W(hat) W(ould) W(ertham) D(o)? The emergence of Comic Institutions

For those who grew up middle of the 20th century, Wertham is a name for some that sends cold chills down their spines in a way that the horror tales never could.  While zombies, vampires, and ghouls excited young imaginations; Wertham looked to censor such ideas.  He played a pivotal role in the demise of comic sales in the 1950s (as did television; but so the story goes, Wertham seemed to be a harbinger of a different sort).  Two good examinations of these events are covered in the documentary Tales from the Crypt Volume 1 and David Hadju’s The Ten-Cent Plague and since this is the internet age, even accessing the transcript to the Senate Subcommittee hearings with Gaines, Wertham and the whole lot can be accessed.   To see the length of his publications, this site offers up a good deal and for those interested in a copy of Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, contact me.    The summation of who Wertham is and what he did can also be found here for those who haven’t read the aforementioned book or seen the documentary.  But it’s interesting to note that not everyone is a clear critic of the cultural critic that is Wertham.  Some have had some interesting things to say, including Julian Darious in his essay, The End of Seduction (unfortunately, the essay is no longer  accessible online; which is why I was incredibly lucky to save as a PDF!)

 But here we are over 50 years later and comic books continue to thrive and take up a decent spot in popular culture.  But I think what Wertham only marginally go to towards the end of his life with regards to his examination on Fanzine culture is that this elements of popular culture do have something to offer.  More importantly, like other avenues of study and culture, they are becoming more legitimate forms, not just through mass exposure, but through serious inquiry and exploration.  Much has been written about the various academic approaches to comics, whether it's the college-level class (which some of you who are reading this are in), or the academic articles and books (of which I have added to in some small way) or the academic conferences (again, been there, done that, have a t-shirt actually--and no, it's not my Batman t-shirt either).  These have been covered at length throughout the net, but lesser so is the rise in institutions--particularly, nonprofit institutions, that are present to encourage the study, exploration, and usage of comics.  Most recently, two organizations have launched with overlapping intentions.  The Institute for Comic Studies is a nonprofit organization who looks to support in a variety of ways the further study and examination as comics while Reading With Pictures is an organization attempting to raise awareness of comics at education tools either directly connected with reading or any applicable field of knowledge.  Both are run by some of the well-known people in the field of comic studies and they clearly illustrate (pun intended) the desire to push comics beyond their most recent (and most replicated) conversation (which many within comic studies hear repeatedly) about comics not just being for kids. 

The Widened Range of Comic Institutions

The rise of such institutions indicates a clear shift and hopefully larger trend wherein cultural objects can be better understood for their potential merit and not their worst or at least less-reputable examples.  These aren't the only nonprofit organizations dealing with comics but I tend to think these show a clear shift from previous examples such as Prism Comics, which is a fantastic group that looks to promote GLBT theme comics.  Kids Love Comics is another solid organization that looks to increase awareness and tap the potential of kids to enjoy comics.  The Comic  Book Legal Defense Fund comes to mind.  This organization raises funds and provides legal advice to a variety of people within the comic industry from artists to comic book store owners whose First Amendment rights are wrongly assaulted.  These organizations are mainly concerned with increasing awareness (and protection) and encouraging certain populations to pick up the comics and appreciate their value.  The later organizations seem to take the value for granted or rather are looking to enhance our overall value of comics by supporting research.

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Destruction, Death, and Mayhem, Has Never Been This Social

I find this particular post at CollegeHumor.com quite amusing and impressive.  It's one of those jokes that also has some great insight and reveals ways of delivering information in unique and different formats.  I imagine that this kind of work would actually make it easier for students of the "Facebook" generation to visualize (and eventually conceptualize) the events and the stakes of World War II.  Now that may sound silly; how could it invoke the stakes of World War II; after all, one is considered the most significant event of the last hundred years and the other is World War II.  Ooops, I mean, the other is Facebook.  But in truth, Facebook does have a much more clear and central role in people's lives in the early 21st century than WWII does.  And before the eyes rolls and people start saying "Well, that says a lot about the people of the early 21st century," realize that we are compelled by things that are dynamic and can be engaged with;  World War II, by and large, is static or at least the means of bestowing its information and significance are static in the education system.  Books; documentaries, oral histories; and for those like myself, graphic novels.  There is some interaction there but not compared to what one does with Facebook. 

