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by Rob Horning

26 Mar 2009

At the site for the Economist‘s Intelligent Life magazine was posted this rebuttal to an earlier piece about “the Age of Mass Intelligence.” The earlier piece, by John Parker,  took a sort of quantitative view of culture and argued that we live in the most cultured time ever. Parker’s evidence is familiar, a cultural spin on the argument that capitalism and consumerism has democratized style and material possessions. More people are going to museums than ever before! More people are reading Tolstoy! Since, it is being broadcast online, more people have the opportunity to hear opera! Huzzah!

Not that these are disturbing developments in themselves. The fact that more people have access to cultural goods is a good thing. People encounter fewer barriers to developing tastes for what once were highbrow cultural redoubts. But the improving raw numbers of cultural consumption matter mainly to entrepreneurs in the culture industries. Consumers care more about what their cultural consumption signifies.

Mass cultural consumption can seem like it constitutes an assault on one of the upper class’s power sources—its elitism. Parker suggests we have to call into question the idea of cultural capital thanks to this higher demand for what he has judged to be “intelligent interest”:

the growth of intelligent interest may help resolve an argument that exists in universities between those who say culture is really all about class or income, much as it always was, and those who say that, no, sweeping statements about class are no longer relevant, and that these days personal taste, not class or money, is what matters. The new audience suggests both schools are partly right (or wrong). Taste has become fantastically heterogeneous: people do indeed watch and read whatever they want; intellectual snobbery is breaking down. But as Drs Wing and Goldthorpe have shown, one group—those with university degrees—read more, watch more and mix and match more than anyone else.

That fails to resolve anything as far as I can tell. The question remains how do we narrow down from “whatever we want” to manage our cultural consumption? The nature of those desires still have signaling functions, regardless of how heterogeneous the signal pool seems. With no hard and fast sumptuary laws, the boundaries between classes need to be constantly rearticulated—the pool of signals and symbols from culture serve that function; their meaning is constantly being renegotiated. There need to be constant displays of cultural prowess, constant interpretations. That is why culture becomes a privileged site for political battle in capitalist society—it seems like a credible route to power to seize control over those symbols. (Whether that is a matter of mistaking the superstructure for the base is a whole other question.)

Cultural proliferation doesn’t do away with elitism; it forces elitism to refine itself, to burrow in more deeply into the existing institutions and social mores. It may become even harder to root out as it becomes more attenuated. (That may be impossible to prevent and is no reason to restrict the dissemination of culture, but it’s also no reason to pretend that dissemination has no perverse effects.) The increase in culture does not increase the amount of cultural capital, which is relative—a positional good. One can argue that cultural proliferation has led to there being multiple status hierarchies (this maps to the cultural omnivores in Parker’s essay) in which one can have cultural capital (though I think these are ultimately reducible to a master hierarchy which maps onto social class, the hierarchy that permits the conceptualization of power relations in society in the broadest way). But even still, cultural capital is inherently unequal in its distribution; it consists of the leverage gained by a superior working understanding of a given aesthetic domain—the unspoken rules of taste, the procedures of politeness, the deployment of the proper terminology and allusions, the cultivation of critical authority, and so on. There can be no leveling in these realms—“de gustibus non est disputandum” is the alibi of the dominant and the last refuge of the dominated.

That is to say, “dumbing down” is a relative concept, and it’s always happening at any given time in a society, from the perspective of a group trying to retain whatever power it derives from its cultural capital. So I think Parker is wrong when he writes this: “It is hard to believe that those who accuse arts institutions of dumbing down would want audiences to be smaller.” I think that is precisely what they want; smaller audiences, and a consolidation of culturally derived power. Some of that consolidation, though, will always take a concern-trolling form of worrying about “dumbing down”—this is a subtle method of policing class boundaries.

In George Balgobin’s rebuttal, he highlights a point that I’ve tried to make in the past: The new emphasis on the quantity of culture consumed and the signals it can be deployed to send (over the new mediums available to send such signals) has led to the development of a widespread collector’s mentality toward culture:

Facebook is devoted to cataloguing this cultural rebirth. Here people curate their personas and project them at the world. Characteristic of the younger generations, the mood strains for the eclectic while feigning nonchalance. The alchemist arranges lists in search of gold: Shostakovich, Dresden Dolls, Justin Timberlake, Miles. “Mrs Dalloway” is popular, perched between “Harry Potter” and, simply, “The Russians”. Status updates remind you that a friend has just returned from an “HD Mozart Opera” while another is “getting into Herzog films”. This is an achievement panopticon; the participants are its prisoners.

