Friday, June 26, 2015

In 1971, a wedding heard 'round the world. #LoveWins

It is so ordered.

Today's momentous Unites States Supreme Court decision to strike all bans on same-sex marriage means a lot of things to a lot of people. For Michael McConnell and Jack Baker of Minneapolis, it is another historic landmark in a life full of historic landmarks. In 1971, McConnell and Baker became the first same-sex couple known to apply for a marriage license. Their first attempt, at Minneapolis's Hennepin County Courthouse, did not go through; their second, however, did.

Find a timeline of key events in their lives here; look for their memoir, The Wedding Heard 'Round the World: America's First Gay Marriage, in January 2016.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Catherine Madison: From the front lines of a Korean War prison camp, 65 years ago.

Sixty-five years ago, on June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, initiating the Korean War. The U.S. and sixteen other nations joined forces to repel the invaders.

About three weeks later, in July 1950, a young captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps was captured on the front lines and held in brutal prison camps for more than three years. "Doc" Boysen would survive unbelievable hardships, return home, and live for almost fifty more years.

This fall, the University of Minnesota Press is publishing his story as told by his daughter, the writer Catherine Madison. Here is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, The War Came Home with Him: A Daughter's Memoir.


SEOUL, KOREA—July 1950

More than two hundred men were quartered in a two-story schoolhouse on the northern outskirts of Seoul. North Korean officers visited them to deliver lectures on the evils of capitalism and assure them that they would be treated well. The Koreans also announced that because Gen. Douglas MacArthur had insisted that captured Americans receive their customary three meals a day, the prisoners would be fed three times, which simply meant that their current rations of unseasoned rice balls, watery cabbage soup, and an occasional piece of melon were divided into three portions instead of two.

The men spent several days housed in the crowded school. Occasionally guards would take a prisoner or two away, ostensibly to make political broadcasts; those men were not seen again. Among the troops themselves, no one seemed to be in charge. One soldier informed Doc that, as a captain, he outranked others and was supposed to be the acting CO (commanding officer), but Doc protested, insisting that a medical officer does not command infantry troops.

Physically, he was suffering. His feet were bruised and swollen, and it was all he could do to walk to the latrine. Mentally, the games had set in, his suspicions repeating in an unforgiving loop. Why didn't the army keep its promise to send me home after ninety days? Am I being punished for refusing to give sleeping pills to that surly officer? Did I do something else wrong? Or fail to follow orders? Why didn't I receive any letters from my wife while I was in Japan? Was the army holding them back? Did she even write? Am I paying for my past sins? Back home I hit a chicken with the car. And I passed that extra copy of the med school test to my frat brothers. But didn't I already get punished for those things?

Slowly, as he began to feel better physically, the mental torture eased. His thoughts turned to survival, and he focused on the present moment and whatever he might do to make sure those moments kept coming, for him and for those around him. He asked to assist with sick call, but the Koreans refused. As near as Doc could tell, they had little to work with, shoddy equipment, and meager pharmacy supplies. Once they invited him to join them, but when he showed up at the "clinic," he was asked to pose for a propaganda picture. He refused.

At one point, all the prisoners were escorted into the school auditorium and told to sit. Stiff and stilted, select American officers and GIs read prepared statements asking the men to sign a petition demanding an end to the war. After the prisoners signed, the readers explained, the paper would be sent to the United Nations. The Koreans circulated the petition, a blank piece of paper, and insisted the men sign, which they did, of course, thinking it might help them survive. (Several of the men wrote the same names, like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, but no one seemed to notice.)

One afternoon, the guards summoned the men to the courtyard for roll call. "Come with, come with," the Koreans shouted. The men followed orders, not realizing that they would not be allowed to return to the schoolhouse, where they had stowed what few possessions they had left—tattered Bibles, rosary beads, pictures, whatever extra clothing they had managed to hold on to. As they were marched off to a train yard, they vowed they wouldn't make the same mistake again. From now on, they'd keep any and all possessions with them at all times.

Doc had already lost plenty: his thick glasses, his St. Christopher medal, his shoes. But he also gained much of a substance: a new acquaintance named Peppe, who would become a trusted confidant and lifelong friend, and other friends, like Shorty Estabrook, a nineteen-year-old spitfire who made everyone laugh, and Eli Culbertson, to whom he'd been tied with telephone-wire that bloodied their wrists. He also gained a new, or perhaps renewed, belief in the existence of a supreme being, whatever its name.

