Individuals and Corporations: The Janus faced Olympics

I am a little bit reluctant to write about the upcoming Olympics and Paralympics, as a Londoner and as someone who blogs normally about philosophy and social thought. I feel that there is something distinctly good about the Olympics, and something distinctly bad, and bizarrely they are necessary cohabitants for this four week event to occur. I say Four Week Event as I include both Olympics and Paralympics. Maybe I’ll start with the good stuff:

Good things

It is my belief that generally any exposure about disability is better than no exposure, even if that includes a naff joke in the special episode of Absolutely Fabulous about how a blind man is not discriminating about women’s appearances. The Paralympic events will be something I am particularly interested in seeing. Partly because I have an interest in disability, but also as I personally saw some paralympians last year (that’s another story) and they were lovely people and very passionate about their respective sport. I’ve heard a lot of things especially about the Wheelchair Basketball and the affectionately named ‘Murderball’. The more exposure that these sports get the better. Personally, anything with some kind of brutality appeals to me, so I’m definately looking forward to seeing coverage of the Murderball!

There are lots of personalities attached to individual sports and these individuals can raise the profile of their nations and the sports that they represent. Sporting events can bring virtues out of people. The essence of the Hellenic concept of virtue is translatable to the english word ‘excellence’, and physical excellence is an ideal to be celebrated, as is say, mental excellence or temperance of character. Sporting competitions emphasise the best in human ability.

Raising awareness of sports can get ordinary people involved. I myself am particularly interested in following the Tennis, Michael is interested in following the Weightlifting and Badminton. We are hardly the sporting types, but seeing personalities like Oscar Pistorious or Usain Bolt. Inspiring future olympians is also something particularly special, to encourage young people to get engaged with a sport and be able to train competitively on a wider level, whether that’s county, national or international. There is not only the aspect of physical fitness but also a wider sense of wellbeing and cultural identity towards sports, and often cultural trends that may not be expected. Michael tells me that countries in Southeast Asia are quite good on the international scene of Badminton, while for decades there has been a great football following in Iraq.The things which are really great about the Olympics are particularly individualist, egoist and agent-focussed. There’s something Homeric about an event like this, seeing the heroes compete against each other and representing their nations.

Bad things

I suppose many people can think of bad things, but the things that I’d consider particularly bad are the organisation of the sponsorships and the influence they have on a taxpayer funded event as stakeholders. Corporations may legally be persons, but what of the British taxpayer and their interests? (gosh this sounds incredibly right wing) There seems to be a juxtaposition involved, in order for an event which involves the representation and participation of great athletes, corporations must support it. This may involve sponsor parties, but also the corporations such as the UK Government, contracted construction corporations and other such associated organisations which were required to facilitate these events being possible at all.

There seems to be an essential conflict: in order for great individuals to compete with their peers, their has to be he machinations of wider corporate interests. Delphi, Athens and Olympus had their games, and those citystates were a precondition for their local celebrations. Just like the Ancient games, the Olympics is dragged long by the underlying political and corporate interests.

N.B. the use of ‘corporate’ is a purposeful equivocation between ‘collection of persons’ and the putative use of the term.

Sinistre

Reading Goffman (1): The Definition of the Situation

“Hello, is this Mr. Peartree?”
“Speaking”
“I’m here from xxxx marketing and I was wondering if I could have a few minutes of yo-” [conversation abruptly ends]

“Hello madam how are you today?”
“[any answer]”
“That is lovely to hear, how can I help you today?”

“Hello sir, I love your umbrella”
[no response]
“I would like to talk to you about the charity….”

I’m sure you have heard many kinds of conversations like this. People in business, communications, politics or any kind of endeavour where currying favour is required, will be familiar with the notion that first impressions matter. Goffman’s Doctoral Dissertation on the subject of the interactions in a Shetlands hotel between the staff and customers, as well as between staff and the behaviours exhibited in front of staff and away from staff, formed the basis of his thought on interaction.

