Culture and Anarchy 2.0: Broadcasting the End of Civilization (1st of 5)
Is this when it begins, the end of civilization?
I had the ringer on my phone turned off, so I didn’t wake at 3:14:53 when the string of text alerts came in announcing a shooting on campus. As it turns out, the three text messages were lagging reality: at least four people had been shot in separate incidents hours earlier. Here the technology provided not so much early alert as eventual alert.
What’s a few hours on a Saturday night? On the main campus of a large, public university? On the night of Rutgersfest, when thousands and thousands of students, visitors from far and wide, and residents of New Brunswick are wandering the streets, propelled forward by any number of intoxicants?
According to Police Director J.T. Miller, the first shooting occurred shortly after midnight outside Marita’s Cantina, an eatery two stores down from the university bookstore and a block from campus. A young man shot twice, assailant still at large as of this writing.
An hour or so later, a second set of shootings occurred, with two brothers shot near the College Avenue campus’ prime evening meeting place, “The Grease Trucks,” an open air venue that caters, in the early morning hours, to the inebriated and the night owls. By all accounts, this area was swarming with people at the time of this attack. The assailant or the assailants are still at large in this case as well.
On the northwestern edge of campus, a 17-year old leaving a party is hit in the head with a bottle and ends up in the hospital.
Near four in the morning, someone in a position of authority grows a brain, as they say in the movies, and another warning is sent out to the entire Rutgers community:
Sometime later, a fourth shooting victim, also 17 years old, shows up in the emergency room at Robert Wood Johnson with a bullet wound and reports to police that he was shot near the Rutgers campus. The assailant or the assailants are still at large in this case as well.
This bare summary of the shootings that took place in the early morning hours on Saturday April 16th in New Brunswick does little to capture what it was like on campus during RutgersFest, a university sanctioned one-day Spring tradition that features live musical acts and rides on Busch campus in the afternoon, binge drinking throughout the day, and a steady escalation in mayhem as thousands of students and thousands of visitors flow back across the bridge into New Brunswick to roam the campus, looking to keep the party going. To get a feel for what the university was like on April 15th, you have to move beyond the reports cobbled together by the legacy 1.0 media formats–the newspaper report, the next day report by the windswept tv news employee standing in the empty lot by the Grease Trucks, fighting the rain. In those foreshortened forms, you get only the most sensational facts–four shot! (which is, truth be told, pretty sensational)–shots of police tape, and morning-after interviews with students straight from Central Casting: “That’s really eye-opening and scary. Hopefully the dorms have good security.”
In his anthem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Gil Scott-Heron’s screed against the mind-numbing, soul-crushing power of mass media to regulate access to reality, the poet issues a warning that has since become an incantation:The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised. The revolution will be no re-run brothers; The revolution will be live.
Writing in 1970, Scott-Heron imagined a revolution with no commercial breaks or scripted lines or precedent, a revolution where “Blacks will be in the streets/looking for a better day.”
Some forty years later, this call for political, social, and cultural transformation has been emptied of all content, a sound clip dropped regularly into hip hop to add the tincture of activism into the mix.
I couldn’t get Scott-Heron’s phrase out of my head as I culled through all the self-generated, self-posted videos documenting the drunkenness, mindless indifference, and violence of the crowds involved in RutgersFest and its aftermath. Scott-Heron himself never lived up to the vision captured “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”: in and out of prison for drug possession and drug-related infractions over the years since he penned his most famous poem, Scott-Heron may well have conceived of the poem’s first stanza as a dream, a hope, an aspiration:You will not be able to stay home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out. You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip, Skip out for beer during commercials, Because the revolution will not be televised.
While Scott-Heron could imagine the containing power of drugs, sitcoms, the advertising industry, the political system, he didn’t foresee a future where the desire to televise and to be televised would assume primary importance. In what follows, I invite you to attend not only to what is being recorded, but also to how much collective energy is spent on recording, sharing, narrating, and enjoying what is being seen.The revolution will not be televised Because there won’t be one.
Whenever there’s violence on campus anywhere, one of the first questions to be asked is: could this have been prevented?
Two days before RutgersFest 2011, RUTV sent one of its student reporters out to the College Avenue Campus to get a sense of local excitement about this annual event. Phillip O’Driscoll stops three students, two of them in front of the College Avenue Student Center, one of the locations that will figure prominently in the early morning hours of April 16th.
If anyone had been curious about whether these students’ concerns were warranted, a simple search on “RutgersFest” on YouTube yields results that document what has happened during the daylight hours in the past:
All in Good Fun!
