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by Diepiriye Kuku

29 Jun 2009

Most so-called feminist critiques of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart reduce men to husbands, and women to wives. Even progressive movements like the struggles converging on marriage for same-sex couples, centralize this biblical relationship, and in a biblical way, there’s nothing progressive about that. If we sincerely count gender and gender relations, we should count correctly. It may be a Christian fixation that prioritizes the heteropatriarchal marriage over all other relationships as individuals and with kin and Klan. In addition, in the Things Fall Apart society, these other relations were contributors to individuals’ identities. Certainly, this is riddled with conflict, the same as any relationship faces conflict, and perhaps confrontation. One might even argue that the misogyny in the pre-colonial society was, too, an unresolved conflict—a narrative within a narrative of conflict resolution.

Over four books, Achebe demonstrates a spiral of conflict and resolution, layering these stories, and having them mirror one another. This means that the internal conflicts mirror the ones the characters face in the world, and brilliantly, Achebe breathes life and depth to his characters by demonstrating how their internal dialogue informs their views of themselves as well as their actions. So, fate is a clear matter of cause and effect in the Things Fall Apart cosmological world.

by Rob Horning

29 Jun 2009

Paul Kedrosky links to this article by Harriet Hall at the Skeptic about the placebo effect. The upshot is that placebos don’t do anything physiological but instead shift a patient’s awareness of their own symptoms. In the article’s terms, it separates pain from suffering. So placebos are less substances than performances staged by creditable authorities (or at least people we are temporarily willing to credit, if we are delving into the world of Reiki healing or homeopathy (“the ultimate placebo because its remedies usually contain nothing but water”) or macrobiotics or what have you) to persuade us that something transfiguring has taken place. Placebo effects are essentially rituals to distract us from our pain, keep us preoccupied while our body tries to repair itself.

The article mentions a recent study that intended to debunk the placebo effect:

In 2001 two Danish researchers, Asbjorn Hrobjartsson and Peter Gotzsche, published a paper entitled “Is the Placebo Powerless?” in the New England Journal of Medicine.3 They reviewed studies that included a no-treatment group, and they compared the improvement with placebos to the improvement with no treatment. They “found little evidence in general that placebos had powerful clinical effects.”
For studies with a binary outcome (improved versus not improved) there was no significant difference between the placebo and no treatment groups. For studies with continuous outcomes, there was some apparent effect of placebo; but not so for objective outcomes that could be measured by someone else, such as blood pressure, but only for subjective outcomes that depended on self-reports, such as pain. They weren’t even sure about that, however, because the effect was greater in smaller trials, indicating possible bias.

This seems to reinforce, though, the hypothesis that placebos distract us from pain, that they are in essence conjuring tricks staged by a (witch) doctor.

And some tricks are more persuasive than others:

We not only know placebos “work,” we know there is a hierarchy of effectiveness:

  * Placebo surgery works better than placebo injections
  * Placebo injections work better than placebo pills
  * Sham acupuncture treatment works better than a placebo pill
  * Capsules work better than tablets
  * Big pills work better than small
  * The more doses a day, the better
  * The more expensive, the better
  * The color of the pill makes a difference
  * Telling the patient, “This will relieve your pain” works better than saying “This might help.”
In one study patients were given the same aspirin in either a brand name bottle or an unlabelled bottle; it worked better if it was labeled as a brand they recognized. Our pharmacy used to stock two different brands of allergy pills that were made in the same factory and were identical except that one was green and the other was blue. When a patient said it wasn’t working any more, we’d switch him to the other brand and it would start working again.

That’s amazing to me. It’s like a grammar of analgesia.

The reason I’m fascinated by the placebo effect is that it reminds us how limited instrumental thinking is—the idea that this object has this effect. Instead, the context has enormous ramifications on our experience of things, an effect that sometimes we seek to ignore because it is impossible to control or even analyze thoroughly. As Hall points out, the pills are less important in treatment than the doctor-patient relationship. One could extrapolate and argue that this is true of objects generally. When we expect them to change how we feel, they are merely proxies for relationships, which ultimately have the most effectiveness in altering our moods. How we feel about ourselves, to a large degree, is a social construction—is determined by how the feeling is constructed in our interactions (real or imagined) with other people.

