Category Archives: Controversy & Conversation

Computational and Biological Approaches in the Study of Literature

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Pramit Chaudhuri, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, led the Faculty Fellows seminar on November 7th. Dr. Chaudhuri presented his current work on Latin literary genre, using methodologies from the digital humanities. With collaborator T.J. Bolt, a Mellon postdoctoral researcher in the Classics department, and other researchers Chaudhuri is exploring the stylistic boundaries between literary genres in Latin, such as the relationship between epic and drama. Bolt and Chaudhuri used quantitative methods to uncover what differences and similarities exist between genres of Latin poetry, seeking distinctive features that accurately describe a given genre. Building from this work, Chaudhuri expressed interest in other ways to apply computational analysis or to present the data to a scholarly audience.

Chaudhuri opened the seminar by considering the lens of analysis other Fellows had used to discuss “Narrative Across the Disciplines.” Rather than focusing on the analysis or construction of individual narratives, Chaudhuri suggested that narrative across disciplines could be a research discussion in its own right. He encouraged Fellows to discuss primary and secondary narratives, to consider what narratives felt familiar to them, and whether genre was a meaningful or valuable classification for work within their fields. Chaudhuri noted that these questions were meant to aim Fellows towards considerations of form, rather than content.

After a brief discussion of these questions in small groups, the Fellows reconvened to discuss Chaudhuri’s project more broadly as part of his work as Co-Director of the Quantitative Criticism Lab. Given the range of disciplinary interests, Chaudhuri expressed his curiosity toward what considerations of form and genre might be most influential for the Fellows in their own work. Fellows responded with a variety of answers, but they also posed questions regarding Chaudhuri and Bolt’s computational method. Fellows were interested in the assumptions embedded in the project regarding machine learning, and to what extent computational approaches offer insights beyond that of more traditional methods. Some in the group wondered if the project could be expanded or combined with similar projects in linguistics, while others noted concerns regarding generalization over historical periods that might lead scholars in some disciplines to resist digital humanities projects. A lively discussion of Chaudhuri’s use of the term “cultural evolution” revealed how scholars in various disciplines deal with change. The seminar closed with the Fellows speculating on the implications of the project for Classics departments, from possible considerations (or reconsiderations) of genre to novel examinations of intertextuality at the level of syntax.

Getting Back to Abnormal: Politics, Narrative, and Rhetoric in Filmmaking

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Paul Stekler, Professor in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film and the Wofford Denius Chair in Entertainment Studies, led the Faculty Fellows seminar on September 19th, beginning with a short overview of what brought him to politics, and more specifically, what brought him to making documentaries like Getting Back to Abnormal (2013). Dr. Stekler credited his family for his lifelong interest in politics, stemming back to conversations with his grandfather on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his first job working for a Republican congressman, among other things. Stekler has worked in a variety of political contexts since then, from the George McGovern campaign in 1972 to working with pollsters from The New York Times. His family spanned both sides of the aisle–his father, a Republican, helped him to get his first campaign work, while his mother is a lifelong Democrat. Stekler earned a doctorate degree in Government from Harvard University, and after working in academia as a political scientist for a number of years, he found his calling as a full-time filmmaker with a focus on politics.

Stekler showed the Fellows a series of clips from an NEH-funded film he made in 2000, titled George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire. The film allowed him, he explained, a new context in which to apply his political knowledge and background, but the challenge was presenting this information in a narrative appropriate to a broader audience. George Wallace, for Stekler, represented a transition point for American politics, and a documentary presented a unique opportunity to bring his conversations within academia into the mainstream.

Participants asked Stekler about his methods, from how he finds his subjects and characters to his methods for mapping the trajectory of a documentary film. Stekler emphasized narrative fundamentals, such as conflict, but he also noted the importance of finding an accessible subject–someone who would not only be open with the filmmaker, but who would be compelling to watch on the screen. Though crafting a story is of the utmost importance, Stekler explained that as a documentarian he seeks to balance storycraft, accuracy of representation, and visual interest. Several Fellows pondered what exactly could be told best in the context of documentaries and other projects for public audiences, and what academic and discipline-specific projects offers alongside more popular works. Participants agreed that although some work can be translated into popular projects, teaching also offers a venue for transmitting one’s research to the public.

