Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Last One

I must say that I will miss being required to think about the world and the US, and to write it all down at least once a week. So, in that spirit, I would like to recap a bit and probably rant a bit more--just to keep in the usual form.

This year has been a crazy one. For academia, American Studies, and the Americas. Things are always changing and there are always new ways to look at things--in part, because the prior is true. I must say that I've never been short on material for this blog.

There is one main thing that I think is so great about the American Studies. It teaches you to look at your own, to look at your culture, life, society, history, media, philosophy, and more. Whether looking at it in excluded from other nations or country or in a transnational context, I think this is a great exercise!

If we could all take a critical eye to just some of the narratives that surround us everyday, I think we would find an immense amount of benefit. Certainly, being blind to these things, especially willfully so, is near tragic and it happens all the time.

Taking a critical eye or ear to "the world" around you and all that you are constantly bombarded with every day in the modern world, can only serve to make us better people, better citizens and even a better nation.

The lack of self-critique, may in fact be, the inevitable downfall of societies and countries and civilizations throughout the world and throughout history. I just hope that myself and others have learned the skills to divert such an end.

I am planning on continuing my studies in American Studies next fall at KSU in the graduate program, so I hope to continue to make an effort towards encouraging such criticism and the beneficial ideas or products it produces!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Class Activity Parallels American Studies

Our class activity on Wednesday was quite enjoyable. I think the activity is related to American Studies in a few ways. One of them is the way in which we were asked to examine or re-examine the places, cultures and their meanings that are all around us.

We walk by the gazebo here, the Berlin Wall there, the campus green somewhere else, the statue of the man climbing to the top of the world at another location, and we hardly, if ever, stop and think about these places, these structures, or their meaning. Much like American Studies, we are asked to examine the things we know or believe we know so well. Where we, as Americans are so involved, so immersed, so saturated with our culture, our way of life, and our structures, that we hardly ever stop to examine them.

This is probably my favorite aspects of American Studies. It is so important to re-examine the things we are fed everyday, the things we are such a part of. And to some extent, it can be difficult to capture this mindset or to participate in such an exercise, whether it be self-criticism or the effort to be objective in looking at ourselves, our nation that we belong to in some form or another.

So, we walked around campus and we were made to ask questions! The power of the question! Oh the Socratic method! In some ways, a question can reveal much more than a statement. And then, in another way, we were asked to answer these questions through our writing--a poem, a list, so on. Overall I think it was a very beneficial activity and it correlates to American Studies as a discipline to a great extent.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Nukes and Everyone Else

Throughout the semester we have discussed very little about the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the Cold War culture that followed. At least, we haven't discussed things in this frame of the Cold War. We have examined the "nuclear family," suburbs into the 21st century, and so on, but it makes me curious.

We always have heard that after WWII all the American soldiers came back home, thus we have the "baby boomers" and all kinds of stuff. But I wonder even more about the national consciousness and whether or not someone other than Kurt Vonnegut saw the grave implications of what ended WWII: the a-bomb.

I am writing about this now because anything nuclear--culture, industry, science and ethics, literature, history--has interested me for some time and because President Barack Obama has recently signed a nuclear treaty with Russia. It is an interesting move on behalf of both parties involved. And, frankly, I laugh when I hear people say that less nuclear war heads that could blow up this earth dozens and dozens times over, makes the US or the whole world any less safe.

I think we could stand to get rid of a few, and so could Russia. And I would really like to see the congress not actually try to have a 2/3 majority. That is, I would like to see them try to convince me that somehow we are safer if we can blow up the earth 100 times instead of 50 times.

Of course, we would have been much better off if the a-bomb had never been made. So it goes.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Christianity in America

There is no doubt that Christianity is alive and well in the United States--perhaps more than any other nation in the world. At least, it is a part of the usual, public discourse. We see it on TV, we hear and see pundits on TV talk about how the US is a Christian nation, we can buy holy water by way of a 1-800 number, we can watch the pink haired lady go through an entire box of tissues....I could go on.

