Monthly Archives: September 2013

Culture Shock: Hopscotch Meets Debutante Ball

I attended Raleigh’s music festival, Hopscotch, earlier this month, and I highly recommend checking it out next year. This post is about my experience of culture shock while at Hopscotch. Due to my love of Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis, I usually enjoy watching crowds, in addition to observing the actual performance. The people in the crowd perform at events, too. I saw twenty-eight different performances over three days, and I noticed great diversity among the festival attenders. This makes sense, as there was a great deal of variety in both the performers and the venues.

The first performer I saw was Nathan Bowles in the Fletcher Opera Theater in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. As you can tell from the picture in the link, it’s a formal venue.  He played the banjo. On the other hand, I also saw a couple of rock bands play in Deep South The Bar, a music venue next to the Amphitheater. The ambiance in Deep South was perfect for the bands, but, as you’d expect, vastly different from the Opera Theater. When crowd watching outside, viewers wore a variety of outfits from casual to night-on-the-town clothes. I personally chose to wear jeans, a t-shirt, and purple Converse. As I attempted to find a theater on the back side of the Center for Performing Arts, I got trapped as an enormous group of people flowed out of the building. I felt like I was trapped in a movie with hundreds of brides and their parties. In reality, I was in the middle of Raleigh’s Debutante Ball. Trapped in the middle of this enormous crowd and feeling extremely out of place, a few hysterical giggles escaped my lips. I realized later that I had just experienced an example of culture shock in my own city. After I escaped the mass of people, I talked to a couple of Hopscotch attenders at the fringe of the crowd, who laughed about it with me.

I’ve been teaching my sociology students about culture shock this week. Although most people have experienced culture shock before, it’s worth noting that culture shock occurs when an individual experiences personal disorientation when exposed to unfamiliar cultural values or norms. Applying dramaturgical analysis, my performance was that of a concert attender. In my attire that *should* have been appropriate, I suddenly found myself on the wrong stage, and I didn’t know my role or my lines. Additionally, I felt deviant and confused. All in all, it really was one of the most amusing moments in my life and a great example of an experience of culture shock in your own country and city.

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Violence and Identity in “Locke and Key” Volume 1

[Spoilers]

Continuing my discussion of the adult nature of graphic novels, I recently read the first volume of “Locke & Key” called “Welcome to Lovecraft.”  If you’re interested in learning more about what’s going on with the end of the series, here is a good, yet spoiler filled article. As you may know, H.P. Lovecraft wrote horror.  In his works, human beings are often considered minuscule in the cosmic scope.  If you’d like to read more about Lovecraft, then this archive might be useful.  This article in the Guardian discusses Lovecraft’s impact on today’s society, as well as his overt racism.  “Locke and Key” references its Lovecraftian influences as early as on the cover of the first volume.

The art in “Locke & Key” evokes the mood of horror and despair well.   Many characters are harmed and murdered in the first volume.  For example, in the first volume, the eldest son, Tyler, smashes the head of one of the men who murdered his father with a brick to defend himself (26).  The scene is set in the dark, and the teenage boy stands over the other man, blood spattered all over them both.  The second assailant is killed by the mother of the family, Nina.  She kills him by smashing his head with an ax.  When I first read the volume, I could barely look at these images: it actually turned my stomach.

In my introduction to sociology class, we sometimes talk about the consequences of violent art for society.  Does the violence in our society impact the amount of violence in our art? Does violence in art increase violence in society?  Does art act as a cautionary tale?  Certainly, the violence in the volume was not glorified, and we as readers are supposed to view the violence done to the family as abhorrent.  The books are about the characters having psychological reactions to the violence, as well as what happens to their family dynamics.

On the other hand, the art is vastly different when a different mood needs to be evoked.  For example, the youngest son, Bode, draws a cartoon for his new class at school after the family moves across the country (39).  It’s entitled “Whut I did this summer,” and looks like a child drew it. From Bode’s point of view, it explains what happened to his family.  It has a Post-it note attached to it with a piece of tape with the teacher asking for a conference with Nina over Bode disturbing his classmates.  There are many parts of the graphic novel that are beautiful, including the old mansion they are living in.

