While it seems like they’ve been battling forever, the line in the sand between DVD and Blu-ray reached a No Man’s Land kind of clash in 2009. From content exclusives on the newest digital medium to packaging that wisely provided both, the mainstream met the enemy, and then rolled over and showed its soft commercialization underbelly. Indeed, DVD hasn’t truly given up, but you can sense its exit strategy in the air. As more and more major studios embrace the notion that cheapness equals choice (player prices are now down into the double digits - DOUBLE DIGITS) and regulations railroad the notion of home HD into every household, it’s inevitable that instead of being “almost” blu, we are about as cobalt as we can get, entertainment wise.
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Recently I finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ stupendous 2002 novel, Middlesex. The book had been flying on my literary radar at a low level for several years, but until a copy crossed my path in early fall while I looked at someone else’s bookshelves and picked it up to start reading, I hadn’t pursued it. I couldn’t finish the tome in a weekend and picked up another copy serendipitously at the public library a few weeks later. That also came due and had to be returned, so I finally managed to complete my reading using a third copy loaned from the nearest academic collection.
My journey in tracking down copies of the book is nothing compared to the astounding trip the narrator takes. From complicated Calliope to simply Cal, our erudite guide follows the long and winding path of a mutated gene, passed down through genetically too-close couplings and over several generations, to finally manifest in the present as a man who was raised as a girl.
I was reminded frequently of Salman Rushdie’s complex fictions, and that remarkable facility for forcing the reader to question the balance of fate and chance as circumstances force actions that seem initially unlikely, then later inevitable. The threads of fate that run through Eugenides’ work deal with the violence of religious and political upheaval, only to arrive at the traumatic questioning that a young hermaphrodite feels when she is attracted only to her female classmates, and her body fails to physically mature as she expects it will.
The author’s sensitive treatment of taboo family relations, combined with the complicated historical events that unfold around the turn of the 20th century and as America hits its industrial stride, makes for incredible storytelling. The transformational nature of America is echoed in Cal’s burgeoning understanding of the reality of his gender, and the misunderstandings that have conspired to conceal it for so long. A great twist on the often clichéd coming of age story, and worth the trouble to find a copy.
Before I begin, is anyone going to argue that “Basket Case”—Green Day’s second Billboard Modern Rock Tracks number one hit, the result of a vibrantly cartoonish music video and the band’s infamous mud-slinging set at Woodstock ‘94—isn’t one of the best songs on Dookie? Because if you are, you are objectively wrong and you suck and I hate you. Here’s why.
First, let’s look at how the song is laid out. “Basket Case” has a pretty straightforward song structure: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, and finally outro. Simple, huh? Except that’s not how the listener perceives the song.
You see, in order to keep “Basket Case” from sounding like thousands of other songs with a similar framework, what Green Day does is cast the first verse and chorus as a long intro section, a mere prelude for the mayhem to follow. For much of the first verse/chorus pairing, only singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong is playing on the track, instantly grabbing the listener’s attention with an unforgettable introductory monologue:
Do you have the time
To listen to me whine
About nothing and everything all at once?
I am one of those
Neurotic to the bone no doubt about it
In the NYT, David Brooks has a column about what he calls the “protocol economy”:
In the 19th and 20th centuries we made stuff: corn and steel and trucks. Now, we make protocols: sets of instructions. A software program is a protocol for organizing information. A new drug is a protocol for organizing chemicals. Wal-Mart produces protocols for moving and marketing consumer goods. Even when you are buying a car, you are mostly paying for the knowledge embedded in its design, not the metal and glass.
That sounds a lot like a conservative take on what Italian Marxists like Virno and Negri call the “post-Fordist economy,” which relies not on raw manufacturing capability but on “immaterial labor” produced collaboratively in the “social factory.” Virno, in A Grammar of the Multitude calls this “the general intellect,” drawing on some tentative formulations Marx made in the Grundrisse.
In so-called “second-generation independent labor,” but also in the operational procedures of a radically reformed factory such as the Fiat factory in Melfi, it is not difficult to recognize that the connection between knowledge and production is not at all exhausted within the system of machines; on the contrary, it articulates itself in the linguistic cooperation of men and women, in their actually acting in concert. In the Post-Fordist environment, a decisive role is played by the infinite variety of concepts and logical schemes which cannot ever be set within fixed capital, being inseparable from the reiteration of a plurality of living subjects. The general intellect includes, thus, formal and informal knowledge, imagination, ethical propensities, mindsets, and “linguistic games.” In contemporary labor processes, there are thoughts and discourses which function as productive “machines,” without having to adopt the form of a mechanical body or of an electronic valve. The general intellect becomes an attribute of living labor when the activity of the latter consists increasingly of linguistic services.
