Randolph Lewis

End of Austin
Photo Credit: David Lopez | Daily Texan Staff

Through Austin’s endless traffic, bustling nightlife and growing population, one group is attempting to catalogue the rapid evolution of America’s fastest growing city. The End of Austin, known as TEOA, is an online journal, started by American studies professors and graduate students in fall 2011. The journal features different works of art and writing pertaining to Austin in some way. 

Randolph Lewis, American studies professor and editor of TEOA, watched the publication start as an in-class project. 

“We wanted to have a group project that would live beyond the course,” Lewis said. “People seemed to like it so we thought, ‘What if we turned it into sort of a regular publication?’”

The project did just that. After two years, the journal continues to come out every six months and involves collaboration from students, professors and Austinites alike. Some of those who were involved in End of Austin’s first publication are still contributing today.

Two key members of TEOA’s editorial board, Carrie Andersen and Sean Cashbaugh, both doctoral candidates in the American studies program, contribute to the publication with works of their own and by scouting other possible contributors.

“If people are doing interesting things around the UT campus or around town, we reach out to them,” Andersen said. 

Lewis said he looks for the flow of each piece with the next in every publication. 

“I often really enjoy just seeing one [piece] next to another,” Lewis said. “I like the collage effect. I think we try to look for a balance of perspectives, we probably thought originally we’d have more people writing for us who were lamenting Austin’s changes, but so many people have only been in Austin for a
short period.”

According to Andersen, TEOA is broadening its search for perspectives, particularly in the field of science.

TEOA includes different works ranging from editorials on the change in Austin, obituaries on dead shopping malls and storytelling through photography. The pieces, although put together by different people, follow a familiar theme and message. 

“I think a lot of people have very similar concerns on where the city’s going,” Andersen said. “It’s sort of a natural thematic thrust that develops.”

People creating the different works in the publication are concerned with things such as sprawl, traffic and the gentrification of Austin. 

TEOA has not gone unnoticed. The publication currently has 35,000 hits on the site and that number continues to grow. 

“People are responding,” Cashbaugh said. “Part of the interesting thing is putting something out there and seeing what happens to it.”

Steven Hoelscher, an American studies professor, has even incorporated the journal into his Introduction to American Studies curriculum. Hoelscher said the site, like the field of American studies, questions uneven economic development, symbolism, identity and popular culture.  

“I wanted to make a point that American studies is not just about the past, it’s ongoing and living and it’s a vibrant field today,” Hoelscher said. “One example of that is the End of Austin project. Elements of this long history of American studies are found in that project.”

Lewis hopes the publication will cause people to look at the greater consequences facing the city.

“There’s discussion between people in a democracy about the kind of place they live in, and it needs to happen more often,” Lewis said. “Rather than just being passively floating down the river like a leaf and not caring about whatever future happens.”

Although TEOA brings some serious issues to light on people’s perspectives of this changing city, Lewis does not think the site is necessarily about the “doom” of Austin. 

“We’re not pessimistic, but we’re trying to ask, ‘What if the rhetoric doesn’t play out the way people assume it will?’” Lewis said. 

TEOA is not only for the community, but also serves its creators. 

“End of Austin is a way for us to look right over the fences of UT, look into the community, be a part of the community and create discussions about what the city’s going to be like,” Lewis said. 

The latest issue of TEOA can be found at www.endofaustin.com.

Randolph Lewis, associate professor in American Studies, works to understand the real vulnerabilities shaping the anti-surveillance bravado of political media figures such as Alex Jones and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

The department of anthropology presented a talk Monday afternoon at the Student Activities Center led by Lewis and anthropology assistant professor Craig Campbell, regarding Jones and Paul.

Part of Campbell’s research involves studying photography as surveillance, especially in Soviet archives where Russians photographed and documented the indigenous peoples of Siberia beginning in the late 1800s. 

“Even though Soviet communism claimed to be anti-colonial, it was in many ways extending a colonial project in Siberia,” Campbell said. “Production of photographs in a socialist colonial context is part of a violent scopic regime that objectifies, scrutinizes and ultimately disempowers those people it photographs.”

Campbell said surveillance as an extension and articulation of state power has been central to most theories of ethnographic and expeditionary photography, especially in the colonial context.

Lewis said concerns about surveillance looking into our intimate sphere is coming from Texas where Paul, a first-term U.S. senator, grew up. Lewis said Paul is an ally of Jones, who is a kind of dystopian, anti-totalitarian and liberty extremist who has produced more than 30 DVDs on political topics and garnered nearly three million listeners at his peak on 60 different radio stations in the country.

“I see them as Texas-based, gun-toting, whole-foods warriors,” Lewis said. “There’s a lot of military bravado and luster. They’re very passionate about the second amendment and they see themselves as rugged individualists.”