From a sociological standpoint, I really enjoyed how this volume showed the three children trying to cope with their new home and school.  The volume deals with identity and how an event can shape identity.  For example, Kinsey, the middle child, struggles with fitting in after the trauma.  When her father was murdered, she hid with her little brother on the roof.  As she narrates: “It was very simple on the roof.  This is what I told myself: Don’t be heard.  Don’t be seen.  One thing I did after we moved was get rid of my dreads.  It was really hard to do.  But no one at my new school knows anything about me except my dad got killed.”  She changes her appearance to appear less “freaky” because she doesn’t want to look like she’s seeking attention.  She decides to conform or play a role to fit in at her new school, Lovecraft Academy.  This reminds me of dramaturgical analysis. Kinsey attempts to play a role.  She avoids befriending other students because she doesn’t want them to get to know her past life.  Her story arc is rewarding: she realizes by the end that she needs to be herself.  She returns to her piercings and dyes a patch of hair blue.  Yet, this “deviance” is still acceptable for someone her age.

I highly recommend this volume, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.  I join many  other voices of people that argue that good storytelling does happen in graphic novels, and this medium can be very evocative because it is done in pictures.  Thanks to my English teacher in college for exposing me to the value of graphic novels!

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Science, Environmentalism, and Religion in “Invisible Earth”

[Spoiler]

One of the gems of the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area is Paperhand Puppet Intervention, and I just got home from an amazing performance at the North Carolina Museum of Art.  Ari Picker, from the local band, Lost in the Trees, composed the music. For all ages, the production, “Invisible Earth,” included the historic naturalist Charles Darwin as a narrator. When Darwin wrote “The Origin of Species,” it was quite controversial.  This controversy is still present today in the debates about what should be taught in schools in terms of evolution versus creationism.   Moving from science to social science, Robin Williams, the sociologist, not the comedian, discussed various American values.  According to him, one of the values of United States society is science.  (Of course, we could critique this idea with the rise of anti-intellectualism, but I’ll save that for another day.)

In the performance tonight, the puppeteers walked the audience through the history of the Earth.  This included a look at the Earth before life, as single-celled organisms arose, as multicellular organisms arose, eventually leading to life as we know it.  The puppets also got more complex to reflect the complexity of life, as noted by my spouse.  For a moment, I really reflected on the fact that at some point, some being took the very first breathe on the planet!

Eventually, the story turned to the fact that we might destroy the Earth.  It even discussed the carbon cycle!  “Invisible Earth” acted as an agent of socialization, targeting both children and adults.  It taught lessons about the world, science, and also the views of religion about the creation of the world over time. As an example, one of the pictures shown was of the world turtle that bears the weight of the world.  There was one scene in which God created humans.  The puppets in that section were amazing!

In the last section, we were told that we need to take responsibility for changing our habitat.  They began with using the beaver and the creation of dams as a metaphor and moved into how unsustainable our cities are.  They noted that we’re between stories right now.  What will come next?  These words resonated with me.  Not only is our future in terms of the health of the Earth and our own surival a mystery, but in terms of our culture, we are also lost at sea.  Changes are happening at such a rapid pace, what will we become?

In any event, there’s one more showing tomorrow at the North Carolina Museum of Art, and I hope that if you’re living in this area, you’ll check it out!

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Graphic Novels: Are They Just for Kids?

Over the past month, I’ve had several conversations with different people about either graphic novels, manga, or comics.  When I mentioned reading graphic novels to a couple of my sociology students after class, one of them said, “Aren’t those for kids?”  Of course, this belief is quite common.  I’ve decided that the next time someone asks me this, I’m going to respond to go read “Maus” by Art Spiegelman, and then we’ll talk.  During my first year at the University of Georgia, I took an honors English class with a teacher originally from Germany.  At the time, I was a bit bitter because I wasn’t performing as well as usual in the class.

Later in the semester, we read the Pulitzer prize winning graphic novel, “Maus.”  The book transformed me in multiple ways.  First, I realized the importance of graphic novels and refuse to accept the idea that it’s impossible for graphic novels to be “serious literature.”  Second, it deepened my understanding of the Holocaust and led to me exploring that horrific period through other works.  Third, my analysis of it became an obsession.  I discuss critical thinking skills in my department at work all the time, and the assignment on “Maus” changed my life.