The key question ends up being whether we believe that performing our appreciation of something—indulging in what Balgobin calls “credentials kanuki”— means we don’t really appreciate it. He asks, “if we fail to distinguish between attendance and appreciation, we may end up poorer for it, left with a corporate caricature of our cultural richness. The ‘intelligent’ masses will work hard mining the store of culture artefacts, but will they read the texts and learn from them, or only use them as objects for trade?” I think that built into this question is an assumption that signaling through cultural goods precludes the possiblity of authentically enjoying them—that culture must be regarded as an end in itself or else it has been violated. That’s an assumption that’s built into a lot of what I’ve written in the past. But that identity isn’t something that can just be assumed; rather it’s the essence of the dilemma of consumerism. I guess I frequently worry that concern for signaling erodes the ability to appreciate culture on its own terms, because of my own experience of being a poseur.

by Sarah Zupko

26 Mar 2009

Karin Dreijer Andersson has a day job in the icy cool Swedish electro pop duo the Knife. Taking a break from that project, Andersson is stepping out with Fever Ray. The self-titled album came out this week and is stoking some serious critical accolades, including from PopMatters. As Ian Mathers says today in a review of the record, “With the Knife on hiatus,  Andersson crafts something even more all-encompassing and darkly compelling than [The Knife’s] Silent Shout.” “When I Grow Up” is her new video from Fever Ray and features haunting Björk-ish vocals amongst a spare arrangement of dark synths and the artist writhing around in tribal garb on a diving board.

by Thomas Hauner

26 Mar 2009

The Fader’s monthly music series at the American Museum of Natural History, “One Step Beyond”, has declared itself as the place to “see and be seen under the stars” while watching “dynamic visuals” and listening to live music and DJs. At least they got the “under the stars” part right; the museum’s Rose Center for Earth and Space is unparalleled in its modern resplendence. 

Aside from the aeronautic-themed atrium nothing else seemed to quite percolate the space. Which isn’t to say Kieren Hebden’s performance (a.k.a. Four Tet) was weak. In fact it was penetrating and dense but light and euphoric, examples of his best traits. But Hebden’s role seemed naturally hindered by the event’s gaudy constraints: Constellations of cocktail tables encouraging static reactions to the energetic music; competing and conflicting videos projected on myriad surfaces; and a crowd whose dichotomy consisted of enthusiastic participants and listless apathetic but aspiring attendees. The latter debilitated the mood most, as there was an awkwardness of conflicting factions.

On the makeshift dance floor (between galactic displays) Hedben sounded patient and balanced. Though he mostly played tracks from his latest Ringer EP, i.e. “Ringer”, “Ribbons”, and “Swimmer”, he also tossed in some older classics, like “Smile Around The Face”. Hebden also flaunted his Tenori-On instrument, decorating the tops of songs with its gimmicky Lite-Brite appeal.

Standing in the dance floor’s nadir (directly under the anchored, and colossal, IMAX orb) the sound was awesome. Though muddled and amorphous in the hall’s surrounding lacunae, on the dance floor the bass throbbed in a visceral pulse while the treble was like its clear conscience. I hadn’t experienced a bass sound so completely consuming since Chicago’s Smart Bar. Paired with the museum’s sci-fi surroundings, it was a pleasant moment to totally lose oneself in.


by Rob Horning

26 Mar 2009

In the past, I’ve occasionally adopted the stance of an armchair revolutionary and opined about how to subvert the state apparatus and destabilize the corporate hegemony and that sort of thing. If pressed about it then, I would probably have had in mind a vague notion that Gramscian organic intellectuals—people I would relate to and endorse—would somehow lead the charge, that the efficacious force for radical social change would evolve out of the antiglobalization movement that disrupted the WTO meetings in Seattle in 1999. That was before I had even a rudimentary understanding of the financial system, and social change, in my mind, evinced itself only as a new virtuous life we all could be leading as individuals, not exploiting anyone with our consumerist purchases or any other manifestation of our destructive selfishness. Somehow everyone would be able to feel cool by doing the right thing—which was more of an aesthetic matter than an ethical one—and these virtuous new behaviors would never come to seem conformist or anything other than fulfilling and personally gratifying and expressive of our full uniqueness, etc., etc.