Labor, that is to say, now consists mainly of interpersonal communication and consumption skills. As more-traditional economists would put it, we build various forms of communication skills to reduce transaction costs, increasing the trust between parties to various inter-organizational exchanges. When we have drinks with co-workers, we have an easier time working with them efficiently on the job. To translate into the terms Brooks uses, “a nation has to have a good economic culture ... what really matters [are] attitudes toward uncertainty, the willingness to exert leadership, the willingness to follow orders.” In other words, labor practices in the capitalism we know are often about building the hierarchy, reinforcing the chain of command while disguising the coercion involved. The value of an enterprise more and more lies precisely in that discipline, which promises that the organization can spring into action and work quickly to accommodate demands.
Not only is hierarchical communication important; Brooks claims that “a strong economy needs daring consumers.” By working at our consumption, making sure we do it more efficiently, we become more valuable to our employers. When we use computers at home, for instance, we become more efficient users of them at work. And by being “daring” about what we consume, we help sustain the cycle of novelty—making old but still functional goods seem uncool and thus obsolete. (This seems at odds with the New Austerity position Brooks occasionally pushes, but that’s another topic.)
Both of these tenets of “good economic culture” point toward the end of the hard-and-fast division between work and nonwork time, since we are constantly working on building trust and “innovating” in our relationships with people and the products we use. The blurring of the lines between work and leisure then changes what it means to be employed. More and more of us are producing value in our leisure time (filling out customer-satisfaction surveys, writing product reviews online, disseminating information about what trends are hot, file-sharing, mapping out our social networks, etc.)—and finding ourselves otherwise unemployed, without a traditional wage-paying job. The media industry is particularly implicated in this change—reporters are being laid off while the work of unpaid “citizen journalists” is being harvested. (See here.)
Among the economists Brooks cites is Arnold Kling, who for some time has been developing the argument (derived from Austrian economists: Schumpeter, Ludwig von Mises, etc.) at the blog EconLog that the current recession can be explained in terms of “recalculation” (and not in traditional macroeconomic terms as a “lack of aggregate demand” or “liquidity preferences”). Unemployment is thus structural rather than cyclical. The gist is that people can systematically plan their investments poorly, including how they invest their “human capital,” as Kling explains coldly:
people take a lot of idiosyncratic risk, particularly in terms of their human capital, which is for most people their biggest asset. I think that in the last 18 months, an unusually high number of people have had their plans go awry. They wish they had made different choices in terms of their education and occupations. Digging out from these mistakes is going to take a long time. A lot of recalculation needs to get done, and the problem is really daunting.
The analysis hinges on the problems incipient in the time lag between production and consumption (the period in which capital is circulating and surplus value is realized, from Marx’s point of view—when the exploited are definitively separated from the exploiters). Producers plan today for uncertain demand tomorrow, without guarantee that what’s produced is socially necessary. The future’s uncertain and the end is always near, as noted economist Jim Morrison put it. When the planning has gone poorly, the economy will begin to painfully reallocate resources (including labor) by means of the market sending some blunt signals—i.e. lots of layoffs.
This view has a kind of pitiless frankness going for it; it plays as a promise not to reinflate the same bubbles or protect moribund industries or embedded rent-seekers. It seeks to rid us of unsustainable economic practices—in our case, perpetual consumer borrowing to sustain a consumerist-driven economy. At the same time, though, it makes a deity of market signals: the divine plan indicated by these signals must be obeyed. But of course the whole recalculation problem arises because we can’t reliably discern what we should do from the signals the market conveys. The signals themselves encode various distortions and asymmetries and scams that lead us to misallocate our financial and human capital. There seems to be a need for government industrial policy of some sort to corral those signals, simplify them, supply them with parameters that allow the message they send be more easily interpreted.
In the U.S., the call for industrial policy often ends up being a plea for a return to the glory days of manufacturing—when America actually made stuff instead of easily copied “protocols;” when we made steel, not software and entertainment goods that can be pirated; when labor was material and delineated, not immaterial and uncompensated in a nebulous service economy. Ryan Avent, at The Economist‘s Free Exchange blog dismisses this (and articles like this TNR piece) as a liberal-left shibboleth:
What about the question of whether manufacturing ought to make up a set share of output? Think about this. Technological innovation has significantly reduced the cost of many technologies; in real terms (and especially in quality-adjusted real terms), televisions, computers, phones, appliances, and so on are far cheaper than they used to be. One consequence of these reductions in cost is that such products contribute less to measured output.
For many service activities, by contrast, the principal cost factors aren’t easily reduced. Many health care services, for instance, are skilled-labour intensive. Until technology can reduce the labour inputs required for such services (or until their is a significant increase in the supply of the necessary skilled labour) it will be hard to cut costs, and meanwhile, demand is steady or increases. As a result, prices go up, as does the value of the contribution to output.
