Saturday, July 30, 2005

Compulsive shopping

I should feel more sympathy for the compulsive shoppers, but I have to admit that my first reaction is to think they are pretty idiotic. Much of my spiel here is about how the industrial system molds individuals into compulsive shoppers to some degree or another, and perhaps its defensiveness over my own shopping compulsions that makes me recoil and scorn the truly obvious cases -- they're ruining it for everyone by making it so plain. So I should really celebrate their existance, beaue they illustrate at the far end of the continuum what is true of us all. Money magazine, that bane of my mailbox, arrived recently, and besides naming my girlfirend's hometown the "best place to live in America" on the cover (she had quite a laugh over that), it included a little featurelet about compulsive shopping. It was as insightful as any feature in Money (that is, not really insightful at all) but I was fascinated nonetheless by the extremely bizarre nature of the shopping addiction of the woman profiled. She was addicted to buying clothes from Gymboree, a children's clothes store. That the addiction had taken such a bizarre form seems to demand some consideration of psychological factors dealing with family dynamics, as opposed to the socieconomic points I'd be inclined to hammer on ordinarily. What a bizarre way to get overinvolved in your kids' lives, by buying them coordinated outfits obsessively from a cutesy mall store. It probably has less to do with trying to buy the kids' love than to return to childhood yourself but with an adult's buying power or, rather, an adult's credit limits. A collector's mania probably factors in as well. Compulsive shopping probably needs several alibis to take root to the point where you can be a feature story subject in Money. The collector alibi, the gift-giving alibi, the nostalgia alibi -- then the ad/sales propaganda kicks in a few: sales, limited editions and so forth. The motives vecome complex, impossible to unravel, so that when you talk yourself out of one reason, there's another around the corner to convince you. I suppose that's how the psychology of addiction works in general. Anyway, it's especially important to discipline compulsive shoppers and humiliate them in various ways lest the rest of us, who are compulsive shoppers in a slightly different sense, begin questioning our own buying patterns or expecting something else to do in life but amass things.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Universal marriage

Here's an astounding fact, from a LRB review of Between Sex and Power: Family in the World 1900-2000 by Göran Therborn: "In 1960, 70 percent of American women aged between 20 and 24 were married, as against 23 percent in 2000." The rapid drop-off must be disorienting and frightening in some ways to those who experienced those days of near universal marriage -- what a pitch of social control there must have been, how codified must have been so many interactions that are much more nebulous now. Marriage is now clearly a decision that's postpones until one's thirties: part of this is extension of the post-adolescent drift period and part of this due to more women having careers of their own and having those careers taken seriously. The tenaciousness of the cultural Right seems to have a lot to do with this fact, with their memories insisting that such a thing is possible, a world where everyone marries at 21 and subjects themselves to the social and juridical control of their personal lives that marriage constitutes. When bigots argue marriage must be protected from homosexuals, it seems paradoxical, because gay couples adopting the marriage standard would only help secure marriage's faltering grip over the lives of Americans. The more copupls who marry, the more likely marriage will survive as a integral social concept. But the Right must believe that homosexual marriages cheapen the sacrament and encourage straight couples not to bother -- if marriage is no longer about enforcing rules about what a woman can or can't do, then as far as they are concerned, it's not really marriage anymore. Gay marriages between men obviously throw that standard out the window, and that's why the considered a "threat" to marriage.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Silent disco

This is one of the fucking stupidest things I've ever seen. Could it also be brilliantly self-parodic? In the Netherlands, stringent anti-noise legislation led to the ad hoc creation of the soundless disco, where all the dancers where wireless headphones with the DJ's music piped in. So you are confronted with a room full of self-involved exhibitionists literally locked into their own cone of silence. Small talk is boring if not impossible at clubs anyway so why not remove the pretense all together, and let people gyrate together in a communication-free zone. Brilliant! In the Netherlands, they were forced to do this, but these jackasses in Williamsburg (where else?) are doing it only because they think it's weird. It's supposed to be some kind of participatory performance art piece, but do hipsters really need new oppotunities to reagrd their lifestlye as a work of art?

Says one bemused bystander quoted in the piece, "It’s like everybody’s bedroom-dancing, but in a crowd!” Bedroom dancing exists because bedroom dancers experience a sense of shame and a socially graceful shyness that for better or for worse keeps their self-expression private. But these folks who dance in the crowd want attention. Also in the same article, possibly the best attribution ever: "'Well, I guess it doesn’t bother the neighbors,' mused Ambrose Martos, 32, a professional clown from Park Slope." A professional clown indeed.


What's with this bizarrely impassioned screed against Spitzer's prosecuting the pay-for-play scamsters in the music and radio industries by Daniel Gross? Gross thinks it's a waste of time and money to prosecute companies who market their goods under false pretenses. After all, it just proves that these people are "bad businessmen." Yes, and the perpetrators of stock fraud are often incompetent brokers too, so should we dismantle the SEC? (Wait, Chris Cox has already been confirmed, hasn't he?) Maybe we should stop regulating ads, because only companies who weren't confident in their lousy product would resort to such tactics and of course when consumers discover they are being lied to they won't buy it anymore. Those whoo were burned? Tough shit for them. And hell, why bother regulating food and drugs? Only bad businessmen would sell beer with formaldehyde, like those Chinese breweries mentioned in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, or would see hot dogs with sawdust in them to fill them out. They won't fool anybody for long. When a few customers die, the rest of the world will know to avoid those things, so why bother prosecuting them? The market will punish them fine, all on its own. Gross points out that if people don't like radio they can turn it off. Well, if people don't like cancer from cigarettes, they should just stop smoking. Why bother labeling the packs or restricting the ads? Let Joe Camel pass out free smokes to high school kids during pep rallys. No one is going to force those kids to then light up. Just as every radio has an on/off switch, so does every mouth open and close.

Gross presumes that because pop music is a matter of subjective taste, and not a life or death matter, the marketplace can sort out anamolies like payola that distort what is made and distributed. And he assumes the ease with which small players can enter the music market hampers the effectiveness of payola. But the flood of product only makes payola more effective, it makes exposure that more essential, so that one crappy song nugget can stand out amid the diarrehea-like flood of bad pop music. (Sorry for that disgusting metaphor. But the payola biz is disgusting.) And subjective taste doesn't necessarily triumph, since it is so nebulous and malleable; most people's tastes are in fact shaped by repeat exposure. Payola, pay for repeated plays happens because it works, not because the industry is desperate. And the secretiveness is necessary because overtly revealing songplays as paid commercials would subvert the way it works, by making people think they are obeying their own subjective taste, discovering their own unique interests, when in fact their wants are being manufactured through a quasi-Pavlovian system of timed and repeated stimuli. Spitzer is right to be appalled by payola because it is a covert system of subverting an individual consumer's autonomy; it's a intentional form of cultural brainwashing, and it doesn't belong in an allegedly free society.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Little boy blue

Noting the concurrent rise of fey troubaours of the adolescent consciousness, Matthew Wilder skewers the likes of Wes Anderson, Jonathan Safron Foer and Conor Oberst in this extremely entertaining essay. Wilder contends that these constitute a new iteration of the male artist, which in a Thomas Frank-like touch, he dubs "LittleBlue SmurfBoy™--after the fetish of [their] patron saint, Donnie Darko, the most sensitive and martyred of [their] kind." Wilder seems right on target when he points out "the salient LittleBlue SmurfBoy™ trait--the endless running of fingertips over Stuff I Really Really Like." Making lists of the the commodity junk that aspires premature nostalgia passes for art only because we are all desperate for means to redeem the endless amount of time we spend consuming, in amassing trivial data about particular niches in the shopping world. Their catalog of obervations ring true and as rejected and forgotten items once improbably and perhaps pointless beloved, the nostalgia objects resound with the poignancy of that birthday card your mom bought you that showed just how little she really understood you. Nostalgia for old consumer junk is a breath away from being an emotionally devastating critique on how commodities have intruded into the most intimate relationships we expect to ever have.

But I don't understand Wilder's longing for Maileresque bluster and surly pugnaciousness and dick-flexing to return to cultural discourse. Hasn't he ever heard of Chuck Pahlaniuk? Then again, maybe that hack is so popular because he's filling the underexploited niche Wilder yearns to see saturated. Wilder laments the "safety" of recent pop culture, but he's neglected the genres where over-the-top oneupmanship occurs. Navel-gazing McSweeneyites do not constitute the whole of public discourse on the arts, and hipster auteurs are not the only artists. Wilder rightly directs his critique at edtors who don't cultivate writers who will call bullshit on crap like Coldplay and Bloc Party and champion more challenging fare, but such fare is out there in abundance.

