A literary/pulp mashup. At its best? That remains to be seen. Author Seth Grahame-Smith must have some real cajones to tamper with a such loved classic as Pride and Prejudice by adding a Zombie story line. This book trailer has a b-movie quality to it; a nod to the cinematic genre, hopefully. This will book could be a great as Danger Mouse’s mashup of the Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album. Or as far-fetched as the stoner mashup of The Wizard of Oz with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
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Drawing on the author’s experiences traveling in locales such as Greece, Italy, Portugal and Turkey, Canadian writer Ian Colford’s first collection of short stories centers around a feeling of otherness, of always being the outsider, misunderstood by locals who mill through dusty urban streets and struggle to make their own way.
Colford’s protagonists range in occupation from teachers to research assistants to hotel clerks and even a minor felon, but each character shares in some way a resignation about his place in the host country. The expectation is always that the locals will remain at arm’s length, rejecting efforts at assimilation.
In each tale the central character is seeking a way to improve his life, and is largely unattached to other people or places. America is the destination of choice in many of the stories, the towns described along the way more like a mooring to drift alongside temporarily than a meaningful stopping point.
The author carefully avoids specifics that would connect a story concretely with a particular place. His measured prose sketches the gritty poverty that might accompany transient workers who slowly find their hope worn down under daily difficulties. Yet there is also a theme of random kindness that runs through the stories, when a secondary character sometimes shines a unexpected ray of hope or truth into the bleak everyday toil of the protagonist.
Colford’s collection will appeal to anyone who has ever wandered through a city off the beaten path and found themselves an outsider. Whether you relish the experience or find it uncomfortable, these stories proffer a spare, elegant window on a lonely, precarious existence.
Most people would not agree that it’s okay to cross the street if you are spooked by the race of someone approaching. But fewer people, I suspect, would feel the same way if you cross because you think the person coming toward you is a lot poorer than you are. In that case, you can ascribe a socially sanctified line of reasoning to the situation—rationally, that person has a pretty obvious reason to assault you for your money, thus it makes sense to try to avoid them, and if they feel bad about it, well, they should try harder not to be poor.
The idea is that classism is often tolerated where racism (and sexism and bigotry against gays and so on) is not, because prevailing neoliberalism makes it seem okay to ascribe “rational” incentives to other people and discriminate accordingly. After all cynicism about other people’s motives is a positive common-sense virtue in a society ruled in all aspects by a free market. An ability to think in terms of costs and benefits and find the applicable way of applying such an analysis to any scenario is the mark of a mind thinking at its clearest. At the same time, when we discriminate along those lines and not along the old racist, sexist, etc. lines, we can congratulate ourselves for how far we have come, regard our existing social order as progressive, and assure ourselves that our own advantages are merited, and not the product necessarily of racism. Eschewing bigotry and promoting diversity strengthens our ideological faith in the meritocracy that hardly exists in reality, as Walter Benn Michaels argues in this LRB book review of a collection called Who Cares about the White Working Class?.
My point is not that anti-racism and anti-sexism are not good things. It is rather that they currently have nothing to do with left-wing politics, and that, insofar as they function as a substitute for it, can be a bad thing. American universities are exemplary here: they are less racist and sexist than they were 40 years ago and at the same time more elitist. The one serves as an alibi for the other: when you ask them for more equality, what they give you is more diversity. The neoliberal heart leaps up at the sound of glass ceilings shattering and at the sight of doctors, lawyers and professors of colour taking their place in the upper middle class. Whence the many corporations which pursue diversity almost as enthusiastically as they pursue profits, and proclaim over and over again not only that the two are compatible but that they have a causal connection – that diversity is good for business. But a diversified elite is not made any the less elite by its diversity.
This is an argument spelled out in his book The Trouble With Diversity. In the LRB piece, he pushes the book’s argument further, detecting a similar mechanism in the worries about classism manifest in Who Cares About the White Working Class?:
It’s thus a relevant fact about Who Cares about the White Working Class? that Ferdinand Mount, who once advised Thatcher, is twice cited and praised here for condemning the middle class’s bad behaviour in displaying its open contempt for ‘working-class cultures’. He represents an improvement over those who seek to blame the poor for their poverty and who regard the culture of poverty rather than the structure of capitalism as the problem. That is the view of what we might call right-wing neoliberalism and, from the standpoint of what we might call left-wing neoliberalism, it’s nothing but the expression of class prejudice. What left neoliberals want is to offer some ‘positive affirmation for the working classes’. They want us to go beyond race to class, but to do so by treating class as if it were race and to start treating the white working class with the same respect we would, say, the Somalis – giving ‘positive value and meaning to both “workingclassness” and ethnic diversity’. Where right neoliberals want us to condemn the culture of the poor, left neoliberals want us to appreciate it.
The great virtue of this debate is that on both sides inequality gets turned into a stigma. That is, once you start redefining the problem of class difference as the problem of class prejudice – once you complete the transformation of race, gender and class into racism, sexism and classism – you no longer have to worry about the redistribution of wealth. You can just fight over whether poor people should be treated with contempt or respect. And while, in human terms, respect seems the right way to go, politically it’s just as empty as contempt.
Michaels wants the left to worry more about income inequality and fight for the eradication of the income differences that make for social classes. (I wonder what Will Wilkinson would make of that.)
