Context Collapse

Feb 22, 2018

TAA 0009 – C. Travis Webb and Seph Rodney discuss “context collapse.” This is the idea that “new media” has decontextualized the facts of our lives and cultures. We don’t have enough information to make judgments about one another. Is this a new phenomenon, and is it necessarily bad? How might we deal with it?

C.T. WEBB 00:17 Good afternoon, good morning, or good evening and welcome to The American Age Podcast. Today I’m speaking with Seph Rodney. Seph, how you doing?
S. RODNEY 00:23 I’m okay.
C.T. WEBB 00:25 Yeah. I know you were a little bit rushed today, and so we’re scrambling to get the podcast in, so. Today we are going to talk about a concept called Context Collapse. And I first encountered this idea in some random kind of social media article or article about social media and what Twitter means and what people who use Twitter mean, etc. And so I did a little bit of poking around and found out that this idea called context collapse was coined probably by a guy, an Anthropologist at Kansas State named Michael Wesch. And I’m going to read you just a kind of a really brief excerpt of what context collapse means. He rifts on it pretty productively here, I think. And we can kind of talk about it in more ordinary terms. He’s talking about sort of the various ways in which we normally interact with each other as people, as we are enmeshed in a world of context, right? So our bodies are contextualized, right? I can see– so Seph and I are on a webcam right now, so I can see him nodding. So that gives me context like, “Oh, okay. He’s following me.” And maybe if we were disagreeing, you might see someone like square their shoulders or look really in more sort of caricature terms, grit their teeth or something like that. But a lot of times, the way a social interaction goes is based on a whole host of things that have absolutely nothing to do with what’s coming out of my mouth, right? And it’s just not about what it is like we feel a certain kind of trust or concern or anxiety.
C.T. WEBB 02:05 I actually wasn’t going to bring this up, but the thing that to me like illustrates this most potently was when that deputy in Florida– I think it was about four years ago– pulled over that African-American driver, white Sheriff’s deputy, and told him to get out of the car, and the driver complied, and then the cop shot him. The driver, the black driver was doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing. But the way I read that is that there was something so threatening and so anxiety-provoking about that stop for that officer that he fired his gun out of anxiety. Probably not malice, but just fear. To me, that is an example of actually what we’re going to talk about today, which is context collapse. And this is the way that Wesch describes it. “Now look carefully at a webcam.” He’s talking about how we present ourselves in a social media age once context has been taken out of it, right? So Seph and I can see each other. We know each other really well. But anyone that’s listening to this, I’ve probably never met you, right? So you are coming to the podcast with a host of ideas and conceptions about what you’re going to hear, what you’re ready to hear. This is about that. “That’s there,” he says of the webcam. “That’s somewhere else, that’s everybody.”
C.T. WEBB 03:29 So he’s saying the way in which the webcams kind of collapses all of these particulars. “On the other side of that little glass lens is almost everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, and even those you have never heard of. In more specific terms is everyone who has or will have access to the Internet. Billions of potential viewers and your future self among them. Some have called it at once, the biggest and the smallest stage. The most public space in the world entered from the privacy of your own home. Through it, we can reach out to a next-door neighbor or across the world to people we love, people we want to love, or people we don’t even know to share something deep or something trivial, something serious or something funny, to strive for fame, or to simply connect. That seemingly innocuous and insignificant glass dot is the eyes of the world and the future. The little glass lens becomes the gateway to a black hole sucking all of time and space virtually all possible contexts in upon itself–” meaning that you sit down in front– and fill in a webcam with any– he’s talking about a webcam, but that can be sitting down in front of your Twitter feed, sitting in front of your Facebook feed, sitting in front of a Quora article, sitting in– any situation in which you are having to represent, right, present yourself again in whatever way you conceive of that outside of the context that you are most familiar with, which is your body in the world interacting with other bodies.
C.T. WEBB 05:10 That is context collapse. And it is wreaking havoc with the societies and cultures that we currently live in. Now, Seph, I want you to– I actually thought of this topic in particular when you were on Morning Joy this past weekend and you were talking about something. So you don’t have to talk about that, but I’m curious to have you weigh in.
