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Tuesday, Apr 24, 2007

As part of my autodidactically administered remedial course in political economy (my reading randomly in books I see mentioned elsewhere), I’ve been reading Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action, which develops the ramifications of a fairly straightforward point: In order for large groups (that is a group in which it’s not immediately obvious how much any one member’s contribution adds to the group’s overall accomplishments) to be successful in pursuing their collective aims, individuals in the group must be compelled to work together for the common aim rather than follow what rationality tells them is their best interest (i.e., become a free rider). This requires organizational costs be met and discipline (the closed union shop, for example) be enforced.


In the midst of making a point about union membership, he cites a passage from Selig Perlman’s Theory of the Labor Movement that I found incredibly depressing:


The scarcity consciousness of the manual worker is the product of two main causes ... The typical manualist is aware of his lack of capacity for availing himself of economic opportunities and knows himself neither the born taker of risks nor the possessor of a sufficiently agile mind ever to feel at home in the midst of the uncertain game of competitive business. Added to this is the conviction that for him the world has been rendered one of scarcity by an institutional order of things, which purposely reserved the best opportunities for landlords, capitalists, and other privileged groups.


Though Perlman is criticized for preaching that workers should orient themselves toward business rather than class struggle (rejecting the idea that intellectuals could organize the working class from without to fulfill socialist aims—for Perlman, organic intellectuals were nascent capitalists, not Gramscian cultural critics), this description of how workers discourage themselves from entrepreneurship rings true, anticipating ideas Sennett and Cobb spell out in The Hidden Injuries of Class. The implication is that workers lack the social capital to lift themselves out of their class, that their inherited habitus includes what Perlman calls “job consciousness”—a deeply felt certainty that opportunities are limited. A truly egalitarian society would work to rectify this feeling via the educational system, but because American education is shot through with socialization processes, it tends to reinforce the sense of destiny one absorbs from the relative position of one’s parents.


The rich have no monopoly on opportunity—there are many rags-to-riches stories we feed ourselves—but growing income inequality seems predicated on the rich being in a position to act on their wider opportunities and make the most of them, and use the rewards to continually reshape the playing field to further favor them when they take risks. Any cursory look at successful capitalists reveals how often they fail and how many more chances they are afforded, mainly because they feel entitled to them and have the networks of supporters to drawn on to make them happen—to secure them credit, or what have you. George W. Bush is perhaps the epitome of this limitless ability to fail without feeling the consequences personally. But for most people, there is instead a crushing sense of limits that generally masquerades as “being realistic.” We accept what is on offer from the world, rather than trying to shape our own lives, because the instinct for making ideas operational—for not being content with the daydream—hasn’t been bred in. We tend to assume that penchant for daydreaming, for settling, for “being realistic” is a matter of personal character, but culturally we emphasize entertainment as precisely this kind of impotent escape. We prize convenience and reconfigure risk aversion as a kind of quiet nobility. We make the martyr complex a species of politeness we might pride ourselves on.


When American society addresses this confidence gap, it tends to promote more individualized attention as a solution (teaching self-esteem, of the joys of compliance as compensatory for the lack of meaningful work—“it’s nice to go home and veg out”) rather than address the institutional issues, the tendency for there to be exponentially increasing returns to wealth and an ever-increasing accumulation of social capital at the top of the income pyramid. Is it possible to redistribute opportunity without redistributing wealth, or pursuing a bolshevist program of simply replacing the powerful functionaries of one class with another? It seems that there would some benefit to teaching sociology rather than self-esteem. The lesson of self-esteem is often that you should take your own failures personally rather than see the other factors that contribute. This may sound a little too much like Lionel Hutz (“We’re going to put the system on trial!” “I don’t use the word hero very often, but you are the greatest hero in American history”) but it seems foolish to preach individual opportunity and ambition without also pointing out the factors that circumscribe it and considering what could be done to alleviate them.


