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October 2015
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Talking The Right of Publicity at Northeastern

paradoxcosby copy

A Roping Dali


Detroit’s Bankruptcy &Art, Part 1


In the wake of Judge Rhodes’ ruling on Detroit’s eligibility for bankruptcy, it would culturally criminal and financial silly for the artworks of the Detroit Institute of Arts to be sold off to pay back the city’s creditors.

I was present for the ruling yesterday. Talking with union legal counsel, courtroom artists, marshals, press, interested Detroiters–it was a mind-rocking experience. To clear my head I decided to walk from downtown Detroit instead of take public transportation. I’d almost reached my partner’s home when the above image, juxtaposing a personal injury lawyer’s advertisement and a sign pointing to Canada, froze me in place. It seemed a message to the city overall. An invitation to flee, as so many have already.

Detroit’s dramatic population drop shows the attraction of the juxtaposed message. Most probably didn’t go to Windsor, but people bought the basic message.

Now the same exit invitation is being made to the city’s art objects. The Detroit Institution of the Arts is under pressure from the city’s emergency manager to sell off many masterworks. I think there are smarter options. My proposal for a traveling exhibition was published in HuffPo earlier this year. The New York Times also included some of my thoughts on the DIA in a recent news article.

Hitchcockian Happiness

Building blocks for those of us that have yet to fashion a happiness plan for 2013:

Mixed Monsters

Behold these Great Beasts of the Cinematic Wild:

Notes on Skyfall

Who is unfamiliar with the cinema critic’s spin on the Bond franchise as primarily a national propaganda project, subtly turning on an alternative history of Britannia? This view essentially holds that James Bond is to English culture what the Odyssey is to ancient Greek culture—a dramatic time capsule of a forget me not. When we surrender to it, we witness a world in which Britannia’s pink radius remains globally influential—Sauron as a massive pink eye beaming pink rays into every global corner & cranny; at least those outfitted with Cineplexes or nimble pirate markets.

The Bond franchise arrives on Big Screens as the modern colonial world is dissolving into Euro-mimetic nation-states—the films are not only readable as Cold War pop art &cinematic adjuncts of second wave Hipsters (Mailer’s White Negroidism—defined by “ a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts[,] hipster[s that] had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, [&] for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro”—as exemplified by the inaugural issue of Playboy, et al.); they also work nicely as reactionary post-colonial artifacts. Imperial implosion’s no need for adventurism cessation.

The realm reduced—intensified, as in gastronomic parlance, & shrunken in size—to a Union Jack draped ceramic bulldog. Fragile resilience. Heavy-fisted metaphors, but they still function. James Bond constitutes this concept as a kind of plane of consistency throughout Skyfall.

Through a racialist lens, the film’s cinnamon-toned cyber-villain, a one-man SPECTRE for a Hacker Age, is an advisory element broken free from the rival reduced empire of Spain, which has become comfortable with relaxing into a kind of national death. Reflecting on the exhaustion that all that Bondian jumping & fighting brings on, the cinnamon-y villain advises Bond to “relax…”—“…unto death” he may as well have said: M’s, that of the sacrificial beauty that JB’s sexes up, Empires’, & of course JB’s own—it’s certainly what I heard.

At times, the fantastical national-imperial psychodrama is echoed by Bond’s personal catharsis. Or his attempt at it. The film is a little longer than a typical therapy session, but not long enough to shrink our Anglo-nostalgia (not even with alley-oop-like assist from The Hobbit thundering from an adjacent theatre cave) & JB’s “unresolved childhood trauma”. The crumpled Bond we witness at the close of the still underappreciated On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have been more fitting than the aging bulldog Bond of Skyfall’s last minutes. There’s insufficient multidimensional humanity in Craig’s Bond for trauma therapy to have any meaning. His Bond is a plane. A front. A screen.

