by Akshata Atre
Representation is all the rage on TV nowadays. Well, at least for Netflix. So it wasn’t really surprising to learn that Mindy Kaling was approached by Netflix to write a semi-autobiographical show about the Indian-American experience. When I first heard about the show, I was pretty excited. The only other piece of Western media about an Indian girl I can think of is Bend It Like Beckham. (Which, by the way, is amazing, and I will forever stand by that, aside from the very disappointing ending, but that has more to do with my love for Keira Knightley, so not super relevant here.)
ANYWAY, back to the show at hand (titled Never Have I Ever, which provides for a series of cutesy “...episode titles”). Like I said, when I heard about the show, I was very excited. I love Mindy Kaling, and I trusted that she would write a funny, relatable show. But then I watched the trailer and it was just . . . not at all what I was expecting. It was all shirtless boys, friend drama, teenage angst-- just basically a standard teen romantic comedy drama. Save for a few snippets of a Ganesh puja, it was all just so . . . generic American high school. Nothing seemed really specific to the fact that the main character, Devi, is Indian.
I was really hoping that the show itself would prove me wrong. But, unfortunately, it didn’t. The first two episodes in particular were extremely off-putting. Devi’s fervent pursuit of a boyfriend in order to “get over” the tragic loss of her father, after which she was psychosomatically paralyzed for months, was extremely emotionally jarring. But on top of that, aside from her brief conversations with her mother about her “blessed” textbook (which felt like a weird stereotypical jab), I felt as though Devi could easily have been replaced with any number of white actresses in those first few episodes.
Episode 4, “Never Have I Ever. . . felt super Indian,” was one that I thought would turn the show around (at least in my eyes). The episode is about Devi attending a Ganesh puja held by the local South Indian association. Devi is super unhappy about going, because she’s the type of Indian girl who isn’t super thrilled about the fact that she has to participate in Indian traditions. Which is a completely fair take, especially since Kaling said that this particular attitude is one she had growing up in an extremely white community. There are a couple of characters at the event that sort of call Devi out on her attitude (one of whom alludes to Kaling’s own experience with a college roommate who was very proud of her Native American heritage, making Kaling question her own relationship to her heritage) but Devi doesn’t buy into it. She remains semi-embarrassed about her presence and participation in the event and uncomfortable about her itchy sari.
This dual-culture dilemma is something that almost all first generation Indian-American kids struggle with. People approximately fall along a spectrum ranging from “trying to ignore the fact that they’re Indian and changing their name to something American” to “being super proud and wearing a lengha to school on Diwali.” There’s ultimately no right answer to where people end up-- a lot of it is based on where you grew up and if there were other Indian kids at your school. But what didn’t gel with me was the fact that Devi was suddenly super cool with the fact that she was wearing a sari when her main love interest, Paxton, said that it looked good. I don’t really know how to articulate how that whole interaction made me feel other than to say it was. . . icky.
Overall, although I did enjoy the jokes about aunty gossip and how no one understands what pujaris say, the episode just felt like a rehashing of Kaling’s “Diwali” episode of The Office. Which is a great episode, it’s just kind of specific to the time in which it was made (the episode aired in 2006). So I was hoping we could move beyond the stereotypical jokes about Indian parents wanting their kids to get married and just generally being hella judgemental. I would have loved to hear more about the girls in the episode who tell Devi that their Bollywood dance teams compete at a national level, instead of remaining focused on Devi’s negative judgements about that accomplishment. And again, while I get that this episode was meant to reflect Kaling’s struggles with accepting her culture, as someone who has felt embarrassed about wearing a salwar kameez in public, it would have been really nice to see desi kids in a show being proud of their heritage in less of a vignette/side-plot type of way.
An amazing dance performance . . . and then Devi (in the turquoise sari) judging it.
I think that Kaling’s own struggle about her cultural identity is the reason why this show feels more aspirational than representational. In her interview on Fresh Air, Kaling herself said that she never had a boyfriend in high school, in part because she was forbidden from dating, but that she remained boy-crazy. So by making this show about Devi pursuing (and ultimately ending up with two) non-Indian love interests, it almost feels like Kaling wrote a story about what she wishes her high school experience had been like. And that experience, as my mom put it after she watched the show, is what Indians of her generation thought American high schools were like based on reading Archie comics. That is to say, the show doesn’t reflect the reality of life in an American high school, or the reality of the first generation Indian-American experience.
Aside from what might have been Kaling’s own personal aspirations, the whole show overall felt like it was written not for Indian-Americans, but for white people. So many of the show’s jokes scream “look at me, I’m just like you. . . I’m just brown.” It feels like Devi is (or at the very least the show’s writers are) constantly trying to prove that she’s just like any other female lead in a John Hughes movie or a DCOM. Which is what I mean by saying the show is aspirational. It’s aspiring to a reality where white people think that immigrants have similar life experiences to them. But that’s not always the case. And it’s TOTALLY FINE and HEALTHY to acknowledge that.
