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by Jason Gross

9 Jun 2008

Eh, not quite… I just got the e-mail saying that I have the privilege to test out the beta version of the Filter.  After a few serious browser crashes on Firefox and Safari that made me shut down my computer, I finally got to run it.  And I’ll give them this- it’s not too mediocre.

I spent a while rating some of my favorite movies and music and it was able to give me back some modestly interesting recommendations but nothing that I hadn’t thought of before- I already told them I liked Sonic Youth and Earth, Wind and Fire so why just point me to more of their albums instead of other bands?  There was a function to carry over my picks from Last.fm (which has a much better, interesting, eye-opening recommendation service) and that did help a little but again, nothing startling that made me want to plow through the Filter service much more.  Also, they only let you play 30 second clips (like iTunes) instead of the full songs, which you can do again on Last.fm or Napster. 

For movies, it wasn’t much better.  You can go ahead and rate a bunch of movies in different genres and they can come back with you with similar picks but again, it’s nothing that you couldn’t have figured out for yourself.  Even worse, when they did come up with a recommendation for the Polish film A Short Film About Love and offered to show you a trailer, you instead got a YouTube clip of the upcoming comedy The Love Guru, which you’ve probably already seen enough commercials for.  I didn’t have the stomach to sit through the clip to see if the original movie I wanted was going to come up.

As for the TV component, it’s not there yet.  I guess they just want to tease us since the other two parts work so well.

If you want to improve your recommendations even more, they also offer a download of their own software which hooks up to iTunes, sees what you’ve downloaded and listened to there and then… probably doesn’t do much better for you.  I’m sorry but after such lack-luster results before, I can’t waste any more download time and space on my hard drive for more of their lame recommendations.  If it is that great, let me know I’m wrong but otherwise, I’d say that you’re better off sticking with Last.fm, even if Warner Bros did yank their catalog from them recently.

Normally, I’d leave it at that but the person behind this service is Peter Gabriel, a musician who seems to get the potential of the Net and what can be done there.  I honestly hope that they do improve the service but until then, I can’t say that it’s worth your time.

by Terry Sawyer

9 Jun 2008

Michael Barthel has a great post over at Idolator about the anti-intellectualism of some music writers in particular and music criticism generally.  This is particularly ironic, as Barthel notes, when the critic in question slams him with a Borges reference.  (That would be Jorge Luis Borges for those of you not on a first name basis.)  It’s a great post for a number of reasons, including that Barthel calls out incoherence of someone trying to hide their philosophical depth for some sad approximation of street cred. 

Populism, in this context, is essentially the denial of expertise.  If it’s true that no one, given the instantaneous access, needs the contribution of critics, surely they need even less the dubious contributions of most music blogs, who act primarily as extensions of PR one sheets, without the objectivity. Music crticism has many unexplored tensions with the academy.  Some of them certainly come from the fact that many music writers, especially in their late 20s to mid-30s come to criticism from a University-era heavily steeped in postmodern theory.  Many of them, by choice, chance or deficiency have not continued on into academia.  Those anxious influences frequently crop up in either naïve rejection or equally naïve assimilation.

Music criticism also has a habit of writers competing with their subjects for having the most “rock and roll” values, something art historians probably don’t have hanging over their heads.  Consequently, Lester Bangs gets idolized for in part, getting fucked up all the time, because that’s way more hardcore than doing a systematic study of the evolution of brand mentions in hip hop lyricism.  That’s clearly not as cool.  Surely some people use philosophical jargon to obscure their insecurities, but just as many people deign to defend American Idol or Shania Twain based on some just as postured sense of contrarianism.  Barthel touches on some crucial issues that are worth arguing at length, but that wouldn’t cool, so I’ll keep it brief.  Foucault my ass.

by Rob Horning

9 Jun 2008

At PSFK, Dan Gould posts about Evan Baden, who photographs people entranced by their electronic gadgets. Baden writes, “More and more, we are bathed in a silent, soft, and heavenly blue glow. It is as if we carry divinity in our pockets and purses.”

Baden makes much of the technological innovation of gadgets and the “wealth of knowledge and communication” they allow, but it’s worth remembering that the 18th century had the same reaction to the technological innovation of the day, books. The site hosting Baden’s work poses this ominous question: “Their faces, made cadaverous by the artificial light, are expressionless, suggesting that, as we become more connected by our electronics, we become less connected to our immediate surroundings. This leaves us to wonder: do we own our electronics, or do they own us?” This echoes the society-wide fears of reading in the 18th century, primarily of women being preoccupied with books, which were seen as dangerous threats to their autonomy and education and their presumed role in the world. These fears supplied the substance of an array of plays, essays, and novels that fretted over women spending too much time reading and being emotionally altered by what they read. Like interactive gadgetry, books (novels especially) require the imaginative participation of the reader to make them come alive and work effectively. So perhaps any new media is destined to face this kind of criticism, that it is corrupting its users, removing them from contact with “reality” into some dangerously vulnerable trance state.

