On Visiting a Prison

I first saw a jail–and its inhabitants–as a child. Our family car had been broken into and some of its contents stolen, so we drove to a police station to file a report. While seated in the waiting room outside the police officer’s den, I could see what must have been a holding cell, occupied by a rather surly and disgruntled lot. The room looked grimy; its walls unwashed; its inhabitants resigned to their fates as they sat on hard benches or squatted on the concrete floor. I had heard about criminals; now, apparently, I could see them with my own eyes. They looked rather ordinary, rather less dramatic than their cinematic or literary versions. Their criminal acts behind them, they now seemed deflated and dejected.

I was reminded of that first encounter with a penitentiary when, a few years ago, I visited one of Taiwan’s largest maximum-security prisons. I accompanied an academic colleague whose wife, a criminologist, worked with the correctional authorities; we were offered a semi-guided tour of the facilities by some very helpful staff.

My abiding memories of that visit are dominated by a rather curious sensation: though I was clearly in no danger of being detained and imprisoned, I still felt chilled and alarmed by my surroundings, apprehensive somehow, absurdly enough, that I would be seized on some pretext or the other by one of the prison’s security guards, thrown into a cell, and with the key thrown away, left to rot till eternity. My proximity to this zone of detention and confinement was enough to cause this imagined fear.

The prisoners themselves seemed reconciled to their fate: most of them were serving very long sentences for a variety of crimes and were perhaps now used to the rhythms of their daily existence. Some seemed more hard-bitten–perhaps because of their gang tattoos or muscular development–than the others; yet others, older and wizened, were incongruous members of a demographic normally associated with youth.

Besides conversations with prison staff, and a visit to a prisoner work program center, we were treated to a visit to some standard cells for the jail’s inhabitants. These rooms were compact, their spaces tightly organized into individual sleeping and storage areas; at the time of our inspection, their residents were elsewhere.  Each cell held several prisoners; so in each one, a mini-society with its own pecking order and hierarchies was presumably created and sustained.

As I walked around their interiors,  I tried to imagine what life inside these cells was like. I couldn’t succeed in that endeavor, of course; my daily experiences and my past were too different from those who lived here to permit any such imaginative contact. I could only dimly sense the sense of confinement, the monotony, the relentless imposition of an external discipline. Because the cells had just recently been washed, there was a dampness to my surroundings that seemed appropriate; it spoke of a chill, a clammyness that seemed to pervade the walls and floors.

I found my conversations with prison staff genuinely useful, but I couldn’t wait for them to end. When we finally left the prison, walking out from its iron gates, out into the bright sunshine, back to our parked car, I felt relieved and just a little lighter and warmer.  We would now drive back to the local university, back to a space that felt much safer.

Social Media From Beyond the Grave

Charles Simic describes an ingenious and profitable aspiration for immortality:

[The] poet Mark Strand…told me excitedly one day that he had invented a new kind of gravestone that….would include…a slot where a coin could be inserted, that would activate a tape machine built into it, and play the deceased’s favorite songs, jokes…whatever else they find worthy of preserving for posterity. Visitors to the cemetery would insert as many coins as required to play the recording…and the accumulated earnings would be divided equally between the keepers of the cemetery and the family of the deceased.

[T]is invention… would transform these notoriously gloomy and desolate places by attracting big crowds…complete strangers seeking entertainment and the pearls of wisdom and musical selections of hundreds and hundreds of unknown men and women.

While this invention may strike one as frivolous and irreverent…it deals with a serious problem. What happens to everything we kept in our heads and hoped others would find amusing after we pass away? No trace of them will be left, unless…we write them down. Even that is not a guarantee. Libraries…are full of books no one reads any more. Anyone who frequents town dumps has seen yellowed manuscripts and letters thrown out with the trash—papers that sadly, but unmistakably, not even the family of their author wants. Just imagine…your dead grandmother is a big hit in some large urban cemetery, passing on her soup and pie recipes to an admiring crowd of young housewives; while your grandpa is telling dirty jokes to boys playing hooky from school….you, too, are regarded with interest by your friends and neighbors, who can’t help but wonder how your everlasting selection is coming along and what inspiring words and vile blasphemies they’ll be hearing from your gravestone.

Simic takes this idea and runs with it but he doesn’t go far enough. Surely the entertainment need not be restricted by the physical location of the grave. The eminently sensible extension of this plan would be for the deceased to be set up with their own website–complete with Facebook and Twitter feeds–so that the content to be served up from the gravestone would be efficiently and widely made available in as many forms of media as possible. Video, audio and text could all be provided and a variety of payment options–Paypal, conventional shopping carts–would facilitate the easy receipt of cash. Some minor curation of these pages would be required; this task could be performed by paid staff.