Also, Wilder's prose partakes of the same look-at-me hipness, the overheated verbal ostentation, the cryptic concision and allusiveness for its own sake, that characterizes the people he criticizes. This kind of prose hates deliberative thought, and scorns the notion that an idea might require more than four words to be put across. It expects the reader to be as hopped up and impatient as the writer seems to be, and that state of mind is conducive only to blanket-statement reactionary dismissals. The goal of such prose is to make a showy splash, which is the same trait that is so infuriating about Oberst and Anderson -- they undermine the serious themes hey stumble on because they are so eager to show off precociously. Show-offs never seem to believe or care about anything, because you have the impression they will change their ideas to suit what will make the biggest impression. I was left thinking the same of Wilder's conclusions, that they were cooked up to seem outrageous rather than being heartfelt. But what is "heartfelt" anyway -- post-structuralism did away with such a notion.

Airport ambiance

I had to go to Rockefeller Center today because I had packages to mail out, and the closest post office to where I work is there. It was no day for a lunchtime trek; by the time I walked four blocks in the sauna-like heat I was soaked in sweat. You could do Bikram yoga out on Fifth Avenue. Nevertheless the tourists were out in full force, though many of them had taken shelter underground in the Rockefeller Center concourse, clotting the passages and lunching on the stairs and generally blocking passage everywhere. After I mailed my packages, I got some pizza slices at Two Boots and wandered around looking for somewhere to eat them. Sitting at an anonymous table with some strangers, a familiar feeling washed over me, and it took me a minute to identify it. Then I realized what it was: I felt like I was in an airport. Rockefeller Center has the same ambiance that you experience in airports once you're past the draconian security barriers. The same wash of tourists, of disoriented travelers looking for stopgap solutions to their quotidian needs, the same bland portable food options, and the lines, and the same gift-shop traps set for tourists geared up to spend, spend, spend. Why would you trouble to fly to New York merely to visit somewhere that resembles the airport you just left, I wondered, but then realized that wasn't really fair. The concourse really was just a waystation, not a destination. But as tourism becomes a more pervasive industry, the primary industry of more and more places (especially as other forms of commerce and business can be handled online, with no travel) the accoutrements of tourism will begin to blanket more and more of the earth. EVerywhere will have airport ambiance, will be loaded with chain restaurants and food-on-the-go and knickknack shops. It will become harder and harder to avoid the places where tourists go, because they fucking go everywhere.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The end of the economy of scale?

I'm not so diligent that I read every story in the Money & Investing section of the Wall Street Journal -- I don't do due diligence with the Forex report (though the yuan revaluation has given it a spark) and I have to say the credit markets and options report are usually a little over my head. But I do read Justin Lahart's Ahead of the Tape column everyday, mainly because it's above the fold on the front page and I can read it on the train in the morning without spilling my coffee. Today's column covered's growth figures. Lahart thinks Amazon's growth will slow as more retailers open up shop online servicing ever more refined niches. Because so little overhead is necessary to run an online business, the economies of scale that once worked in large firms' favor seems to apply less and less. Anyone with an Internet connection can more or less start an international business and reach customers in every geographic market.

I can't fault the theory, but I think it fails to account for the power of branding. Once overhead money went into transportation and warehouse space and office furniture and payroll systems and the like, now more of that money can go into brand building and advertising -- these are the areas where large players can regain the edge afforded by economies of scale. Joe Blow's Internet business will never be able to create a brand identity -- he lacks even the verification eBay and Amazon provide their third-party vendors with their customer-feedback system, which they can administer with an air of neutrality. For better or worse, size implies trustworthiness in modern retailing, it implies (perhaps erroneously) a history of success in pleasing customers -- the size stands in for word of mouth, which our atomizing society has rendered more and more difficult to come by. The Internet, which masks the size of the firm you're dealing with, thus seemed a less safe and secure marketplace to explore for the average consumer, until Internet superbrands emerged. Cultural ubiquity rather than their physical size now conveys the trustworhty impression for the eBays and Amazons. Also, the brand itself, the iconography of a commodity's origin has a value independent of a good's utility, of course. The cache of a brand can only be created by large-scale investment in PR and advertising. Online retailing will likely only become as efficient in undermining large companies as Lahart imagines when consumers become comfortable conducting all their shopping blind, indifferent to who they are buying from.

It seems more likely that the pervasive presence of small, fledging retailers will drive more people to big name retailers. Dealing with a corporation makes shopping impersonal, allows it to be an exchange with only one person in it, letting that person believe it is all about him and only him. It can seem as though the company exists to serve his ends, that its elaborate codes of customer service have all been concocted to provide him with his satisfaction. But dealing with small retailers makes an exchange more personal, more redolent with the obliging friendliness, complexity and courtesy and deference that goes into interpresonal exchanges -- you are no longer at liberty to expect it to be all about you and be as selfish as you fantasize about. Dealing with faceless big retailers, you can be as petulant as you want without feeling embarassed -- you're not making demands from an entity that has any feelings of its own. The essence of shopping as a leisure activity lies in its proving playgrounds for solipsistic fantasy -- that ceases once we humanize the other party to the exchange.

Starbucks music

Ever since Starbucks hit it big with their timely Ray Charles CD -- which was certainly aided by his death and by the hype surrounding the biopic, Ray -- there has been a frenzy of speculation about the coffee chain's sudden move into the music-retailing business. Who do they think they are, anyway? Starbucks doesn't announce how much they make through their music-retailing, and they admit that it has more to do with a general corporate strategy than making a quick buck. In a Wall Street Journal article, Starbucks' CEO explained that he hopes to make a Starbucks "third place" behind home and office in the everyday lives of its customers.

Because customers are in everyday, and because Starbucks will concentrate on a pimping only a very few CDs at a time, the company can familiarize its patrons with a single CD and hope to hook them by the end of a week or two. Starbucks, then, serves as a radical filter, allowing its customers, who probably don't typically care much about keeping up with music, to simply have an "up-or-down vote" on a specific record they are slowly getting to know over time. The Pavlovian association of the music with the addictive stimulant probably helps to over time establish a link that makes that up vote that much easier.

Labeling music as appropriate for coffeeshops, as music to relax Starbucks patrons, has been a common trope in pop criticism probably since Starbucks went national, probably because there's such an obvious synergy there, and an obvious opportunity to drive music further into the background and make it aural massage. Starbucks has assiduously cultivated an aura of upper-middle-class hauteur (which is why "latte-sipping liberal" entered the lexicon so quickly, too) and its success with that means they have an imprimatur to extend to whatever leisure product they wish to find space for. Starbucks wants to sell a lifestyle, a self-image, not coffee, and music is the lifestyling commodity par excellence. It serves no function otehr than to advertise a sense of who you think you are, and what kind of chilled-out groove you want to asociate yourself with.

Friday, July 22, 2005

A matter of perspective

Yes, I know the column is called Capital. And yes, this rhetorical style is so commpnplace in the Wall Street Journal, it's virtually invisible. But in the waning dayd of my subscription, I wanted to point it out again, one last time, because it really does encapsulate everything you need to know about capitalism. Consider this sentence: "U.S. companies are enjoying the profits that come from a productivity surge and unusually slow wage growth, but they still are recovering from the hangover of the burst 1990s bubble and are averse to to risk." The content, abhorrent as it is (hooray for corporations! workers are making less than they would have expected to make!), only mirrors the more repellant diction, which implies that companies have feelings, companies are the things whose emotions we shoould be concerned with, while workers, the actual people who constitute the company, are abstracted into a statistic. This truly is dead capital vampiristically sucking the life away from human beings. And this linguistic construction, where companies are given human attributes while the humanity is stripped away from actual individuals, is repeated over and over again to naturalize and reinforce what is in fact an extremely unnatural condition. (Not that I'm innocent of this, either. I routinely ascribe agency to corporations and make abstract generalizations about the "people." It's just hard not to ascribe subjectivity where you detect power, and vice versa.)