It's something that makes you believe that your strength is part of a plan devised by someone more powerful than you. It's there like a huge wave just before it crests, powerful and never ending in its beauty as it just keeps rolling along, silent in all its majesty but ever present.

It is the faith and hope that sustains you; something you accept and admit you do not understand. Prayer becomes a constant, not a once-a-night event—and not always in words, perhaps, but surely in thoughts.

How else can you explain the fact that you survive?


Journalist Catherine Madison was editor-in-chief of Utne Reader, senior editor at Adweek and Creativity Magazine, founding editor of American Advertising, and editor-in-chief of Format Magazine. She has written articles for many publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Star Tribune, and Minnesota Monthly.

The University of Minnesota Press is giving away 10 advance reading copies of The War Came Home with Him. To enter, send an e-mail with your preferred mailing address to, subject line: Catherine Madison giveaway. Deadline to enter is July 10th; winners will be notified within one week. All submitted mailing addresses will be used for the purpose of the contest only.

"I loved this book, not only for the knowledge gained concerning a war I knew so little about, but for Catherine Madison’s skill in relating both sides of this complex and difficult story. She is truly a reliable narrator, and her interweaving of her father’s ordeal as a prisoner of war with her own growing up in a household with a broken and damaged man is honest and generous and truly moving." —Judith Guest, author of Ordinary People

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What is "Malian music"?

Assistant professor of ethnomusicology at The Ohio State University

For many, to think of a place called “Mali” is to hear, first and foremost, its music. Mali may be a poor, landlocked, and sunbaked country in the West African Sahel, but its widely acclaimed music culture—with its bluesy resonances, danceable rhythms, and haunting melodies—has a way of mitigating, even beautifying such realities.

For this reason, when things fell apart in March 2012—when a subaltern mutiny became a full-blown coup d’état, and a secessionist movement in the North added an Islamist insurgency to its ranks—many in the media spoke of “the death of music in Mali.” The fate of Mali and its music, it seemed, went hand in hand.

These reports tended to assume an uncomplicated relationship between a country, its people, and music, threatened in the present by bad politics, domestic disputes, and foreign threats.

Such problems are, of course, real (and ongoing), but what makes the music we hear (and hear about) “Malian” is, in fact, a significantly complicated affair.

So, what is Malian music?

What follows is a set of provisional answers from my experiences as an observer of Mali and student of its music over the past two decades. These answers are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive, but they do give a sense of the crucial complexity that Malian artists playfully, critically, and artfully negotiate when they make (and we hear) their music—what I call in my new book, Bamako Sounds, “the Afropolitan ethics of Malian music.”

Malian music is…

Mande music.

I first encountered the music of Mali through the modern echoes of its imperial past. In this sense, the word “Mali” refers to the eponymous Empire, which reigned over vast swathes of western Africa from the 13th to 16th centuries. Living and studying with a family of kora (21-stringed harp) players in Bamako, the Malian capital, I heard the praise songs, instrumental melodies, and characteristic rhythms of a medieval court music repurposed for the life and times of a postcolonial city.

World music.

Before traveling to Mali, its music came to me in small-town Minnesota, on a compact disc that a friend had purchased after a semester abroad in Madagascar. Malian music moves, through the commercial circuits of the global culture industry and within the communities of a Malian diaspora with roots on every continent. Some of its itinerant purveyors are well-known worldwide: Ali Farka Touré, Amadou & Mariam, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangaré, Toumani Diabaté, and Rokia Traoré. Still others are on the rise: Fatoumata Diawara, Sidiki Diabaté, Amkoullel, and Vieux Farka Touré. Just to name a few.

National music.

When I began my doctoral research on the postcolonial music culture of Mali, I found an archive rich with the sounds of nation building and statecraft. In this sense, “Mali” refers to the contemporary West African nation-state, which will celebrate 55 years of independence from colonial rule in September (2015). In the early 1960s, the newly minted Republic of Mali created a national ensemble, made up of traditional instrumentalists and vocalists from throughout the country, and an orchestra, a dance band with a drum kit, congas, electric guitars, and horns. Their job was simple, if abstract: to perform the nation, through the country’s varied traditions and nascent modernity.