S. RODNEY 05:32 Okay. So the show is actually called AM Joy.
C.T. WEBB 05:36 Oh, sorry.
S. RODNEY 05:36 And it’s with– no worries. Morning Joy is probably something that you wouldn’t object to [laughter]. And it’s with Joy Reid on MSNBC. She had me on, I think it was not this past Sunday, but the previous Sunday to talk about this situation with Kehinde Wiley and the controversy stirred up by his unveiling or rather actually the choice of him as the official portrait artist for Obama’s presidential portrait. And then we’re going to what I talked about there pretty much. But in terms of feeling what you’re talking about, what it’s like to not have much context, to be speaking into a series of monitors or a series of cameras, rather. Well actually, I mean maybe that situation is a little bit different because I’m actually speaking to another human being. I was speaking to Joy Reid. And in fact, I went in thinking likely what’s going to happen is Joy is going to ask me some questions and she’s going to kind of lead me through the segment. And I know that she’s practiced at this, and I know that she’s good at what she does. So I went in with this certain amount of faith in that. Go ahead.
C.T. WEBB 07:02 Oh, I actually meant when you were– I led you into that very badly, very ham-fistedly. I apologize. I meant your comments about the history of decapitation in painting and how that conversation got de-contextualized when they were talking about his suitability as an artist.
S. RODNEY 07:18 Oh, right. Yeah because people assume that when he– part of the controversy about his choice as Obama’s official portraitist is that back in 2012, he had made some paintings with black women figures holding the severed heads of white women, which was a play for him– and he admitted so– a play for him on this older Caravaggio– and actually, yes, he took it from Caravaggio and Gentileschi, Artemisia Gentileschi. But those paintings by those two artists were also based on a biblical story of–
C.T. WEBB 08:11 Is that Salome or–?
S. RODNEY 08:12 Salome. That’s right or Salome. I’m not sure. Oddly enough, my sister’s middle name is Salome, and we always said Salome, but who knows. Cutting off the head of Holofernes. I think he was a kind of general. Anyway, the point is– I think I’m getting to one– is that yeah, people come into art, especially portraiture, thinking that their eyes should be able to tell them all they need to know about what they see. And my argument– and this argument actually comes out of a couple of conversations I had with Liat Yossifor, who I went to school with at UC Irvine. We had an email exchange a couple of weeks before–
C.T. WEBB 09:08 And Liat is a is a fairly-accomplished painter as well.
S. RODNEY 09:11 Yes, yes, yes. And she’s well-represented on both coasts by serious galleries. And she’s a very studious painter. She has studied the medium for a long time. We had an email exchange where she said, ‘Yes. People do–” I say I really start my criticism from the position of being in a space and looking at the world. That’s where I start. And she said, “Yes, and people expect to be able to get all that they can out of a painting just by doing that.” But they can’t because it has a layered and complex history.
S. RODNEY 09:49 So when you come to a painting like a Kehinde Wiley’s 2012 version of a Caravaggio in which a black woman highly stylized, lovely green gown, sword held just so after having dubitably sliced through the neck of this white woman and holding the head from her, half in triumph, half in disdain. There is more to it literally than meets the eye. He’s playing with these notions of power. And I think that Kehinde Wiley has some limitations as a painter. He doesn’t do certain things that I think that would make his work more compelling. But one of the things he does do well is he just twists the dial, right? He turns it 180 degrees. We expect to see the pictures that we’ve been– the kinds of images we’ve been talking about. But to see a black woman holding the severed head of a white woman really does kind of overturn the tables, right? Like it really just throws everything into confusion because it seems to say there is something valid in this. Just by presenting that image, right? There’s something there that somebody wants. Somebody wants this. Somebody wants to cut off a white woman’s head. Why would we want that? Well, that’s the beginning of a longer and more complicated conversation.