Participants also raised questions about Stekler’s development as a documentarian. Much of his knowledge about filmmaking, and more generally, narrative, Stekler said, was learned through collaboration with other creatives. Stekler credited the producer of Eyes on the Prize, one of his first films, for teaching him some of the fundamental aspects of filmmaking–mainly, that the goal was to keep the audience watching. Overall, he admitted, he learned much of what he now knows about story from experience.

The conversation turned more specifically to Getting Back to Abnormal, and the variety of New Orleans documentaries that had been made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Having lived in New Orleans himself, Stekler explained he had found many documentaries of post-Katrina New Orleans lacking what he identified as the city’s true character. Stekler told the group that he and his collaborators wanted to tell the story of whether or not New Orleans had changed, capturing something of what he saw to be New Orleans’ contradictory nature. Stekler shared that at the Controversy & Conversation screening of the film the week before at the Austin Public Library, he had the chance to rewatch it with a number of engaged audience members. During the discussion he led, a member of the audience asked what the film would look like if he had made it in 2019. Although Stekler felt that his connections to the city have grown more distant, making him “not the right person” to make a present-day version of the film, he believes that the sway between the joys and sorrows of the city are unlikely to have changed.

Looking towards the future, Stekler stated he was working to raise funds for a film on the McDonald Observatory and astronomy–moving from the politics of the city to the stars.

See Dr. Stekler’s career reel here.


A Vicious Cycle of Corruption: Vigilantism, Power, and Morality in Cartel Land

After our November 1st Controversy ad Conversation screening of Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land, guest speaker Dr. Jake Dizard, Postdoctoral Fellow with the Mexico Security Initiative at UT’s Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, stated one of his major takeaways from the film: power corrupts and attracts. Dizard made this observation based on Cartel Land’s intimate and, at times, disturbing footage of the rise and fall (if not from power then certainly from grace) of José Manuel Mireles Valverde’s Michoacán-based anti-cartel vigilante group, Autodefensas. That watching Cartel Land, a film about (at least initially) victimized, fearful, and/or exasperated citizens striving to obtain and use whatever power they can to combat the activities of Mexican drug cartels, inspired Dizard to make this observation speaks to the film’s ability to highlight the moral ambiguities and failures of the vigilante enterprises it documents.

Tim “Nailer” Foley, the leader of Arizona Border Recon, a group of American vigilantes who patrol the U.S.-Mexico border to catch drug traffickers, helps Cartel Land comment on these moral ambiguities and failures by claiming early on in the film that a clear dividing line exists “between…good and evil.” He indicates that he and his group are firmly on the side of good fighting the forces of evil in the form of Mexican drug cartels. As Dizard’s observation suggests, Cartel Land’s documentation of vigilante and drug cartel activity encourages its viewers to question the notion that good and evil are easily identifiable and discrete and to become skeptical of those who pursue or hold power while proclaiming good intentions.

Given that Mireles and other members of Autodefensas ostensibly strive to bring unlawful but moral justice to those law-breakers whom they consider truly immoral, they too would have considered themselves on the side of good. The film’s moving scenes of working class families in Michoacán mourning more than a dozen victims, including women and children, of cartel violence suggest that the members of Autodefensas had good reason to believe they were taking up arms against evil. Cartel Land not only documents the impact of cartel violence on survivors but also shows some grisly images of those victims, images which compelled some audience members to look away and, for those watching, reified the deadly violence carried out to protect or grow cartels’ financial interests. Thus, Cartel Land gives viewers reason to sympathize with, if not outright approve of, the citizens who arm themselves to regain control of and protect their communities. However, as we watch Autodefensas’s ranks swell and their power grow under Mireles’s charismatic leadership, we also see them invade homes to confiscate property, arrest and torture men whose affiliation with cartel activity is uncertain, and hear Mireles tell one of his men to “get everything you can out of [a suspected cartel member], and then put him in the ground.” That these men appear to steal, torture, and kill within the communities their group initially intended to protect eliminates any possibility of easily classifying their organization as morally “good.”