Pirated music.

I arrived in Mali ten years ago to begin long-term fieldwork on Bamako’s urban music culture. I quickly encountered two things: a thriving informal marketplace, full of copied and counterfeit goods; and a diverse cohort of artists, who regularly bought and sold in this market but were adamant in protesting what they called “the scourge of music piracy.” One thing was clear: Malian music maintained an active and ambivalent relationship to intellectual property.

Urban youth music.

From the bals poussières (dust parties) of the 1950s and 60s to the balanin dance parties of the present, the music of a demographically young Malian populace has frequently taken to the streets. There, you will find posses huddled around stereos, discussing the nuanced history of global hip-hop over afternoon tea. And there you will find vendors, crouched in front of laptops, filling old cellphones with the latest hits from Bamako, New York, and Paris.

Islamic music.

I wrote a dissertation about the politics and economy of an apparently secular urban music culture. While most of my musician friends and interlocutors were Muslim, Islam did not substantively factor into my analysis of their work. Then, four years ago, when I was asked to contribute a paper to a conference on Qur’anic knowledge in sub-Saharan Africa, I listened again to my field recordings with ears tuned for religion. In this Malian music, I heard the vocal melismas of prayer calls, the precise diction of sacred recitation, benedictions, praises to the Prophet, and citations from the Qur’an, woven into the fabric of an apparently secular urban music culture.

Not Malian music.

In April 2012, when the Malian state had all but collapsed and a motley crew of Tuareg separatists declared an independent homeland (Azawad) in the North, the idea of “Malian music” became the object of an increasingly urgent ethnic identity politics. Some globetrotting groups, like the Saharan blues troupe Tinariwen, used their international profile to contest the Malian state and what they viewed as a long history of military aggression against a sovereign people in the North. Later, others came together to affirm Malian solidarity across ethnic boundaries, though the lines dividing what was and was not “Malian music” had now been drawn, quite literally, in the sand.

An Afropolitan ethics.

What is Malian music? It is the sonic convergence of these (and many other) social positions—ethnic, religious, urban, economic, political, transnational, and historical—within a rooted and routed African world.

And it is the existential art of working with and through such multiple modes of being to claim a personal stake in what is (and is not) “Malian music.”

It is this artful process of social articulation and cultural experimentation in contemporary Africa that I call an “Afropolitan ethics.”


Ryan Thomas Skinner is author of Bamako Sounds: The Afropolitan Ethics of Malian Music. He is also the author and illustrator of a children's book, Sidikiba's Kora Lesson. He is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at The Ohio State University, and an accomplished kora player.

"Accessible and heartfelt, Bamako Sounds is itself largely musical in its interweaving of inventive musical criticism, scholarly analysis, and the author's work as a musician."
-AbdouMaliq Simone, Goldsmiths, University of London

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

What do ellipses do for us?

Beyoncé (feat. Jay-Z) "Drunk in Love" Unofficial Emoji Video from JESSE HILL on Vimeo.


Assistant professor of cinema studies at Purchase College, State University of New York

Last year, Austin-based video producer Jesse Hill made a video to impress his girlfriend for Beyoncé and Jay Z’s “Drunk in Love” that transcribes the entire song’s lyrics into a series of emojis. The video went viral and even left the shrewd pop diva herself quite impressed, endorsing it on her Facebook page and designing two t-shirts for her songs with emojis on their arms, available to buy on her website.

The video’s popularity—and its clever appropriation of the eyeball, snowman, eggplant, and clock emojis, among many others—immediately makes clear that emojis circulate across popular culture to signify more than just their intended meanings. One less strikingly interesting emoji in this video is the use of the speech balloon emoji to stand in for the repeated line “I’ve been thinking” (it’s only repeated twice at the beginning of the song—by the end, the lovers are presumably too drunk to think anymore). Though there is technically a separate “thought balloon” emoji where the text bubble is empty, the use of the speech balloon emoji with the three dots to represent “I’ve been thinking” suggests that the symbol registers abstraction, illustrating a tendency to associate punctuation with thought itself.

In its 2012 iOS 5 update, Apple introduced this speech balloon to devices’ emoji keyboard, a text bubble with three dots in it. Known as a “typing awareness indicator” in chat services, this symbol’s introduction as an emoji signals the extent to which the ellipsis has become a familiar image we see moving through our digital communication streams.