I have two contradictory feelings about Goffman, one is that I found it incredibly difficult to grasp the first time I read his monograph Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (henceforth ‘Presentation’), the second time reading it is similarly difficult, but perhaps I have a differing perspective on it now. The second thought that I have is that I see Goffman as relevant to everything in society insofar as it relates to people interacting in a dyadic (that is to say, one node to another, or ‘one on one’ in a more informal manner) manner, when it comes to polyadic, well, maybe I’ll get to that later.

The second time reading Goffman has made me think of the wider context in which he wrote. Goffman was a contemporary of Robert K. Merton; seems to be familiar with Sartre’s Being and Nothingness; and was influential to a number of sociologists who took interaction more seriously. I believe that Goffman’s work on the Total Institution  was referenced by Foucault in Discipline and Punish as a basis for the latter’s own work, but that is a subject beyond my current comprehension, and the topic of this post.

The definition of the situation is a term that sounds opaque to me, it is even more unhelpful to find that it has an existentialist origin. I think there is something interesting to be said about the fact that Goffman leans heavily on Sartre’s thought in discussing this issue. What is the definition of the situation?

As I have read it, the Definition of the Situation is a social confine within a singular interaction between at least two agents, this reflects the nature of what this social interaction is. The Definition of the situation reflects macrosocial features but only in a crude sense, within the macrosocial construction an agent can navigate within. Insofar as interactions allow for more fine grained manoeuvre of outcomes from the crude macrosocial colouring of interactions, we have a layer of the microsocial.

Lets start with a distinction. By macrosocial impacts upon interaction, I mean features such as ethnicity/race, gender/sex, class/status, or other situational factors (such as facial disfigurement, wearing a wedding dress etc) imposing on how one may see another. If I were to write like Goffman, I would cite cultural examples like how a Black man in the United States during the Jim Crow period may be referred to as ‘Boy’, or how in contemporary society, diminuitive terms for women or affectionate others may be denoted as ‘honey’, ‘babe’, ‘sweets’, ‘love’ etc.

The best elaboration of the Definition of the Situation comes from my Sociology Lecturer who taught me Goffman, Kieran Flanagan, who spoke of an anecdote of a ‘young student during the 1970s’ in the US speaking to a hotelier. The hotelier asks the young man politely, ‘and how was your day sir?’, the young Sociology Masters student  man replies: “I’M FUCKING AWFUL”. There was a slight pause, and the young man realised that the hotelier was mortified. The older woman was working along a constructed social script, and had faced a reaction that she was incapable of responding to, in this response, the young man had broken the interaction and shattered the message that was trying to be conveyed by the hotelier.

For me, this example says everything about what the Definition of the Situation is, and perhaps made me understand the real meaning of ‘losing face’. the Definition of the Situation is, to put it in business parlance, trying to communicate a message, and trying to put forward a pitch. What I find personally revolting about this kind of agency, is that the message you are putting forward in the definition of the situation (such as a kind receptionist appearing simultaneously sexually available, attentive, helpful and courteous) is that much of this is defined by her or his role. What exactly are the features of this role are often tacit. Goffman presents a world of agency where our interactions are often an alienation of our true self and more a communication of what we are prescribed to do. This is at least the case in the ‘Front’ side of our social interactions (which I have planned to talk about in my fourth post).

The Definition of the Situation is the confine of rule-following behaviour in interactions between social agents. In a coffee conversation with Destre, I mentioned my thoughts on Goffman to him and I said almost disparagingly, in relation to another conversation we had about Kant’s Categories: maybe this is what Kant meant by the ‘receptivity between agent and patient’. The interaction between people is a fundamental social aspect, and there is something distinctly fluid about its nature.

From a personal perspective I feel that I fail as a social person. I’m very awkward and difficult around new situations and I’m not good at working within the ‘Definition of the Situation’. However there are agents who could perhaps play very well in these constructions: people who have something to sell, pick up artists (usually men) trying to pick up (usually) women; or anyone working in the service industry. I find usually that having a presence of fixed items or aspects to a role make my anxiety about social interactions a lot easier. There is a sense in which I colloquilally consider Goffman to be a justification or theoretical eludication of my own perspective to social anxiety.

In my next post I shall attempt to discuss the role of ‘props’.