Well, that was all in the past. What could go wrong this year? Well, actually, what more could go wrong, one might ask recalling that the year began with Tyler Clementi’s suicide and ended with a nationally-publicized campus visit by Snooki, one of the stars of the hugely popular MTV reality show, “Jersey Shore.” While much attention focused on the fact that Snooki’s appearance fee was more than Toni Morrison’s fee for agreeing to speak at the Rutgers Graduation in May, the Snooki-phenomenon offers a better frame for understanding RutgersFest than the writings of America’s most recent Nobel Prize winner in Literature. Morrison’s success is the result of hard work, struggle, dedication, and courage; Snooki’s fame began to take off when she was caught on film in a bar being punched in the face by another patron:
In the new jobless economy, alcohol plus violence plus live footage equals some measure of fame and possibly some measure of fortune. Snooki takes a hit; the video goes viral; her appearance fees climb. Next thing you know, she’s at Rutgers for two standing room only performances. Her advice?
Snooki, aka “Nicole Polizzi, speaking at Rutgers university on March 31st, 2011
And what was the next stop of the Snooki Express? An appearance on the WWE Monday Night Raw where she deployed a series of backflips from her high school cheerleading days to dispatch Michelle McCool for a crowd-pleasing come from behind victory.
The guy who punched Snooki in the bar in 2009?
His ending isn’t so happy.
A phys ed teacher at a school for troubled kids,Brad Ferro was fired after the bar video went viral, became unemployable, moved in with his grandmother and, a few weeks before Snooki arrived to collect her paycheck at Rutgers, enlisted in the Army, training to be a Calvary Scout–the first warriors behind enemy lines.
FoxNews concludes its report of Ferro with this laconic explanation:
His conviction on a misdemeanor [for striking Ms. Polizzi] was not a hindrance. Since 2007, the US military has been forced to recruit even hard core felons to replenish dwindling combat troops.
Allen Ginsberg’s Howl begins with an image not of immanent revolution but of the purposeful destruction of those who might be able to bring about change:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
While readers are likely to be most familiar with the sustained apocalyptic vision in the first part of Howl, Ginsberg devotes the second part of the poem to explaining the cause of this destruction, offering an incantation that aims, through repetition, to make the enemy visible for his listeners and readers:
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination? Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks! Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men! Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments! Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money!
Ginsberg never imagined an incarnation of Moloch who offered a dreamworld where the self becomes a transmission tower, ceaselessly emitting signals, howling not in agony, but for attention.Moloch, to whom we sacrifice our children. Moloch whose dictum is “broadcast yourself” for the remainder of your days.
Before we go to the tape, there’s a benefit to sampling the other venues for providing quasi-immediate access to the feeling that prevailed as RutgersFest rolled over the campus and then out of town. While the videos provide raw footage of events, we can glimpse a state of mind, a set of expectations, a posture that helps to contextualize the actions of those roaming the streets of College Avenue Campus after the sun set.
Turning the clock back to sometime after sunrise on April 15th. Rise and shine. From Tumblr, a blogging platform popular with high school and college students:
N.B.: 3oh!3, Pitbull, and Yelawolf were the musical acts featured at Rutgersfest 2011.
11am & already drunk!
And one final example, a reflective piece on the day’s highlights:
I’m grateful that I’m not a young person during this fundamental change in the form and function of literacy: while the shift from paper to the screen has profound consequences for teaching, learning, and scholarship, the changes are, for the most part, opportunities to imagine new ways to share ideas. To the degree that there is a record of my own antics in college, that record is stored in human memory and on the largely illegible pages of journals I sporadically kept at the time.
It is reasonable to wonder if the visual and textual evidence that now circulates freely and publicly on the web marks a break with the college-age behaviors of previous generations. It is possible, of course, that Web 2.0 technology merely allows young people to voluntarily document their version of a life-lived between high school and an employed future. Rather than get wrapped around the axel of this conundrum, I am willing to stipulate that it has ever been so. Now, let us shift our attention to the consequences that follow from having access to the ability to publish instantly whatever crosses one’s mind, whatever one observes, whatever one does while under the influence. The difference between not having this ability and having it is not subtle.
The consequences of binge drinking in a media saturated environment differ in kind not simply because a record of the evening’s activities can resurface at any future moment in the revelers’ lives but because the ubiquitous recording media itself can profoundly alter the behaviors of the revelers, as the lure of fifteen seconds of Web fame repeatedly proves to be too powerful to resist. Thus, the Web is littered with examples of people filming themselves engaged in criminal activity, jilted boyfriends posting intimate pictures of former girlfriends, ball-rackings, and the whole panoply of stupid human tricks.
What do I mean the consequences differ in kind?
