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by Rob Horning

12 May 2008

I referenced this n+1 article about the “hype cycle” in the previous post, but it’s worth, well, hyping. Mocking the odious New York magazine-style approval matrices, the author compares the fluctuating social capital of cultural goods to asset bubbles, lamenting that media hype “transforms the use value of a would-be work of art into its exchange value.” In other words, we don’t judge art by its underlying fundamentals; instead we trade on their momentum. I’m skeptical that those things can be separated. The degree that pop culture is enjoyed privately isn’t going to be expressed in the public sphere, where opinions become hype because they become part of one’s identity posturing. The private enjoyment can simply be experienced; the direct pleasure of listening to a song need not be mediated to be felt. What does need mediation is the pleasure of being culturally relevant, being part of the zeitgeist or ahead of it.

So how we “use” culture depends a great deal on how we regard it contextually. Without context, there isn’t much there to consume—it’s not as though the intrinsic qualities are so deep and sophisticated. That private pleasure goes only so far, and if we were after that private pleasure alone, we’d consume something other than the culture that’s mainly relevant because it is contemporary. Rather, with pop culture, we are consuming context in object form; we are choosing to engage our times through an artifact, be part of the cultural conversation. This may be why most people don’t mind hype and, in fact, respond positively to it. Hype gives us a reason to consume, an opportunity to get something beyond the things’ intrinsic qualities. We can passively consume things that were once required activity: participation, a sense of belonging to something larger, a sense of being excited. Hype sucks primarily when you have a lot of free time to discover things to be excited about on your own—a luxury for most people who are not pop-culture connoisseurs. For everyone else, the vicarious excitement of hype is welcome—an efficient solution for not having enough leisure (or imagination) to become excited from scratch, entirely on our own.

The main use value of popular culture—what makes it popular—is its ability to signal one’s personality in the public sphere. (The n+1 article limits what one might signal through culture to the reputation of connoisseurship, but most people don’t seem to care about that. They want to belong, not be singled out as snobs.) What gives popular culture that capacity is its widespread distribution and its malleable substance, and often it’s made with that kind of negative capability in mind. It is intentionally indeterminate, or in other words, “shallow.” Hype, then, does reinforce the generic, insubstantial qualities of pop culture by expanding the base that can relate to it, creating network effects and magnifying the feelings of participation it conveys and communicating potential it has. A feedback loop is created: the shallower culture is, the more useful it is to us in the ways hype amplifies, and more hype proliferates and highlights cultural superficiality. This cycle tends to abrogate pop culture for those who want to experience it as connoisseurs (the brunt of the n+1 complaint). Hype makes us (happily, for many of us) have to consume culture as zeitgeist; it ceases to be an occasion to express our refined tastes. Instead, it liberates us from having to worry about tastes at all.

Of course, there is still public discussion of culture that is not hype, but it happens on a parallel track, only among parties that have established their bona fides with one another. Often, that means talking to oneself.

by tjmHolden

12 May 2008

A cyclone in Myanmar; an earthquake in China.

28,000 dead; 41,000 reported missing in one. An estimated 12,000 perished and 18,000 missing in the other.

Horrendous events. Mind-numbing numbers. Asia’s natural cataclysms have been in the news this week and, as all such disasters are wont to do, they give us pause. It is not so much that they are awesome in their scope (although there is that dimension to them); and it is not just that they remind us that the world is a dangerous place (hell, we don’t need natural disasters to signal that!); it is not simply to hip us to the capriciousness, the tenuousness, the fragility of life (which, of course such news inevitably—and immediately—does). It is also something beyond the fact that they are true tragedies (which of course they are)—featuring astronomical figures of dead and displaced; and a nearly uncatalogueable list of derivative harm and suffering resulting after the fact.

