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by Rob Horning

3 Aug 2008

Wright Mills’s The Power Elite is pretty dated now, especially the first 200 pages of so, which elucidate the specifics of the nascent 1950s military-industrial complex in mind-numbing detail. But it’s worth plodding through all that to get to the thundering denunciations of American complacency that follows, which have lost none of their sting over the years. He laments the loss of a Habermasian public sphere (though the degree to which this ever existed is debatable) and blames a media-sponsored celebrity cult for keeping the public, disintegrated into a mass of alienated individuals capable of thinking only of their own limited self-referential interests, stupified and distracted from the workings of the true “power elite”—the Ivy League-educated managerial class who come from the established rich families. The media fosters a “psychological illiteracy” that encourages stereotyping over thinking, making it harder for us to perceive the totality of society in its functioning (as Lukacs laments about in History and Class Consciousness). “The man in the mass does not gain a transcending view from these media; instead he gets his experience stereotyped, and then he gets sunk further by that experience.” This in turn makes us more vulnerable to media manipulation, since we lack the basis to critique its representations.

The media provide much information and news about what is happening in the world, but they do not often enable the listener or the viewer truly to connect his daily life with these larger realities. They do not connect the information they provide on public issues with the troubles felt by the individual. They do not increase rational insight into tensions, either those in the individual or those of the society which are reflected in the individual. On the contrary, they distract him and obscure his chance to understand himself or his world, by fastening his attention upon artificial frenzies that are resolved within the program framework, usually by violent action or by what is called humor. In short, for the viewer they are not really resolved at all…. There is almost always the general tone of animated distraction, of suspended agitation, but it is going nowhere and it has nowhere to go.

This leaves people in a state of semi-helplessness, incapable of complex thought. “Rather than that internal discussion we call reflection, he is accompanied through his life experience with a sort of unconscious, echoing monologue. He has no projects of his own: he fulfills the routines that exist. He does not transcend whatever he is at any moment, because he does not, he cannot, transcend his daily milieux. He is not truly aware of his own daily experience and of its actual standards: he drifts, he fulfills habits, his behavior a result of a planless mixture of the confused standards and the uncriticized expectations that he has taken over from others whom he no longer really knows or trusts, if indeed he ever really did.” And since the media is controlled by the elite, its effectiveness enriches them further.

As a consequence of the degraded citizenship, democracy is a hollow illusion, an ideological alibi for the status quo. Voting is a mere expression of nationalism as opposed to a true political choice. And a “conservative mood” overtakes intellectuals who are disillusioned by the failure of liberalism to preserve a thinking public. At the heart of this mood “there is a knowledge of powerlessness without poignancy, and a feeling of pseudo-power based on mere smugness. By its softening of political will, this mood enables men to accept public depravity without any private sense of outrage, and to give up the central goal of western humanism—the presumptuous control by reason of man’s fate.” The word smugness serves as a trigger for me, and it makes me want to link this conservative mood with today’s hipsters, as per the previous post. The problem with hipsters is not their fashion-following phoniness; it’s their smug abdication of responsibility in favor of an egocentric apathy. Hipsters are conservatives posturing as progressives, often professing to be liberals while their practice refutes the claim. Mills’s description of the 1950s conservative mood suits hipsterism to a tee:

it is not a snobbery linked with nostalgia, but on the contrary, with what is just one-step-ahead-of-the-very-latest-thing, which is to say that it is a snobbery based not on tradition but on fashion and fad. Those involved are not thinking for a nation, or even about a nation; they are thinking of and for themselves. In self-selected coteries, they confirm one another’s mood, which thus becomes snobbishly closed—and quite out of the main stream of the practice of decision and the reality of power.