C.T. WEBB 11:31 Yeah. That makes perfect sense obviously. It’s not just that though, right? I mean, it’s not just the expression sort of gratuitous representation of violence. I mean, it comes out of a nuanced and powerful art historical tradition. You mentioned Salome or Salome, but it also goes back to the Greeks. I mean, cutting off the head of Medusa. I mean, this is a well-worn, mythological artistic trope. And so one of the things that occurred to me when you were explaining sort of the context of that painting and the controversy surrounding the artist, and then the conversation with Liat about the idea that people expect to understand immediately, they expect to have access to whatever they happen to be seeing, perhaps what they’re listening to. They expect some degree of intelligibility, particularly around areas that aren’t recognized sources of authority. So I’ll give you an example of what I mean [crosstalk] in particular.
S. RODNEY 12:38 Right. Exactly because they would not expect to have this kind of thing around– go ahead.
C.T. WEBB 12:45 Well, it’s like a doctor, right? If a doctor throws a number of terminologies at you about the cancer that’s eating your body, you are not mad. Now you might be anxious, but you are not mad at the field of study. You are not mad at that doctor’s expertise. And in fact, unless you’re coming from some really kind of askew world view like Christian Science or something like that, you value this doctor’s expertise. You don’t expect to know and have access to every piece of knowledge in that domain. But particularly around the humanities now, art now, if there’s a resentment, right, this needs to be perfectly intelligible to me right now. We don’t have the patience or the wherewithal to invest– maybe we don’t have the time even, right? I don’t want to color everyone with the same brush. But it’s the same problem, right? It’s a lack of investment in trying to figure these things out, right? It’s what you were just saying.
S. RODNEY 13:53 Right, and then there’s this sort of absurd belief that because the thing is something that so many people have done, right? So I think there’s this sort of numbers game that we’re playing with each other intellectually. We know that only so many people in the population are doctors. You know that only so many people are quantum physicists, astrophysicists, rocket scientists. That’s–
C.T. WEBB 14:28 That’s usually the ready-at-hand one, rocket scientist.
S. RODNEY 14:31 Exactly. Rocket scientist. And I think we think that there are many more people who are painters and many more people who are writers. And there may be. I mean, just off the top of my head, that sounds like–
C.T. WEBB 14:45 There really are. I don’t know about painters, but writers certainly. There’s too many of us.
S. RODNEY 14:54 Right, okay. Fair enough. But then I think perhaps what is motivating people to make the kinds of assumptions that they’re making about the humanities, right? About this particular field, this larger collection of studies is that if so many people are doing it then surely it can’t be that hard, right? It can’t be that difficult. And I’m thinking– oh, right. That was the anecdote that came to me. I read this several years ago. Someone– I think it was on Twitter– someone said something like– he was like someone with a particular kind of training in a field. He was like a hedge fund manager, or he wasn’t with the hard sciences, but he was something like that. And he said that he wanted to take, or she– actually, it may have been a woman– said that she wanted to take the summer off and write a book on blah, blah, blah.
S. RODNEY 16:06 And the responses she got were derisive laughter. I mean, basically, people were saying, ‘Oh, so you’re just going to learn how to write a book over the summer, where we’ve been at this for the last two decades figuring out how to write whatever?” I mean, whatever it is– fiction, non-fiction, autobiography, travel log– and I think their division was well-earned because you don’t– no normal human being, no average human being that I have met, actually has– they just wake up in the morning and just have the ability to articulate thoughts clearly and concisely and in a way that is actually compelling.
C.T. WEBB 17:04 Okay. So I’m most of the way there with you. Most of the way. I definitely as someone that labors through the difficulty of expressing ideas clearly, whether it be in a podcast or in writing, of course, you’re right. Of course, that’s absolutely true. At the same time, I do really think that there is a high-degree of preciousness amongst humanists that I don’t think is necessarily mirrored amongst other areas of expertise. And I think it is precisely because we compete over such a small sliver of the cultural pie. I have–
S. RODNEY 17:48 I think that–
C.T. WEBB 17:50 Go ahead and jump in. Go, go, go.
S. RODNEY 17:51 Well, I think part of the reason why we’re– we. I’m saying we, now. Yeah. I’m just going to count myself among humanists because that’s the kind of work I do.
C.T. WEBB 18:01 Which, we’re like 10 miles from context collapse now, but that’s okay.
S. RODNEY 18:05 Right, right. And I am going to get back to that actually. I’m going to find my way back there somehow. I think we are precious about these sort of things because we don’t have to defend the territory in the same way that astrophysicists do because astrophysicists just show up, and everybody knows that the work that they do is indecipherable to the average human being.