Admittedly, all of the above elements arise when nature strikes, as it so often does, without warning. But more than any of this, what prompts us to take pause is the fact that horrors such as these are constantly in our consciousness. And they are constantly in our consciousness due to one factor and one factor alone: media. Such events have become what Walter Lippmann long-ago dubbed “the pictures in our heads”

because of

news media. Had the cyclone and the earthquake occurred in, say, 1811, they would not have been any less massive, tragic, awe-inspiring natural events; but their status in the lives of most of the world population would have been far less powerful or significant. What has changed over the last century (and actually, only more like the last twenty-five years) has been the position and the power of such events in our everyday lives. Some of this change is “merely” psychological, and some of it is political, economic, social, and moral. For better and worse—thanks to the globla media—what happens over yonder now is very much a part of our thinking, our consideration and reaction, somewhere over here.

This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, right? The world becomes smaller; we become more and more aware of how others live in the way-beyond-out-there—and, importantly, how they are suffering. A potential doorway, perhaps, into greater sympathy, possible assistance. But, peel that outer layer back and it may not all be to our benefit to have all this constant monitoring, this endless mediation. Consider . . .

by Rob Horning

12 May 2008

I can only hope that the author of this recipe blog continues posting. Without it, I would have never learned that “brownies are one of the truest manifestations of metal in the scope of baking. Nestled inside their dark, viscous hearts lies a sickening world of decadence.” Or that “boiled down to its very essence, metal is nothing more than a mixture of molasses and alienation.” And there is so much more to learn about the dark confections. (via boing boing)

by Jason Gross

12 May 2008

The NY Times had an interesting article recently about Gramophone magazine (a venerable classical publication) adding links to record labels along side reviews and opportunities to download the music too.  For many pop and rock publications, this is old news already. It’s considered being consumer friendly- making it easier to access the music being discussed.  But in the magazine/publication world, there is an important line drawn between editorial (or reviews) and advertising that many editors are still cautious about, and rightly so.  I understand why some classical fans are squeamish about this but as long as the editorial integrity can be maintained (i.e. even bad reviews have links), then I don’t see a reason to cry foul.  If it gets to the point where a mag is actively blurring that line (the way Rolling Stone and Amplifier did last year), then you have problems.

Speaking of classical scribing, a sad goodbye to Melinda Bargeen of the Seattle Times who penned a very thoughtful and insightful farewell article about her profession.  ST has a lot of other staff leaving too unfortunately.

by Rob Horning

12 May 2008

In his upcoming book, Buying In (which I plan to review more thoroughly in a few weeks), Rob Walker, who writes the Consumed column for the New York Times Magazine, discusses protest brands: brands consumers latch on to to try to flaunt to the world that they are indifferent to brands or too knowing to subscribe to them. His main example is Pabst Blue Ribbon, the lousy beer that has become a staple for a certain breed of hipsters. It’s likely that the beer’s popularity has a lot to do with its being the cheapest option in bars too cool to stock Miller or Bud, which is precisely Walker’s point—PBR seems like an alternative to the majors not because it is a substantially different product but simply because the makers don’t advertise. PBR has a vaguely authentic-seeming legacy, so its name resonates and allows consumers to attach their own sets of meanings to it while still tapping into the reach that national brands seem to have. According to this view, co-opting a brand is sort of like seizing control of a radio station or something; but really it’s a matter of consumers doing the marketing for a company that can’t afford to—this way they can broadcast their belonging to a “creative” niche. Walker argues that brand owners are doing this deliberately, masking their overt marketing efforts and instead doing “murketing” that recruits consumers in doing the meaning making for them. Since there was a void where the national message for PBR might have been, consumers were able to fill it by making the beer signify a rejection of the brands that advertise heavily. It’s one way of rejecting the fog of hype we live in (as this n+1 essay details) without simultaneously foreclosing the chance to participate in our culture—which is made up primarily of brands and whatnot. Of course, the protest brands are parasitic and derive their resonance from the mainstream brands; thus, protest brands are a kind of extension of the mainstream brands and don’t really do much to undermine their strength.

