30 November 2011

Glen Hansard's Dublin

World Cafe radio/multi-media program, hosted by David Dye, has a series called Sense of Place. I did not know this until recently. A roving video interview in "Glen Hansard's Dublin" is a great example of how one's early roots of place can filter into the art and music of later years.

Van the Man, James Joyce, U2, Oscar Wilde, the Revolution of 1916... Dublin has an awesome and deep topical history.  Music as a salve for the soul in troubled times, for people running into hardship or away from heartbreak, it speaks to place, from place, and across all social strata. The Clancy Brothers, The Dubliners, and all the nameless buskers along all the timeless streets contribute to and amplify what the scenes, memories, and dreams have to offer. It's all different, everywhere, and all so much the same.

28 November 2011

Enough Already with "The Media"

In reading a recent academic article about media framing of the U.S. biofuels movement, I repeatedly came across assertions about "the media." This is like saying "the public." It doesn't really exist as some sort of unified "thing." There is no omnipotent "media" or a single general "public." This is akin to saying "all white people are..." or "all Russians are..." It is a gross over-generalization. It needs to change. 

The article Green dreams or pipe dreams?: Media framing of the U.S. biofuels movement, by W. Wright and T. Reid and published in Biomass & Bioenergy, examines the "contested terrain of biofuels discourse" across about 2.5 years of pertinent New York Times (NYT) articles. Again, one newspaper, even one as nationally influential as NYT, is not "the media."

Let's inject a little nuance into our conversation!  The NYT is not The Country Today. It is not similar to any of the dozens of regionally influential smaller market newspapers. It is not USA Today. To lump them together as "the media" fashions a sort of rhetorical black-hole where insinuations and assertions lose meaning or get completely inverted. Let's don't even start on what passes for "news" and "the media" on television and radio. The countless talking heads and wagging tongues of alphabet soup infotainment (MSNBC, NPR, Fox, ESPN, WB, etc.), trying to pass off rounds and rounds of "insight and analysis" has become a mind-numbing chorus of he-said/she-said polemics. These entities deserve a more subtle level of scrutiny.

Why am I ranting about "the media" on this blog about "place." First, because it's my party and I can cry if I want to. The two or three people who read it (hi, mom) don't seem to care. Second, because the authors of the Green Dreams article state their intent of examining the "contested territory" of biofuels. This sort of conceptual territoriality is relevant and fascinating. Places are constructed through social interaction. That is to say meanings are negotiated over time. Ideas are territorial in the nexus of mind/brain plasticity and can be mapped onto the social landscape, the marketplace of ideas, just as the meaning of "places" (as in physical spaces w/ attached meaning) can be negotiated over time and across various frameworks of meaning development.

An example is a recent New York Times Magazine story on Elizabeth Warren. The title of the profile was Heaven is a Place Called Elizabeth Warren. It is the conceptual territory that Warren embodies that is the titular "place" in which "the jilted left has found a new object of its affection." She is not a "place." Her philosophy, her intellectual approach, is the place.

Aside from the metaphysics of all this, my main point here is to encourage a more nuanced line of social negotiation when it comes to ideas put forth and contested regarding the realm of mass media. Just as the general public is not of one mind about anything and, for depth and accuracy of meaning-construction, should be segmented into various (and nearly limitless) categories, so too should the fields of media practice and media effects.

In the context of the particular study mentioned above, it is the realm of framing and frame analysis. Certain frames may develop through NYT discourse, and even be quite relevant in promoting discourse in regional newspapers and at rural coffee klatches nationwide, but these frames should not be generalized as simply those that "the media" present. The authors do acknowledge the limitations of generalization in their study but yet continue to talk of "the media" as if it were equivalent to The New York Times. This is not the case. The New York Times is not "the media." Never has been. Never will be.

25 November 2011

Snapshot of a Great Horned Owl.

I took a few snapshots of a Great Horned Owl at my place of employment today. I generally keep an eye out for birds and always get jazzed when seeing anything out of the ordinary. 