I've posed this question to my students before.  Who is the creator of your facebook profile?  Some look at me with a crazy look that hints at my intelligence or "hip" factor (and I realize by using the word "hip" significantly deterioriates any "hip"ness I might have) and they answer "I do."  More critical students may say, "Facebook does."  But very few remember realize that it's not just "Facebook, Inc" or "Me" but also our "Friends" that create our page.  We send links, poke, comment, have contact through applications, recommend friends and a variety of other tools of interaction that builds our profile and our "community." So, the interaction and communal building does make Facebook more relevant to our lives; we want to see how people react and build upon what we’ve done.  (After all, we often post stuff—links, pics, videos, etc, with the hope that people will respond). 

Therefore, something like the WWII on Facebook is an ingenious and intriguing way to parley such information.  In fact, I’m considering pushing students to re-create such similar historical (or even literary like the Romeo & Juliet on Facebook).  It uses students’ interest and pushes them to think more creatively about their forms of communication and social networks.  What's most interesting is that it takes sophisticate thought not only to create; but to understand.  Many of the jokes stem from both a knowledge of Facebook and of WWII, so if you're laughing, there's a chance you're understanding both. 


What are other examples of this out there on the Internet that use different things like online social networks to convey complex historical events, literary concepts, or even complex narratives?  In discussing or posting some, please explain in some detail how and what the author(s) are doing in their work and how it relates to this discussion.

How accurate is the WWII post (and have some evidence or clear means of proving your statements in this regard)? 

What might be (or exist) some critical responses to this?

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Beyond the Class; Or What I Hope They Take From My Course

Regardless of the topic, there's much I wish for my students to take from my course and it's in reflecting through my own instructors that I realized where these urges originate.  I have had a great deal of fantastic instructors, mentors, and colleagues (some of whom were instructors and mentors at one point) that have taught me so many things beyond the specific content of their course and so many of those lessons I hope in some way to instill with my students in whatever way I can (and preferably relevant to course material).  Here are some of those that come to mind.

Be active; not passive with life  

It's the "Carpe Diem" approach that remains so present in my mind from my sophomore year of high school when Mr. Marshall showed us Dead Poet's Society.  Life moves quickly and there is so much one can do with it.  Don't waste it.  Like I say in a great deal of my courses; if you have made it to the college, you have surpassed the education and opportunities of billions of people on this Earth--do something with those opportunities.  You should be challenged and engaged with life; not idyl.  There's much to this world waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.  Maybe a better way of stating this is to be conscious of your life and what you're doing with it. 

Words matter

Whether you're deciding how to word a criticism towards your friend ("That sweater doesn't suit you" = That sweater is damn ugly!) or how you word your final essay; how you say it is as important as what you say.  We are shaped by language and that can be problematic in many ways, but the important lesson is to remember that words have meaning and subtley.  Be conscious

Education is more than a grade

If high school was about passing; college should be about growing.  The classes in which I learned the most were the ones that I sometimes did the worse in or had the most to learn.  The grade for obvious reasons is important; but the focus should be on the process and consideration of learning (and deliberating on whether you are open to learning or just getting a degree; the difference could be between succeeding in both internal and external ways or barely making it). 

Help is not a bad thing. 

We learn at different rates; we need different approaches to learning; asking/receiving help is a good way of attaining those things we are having trouble getting.  Don't sacrifice help for pride, fear, or some other thought that claims help is a bad thing.  No one makes it without some form of help.

Failure is a significant part of the learning process

An extension of the previous one for certain.  We often learn best from our failures.  Whether that is getting a question wrong in class discussion, doing poorly on a quiz, or failing a course.  Failure can be good learning process if you take the time to consider how/why things went wrong and pay close attention to where you (or the situation itself) may have gone astray.  If we all quit the first time, we fell off our bikes, no one would learn how to ride a bike. 