This is the same reason why Kelly Kapoor and Tom Haverford (characters from The Office and Parks and Recreation, respectively) hardly ever acknowledge the fact that they’re Indian. Both Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari (the actors who portray these characters) grew up in predominantly white communities and really just wanted to fit in. But it’s not the 80s anymore, and if Kaling really wanted to represent modern teenagers like she has said, I think her sensibilities about racial relations in America (at least regarding South Asians) could have evolved in parallel to the show’s writing about Instagram and internet slang. We’ve moved beyond the need to prove that Indian-Americans can “fit in.” We don’t need to show that Indian-American teenage girls can be “complicated” in the ways that characters in teen rom-coms are. What we need is a show about how we're complicated in our own ways, and how those complications do, in fact, relate closely to our heritage and relationships with our communities. Being Indian is not, as one Vanity Fair writer so eloquently put it, “just one aspect of the general bullshit” that Indian-Americans have to “put up with.” A person’s culture is a part of who they are, not something that should be perceived as forced upon them. And to depict it as the latter does more harm than good.
This is why I feel that shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Kim's Convenience have been more relatable and enjoyable than Never Have I Ever and Ansari’s more adult Master of None. These shows take the time to flesh out all the members of the families around which they are centered, and as such provide a more multifaceted and complex depiction of what it is like to be a first-generation immigrant. Within the Huang family on Fresh Off the Boat, for instance, we get to see the range of how immigrant children relate to their heritage-- Evan and Emery follow their mother Jessica’s approach to tradition and schooling, while Eddie immerses himself in the music of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. Even the parents reflect this dichotomy; the father, Louis, really tries to fit into the Orlando community by opening a country-themed steakhouse while Jessica remains committed to imparting Taiwanese traditions to her children. It should be noted that these shows also enjoy a great deal of controversy in their respective communities-- Eddie Huang, whose book Fresh Off the Boat inspired the TV show, feels that it does exactly what I have just criticized Never Have I Ever for doing.
This all goes to say that it’s hard to write shows that appeal to all members of the first-generation, broadly Asian, immigrant community. The lead actress of Never Have I Ever, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, wrote that the show only tells the story of one Indian-American girl’s experience, and that “there are still many stories waiting to be told.”
While that may be true, I still feel justified in my frustration that Never Have I Ever was the first show to try to give us that representation. I’d like a show that doesn’t call me out for not having had a “typical” American high school experience full of parties, friends, school trips, and cringey romantic interactions. I think a family show, for instance, would be better than a To All the Boys I've Loved Before-type show about an erratic and sometimes downright unlikable teenage girl. For instance, Never Have I Ever only has one Indian-American teenage boy with a speaking role, and he disappears altogether after his one minute of screen time. And Devi’s father is only ever shown in flashbacks.
So, as Ramakrishnan said, there are a LOT of other stories to be told. I just wish-- and really feel like they could have-- been told in this show. Because representation really matters, and it’s more than just putting a person of color in a leading role. While researching for this piece, I came across this really great quote from Jean Yoon, the actress who plays Umma on Kim's Convenience:
“It’s really important to have representation because people who don’t see themselves on screen start to feel invisible and their stories are not understood by others, and it’s really easy to sort of slide into this place where you stop recognizing your own value.”
I have, at many moments in my life, felt invisible and misunderstood, in part because I felt so alone in my experiences regarding my relationship with my parents, the constant pressure I put on myself to do well in school, and my struggles to communicate with my family back in India. And watching Never Have I Ever didn’t make me feel less alone. And that kind of sucks, because I fall smack dab in the middle of the very specific target demographic for this show.
But it’s not all a downer. ABC is reportedly moving forward with a show centered around an Indian-American family as a spinoff of Fresh Off the Boat (as of October 2019). The characters that will star in the show have actually already appeared on an episode of FOTB, and the actress set to play the mother is none other than Preity Zinta, who was one of my FAVORITE Hindi film actresses when I was younger. (Like, I can’t even begin to express what a huge star she is, she’s amazing.) So while Never Have I Ever may not have given me the representation I was looking for, I think there’s hope yet for a show that does provide a more complex and holistic insight into the Indian-American experience. And it might be with Preity Zinta!
by Katherine Schloss
They have finally recovered the bodies of the missing Kennedys. I’ve found that it’s so easy to give into the mystique of their curse. I’m certainly one to be drawn in by the fogginess that surrounds it, the mystery that their uber rich family is shrouded in. They’ve certainly been continuously blessed with fame and fortune, but one can only stop and wonder if the number of deaths and freak accidents that they’ve racked up is actually unprecedented, or if it merely feels magnified because of our intense fascination and following of all things Kennedy.