Also, I think that advertisements attempt to work in the same way as placebos, staging a performance that shifts our perceptions, so that inert products suddenly have magical effects. Cigarettes suddenly do make us manly; beer suddenly does “taste cold.” If that’s the case, then we need to trust the authority of advertisements to let them work. Authority could be established just through the sheer brute force of salience, spending tons of money to make a product prominent in the media. Ubiquity becomes its own argument for quality. But we may consent to believe in the authority of marketing, simply because it feels better to be fooled—much in the same way we suspend disbelief to enjoy magic shows or novels or Michael Bay films. It’s no accident that many of the earliest advertisements were for patent medicines—the ads lay the groundwork for the medicines to “work.”

The depressing conclusion I draw from this is that ads, as much as they seem contemptible, fulfill an important function in authorizing pleasure, conditioning us to its possibility, and staging the ritual that allows it to occur. They foster “expectancy” effects, whereby what we expect to happen seems to happen. Granting ads credibility makes it easier for us to find pleasure, but of a degraded sort—they supply simulacrum relationships that supplant our need for real ones. Another way of putting that: Ads allow for a kind of pleasure revolving around objects that perhaps crowds out other forms of pleasure that demand more from us but are ultimately more satisfying. With our willing consent, they teach us to enjoy ourselves in superficial, highly contingent ways and prompt us to forget that other more durable and self-nourishing ways exist.

by Chris Conaton

29 Jun 2009

If you travel in the right musical circles you’re probably familiar with at least two of these albums. The third is mostly forgotten, but still a personal favorite of mine.


cover art

NOFX

The Decline

(Fat Wreck Chords)

By the end of the ‘90s, NOFX was well-established as the good-time jokesters of the punk rock circuit. Sure, they occasionally tossed out more serious songs, but generally they were about sarcasm and silliness. So 1999’s EP The Decline came as a shock. This was an impassioned rant against gun-lovers, Christians, big corporations, and the complacency of the public in general without a joke in sight. And it was all contained within a single, 18-minute-long song. For a band that rarely managed to get beyond the three-minute mark, this was something very different.

The Decline burns through an album’s worth of guitar riffs over its substantial running time, constantly changing tempos and styles along the way. The lyrics are equally wide-ranging, as lead singer Fat Mike takes on a bevy of social and political issues. Despite all these changes, though, the mood remains consistent: angry. It’s that impassioned anger that allows the song to really hang together. Unlike prog-rock and metal bands that regularly go above the 10-minute mark, NOFX had very few templates to follow as they created the piece. Most riffs and themes don’t return once the band moves on—there’s no carefully constructed rock opera background at work here. But somehow, the band makes it work.

by PopMatters Staff

29 Jun 2009

Regina Spektor is making the rounds promoting her new album Far that dropped last week and is aiming for mainstream music success.

by Bill Gibron

29 Jun 2009

It’s official - the great cinematic experiment known as the video game adaptation is an outright failure. There’s no denying it. Just look at the evidence. There have been so many bad examples of the attempted genre, weak-willed efforts like Hitman, House of the Dead, Max Payne, and the ridiculous Resident Evil franchise that the few noted successes (Silent Hill, umm….) barely make a dent in the discussion. Apparently, the inherent motion picture quality that most console titles come with just doesn’t translate over to big budget Hollywood hit making - or put another way, whatever made these immersive adventures successful in the first place just can’t survive the seemingly destructive Tinsel Town focus group process.

