Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Visual Communication Reflection 1: Nudity

At the Visual Communication conference this past weekend, I saw a panel about the representation of the body that I feel merits additional discussion. I was fascinated by the topics that were all linked by images, visuals, and the body: nudity in sports magazines, the narratives of tattoos, and eyewitness testimony. I will devote a blog post to each of these ideas and then finally connect them all with an important communication concept and a personal example of that connection at work.

The first paper performed a critical rhetorical analysis of the visuals in ESPN Magazine's "body issue" that shows athletes in censored but mostly naked poses. As opposed to a pornographic magazine, the photographs were of athletes who covered genital and chest regions with creative posing, sports equipment, or other people.
Serena Williams - Tennis
The tagline for the body issue is the "bodies we want", an ode to the athletic form as the most desirable for both males and females. The issue even states that the reason for the special issue focusing on nudity is to "celebrate the athletic form", emphasizing the body as the ultimate tool of the athletes. Even though athletes may use soccer balls, nets, rackets, and bats, their fundamental tool and skill remains within the capabilities of their body. Strong legs, arms, and torsos, speed, agility, strength, and power are all attributes of the perfect athletic form that strives for victory and perfection.

"Each year, we stop to admire the vast potential of the human form. To unapologetically stand in awe of the athletes who've pushed their physiques to profound frontiers. To imagine how it would feel to inhabit those bodies, to leap and punch and throw like a god. To ... well, gawk. So go ahead; join us."

The idea is that "normal" people cannot achieve such physical fitness and athleticism is something "god-like", to be worshiped and praised. Athletes, though, arguably occupy a wide variety of physical fitness. From the small, thin frame of the jockey to the lean muscle of the runner to the bulky, muscular form of football players, athletes come in all shapes and sizes. Their bodies are thus icons of perfection, not because they fit a certain mold or standard of perfection, but because they are perfect tools to fulfill their specific role. Interesting additions to the body issue, infrequent, is the representation of Paralympic athletes such as Esther Vergeer (2010 issue) and Oksana Masters (2012 issue). Although their bodies may not be the "perfect", "god-like" bodies that one would initially think of, these athletes have become titans in their sport, serving as a symbol of the power of the athletic form, however one may define it.
Sarah Reinertsen - Marathon/Triathlon Runner
The part of the magazine that the researcher's focused on was that although the audience is almost exclusively young and middle-aged males, the magazine had nearly equal proportions of male and female athletes which would contradict heteronormative assumptions. Instead of only focusing on female forms to attract the attention of their target market, the magazine also included naked male bodies, complicating its association with pornographic material. 

The rationale behind the male/female frequency in the magazine was justified by the researchers in the comparison of the types of images. The female athletes were consistently shown in stoic, full body poses performing no action besides being a subject for the camera to focus on. For example, Venus Williams was shown supine in a bathing suit beside a pool, performing no action but relaxing. Julia Mancuso was standing facing the camera, bending a leg and crossing her arms to cover herself. From these photographs, we would have no indication of their sport, physical abilities, or skills as an athlete, but can only focus on their form as an attractive body.
Julia Mancuso - Olympic Skier
The male athletes, however, were consistently performing actions, such as aspects of their sport, exercising, or interacting with teammates. Instead of focusing on the body, the male photographs created action, a narrative, and activity to follow and contextualize the naked male form. For the female athletes, the only focus was directed to their body, showing no skill, talents, or actions specific to the sport or athletes. For example, Tim Howard was shown in goalie gloves diving across the photograph in an attempt to save an imaginary goal. Patrick Willis was shown exercising, lifting larger weights and emphasizing his strength, power, and muscles.

Jose Reyes - Baseball
Evaluating these differences as evidence of heteronormativity, the researchers conclude that the publication still objectifies female athletes for their attractive bodies and worships the male body as a site for action, victory, and athletic ability.

