Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Sound and the Fury and the whirry (and the worry)

This past month, I spent many an evening hour working in a large and low-lit basement wood-shop just off East Hastings.  I was slowly building my first wood table, though by the end of my sessions I was often scuttling boards at random between the planer, jointer, and electric sander, each one generating a different sonic blast in their promise to edge off whatever irregularity the project was giving me. Enough back and forth between the machines would have me feeling tired and foggy, the productivity dipping steadily. Even though I always wore a dust mask, and was alert to the presence of certain odours and the possibilities of fires (a beginner here), I tended to follow the experienced carpenters in the space and neglect my earbuds except under very loud circumstances. In part this was because I loved what the room was giving me: the interclatter of old machinery, the generator’s low throb, the sudden rush of the pipes, and all sorts of lively sounds —  beneath floorboards, in adjacent rooms — I couldn’t attribute purpose to.  The spooky basement would be rumbling with the energy of a thunderstorm at times. Perhaps this is why it always took me the longest to come to my aural senses, to realize that the noise really wasn’t helping the work. I may have even lost a few frequencies of audibility in the process.

Many people spend entire lives in indoor environments like this one. As someone who studies the health of outdoor environments — or is attempting to at least — I’ve come to find it interesting how few scholars come to consider the indoor ones we so often inhabit. To give interior spaces an environmental perspective, in other words, and not just a social diagnosis involving chemicals and carincogens. One great, recent, exception (and one I’ve parroted about enough lately) is Michelle Murphy, whose book Sick Building Syndrome (Duke, 2006), looks at the construction of indoor environments in large 1970s office buildings.  But the person I want to showcase here had something to say about the sonic qualities of indoor environments — not just with the music one chooses to play, in other words, but all the humming, bleeping and grating socionatural energy that makes industrial labor possible. That person is Raymond Hetu, a little known acoustician and social scientist who taught at the University of Montreal in the 1980s and early 1990s. Hetu wrote about statistics like: “60% of the American industrial workforce was exposed to sound levels capable of hearing damage” and inferences like: “worker demand for hearing protection is very low in Quebec, despite various sustained effects.” Hetu, who died in 1995, left behind some interesting thoughts on a topic that deserves closer examination.

Raymond Hetu

He was the first scholar to frame factory noise as a problem that demanded an ecological response. Writing with William Noble in 1994, Hetu made the point that noise induced hearing loss in factories is mistakenly treated as an individual problem, when the fragmentation of the social body as a result of the noise — through loss of communicative ability, diminished spatial awareness, shame and isolation — is what really needs attention: “An ecological approach pays attention to the interactions among all relevant components in an ecosphere.” Accordingly: “This approach allows the concept of disability (usually thought of as a property of the individual) to be replaced, for the purpose of analysis, with that of the system as a whole providing conditions that are enabling or disabling.” When agency is attached to buildings, it is usually in the form of responsive visual interfaces or green walls. What Hetu and Noble want is a sort of cultural ecology of indoor sound environments, one in which individuals provide live feedbacks into the entire modulating sound-system whose regulation demands social and technical forms of responsibility.

Hetu seemed personally disturbed by the fact that noise induced hearing loss was so seldom discussed by anyone.  In a set of articles he wrote shortly before his death, Hetu considered the way industrial hearing conversation policies are black boxed. Armed with a deep knowledge of otology (the ear), he recognized the dangers of simply quantifying noise limits when other factors (exposure time, individual capacity, overall environmental conditions) were at play. He was keen to suggest that discourses of masculinity were actively encouraged for enduring high sound levels and avoiding the dainty application of earbuds. Compensatory regimes minimized corporate risk by insisting on direct causal relationships for a condition (hearing loss) recognized as late-onset and cumulative. Digging into the some of the literature published by the industry-friendly American Academy of Ophthamology and Otolaryngology (AAOO), Hetu unearthed policies insisting that for factory workers, certain sensory capacities were actually superfluous. For Marxists concerned with the ways the worker’s body is drained of its labor power by the capitalist mode of production, alarm bells should be ringing here. Indeed, Hetu was up in arms at the fact that so many unions remained uninterested in an issue that was causing such harm to their members.

People with hearing impairments tend to put a brave face on their conditions, and their friends often tease them about it, but its a scary thing. Especially as we grow old, as it combines with other social issues and diminished physical abilities — ageism in the workplace is an increasingly recognized social problem. I suspect its those things, like hearing, that others can treat so lightly that gives it its cruel underside.  Fifteen years ago, Hetu proposed a dynamic model of noise regulation — in which changes to the acoustic environment are governed not by objective limits, but characteristics of human capacities (communication and consultation, for instance) — that still stands out as respectful and attentive in a way our general cultural attitudes aren’t. From my brief wood-shop experience, these barriers seem pretty hard to remove, and other hazards justifiably deserve more direct immediate attention too. Blocking out your ears isn’t always the answer though. For me at least, the balance that has to be struck is between being able to listen to the lively energy of the interior environments we create and co-constitute, and being able to listen period.