I imagine the most popular content to be served up from my webpage would be, in no particular order: audio recordings of my sonorous readings, in chronological order, of every single post on this blog; classroom videos of my coruscating lectures on all matters philosophical with particular attention and focus on my brilliant responses to student questions; smartphone videos of my joke-telling performances–shot late at night, late in a dinner party’s devolution. I would live on as internet celebrity, thus perhaps ensuring, after death, the fame that was rightfully mine in this life.

And even it didn’t happen, I would care less than I do now.

Philip Roth and Writing for One’s ‘Community’

In reviewing Claudia Roth Pierpont‘s Roth Unbound: A Writer and his Books, Adam Mars-Jones writes:

Letting Go…hadn’t yet been published when Roth was given a hostile reception at a symposium organised by Yeshiva University….The topic was ‘The Crisis of Conscience in Minority Writers of Fiction’, and the idea seemed to be, if he didn’t already have such a crisis, to lay one on for him. The first question he was asked was: ‘Would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?’….

There might have been places where Pietro di Donato, author of Christ in Concrete, would be grilled in fine detail about his depiction of Italian immigrants. There were certainly places where Ralph Ellison would be called out for Invisible Man’s representation of the Negro and for his views on the race question. But at Yeshiva University Philip Roth was always going to be the main dish. By accepting a Jewish university’s invitation…Roth was also implicitly accepting that he had responsibilities towards his community.

Even if the hostile questioning lasted half an hour…The profound effect it had seems to combine a rejection of the forces that held him to account and a rejection of the elements of his personality that led him to expect anything different….Roth’s idealism…was certainly transformed, not poisoned but pickled, perhaps, by the bitter juices of experience.

The immediate effect of the Yeshiva confrontation…was that Roth resolved never to write about Jews again. Of course he did, but from that point on he took pleasure in defying any party line.

Writing for a community while informed by some supposed responsibility to it feels like an impossible burden to bear. This is not because the writer (or some other artist) is a magically autonomous entity outside the realm of moral judgment; rather, it is because the supposed community is not easily defined. A ‘community’ is as nebulous an entity as ‘nation’, as problematic in the way it is invoked and used for chastisement and censure.That old slogan “no entity without identity” seems particularly apropos in this situation: Who and what are included in the community? What are its origins and extents? Who occupies its margins, who its center?

This problem of demarcation and definition immediately renders the writer’s fulfillment of his supposed ‘responsibilities’ to his ‘community’ intractable: Who should she write for? Whom should she represent? Whose voice should she articulate? Which agendas should be hers?

Those who demand responsibilities toward a community from those who write, all the while bearing the nominal identity of this supposed group, are very often a privileged group, comfortably ensconced in a dominant position. When they make their demands for fidelity, they are all too often seeking a commitment to their ideologically inflected vision of the community, their positions of privilege and power, their roles as community story-tellers.

The writer who is accused of having abdicated his responsibilities to the community has, more often than not, complicated this comfortable picture. In those cases, such accusations should be worn like badges of honor.

The Killing and the Death That Dare Not Speak Its Name

One important feature of AMC’s The Killing, (the subject of yesterday’s post), which it inherits from the Danish original Forbrydelsen, is its focus on the effect of the central murder on the victim’s family. In so doing, the show manages to be, besides the imperfect police procedural, a painful examination of the most commonly ignored aspect of the modern homicide drama (whether on television or in cinema). This focus derives its particular poignancy because it centers on the bitterest blow of all: the loss of a young child.

The slow, downward spiral of the parents’ relationship is one of the most unfortunate, yet common, consequences of this kind of tragedy. No parental partnership comes through the aftermath of a child’s death unscathed. Mutual blame is, of course, the most common and corrosive reaction. A child’s death–amongst the most incomprehensible instances of this world’s indifference to human sensibilities–is always at the wrong time, for the wrong reason, and something, no matter what, can be found in his or her past whose provenance is traceable to one parent’s decisions and agency. The stage is thus set for a vicious cycle of angry, sorrowful recrimination.  (I once read a case study of a couple who had lost their only child in a hit and run accident; one parent blamed the other for the decision to ever have a child and thus expose them to this eventuality; the other, in turn, blamed the partner for not wanting to have a second child so that their loss could have been somehow lessened; the apparent irrationality of these responses is besides the point; what they reveal is the terrible, unhinged grief that a child’s death is bound to evoke.)