Meeting the bare minimum is not way to go through life

Some students make the comment, "I just want to pass this course."  Regardless of the course, the bare minimum of passing seems problematic for several different reasons.  The first is that, this is your education--you pay for it with money and time (time in the class; homework; commuting to the school, etc).  Do you want to approach your education as "Just enough to pass"?  Equally problematic is that, while a bachelor degree is important to your overall work potential; more and more, they are not signficant enough to open that many doors.  Competition for jobs gets increasingly tougher and fair grades simply won't cut it.  You need to be committed to college; not just there to get through it.

Have direction in life, but realize you're using a map and the final destination may often need updating. 

This one's simple.  Make plans, but be prepared for them to change.  The plan will help you focus; being prepared for change will allow you to adapt more easily.  The world is changing at a rapid pace in a variety of ways; it will not always act in the way you expect.

Whatever the course; there is something redeeming and relevant to take from it.

If I responded to students who said "I hate history" with "I hate students who hate history," needless to say, I would see massive flight from my class if not some panic-striken faces.  I don't (and other faculty don't) expect love of our subject matter, but often you are there as part of a larger purpose (such as a Bachelor's Degree) and therefore, this course you're in is part of that and has something to offer.  Often a student's reluctance (I hate subject X.  I can't do subject Y) are the biggest obstacle to doing well in the course--not the course itself. 

Reflect; often and thoroughly.

If you can't articulate "Why" you like something; then you might want to take a step back.  We're told so often of what we're supposed to be, to enjoy, to like, to aim for.  But if we can't find substantial reasons for why, then we're not acting of our own volition but are being directed by others and usually those "others" don't have our interest in mind (P.S.  "Because others are doing it" is not a valid reason either).

Every choice we make is political. 

Springing from the one above, realize that so much of what we do is part of a large world system in which we are connected in thousands of ways to people all over the world.  As people who live on the high end of the economic scale (and if your in college; that most usually true), our choices with regards to clothing, food, material goods, cellphone providers, marriage, childrearing, etc all have political ramifications that ripple throughout the world.  This can be exhausting and many would rather stick their head in the sand, but it's learning this and being a more conscious decision maker that may make the difference between our own success and demise.

It's not about knowing the answers; it's about asking the right questions.

I tend to be of the camp that the more I learn; the less I know.  However, conversely, I get better at asking the right questions and unravelling the messages behind the message.  So much of life is about decoding the signs and realizing the signs are rarely fixed; therefore, so long as you continue to question, challenge, press forward, you're in a better situation than just assuming you "know" it.   

College is more than just class.

If your thought of school is simply going to classes and getting a degree; you're missing out on half your education.  The various programs, groups, clubs, activities, events, etc at the school are there for you to benefit from in both direct and indirect ways.  If you don't leave college without expanding your professional network by some 50+ people, you've wasted a good deal of your time.  Going to college is engaging in a variety of events and meeting people (besides dates for Friday night--as important as those are). 

Talk to your instructors; soon and often.  

We're not mind readers and more often than not, we're actually real people with genuine interests and concern for our students.

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El Fin De Semester

There are some things that come bittersweet; no matter how many times you experience them.  For me, that is the end of the semester.  Each semester, we start off in a slow shuffle as students and instructor figure out the rhythms of each other and decide if to stick it through and finish this dance or part ways somewhere along the way (sometimes willingly and sometimes reluctantly).  But somewhere after midterms (and in particular in the Spring, after Spring Break), we shift gears are find ourselves hurtling towards the end of the semester; want it to "be over with" and finally have time to breath.  Instructors feel it too.  Remember that when your semester ends by taking or passing in that final; the instructor switches from wrapping up the class into an overdrive marathon of grading finals and calculating grades with often very short turnover to submit grades. 

It's a flustering time and many instructors like myself run through their minds to figure out if they've covered all they could possibly cover; did they communicate everything as effective as possible; are ready for the onslaught of papers, and often, how to communicate those things that any teacher feels the need to communicate to their students regardless of the course (and this is totally projection here, but I'll take that risk--See other post).

