The audience for this book is higher education faculty in any field of study who are interested in engaging with critical service-learning in their classrooms. Other people who might be interested are K-12 teachers, higher education administrators, and community members interested in partnering with colleges and universities on projects. Although the book includes some theoretical background, it’s largely practical; my co-author, Heather Coffey, and I share stories from our own experiences as service-learning faculty. We also have sample assignments, journal prompts, and suggestions for planning courses focused on critical service-learning.
To give you a bit more information on the book and help you decide if you are interested in learning more, service-learning is really just any community engagement activities that are a part of a course. For example, teacher education includes lots of service-learning when our students mentor students, tutor in afterschool programs, and complete practicums. Other fields, like social work and nursing often include service-learning components as well.
Critical service-learning adds another component; critical projects are not just focused on the experience of students or offering charity to community organizations or individuals. Instead, critical service-learning focuses on developing authentic relationships with community partners with the goal of social change. Our book offers ways to think about including critical service-learning projects in college courses and the particular opportunities and challenges offered by this work. We include lots of practical examples and prompts as well!
So now, Heather and I have moved on to a new book project with our co-author Meghan Barnes. We are continuing to explore what social justice teaching looks like, this time with a focus on English/Language Arts classes in secondary education and teacher education. I’ll post more information about that project soon. Now that I have one academic book project under my belt, this new one definitely seems less daunting.
Also, Heather and I are happy to attend discussions with faculty and participate in faculty development activities! Let me know if you are interested. I’m happy to answer any questions about the book!
I wrote this essay originally in December of 2019; though I’ve edited it to some extent, I’ve also left in the 2019-ness of it. That said, in many ways, my points about fascism and queerness are truer today in 2022 than they were two years ago. We are watching in real time as terfs collide and join with the alt-right, the fascist ideologies of these groups apparently being sufficient to unite folks traditionally divided by an idea of feminism. Jojo Rabbit, then, is art that transcends its time and lends us opportunities for radical hope. Anyway, here you go.
Oh, and here there be spoilers! I utterly reveal the plot of this movie.
Taika Waititi’s (2019) film Jojo Rabbit is a film about what it’s like to live under fascism and Nazis, set in World War II Germany; of course, in 2019 a film about Nazi Germany is also, of course, a film about fascism and Nazis in the United States. I had read about all of this setting and about Waititi’s portrayal of Hitler before seeing the movie, so none of this was news to me. What I found unexpectedly joyous about the film is this: it’s so fucking queer.
By queer I do not mean the way in which the movie offers LBGTQ+ representation; Captain Klenzendorf (portrayed by Sam Rockwell) and his second-in-command Finkel (played by Alfie Allen) are queer, and it’s great, but representation doesn’t make a text queer. Case in point: the long-running TV series Will and Grace. The titular Will and uber-gay Jack are main characters on the show and often get credit for normalizing gay men in the United States, but the show isn’t queer in the Judith Butler, queer theory sense. Queerness, by this understanding, is about exploring liminal spaces and challenging dichotomies. So we can understand Will and Grace as an important text in LBGTQ+ representation and still notice the ways in which gay and straight and male and female are represented as polar opposites.
Jojo Rabbit is steeped in queerness. This is a film that rolls around in queerness like my ex’s dog rolls around on frog corpses. So how exactly is Jojo Rabbit queer? Let us count the ways.
Jack Halbersham famously describes the need to determine alternate measures of success from the cishet world’s determinations. For Halbersham, failing by mainstream social standards may very well be a success.
The world of Jojo Rabbit construes success similarly. The protagonist of the movie, Jojo, a member of Hitler Youth, reveres Hitler at the outset of the film and aspires to join his personal guard. Very early in the movie, however, Jojo manages to blow himself up during a training exercise and is no longer able to serve in a military capacity because of damage to his leg. This same accident also scars Jojo’s face, spoiling his blond-haired, blue-eyed, traditionally Aryan beauty. By the end of the film, Jojo no longer identifies as a Nazi and doesn’t ascribe to Nazi understandings of beauty; his accident, then, a failure by social standards, leads to his being unable to participate in the war on the part of the Nazis and encourages him to value beauty in alternate ways.
In the end Jojo’s “success” is not measured by military prowess (he doesn’t have any) or conventional attractiveness, but by the connections he makes with other people, however imperfect or ephemeral those connections might be.
The avoidance of binaries is a key element of queer theory. Jojo Rabbit is a film that eschews dichotomies at every turn. There is evil in Jojo Rabbit, from Nazis generally to Hitler and the Gestapo specifically; but evil isn’t only evil. It’s also ridiculous. Hitler, with his physical hijinks and young boy persona, is the comic relief of the film. The Gestapo, who are included in more of the tense scenes, are also ridiculous. Stephen Merchant’s Herr Deertz looms over Jojo and Elsa, a composite of evil. Rosie’s death at the hands of the Gestapo is tragedy juxtaposed with this overblown version of evil, reminding us that the Gestapo did terrible things.
There is no valor in Jojo either. Jojo himself is a complicit and flawed human until the very end, even his final “good” decision delivered without empathy. Captain Klenzendorf is emblematic of the gray moral territory of the movie’s characters; his big moment entering the battle in full gay regalia is undercut with the knowledge that he is fighting on the side of the Nazis. He saves Jojo at his own expense in the end, but this is only after training Hitler Youth throughout the narrative. Of course, he is as trapped as anyone, a queer man in Nazi Germany. The film doesn’t allow us see Klenzendorf without his complicity though.
Jojo Rabbit, not unlike many World War II films, has scenes that show US soldiers tooling around the city having won the war. But we also see the US soldiers treating German soldiers, even children, brutally.