(This reminds me of my own indifference to the business world when I was a graduate student, and thought I was well informed on everything important—you know, semiotic theories of gender and decentered subjectivities in 18th century novels and that sort of thing. My arguments about these subjects with my peers were so vital. Mills saw the conservative mood as facilitating “historical development without benefit of idea.” This is the sense, perhaps, in which hipsterism is the dead end of Western civilization. Mills’s book is useful for linking hipsters to the larger problem of the meaningless political sphere, which seems to have spawned them. But it doesn’t shed much light on how to reinvigorate political involvement, how to make the basic acts of citizenship in a democracy not seem trivial or merely self-referential. Could “youth” culture—in reality the culture of grown adults who can affect the structures of society in a meaningful way—form for itself a politically literate, unified, and efficacious sphere of action? Is there anything else to do but resist what is currently dominant, or does any positive action stand only to be co-opted and reassimilated by the forces of conservative “smugness”?

The relation between hipsterism and conservatism-in-effect apathy makes it almost ironic that McCain’s campaign is trying to paint Obama as a kind of king of the hipsters. Andrew Sullivan makes the obvious point that this is no substitute for actually crafting policy positions (the Republicans are the dead end of Western Civilization). But this of course makes them the natural allies of hipsters, who also stand for nothing. These attacks are just another feat of projection, as when McCain plays the race card by accusing Obama of playing it.

by Rob Horning

1 Aug 2008

Rob Walker and PSFK both point to this Adbusters article about hipsters. You’ll be shocked to hear that the author of the article, Douglas Haddow, doesn’t approve of them.

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.

I’ve done my share of hipster bashing on this blog, because the word offers a shorthand way of referring to a nebulous but nonetheless nefarious phenomenon that is related to emptying out progressive and transgressive and subversive movements in culture of their power. Whenever something countercultural gets cooking, a squad of arrivistes appears to forcibly reintegrate the breakaway sect into the prevailing commercial culture, reducing any political intentions expressed into fashion statements by mouthing them vacuously or directly contradicting the upshot of the politics with the way they practice their everyday life. But like yuppie and poseur, the term hipster has exhausted itself, and now it’s hipper to proudly proclaim you are a hipster then it is to pretend you aren’t one. That is to say, the term at this point yields semantic arguments rather than social critique, as Dan Gould at PSFK noted in linking to the Adbusters piece.

As the excerpt above makes clear, Haddow doesn’t see hipsters as parasitical arrivistes but as the people who now make up the ersatz counter-cultural movements from the start. And he regards them as harbingers of the end of creativity. “The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new.” This is because hipsters allegedly are ecumenical in their appropriations from culture and don’t subscribe to traditional notions of authenticity.

Hipsterdom is the first “counterculture” to be born under the advertising industry’s microscope, leaving it open to constant manipulation but also forcing its participants to continually shift their interests and affiliations. Less a subculture, the hipster is a consumer group – using their capital to purchase empty authenticity and rebellion. But the moment a trend, band, sound, style or feeling gains too much exposure, it is suddenly looked upon with disdain. Hipsters cannot afford to maintain any cultural loyalties or affiliations for fear they will lose relevance.

The aggressiveness of advertising forces hipsters into aggressive countermoves, quick shifts in allegiance to avoid seeming like marketing’s dupes. Eventually, collaborating with the forces of marketing, or conceiving of yourself as a brand, becomes an even more sophisticated strategy for evading marketing’s manipulation. Becoming collaborators becomes a kind of advanced subversive strategy. It seems unfair to blame hipsters for this when the degree to which life has become media saturated has made marketing that much harder to escape. Hipsterism is a symptom of a larger cultural disease.

by PopMatters Staff

1 Aug 2008

Robyn Hitchcock
Bad Case of History [MP3]
     

Lykke Li
Breaking It Up [Video]

 

Lee “Scratch” Perry
Pum Pum [MP3]
     

These Are Powers
Cockles [MP3]
     

Brimstone Howl
A Million Years [MP3]
     

Takka Takka
Everybody Say [MP3]
     

Vampire Weekend
Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa [Video]

by Bill Gibron

31 Jul 2008

For filmmakers, nostalgia is a double edged sword. Pick the right era, and audiences are with you and your cinematic wistfulness. Dress things up in the wrong period, however, and you threaten to alienate anyone without your fond memory set. This is the problem facing Jonathan Levine’s rap-tinged dramedy The Wackness. Celebrating the gansta days of the early ‘90s, a time frame foaming with post-grunge grooves and early Clinton optimism may seem like something worth commemorating. But all Sundance standing ovations aside, there is a central problem with this movie that makes it a rather unfulfilling journey down short term memory loss lane.

