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Monday, May 19, 2008

Tanta at Calculated Risk does us the service of dismantling the bizarre recent NYT editorial fretting over the “psychological scarring” brought on by foreclosure by economist Robert Shiller, once a stern critic of “irrational exuberance” who seems to have become an apologist for the homeownership cult and the property buyers who went in over their heads.. Foreclosure is no doubt painful, but I vigorously disagree with the idea that people skeptical of bailouts are “cynics”. And this preposterous piece of ownership society propaganda made my eyeballs melt: “Homeownership is fundamental part of a sense of belonging to a country.” Really? “People instinctively understand that homeownership conveys good feelings about belonging in our society, and that such feelings matter enormously, not only to our economic success but also to the pleasure we can take in it.” Owning a home is “instinctual”? Aarrrgghhh. Not only am I not a real citizen, but I have faulty human instincts. Perhaps I should be interred somewhere to protect the ownership society at large. Then, Shiller wries,


The psychologist William James wrote in 1890 that “a man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank account.”
Homeownership is thus an extension of self; if one owns a part of a country, one tends to feel at one with that country. Policy makers around the world have long known that, and hence have supported the growth of homeownership.


Apparently Shiller thinks we should adjust laws to help men’s Selves feel sure of all their possessions, not just their houses but their women as well. If he owns her, he will feel at one with her, and isn’t that a recipe for a good marriage?


As Tanta says:


I’m actually, you know, in favor of some sympathy for homeowners, but one thing that does get in the way of that for a lot of us is, well, the rather disgusting shallowness that a lot of them displayed on the way up. There is this whole part of our culture that has sprung into being since 1890 that takes a rather severe view of conspicuous consumption, unbridled materialism, and totally self-defeating use of debt to buy McMansions, if not yachts. We were treated to a fair amount of that kind of thing in the last few years. In fact, we had Dr. Shiller explaining to us last year that a lot of folks just wanted to get rich, quick, in real estate.
It is undeniably true, I assert, that not everyone was a speculatin’ spend-thrift maxing out the HELOCs to buy more toys, and that part of our problem today with public opinion is that we extend our (quite proper) disgust for these latter-day Yuppies to the entire class “homeowner.” But it is surely an odd way to engage our sympathies for the non-speculator class to speak of it in Jamesian terms as the man whose self is defined by his Stuff, and whose psychological pain is felt most acutely when he recognizes that he is now just like the riff-raff.
It’s worse than odd—it’s downright reactionary—to then go on to that evocation of homeownership as good citizenship and good citizenship as “feel[ing] at one with [the] country.” This puts a rather sinister light on Shiller’s earlier insistence that we need to make sure people don’t get too “cynical.”


Amen.


At Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith also mocks this ludicrous editorial:


This piece illustrates much of what is wrong-headed about the “rescue the homeowner” concept. First, attempting to prop up assets at levels not supported by the underlying economics (in this case, incomes) does not work (see here for an illustration). The prices will in the end revert to a sustainable level, if not trade below them for a while in some (perhaps even many) markets. Japan is an extreme example of the consequences: low growth due to good capital being thrown after bad and delays in clearing out bad loans and recapitalizing the financial system so it could get back to its job of funding productive enterprise.
Second, keeping housing expensive hurts first-time buyers, such as the young and the lower income. It not only makes it more difficult for them to engineer a purchase, but in communities which participated in the housing boom, assures that their housing investment will be lousy, if not a loser. It’s unlikely to appreciate from an inflated level; the best outcome would be for it to hold its nominal value for a long time while its real value gets eroded by inflation.


Then, in response to Shiller’s call for a salve on the wounded psyches of distressed homeowners, she adds:


Moving if you are a kid sucks. But Shiller wouldn’t argue that government intervention is called for to prevent family relocations due to getting a new job, divorce, deciding to be closer to aging parents. Note that other forms of financial trauma that might lead to a residential downsizing also fail to merit government subsidies, such as a renter having to move into even smaller digs (or moving in with parents or children) due to a job loss, high medical bills, or overspending. No, thanks to the sanctity of homeownership, giving up a house you can’t afford is a tragedy deserving of Federal aid, while other forms of psychological or financial loss don’t cut it.