But unfortunately, that sort of personalized, self-contained revolution—together with a few righteous protest marches here and there—seems altogether irrelevant to the macro forces that shape the world’s institutions and systems. Now I’ve become much more cynical, Burkean. I’m fearful that the “will of the people” becomes relevant only when it becomes a virulent populism, that the revolution will be led not by organic intellectuals who can articulate a plan of attack in the name of a righteous cause, but by demagogic opportunists who can tap into an atavistic rage among the masses, who can exploit their ignorance to achieve no goal other than the seizure of power for its own sake. The revolution often transpires as a series of chaotic, reactionary upheavals that no one can hope to control, regardless of their historical inevitability. In short, revolutions don’t happen because smart people suddenly have more influence and scope to operate; they happen because the ignorant get riled up. This happens when it suddenly becomes impossible to ignore that their ignorance is being exploited by the “powerful.”

As many have pointed out (though not so bluntly), that is what seems to be happening now in the wake of the serial bank bailouts. Well-informed critics have been saying for years that the real-estate bubble was unsustainable, that financial derivatives should be regulated, that leverage rations were too high, that ratings agencies faced conflicts of interest, that the quants’ computer models were unreliable. But their complaints went unheeded; critics were marginalized further, and nothing changed. Now, after the fact, the same criticism is more likely to be raised in the tone Matt Taibbi adopts in this piece, which is well worth reading, even though the implications of its tone are scary. This sort of critique seems entirely righteous, and its deliberately inflammatory rhetoric is what seems to make it credible:

There are plenty of people who have noticed, in recent years, that when they lost their homes to foreclosure or were forced into bankruptcy because of crippling credit-card debt, no one in the government was there to rescue them. But when Goldman Sachs — a company whose average employee still made more than $350,000 last year, even in the midst of a depression — was suddenly faced with the possibility of losing money on the unregulated insurance deals it bought for its insane housing bets, the government was there in an instant to patch the hole. That’s the essence of the bailout: rich bankers bailing out rich bankers, using the taxpayers’ credit card.

The people who have spent their lives cloistered in this Wall Street community aren’t much for sharing information with the great unwashed. Because all of this shit is complicated, because most of us mortals don’t know what the hell LIBOR is or how a REIT works or how to use the word “zero coupon bond” in a sentence without sounding stupid — well, then, the people who do speak this idiotic language cannot under any circumstances be bothered to explain it to us and instead spend a lot of time rolling their eyes and asking us to trust them.

The degree to which we all feel somewhat powerless in the face of these monumental events warrants the contemptuous tone, which is proportionate to our impotence. In the run-up to the Iraq War, a similar impotence was felt, but generally only by those who could be ignored as pacifistic pansies from whom impotence was to be expected. The populace at large could enjoy a good war as a pep rally inspiring nationalistic pride. But there is no vicarious pride, no shock and awe to be found in the bank bailouts. 

As this populist contempt builds, it worsens the conditions for doing business, the same conditions that bankers have already abused—so it becomes a vicious spiral. Corruption seems like it may as well be the rule, from the top down to the little people. The tunneling Simon Johnson described becomes the rule for everyone—the purpose of doing business is to loot, not to produce.

The furor over the AIG bonuses, et.al. has Felix Salmon wondering if class warfare has at last reached America.

In one corner are the technocrats not only in finance but also in government and the media: people who can understand the importance of distinguishing between a $250,000 base salary, a $2.5 million bonus, a $250 million bonus pool, a $2.5 billion bonus pool, a $250 billion bailout package, a $2.5 trillion monetary stimulus, and so on.
In the other corner are the real people, the angry people, the unemployed people—and with them their elected representatives in Congress. They’re not interested in such distinctions any more, they’re not interested in what’s fair or what’s sensible. They saw their real wages stagnate for decades as the orgy of plutocratic self-congratulation reached obscene levels only to keep on growing. All they ever had was the American Dream: the idea that they, too, might one day become dynastically wealthy and join the overclass.
Now, of course, that dream is shattered.

Carson Gross, a guest poster at Basline Scenario, examines “the cultural costs of bailout nation” and reaches similar conclusions. “There may be technical solutions to the banking problem.  However, if those solutions do enough damage to the cultural framework on which the system was based in the first place, even the most brilliant among them will be useless.” The real problem, though, is that cultural framework may always have been inherently flawed, or as Marixsts argue, riven with unreconcilable contradictions.

What’s frightening is that no one knows in precisely what form this incipient class warfare will erupt. Would anyone be shocked to see anti-Semitism spike over the next few months?

Update: This morning, the NYT tries to throw some cold water on populist fire with this sentimental letter from a former AIG trader.

by Bill Gibron

25 Mar 2009

Stephen King has said that he’s often shocked by people’s initial reaction to him in person. Since he creates horrific nightmares of blood curdling and spine chilling terror, tales that traumatize the very marrow in your bones and scar the substance of your soul, fans assume that he is an equally dark, diabolic person. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, whether or not his imagination holds such demonic thoughts. Making people frightened is merely his job, as it is for writers like Clive Barker, or filmmakers like Wes Craven or Dario Argento. They all suffer from a contextual confusion which suggests what they create is the same as who they are.

