Thursday, January 25, 2007

Just say no to The Matrix

I'm writing to declare a moratorium on scholarly books and essays on The Matrix.

Why? First, it seems as if every other journal and book catalog I receive these days contains some new screed on one or more installments of the film trilogy. After I pointed out this phenomenon, a friend of mine in rhetoric aptly commented, "It's as if The Matrix were becoming to the humanities what Abraham Lincoln's 'Gettysburg Address' has long been to studies of public address in the United States"--which is to say, groundbreaking at one time, but at this point, overdone. Indeed, the shear volume of Matrix scholarship seems to be transforming the film into something of a trite object, so much so that the phrase, "the Matrix has you," is becoming our scholarly reality.

Beyond that, though, a good deal--though certainly not all--of this scholarship tends to be rather boring anyway. Part of this has to do with the fact that The Matrix wears much of its potential scholarly insight on its sleeve. "Oh my! Is that Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulations? The film must be saying something about postmodernism!" "Is that Cornel West I see? There must be something philosophical going on here!" " real is our so-called waking life? Maybe the films are about epistemology!" "Cause and effect, is it? Aha! Etiology at work!" "So I've already made all my choices in life, and now all that's left to do is to find their meaning. Perhaps the films are about ontology after all!" And so on. This isn't to say The Matrix trilogy isn't valuable for, say, teaching purposes, and this isn't to say that there aren't good questions to be asked of and through the films even today. But at this point, scholars interested in writing still another book, essay, or what have you on The Matrix would do well to proceed cautiously...very cautiously.

Lest you think I'm just a tired old crank, I will say that my favorite piece on The Matrix is Jennifer Daryl Slack's "Everyday Matrix," which is included in her edited collection, Animations [of Deleuze and Guattari]. It's a wonderful look at the mobilization of affect in, through, and beyond the first film, and in this respect it differs from many of the more textual "readings" or straightforward "philosophical" ruminations that tend to dominate the burgeoning field of Matrix scholarship.

And yes, indeed, it's fast becoming a field--or maybe even an industry. Heck--if you need a quick publication, something on The Matrix would be a safe bet.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


...courtesy of Kembrew McLeod and The Chronicle of Higher Education, a sobering "report" on the state of a liberal arts education in an increasingly corporatized university. Enjoy...?

Chronicle Careers
Monday, January 15, 2007
An Educational Prank

By Kembrew McLeod

In a groundbreaking marketing move, six corporations sponsored my undergraduate course during the fall of 2006. To be more accurate, I should say, with a wink and a nod, that they "sponsored" the course.

There was no contractual exchange of money or services in this faux patronage experiment and, to be honest, some of the businesses didn't want to be involved in my scheme. (One company representative, sensing the political motivations behind my endeavor, told me via an e-mail message: "You will not use the Disney logos or any connection to the Disney Co. in your class.")

I began referring to my syllabus as a McSyllabus, and for the duration of the semester my corporately sponsored name was Professor McKembrew McLeod.

I even planned to plaster a tweed sports coat with the logos of my pseudo-sponsors -- McDonald's, MTV, AT&T, Disney, Pfizer, and Sony Music. Kind of like a NASCAR outfit, but with elbow patches. Alas, I never went through with that part of my plan, as there were too many papers to grade and not enough time.

My experiment was a provocation, a quiet protest that escalated near the end of the semester after a contentious move made by the University of Iowa's Board of Regents. That body had increasingly adopted a top-down management style and embraced a corporate model for the university, and demonstrated that last November by scuttling a 10-month presidential search because it didn't like the finalists.

The board's actions inspired me to push my prank even further, and so I personally contacted each regent, telling them about my plan. It came as no surprise when one regent -- unaware of my satirical motives -- happily endorsed the idea of a corporately sponsored classroom. But more on that later.

I should point out that I write this column from a protected position. As a newly tenured professor, I have strong free-speech rights in the workplace -- a right that is weakening across the country as colleges reduce the number of tenure-track professorships. Cutting the workforce and extracting more labor for less compensation may increase the bottom line of corporations, but it's no way to run a university, for a number of reasons.

Close attention from faculty members was a privilege I enjoyed while attending a midsized state university in Virginia during the early 1990s. That one-on-one interaction broadened my intellectual horizons, and it transformed my life.

But few students I have met at Iowa have had the same experience. My own department, for example, is bursting with more than 1,300 majors, but we have only 12 full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members. Of course, some of our students do receive the special attention they deserve, but it comes from the goodwill of a faculty whose workweek easily exceeds 40 hours (not to mention our hardworking graduate students, visiting instructors, and office staff members).

The arts and humanities have obviously been hit hard, but even "big money" units have been affected. For instance, the blossoming university-industrial complex has experienced serious consequences in certain areas of basic scientific research, where the sharing of information is becoming less and less free. As universities and their corporate partners place a greater emphasis on developing valuable patented technologies, the norm of openness among scientists has eroded.

That has been widely documented, including in a survey of nearly 2,000 university-based geneticists the results of which were reported in the January 2002 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. According to the survey, a third of the scientists agreed that it was becoming more common in their field to withhold data for financial reasons.

About three years ago I interviewed David J. Skorton, then the president of Iowa, about some of those issues. During our talk Skorton told me that he understood and took seriously the expectation that we should do "the best we can to commercialize technologies developed in the universities for the state's good."

"But," the president quickly added, "my own point of view has been, and will remain, that I am more concerned with freedom of expression than with the commercial imperative."