Curses are linked to supernatural powers, and ending up with one comes with all the implications that someone- or something- is out to cause you harm. I think it’s really interesting that some people walk around with a “victim mindset” in that way. It’s easier to point to something as the cause of an unhappiness, or to blame the bad things that have happened to you on misfortune. Looking at the famous Kennedy family specifically, there is folklore surrounding them, with conspiracy theories pointing to a curse that has manifested in everything from cars launching into bodies of water, botched lobotomies and the famous shooting which has yet to be completely solved and therefore remains subject to scrutiny by the masses.
Why do we find celebrities so entrancing? This question is asked again and again by anyone who cares to take a second to analyze their own obsession with the world of glitz and glamour, where old movies insist that, in the pursuit of fame, celebrities are selling their souls to the devil. They take a risk, and many end up in the hallowed halls of rehab, all for the price of the construction of a “personality.” We fall in love with, or love to hate, the fragments that they give us, following a trail of golden little nuggets of information. Nowadays, the sneak peek into their lives that we get on social media and in “stripped-down” interviews can be addicting. But how much of that would have existed if they hadn’t entered into a contract? How much of their glamorous life was written in the stars and preordained, and how much resulted from years of working towards the image that we idolize?
My art history professor told my class that, when the Cleopatra film came out in 1963 with Liz Taylor at its helm, it brought with it a trend of false eyelashes and the “new Egyptian look.” She managed to capitalize on an image that was ancient and totally unrelated to her own culture, merely because of the starpower that she held. We hold onto these images of decadence, copying those that have their fascinating lives on their hills and many who, in this quarantine, have the luxury of hiding in their mansions without reason to ever leave their shiny infinity pools and manicured pastures.
Watching old Keeping up with the Kardashians episodes- hey, we’ve got to allow ourselves some guilty pleasures during this quarantine, right?- I’m reminded of how we love to pit celebrities against one another as if everything is just one big ‘ol reality t.v. show. We love to read about the drama, to spice things up when we find our own lives to be mundane or stale. Where does the individual end and the personality begin? When writing a thesis on David Bowie and his creation of a sort of alter ego in the form of Ziggy Stardust, I was fascinated by how he described the struggle of trying to separate himself from the persona that he’d crafted purely for the entertainment of anyone who would listen. We criticize celebrities for being unable to handle the fame which somehow comes to encompass a culture where we expect them to be well-adjusted and expect them to share the secrets of their well-adjusted life with the public as well. Who are we to expect an inside peek? It’s as if no stone can be left unturned, no second left unrecorded.
I saw today that there’s speculation that Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik are expecting their first child. As I stared at the pixels that combined to create pictures taken from moments in their tumultuous on-again off-again relationship where they were actually beaming, I couldn’t help but wonder who it was that had leaked this highly personal information. There’s certainly a darker side to things, one where influencers like Caroline Calloway are cancelled and labeled as scammers by fans that had once heralded her posts about her dreamy days at Cambridge. This overload of information that exists at our fingertips has erased some of the intrigue. We no longer have to wait for a magazine to come out in order to see the latest celebrity gossip, and celebrities have literally started opening their doors up to us in Architectural Digest videos galore. I’m slowly starting to feel that celebrities are just like us, but with a whole lot more money and a whole lot less privacy.
I am not immune to the cult of personality that surrounds these moguls. I’ve been known to drool over Princess Di’s drove of fabulous and innovative outfit choices, I spent years trying to understand who Jackie O was aside from her husband, and singers like Maggie Rogers remain my spirit animal. The few times that I’ve been able to talk to these figures that I look up to or love to love- which has mainly been at stage doors or at small concerts- I’m struck by how little I’m able to muster, despite the fact that I’m usually a big talker. Though it may feel like it, we will never truly know the people whose voices fill our earbuds, whose posters covered the walls of our angsty teen years, and whose red carpet choices will continue to shape our own wardrobes for years to come. And that’s okay. We certainly rely upon a pop culture shaped by such individuals as a form of escapism, and I undoubtedly will continue to try to find the magic in the personas that they’ve so carefully created for me to indulge in. On the other side of things, I hope that at the end of the day we find ourselves in our individuality to be all the more valuable and precious, crafting our own personalities and lives based on the people and things that we are influenced by and basking in the fact that we don’t have to drive in cars with tinted windows. I, for one, can’t wait to freely walk around in Trader Joe’s once the quarantine is over, searching for my favorite off-brand takis. At least the mob won’t have something to say about that.
by Yasmeen Adin
I am stuck in Berkeley for the foreseeable future. At least until travel restrictions back home loosen up. Even then, if I am able to go back home, it remains unclear if I will be able to return to the US. Amidst all this uncertainty, finding any glimpse of positivity can be difficult. Feeling obliged to be positive feels even worse during a global crisis that directly affects the most vulnerable among us. The constant reminders to remain positive while navigating the uncertainty of the situation are becoming draining and unbearable. I am frustrated and anxious and depriving myself from the right to feel so in order to convince myself that everything is okay. But it is not. Yet what has been keeping me and many others grounded so far is the sense of community that was immediately cultivated during this crisis.
