes and the US is no exception. Even the general income tax code can provide incentives for artists to be innovative and unique so that they can try to join the top 1% of the income bracket. The same tax code can provide incentives to patrons of the arts when they decide to donate their purchases so that they can be viewed by the plebeians. Moreover, cultural production does not have to be at the cutting edge of global culture to serve the interests of the state — particularly when the Chinese state’s main concern is to defend against a growing domestic preference for American popular culture.

Why might Walt view cultural production as ideally a distinct activity from the state? The answer probably lies in Realism’s relatively narrow and often materialistic conceptualization of power and its understanding of the proper functions of a statesman. Of course, we’ve known at least since Gramsci (and probably as far back as Plato) that states are not merely territorial actors; states must secure allegiance by colonizing the minds and  tongues of their inhabitants. This is why all states are concerned with the cultivation and preservation of culture, although some states may have a relatively more sophisticated and indirect approach.

Second, Walt depicts President Hu’s defense of culture as somewhat irrational or at the very least misguided.  Walt writes, “Forgive me, but China’s leader sounds a lot like a stodgy high school principal trying to stop teenagers from wearing gangsta rap T-shirts, and telling the Music Department to get more kids into the marching band instead. More importantly, this campaign is a losing game.”

I would argue that Hu’s speech is in no way irrational — far from it — it was entirely predictable. Hu Jintao is widely expected to retire in 2013 when he will most likely be replaced by Xi Jinping, the son of Xi Zhongxun, a founder of the CCP. Any China expert worth his salt would already have predicted that we should expect to see increased efforts to stabilize domestic politics (through the repression of dissent) and a non-confrontational foreign policy until the transition in power is complete. As an institutional actor and a value rational actor it makes sense for the President to ensure the longevity of the regime.

Hu’s focus on culture as a key mechanism to ensure domestic stability at a time when China is being rocked by protests is not at all an irrational impulse. The management of culture is at the heart of statecraft. Moreover, claiming that protesters are only protesting because they are misguided by foreign ideas is a classic deflection strategy. Even states in a global economy can manage the production of domestic popular culture and prevent much of the penetration of foreign cultural products through censorship, although perhaps not quite as bluntly as Hu may desire. Nevertheless, the attempt to reinvigorate Chinese popular culture at this point in time may ultimately prove futile as Walt argues, but one can understand why it is a pressing concern for the Chinese Premier President simply by adding culture to the domain of state power.


Popular Culture and Politics: Russian Perceptions of the Near Abroad

 RFE/RL carries an interview with Susan Layton on her book, Russian Literature and the Empire. A sample:

Russian national consciousness began developing in the 18th century, on contact with foreign non-national entities. From the time of Peter the Great, Western Europe played the central role as a clarifier of “Russian-ness.” But the Asian borderlands of the Russian Empire also contributed to this formation of Russian national, as well as imperial consciousness. As of the 18th century, ethnographic expeditions to the Caucasus, Crimea, Siberia, and so on produced huge compilations of data that had limited readerships but all the same exemplified a growing imperial consciousness. The Russian elite was beginning to form a mental map of the multinational empire, as this vast and colorful conglomerate of many peoples, cultures, types of terrain. And on this Russian mental map the Caucasus came to assume a special prominence as a version of “the Orient.”


DoD’S ‘Bloodless’ Ray-Guns

The Economist reports on advances in non-lethal weaponry, emphasizing the latest line of research into electro-magnetic weapons:

BULLETS and bombs are so 20th-century. The wars of the 21st will be dominated by ray guns. That, at least, is the vision of a band of military technologists who are building weapons that work by zapping the enemy’s electronics, rather than blowing him to bits. The result could be conflict that is less bloody, yet more effective, than what is now seen as conventional battle…

The logical conclusion of all this is a so-called “human-safe” missile, which carries an electromagnetic gun instead of an explosive warhead. This gentle way of handling the enemy – stopping his speedboats, stalling his tanks—has surprising advantages. For example, it expands the range of targets that can be attacked. Some favourite tricks of modern warfare, such as building communications centres in hospitals, or protecting sites with civilian “human shields”, cease to be effective if it is simply the electronics of the equipment being attacked that are destroyed. Though disabling an aircraft’s avionics will obviously cause it to crash, in many other cases, no direct harm is done to people at all.