I'm sure his philosophy did not sit well with the university's regents, with whom the president had skirmished over other issues. When he left last year to become president of Cornell University, few people on our campus saw his departure as a coincidence.

Iowa's presidential searches have always been campus-led affairs, but after Skorton announced his resignation, for the first time in the university's history, the board appointed a regent as head of the search panel and exercised unprecedented control over the committee's operations. The regents also appointed the former dean of the business college as Iowa's interim president, who is quoted in a Q&A on the university's Web site as saying that "in educational programs and in research and clinical programs, we should seek partnerships, relationships where we're not bearing all of the costs and we're sharing the rewards."

All of which got me thinking, "What would a liberal-arts education look like if McDonald's underwrote it?"

My project gained a new sense of urgency when the regents terminated the search for Skorton's replacement. In a cryptic press release, the regents explained that the board "needed candidates who had more experience as leaders who oversaw complex health-sciences operations as well as the myriad of other academic and nonacademic operations of a large university." The Des Moines Register reported that the final applicant pool did not include an earlier candidate who had been favored by the board president, a candidate with significant ties to the insurance industry.

This disturbing sequence of events prompted me to send the aforementioned e-mail message to each member of Iowa's board explaining my prank in a straight-faced manner:

"In a class exercise I thought you'd appreciate, we are imagining what it would be like if several corporations sponsored this class. In one assignment, the students will be making an advertisement for one of these 'clients,'" I wrote, adding, "Because it is so important to organize the university more like a business, I thought you would appreciate and agree with the philosophy that underpins this project."

I concluded by mock complaining, "I believe that too many professors at the university are out of touch with real-world business practices."

Because I contacted the regents in the middle of the presidential-search firestorm -- and given my prankish history, which is just one Google click away -- I worried about two things. Either the regents would (a) see through my sardonic rhetoric and try to have me fired for being a smart aleck, or (b) affirm the e-mail's core sentiments.

One way or the other, it was a lose-lose proposition.

A few days later, I received an e-mail message from one regent, who cheerfully wrote: "Conceptually, it sounds great. Happy Thanksgiving." Although this was not a smoking-gun admission -- "yes, product placement in the classroom is part of our nefarious plan for the future!" -- my suspicions were nevertheless confirmed.

The troubles faced by the University of Iowa (and our nation's universities, more generally) run deeper than a mere bureaucratic squabble. This episode highlights the systemic problems that emerge when we try to turn the university into "an economic engine for the state," a term our administrators are fond of using.

Perhaps I should start stitching together that logo-slathered tweed jacket after all.

Kembrew McLeod is an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa. His latest book, Freedom of Expression: Resistance and Repression in the Age of Intellectual Property, will be published this spring by the University of Minnesota Press.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

A promising new journal...

...I'm especially intrigued by the "worth a second look" book review section, and by the fact that they're publishing under Creative Commons licenses. Check it out!

The International Journal of Communication (IJoC) is now officially launched. Volume 1, 2007, including scholarly articles, book reviews and features, is available to any interested reader, free of charge –- just go to the website,, and register.

Our inaugural contents include articles by scholars from Australia, Canada, China, Israel, Scotland, Great Britain and the U.S. Book reviewers assess works published in the U.S. as well as Italy, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Spain. Lawrence Grossberg inaugurates a series we hope to expand, briefly discussing books that deserve a second, or even a first look. Our feature section opens with a series of essays written in honor of our late colleague and friend, Roger Silverstone, and goes on to include an interview with theorist Fritjof Capra, a preview of global Hollywood in 2010 by Toby Miller, and an illuminating excursion into the thickets of Fair Use.

The International Journal of Communication is an interdisciplinary journal that, while centered in communication, is open and welcoming to contributions from the many disciplines and approaches that meet at the crossroads that is communication study.

We are interested in scholarship that crosses disciplinary lines and speaks to readers from a range of theoretical and methodological perspectives. In other words, The International Journal of Communication is a forum for scholars when they address the wider audiences of our many sub-fields and specialties, rather than the location for the narrower conversations more appropriately conducted within more specialized journals.

Visit the journal website, register and engage with our authors and contributors –- IJoC offers readers the opportunity to comment on articles and join in dialogue and debate with authors and other readers –- and submit your own work to us, via the online submission system.

We hope you are as excited and pleased as we are at the start of this new venture in scholarly publishing!

Manuel Castells and Larry Gross

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Camp Gilles Deleuze

Sorry it's been so long--nearly a month, actually! Grading finals and visiting friends and family took up most of my December, and January's brought with it a mad dash to prepare for my spring graduate seminar, "Everyday Life and Cultural Studies." In any case, I promise to write more next week, once things have died down. For now, here's an announcement for an upcoming "Deleuze Camp." No, you can't make this stuff up, and yes, it looks to be very interesting. Were I a graduate student, I certainly would save my pennies and go.

"Deleuze Camp"
A Summer School for postgraduate students interested in the work of Gilles Deleuze.

  • Who? Ian Buchanan, Claire Colebrook, Gregg Lambert, Paul Patton and Daniel W. Smith.

  • What? A hectic combination of lectures, seminars, and workshops on the work of Gilles Deleuze lead by some of the most important Deleuze scholars writing today. The full schedule will be uploaded soon.

  • Where? The Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory, Cardiff University (Cardiff, Wales UK).

  • When? August 20 to August 24 2007. (Cut-off date for enrolment is June 29, 2007)

  • How much? £100 all inclusive for all lectures, seminars and workshops. Does not include meals or accommodation.

  • Contact? Professor Ian Buchanan or 44 (0)29 2087 5619

    Check for details.