Thursday, July 21, 2005

9 Songs

Based on nothing other than David Fear's 250 word review in Time Out New York, I suspect Michael Winterbottom's new film 9 Songs which alternates between hard-core porn scenes of a couple having sex and indie-rock concert footage, is a brilliant meditiation on the way our shallow relationship with flash-in-the-pan pop bands mirrors a lustful white-hot sex-only relationship with someone we don't have anything in common with in the long run. (These pop-band crushes flame out quick, but they can be intense -- just read the mash notes in any record review column.) Only I won't be able to confirm this suspicion because I have no interest in (a) watching other people fuck or (b) watching Franz Ferdinand and their ilk perform live. So I was especially grateful for the review that brought this insight into focus for me. (Fear called the film "a lyrical ode to dead lust.") It's great that the review can convey to me the worthwhile point of the film without making me have to undergo the unpleasant experience of watching it to "earn" it. Sure, purists will say thie experience is necessary to really merge thought and feeling and truly understand the concept of a film, and perhaps that's true. But I doubt it in this case; I think a review with good intentions of giving the film every benefit of the doubt can pithily sum up what you'd get out of it. It seems to me that this is the noble task film reviews often perform and music reviews rarely do. You don't have to even be interested in a film to glean something provocative from its review, but music reviews rarely provide such grist -- too often they are connoisseur pronouncements from on high.

The brain-damaged economist

Neo-classical economists have long insisted that the profit motive, the self-interested behavior of individuals to maximize utility at the margins, is the key to understanding how markets work, and thus the moral foundation for any system of ethics in our market-worshipping society. And critics, from Marx on up, have long insisted that the rudimentary, one-dimensional psychology of humankind that emerges from this model is simplistic and insulting, a kind of bourgeois peversion of "man's species being." If humans are always predictable in this way, then they are basically evil from some theological points of view, incapable of unmotivated sacrifice and true goodness. Such a profit-fixated person is not only evil, he is, if recent "neuroeconomic research" disclosed in today's Wall Street Journal is to be believed, probably brain-damaged. Puzzled by the question of "why don't people always act in their own self-interest when they make economic decisions" researchers gathered a cohort of unfortunate people who've suffered damage to the part of the brain that enables them to feel emotions (i.e. the soulful part of the brain) and had them reenact market behavior by playing gambling games (researchers know, if mutual-fund investors don't, that investment is essentially a serious of gambles and probability calculations) and found that having no emotions is a requirement to make efficient financial decisions. Non-brain-damaged people feel fear and satisfaction, emotions that have nothing to do with singlemindedly pursuing more utility. Since the theory must be correct, actual human behavior must obviously be conformed to suit it, so perhaps researchers will next develop a surgical procedure investment bankers can have to remove the emotional center from their brain, so they can be more thoroughly human in the eyes of the economist.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Pet hoarding, pet begging

Beggars, just like retailers, are subject to trends, since both are vending commodities to a fickle and easily distracted public. (Beggars, who sell the right to condescend to others, are best understood as street vendors -- Gary Becker probably argues its a sound, rational economic decision on the beggars' part.) As anyone who has walked down Fifth Avenue recently, the cutting edge fad in begging is to have a few well-disciplined cats by your side -- you probably don't want to know how they get that well disciplined: we've seen some beatdowns in front of the church on the corner of 55th street, when the cats were not sitting still. Nevertheless, homeless-looking guys with a couple kittens in a shoebox are cropping up all over Manhattan.

Some troubling reasons for this trend: having pets seem to humanize the beggar in ways simply being human, for whatever reason, does not. Perhaps its to close to our own potential fate to accept the reality of these beggars, so we want to completely ignore them. Or perhaps we ascribe responsibility to them for their condition in ways we don't to the cats, who are, like all domestic animals, absolved of responsibility in the presumption of their helplessness and are objects of unadulterated condescension. Also, because the beggar can maintain a pet he suddenly seems theoretically loving and giving, although the conclusion that he's exploiting the animals for his own gain is inescapable. That the situation is nakedly exploitative likely is momentarily forgotten in the cuteness explosion, as must happen at children's beauty paegants. And then there's the obvious ruse that money given will go directly to feeding the cats and not to feeding the beggar, as though cats can't get by on eating garbage, of which there's copious amounts in the neighborhood (just follow your nose). But this ruse appeals to that depressingly large misanthropic portion of the populace who care more for animals that humans, people who wouldn't cross the street to piss on a man if he were on fire but will spend thousands to maintain pets in luxury. These people for whatever reason can't respond to human suffering at all -- perhaps they have suffered too much themselves -- but are wide open to be moved by perceived animal discomfort. These, I suspect, are the beggars best customers. The beggar confirms to these people that humans are scumbags and cats are saintly martyrs.

Slate directed me to a related issue this morning, and to this Washington Post article about pet hoarding. Seemingly, pet hoarders collect animals as if they were objects, and the temptation is to view them as obsessive-compulsives, as having the same kind of collector-mania that afflicts many people in a consumer society -- the whole quantity over quality conundrum that the capitalist growth mandate requires. But I don't think that's right. The article hints at a profile for hoarders that includes the inability to make decisions, and this seems more likely an explanation. A moment of pity encourages the person to take the pet on and then once the pet is taken the person can't handle the continued responsibility of caring for it, and gets new pets to re-enact that initial moment of irresistible pity and heroic rescue. Hoarders are likely addicted to both those things, that moment of being overwhelmed by pity and moved to action, action that they can aggrandize. Whereas their lives are ordinarily probably dominated by feelings of ineffectuality, powerlessness, passivity. So in that way it is like the compulsive shoppers who are addicted to that moment of power and completion and mastery over their own supposed needs when they buy something, when they exercise that all-important socially-worshipped power of decision-making between brands.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Zagat Music Guide

Yes, a Zagat Music Guide. It exists. I just plucked one out of the slush pile at my office. Why does it exist? Because pop music and restaurants really aren't all that different: They are both ruled byy fads and ceaselessly commented on by fatuous, obstreperous critics whose whims and preferences are more or less entirely out of step with the general public. Beause both are simply amtters of taste, decorated with a lot of bloviation from writers with no real abilities to report but with a way with obscure, often florid adjectives. Because there are so many voices using so many different criteria, Zagat probably figured a survey approach could help music users cut through the B.S. and find out what they really want to know -- what's supposed to be good in whatevr genre they have decided to dabble in. That you might want to read criticism of an art form for its own sake is of course absurd. You want pragmatic, practical information you can use, on the fly, while you're cruising the Borders CD racks or making a pit-stop in the electronics section at Target. And this way you can know what records are worth knowing about: if it's in Zagat, it's worth considering. If not, then rest assured a chorus of connoisseurs are telling you not to bother. Every album is ranked on overall quality, songwriting, musicianship and production values, so you can adjust to your own preferences accordingly. (I'm a big fan of production values myself. I won't even think of an album with less than a 25 for P.) Maybe it's best to treat records lik restaurants, new ones open up you dabble here and there, and you have certain meals you keep coming back for. Not much more to it than that, I suppose.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Anti-social computing

I used to work in an office where the vast majority of employees, all of whom worked in front of computers, were forbidden access to the Internet. We were the manual labors of the information age, permitted only to open the application necessary to the data processing we were tasked with, mind-numbingly dull duties that had been subdivided into the minutest of actions to make sure no actual employee thinking took place. This meant that most of the employees hired needed no computer skills whatsoever, and those who had them could easy work around the management's feeble barriers to the Web. Coworkers who watched me do this looked at me as if I had conjured a demon. They thought for sure that my firing was imminent. (I was promoted instead, proving my theory that breaking the rules is generally rewarded while following them isn't in corporate management schemes -- rulebreaking=initiative.)

I was thinking of this because I recently saw an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which a demon is accidently uploaded into the Internet and begins seducing the minds of young techno-nerds. They chant how they are "jacked in" or they begin to reject and withdraw from their real-world friends to spend more time with online pals -- who turn out to be the devil in disguise. The implication one could draw from this is that spending time on the Internet is anti-social and vaguely evil, certainly against the maintanance of a social network and a sense of community. Discussing this, we started to wonder if Internet access in offices destroys the sense of cameradere that used to exist among coworkers, encouraging people to funnel down their own private rabbit holes, reading blogs and playing online backgammon, and composing emails, instead of playing pranks and bullshitting with the other people in the office and actually getting to know them. First we stopped getting to know our neighbors, now we don't even get to know our office mates, and soon we won't get to know anyone outside our immiediate family, presumably. Adaptation of one's leisure time, one's spare moments to Internet surfing means no solidarity in the wrokplace, and no potential organizing against management. In that regard, I'm stunned we weren't encouraged to use the Internet in the data-processing sweatshop.