The video I’d like to discuss is entitled: “This Is Just 2 Crazy: Fight Outside Rutgers Fest 2011! (Girls Poppin Off On Everybody & Boyfriend Fights 3 Chicks While His Girl Gets Jumped).” It was posted to YouTube about midday on April 16th, was flagged for content and taken down, was immediately reposted under a different name, where it is logging hundreds of views.
Oh, and it was posted to “WorldStarHipHop.com,” where it has been viewed a quarter of a million times in the past 36 hours.
In this context, Rutgersfest is sandwiched between a video of a man masturbating in public and a stripper submitting to a range of sex acts for the PHI Q fraternity of Prairie Valley A and M University in Texas
For comparison’s sake, keep in mind that the RU-tv video on the buildup to Rutgersfest has been viewed a little over 1,500 times, since being posted on April 13th; the promotional piece launching Project Civility at the university six months ago has been viewed 245 times; the video showing the university’s president responding to student protestors who have marched en masse into his office to demand that tuition be frozen, posted a week ago, rings in at 240.
Officially sanctioned versions of the university: 1
Team Negative Publicity: 100.
Warning: the videos and images that I am turning to now capture violent criminal acts in progress. The images themselves are disturbing–indeed, for those of us who work at Rutgers, there is something uniquely sickening about seeing one’s workplace serve as the stage for a “sneak preview of the end of the world,” as the Tumblr blogger above described it. But the videos and their subsequent reception capture something more disturbing yet, something nameless and inchoate that I am struggling to make sense of.
This first video is like a scene out of Day of the Locusts. The driver, who appears to be intoxicated, points his phone out the window and captures this:
When this video is posted, it’s given the title, “Drunk Guy in Rutgers.” But, doesn’t that seem like an odd way to transport a “drunk guy”? Dragging him upright down College Avenue while his pants fall down around his knees?
If you slow the video down, the man who is being dragged appears to be struggling and then, just as the trio and the dragged man hit the left edge of the frame, it appears that the dragged man is being led to an open trunk:
Unfortunately, Ps3king4real drops his phone as he swivels to catch what’s happening behind him.
Is the man on the ground here, who appears to get kicked in the head, the same man being dragged upright past Ps#king4real’s car?
Unidentified man, severely beaten. Somewhere in New Brunswick, Rutgersfest Evening.
One victim or two? It’s impossible to tell.
For some who boarded New Jersey Transit and headed north toward New York, the slow ride back on the milk train was not exactly peaceful. In this video, entitled “Rutgersfest 2011 . . . Only in America,” four young women face off against an older man for reasons that are not at all clear. For a brief moment, the enthusiastic crowd to which the young women and the older man all seem to be playing begins to chant, “Fuck Shit Up, Fuck Shit Up.” Not exactly poetry, but it gets the general point across.
I’m a novice at this, but I’ve tried to highlight the two people who, in addition to msteel86, are also filming this altercation. Why can’t the shouting stop? There may be more than one reason, but there is evidence to suggest that the presence of the cameras is spurring at least one of the young women on. After unleashing a torrent of verbal abuse and gesticulating with gusto in the older man’s face, the young blond woman pauses briefly, turns to her right where the young man closest to her sits with his camera trained on the argument, and her expression relaxes just for a moment into a smile.
And then, before you know it, she’s back on her feet, right back in the older man’s face.
What’s it all about, all this spirited shouting? The narrative that accompanies msteel86’s video is far from clear; there is consensus that at least one of the young women pepper sprayed the older man as they were leaving the train. Here’s one version: one of the young women–variously “the fat one,” “the dumb chick,” one of the “fat ugly hoes,” and one of the “stupid bitches” –“totally started it” by “acting stupid” and then “wilding” on “the dude.” Then, one or more of the young women sprayed the dude with mace (or “mase,” but probably not “maize”), which “totally got” on an innocent bystander’s jacket.No effort is put into framing the video with words, because the frame doesn’t matter. The revolution will not be televised Because the future is slouching towards Bethlehem, Because the best lack all conviction, Because this Christmas everybody gets an iPad And if that iPad don’t sing, Pappa Moloch’s going to buy everyone a brass wedding ring.
This meditation is the first in a series of five.
The meditation continues here: Culture and Anarchy 2.0: No Ideas Without Ideals.
A summary of all five parts, with links to the other sections, may be found here.
Information on Mr. Ferro was drawn from this source.
Howl, in its entirety, may be found here.
“Hit the Streets Rutgersfest 2011” may be found here.
The “Project Civility Promo” may be found here.
The video of the man being hauled down College Avenue may be seen here.
The video “Only in America” may be found here.