But it can be sad.  In many classes, the rhythm has been established, the growth in students is palpable, and you even seen genuine interest in the topic (something that can be hard with some courses like World History).  And within the last 4-5 classes; that too starts to fall apart since students begin preparations for departure.  They use up their absences; they skip homework readings; their impatience shows.  In fact, it's much like the last five minutes of any class; those students wanting the most quickest departure start packing their things away including their notebooks, pens, etc (Yes, it's obvious from the instructor's side; and not in a good way). 

Students sometimes are so quick to look to the end of the semester that they miss the course in a great many ways.  They are thinking about the ride home from the movie theater rather than engaging in the climax of the film.  I only hope their fixation on the ride home isn't so strong that in leaving the theater, they realize they have to revisit the movie at a later date having little recall or proof that they actually processed what they took part in. 

The semester comes to an end in a jumbling mix of trying to prepare students for the final assignment which may or may not be cumulative and addressing the final pleas of students whose grades teeter in directions they would rather not see them go. 

It's amazing how quickly it ends.  In a given semester, we spend 40+ hours together; engaged in class discussion, corresponding through email; circulating comments through papers and revisions and then it's over.  Some of my students I never see again.  Others, I randomly run into and yet, others stick around.  They take other courses with me (those lil sadomasochists!); they correspond with me via email; or drop by my class or office at some point.  Moments many instructors enjoy greatly. 

And yet, I too breathe a sigh of relief at semester's end.  It's been a race for myself as well.  However, I also feel a sense of vindication in that I have completed another semester of (hopefully) successful dialogue about things that I feel (somewhat) knowledgeable of and can help impart that upon my students. 

I guess it's evident that this comes at the end of another semester; one I feel that went rather well overall.  Hence the pleasure and reluctance.

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Behind the Mike: Barbara Rosenblat

LJ audio reviewer Lance Eaton, who has previously interviewed narrators Alan Sklar (LJ 3/1/09) and Scott Brick (LJ 10/15/09), talks to the multiple Audie Award winnerBy Lance Eaton -- Library Journal, 5/1/2010

Actress/singer Barbara Rosenblat, described by one audio reviewer as "a boundless vocal changeling" (LJ 2/15/06), is an enthusiastic narrator whose performances continue to impress listeners. She's won six Audie Awards to date—more than any other female narrator—and was nominated for several more this year. Her reading of Miep Gies's Anne Frank Remembered (Springwater: Oasis Audio) was anLJ Best Audio of 2009. Among her latest recordings are Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog (HighBridge Audio, Mar.) and Elizabeth Peters's A River in the Sky (Recorded Bks./HarperAudio, Apr.).

You've recorded over 400 audiobooks. What appeals to you about the medium?
It's the most wonderful, intimate, primal medium out there, which is why radio is still successful.

What do you mean by "primal"?
[Think of the experience of] being read to as a child. Those soothing voices that you learn to rely on for comfort, information, protection, and for being a part of something greater than yourself; that all translates into good audio.

Which has been your favorite book or series to narrate?
Why don't you ask me who my favorite child is! I've done it all over the years, in so many genres—great and fabulous pieces. Because I enjoy the process so much, each new project offers a different set of challenges.

For Zadie Smith's thoughtful essay collection Changing My Mind(Recorded Bks./Penguin Audio, 2009), for example, I had to channel her voice and intent in this extraordinary array of discussions about Nabokov, Obama, movie reviews, David Foster Wallace. Each new book…brings me that challenge, which I embrace most of all.

How do you prepare for that challenge?
I watch TV, go to the movies, listen to the radio. I need to hear all the voices, terminology, and conversations that are out there, swallow up as much information as I can [in order to] bring my A game [to the studio].

Anything else?
I try getting in touch with the author, to make a connection between myself as the recording artist and what the author's intent is, and I work at really absorbing the book, page after page.