& also the James Brown of James Bonds; no other visibly works harder. & his physicality, his dogged exhaustion clues us in to Bond’s meaning. “Bond” resonates most strongly with its legal & financial significations in our moment—our bond is our pennywise word as we promise to repay borrowed money, and so on. But it is more meaningful, against the fantastical psychodrama of Skyfall to hear the word ‘s chemical & architectural tones first—as that which holds people, or a people, together, that which binds, that which imprisons. The James Bond franchise may be the most radical counter-insurgency ever mounted—an aestheticized, alternative history, perimeter lined in pink radiance.

I compiled these notes on the film while listening to Anthony DavisClonetics & reflecting on Tom Jacob’s nice essay, which I read today while in flight from Tallahassee to Boston.This discussion between film critic Elvis Mitchell and director Sam Mendes sent me into the theatre.

“Tempo” & Postacademic Science

In this postacademic research and development era, it is difficult for me to imagine any institutional researcher holding true to the classical notions Merton presented as fundamental traits of scientific tribes: communalism, universalism, disinterestedness and skepticism. And so, even though I enjoyed this science fiction short, it’s really only coherent for me as a kind of speculative fable. Or, better: as a dramatization of a very effective, anti-empirical, political front buffering various types of scientists from public scrutiny and criticism.

Tempo from Red Giant on Vimeo.

Ode to Radio Lab

Radio Lab logo

So satisfying is it to come across a popular delivery of a hard science concept like randomness (a.k.a. “stochasticity“) in so evocative a package as the Radio Lab show. If you haven’t sampled this gem of a program yet, get to it!

Here’s another great episode about Tsuotomu Yamaguchi, a Japanese engineer who managed to survive both of the US atomic bomb strikes in 1945, Little Boy‘s August 6th strike on Hiroshima, and the August 9th detonation of Fatman over Nagasaki, Tsuotomu’s hometown.

(Mr. Tsuotomu apparently lived to the ripe old age of 93, by the bye.)

The National Science Foundation thinks this program is great, too—-or, at least worthy of a nice grant.

Content Dictates Form: An interview with Mitch Weiss

In Content Dictates Form, Mitch Weiss’ recently concluded photography show at the Piano Factory Gallery, I was most taken with the occasional mix of natural elements, or naturalistic gestures, and artificiality bordering on the surreal. The above image –Monet the Mollusk– is a prime example. The yellow and black snail and the mossy branch are vividly beautiful fragments of nature, but suspended in a dark vacuum, the branch takes on a magical quality, while the snail seems to have been caught in its own wonderment at the viewer’s stare; “Is there a problem here?” its positioning seems to say.

While I sat pondering this natural surrealism, more or less echoing the Monet’s position, my research assistant, Ms. Ellen Wu, went to the source with a series of questions, the answers to which shed light on other images from the show–

Ellen: Where do you draw inspiration for your urban shots? What makes a particular moment in an urban environment more photographable than another?

Mitch Weiss: Well the most important thing to me is the set. It’s the first thing look at. For example, for one of these I had noticed the wall, the floor, and the overall space before I noticed my actress. I actually saw her across the room and I set up all my equipment facing the set and I hoped that she would walk by. So urban shots are kind of like sketches for me in that way.

E: What was it like shooting Lady Gaga?

MW: It was really cool to shoot her. That was in 2008, when she was kind of just starting out, before she was really really huge. And it’s interesting because we are the same age, we’re both 25.

E: You have many prints in this show that are one of twenty-two; what is the significance of 22 prints?

MW: I like the number 2 because I like the idea of pairs. If you look at the human body for example, a lot of things come in pairs, we have two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, and so on. The number 2 has a lot of balance, and that’s why I chose two 2’s. I usually keep two prints for myself anyway so there are really only 20 that are in circulation. For some of the more unique prints, I sometimes only make five prints. Besides, in the fine art world it’s standard to have 25 prints, so I’ve kind of become “the 22 guy.”

E: How did you create the effect on the light bulb picture?

MW: First I broke the glass of the lightbulb. It actually took a couple of tries because I kept breaking the filament, and I needed it intact. Then, I plugged in the light bulb at the same time the strobes went off, and it caused the filament to explode. I’m happy I didn’t die doing that!