C.T. WEBB 18:32 But they also know that it leads to the positive acquisition of knowledge that has accomplished miraculous things in world history. I mean, just we landed on the moon, you know?
S. RODNEY 18:47 Yes. You’re absolutely right.
C.T. WEBB 18:47 We shot a bullet into space with people on it and landed on the moon. We flung whatever it was, Voyager I or II, billions of miles into space and then turned around and snapped a picture of ourselves. And it’s not that I don’t– up against that, I would put Shakespeare. I would put sort of my own, the people that I hold close to my heart. And there’s a list there. But I think if we’re being honest, humanists in the everyday, work-a-day cultural sphere and professional humanists in the academic sphere are not productively treading on the ground that was discovered by Shakespeare, was discovered by Frederick Douglass. I mean, what precisely in general are we contributing?
C.T. WEBB 19:54 Now you– I know you and I have had conversations around this. We do want to contribute to that. But this sort of preciousness to get back, maybe dance one or two steps closer to context collapse even though I’m enjoying the conversation, so it doesn’t really matter that much that. And hopefully, other people are too, so it’s not just about me enjoying the conversation. But some of that preciousness, as you just said, is they don’t have to work as hard for recognition to be acknowledged in the community at large, to be acknowledged. So what I would want to– and this is actually– you kind of gestured in the direction in one of the ways that I was thinking about context collapse is, I don’t know why we seeded so much ground. I don’t know why humanists– why did we fucking retreat so far from common principles of decency and humanity and existential dread and joy? Why did we run so far from that? Why are we preoccupying ourselves with things other than our common humanity?
S. RODNEY 21:08 Right, like we keep marking out smaller and smaller plots of intellectual real estate to tend. And let’s actually flush this out for some of the listeners who may not know what we mean. What I’m saying, what I mean when I say that is that from what I’ve observed, having done an MFA at UC Irvine, having worked on a PhD at Berkeley College in London– and this is going back to 2001– was when I completed my MFA, I’ve seen over the time, fewer and fewer humanity scholars, right, and by humanities, we mean the soft sciences– we mean the things like sociology and English studies, language studies, and literature–
C.T. WEBB 22:03 Cultural studies, things like that.
S. RODNEY 22:04 –and poetry, cultural studies, right. I’ve seen fewer and fewer of those scholars being willing to wade into what we now call the culture wars– being willing to wade into–
C.T. WEBB 22:21 Absolutely.
S. RODNEY 22:21 –political discussions around the policies that we make socially, political, economic. The kind of policies that we make and the kinds of effects that they have on people’s lives. Fewer and fewer of us are willing to show up on the various written forums, the news outlets, the television shows to argue for the kinds of things that, as you just said, Travis, what actually makes our lives worth living this sort of–?
C.T. WEBB 23:03 Yeah. Absolutely.
S. RODNEY 23:05 I just feel like you would be much more articulate on this in this moment on this something, this sort of quintessence of what it is to be a human being in this floating orb in this unfathomable cosmos that–
C.T. WEBB 23:26 That was pretty good [laughter].
S. RODNEY 23:30 Thanks.
C.T. WEBB 23:30 I don’t think I could top that. That’s good.
S. RODNEY 23:32 Okay. Yeah. I feel like we, over the past few decades, have become less– oh, perfect example. I was just talking with someone the other day about public intellectuals. I went to a brunch on Sunday actually at the house of an artist that I do admire quite a bit, Teresita Fernandez. And she was hosting a brunch for people who were involved in a show that just opened at an NYU gallery, I think the Grey Gallery, I’m not sure. But it’s about [inaudible]. Anyway, I was having a conversation with her partner. And we were talking about public intellectuals, and he says, ‘Yeah. When was the last time you saw Noam Chomsky on TV?” Noam Chomsky, right, who used to be someone that people would go to to talk about what our media means, where we’re going in terms of the preservation of information, that kind of thing. Go ahead.
C.T. WEBB 24:31 Okay. So I was going to say, so Noam Chomsky would be a perfect example, actually. You’re right. And people stopped going to him because he stopped being relevant. I’m sorry. I was into Noam Chomsky’s–
S. RODNEY 24:40 Well, okay. I didn’t know that.
C.T. WEBB 24:43 –sort of– No. To me, at least, how I would come [inaudible] people were attentive to Noam Chomsky and the manufacturing of consent and his sort of hyper-rationality. And I mean, I watched him in a lecture not that long ago claim that to use rhetorical persuasion to try and convince people of a position was already a betrayal of the tenets of reason. And that–