It was hard not to notice the importance of Kevin Durant’s arms over OKC’s incredible comeback against the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA semis. The things were everywhere — intercepting passing lanes, flicking 3 pointers, leading the break. The 6’9 shooting guard reportedly has a 7’5 wingspan, which puts his extensions in rare company for a player at any position. It is for these reasons and the inviting fact of his last name that the multi-skilled scoring machine often goes by nickname alone: “Durantula.”

There are all sorts of great nicknames in the NBA, from the domestic “Hibachi” (Gilbert Arenas), to the goofy “Round Mound of Rebound” (Charles Barkley), to the supremely self-evident — “#23.” Even if we go by one category — say, ‘animate nicknames’, for the sake of this blog’s focus — the NBA offers much in the way of choice. Many fall in the ‘animal-hustle’ category: Jerome “Junkyard Dog” Williams; Dan “the Horse” Issel; Craig “Rhino” Smith; Ken “The Animal” Bannister.  Another broad category is ‘animal-predator’: While Trevor “Cobra” Ariza packs a poisonous punch for opposing defenses, far deadlier is the “Black Mamba,” aka Kobe Bryant (though we should also note his dialectical opposite, Brian “White Mamba” Scalabrine, is anything but). A third category is the animal-as-cartoon, like Damon “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire, giving you way more than his 5’9 frame would suggest, or Toni “The Pink Panther” Kukoc who was smooth and Euro-effeminate, or Jim “Kangaroo Kid” Pollard’s name should need no explanation.  A fourth is not ‘animal’ but bio-mechanical: here we have LeBron “L-Train” James, Vince Carter (“half man half amazing”), Dwight Howard (“Superman”), and the grandaddy of the self-appointed NBA nickname, Shaquille “Shaq Diesel” O’Neal (aka “Shaq Fu”, “The Big Aristotle”, “Superman”, “The Big Maravich”, “The Big Felon”, “The Big Cactus”, “The Big Cordially”, and “The Big Shamrock”). By far the best grouping is ‘miscellaneous animal.’ My all time favorite belongs to the mysterious Bill Mlkvy, who played less than one season in 1982, and was called “The Owl without a Vowel” for what seem to be purely mnemonic reasons. The jury may still be out on the Loch Ness monster but it certainly ain’t about the game of John Brockman, aka “The Brockness Monster” (because he so rarely surfaced on the court during games). Streetball legend Earl “the Goat” Manigault was neither of the NBA nor the animal kingdom, but he was considered by some to be the Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T).

Now the world of NBA nicknames is interesting enough, but it relates to something I find to be much more so: the world of NBA tattoos. Back to “Durantula” here. The OKC star was recently involved in something of a controversy over his secretive deployment of ink. His spider arms are clean, as the photo indicates, but his chest and back are all tattied up. In fact, there’s a fascinatingly weird world down there: a Wallgreens logo, a sort of ‘Little House of the Prairie’ with a pioneer home, trees, and a baby Durant; some scripture; Wanda mother’s name, a cross… there’s also a massive state of Maryland on his back. Durant isn’t alone in his choice of unsual torso tatts — Gilbert Arenas has the face of giant tiger across his chest (with black nipples for eyes); Monta Ellis recently inserted a Tree of Life rendering that extends across his arms; and in what is perhaps the ugliest of them all, Andrei “AK-47” Kirilenko has the World of Warcraft dragon emblazoned across his entire Russified backside.

The symbolic logic of Kevin Durant

Gilbert Arenas

Monta Ellis

So why would Durant hide his? They have been described by some as “business tattoos,” the insinuation being that one of the league’s biggest rising stars doesn’t want to jeopardize his marketability by marking up his lineaments.  Less than 15% NBA players had tattoos at the outset of the 1990s.  By 2002, the number spiked to 50%. Many of the NBA’s other highly marketable stars — Lebron, Wade, Kobe — are all filled with exposed tattoos, but Durant can have a squeaky clean image if he wants it. Its an interesting decision on his part — and one many of his best rivals — Blake Griffin, John Wall, and  Durant’s teammate, Russell Westbrook — have chosen to follow as well.