The Queer Fantastique
Queerness has long lived in the imaginative spaces occupied by what the cishet world sees as strange and fantastic. Stories about circuses and carnivals, where gender and sexuality are more fluid, are part of the popular imagination. Wars and revolutions are also liminal spaces, where change is happening, generally violently and suddenly. Waititi uses the liminal space of wartime and melds it with a sense of the fantastic to emphasize the liminality of the world of Jojo Rabbit. War pervades the space of the narrative, including the preparation of Hitler Youth, the anticipation of the arrival of Russian and US troops, and the horror of the Holocaust. Revolution underscores Jojo Rabbit as well, since Rosie, Jojo’s mother (played by ScarJo, doing great playing a white woman) is a revolutionary who is attempting to sabotage the Nazi cause.
Unlike Life is Beautiful, another World World II film focused on humor in terrible circumstances, Jojo Rabbit leans into the fantastique, a storyscape outside of history. Throughout the film, Jojo chats with his imaginary version of Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi himself). These sequences are filmed with the same realism as the rest of the film, though the participants acknowledge their interiority. When the battle finally begins in earnest in the movie, Jojo sees Captain Klenzendorf and Finkel ride into battle in full queer regalia; Captain Klenzendorf has adorned their uniforms with sweeping clothes, and they wear make-up. This moment marks the fantastical nature of the battle for Jojo and also notes the performative nature of battle itself. There is a sense of the existential for Captain Klenzendorf. He cannot help that he must go into this battle on the side of Germany, but he will determine in what manner he does so.
Jojo Rabbit, by sashaying down this line between historical reality and fantastic possibility, viscerally forces us to remember that all stories are created by humans. All stories are told from a perspective and do not exist separately from either storytellers or systems within which the stories themselves are told. That’s pretty queer, my dears.
Rosie resonated with me as a queer mom. While stories about children keeping secrets from their parents are the norm, stories about moms keeping elements of their identity secret from their children are rarer. In Jojo Rabbit, Rosie is a revolutionary who sows dissent against the Nazi regime. She believes (correctly) her son Jojo to be a true believer and doesn’t tell him about her activities or about the Jewish young woman she has hidden in their home.
Rosie queers motherhood by not being all about motherhood. She is busy spreading her anti-foundational beliefs and working against Nazis, not home caring for either Jojo or Elsa. In fact, the scenes between her and Jojo depict them talking and interacting with each other, not just with her completing acts of service, like cooking or cleaning.
It’s a trope that moms die in Disney movies, and Jojo Rabbit, though not a Disney movie, conforms to the tradition with Rosie’s death. Rosie, however, dies the death of a revolutionary. She isn’t a victim who must be avenged by her son/husband/lover; nor does she sacrifice herself to save someone else. She was an activist who made a choice and was murdered by her own government for that choice. Like many elements of Jojo Rabbit, the trope is there, but queered.
It’s no accident that fascist regimes target queer folks. Queerness is antithetical to fascism. Bertrand Russell’s famous thought on this topic resonates: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people are so full of doubts.” Fascists are certain of the structure of the world and how institutions should work. Meanwhile, by definition, queerness occupies a borderland, a liminal space, whether that space is between legitimacy and illegitimacy or gender and sexual identity, the queer umbrella invites folks who occupy more fluid, uncertain spaces than the cis-heteronormative world.
Jojo Rabbit invites us to see the historical triumph of those gray spaces over fascism. Unlike Life is Beautiful, which emphasizes the existential triumph of the human spirit, Jojo Rabbit makes a case for radical activism but also reminds us that we can choose the spirit in which we undertake that radical stance. Jojo Rabbit recognizes that here in 2019 it’s looking pretty grim and the world is burning. But, argues the film, we shouldn’t let that stop us from either dancing or laughing at Hitler.
Note: I’m working on more serious post, but I have a personal goal to post every Friday. So here’s some popcorn reading! (Heh.)
Another note: These ratings are mine and mine alone. Your mileage won’t just vary; you will run out of gas, if you think I’m offering any kind of metric beyond, these are movies that I like. I’m inspired by Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.
Initially, I had both Ratatoille and The Princess Bride on my list, and both of them just got squished out by other films. I love that Ratatoille is about the pleasure of food. That moment when the critic eats the ratatouille is transcendent. Plus, it’s about class. This is easily my favorite Pixar flim. And I can quote every word of The Princess Bride– that’s worth a mention!
My other honorable mention is really a scene. Quicksilver’s scene (you know the one!) in X-Men: Days of Future Past is really a perfect scene. The Pink Floyd t-shirt, the soup-tasting, the daddy issues. No notes. It, unfortunately, is placed in an otherwise meh movie.
#10 Children of Men
This 2006 fim is dystopian and pretty bleak. It may not be your top choice for pandemic viewing either. But this film is ultimately about hope, which is a topic that means something to me. I still think about this movie often, years after seeing it, and that’s one of the ways I judge how much I like a film.
#9 12 Monkeys
All of the stories about Bruce Willis and the disability issues he may be grappling with are pretty sad. This science fiction movie is probably my favorite Willis film, even including Die Hard and Pulp Fiction, both of which I liked (on recent rewatches, Die Hard stands up and is a Christmas movie; Pulp Fiction doesn’t hold up as well and is not a Christmas movie). 12 Monkeys also stars Brad Pitt in his second best role (the first is True Romance: “Get some beer! And some cleaning products.”). Down side: this movie is a downer.
#8 Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse
I’ve already written a blog post on this one, but several years later it remains a thoughtful film and one I’m always happy to rewatch.
#7 Mad Max: Fury Road
Alternate title: The Smart Girl’s Guide to Surviving a Dystopian Hellscape.
#6 Moulin Rouge
Oh, now we get to the controversial choices. Plenty of folks despised Baz Luhrman’s musical when it came out, and I’m assuming that it’s still not well-loved. But this is my jam. Renditions of popular songs woven into the plot? Ewan McGregor as a poor, heartsick writer? (Also, shout-out to McGregor, who is apparently getting dragged for saying racism isn’t welcome in Star Wars. Come on, fam. I already wrote about The Last Jedi, too. Suck it.) Overwrought plot and love story? Yes, yes, yes.