The methodology the researchers chose was based in gender and feminist studies, but I wish that the overall issue of the body and power had been explored. I find the inclusion of Paralympic bodies, the bodies of jockeys, bobsledders, and sumo wrestlers, and non-traditional athletic forms is a powerful statement about who can and should be considered an athlete.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Zombie Apocalypse, Religion, and Psychosis

As much as I would want to put all of my Left 4 Dead training to practice on a real zombie apocalypse, the CDC reports that the recent zombie-like behaviors nationwide have no discernible cause. In other words: there is no zombie apocalypse, there are no walking dead, just people acting out currently inexplicable cannibalistic urges. But where do these urges come from? What spurs and incites people to commit such actions? I cannot help but recall St. Augustine's infamous words, "Whence evil?" Furthermore, where does the fascination with the walking dead come from? What do their recent re-emergence in popular culture (possible replacing or undermining the vampire trend) symbolize for the current generation?

The solutions to these questions can be found in the psychology and philosophy that form the base of human action. Although there cannot always be a single answer to all questions, neither do all questions have unique answers. In finding the roots of the zombie rumors, I'd like to explore the news articles covering the events and then propose Freud's neurosis theory as an interesting intersection between religion and madness.

The first news story broke in May 2012 when a naked man, later identified as Rudy Eugene, attacked a homeless man and began to eat his face. Only after being shot by police officers did the attack end with reports of him snarling and acting like an animal in his attack and consumption. The culprit was drugs, hallucinogens such as LSD and "bath salts" can raise body temperatures and cause intense delirium. Drug-induced psychosis, then, is to blame for this zombie-like attack, where a human acts distinctively inhuman and consumes flesh. Traditionally, zombies are considered the "living dead", a person resurrected in a type of half-life after death. The mythology of the zombie has been altered in film, particularly. Whereas traditional representations (Shaun of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Zombieland) are still made, there are more plausible (used loosely) variations that are becoming more common. Virus-induced zombie-like behavior is showcased in 28 Days Later and I Am Legend, where people are still alive and human but a disease that alters behavior and attitude. These types of interpretations make the drug-induced actions in Miami a relevant and palpable occurrence of zombies. At least, zombies in the modern interpretation, where anger and disease plague the mind, not the results of re-animation.

Later in that same week, a news story broke about a student at Morgan State University, Alexander Kinyua, who had murdered his roommate and had eaten his brains and heart. The scapegoat in this case was insanity, as documented on the student's Facebook page. Not only did he mention murder and killing in the time before and after the murder, but he was often referring to himself as a warrior and marking himself with war paint. Insanity is thus the culprit for his actions, driving his consumption of the roommate. Information about his past are still unknown, but perhaps inquiry will reveal past trauma or rationale for his obsession with murder that drove him to kill.

Another zombie news story shocked the nation not a week later, where a San Antonio woman, Otty Sanchez, killed her infant son, eating his brains and a few of his toes. Probably the most disturbing part of this story was the report that her actions were taken at the devil's behest. Motivated perhaps from fear, loyalty, confusion, or paranoia, her belief in the devil and his power killed her son by guiding her actions.

The "boy who cried zombie" aspect of these news stories is not the only aspect that links them. Freud would argue that they are all linked by an even stronger, guiding force: repression. Freud argued that underlying, repressed trauma and urges linked from sexual frustration (the stereotypical "Oedipus Complex") causes all forms of neurosis and abnormal behavior in humans. All actions, including religious convictions, are all aberrational behaviors caused by insanity and mental distress. The third story surely supports this case, as her request from the devil was a form of hallucination or psychosis to imagine spiritual callings to commit a heinous act. Instead of religion, the first and second stories were motivated by drugs and perhaps mental instability and obsession with death. Freud would categorize all of these actions (taking drugs, mental distress, and belief in religion) as the same problem: psychotic behaviors. This psychosis spurred these individuals to action because of past trauma and events that encouraged them to engage in abnormal behaviors. The results, a similar urge to cannibalism, are justifiably  linked because of irrational, obsessional neurosis.*

Without the link between them, as argued by Freud, these three events look dangerously dissimilar. Different parts of the country (Miami, Baltimore, San Antonio), different ages (22-33), and different races (2 black and 1 Latina) made up the current zombie/cannibal line-up. The great disparity places different faces and people on the same problem; it is possible for it to happen to anyone, so who could be next? The speculation online and in the general public was so severe that the CDC had to release a report denying the existence of re-animating the dead or a disease that could cause such behaviors. The attention paid to these attacks by the CDC glorifies and recognizes the events, their link, and provides support for speculators.

