Two fine articles clear away some stinkin’ thinking about recent technology. First up is this CNet article that goes against all of the sweaty love and worship of Apple’s launch of the iPhone, providing a much needed reality check about the hoopla. Amazing how many news org’s kiss Steve Jobs’ feet again and again as if he’s Midas. He did corner the market on digital media players but he’s got a long way to go to conquer the phone market, even with all the bells and whistles he adds to his gadget. Then there’s this Seattle Post-Intelligencer article where Bill Virgin pushes back against Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, who’s telling people to dig graves for newspapers. Virgin rightfully asks “Isn’t it Microsoft that should be more worried about their future…?”
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To chill out, to calm myself, get rid of the aches of the working day, I like to shop for books. Where I live, there is no book store. Only a newsagency with a back shelf full of over-priced new releases. When I need a buyer’s fix, I go to the St. Vincent de Paul and grab ratty, smelly paperbacks for a buck a piece. When I want new books, I go online.
Yesterday was a particularly tiring day. It was a public holiday here in town, and it was raining. So my video shop was hectic. For the most part, my customers understood that service can be slower when the rain-rush hits. But some people—you know them—decided that if the rain was going to get them down, it might as well get everyone else down, too. I argued, debated, bartered, and bent—all day long, to every need. This is scratched, that wasn’t late, you never said Sweeney Todd was a bloomin’ musical, what do you mean I can’t use my free coupon on a public holiday?
And at the very end of the day, I got full-on threatened by a guy on the phone who tried to convince me that his rented copy of I Am Legend destroyed his DVD player. Fix my problem, he demanded, or expect a visit from a “very nasty customer”.
Some days, you know, you remember how quiet unemployment was.
So, I came home, de-uniformed, and shopped for books. Is there any pursuit more calming than browsing bookshelves? Even if they are virtual? Keep your baths and massage oils—for me, ultimate relaxation comes in the knowledge that Amazon US ships fast. I picked three books last night, mostly because my shoulders un-tensed just that little bit when I saw their front images.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
by David Wroblewski
June 2008, 566 pages, $25.95
This struck me with its serenity: the boy and his dog wandering the farm. It beings to mind The Yearling or Sounder. Reading the synopsis, though, the picture takes on new meaning. There’s an urgency about it, suddenly, that the boy and his dog are heading to that barn with greater intent than simply to pass the time. Or perhaps they’re unaware of what awaits them? At any rate, the barn’s got me hooked.
by Debra Winger
Simon & Schuster
June 2008, 224 pages, $23.00
Debra Winger makes me think of strength. There’s something about her, probably tied to her movie, Searching for Debra Winger, that stirs in me feelings of empowerment and longevity. Winger may not have conquered Hollywood, but nor did she need to. This is her memoir, and its Autumn-coloured cover is the perfect antidote to my rainy, Winter blues. The image is really something—the actress standing on the other side of what appears to be a closed door. It’s a feminine, natural recreation, perhaps, of the “road less travelled” concept. There was one way, but Debra chose another, and there were colours there.
Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
by Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster
March 2008, 566 pages, $30.00
Normally, a history of the Second World War would not be on my Winter reading list. But there’s just something about that cover. Its floating, dying hand gives the impression of reaching and grabbing. Maybe guiding? And you just can’t help but go where it leads. It wasn’t just the cover that had me, though—Colm Toibin’s review, as posted on the Barnes and Noble site (where I do much of my browsing), convinced me, too:
It is possible that Human Smoke will infuriate those who believe that Churchill was a hero and that war, in all its viciousness, is often the only way to defeat those who declare or threaten war. Human Smoke will not be admired by those who argue that methods used to win a war may seem, especially to novelists writing more than 60 years later, impossible to justify. Nonetheless, the issues Baker wishes to raise, and the stark system he has used to dramatize his point, make his book a serious and conscientious contribution to the debate about pacifism. He has produced an eloquent and passionate assault on the idea that the deliberate targeting of civilians can ever be justified.
Maybe it’s a hand raised in surrender?
This is a perfectly good example of great songs getting a video treatment that not only highlights the song’s weakness but makes the band seem a little bit on the desperate. “Emily” has all the morose grandeur of a Psychedelic Furs song with a fair amount of Jesus and Mary Chain sonic smudging around the edges. Not that the band doesn’t ad some elements of their own, it’s just that this particular song has enough 80s immediacy to make you think that you’ve heard it all before.
But the video only makes the song seem entirely too long and, with its unsparing use of cliched image, entirely unoriginal. This is the video a stupid ex would send you as evidence of their undying devotion to your idealization. It’s if to tell someone, “I’m still getting over you, that’s why I’m having all of this anonymous sex with different women”. Granted, he seems disconnected from all the half-clothed women, but the entire concept seems like an excuse for the band to place a dirty craig’s list ad soliciting video babes. It seems wholly out of a genre, a mopey little piece of drone pop being given the poolside hip hop/hair band metal video treatment of boobs, boobs, boobs. The Michael Jackson “Black or White” morphig of all the other women into each other seems as disturbing as Edina (from Absolutely Fabulous)telling her daughter Saffron that she was born she named her “thing-it”. The fact that it’s an attempt to tastefully render this kind of interchangeable-laws-of-booty video only makes it seem more farcical.