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Monday, Apr 23, 2007


Get ready for a little merchandising back and forth this week as studios and distributors strike at us with a combination of classics and crap. Inside the positive paradigm are one of 2006’s best films, a decent slice of speculation from a noted African American superstar, and a pair of pleasant box sets from two of foreign filmmaking’s greatest auteurs. The negatives of note include another clueless comedy, a crackpot kid flick and a very unnecessary CGI trip to a completely unentertaining museum. There’s also a lot of off title product hitting the marketplace as well, oddball offerings with names like China Doll (a Victor Mature war sudser) Von Richthofen and Brown (Roger Corman’s WWI flying epic) and Blood Orgy of the She Devils (trademark Ted V. Mikels miscreance). Unless you’re willing to experiment with your entertainment, your best bet is to stick with SE&L‘s rock solid pick, a film that makes the 24 April date worth noting:


The Queen


Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Stephen Frears’ Oscar nominated nod to the days preceding the death of Princess Diana is how emotionally astute it is. The natural reaction to anyone outside of the Prime Minister of Britain and the title icon would be unbridled devastation. That’s in fact what the world expressed upon her passing. But Elizabeth II and Tony Blair needed to manage a nation, not just their own feelings, and such a weighty proposition gives this amazing movie much of its drive, and its daring. Though it doesn’t pretend to offer factual insights into how Her Majesty and the Man from Number Ten Downing Street actually responded, Peter Morgan’s amazing script does a genius job of guessing. No matter if it’s false or forced, the responses just feel right, and help us see the exhaustive burden of power that follows every leader. Of course Helen Mirren deserved her Academy Award. The movie – and the men who made it - deserved a couple of those little gold men as well.

Other Titles of Interest


Code Name: The Cleaner


Don Imus gets fired for a horribly insensitive racial slur, and yet no one in Hollywood suffers one lick for continuing this borderline racist funny business formula. Cedric the Entertainer is the sad recipient of the Mantan Moreland treatment, playing a janitor who loses his memory and believes he’s a government agent. Sigh. That anyone thought this was viable mainstream entertainment is one thing. But to constantly cast talented black performers as the butt of bumbling jokes is a real crime.

Deja Vu


For some reason, Denzel Washington and genre efforts just don’t mesh. With a tenuous track record that includes Virtuosity, Fallen and The Bone Collector, it would seem silly to keep placing this titanic talent in a scary/sci-fi settings. In this time travel tale, built around the title premise, Washington is an ATF allowed to go back into the past and prevent an act of flagrant terrorism. Thanks to his considerable acting chops, we almost believe it.

The Documentaries of Louis Malle: Eclipse Series 2


As part of their new line of DVDs, Criterion introduces film fans to the non-fiction works of one of the medium’s great artists. Offering six works spanning subject matters as diverse as his native France and post-colonial India, this unusual compendium proves that there was more to Malle than gut wrenching humanism and a deep understanding of the flawed individual. Indeed, he had a keen eye for the drama of everyday existence as well.

The Jean Renoir Collection


Three discs. Seven films. One of SE&L‘s all time favorite filmmakers. So why aren’t we more ecstatic? Well, for one thing, Lionsgate is handling this release, and one has to question their stance as practiced preservationists. Second, most of these movies predate his masterpiece phase, the period between The Lower Depths (1936) and Rules of the Game (1939). Still, it’s Renoir, so you can definitely count us interested, if not exactly in.

A Night at the Museum


Do you miss those halcyon days of big budget, high concept movies that basically got by on imagery and mass hysteria. Well, look no further than this faceless, unfunny excuse for special effects. Ben Stiller trades his comic irony for kid friendly fluff and gets a massive points paycheck in the process. Unless the film’s main conceit grabs you – the displays in a local museum come to life after dark – there’s no need to visit this arch artifact from a lesser period of motion picture production.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Harry and the Hendersons: Special Edition


