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Thursday, Jul 27, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Human Television
“In Front of the House” [mov]
“Look at Who You’re Talking To” [mov]
“In Front of the House” [MP3]
“I Laughed” [MP3]
“I Forgot” [MP3]
“Faces Are Like Songs” [MP3]

07/27 ::  Mercury Lounge | New York, NY
08/27 :: JellyNYC Summer
Concert Series @ McCarren Park Pool | Williamsburg, NY (w/ The Walkmen, Dr Dog, Elvis Perkins and a DJ TBA)

“Roscoe” [MP3]

Midlake - Young Bride

“Don’t Be Afraid” [MP3]

The Bronx
full album stream [MySpace]

Comets on Fire
“Dogwood Rust” [MP3]

My Morning Jacket
“Can You See the Hard Helmet on My Head?” [MP3]

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Wednesday, Jul 26, 2006

Part of the success of the Us Weekly and InStyle formula rested initially in their ability to merge the functions of a celebrity gossip magazine with those of beauty and fashion magazines: Service pieces about makeup and whatnot would be enlivened by the presence of a celebrity endorsing one product or another, while simultaneously promoting the celebrity’s own career, her own notoriety. But that formula may be in danger of exhausting itself, as the reciprocal promotions taking place are starting to become unbalanced. According to this Wall Street Journal piece, celebrities are out and supermodels are back in for the latest slew of fashion advertisments. “The pendulum’s swing back to models reflects what some fashion marketers are calling “celebrity fatigue”: A-list entertainers are so overexposed that ‘there is a major lack of trust,’ says Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a New York consulting firm.” (The Luxury Institute? That’s probably not a bad place to work.) This risible statement presupposes that (a) supermodels are not overexposed and (b) people once “trusted” celebrities who endorsed luxury products, as though they weren’t doing it for the money. It’s not as if people are out there thinking: “Hmm, if that Jessica Simpson likes Pizza Hut, maybe I should give it a try; her opinion on such things seems pretty trustworthy.” Trust wouldn’t seem to enter into this transaction; it’s just that some celebrities have enough glamorous status that the brightness of their star power blinds consumers to their motives and allows their association with the advertised product go unquestioned. And overexposure doesn’t compromise trust at all; it just reduces the star’s luster so that one focuses on the celebrity’s greed and vanity rather than dreaming about the product making one as glamorous and exalted. Once stars are “just like us” they can’t serve as signals of exclusivity.

No one thinks models are just like us. In fact, they seem inseparable from the product of fashion itself. One of the article’s sources attempts a defense of the models’ special talents: “They’re professionally trained to be photographed incredibly well,” a modeling agency VP claims, “They know which camera angles work.” I’m sure that’s a rare gift, and I’m sure the training is rigorous and uncompromising—“No, you must stare off into space as though you are seeing nothing, nothing. Do you see it?”—but I have a hard time believing that has anything to do with this. A much better explanation is probably that they are cheaper to use, and carry less extracurricular baggage (amazingly, this is alleged to be true even of Kate Moss). “Style experts say that models may convey more fashion gravitas and sophistication than screen actresses. ‘They’re specifically related to fashion,’ says Sally Singer, fashion news features director at Vogue.” Fashion gravitas equates to the model’s ability to be indistinguishable from the product, to be a product herself rather than a personality in her own right. Fashion gravitas is a kind of imposed amnesia: It’s a matter of taking the posture being advertised with the utmost seriousness, as if no other definitions of style have ever existed, and having no agenda of one’s own in promoting it.  ” ‘We’re seeing a return to the focus on the product rather than just the image,’ says David Wolfe, a New York fashion consultant and creative director of the Doneger Group. ‘People have decided that when they buy the image they are not really getting anything.’ ” Now, no one thinks that’s true; if consumers were no longer content to consume images, fashion magazines and the fashion industry would be in great danger of folding altogether. The industry consists of little more than images, and the attitudes and whims they are essential to establishing. What you expect to get when you consume fashion is a moment’s respite from the ever-mounting insecurity that the world is passing you by. For a moment you feel ahead of the curve. Celebrities, apparently, have fallen behind it. But the substantiality, the use value, of the product is never in question; everyone knows there is none.