The typing awareness indicator is a default feature offered by most popular chat services that shows when the person on the other end is typing, aiding in conversational turn-taking. The idea is that if I see this ellipsis, I know the other person is typing, so I wait to see what that person is typing so that we are not both typing simultaneously, potentially haphazardly moving our conversation in different directions at the same time.

Ellipses in the digital age

The ellipsis thus appears to solve a problem posed by the distinct features of communication in the digital age. One of the most fundamental affordances of computing technologies is that they allow physically separated people to have real-time textual chat. Unlike in face-to-face or telephone conversations though, one doesn’t see or hear who one is talking to and one doesn’t know if the person on the other end is actively involved in the conversation. With networked media and the expectations that we are multitasking and, as danah boyd puts it, “participating in the always-on lifestyle,” we might be accessing multiple services, online with multiple screens open, and we might leave them open while we are on the phone with someone else, working in an another room, out of the office, etc. [1] As cinema and media scholar Anne Friedberg observed twenty years ago in The Virtual Window, “Multiple-frame images are a readable new visual syntax, a key feature in the contemporary remaking of a visual vernacular.” [2] Friedberg’s work is important because it turned our attention to how digital screen displays were forming a significant break with the centuries-long regime of perspective in visual culture, whereby the composition and framing of images oriented viewing practices around a single, centralized point.

The multiple points of the ellipsis thus cue us in this postperspectival vernacular that our conversation partner is actually electronically present with us, engaged on the other end. In this way, while the cultural logic of these digital dots represents a break with one centuries-long tradition in art history, they are continuous with another centuries-long history of punctuation in writing. Punctuation marks were symbols invented to resolve ambiguity and to help facilitate the efficiency of communication, just like digital ellipses do. But digital chats’ reappropriated dots resolve an ambiguity specific to networked media: turn-taking when the conversation partner’s presence is otherwise impossible to assure.

The shift here is one from the ambiguity of how to read words within textual space to an existential ambiguity of whether or not anyone is even listening to us. Think of all the ways contemporary digital selves constantly need assurance that they are being listened to: by “liking,” retweeting, favoriting, or hashtagging.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Meditations of an Infomaniac, Part 2 of 2


In early 2012 I thought I had discovered the perfect title for my new project, which was to be a diary of my information habits. I wrote up several pages of notes under the title “Confessions of an Infomaniac.” Several weeks later I Googled the phrase, and to my chagrin found the title had already been taken by Elizabeth M. Ferrarini in 1984.

I instantly ordered a cheap copy of the book, and was pleasantly surprised when it arrived. I was so taken by the cover that I posted a Photoshopped version of it on Facebook with my own name in place of hers. It was well liked by my friends, but I felt some remorse to have erased the name of an author, even if only in the spirit of an informal repurposing.

Ferrarini published one more book in 1985, Infomania: The Guide to Essential Services. Infomania, according to Ferrarini, is a “state of mind” characterized by “an inordinately intense desire for the most up-to-date information available to computer users in the age of the electronic database.” Already in the auspicious year 1984, it was possible to describe infomania as a condition related to networked personal computers. Ferrarini’s vision is sublime and all-encompassing: “the world is full of infomaniacs. Each day, in homes, huts, castles, caves, corporations, and penthouses throughout the world, tens of thousands of computers access electronic services. The reasons for these accesses are as varied as the personalities behind the computers. But one thing is clear about all of us who are accessing these electronic services—we have infomania.”

The ingenious innovation of Confessions of an Infomaniac is its combination of a harlequin plot and a technical manual. Ferrarini uses her “electronic mail” to find just the right “electronic male.” The terms “email” or “e-mail” do not appear in the book; instead Ferrarini uses the term “electronic letter.”

Ferrarini’s work is ahead of its time, and not far off in its hyperbole. Her books presage the collapse of boundaries between the home and the workplace, and between the computer and the bedroom—and they foretell a new era of e-romance. Despite her alarmist asides about suffering from too much information, Ferrarini is enthusiastic about the endless romantic potential afforded by online dating services. Ferrarini even registered a trademark for the word “infomania” in 1985, intending presumably to start some kind of consulting business, but the trademark was cancelled in 1992 due to going unused by its owner.

