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by Rob Horning

17 Jan 2009

This may be a pointless either/or question since it can be trumped with the response of “both and” (which is a useful trick, by the way, kind of like switching causes and effects to derive theoretical “insight”). But it interested me anyway as a sort of thought experiment. Which is preferable: (1) discussing a professionally produced song or a film or whatever with a friend or (2) sharing with one another songs or films or mashups or whatever that you’ve made yourselves. I think I prefer the former but often preach the latter. Sharing stuff you’ve made too often closes off the possibility of critical discussion or interpretational analysis, devolving instead into what my high-school friends used to call ballwashing. “Oh that’s so cool! It’s so great that you’re doing that…” Often artistic professionalism is the cue to audiences that they are allowed to engage seriously with a work, to have an opinion regarding what it was about, to devote the resources to analyzing it, or even to allow themselves to enter into it vicariously. Often with homemade productions, I feel myself holding back, because I have this dread that I won’t be able to share the (frequently critical) insights that I would thereby derive. Often, I have the suspicion that the desired and appropriate response is “That’s great that you are doing that. Yay, you!” (Maybe I’m just a jerk.)

This question occurred to me because I was in Michael’s, the chain craft store, earlier today, and it struck me as a great big repository of sadness. I’m sure scrapbooking and collecting rubber stamps brings great joy to many people, but all I could imagine was failure of creativity inherent in purchasing a decorate-your-own-mug kit or any of those kits where the manufacturers try to package the creativity inside, an effort to assuage purchasers of the fear that they won’t be able to rise to the occasion and think of their own mug slogans. “We’ve thought of the project for you, all you have to do is follow directions.” These kits are basically the home-consumer version of deskilling. Rather than sell the raw materials of soapmaking, Michael’s sells you a soapmaking kit which pre-empts your learning how to make soap for real. The same is true for dumbed-down computer applications: Most of the people who have GarageBand on their iMacs will never record a song, let alone become musicians (though it presence does allow for some pleasing flights of fantasy about what you could do.) All that tends to happen when an artistic process is simplified to make it accessible to casual, semi-invested would-be creators is the production of substandard products that no one can possibly take seriously. No one who was serious about making something would stock up at Michael’s for supplies, right? The chain stands as testimony to the collective crippling of our imagination.

Generally, information has never been easier to come by, yet it’s never been harder to turn information into knowledge. Instead the volume of information is an incentive to dabble in things rather than delve into them in pursuit of some sort of mastery, no matter how slight. Is it better to know how to make really good pesto from scratch but nothing else, or to have ready access to many different kinds of passable microwavable meals but know how to make nothing well. (Or is that a particularly nefarious both-and situation?)

I feel a little guilty in bashing Michael’s, because my intent isn’t to dump on the people who shop there, reject them in favor of some superior set or artistic professionals. But some sort of process of professionalization seems necessary to bringing about a meaningful exchange between maker and user—a social relation must be brought into being in which the exchange itself matters more than the personal relation. Of course, in capitalist society, professionalization is a matter of getting paid. Making money is the mark of professionalism—transforming a production into a commodity for sale and finding success in vending it. Get to that point and you show that you’re not just dabbling; you are trying to make customers of others and live up to their expectations. That discipline elevates the product beyond hobby and craft—you’re not just dilettanting around.

But professionalism needn’t automatically be defined by money—by selling out to the Man. It could instead be seen as a matter of creating something that isn’t merely an extension of one’s ego, a matter of wanting to give a social life to some idea or thing that will can then circulate independently from us. Amateur culture often fails to achieve that separation, doesn’t rise to level where it can be seriously criticized because it seems that its primary purpose is to secure recognition for the maker. A noncapitalist understanding of professionalization might resemble flow, losing oneself in a process, wherein the end product is secondary to the creative experience itself but not a matter of total indifference. Instead it could have a ready path to manifesting its social usefulness, to finding an appreciative audience without having to be explicitly marketed—and having its meaning permanently altered by that discourse.