This rosy view assumes weapons would only affect (or be directed at) “the enemy” – the author is grievously blind to the civilian costs of messing with power grids. While it doesn’t “blow people to bits” (and is certainly a step up from demolishing concrete buildings in urban areas), sudden loss of electrical power can be deadly to civilians: depriving them of life-sustaining medical care, causing vehicular accidents, deaths from exposure to heat or cold and disease from the collapse of water and sewage systems.

Worse, the author(s?) is/are ill-versed in science fiction analogies.

Discussing the Active Denial System later in the piece (a ‘non-lethal’ weapon that roasts people with microwaves but leaves no permanent injury) the article compares such a weapon to a “ray-gun” and suggests that the decision to end its deployment in Afghanistan stemmed from public aversion to sci-fi ray guns. (Actually, the Pentagon, not known for caving to bleeding hearts at home, had decided for itself that a pain ray might not be the best way to win hearts and minds.)

Anyway: note the fallacy in the characterization of public opposition to “ray guns.” The “ray guns” of science fiction to which the authors refer – lethal energy weapons like the Star Wars “blaster,” or the Star Trek “phaser” (a non-lethal on certain settings) are designed to kill instantly or stun, not to inflict agonizing pain on the individual. (Though they can be used improperly to inflict severe burns on certain settings, they are not designed to be used this way intentionally nor are such uses typical. In fact, in the Star Trek: TNG universe, there are treaties against weapons designed to inflict superfluous suffering – sort of a 24th century version of the Hague Conventions.)

By contrast, the Active Denial System hardly fits the popular perception of a “ray-gun” at all. Indeed, it is designed not to incapacitate but to modify behavior through pain. It’s more analogous to the “neural neutralizer” or other torture devices that are depicted in the first two Star Trek series.

So to the extent that public opinion a) matters at all in weapons deployment and b) is primed by science fiction narratives (both are hypotheses not facts) I would guess that a useful first step is to understand both the weapons and the sci-fi.


Friday Nerd Blogging

And this week, in problematic-representations-of-indigenous-populations-on-children’s-television, Lucasfilm brings you Nomad Droids:

Well I guess some foreign policy subtext in TV for eight-year-olds is a step up from 99.7% of what’s on American prime-time. Thanks to Clone Wars, my kid is quickly becoming fluent in such concepts as strategic depth, diversionary warfare and humanitarian mission creep. Last week he learned, for example, that real soldiers treat disaster relief as an annoying distraction from their actual job; that, though not bothering to understand what the locals need might backfire, it will mostly backfire on the locals; and crucially, that what appears to be an ecological problem might just be chalkable-uppable to mis-communications between political actors. Everything can be fixed through diplomacy.


Friday Nerd Blogging

Alcohol (Battlestar Galactica) from Anno Superstar on Vimeo.

Though by right this post should be pure casual Friday nerd filler (as opposed to genuine literary commentary on representations of military affairs in science fiction), I feel compelled to point you to this highly academic and substantive essay by Jason T. Eberl and Erik D. Baldwin, “How to Be Happy After the End of the World” in which it is argued:

“Fans of BSG are sometimes frustrated with the characters’ actions and decisions. But would any of us do better if we were in their places? We’d like to think so, but would we really? The temptation to indulge in sex, drugs or alcohol… to cope with the unimaginable suffering that result from surviving the death of civilization would be strong indeed… Nevertheless we think that many of the characters in BSG would be happier if they made better choices and had a clearer idea about what happiness really is.”

But while the authors may be right about happiness in the philosophical sense and in the show generally, I don’t think their pessimistic view of the relationship between alcohol and happiness is generally reflected in BSG fan culture (the various alcoholic beverages of BSG are detailed here). Consider a comparative analysis of two similar “Starbuck Tribute” fan videos, both set to the same Pink song “So What?” yet each depicting different sides of Starbuck’s personality:

I don’t know how you’ll read these videos, but I briefly coded them (disclaimer: over a good glass of Müller-Thurgau and without any particular rigor) for whether Starbuck is depicted as “angry” “happy” “troubled” “kick-ass” or engaged in “flying” “fighting” “sex” or “love.” The first video shows her to be angrier, more troubled, less kick-ass, less sexual and loving, less happy and less involved in useful military activities. The second video has her primarily kick-ass, about twice as sexy/affectionate with her various males, and barely angry or troubled at all.