In a sports world full of canned promo and potted interviews, the highly regulated body of the NBAer is a fascinating site for the convergence of all sorts of cultural-economic forces — from health insurance to hip hop.  Tattoos reveal how iterative and self-reflexive the branding process really is — and how much more is at stake than simplistic accounts of self-commodification would suppose.  In a now decade-old piece for the Village Voice, David Shields notes that players of body-contact sports opt for tattoos far more than those in non-contact sports (eg. baseball, tennis).   There is no better example of this than the NBA. For many NBA players, tattoos describe maps of self-narrativization that speak in ways they never would. A wide array of tropes are written across the skins of any number of players: the grieving son, the grieving sibling, the family breadwinner, the state hero, the shoe rep, the former thug, the current thug, the rich man, the black man, the spiritual man. And once the ink dries to face the world, tattoos combine with the nicknames, the marketing of the nicknames through the shoes (like Durant’s Adidas Predator), the trademark spin-moves, the overly-speculated upon injuries, the Gatorade consumption —  to spiral outwards to the relatives, the fans, the hangers-on, the agents, the video-game designers, the executives, and so on. NBA bodies occupy a site within something largely understudied in the social sciences despite its centrality to American social life: the intersection of race, representation, and sport.

No one player was more responsible for the mainstreaming of the NBA tattoo than Allen Iverson (my personal G.O.A.T., for what its worth). Iverson, whose cat-like quickness made him unguardable, and at six feet 165 pounds has been called the “pound-for-pound most gifted and fearless guard to ever play pro basketball,” entered the league in 1996 with single marking on his right arm and a two-word inscription beneath it. The bulldog tattoo branded him as a Georgetown Hoya, and the “the Answer” became both his self-appointed nickname and best selling shoe.  He was product of a 15 year old mother and had two counts of gun-possession to his name before he turned 21. While many players’ would permit theirs some wackiness after they got rich, Iverson’s tattoos remained painfully self-revealing: “F.A.M.E” (Fuck all my Enemies); “RA Boogie”  (a childhood friend who was shot); “Only the Strong Survive”;“Loyality;” “Money Bagz.”

Allen Iverson

Over the course of his NBA career, Iverson’s body got many more tattoos and became involved in many more controversies — over skull-caps and cornrows, jewelry and rap skills, and somewhat hilariously — practice. His 2001 outburst upon hearing that the NBA’s Hoop Magazine had airbrushed his tattoos off a photograph of him for a magazine cover, was memorable and justified:  “That’s not right. Hey, I am who I am. You can’t change that. Who gives them the authority to remake me? Everybody knows who Allen Iverson is. That’s wild. That’s kind of crazy…. They don’t have the right to try to present me in another way to the public than the way I truly am without my permission. It’s an act of freedom and a form of self-expression.”

Iverson played fearlessly and wildly selfishly at times, winning scoring championships despite limited surrounding talent. He played through a tailbone contusion, a right shoulder dislocation, multiple broken fingers, and fractured left hand.  Like his tattoos, Inverson’s body was used to sell other products and to be consumed as one.  It will bear these decisions for the rest of its life cycle.  Now 38 and unable to secure another NBA contract despite a stated willingness to play anywhere, Iverson will have watch the Durantula & Co. finals as a spectator.  Though its widely speculated he really needs the money, its a shame no one signed him because you know he would have given his all regardless.  As much as I am awed at the physical abilities of these players, nothing replaces their story-lines.










Life m/eats death in a flesh-eating beetle colony

While visiting the University of Wisconsin – Madison, two days ago

UW’s Zoological Museum curator handed me a large box and disappeared behind a hobbit-like door leading into the side of a grassy hill leading up to one of the campus’s buildings. I peered into the box: a mangle of delicate swan bones covered in dried pinky-red flesh. I might have dropped it if it wasn’t so feather-light. We – a group of grad students, artists, poets, and professors gathered for the Taking Animals Apart conference – had just spent an hour checking out the museum’s collection of specimens: articulated and disarticulated skeletons, shelves lined with jars of preserved animals, and taxidermied mounts and full animal bodies. Noteworthy specimens: a giant beaver skull (like below) found just a few miles from the university campus in a peat bog, and a drawer full of stuffed passenger pigeons lying tidily side by side on a large pillow.

How long do you think before Harper makes this "old" beaver Canada's new amped up national symbol?


When the curator returned we followed her into the dimly lit, narrow, low ceilinged corridor. The air became increasingly steamy and hot, the walls dripping with condensation, as we snaked out way underground. With a flourish the curator opened a second door and we entered a small cavern thick with steam: the university’s private dermestid beetle colony. Or, flesh-eating beetles.

