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by Rob Horning

20 Dec 2008

Though the idea of using potlatchess to take the edge of of capitalism often seems appealing, I’m not big on programmatic gift-giving. It seems to me that the spontaneous gift generates far less angst, simply because it need not ever be given. You just give something when you happen to come across something you know would be appropriate for somebody. Of course, if there is no schedule for gift-giving, you may not make a point of looking for such things as would be appropriate and never come upon them. Giving gifts is something of a full-time hobby, and requires certain habits of mind—reading magazines, taking frequent trips to stores, having conversations with people about their stuff, etc.—if one is to be successful at it. I don’t do any of that, so I only ever know what stuff I want for myself, and even that sometimes can make for a paltry list. (I try to be wanting for as little as possible; if it occurs to me that I want something, I go out and buy it.) In general, I don’t like the routine of showing consideration for other people by paying attention to their stuff; I’d rather be considerate by listening to their ideas, responding to them, and in general spending time with them. Gifts can materialize that sense of simpatico, but they also seem to threaten to replace it. Though I like it when someone buys me an apropos gift, it also makes me feel a little uneasy, as if the giver has secured themselves a get-out-of-jail-free card with their gift and now don’t have to put in any time with me. Gifts express our social relations in things; that can seem like an amplification and a realization of them, or it can seem like the termination of the relation as a living, changing thing. In particular, unwanted gifts can make a healthy relation suddenly seem dubious. If its the thought that counts, what in the hell were they thinking?

Both PsyBlog and BPS Digest have taken timely note of recent research by psychologist Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues into how men and women react differently to unwanted gifts. The PsyBlog posts points out the problem with gift-giving in romantic relationships:

Psychological research on how gift-giving affects relationships hints at this no-win situation. Studies suggest that good gifts only affirm similarity between couples, and so do little for the relationship. Poor gifts, though, may lead people to question their similarity with each other, thereby damaging the relationship.

Dunn’s research shows that the intensity of revulsion felt at a bad gift varies by gender. Men readily interpret an ill-suited gift as a sign that the relationship won’t last; women are more likely to rationalize away a bad gift to protect the relationship: “women are more motivated than men to marshal psychological defence mechanisms to protect against the damaging effects of poor gifts.” Obviously, this reflects a certain power dynamic at work, likely a legacy of patriarchy. Part of the “domestic angel in the household” stereotype for women involves “effortlessly” coming up with the right gifts for people while evincing all sorts of inherent holiday cheer. The holidays become an arena where those confined to the domestic sphere can show off their worth and excel, demonstrate competency and secure recognition for it. But the consequence is that the effort starts to be taken for granted; men expect the elaborate holiday performance of women as a domestic tour de force; women don’t expect the same from men.

To me, the clear response to this is to rid relationships of gift-giving expectations to remove this patriarchal hangover. And then give gifts when you feel like it. If you dare it, you might declare that every moment you spend with a partner is your gift to them, and vice versa.

by Jason Gross

20 Dec 2008

First, the supposed good news.  The RIAA says that it’s going to stop the flood of downloader lawsuits.  The reasons are obvious for this: 1) they weren’t cost-effective, 2) they made the industry look even worse.  On the first point, the majors had to spend millions of dollars in litigation fees to do the lawsuits in the first place and the money they were getting in return for settlements wasn’t coming close to making up for it.  That didn’t matter since the point was to scare people and not really to even out the field in terms of finance/balance sheets.  In terms of looking bad, the settlement money wasn’t going to the artists involved and didn’t exactly make home users embrace label-approved download sites.  In the last few years, a number of studies have said that unauthorized downloading had actually increased since the wave of RIAA lawsuits began.

And now for the bad news.  In a puff piece that’s slanted heavily towards the RIAA, the Wall Street Journal reports that the RIAA won’t totally end the lawsuits, which means that they’ll do them on a smaller, more individualized basis.  That means that they’re still going to use these scare tactics to single out and bully users in the hopes that others will cower though now, it’ll be less likely.  One reason for this may be that judgments haven’t been going the way of the RIAA lately, with some cases even questioning the whole legitimacy of the suits in the first place.

The WSJ article also notes that the RIAA will now go after ISP’s (Internet providers) to do their dirty work- they’ll try to make them hand out warnings and then cut off service to users.  As the article notes, it remains to be seen how compliant the ISP’s will be with that.  Most likely, any of them that snuggle up too close to the RIAA will be shunned by users in favor of other providers who don’t get as chummy with the labels.

Most importantly, the RIAA will still be around and still likely use more and more heavy-handed, wrong-headed tactics.  The lawsuits didn’t work so now they’ll find other ways to beat people up and try to stop unauthorized downloads.  Of course, the best way would be to find ways to make users want to pay for product in the first place but we’re talking about an industry group that values ligation over innovation so don’t be too surprised if they don’t change their ways any time soon. 