S. RODNEY 25:16 God damn.
C.T. WEBB 25:18 –strikes me as such an obtuse and egg-headed approach–
S. RODNEY 25:22 That is so stupid.
C.T. WEBB 25:23 –to being a human being and understanding what it means to be a human being.
S. RODNEY 25:29 Oh, that’s awful.
C.T. WEBB 25:29 Right, right. It’s sort of like saying expressions of love should be easily delineatable and communicated to someone without the benefit of a motive expression. Like what? Fuck you. It’s just like–
S. RODNEY 25:44 Wait, that makes no sense.
C.T. WEBB 25:46 So in like the idea of manufacturing consent in sort of the monolithically, overwhelming narrative about the totalizing discourse of the United States as if the United States has single-handedly, nefariously shaped contemporary history. Capitalism being the single greatest evil ever in the history of the world. Yet all of these– let’s bracket for a moment, my serious concerns about capitalism. There are plenty of them. I have lots of them. This is my trying to inject some context into the conversation.
S. RODNEY 26:29 Right because capitalism is screwed up in certain very fundamental structural ways. We know this.
C.T. WEBB 26:34 Yes, yes. But yet, since the advent of capitalism, slavery as a defensible social and cultural institution has crumbled. We have cured innumerable diseases. We’ve landed on the moon. We wrote a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If it is such an unmitigated evil, how did all of these things come about? How–
S. RODNEY 27:01 Okay, so–
C.T. WEBB 27:02 Okay. Go ahead.
S. RODNEY 27:03 Well, that’s just– I want to say we need to address that in another podcast. We need more people than just you, me, and Steven. We’re going to need a flotilla [laughter] of people.
C.T. WEBB 27:18 A raft of people, right, yeah.
S. RODNEY 27:19 Yeah, yeah, yeah. But here’s a way to connect to the ostensible theme.
C.T. WEBB 27:27 Please, please, do. I’m looking forward to this. Go.
S. RODNEY 27:30 Well, I recall a conversation I had with Lawrence, a good friend of mine, Lawrence Harding, who you know.
C.T. WEBB 27:35 I do. And now everyone else that listens knows who Lawrence is.
S. RODNEY 27:39 Right. Lawrence is one of the most intelligent people I know and one of the most interesting thinkers.
C.T. WEBB 27:46 And just a physical presence. I mean, he is just like– when he enters– the first time I met him, we were in that bar in New York. And I didn’t know it was Lawrence entering the bar, and I noticed him entering the bar. I mean, he’s a forceful physical presence.
S. RODNEY 28:02 He has a great presence, yeah.
C.T. WEBB 28:04 Yeah.
S. RODNEY 28:05 Well, we had a conversation at the time when I was rooming with him when I just got back from London, and we were talking about differences in basically G7 and non-G7 societies. Basically what we used to call first-world and second-world, third-world.
C.T. WEBB 28:22 Sure, sure, sure. There’s all these nomenclatures around it, yeah.
S. RODNEY 28:24 Right. And I come from what is still considered in some circles a third-world country, in Jamaica. And Lawrence comes from Sierra Leone. And seeing as we both live in America, we both sort of are very aware of those differences. And he said that for him, the key difference was actually high-context versus low-context cultures. And I said, “Well, what does that mean?” And he explained. I– and let me preface this by saying I prefer low-context cultures. I am much more comfortable. And I can illustrate this by talking about the ways that my father and I differ in what we expect from businesses we patronize. When I go to a business, like when I was driving and I wanted to get a tune-up, I went to a Pep Boys. I went to a reputable mechanic that had branches around this because I wanted to know that my service would be standardized. That I would go in and I would get this, that, that, and the other, and I would pay $44.95 for all of the above, and it would not change. Even if I went to somewhere like in Arizona where I happen to be there, I would get the same service for the same price. And if there was a problem with the service, I knew that there was a number I could call and someone I could complain to and hopefully get relief.
C.T. WEBB 29:59 Some sort of corporate response.
S. RODNEY 30:01 Precisely. My father is the opposite. He wants to go to the guy he knows around the corner who doesn’t even have a proper shop. He has a jack and he has like–
C.T. WEBB 30:14 He found a muffler once.
S. RODNEY 30:15 Right, right. And he did some prison time with somebody who was a mechanic, right? Something like that. Some ridiculousness like that. But he wants to go to someone he knows, someone he knows personally, someone that he thinks he has some play with. And Lawrence described high-context versus low-context cultures in that way in that he comes from a very high-context culture. In Sierra Leone, it’s about who you know like you know so and so, and so you can get this other thing done. You have to know so-and-so who can get you this thing, so you can get the application, so you can get the visa, so you can blah, blah, blah. And I hate that. I hate the idea of having to know someone in order to get the thing that I need to get.
