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November 3, 2010

Cloning terror

We have met the enemy, says literary scholar W. J. T. Mitchell, and he is uncanny.

The so-called "war on terror," a legacy of the Bush administration, no longer grabs front-page headlines. But the phrase and the conflict are "a fact of life,” says scholar and critic W. J. T. Mitchell, and whether we’re paying attention or not, both are part of our present reality.

In a recent Humanities Day lecture, Mitchell sifted through some of the verbal and visual images that the war on terror created—and that created the war. His latest book, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9–11 to the Present (due out next month from the University of Chicago Press), does the same.

Mitchell’s talk analyzed the war on terror through the lens of the “uncanny,” a literary concept explored by Sigmund Freud in a 1919 essay. In fiction, the uncanny evokes dread, terror, and disgust; it blurs reality and fantasy; it uses ghostly doubles and repetition to conjure confusion and doubt.

Before and after 9/11, the Bush administration used the same strategies to advance its science and foreign-policy agendas, says Mitchell. Fear of new technologies, for example, prompted resistance to cloning, “and many lumped it in a category with stem-cell research, abortion, homosexuality, and other evils.” Administration officials and the media depicted jihadists as nameless, faceless, clones, prompting dread of evil-doers.

The administration’s major coup was to make the metaphorical war on terror a reality by invading Afghanistan and Iraq. “This is the central example of the moment of transition in the historical uncanny,” says Mitchell, “when something we thought was only fantasy, only a metaphor, is made literal because someone has the power to do it.“

Training his gaze on the torture of prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, Mitchell gave a lengthy analysis of the image of a hooded prisoner with outstretched arms connected to electrical wires. The photo has been widely circulated, partly because of its “uncanny resemblance” to Christian iconography: “This is supposed to be the figure of the terrorist captured and brought to justice,” says Mitchell. “Instead it turns into a kind of composite of Christ welcoming–Christ mocked, wearing a blindfold; or Christ resurrected; or the ecce homo (‘behold the man’) with Christ standing on a pedestal.”

Mitchell’s talent lies in dissecting facts that we take for granted but which should rile us to the core, and asking disturbing questions about issues we don’t often pause to consider. Why, for example, were the rank-and-file soldiers who took and appeared in photos at Abu Ghraib the only people ever charged with abuse? Why has the Obama administration quietly retired the phrase “Global War on Terror” but continued many of its strategies under the aegis of “overseas contingency operations”?

And why should we examine recent history in terms of the uncanny? “We live in a country in which our politics are dictated by amnesia, by forgetting who did what, by taking the emotions of the moment and elevating them into political causes,” Mitchell says. “The period we have just come through is a great example.”

“My aim is to do what historians always do: remember the past so that we will not have to repeat it. Our enemy is the uncanny.”

Elizabeth Station

"In a classic case of culture jamming, Iraq gets mixed in with the iPod ... The torture victim and the narcissistic consumer are blended together," says W. J. T. Mitchell, referring to a poster (above) designed and circulated by New York artists. The caption for the poster read, “Our enemies never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.” Another version said, "10,000 volts in your pocket, guilty or innocent."

November 5, 2010

UChicago Social: Every day is Halloween

Scenes from a young alumni Halloween party.

“Are you sure this is the right day?” Jason Pettus, the photographer, wants to know. “Are we in the right place?”

Uncharacteristically organized, I have a printout of the details.

Halloween Party
with Harvard, Columbia,
and MIT Alumni Associations

Evil Olive
1551 W. Division
October 28, 2010
7:30 p.m.

Costumes are encouraged.

But it’s 7:28 p.m., and no UChicago alumni anywhere. Instead, we seem to have stumbled onto open studio night at some secret, liquor-fueled art school.

In the main room of the Evil Olive, 10 artists are sitting at long white tables—some drawing with markers or ink, others painting in acrylic. Nine more are sitting at regular tables in the back room.

All of the artists have their own clamp lamps, making the bar uncannily bright. As they finish, they pin their work up in a makeshift gallery, along with super-cheap price tags: $10, $25.

We are in the right place—Evil Olive double-booked the Halloween party with its regular Atomic Sketch event. Distracted by the artists, we’d walked right past Sahar Malik, Columbia ’07, and Dona Le, Harvard ’05, at the welcome table by the door. Malik and Le are ready with blank nametags and star-shaped stickers, a different color for each school: silver star for Chicago, blue for Columbia, red for Harvard (“like the Harvard crimson,” Le explains), gold for MIT.

Slowly, the bar begins to fill with alumni. Some are easy enough to spot: there’s a cowboy, a baseball player, a geisha, a Native American, the pope.