It's not just birds, either. Flora and fauna alike contribute greatly to that 'thing' we call sense of place, even in the city. Perhaps especially in a city.

This particular bird roosts in a pine tree maybe 100 yards from the edge of University Bay, on Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisc. There are some wooded sections along the nearby shoreline, including the well-known "Picnic Point" which has its own storied and prehistoric past.

On the ground below I saw evidence that this fella had been feasting on something like a mouse or other such small furry creature not too long ago. At one point it turned its head all the way around to look behind itself without moving its body. That was cool. My co-workers and I had heard that an owl nested in the courtyard, but had never seen one there. Today, on a whim, I walked over to take a look. I'm glad I did!

19 November 2011

Wine Me Up

For wine lovers who like to know from whence their wine has come, there is a push for place recognition both on the bottle and in the blend. It's a matter of appellation, writes Bill Zacharkiw, the Montreal Gazette's wine critic. This is how winemakers and marketing people apply 'sense of place' to their essentially ground-up trade.

"What they are trying to communicate to you," says Zacharkiw, is that the "wine is unique because the grapes are grown in a place where the mix of topography, geology, soil and climate makes them different from that of their neighbour."

This is something I would have thought of as terroir before. It seems that the difference (and correct me if I'm wrong, wine people, because I am no aficionado) is that appellation is the nominal distinction among geographic locations for grape production. In other words, distinguishing the various zones where the grapes are grown. Alternately, terroir denotes the sensory experience of a wine -- nose, palette, mouthfeel, all that --  in a way vitally connected to the soil and regional characteristics of any specific wine's production.

Official names for various appellation zones vary by country, writes Zacharkiw... "In France, it’s Appellation d’origine control√©e (AOC), in Spain, Denominaci√≥n de Origen, and in the United States, it’s American Viticultural Area (AVA)."  The only appellation systems in Canada are currently in Ontario and British Columbia. These wines carry the VQA symbol, for Vintners Quality Alliance.

A more strict appellation system, suggests Zacharkiw, would help wine consumers wade through the overwhelming options now found in any given wine section. Instead of gimmicks like weird bottles or cartoonish labels, winemakers can set themselves apart by claiming a stronger sense of grape-in-place, so to speak, as each appellation has within it sub-appellations. Communicating this would help novice wine enthusiasts learn more about regional differences.

Of course, this probably matters much more to people who really care about wine. I'm not one of those people. Distinguishing one winemaker's hint of limestone from another's overtone of basalt is not a gift I have. It's important, to be sure, but the professionals and the wine snobs can have it. Just pair it well, serve it up, and simple folks like me are satisfied.

14 November 2011

Productive Dissertating

What better way than eating leftover chile rellenos, chicken burrito, and refried beans to procrastinate disseration work? Oh, there's also laundry that needs to be done and yesterday's New York Times to page through. Thelonious Monk is on the turntable. I'm home alone. There are long days ahead for the rest of the week. Might as well write a blog post! Brilliant. This dissertation is going to be gooood.

Why not write? If you don't really want to be a writer, or at least make your living around words (or art or music) one way or another, then it's fairly likely you're not a friend of mine.

I was talking to someone recently who had given up an apparent 'dream job' of running the creative writing department at a small college in Vermont. She quit because she wanted to be a "writer who teaches, not a teacher who writes." Administrators also made it 'easy' for her to quit, she said, by providing no health insurance, no tenure track possibilities, and pretty much nothing else in terms of benefits. So she spent a year laying the groundwork for other opportunities and finally took the leap. It's a leap so many dream of taking yet fear life outside of the security of familiarity and steady income. We opt for security and relative certainty rather than whatever it is 'out there' that seems so scary. I've taken a leap once or twice, but it is intimidating. That said, it's also well worth while.

Writing essays seems like fun. In it, there is reporting and writing, sort of like journalism. But closer, perhaps, to creative nonfiction. In reading a Q&A with essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan today in The Economist's Prospero blog, I was struck by a few things. Those things aside, the part that makes it relevant to The Topophilian is in his answer to the last question, in which he discusses being uprooted at the age of 13 and moved from 'the south' to Ohio:

Displacement rips something you take for granted—your connection to a place—out of the natural sphere and places it into the abstract, self-conscious sphere, where it becomes something that has to be thought about.