Ok, but on a more serious level (that is, absent of pink-haired TBN jokes) Christianity is a big part of the US. If nothing else, look at all the immense amount of stuff you can buy that is related to the Christian faith--Protestant or Catholic. That statement should tell you of the American version of religion. But I'm not sure this is such a good thing. In a way, consumerism is the American religion.

I think the author of "Material Christianity" finds the American affection towards materials and materialism, as well as the ones that profit from the sale of goods that represent a non-materialistic religion, as especially problematic. And I have to agree. Some of the earlier incarnations of representations of Jesus or God are a bit more forgivable, but the modern-day ones simply are not. There are just some people out there that you must wonder if they are more intent on selling copies of their own book or getting people to pick up there bibles.

I mean, for example, a friend of mine recently got married and the church the ceremony was held in had a form in the pew that signed you up for direct deposit for your tithe. Ok, maybe not so crazy to some, maybe you are an avid and regular 10% giver as the Bible instructs, fine. This is not a particularly good example, I realize, but it may help put it in perspective.

More politically speaking, it is those that claim to be Christians and are viewed as such that promote the very system that keeps money in the pockets of the richest people in the country and encourages an affinity for commodities and material things--that is, "things of this world."

Either way, it is difficult to pin-point the cause of Christian values being coupled with American Capitalist values, but it certainly is alive and well.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Material World of The Unseen

Our reading for this week took me by surprise. I was not sure quite what to expect but I knew I was interested. At first, I thought it was going to be an expositional critique of the American Right and the problematic relationship they might have between promoting materialism (through free-trade and just for being those fist pumping capitalist types) and promoting a religous view that preaches against materialism or "the things of this world." Apparently I was writing my own book in my own head before I opened this one. Almost like not even seeing the previews for a movie, but only hearing a title and deciding you could imagine what it would look like, who the characters would be, and so on.

Still, I am presently surprised. This book appears to take a more archeological and anthropological stance and approach to research. While these disciplines often have to do with empirical sciences, they also appear to be a place where more theoretical and philosophical questions must be asked. For this reason I enjoyed the reading. It seems exceedingly more difficult to keep one discipline away from each other, and this can only be a good thing. If we are to pick up a clay pot and document it as only made of clay from the nearby area but do not ask how this effected the humans, culture, and their relation to the world, then what good is that clay pot?

In a way I'm thankful we don't have to go back to clay-pot type times. This book is talking about the recent and the very recent past. We're talking Christian book stores, pictures/representations of Jesus, jewelery, trucker-hats...I could go on.
But the most interesting thing the author states and that I agree with is that all these objects, these products influence the way we concieve of ourselves, others, other objects, our own spirituality/religion, and more. That the author asserts that Americans want see, do, and touch our religions is especially dead-on. In a way we create a relation to the unseen world we tell others we believe, but the seen world is what helps us build (or demolish) that belief, that relation.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Populism Masked as Democracy: Facebook is No Place for Politics

Someone should do an academic study of online social networks and the body politic. If facebook is to be the place of political public discourse then maybe we should find a way to completely ZAP the internet, completely annihilate it from existence. But we know that's not going to happen. Everything is on or will be on the internet, on a little screen in front of our faces for us to oooh and ahhh over. But should our American political discourse be on it?

No. No it shouldn't. Not in the least. Especially facebook. Sure, it's great to post an article from this or that newspaper and share it with your friends or nearly everyone else in the world, but when people have an upwards of 15 comments and the content of these comments suggests that "someone should punch the president in the face," we need to draw the line somewhere. Sure, you are allowed to feel and say whatever you want, but the outright immaturity, ignorance, and disrespect that people display for one another and others needs a reality check. What happens when you put facebook and politics together is this: populist, anti-intellectual, knee-jerk, rambling reactionary, political discussion. I won't even call it discourse. That would be giving credit where it is simply not due.

Sure not everyone is a political science major or an American Studies major, but saying we should impeach the President on your "status" and not being able to tell anyone (15 comments later) for what? Please.