In late 2012 I tried to find Ferrarini by Googling her; I found a brief obituary—she had died in October.


Metaphors for information overload tend to fall into two categories: those that suggest addiction or lack of self-control, such as infomania, datamania, infobesity, databesity, dataholism, infostress, dataddiction, infovorism, datadithering, data dread, infoxication; and those that suggest natural disaster: datanami, datageddon, dataclypse, data deluge, data smog, infoglut, information saturation, data swamp, drowning in data.

As someone who’s spent years poring over every book on information overload and information diets that I can find, I’m skeptical that effortful self-control will do much to address the sense of being overwhelmed by information. I’m also skeptical about too much information bringing about the apocalypse.

A larger problem is time poverty. A data diet is a luxury most knowledge workers can’t afford. As I detail in my book, Americans have been worried about the adverse effects of new communications technologies since the late nineteenth century.

At the other extreme is data poverty: 2.2 million incarcerated Americans are on forced data diets. A 2011 UN report declared Internet access a fundamental human right that should be accorded to all, including prisoners.

Everything we do as humans involves taking in data. I understand information overload broadly as a range of phenomena relating to the limits of cognition, perception, and memory (both personal and collective), typically associated with technological change. Many of the major aesthetic debates of the twentieth century—over, for instance, perception, style, technological reproducibility, cultural memory, and canonicity—take on new valences in the context of information overload.

As I write in my book:


While poetry may seem the most non-technological of literary genres, I show that poets were often obsessed by the changing nature of information and its dissemination in the twentieth century. The news that there is more news than we can process is not so new: while avant-garde poetry may not figure prominently in the global information glut, the global information glut figures prominently in avant-garde poetry. However marginal it may seem, poetry will long outlast our current media platforms. To quote William Carlos Williams:

                              Look at
               what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
               despised poems.
                              It is difficult
               to get the news from poems
                              yet men die miserably every day
                                             for lack
of what is found there.
                Hear me out . . .


Meditations of an Infomaniac, Part 1


Paul Stephens is author of The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing. He has taught at Bard College, Emory University, and Columbia University. He edits the journal Convolution and lives in New York City.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Meditations of an Infomaniac, Part 1 of 2


My iPhone slips from my hand and lands on the subway tracks. I glance down the tunnel and don’t see a train. I’m carrying a heavy bag containing a Macbook Pro, an iPad and a dozen or so books. The digital signboard says the next Manhattan-bound train will arrive in one minute. I put my bag down on the platform and hop onto the tracks. Within ten seconds I’ve grabbed the phone and am back up on the platform. I’m wearing white pants (I never wear white pants), which are now covered in grime.

Everyone on the platform is staring at me.

A guy walks by and says, “I never would have done that.”

In two minutes or so, I board the next train. 55 people were killed on NYC subway tracks last year. I’ve seen this statistic dozens of times on my commute.

Clearly, I need my data fix. I’m an infomaniac. Just about everyone is. After finishing an academic book on information overload, I was an expert on the subject. But I had avoided getting too personal. What does infomania mean to me, an infomaniac among infomaniacs?


Was Adam in Eden the first failed data dieter? His boss requested only one thing: that he not access the remote server. Given only one task not to carry out, Adam brought multitasking and all our woe into the world.

My own experience with data dieting was hardly less fraught. In honor of National Screen-Free Week, I went offline from May 4 to May 10.

Or I did my best to stay offline, which wasn’t easy.

National Screen-Free Week was started in 1994 by the organization TV-Free America, and was originally called "TV-Turnoff Week." Aimed primarily at children and promoted by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and Adbusters, the concept seems simple enough.

I began to panic almost as soon as I powered down my smartphone, tablet and laptop. I exaggerate, of course. In fact, I started to absorb myself in the luxury of physical media almost immediately, and to make up for my screen intake with books and records.

I had intended to keep a detailed diary of my analog information habits, but found the task not only insurmountably time-consuming, but also problematic when it came to my privacy. One’s data intake is a very intimate form of biography. In his Soliloquy, Kenneth Goldsmith (whom I write about in my book) did something like the inverse: he recorded and transcribed every word he spoke for a week, without preserving the words of anyone else. The resulting book runs to nearly 500 pages. In his book Bib, Tan Lin (whom I also write about) attempted to record metadata information about every single thing he read over the course of two years. Simply the titles and URLs run to 150 large-format pages.