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Tuesday, Jul 25, 2006

I’m still searching for ways to clarify this idea of thinking through the network, this feeling that the Internet is suddenly a prerequisite for any meaningful thought or conversation. Commenter NotPhil helpfully suggested that when the latest thing is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail—thus the advent of blogging leads to every idea suddenly seeming blog-sized. Kyril, another commenter, wonders if Internet-based identity continually needs to be reasserted in order to exist, that the sudden wide-exposure theoretically available to us online has the effect of making us acutely conscious of the possibility of our vanishing altogether. In other words, a new way to feel insecure and incomplete. I wondered in the previous post whether blogging and online presence weren’t simply plays for institutional power despite the trappings of democracy—the low bar (Internet connection, minimal computer savvy) to entry into the discourse.  Perhaps it is all symptomatic of something futurist Linda Stone postulates called continuous partial attention:

To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention—CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.
We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking.

Such behavior seems a response to the awareness that we can always be missing out on something that is as close and inaccessible as our computer (when the power is not out)—an eBay auction, a communique from a paramour, a forex trade, a breaking story, more funny videos of skateboarding accidents, more pictures of naked women with balloons, or whatever. The response to the Internet’s inexhaustible opportunities for distraction or engagement or profit can be this fragmenting attention Stone describes (“a crisis management mode”), reacting the flood of culture with perpetual triage, trying to keep up with the categorization and tagging and prioritizing and blogging and everything else we want to do with the tantalizingly malleable data stream. At first it seems the inverse of the fundamental economic problem of scarcity—it seems as though we are being short-circuited by the sudden encroachment of the infinite into our minds, which are hard-wired to deal with limited supplies, to collect things, and to demarcate and taxonomize. But it’s not that the problem of scarcity has gone away; it’s just that for information and entertainment scarcity has shifted from the external world to the internal—we have a scarcity of attention to pay, and it’s a deficit that has overtaken us quite suddenly, in the grand scheme of things. (This places Stone’s concern in line with Michael Goldhaber’s notion of the attention economy.) We are not used to bumping up against the limit of our attention span, because for much of humanity’s existence as a species, it seemed an unreachable horizon because the scope of most individual lives was so narrow.  It used to take a long time to be confronted with the extent of what one would never know.

Perhaps attention deficits are perhaps better understood as sensory overloads. The brain’s throughput rate can’t keep up with broadband. So when I feel compelled to think in terms of the network, it some attempt to reassert (an illusory) mastery over my attention deficit, to achieve a sense of greater throughput, to be conscious of having processed more data, of having capitalized on a sufficient amount of the endless stream—to feel as though I am floating on it rather than drowning beneath it.