Despite his claim to goodness and his earnest desire to be seen as morally justified, Cartel Land reveals that Nailer’s Arizona Border Recon’s moral status is quite murky as well. Though one might argue that Nailer’s goal of hampering cross-border drug trafficking is morally justifiable, his organization functionally provides its members with an opportunity to arm themselves, hunt, threaten, and detain Mexican citizens who have illegally crossed the border with apparently very little oversight from U.S. Border Patrol. As Dizard pointed out in our discussion, this makes Arizona Border Recon an attractive organization for blatant racists such as one member whose involvement is motivated by the belief that we should not “put two races in the same nation, and expect them to get along.” Though Foley’s motivations have the semblance of moral justification, that moral justification is compromised to increase the organization’s power and resources.

These vigilante organizations’ failure or inability to control membership is perhaps one reason why Dizard’s observation that power corrupts and attracts applies well to them. We find out in the film that Autodefensas compromises its own values by secretly partnering with a drug cartel to obtain weapons and money, becoming blatantly corrupt and quite similar to the criminal organization from which it sought to protect local communities. Autodefensas’ success attracted those who sought to abuse its recently acquired power, and the organization slowly takes on the values and practices of a cartel.

By the film’s end Autodefensas has been made an official police force by the Mexican government even though its criminal tendencies and connections are an open secret, and while this legitimization of a corrupt police force may surprise many American viewers, it did not surprise Dizard. This decision to throw the ineffectual band-aid of legitimacy on a vigilante force too powerful to be stopped without significant military intervention is characteristic of, to use Dizard’s phrase, the Mexican governments’ ineptitude and indecisiveness. Ironically the government’s ineffectual legitimization of Autodefensas reveals part of the reason such a vigilante group was founded: the Mexican government cannot be relied upon to effectively protect or act in the best interest of its citizens. The Mexican government is another ostensibly “good” entity, one meant to ensure the safety of its people, with corrupt elements, and its ineffectuality allowed Autodefensas to obtain power and subsequently become corrupt itself.

The final scene of Cartel Land  (which I opt not to spoil here) left those of us watching in the meeting room of the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library with the impression that the events it documents reveal a cycle of corruption frequently, if not inevitably, driven by individuals’ and organizations’ attempts to obtain political, economic, and social power. It is perhaps through its portrayal of the persistence of this cycle of corruption and violence that the film makes its most persuasive critique of Nailer’s conception of vigilantes as “good” fighting “evil”. That neither of the film’s vigilante groups make any lasting progress in their fight against evil suggests that arming citizens to allow them to pursue potentially swift, indiscriminate (or racially motivated), and violent “justice” is more likely to drive the cycle of corruption and violence forward than break it.

Militarization, “Superior Violence,” and U.S. Law Enforcement in Do Not Resist

Early on in the community discussion of the Controversy and Conversation screening of Craig Atkinson’s documentary, Do Not Resist, Gabriel Solis, Executive Director of the Texas After Violence Project, asked our group two questions central to the film’s exploration of police violence and militarization and the ongoing national discourse regarding incidents and victims of police violence and the protests they inspire: What is the role of police? What should policing mean? Having watched Atkinson’s stirring footage of the conflict between protestors and heavily armed and armored police during the Ferguson, MO protest of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, police training exercises and seminars, and SWAT “no-knock” warrant searches, the community members gathered at the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library had just been presented a disturbing albeit limited sense of the role that police actually do play in contemporary American society. While our group did not (and perhaps could not hope to) arrive at a single, clear answer to Mr. Solis’s questions, many participants’ comments indicated that, regardless of what policing should mean, it should not mean what it does in the U.S. today.