Compare this image

with this famous painting by Fragonard.

For more images, professor William Warner has collected a bunch for his essay on the subject here. Warner points out, “Like television watching in the mid 20th century, novel reading took France and England by storm; like television watching, reading novels engendered excitement and resistance in the societies where it first flourished.” He cites Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality, a study of 18th-century French painting’s representation of absorptive states (such as the ones Baden photographs) and the self-forgetting they suggest. Fried makes much of the way the figures in such paintings ignore the beholder, signifying a total self-absorption that constitutes at the same time a total self-forgetting, the loss of social self-consciousness. To achieve this effect, Fried argues, painters had to take pains to obliterate the point of view of the beholder. The “neutralization” that the paintings achieve enables the beholder to feel, Fried claims. The refusal to be acknowledged by the painting’s figures “seems to have given Greuze’s contemporaries a deep thrill of pleasure and in fact to have transfixed them before the canvas,” Fried writes. This may be because the beholder is made to feel outside the network of surveillance for a moment—this may be in fact what those staring into their iPods and BlackBerry’s paradoxically feel—that they are orchestrating the flow of communication around them, rather than being caught up in its web.

At the same time, onlookers are made to feel like voyeurs, as Fried claims beholders were when confronted with paintings full of absorbed figures. This heightens the reality-TV feeling of using gadgets in public, and I think it explains why some people feel the need to talk loudly on their phones in public spaces. Using the gadget renders the sense that we are eminently observable more powerful—because the gadget user is completely absorbed, they are more completely vulnerable to being watched, though the gadget using itself may be a theatrical behavior, seeking to attract the attention it seems to be oblivious to.

Fried posits that “a new kind of beholder” must be created—in other words, a new kind of vicariousness must be fomented in consumers of art that renders them paradoxically absent and present in the scene represented. They need to identify and judge and oscillate between those positions. Ien Ang identified this very motion in Watching Dallas, a study of how television series function. Ang points to “a constant to and fro movement between identification with and distance from the fictional world as constructed” in the work being consumed. Writes Fried, concluding his analysis of the new kind of art consumer: “The very condition of spectatordom, stands indicted as theatrical, a medium of estrangement rather than of absorption, sympathy and self-transcendence.” That seems to be the relationship we have with gadgets, and one another when we are using them.

 

by PopMatters Staff

9 Jun 2008

Sebadoh
Soul and Fire” (acoustic demo) [MP3] (from Bubble and Scrape Deluxe Edition (Domino/Sub Pop), releasing 8 July 2008 in the US)
     

Apollo Sunshine
666: The Coming of the New World Government [MP3] (from Shall Noise Upon, releasing 2 September 2008 in the US)
     

Amplive vs. MGMT
Of Moons, Birds & Monsters [Communication Edit ft. Mistah Fab] [MP3]
     

Modey Lemon

“A fuzzed-out, driving masterpiece with catchy hooks beaten to death by guitar/synth mayhem by Pittsburgh’s most-loved sons. Equal parts sci-fi darkness, garage angst-ridden wreckage, and kautrock brilliance.”—Birdman Records

Become a Monk [MP3]
     

Ice Fields [MP3]
     

Buy at iTunes Music Store

Tilly & the Wall
Pot Kettle Black [MP3]
     

The Gang

“Formed out of a love for playing music for people, Brooklyn-based The Gang is trying to lend form to a feeling through their own brand of rock. Recommended if you like Mission of Burma, Le Savy Fav, The Go! Team, and Fugazi.”—Absolutely Kosher

One Up the Sun [MP3]
     

Sea So [MP3]
     

The Melvins
Nude with Boots [MP3]
     

by Rob Horning

9 Jun 2008

Ronan McDonald’s recent book, The Death of the Critic, which argues that literary criticism should be evaluative so that it can reach a broad audience and therefore be relevant, has prompted some discussion at The Valve and Salon. Writes McDonald, in a passage excerpted by professor Rohan Maitzen here, “Perhaps the critic is not dead, but simply sidelined and slumbering. The first step in reviving him or her is to bring the idea of artistic merit back to the heart of academic criticism. ‘Judgment’ is the first meaning of kritos. If criticism is to be valued, if it is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative.”