Cutaway view of the "Old Met Lab" from 1877 – home to the flesh eating beetle colony since 1950

Spotting two hefty scurrying bugs I exclaimed: “they’ve escaped!” Thankfully only the nearest person to me heard, and corrected me: “uh, those are cockroaches”. Oops (thanks, rural upbringing!). The beetles are much smaller than cockroaches, and filled several raised stainless steel tanks the size of large trunks. Lifting the lid, the curator placed the swan bones in one container and misted the container with water. Within a few days, she explained, the bones would be picked spotlessly clean by the beetles so that only minor prep is needed before the bones can be catalogued into the museum’s research collections.

Ring-tailed lemur being prepared at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna

Dermestid colonies are still used extensively by museum like the UW’s (and by taxidermists). It was hard to reconcile the clinical, sterile, and meticulously organized collection of unblemished, labeled organisms in the museum’s collection with the dank, feral world of the underground flesh-eating beetle colony. A lot of work goes into maintaining the beetles as a living colony that transforms messy remains of death into bones stripped clean and ready to be placed into taxonomically categorized drawers. Both of these worlds – the underground beetle colony and the floors of cabinets full of specimens – gave whole new meaning to Roland Barthes’s comment that “all classifications are oppressive.” I was reminded also of how “taking animals apart” often occurs in a largely hidden space using messy practices, like butchering meat or milking dairy cows. The end product is clean, largely divested of the blood, feces, sweat and bugs that formed it. Our general collective ignorance of these processes is in some ways a classic form of commodity fetishism, wherein the commodity is treated like “it has a life of its own” (as Marx famously remarked) rather than as a social product created through multiple  (and usually highly unequal) relations and processes. But animals that are taken apart do or did have lives of their own, bringing a whole new set of ethical and political questions to the fore, and reminding us that life, too, can be doubly erased by the end product of taking animals apart.


Real Aliens

I can’t wait to see Prometheus, the fifth installment of the epic Aliens movies. I’ve spent chunks of the previous two evenings re-watching parts one and two, pouring over H.R. Giger’s creepy sketches online, and fantasizing about the “face-hugger mask” I could to design and wear to the theatre on June 8th.

It struck me how much the pronounced vertebrae and pointed tails of the alien resemble those of the brine shrimp adorning Artemia’s front page. Further research led to an interesting discovery: both aliens and brine shrimp have an amazing ability to produce eggs that can be left dormant for long periods and “hatched on demand.”  Both species are hyper-resilient, and able to subsist in various atmospheric conditions. In their different worlds, both species are profoundly involved in what Bruno Latour has called “laboratory life”  — places where the production of life, value and scientific knowledge are actualized. I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but the point is straightforward enough: I don’t think any of these connections is coincidental. American pop culture knows very little about the world of brine shrimp (“artemia”), but it has an idealargely informed by good sci-fi — of what it should think of all the shadow activity transpiring upon  them and similar life forms. I’m suggesting the Alien movies cast moral-epsitemological light upon the varied practices (bioprospecting, bioassays etc.) shaping contemporary incursions into the production of life and value. Consider this my sketch for the world Prometheus.

The Alien economy of reproduction.

The key, of course, is the egg, the ultimate symbol of life’s value and the ultimate symbol of life’s brutality in the Alien movies.  The egg internalizes the alien economy of reproduction, one which is exploitative, parasitic, and unflinchingly cruel: find a host, invade, use its life, unleash the beast within, repeat. And if there is one word which I think helps understand why this process is so scary in the films, its this one: ‘metabolism.’ Metabolism can refer to the set of chemical reactions that happen in the cells of living organisms in order to sustain life. For Marx, metabolism can be used in a social sense, to describe the “material interchange” or “exchange of matter” that takes places between humans and nature. The alien egg describes the fascinating interconnections between both.

Eggs in general tells us a lot about the ways contemporary economies work: producing life and squeezing productivity out of life, processes resulting in phase shifts in our worldly epistemologies and bodily constitutions — see Kaushik Rajan’s recent talk for more on this.  For Marx, the whole point of talking about metabolism was to describe the problems of capitalism — its characteristic feature of a “metabolic rift.” Capitalism “produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism,” he writes. Its certainly possible to read Alien as a horror of male pregnancy — of man going into labor — but I’m suggesting its the other way around as well: its labor, alien labor, going into man, man who suddenly becomes the material substrate for the alien’s “form giving fire.” What could better combine Marx’s “metabolic rift” with the terrifying implications of capitalism’s growing interest in the body as its new site of value production than the blood-spattered, chest-popping emergence of the alien life-form from the value-depleted human corpus?