Michael

On being a spectator (and not being a spectator)

Concerning his brother’s slow demise into death, I recall Peter Hitchens mentioned how in trying to share important final moments to stick to safe subjects that will not arouse disagreement. This has stuck with me as over the past year I recall how one person that I knew who had died was distinctly peaceful and quiet when I met him in his later moments. It is this thought that inspires my post.
 
One aspect that I’ve been trying to cultivate over the past few years is learning to be a good spectator as opposed to an actor or someone who drives things to happen. I was attempting to be an actor to a fault, and it almost seems I am doing the opposite now these days! It’s not that I’ve become agnostic politically or in some other polemical issue, perhaps more interested to hear a broad spectrum of opinions and witholding judgment (moral, epistemic etc) as a principle of reason. I used to call such a person an ‘auxillary’ character, such as a background or supporting character in a novel, where the protagonist had a much more domineering and indispensible role. This was my view of social relations and life in general, until I learned to be a better spectator.

I had to feel that I was involved in committees, I had to have my say in intellectual discussions, I had to share my ‘nuanced and sophisticated’ insight that characteristically tries to confer a profoundly difficult thought in as crude a manner as possible. I prefer not being a part of that in a way, because it is liberating. There are so many dispositions and kneejerk responses that I could have, and in a sense I feel enslaved by them. How odd it might seem to be enslaved by your own opinions and feelings? Well I would say that having such a strong commitment to these things such as your beliefs and your feelings may limit your perspective from how others see things, and limit a genuine appraisal of the world. To even admit of a separation from ‘what i see’ to ‘what is there’ provokes the moderation of a platonic third man that stands between you and the truth of the matter. This can be worrying, but I see it as a quiet delight.

Often our kneejerk reactions are short sighted, often our beliefs have bases which are often non epistemic. Sometimes our commitment to ideas and theories and ideologies and creeds are more tribal than about the veritude of these ideas themselves. It is this sense of elevation from one’s own beliefs that Nietzsche calls such a pursuit of truth a lonely one. To think of issues outside of your comfortable frame of what you believe and understand means you lose the comfort and security of having a tribe that agrees with you, or an identification with it.

Being a spectator has this epistemic aspect, I find it also has an aspect of magnanimity in terms of moral character. There are many positives to being a witness rather than an actor. Over the years when I have been present at my brother’s live performances he has always appreciated this gesture of support. Attending parties with friends even when one has not much to say can make me feel awkward but I have been told that just being there among familiars has allowed for an enhanced experience.

Lately I’ve been involved with a local community group. I seem to be getting more involved than I expected to be. I feel like I am going against my credo of being a spectator. I’ve also been preparing for the past couple of months a programme of pieces to perform (as a solo pianist) at my cousin’s wedding. I will be taking on that mantle of performer and actor again in a most literal way.

In preparing my piano repetoire, I express a personality through my pieces. I like Scott Joplin ragtimes, I have a love for the early 20thC and the history and culture of the period, I suppose I feel a very strong affinity in that my piano teacher was born in the 1910s and saw so many grand world events through the streets of South London and during the war, in the Shetland Isles. I have an appreciation for the Romantic period which is a very big indulgence for me. I have written in my philosopher guise that I hate romanticism and that sentimentality and other such schmaltzy and cheesy things are morally bad, but my pianistic tendencies are towards the Rachmaninov, Chopin and Brahms way of things.

In rediscovering my piano repetoire I feel like there is a ‘factory setting’ version of me. I’m a massive Romantic afficionado, I love chords thick, rich, discordant and technical challenging fingerings are a form of vivid self expression. I have a sense of humour in my music performance that I try to communicate in a relevant way to the audience. I have lots of favourite songs kept far away, I tend not to listen to my favourite songs because if I listen to it a lot I will end up getting tired of it, but rediscovering it makes me fall in love with it all the time. A hallmark of a song that I truly love immerses me in a period of time in the past and I get to experience so much of those memories. I remember when I lived in Clifton, Bristol and there was an overcharged corner shop near the union but nothing else would be open on a sunday that was nearby so I bought some 2 week old cakes, or going out to the suspension bridge in my oversized jacket. I remember these things through this song. I return to an emotional atarvarism and with some songs I add to it.