It’s a shame too because the song has the kind of woozy, blurred undercurrent that sets it up for visual play. But the time lapsed walking and thing-it “not Emily” girl are all you get. Of course, the video shouldn’t taint your experience of a song, but with images this inept, there is the somewhat comical conclusion that Emily isn’t all that special. Incidentally, according to the research cited by Rob Horning, this is close to the perfect pop song length.
Little did I know that when I referred to the emerging “promotional culture” in my post the other day that there was already a book called The Promotional Culture, which was mention in this recent Toronto Star piece by Ryan Bigge about the “mass underground” (via Rob Walker). The premise is that the internet has eroded the former foundations of subcultures—the obscure information and insider cultural goods that are now immediately accessible for those who are search savvy. I still forget sometimes that nothing in the realm of pop culture is really rare anymore, and that anything I might have wondered about before but never thought I would find is now probably out there: weird albums I’d read about, SCTV sketches I remembered dimly, Situationist experiments in redubbing movies with Marxist dialogue. This stuff was once currency in subcultural circles; I’m not sure if merely knowing about such things and linking to them has any real value for one’s underground credibility at this point. Is that a good thing? Or will subcultures disappear without their basis in a certain kind of material scarcity?
Bigge cites Dick Hebdige, author of Subculture: The Meaning of Style, who argues that subcultures allow people to acquire social recognition without securing it at the expense of conformity and subordination. According to Hebdige, “it translates the fact of being under scrutiny into the pleasure of being watched. It is a hiding in the light.” Of course, nonconformity itself has been a mainstream value since the 1960s, so that muddles things some; since aggressive individuality is a pervasive value, we are all encouraged to become subcultures of one, to play a double game with ourselves in which we forget the mass-market origins of the things we acquire to project our “unique” identities while relishing in the comfort of partaking of brands and trends that are much, much larger than ourselves.
This same logic plays through things that were formerly underground and exempt. They once supplied a refuge from the pressure of popularity. But if the underground is mass, then subcultures will no longer be content to be sub-anything, and they are subject to same impetus to achieve recognition on a much broader scale and permit participation in something much bigger.
The mass underground distorts the equilibrium suggested by Hebdige’s hiding in the light. Because built into the technology and logic of the mass underground is the possibility of blowing up huge. As the title of an October 2006 New Yorker article about YouTube fame suggests, “It Should Happen to You.”
The same would seem to apply to social networks, which implicitly pressure users to expand their base and sacrifice quality to quantity. This is the essence of the promotional culture—the possibility of a large audience (and of measuring one’s own success in reaching it through site meters and such) becomes a requirement to pursue it.
For Andrew Wernick, a professor at Trent University, the problem is that our desire for attention and fame is leeching into the creative groundwater. As he writes in his 1991 book Promotional Culture: “When a piece of music, or a newspaper article, or even an academically written book about promotional culture, is fashioned with an eye to how it will promote itself – and, indeed, how it will promote its author and distributor, together with all the other producers these named agencies may be identified with – such goods are affected by this circumstance in every detail of their production.”
The internet obviates barriers imposed by natural limits in the world, by where we can be in time and space. Without those barriers, we are likely to overwhelm ourselves and fail to recognize the aggregate harm of something that seems positive in incremental doses. Our ability to pay attention suffers as the amount of attention we have to pay fails to meet even a fraction of the things demanding it. We fail to engage with any one thing because the awareness of all the other things crying out for attention is always so palpable. Inevitably, people will begin to impose on themselves arbitrary limits for how many friends they’ll have on Facebook or how many gigs of music they’ll have, or they will choose services that impose limits for them: a social network that lets you have only 10 friends. The craving for artificial limits is probably what gives Twitter its devotees.
Could there be an arbitrary limiting system that could restore the potency of formerly underground cultural goods? Could a samizdat system of cultural exchange emerge in the absence of necessity? Bigge argues that “the next subculture or underground movement will not be discovered behind the door of a secret handshake speakeasy somewhere in East Berlin, but in the center of Alexanderplatz; hiding in plain sight, everywhere and nowhere, simultaneously.” Perhaps. It’s optimistic to think anonymity can trump anomie. But I find myself reminded of the empty promise of the silent rave. I’m afraid that all activities in the public sphere will tend toward technologically enabled narcissism and people will be too preoccupied with their own potential fame to want to sustain close-knit connections of a subculture, weaving together with a select few others so tightly as to block out the isolating glare of the spotlight. Subcultures were a line of defense against a corrosive mainstream culture and ideology that seemed to trivialize things we wanted to care about; now it seems as though few people find the mainstream culture sufficiently dangerous, because it presents itself as fragmented and user-driven. Or perhaps we’ve succeeded in convincing ourselves that there is nothing at stake in resisting the mainstream except one’s own ego, which can be gratified much more comfortably through collaboration.
This week: Pay attention, and play along at home, as three contestants compete for your text vote. Who would you rather be stranded on the moon with? The answer may not be as simple as it seems! Text your vote and see how much of a waste of time it’s all been!