But it has larger ramifications as well, as socializing with yourself via the Internet, indulging your whims and expecting immediate responsiveness and gratification, means we have that much less patience with actual people, and their annoying tendencies not to immediately do what we want or expect. We can't click a button on their forehead and get them to say things we find interesting. As a result we are driven to further isolation into more and more solitary pursuits, or pursuits that only occur with prescreened participants certified to be interested in what you are interested in and agree with everything you already think. And where will that come from? That is the truly scary question.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Personality crisis

Here it is, the apotheosis of everything I have ever written about: the lifestyle planner. Today's Wall Street Journal, in an article calculated to outrage (and sure, I'll take the bait), explains this new service available to those who want to appear stylish but don't want to be bothered with developing an actual personal style. (Why don't this people get it over with and have themselve cryogenically frozen?) Deciding what you are interested in is so tiresome, and isn't it much better to hire someone to choose those things for you? If you can pay someone to have good taste for you, it's just as good if not better than actually ahving it yourself. That is the capitalit ideology of money, having it means having for yourself as personal qualities everything it can buy. So never mind the fact that if you hired one of these people, you'd become a stand in for yourself in your own life, never mind that you'd reduce the richness of life to the synthetic glamor of a fashion shoot. Taste has become sheerly a matter of display rather than a demonstration of competence or insight or discretion or discrimination. The idea is that if you spend enough to create the illusion of have a personality, a soul, you can that much more easily live with the certain knowledge that you don't have one.

The longshoreman philosopher

Before reading this month's Harper's all I knew about Eric Hoffer was that he wrote The True Believer, a book I often saw at thrift stores and used bookstores but never actually read from a vague sense that it was some sort of hysterical anti-communist tract from the 1950s and that it was sociology written without the benefit of poststructural theory and therefore out of date. (I was in an English PhD program.) But if Harper's biographical sketch is to be believed, it turns out Hoffer was a living exemplar of a specific ideal, that of the unencumbered unpretentious thinker with no ambitions for fame or wealth, someone with few possessions who lived without a radio or a television or a phone, someone who worked hard manual labor as a longshoreman without any apparent self-congratulation. One can deduce the code he must have lived by from these details: don't get caught up in materialism and consumerism, don't get caught up in your own reputation, let hard work be its own reward. Presumably this is a highly romanticized picture, but reassuring nonetheless that such people have existed, and tragic, too, to think that we'll never know or have any of their insights the way we have Hoffer's, whose notebooks are excerpted in the article. Hoffer seemed to believe in capturing discrete thoughts in simple language, arguing that no thought is so complex that it should require more than 200 words to relate. He seemed to have then an undeterred faith in the practice of isolating ideas, that thinking means taking an idea and breaking it off from its context -- thereby exaggerating its significance and simplicity -- and expressing it so that it may be concrete and comprehendable as its own unique thing. Thought is breaking down the web of interrelated ideas into component parts that, when well expressed, can gain clarity and explanatory potency when standing alone. To quote him (citing someone else): "Michelangelo's definition of art as the purgation of superfluities suggests that creative effort consists largely in the elimination of that which complicates and confuses a pattern." This certainly seems to explain how he lived his life; with a minimum of complication and static brought on by a surfeit of possessions (and perhaps, alas, friends). His notebook entries have the air of someone content to write merely for his own sake, for the pleasure of documenting the movements of his own mind, making his own sense of himself more lucid as he nailed down his thoughts in precise, elegant sentences. Reading them, you get a real sense of thinking as a pleasurable activity in its own right, which is extremely reassuring in a culture so hostile to thought. I found this one inspirational: "Our doubts about ourselves cannot be banished except by working at that which is the one and only thing we know we ought to do. Other people's assertions cannot silence the howling dirge within us. It is our talents rusting unused within us that secrete the poison of self-doubt into our bloodstream." As simultaneously pathetic and self-aggrandizing as it sounds, I think that's why I find myself writing this blog.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Corporate surveillance

Would you let corporate market-researchers observe your private rituals in your home? How much would you have to be paid? Also in that bizarre Journal story about vacuuming (since when is this news? And why is this story getting jump?) is an account of how P&G were ale to determine the various niches in the floor-cleaning market. You wouldn't have thought the clean/not clean dichotomy admitted more than one niche, but there you are: cleaning needs compose a "spectrum" and P&G is committed to differentiating as many points on that spectrum as possible. Remember: confusion and clutter in the marketplace is good, for as professional shoppers we look forward to the challenges of sorting all that junk out, and because we need a really specific narrowly-pitched product to feel our shopping labors have really succeeded, that is, have defined who we are. Anyway, Robert Godfroid, a "senior scientist" for P&G explains, "It was enlightening to go into homes. Watching people allows you to learn things that they can't even tell you about." No kidding. But why in the fucking world would you let P&G "scientists" into your house in order that a multinational corporation can know you better than you yourself do? Then by the end of the article Godfroid/Cold God is blithely generalizing about the behavior of individuals cleaning, as if their actions are as simple and easily explicable as ants in an ant-farm. Corporations only observe behavior in order to simplify it to motives that suit them, which they then promulgate as factual observations. They do not observe behabior in order to accomodate it. They would very much like us to believe that they are only trying to help us do what we want and get what we need, but that's only so we'll open ourselves up to further surveillance.

Manufacturing laziness

When new commodities purport to open up new realms of convenience for consumers, the tendency is to assume that consumers have grown more and more lazy, and industry has simply responded to the demand for laziness by flooding the marketplace with microwavable food and disposable diapers and the host of communications technologies that make it "easier" (ie compulsory) to be in contact with whoever demands your attention. The assumption, which is as deeply rooted as the idea that people love money over all things and will do whatever they must to maximize their portion of it, is that people are inherently lazy, and would love to do nothing but sit around undisturbed by the world around them. It is so pervasive that it seems like commonsense, even seems like something we have always believed about ourselves. A piece about new lightweight vacuum-cleaners in the Journal today illustrates the myth in action: Proctor & Gamble has made a new cordless sweeper to "extend the run of the Swiffer brand, which has benefited from consumers who are ever-lazier in their cleaning habits." Now that aspersion is wrong on many counts. Consumers are ever more obsessive about cleaning, not lazier, and they require more and more gadgets to make the process of housekeeping ever more intricate and complex even as they think they are simplifying it. Also, consumers are not becoming lazier, they merely think they are because of the way these products are advertised and the way they put forward laziness as a life goal, a reward. Our treasured laziness is manufactured; it's part of the ideological ediface that produces passive consumers out of theoretically active subjects. We are actually working harder than ever, but as consumers, shopping like absolute maniacs and misinterpreting shopping as leisure rather than labor. But industry sees the bulk of society as consumers, that is their prime economic function, and hence their useful social labor is to be shopping, ever and always, for ever more gadgets and conveniences and tchotchkes and so forth. There have been seven new evolutions of the Swiffer in the past six years, for God's sake. No one is clamoring for better functionality from a new vacuum cleaner any more than they are for "new and improved" Clorox. But as we accept shopping more and more as our primary purpose on the earth, we begin to assume that this kind of marketing information is of critical import, we begin to care about it as much as the names and birthdays of our nieces and nephews. Convenience is never about ease or personal fulfllment but about speeding up life to allow one to consume more, to spend more time shopping and buying. That's why the "inherent human laziness" trope is a cover-up, an attempt to make it seem like convenience serves the individual's needs rather than the needs of corporations.

This idea that people enjoy laziness is totally upside-down, of course, people want more than anything else meaningful activity that connects them to other people and integrates them into a living tradition that takes the edge off of mortality a bit. But capitalism requires stasis, a quiescent equilibrium to be a fundamental goal, an unequivocal good; it's built into the very models that establish its economic theoretical basis. Assumed laziness is the other side of the profit-motive coin, the simplicity and one-dimensionality of the profit motive as life-purpose nicely meshes with the assumption that people are too lazy to figure out what they want to do in life and just want to "relax" instead. The idea that sitting back and letting one's money make money can be a proxy for actual life activity allows stasis to also seem like an acceptable life reward. Capital becomes alive while the dead hand that possesses it becomes more and more couch-potato like. In other words, you are freed from having actual concrete intentions and ambitions by letting the simplistic goal of money-making stand in for them.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Personality test

Today's Wall Street Journal reports that a judge has reaffirmed that it's inappropriate for employers to administer the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (a test often used in penitentaries to measure a prisoner's sociopathy) to determine an applicant's fitness for a job or promotion. That employment law has forbidden the administration of "psychological tests" since ADA was adopted in 1990 is apparently not widely known, and employers feel fairly free to administer whatever litmus tests they want. BarbaraEhrenreich, in Nickel and Dimed, discusses some of the tests low-wage works are routinely subjected to; they serve the dual function of forcing you to lie, thus binding you in an unspoken covenant of shame, and of humiliating you, demonstrating unequivocally to the disenfranchised that no boundary shall be respected and your very personality belongs to the boss.