It’s the Summer of ‘94. Luke Shapiro has just graduated from high school. Over the next four months he intends to hang out, hook up, and deal drugs. Then, it’s off to college. Selling pot from a pushcart, he’s a neighborhood fixture. But when he sells some weed to ditzy psychiatrist Dr. Squires, he soon finds himself in indirect therapy. Turns out that Luke has several pending problems. His parents are constantly fighting over finances, and there’s a distinct possibility they will be evicted from their apartment. Even worse, his raging hormones have the young man desperate and dateless. But when he takes a sudden shine to Squires step-daughter Stephanie, it changes the dynamic between all three of them.

Stripped of all its summer swelter and hip hip revisionism, The Wackness is really just another in a long line of quirky indie character studies. Luke is the typical horny teen, unable to make sense of a life that reeks of insecurity (personal, parental, professional) while working his wannabe “wigger” poses. His pot-addicted shrink, Dr. Squires, is the typical ‘physician, heal thyself’ symbol of authority in need of its own intervention. His wife is nothing more than a tepid trophy, a used to be hottie who can’t quite acknowledge her newfound status as a ‘nottie’, while their daughter Stephanie is the kind of emotional cipher that only a small outsider film could champion. In mainstream Hollywood, this human user would be vamped up in Goth gear and given some kind of eating/mental/psychological disorder.

As a result, your enjoyment of The Wackness hinges on how well you cotton to these obvious eccentrics - or better yet, how you react to the actors trying to bring them to life. The cast is more than capable, especially Josh Peck, who seems hellbent to leave his Nickelodeon days in the dust. Through a thick haze of marijuana smoke, and a face overflowing with black culture epithets, he’s quite effective in a major mouth breather kind of way. Director Jonathan Levine obviously doesn’t care that his star spends most of the movie with his jaw agape, eyes transfixed on a future which is apparently playing out somewhere just off screen. To call it navel gazing would falsely give the ever-present gesture some direction. Like the movie itself, Peck is perfectly capable - it’s the ‘what’ of his actions that is up for discussion.

Similarly, Sir Ben Kingsley continues his odd downward spiral into career irrelevance by playing a psychologist who causes more insanity than he cures. Certainly, the director must dig seeing the artist formerly known as Gandhi macking on a waifish Olson twin (Mary-Kate, if you’re counting) and there are times when Squires resonates as an unlikely if unassuming life coach. But with just the slightest ‘Nu Yawk’ honk hiding his droll British-ness, and a wardrobe that seems lifted from a Miami Beach rummage sale, he’s all put on. We want to understand why this mad doctor still loves his wife, why his step-child’s virtue (or lack thereof) is so uncomfortable for him. There are layers of Squires that Levine will not let us in on, and it causes us to grow frustrated with this quaint quack.

The weakest link here, however, is Olivia Thirlby’s Stephanie. As an object of affection, she’s more ordinary than obsession. She comes across as spoiled and rather simplistic, hedonism without a context to enjoy such high living. Luke’s lustful stares may give us some meaning to their potential partnership, but the truth is that theirs is a relationship we can never support. She will clearly destroy him, and he will never ever achieve the kind of ardor nirvana he is looking for. The doomed nature of their pairing fails to provide the dramatics Levine is looking for, and when accented by Kingsley’s overprotective panto, The Wackness runs into a decided dead end. As the narrative meanders toward its perfunctory, all things must pass conclusion, we start to wonder why we wasted our time.

Clearly, Levine is looking at the ‘90s Big Apple through a pair of reflective rose-colored goggles. He sees New York as a Giuliani-inspired ghost town, a changing metropolis as a series of sweltering backstreets and out of frame ambience. Squires delivers the mandatory “this city is changing” monologue, hoping that audiences outside Manhattan actually care. It’s a lot like the graduated cameo appearance of true hip hop icon Method Man. Sporting a convincing Caribbean accent and looking every bit the pusher with a heart of gold, we want more of the authenticity he brings. But Levine isn’t really interested in perception. He believes his characters, and the four months they spend in vignette like exploration, will be enough to pull us along.

