Monthly Archives: June 2009

The truth and Twitter, part 1: The Mix Tape

twitter-iran1

The truth will be digitized.

Last week, I went to the 140 Characters Conference here in New York.  There, hundreds of people met to explore how Twitter, new media, and micro-blogging are disrupting life these days.  People were asking important questions of all this new technology:  What do we get out of it? Is it changing anything that matters in any interesting way?  Where’s it going?  What does it mean?

The conference couldn’t have been more timely, though this was completely an accident of fate:  On the very days of the meeting, June 16 and 17, the Iranian people were using Twitter, cell phones, and other inventions to coordinate and narrate a national uprising to protest the (allegedly) fraudulent results of the recent presidential elections.  The story is available only over the internet, because Iranian control of the press and media have made it impossible for regular journalists to cover the events on the ground.  Thus we turn to Twitter and bloggers to understand what’s going onHuffington Post’s Nico Pitney is singularly inserting himself into the moment by providing the only comprehensive, live blog of the event.

These are the largest and most disruptive public demonstrations since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when masses of Iranians overthrew the US-backed Shah of Iran.  The Iranian Revolution was one of the few documented true revolutions (to use a political science term!), in which the structure of society itself, and not merely the regime, was changed in a rapid convulsion of political will.

Something similar might be happening today.

The events of 1979 have an interesting parallel to the present, for the earlier Revolution was spurred along by the innovative application of a radical new technology that not only subverted the regime but also fit neatly into the lifestyles and habits of regular Iranians.  The new technology was accessible to everyone, regardless of education, age, gender, or geographical location.  I am referring, of course, to cassette tape recordings, which in the 1970s took the entire world on a quantum leap of do-it-yourself cultural production, re-production, and mashing-up.

In the West, this took the form of the mix tape.  We used the songs of our favorite bands to declare love or war, to apologize for insensitivity, to make a stand, break up, explain any of the preceding, or simply state the case for plain, animal lust.   The truly radical could even place Yes, The Clash, and Air Supply on the same tape, just to make a point.  The mix tape reached its all-time high with Nick Hornby’s novel, High Fidelity, in the mid-1990s, which was later immortalized on the silver screen with John Cusak at the very moment in time when the cassette tape itself was tossed into the dustbin of history by the arrival mix-CDs, MP3 playlists, and (a few years later) the iPod.

At the same time that mix tapes reshaped the possibilities for personal expression in the West, Iranians were gathering in private, often hidden, rooms to listen to cassette tapes of sermons by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a prominent religious leader who was exiled from Iran in 1964.  Khomeini took refuge first in Iraq, which has a large (majority) population of Shiite Muslims, and later in France.  His sermons were smuggled into Iran, where they met a large audience, hungry for his words.

Khomeini’s message was both religious and social.  He married basic Islamic piety to a consciousness of poverty, economic injustice, and outrage at the atrocities of the Shah’s violently repressive state.  The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was deeply tied to Islam’s notions of charity and essential human equality (not the same as “freedom” in any Western sense), tenets of belief that the Shah’s regime violated so openly and egregiously. Cassette recordings overcame the literacy barrier and brought this message to wide audiences that might have missed him had he been restricted to paper texts and photocopies.  Cassette tapes were the samizdat of the Islamic world in the 1970s.  Anyone could listen.

Cassette tapes allowed the Iranian opposition to gather, communicate, and plan for a better day.  When that day came, in the heady rebellion of 1978-79, it seemed as if the world exploded, just like it did this week as Iran commanded center stage everywhere.  It’s no small coincidence, it might be added, that some of the chief protagonists of the present turmoil – Ayatollah MontazeriMir Hossein Mousavi, and Hashemi Rafsanhani were there in 1979, in similar roles, only as much younger people.

So Twitter brings us full circle, from cyber space and cell phones – whose ubiquitous flip-top form bears more than a passing resemblance to the original Star Trek Communicator – back to cassette tapes.  Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once noted.

Today, Twitter and cell phone videos are our cassette tapes of Iranian change, bringing us the haunting images of people shouting Allahu Akbar from the rooftops at night, just like they did in 1979.  Then, as now, regular people sang the traditional Muslim declaration, “God is great,” to indict the regime in power.

That’s the original cultural source of change in Iran.

Note

This is the first of 3 postings on “The truth and Twitter.”  More to come…

Credits

Opening photo:  www.life.com/image/ugc1002722/in-gallery/28782/eyewitness-from-tehrans-streets.  LIFE has several dramatic series of photographs from the current events; other photographs are here. Looking at these photos, I can feel, in my bones, what “history” means.

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The truth and unicorns, part 3

The Narwhal, Sea-unicorn of the Arctic

The Narwhal, Sea-unicorn of the Arctic

Unicorns weren’t always mythical creatures.

The Greeks classified them among natural animals, with rhinos and other one-horned beasts.  Vikings traded Narwhal tusks to Medieval Europeans, who believed they were unicorn horns and paid dearly to possess them and their magical powers.  Marco Polo recorded his encounter with the Javan rhinoceros as the discovery of a unicorn.