Which video has more drinking scenes? Obviously the second. While this is not a representative sample of the correlation between drinking scenes and affect throughout the series, it’s an interesting counterpoint to Eberl and Baldwin’s assumptions about the messages fans take from the subtext of drunkenness on the show. Rather I suspect the dominant BSG narrative as interpreted by fans stresses alcohol’s pro-social qualities as a functional coping mechanism in situations of existential stress. Of course the real picture is more complex.

Heading off now to enjoy the open bar at the UMass-Polisci Beginning-of-Year Department Party. Highly distilled Friday nerd nonsense will resume next week.


Friday Nerd Blogging

George R. R. Martin to JK Rowling:

via GameofLOLs:

Harry Potter spoiler: Snape kills Dumbledore.

A Song of Ice and Fire spoiler: EVERYONE YOU LOVE IS KILLED

Oh about that? here is one awfully funny ASOIAF essay (I really do mean ‘awfully’).


Film review: Godard’s “Made in U.S.A.”

Made in U.S.A (Jean-Luc Godard)

“We were in a political movie … Walt Disney with blood.”

I generally do not discuss films unless I enjoy them and intend to recommend them without hesitation. Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in U.S.A. is an exception, worth mentioning in part because it has so rarely been viewed in the US. Godard made the film in 1966, during an incredibly prolific period of his career. Ostensibly, the film pays homage to “The Big Sleep,” a Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall detective story based on a book by Raymond Chandler. That earlier film classic is well-known for the sizzling chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, as well as the convoluted plot and ambiguous resolution of the murder mystery.

For his source material, Godard used a book (The Jugger) by Donald Westlake. It is one of Westlake’s Parker novels, penned pseudonymously as Richard Stark. Since Westlake did not authorize the use of his book and was not paid for his ideas, he sued successfully to prevent the film from being distributed commercially in the United States. The film premiered briefly at the New York Film Festival n 1967, but was not then shown again stateside until 2009 — very soon after Westlake died. TCM recently broadcast the movie and I recorded it.

Artistically, the film is interesting, colorful, and quite odd.
Westlake’s Parker, a ruthless killer and efficient criminal in the book series, is renamed Paula Nelson and played by the beautiful Anna Karina (Godard’s soon-to-be ex-wife). As the film’s colors and ideas are clearly embedded in the 1960s, this bit of gender-bending is obviously just one element of the broader social and cultural commentary addressed in the film. At one point, Paula says advertizing is fascism. On another occasion, she explains her cartoon-like experiences as if she is in a “film by Walt Disney, but played by Humphrey Bogart–therefore a political film.” A dirty cop twice talks in the voice of Tweety Bird and many of the colorful pop images in the film certainly add a cartoonish quality to the film.

As the New York Times explained in April 2009:

…while this film is far from a lost masterpiece, it is nonetheless a bright and jagged piece of the jigsaw puzzle of Mr. Godard’s career.

…There is, for one thing, a pouting and lovely Marianne Faithfull singing an a capella version of “As Tears Go By.” There are skinny young men smoking and arguing. There are the bright Pop colors of modernity juxtaposed with the weathered, handsome ordinariness of Old France, all of it beautifully photographed by Raoul Coutard. There are political speeches delivered via squawk box.

And of course there is a maddening, liberating indifference to conventions of narrative coherence, psychological verisimilitude or emotional accessibility.

As assaultive as “Made in U.S.A” can be, it also seems to have been made in a spirit of insouciance, improvisation and fun.

The Times does not devote much attention to the film’s explicit and implicit political agenda. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the disappearance and presumed murder of a young communist writer — the former lover of the film’s protagonist. Various characters in the film compare murder to war and the cold war to hot war. One ticks off a list of past battles, culminating in Hanoi, and suggests that all these wars have been essentially the same. Overtly leftist themes and slogans are woven into the dialogue and some characters seem to see a “vast right-wing conspiracy” almost everywhere.

Some critics interpret a strange bar scene as an example of Hegelian dialectic and the communist slogans emanating from the squawk box might suggest a Marxist dialectic at work. Whatever the preferred method, the title “Made in U.S.A.” almost certainly has a double meaning and arguably suggests the need for a double reading.