Utopian internet folk probably have this in mind, that the internet becomes a low-barrier-of-entry distribution channel that permits our work to become socially useful without having to be channeled through capitalist means of production first. Unfortunately, capitalist media companies and various internet startups (often under the guise of enhancing the read-write web and so on) have by this time managed to embed themselves online between most home producers and would-be consumers, and in much in the same way as Michael’s kits, the use of these intermediaries’ services tend to taint our productions automatically with amateurism. Thanks to the corporate-owned easy-to-use services, the space that had been opened on the internet for a different kind of professionalism is now being flooded with look-at-me productions. If we are all narcissists, we’ll all remain amateurs, which offers an interesting, albeit functionalist, way to look at the modern efflorescence of narcissism—it seems as though there is an incentive to try to make us that way, insecure in who we are and preoccupied with gaining recognition. But sadly, a MySpace page will never make us web designers any more than a paint-by-numbers kit will make us artists.

by Michael Edler

16 Jan 2009

Kathleen Edwards’ career has been established with hard hitting lyrical work and a simple, but biting sarcastic tone. She was immediately thrown in the pile with other country-rock legends, and without a doubt; Edwards’ lyrical work is on the evolutionary chain from Emmylou, Dolly, and Patsy, but I always felt this distinction was a bit disjointed. Why does Edwards’ need to be thrown in with the “Women who Rock” category?

Edwards’ characters struck me as those who were at last fed up with the ass holes that plagued their lives. Without a doubt, track one from her first album Failure “Six O’Clock News” is an absolute gem. When Kathleen screams at the end that “I can’t feel my broken heart.” I do think of Emmylou and Dolly and Patsy because I know her character is absolutely destroyed by the narrative of her boyfriend (and father of her child) lying dead on the avenue from the piercing wound of a cop’s bullet, I also wonder if it’s sometimes because it’s the end of something that should have ended long ago. Edwards’ characters are filled with this deep sadness, but there is always a subtle hint of brutal irony and sarcasm in her characters. Although Patsy, Dolly, and Emmylou share this irony; theirs is a hidden, almost a wink. Kathleen is tired of the wink. Edwards can work a bunch of angles at once and she’s developed this presence throughout her career.

Edwards’ newest album, Asking for Flowers demonstrates this lyrical complexity. She’s a storywriter and a pretty damn good one. Her ability to turn dialogue and demonstrate symbolism all the while holding universality in her lyrical work demonstrates a songwriter who understands songwriting is a shared experience between author and listener. This is a universal sign of good songwriting. Guthrie, Dylan, Springsteen, Waits, Petty, Earle, and Tweedy get this. However, Edwards’ does this while balancing the complexities of telling the same sort of stories from the woman’s point of view. It’s the trick that makes her one of today’s finest songwriters.

by Matthew Sorrento

16 Jan 2009

Arden Theatre Company presents
James and the Giant Peach
By David Wood from the novel by Roald Dahl
Directed by Whit MacLaughlin
10 December 2008 – 8 February 2009
F. Otto Haas Stage

Readers hold Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach—itself a standout from the author’s body of classics—as personal as Alice in Wonderland, Beatrix Potter, and countless others children’s tales.  Peach also proves to be an “interactive” as any other.  After the premiere of David Wood’s new Philadelphia stage adaptation at the Arden in Philadelphia, adult audience members shared their favorite character from childhood.  “I always likes the spider,” one woman said.  A man returned: “I love that centipede, with all his shoes.”  Nostalgia was in the air, while their kids found a new delight.  Some recognized the bright-lit and -spirited performance from a book their parents recently read to them.  With questions and enthusiastic comments, others were obviously newcomers.

As for my favorite characters, I have always loved those wicked aunts, Sponge and Spiker.  They offer the darkest dimension to Dahl’s text.  As recognizable family members, they are at once associated with the familiar, but nonetheless are distant, strange.  When James comes to live with them—after Dahl’s whimsically placed rhino kills the boy’s parents—they set little James to endless chores, thus serving as the wicked stepmother motif of classic fairy tales.  Meanwhile, we have two aunts living together who are not clearly marked as sisters—two lesbians that society (and cultural history) has locked away, perhaps?  If so, then their wickedness is no fault of their own, in that they are trapped in the cultural “closet” for the story’s purpose. 

Mean-spirited or no, the aunts serve as an accidental jest to modern audiences, and it certainly isn’t lost on Whit MacLaughlin.  This stage director has cast Harum Ulmer (Driving Miss Daisy at the Hedgerow Theater) as Aunt Spiker in David Wood’s Philadelphia stage adaptation at the Arden (running through February 8), next to Stephanie English’s Sponge.  Ulmer makes for an outright tranny-ish Spiker, lovably villainous to the kids as the parents wink along.  The gangly actor grates his lines and hams them up like Tyler Perry’s Madea, shrunken thin to fit the current proceedings.  English’s pillowy Sponge – complete with butt pads the size of basketballs – serves as a sidekick. 