No one knows exactly what the Narwhal’s tusk is for, though it is found only on males and therefore probably has a sexual function not unlike the extravagant feathers of the male peacock, or the electric guitar.  Yet while narwhal tusks and peacock feathers work as sexual aids for narwhals and peacocks, legend has it that the rhino’s tusk is coveted by humans as a sexual talisman.

This is disputed, however, and there are other medicinal applications of rhinoceros tusks in Chinese traditional medicine, for fevers and convulsions.  Either way, humankind’s uses for rhinoceros tusks are threatening the mega-mammal’s very existence, and it may soon vanish into the same ethereal space where its cousin, the unicorn, lives.  Climate change may well send the narwhal there, too, to dwell with vanishing hitchhikers, organ-jackers, and people who make phone calls that come from inside the house.

In the Charlie the Unicorn cartoons, myths and legends pile up on one another into what is among the most popular videos of all time on Youtube, collectively scoring close to 50 million views for 3 episodes.  In the first, Charlie is prodded by two smaller unicorns to come visit “Candy Mountain,” a place immortalized in the hobo fantasy song,

Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars are all empty and the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees

Along the way, they meet a Liopleurodon, a real-world creature of fossilized myth that is quite in dispute in contemporary America, who will help guide them to Candy Mountain.  As they move on, Charlie prods them, “Alright guys, you do know that there’s no actual candy mountain, right?”  They reply, “Shun the nonbeliever.”

When they reach the actual Candy Mountain, Charlie recognizes the error of his earlier belief, and walks into a cave in the mountainside, where he’s shut in and abandoned.  He awakens in a meadow with a large scar over his lower abdomen.  “They took my freakin’ kidney!”

In the second episode, our hero is lounging in the meadow on his nice carpet, watching a big screen TV.  Suddenly, his tormenting pals appear to him from an imaginary coral reef awash in “poisonous fugu fish” (puffer fish), which according to ethnobotanist Wade Davis are the source of the poison that produces the near-death experience resulting in zombification in Haiti.  It’s in a book Davis wrote, The Serpent and the Rainbow.  Legendary horror director Wes Craven made the book into a movie with Bill Pullman playing the real-world Indiana Jones down in the Caribbean.  Unicorns can lead you anywhere.  Maybe they’ll make Charlie into a zombie.  How many degrees can Charlie be from Kevin Bacon?

Again, they journey.  Along the way, there’s a magical amulet and a Banana King, whose temple looks like an Egyptian pyramid with an insignia of the “hammer and banana” fashioned like the “hammer and sickle” of Communist symbolism.  As Charlie is proclaimed the banana king, his friends abandon him and he falls from grace, literally.  When he reaches his original meadow clearing, he finds that his things are gone – “Aw you gotta be – great – they robbed me!”

In the third episode, his friends appear from the future with an apocalyptic message:  “The end is nigh.”  As they ride a large duck down a mythical stream in the future, Charlie’s friends taunt him with calls of “ring, ring – hello” over and over again, reminding one of the phone calls urban legend.  They confront shadowy narwhals that threaten to kill them.  Then they are on the floor of an ocean in a Greek ruins, Atlantis anyone?  Charlie’s friends abandon him and he succumbs to sleeping gas, only to awaken in a frigid landscape where he finally encounters the snowman, who has cut off Charlie’s horn and uses it as his snowman nose, and of course you know what they say about a snowman’s nose and its correlates.  There’s a large scar on the snowman’s lower abdomen.  “Aw look, it’s my kidney.”  A jolly, happy soul, as the song goes, indeed.

Note

The horse, which provides its body to the unicorn of myth, is quite closely related to rhinoceroses.  They are both perissodactyls, otherwise known as “odd-toed ungulates.” Along with narwhals, swordfish also have pointy appendages sprouting from their heads, too.

Credits

Narwahl photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Narwhalsk.jpg.

Big Rock Candy Mountain, Harry McClintock, 1928.  http://www.bluegrasslyrics.com/all_song.cfm-recordID=s29253.htm

Charlie the Unicorn:  Jeff Steele, Filmcow.com.  http://www.youtube.com/user/SecretAgentBob, http://www.filmcow.com/.

For a nice collection of issues related to Darwin and debates about evolution and creationism, see this page at the the New York Times.

Bonus

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The truth and unicorns, part 2

The Maiden Captures the Unicorn

The Maiden Captures the Unicorn

The Cloisters is the Medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  If you’re not in New York, drag your mouse here.  When you get there, you will find a large room, like the banquet hall of a castle, complete with a large, carved stone fireplace.  There is no table in the middle, and you will see hanging from the walls seven tapestries that date from the turn of sixteenth century (1495-1505).