That’s it in a nutshell. Homeownership is seen as something we must protect at all costs, even for people who overreached; poverty, homelessness, health insurance, etc., etc., etc.—not so much. The cult of homeownership has too many people brainwashed. Economist Tim Duy, looking at how out of whack home prices have become in Bend, Oregon, puts it succinctly in a very concrete context: “the magnitude of the misalignment in Bend is quite remarkable, and in my mind represents a complete failure of social policy. This is especially the case when policy has turned homeownership into a moral imperative, creating a culture that equates renting with failure and granite countertops with success.”


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Monday, May 19, 2008
Sigur Rós - Untitled #8 (Popplagið)

As you probably already know, Sigur Rós has built a career out of selling nonsense—vocalist Jón Birgisson sings in “Hopelandic,” a made-up language that occasionally blends together bits of Icelandic and English, but mostly it just departs for the moon while you’re not paying attention because you’re still trying to figure out what the the last sentence was about.


In doing so, they raise an interesting question about the role of language in mainstream rock music.  Can it be communicative without being semantic?  Or alternatively, if the semantic value is imposed by the listener, is it still useful?  If so, maybe that’s the reason bands with obtuse Nirvana-esque lyrics still manage to connect with audiences who learn to sing along with every word even when none of the make sense.  Treating the human voice as an instrument is not a new approach, but treating human language as such is still largely unexplored territory for most of us.


Since his was the first band to totally base their gimmick around the idea that a properly-delivered hard plosive can smack you up just as readily as a kick drum, Birgisson is usually the focal point, but at times the other members are the ones that keep things ticking.  Sometimes the supposed gibberish starts to seem a little too conveniently tied to the English phonetic equivalents (the part of their site with all the free music is labeled “dánlód”), at which point Hopelandic threatens to collapse into the same sort of caricature as teenage txt msgs and l33t h4x0r sp33k.  Some of the tracks on () were guilty of that, but at the end drummer Orri Páll Dýrason came to the rescue.


It’s been six long years since the snowstorm during which I trudged around for days listening to (), but since Takk was such a heinous misstep aside from “Gong,” I still consider the album’s closing number, “Untitled #8,” the band’s crowning achievement thus far.  Since () was so verbally abstract—there were no titles at all, not even Hopelandic ones, and it came with blank liner notes in which listeners could write their own interpretations of the “lyrics”—fans desperate for a tangible handle have since taken to applying unofficial secondary names. This one is “Popplagið,” but since we’re still in Hopelandic territory there, the alleged translation would be “The Pop Song.”


You’d think that’d be a harder sell—the notion that a band which insists on singing in gibberish syllables which sound like scat on shrooms could have a pop hit, I mean—but if there’s a more universally beloved Sigur Rós tune, I certainly haven’t met it yet.  Maybe the “pop” here means “popular in terms of raw numbers” instead of the more obvious “musical genre diametrically opposed to inaccessible art-rock.”


OK, that’s probably enough.  There’s not a shred of semantic coherence in the subject matter, but my word count on this post keeps rising.  Oh, the irony.


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Monday, May 19, 2008

The BBC reports on a study of how listening to music can affect our appreciation of wine.


The Heriot Watt University study found people rated the change in taste by up to 60% depending on the melody heard. The researchers said cabernet sauvignon was most affected by “powerful and heavy” music, and chardonnay by “zingy and refreshing” sounds. Professor Adrian North said the study could lead retailers to put music recommendations on their wine bottles.



This seemed a pretty random thing to be investigating—at a certain level everything affects how we perceive everything else, so what’s the use? (But it’s interesting that this study was commissioned by a vintner, as if seeking a scientific imprimatur for a new line of marketing attack.  People are bored with pairing wine with food; let’s see if they’ll bite for pairing it with music!)


Of course our judgments are affected by our environment. Consuming wine is already meant to evoke a kind of class-inflected gestalt—the sort of thing that has political pundits contrasting the wine-track from the beer-track among American voters. Our subjective experience of both wine and music is so nebulous that they seem a perfect pair; we make unverifiable subjective claims about them both independently, so why not fuse them and enable a host of new pompous prescriptive declarations? Both have an edifice of connoisseurship built up around them, meaning that they are both especially suited for deployment as cultural capital. Bringing them together broadens the opportunity for such displays exponentially.