This does not help our politics. It polarizes them. And everyone that can't distinguish between the Washington Times op/ed page and the content in the rest of the paper, anyone that claims to love the Constitution but has never read it, anyone that can type the letters "s-o-c-i-a-l-i-s-m," gets a chance to broadcast the echo-halls of populist, reactionary, anger.

This is truly an interdisciplinary look at things. We've social movements, social networking, politics, communications, and even the fabric of American democracy at hand here.

And if democracy looks anything like facebook at this very moment, then maybe we should all move to China.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Consumerism Update

It seems the most difficult thing to gauge these days is a little something our culture is strongly based on: consumer behavior. So this is weird. Really weird.

Everytime I listen to the news on the radio or watch it on TV I hear economists from all over saying the same thing: that consumer behavior is unpredictable, incalculable, and very very important. While economics is mainly theory and forecasts, though in relation to empirical evidence, it seems that consumer behavior is just another factor you hear them all mention that throws another wrentch in the equation.

Really, its quite hilarious. I think it's kinda like the free-will/destiny debate. And I could argue both sides, at least insofar as American consumerism is concerned. Really we have both in this country: we have the free-will to buy 1,000 different kinds of toothpaste, but we are also destined to buy it from Wal-Mart, or at least a toothpaste product from China that mainly sells to Wal-mart. You get the point.

Still, no economists (who seem to be regarded or at least listened to as god itself these days) can tell you how humans will behave, what they will buy, and what they won't. Even further, the especially frosty weather was expected to hamper much consumer spending in retail stores, but all the big retailers just reported a large increase. This should prove the point: rain, snow, sunshine, rich, poor, conservative, liberal, red, blue, black, or green, these economists from Yale or Harvard or Berkely (nor much or anyone else for that matter) can predict human behavior. And human behavior in the US usually means: consumer behavior.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Consummate Consumer

"Everything's provided, consummate consumer," sings Regina Spektor in her song "Machine." Sure, maybe it's a bit to much to suggest a consumer consummates in some form or another with commodities, but it gets the point across. If you consider the word as an adjective, then it shouldn't leave such a bad taste in your mouth: as an adjective it means showing a high degree of skill or flair; and complete or perfect.

Either way, I think Regina Spektor is right on. Lot's of people, especially conservative pundits and others like to talk about how "the US is a Christian nation." And then they talk about the Puritans and so on. Well, even if the nation really is or was like they say, it has been replaced by a sort of religious consumerism. And really in all kinds of senses.

People in the US love their cars, their iPhones, their flat-screens...I could go on but you can imagine the list. People may have once believed in a Christian god, but now it is overshadowed by the belief in this golden idol now known as commodities.

Even if you aren't a believer, this should bother you. Consumerism is the one religion we all participate in, we all work together to keep alive, and even something we all go to war for. Sound familiar?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Once the Middle-Class

As the economic __________ (you fill in the blank) begins to recover millions of people have been left without jobs. And according to the NY Times, they can plan on waiting even longer. Really this is according to all kinds of economists and news outlets from each political spectrum. Fox is probably just saying it's Obama's fault because, well, everything is his fault. In reality, it always takes longer to start hiring people back after a recession, even after a company has started to make stable profit. It takes time, for one. For another, there are plenty of companies that are looking at the bottom line and that's it.

So why include this [slightly] opinionated piece as a part of a blog for this class? Why bore you and further saturate the internet and everything else you read with stabs in the dark at economics? Well, in short, it is because the people that I have mentioned above are not the poor. They are the new poor. They are those who have lived comfortably in suburbs all over the U.S. They were people who drove the SUV that became such a quintessential part of suburbia. They are people who work hard. They are people that have never had to live off public funding in their entire life.

Some people just like to look at the numbers, the charts, the statistics on piece of paper. I like to look at human beings. You can have the most impressive mathematic formula around, and you can plug anything into it and believe you are going to get an accurate picture of, say, what bracket these newly poor humans will fit into. Some people call this kind of thing "empirical." But if we look at the human factor, the human variable, we will see people that once worked for themselves so that they and their families could have a good roof over their heads...we will see these people at food banks that are running out, without health insurance (at all), filing or hoping for extensions of unemployment, the list goes on.