First, Godard’s homage to “The Big Sleep” says that American artists deserve credit and praise for the genre of film noir. And hard-boiled detective fiction as well — one character, a writer, is named David Goodis. These dark stories cover important themes often ignored in the mainstream. Of course, the mainstream is represented by Disney cartoons and advertizing and Godard speaks fairly explicitly and critically about these elements of pop culture. Even in “The Big Sleep,” the murderer’s identity is made ambiguous (and other important plot points are changed) because Chandler’s original story would not have been compliant with Hollywood morality codes of the time.

The second meaning of the title suggests that then-contemporary cold war conspiracies, whether overt like Vietnam or covert like a real mystery referenced in the film, were literally “made in America.” Again, the criticism is not especially subtle. Young thuggish characters named Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon briefly appear towards the conclusion of the main story. One proclaims that he enjoys killing and the other clearly assents.

Keep in mind that McNamara was Secretary of Defense at the time of this film serving under one of the most progressive Democratic administrations of the last century. LBJ’s “Great Society” produced important civil rights legislation, Medicare, Medicaid, new environmental laws, anti-poverty efforts, etc. But, of course, Johnson and McNamara also prosecuted and escalated the war in Vietnam.

Nixon was technically just a former Vice President (under Dwight Eisenhower), private citizen and corporate lawyer at the time this film was made. However, Nixon was an active party leader in 1966, meeting with foreign leaders while traveling abroad and campaigning for Republicans in midterm elections. Nixon had been a notable cold war hawk for some time and was a key figure on the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In his first campaign, he defeated a female incumbent by implying she was a “pink lady” harboring “communist sympathies.”

In the ending shot, Paula tellingly opines that “The Right and the Left are the same. We have years of struggle ahead, mostly within ourselves.”

This film remains important because the struggle against pervasive commercialism is far from over and the cold war’s end failed to kill the national security state.

Cross-posted from my personal blog on this Nerd Friday because I have not been adding anything here this summer. Sorry about that.


Stability Ops Among Muggles

Foreign Policy‘s latest foray into the nexus between science fiction and political reality is a lively sketch on post-conflict reconstruction, Harry Potter style. Written by experts on the topic from the Marine Corps War College, Human Rights Watch and the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, the key point is this: though the “story” ends when the bad guys are vanquished (be they Deatheaters or Saddam Hussein’s forces) is is then that the real battle begins.

Former U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre and retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan have described four pillars of post-conflict reconstruction: security, governance and participation, urgent social and economic needs, and justice and reconciliation. Of these pillars, the magical world can currently afford to feel complacent about only one — social and economic needs. After all, with the proper application of scouring, mending, and engorgement charms, much of the physical damage wrought by the war can be repaired, and food can be multiplied to meet the needs of the population. But with respect to the other imperatives, critical challenges remain.

Surviving Death Eaters will have to be brought to justice or reintegrated into magical society. Long-standing rifts among magical communities that the war widened must be healed. Most of all, we must ensure that the values that triumphed in the final battle — tolerance, pluralism, and respect for the dignity of all magical and non-magical creatures alike — are reflected in the institutions and arrangements that emerge from the conflict. What ultimately matters is not just whether something evil was defeated, but whether something good is built in its place.

Brilliant article; I must say, however, that I’m not sure the same dilemmas of post-conflict reconstruction apply to the end of all conflicts in the same way. Invoking “the recent experience of American Muggles in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the piece would seem a rejoinder to Bush-era declarations of “Mission: Accomplished.” But the defeat of Voldemort is more like the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait than it is like the US’ invasion and occupation of the Middle East and Central Asia post-9/11.

Voldemort, after all, is the invader; he is simply repulsed. It’s not as if Hogwarts invades the Muggle world, wins, and then has to deal with all the thorny dilemmas of reconstituting Muggle society. Hogwarts basically just defended its own borders and identity. As such its reconstruction projects will be more like Kuwait’s in the absence of Saddam’s invading army (rebuilding walls and lives) than like those of the US in Iraq in the absence of the old order (rebuilding society itself from scratch).

Even in such instances, as Cynthia Enloe reminded us in her post-Gulf War book The Morning After, victory is never as straight-forward as it would seem. But how non-straight-forward may be a matter of significant degree.

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