I was able to reduce my screen time drastically over the course of the week, and I wrote profusely in my notebook. I started to feel a bit like Karl Ove Knausgaard about how minutely I was recording details, and that made me uncomfortable. I didn’t have much luck with the typewriter I borrowed. I often asked my wife to Google simple information like directions. Waking up in the morning, I found myself reflexively reaching for my iPad. Given several imminent deadlines, I did have to send a number of emails over the course of the week (in advance of my diet, I decided I didn’t want to adversely affect anyone else by being offline).

One clear takeaway from the diet was that going offline is a luxury. Information is unequally distributed, as is privacy. But there’s no putting the data apple back on the tree. I’m tempted here to make a pun on the name of the world’s largest corporation, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll move on to another task and another of my open windows.


Look for Stephens's essay "Meditations of an Infomaniac, Part 2" tomorrow.


Paul Stephens is author of The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing. He has taught at Bard College, Emory University, and Columbia University. He edits the journal Convolution and lives in New York City.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

NYT: The Same-Sex Couple Who Got a Marriage License in 1971

Minneapolis couple Jack Baker and Michael McConnell were profiled on the front page of today's Sunday New York Times as the first same-sex couple known to apply for a marriage license, in 1970. Read their fascinating story here.

The University of Minnesota Press will publish their memoir in January 2016.

MINNEAPOLIS — Long before the fight over same-sex marriage began in earnest, long before gay couples began lining up for marriage licenses, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell decided to wed.

The year was 1967. Homosexuality was still classified as a disorder, sodomy was illegal in nearly every state, and most gay men and lesbians lived in fearful secrecy.

But from the age of 14, eyeing young men in his father’s barbershop, Mr. McConnell dreamed of living “happily ever after” with a partner.

So when Mr. Baker proposed moving in together, Mr. McConnell challenged him. “If we’re going to do this,” he replied, “you have to find a way for us to get married.”

Mr. Baker remembers his initial reaction: “I had never heard of such a thing.”

He enrolled in law school to try to make it happen.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Bruce H. Kramer on finding a place of balance and harmony while living with the "dis ease" of ALS.

Bruce H. Kramer, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2010, speaks with
Cathy Wurzer about the power of reaching out in a still from this video.

Bruce H. Kramer, a former dean at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in December 2010. Roughly four years and three months later, Kramer's journey with ALS ended and he passed away on March 23, 2015. During that period of time, Kramer documented his thoughts, musings, and experiences living with ALS in a blog, the Dis Ease Diary, that he started about three months into his diagnosis. Kramer also recorded an ongoing occasional series of honest and heartfelt segments about living with ALS with Minnesota Public Radio's Cathy Wurzer.

Wurzer and Kramer grew to develop a deep friendship through the course of their broadcast conversations. They also co-wrote a book, We Know How This Ends: Living while Dying, in which Kramer offers an unflinchingly honest account of his progression with the disease, and Wurzer frames his writing with observations of her own.

In this excerpt, Kramer reflects upon the persuasive power of photographs to knock one's consciousness into self-acceptance.


Excerpt from the chapter "The Widening Gyre" from We Know How This Ends by Bruce H. Kramer with Cathy Wurzer.

Almost to the day that I turned fifty, I experienced a phenomenon that many of my older and wiser friends easily recognized. I would get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and wonder, Who is that old man staring back at me? Or I would be walking by a bank of windows, and I would catch a glimpse of myself and not recognize the person looking back. As I have continued to age, this experience has only continued to heighten. You might interpret my nonrecognition as narcissistic, and I guess I wouldn’t blame you if you did. Yet I believe something instructive exists in whether we fully recognize our physical selves. I had this experience recently when I downloaded pictures from a small trip we made to Chicago. There was one picture in particular that when it came up on the computer, made me stop and wonder if that was really me.

