Homo homini rodentius est

The Semiotics of Smoke

Now you see it, now you don’t. James gets cleaned up to go to market.

In the process of hunting up illustrations for a post about the meanings of smoking I ran across an astonishing example of how a habit, and everything it represents, is systematically being erased not just from daily life — but from history. The photo on the left of Dean perched against the wall of the Dakota in New York is a copy of the original picture taken by Roy Shatt in 1954. The one on the right is the version being licensed by CMG International, the company that now owns the rights to James Dean’s image. Notice anything missing? His cigarette has been Photoshopped out of the licensed version — I assume to make his image more marketable to advertisers that would use it in a world where smoking has become a social disease. The manipulation of dead celebrities’ identities has been going on for awhile, but the irony of sanitizing the original bad boy iconoclast hero — literally pulling the cigarette from his lips forever — is particularly galling.

I’m thinking about smoke. It’s what one does while quitting. And what I’m thinking is that I miss it. Not the smoke itself, of course. The smoke itself is no more enjoyable now than it was the first time I choked on a lung full at the age of eight (don’t worry, I didn’t start smoking that young. I had asked my mother if I could take a drag on her cigarette and she — wisely — said, “Sure.” I did, almost vomited, and didn’t touch another cigarette for almost 20 years…). It’s enjoyable in the same way that the burning poisonous taste of liquor is enjoyable, which is to say: not much. No one really enjoys the medium of illicit or dangerous substances. It’s about the effects, of course, but also something more.

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Media = Death

I wasn’t going to comment on the killings in Virginia because I don’t think the event has much meaning outside of the local tragedy that transpired. A mad young man who fell through the cracks bought a gun and went berserk. But the horrendous way that television “news” is mining this tragedy for ratings is beyond venal — it’s dangerous. It’s near midnight as I write this and Nightline on ABC — a once respectable show — has just shown extensive clips of the rambling videos created by the madman. Provided to them for a fee, I’m sure, by NBC (how they must have danced at Rockefeller Center when that package arrived!). In them, Cho refers explicitly to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine killers, who clearly were heroes to this deluded creature. As I watched it I yelled out at the TV “STOP SHOWING IT!” How many sociopaths are watching this completely unnecessary orgy of necrophilia and adding Cho to their list of heroes to emulate, as he adopted Harris and Klebold? I’m afraid we’ll probably find out.

Slate’s [Jack Shafer offered an apology] for the sensationalist coverage, but he’s missing the bigger point: all the attention in the world will not wring any non-obvious insights out of this tragedy. And you will wait until hell freezes over before one of the pious and soulless talking heads on TV figure out why these massacres are happening more and more often — it’s because, thanks to relentless coverage, they are becoming a genre, a way for some disturbed young men to achieve greatness. The ravenous media are not just profiting from this horror, they are enabling it. Unforgivable.

Lawrence Wright: My Trip to Al-Qaeda

Lawrence Wright is a fascinating guy. A staff writer at the New Yorker and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has written books on topics ranging from false memory syndrome to religious biography to the idiosyncrasies of twins. He co-wrote the 1998 Denzel Washington movie The Siege — about what would happen if Islamic terrorists succeeded in bringing a catastrophe to our shores — and which led, in a tragic way, to his writing [The Looming Tower], for which he was today [awarded the Pulitzer Prize].

Shortly after The Siege was released it was denounced by radical Islamic groups for slandering them and fomenting hatred. In an example of irony utterly lost on them, one of the ways they showed their displeasure at the perceived slander was to blow up a theater in South Africa that was showing the film. People died and a young girl was crippled for life. Wright carried his own wounds out of the experience and, following the fully realized catastrophe of 9/11, determined that he would know who these people were, to find as many as he could who were as close to Bin Laden as possible and learn their motivations. The Looming Tower was the result — an attempt to dimensionalize the images in the Wanted posters and provide us at home with a better understanding of who we’re facing.

Last week a group of Columbia alums and I attended Wright’s spoken-word performance of what he learned called “My Trip to Al-Qaeda”. Subtly staged by director Gregory Mosher, Wright stood in a spare office setting and discussed the people he had met and what they had told him as images of them and their handiwork was displayed on a screen behind him. What Wright took away from the experience was an understanding of the pervasive despair and sense of humiliation that people in the Arab world experience following decades of social lassitude instilled by autocratic regimes and repressive religious doctrine. The result is a nihilistic, anarchic death cult — of which Al-Qaeda is the most prominent exponent — that seeks to destroy the status quo and all who benefit by it without having a clear idea of what comes after the destruction. It was a dire story he told.

In a question and answer period following the performance, someone in our group asked Wright if the narrative of hatred and nihilism that motivates so many radical Islamists could be countered by another that offered hope. Wright was not optimistic, narratives arise organically — they can’t be imposed. As we’re learning in Iraq.

Why do I blog (when I do)?

I’ve been tagged by [Lord Matt] to explain why I blog. Couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The challenge roused me from an unintentional month-long torpor triggered by a nasty case of writer’s block that resulted from my attempt to write a review of Sam Harris’s book “The End of Faith”. I was held back partly by innate perfectionist (read: severely anal) tendencies — I couldn’t write anything else until I published the Harris review — coupled with my utter revulsion of Harris and his anti-liberal project. Alas, I will struggle past the block under the assumption that there are actually readers out there who care to read what I have to write and with the aid of an oil can or two of Foster’s (god bless the Australians…) and a CD of Heaven 17 cranked loud. As I remember, the question was “Why do I blog?”

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Gootube We Hardly Knew Ye

The news about Google being hit with a $1B lawsuit over copyright infringement throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the froth over Web 2.0 and user-generated (*cough* stolen) content. One envisions the superannuated CEO Sumner Redstone rising from a creaky rocking chair on the porch of his antebellum mansion, Viacom, and shaking his walking stick at those disrespectful upstarts in New Media.

He’s right, of course. They built their business on facilitating dissemination of copyrighted material (going so far as to helpfully transmute uploads into a standard format and slap their logo on it) and have been, for some reason, dragging their heels on setting up licensing deals. Mark Cuban, who has a dog or two in this fight, has been [practically lactating] over the news. But it’s also the talk of the town over on Mike Arrington’s [Techcrunch] and at [Scobleizer]. Aside from the 20-year-olds yelling “Fuck Viacom”, the consensus seems to be that Google will either settle or lose. The question is, why did the “geniuses” at Google allow it to come to this point?

For oh about… 3 seconds I considered taking down the YouTube videos I’ve used on this siite. I don’t want to be complicit in theft. But I’d much rather pay a nominal fee to host the videos. That I don’t have the option to do so points right back at those Stanford-minted geniuses at Google.

Another reason I’m glad I went to Columbia…

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