#5 Jurassic Park
Here’s the thing. I love this movie irrationally. I liked Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, I like dinosaurs, I like Jeff Goldblum, I like Laura Dern. Honestly, it’s fine that the movie killed off Muldoon and Gennaro. Big game hunters and lawyers are not heroes. Mathematicians, sure! The movie manages to take a lot of very good things and make them great.
If I may wax further poetic, the great thing about Jurassic Park is that the dinosaurs are not the villains. This is a story about institutions, power, control, money, and knowledge. The flaw of the movie is imagining Hammond as a sweet grandpa instead of the capitalist caricature that the book correctly understands him to be.
Still, that Jell-O. The velociraptors sliding across the kitchen floor. “Clever girl.” Hell, I’m going to watch it again right now.
I’m back! Very different from Jurassic Park is Amelie, which was a formative film for me about sex, pleasure, and identity. I also enjoy watching it in French.
#3 John Wick
John Wick is a perfect film. Fight me. (Just kidding, I’m not John Wick, please don’t fight me.) I feel like this is a movie that understands what movies are supposed to be. I am also a sucker for the world-building that gets expanded in the sequels.
It’s also cool in the sense that the more you know about John Wick, the more there is to like about it. Keanu Reeves did his own stunts, for example. Movies with Mikey has a great video on the background!
#2 The Matrix
I’ve called The Matrix my favorite movie for years, probably since I saw it at the dollar theater during its first run. Like the Wachowski sisters, I’m endlessly shocked and angered that certain people (you know who they are) can so egregiously misread this text, and I’m glad that that Revolutions makes it abundantly clear. This film is unabashedly trans and queer, and it holds up to modern viewings.
Do you ever feel sadness that is built up in you, sometimes for weeks, and that sadness might be for a specific reason, or it might just be universe-sadness? When I was a kid, I used to feel that build-up and then read Charlotte’s Web. I’d just sob and sob at the end of the book. Now, as a grown-up, I watch Arrival for the same catharsis.
It’s beautifully, painfully, gutwrenchingly sad to me. But this movie to me says what I feel about the world and relationships and being alive, which is: it’s all so hard, impossibiy difficult, and yet, given a choice, I’d choose it. I’d choose all of my same struggles because I think that being a human is wonderful and perfect, both when it’s joyful and sweet and when it’s wretched and painful. The film also connects these human experiences with language and communication, juxtaposing human communication with alien language in a way that speaks to me and my interests very closely.
Jesus, I’m sobbing right now just thinking about it. When I first drafted this list, Arrival was lower down, but, as I write this, I have considered what this film means to me and promoted it. I know that earlier I mentioned 12 Monkeys being a downer as a sort of demerit; Arrival is sad, but it’s not a downer. Arrival loves humans and life and pain. It’s important not to conflate sadness with a dearth of hope.
Anyway, that’s the end of my list, which, per Hornby, says more about me than these movies. But y’all are welcome to have at it in the comments! I also welcome recommendations. My movie experience is pretty weirdly spread out, like a gerrymandered red state district, and I’m open to expansion.
“It’s time,” Emmanuel Dzotsi chirps into the microphone as if delivering the punchline to a joke begun over a year ago. He and Alex Goldman just guffaw away as though they aren’t somehow the backdrop to the set piece of Act V: the head of Gimlet, once King of Content, displayed for all of us to mock or mourn.
Reply All, the flagship podcast of Gimlet Media is finally calling it quits. And Dzotsi, bless his heart, is right. It’s time. Past time, probably. In the wake of Test Kitchen-gate last year, Reply All and Gimlet never really managed to set things right and this past year has been little but the creeping petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, which will transpire in June of 2022, at least for Reply All.
For those of you who need a primer on Test Kitchen-gate, P.J. Voyt, co-founder of Reply All and one of the earliest hires at Gimlet, and Sruthi Pinnamaneni, longtime producer at Reply All, reported what was to be four-part series on Bon Appetit’s 2020 public crash and burn. Pinnamaneni’s reporting centered the experiences of chefs of color who joined Bon Appetit and the Test Kitchen and how their perspectives were often co-opted and/or minimized, even while their white counterparts made more money and did all of the Asian cooking. I listened to the first two episodes of the series (Reply All did not air the final two after Test Kitchen-gate went down), and they are excellent reporting. Pinnamaneni bonds with her interviewees over shared experiences as people of color, and she explores the institution of Condé Naste. Even though she did interview white executives, she doesn’t include any clips, and I love that choice.
But. At the end of part 2, Pinnamaneni does the kind of self-reflection that Gimlet Media is known for. She wonders about her own experiences with race and the institution of Gimlet. Before I talk more about how this choice spiraled into Test Kitchen-gate, let me offer some additional context about this reflective tone, what some might uncharitably call navel-gazing.
In 2014, the world of podcasting was nothing short of exhilarating. A little something called Serial happened that year, and suddenly people who had never uttered the word “podcast” were gushing over This American Life’s work. And Alex Blumberg was riding that wave, founding Gimlet Media with its first show StartUp. The first season of StartUp tells the story of… Gimlet Media and how Blumberg got the company off the ground. It’s pretty compelling listening honestly and is confessional in a way that typfies hosts like Blumberg and Sarah Koenig from Serial. Blumberg’s anxiety over his business idea and Koenig’s vacillation over her murder mystery were versions of the same type of work. Highly produced (both Blumberg and Koenig come from backgrounds in radio) but personal, providing a perspective into the mind of the host that a lot of journalism avoids.
These narrative podcasts also offered another element of perspective that folks remarked on at the time, too: they were very, very white. Koenig’s lines about small bags of cannibis on city stoops and Pakistani-born Adnan Syed’s cow-like eyes communicated her white woman point of view very clearly, even to me, a fellow white woman. Blumberg, too, tells a compelling story about starting this company that is only possible because of his access to money and connections, his proximity to whiteness and media power.