We spent our first day at Millennium Park. Chicago has a well-developed park system along the lake, but when Millennium Park was built, it was highly controversial due to its cost and location—a park on some of the most valuable land in downtown Chicago. Now, nearly ten years after its opening, it is a place of energy and fun and wonderful amenities enjoyed by thousands of people every day, even in the winter. We spent almost two hours listening to the Grant Park Orchestra rehearsing an upcoming performance of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, enjoying the bizarre sculptures, and of course, no visit is complete without hanging around the great fountain that projects pictures of faces between its two monoliths—children and adults splashing in its puddles and standing under its bubbling waters. The whole park is meant to be interactive.

That day—lovely and sunny and cool for July—invited us to linger in the park, enjoying its beauty, recording the occasion with lots of pictures. Toward the entrance of the park, we stopped for a picture: Evelyn bending down to be at my height, me in the wheelchair, crooked, Buddha-bellied, hands tired from steering. I describe this in such terms because for the first time in a long time, I was surprised at my lack of recognition that it was me in the picture. Something about the picture projected what I think of as ALS posture—a picture that my subconscious has always seen in others but not in myself. It broke through my denial, spilling waves of cognitive dissonance between the body I have, the person I am, and the way I see myself. Suddenly, I saw myself with others’ eyes, and all of those old feelings about disability and deniability came rushing back as if I realized my disabled condition for the first time all over again.

I guess I really am a TAB (temporarily able-bodied person) at heart. I just can’t help it.

It was the circling gyre all over again—a point on the path of dis ease that I thought I had put behind me—only to spiral around to a deeper (or perhaps more superficial) interpretation of that same event. I thought that I had reached some semblance of acceptance—where this physical body is what it is, and my own self-worth is not a by-product of physical capacity’s superficial interpretation. You can imagine how surprised I was, not just by the picture but by my own over-the-top reaction of shock and denial.

Usually I have my head around these things, and I am able to live within my disability with a pretty healthy attitude, but seeing that picture put me right back into the denial I had experienced when my ALS first began. And associated with such denial is an unhealthy self-esteem tied up in physical projection. I questioned whether I deserved the love and attention of my family and my friends, because, after all, I was not whole, I was not well, I was ALS personified—scoliosis, gut protruding, wheelchair bound, muscles deteriorating. Not a pretty sight.

All of this from one picture? Eventually, I was able to find balance, harmony—a place where I could accept that it is just my body, and the space that I occupy is far greater than the capability and capacity my body projects.

In working on this book, the revision of various blog entries from nearly four years ago requires close consideration of my narrative in dis ease—trolling through earlier postings, journals, and even pictures. And this has not been easy. Sitting inside any former blog entry is grief for some hidden reference, some thing I was able to do then but cannot do now. Inside every picture is an image of my old normal, even when I thought it was the new normal. Inside this book is grief for the teaching I can no longer do. Dis ease has taught me that looking to the past brings grief, and that has been my experience, exponentially multiplied as I circled back into the writing, the imagery, the progression, the old me.

Circling back is not for the faint of heart. Circling back is complex. It is hard to look at images from the past, frozen in their time, stripped of their context and feeling, and not judge them too harshly with the sharpened understanding of focused hindsight. I was doing the best I could at the time. You would do the same.

I now recognize that circling back is not really what I have been doing. Instead I have been spiraling down, deepening the experience so that what was once old normal confidence is now vulnerability, what was once an equal partnership riding on the roads must now be even more intimate in how we look out for each other. And in the ultimate spiral, as I flip through images of the effects of dis ease on my family and friends—and especially my one true love, Ev—I must spiral into understanding that my fears were both well founded and inadequate in anticipation of what was to come.


Bruce H. Kramer (1956–2015) was former dean of the College of Education, Leadership, and Counseling at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was the creator of The Dis Ease Diary (, a popular blog about life with ALS, and coauthor of Leading Ethically in Schools and Other Organizations, a realistic look at leadership ethics.

The host of Minnesota Public Radio’s flagship news program Morning Edition, Cathy Wurzer has been broadcasting conversations with Bruce H. Kramer about his ALS experiences since 2011. She is also the cohost of Almanac on Twin Cities Public Television, the longest-running weekly public affairs program in the nation.

