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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Why are business best-sellers so frequently idiotic, when businesspeople themselves are not? Peter Hansen’s review of business books like Who Moved My Cheese? suggests a few answers. (Also, it’s astounding that a blog for a fairly obscure think-tank publication could attract this much comment spam.) It may be that motivational business books are primarily escapist vehicles offering a simplistic world of easy answers, many of which any sentient reader will have already thought of his own. This makes a reader feel smart and secure, reassuring him that his own thoughts are probably sufficient enough to help him weather any career crises. But for those nonsentient denizens of the cubicled world, they are escapist by allowing people to dream of taking clear and simple steps toward success (always simplified into sheer wealthiness) while sitting around having facile fables decoded for them in third-grade level prose. As Hansen puts it, “People who merely dream of being big winners in the rat race are the ones actually reading these books; the real winners, the successful entrepreneurs and executives, can’t have time for such distractions.” Achievers don’t need their intellect flattered by reading silly books and anticipating their self-evident arguments. They actually confront the challenges of surviving capitalism’s brutal competition. (A side thought: capitalism’s defenders always like to tout the healthful benefits of competition to character, yet it seems that the loudest defenders of competition against welfare-state interventionism are those who know full well that the game is already rigged in their favor).


Hansen also points out the dark side of these books, what he calls their “peculiarly American nihilism” which suspends all ethical judgments and reduces all forms of friendship to self-interested manipulation, what economists sometimes like to call “rationality.” This generally culminates logically in advice to be a kiss-up, kick-down management stoolie in order to get ahead in hierarchical power structures. Such books refuse to acknowledge a skill as useful if it can’t be used to help a corporation grow: “One subtle effect of books like [Now, Discover Your Strengths] is to redefine human strengths as the ones that productive organizations in fact need. The authors encourage us to discover our strengths so that we can put them to use in our careers. Thus empathy makes one suited for sales (rather than, say, friendship or raising children); imagination makes one suited for formulating business strategy (rather than art or, if allied with other abilities, philosophy or science); and so forth. There is no suggestion that our strengths or virtues point to anything higher than our careers.” In Hanson’s view, this fosters a false consciousness that redeems the emptiness of our atomized lives (stripped as they are of meaningful community or family ties) by stressing the workplace as the arena where one discovers identity. I’m more inclined to think they rationalize the absence of meaningful work for most people in this economy and try to drum up significance for workplace accomplishments that leave most of us feeling hollow. Soul-crushing jobs and rote consumerism don’t add up to fulfillment, no matter how much family joy you inject into it.


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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Just when you think that a coffee company was poised to take over the entertainment world, this happens: Starbucks downscales its Hear Music strategy.  So what went wrong for them?


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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

It may be that the only good book about Dylan is the one he wrote himself, Chronicles: Volume One—you don’t even have to care about his music to appreciate the insight into the mercurial process of artistic influence explored there (not to mention the effortless creation in prose of an inimitable voice). All the other ones I’ve tried have been weirdly evangelical in their fervor for the man. The worst one I’ve encountered by far is Dylan’s Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks, an English professor who specializes in specious interpretations of the lyrics and ignores the fact that Dylan is a musician altogether. He is one of those critics who has to outperform whoever he is writing about, so he indulges in all sorts of performative linguistic free association that often verges of schizophrenic glossalalia. What Ricks accepts as evidence for his interpretations usually seems entirely arbitrary, the product of sheer accident and the delusions that eventually emanate from obsessive concentration. Lately I’ve been reading Paul Williams’s Bob Dylan: Watching the River Flow : Observations on His Art-In-Progress, 1966-1995, in which Williams actually claims that Under the Red Sky is a great album, and offers defenses of the rest of 1980s work too. Williams has a religious faith in Dylan’s genius, and will take it upon himself to find deep, compelling insight in the most banal and hackneyed of his offerings. To Williams, Dylan can do no wrong—that is the fundamental tenet— so if something seems off about Down in the Groove the problem must therefore lie with the listener. This pushes Williams to some inspired bits of improvisational explanation for, say, “Wiggle Wiggle” but it at the same time compromises his critical credibility. But then some Dylanophiles probably appreciate reading material that preaches to the choir, that elucidates the wonders of the faith from the perspective of the already converted. Within the confines of the devotional literature, the cult of personality can be unchecked and revealed without qualification, allowing readers to bask and indulge in the high solemnities of hero worship. But if you don’t see Dylan as an oracle, a cosmic combination of Picasso, Jesus and Casanova, these hagiographies can be wearying. So why do I keep reading? Probably because I get tired of musical agnosticism at times and want a taste of pop-star idolatry, but in a high-minded quasi-intellectual iteration. I like immersing myself in a literature that takes a familiarity with such songs as “When He Returns” and “Dead Man, Dead Man” for granted and repays me for the vast, pointless knowledge I bring to it. It makes me feel like my many hours of listening and keeping up with record after record has earned me entrance into a small self-selecting community - the books give me a sense of belonging, even if I think the majority of what’s in them is total bullshit. I get the pleasure of belonging without it spoiling the even more satisfying pleasure of disagreeing.