StartUp did at least tertiarily examine issues of race, gender, and power in their early days. During the second season of StartUp, which aired in 2015, one of their episodes is titled “Diversity Report,” and they dig in on the issue of why 24 out of 27 employees at Gimlet are white. They ask questions about diversity in a big picture sense. In the same way that no one settles down to a showing of Macbeth thinking, great, this is going to turn out swell for everyone, there was no element of Gimlet’s self-reporting that suggested anything but tragedy in the long-run.
Self-awareness isn’t sufficient. Macbeth himself knows his fatal flaw in Act I: “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and fall on th’other.” He sees the bloody dagger leading him to commit the murder that he knows good and well is a mistake. He is fully aware that if his “assassiation could trammel up the consequence,” he’d commit murder without remorse. Lack of self-awareness can be a problem, but self-awareness not a virtue of itself. And so ‘twas with Gimlet. Oh, they gazed in their mirrors and studied themselves. They were eager to report on their own warts. It was a part of the business model.
In 2017, Gimlet developed another show, The Nod, hosted by Eric Eddings and Brittany Luse, both Black creators. That show ended in 2020, and a more detailed story of the parting of these two hosts emerged in 2021 when Sruthi Pinnamaneni, engaging in some Gimlet-style self-reflection, contemplated her own role in the unionization attempts at Gimlet and how those interactions intersected with race and power. Pinnamaneni’s reflections conclude the fateful second episode of the “The Test Kitchen” series. But Pinnamaneni planned additional reporting on the matter and wrote to Eddings, who had since left Gimlet, to ask him if he would be willing to review her reporting on Gimlet itself and how the company was navigating these fraught waters.
Eddings, as he revealed himself in a series of Tweets, was involved in that labor movement at Gimlet. This work, he contends (and Pinnamaneni seems to corroborate in her comments at the end of the second Bon Appetit episode), was opposed by Pinnamaneni and Vogt, who who worried over how labor power might impact their own access to power at the company. For Eddings, these issues were never resolved, and he wondered why Pinnamaneni would wait so long to speak with him. Within days of Eddings’s revelations and the public comments of other former Gimlet employees supporting Eddings, both Vogt and Pinnamaneni had stepped away from Reply All. Dzotsi, who is Black and had already come on board as a co-host of the show, continued to host the show with Alex Goldman remaining in his role. And in May 2022, the announcement came down, a denouement that we all saw coming. Reply All is over.
In happy news, Eddings and Luse are doing great work on their non-Gimlet podcast at Stitcher: For Colored Nerds. Support them by checking it out!
As another coda, I’ll note that Blumberg sold Gimlet to Spotify in 2019, and there is some evidence that Gimlet shows are not doing all that well in their new context anyway. Vogt is still making podcasts independently; his new series is on, naturally, crypto (not going to link it, fam). The end of Reply All probably represents the end of Gimlet Media, at least in the form in which it existed for these past eight years.
Rather than pointing and laughing at the decapitated head that we’re left with, I’ll end by saying that I’ve loved Reply All. Their super tech support bits were always marvelous, resulting in what is probably the most frequently recommended single episode of a podcast: “The Case of the Missing Hit.” And though it was derivative of Serial in some pretty obvious ways, I loved Pinnamaneni’s series “On the Inside.” I’ll mourn Gimlet, too, at least a bit. Though it’s long gone and host Starlee Kine was one of the earliest folks to sound the alarm about Gimlet, Mystery Show was an ephemeral and perfect delight.
There’s a real lesson for those of us who engage with critical work here, too. There was something revelatory about the early days of Gimlet Media, the way Blumberg, Goldman, and Vogt put (what seemed to be) their whole hearts out there on the interwebs. They aired their anxieties and dreams in ways that seemed innovative and even meaningful. I’ll never forget listening to “Shine On You Crazy Goldman,” about Vogt’s experience with microdosing LSD and thinking that he was demonstrating a kind of radical vulnerability.
It may have been vulnerable, but it wasn’t radical in the end. Becoming aware and developing a critical consciousness is an important first step in critical work, but there is a point when action is necessary, too. It’s not enough to desire the kingship and provide all of the solilioquys detailing your quest for power. What do you want to do with that power? What stories do you want to tell, and why do they matter? Gimlet never offered a coherent answer to those questions outside of increasing listenship. The Bard can tell us: self-aware power trips are nothing new. And it’s no shame to those of us who want more.
I’ll listen to the final episode in June, and, if I’m so moved, I’ll write about it here.
content warnings: self-harm, suicide, general sickness and medical issues
A weird realization I’ve had after spending a lot of my time this week in the hospital: one of the things I miss is clutter. My home is full of clutter, something I’ve generally felt pretty bad about. Little piles of papers, a box of Magic cards, a notecard cut up into tiny squares for some reason, the spices I use most frequently scattered on the counter, Animal Crossing device controllers, books, my clean laundry occupying half the bed. I often think that I should reorganize for a less clutter-filled life.
But that comfortable clutter represents my actual life. Not the cleared countertops and put-away clothing and boxes tucked away that guests experience, but my real life strewn about, in easy reach, representing the things I love. Marie Kondo would understand; these things bring me joy.
It’s complicated, though, and, if I’m trying to be easier on myself about the clutter, I’m also highly aware of how clutter can come to represent something much more problematic. I’ve spent too much time at my dad’s house these past few months to be able to think about clutter without worrying over my future in cluttered living. His house is more like something you’d see on TV on a reality show, the sort of place that would give Kondo pause. His bedroom is just piled with clothes on the bed and in the wardrobe and closet; he must have been sleeping only on the couch and in his truck for years. There is literally a pathway wending through the downstairs area. Stacks of boxes teeter, piles of drafts and papers looming on all sides. Machines, more boxes, an actual motorcycle. It’s– troubling.
But here in the hospital, I’m learning to think about Aristotle’s golden mean with more understanding. The clear, empty floors make me long for my floors, lined with my kiddo’s toys, my running shoes, and all of my yoga equipment. The glistening counters make me think of the coffee cup I left out four days ago and how much joy it brings me just to see it there, even when I haven’t tidied it. Everything is white and gray gray gray, and my vibrant clutter seems much more appealing in comparison.