The majors have a remarkable talent for sinking themselves deeper and deeper.  If they go to Washington asking for a bailout like other industries are doing now, likely dragging along some stars for recognition, they’ll still likely to get a chilly reception and they’ll have have no one to blame but themselves (even though they never do take blame or responsibility for their own problems).

FOLLOW-UP: The Recording Industry Vs. the People blog (an excellent source of RIAA hijinx) says that the RIAA reports that it ended its mass lawsuits months ago is B.S. as they actually brought to court a bunch of them only a week ago.  Wonder what else they haven’t been truthful about…

by Bill Gibron

19 Dec 2008

Man is not a perfect machine. He is flawed, easily broken, capable of incredibly feats and destined to die off damaged and corrupt. Luckily for most of us, we don’t rely on our bodies to earn our keep. While we need our physicality to function, we are usually not graded or rewarded on it. The athlete, on the other hand, sacrifices his engine every competition, seeking out the structural disrepair we strictly avoid to march one inch closer to immortality. What they never quite understand, however, is that such everlasting fame is elusive and very rare. Even worse, there’s dozens of wannabe replacements all eager to prove their indestructible mantle.

For Randy “The Ram” Robinson, eternal stardom came quickly and burned very, very bright. As one of the ‘80s premiere wrestlers, he was a title holder and a public draw. He was so popular he even had his own action figure. Now, two decades later, he is battered, bruised, and broken. Taking menial matches on the weekends to supplement his food service, trailer park existence, he’s desperate to reclaim his past glory. While in remarkable shape for a man of his age, life is apparently set to beat him down one last time. A literal busted heart, a grim diagnosis, and it looks like The Ram’s career is done. But for this former fan icon, an anniversary rematch may be the very thing that keeps his legacy and hopes alive. It may also kill him outright.

Taking its tone from Rod Serling’s memorable Requiem for a Heavyweight while utilizing a breathtaking neo-realistic approach, Darren Aronofsky’s sensational The Wrestler marks a major comeback for Mickey Rourke and ‘70s style filmmaking in general. Offering up characters of quiet charms and deep emotional pain and a cinema verite cinematography that frequently feels like a documentary, this is a tour de force of acting, directing, and stripped down motion picture passion. It’s rare when a film can make you feel such emotional extremes. On the one hand, the story of The Ram’s rise and fall is truly heartbreaking, helped in no small part by Rourke’s Oscar worthy performance. But there is so much more going on here, from the concept of a career lost long ago to an attempt at redemption that almost anyone can relate to. It makes for a truly remarkable entertainment experience.

It’s impossible to explain how amazing Rourke is here. Bulked up beyond recognition, wearing his own battle spoils from a decade of debauchery and failed plastic surgery, he stands as a warning to anyone who thinks the acting profession is all red carpets and E! News Daily. Sure, most of the damage is of the self-destructive and inflicted variety, but in the chew ‘em up and spit them out world of Hollywood, that someone like he survived is stunning enough. Now take The Ram’s similarly styled story - early instant fame, a life in pursuit of ever increasing success (and the harmful perks that come with same), the inability to recognize the need to slow down, a current situation marked by dishonesty and despair. Together, this amalgamation of persona and performance marks the kind cinematic synergy that makes movies truly magic.

But amazingly enough, he’s not the only great thing here. Proving to those who questioned her Academy Award for My Cousin Vinny, Marisa Tomei continues her own reclamation of her career (after last year’s similarly spectacular Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) with her turn as sensible stripper Cassidy. While she definitely shows off her incredible post-40 physique, there’s a naturalness and nurturing quality to her character that’s warm and inviting. As the other main female in his life, Evan Rachel Wood is an interesting enigma as The Ram’s abandoned daughter, Stephanie. Though she only has a few scenes here, the combination of hurt and longing is more than memorable. There is one moment in particular where her little girl feelings are forced to confront a man whose still capable of great compassion - and great disappointment. It’s just one of several sensational scenes.

Clearly, working outside his comfort zone inspired Aronofsky. Known for his flashy, in your face directorial flare, The Wrestler is miles away from his formalized work on such films as Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain. Instead of going for bright lights and auteur-ish bravado, Aronofsky strives for authenticity. The background is loaded with former and current wrestling notables, and when the supposedly “scripted” elements of each match are discussed, there’s no elaborate storyline or set-up. A quick shorthand regarding moves and potential weaponry (including barbed wire and a stapler!?!?) is all these seasoned veterans need. The matches are magnificent, each one presented in a unique and uncompromising manner. Even better, Aronofksy sticks around to show the aftermath - the blood, the sweat, the stitches, and the wholly professional clannishness and camaraderie.

