December 20, 2016

The Trope of the Evil Other Dimension in Our Superhero Franchises

As has been lamented in numerous places big budget movies especially the Superhero franchises seem to be getting somewhat stale. They lack new and original plots, focus to much on visual effects, need to cater to too broad of an audience spectrum, are too much of an investment to take any "risks" etcetera. The thing that has been bothering me the most lately was a particular trope that is not just lame and overdone, it is also particularly concerning considering our global political climate at the moment. That is the portal to the evil other dimension.

The plot of seemingly every other Superhero movie these days is that some ill-advised human opens a portal to an evil other dimension that threatens to bring chaos, suffering and death to all of humanity. Then, of course, it is up to our heroes to basically plug that hole and keep the evil other out. Even if, in the theatre,  we may be too bedazzled by special effects and funny banter to realize how problematic that is. The recap should give us pause. Because we are inundated with this narrative not only in our Superhero franchises but also in the news. Name the ill-advised human Angela Merkel for example and the evil other dimension the so called Arab world and you suddenly you are not in your fun-escapist-special-effects-fest anymore. Suddenly you find yourself in the midst of our current real-life drama where blocking the Balkan route and building a wall to Mexico are on actual political agendas. The problem is that in real life things are not all so neatly black and white and solutions are not so easy.      

Most of Hollywood does like to show itself rather more progressive in their politics. Many actors, directors and writers advocate for refugee aid, compassion and more inclusive politics. And yet, when it comes to their own back yard and their biggest influence - the cultural narratives they shape with their storytelling - they irresponsibly draw draw on tropes like this. They perpetuate narratives where evil nature of that other dimension and the beings within it are never even questioned, where there is never any real engagement with the other side or attempts at understanding. Our heroes don't even try. They don't communicate with the other, they communicate at it, usually in a rather aggressive and threatening manner. They attack and they kill. No questions asked. And, as last seen in Doctor Strange, they better not let any aspect of the other side contaminate our world. We as the audience are lead to buy into these foregone conclusions and we get manipulated to believe in the need to close up that portal. So when we return to our own world why would we not seek some equally easy answer to our own problems. Why would we not look for a "hero" to close our portal for us, or build us a wall ...

Sure, we are not going to solve all the world's problems with better movies. The real world is more complex than that. There are always many other factors at play. But everyone needs to do what they can and I think it is time Hollywood put their narratives and their budgets where their mouths are and reconsidered some of the messages they are putting into the world. Story is a tool to be used wisely for it can do a lot of good but it can also do a whole lot of harm. We should not forget that and be responsible about what we put into the world. Maybe we can avoid harm, maybe we can even inspire change and adjust failures of imagination. Fiction is known to have done so before.

August 22, 2016

Olympics: Benign Patriotic Fun or Destructive Potential

As I sit down to write this, the Olympics in Rio have just come to a close and I can't quite shake the feeling of uneasiness about how this whole event played out once again. Of course the official rhetoric is, as always, all about the Olympic idea, people coming together, and equality. However, if you actually sat down to watch the thing itself - or, if you are me, to watch other people watching the thing - you would have had a very hard time seeing that rhetoric reflected in the actual spectacle, its symbolism, or commentary.

True, that is not an entirely new development. Since their inception, the modern Olympic Games have been all about - as John Oliver put it so nicely - finding out
"who is better than everyone else, so that we can make them stand higher than the other people who are not as good as them. Because the point of the Games is not to celebrate equality. It is to celebrate individuals' excellence."
That already sounds much closer to reality than the official rhetoric. However, is it really about individuals' excellence? Considering how the whole thing is set up, how the commentary goes, and what the audience cares about, it should be fairly obvious that the athletes as individuals are actually a secondary concern. They are not competing as individuals so much as as representatives of their respective countries. Both the commentators and the audience seem much more concerned with the medal count than even with the disciplines the medals are won in - much less individual athlete's achievements. Patriotism is very much embraced and encouraged. After all what is so wrong about a little patriotism?

Well, if you think about it, quite a lot actually. For one thing, patriotism is essentially irreconcilable with the Olympic idea as it stands. It divides people and fosters an Us-vs.-Them-Mentality that can be - and has historically been - utilized to both distract people from internal problems and reinforce enemy stereotypes. Clearly that supposedly harmless bit of patriotic fun carries quite a bit of destructive potential. Not to mention that divisions along national lines keep us from addressing global problems we are all facing together. Problems that are very much driving nationalistic moods around the globe.

