What Robocop Tells Us about the Neoliberal City, Then and Now

Robocop 1987 vs 2014

The recent release of Jose Padilha’s reboot of the RoboCop franchise offers ToM another opportunity to indulge in extreme historian geekiness. As an unabashed lover of the original 1987 RoboCop, I jumped at the opportunity to write a dual review of both films, reflecting on their contrasting messages and cultural commentaries. Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 version was a masterpiece. No, seriously. Taking place in an unspecified, but not too distant future, the film is set in a dystopic, post-industrial Detroit. The film’s Motor City is riddled with crime and drugs, where police are killed with shocking regularity. The thinly veiled illusion to urban blight during the Reagan years is hard to miss. … [Read more...]

Too Much to Choose From: Searching for Inspiration in Asheville

local is the new black poster

Asheville is an Appalachian Shangri-La. This year-round resort town, tucked between the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, draws a funky mix of New Agers, fleece-clad mountain bikers, antiques lovers and old-time farmers. And what's there not to like? Charming yet surprisingly cosmopolitan for a town of about 73,000, Asheville has a Southern appeal all its own. There are lazy cafes and buzzing bistros, Art Deco skyscrapers and arcades reminiscent of Paris, kayaking and biodiesel cooperatives and one of the world's largest private homes — the Biltmore Estate, a French Renaissance-style mansion with 250 rooms. No wonder so many locals first started out as tourists. -- New York Times “Freak … [Read more...]

Eyes Wide Shut and the Paranoid Style in American Pop Culture

eyes wide shut masks

What is it about Stanley Kubrick that makes people crazy? I was truly excited about the release of last year’s film Room 237—as a historian and Kubrick fan, the idea of an hour or two of deep interpretation of the themes and symbolism of his 1980 horror classic The Shining sounded delightful.  It would be like taking a cultural history or film studies class where all the insights of a semester’s discussions were distilled into one megacut. As it turned out, though, the film was more like a documentary about a cult or conspiracy theory, or simply the adherents of a weird fetish or hobby (say, a King of Kong for ersatz anthropologists).  Fairly ludicrous and elaborate inferences about … [Read more...]

Chattanooga: Where Neoliberalism and Creative Commons Meet

This is not a logo for Tropics of Meta

First, the basics: Chattanooga is a city of some 171,000 or so people, situated in the southeast corner of Tennessee, surrounded by the Appalachian mountains.  As a key railroad junction, Chattanooga once prospered through manufacturing and shipping, but the vast political and economic shifts of the late twentieth century took their toll on the city.  Deindustrialization drained the city of people and jobs, with local population only recently reattaining peak 1980 levels. More akin to cities in the ailing Rustbelt of the North and Midwest, the Tennessee metropolis faced an uncertain future in the 1980s and 1990s, while regional neighbors like Charlotte and Nashville boomed through … [Read more...]

Thin Is In: Rethinking 40 Years of Intellectual History in the Age of Fracture

friedman foucault butler gates

But let us honestly state the facts. Our America has a bad name for superficialness. Great men, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it. The quote is by Ralph Waldo Emerson from “Fate,” the first essay in his 1859 collection, The Conduct of Life – a somber, more dialectical late-career work in light of his reputation as an irrepressible optimist. In the essay, Emerson describes at metaphorical length the necessary tension – a fistfight even, like “two boys pushing each other on the curbstone of the pavement” – between Fate and Power (or at another point Nature and Thought). If America is to achieve its … [Read more...]

Debating Dan Rodgers’s Age of Fracture

Age of Fracture detail

I’ll never forget the moment I ran into a graduate student whose confidence oozed out of his pores. There I was, fresh out of college, excited about a book I had just purchased that I believed would tell me all I needed to know about the decision to go to war in Vietnam. The confident graduate student snatched the book from my hands, quickly glanced at the blurbs on the back cover, and then proceeded to skim the endnotes and bibliography. In less than two minutes, he handed it back to me, declaring “there’s absolutely nothing new in this book. Don’t waste your time.” Well, okay…It’s easy now for me to see what he was doing, and, despite the arresting ridiculousness of such a know-it-all … [Read more...]

Working Poor in the Creative Economy

money machine wind money grab

Donald Trump just unveiled an exciting new start-up—a crowdfunding website called “Fund Anything." You can find your own way to the site if you care about such things. The heightened profile of crowdfunding—Amanda Palmer, the Veronica Mars film, and even Iron Sky—probably motivated Trump to dip his toes into this new variant of capitalization.[1] If Trump has a talent, it seems to be sniffing out opportunities to exploit, and the shift to crowdfunding now seems like such an exploitable moment. Whatever draws the ever-listening media to listen to him bloviate, he'll embrace it—lest we forget his all-important announcement about the conditions of the President's birth. But the means by … [Read more...]

Iron Waspy Ladies: What Annette Funicello, Lilly Pulitzer, and Margaret Thatcher Tell Us about the Cold War

iron waspy ladies

For me, what makes the Cold War an interesting time is not necessarily the existential conflict itself, though we all seem to agree by now that it really was not so existential as we were led to believe. Proxy wars and diplomatic brinkmanship are important to understand and exciting to contemplate, but the role that mass culture plays in shaping the world is what most interests me. It is through culture that our worlds are ordered and made meaningful. In an illustrative example of the old “celebrities die in threes” mythology, three women who show us the changing nature of the Cold War died within days of each other earlier this month. The deaths of Annette Funicello, Lilly Pulitzer, and … [Read more...]

The Thin End of the Wedge: Faculty House, Columbia University, and the Future of Higher Education in America

alma mater inverted

While news of the ongoing labor dispute at Columbia University’s Faculty House has gotten out—you can read about it in The Nation—its full implications remain obscure.  On its surface the fight appears straightforward: Faculty House is a branch of Columbia University’s Dining Services and located on its East Campus. An event space and upscale restaurant ostensibly for Columbia faculty and their guests, it employs 34 workers. On March 31, 2013, their contract expires. It has been an awful contract, exploitative, and of questionable legality. It is a contract which the workers want to change. The story of this dispute is about stolen tips; it is about “part-time” workers pulling eighty-hour … [Read more...]

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Best of 2012 Part V


I read the bulk of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, appropriately enough, on a flight to Mexico City. I’ve always appreciated the urban dystopia genre despite its obvious flaws. While Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums annihilates any particularities in the proliferation of slums throughout the world, he at the very least writes with the urgency the phenomenon demands. Boo’s book is of an altogether different nature. Behind the Beautiful Forevers tells the story of several children and families in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi. Lurking throughout the novelistic narrative is a vivid critique of global capitalism. In addition to this critique, Boo attempts to display the failings of … [Read more...]


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