There may be those who think the medical crisis subplot is to formulaic and manipulative for this kind of movie, and when the advertised rematch turns into a kind of Death of a Salesman send-off (though no clear resolution, good or bad, is offered), some may sense a bit of a heavy hand on the script (expertly put together by former Onion scribe Robert Siegel). But thanks to Rourke’s sensitive, well observed turn, the rest of the dominating cast, and Aronofsky’s courageousness and artistic risk taking, The Wrestler overcomes all clichés to redefine the sports film for a post-millennial audience raised on the very subject being explored. It may be hard for some to watch their heroes take a fall, but until you reach the bottom, there’s no way to possibly come back up.

As he stalks the counter behind the deli of the grocery store where he works at, desperately trying to avoid recognition while serving the customers with the kind of charm and grace that made him a wrestling champion, Randy “The Ram” Robinson is like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim - unstuck in time and having difficulty dealing with the passage of same. There’s only one place he wants to be and he can never really return there. Still, the lure of the crowd is unnerving to those addicted to its trappings. As the last gasp of someone who has had more than a few of those life leaking final breaths, The Ram is nearing the end. Thanks to this sensational motion picture, we have the opportunity to watch him struggle yet again…at least for as long as it lasts. 

by Rob Horning

19 Dec 2008

An important new study has been published in the most recent British Medical Journal. The title: “Head and neck injury risks in heavy metal: head bangers stuck between rock and a hard bass.”

by Rob Horning

19 Dec 2008

As the scare quotes in the title of the post indicates, I’m skeptical of the notion and prevalence of “compulsive shopping,” an affliction detailed in this WSJ story in light of such sufferers’ unusual vulnerability within our current economic climate. The notion of a shopping addiction seems another manifestation of how we tend to pathologize and medicalize phenomena that may have a cultural explanation—that way we make these conditions seem natural if unfortunate rather than products of a culture we can and should change. But I guess that makes me a heartless scourage to the 8.9 percent of Americans who are allegedly afflicted. The WSJ article is full of poignant (if not risible) anecdotes about compulsive shoppers who feel compelled to collect shoes amd can’t resist the promise of a sale:

Saks Fifth Avenue this season offered 12 months of no interest and no payments for people who spend $2,000 or more in a single day, a deal that Mr. Shulman says is like a “crack dealer saying, ‘Come here, try a sample.’ “

Such stories are good for rationalizing our own compulsive shopping behavior—whatever foolish and unnecessary purchases I’ve made lately pale in comparison to these, and as pleasant as it can be to score a bargain, I don’t find myself jonesing for that pleasure. So I have nothing to worry about! And at the same time we experience the vicarious thrill of letting no obstacle stand in our way of our getting whatever stuff we want.

Anyway, this interview with psychologist Peter Ubel from Scientific American’s Mind Matters blog offer a more sober and less sensationalistic look at the relationship between mind and retail, tracing the various ways the classical economists’ presumption of rationality fails to reflect the ways people actually behave. Rather than pathologize shopping addiction, Ubel frames compulsion in terms of precommitment—deciding a measur eof resistance in advance and adhering to it, à la Ulysses vis-à-vis the sirens:

One reason we humans don’t always behave rationally is because we have limited will power. We know that exercise is good for us. We understand that junk food is bad. But we cannot follow through on our rational desires. We plan to run for 30 minutes, but after 10 we get off the treadmill, and convince ourselves we are a bit stiff today. We try to cut down on empty calories, and then grab a handful of M & M’s from a candy bowl, almost unaware of our action. No single M & M caused anyone to have diabetes. No one experienced a heart attack because they were 20 minutes short of their exercise goal. And yet our lives, our waistlines even, are the result of thousands of such decisions and behaviors.
To improve ourselves, we have to act like each M & M matters. Like each decision has important consequences. To do this, it helps to make rules and follow them. Commit yourselves to no candy, no desserts, and you’ll become more mindful of M & M bowls. Run outside, rather than inside on a treadmill, and you’ll be forced to finish your running loop. Tell a friend you’ll walk with them for 30 minutes this afternoon, and you’ll be forced to show up.
Want to save more money? Have some money automatically deposited into a savings account that you cannot access easily through ATMs, debit cards or checkbooks.  Sometimes the best way to behave better when you are weak is to impose martial law upon yourself when you feel strong.

This passage gets at an irony, a contradiction, in consumerism. Consumerism proliferates on the basis of the ideology of choice; we believe that thanks to consumerism, we get to make meaningful choices in the marketplace all the time and these extend and enrich our identity. But in fact, these choices tend to become reflexive, unconsidered—we fail to recognize their important consequences, or at least misconstrue them. The more retail decisions we make, the less important any one of them seems to our lives generally. We feel the meaning slipping away from us, our identities diminishing. One response is to force ourselves to make more choices in search of that diminishing meaning at the very moment we need to be taking decisions out of our own hands, or better, locating meaning in some other aspect of our lives. So consumerism basically prompts us to value choice more while making our choices in practice less meaningful and significant. So suddenly we are left wondering why our choice of blueberry over boysenberry jam hasn’t had a lasting impact on our existential weltanschauung.

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