They were woven in Brussels of wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts by deft hands. Hanging twelve feet from ceiling-to-floor, the tapestries tell the story of a unicorn hunt, a standard Medieval myth, set against mille-fleurs backgrounds that show over one hundred species of plants. A group of well-armed nobles and knights search the countryside for a unicorn, but they can capture it only with the help of a Maiden, a virgin. They stab and gore the unicorn and set their dogs on it. Custom would have the capture killed on the spot – but the unicorn lives again in the final tapestry, The Unicorn in Captivity, which shows it tied to a pomegranate tree, surrounded by a low fence.  It is an allegory of the passion of Christ, or the cruelty of mankind, the rape of nature, the fierceness of men, the innocence of virgins, sexuality itself.

If you have the chance to visit the exhibit, read aloud Rainer Maria Rilke’s sonnet to the unicorn.  The echo in the room takes you out of time and space and into the sensual experience of near-fantasy.

O this is the beast who does not exist.
They didn’t know that, and in any case
– with its stance, its arched neck and easy grace,
the light of its limpid gaze – they could not resist

but loved it though, indeed, it was not. Yet since
they always gave it room, the pure beast persisted.
And in that loving space, clear and unfenced,
reared its head freely and hardly needed

to exist. They fed it not with grain nor chaff
but fortified and nourished it solely with
the notion that it might yet come to pass,

so that, at length, it grew a single shaft
upon its brow and to a virgin came
and dwelled in her and in her silvered glass.

Or see the following video (best when set to full screen, though the quality of photos suffers a little):

Rilke follows the Medieval European unicorn myth as it lived in the space between paganism and Gothic Christianity. The unicorn was brought into being by human desire, yet represented innocence. For this reason, it could be captured only by a Maiden, and not by men, as the tapestries illustrate so beautifully. Eros and Thanatos are deeply entwined in this story.

The contradictory portrayal of sexual desire and the crushing forces of denial are all on display:  Does the unicorn’s story celebrate the feminine or banish it to a world of fantasy and lost innocence that only serve the interests of men? How far do we have to go from the Maiden and the unicorn to witches and witch-hunts?  Is this story a well-dressed window of oppression, the Maidens who become women chained to the pomegranate tree and fenced in like the unicorn of the seventh tapestry? Is the unicorn Jesus, loved by women and destroyed by the cruelty and hubris of men? Does it show the men for the hypocrites they are, able for all their weaponry and warmongering to capture the unicorn only with the aid of the Maiden?

It makes me think of my trip to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. To get to the room with Da Vinci’s masterpiece, you must walk through long hallways of religious paintings that depict, over and over, the Christian martyrs, the Crusades, and scenes of religious violence reminiscent more of Sam Peckinpah than St. Francis. There were at least 2 Sebastians, pierced by dozens of arrows, bleeding on the stake.  There were 3 heads of John the Baptist brought to Salome. Countless crucifixions. Nothing but destruction, over and over. Visitors weren’t lingering. They were on their way to the Mona Lisa. The ropes begin well down the hallway from her painting, to order the crowd into a manageable queue.

I had expected to be underwhelmed, but that’s not what happened. Mona Lisa’s room was packed. We were all struck, in awe of how she followed us wth her eyes, the way her smile seemed to change as we moved. It was a magical moment, unicorn-worthy and lovely.

Steve Earle, one of my great songwriting heroes, wrote a song called “The Kind,” which is on his CD Jerusalem, dedicated to themes inspired by 9/11, the War on Terror, and the build-up to the Iraq War.  In this song he sings of a soldier who “wins the prize and gets the girl,” of a “cowboy with an achin’ heart,” and finally, of a “girl with a secret smile.”

Paint me a picture of a girl with a secret smile
Lookin’ back at ya ‘cross the years through ancient eyes
You’re standin’ there like an open door
‘Cause she’s seen it all before
That’s the kind of picture I like

The kind that makes you sigh

In spite of all the art devoted to destruction and terror, we were all there just to see the painting of this girl who smiles.  In that moment, as in the story of the unicorn, truth.

Note

“The truth and unicorns, part 3” is in preparation and will round out the unicorn series for now.  After the credits I include all 7 unicorn tapestries, in order.

Credits

Unicorn Sonnet:  Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets To Orpheus, Pt. 2, No. 4, trans Robert Hunter. Hulogosi Communications Inc., November 1993.

“The Kind,” by Steve Earle.  Included on the CD Jerusalem, 2002.

Photos of The Hunt: http://www.geocities.com/area51/corridor/5177/hunt.html.  I cannot figure out who is responsible for the site, but it lists an email address, amulet@geocities.com.  These photos are a bit darker than the tapestries; the photos on the Met’s Unicorn Tapestries site are much clearer and show the the color much better (but they cannot be dowloaded and are protected by copyright).  Here are the photos, in order.

The start of the hunt

The start of the hunt

The unicorn is found

The unicorn is found

The unicorn at bay

The unicorn at bay

The unicorn leaps from the stream

The unicorn leaps from the stream

The Maiden captures the unicorn

The Maiden captures the unicorn

The unicorn is killed and brought to the castle

The unicorn is killed and brought to the castle

The unicorn in captivity

The unicorn in captivity

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