"Security and immortality are both superstitions; the best we can do is make an adventure of our lives. In this exquisite book, Bruce H. Kramer finds adventure in the most unlikely of places: the death sentence that is ALS. We Know How This Ends is a moving tale that teaches us more about living well than any self-help book ever can."
—Dan Buettner, New York Times bestselling author of The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Fractured Media Materialities: On Geology of Media

Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton

Fracking is a controversial process of forcing the ground open in order to extract gas and oil. The process has had its deserved amount of critique because of the environmental hazards it poses and how such rather desperate means of fossil energy extraction are continuing the wider CO2-heavy era of technological culture.

But what is virtual, or photographic, fracking? In Grayson Cooke’s art project, Cooke replicates the idea of using chemicals to fracture and stimulate the earth to open it up but with a focus on photographic materials. The chemistry of media he engages with uses hydrochloric acid, acetic acid, and sodium hydroxide to “frack” the images of Australian sandstone and shale rock. The image is not a representation, nor an allegory, so much as a doubling of the violent geological process.

Cooke’s project is a fantastic way to introduce the central idea behind A Geology of Media. The book argues that in order to understand the materiality of media in the age of advanced technologies, we need to also look beyond the actual media devices. On the one hand, this can mean to address the wider infrastructures in which apparatuses are functional – communication enabled by cables, masts, power plants and also the logistics that catalyse the delivery of our energy and materials. And on the other hand, indeed the materials that support the existence of media as media: rare earths and other materials used in casings, cables, wirings, motherboards, etc.

The book comes with a provocation: What if media history is not merely the couple of thousands of years of media devices and techniques for and by humans, or our use practices and political economy – but also conditioned by planetary durations? We nowadays speak increasingly of the massive scales of planetary design and ideas of planetary computation; this idea is bootstrapped by the fact that earth materialities enable the existence of media.

Massive operations of mining, energy extraction, and dubious labour practices are still too often behind many of our usual digital devices. What’s more is the aftereffect in terms of electronic waste. Just recently, a UN report revealed – again – the extent of this problem: electronic waste will reach the gigantic amount of 50 megatons by 2018 and in ways that are extremely unbalanced. Not merely media waste, but technological waste in general, such objects and components are mostly generated in European countries and the US even if at the same time countries like Nigeria and Ghana function as “e-waste graveyards,” putting a new twist to the term “dead media.”

Besides the crucial need for empirical and globally widespread research with innovative methods that can feed into more progressive policies and environmental actions, which can range from the local to the planetary, theoretical writing can speak to these themes, too. Contextualising its message in media theory, environmental humanities, and the work on cultural theory of materiality, A Geology of Media is the third part of a book trilogy on media ecologies, inspired originally by the work of Matthew Fuller, as well as German media theory; writings by Sean Cubitt and Jennifer Gabrys; and many other scholars. It continues the earlier books on viral, contagious digital culture (Digital Contagions, 2007) and media archaeology of animals (Insect Media, 2010), but with an even stronger environmental focus. The need to think of geology not merely as a conceptual shift in theoretical discussions, but also as something that touches on environmental themes is a necessity mobilized in this book.

“The Anthropocene” is only one recent term—an influential one for sure—that is an attempt to address the chemical-technological world of interlocked economic, ecological, political, and social forces. Hence, A Geology of Media is a way to understand this bind in media-specific terms, too, while acknowledging that the environment opens up to the discussions concerning our economic practices, works through neo-colonial ties between the Global North and the Global South, and is constantly distributed in most uneven ways.

Like the example we started with, Cooke’s art project, it is often in contemporary design and media arts that we find an audiovisual expression of this complex ecological situation. Contemporary art, from The Otolith Group to The Crystal World project (Martin Howse, Jonathan Kemp, and Ryan Jordan), to the work of Katie Paterson, to Critical Infrastructure by Jamie Allen and David Gauthier, provides examples of art that is embedded in thinking about the geological. More recent projects, such as Abelardo G. Fournier’s Mineral Vision, have addressed the connection of materials like copper and digital computation and vision systems. Indeed, we need to be aware that design and art projects are well-positioned to articulate this situation; it’s a mode of knowledge that works in and through art methods as methods of ecology; of working in and with the materials that constitute the technological culture even if often in precarious, sometimes even toxic, ways.


Dr. Jussi Parikka is Professor in technological culture and aesthetics at University of Southampton, Winchester School of Art. He is also Docent in Digital Culture Theory at University of Turku, Finland and the author and editor of various books on media, arts and communication, including A Geology of Media. He blogs at Machinology.