I’m the sort of superfan who enjoys discovering the worst of the worst in an artist’s oeuvre and forgiving them for it; it’s a way of reenacting unconditional love without the danger. I draw up lists in my mind of the worst songs and the worst albums; this seems like a far more devotional act than deciding what’s best—picking the best seems to lead to a greatest-hits mentality of fandom, it leads to filtering out the rest and taking away only the cream. Not that the greatest-hits mentality is wrong; in 99 percent of cases it seems perfectly appropriate. There is only so much time to listen to music after all. But it seems worthwhile to preserve that other one percent as a realm in which one can test one’s own capacity for throughness and to open up the possibility of having solidarity with a small group of fellow obsessives. Everyone should be in at least one fan club.


Dylan’s worst songs? Not counting covers, I say Neighborhood Bully, Clean Cut Kid, Man Gave Names to all the Animals, Rainy Day Women, and The Ugliest Girl in the World.


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Tuesday, May 30, 2006
by PopMatters Staff


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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

If once I was a curiosity for not carrying a cell phone, I think I have become downright irritating, performing a willfully perverse act of downward mobility pointless protest against a world that has left me behind. I’ve become a kind of vegan of technology, with this annoying prediliection against cell phones that inconvenineces everyone around me and seems vaguely hypocritical and entirely self-defeating. It comes across a thtis point as a peculiar selfishness about myself, a rejection of the access everyone I know has been encouraged (by the ubiquity of cell-phone technology) to expect a right to. No wonder the surveillance society proceeds with little protest; we are already used to having intrusions at any time and at any place, we are used to paying companies to keep track of wherever we are at any given moment and distribute the information freely. Paranoid, I know. What am I trying to prove anyway? What’s next? Am I going to insist on an outhouse, and only communicate through tin cans connected with string?


Popular culture makes general assumptions about what people require to live, which helps foster collective national aspirations, shared dreams and values. It channels desire into anticipated sluices so that business won’t be wrong-footed, and it creates a mundane sense of normal that can give one a sense of stability in the most chaotic of personal situations. The routine presence of cell phones have become part of that matrix of normality. In America, a cell phone has become like a car: It seems unfathomable that you wouldn’t have one if you could afford to. To lack one is to be a second-class citizen, like someone who rides the bus. To the rest of the world, you are either poor or you are one of those benighted refusniks trying to make a point by making oneself miserable and wasting time craving after abnormality.


It was brought home to me how my culture had passed me by while I was reading this article in the New York Times Magazine about TV programmers designing shows for cell-phone screens so that users may indulge in “video snacking”—watching three-minute shows at lonely, vulnerable moments where more immersive entertainment is not readily available and there is no real person one can actually call. The article could have been discussing developments in Swaziland for all these changes would affect me. American culture has become path dependent on cell-phone technology and I have stubbornly refused to get on the path. The further along the path society goes, the more irrelevant I’ll become.


So take this observation with a grain of salt. The writer, Randy Kennedy, cites one of the producers making the comment that content on a phone becomes personal in a way it doesn’t in other media. A celebrity on the screen is saying, in effect, “Hey, it’s me, on your phone. I’m talking to you.” The phone seems to have the effect of creating intimate space in public places; the little screen carves out a deeply private realm. Once we let entertainment and ads reach that space, we’ve permitted them into a much more vulnerable place. Ads, entertainment already draw much of their power from flattering viewers, making it seem like their act of attention to the ad is actually in fact the ad paying careful attention to them, trying to make them feel special. Althusser, in his essay about what he calls “Ideological State Apparatuses,” makes the argument that this is how we are defined as subjects in the ways our institutions want us to be defined—the insitutions hail us, and we respond, molding ourselves to become the sort of person they were calling out to, seeing ourselves as that kind of individual without once suspecting this personality was induced in us. This effect is only going to intensify when cell-phone screen are enlisted in the process. The weird susceptibility we have when we are alone, truly alone—and we are always alone in our private cell-phone space—will be exploited like never before as we are encouraged to make decisions while we are atomized in that isolated, alienated place. Nothing curbs impulsiveness like the good sense of other people; if ads can reach us when we’ve chosen to shut them out, they have us right where they want us. Just as food snacks satisfy that part of us that has rejected the rigors of family meals and all the socialization and traditions passed along there, video snacks satisfy the aspect of ourselves that wants to feel more important than everyone else, that craves flattery at the expense of cooperation and coordination with what’s around us. The cost for this is that we chase a shadow, calling it our true self, while the stick figure projecting that silhouette is shifted around idly by culture industry conglomerates (now in league with telcoms) casting about for profits.


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