From the earliest stages of the progression of this pandemic, it became clear that the ideals valued the most in our modern capitalist societies would get us nowhere. The evils of this system that governs us, from our day-to-day lives to the institutional level, were exposed to everyone. Since when is meeting the deadline of a paper considered more important than mourning the death of a beloved person who did not even get a proper funeral? Since when is profiting off of the backs of workers considered more important than their health and well-being? Since when is physically hurting others to get a roll of toilet paper considered more important than putting those more in need first? Glorifying these flaws in the name of individualism, productivity, and economic growth contribute to normalizing and embedding them in our behaviors and cultures. But there are those who refuse these norms and resist back against them. They choose collectivism in their resistance to showcase the inadequacy of our governments.
Since the very first few days of the shelter-in-place order and social distancing that led to many folks leaving or losing their jobs, links and databases to independently-initiated funds have started circulating. They act as financial compensation for BIPOC, disabled, unemployed, houseless, and LGBTQIA+ folks, and they uplift creatives and freelancers and others who live paycheck to paycheck. Others began tabling to give out food, basic medical services, offer shelter, and fulfill other needs that governments and corporations have failed to address. Even after weeks of debate, the work that these institutions have accomplished (i.e. the stimulus package, which was only passed after weeks of debate), does not help many people who still lack access to basic needs. As a result, acts of humanity and solidarity performed by individuals and nonprofit organizations are being highlighted and publicized to hide the failure of the systems that were supposed to serve us. However, they also prove that what will get us through this eventually will be our fight as a community, a unit, a collective, not individual corporate leaders or a collapsing government.
by Lucas Fink
(Image via NPR, sourced from EPK. The Bling Ring is now streaming on Netflix)
The Bling Ring is an incredibly frustrating 2013 film written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Sofia Coppola, the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, also wrote and directed the very good 2003 film Lost in Translation. I am choosing to not celebrate her successes as a filmmaker here and will instead elements of The Bling Ring I found to be crass and problematic. This decision may seem at odds with the effusive praise I’ve piled onto other movies in past posts. But we don’t need to be positive all the time. Sometimes movies are not good. Such is life.
The Bling Ring, based on actual events, is about a group of teenagers who break into the lavish homes of celebrities and steal their things. I can’t remember how many are in the group nor can I remember any of their names. There are three the film wants the viewer to pay attention to, though. I used Wikipedia to learn their names. Mark, solidily acted by Israel Broussard and the only character in the film with some semblance of a moral compass, is the audience stand-in. Rebecca, stiffly acted by Katie Chang, is an obsessive, borderline-sociopathic kleptomaniac. Nicki, elevated to the level of pure caricature by Emma Watson, is absurdly conceited and obnoxious. They steal from celebrities, enjoy doing so, and are then caught. Such a premise seems ripe for social critique. How does a culture dominated by spectacle, by celebrity, images, and commodities, a culture in which - to plagiarize a smart French dude Guy Debord - direct experience has been replaced entirely by mere representation and appearances; how does such a culture affect the youth who inhabit it? It’s a really good question. Thankfully, the film never concerns itself with it. Instead, the film spends an hour and a half relishing in how ridiculously stupid and vain its characters are. Look at these stupid and superficial teens! YUCK! Doesn’t their behavior repulse you? Aren’t you nauseated and appalled by the detestable behavior of these stupid teenagers? Can you believe that some stupid teenagers actually did this stuff? Isn’t that insane? Imagine being such a stupid, vapid TEENAGER.
I’m sorry if I belabored the “stupid teenager” thing. I just felt the need to make it clear how heartless the film is. It’s not just that its characters are “one-dimensional,” it’s that the film ratchets up the one-dimensionality so much that the characters become literal incarnations of all that is evil and abhorrent and then takes sadistic pleasure in highlighting that evil and abhorrence. I should note here I’m not at all against satire or hyper-exaggerated characters. But satire uses its hyper-exaggerated characters to reveal the contradictions or absurdities of the world those characters live in. The Bling Ring doesn’t do that. Its non-characters aren’t used to criticize consumerism or digital capitalism. Instead, they just exist for you to laugh at and be disgusted by.
A VICE News Special in 2014 profiles Alexis Neiers, the member of the “Bling Ring” portrayed by Emma Watson. Alexis had an abusive father in her childhood and was addicted to heroin in her teenage years, when the events of The Bling Ring took place. Alexis now writes for VICE about addiction amongst youth and is a certified substance abuse counselor. What a stupid bad person.
I’m kidding. She’s obviously a decent person with nuance and depth and trauma. Most people are. That’s my main issue. The film individualizes responsibility instead of politicizing it. The film’s answer to “why does everyone seem so superficial and vain now?” is “because they’re just like that.” In the final shot of the film, Emma Watson turns to the camera and says something superficial and vain so the viewer can laugh and go “yeesh; people suck.” People like her are the problem, certainly not larger socio-economic forces. The movie is pretty to look at, though.