Weaponizing Copyright Law

Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly ran this op-ed of mine on December 13, 2011, one week before the Mehanna trial concluded in US District Court in Boston.

Somewhat mysteriously, the piece has managed to cross MLW’s paywall event horizon…

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The Most Explosive Copyright Case Never To Be Seen

A rather nerdy aspect of the Tarek Mehanna trial suits it perfectly for the bookwormy city of Boston, arguably the nerdiest of American metropoli. The legal arguments animating the trial orbit an allegation of what we might call literary terrorism, and very near those arguments’ gravitational center sits a work of translation, the legally determined significance of which will contribute much to the settling of Mehanna’s fate. Under federal law, Mehanna’s charged with conspiring to injure persons or damage property beyond U.S. borders. But this case is also about the politics of a book, and what it means to make it accessible to English language readers. In other words, it’s about literary criticism.

The prosecution insists that Mehanna offered material support to Jihadi terrorists, in part through his translation of terrorist literature from the origianl Arabic to English, and through his subsequent online posting of those translations. His defense team argues that he’s a Nirvana fan, an intellectual engaged in the robust Internet-based discussion of the merits of Jihadism, an All-American in the best, First Amendment sense of the term.

The dramatic starkness of these competing interpretations makes for intense courtroom drama (the number of L.A. scribes toiling at film treatments presently is anyone’s guess), and will probably pave the way to a relatively rapid decision from Judge Leo Sorokin. So even though the stakes are high for Mehanna, with a life sentence being a possible outcome should his defense fail to successfully rebut the allegations against him, court watchers expect a conclusion before 2012 opens.

But the starkness also serves to shroud another dimension of this public controversy, an as yet un-acknowledged legal issue that could potentially, and radically, complicate the legal proceedings, as well as future cases turning, at least in part, on similar translation-related issues.

Strangely enough, this shadowed issue is a function of intellectual property; copyright laws, more precisely.

It is an uncontested fact of the trial that, sometime in 2006, Mehanna translated Muhammad bin Ahmad as-Salim’s book, 39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad, from the original Arabic to English. Though a shadowy figure, various sources strongly suggest that as-Salim is a Saudi citizen. If this is true, then Saudi copyright law and, by virtue of the Berne Conventional, U.S. copyright law could apply to Mehanna’s translation of as-Salim’s book. The laws of both countries grant authors strong ownership rights in the translations of their works. And as no court-admitted evidence seems to indicate that Mehanna acquired permission from as-Salim to translate 39 Ways and post it online, there is a good chance that Mehanna violated as-Salim’s copyright under the laws of one or both countries.

Suing Mehanna for copyright infringement in the U.S. would serve no apparent end of a Jihadi theorist such as as-Salim. But if as-Salim were to bring suit against Mehanna under Saudi copyright law, Mehanna could face a penalty spectrum ranging from a warning from the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information at the weak end, to a prison sentence of up to six months at the strong end. That stronger sentence would obviously necessitate Mehanna’s appearance before officials in Saudi Arabia.

It’s likely, were he to allege such an infringement, that the personal costs to as-Salim could include a well-placed Hellfire missile, or whatever other nasty bit of payload a hovering Reaper might have at its disposal. But, the administrative costs that would be forced upon the Saudi and American courts, the diplomatic costs their respective emissaries would likely incur, the media kerfuffle and sensational exposure (think of it as an extreme book advertising campaign), might make it worthwhile for a true radical. And if this scenario seems a worthy plot element from an unpublished Thomas Pynchon novel, recall that before 9/11 the idea of a hijacked airliner being turned to terrorists’ ends was widely judged a foppish concept, suitable only for the pages of a Tom Clancy techno-thriller.

Ultimately, even if as-Salim does not turn out to be some kind of Zola of Arabia, an activist intellectual willing to stick his neck out to protect someone he considers to be an unfairly persecuted comrade-in-arms, the contours of the Mehanna case reveal a strange potential of the law. Like a plane, a cell-phone or a sacrificial body, copyright might also be weaponized in this Age of Terror.

Michael G Bennett is an Associate Professor of Law at Northeastern University.