I was confused by a distinction employment testers cited in the article wanted to draw: They say that their tests "seek to find out who would be a good leader and wheher propective employees would get along in the workplace. 'There's nothing psychological about them,' [the counsel for an employment testing service] said." Is psychological a term of art in this instance. Isn't leadership deeply imbrucated with psychological matters? These tests seem extremely sinister to me; their purpose in employment contexts seems to be a matter of giving hirers an out on any hires they don't like, implied leverage over any employee betrayed by unknown aspects of their own subconscious. Employers hope ideally to be able to teach to this test, I'm sure, use it to slowly shape the personality perfect for subservient compliance. Maybe Bush should mandate its use in high schools, so that no child is left behind.

Further review

In general, the wider the field, the more reviewing has to perform service functions: you the writer are doing the reader the service sorting through the pile of shit to find the notable things worthy of comment. So music reviews must be more service-oriented, in this sense, and film reviews, where a general interest in any reader can be more confidently assumed, have more leeway to be critical or to interpret or recontextualize. In film, where everyone is aware of major studio product, and the product is on such a different scale than independent productions, everything they put out gets reviewed, and a wide range of approaches are applied. In music, a small fraction is reviewed, even in music-only publications, meaning that the customary approach is to try to salvage what is worth saving, unless it's product from someone who's already famous.

So does industry consolidation allow for more thorough and engaged reviewing, since the concentration of releases means that reviewers won't have to perform the awareness-raising service? Should reviewers welcome the death of independent cultural outlets? Then they could rely on the core cultural competency that would allow them to take on bigger issues, bigger ideas then "Have you heard of this? It's cool." That, anyway, is the basis of the "Cultural Literacy" argument; conservatives who pedal it basically approve of authoritarianism and centralized control of taste, whether it is administered by the State, the academy, or studio execs and A&R men. But when such people control what culture is distributed, at least criticism often takes up an adversarial role more commonly and more explicitly -- "What is this shit?" and "Why don't we do better?" With a more wide-open distribution network, critics/reviewers get it in their heads to be tastemakers themselves, and they become the dictators. The only safe route for critics is to temper their practice with some rigorous self-criticism, as the hard-line Marxists would prescribe. What function is my criticism performing? What ae my aims, both spoken and unspoken? Who else am I serving by serving myself? What am I revealing and what am I hiding about the perspective I've adopted. If some of this self-analysis makes it into one's reviews, so much the better -- not unlike articulate how one is perceiving, like I was going on about yesterday.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Phenomenological music criticism

In this blog entry Tiger Roholt makes the excellent point that far too much pop music criticism simply classifies what you hear (it sounds like the Beatles) or isolates individual elements (the bassline is thoroughly funky) when it should articulate a way to hear, a manner by which the critic's perception and the reader's can be aligned. Now such phenomenological convergence is no simple thing, nor is the discovery of language reliable enough to convey such instruction that would permit it. But it is a useful starting point to think about ways to move criticism away from the dictatorial imposition of taste (the power implicit in which is probably what attracts most reviewers to write in the first place -- they sure aren't doing it for the money) and red-herring concerns about "objectivity" toward something more useful -- how reading about music can help you hear it differently and enrich the store of perceptual experiences a song can give you.

When mainstream pop critics are good, they tend to do this already -- Sasha Frere-Jones often has an excellent feel for this, explaining what he hears in the interlocking array of elements he has chosen to focus on and bring to the fore. He's much less interested in (a) proving how much he knows by flaunting obscure references -- a tried and true academician's strategy for establishing authority and deflecting challenges, (b) imposing his taste on you as a kind of gold standard or give you a consumer's guide to the music marketplace -- criticism as PR in which the critic measures his effectiveness, how right he is, by properly guessing what's popular or by influencing the way others shop, or (c) performing linguistic gymnastics with ultraimaginative similes, left-feld metaphors and tightly coiled springs of alliterative adjectives and nouns turned into verbs.

Subjective criticism should never mean that one gets to express unsubstantiated opinion and then pass it off with the excuse that taste can't be judged and to each his own. It should always be a matter of a critic working harder to embody the basis for what she's perceiving, to articulate her subject position, as we used to say in graduate seminars. Of course, I rarely have the energy to do this myself in my own reviewing, so I'm one to talk. I guess the way one would acheive it is by doing the equivelant of close reading, by focusing in on a specific moment in a song and mining it thoroughly. The problem is so few moments seem worthy of such attention, esepcially when the pop music you're hearing is not yet cathected to personal experiences, memories, nostalgic moods. This is the real problem with subjective criticism -- it's this body of associations that truly guides one's appreciation for pop music, and these should be kept personal, private; they have no bearing on a public conversation about the significance of some cultural object. If a critic taps into these associations, she ceases to be a critic and becomes a memoirist, obliterating the thing discussed and replacing it with her own self-importance

Consumer confidence

I'm mining an old notebook, so I hope I haven't written this before. I know that surveys of consumer confidence are important economic indicators, helping the sphere of production gauge its output and investors take a stab at guessing company profitability (in other words, they measure how confident industry can be in consumers, how pliable and cooperative they can expect them to be), but the wide reporting of the figure also has the effect of reinforcing that consumerist ideology that confidence is simply a matter of a eager shopping -- that the only way to express optimism is through shopping (just as it's the only way to express your identity or to vote your approval). One sees this reflected in American materialism, the pervasive sense that happiness requires owning a vast amount of things -- to be optimistic you have to keep on buying, and you need to keep all that stuff somewhere. Optimism and confidence become commonsense synonyms for the freedom to buy rather than the freedom to do, when in fact the freedom to buy becomes a compensation for the lack of a freedom to do -- we can't take a month off for vacation, but we can own a really big TV. We can't find work that fulfills us, but we can own a collection of really cool LPs and keep buying more.

Monday, July 11, 2005

iPodization of identity

A reader actually responded to my most recent PopMatters column (very gratifying!) and amplified some of the idea there, positing that we're invited to compose our identity via pop-culture product but to see ourselves as true originals (and derivative conformists) because of how we "remix" the cultural detritus we select to fixate on. This seems totally accurate, and it explains certain phenomena: the existence of Sprite Remix, for example, and the suddenly popular and mainstream idea that Djs are somehow artists in their own right. But the cultural object that symbolizes this zeitgeist best is, of course, the ubiquitous iPod, ownership of which has from the beginning far transcended its actual functionality. Why the iPod became a phenomenon when other technological gizmos haven't has to do with its application to the sort of identity now being promoted by consumer culture. The iPod is the culmination (and now, the furthering agent) of conceiving personal identity as a random shuffle of our favorite cultural touchstones or as a specially contrived playlist. This lets us think that having an iPod makes us spectacular unique at the same time it makes us perfectly cool and enviable at the same time we conform perfectly to the promulgated ideal of cutting-edge consumption. It makes the contradiction of "conforming by trying hard to be unique" cohere.