Retrospect on this time will be nothing short of amazing, if not a fully taxing task. All the empirical data in the world may indicate this or that about money in the bank, but it won't show you a thing about what these people's lives will look like, how this will change culture, and whether or not the middle-class living in this place called suburbia will ever live up to its name.

Monday, February 15, 2010

This American Life...On the Radio

As an avid NPR listener, "This American Life" is one of my all time favorite shows. I realize just how rare this might seem--a 23 year old that loves a "radio program." Tons of my friends give me a hard time for being or at least acting like "an old man." They ask where my paper and my black coffee are. I have them here next to me at this very moment. But really, if you like to listen to (not just veg out and watch) something especially interesting, something intellectually stimulating, and something that is simply entertaining then you should brush aside the supposed stereotypes of NPR listeners or people that "still" listen to the radio or, even worse, a radio program.

Still, some may ask, "Do they even have radio programs anymore?" And I must answer, "Well yes, yes they sure do." And one of those said programs that would be well worth your time is "This American Life" brodcast on NPR every Sunday night at 6pm. If you live in the Atlanta area, it's 90.1 fm "on the dial(as us old-timers say)." This radio show just made its 400th show and they deserve some recognition.

As it pertains to this class, if there is any contemporary media that examines American life, or what it means to be an American, or common national sentiment of the time, or completely random stories about Americans (and trust me the list goes on), than it is this radio program. They present narrative and counter narrative; they examine this crazy relationship we have with technology; they share stories and give examples of the extreme diversity of the US; they encapsulate it all, and they do it so well.

More specifically, last week's program was about several kids that had grown up in suburbia that had stumbled upon an old artifact: an old abandoned house stocked with newspaper clippings, love letters, and all kinds of other things from the American past. The last name of the family that left it behind was named Mason. The Mason's left what seemed like absolutely everything behind and simply abandoned the house. The suburban kids were sure that this house was haunted and that some crazy old man lived there and so on. Come to find out, at least at the end of the story, the family that lived there was, in there time, the modern suburban family--not much different than the kids that stumbled upon it in the first place. And this suburbia was, as our book we are reading in class asserts, one from much earlier than the 1950s!

So all my radio listening that keeps me away from my school work, at times, actually met that work somewhere in the middle! And truly, tune in to "This American Life" next Sunday, kids young and old love it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Stars and Bars

The American Suburbs are an interesting space. There have been plenty of movies made about them, notably "American Beauty." And the number of TV shows, novels, the list goes on is even more immense.

I, myself, have grown up in a suburb for most of my life. And they are peculiar places. At the same time, I would say they are close to American Beauty's portrayal. At least not the ones that I've grown up in. You may be saying, "how little you know" right now and you may be right.

Either way, they are quite the interesting place. The SUV, the "Suburban" is rather hilarious when you think about how huge of a truck it is and just how many suburbanites drive them. A suburbanite driving a Suburban in's just too much. But that's kind of what is "quintessential" about many peoples conceptions of suburbia--whether they beautiful in an American way or not. Who knows?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Conquering Space

It seems conquering space (and I enjoy the ambiguity of the word) has always been the American way. And it is rather incredible to think about the "progress," the historical push forward, the evolution of the technologies used to conquer. From the American Axe to the iPhone. From the mill to the spaceship. From tangible land type of space to outer space. Ok, I realize the iPhone can't be cited for "conquering" but it could be for "consuming," that is, consuming every moment of some peoples' lives.

I do not indulge myself too much in science-fiction but it is interesting to think about the future of technology, human relation to it, and the possible narratives that will stem from this. For now, we only have speculative forecasts of this future and the same kind of narratives. In Phillip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," you'll find the future, one that always seems post-conflict/war/nuclear fallout, to be even more confusing than the present. There isn't much difference that the main character can tell between android and human, partly because the androids have been made so well, and narratives the populous at the time has is one involving catalogs of real and fake/electric farm animals to place on top of your residence. Sounds a little crazy if you haven't read it, maybe even if you have.