There are days when I feel like the Southern identity is all just a bunch of self-serving bullshit that hasn't meant anything in 150 years, but there are also days when I think there's something to it. People speculate that it has to do with historical consciousness, which is probably right. It has to do with the sheer power that comes with marginalisation. A sense of otherness throws your life into a certain relief. People in the south are sensitised to these questions.

This sense of identity and otherness that Sullivan talks about, the sense of self set against other influential beings around us, highlights many juxtapositions for most people trying to figure out unfamiliar surroundings. Sullivan goes on to talk a bit about his nearly "pathological sensitivity" to geographical landscapes and then uses two well-known examples of what one could consider place-based literature to tie together notions of identity, place, writing, and the landscape:

Look at Hemingway's Michigan stories and Faulkner's Mississippi stuff. Nobody could say that Hemingway's writing about Michigan isn't dripping with a sense of place—that it isn't observant; that the attention paid to place there isn't deep. The difference is that Hemingway's real interest lies with the characters. They happen to move against the backdrop of a natural world that's very finely observed, but it’s not a part of their character. In Faulkner, the landscape is the main character. You get the feeling that he's writing about a wounded landscape. 

Oops. Monk needs to be flipped over. The laundry is not quite finished. There are dishes to be washed.... Dissertation work is so productive!

05 November 2011

Let Me Throw An Apple At Ya

Arcadia Books & Cafe, Spring Green, WI
I just played a few folk songs out in beautiful Spring Green, WI, in support of my author friend Alex Bledsoe. Alex was giving a reading for his new book The Hum and The Shiver, which refers to a bunch of great old folk songs in its storyline. The mixture of music and story brought out the idea, yet again, of how intimately these are connected. Music is story. Story, like music, has a certain arrangement that affords its greatest impact.

"We all carry a landscape within us," said Bruce Springsteen last year (11.15.10) in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. I very much agree. "I felt like my own identity was rooted in that sense of place," The Boss continued. Music has been such a rich way to convey place and historical time, as much of Springsteen's music shows. Many great artists are rooted in a landscape of place. Think of Gauguin in Tahiti, or Remington's Old West. Of course, Lou Reed's New York City, and the many laureates of Texas, of which Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, the Austin Lounge Lizards, and Willie Nelson are only but a few.

Spring Green, WI, is a great little artistic community on the banks of the mighty Wisconsin River along Highway 14 in southwestern Wisco. The reading took place at Arcadia Books which is one of the BEST INDEPENDENT BOOKSTOREs in the area. They're new. Very nice people serve up literature and what looked to be very delicious food, much of it locally sourced. They have good wines, local beers, and great ambiance.

My interests in 'sense of place,' both personally and professionally, align with other recent popular movements emphasizing "local" foods, beers, and many other non-big-box forms of economic support. It's part DIY zeitgeist, part awakening from the consumer culture malaise that has gripped the U.S. for the past 50 years. Here in Wisconsin, there has even been a little boom in local booze. Several new distilleries make spirits using regionally sourced ingredients. Yes, please! This theme, in my mind, connected me to Alex's work and his reading because The Hum and The Shiver is very rooted in the Smokey Mountain hollers of East Tennessee. That's Appalachian territory (say it with me: Appa-latch-ann, NOT App-a-lay-chin).

The music, the story, fantasy and history all combine, as they do in this melting pot of Americana, to bring out the best (and sometimes the worst) in people. Pride, jealousy, rumors, deceit - all that small minded stuff gets mixed up with altruism and heartfelt loving-kindness to offer up our modern conundrum of capitalist status quo balanced out by egalitarian social infrastructures. I just hope this modern love of local continues to flourish and turn this "get big or get out" mindset into more of a "get real, get sustainable" way of doing business. As we approach the upcoming holiday season, we can all do our part to catalyze this paradigm shift: Buy Local!