These moods and attitudes are in turn fed by things like broadcasting choices and commentary of the Olympics (or other international sports events) and, of course, the news media, which very much imply and teach something like a hierarchy of care. We all know and expect that any kind of event that effects the western world and particularly our own country is going to get quite a different kind of coverage than anything that effects people we identify much less with. I can't help the anger boiling up inside every time they inevitably start any report of international events by establishing whether or not Germans were affected. And of course, what works on the global scale also works for internal affairs, as exemplified by the difference between reports about people attacking refugees and their accommodations vs. reports about refugees' and immigrants' misconducts, criminal activity, and potential danger to society.

Shouldn't we have learned by now that such discrimination has a strong potential to drive either party to their worst? Wouldn't we benefit from less self centred reporting? Maybe we can not get invested in everything that happens around the globe and neither should we, but a blind man with a stick should have seen by now that our modus operandi has not been doing us many favours - especially in about the last couple of hundred years. We all have neglected issues that we should have addressed and instead gotten involved in things we should have kept out of. Thus we have fostered and escalated conflicts at home and abroad that are now coming around to bite us.

And yet we never seem to learn. We go right back to our nationalist thinking. We don't even acknowledge that we might carry some responsibility for developments that are inconveniencing us now. And we refuse to even entertain practical solutions and solutions that favour long term benefits over short term profits. We distract ourselves with medal counts and the seemingly benign patriotic fun that events like the Olympics offer. Bread and Circuses. Business as usual.   


November 1, 2015

How a Femnist Icon Fell From Grace or Vagina: A Book Review

Vagina: A New BiographyVagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Oh dear … in short: this book did not just fail to live up to my expectations, it made me very angry. That is because it is one of these frustrating texts that, while they claim to present an objective – even scientific – argument, are actually all about some personal issue of the author. In this case we have some weird hybrid of evangelist text, (pseudo-)scientific pamphlet and polemic against second wave feminism. What? Why? Huh? Well, when Wolf had a sexual crisis, she prayed to whatever god would listen, modern medicine answered her call, and revealed to her the poorly understood connections between the female sexual organs and the brain via pelvic nerve structures which she hence forth believed to be THE answer to all of female sexuality and suppression. As I said, oh dear!

So like a proper chosen one she brings it upon herself to preach this gospel. Not appealing to belief of course – we're not in the dark ages – but to science. The Scientific method, however, seems to be a foreign concept to her. Science in her book is apparently a mere tool to hammer home your own preconceived ideas. To this end she utilizes every tool in the box of bad scientific argument: cherry picking evidence, misrepresenting facts, gross oversimplification, broad generalization, confirmation bias, putting words in to people's mouths ...

Let's stay with the putting words into people's mouth thing for a moment, because that was where she really got me angry. I was still unsure about whether or not to give her the benefit of the doubt when she introduced her claims about women's creative and assertive potential or lack thereof being tied to orgasmic dopamine release. What about other things that cause dopamine release? What about, say, asexual women? It sounds a lot like she would tell them they are not really asexual, there is just something wrong with their pelvic nerve.

Anyway, when she then went on to claim that men of all cultures had 'unconsciously' conspired to suppress this potential by violating women's vaginas and restricting knowledge about female sexual organs, the last shreds of credibility went out the window. There is simply a much less ludicrous explanation for this: the androcentric world view, ignorance, and objectification of women that come with patriarchy as we know it.

Especially the patronizing way she talks about the experience of survivors of sexual violence quite frankly drives me up the wall. Not once does she cite their views. From the arguments she makes I can not deduce whether she ever even bothered to discuss her claims with them personally. All we get are her own observations about their behaviour and the conversations about them she had with helpers, medical professionals and shady gurus – conversations that are very much manipulative in the sense that she makes excessive use of driving questions and rephrases answers to fit her hypothesis.

And the thing is, here too we already have conditions like PTSD and Chronic Pain Syndrome that adequately explain the phenomena she describes. And since PTSD would also account for the very similar experiences that male survivors of sexual violence have, it is the far likelier explanation. Of course Wolf conveniently ignores these males for the sake of her argument. Call me crazy, but when sufferer's own experiences are systematically disregarded like this, my alarm bells go off. Because that is the same type of rhetoric that the patriarchy (for lack of better term) employs: Let me tell you. I know best.

