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by L.B. Jeffries

20 Mar 2009

The new Facebook bears an eerie resemblance to Twitter in both function and appearance. Instead of asking for our status, we are asked to post what we are thinking. Whereas the old website broke everything into categories, everything is lumped together in a gushing stream of information. Like Twitter, Facebook is now aggregating information without prejudice.

It’s an interesting shift because on the surface Facebook would seem to have every advantage over Twitter. The culture of birthday greetings, posting links, and clever away messages is just as prevalent as ever. Facebook is also currently the number one social networking website, beating out myspace both in terms of active users and monthly visits. The crux for any of these websites is figuring out a way to keep people coming back. How do you make the incessant flow of information more presentable and easy to consume yet still need to be checked constantly? How do you make a website become a necessary part of someone’s life?

It’s tempting to automatically dismiss Twitter as standing no chance in this struggle but its rise in popularity has been incredible. Going from being ranked 22 in social networks to 3 in such a short space of time is no small task. As a user of both websites, I also use them for very different purposes. My Facebook account has always been an elaborate yearbook and text message service. Twitter, on the other hand, is where I talk with people about video games. What’s striking is that I have never met almost all of the people I exchange tweets with. Twitter has a distinct advantage over Facebook in this regard because it encourages meeting and linking with strangers. You don’t disclose personal information in your profile, so you don’t really care who reads it.

There are also several problems that Facebook’s culture is going to have when adopting Twitter’s information distribution method. It would be nice to think people have gained some sense of internet etiquette over the years, but you still encounter folks who seem to think we need to know what they’re having for breakfast. Combine this with people actually posting interesting links or comments and that girl who incessantly needs to tell me she won a free laptop and you start to encounter information overload. There are only so many people you can follow on Twitter before you just start focusing on certain people and ignoring the rest. The issue is that de-friending someone on Facebook is often taken personally, un-following someone on Twitter is just business.

Which brings up the issue of functionality that is going to dominate 2009 for both gaming and the internet as a whole. The website that is going to become a part of a person’s life, as opposed to just an escape from work, is the one that is the most useful. After four years of using Facebook, the majority of people I’m friends with no longer live near me. I don’t really need to know about their day to day lives except for the occasional nostalgia bender. Twitter and the discussion it provides with a group of likeminded people is, by comparison, something I rely on daily for news and insight. Grouping people by common interests, instead of who they know, seems to generate more traffic.

by Diepiriye Kuku

20 Mar 2009

Considering any anthem for coming out, I naturally look back to my own experience sixteen years ago. It is therefore several chansons from 1992 that facilitated that DJ’s saved my life. Kids like me heard a strong and clear message in:

I can’t help falling in love/I fall deeper and deeper the further I go

My mother had gone to California for the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. The state had yet another budget stall, employees were given cash against future checks at local credit unions, but mostly state employees weren’t receiving any pay. Moreover, the state’s backlog infringed upon plenty citizens’ rights to due process, hence these relief recruits from all around the nation. My mother became involved in this quandary in order to help push along the process of disabled Californians to receive state benefits, however meager.

Having denied myself for years, my sexuality became undeniable at age 16. Perhaps I could see the light at the end of the tunnel: graduating high school a year later meant leaving the Bible Belt for good. Janet Jackson had come out as bisexual, too, and though portrayed as a media trend, the concept of alternative sexuality was now ‘out’ there in my universe. This was also the year Madonna came out. In her videos, she’d play with gender and sexuality rather straightforwardly, yet by 1992, she was ready to affirm her bisexuality. Finally, one could discuss the topic, for example, with friends at school without any direct reference to the self—without coming out. This was a typical way of gauging the temperature of peers around sexuality.  What felt as the most taboo subject after race, which often got diluted in mixed company, to mean racism. Similarly, any discussion of sexuality would always get reduced to petty epithets of hate or whitewashed diversity. None of this addressed the kid standing before them, struggling to understand difference, yearning for any context where we could fit it.

The words you could not say, I’ll sing them for you

Growing tired of media gossip and what at the time seemed to him as an irony in being a sanitized teen pop idol-broaching sex and sexuality that effaced his own—George Michael finally understood the importance gay icons. He began to rage against the machine, taking great shots at Sony with his tongue-n-cheek super model videos, all but announcing himself as a sissy (can you imagine 50 Cent in a video with that much naked feminine flesh and not tap any of that ass?). Yet at that time, his sexuality was clearly unspeakable. Ain’t nobody loves me better, sang George, covering Chaka Khan at the 1991 concert where he met the man whom he would eventually consider the great love of his life. Where lay people struggle to find gay love reflected in the pop culture, it must sting an actual pop artist to conceal his own love, particularly when love is flaunted and easily trampled upon by his colleagues and cohort.

