Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Wednesday, Jul 5, 2006

This Slate essay about Larry Clark’s films attempts to knit together some inescapable trends—teenage exhibitionism, reality TV, easily accessible pronography, widely distributed user-generated content, exploitation being synonymous with attention—under the term Generation Porno. Of Clark’s latest film, part of the omnibus film Destricted, critic Christopher Kelly writes, “In only 38 minutes, the director has powerfully illustrated all his grand themes: that modern teenagers’ and twentysomethings’ compulsion to expose themselves is boundless; that our culture has now wholly transformed sex into a purely consumerist commodity; that none of us can take our eyes off a train wreck, least of all when there are attractive naked bodies involved.” These themes delineate what Kelly calls the “defining aesthetic of our time,” which recognizes the “truth” that “the adult urge to consume that which is young and beautiful is ineradicable.”


That seems an appropriate way to assess our current cultural climate. I’m not sure it stands as a universal truth that adults will always yearn to “consume” the sexuality of children, though. If anything, that seems a particular result of an unfortunate collision of technology making the self infinitely more marketable and widely distributable, and capitalist ideology celebrating such a shrewd move. Children learn to make themselves into products just as the law of planned obsolesence has come to seem given and immutable. Sexuality, now inextricably bound with the manipulations of marketing, becomes merely a medium of exchange in which the ultimate goal is not pleasure but social recognition—which has been divorced from any civic ideals (impossible in the Hobbesean world fomented by fetishized individualism) and now amounts to measuring how many hits your MySpace page gets or how many seconds a stranger’s leer locks on your body. Sex is an appeal rather than an activity; it’s the one species of rhetoric that young people know they have the edge in—it’s what they are taught by virtually every representation of themselves in commercial media.


But despite all that, generation Porno is itself a media creation—I wonder whether these are teenagers how adults secretly wish them to be, not how they actually are. That teenage lives take place in part on the Internet—a disembodied, near-anonymous realm that enables one to take chances and inhabit fluid identities in a way one couldn’t and wouldn’t in real life—makes it easy to search out and find extreme examples of teen lasciviousness that we can then document and tut-tut about. The cohort is enormous, yet we are still willing to shocked by anecdotes. Even though we insist they should (be careful what you say and do on the Internet! it could affect you in a job interview! it could lead to Identity Theft! etc, etc), teens probably don’t take their online lives all that seriously or see them as indicative of their offline morality. What Generation Porno knows is not instrumentalized sexuality so much as the ephemeral nature of identity itself when it plays out in the operating system of a one giant interactive video game, which is what the social side of the Internet has essentially become.


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Tuesday, Jul 4, 2006

For a column about consumption, Rob Walker’s “Consumed” in The New York Times Magazine has a quite a productivist bias. Generally Walker will identify some newly popular species of product on the American market—Cafe Press tchotchkes, organic food, fur, catastrophe novelty items—and then he’ll interview the manufacturer of the product to find out more about it. rarely will he interview consumers of the product in question; it’s as if they have said all that really matters, all they are competent to say, by buying it. This is generally the economic attitude toward consumer behavior—it can be fickle, caparicious but ultimately it is immaterial. If something gets bought, that’s good. If something lingers in the inventory, that’s bad. Otherwise consumer goods are morally neutral and consumers are sovereign—no one judges their right to make whatever decision they want about how to dispose of their resources. If they want to eat cat food and drive a Hummer, so be it. That’s freedom in action.


But the price they pay for this sovereignty is a certain neglect that Walker’s column illustrates. Their point of view isn’t taken seriously; they are always regarded as the prey in the warrior competition in the marketplace. There is never anything heroic and clever in their decisions, whereas ingenious entrepreneurial decisions to sell this or that object, or to try this or that distribution channel or advertising method are routinely lauded. Thus the active aspects of the consumer’s decision—as hedged and manipulated and circumscribed by the wiles of marketers as it may be—get lost and the inventive uses to which they put goods are neglected in public discourse; that information remains a subject for private discourse, though perhaps blogging is changing that. It may be that because people’s aims in consumption can vary vastly—there are as many uses as there are subjective notions of pleasure—writing about it becomes too diaristic, too personal and too specific.  But there is always one single aim in production: profit. Everyone can understand that and everyone can understand how well that aim was accomplished in reading about it. Or it may be that we don’t recognize something as production until it’s done for profit rather than personal use or enjoyment. What makes you happy is your own affair; what makes money, that’s something we all want to know about.