[But] even once I've figured out my whole audio landscape and [think I] know what's going to happen, I get into the studio…that silent place with the machine recording, and another kind of magic kicks in that introduces [unexpected] little changes as I go.

What's currently on your agenda?
I just finished recording Neta Jackson's Where Do I Go? (Recorded Bks., May 19)—it's pulp fiction-Christian-chick lit. [Soon], I'll begin recording Eudora Welty's short stories for Audible and then will fly to L.A. to do [some] live audio drama. Then it's the Audies in May and the National Audio Theatre Festivals in June. And I shall get some sailing in along the way, I hope.

Any message to your many fans?
I am so thankful to all who write to www.barbararosenblat.com and weigh in with their thoughts on my work. I might even consider Twitter, if I can figure it out!

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Letter to the Editor in Salem News

 Letter: Don't blame school for kids' misbehavior

Letter to the editor published in the Salem News on May 10, 2010.

To the editor:

Regarding the Friday, May 7, letter headlined "Crackdown needed at Higgins Middle School":
John Haight's concern about cyberbullying is well felt, but his blame seems misdirected. While the school represents the focus and source for cyberbullying to take place; a good deal of it takes place at home or really anywhere with cell phones. Removing cell phones from school may be an option, but it's a Band-Aid solution.

Also, schools have no grounds for forbidding online profiles; that's a parent's concern and rightly so.
It's clear Haight is troubled by the lack of communication — though it's often hard to decide what is a clear matter of cyberbulling and, more importantly, since these are minors, who gets told what. Publishing their names as far as I know is illegal, since they are minors.

Click through to read the rest.

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Playing to The Story

Humans by and large love to play.  We have a fondness to play with those things that interest us, particularly from narratives that grab our attention.  So much of my childhood was spent playing away with large epic battles among my G. I. Joes (which at one point were numerous enough, especially with the different vehicles) to fill a standard laundry basket).  We enjoy playing an active part in our story making but also just to gain access to “more” of our stories and characters.  Thus, we’re quick to see the movie of the comic we love or the book we’ve read faster than anything assigned in school.  It gives a deep sense of enjoyment with our particular interest.  And let’s not forget as Spaceballs reminds us, that from the producer’s end, there’s something to be had from capitalizing on this desire:

But Spaceballs also show us there’s something more than just merchandizing to be had.  Or rather it provides keen insight as to what merchandizing allows its consumers to do:

The act of taking control and using one’s interest for new and divergent ways from the original text is of course, the cornerstone to many elements of fan culture in the world today.  Initiating with fan-fiction (and eventually slash fiction), it grew into a range of elements including cosplay, fan videos, and the like.  Taking control or redirecting the standard narrative has been the topic of study for many within popular culture since it clearly indicates that the relationship between creator and audience is not as one-directional as many assume it to be.

The Batman Comic Generator site is a good example.  The site allows visitors to plug words into particular speech balloons within a specific Batman comic.  Originally, it was the singular comic seen below, but the site has expanded to 3 and who knows, by the time you read this, it might be 10.  Even if this site were to shut down; there are many others like it out there on the web.

The compelling thing about this site is to see what other people have done.  Just like the newspapers that draw a comic panel or provide a picture and let readers compete for the best comment, so too does this site drive its appeal from seeing what people will say.  But, it’s not just any joke that will do here.  The jokes have to fall into the context of Batman smacking Robin and many of previous ones will try to invoke the classic Batman and Robin gay scenario or work from fan-based knowledge to create the best laughter.  Those unfamiliar with Batman may have trouble fully appreciating the range of jokes being offered.

Now, this might not be taking full control of the comic as I mentioned with the G I Joes and other types of toys/tools, but many a time have I seen the generator used and the produced picture as someone’s Facebook profile picture or in some other relative context.


What are some of the things we get from playing/engaging with material that is evocative of a particular narrative or interest?  Why play baseball on the Wii?  Why create a Star Wars fan-film?  Does the world need another Harry Potter fan-fiction?

With regards to the Batman comic generator, why does Batman and Robin work so well for this?  Would it be as interesting were it another comic duo?