My cortisone levels were surging when we first got here; my offspring’s emergency surgery, a lingering infection, and a litany of mini crises will do that. Today, on day six, I’ve been thinking of my dad. It doesn’t help that my sweet child here looks just like him. And I’m thinking of my father’s last days in a hospital, not this one, but certainly similar in feeling. Did he long for his vibrant clutter? Did he think of some particular tottering pile of papers and think, gosh, I hope it doesn’t fall over. I’ll lose the order of the pages.
He asked the doctors to kill him in the end. That’s what he always told me he’d do; well, he told me that he’d do it himself if he were dying. “I’ll shoot myself in the head,” he told me once when I was maybe 20.
But he didn’t. He died alone in a hospital room, probably not one dissimilar to this one, where I’m sitting now beside my suffering child.
Here’s the truth though. When I first thought of my dad this morning, I wasn’t thinking of him at the end, in a hospital bed refusing to be intubated. I thought about him when I went down the hallway to cry by myself for a while and tried to remember something that would make me feel better. When I was younger and worried or scared, my go-to image was of my dad. He always sent me flowers on my birthday, and I bought him socks for his birthday every year. Thinking of him and the flowers he always remembered to send and the socks he always immediately started wearing were thoughts that, once upon a time, made me feel better.
Last time I was at his house, I found an open bag of socks, just like the kind I used to send him, and they looked old enough to be those. And I can understand how comforting clutter can become immoblizing clutter, the kind of clutter that feels impossible to remove or even to want to remove.
And it’s not even a metaphor: home clutter reflects brain clutter. My dad’s house is full of fascinating clutter, from chess sets and notebooks full of scribbled poetry to horrifying porcelain clowns and indecipherable machines. It’s full of puzzling clutter: an entire pot full of keys, a pan scattered with acorns, notes stuffed into pill botttles. Then there are the other kinds… the shattered glass on the porch, the hundreds of empty cat food cans, the piles of mail weighing down the table. I understand, not academically, not intellectually, but visercerally, how one gets there.
I’ll conclude by adding another complication here, this one via Michel Serres and the concept of “noise.” Serres’s noise is a complex concept, and for now I’ll just say that he describes noise as being any unintended texts that are mixed up with a message. That is, in writing this essay, I intend a particular message, which I’ll post on my blog. When you, dear reader, encounter my blog, you also have to accept the noise that includes ads on this webpage, language differences between me and you, the constraints of the medium itself, and a plethora of other possible things. Sometimes, the noise and the message are inextricable to the reader. Communication is only possible because of noise, but noise also makes it impossible for the rhetor and audience to perceive the same message.
Clutter is a physical version of noise (which Serres also calls the parasite). As a person, I mediate the world through material possessions, and my existence is only possible because of them. This clutter both contributes to my existence and makes it more challenging for me to decipher physical signals in the world. The answer is not to eliminate noise or clutter (one can’t), but also to recognize the generative qualities of noise/clutter. Change and possibility emerge from dynamic spaces, and clutter/noise is an aspect of that dynamism.
Eventually, I’ll cultivate this thinking further, and see how it aligns with the work I’m doing around the philosophy of hope. For now, I’ll sit in an uncluttered space and dream of chaos.
“You are what you eat,” is an adage I heard a lot as a child, and one that resulted in me being affectionately referred to as Noodle for a blessedly brief spell. It’s one of those adages that seems at least truth-adjacent. Our cells are created and refurbished using the food that we consume, so there is a pretty literal sense in which we are (or become) what we eat.
Of course, that’s not how anyone means the saying. If I eat broccoli, do I become ontologically more broccoli-like? I am somehow grittier when I eat grits? Sweeter when I eat cookies? To be honest, once you really think it through, it’s not a very useful adage. Happily, I dismissed it as a child.
If we open it up a bit, though, we might find that the epigram has more meaning than a literal understanding would reveal. We aren’t so much what we eat as we are what we consume. As a person who is currently on a social media hiatus because I can’t stop doomscrolling, I can affirm that the media, ideas, and conversations we consume do become a part of our mental landscape. The discourse communities with which I engage inform my thinking. “We are what we consume” is still too simplified; of course, we synthesize, analyze, and deconstruct ideas from media sources and do not only embody them. But there is a certain resonance to the idea there.
Enter Kirby and the Forgotten Land. There is a whole philosophical history to the world of Kirby; Kirby, from his Gameboy start, has been consuming things, people, and bits of his world. He, back then, generally spat them back out again or consumed them the way we mere humans do food. Eventually, Kirby began consuming and then taking on the characteristics or powers of those he consumed, truly becoming what he ate. Even when Kirby takes on these characteristics, though, he retains a certain Kirby-ness. The classic Kirby shape and face were still present, but Kirby might don a jaunty cap or develop a hairstyle or hold a weapon of some kind. None of these becomings changed his essential Kirbyness.
Until 2022 and Mouthful Mode. In Kirby and the Forgotten Land, Kirby still consumes enemies and takes on their abilities, signified by external symbols, like hats or weapons. But Kirby also enters Mouthful Mode, when he consumes something large enough that is no longer Kirby-shaped but takes on the shape, characteristics, and limitations of the items he consumes. For example, Kirby can become a car; he is the shape of the car, he speeds up and runs over things like a car, and he is constrained by ledges or smaller spaces into which cars cannot proceed. Kirby can become a vending machine, spitting out cans and wobbling around, constrained by the number of cans he can hold and by spaces into which vending machines cannot awkwardly wobble. Kirby can become a glider, whooshing through the sky and manuevering through rings but unable to negotiate the ground. In each of these cases, Kirby takes on the shape of the Mouthful Mode object, but he, Kirby, is wrapped around it, encapsulating it, and consuming but not synthesizing it.