This short, twelve minute audio of Spielgleman is paired with slides from the graphic novel.  I highly suggest that you watch it, as it explains the origins of “Maus,” as well as many of the choices that Spigeleman made in creating it.  I’ve already reviewed several graphic novels and illustrated books like the Owly series.  Recently, I’ve started a graphic novel series called “Locke & Key.”  It is Lovecraftian and set in Massachusetts.  I’m planning a separate post on it, but the conversations with other people made me realize that I still feel like I have to justify reading graphic novels occasionally.  “Locke & Key” begins with a brutal murder of the father in a family, and it has also won awards.  Certainly, it’s not for children.

While discussing language and culture today in class, I passed around a volume of manga that a friend brought me from Japan years ago, as well as an english translation of Kenshin.  Many of the students seemed really excited to see these materials.  I’m really curious if there is an data on people’s changing perceptions of graphic novels.  Do people view them more seriously today?  Is there still a stigma associated with the genre, as some people don’t view them as for adults?  I wonder.

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Ethnocentrism and War in “Consider Phlebas”

[Spoilers…]

“Consider Phlebas” is the opening book in the Culture series by Iain M. Banks.  I began reading this book after he passed away earlier this year, although it was published in 1987. It is sociologically relevant due to the exploration of the major warring cultures: the Idirans and the Culture.  The main character, Horza, is a shapeshifter who decides to align himself against the Culture.  He prefers the Idirans and displays prejudice towards the Culture, who have developed extremely advanced machines and robots.  The book explores cultural values, norms, ethnocentrism, stereotypes, and discrimination.  Is war inevitable when you have vastly different cultural values?  Is it possible for one person to make a difference when such vast social forces are at play?  These questions illustrate the powerful ideas explored in “Consider Phlebas.”

While reading this book, I enjoyed the brief scenes of the Culture.  Their society is post-scarcity due to their close relationship with their advanced technology, and I look forward to reading more about them in the series.  They prefer peace.  The Idrians, on the other hand, have vastly different cultural values and practices  including religious beliefs and warfare.  Similar to Horza, the entire Idiran society views the Culture as a threat due to their incorporation of technology into all aspects of their society and lives.  Therefore, the war is fought over ideological differences.

In terms of the plot, there is a sense of bleak inevitability, especially near the end of the book.  Horza is trying to get to Schar’s world to retrieve the Culture’s Mind for the Idirans.  (Schar’s world is essentially just a memorial now for a past civilization that died.)   Horza goes through a series of adventures and misadventures.  Along the way, he finds a partner and she gets pregnant, he gains a crew, and he takes them to the planet of the Dead.  However, a party of Idirans is already on the planet.  One of the Idirans perpetually refuses to call Horza by name, instead referring to him by his species.  At the same time, Horza, who has met a Culture drone named Unaha-Closp refuses to acknowledge this name or the fact that the drone is its own person.  This demonstrates a bit of the ethnocentrism by both the Idirans and the Changers.

In the end, it isn’t his nemesis, the Culture agent, Balveda, that kills him.  It is his own Idiran “ally”.  This speaks to the differences in the two societies.  There is a lovely train metaphor in the book, which one of the Idirans uses to kill Horza’s team.  In the end, only Balveda and the Mind survive.  It’s tragic.  War is tragic.

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Technology and Social Inequality in “2312”

This summer, I intended to read all of the 2012 Nebula nominees, but I got distracted by other books like Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.”  The 2012 Nebula Winner for Novel was “2312” by Kim Stanley Robinson.  In this novel, humanity has spread throughout our entire solar system, but there are still some familiar social problems.  Robinson elegantly and creatively describes what human life would be like on various planets and other places.  The prose relating to these settings was gorgeous.  I particularly loved his descriptions of Mercury and the technologies necessary to allow humans to live there. However, he also deals with deep philosophical and ethical questions.  The book led to reflection on topics like: what is the meaning of life?  At what point do robots gain sentience?  What would their experience of the world be like?  How much should people get involved in other nations’ or worlds’ problems?  He even takes a look at what a meaningful relationship is.