Lewis said their concerns regarding public exposure issues are part of a broader worldview in which they are really worried about purifying water, adopting silver as currency, nutrition supplements and non-genetically modified food. He said Jones and his followers accuse the TSA of hiring pedophiles who have been defrocked to run the scanner machines at airports. 

Jones publicly speaks about the potential for domestic use of drones. Lewis says Jones is worried about drones that can take any random protester out of the street, and their abilities to look into people’s intimate spheres is a major violation.

“These are guys that are easy to dismiss,” Lewis said. “I would say Alex Jones is one of the most important political media figures in the country that most people have never heard of. His circle of Texas libertarians is maybe the most important zone of resistance to surveillance culture right now outside of [American Civil Liberties Union] and other more sober enterprises.”

Graduate student Paul Gansky said he thinks TSA is kind of part and parcel of a larger culture of fear around airplanes in general.

“There’s only going to be a certain kind of group that will be flying,” Gansky said, “and I think its just really odd that this is the technology that is freaking people out and it’s not other forms of surveillance that have been going on for a long time.”

Column

Occupy Sesame Street, an Internet meme created by designer Justin Fines, has integrated into the Occupy Wall Street Movement. (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Photo Credit: Courtesy Photo | Daily Texan Staff

Occupy Wall Street, a demonstration movement decrying wealth and income inequality in the United States, has built considerable momentum in its one month of existence. Satellite Occupy protests have cropped up in other major U.S. cities, including a small, fervent following in Austin.

In fewer than 30 days, the grassroots campaign has already become mainstream political thought, at least among native New Yorkers — according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday, two-thirds of New York City voters support Occupy Wall Street.

But perhaps as an even truer measure of the movement and its message’s pervasiveness in the culture, ancillary establishments — such as the comical, tongue-in-check Internet meme Occupy Sesame Street — bear credence.

Indeed, while Occupy Sesame Street is primarily a collection of the Muppets digitally inserted into protest photos with Photoshop (one features Grover being detained by police), it does help to legitimize Occupy Wall Street as a fixture of political discourse.

Most of the Twitter messages and Facebook posts related to Occupy Sesame Street are made jokingly and when the first image of the meme — Kermit the Frog yelling, “Skip class! Radiohead is here dawg!”­ — was created, it wasn’t meant to be anything more than amusing.

Brooklyn-based designer Justin Fines, who drew inspiration from a friend’s involvement with Occupy Wall Street, created that first image of Kermit.

“[My friend] had been tweeting relentlessly about it for several days. And after seeing the #OWS tweets of her’s popping up over and over, I tweeted ‘#occupysesamestreet’ It seemed so obvious, really,” Fines said in an email.

With the Twitter message in mind, Fines drew further inspiration from the 1985 live action “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (where he found the image of Kermit on the phone), a title befitting the moment.

“Once I started to think about it, there was just a treasure trove of things I knew you could connect to the idea,” he said.

After comedian Patton Oswalt picked up on the joke, Occupy Sesame Street gained traction and soon sports and pop culture humor site Tauntr had created its own Muppet-infused images, including one of Elmo pinned to the ground by police as he is being handcuffed.

And a website, occupysesamestreet.org, emerged as an Internet repository for the meme, even selling T-shirts. All the while, Fines was unaware of how his one-off joke had taken off. 

“I spent about an hour thinking about it when I made the first few tweets, but then it didn’t cross my mind again until someone sent me a link to articles about it. It’s incredible, really,” he said. “Occupy Sesame Street is innocuous, but it does show the power of social media.”

But according to UT American Studies Associate Professor Randolph Lewis, whose research interests include the relationship between art and politics in the United States, Occupy Sesame Street isn’t necessarily as fleeting as the joke it originated from — the co-opting of “Sesame Street” is an expression of American frustrations with Wall Street.

“We feel nostalgia for ‘Sesame Street’s’ fairness and innocence at a time when this other iconic street, Wall Street, seems inequitable and cynical,” Lewis said in an email message. “They are two opposing visions of America, one a pure fantasy, the other a cruel reality.”

Lewis said that Occupy Sesame Street is not the first time seemingly unrelated pop culture references have intersected with politics.

“The French Situationists in the late 1960s practiced a subversive art technique called ‘detournement’, a kind of ‘turning’ of common images into something provocative or radical,” he said.

For example, Lewis said, these Situationists would satirize kung-fu films by creating Marxist subtitles for them.

“It didn’t make sense with the high-kicking action, but the new work sparked some good publicity for their playful radicalism. Occupy Sesame Street comes out of this satirical tradition,” he said.

Lewis also likens Occupy Sesame Street as a reflection of how deeply intertwined American politics has become with pop culture.

“Instead of Lincoln or Jefferson, we’ve got celebrity politicians speaking in soundbites and posing for television cameras. One side has Big Bird, the other has Sarah Palin,” he said.