Wow, were we GULLIBLE in the ‘80s. William Dear, a director responsible for helping invent the music video format with MTV mentor Michael Nesmith (the pair produced the mythic Elephant Parts VHS ‘album’), used Rick Baker’s eccentric makeup to tell a slightly silly tale of a man who befriends a Bigfoot. That’s right, John Lithgow is along to overact as the harried dad who brings the legendary beast back home after his family has a car to creature mishap. All kinds of skunk ape hijinx ensue. Even though the premise is basically ET in a monkey suit, and the supporting cast of Don Ameche, Lainie Kazan and Melinda Dillon are top notch, the film tends to float away on its own internal emptiness. Even with a wealth of added content (commentaries, deleted scenes) its hard to imagine that this new DVD release will resonate with modern wee ones.

 


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Monday, Apr 23, 2007

Via Julian Sanchez, a link to a New Statesman review of Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. The book apparently chronicles the long history of the music industry turning authenticity into a product, and various folk musicians into mediums for authenticity’s distribution. As reviewer Jeff Sharlit explains, this reification of authenticity promotes “what Barker and Taylor call an authenticity ‘trap’—the harder you try to ‘keep it real’, the more artificial you become.”


The thing about authenticity is that, much like spontaneity, it can’t be self-aware. It’s only something that others can recognize in you, and the more you are aware of your reputation for it, the more likely it is you will lose that reputation. Pop music, like pop culture generally, packages ready-made lifestyles with nothing authentic about them. Some people, however, like “authenticity” (the product) in their lifestyle mix, hence the efforts to sell certain musicians—blues men and Appalachians in past decades, gangsta rappers more recently—as epitomizing realness. I tend to fall into a corollary trap where, after recognizing that contrived authenticity is worthless, I revel in gleefully inauthentic music, like bubblegum, thinking in part that this proves my piercing insight. But this is obviously no better. The real desideratum is to enjoy pop culture without deriving part of your enjoyment from the self-image you it helps you project. Ideally, when you start down this road of critical thinking, you want to consume the music, not some version of yourself, not some vicarious fantasy. You long for a route to the thing itself, an experience in which the thing ceases to function as a sign and just is. But this too would merely cater to a vicarious fantasy: by apprehending the music, in itself, we would see through to how we too can exist for ourselves, without needing to worry about grooming our identity and how we come across. I listen to, say, Tony Burrows, and for a minute I can fool myself into thinking that I don’t care what anybody else thinks, I’m just enjoying this song for what it is and nothing more. But at best I’ve bought myself a moment of self-forgetting. If there’s a distinction to be made between pop culture and “high culture”, it may rest in the way pop culture encourages you to consume yourself consuming—to revel in the image of yourself it foments—while high culture presents a challenge, demanding you apply some knowledge you’d acquired previously in order to try to understand a thing, and in so doing to forget yourself, lose yourself in the effort.


 


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Monday, Apr 23, 2007

This is, in part, just a quick note to echo Nikki’s official welcome-to-the-blog post.  Like Nikki, I’m largely convinced sites like PopMatters can deliver on the “long tail” and to make possible new conversations about books (and other formats with interesting writing), and Re:Print is a part of that.


And while there are a lot of fine literary blogs already out there, let me just point quickly to two recent discussions that suggest now is an auspicious time for a new one:


  • In the wake of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s decision to drop the position of book review editor, the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) has launched a Campaign to Save Book Reviews.  (You can read more about it at Critical Mass, the NBCC’s blog.) 
  • And over at TNR’s Open University blog, Jeffrey Herf recently issued a call for a new American review of books, noting that book reviews in the major papers are largely ignoring the intellectual work going on at university presses and other venues for serious nonfiction.

As a complement to PopMatters’s book review section, Re:Print can help do this work, for all the reasons Nikki outlined this morning.  This should be interesting!


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Monday, Apr 23, 2007

A call to arms by the people at No Depression over an unconscionable mailing rate hike went out.  This increase threatens the survival of not only No Depression but also many other print zines who rely on set postal rates to keep their publications around.  To read more about this and to sign a petition to make your voice heard on this matter, see Grant’s Rant.


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