Watch Lost in Translation or Tiger King.
by Davis Benz
My therapist is trying to convince me that asking people I don’t know to hang out does not make me look desperate. She says it’s “flattering.” Then why was I conditioned to believe that trying to make new friends is a sign of weakness? I recently realized that if someone sees my invitation to #hangout as desperate that’s their fucking problem. Anyway, before the pandemic, I used to sit next to people in class and I felt weird about asking them to hang out. But why? Is it because of social conditioning from middle school? Maybe. Yeah, that’s it.
Tinder is fun, I guess? I keep seeing guys I know IRL who I think are cute but I’m scared to be like “let’s hang out.” I mean “let’s hang out” has so many connotations I just choose to opt-out entirely. Specificity is key. It’s different with men in their thirties. They’re not as scared of rejection. As Jenna Rink once asked, why can’t I be “thirty, flirty, and thriving?” Ever since I transferred to Cal I’ve realized that we’re all scared of being perceived as craving human interaction. But why? Does it insinuate that we are social rejects? Who cares? And what if we are that’s badass. The whole conformity thing is getting old to me. I don’t want to fit in, all the best people do their own thing anyway. But that is so much easier said than done.
I hate small talk. However, there is an art to it. I try to make small talk in subtle ways. I’ve noticed the cool/hip topic right now to talk about with strangers is the #virus. I want to challenge that. We’re all aware of it so let’s fucking talk about something else! If this is truly the end of life as we know it (which it’s not) I want to hit up all the guys I think are hot, I mean what else is there to do? Seriously. I’ve noticed that mutual intimidation gets us nowhere. Ruminating about all the things I could have said is a waste of time. I’m done with regrets. I’m going to talk to everyone without fear. Even you.
There is power in expressing vulnerability. I’m learning how to be my most authentic self. What I mean by that bullshit is I’m learning how to access internal validation rather than searching for approval from others. Guess what? Everyone doubts themselves. Or at least I do. But I’m also obsessed with learning, growing, and evolving. As much as I want that one guy who I matched with on Tinder to validate my existence, I also know that all the love I need I can give to myself. But hit me up if you want to chill. ;)
by Quentin Freeman
Some schools have snow days. So far this year, UC Berkeley prefers to spice it up with Our State is On Fire Days, Worldwide Epidemic Days, and All Our Grad Students are On Strike For Livable Wages Days. Whoever said school was boring? The UC Berkeley grad students voted to go on a full strike starting Monday, March 16, in demand of a cost of living adjustment (COLA) and in solidarity with the 4 other UC campuses currently on strike. Starting Monday, not only will our classes be virtual, but if your GSI is one of the students on strike, it’s no guarantee that they’ll happen at all. Wondering what to do with yourself to fill the time (besides support your GSIs and wash your hands)? Spring break trip to Italy get cancelled? A little freaked out by campus’s new pre-apocalyptic vibe? Consider the following:
Get outside! Berkeley is home to some delightful hiking trails, and nature is only a walk, bike ride, bus, or BART away. Work out those lungs and get some Vitamin D, and word on the streets is that trees can’t spread the virus. Short of using our cancelled classes as an opportunity to live out your hermit-in-the-forest dreams, check out the Fire Trails for some local action, or take the 67 bus to Tilden, where you can stroll through redwoods and around lakes. Want to get out of Berkeley? Head to Briones Regional Park just over the Berkeley Hills for some beatific rolling hills, or make the longer trek to Point Reyes National Seashore-- accessible by public transit!
Listen to Radioactive by Imagine Dragons. Yeah, it might not be the most uplifting song to go with the crumbling university, but what a banger. Get yourself fired up to take on whatever the world wants to throw at you, from glitching internet on your Zoom lecture to a full-scale, nuclear-fallout-style apocalypse.
Teach yourself a new skill or hobby. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to play the guitar, or speak Gaelic! Learn to embroider, identify edible plants, practice your survival skills, or perfect your latte art. Maybe take up woodworking so you can build that off the grid cabin of your dreams! Now’s your chance to memorize all the lyrics to It’s the End of the World As We Know It by R.E.M.!
Feeling romantic? Hozier’s Wasteland, Baby! is the ultimate album for when it’s the end of the world, but you’re also totally in love. Highlights from the record include No Plan, complete with driving beat and nihilistic discussion of how there is in fact no plan for the universe, and everything will at some point return to darkness-- but at least you’re watching the final sunset with your girl! A little more on the acoustic side of things, check out the titular track, Wasteland, Baby: a soft, delicate ballad with lyrics like poetry. I mean, “And the day that we watch the death of the sun / that the cloud and the cold and those jeans you have on / That you gaze unafraid as they saw from the city ruins /Wasteland, baby / I'm in love / I’m in love with you” -- nobody ever said the end of days had to be a turn off. The album is full of great date ideas for the end of the world, if you need any inspiration.