Who is the “creator” of the comic produced?  How is authorship shared/renegotiated?

Buzzing for Appeasement

Well, the French have reminded us that Miligram’s test still holds true even today.  In some ways, it’s not entirely surprising; in other ways, it makes us deeply uncomfortable with “human nature.”

So what’s the break down here?  We as a human species seem to be in large part (though not entirely) easily given over to authority, so much so, that we’re willing to put to death other people when told to by authorities or motivated by self-interested outcomes (winning the game show).   In this case; the mixture of prize (read: resources) and authority (read:  acceptance from higher powers) wield dubious results for what we generally deem “humanity.”   That shouldn’t come as any surprise to people who look at the ways in which our evolutionary instinct still influences us today in a variety of ways.  Take food (though not mine; I’d have to shock you!).  Humans have a natural tendency towards fatty, sugary, salty foods.  In our evolutionary history, these are rare, comparatively, but they supply a lot for a body that lives off the land with little but animals skins, handmade tools and unstable shelter (the world that humans lived in for the vast majority of their existence) for protection.   Because of that evolutionary record, whenever we come across them, we’re apt to feast on them; our body desiring and our food-processors in our brain not sure when they will come again.  Therefore, it’s no surprise that even after we get our fill, we continue to fill upon them and we see the rise of obesity in modern industrialized societies with an overabundance of such foods.  (It’s worth noting that “such foods” in the modern food industry gives us the salt, fat, and sugars but rarely the same ranges of vitamins, minerals, and other useful nutrients; therefore, it works against historical precedence).  But the food isn’t all here.  We have an overabundance of industries, sponsored celebrities, and other authorities encouraging the consumption to eat said food.

Ok, so we’re evolutionarily programmed for certain preferences and to privilege certain outcomes.  No surprise there.  But our evolution doesn’t dominate us, right?  Our supposed greatest attribute as humans is our adaptability; the possibility of using conscious thought to think through, predict, and speculate outcomes of our actions; to not just be in the moment but to see long term pictures.  Realizing this bigger picture and a desire to procure it, we become communally invested with other humans.  This builds an insular network and range of habits, rules, and acceptable behaviors.  We tell ourselves that we are imbued with moral integrity from our family, culture, and spiritual upbringing, we’re able to overcome instinct, pre-modern approaches to the world or any real external influence.  The video proves us wrong to some degree.

The most interesting part was that not just the contestants’ actions but also, the crowd chanting “Punishment.”  It seems to be a call back to the gladiator days of the Roman Empire that crowds always seem to want blood.  Stephen King perceived the same with his novel, Running Man and certainly the film Series 7:  The Contenders followed suit with a phenomenal satire of bloodlust and human nature.  Below is a preview of that film; I highly recommend seeing the entire film.

This train of thought reminds me of a recent conversation with a student.  The student recommended the documentary: Whale Warrior, though warned about some of the graphic violence of humans on animals.  This brought to mind another documentary called Earthlings; also with a significant amount of human on animal violence.  Granted, some would see no difference between this and the animal on human violence made so popular by FOX and other shows famous slew of TV specials “When Animals Attack” captured best by a top 10 list on Discovery Channel website (http://animal.discovery.com/videos/untamed-uncut-animal-attacks/).

Our natural tendency towards violence is troubling.  I’m not sure I would say we’re worse than our ancestors; after all, the Inquisition could still teach the writers of the Saw series a few things.  However, it’s still disappointing to see our tendency towards violence of both human and nonhuman lifeforms.  We still seem to get immense pleasure from violence and continually find ways of promoting this through clear visible forms:  sports (hockey; football as key examples of orchestrated group violence), films (Saw and other torture-porn films), television (The Chair or The Chamber) or even other circumstances as well.  Granted, some of those forms are more extreme than others and undoubtedly, we need some sense of exertion for ourselves, but our propensity to take it too far is still a challenging issue.    


What other times and places do the ideas discussed herein play a role in history?  What do the lessons herein show us about particular events in history?  How does it explain

How do authors grapple with this issue of group condoned/enacted violence?  What are some of the ways that it’s rationalized or denounced?