Their victim, the unlikely named James Ijames, plays the title character with wide eyes, a sure friend for the young audience.  Wandering into a nightmarish life, he is a noble savage that finds a better family in those bugs that have grown along with the peach, the boys wish-fulfillment escape realized as a fantasy device.  (While never forgetting his young audience, Ijames’s appearance in a schoolboy uniform with cap cannot escape the image of Angus young of AC/DC.  Later in the show, the phrase “Hell’s Bells!” pops into the dialog, in case anyone’s missed the connection.)  The title’s other main attraction comes in three forms: as a 12-foot-high prop emerging from the backstage, a floating version the size of a softball, and as a centered platform on the jutting stage, on which the bugs and James travel from the aunts’ grounds to a new home. 

Of ripe color that’s almost florescent, the giant peach(es) is framed by a multi-panel digital screen friendly to the eyes of our digital youth.  On screen appears backgrounds, and a cute introduction to the bugs, who are soon to be James’ friends.  The digital projection adds much landscape to the jutting stage, even if it is outdone by the analog elements before it, more tactile to the intimate audience. 

And, naturally, the other dark subtexts of Dahl are jettisoned in this very child-friendly adaptation, such as the sperm-like jewels that squirm into the ground to impregnate the waiting peach pit.  Ijames’ mimed immersion into the peach—after it has grown large but is only imagined on the stage, at this point—sure feels like a birth-in-reverse, but that’s as close as this telling comes to Freudianism.  Wood and MacLaughlin use the layout of the thrust stage in the F. Otto Haas theater to draw the kids into a (mostly) classical approach to children’s theater.  It may play like Dahl on Cliffnotes to the adults, but the brief running time and exaggerated set pieces fall right into the little ones’ hands.

by PopMatters Staff

16 Jan 2009

M. Ward
Never Had Nobody Like You [MP3] from Hold Time [17 February]
     

The Decemberists
The Rake’s Song [MP3] from The Hazards of Love [24 March]
     

Mos Def
Quiet Dog [MP3] [RCRD LBL]

N.A.S.A.
Whachadoin? (feat. Spank Rock, M.I.A., Santogold & Nick Zinner) [MP3] [RCRD LBL]

Dirty Projectors & David Byrne
Knotty Pine [MP3]
     

Southeast Engine
Black Gold [MP3] from From the Forest to the Sea [17 February]
     

Great Northern
Houses [MP3] from Trading Twilight for Daylight [28 April]
     

Odawas
Harmless Lover’s Discourse [MP3] from The Blue Depths [17 February]
     

by Rob Horning

16 Jan 2009

Megan McArdle is right; this alleged quotation from Marx’s Capital supposedly “making the rounds on Wall Street”—

Owners of capital will stimulate the working class to buy more and more of expensive goods, houses and technology, pushing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks, which will have to be nationalised, and the State will have to take the road which will eventually lead to communism.

—definitely is not Marx. It sounds more like a half-informed graduate student summarizing what he thinks Marx might have said about the current recession, and besides, “taking the communist road” sounds more like Maoist lingo. (If it really was from Capital, you’d more likely see a tedious reference to how much wool could be spun from so many spindles and so forth.)

Not that nothing in Capital is relevant to the current situation. Marx does have a few sketchy pronouncements about the credit system and about potential effective demand problems—the need to discipline the ways in which the working class reproduces its labor power and get them to soak up some of the surplus and so on. I think the passage I quoted in this post, from the chapter on money in volume one, has some application, for instance.

But the idea that Marx suggested that the state would lead a country down the path to socialism is absurd; generally the state is regarded as being completely captured by the capitalist classes to do its bidding. Or else capitalists have ceded political power to the state so that it can divide the working class’s wrath between Business and Government. Or else the state operates as a competing power base in a triangulated struggle over the shape of social relations. Etc., etc. But the general gist of Marx’s theory is that a revolution is necessary to smash the state and eventually do away with it.

Whoever made this statement up and attributed it to Marx probably wanted to use Marx as a kind of boogeyman, who is supposed to automatically discredit any idea that he can be associated with. The gambit here is to discredit the Fed and Treasury’s efforts to ameliorate the financial crisis and make sure nationalization remains a dirty word, as Yglesias talks about here.

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