Avent is basically restating the recalculation thesis with a slightly different emphasis: workers need to retrain for the service economy, not ask the government to protect their outmoded, deskilled manufacturing jobs now being exported to countries where labor (and human life) is currently cheap. The U.S. apparently needs to focus even more on education (the customary panacea for economic ills), but this threatens to produce an education arms race instead of increase in the skill set of the workforce. People need higher and higher education degrees to do the same simple office work. (This seems to threaten an education bubble, where people stay in school as long as possible and then graduate to become educators themselves.) (Avent has more worth reading on this subject at his personal blog, looking at the American Prospect’s special issue on urbanism.)
The fetishization of education also has the effect of encouraging the plethora of highly educated people to manufacture complexity for its own sake, in order to justify bigger salaries for then managing that complexity. This seems to be what happened in the finance industry, which dropped all pretense of serving an intermediary function (matching investments with spare capital) and nakedly served itself, sullying the market signals that are supposed to aid economic recalculation and ease/prevent structural unemployment in the first place. (See here for a good explanation of why the financial sector’s norms are out of whack—basically bankers care about earnings only, their “mission” precludes an ethic based on the rewards of their work itself.)
It seems like economic/industrial policy should be geared toward fixing the “economic culture” in such a way to prevent the elaboration of “protocols” of self-serving complexity. We need to encourage education while discouraging the abuse and perversion of the advantages and innovations it can supply. Hence the focus on income inequality, arguably the evidence of such perversions—at least if one holds to the ideal that knowledge is its own reward rather than a mere tool to get money, which is then presumed to be able to buy something better than wisdom.
Increasingly, TV programmers are behaving like movie schedulers, using the full calendar strategically to open new seasons of their best shows. It is becoming common for networks to hold back some of their successful properties until the New Year, protecting them from the Wild West of the Fall. About a decade after the broadcast and cable networks realized that there was no good reason to premiere everything in September, there are now no set guidelines on when to put a show on the air.
Waiting until January and beyond has some advantages. Shows with a fan base can build anticipation by withholding new episodes. Serialized dramas and reality shows that do not rerun well can maintain momentum by giving viewers an entire season in four months instead of nine. Plus, by the time the New Year rolls around, it is clear which new shows are hits and which are duds – nothing is worse that exposing an old (and maybe even successful) show to a newbie in September and having it get run down by an unexpected monster hit.
For viewers, the staggered seasons are a bit of a relief. There is, after all, only so much TV you can watch in a week. Here are five shows coming back over the next few months that are worth putting on your DVR:
Returns January 10
I’m not sure how it happened, but a show about polygamy has turned into the best show about family on TV. Credit the writers and producers for avoiding what could have been a soap opera about three wives fighting over one man. Instead, we are treated to a nuanced exploration of what it means to be part of family that also happens to be a felony.
Premieres January 12
Love it or hate it, you probably watch it. Expect more bad auditions, triumphant performances and odd comments from the judges this year. But the real change is the departure of Paula Abdul, who has grown increasingly incoherent over time. She will not be missed. After the audition rounds with guest judges (Hello Neil Patrick Harris!), Ellen Degeneres will join the panel to provide an interesting counterbalance to Simon Cowell.
Premieres January 17
Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is back, which is a bit surprising given that he spent most of last season dying from exposure to a bioweapon. The season ended with some nonsense about an experimental bone marrow treatment. So one reason to watch is to see how they explain that one away. But really the reason to tune in is that 24 continues to be the best high-wire act on TV. It’s not always pretty or smooth, but it is usually fun. Also, the amazing Cherry Jones is back as President Allison Taylor.
Premieres February 2
This is going to be the single most unfriendly season for new viewers of any show in the history of television. There is just no way to join Lost in progress. If you’re one of those who hasn’t been fortunate enough to ride this wave from the beginning, it is definitely worth starting with season one on DVD and watching the whole run. For those of us who crashed on the island with the survivors and haven’t missed an episode since, buckle up for a fun ride.
United States of Tara
Premieres March 22
Unlike Lost, it is relatively easy to catch up on United States of Tara before season two begins in March. The premise is simple – a family struggles with a mom who has multiple personalities. But the movie-of-the-week description does not do justice to this funny and heart-wrenching show. Toni Collette shines as Tara and all her other selves. John Corbett and Rosemarie DeWitt are also stellar as Tara’s long-suffering husband and sister. Going into the show, I was not sure it would be able to sustain for a full season, but after 12 episodes it is just starting to dig deeper into the psychology and family dynamics.
So there you have it. Something to look forward to. In the meantime, pass the remote – I think ABC is rerunning Prep and Landing again.