Others make categorization more challenging. There’s a woman seemingly dressed like a gypsy, with bright scarves tied around her head and waist, and a short ruffly skirt. No, wait—I saw a skirt just like that at Urban Outfitters. That’s just clothing. Then again—she’s wearing a few too many big necklaces, and has a nametag. Alumna in a gypsy costume.

There’s a man in '70s-era rock-star garb, complete with hippie hair and a Fu Manchu mustache, just like the guys from MIT-spawned supergroup Boston. What an awesome costume for an MIT alumnus! Except he isn’t an alumnus. He’s with the sketchers.

And then there’s Inspector Gadget, aka Bill Fienup, one of the event organizers. As you would expect, he’s from MIT.

In real life Fienup does not have an extendable hand, true. But as a kid, he says, he liked to make all kinds of gadgets. He now has a degree in mechanical engineering and makes a living doing top-secret product development: “I can’t tell you about the products,” he says, in response to my pointed questioning. “They’re still in development."

Later, I discover that Fienup is the co-inventor of—no, I am not making this up—a condiment dispenser known by the charming appellation, "the catsup crapper." He even presented his gadget on the Martha Stewart Show.

So was he really in costume, or not? I'm thinking not.

Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93

Photos by Jason Pettus.


November 9, 2010

Sex at dawn

The case against the “Flintstonization of prehistory.”

In Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins, 2010), husband-and-wife coauthors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá assert that “contemporary scientific speculation concerning prehistoric human life is often distorted by assumptions that seem to make perfect sense.” There are two things—food and sex—that humans experience so personally that we project our relationship with them onto our “nature,” and therefore onto our ancient ancestors, rather than recognize them as cultural, Ryan said last Thursday at an event organized by the student group Out in Public Policy and cohosted by the Office of LGBTQ Student Life and the Center for Gender Studies. Ryan, a psychologist, and Jethá, a practicing psychiatrist and former AIDS researcher, examine this phenomenon in the chapter “The Flintstonization of Prehistory,” where they argue such assumptions “can lead us far from the path to truth.” Contrary to the standard narrative that projects a conception of nuclear families built around monogamous couples onto our prehistoric ancestors, they argue that humans evolved in interdependent, promiscuous groups.

The basis for their argument is found in primatology, particularly of our closest living relatives, bonobos and chimpanzees, as well as anthropology, comparative anatomy, psychosexuality, and logical deduction. All signs, they write, point to a case for prehistoric humans’ sexual behavior being very different than that of modern humans, or at least of that depicted in the “standard narrative.” Although humans are equally related to chimpanzees and bonobos, comparative anatomy points to greater sexual similarity to bonobos, the highly endangered “forgotten ape” living only in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bonobos live in complex, matriarchal, and promiscuous groups, operate a “sharing-based economy,” and use sex to defuse conflicts, among many other uses. Perhaps as a result, violence is very rare, and no bonobo has ever been observed killing another, a relatively common occurrence in chimpanzee—and human—society.

At the campus event, held at 5710 S. Woodlawn, home of the Offices of LGBTQ Student Life and Multicultural Student Affairs, Ryan was quick to point out that the book is not meant to be prescriptive. Although it describes humans as naturally non-monogamous, Ryan was quick to point out that they are not advocating against monogamy as a choice, despite offers from publishers to put out a book doing so. He and Jethá’s intent was only to write a realistic exploration of sexuality in prehistory, based on the best scientific evidence available. Despite that academic bent, the book has reached No. 24 on the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover nonfiction, and a paperback release has been announced for July, 2011. Sex at Dawn has already found an audience on campus; turnout for the event was clearly larger than organizers expected, with a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 spilling out of the room and down the hallway.

Kyle Gorden, AB'00

A virtual altar

When 72 migrants were caught in the crossfire of Mexico’s drug war, a visiting journalist was moved to act.

Some 100 miles from the U.S. border on August 23, near the city of San Fernando, writes Alma Guillermoprieto in a recent New York Review of Books essay about the Mexican drug trade, "the Zetas stopped a bus full of migrants, herded them to a nearby isolated ranch, and after a confused series of events lasting several hours, executed seventy-two.”

Guillermoprieto, a journalist and Tinker visiting professor of history who has reported on Latin America for the past three decades, describes the Zetas as a rogue Mexican drug cartel that also specializes in human trafficking. Members serve as hired enforcers of illegal trafficking operations on Mexico’s southern borders. Smugglers attempting to guide Central and South American migrants across the border without a financial arrangement with the Zetas face repercussions. And although the migrants have left their countries to look for work in the U.S., they may be kidnapped, assaulted, raped, extorted, or—in this case—murdered en route. The gruesome August massacre in Tamaulipas, writes Guillermoprieto, was seemingly purposeless: “From the traffickers’ point of view, no practical end was achieved. The killers appear to have acted out of rage, on whim, or simply out of tedium or habit.”