Who are the monsters in these cases?  The crowd?  The person pressing the button?  The authority figure (game show host)?  The show’s creator for showing us how low humans can go?  The viewers at home enjoying the show?

Is this the sole product of Western (and/or American) culture?  Or is the group mentality something part of all humans; in some ways replicable?

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The Green Doors of the Library: The One-Stop Entertainment Spot

Forget the video store; never mind the gigantic box bookstore, and thank you, but I like my music not surrounded by a thousand trinkets and distractions telling me in order to be hip, I need to buy this cool inane object.  There’s really only one thing I need to get fully enthralled with my entertainment and popular culture:  that bastion of democracy (as Ben Franklin himself believed), the library.

This is more than the repeated call of so many in this economic depression saying, “it saves money; it’s a public resource, etc.”   By now, many of us should know, besides having the latest books that come out, your local library can get you access to the latest movies DVDs (Twilight: New Moon, Mad Men: Season 3), music (Rihanna, Black Eyed Peas), and an array of other great resources such as audiobooks, language programs, archives, eBooks, and more.  But there’s a bigger and better reason to get hooked into the library.  Want to check out a local museum?  Your library probably has discontented (if not free) tickets.  Or you could attend one of the many different workshops that the library holds on computers, sewing, or join a book or film club.  Computer broken or internet connection down?  Libraries usually have several terminals open for public use.  A great example of the resources available is the Peabody Institute Library.    

More than ever before the library is your passport to a much larger world and with a library card, you can access it more easily than ever.  Many library systems now are part of larger networks and you can log in from your home computer or elsewhere.  Then, requesting books to your local library is as simple as a search, and a few clicks of the mouse.  The North of Boston Library Exchange allows people to search through the catalogues of some 28 area libraries; enabling people to gain access to some 741,000 items.  Trust me, for everything you can’t find; there’s 10 things you can find.  That is, without a doubt the library network won’t have everything; but they got a lot.  I use them extensively for graphic novels (a basic search reveals over 1000—though that number is probably under the actual amount since classifying graphic novels is tricky.  For instance, when I searched keyword “manga” it returned over 1500).  The beauty here is that I can request material any time I need to; even when the library is closed.  As soon as it arrives at my local library, they send me an email to come pick it up.  If I need to renew, I can do that online as well.

Additionally, for those needing further incentive it’s one of the greenest steps you can take to reduce your environmental imprint while simultaneously improving the quality of life; and it saves you a whole lot of money.  Inevitably, this sounds like a paid advertisement; but it’s more about providing information and tools to people.  We’re often just pre-programmed to buy out entertainment and it seems silly to do so when so much of it is already available and free.

Manufactured Free Will?

Humans are finicky creatures.  We’re finicky because we quickly change our minds about the same idea in different contexts.  For instance, take the idea of the individual, and in particular, the theme of individual responsibility so deeply ingrained in areas such as politics, literature, education, etc.  The view behind individual responsibility follows as such:

1. We’re independent free-thinking beings with full control of all our actions, emotions, beliefs, thoughts, and other elements that compose the mysterious concept that we call the “self.”
2. It follows then that if we don’t do something (lose weight; stop smoking, earn enough money to afford basic needs), it is a reflection of the self; not the person’s social network, communal network, or general society in which the person has been created.

We tell ourselves that constantly and it enables a great many chances to blame the victim.  This is strange, because we know the influence and power of the world outside any individual.  In fact, that’s the entire premise of the modern advertising industry.  I’m not sure there was ever a time in which advertising was benevolent or stuck solely to the adherent to solely inform the public of the product without unnecessary or manipulative information; but that’s certainly not the case today.  But much of the advertising out there goes beyond the pale to send a variety of messages to the individual to convince them to purchase a product, perform an action, or believe a certain “truth.”