Placate and stupefy

When I'm looking for astute coverage of the hip-hop scene, I don't immediately think Wall Street Journal. But there was an interesting story last Wednesday about the Black Fatherhood Summit, at which most of the speakers were former rappers offering some pretty compelling critiques of the music industry and current state of rap. The article quotes Bill Stephney, a former member of Public Enemy, primarily, and he makes several provocative points. First, hip-hop glamorizes the absence of responsibility -- this has obvious ramifications for black men owning up to paternal duties, but not true of hip-hop alone. Most popular culture glamorizes the absence of consequences for actions, the suspension of cause and effect -- this is what makes it entertaining. Cause and effect analysis is replaced by formula, which simulates cause and effect while radically simplifying it and detaching it from any recognizable reality. Second, hip-hop redefines manhood as getting cash and getting sex by any means necessary. Again, hip-hop only reflects the larger materialistic biases of the culture and concentrates them for disenfranchised portions of the populace (teenagers, minorities). Our consumer culture cannot admit of non-material sources of joy and self-esteem -- that would undermine the chief selling points for most of the junk it drags to market. The more disenfranchised you are, the more susceptible you are to fantasy enactments of power and prestige, and the less nuance you want and realism you require. If you don't know how real power operates, you will be satisfied with absorbing cartoonish renderings of it, which has the additional effect of modelling only silly and ineffective ways of getting ahead. Complex entertainment occasionally models a useful way of comporting yourself in the world, mainstream entertainment rarely does. It's purpose is to placate and stupefy. Third, rap sexism is a reaction to a quasi-matriarchial culture that has arisen in worlds made up of fatherless families. Misogyny is a product, then, of male irresponsibility, and intensifies with displays of female competence. Misogyny is not a reaction to percieved weakness, as is often commonsensically thought, but a reaction to perceived strength. (This is the essential insight of the Backlash school of feminism).
Stephney points out that "unlike every other popular style of African American music, gangsta rap has lasted almost two decades without changing." This suggests that the cultural circumstances that give birth to the genre are stagnant. Stephney likens gangsta rap to heavy metal, which also varies very little over time: Both are "pure distillations of youthful male fantasies of power, aggression and lust." With the added taboo thrill of ethnic strangeness, gangsta rap dominates the white teenage market, which funds the genre and seems to ratify its ideology for those who make it.
All very interesting. Perhaps this week the Wall Street Journal will help me understand illbient chillout.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Single servings

Often I think the Harper's Annotation is gimmicky, but this months installment is a great example of how a careful analysis of one of our culture's typical commodities can reveal so much about the underlying value system that sustain it. Jon Mooallem analyzes the assumptions built into the Campbell's Soup-at-Hand, which comes in such improbable and nauseating flavors as "Pizza." His main point is that processed, single-serving foods further the disintegration of the eating rituals that once held together communities while at the same time squeezing out more profit for the same amount of food by selling it in smaller units. Mealtime is one of the fundamental things that unite people; it is emblematic of how human beings have throughout the history of the species cooperated to provide sustenance for each other. It organizes all our rules of etiquette and sets the stage for passing down the very code of civilization, the ingratiating politenesses that have traditionally oriented humans toward pleasing each other rather than conducting a never-ending battle of all against all. More to the point of the article, communing over soup, traditionally prepared in large quanities and respected for its curative powers, resonates with a sense of family, of sharing. But food like Soup-at-Hand is meant to be comsumed in a car alone -- an apparent disadvantage turned to a benefit by repackaging the stressed-out haste such charmless feeding implies as liberating convenience. Convenience always implies stress, not its absence. And one convenience always leads to the insatiable need for further conveniences, since convenience always implies that you should be spending no time on the activity you've tried to streamline. Soup-to-go is the next step toward that science-fiction ideal of food pills you pop with no thought to the sensual pleasures of eating. Eating is truly one of the fundamental pleasures of being alive, the most basic connection we have to furthering our existence, our most intimate relation to the powers that sustain the universe. That we could want to reduce that experience to Pizza Soup slammed into our piehole while we sit in a traffic jam suggests we've completely lost our humanity.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Don't worry Kyoko

In this week's New Yorker there's a story about the Navy's training soldiers to resist "noise stress" torture by preparing them with a continuous loop of a Yoko Ono record. According to the article, this is typically reported to be the "most gruelling" part of the training. Yoko is already an easy target for jokes, and yes, her listening to her music is kind of like being tortured, as it is emulates unsettling gutteral/semiotic/abject sounds (like babies crying relentlessly, or people burning alive -- some of her songs seemed to designed to evoke ground zero at Hiroshima). But Yoko wasn't out to entertain people; she was out to subject them to visceral, disturbing sensual experience, and this proves yet again how successful she was, and how in many ways she remains underrated as an artist. Her association with Lennon assures that her work will always be remembered but rarely taken seriously.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The profit motive, market ideology

In The New Industrial State Galbraith devotes a chapter to arguing that the profit motive, the shibboleth of neo-classical economics and the linchpin of conservative ideology, is undermined by the fact that the globalized corporate economy is essentially made up of monopolies who plan rather than react to markets and are theoretically liberated from seeking profit. Besides, Galbraith argues, management works to maximize the profit of shareholders, not itself. This seems sort of right -- managers work to preserve their job, and retention is based on performance, and performance is dictated by maximizing efficiency and profit. But profit need not be the chief criterion of job performance. One can imagine easily an organization, already large enough to assure its own profitability and survival by virtue of size and inertia, that rewards family members or those espousing ideologically correct principles or unflagging loyalty to flawed causes -- maybe this is what Bush meant when he promised to be the CEO president.

Galbraith is basically deconstructing neo-classical eonomics by going after its "transcendent signifier," its one postulate that enables the fabrication of the rest of the system, that one Archimedean point from which the world of economics can be moved. Markets only explain behavior if it remains universall true that all agents within are seeking to maximize utility. Any behavior that doesn't conform to that explanation is dubbed an externality and made irrelevent to economics. But Galbraith's main goal is to show that the economy is not driven by the market -- the consumer and the government are not autonomous in their demands but rather the demand they manifest is always already shaped by the industry that supplies it. Industry doesn't give the people what they want -- this is far too risky when so much capital needs to be invested far in advance to bring anything to market in a meaningful way an a national/global scale. If industry was reactive, it would always be bringing things to market too late. Instead, industry shapes demand, manages it to assure continued steady growth.

The compelling question that follows from this concerns the efforts necessary to prop up the autonomous consumer ideology. It seems to me that this animates even the ads that don't seem to be advertising a product, this is a message that gets through even if you reject the thing being advertised -- the message being that you the consumer have the ultimate choice and industry exists to serve you. Also worth investigation is the efforts made to maintain the ideology of the profit motive. These too are everywhere, in every inference that you love a bargain or you love to save or you get shit-in-your-pants excited over a sale, or that having more makes you happy, or that human nature is to be greedy or to want more. These tropes are part and parcel of all commercially made art -- once art needs to survive in a marketplace, it begins to espouse market ideology.

Why is hype ubiquitous?

Everybody hates hype, yet hype constitutes a greater and greater portion of our public discourse. Why? What is going on? Hype may naturallly spiral, since in a climate of hype, new hype needs to be that more outlandish and hyperbolic. But what instigates people to create hype in the first place? At what point in our technological advancement as a society did word-of-mouth enthusiasm degenerate into the rote manufacture of hype for new products?

Hype serves a fundamental purpose in the culture industries of generating demand for new products and pemitting growth where none is necessary. No one needs a new rock band or a new film star, but the industry must expand the pantheon to establish new profitable product lines. Hence PR firms are hired to assiduously and relentless try to generate buzz for their clients. They saturate anyone with any kind of media reach with hype, trying desperately to create the illusion of significance for whatever they are hyping. This hype, obviously paid for and obviously indiscriminate and patently desperate, is easy for most to dismiss. But it establishes the grammar for more legitimized forms of hype that are harder to dismiss, the "authentic" enthusiasm of "disinterested" tastemakers -- in indie music these consist of online journals, MPS blogs, and the like, written and produced by the addessees of much of the PR hype. The Pr hype that these folks reject becomes the standard for how they try to express their own actual enthusiasm for some new cultural product. They react against it, but as any good dialectician will tell you, their reaction absorbs into it the values of what it is reacting against. The counterhype becomes simply a more evolved kind of hype, formulated along a priori principles provided by the very hype it seeks to obliterate.

A possibly less abstruse explanation for ubiquitous hype can be found in the pressure to remain relevant. Let's say you're Pitchfork, and you've gained all sorts of notoriety for propelling the Arcade Fire to profitability. The taste of the power to move markets may not reveal itself explicitly economic and capitalistic, it may reveal itself as a kind of warm mellow feeling of goodness, of having brought better culture to a wider audience for the sake of the culture, not the money. But in order for Pitchfork to sustain its relevance, in order for it to remain in that benevolent glow of having moved culture forward, in needs to repeat its success, nominate a new Arcade Fire. In other words, it needs to function like a record company and discover and hype the next big thing to keep people reading, to maintain its sense of power and significance. Here the "independent media" the trusted source for music information, and the evil profit-hungry record company, have their best interests converge. And what once made Pitchfork readable, the fact that it seemed like disitnerested enthusiasts espousing unvetted opinions, becomes yet another distant arm of the culture industry hype machine, the technostructure ( to borrow Galbraith's term for the web of group management-think that propels massive and complex corporations toward their profits) that decides for in advance what culture will be mass-produced and promulgated. Pitchfork's success allows them to become absorbed into the machine of hype gneration; it doesn't protect them from it. Success in our culture means collaboration with the technostructure; it means high-profile profitability. An independent voice cannot be preserved once success is attained, since success in our cutlure, by its very nature, means integration into this technostructure that guides the direction of the economy and the zeitgeist.