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Monday, Jul 24, 2006

Recently Slate had an item by Justin Shubow about street-fashion blogs, which consist of snapshots taken of ordinary people on the streets of a city with a few lines of commentary. I expected to loathe them the way I do the Sunday Styles section—which I continue to look at anyway, either out of masochism or the cleansing refreshment of a five-minute hate—but instead I found myself oddly moved, particularly by this blog from Helsinki. Taken in isolation, any of the self-referential comments the subjects make about their own fashions would have seemed gratingly self-aware and almost impolite; it’s hard not to sound fatuous when describing your personal style. (An example: “I bought a jeans jacket for 50 cents from the recycling center, cut off the sleeves, dyed it, added the batches and made this vest out of it. My mother bought the jeans for me and I took the seams in to make them smaller. I don’t go to shops. The only thing I buy is band T-shirts at concerts. My favorite piece is a pair of ultra loose boxer shorts in orange and green.”) You are almost forced to sound a little overly pleased with yourself and your choices, as if they were all adroitly calculated to accomplish precisely the effect you had hoped for. (Being pleased with yourself isn’t a bad thing per se, but talking about it seems to threaten it by instrumentalizing it.) But reading a series of these personal comments, clicking through image after image, the people began to seem more and more artless and unaffected—relative to each other they by and large seem clearly within the register of normality and not out on some unchartered ego trip. They started to seem self-effacing, almost embarrassed. In the face of public scrutiny and ambiguous social expectations, the individual’s resourcefulness comes to the fore, an ability to take bricolage from discount stores or thrift shops or what their parents give them and perform a kind of aesthetic labor of synthesis with it all. A note of defiance toward fashion industry norms creeps in: “I like plain and simple clothes: black, white and red. I wear H&M and lots of second hand. If I had more money, I would still not change anything in my style.” Or: “The problem with many good clothes is that when they become comfortable, they break down. Like this leather jacket which I found one and a half years ago. The badges have just come from somewhere, I and my friends have made the drawings on it.” You read through enough of these and you start to really the anthropological approach to consumerism that, for instance, Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood espouse in The World of Goods, where they argue that consumer goods “are good for thinking,” that is, they are a “nonverbal medium for the human creative faculty.” It’s impossible not to be impressed as you click through the photos on one of these sites with the human creative faculty at work.

These street-style blogs are apparently carefully watched by designers, who draw influence from them. This gives Shubow a chance to trot out the canard that the movements of fashion are controlled by the masses rather than by haute couture arbiters or the whimsical decree of style czars.

It is, of course, no surprise that the fashion industry has already begun to use street-fashion blogs for its own commercial purposes—indeed, the Marxist social critic Walter Benjamin once accused the flâneur of being a “spy for the capitalists, on assignment in the realm of consumers.” But ultimately these blogs should strengthen the leveling and decentralizing forces that continue to dismantle the once dominant fashion pyramid. The time is long past when a few couturiers could dictate international style from the heights of Paris. Thanks to the growing popularity of this new medium, it seems likely that a leaderless multitude will increasingly influence fashion from the ground—or rather, pavement—up.

I don’t know about this. My suspicion is that fashion revolves much faster than people’s natural predilection for novelty would dictate, and certainly no one prefers to be terrorized by fashion or style—if there’s one thing that these blogs make clear is that there is a vast difference between style as ordinary people live it, and fashion as it’s conceived by the apparel industry and promulgated through its advertising and infiltration into lifestyle TV programming and magazines and such. That is why I find these blogs so moving; they capture a moment of down-to-earth self-awareness just as the technological and sociocultural web that moment is bound up in perverts it into something like its opposite, which in turn makes the moment of awareness and flattery into a moment of credulity. They have been prodded into publicly delighting in some private aspect of themselves so that it could then be taken away from them and made into a template, making them a stamped-out product retroactively.

Obviously I side with Benjamin on this question—that these blogs don’t do their subjects any favors. The blogs allow for their innocuous expressions of personality to be compiled, collated and distilled into bankable trends. Rather than being something personal and more or less spontaneous, the subject’s outfit is recruited as an example of something the subject may not have been aware of. The subject is thereby estranged from herself and in a small way becomes primarily an object—her image has slipped out of her control and now connotes something besides what might have been intended and is exploited by someone else. On the Helsinki blog, people over and over again say how they don’t follow trends, yet they’ve been caught by the camera and put in jeopardy of becoming one. We develop a fashion approach to project our sense of subjectivity, but these blogs invert that and make the individuals objects to the very extent they’ve tried harder to be stylish than the average person. The harder they try to be individual, the more likely it is they will be reified.

So in other words, I subscribe to the co-optation model of culture, whereby the culture industry, through a kind of undirected, spontaneous-order series of expropriations (by a “leaderless multitude” of industry functionaries), attempts to eradicate expressions of personal style and supplant them with something that’s identifiably institutional while remaining capable of signalling an ersatz independence and individuality—something that says, “I play by the rules, one of which is, Be unique!” The reward for playing is a sense of power that comes from being influential within the institutional hierarchy—what at some ultimate level motivates bloggers to compile these street styles in the first place, a quest for recognition on a scale that seems more significant than that which comes from mere personal exchanges. (This is how I felt before when I was without power, desperate to blog but unable to, yearning to think through the network, which could validate my effort.) One’s struggle against trends and the “machine” and the culture industry thereby subtly slips into one’s working at its behest, all while one’s personal sense of righteousness is barely affected.