Built into the idea of meritocracy—an ideal often conflated with the American Dream—is the corollary that the poor deserve contempt. It’s easy to see how people could overrate their own hard work and its relevance to their own success (such as it is) and believe that hating poor people is a way of providing crucial tough love. We can jumble up the causal links and think that hating hte poor will help make the meritocratic dream more real. It serves as a way of voicing our belief in the meritocratic ideal.
Good science fiction is hard to come by. For every District 9 there’s a Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. For every 2001: A Space Odyssey there’s a 2010: The Year We Make Contact. It’s hard to balance the needs of the devoted and demanding fanbase with the desires of the commercial demographic. As a result, most examples of cinematic speculation are ferocious shoot ‘em ups, lasers and starships taking the place of pistols and horses (or in more modern modes, handguns and SUVs). Instead of ideas, eye candy is regularly tossed around, F/X replacing characterization and narrative ingenuity. Still, if there is one consistent within the genre, it’s the music. Thanks to George Lucas and John Williams, every example of interstellar overdrive must have a soundtrack that resembles a lost work by the Martian Mozart. With rare exceptions - Danny Boyle’s brilliant Sunshine - it’s all space pomp and interplanetary circumstance.
This time around we have three rather indicative examples of such broad, brooding orchestrations. Luckily, Surround Sound has been given some of the better attempts at such scope. As he has done throughout most of the series, Bear McCreary delivers a significant sonic signature to one of TV’s best, while the British take on extraterrestrial gets an equally excellent overview by Ben Foster. Last but not least, Star Trek‘s entire legacy - cinematic and broadcast - is put under the sonic microscope as one of Europe’s premiere ensembles offers up their interpretations of its motion picture and small screen majesty. In each case, ambition supersedes stereotypes, our composer’s moving beyond the basics of the category to delve into areas both exceptional - and expected - within each of their assigned tasks. Let’s begin with one of the best:
Just a few days after having my first experience with Twitter and “real-time search” that could be remotely characterized as useful, I’m reading in this Mark Gimein essay at the Big Money that Twitter is doomed.
The irony of Twitter is that even as it becomes more pervasive, it is in danger of very quickly becoming markedly less useful. Twitter is in danger of collapsing under its own weight. Not because of its problems keeping up with traffic—those are solvable—but because the volume of material that Twitter unleashes now puts impossible demands on its users’ time and attention. The problem, in a nutshell, is information overload. The more Twitter grows and the more feeds Twitterers follow, the harder it gets to mine it for what is truly useful and engaging. Even as Twitter reaches a peak in the cultural cred cycle, it’s time to start asking how it can be saved from itself.
The problem, in Gimein’s view, is that users are too profligate in who they follow, making the concept meaningless—the number of followers one has is no indication of the amount of people who are actually reading what you have to say, even when it comes in telegraphic blasts. This line of reasoning suggests how Twitter works to quantize communication, making the numbers in the audience more important than what’s said. Of course, that has always been true of ratings-driven media, but it hasn’t been true for our conversations.
But the genius of Twitter as a potential business is that it turns ordinary people into media companies. It lets us subject our conversations to Nielsen-like ratings, to regard our communications as a product conveying our personal brand. Then we can crunch the numerical data Twitter supplies to tweak our brand, and see what works to improve the numbers, which serve as proxy for our relevance and reach and, by extension, our right to feel important. Then these numbers can be used to sell ads as well—we can indicate to advertisers what sort of demographic we have in our followers, making it a new way to monetize our friendships, following the inroads Facebook has made in that department. In the process, we become a product, a package of manipulatable content.
Gimein’s critique has nothing to do with decrying that process of reification. He’s more concerned with effective filtering. I think real-time search makes the following/followed concept meaningless to practical information gathering—the followers number is all about status and ersatz influence measurement, not communication in any conventional sense. Twitter is less about disseminating information than it is about subjects trying to make themselves feel more real, ontologically speaking, in a increasingly mediated world.
Gimein’s argument almost incidentally indicates how fragile the illusion of self-branding is—we can fixate all we want on the numbers and the illusion of control that gives us over how popular and influential we can become, but that number is ultimately misleading. Gimein relates an anecdote of having one of his posts pushed on Google’s corporate Twitter feed, which has a million followers—it brought his own post a few hundred hits. That’s telling—the click-through percentage probably diminishes the larger the recommending pool is (niche aggregators are going to be more inherently trustworthy to its followers). But also telling is the way Gimein is willing to subject himself with no apparent hesitation to the sort of analysis usually reserved for online advertising.
Anyway, Twitter foments the fantasy of our vast influence, our endless relevance to everyone, and enlists more or less meaningless numbers to sustain it. Following people and being followed doesn’t signify any kind of commitment, any reciprocal responsibility—it’s just an effortless way to give and receive empty recognition. It’s a devalued currency, hyperinflated. But we can use that number nonetheless as a focal point, a kind of mandala for our self-worship.
The quantification disguises the emptiness of the social relations it is supposedly counting, an operation that reiterates the kind of instrumental rationality that characterizes the neoliberalism colonizing more and more of everyday life. Despite its early promise as a social-planning tool, Twittering is becoming a self-referential operation; we project things that make us feel important and pretend that it is for the benefit of unseen (and, in fact, often indifferent) others. We get a simulacrum of civic participation minus the trouble of other people and reciprocity and responsibility. We can buy followers for our Twitter feed and then forget in the midst of our fantasy how self-defeating that is.