And for a while, it is. For those who still see the ‘90s as an integral part of their maturation, a generation now hitting their late ‘20s and tired of the world web weariness of existence, The Wackness will function like a patchouli-laced blast from the past. It will seem realistic even though it begs fantasy, and will sound authentic even if the constant slanging of the era grows Hella-tired, yo. But for older/younger film fans wondering if there’s more to this movie than sensimilla and shout outs to urban parlance, the answer will be underwhelming at best. As a study of personalities in fashionable free fall, this is one scattered, smoke-filled failure. While it has some intriguing elements, this backwards glancing bong hit will leave you hungry for less, not more.

by Mike Schiller

31 Jul 2008

Picking up Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 for a playthrough, I was struck with an unflinching sense of déja vu.  “Schiller, you idiot, of course you’re feeling déja vu,” you say, “it’s the third game in a series.  Chances are, it has something in common with the first two Commando games, yes?” 

Well, yes, but those games are oddly not what Commando 3 reminds me of.

In fact, by the time Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 came out, I had all but forgotten about the first two Commando games, and why not?  They were released in 1985 and 1991 (as Commando and Mercs in America, and as Wolf of the Battlefield and Wolf of the Battlefield 2 in Japan), which means I’ve had plenty of time for my TV and game-addled brain to forget they ever existed as anything but a footnote to Bionic Commando, perhaps my favorite game of all time.  No, what Wolf of the Battlefield immediately evokes is a different Capcom franchise, one more recent, more immediate, and more…mediocre.

That franchise would be the Rocketmen franchise.

Obviously, it hasn’t been that long since I put down Rocketmen: Axis of Evil (probably) for good, which was fine with me given that its distinct (read: awkward) art style and oddly cumbersome shoot-everything-that-moves action were starting to grate on me a bit.  As such, it was an utter shock to find Commando 3 with a very similar, though thankfully devoted to two dimensions, art style in the cutscenes and a play style highly reminiscent of that belonging to Rocketmen.  You choose one of three different characters with varying attributes, and then proceed to run around with one analog stick and shoot in every direction with the other analog stick.  Along the way you pick up prisoners, hop into various vehicles, and cause a whole lot of mayhem.

On one hand, this sort of gameplay is a perfect fit for the style of those old overhead Commando games—the number of times I used to wish there was an easy way to run in one direction and shoot in another in Commando and Mercs is pretty much uncountable.  On the other hand, it feels like folly to release this thing so close to the release of Rocketmen.  All that’s going to happen is that people who consider themselves fans of this sort of game are simply going to get burned out on it.  Who’s going to want to play another overhead run ‘n gun after this?  Anyone?

On the bright side, the play mechanics in Commando 3 are a marked improvement on the Rocketmen style.  For one, it plays much faster—the control is crisp and the action is fast.  I’m also simultaneously overjoyed and frustrated by the fact that Capcom saw fit to bring back the original Commando‘s idea that putting secret areas in random places would be a good idea.  That’s right, in order to find all of the secret areas in the game, you pretty much have to toss grenades at every square inch of the map.  There are some clues floating around that mark certain spots as more likely to have a secret area hidden beneath them, but some of them just feel utterly random in their placement.  While I can appreciate the retro value of the randomly placed secrets, I can’t help but wonder if something involving a puzzle or a clever clue would be a more satisfying way to hide a secret.

Fans of this type of game who haven’t given Rocketmen: Axis of Evil a look yet will be in luck—Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 is better, for a number of quantifiable reasons.  Still, Rocketmen wore out its welcome a little bit quicker than I’d hoped, and I imagine that Commando 3 will do the same.  Of course, downloading Commando 3 offers access to the Street Fighter 2 HD open beta, so there’s value added on top of the fact that it’s a better, if still flawed, game.  If you’re a fan of Commando and/or Mercs, you’ll probably have a good time with the third entry in the series; if you’re simply an overhead run ‘n gunner who’s starting to get a little burned out on your genre of choice, do yourself a favor and avoid it.  You’ll thank yourself later.

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