The other thing that especially riled me up was Wolf's inevitable excursion into history. Particularly this following sentence: 'No historian has conclusively explained how women lost status in the transition from the earliest civilizations to those of classical antiquity.' - Nobody has conclusively proven that women ever had this supposed higher status in the earliest civilizations in the first place. The evidence that is generally cited to support this argument consists merely of cultic images, figurines and fragmentary myths. A body of evidence that is very much open to and reliant upon interpretation. And the interpretation Wolf references does not hold up to scrutiny once you factor in other clues about these cultures – especially those that descent from the early indo-europeans who were evidently already patriarchal before the different branches split off. Not that you would get this impression from her jumbled foray into (pseudo-)linguistics where she will happily throw every word she can use from whatever branch of the indo-european language family into one pot and add the odd piece from the afro-asian family to taste. Why discriminate?

Well, of course she wouldn't want to ruin her carefully crafted picture of a mythical matriarchal past. Feminism's own garden of Eden that for some people – including Wolf – seems to fulfil a function similar to Dumbo's feather. A phenomenon I did encounter particularly among feminist theologians when I wrote my thesis on women in early Christianity. I for my part do not think we need to appeal to a matriarchal precedent in order to achieve gender equality and it does not serve anyone to foster delusions about the past. As a historian I am appalled at the disregard such co-option shows for the cultures in question.

As for the other parts of her argument, I would agree that female anatomy and sexual experience are far too little understood and communicated probably due to that fact that female experience is generally regarded as a lesser field of inquiry which all too often earns men ridicule and women the stigma of the 'crazy men hater'. Everything else about her argument though … I do not even know where to start with this mumbo jumbo. If you have no clue whatsoever and still feel the need to communicate your thoughts in book form, you would probably be better off writing a memoir or fiction. You do not go and try to sell this as universal, scientifically sound truth.

I particularly take issue with Wolf's insistence that a lack of 'high' or multiple orgasms – apparently only achievable in monogamous heterosexual relationships between a cisgender man and woman – impedes the realization of a woman's full human potential. In fact, according to Wolf a healthy fully realized women needs to stop taking the pill, find herself a nice traditional man who can take care of her and her womanly needs (= cliché romance involving vagina flowers???) and proceed to have lots of transcendental sex. Sex that is mere play and not a path to some kind of spiritual poetic transcendence on the other hand is somehow wrong. Apparently we and the men in our lives need some kind of semi-religious attitude towards the vagina in order to lead fulfilling lives!? Also I think I might puke if I hear the term 'goddess array' one more time.

In the end, if there is one thing I would want to say to Naomi Wolf it would be this: Speak for yourself and leave me out of your sex life! Thanks, but no thanks.

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August 23, 2015

"Once you label me you negate me." Søren Kierkegaard

To me personally there are few things more frustrating than getting attached to a label. Particularly as a young adult being considered a typical ... anything felt very much like an insult even if it was not meant as such. Actually, that is not quite true. It is a bit more complicated than that. Because it was not just the label in and of itself that I objected to but what it ultimately entailed, namely it's central role in all future interactions. It is kind of as if someone set up a billboard in front of your face and proceeded to interact with that thing as if it were you. No, that does not quite cover it either. It is more like an act of translation. Like when you insist on translating complex concepts like the ancient egyptian concept of Maat, you will have to settle for something that might come fairly close, but that will inevitably disregard some crucial aspects that concept and simultaneously add some of it's own.

Long story short, I wanted to be seen not boxed. And ironically enough that is the very reason I got swept so far off course by the endless parade of Manic Pixie Dream Girl characters that adult fiction routinely dishes up. Because when you are young you are always looking for role models. And adult fiction with a fairly limited spectrum of interesting female characters was where I found mine: all those quirky nonconformist fictional girls whom I now recognize as the Manic Pixie Dream Girls that they are. And so, in true aspiring MPDG fashion, I made sure to steer clear of all the damn boxes while simultaneously maximizing my desirability whenever possible. This, of course, proved to be an all consuming performance act that slowly but surely eroded the very essence of my own identity.