As an artist, George Michael would not be able to sing openly about this love and eventual loss- Feleppa succumbed to AIDS-related brain hemorrhage—until years after that faithful night in Rio. Even still, the artist waited years before publically acknowledging that relationship. I’ve been loved/So I know just what love is…Oh the lover I still miss/Was Jesus to a child, sang the balladeer softly in 1995.

Where Madonna and Janet were painted as predictably and effectively licentious, George Michael’s ‘secret’ was balled around in the press as deception. Moreover, as a gay teen, it did feel like his deception were betrayal; only our deep love of Luther saved him from the same fate. George Michael and L.V. used feminine pronouns for their love interests in every song—some of the best love ballads of their generation. Creep, creep, creep, creep! Gay love was made visible by Madonna and Janet’s media antics, but silenced and effaced by the real gays. Creepy.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Jesus to a Child

Madonna really came out in her Sex picture book my senior year in high school. I had joined a gay youth support group, and had met many more queer youth during the months of media trashing 1992’s Erotica and 1994’s Bedtime Stories, where mistress Dita wore her queerness on her sleeve as keenly as she had turned the tables a year earlier- chaining herself like a junkyard dog, superficially reversing the patriarchal role to reflect men working to titillate women: “Don’t go for second best, baby … make him express himself.” This was not a contestation of power, but S&M fantasy reinforcing the way things already were. Bleaching her hair silly, Madonna showed that she was prepared to “trade fame for love,” as she would later reveal nearing 40.

Even in high school I found her interactions with her black-and-tan ‘chain of fools’ to be maternal, portraying blacks as juvenile, and the whole thing as play, much like her feigning fellatio on a bottle in Truth or Dare. In Erotica’s  video, which MTV banned, as well as in Sex’s scenes with the definitive supermodel Naomi Campbell, and rapper Big Daddy Kane, my favorite Material Girl appeared like an overseer. Lily White, a n*gger wench and a n*gger stud; she even invited over an older European sophisticate to come play with her toys. Instead of this liberated sexuality, I saw rather retrograde images of white supremacist fantasies, which ultimately just showed that a woman could do anything a man could.

Again, this was S&M both superficially- there were whips, chains, (p)leather bras and the whole bit- but also in the profoundly clear projections of white supremacists fantasies of the gender, race and class hierarchy. Images of the supermodel’s fake making-out with the big black rapper, or with some contrite visual composition, like Madonna standing nude as if hustling on a wide Los Angeles boulevard reminded me of that poor little motherless Italian girl, growing up in Detroit (Oh Father!), finding refuge with the blacks who were ready to accept her, and even teach her to dance as she admitted early in her Material career. Blues, jazz, funk and hip-hop have always masked white transgression, aiding generation upon generation to distinguish themselves from the conservative norms of whiteness bequeathed them; here was our generation’s Elvis, mocking and masking anything authentically black, trading love of the craft for sheer fame. And here on the black and white pages of Sex, she was showing us her beautifully dark skin friends, bragging about how much of a bad girl she was.

by Rob Horning

20 Mar 2009

In a footnote to a post at The Valve about “weak reading,” English professor Rohan Maitzen adds a footnote that well sums up the problem with academic literary criticism. It’s a bit long, possibly longer than the post itself, but it warrants quoting in full

One phenomenon with which anyone in literary studies is certainly familiar, for instance, is the interpretive strategy by which something seemingly incidental in the text is seized upon and ‘discovered’ to have great interpretive significance—usually because it can be read symptomatically, helping turn the text, as Attridge says, into an “illustration of historical conditions or ideological formations.” Here’s a mildly parodic (but fairly accurate) example of how it works. Suppose the text is a 19th-century realist novel—say, Barchester Towers, which I happen to be reading now. Imagine there’s a scene with a dinner party at which pickles are served. Now, the immediate action of Barchester Towers has everything to do with the internecine rivalries of English clergyman and the moral and social crises flowing from them, and nothing to do with pickles, but now that we have noticed the pickles, it becomes irresistible to follow up on them. Lo and behold, nobody has done pickles yet (though I could give you quite a list of what has been done). So we produce a pickled reading. What are the cultural implications of pickles? Who could afford them, and who could not? Were pickling techniques perhaps learned abroad, maybe in the chutney-producing regions of the eastern empire? Or maybe pickling was once a cottage industry and has now been industrialized. We learn all about these issues and make that jar on the table resonate with all the socio-economic and cultural meanings we have uncovered. Though the pickles seemed so incidental, now we realize how much work they are doing, sitting there on the table. (Who among us has not heard or read or written umpteen versions of this paper?) And perhaps we are right to bring this out—after all, for whatever known or felt reason, Trollope saw fit to put pickles there and not, say, oysters or potatoes. But do we really understand more about Barchester Towers, or just more about pickles—not in themselves, but as symptoms of industrialism, colonialism, or bourgeois taste in condiments? It’s not that our pickle paper might not be interesting or, indeed, accurate in all the conclusions it draws about the symptomatic or semiotic or other significance of the pickles. But it’s hard not to feel somehow that such an analysis misses the point of the book and thus has a certain intrinsic irrelevance.