In response to the murders, Guillermoprieto has teamed with other writers as well as photographers and musicians to create an online memorial to the slain migrants. The project, 72migrantes.com, combines striking photography with essays that tell the stories—real, and in the case of unidentified victims, imagined—of those killed. Visitors to the site's “virtual altar” can download music and make a donation to Hermanos en el Camino, a church organization that provides food, shelter, and support to migrants and others who have been kidnapped or threatened by Mexican drug and human traffickers. (The site is in Spanish but plans to include some English translations soon.)

“I’ve been writing about the illegal drug trade and its dreadful social consequences for decades now, as the trade has traveled like a deadly virus around Latin America," Guillermoprieto told UChiBLOGo. But what is happening now is different "in degree and consequences," she says. "From Phoenix to Tegucigalpa, the traffickers in charge of supplying illegal drugs to the U.S. market have evolved into warring groups of mafias deeply embedded in their own societies' social and law-enforcement structures.”

Increasingly, she explains, traffickers are feeding a local market of drug consumers, and branching out into human trade, from prostitution to the shipping and handling of undocumented migrants. "The desperate tragedy unfolding along both Mexican borders—where Central American migrants routinely are kidnapped, tortured, murdered—is what brought me to help put together 72migrantes.com,” says Guillermoprieto.

On November 11 Alejandro Paez and Claudia Mendez, journalists who cover the drug war from Mexico, will join Guillermoprieto for a 6 p.m. talk sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies, in 122 Social Sciences.

Katherine Muhlenkamp and Elizabeth Station

Photos courtesy 72 Migrantes (Armando Morales; Edu Ponces).


November 16, 2010

Pull over, I think I’m gonna be kitsch

Especially when you’re in a class called Reading the Road Trip, the best part of being on the road can be when you get off the road.


When you turn onto North Avenue from Lake Shore Drive, a couple of nice, cultural-type activities present themselves to you. There’s the Chicago History Museum right there on Clark, Second City half a block down Wells, Steppenwolf Theatre a mile or so down the street, and then come all the dives, second-hand stores, and chic taco places in Wicker Park when you cross the Chicago River. After that, things kind of thin out. First there are a bunch of bodegas, then a ton of body shops, and you see not just the first Menards of your life but three in half an hour.

Once you’ve let Route 64 take you that far out of Chicago, and by now you’re pretty far, what’s there to do? Let’s say you’re going to be driving on this road for three hours, out to the edge of Illinois to have a look at the Mississippi River, for an assignment in a class called Reading the Road Trip, and someone in the car is going on and on about the nature of thought and the psyche and signification, and not that you really want to, but you can’t get a word in edgewise? What’s there to do but keep driving?

Well, if you’re like me, you’ll put your camera behind the steering wheel and start making funny faces. If you’re smart, like my friend Mounica, you keep an eye peeled for a pumpkin stand. When you see it, you’ll know you’re in a nice town, like Virgil, Illinois, and you should pull over. And if you’re lucky, the pumpkins will sit in front of an old diner that’s been converted into an oddities shop, and is on its way back.

That’s Jason Seuben, the shop’s co-owner, standing in what will soon be Norm’s Diner. He talked with us for half an hour, about his place there on the corner of Route 64 and Country Highway 14. Neon signs and colorful metal ones hung everywhere, and on a table sat a sprawling miniature circus with working lights. Almost all the items had to do with either beer or cars. Best of all, there was a rusty motorbike that if you fixed it up looked like it could toot you around the North Side without too much difficulty.

Every book we’ve read in class (On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) shows the road throwing people together who might never have met. Jason has lived most of his life in Virgil, but I didn’t feel bad about grilling him on his collection, which was a sort of kitsch heaven for me even if it probably looks like home to anyone from the area. Jason and his coworker came right back with questions on what it’s like to live in the city (New York, actually, having seen my license plates)—what’s the music scene like, how do you deal with such a fast-paced lifestyle?

I kept my friends there way too long—sorry, guys—but he generously let us take home some of his signs, toys, and miscellanea. I grabbed a real country milk bottle and a vintage Motor Oil sign that’s now hanging on my wall.

The rest of the road? Let’s just say it was a long trip. All there is to do is give up planning your essay. Luckily, that’s when you stop arguing about signification and start playing Ghost. Much better.