What then is Kirby? Kirby is round. But no, Mouthful Mode defies that. Kirby can be any shape. Kirby is pink. Though, of course, in Smash brothers, he can be a pantheon of colors and originally he wasn’t a color at all. The consistent component of Kirby, the extant quality of Kirby is really his mouth. Kirby is a mouth, Kirby is the very idea of consumption.
I could go on a whole tangent here about capitalism, but I’m not going to do that. At the end of the day, Kirby isn’t about capitalism (and you know it pains me to note it). Sometimes, Kirby collects coins, and in Kirby and the Forgotten Land, Kirby is rescuing incarcerated Waddle Dees, and that all seems super-relevant to capitalism.
No, Kirby reminds me that I think Kirby is about capitalism because that’s the kind of thinking I consume. This week, I’ve read a number of pieces on prison abolition and capital and even took a peek at Marx’s Capital. Of course I think Kirby is about capitalism. Kirby is a brilliant, funny, compelling game that children and adults can enjoy, but ultimately Kirby is saying that all of the things you consume, they make you what you are. Beware the problematic faves, beware the devil’s advocate, the counterpoints– you become them, too. You are a mouth who becomes that which you consume.
Consuming Kirby though? That’s different. Consumption without synthesis of consumption itself– the center here cannot hold. Things fall apart. Meaning is impossible. Scientists this week revealed pictures of the black hole at the center of the galaxy, and, guess what?, it’s Kirby-shaped. All that quantum physics we can’t quite sort, that’s Kirby.
I’ll get the obvious out of the way first. Yes, sure, Flo Rida’s party anthem “Welcome to My House” can absolutely be read as the invitation to a pretty cool party and night of sexual exploits that it is. There’s champagne and music and clothes on the floor.
But come on into my house. We can enjoy that reading of “Welcome to My House” while also acknowledging another level of meaning to which Flo Rida’s lyrics also invite us.
“My house” is the setting of an experience initially described by the speaker, a magic circle where the speaker defines what will happen there. The first line of the song is “Open up the champagne, pop!” with that pop at the end not a sound effect, but an onomatopoeia voiced by the speaker. This is an invitation into a world where the experience is built, not a previously existing reality. Later the speaker suggests that you “Close the blinds, let’s pretend that the time has changed” because this is a world where play and pretend are welcome and possible. Furthermore, the speaker suggests that these rules can run contrary to rules in the dominant culture. “Play that music too loud,” they repeat.
That magic circle is not entirely inscribed by the speaker, however. They invite “you,” the invited “baby” to make the rules as well. “Baby take control now,” the speaker suggests, as well as “mi casa es tu casa.” The house of the speaker is a place of play and shared control.
Speaking of play and shared control, Flo Rida’s ideological cousin Michel de Certeau suggests in The Practice of Everyday Life that there are ways for people use tactics that act against the oppression the dominant culture. Tactics are not revolutionary, and people are not acting overtly against the larger systems of oppression when they enact tactics; instead, they find ways of carving out their own meaning within those systems.
The consensual play-space of “my house” in “Welcome to My House” is an example of such a tactic. In “my house,” the speaker could easily act in dominance and dictate a set of rules. They don’t. Instead, they create a space that invites other voices to participate in the experience and creation of the shared world. “You” are not expected to follow the speaker’s rules; “you” are invited to come in and “take control” or to “yes and” the speaker’s world.
There is possibility and opportunity for us here. In the spaces where we have power, we often have monarchical tendencies, to make our own space. Our workplaces, our homes, our social structures are all spaces where we might exercise some level of influence and power. It’s a tactic, a way of acting against oppressive institutions, however, to turn those spaces into spaces where we share power and make-believe with those we welcome into our spaces. As a teacher, I invite students to “my house,” and though it would be much easier just to make the rules and enforce them, when I do so I am only reinscribing the dominant culture on my students. As a mom, it would be easier for me to demand obedience, instead of inviting my children into our own shared creative space. As a partner, it’s easier for me to perpetuate heteronormative, gendered discourse in my familial and romantic spaces, but it’s more liberatory to invite my partners to invent new modes of communication and behavior with me.
We all have different levels of freedom from which we operate within institutions; my femininity, my queerness, my cisgendered identity, and my whiteness all offer me a nuanced range of constraints and allowances within any given system. De Certeau’s idea of tactics, though, offers us the possibility of being able to act against institutions, even when we are still operating within them. Because “sometimes you gotta stay in.”
The surface reading of Into the Spiderverse’s empowering theme is the movie’s tagline: “anyone can wear the mask.” It’s an important message: after a series of very-smart-but-still-underdog-white-male Peter Parkers, Into the Spiderverse finally introduces multiracial Miles Morales, in addition to the oft-fridged Gwen Stacy as Spider Gwen, Asian school girl Penni Parker, and even a cartoon pig, all of whom “wear the mask.” Here in 2019, we nerds are a much more diverse crowd, and we are hungry for the representation that Into the Spiderverse provides.
We are hungry for it, but the message itself is not really radical. For one thing, “anyone can wear the mask” is not true. All of the spider people are special. They were each bitten by a special spider (or pig, in one case). Their spidey senses tingle, and they recognize the specialness in each other. They do all have powers, though there are variations. It’s cool that white maleness is not a prerequisite for spideyness, but Into the Spiderverse does not actually give us a populist version of superheroes.
The radical message of Into the Spiderverse is about love. In one of the funniest moments that worked both in the trailers and in the film itself, Miles’s dad stops him as he heads into school by turning on the loudspeaker on his police car and demanding that Miles say “I love you back” before the two part ways. It’s a cute scene and sets up the relationship between Miles and his dad, which is close and caring. Seeing a positive representation of black male fatherhood works with the film’s overall attention to the issue of representation. These initial scenes between Miles and his dad set up the traditional parenting relationship, one where the parent is powerful, and the child is subject to parental power. In this case, that parental power is in the name of caring for the child, and Miles’s dad demand that Miles say, “I love you back” suggests a relationship of care but not one of consent.