The point here, I think, is that you don’t really need Barchester Towers to write that historical study of pickles, which is more interesting than Trollope, in a way. What more is there to understand about Barchester Towers? Why privilege it? Why not say Barchester Towers (which by the way is a very funny book worth reading) is intrinsically irrelevant to pickles, rather than vice versa? As objects for historical study, Trollope is no more important an object than pickles are. It’s just that most universities don’t have a food studies department, whereas they do have literature departments.

What are the reasons for that? Part of the point of having English departments, the argument goes, was to codify national greatness. This is especially obvious in classes dealing with American writers, which often adopt the theme of American exceptionalism as an important point of class discussion. Literature classes also serve as lectures in secular moralism, with English professors resolving ethical problems in texts to show both how the authors were deep, insightful souls and we the readers have become nearly as deep and insightful by reading those authors carefully. I find that dubious. In the main body of the post, Maitzen quotes from this exchange between scholars Derek Attridge and Henry Staten about this kind of reading.

The notion that it is smarter to read “against the grain” rather than to do what one can to respond accurately and affirmatively to the singularity of the work can compound this disregard of what is truly important. This is not to say that the use of literary works as illustrations of historical conditions or ideological formations (including abhorrent ones) is invalid or reprehensible; just that to do so is not to treat the works in question as literature.

Somewhere Pierre Macherey is groaning. In A Theory of Literary Production, he argued that we should read for what texts specifically can’t say. The point of analysis is to determine what conditions make the work and its reception possible. “The real critical question is not: What is literature? (What does one do when one writes, or reads?) The question is: What kind of necessity determines the work? What is it really made from? The critical question should concern the material being used and the implements so employed.”

That’s a bit extreme, but Attridge and Staten veer in the wrong direction, I think, when they suggest one can define the “literary” for its own sake, as a transcendent quality worthy of study rather than a political tactic. Deeming something to be literature is only interesting in so far as we know what that dignified status accomplishes for those involved in articulating it. In itself, who cares what is literary?

As much as I am inclined to agree with Attridge and Staten and find clever counterintuitive, beside-the-point analyses of tangential elements in texts tiresome, their definition of “weak reading” has problems, some of which Maitzen points out. Namely, as she writes, that “a text’s own ‘theme’ is rarely obvious” and what is obvious to any given reader is “very much a result of one’s experience and preparation.” These differences in preparation and experience measure a specific kind of cultural capital—and bringing up poems presents an occasion for those with greater experience to realize that capital. In discussions about literature (another term that presents definitional problems, to say the least), literature professors get to dictate (for once) what is “truly important.”

What’s at stake for literature professors is maintaining control over the definition of what counts as literature, and maintaining the authority to impose that definition—the source of their capital—on everyone else. They tend to disguise this by maintaining that a concern for literature is a concern for the deep soundings of the human spirit—hence their tendency to generate ersatz moral philosophy. The pickle-centric sort of readings of texts go half the way toward dispensing with literature qua literature, but they still nod to the necessity of a literary occasion for launching into a study of material culture. But in these cases, the literary occasion serves as an excuse for doing history or anthropology without the same sort of rigor that historians and anthropologists might require from one another. This drives literary studies into further disrepute in the academy, which only then intensifies the calls from within the discipline for a return to a concern for “literature” to redeem the field. It devolves into what appears from the outside to be a racket, a self-protective fog of vague language and unfalsifiable assertions about “literariness,” which justifies the continued existence of literary scholars within universities which have become corporatized, instrumentalist.

by Bill Gibron

19 Mar 2009

The life and uneasy times of Dalton Trumbo - scribe, novelist, screenwriter, director, and notoriously unrepentant member of the Hollywood blacklist of the ‘40s and ‘50s - are so fascinating, so full of the American Dream and its rancid, reciprocal nightmares, that it’s almost impossible to judge his art without them. For many Trumbo is the ultimate rebel, a man who stood up to McCarthy and his witch hunt heathens and suffered mightily for his art. For others, he was the unfortunate victim of a sanctimonious Senator with a mandate from an equally reactionary public. It cost Trumbo 11 months in prison (for contempt of Congress) and two Academy Awards (for Roman Holiday, and The Brave One).