It took me the longest time to realize that I was sacrificing the very thing I was trying so desperately to defend in this winless fight. In fact, I did not realize that until I had long since abandoned this fight for other ones and somehow found myself reconnecting to the girl I was before my adolescence; the things she liked to do, the enthusiasm she had, and how comfortable she could be in her own company. I still long for deep talks, inspiring ideas, and meaningful connections, but I also need time to think and create on my own. Thus, to the great concern of my general social environment, I have not quite figured out if and how a romantic partner might fit into this picture. And honestly, that does not bother me much. I am still so caught up in the euphoria of learning to walk in my own shoes again.
Good luck, though, communicating that to all the concerned friends, relatives, acquaintances, and complete strangers who take a great interest in your love live, marked value, and biological clock. Because everybody knows that no matter what you say, there is no such thing as a happy single. You're just in denial. It's obviously a coping mechanism. And so I am constantly subject to well meaning inquiries, suggestions, and offers of help to release me from my unfortunate state of perpetual misery. This also means that in the midst an excitingly diverse and smart group of people, like the one at yesterday's birthday party, all I get to talk about all evening  is my apparently incomprehensible satisfaction with being single. Yes, I really like being all by myself. No, I don't miss romance in my life. No, I am not just saying that because everyone I have ever been involved with was substandard boyfriend material or something. No, I do certainly not need someone sleeping next to me to stop some kind of thought carousel ... Why do I get the feeling that however much I protest the message will never get through?

After yet another evening of this variety, I ask myself: Why do I even bother? Amongst the myriad questions why is there rarely ever one I want to answer? And why does everybody care so much more about why I do not want to be in the kind of relationship they envision than about the things that are important to me? Why indeed, Sherlock. And why do you even ask if you won't accept my answers? Whether I am alone in my room or out there talking I just won't be heard. Here at least I can read, soak up and ponder all the ideas that I never get to talk about as long as my relationship status is not fixed first. And even then, who knows ...  

June 27, 2015

Reminiscences and Pictures on the Wall

It is that time of year again. Another birthday is fast approaching and the reminiscences begin. This year they are mainly being triggered by a book: Neil Gaiman's short story collection Smoke and Mirrors. I started reading it the other day and am making very slow progress. Mostly due to the fact that almost every story seems to have some line or other that will conjure up old childhood memories. Mostly not the bad kind - ones I usually don't think very much about. It is very distracting. It is also nice to be reminded every once in a while that my childhood was not all tears and fears. At least not until the god-awful adolescence. Negativity is simply a bit of a stage hog. Then again, that may just be because I am a natural born pessimist. It runs in the family. Sigh.

Anyway, the first of those distractions came at me courtesy of the very first story, still in the introduction: the fairy tale wallpaper I had in my room when I was very little. I loved that thing to pieces. I used to stare at it, recount the tales that went along with the depictions, and made up how they would interact with one another - juxtaposed as they all were in the pictures on the wall. I was so heartbroken when we finally had to take it down. I remember all this, but when I try to picture exactly what it looked like, I draw a blank. All that is left is a vague idea. So I put the kindle down, because I couldn't pay attention to the story anymore and went through all the old photos trying to find a picture of it. Sadly there is none.

Then I went and asked my parents. They remember putting it up and everything: I was two, my sister's age was still counted in weeks, and we had just moved out of my grandparents' place. Huge changes for me - particularly concerning the attention I got (minus two sources plus one fierce contender). So the idea was to surprise me with this and make having to have my own room seem more like a positive development. Yes, when you are two, kind of clingy, and have just experienced a considerable drop in popularity, your own room is pretty much the last thing you want. The fairy tale wallpaper was essentially a bribe.

All of this background my parents can help me reconstruct - background that adds nuance to my idea of the wallpaper or it's character if you will. What they can not give me is a description detailed enough to help me see it any more clearly. So the image is lost (at least to me), but the significance lasts. Even without a face, the wallpaper is still a full fledged character in my life.

That thought gives me pause, because this seems to happen with people as well. I can not picture what somebody looked like so much as what they ... felt like? Granted it is not all gone. I can usually conjure up some vague humanoid outline with a few key characteristics. And curiously enough, I actually do better than average at face recognition. But picturing someone and recognizing them are two very different things as far as I am concerned. People in the realm of my mind are just much more bundles of characteristics and memorabilia than faces and appearances. I wonder if that is just me. I certainly care a lot less about what book characters look like in movie adaptations than anyone I know.

I am also aware that this particular circumstance has hindered my artistic pursuits considerably have always had trouble drawing anything without photographic reference. And I wonder if my writing is better or worse because of it. To me anyway physical descriptions are for the most part noise, unless of course they carry a deeper significance. 

May 8, 2015

On Caitlin Doughty's Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and My Struggle with Mortality

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the CrematorySmoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazing! Fascinating. Thought Provoking. Moving. And so very Necessary. I think the fact that it took me a couple of weeks to even get up the courage and watch an Ask a Mortician Youtube video says a lot about how much I needed this book.