Having once experimented with smoking moribund brands of cigarette (Tareytons, L&Ms, Larks), I could relate to this, though eventually I became a Marlboro smoker (in the soft pack only; still needed some distinction) before I quit. And when I read this BusinessWeek article about Li Ning, a fledging Chinese athletic-shoe brand, I had a twinge of the same feeling that had me smoking Tareytons. Athletic shoes are much like beer and cigarettes in that for all the supposed qualities that separate the various makes, they are, for most ordinary consumers, indistinguishable beyond the branding. So they are a fertile field for a nascent protest brand, as no one will get confused and think you chose the protest brand because its goods are of superior quality.

The important thing for a would-be protest brand is to be a brand with some scope—it needs to be recognizable on a broad scale in order to bear the message. That’s why identity-conscious anti-brand folk seem to find it insufficient to protest brands by simply using nonbranded goods. There needs to be an idea, a focal point—a name, a logo—around which a community can coalesce, something others can copy (or maybe just something we could imagine others registering and possibly copying if they thought we were cool) when they understand and appreciate the message a person has used a brand to communicate and want to send the same message about themselves. The unavoidable presence of advertising and brands in the public sphere make us feel deeply that brands are part of an internationally recognized language of self-fashioning that we need to be speaking. Otherwise our identity-making gestures will likely go unheard, and alternatives for garnering public recognition—for publicly communicating a sense of ourselves—are not so obvious as brands.

So consider Li Ning’s logo:

Looks pretty familiar, doesn’t it. This blunt, clumsy appropriation for me signals that the company is not trying too hard to be original, that it knows it will be seen as a copy-cat and basically doesn’t care. It hasn’t made a fetish of its own fictitious independence from the brands that already exist.

Li Ning makes no bones about admiring its bigger rivals. Its gleaming corporate campus near Beijing, complete with indoor swimming pool, basketball courts, and a climbing wall, seems like a page out of Nike’s play book. Ads feature the slogan “Anything is Possible” (which the company launched before Adidas came out with “Impossible is Nothing,” but long after Nike’s “Just Do It”). And its logo is strikingly similar to the Nike Swoosh. “They just dusted off a Nike marketing plan, took bits and pieces, and said, “Voilà!’” says Terry Rhoads, a former Nike China executive who runs Shanghai sports consultancy Zou Marketing.

The article calls Li Ning a paper-tiger brand, because it is trying to use the Olympics and non-Chinese endorsees to foster the illusion that the brand has greater international reach than it actually does to appeal its national market. It wants the same credibility Nike has in the eyes of its domestic market.

But these same moves may give it a reverse appeal internationally. The aura of not caring about aping established brands seems a good one for a protest brand, which after all is supposed to allow its consumers to demonstrate a knowing superiority (that verges on irony) to the desperate cool seeking of straightforward brands. Openly proclaiming “We’re a lame knockoff” somehow mitigates the fact of being a lame knockoff. Wearing the lame knockoff brand proudly has a similar effect with regard to the identity one is trying to display: “I don’t care what people think of me. I am going to wear these shoes that say just how little I care.” Or “I don’t need to try that hard to distinguish myself with brands. I’m going to take this lame brand and invest it with my credibility.” And wearing Li Ning serves the fundamental purpose of saying, “I resist and reject all the marketing of the big athletic-apparel companies. I don’t need their cachet to feel good about my sneakers.”

At the same time, Li Ning is obscure and novel enough to make its wearers seem exotic. At this point the brand’s consumers can feel like innovators, discoverers rather than followers. You can’t wear Nike without feeling somewhat like a follower, unless you are doing some counterintuitive rationalizing. In order to wear Nike in a hip anti sort of way, you must make the case to yourself that its ubiquity has made it invisible. You can signal an indifference to brands by selecting the überbrands, trying to suggest a laziness that led you to pick the most widely available option.

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