I’m reminded by this moment the ways in which most traditional love relationships are about power instead of romantic or familial love. This is particularly true of parenting relationships where good children are often construed as obedient children. In these types of relationships, the expression of love is also an expression of obligation, and the reply is an acknowledgement of that obligation, as it is for Miles as he stands, shamed in front of classmates, by the required expression of love for his father.
In many coming-of-age stories, there is antipathy between a child and a mentor or parent. The child goes their own way but ultimately comes around to the understanding that the parent or mentor was right all along. The status quo is unchallenged. Into the Spiderverse offers an alternative version of the story. Miles “grows up” and comes into his powers in the course of the story, but it is Miles’s dad who experiences change. After the death of his brother (Miles’s uncle), Miles’s dad come to Miles’s dorm room, where Miles is gagged and incapacitated; we are aware that he can’t speak, but Miles’s dad is not. This scene offers a radical revision of love. Miles’s dad realizes that he needs a connection to his son but that their relationship should not be mandated by his fiat. In this exchange he ends by telling Miles that he loves him, “but you don’t have to say it back.” And here is the expression of radical love, love that is expressed and given, and reciprocity is not required. In fact, Miles’s dad, a police officer, doesn’t like vigilantes (which is fair!), and, though he comes to accept the help of Spiderman/Miles by the end, he is conflicted about that kind of work. Miles’s dad can’t require anything from Miles or Spiderman, but he can freely give his love and support, despite intellectual disagreement.
Into the Spiderverse explores this theme through Peter B. Parker’s story as well. Peter B. Parker and his MJ broke up because MJ wanted children, and Peter B. Parker did not. (This is not a terrible reason for a break-up.) In the course of interacting with Miles and helping him learn to be Spiderman, Peter B. Parker comes to the realization that he might be interested in parenthood. This is important because he doesn’t reach this place by protecting Miles or ordering him around; in fact, the “order” he makes that Miles not come along to the final battle with Kingpin is explicitly ignored by Miles. Peter’s recognition of the value of parenting comes from seeing Miles be successful in making his own decisions, not by following orders. In their final interaction, Miles is in control, holding Peter by the onesie, and it is Miles who releases Peter and decides to battle Kingpin on his own. Peter, we see later, still chooses to pursue a relationship with MJ again. The moral he has learned about love and parenthood is not one of control or power but one of release.
And that’s the radical message of Into the Spiderverse. We can’t all be Spiderman. But we are all free to love with no expectation of anything in return.
This post contains such spoilers for Avengers: Endgame! Only keep reading if you are down.
Poor Natasha. An original Avenger, the only woman for a stretch of years, and now, her story is abruptly concluded. She didn’t make it to the final fateful Assembly of Avengement. She traded herself for the Soul Stone, so Hawkeye (everyone’s favorite Avenger, amirite?) could bring back the goods for the team. There’s a lot to unpack in one bit of a very lengthy film. That’s why you’ve got me, kid.
So the death scene. Natasha and Clint struggle on the edge of a Vormirian cliff in a scene that mirrors Thanos and Gamora’s struggle there in Infinity War. That earlier scene was problematic on a multitude of levels, but Mikey covers it beautifully, so watch his video on the topic. One problem Thanos’s “sacrifice” of Gamora left us with is the question of love. Were we to think that Thanos’s murder of his daughter, an act that capstoned a lifetime of abusive behavior, was love because Thanos got all teared up? Infinity War left us hanging on this matter, and that’s not to the prior film’s credit.
Natasha and Clint, faced with the same circumstance as Thanos also struggle on that cliff, but they fight over which of them will die to procure the Soul Stone. The good thing about this scene is that we see how heroes do love, not by sacrificing whomever is nearby, but by accepting the cost personally. We are reminded in the moment that Thanos is not a tragic good guy with Very Harsh But Not Necessarily Entirely Bad ideas; he’s a villain with selfish, grandiose ideas, and those ideas are Real Bad. I appreciated this contrast as I watched Endgame for the first time. Then Widow “won” the fight and plunged to her death.
And it turned out that these two scenes ended in the same way, with a dead woman at the bottom of a cliff. This was actually the only scene in Endgame that took me entirely out of the film, forcing me to confront the utter misogyny of this character arc on a variety of levels.
Natasha has never been a character understood by the male writers and directors who have tried to situate her. I remember seeing the original Avengers movie posters and pondering Black Widow’s entirely underrated superpower of displaying both her ass and her boobs simultaneously in two dimensional space. What character development did Natasha get over the course of six (I’m just taking a stab at this number- feel free not to quote me) movies? She was a maybe love interest for Hawkeye, Captain America, and Bruce Banner. That’s fun! We discover in Age of Ultron that she can’t have children, which is Terribly Sad. Except- couldn’t someone be a woman without interests in kids or romance? Natasha, as these character beats (that’s generous of me, I know) suggest, the writers couldn’t really imagine Natasha. Who is she? What drives her? In Endgame she says: “All I have is this job.” This is in many ways pretty accurate, since we never see anything of her beyond her work. Even Hawkeye, who like Black Widow has not had an individual movie, has a family that figures into his characterization. In Natasha’s case there seems to have been a dearth of imagination when it came to giving her a life. What would a woman without a family do or be? When she was hanging out with Captain America, she was absorbed in his drama. With Ironman, the same. And now in Endgame we are expected to believe that these moments were all there was. She didn’t have an off-screen life either.
So she decides to sacrifice herself for the team because this is all she is. Sacrifice is a recurrent theme in super hero movies. Heroes are often construed as heroic because they do sacrifice themselves. It happened in Infinity War; Dr. Strange sacrificed the Time Stone and consequently himself (and consequently a lot of other people) to save Tony and ultimately the world. Captain America faces off against Thanos and his entire army, aware that this fight will end in his death (except for portals!). Tony’s final heroic sacrifice too is a significant moment in the film.
There is no way of extricating sacrifice and gender though. Natasha’s death, not the climax of the movie, leads directly into a scene with five men thinking about how sad they are because she’s dead. Tony’s death, in contrast, is not rising action but the climactic conclusion, not just of this movie but of (I’ll say) twenty movies.