I vividly remember the very moment I realized that we are all gonna die some day and how I immediatly wished to unknow this again. Of course this is the kind of thing you can never unknow again. And thus I have been struggling with mortality ever since my kindergarten days - having panic attacks on a semi-regular basis. And I waited for a good day – a day I would be able to handle these videos without plunging into another panic attack. I need not have been so worried. In fact, I could have spared myself a lot of anguish had I just gotten up the courage to look sooner. Because as it turns out the only thing that really helps with the things that you can not unknow is to know more.

And yet the approach the western world in general and - as Caitlin Doughty illustrates - america in particular takes is quite the opposite. We do everything in our power to avoid any confrontation with death. We avoid talking about it as much as possible. We hide dead bodies off stage behind the curtain. We even try to find the “cure” for it. As a history student I am well aware how bizarre it is that I managed to be alive for almost 29 years without ever having seen a dead person – even though I have been to more funerals than weddings. But the thing is, in Germany, too, these things are more like memorials nowadays. There is no dead body at a funeral anymore – only a closed coffin or an urn. And nothing actually gets buried.

So death in effect has been reduced to the absence of a person in our lives as opposed to the absence of life in a body. Without this book it never would have occurred to me how much of a difference this little distinction makes. Now I see how grossly I have misinterpreted the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and how much we have become like the petty gods of the Iliad. I am serious. When you really think about it you'll have to admit that people in modern western societies have a lot more in common with the gods in that story than with the humans. That is because we seem to think ourselves at least potentially immortal. So deeply are we in denial about our own mortality. Yet we still die. And every time we do we experience it as essentially unnatural. Death is not part of our life. It is a glitch. We don't see it as something that needs to be accepted, but as something that needs to be fixed.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is the account of Caitlin Doughty's own journey towards an understanding of death and how contemporary America and by extension western societies chose to deal with it. She shows how flawed and unhealthy these attitudes really are, how they evolved alongside the rise of the funeral industry and our euphoria in face of the great advances in public health and medicine, and how we would profit from a more realistic understanding of and engagement with death. I very am glad that I got to vicariously experience this journey through the guidance of her kind and witty words. I laughed and I cried (did not have a panic attack) and I think it is fair to say that this book changed my life.

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March 29, 2015

On Reading and Loving Amanda Palmer's The Art of Asking

The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People HelpThe Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was already about a third of the way into this book when it suddenly occurred to me that something felt different. For the first time in months I was truly absorbed in a story. Not picking apart, dissecting and judging for once. My annoying little inner critic monster had gone off and left me alone for this ride. And damn, I had not known how much I needed that time apart. I am not exactly sure what Amanda did to make him leave us alone (he has not come back to tell me yet).

Maybe it was because it did not feel so much like I was reading, but more like I was listening … or having a conversation rather (totally talking back in my head) – a very intimate conversation. Yeah, Amanda does share a lot. So much, in fact, that I found myself somewhat hesitant to read on at times, feeling like I was prying. Surely this could not be meant for my eyes. After all, what did I really know about her when I picked up this book? I had seen the TED-Talk a while ago (liked it), had heard the story about how Neil Gaiman wrote the Ocean at the End of the Lane for his wife, Amanda – did not draw any connection – and seen the video of a reading she did at Google, which convinced me that I needed to read this book like yesterday.

So while she had crossed my path a couple of times before, she had remained a passerby in the street. Registered but not seen. Now, after reading the book, it feels somehow wrong to refer to her by her last name as I would usually do in a review. Not that I would presume to know much about her based on a few intimate details. But I think I got her point. That is what is important. It gives me hope for humanity when it often seems like people are just out to cut each other's throats and tear each other's eyes out.

Don't get me wrong. She does not exactly sugar coat things. More often than not, when she lets herself fall, someone does abuse her trust. But for everyone that does there are a hundred people that don't. They just tend to fade to the background when the crook takes center stage. Just like the trolls and the haters are always so much louder than everybody else. That does not mean that there aren't any kind and compassionate people or that they are outnumbered … they just tend to be a lot less aggressive. I will make a point of picking this book up whenever I lose my faith in humanity again. And this is just one insight this book has got to give. There are many more to be had, if you pay attention.

Keep in mind, though, that despite the ever dreadful how-statement in the title, this is not a self-help manual or an expose on business tactics. If you are looking for one of those things, you have got the wrong book. It is simply a memoir. One woman's perspective. Beautifully written, remarkably insightful and incredibly moving. Excuse my gushing. I will now proceed to nurse my massive book hangover by checking out her music and possibly also the infamous blog, trying not to feel like a creepy stalker person for doing so.

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