If zombie-like events continue to occur, the CDC might receive pressure to investigate more intensely, however absurd the idea of it may seem. One thing is for certain, though. If these events happened to multiple people across the nation, from different backgrounds, and different ages, then the link between them is simply humanity. From humanity we have Freud's psychoanalytic approach to the human mind and the relationship between psychotic actions and mental trauma that explains these occurrences. Is the zombie potential within all of us, then?
*I urge anyone interested in learning more about Freud's opinions on religion and mental distress to turn to Daniel L. Pals's "Eight Theories of Religion" (2006). 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press where the above insights were gleaned.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Self-Reflecting on Religion and Society: Pew Forum poll of Mormons

In a previous post, I discussed the current climate of Mormonism in world news publications to show how the general public and news media reflects and absorbs information about Romney's faith. A recent Pew Forum poll is a relevant complement to my previous post by representing the Mormon opinion on their faith and position in society.

Acknowledging simultaneously that the Mormons have experienced a "Mormon Moment" and also only make up 2% of the population, the Pew Forum amassed fascinating poll numbers that show the current opinions of Mormons on their ascent to mainstream coverage.

Below I've listed the polls that I found particularly interesting, but the entire report can be accessed for more in-depth explanations.

  • 62% of Mormons believe that Americans know nothing or very little about Mormonism
Although Mormonism is receiving more coverage and has become an important topic, there is skepticism on behalf of the Mormon population that people still do not know detailed information about their faith. This could be a result of limited media coverage that explains the faith rather than merely commenting on it or the reticence on Romney's part to discuss and advertise his faith in the campaign.

  • 63% of Mormons believe that the acceptance of Mormonism is rising
Despite a lack of information about Mormonism, Mormons believe that they are becoming more accepted by the American population. Simply having more coverage and attention placed on the religion perhaps provides respondents with confidence that the coverage is leading to people being more comfortable hearing about and thinking about the faith.

  • 54% of Mormons believe that media portrayals hurt the Mormon's image, but
  • 52% of Mormons believe that news coverage is fair
Mormons are split nearly down the middle in how entertainment media and news coverage of their faith influences their perception by the general public. By these numbers, news coverage is favored slightly more than media coverage, perhaps because of the emphasis on polygamy in entertainment, which is no longer supported by nor representative of members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. News coverage, however, is more likely to acknowledge this abandonment of polygamy and contextualize Mormonism by discussing Romney.

  • 56% of Mormons believe America is ready for a Mormon president
Whether or not respondents are specifically referring to Romney's bid or a Mormon president in general, it is clear that Mormons are less confident in their ability to garner the highest office in the United States. The operationalization of "ready" can be complicated, but I feel comfortable in concluding that Mormons are still hesitant to declare themselves as fully integrated in the population and as a viable faith for the presidency, despite their acceptance being on the rise.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the paper is the comparative polls between Mormons and the US public.
  • 97% of Mormons consider Mormonism a Christian religion, whereas only 51% agree
This large disparity between considering Mormonism a Christian religion could spell disaster for Romney's presidential bid. A likely reason for such a large gap is the media coverage that is given to outspoken pastors and priests that denounce Mormonism as an un-Christian cult. Not being able to connect to Romney on the value of faith could be damaging to his ability to swing undecided and independent voters. The 46 points difference clearly speaks to the belief by Mormons that by worshiping Jesus Christ, they should be considered a Christian faith, whereas the general public is too skeptical of the additional Book of Mormon strays too far from traditional Christian teachings.