Its a common saying not to dwell too much on the past as to forget the present. I do think this is true, and I have a habit of being too atarvaristic about things like favourite songs or piano repetoire, and they represent for me the times when I was not a spectator but an actor. For this reason I find it a form of liberation not to be defined by those things all the time. I am walking a symbolic crossroads again, like I did when I was along the Clifton Suspension Bridge. On the one hand I could spectate and be free of my individuality and tendencies over the cityscape full of indistinct others. Or I could be in the other side of that bridge in the Avon wilderness, returning to my nature.

I would like to walk a path between those things. I suppose that’s what I’m trying to do these days. I used to be too much of a do-er to the effect of not listening to other people or not taking up feedback, these days I’m a little bit too much of a spectator, who needs to call bullshit when its needed, make a funny joke, or perform that cadenza in a parodical chopin style. Recent events have given me an oppurtunity to be a bit of both. I do enjoy the alienation of being a spectator, the alienation of things not having to be about what I’m thinking or observing all the time, but someone else’s narrative. I think that’s what it means to have shared life experiences. Being silent and observing is one of my learned dispositions.  I find it a calming form of distance from oneself.

On the other hand, when I perform at my cousin’s wedding. I will enjoy being back in front of a grand piano as a soloist, I’m going make a rendition of Barry Manilow’s ‘Could it be magic’ that involves TWO Chopin c-minor preludes, a Bach piece or two, my old Brahms number with stanzas of ragtime pieces as page turning interludes between them. I think I might try doing some blues improvisation too. A mix of humour and audacity, with a staunch respect and commitment to classicism and romanticism in music because that’s the person I am.

Michael

In Praise of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes

For over a year and a half, I had been following an animated series that has excited and provoked me so much as Marvel’s ‘Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’. The series was originally created as a supplement to the Avengers-fever created by the recent Marvel Studio films from around 2008-9 onwards which culminated recently by the ‘Avengers Assemble’ team-up film. In this post I want to address a few issues as to why this series will be sadly missed as it has been cancelled (for another Avengers animated series – go figure). This series was a study on relationships between different hero archetypes.
 
Watching this series reflects the ongoing cultural influence of the Marvel mythology, continuity and comparisons with previous Marvel cartoon ventures. Finally, this series contained a lot of plain old absurdity which reflects how fantastically impossible and bizarre many of the characters and predicaments are in this universe.

Post-teenage audience

Avengers’: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (EMH) was a series that had an appeal to a wide audience: people new to Marvel and completely unfamiliar with the comic universe; people who have come to know the characters through films such as Iron Man or Thor; casual nerd types like me who have followed and enjoyed the series of yesteryear like Spiderman: The Animated Series in the mid 1990s, X-Men Evolution in the early 2000s; and finally the big comic book nerd types who enjoy details like obscure references to characters and Marvel Comic storylines.

One thing I must admit is that Marvel series have so many different continuities that I don’t even try to understand it. There are so many current series of X-Men, so many Spiderman titles and I don’t know how they have explained how continued characters like Iron Man’s Tony Stark or Captain America (Steve Rogers) are still saving the world in 2012 even though they’ve been at it for over 30 years (even with Captain America’s cryogenic freezing, Rogers will have to be physically over 50 yet retains a perfectly young appearance). I think that’s left to what people may call a suspension of judgment.

EMH represented an animated series that a certain audience had been waiting a long time for: a mature and engaging superhero narrative that didn’t patronise or appear overly child-like. Many people in their 20-30s (or older) who grew up with the strong series of X-Men in the 1990s or Spiderman TAS have not been met with particularly good efforts by Marvel in terms of animated series or plotlines. While this is a show definitely marketed to children, one may find, as this is the case for a lot of children’s programming these days: something that adults can appreciate.

Character development

Perhaps the one true strength of this series is the depth of characters. It’s fair to say that this series (and Marvel Comics in general) doesn’t always get it right in terms of ethnic and gender diversity, I suspect that its better than most. There is a distinct homoerotic/bromance feel to many of the partnerships made between characters, this makes the characters relatable even when they possess obscenely inhuman abilities.