Even his most important effort, 1971’s Johnny Got His Gun, was undermined by the still brewing gap between Vietnam-era patriotism and counterculture protest. By the time of his death in 1976, his work was actually being mocked and marginalized. Michael and Harry Medved even nominated Donald Sutherland’s work as Jesus Christ for one of their ultimate dishonors in the infamous Golden Turkey Awards book. But thanks to Metallica, who raised awareness of the big screen adaptation of Trumbo’s own National Book Award winner with their video “One”, a new generation of fans have grown curious about the maverick’s only stint behind the lens. Thanks to Shout! Factory and their new, near definitive DVD version of Johnny Got His Gun, a veiled motion picture mystery is finally revealed for all the world to see - and it’s a glorious sight to behold.

by Jennifer Kelly

19 Mar 2009

Desolation Wilderness

Desolation Wilderness

Down the street, at the Beauty Bar, I catch the very end of Fol Chen (masks, droning beats), and then wait for a while outside before Desolation Wilderness starts. It’s the K Records showcase, so no surprise that the band plays soft, coy lo-fi pop… or that they’re from Olympia, Washington. It’s an unstable combination, the nervy, wiry guitars, the flourish-y, glam-ish pop vocals, and it probably works better on a record than here, on another concrete-floored stage with heavy metal filtering in from next door. Not terrible, but not very memorable either.


Tara Jane O'Neil

Tara Jane O’Neil

Tara Jane O’Neil is next. She’s really the reason I’ve come. Her new album, A Ways Away, due out on K in early May, is a shimmering, golden-toned thing, full of guitar notes that hang in the air and lingering eerie slides, reminding me, a little, of Loren Mazzacane Connors. She’s playing mostly from this new album with just a drummer, and, while I think she, too, would do better in a smaller, more enclosed space, her songs are very beautiful nonetheless. I spoke to O’Neil a couple of weeks ago, and she told me that this album’s songs evolved out of live performance, rather than, as usual, her working them out alone. Still, they are quite inward looking, as is O’Neil’s performance. She has a hat pulled low, her hair spilling over the brim, so that all you can see of her face is a bit of nose and mouth, and that’s when she’s looking up. She begins, as the album begins, with “Dig In”, a slide-haunted, slow-building mist of a song, that clears only for O’Neil’s soft, strong, not-quite sweet voice. Towards the end, she beats with her fingers on the body of her guitar, looping the sound into an echoey drum-like beat, before adding the scratch of clamped guitar for another rhythmic element. A pile of tambourines is handed out to audience members, and, for such a reticent, shy performer, it is quite a communal moment, shimmering, evanescent, lovely… and you can only hear the metal bands outside a little through it.


Parenthetical Girls

Parenthetical Girls

Parenthetical Girls begin their complicated set-up almost immediately, hooking up Rhodes, Farfisa, drums, an artfully shattered cymbal, toy pianos, violin, xylophones, guitars, and bass, arranging stations for the band’s four instrument-switching members. Yet after all this effort, when the band starts, you can’t really focus on anyone, or anything but Parenthetical Girls’ charismatic frontman Zac Pennington. He’s the kind of rock personality that you recognize immediately, that you see, in the bar, having a drink, with more verve than most singers can muster on stage. Slight, pale, a red slash of curly hair falling over his eyes, a wide, emotion-carrying mouth and razory cheekbones, he looks like a lost boy (and a little like a lost girl). On stage, and often off it and trailing a mic cord, he marches military style, forwards and backwards, leans over the stage for the photo, all the while crooning, belting, shouting, flirting in a voice so flowery and elaborate, he might have borrowed it from Morrissey’s closet. In any other band, lovely Rachael Jensen in Mad Men-era vintage, swilling a PBR with a violin under her arm, would command attention. Here she simply fades into the background, all spotlights focused on Pennington. Parenthetical Girls have been on the road lately, with the Evangelicals, and apparently spending a lot of time playing gender bending “Marry/Fuck/Kill” games in the van. Tori Amos? Marry her. Fiona Apple? Fuck her. Regina Spektor? Kill her, says Pennington. A couple of songs later, it’s the guys’ turn, and Pennington opts for lust with Morrissey, wedded bliss with Michael Stipe, and homicide towards Lou Reed. Weirdly, you can imagine Penniman doing all that with any of them, his appeal theatrically pansexual and also weirdly vulnerable and touching. A great set, including “Young Eucharists”, “Here’s to Forgetting”, and closing with the Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark cover “Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)”, Pennington urging everyone to turn his band’s Judy Garland T-shirts into this year’s No Age tee, the SXSW memento of choice.



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