Lucio Fulci clearly felt a similar sense of personal misrepresentation. As the man infamous for putting more arterial spray than art on the silver screen, the mind behind such blood-soaked epics as Zombi, The Beyond, and City of the Living Dead was, by 1990, in the twilight of his career. And yet even during these final, inconsistent years, a new fanbase devoted to his guts and grue dynamic were clamoring for more. In the mesmerizing meta-experience, Cat in the Brain (released as Nightmare Concert internationally, and back on DVD from Grindhouse Releasing), the glorious goremeister takes said reputation as a splatter savage and literally turns it upside down and sideways. The results speak volumes for how we watch scary movies, and how we view those who make them. 

While working on his latest film, Fulci finds himself slowly coming unglued. At his usual lunching spot, a suggestion of steak tartar makes him physically ill. Upon returning home, a gardener with a chainsaw causes him concern. Convinced he is losing his mind, he visits Professor Egon Schwarz, a psychiatrist with a knack for hypnosis. As part of the proposed cure, Fulci will let himself be “put under”. Unfortunately, Professor Schwarz is a psychopath who wants to go on his own sinister killing spree. Tricking Fulci into thinking that he himself is committing the crimes, the maniac medico begins murdering hookers with unhinged abandon. All the while, our flustered filmmaker experiences visions from his past films, disgusting, gruesome hallucinations that convince him he’s a monster.

Cat in the Brain is either the laziest excuse for a movie ever made by a true Italian giant, or one of the most unusual and unique films ever crafted by a fading cinematic icon. By utilizing clips from movies he either directed or produced, including The Ghosts of Sodom (1988), Don’t Be Afraid of Aunt Martha (1988), Touch of Death (1988), Bloody Psycho (1989), Escape from Death (1989), Massacre (1998), and Hansel e Gretel (1990), Fulci fashions a formidable tale of personal torment and professional assessment. Convinced he is nothing more than a cinematic circus geek, the filmmaker puts himself in the place of his audience and stands in revulsion over what he sees. To witness a man who makes atrocities for a living play at being equally insulted by their outright repugnance is a bit disconcerting at first. It’s like watching your favorite chef gag on his own cooking.

But Fulci knows that’s how we’ll react, and he keeps driving home the point to make sure it sticks. There are disturbing murders - including a couple involving Leatherface’s favorite power tool - that are simply nauseating in their cruelty. At other instances, we laugh as holdover actor Brett Halsey (he’s featured prominently in the clips) plays lethal lothario, killing various women with a combination of sadism and satire. In fact, the material that’s the least effective here revolves around Professor Schwarz and his wide-eyed, over the top sense of slaughter. When actor David L. Thompson puts on his murder’s mug, we’re not sure if he’s crazy, or just advertising the dentist who polished those sparkling pearly whites. It’s as gratuitous as the Nazi orgy sequence which goes on for far too long.

As a result, it would be easy to consider Cat in the Brain to be self-indulgent, self-centered, and self-aggrandizing. This is Fulci paying tribute to his forgotten legacy, the later period films long after The Beyond, Zombie, and The House by the Cemetery created a firestorm of loyal fans. Indeed, many of the movie reference will be completely foreign to even the most dedicated lover of the Italian icon. Still, there’s no denying the man’s way with special effects. While some of the sequences seem dated by today’s standards (Fulci even rejects an eyeball gag which he professes still fails to look “real” to him), the brutal natural of their visual aggression cannot be denied. Sure, the bodies look like latex and stage blood, but what Fulci does to them is beyond belief.

As part of the new DVD from Grindhouse Releasing, we get a chance to hear Fulci defend himself in a rare and very revealing interview. The man is very open about his career and very candid about his work within the genre (i.e. - would people go to his films if he made comedies, he wonders out loud). There is also a chat with actor Halsey that’s a lot of fun, as well as a look at Fulci’s appearance to the 1996 Fangoria Weekend of Horrors. Just watching him bathe in the warmth of his frenzied fanbase is reason enough to check out this intriguing featurette. Toss in a wealth of additional content, including a few more Q&As, a bunch of stills and poster art, the original theatrical trailer, and a collection of liner notes penned by Antonella Fulci, novelist David Schow, and director Eli Roth, and you’ve got a wonderful digital presentation of a complicated, controversial film.

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