Just look at Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. In this proposed prequel to the popular Camcon classic, our heroine is raised as a pianist, learns martial arts from her mysterious businessman daddy, and then is devastated when he is kidnapped by corrupt corporate CEO (and moonlighting mobster) Bison. As she ages, she receives an ancient scroll that tells her to seek out a seminal member of The Order of the Web. His name is Gen and he was once a criminal compatriot of Bison. Now he plans on stopping the evil entrepreneur once and for all. With Bison’s plans to take over the ghetto district of Shanghai and turn it into one big upscale residential area, thousands of lives are threatened. Chun-Li trains with Gen while various heinous henchmen like Balrog and Vega protect the villian’s project. It seems the Order has its work cut out for them. Luckily, our heroine is a very fast learner indeed.

This sloppy second attempt at bringing the Street Fighter franchise to the big screen (the first being the Raul Julia/Jean-Claude Van Damme effort from 1994) violates one of the primary rules for any Playstation to motion picture translation - never mess with the mythology. Fans love these games because of the way in which legend is meshed with logistics to make the often difficult and time consuming game play that much more meaningful. Sure, in the end, something like Street Fighter is a mere set of remote moves tested against an opponent’s/computer’s competing motor skills, but devotees love their digital folklore. So when a studio takes the story of Chun-Li, one of the geeks most beloved female ass-kickers, and turns her into a superficial shadow of her formerly aggressive arcade self, you should be prepared for the backlash.

But this new Street Fighter goes even further. It screws around with all the characters. Bison is no longer a military man. Instead, he’s a suave and sadistic corporate weasel who uses his mob connections and regular crew of street toughs to enact his malevolent desires. Balrog is his sidekick, not a solid ex-boxing champ. For his part, Vega shows up late, gets his butt handed to him by a suddenly psycho Chun-Li, and then disappears from the narrative all together. That just leaves our heroine and Gen to pick up the slack and with no martial arts competition to support the story, what we wind up with is a lot of talking followed by some less than entertaining action scenes. Director Andrzej Bartkowiak has a lot to do with how incredibly lame the fisticuffs are. He’s been trading on the reputation of Romeo Must Die for far too long now. Here’s he’s too enamored with a sense of gritty authenticity to make the martial arts meaningful.

What’s even worse, we don’t really understand all the backstabbing set-ups and diabolic double-crossings. So Bison wants to drive all the people out of the waterfront shanty towns so he can buy up the property cheap and build his exclusive suburb. Aren’t their better ways of eviction than trying to beat up a couple hundred thousand people? The police seem as ineffectual as humanly possible, especially a visiting Interpol agent played with obvious contractual discontent by American Chris Klein. One look at his face and his pathetic performance posture, and you know he was hoping that his American Pie fame would lead to something other than this. Elsewhere, Neal McDonough makes a good villain, if a rather standard and manipulative baddie. Sure, we wince when he cracks a victims head open with his hands. But for the most part, he’s all gun pointing and pouts.

But the real problem, performance wise, is leading lady Kristin Kreuk. Smallville may be a good place for her rather limited range, but she’s not a convincing action hero. She comes across as sheepish and ineffectual, even as the CG-ed stuntwomen are giving her all the moves she needs. Even worse, her hobbled backstory is so blank, so “I love Daddy” oriented that her sudden decision to move beyond such motives seems silly. Bartkowiak obviously believed that if he took this material more seriously, if he toned down the cartoon and upped the angst, we’d get something akin to The Dark Knight. But the truth is, he should have handled the material like Corey Yuen did for DOA: Dead or Alive. Realism just doesn’t go with such over-the-top, male minded adolescent fairy tales.

Sometime, in the near future, when comic books have stopped being successful sources and big budget blockbuster bombast is again desperate for another saleable subject matter infusion, the video game will indeed get another chance. And perhaps someone like Timur Bekmambetov who more or less turned Wanted into his own personal Nintendo title, could enliven the material with their own unique cinematic vision. Until that time, we will be stuck with massive moviemaking disappointments like Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. Anyone who loved the game, either during daily visits to their local mall or in the privacy of their own basement bachelor pad, will more or less hate what is happening here. But movie mavens shouldn’t feel left out. For all its faux feeling of authenticity, this is unsuccessful cinema at its worst.

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