But still, Nye lays out a rather detailed history and lists of the narratives/counter-narratives for the past. This also helps us understand how this effected and still effects the present. The detail, skill, and academic research done by Nye proves to be an especially informative examination. But with past and present under my belt, it makes we wonder about the future.

With the world becoming more and more technologically advanced--not just the United States, though it may be pushed along in a significant way by the US--it should make anyone wonder what the future human relation to technology will be, whether the United States will lead the march to that future, and what will the narratives and counter-narratives entail?

Perhaps, with our long line of conquering space, the new frontier will not be as much West as it will be straight up.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Walk in the Woods

Thoreau is someone most Americans would probably tell you they know, they very well might. We know the name. We know Emerson too. We know both, amongst many others, loved a good walk in the woods. And if the digital age has not completely consumed the world, our entire being, then chances are we share this love with the least to some extent. Perhaps we don't find God or our true meaning or an "Ah" (angels singing with blinding light) moment in the outdoors, but I know for me personally the woods, nature, outdoors, gives me quite the respite. Maybe the same works for others.

If anything, this longing for and this finding of peace, rest, meaning, and freedom in nature that Thoreau outlines in "Walking," could be the case even more so in our historical moment. The difference between nature and our technological world, our computer screens, our Blackberrys, is stark, and it is this difference that could make these ideas greater in the contemporary time--insofar as our longing for, our nostalgic feelings towards, and perhaps even our sense of loss of this bucolic ideal is concerned.

Every time I've walked into the woods I think of how great it is that my phone is off and locked in the car. Thoreau described his appreciation of nature as being influenced by a certain kind of acknowledgment of difference; except for him it was the freedom from the sedentary life of the town, work, and even responsibility.

At the same time, Thoreau's writing should not be spared any critique. He wonders how the women of his time and in his community can bear being "cooped up" (for lack of a better term) in the house. And as with several topics in "Walking," he mentions such a thing in passing only to go on to the next idea. Much Feminist critique of Thoreau and other "walkers" is that this is largely, if not fully, a male experience. Being a male, I do not have the beauty of being objective in this sense. I've always loved the outdoors, nature, so on. Perhaps, this is not the case for everyone, and that is really just fine with me. As for Thoreau, it seems he argues that this a universal.

One must assume the convenience of such statements, the convenience and the ease Thoreau seems to encounter with everyday life. If this were not the case, if he had to work as some others that he mentions, it would be difficult to say that his ideas would not be different. In short, we can't all afford, in all senses of the word, to go take a walk in the woods. But maybe we should try it once in a while.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

American Progress in Technology

Dr. Nye lays out his case for the American progress afforded by certain technologies of the time. He asserts that the American narrative was created, in part, through stories of Americans' interaction with and progress by technologies. This narrative is also one concerned with progress. Progress is, arguably, integral to the American narrative.

Nye also asserts that the American view is one of dominance over nature; that Americans saw and continue to see nature as a place for use, and perhaps rather than a thing to be in awe of. This view, in large part, is a colonial one. The colonial history of the U.S. is an undeniable history, but, as Nye Asserts, this "history" and the narratives formed from it are often intertwined or even mistaken for one another.

I find this aspect of his argument especially interesting and true. Not everyone is a history major or a history buff. And, as William Faulkner demonstrates in Absalom, Absalom, History is extremely difficult if not exceedingly lost. Therefore, we have narrative. Though history and narrative are both "stories," it seems they depart from each other at different and even crucial points. This is not to say that technology in America has not been used to an extreme extent or that it is not part of U.S. history, but that it is the narratives of American use and interaction with these technologies that has become a large part of the cultural narrative.

From this narrative spawns many more ideas and even political views as we know them today. The idea that "progress" is improvement is definitely one of them. Not to get all environmental here, but the proliferation of industrialization in the U.S. and around the world could be seen as something quite contrary to this idea, insofar as nature/environment are concerned.