Alien meets crew: "my compliments to the chef"

Alien (1979) gets the anxiety going at high boil.  We begin in a world we are actually pretty familiar with: recall that the people responding to the distress signal are the agents of industrial capital: the working- class miners of the Nostromo. Their journey into the silent planetary underworld describes a society’s general entree into a new bio-economy. This is rendered quite stunningly as the Cain descends into the depths of the “alienated” ship. The dark endoskeletized stuff growing across all the infrastructure anticipates the way human bodies will get metabolized by alien bio-power.  And frankly, its these interior shots that made the first watching of Alien (me, age 8) so damn scary — the movie seems to have drawn more from the sweaty underbelly of feminist Minimalism — say, Eva Hesse or Louise Bourgeois — than the masculine geometry of other sci-fi movies: Star Trek, 2001 etc. It works with a whole new cultural logic of bodily anxiety, one which has had a huge effect on all the sci-fi horror lexicon since – Tremors (1990), Species (1994), Mimic (1997) etc.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Western science came to believe that parasites were separate creatures rather than manifestations of moral malaise generated within the body.  Alien puts us back in that earlier more doubtful period. It does this by asking us to consider the ambivalence of man’s metabolizing mission (miners, after all). Turns out they dig too deep.  And because of what happens, we are able to see how humans sociality really is, at its base, pretty nasty. Time and time again ‘the company’ will screw over the crew  — via the Android, Ash (Ian Holm), in Alien; or Burke (Paul Reiser), the executive, in Aliens; or the creepy doctor Gediman (Brad Dourif), in Resurrection. The morality of capitalism is always called into question via a company spokesperson. “Is this going to be another bug hunt?” Hudson (Bill Paxson) asks imperialistically in Aliens (1986). Successful parasites are ones that go unnoticed by the host body. For all his hubris, Hudson becomes the first one to crack, the first Marine to question the parasitic social relation he serves — disavowing the mission in memorable fashion (“Game over man, game over!”).

Hudson is overwhelmed. Again.

Recall all those laboratory scenes throughout the Alien movies; clearly scientists are fascinated by the thing.  As with artemia, the real value of the aliens is not in the beauty of their biological feat-of-life. Rather its in their industrial use-value –in the aliens’ case, as biological weaponry.  “At least they don’t fuck each other for a goddamn percentage,” an exasperated Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) tells us at one point.  To cope with all the exploitation, Ripley, our moral compass, has to go from outrage at the humans to a severely compromised one herself. Her metabolic transformations can be read as a purposeful alienation from comprised human sociality. This builds slowly, in the first movie it is revealed through her special compassion with another non-human – Jones the cat. In Aliens (1986), Ripley shows her willingness to adjust her humanity by going cyborg — donning a giant robot-like cargo-loader unit, and eventually beating an Alien Queen with it.  In Alien 3 (1992), she participates directly in the metabolic exchange. In its final scene, she accepts the destruction of her humanity, thrusting herself religiously into a pit of fire.  But escape from capitalism’s metabolic relation isn’t easy: in Resurrection greedy scientists on the space station Auriga cloned her back to life to crossbreeding tests on other humans. And because Ripley had the alien inside her, the new Ripley is transformed:  super-strong, acid-veined, needlessly tempermental.

"Think you know how much Reality Bites, bitch?"

The alienation of Ripley is essential for her survival in society, but so is humanization of the alien. By the time of Resurrection (1997), the alien metabolism has been transformed in turn — the Alien queen now possesses a womb: it can give birth to live offspring without the need for eggs and human hosts. From this new metabolism emerges a new being — the Alien Queen/Ripley spawn.  Appropriately, its humanization contributes to its heightened terror: traditionally, parasites are not out to get humans; for many of them we are irrelevant or inadvertent objects to metabolize with. This is the impression we are left with in Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986) even to a certain extent up to Alien 3 (1992) — where the suffering of the innocent dog has us a little less convinced. But Alien Queen/Ripley-spawn in Resurrection (1997) seems to enjoy popping heads and observing the bloody remains. Ripley’s compassion for her offspring’s death — sucked, as always out of the airlock — has us feeling even more unsettled.

Its possible to read the awesome Alien movies in so many ways: as anxieties over motherhood and pregnancy, as warnings of scientific triumphalism, mediations on the new art of war, explorations into the sociologies of deep space discovery. I’m suggesting that we can also trace in them shifting anxieties over the metabolisms of life and the economies covering the bodies of brine shrimp and humans with sticky, slimy, and salivating forms of labor. The arc that I trace in the Alien movies suggests that this gradual merging of industrial capital and life sciences upholds not so much aliens, but the process of alienation — the external undoing of an internal self-recognition applicable to all species — as the truly freaky proposition.