Let’s take the infamous Paris Hilton commercial for Carl Jr. Burger chain:

Now, a burger; that mixture of white (read: no nutritional value beyond calories) bread, tasteless lettuce and tomato, and hormone & antibiotic injected beef patty has very little to offer the consumer besides a quick fix of sugars, fats, and salts (the flavors that trigger our inner food junkie) and upwards of ½ of your total caloric intake for a day (that’s not even getting to the requisite French fries and soda to make it a complete “meal”).  The advertisement offers no actual information; besides 2 things.  1.  It’s a sandwich.  2.  Carl Jr. sells them.  However, it takes over 30 seconds to tell that information.  The rest of the time, as you saw, was watching Paris Hilton in an orgiastic romp, gaining immense pleasure from the classy black car, the juicy white suds, and the projecting hose as well as the occasional beef injection from biting into her Carl Jr. hamburger.

Here’s my point:  Most estimate the advertising industry at over $400 billion dollars in the US.  To keep this in perspective, realize that other industries that need this much cash to operate include the illegal drug trade, college and universities, and the water industry; each one is runs around $400 billion.  The vast majority of advertisements that we are exposed to don’t operate on simple informative pamphlet style listing the benefits of the product.  Rather, they rely on numerous elaborate, obvious, and subtle messages communicated through camera angles, celebrities, serene images, distractions, misinformation, misdirection, and many other tactics.  And they do so, because they know it works.  The advertising industry doesn’t spend this much because it doesn’t work.  Nike doesn’t spend millions on Michael Jordan and then Tiger Woods believing that their presence and influence will not return millions more.  Pharmaceutical companies spend more on advertising than on actual research.  Again, they do it because they know that people are highly influential.  No matter how much we tell ourselves, we can avoid the messages in one area, we fall prey to them somewhere else.  Some of us can say, “I’m not fooled by ads; I never go to McDonalds” and yet, we overspend and are easily fooled into buying sports equipment off infomercials, or healthcare products to attain a beauty that is unrealistic/unattainable.  We all have these blindspots in which we are swayed and moved by forces beyond the individual.

Humans are also finicky creatures; because the research we do upon ourselves continues to swing like the pendulum back and forth in trying to discover who we (or I—that will make more sense after reading this) are.  That swing is moving back in favor of privileging the large networks in which humans operate the profound effects they have on decisions large and small; emotions, and so much more.

The recent publication of the book Connected by Drs. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, reveals that possibly, the power of the individual is undermined greatly by not just our immediate network, but people 2-3 degrees removed. While the argument presented by the authors is certainly being hotly debated among scientists, others find its merits relevant and appropriate given what we know of human interaction.

Thus our sense of free will is challenged significantly; and the unsettling thing about that is, it could also generate an increase in anti-social behavior according to this article.  Bering discusses some rather deep and conflicting issues around this idea of variables in how we come to decisions that may challenge many.  At the core, is a discussion that posses the question, if it’s proven that “free will” as we currently understand it, does not actually exist, but upon discovering/realizing this, many are encouraged to commit antisocial behavior, should we then inform the public at large of it?  How might that be problematic?  Or the larger question; why is the systematic response, anti-social behavior; what is being triggered by the newly introduced information?

It’s equally problematic when we are dealing the violations of the individual.  When someone threatens another person (in particularly, physical violence), it’s hard to not to just completely accept the “no free will” or “social network’ theories.  After all, if aggression and violence is ingrained in the sexes, then we should expect violence to continue and it’s doubtful anyone really wants that.

So how does one define or consider “free” in such a context?  How are do we consider the many “freedoms” the US has to offer?  Equally challenging, how do we think about slavery (and in this case, I’m referring to the general idea of slavery; not the specific slavery that is normally associated with U.S. history but is not the sole representation of slavery in history)?

How do we consider these ideas as they apply to cultural, ethnic, and racial differences?

Does this in a way “set free” the villains of history such as Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Genghis Khan, etc?  Why or why not?  In what ways, might this debate influence the way we “tell” history?

In what ways does this influence our different knowledge systems and fields of knowledge?  Does this mean we should look at literature differently (including the literature that stays in the canon as well as the literature that doesn’t)?

What do the articles suggest with regards to some of these questions and your own potential fields of knowledge?

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