At times, the pacing of the book felt sluggish.  While I understand that Robinson was developing the solar system and preparing the reader to fully understand the plot, I did find it challenging to read at times.  Other times, the book engrossed me.

In terms of sociology, I thought that Robinson took an interesting look at what sociologists call dependency theory versus modernization theory. This video link will take you to a lecture that explains the basic differences between the two theories.  Today, these theories attempt to explain why some nations are wealthy while others are not and how to rectify these problems. Modernization theorists would argue that you need to change culture and technology of the low income nations to make them more like the thriving, wealthier countries.  This might include attempting to help populations with agriculture or controlling their populations.  Often, it blames the specific cultures for their position in the global hierarchy.

On the other hand, dependency theorists come from a social-conflict approach.  They argue that there are deeper structural problems.  These low income countries had their wealth plundered and literally shipped back to the colonizing countries for centuries.  Furthermore, the fruits of their labor also returned to the colonizing powers.  This means the colonizing powers have much more wealth (think GDP) than those countries that were plundered.  Dependency theorists would say that until we address these historical inequalities, we’ll never be able to move forward together.  Modern day capitalism perpetuates these problems.  The wealthiest countries want to stay wealthy and powerful.  They do not want the more impoverished nations to surpass themselves.  Thus, they will block less powerful countries from thriving.

In terms of Robinson’s book, those living off Earth, the Spacers, are perceived by the people on Earth to have abandoned them.  They are seen as the elite.  Earth was not able to be terraformed like the other planets because it already had so many inhabitants and to change much might risk the population. Due to all the tensions between nations and other organizations, it was nearly impossible to get anywhere on Earth to agree to the needed terraforming.  Therefore, Swan and her friend Wahram, among others, decide to take matters into their own hands since they think Earth (and the other planets) will never improve or be safe until the inequalities there are addressed.  For example, the animal species preserved in space, many living in the asteroids, were delivered back to earth.  The reception of these animals and those that reintegrated them Earth were highly controversial.

This is only a tiny sliver of the important sociological ideas incorporated in “2312”.  It also explores changing norms surrounding technology and the body.  Humans have different views of technology, and robots have begun to awaken to sentience.  This topic allows us to explore the ideas of what it means to be human.  How do we feel about the fast paced changes in technology happening in our own time period?  How comfortable are we with technology becoming integrated with the human body or brain?  Swan has an AI, a quantum computer, embedded in her brain.  Pauline stands as her own character, although she is not sentient.  On the other hand, Robinson does present the viewpoint of one of the awakened robots.  These sections in the book seemed jarring and flitted from observation to observation.  Although the passages felt different than the more linear viewpoints of characters like Wahram and Swan, I believe that any person that has tried meditation knows that our thoughts arise in less than organized ways.  Many of the characters judge people like Swan for being willing to have their qube incorporated into their brains.

This year, a media stir happened over the new google glass technology.  Here is a video discussing what it is actually capable of.  Many people are afraid of this technology, even though it is not incorporated into the body.  It reminded me of the fears that people had that Pauline was recording and spying on conversations.  Swan also allowed for herself to be modified with essentially “bird brains.”  As she and Wahram travel in a series of tunnels together after a disaster, they connect through music.  Wahram asks, “‘So was that the bird or you?’” and Swan responds, “‘We are the same.’”  Throughout the book, Wahram comes to accept and love the person that Swan is.  When he asks her to marry him, he actually asks Pauline first, meaning he understands how important the modifications are to Swan.  In fact, she wouldn’t be the Swan he loved without the modifications.  When she’s surprised that he asked Pauline to marry him and not herself, Wahram replies, “‘…I am not the first to observe that since you were the one that programmed Pauline, and continue to do so, she is a kind of projection of you—‘“

Wahram continues, “’—or, well, maybe she would be better described as one of your works of art.  They have often been very personal things.’”

Eventually, he compares Pauline to a ventriloquist’s dummy.  (The new, sentient AIs have their own agendas, a key difference.)  He has accepted Swan as the sum of her parts and loves all of her.

In conclusion, I highly recommend “2313”, although I do think that it was a challenging read.  The future implications of technology and inequality are fascinating, and the descriptions of settings are gorgeous.  If you enjoy detective stories, then you will likely enjoy this book.

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