C.T. WEBB 31:06 Yeah. Absolutely.
S. RODNEY 31:07 I want the procedures. And basically, what I’m arguing for is modernity, right? Because I’m arguing for the state that is in charge that gives us a set of rules by which to play the game that we play to know that we’re on a “level playing field.”
C.T. WEBB 31:25 You want to inhumanize the system.
S. RODNEY 31:28 Yeah. Well, why I do is that I think that in some ways, it’s more fair, right, because I know that precisely the kinds of problems that we run into when we talk about failed states is Robert Mugabe, right? Robert Mugabe– you only have power in Zimbabwe under him if you know someone. If you are close to his family. You know what I’m saying?
C.T. WEBB 31:53 I do, I do actually. It’s a fantastic connection, actually because I wasn’t thinking of context collapse in that direction. But of course, context collapse, right, it sounds like an unmitigated– I mean, this is another problem with– I’m going to jump too far, but I’ll come right back. But this is another problem with a lot of what we would traditionally call left-wing– I’m using air quotes for everyone that can’t see the podcast, which is literally everyone, so the left-wing ideologies that context collapse. That sounds like an unmitigatedly bad thing, right, like collapse is rarely ever used in a positive way. And in that sense, what you just described though is a very positive aspect of it. And the first thing that came to mind for me was in Viktor Frankl’s Meaning of Life, he’s talking about being in the concentration camps, and– do you know this concept the tsaddik? I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing it correctly. But these are like sort of– think of them as kind of saints in the world in the Jewish tradition. So these are the kind of the pillars of the world. The tsaddik hold the world up. They basically are the moral pillars of a civilization. And there’s only ever supposed to be very few of them. This is often used in kind of the everyday expression of being a serious man, right? You’ve heard this term before. It’s like he’s a serious man, right?
S. RODNEY 33:23 Well, I know that Susan Sontag, one of the things that was said about her was that she wanted to be a very serious person.
C.T. WEBB 33:29 Yeah. This is what they’re talking about. And Viktor Frankl talks about– so these people in the chow line in these concentration– most unspeakable conditions in the history of the world. I mean, you got to put it right up there with the MOFA, and I mean, the Holocaust and really terrible, awful things human beings have done to each other. And he’s talking about when they served the food, right, that if you got in line and someone in your barracks or a friend was doling out the food, they would scoop down to the bottom because the very limited nutritional content that was in these big giant vats of food was at the bottom. And so they would scoop way down to the bottom, and you knew that you were going to get a good portion. But the men that he had the most respect for were the ones that never lifted their eyes and only stared at the pot and ladled from the middle of the pot for everyone.
S. RODNEY 34:25 Wow.
C.T. WEBB 34:26 That this kind of commitment and discipline to de-contextualizing the doling out of food, literally probably the last meals on earth for these people, right? That’s fucking context collapse. The fact that you are taking an embodied, real-world situation and not using the cues that surround you, right? I mean, there need to be some like them– there are clearly some differences here from what Wesch is talking about. But they’re more differences of degree than of kind, I would argue. And I agree with Frankl’s assessment of that. I mean, can you imagine the commitment to your ethical principle — to not look up and see maybe your brother is in line, or maybe the guy that gave you his last cigarette is in line? That seems to me to be a very potent example of what you’re describing, right? You want to go somewhere where they have normalized, they have made it a normative requirement to treat everyone the same way, which is to say, respectfully, right? Not to treat everyone the same way the way you would’ve been treated in the South in like 1895 or something like that. That’s–
S. RODNEY 35:51 No, no.
C.T. WEBB 35:54 Go ahead.