Mormons may be experiencing their own 15-minutes of fame, but the negative media representations and American skepticism that confronts them are a foreseeable future. Especially in the upcoming 2012 presidential election, Romney and Mormons will continue to gain the spotlight as the faith attempts to endorse the first Mormon president.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Evernote: Research Tools for Students and Faculty

One of the most important skills for students, faculty, and academics in general to learn is that of note-taking. We are in classes, at meetings, attending conferences, and critically reading as a part of our daily activities, not to mention keeping dozens of important ideas, projects, and things-to-do in mind. A solution to this problem that I have used (and has saved me a few times) is Evernote. This program can be downloaded and synced across all devices (including tablets and phones) keeping primarily lists of things available for viewing and editing anywhere at anytime (syncing across all devices occurs when there is a wireless signal).

Evernote is organized as "notebooks" that I like to use as overarching labeling for types of notes and lists. Within the notebooks are a series of "notes" that can be edited as if it is one large text box. I have notebooks for each class, conferences, guest lectures, and individual projects. My personal notebook (the one that is create default when you start using Evernote) is full of brainstorming, random notes for project ideas, and important contact information. The notebooks are listed on the farthest left side and once one is selected, a new column opens with that notebook's notes. Select a note and it will appear in the rest of the screen on the right. Creating a new notebook or note is as easy as clicking the Notebook drop down menu or the New Note button at the top of the currently selected note. When you open an already created note, it automatically opens in view mode so you can easily read and look up saved information. Editing is done by clicking the "Edit" button at the top, which allows for regular type editing.

There are many tools and formatting styles for the notes that can be customized to how you work best. Perhaps the most useful is the ability to attach files to the note (i.e., brainstorming a content analysis methodology and attaching the LexisNexis search output). There are other options that I use less, but are definitely worthwhile:
  • record verbal notes/reminders on top of written notes (if you are somewhere where typing is difficult or inconvenient)
  • easily change title and move into different notebooks (good if projects are constantly changing or you have variable tastes in academic organization)
  • associate a URL with the text 
    • if you find a relevant website, copy and paste the article text and put the link to the article in the URL box
    • if you want to cite an article, write a note about the relevant information you want to include and put the link in the URL box for easy reference later when creating a bibliography
  • tag and label your document so you can search for particular notes or parts of notes later
    • I do not use this, simply because I prefer to rely on specific titles and clear organization within notebooks, but if you were a prolific note-writer and needed to find information quickly, this is definitely a good option
  • send notes to Facebook, Twitter, through email (as a PDF), or create a link to the note
    • good for sharing information for group projects or turning notes during class into a PDF'ed study guide
  • keep track of to-do lists organized chronologically, by class, topic, activity, etc.
  • keep track of funding, reimbursements, grant budgets, etc.
Evernote's Introductory Video

Final food for thought: Evernote saved me during my final exams this semester, so I am definitely in debt to it. Both of my final exams allowed for computer use during the final to type up responses, but my computer (both days) was having screen issues where it would randomly turn off. This occurred five minutes into my first final and panic set in, so I reached for my iPad with case/keyboard and opened Evernote. I typed my entire final on the Evernote and sent it via email to my professor and his teaching assistant easily. Knowing that my computer was acting up, I did not bother with it for my second final and again typed that and emailed it in through Evernote, avoiding the stress of working with a dysfunctional computer. Without this program installed on my iPad, I would not have been able to send in my finals this semester, so I owe Evernote a big thanks.

The best part of the Evernote software is its integration on multiple devices, making it ideal for installation on everything you own, so important lists, contact information, brainstormed ideas, or simple to-do lists are kept with you at all times, internet optional. For me, having it on my iPad was immeasurably helpful, so I recommend installing it and seeing what uses you find for it. Because for academic use or not, it is a powerful and useful program.