All word-of-mouth enthusaism now aspires to become part of the technostructure, whether it knows it or not. The Internet is a massive tool for assimilating the opinions of so many different voices, and then rendering it into a group-think decision worthy of moving capital and dictating investment decisions. On the level of culture this means that when you blog your opinions, you are volunteering them for this assimilation into the hype machine. When you post to Amazon, you are asking to have your opinion be a sales tool. Technology has it made it such that an individual need not rest content influencing a few friends, but should seek a larger sphere of influence, to touch and affect total strangers. And the pervasive sense of the availability of this access, the constant harping on the blogosphere and, now, podcasting (see today's Wall Street Journal), makes it such that everyone feels obliged to seek this power -- and the essence of this power, the language it speaks, is hype.

What technology has done is subvert the intentions of word-of-mouth, making it a competition -- whose MP3 blog gets the most hits? It has integrated this interpersonal communication into a larger system, destroying its personal nature, and making such personal contacts suspect (why are they telling me this? whose hype are they repeating?). Pop-culture critics by their nature are generally content to be taste-makers and market researchers for the industry that fascinates them, whose levers they seek to pull. Reviewers have no reason to be negative or critical, because no one needs to waste their time reading or hearing about something that sucks. So the pressure to be heard amounts to a pressure to effuse about everything, to sweep everyone up in a cotton-candy fluff of phony positivity.

For those who don't want to participate in the hype of the now, there is the escape into nostalgia, the rehashing of old pop culture and its significance to hypes of years past. But the more enthusiastic one becomes about these things of the past that need rediscovery, the more one begins to spout hype all over again.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Docility through debt

In The New Industrial State John Kenneth Galbraith has a concise explanation for the rise of corporate power and the concurrent rise of consumerist values in America that has to do with savings. His theory is that individual savings can make no meaningful contribution to capital formation. Rather, "the individual serves the industrial system not by supplying it with savings and the resulting capital; he serves it by consuming its products. On no other matter religious, political or moral, is he so elaborately and skillfully and expensively instructed." Hence, our educational system gears us toward using products, and measuring ourselves in accordance to their promises of the joys of possession. (This is a full-scale reversal of the values presumably inculcated as industrialism was developing, the Protestant work ethic Weber argued was a source of capitalism's expansion. What you do recedes from importance, what you own becomes the main criterion. Frugality appears as a anti-social illness, etc.) And at the same time, corporations maintain control over the meaningful sums of savings, guaranteeing they can control how it is invested (this is where the "subversive proxies" idea runs aground).

What's interesting about this idea is that it presumes that corporations actively discourage individuals from savings, in stark contrast to hollow conservative rhetoric about increasing the domestic personal savings rate and building an "ownership society." By ownership society, they don't really intend on creating a nation of small-time capitalists actively managing their tiny portfolios and voting their proxies with careful deliberation. They mean instead that we'll all own digital TVs and new cars and overmortgaged plots of land that we'll be forced to give up when we can't make the payments and we no longer have recourse to bankruptcy, thanks to the new bankruptcy bill. The animating principle is to assure docility through easy credit and easy access to consumer goods, which funnels capital in the form of profits to major corporations while guaranteeing that individuals have no meaningful stock of capital of their own. Individuals can not sway the way capital is employed in their society, particularly if the government controls less of it via taxation. Corporations can deploy capital with no restraints to maximize profits with no consideration for public welfare and continue their ongoing struggle against labor, broken down ever more so into Marx's "reserve army of the unemployed."

The consumer goods raise the "standard of living" by giving people all the material things they want and by allowing them to live under the constant stress of digging themselves out of the hole they are encouraged by ads, peer pressure, etc. to sink themselves in. Always remember, the patriotic response to 9/11 was to continue shopping. This is the reason.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Paul McCartney: Lo-fi pioneer

I have a tendency to think of lo-fi recording as a kind of guerilla warfare against the music business, as amateur songwriters subverting the notion you meed an industry behind you to make entertainment, as friends getting together and discarding the idea that you should consume rather than make entertainment. Or the heroes of lo-fi are recording music so raw and personal and intimate, they only feel comfortable doing it alone in their bedroom -- the Lou Barlows and Daniel Johnstons of the world, getting their therapeutic self-analyses out on tape, not because they want to be rock stars necessarily, but because they want to capture the maximum amount of insight occluded by the least amount of marketing.

But these received ideas about lo-fi are all troubled by the fact that this approach began not with some pioneering nobody, some deeply personal artist who had to use primitive methods to defy music industry filters. The first lo-fi rock musician was probably the most famous pop star ever, and he used the technique not out of subversion or defiance or necessity but out of what seems to be sheer laziness. Inside the gatefold of Paul McCartney's first solo album, released in 1970, among a bunch of pictures of McCartney being the domestic superdad, there is a picture of him picking his nose. It's a telling photo -- on the surface it's supposed to show us that McCartney can goof on himself despite being the megastar, but it suggested something more incisive as well: "I'm so beloved, I can release a record of me basically picking my nose, and it will go gold." McCartney is arguably the first lo-fi album ever released, and if it's a testament to anything, it's to the rampant narcissism that led him to believe the world would be fascinated by the half-finished sketches, song doodles, nonsense exercises, and practice jams he self-indulgently released to break up the Beatles. (The scary thing is he was right; I know I've listened to McCartney and its equally half-baked follow-up Ram far more than all the other albums that could be classifed as lo-fi put together.) Lo-fi in McCartney's hands was a matter of stringing together some melodies, playing all the instruments himself, and trying to demonstrate how effortless and uncalculated it was for him. McCartney seems deliberately to attempt to be spontaneous with the album, and that paradox sums up its contradictory stew of arrogance and self-deprecation. The songs become candid snapshots of Paul the homebody just naturally effusing magical melodies in the midst of keeping his horses or doing home repairs or what have you (also pictured in the gatefold) that he just happened to jot down with the studio equiment he had lying around. In this sense he really did set a path for later lo-fi artists, conjuring a sense that music was not separate from the conduct of everyday life. Only with McCartney, this synthesis was totally bogus -- McCartney's quotidian life is not anything like anyone else's, it's in fact a hermetic bubble he could afford only by being insanely wealthy. His record exudes smug domesticity and peace with the status quo, not any kind of critical alienation. The equipment itself he used to record these fragments was far beyond the reach of average people until only recently. We might initially think McCartney has made a humble and accessible record that reveals him to be an ordinary guy, but in fact the album's very existence is extraordinary, its manufacture and distribution even moreso -- those factors just reinforce how far above us all he is: when he blows into a microphone and records himself tuning his drums, there's an industry that was confident that thousands would run out to buy it. And it must be impossible to know what effect that has on your ego unless you're in that position yourself.