Asher Klein, ’11

Photos by Asher Klein, ’11, Mounica Yanamandala, ’11, and Jena Cutie, ’11

For more on Asher's road trip, look out for the January issue of the Core.—Ed.


November 22, 2010

Words to live by

studs-terkel.jpgThe newly created Chicago Literary Hall of Fame inducts its first class, which includes two UChicago notables.

“Chicago is America’s Dream, writ large. And flamboyantly.”—Studs Terkel, PhB’32, JD’34

Six members of Chicago’s literary community were posthumously inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame November 20, including Terkel and Saul Bellow, X’39.

Honoring “authors whose words have best captured the essence of our city,” the hall of fame was created by the Chicago Writers Association as a space to showcase the city’s literary tradition (it will be housed in the Cliff Dwellers Club at 200 S. Michigan Avenue). In the ceremony held at the Northeastern Illinois University Auditorium (3701 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue), U of C senior lecturer in Yiddish Jan Schwarz presented Bellow’s award, and Gregory Bellow, AB’66, AM’68, accepted it on his father’s behalf. For Terkel, Chicago author Stuart Dybek presented, and his son, Dan Terkel, accepted.

Ruth E. Kott, AM’07

Slay David

David-Brooks.jpgThink you can make David Brooks laugh at himself in the Magazine’s column-parody contest? He’ll be the judge of that.

In Friday’s New York Times, David Brooks, AB’83, muses about the marriage of Newsweek and the Daily Beast, expressing confidence where most observers foresee further journalistic decay. Brooks senses a society sobering up amid economic calamity. He believes NewsBeast could be the voice of a new, more serious middle-American mind.

“There must be room for a magazine that offers an aspirational ideal to the middle manager in the suburban office park, that offers a respite from the deluge of vapid social network chatter, that transmits the country’s cultural inheritance and its shared way of life, that separates for busy people the things that are enduring from the things that aren’t.”

That’s just the kind of mildly contrarian culture-mining readers have come to expect from Brooks. There’s much more: in the space of 806 words he finds room for Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Foster Dulles, Georgia O’Keefe, even Robert Maynard Hutchins. It’s a classic Brooks-style column.

A style ripe for parody, you might say. To gauge just how ripe, the Magazine created a David Brooks Column-Parody Contest. Readers are invited to submit their best Brooks impressions in 500 words or less. Brooks himself has agreed to select the winners.

Please send your entries by January 1 to uchicago-magazine@uchicago.edu. The writers of the best parodies, to be published in the Mar–Apr/11 Magazine, will receive a signed copy of a Brooks book.

Jason Kelly

November 23, 2010

The Dark Knight’s UChicago origins

Forget Bruce Wayne. DC Comics storyteller Max Allan Collins reveals that Batman was actually Eliot Ness, AB’25.


I'll admit it. I'm guilty of judging books by their covers.

When I go to the thrift store to refresh my reading stash, I always pick up the ones with unusual or eye-catching artwork first. One recent find—the paperback comic book Batman: Scar of the Bat (2000)—made my must-buy pile because of its UChicago connection.

Part of DC Comics' Elseworlds series, in which "heroes are taken from their unusual settings and put into strange times and places," the Scar of the Bat story claims that law-enforcement agent Eliot Ness, AB'25—the legendary leader of the Untouchables who takes down Al Capone and his gang—is the real man behind Batman's mask. On the surface it reads like a comic's usual pulpy fun, but the one-page afterword by author Max Allan Collins is the best part. Collins describes the research he did to write as historically accurate a story as possible. My favorite detail is his aside claiming that Ness's opinion of Prohibition as a bad law was first published in Scar of the Bat.


Don't take it from me. Read it for yourself—on us! Leave a comment on this blog entry with the UChicagoan you would like to see as a comic-book superhero in an Elseworld for your chance to win our gently used copy of Scar of the Bat.

The Magazine's editors will pick a winner from comments posted by 5 p.m. Monday, December 6. Good luck!

Joy Olivia Miller

November 24, 2010

Critical distance

Architecture critic Blair Kamin isn’t ready to rate the University’s latest building projects—but his new book dissects a decade of changes to Chicago’s cityscape.


We’re only ten years into the 21st century, but between the Great Recession and Mayor Daley’s imminent departure, the city of Chicago has reached the end of an architectural era. Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic, chronicles the building boom and more in Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age, just published by the University of Chicago Press. In a recent e-mail interview, Kamin reflected on a period “bracketed by two great thunderclaps in the sky”—the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 and the opening of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, in 2010.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWith 9/11 and the fall of the twin towers, we saw a nationwide push to secure buildings and public spaces. But Chicago also had a skyscraper building boom. How did this shift from “terror to wonder” happen?