Maybe don’t read The Stand by Stephen King unless you really want to lean into this whole pandemic thing. A nearly thousand page post-apocalyptic horror epic, The Stand is a fabulous way to kill a couple dozen hours. Its intricate web of characters, slightly disturbing world-building, and unfortunately very timely premise of apocalypse-by-disease keeps you riveted and a tad freaked out-- but very grateful that our own pandemic is not quite as horrifying and end-of-the-world-inducing as the fictional virus in the novel.
However you decide to fill your time, don’t forget that in reality, COVID-19 isn’t the harbinger of the end of days; as truly unfortunate as this situation is, it’s only temporary. Wash your hands, be careful, go home if you want, but don’t fall prey to the panic. See you on Zoom!
by Akshata Atre
Most of the work I do for my architecture classes is essentially just a very extra version of arts and crafts: a plan or a section? Literally a more technical drawing. A model? More like paper and cardboard.
Drawing and crafting are two things I love to do. But why is it so much more painful when it’s for an architecture studio?
At first, I thought the dread and stress was a result of being graded on the things I produced. After all, as one of my GSIs wisely stated the other day in office hours: “everything would be more fun if there were no stakes.” But then I thought back to high school (a period of time that I have blocked out most memories from) and remembered the four years of art classes I took, which were the least stressful classes I ever took in those four hellish years. And sure, sometimes I was worried about what my teachers thought of my work and whether that work merited a coveted “A.” But the majority of the feelings I associate with these art classes are positive and very relaxed-- laughing with friends, experimenting with different media, listening to music, getting messy. I was getting to make things that I enjoyed making, where the end result was the result of a creative exploration that wasn’t stifled by a barrage of technical requirements and critiqued into a jargon-laden oblivion. I was creating, not producing.
The idea of production in architecture, the way I understand it, voids the creation of architectural work-- which is basically a form of art-- of any actual creativity. Designers in an architecture firm are literally part of a department called “production.” You’re resigned to drawing the same things over and over again: insulation, floor finishes, concrete slabs, glazing units. But somehow in the workplace it’s still more tolerable than it is in academia. Because in architecture school even mastering those details is not enough. You have to have an argument for everything, a technical aesthetic rationale behind every stroke and lineweight on your drawing or piece of paper in your model. You are hardly ever allowed to say you designed something because it “just looks better” (unless, of course, you have a moderately empathetic professor.)
And, look, I get it. The study of architecture can no longer be the early Bauhaus pre-hippie trip into expressionism and radical thought. It has a reputation to maintain. But why must that reputation come at the cost of any creativity in the study of architecture? Why is every creative idea critiqued into oblivion? (And if it hasn’t been yet, it will be, so much so that you’ll never want to try anything radical again.) Assignments are given under the guise of freedom, yet when you try to take advantage of that freedom, a critic will find something wrong with what you’ve done. Because unlike in art, the designs you produce as an architecture student must comply with the laws of physics and construction, most of which, frankly, you have little to no real knowledge of.* And because of that, it becomes incredibly difficult to produce any work without strict guidelines, because the fear of being criticized, of the unknown is utterly crippling. Fear doesn’t breed creativity.
*I’m not saying that art school is easy either, folks. The comparison is based on my own personal experience having taken art classes for over ten years before college.
So what exactly am I looking for instead? It seems unlikely that the pedagogy of architecture school (or the study of any other subject in which “learning” is pretty transparently fear-based) is going to change anytime soon, especially since most architecture teachers subscribe to the “well that’s the way I learned it, so now you have to suffer through it too” philosophy. Maybe this is just part of the process of pursuing something you thought you always wanted to do (I’ve wanted to become an architect since I was eight). But I also feel like there’s a point at which academics really need to step back and question whether or not their methods are actually working. Is forcing students to work 18-hour days on little sleep without time to properly feed themselves really fostering an environment in which students are actually producing good work and learning? Based on how the quality of my work has declined since I started junior year, I think not. And if someone comes at me with the classic “well, they’re just preparing you for the real world” nonsense-- well, maybe the “real world” doesn’t need to be based on fear and workaholism.
I don’t know. Just a thought.
Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi and Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Shattering the Limits of Possibility
by Lucas Fink
Central to Mark Fisher’s theorizations of late capitalism is his emphasis on cultural stagnation and the resultant increase in reliance upon resurrected cultural forms. Nowhere is such a dearth of genuine novelty more apparent than in J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a film that strays a bit too close to being little more than a beat-by-beat retelling of A New Hope. A force-sensitive teenager on a desert planet is uprooted when she meets a droid carrying sensitive information and is swept up into a galactic civil war, meeting a surrogate father who dies at the end and aiding in the destruction of a massive spherical space station which is blown up after a trench run. I love this movie, but not for its originality. I also really love The Last Jedi, which respectfully and thoroughly inverts the predictability of its predecessor, unabashedly exploding convention and leaving in its wake new vistas of possibility I never thought I’d see in the Star Wars universe. Once every blue moon, the system will glitch and release something so self-aware and subversive that its very existence is one of schizophrenic tension. Why in the hell did Disney produce a movie whose fundamental themes call into question the system on which Disney subsists? I don’t know, but when these glitches in the matrix happen, I get happy.
Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi is disillusioned and curmudgeonly, denouncing the elitism and bourgeois hubris of the old Jedi Order as a result of which Emperor Palpatine came to power. Poe Dameron learns it’s okay to defer to a female authority figure and that his self-worth and identity should not be predicated on a toxic conception of masculinity that consists of reckless, selfish, fame-starved individuality. Finn learns from Rose that there is an overclass of absurdly rich war-profiteering assholes who supply weapons to both the bad and good guys and presumably have been doing so for a while, thus helping to produce and perpetuate the cycle of conflict to which the Star Wars galaxy has been condemned for thousands of years. And then Kylo Ren fucking kills Supreme Leader Snoke (also known as Walmart Palpatine) and for three of the most exhilerating minutes in all of cinema we get to witness a fight scene - so well shot and choreographed it’s unfair - between the new Rey-Kylo alliance and Snoke’s Praetorian Guard during which we, while admiring the spectacle, contemplate astonishedly and frantically what in the fuck is going to happen next. Will Kylo turn good? Will Rey turn bad? What do the terms good and bad even mean anymore in this new realm of moral blurriness in which we suddenly find ourselves? Watching that moment in theatres, I felt something I never thought I would feel while watching a winter blockbuster produced by Disney that’s the eighth installment in a franchise: the promise of something genuinely new. Something interesting and thematically rich and shockingly subversive that all the while manages to enhance my appreciation for and enrich my understanding of the characters I’m already familiar with. I felt giddy and surprised and incredibly happy.
Mark Fisher was a brilliant anticapitalist philosopher, cultural critic, and continental theorist. He took his life in 2017. Before his abrupt and deeply tragic death, Mark gifted us with some of the most lucidly and passionately articulated theorizations of life in modernity, of life in late digital capitalism. His writings are honest, personal, sad, scathing, funny, and often pessimistic, and yet are subtly - but unmistakably - underlined with optimism, a hope that Mark found harder and harder to sustain. For Mark, life in modernity is characterized by a nebulous malaise, in part engendered by the inability of culture to produce anything actually new. Because capitalism presents itself as the last form of social and economic organization, as the end of history, it evacuates the future. There is no future, because capitalism is eternal and inevitable; it is the way things have always been and the way things always will be. In such conditions, art becomes starved of novelty and as such is forced to become parasitic, leeching off of the trends of the past. If a time-traveller played Arctic Monkeys or The Drums or The Strokes at a party in the 1980s, no one would notice. Nirvana and Joy Division t-shirts are easier to find and purchase than any merchandise from a contemporary artist. Only 4 out of every 10 movies released between 2005 and 2014 had wholly original scripts.
The Last Jedi did not have an original script; it was the eighth movie in a franchise now owned by a megacorporation. And yet, somehow, the movie constitutes a rupture in the fabric of the possible. It constitutes the exact thing Mark calls for at the end of his seminal work Capitalist Realism:
“The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.”
The Last Jedi is that glimmer, that tiny event which shatters the imposed limits of capitalist realism and thus renders anything possible. I wish Mark could have seen it.
by Yasmeen Adin
When you create from the margins, your art often refuses and revolts against the the preexisting genres and categories that were created by and for people who represent the dominant culture(s). As a result, your art may be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misused. Unless the main purpose of your work is to appeal to the dominant gaze or align with its imagination, your creation is destined to be placed in the wrong genres by cultural critics at awards shows such as at the GRAMMYs.
One day before the release of his 5th studio album, Tyler, The Creator posted a precaution for people to take into consideration before listening to IGOR. He explicitly stated that no one should listen to it expecting it to be similar to Goblin, Flower Boy, or any of his previous works that were conventionally put in rap or hip hop categories. He defined IGOR as an experience of its own that crossed different genres. Out of all of the things this album represented, it was NOT a rap album. Yet, the experts writing reviews or evaluating IGOR for awards nominations flouted this vision and precaution. To them, it was not possible that Tyler, The Creator and artists who share his experiences were capable of creating something beyond rap. This phenomenon persists in the voting processes for awards ceremonies and remains unaddressed.
Tyler, The Creator did not fail to express his frustration with the process and the individuals controlling it. “I’m half-and-half on it,” he replied to a question regarding his initial reaction to winning, ironically, the best rap album at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards for IGOR. He expressed his gratitude for the acknowledgment of his work. However, to him the win felt like a “backhanded compliment.” For many years, the voting process for the GRAMMYs has been unfair to and limiting for artists of color, especially Black artists, in certain categories and genres. Tyler, The Creator accurately articulated the racism and ignorance underlying the categorization of his production, or any works by “guys who look like [him]” in rap or urban categories, even if they are genre-bending or fit in other categories, as a “politically correct way to say the n-word to [him].”