S. RODNEY 35:55 And that’s precisely– I mean, that story almost brings me to tears. Wow. That is serious ethical commitment. I think part of the reason I feel the way I do about standardization of treatment is that I’m a black man. And I grew up in this world at the time that I did. So I’m constantly– I was thinking about this today actually that there’s these ways in which my therapist back in LA once described it to me as duck bites. That they’re little– it’s not like someone takes a huge chunk out of me every day. But they’re little things. And they just kind of slowly erode my humanity, right? It’s just like being online in the queue rather at a supermarket and having chosen my pastry on the way to work and having the bag closed and having the woman in front of me, white woman, same thing, pastry bag closed, and the guy asks her, “What’s in the bag?” And she tells him, and he rings it up. And then he–
C.T. WEBB 37:03 He wants to check your bag.
S. RODNEY 37:05 He started to open my bag. He didn’t even ask me. So as he was asking me, “Oh, what’s in the bag?” He’s opening it. I’m like, ‘You just dehumanized– why? Why am I different from–?” So duck bites, right? And someone today literally when I was just finishing my workout at the Y, said to me, “Oh, hey. Congratulations. I saw that you made Employee of the Month.” I’m like, “No. I don’t work here.” And I went to the poster in the hallway and saw the guy. And the guy’s like at least 30 pounds bigger than me, like at least. But he has locks, and he’s black, and anyway. So duck bites, right? I prefer being in a culture that is very low context because I want to know that the treatment I will encounter will be standardized. I want to know–
C.T. WEBB 38:03 You know what mother fucker wants high context? The guy sitting in the Oval Office right now.
S. RODNEY 38:09 Exactly. Exactly. That is one of the things that I wasn’t necessarily going to say, but it has occurred to me every time I thought about this. Everything about him is he wants people he knows– have you heard this silliness, this– I’m running out of words to talk about the absurdity that is this presidency. But he wants a guy who’s his personal pilot to run the FAA. I mean, it’s just stupidity after stupidity. But the point for him is to get people who know him, right? Like who he knows, who he can trust to carry out the bullshit he does in the middle of the night. I think probably at this moment in time, there’s no more eloquent an argument for normalization standardization of procedures so that when we get a monster like him in a position of power, we have things in place to check him.
C.T. WEBB 39:13 Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. We could very easily– that’s a pretty long road to go down, and we don’t–
S. RODNEY 39:24 Pretty deep rabbit hole.
C.T. WEBB 39:25 Yeah. We don’t have enough time to talk about him or that in that context. No pun intended. The last piece of that though. The last piece of sort of thinking about what a context collapse might mean or how it’s represented or how it’s discussed or talked about, one of the things the conversation has actually led me to is a much more hopeful position because it seems to me that humanists, right, that’s you and me– and that’s people that have spent their lives reading books and poems, and plays, and novels, and consuming things in a thoughtful way– this presents a tremendous opportunity for us because on the other side of that context collapse is not knowing a guy that can set things up for you and actually just doling things out from the middle in a fair way, in a way that is judicious and ultimately far more human and far more compassionate. And I think that it’s your job and my job and the people who are like us and have the privilege to have the leisure time to consume the things that we consume, to imagine that better version. Like fine, let the webcam collapse the shit out of everything. Let Twitter do it. Let Facebook do it. Let it all collapse down, and what’s left are just let’s be human to one another.
S. RODNEY 40:56 Right. Let’s make an ethical choice, absolutely.
C.T. WEBB 40:57 Yeah. To commit to that.
S. RODNEY 40:59 I love that, yeah.
C.T. WEBB 41:01 All right. So are we stopping? We’re actually stopping on an up note, I think for a change [laughter] rather than letting it trail off into ellipses.
S. RODNEY 41:10 Or oblivion.
C.T. WEBB 41:12 Seph, thanks very much for joining me today.
S. RODNEY 41:16 Yes, Thank you for inviting me, Travis.
C.T. WEBB 41:18 Okay. I’ll speak to you soon. Thanks for listening.


First referenced at 13:06

Context Collapse 

Professor Wecsh

First referenced at 09:49

Kehinde Wiley

Filled with reproductions of Kehinde Wiley’s bold, colorful, and monumental work, this book encompasses the artist’s various series of paintings as well as his sculptural work―which boldly explore ideas about race, power, and tradition.

First referenced at 23:32

Manufacturing Consent 

In this pathbreaking work, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky show that, contrary to the usual image of the news media as cantankerous, obstinate, and ubiquitous in their search for truth and defense of justice, in their actual practice they defend the economic, social, and political agendas of the privileged groups that dominate domestic society, the state, and the global order.


Share This