Where public discourse regarding policing in the U.S. has recently tended to focus on the injustice of officers’ acts of violence against unarmed people of color and the U.S. justice system’s response (or lack of response) to those officers’ acts of violence, Do Not Resistseeks to shed light on the training, ideology, and equipment that inform and enable police violence. Perhaps the film’s central thrust is its exploration of the growing militarization of U.S. police (which is clearly on display in the footage of the Ferguson protests) through access to military grade equipment including firearms, assault vehicles, and surveillance technology. Atkinson examines the U.S. government’s 1033 program, which allows the Department of Defense to make the unreasonable amount of underused and excess military equipment (including a wide variety of non-combat equipment) being housed in large DoD storage facilities available to local law enforcement. Atkinson shows that equipment made to wage war, such as the MRAP, a large armored vehicle, and M16 assault rifles, has become both more available and, in the eyes of some law enforcement personnel, more necessary than ever to effectively subdue and/or eliminate violent civilians with increasingly lethal weapons.

The importance and escalation of violence in U.S. policing implied by this militarization is verbalized during a law enforcement training seminar led by Dave Grossman, a retired military officer. In demand as a speaker for police departments across the U.S., Grossman tells his audience that law enforcement must fight violence with “Superior violence. Righteous violence…Violence is your tool…You are men and women of violence,” indicating that a capacity for “superior” violence is necessarily a defining quality of U.S. law enforcement. As one community member at the screening pointed out, Grossman goes on to create a narrative for law enforcement officers in which violent action and skilled police work make them the “man of the city,” a contemporary heroic archetype which he nationalistically mythologizes by comparing it to the legendary frontiersman of the American West.

Grossman goes on to affirm the necessity of police violence by stating a truth he is certain his audience already knows: monsters are real and they are an imminent threat to society. Atkinson follows the footage of this discussion of monsters by showing Grossman giving an idealized description of the law enforcer looking out over his city and taking satisfaction in knowing that his actions have improved the lives of others. This description suggests that protecting and serving one’s community remains an essential aspect of Grossman’s conception of policing. However, Grossman’s insistence on the existence of monsters asks law enforcement to see certain humans, certain community members, as terribly inhuman and deserving of superior violence rather than protection and service. This dehumanization of criminals and those suspected of committing a crime makes violent action by police easier to justify and carry out by suggesting that these violent acts do not damage or terminate human lives but subhuman, animalistic lives. Of course, even the most violent of criminals, let alone those wrongfully suspected of committing a crime, are entirely and undeniably human. Therefore, if police officers are to find a sense of purpose or satisfaction in improving others’ lives, then they must also acknowledge that their use of militarized violence is counterproductive to this aim in that it destroys lives and can cause as much or more damage than it prevents.

While much of the discussion following the screening of Do Not Resist focused on what policing should and should not mean and was composed of community member critiques of U.S. law enforcement in a vein similar to the one I have given above, it was concluded by responses to two more questions asked by Mr. Solis: What does justice look like for an officer who kills an unarmed person? What does justice look like for police violence victims’ families? Responses to these questions pondered whether life imprisonment or the death penalty should be considered a just response to the killing of an unarmed citizen by a police officer or to the killing of a police officer by a citizen. Mr. Solis, whose work with Texas After Violence involves regularly interviewing the families and friends of victims of police and criminal violence, sees neither of these responses as just. Having heard many stories of how police and criminal violence has destroyed lives, Mr. Solis saw the death penalty and life imprisonment (at least in the current U.S. prison system) as additional ways of disposing of human lives. He instead advocates for a more recuperative form of justice that holds people accountable without disposing of them. Do Not Resist’s portrayal of U.S. law enforcement suggests that we are far away from having a criminal justice system that does all it can to hold those convicted of crimes accountable while respecting their humanity and providing them with real opportunities to change, grow, and perhaps even become reintegrated into society; that such a reconceptualization of American policing and justice was articulated in our Controversy and Conversation discussion seemed to mark a small step towards its realization.