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Monday, Jul 24, 2006

Having been on “low voltage” power for much of the week, I’ve been having a difficult time updating this blog, but it seems as though ConEdison, the local power company, has straightened things out after apparent bungling of preposterous proportions by management and utility workers working day and night opening, allegedly, every manhole cover in northwest Queens to try to determine what caused the grid to fail there. (No one in any of New York’s other boroughs seemed to have any idea of the misery of more than 100,000 Queens residents, of course. Queens may as well be Mumbai or Area 51 as far as Manhattanites are concerned. They actually had to set up Red Cross aid stations throughout the neighborhood, but no one outside of Astoria seemed to have any idea what I was talking about when I would mention it.) Low voltage was something I had never experienced before, and something, in my naivete, I didn’t think was possible. I had always thought that there no intermediate degrees between on and off. But for the past week I had semi-operable appliances: the lights were dim, the stove wouldn’t light, the coffee grinder labored to crush the beans, the fan would rotate but only at a painfully slow rate. And my computer would turn on, but the cable modem wouldn’t function. (Of course this probably makes me sound like a prissy primadonna. I had it pretty good compared to neighbors who had no power at all for nearly a week. All the stores and restaurants were closed in the neighborhood from lack of power, and frankly, I’ll be afraid to eat out for a while, until all that now rotten food has a chance to be replaced.)

Without the Internet my computer seemed pretty worthless, a fancy gadget to play Minesweeper with. And the whole time the modem was down I felt a low-grade anxiety that was unlike anything I had ever experienced before—it reminded me of dreams I used to have where I would be in high school but I wouldn’t be able to remember my locker combination, and I would have to go through the day explaining why I had no books, no papers, no pencils, no understanding of what the hell was going on in all of my classes. Without reliable Internet access, I felt as though some part of myself had become inaccessible, or that I was stuck with some lesser version of myself. Suddenly the process of building identity and social life on the Internet seemed precarious to me in a way I hadn’t really dwelled on before. I don’t think the trend will reverse and people will become less reliant on technology for social life and self-recognition; most likely connection to the Web will become more ubiquitous and reliable as all devices (I almost typed desires) become wireless and a Wi-Fi network with multiple redundancies covers the globe. Access will likely be a matter of money, and those who are able to afford it will live in a socially enhanced world and those who don’t will seem to disappear. I felt myself, in some small way, disappearing as I couldn’t access my e-mail and so forth.

When I first had Internet access, when I would connect at 56K through my phone line, I felt as though getting online was diminishing me, removing me from the world of friends I spent most days with and depriving the world of the main way to access me, my land line. I reduced myself to whatever small little question drove me to the Web for that moment, for there was always a reason why I would bother (usually it would be to check baseball box scores). Then I would disconnect and resurface, feel fully present again. But in the past few years the dynamic has irreovcably shifted and I feel less than fully present if I can’t access the Internet to see if anybody wants something from me, and to record little notions such as this on this blog or somewhere else where it might be seen. I find myself thinking through the notion of the network, the access being a kind of prerequisite for the habitual ways I thnk about what I’m going to do. Without it, I felt like I was having a hard time simply thinking. The Internet is now a requirement for me to immediately deploy my thinking about whatever I’m doing in a way that feels useful (an illusion, I know); the old uses for my thoughts (whatever they were) don’t seem as satisfactory. There I was reading my New York Times Magazine but having trouble concentrating. What’s the point, I thought. It’s not like I can even blog about it. I’m probably on the lunatic fringe of this, but maybe eventually we’ll all be in this predicament, thinking of the entire Internet itself as the thing we need to tell our bright ideas to.

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