QandA_ADrop.jpgMay I restate the question? I think that’s in order because so many new Chicago skyscrapers are not wonderful but awful. They look as though they were designed by refugees from East Germany. What you’re really asking, I think, is this: How could we have had such disparate, post 9/11 reactions—the security clampdown on the one hand and the exuberant building boom on the other?

Here’s why: Many of the security measures were necessary, even though far too many of them, like those endless lines at O’Hare and Midway, made us feel like cattle at the old Chicago Stockyards. But the September 11 attacks did not eradicate the profit motive. People build skyscrapers to make money. And build they did once the post-9/11 fear of heights ebbed. All the talk about “the end of the skyscraper” proved as unfounded as the post-September 11 predictions about “the end of irony.” Eventually, the pundits who forecast irony’s demise had to backtrack and say that they had really been talking about “the end of ironing.”

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat are the architectural success stories of Chicago’s boom years?

QandA_ADrop.jpgThere are many, starting with Jeanne Gang’s Aqua, an 82-story hotel and residential high-rise just north of Millennium Park. Its striking, undulating balconies bring the samba élan of Brazil to Chicago’s sober grids and rectangles. Millennium Park, with its interactive public sculptures like Cloud Gate and the Crown Fountain, is the great urban space of the decade. Yet the most significant development might turn out to be Mayor Richard Daley’s push for energy-saving, “green architecture.” Daley ruled with an iron fist and a green thumb.

QandA_QDrop.jpgAny notable flops or missed opportunities?

QandA_ADrop.jpgI could write a book about them—no, wait, I just did. Far too many of the residential high-rises that went up early in the decade were examples of what I call “plop architecture.” They saddled the cityscape with bland tops plunked atop brute bottoms, or podiums, that housed enormous parking garages. Here, Chicago utterly lost its legendary ability to marry utility and beauty. Also marring the cityscape: The renovated Soldier Field and its inglorious, Klingon-meets-Parthenon mismatch of classicism and modernism.

QandA_QDrop.jpgYou write about ways new buildings “converse” with their surrounding neighborhoods—and you’ve praised Millennium Park as an urban space that gathers people of diverse classes and races. How does the University of Chicago converse, architecturally, with Hyde Park and the rest of the city?

QandA_ADrop.jpgIt’s a dialogue of opposites. The U of C’s serene quads turn inward; they hold the wild, disorderly city at bay. And their neo-Gothic architecture, with its picturesque irregularity (all those playful grotesques and gargoyles), couldn’t be more different from the regularized, bare-boned beauty of early Chicago skyscrapers like the Marquette Building or such mid-20th century masterpieces as the X-braced John Hancock Center. The U of C’s architecture is elegant, almost feminine. The city of Chicago’s architecture is brutally straightforward and very macho. I love them both.

QandA_QDrop.jpgCan you share your impressions of the Mansueto Library, Logan Center for Performing and Creative Arts, the Midway light bridge, or other 21st-century building projects on the UChicago campus?

QandA_ADrop.jpgAll represent bold, modern departures from the neo-Gothic norm, but I’m not prepared to offer any assessments because the projects are either nearing completion or their construction is underway. To get your answer, you’ll have to read my review.

QandA_QDrop.jpgHas the recession put an end to what you’ve called the “age of excess”? How will new building plans reflect a new era, in Chicago and elsewhere?

QandA_ADrop.jpgThe built environment will invariably be affected by the shift from “the age of excess” to “the age of austerity.” Say goodbye to all those flashy museums that were big on bling. Clients won’t have the money to build them and even if they did, they wouldn’t want to look flashy. Doing so would seem out of sync with the new zeitgeist. Frugal is the new black. Unless we’re talking buildings for deep-pocketed health care and higher-education clients, the major new projects will be renovations, like the upcoming revamp of Navy Pier. And even those will have modest budgets. The years of the big architectural blow-out are over.

Elizabeth Station

November 30, 2010

Fall, slipping away

On a day when the skies over Chicago are an unmistakable winter-gray, Magazine photographer Dan Dry offers a look back at autumn on campus: luminous ginkgos in front of Hinds, the ivy turning red on the quads, fallen leaves in Botany Pond, shorts-clad students enjoying unseasonable warmth. Check out the photo set or watch the above slideshow.

Lydia Gibson

About November 2010

This page contains all entries posted to UChiBLOGo in November 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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