In The Killing, the close contact between the police and the Larsen family’s grief and sorrowing is also shown to have the unfortunate effect of skewing the investigation and leading it astray: the detectives feel compelled to bring about a speedy resolution of the mystery, thus probably leading them to be a little too hasty in drawing conclusions about the identity of the killer and thus provoking, most unfortunately, a violent episode of vigilante justice directed against an innocent. This violent retribution further corrodes the parents’ relationship for as Stan Larsen points out to his wife, Mitch, he acted so in order assuage her anger at the putative suspect.

A homicide drama’s inclusion of the emotional and psychic trauma inflicted in the victim’s family moves the genre away from its conventional sanitized treatment of murder. This focus on grief and loss means the viewer is forced to reckon with a grim, unglamorous reality often elided by, ironically enough, the increasingly gruesome depictions of victim’s bodies and lurid descriptions of their injuries. It ensures that viewers are made to confront the impact of the killing in a domain outside that of its investigation, where there are no chases, no hunts, no satisfying captures; there is instead, only a hurt and a pain that might diminish over time, but never, ever, goes away.

The Killing as Cautionary Police Procedural

If Wikipedia’s entry for “police procedural” is any indicator, AMC’s The Killing is not commonly thought of as one. But despite being a traditional whodunit, it has many of the features of that genre; it depicts “a number of police-related topics such as forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation.” And like the modern classic in this domain, The Wire, The Killing also pays close attention to its political, cultural, and media contexts, thus demonstrating that crimes do not take place in isolation but spring from, and are nurtured by, a prepared ground. (The Wire did not care too much about its depiction of Baltimore’s weather; The Killing is obsessed with cloaking itself in the Pacific Northwest’s moisture and incorporates as many grey, cloud and rain-soaked scenes as it can.)

These features often make the show compelling despite some of its admittedly strange story-telling choices in the first season. I first heard of the show in a New York Times profile of its creator and writer Veena Sud, which alluded to the overwhelmingly negative reaction to that season’s resolution; at this stage in the show–I am only caught up till the eleventh episode–I have some idea of why fans were so disappointed. (Spoilers ahead.)

To wit,  the LindenHolder investigation of the Rosie Larsen killing goes wrong; it has been distracted by a red herring of sorts, resulting in the unfortunate villification and violent assault of Bennett Ahmed, Rosie Larsen’s schoolteacher.  While such a plot development may be seen as a gigantic tease by some, it seems to me that in the police procedural context, it makes eminent sense. After all, police work often goes wrong: seemingly conclusive evidence turns out to have been merely circumstantial; personal prejudices interfere with the dispassionate evaluation of witnesses and suspects. These can result in gross miscarriages of justice, disrupting and ruining the lives of innocents. We are used to seeing diligent, enthusiastic detectives thwarted in their bold pursuit of criminals by bureaucratic procedures and legal restraints; The Killing‘s first season reminds us that those constraints are there for a reason. These motivations were less visible in The Wire, which often made it seem like legal restraints on law enforcement only worked to the advantage of the drug trade and corrupt politicians. (Of course, Ahmed is not hurt by a warrantless search; he is hurt because details of the investigation are not kept secret but the broader point, that even suspicion can hurt the innocent, still stands.)

The red herring of the first season is also of especial modern relevance: much law enforcement work now relies on data collection and analysis in the formulation of its investigative hypotheses and profiles. While no such techniques are on display in The Killing, its protagonists are led astray by their uncritical reliance on stereotypes, on the  not-fully-understood and only partially perceived behavior of suspects. These kinds of missteps have yet to be eliminated in today’s law-enforcing data mining systems.

The Killing does not provide the satisfaction of a resolved mystery, but it does, even if hamfistedly, serve up a useful cautionary tale of how law enforcement can go wrong.

Tom Friedman Has Joined Google’s HR Department

Tom Friedman is moonlighting by writing advertising copy for Google’s Human Resources Department; this talent is on display in his latest Op-Ed titled–appropriately enough “How To Get a Job at Google”. Perhaps staff at the Career Services offices of the nation’s major universities can print out this press release from Google HR and distribute it to their students, just in time for the next job fair.

Friedman is quick to get to the point (and to let someone else do the talking):

At a time when many people are asking, “How’s my kid gonna get a job?” I thought it would be useful to visit Google and hear how Bock would answer.

True to his word, the rest of the Op-Ed is a series of quotes from “Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google — i.e., the guy in charge of hiring for one of the world’s most successful companies.” Let us, therefore, all fall into supplicant mode.