Basically, studies like these reveal what behavioral economists insist on, what Dan Ariely’s book Predicatbly Irrational makes clear over and over again: that context shapes how we consume things. Most goods seem to have intrinsic value, but they turn out to be experiential goods. Oenophile propaganda aside, wine has no intrinsic quality—we can’t determine what it is “really worth” or how good it “really” tastes independent of what’s going on when we are drinking it. We make the giids useful; they don’t have some finite amount of value stored within them beforehand, in the abstract. But it’s very difficult for us to break the habit of attributing our personal ability to give goods value to the goods themselves—what Marx called commodity fetishism, basically.


There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labor which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There, it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.


So Marx attributes this phenomenon to the capitalist mode of production and labor exploitation and so on, but it may be exacerbated by our awareness of our own limitations, and our wish to augment the amount of value we are able to experience. If the goods have pleasure-giving qualities we don’t, maybe we can better ourselves through them. So it is that we set ourselves for disappointment over and over again in consumerism, as we acquire a good and discover the pleasure we get from it is once again limited not by the good itself but by our imagination.


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Monday, May 19, 2008

I used to agree with the San Francisco Examiner that Chuck Palahniuk was the New Millennium’s answer to Kurt Vonnegut. Ten years ago, I would have scragged to the death anyone who didn’t think Fight Club was best book ever, and that Palahniuk was the first writer since Martin Amis to really understand what we Young Folks were all about. IKEA-shmikea!


But then, a few books on, I was starting to feel like I’d read it all before. Yeah, Survivor was all right. And, yeah, so I made my mum read Invisible Monsters because it was just so weird and cool. But after Choke and Lullaby, I lost interest. Piss and vomit went back to being turn-offs, and I became tired of reading the cynical points of view of so many Tyler Durden re-treads. The Amazon reader reviews of Diary were enough to keep me away from that one, and I haven’t cared to pick up a Chuck book since.


Why, then, am I now suddenly interested in Snuff? The book jacket features what appears to be the mouth of a giant blow-up doll, and the plot revolves around a porn star undertaking a 600-player gangbang before exiting the sex industry. Skeevy more than titillating, but I think this could be the book I pick up to find out once and for all if Chuck Palahniuk is actually a big fraud with only one voice in his head dished out to an array of pitiable characters.


I can’t figure it—this is not going to be any different to any other Palahniuk rant, but I’m drawn. Maybe in the same way I was drawn to that Annabel Chong movie? Maybe Chuck has me pegged, after all?


Palahniuk is all over the place this week, with the book about to hit shelves. Here he talks to Los Angeles Times about his influences, his style, and his passion for short fiction:


Punk songs all sounded alike ... They started really intense, for 2 1/2 minutes, and then ended abruptly. And I found that really colored my taste in short stories. I wanted a story to enter midstream, and then go for several pages, and then end on these rushed, clunky notes.


Cherie Parker at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reviews the book rather positively here.


And then there’s this piece in Black Book—the one article that might truly have sealed the deal and forced me into buying Snuff. Just check out this intro:


It’s about time Chuck Palahniuk did porn. The author—cult hero to millions—has scribbled his acid ink all over the grotesqueries of contemporary American society. But never has he twisted a tale around the adult entertainment industry. Maybe it just spoke for itself. Well, now that Palahniuk is finally doing porn, he’s not wearing any protection.


Yep—I’m so buying it.


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Monday, May 19, 2008
Four Tet - Ringer

The most remarkable thing about “Ringer” is its E Pluribus Unum factor. Probably more than anything else in recent memory, the title track from the latest Four Tet EP weaves itself together from forgotten bits and blips and and pieces and plunks, any one of which seems like it might have fallen off a cheap Nokia if taken in isolation. But digital wunderkind Kieran Hebden’s aesthetic sensibility had him working on officially sanctioned Radiohead remixes by his early 20s, and here it weld the disparate blobs together into a whole that makes you forget the fact that you’ve been listening to the same three notes in the soprano line all along. At ten minutes long, it’s obviously guilty of the cardinal DJ sin of stating every last phrase in powers of four, but right when I’m about to lose interest for good those drums kick in and carry it through the last two minutes. After spending several excruciating years with a cell phone more or less strapped to my face, I’m finally thinking about changing my ringtone.


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