Natasha’s death reminded me of Shel Silverstein’s classic misogynist text “The Giving Tree.” in this poem, a tree that is a favorite of a little boy gives him shade while she’s alive and then hacks herself to pieces, finally dying so he can sit on her corpse-stump. This was Natasha too. She provided the feminine foil or romantic interest for male characters when these things were called for. Then she dies to give these same male characters one last emotional push before the final battle.
As a side note, lots of people were upset about Steve Trevor’s heroic self-sacrifice at the end of Wonder Woman. The sacrifice of a masculine love interest to further the development of a femme hero was a not-so-terribly coy nod to all of the femme love interests who have tragically perished.
Then there is even further context. Jeremy Renner, the actor who plays Hawkeye, made a sexist comment about Black Widow’s sluttiness in an on-camera conversation with Chris Evan’s years ago. They both apologized, one more successfully than the other. But the attitude of these actors toward this character is revealing. And let’s not forget that this year people were complaining that Brie Larsen should “smile more” as Captain Marvel, a request she- ah- turned down.
How many women have worked on Marvel movies as writers and directors? That question isn’t rhetorical. Go look it up. Therein lies the answer to why Black Widow couldn’t survive Endgame. It wasn’t because her story was over. Her story never even got told at all. She died as she lived: voluptuous character foil for the men who surrounded her.
When I saw the original Avengers, I was so glad for Natasha. If we hadn’t had her, we’d have had no one. But I was the one living on scraps.
So I mourn her, not because of Endgame, but because she never got to be anything at all. Hire more women, Marvel. Oh, and if you give us the femme power movie you teased for about twenty seconds in a movie containing over 10,000 seconds, please hire femme writers and directors for that project as well.
Good night, sweet Widow. I hope that super hero heaven is Thermyscira, at least for you.
In a recent episode of the 538 podcast, Nate Silver, responding to a listener question about how voter turnout figures into his political forecasting model, points out that voter turnout is a concern for the pollsters and that they have methods for figuring how likely voter turnout should be represented in polling data. His work, he points out, is the aggregation of polling data. Silver argues that it is not a particularly useful conversation for him to critique the relationship between voter turnout and polling because that’s sophisticated work, and it’s not his area of expertise.
His comments remind me of another recent incident in the gaming industry. Jessica Price, a game developer for Guild Wars 2, was fired after a Twitter exchange with a fan. The fan suggested some “easy” fixes for a particular game design problem Price analyzed in a series of tweets, and Price called him out for mansplaining her own field to her.
Each of these moments spotlights the relationship between expertise and new media. The interactive, democratized world of new media encourages more conversation between “experts” in various fields and gives people a platform to both respond and be responded to publically in ways that really weren’t possible previously, unless you were the proud owner of a printing press and some number of avenues for distribution. Plenty of people write about the democratizing benefits of new media, and plenty of people excoriate this brave new world for its annihilation of civility.
New media allows information to operate like a wildfire, propagating and spreading without any authorities capable to containing that information, outside of a few firetrucks from traditional media outlets. There are pros and cons to information wildfires; on the one hand, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson would not have been widespread news without Twitter. On the other hand, conspiracy theories peddled by all kinds of bad faith actors are also possible because of new media outlets.
What is the role of expertise in the world of new media then? Silver is a rare mitigating voice, an expert himself unwilling to comment on a technical detail that he hasn’t fully studied. Price’s story is more common; her expertise was questioned by a person who had no sense of his own ignorance on the topic. In the public discourse, it was not the fan’s ignorance that was punished but Price’s lack of civility. This story highlights not only the way expertise is understood in new media but also the ways in which expertise is gendered or otherwise privileged.
This tendency toward interactivity flattens, in many ways, the voices of experts. We all have Twitter accounts, so all of our voices are equally valid. Or at least people who have similar numbers of followers should be similarly valued. And this drowning out of expert voices is completely understandable. What role have experts traditionally played? Sources that grant authority to some voices have always privileged the already-powerful. Universities have long been the province of white men, white men still comprise the overwhelming majority of faculty at US universities, and the voices of people of color and women remain silenced. Education, though one way of establishing expertise, also requires membership in the dominant discourse.
With new media, there is a new class of public intellectual. Podcasters, bloggers, and YouTubers, most of whom are under-credentialed by the academy, are fully credentialed in terms of the number of followers they toll on various new media platforms. Upon my baptism in the waters of LeftTube, my initial observation was the way in which many LeftTubers engage with the writings and rhetoric of the alt-right. In traditional media, the ideas of the alt-right are rarely engaged, except as side notes after Charlottesville or a self-professed incel murderer. LeftTubers, however, are experts by the same method of popularity as the alt-right figures with whom they engage. The stakes of that discourse are important because, if expertise is not a factor, how then shall we value ideas?
In the 2004 film The Incredibles, the villain enacts a scheme to provide technology to all people in order to negate the need for superheroes. “Because when everyone is super,” he argues, “no one will be.” He’s wrong, though, and not just villainously so. His definition of superpowers does not actually differ from that the heroes against whom he rails. In fact, equally wrong are the Incredibles themselves and other proponents of superheroes, who long for the “good old days” when superheroes could just do whatever they wanted. It’s clear why the traditionally powerful might long for days of unchecked authority, but the benefits for the rest of us, born without the superpowers of cishet white maleness and/or inherited wealth, are murkier.
Democratization of ideas and information doesn’t have to look like widespread flattening. We don’t have to value all ideas in the same way or not at all. The opportunity afforded us by new media is the ability to bypass traditional barriers to knowledge, barriers that excluded marginalized and oppressed voices of all varieties. This new system doesn’t require the erection of new barriers; instead, we have the opportunity to imagine a new ideology that values the expertises each person has by disconnecting knowledge from capital.
Coming soon: Is New Media Liberatory? Part II: Disconnecting Knowledge from Capital