The How To Get a Job With Us press release is, of course, as much advertisement for the corporation’s self-imagined assessment of its work culture as anything else; how obliging, therefore, for Friedman to allow Bock to tell us Google so highly values “general cognitive ability”, “leadership — in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership”, and “humility and ownership”. (In keeping with the usual neoliberal denigration of the university, Friedman helpfully echoes Bock’s claim that “Too many colleges…don’t deliver on what they promise. You generate a ton of debt, you don’t learn the most useful things for your life. It’s [just] an extended adolescence.” Interestingly enough, I had thought Google’s workspaces with their vending machines, toys and other play spaces contributed to the “extended adolescence” of its coders. The bit about the “ton of debt” is spot-on though.) 

The use of opinion pages at major national newspapers for corporate communiques, to advance business talking points, to function as megaphones for the suppressed, yearning voices of the board-room, eager to inform us of their strategic perspectives, is fast developing into a modern tradition. This process has thus far been accomplished with some subterfuge, some stealth, some attempt at disguise and cover-up; but there isn’t much subtlety in this use of the New York Times Op-Ed page for a press release.

Friedman’s piece clocks in at 955 words; direct and indirect quotes from Bock amount to over 700 of those. There are ten paragraphs in the piece; paragraphs one through nine are pretty much Bock quotes. Sometimes, I outsource my writing here on this blog to quotes from books and essays I’ve read; Friedman, the Patron Saint of Outsourcing, has outsourced his to Google’s VP of “people operations.”

The only thing missing in this Friedman piece is the conversation with the immigrant cabbie on the way to Google’s Mountain View in the course of which we would have learned how his American-born children were eager to excel in precisely those skills most desired by Google. Perhaps we’ll read that next week.

Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion: Portrait of the Apocalypse

If you find speculation about post-apocalyptic situations interesting, then you should find speculation about the progression of an apocalypse interesting too. Steve Soderbergh‘s Contagion is a fine cinematic take on this eventuality.

The movie’s plot is simple: a deadly new virus jumps the animal-human barrier, and is transmitted quickly by contact. The virus’ first appearance occurs in the Far East, and then, thanks to its method of transmission and modern international travel, it quickly acquires a global presence. Its rate of progression is geometric, and as disease control centers struggle to study its molecular biology–“a mix of genetic material from pig and bat viruses”–and devise a vaccine, the virus spreads, killing dozens, then hundreds, thousands and millions. This is a global pandemic, one that could terminate civilization as we know it. 

As the pandemic progresses, successive scenes in the movie–often sustained by Cliff Martinez’ excellent soundtrack– ratchet up the tension, leading finally, to the dreaded scenes of a possibly irreversible breakdown in social order.  It is all here: the run for food at supermarkets; the hoarding; the looting; the spreading panic; the evacuations and the exodus. Conspiracy theories make the rounds; the unscrupulous find ways to profit; the principled find new occasions for bravery; the diligent die; there is space aplenty for displays of love, cowardice, fear, and bravery.

Many entries in the post-apocalyptic genre leave the apocalypse unspecified; Contagion details it quite carefully.

It is be too simplistic to suggest, as many are often tempted to when confronted with such portrayals of social degeneration in response to catastrophe, that these are occasions when “true human nature”, inevitably described as “selfish” and “cruel”, is on display. Instead, as I have argued before,

There is an alternative moral to be drawn…the human nature revealed to us in these depictions of an apocalypse’s aftermath is not the ‘true’, ‘real’ or ‘natural’ one at all. Instead what is shown in post-apocalyptic art are traumatized human beings whose responses–to their environment, to each other–are pathological precisely because of the nature of the changes undergone. The death, disease and pestilence of the apocalypse, for one. Post-apocalyptic visions are thus indeed revelatory, not because they show us how we were ‘before’ we ‘became civilized’ but because they show what our response would be to the dramatic, traumatic loss of our political and social orders.

What makes Contagion as compelling as it manages to be is ultimately its commitment to scientific and political fidelity: the genetics, the virology, the epidemiology, the development of a vaccine, are all carefully and knowledgeably described and deployed in storytelling, as are the machinations of interactions between state and federal officials, and national and international public health authorities. This is a cerebral thriller, whose slickness of production artfully complements its keen eye for detail.

Mankind makes it back from the brink, but it has been a narrow escape, and it will not bring back to life the twenty-six million that do lose their lives. This is fiction, but the perils it depicts are not too far from actuality.