There has been an interesting discussion in recent weeks on the Bloggosphere critiquing exactly how positive ‘strong female characters’ are. For instance, are female characters over-the-top with their abilities to the extent of not being realistic (more super than hero) to the effect of being unrelatable. Likewise, there was the recent piece by Laurie Penny about the unhelpful role of sexual assault as an aspect of character development. There were very few female characters in the EMH Avengers roster.

I am curious if the dialogue between women passed the Bechdel test. I must say that Carol Danvers’ ‘Marvel Girl’ was a particularly good female character. Danvers, like Steve Rogers/Captain America, was a career soldier before she became a superhero, there is even a joke that her rank (Major) is higher than Rogers. Except for her relationship with Mar-Vell, there is hardly any suggestion about her romantic life nor was it considered appropriate to comment on it. Contrast this to the sleazy character of The Flash in the 2000s Justice League series who always hit on his female colleagues and we can see a little bit of a sea change with contemporary superheroes

Characters that I think showed real depth include Hawkeye, who as one of the only heroes with no powers at all, holds his own against freakishly strong supersoldiers. Clint Barton’s one big virtue was his heroic attitude and determination against the odds. Characters such as Thor and Iron Man exhibit flaws and opportunities for change and growth, Thor’s second season encounter with Beta Ray Bill, a lone alien against an impossible foe, taught the God humility. Perhaps the most interesting character of all is Steve Rogers, whose reputation is destroyed after an impostor abused the reputation of Captain America. Captain America represents an old style hero who embodies nobility and a commitment to the moral good, however this version of Captain America is slightly different. The disputes between Tony Stark/Iron Man and Rogers in the comics are legendary, and this is mildly reflected in a clash of big egos. Rogers also exhibits self doubt, living in a decade far different to his original timeline and exhibits a sense of pathos by surviving long after his comrades had died. Of course with so many characters introduced in a series such as EMH, its no surprise that not every character is given as much attention.

Plotlines

One engaging point of the series would be the immersive and continuing plotlines. While some episodes are open and shut vignettes, they often have currents and reverberations in later episodes, such as the episode with “Prison 42”, an extradimensional prison holding foes of the Avengers, which later was used as a containment device for defeating Galactus. There are hints and allusions to recent Marvel storylines, such as the Civil War and Secret Invasion. This serves as a form of fan service to the adult audience, as well as of course offering engaging interpretations of Marvel stories, without appealing to the same tired old stories (c.f. Spiderman’s origin story).

Previous Marvel series

When it comes to Marvel series, cancellations have been controversial in recent years. EMH replaced an already running series, Spectacular Spiderman, which at the time was well recieved. Another Spiderman series is now running, which is, with some conviction I deem terrible. This recent history of cancelled ventures with Marvel is met with unpopularity with fans, especially due to the appeal of EMH. This series revives a certain nostalgia of the team-ups depicted in Spiderman TAS, as well as the engaging plotlines of X-Men. In my view this series also enters dark psychological territory which makes these most superhuman of people, human.

Plain old absurdity

Perhaps the most amusing part of this series is the comedy, and the situations depicted. Certain Marvel characters make cameos such as War Machine, Spiderman and the Fantastic Four. These characters bring a sense of difference in their attitude and outlook, often pointing out how ridiculous the Avengers on occasion are: having their headquarters in public, or the identity of Iron Man the worst kept secret. I suspect that the writers saw the success of the 1960s spiderman meme as an inspiration for the bizarre situations in this series.

Summary

It is with sadness that this series had been cancelled at a second season when so many televisual series last for so long these days. I appreciate that the series cancellation ended on a high note, and while not all plotlines were resolved, the series ended at a zenith, this cannot be said for many other series that go on for so long, animated or otherwise. Even though I watch this series as a post-teenager, I will remember it with the same fondness as I did as any cartoon from the 1990s. As this series passes the torch to something else, it consolidated all of the elements of success about the past two decades of Marvel Cartoons, while also making its own stamp. It also got me back into comics!

Sinistre*