Other forms of creative expression did not survive this ignorant approach. After the release of her Netflix stand-up special, Nanette, Hannah Gadsby was described as a comedian over and over again in the majority of the articles and think pieces written about her. Although she acknowledged repeatedly her use of comedy to tell stories about her personal trauma, she maintained that what she was doing was not a stand-up comedy; it was a form of storytelling that many queer individuals grow up unconsciously adapted to. From a cis/heterosexual perspective, the way she wrapped her experiences with homophobia, sexism, and rape in jokes was quite shocking; it was a form of comedy that they had rarely (if ever) been exposed to before. However, this mode of storytelling has historically been known as queer storytelling. In fact, various queer critics and storytellers recognized her use of this mode for trauma-centered experiences, including Drae Campbell. She commented on Gadsby’s recent stand-up, and how it “subverts comedy.” She thinks that Gadsby knew her audience well and used their idea of comedy to introduce them to critical issues faced by every queer woman around the world. Gadsby is not the first to introduce this form of storytelling, but since it had been hidden from the dominant gaze, it was immediately perceived as pioneering and novel.
From Tyler, The Creator’s IGOR to Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, there is a trend of miscategorization and misinterpretation of artists' work that does not follow the guidelines and genres of the dominant culture(s). These cultures continue to push their narratives and misconceptions on these works despite the creators’ explicit disapproval of the categories they are forcefully put in. And until the experts in these culture(s) are willing to listen to and amplify the voices of these creators, this trend is not going anywhere anytime soon.
by Quentin Freeman
Santa Cruz, CA-- a beach town that is home to lush, towering redwoods and a groovy surfer vibe-- is the city in which I spent the first 18 years of my life. The same city is now the site of a weeks-long strike by UCSC grad students demanding a cost of living adjustment (COLA) to address the rent levels that are, quite frankly, absurdly high, and leave many students housing and food insecure. Santa Cruz, as idyllic as it is nestled between the redwoods and the ocean, is in the midst of a housing crisis. Between the university continuing to enroll more students than it has room to house (sound familiar, Berkeley?), and affluent Silicon Valley professionals moving in, demand for housing far outweighs supply, and rent prices have skyrocketed. Grad students at UCSC, who are responsible for the majority of face-to-face teaching, are spending on average 50% -- sometimes as high as 70% -- of their income from the university on rent. Students live in cars, or are forced to choose between rent and food, health care, or opportunities for their children. Months of negotiations with the university for a monthly stipend to address the disparity between pay and cost of living in Santa Cruz have turned into an all-out strike; grad students and hundreds of undergrad and faculty supporters have held a picket line since February 10 in the face of threats of police violence, firing, and deportation of international students from the university. The movement for a COLA isn’t contained to UCSC: last week saw solidarity rallies at every single UC campus, including our own.
Berkeley’s grad students find themselves in a similar predicament to UCSC’s: we all know the struggle to find housing- and the far greater struggle to find affordable housing- in Berkeley. Our own COLA is calculated to be $600 per month more than UCSC’s, and grad students on campus are considering their own strike if their demands to the UC aren’t met by March 6. It’s unclear how willing the university will be to negotiate. The rally that took place here on Friday and spread to an occupation of Crossroads was already met by police presence-- there were even police outside Cafe 3, hoping to prevent any further takeovers of the dining halls in the name of food security for our grad students. The police presence really provided a charming ambiance for my already delightful dining hall meal.
Grad students and lecturers are responsible for the vast majority of teaching on our campus; without them, UC Berkeley would not function as an educational institution. Yes, we have professors with Nobel Laureates. But without their GSI, would that professor be able to effectively teach, grade papers or field questions? Seems unlikely. As someone who grew up in Santa Cruz in all its beachy rent-burdened glory, I am now an undergrad at UC Berkeley learning just as much from my GSIs than my professors. Additionally, I’m on my own hunt for affordable housing, so these strikes hit close to home. No student should be sacrificing their quality of life, their safety, or their health for their education or their job. So here’s the question: if grad students are invaluable at our schools, why aren’t we paying them enough to live, teach, and research here? Why are we meeting them with police presence and threatening to fire them? Who does Janet Napolitano expect to teach countless classes and discussion sections if all the grad student teachers are fired? If the UC is theoretically a public institution, shouldn’t it serve everyone, and not just those affluent enough to afford to live in California? It’s not like the university doesn’t have the money-- UC Berkeley spent $290,000 just on security for Ann Coulter to speak on campus. Think of the housing and food for our grad students that could have gone to (perhaps a better cause than protecting hate speech, but that’s just one girl’s opinion). So keep your eye out for a COLA strike of our own, Berkeley, because the fight for better living, working, and learning conditions won’t stop in Santa Cruz. And in the meantime, be nice to your GSI.