McDonald appears to be serious in arguing that the academic study of literature should focus on whether works are good or bad, inviting a return to the “warm bath” approach to pedagogy that invites us to luxuriate in the Great Works and congratulate one another on how perceptive we are in appreciating them. But who establishes the terms of correct aesthetic judgment? It seems like a will to power is all that’s required, and then the spread of one’s aesthetic tenets serves no greater function than oppressing the world with your particular tastes. And if it’s not simply egotism, usually a covert political agenda is being served—the way the New Criticism tended to denigrate political works in favor of sterile formalism, which guaranteed quietism in the humanities. McDonald argues that true criticism was destroyed by cultural studies and its political agendas, but passing judgment is a political act. What is so hard to understand about that? You can’t impose an aesthetic value system on the public without imposing at the same time an implied set of political views, usually conservative ones, since the very act of imposing your judgment on others is an elitist proposition. (Not surprisingly, McDonald doesn’t like the democratization of criticism—probably because he suspects democracy as a principle. What, all those rubes out there get to have their own opinion, and it should count in the social world we share?) An aesthetics is always political; otherwise it’s merely solipsistic.

Speaking of solipsism, McDonald’s concerns over the democratization of criticism prompts this blithe statement from Salon’s Louis Bayard:

The problem with arguing for cultural gatekeepers is that, if you’re a professional critic, you inevitably look self-serving—“Hey, that’s my job!”—and yes, elitist—“Don’t try this at home, guys.” I myself don’t have any particular training or qualifications to be a reviewer, other than my own experience as a reader and writer, so I feel silly arguing that someone else isn’t qualified to deliver an opinion. And believe it or not, I’ve learned things from Amazon reviews, from letters pages, from literary blogs, from all sorts of non-traditional outlets. The quality of writing is certainly variable, but then so is the quality of traditional journalism.

Believe it or not? Bayard’s point is well-taken but is undermined utterly by that condescending interjection. Oh, is the great Louis Bayard to deign to find himself informed by the great illiterate mass of monkeys pounding away at their naive Amazon reviews and noncommercial blogs? I’m left with a sense of the mammoth amount of entitlement that critics seem to feel by their appointment to their prominent perches, and if that sort of critic is dying, I’d be happy to shovel the dirt on the grave. You have to hope he was being ironic in a way that is not coming across—which itself is an index of the distrust between critics and readers (readers like me, anyway).

Maitzen’s conclusion seems pertinent to the question of that distrust:

I share McDonald’s concern about the isolation of academic expertise from today’s reading culture more generally…I think, too, that he is right to be looking at questions of judgment and how they are understood and articulated as one of the flashpoints for misunderstanding or resentment between academics and other readers. I just don’t see how his prescription to be more evaluative is an adequate response, unless (at the minimum) it is accompanied by a commitment to showing why the question “Is it of any merit?” requires substantial complication before a worthwhile answer is possible. The responsibility here is not all ours: ideally, readers would want, not to be dictated to, but to be engaged in debate worthy of the books they are considering.

Criticism that prompts readers to become critics themselves in their own way would be healing the divide. That’s why the flowering of millions of critics on the internet should be heralded as success, not failure or death.
If critics—any critics, academic or otherwise—deserve our attention, it seems that should be a matter of their being interesting in their own right, producing something compelling from their interaction with some other work that makes us want to think and talk about it too. Mere evaluation seems the least interesting outcome of such an interaction. At best, it prompts tautological arguments about taste.

McDonald believes that “If criticism forsakes evaluation, it also loses its connections with a wider public,” but I’m not sure why that matters. Does criticism need to compete on the same turf as marketing, and should it really strive to become more like marketing (evalutive criticism of the most straightforward sort), because it happens to have an extremely wide public in our commercial society? McDonald apparently laments academic critics’ loss of public influence, but I’m not sure why they would deserve it; surely it’s better that critics are taking less of the attention away from the art they would, under McDonald’s system, be judging? Academic critics in general write repetitive and aggressively unreadable prose; this is because the mechanics of the profession demand it. (Academics must prove their mastery of a field through tedious recounting of previous scholarship, then they must prove a mastery of the field’s arcane lingo, which helps establish the discipline’s authority.) Were they to write in a more accessible fashion—for lay readers rather than their peers—they would be undermining the credibility of their field, th epresumption that special training is required to perform the sort of analysis in which they have become specialized. If we don’t think these specialized analyses are worth performing, better then to argue for the abolishment of literature departments, and turn literary analysis back over to the Virginia Woolfs of the world, the leisure-class dilettantes with the time and inclination to parse fictions.

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