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Monday, Jul 3, 2006

Everytime I see punk celebrated somewhere I think about what a misleading cliche it is. Punk ended rock. I guess that’s self-evident, considering that was its goal: no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones. And though it is championed as liberating pop from the dinosaurs and encouraging more people to get involved and make their own culture, it is actually pretty lame, the sad result of music becoming entirely subsidiary to the image a band presents. The music was purposely crude so that the fashion could stand out more starkly. When I think of the Sex Pistols getting their start in a fashion shop and how dogmatic punk scenes could be, and how much revolved around what hair cut you came up with and how many people you intentionally offended, it seems to me that punk was on the whole a pretty bad idea. (Lydon seemed to realize this and made three profoundly unfashionable records meant to alieneate and exclude everyone as a kind of atonement.) We tend to celebrate punk now because some musicians transcended its framework, not because the framework itself was worthwhile. Everything that was good about punk rock was already epitomized by garage rock—the relentless intensity, the DIY amateurism, the countercultural commitment to politicize teenage angst. Subtract garage from punk and you’re left with a pseudo-subversive fashion show and empty, always-already-coopted gestures against the mainstream. Far from fighting punk, the mainstream immediately embraced it, reporting on it eagerly at first and eventually making it the template for shallow, merchandise-centric youth culture—it nicely channels teenage anger at the system into the system’s very support mechanism—the concern for image and identity, and how to express it through products. Greil Marcus, in Lipstick Traces seems to argue that punk was a explosion of subversive, situationist-style anarchy that disrupted the culture of spectacle; but that may be the same as saying that punk made pop a permanent spectacle and ended its usefulness as a popular art form, as a bridge to the kind of contemplation culture ideally inspires. Now, viewed from a distance, rock music is another arm of the fashion industry, mechanically revolving through styles in accordance to the collective efforts of culture workers with no aim other than making something different happen each season and having the bragging rights of being the one whose “innovation” has been adopted. Manufactured controversies abound.


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Monday, Jul 3, 2006

You’d be hard pressed to find two more polar pieces about arts scribing that these: Jeff Chang and Simon Reyolds co-interview at Beatirce and a Boston Globe article on Ain’t It Cool News. While it’s easy to praise the former and damn the subject of the later, in this turmoil-filled media environment, it would be a mistake to totally dismiss AICN.


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Friday, Jun 30, 2006

The Supreme Court ruled in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld against President Bush’s notion that the commander in chief’s wartime powers allow him to rule the country like a dictator without Congressional oversight. (See this Glenn Greenwald post for a good explication of the decision’s significance.) But Bush doesn’t think much of the Rule of Law (caps. per Hayek’s usage). He said in response, “At any rate, we will seriously look at the findings, obviously. And one thing I’m not going to do, though, is I’m not going to jeopardize the safety of the American people. People have got to understand that.”


That sounds very reminiscent of something another leader who was very concerned about his people’s destiny once said: ““If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular courts of justice, then all I can say is this: In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people.” That, of course, was Hitler speaking after the Night of the Long Knives, where he authorized the execution of Himmler’s rival, Ernest Röhm, and hundreds of others deemed state enemies. That decree effictively meant the end of the Rule of Law in Germany, and replaced it with rule by the dictator’s whim.


As far as we know, “Edgar” Cheney and his dummy have not assassinated anyone—they have just detained people without trial and without accusing them of anything specific, done away with the Geneva conventions, and monitored people’s communications and financial activities without court approval or congressional supervision. And they have routinely asserted the principle of the “unitary executive” and issued signing statements explaining that they intend to disregard laws they don’t care for. We can hope that this court decision is the first step back toward democracy in a country now held to be in a state of perpetual war against terror, global extremism, Islam, Oceania, drug users, immigrants and any other unpleasant emotions or people out there. But there’s not much reason to believe that the ruling Republicans will put any limits on the president in his effort to “protect” America for “real” Americans. And fear, nationalism and demogoguery (consider the recent right-wing offensive on perceptions of Iraq and depictions of reporters as treasonous) seems likely to keep enough of those Republicans in power. Liberal blogger Digby is probably right when he argues that the Hamdan decision will just help motivate the conservative base while Democrats remain apathetic and/or defeated: “This decision will ultimately feed into conservative boogeyman number 438: judicial activism. Look for Justice Sunday IV: Vengeance is Mine Sayeth Delay. And expect many more calls to spike John Paul Stevens’s pudding with arsenic. This is the beauty of the conservo-machine. When your primary political tools are both intimidation and victimization, you can spin anything to your advantage. “


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