But that idea, that fantasy, is what ultimately animates all lo-fi records -- not the wish to challenge the entertainment industry or escape the machine or undermine the syustem or perform self-therapy. The essence of lo-fi is possessing an ego that allows you to believe that you transcend craft, you transcend the process of hard work and polish that all other artists are subject to, that your work is so vital it needs not pander to any of the patrons who make the art of lesser mortals possible. When I fart, the lo-fi artist thnks to himself, the world has to hear this. In the lo-fi fantasy, the primitive recording conditions become evidence on tape of how much the artist is willing to overcome to get his message out, on the one hand -- yet it also allows the diametrically opposite fantasy in which the artist can imagine that he's so important that sound quality and fidelity doesn't matter -- in other words, the message, the form is insignificant, what's important is that I made this. When assesssing the lo-fi recordings that make it to a wider audience, critics tend to stress the former and ennact that affirmative fantasy, and they overlook the latter. This may be because critics want artists ideally to be egoless; this reserves the right to be egotistical all to themselves.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Permanent yard sale

It's easy to romanticize the junk-store owner, the guy who lives in a big old house in some remote picturesque town with no real expenses, puttering away his time rescuing the old things the Target-shopping heathens in the suburbs have no use for (until they've had their patina polished and have become collectible antiques, when their acquisition from junk stores has become a recreational activity for suburnanites on vacation from their tract home but too intimidated or child-burdened to visit a city). But there are a lot of reasons to be suspicious of the junk store, and to loathe the propriators of these permanent yard sales. The first is the needless fetishizing of anything that's old. An old book isn't necessarily valuable, and if it has value, it is not simply because it is old. Lots of old things -- Reader's Digest Condensed books, Christmas records by the 101 Strings, old strings of holiday lights, broken furniture, rusty tools -- have no value. But at the junk stores I went into this weekend in the Poconos, in Pennsylvania, items like these fetched exorbitant prices. Old Barbra Steisand records -- sure you could pay 50 cents for it at any Salvation Army anywhere, but why not give a junk man the $10 he's asking? Broken toy rocking chair with peeling paint? It looks decrepit, so it's old, so it must be worth the $125 the junk man has it marked for, right?

What junk store owners do is hoard all sorts of old and potentially useful things other people have discarded and hold them hostage until they are ransomed off for the maximum possible price, always a ludicrous one, paid by one of the aformentioned suburbanites lazily looking for a charming rustic vacation memento (and not deterred by vulturing someone else's history, some otehr family's rightful memento) or by someone who is a desperate collector, and has lost all sense of self-control when confronted with board games from the 1950s or porcelain doll's heads. The junk man will wait for one of these suckers, and they don't care a whit at all the wasted use value they've buried in their garage-like vault. The junk store is where useful things have gone to die, basically; so going there if you aren't depserate or spendthrift is a nightmare. All these things that something could be made of if the junk man hadn't gotten to them first and turned them into pure exchange value. The junk man sucks all the real value, all the history and contigency out an old thing, all the things that made it unique and speical to someone's family history, and turns it into just another commodity available in the present moment on demand for a price. The story of the object, the narrative of its passing through the world and all that crystallized history, is exterminated, deleted by the junk man who only want to exploit the appearance of that history to get a few bucks out of someone. In one egregious junk shop in Delaware Water Gap there were old Valentine's cards, filled out, mementos from one lover to another, of special significance to offspring somewhere, invaluable evidence of how someone was born perhaps, or some interesting roads not taken, apturing a moment of youth for elders now either dead or so old it is impossible to imagine them youthful -- the card could reanimate that specific history for those specific people involved, had it passed down through channels of inheritance appropriate for sentimental objects, really the only objects not worhty of destruction. But the parasitical junk man has them now, and they're just kitsch. Once something like that is sold simply for the sake of it, that sale obviates all the history it once signified -- there's no precious personal memory tied up in the thing once it is for sale (just like the pop songs I discussed a few days ago); now the card can only signify "Look what neat old thing I got for $5. Look what I found while I was idling away on my vacation into antiquity." Junk men sell us all out that way, letting us do a one-time coversion of our history and our memory into cash. But there's no converting it back.

Junk men do not preserve the past with their picuresque lifestyle, they suck it dry, exploit it and efface it. They imprison objects from the past until all the memorioes they contained have been sweated into dollars -- money has no past, no future, it is simply immediately now. To the junk man all history needs to be converted to present-day money; he won't stop until all the material culture of our heritage is only so much indiscriminate stuff for sale; he won't stop until it's all flattened into a negotiation and a price. Depresing. Better to destroy the old things yo can't keep anymore forever than to let a junk man pervert them.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Product seeders

This article about twentysomethings who have sold out their generation and with it the idea of a culture independent from marketing (which Victor Ozols thoughtfully forwarded to me) is truly disturbing. Though its old news that ads and so-called indie culture have thoroughly intertwined in recent years, and bands once thought to be the preserve of rock cognoscenti (new bands and old ones, like the Sonics, the Stooges, the 60s-era Kinks) are now routinely providing the music for car commercials and the like. But it's still repugnant and vulgar to see the sell-outs gloat about it, and about how much leverage they have and how much money they are all making and how that somehow equates to cultural relevance or social change. These idiots don't seem to understand that once you allow your culture to be used commercially, it no longer belongs to you or can represent anything other than the the fact that all things are for sale. The higher visibility for the things you cherish only ruins their significance, even if it earns their makers a few bucks. And it corrupts them as well, changing their sense of what their artistic purpose is by professionalizing them, injecting them into the business world, where decisions are made by a vastly different set of criteria, where the aesthetically unreasonable is rationalized by a variety of spreadsheets and market analyses.

But what this article made clear to me is how we have all failed, failed to make a stink when bands sell out, failed to repudiate those bands who sell out.
It helps that bands and audiences within a formerly contemptuous subculture now sing along. Fifteen or 20 years ago, Brickman's job couldn't have existed. A once-ubiquitous bumper sticker from a noted underground record label bluntly declared: "Corporate Rock Still Sucks." Back then, bands that cozied up to advertisers "were often ridiculed and hung out to dry," says Gerard Cosloy, co-president of New York-based Matador Records. "It's a different world now."

Doesn't that make you sick? We've caved to the logic that we should be happy for them and the money they've made -- as if money really is the arbiter of taste, the only legitimate reward for all types of effort. Well guess what: happy bands means crappy music. Bands make better music when they think no one is paying attention. And for the old bands who are now cashing in, their legacy is undermined and their music becomes threatened with disappearing altogether -- once it has been ingested by the commercial machine and digested by the consumer public, it retains no use value for anyone. First it hits a car ad, then it vanishes totally forgotten, another piece of marketing detritus. Who wants to save records full of advertising jingles? The actual jingles from bygone eras actually become more compelling than the actual music of their time that's currently being used by Madison Avenue -- the old jingles have sociological import, they are a nostalgic view into something past and concrete; the co-opted pop though offers only a view into the minds of the sycophants and quislings like the woman interviewed in this article and how they are trying to tap into the inner vacuous hipster in all of us, that inner adolescent still cowering in fear of having nowhere to sit at the cool table in the cafeteria.

Traffic jams

In anticipation of the traffic woes many will experience later on this afternoon, The Wall Street Journal has a science sidebar about traffic theory, a subject that fascinates me -- I'm always interested in situations where aggregated individual decisions add up to something no one in the group had hoped for or expected. Studies of traffic shed light on society itself, the ways in which all of our lives are contigent on those around us, giving the lie to the naive common sense belief in absolute autonomy. The myth of autonomy serves capitalist ideology by seeming to minimize the real detrimental effects of zero-sum competition (since no one else's success or failure should appear to impact what you do) while obviating opportunities to cooperate (cooperation removes the consumer redundancies where late capitalism finds its greatest profits -- these redundancies, the wastefulness and disposability in modern life, are reinterpreted popularly as improvements in the standard of living).

Traffic jams are of course one of the main ways Americans are brought right up against the absurdity of the autonomy myth -- it's one of the reasons why they are so intolerable. The freedom alleged afforded by the automobile and the open road -- the idea that you go where you want on your own schedule -- is horribly undermined by the realities of traffic. The ideal of unfettered autonomy is an aspiration that becomes harder to achieve the more people who long for it. Autonomy, in this regard, becomes a commodity, one of the positional goods (see The Social Limits to Growth) whose esesence is its rarity, its inability to produced upon demand.

Naturally the Journal doesn't tease out the sociological ramifications of traffic jams, it simply presents the recent findings of traffic researchers, which reveal that while aggressive driving may help traffic flow on country roads, it slows things down on highways, creating many unnecessary gaps between cars and initiating weaving patterns which slow everyone down. Also interesting is the explanation of ""phantom jams" -- think Staten Island Expressway here -- the bottlenecks that occur far upstream from the orginal cause of the bottleneck. By the time you reach the site of the original anomaly, it has cleared, so that it seems as though you were backed up for no reason.

The article explains how the self-interested behavior of drivers -- there tendency to seek to make decisions about which lane is best or to speed up when there is the hint of an opening -- leads inevitably to traffic jams, but it cannot admit that there's nothing you can do individually to ameliorate it. It ends on a note of "what you can do to help" suggesting that one try to brake less and to look further than one car ahead of you on the highway. Good advice, but ultimately no more likely to make a difference than recycling disposable packaging you didn't need in the first place.