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by Rob Horning

13 May 2008

Yesterday in the New York Times, Paul Krugman opined that oil prices are high not because of speculation but dwindling supply: “A realistic view of what’s happened over the past few years suggests that we’re heading into an era of increasingly scarce, costly oil.” He’s not panicking about this, but seen in light of our looming problems with global warming, and reports of fertilizer shortages and the possibility we have maxed out our food production capacity, it makes one wonder if the developed world is ready to give some consideration to John Stuart Mill’s idea of the “stationary state,” an economy that dispenses with growth and works to achieves intensive rather than extensive gains for its populace.

It is not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated, is a very poor ideal. Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character; and solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could ill do without. Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture. If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would. extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population. I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity. that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compel them to it.

In his 1976 book The Limits to Satisfaction, environmental studies professor William Leiss updates that ideal and bills it as the “conserver society” that rejects the “doctrine of the insatiability of human material needs”—a postulate of neoclassical economics—and the idea that “nonhuman nature is ... nothing but a means for human satisfaction.” (This reminds me also of Michael Pollan’s argument from a few weeks ago that we should garden to lose out “cheap-energy mind” and dreams that someday “not having things might become cooler than having them”—I am not holding my breath for that.)

According to Leiss’s diagnosis, our wasteful society emerges from a process which has systematically confused people about the nature of their needs—not by implanting false needs (as it is so tempting to argue when we see what other people are buying, or we contemplate the goods in the average 99-cent store) but by making them ever divisible and ever more ambiguous. “Each aspect of a person’s needs tends to be broken down into progressively smaller component parts, and therefore it becomes increasingly difficult for that person to integrate the components into a coherent ensemble of needs and a coherent personality structure.” We lose our moorings as needs are refined by the persuasion industry, with the consequence that “personal identity becomes a supple mold reshaped daily by the message mix.” (Thus, I am a product of my RSS feeds.) Individualtion doesn’t guide us to our particualr preferences; rather, an awareness of our individuality is itself a product of our consumer practices. Leiss argues that “the integration of the components tends to become a property of the commodities themselves”—we become reliant on consumer goods to integrate our self-concept: “The fragmentation of needs requires on the individual’s part a steadily more intensive effort to hold together his identity and personal integrity. In concrete terms this amounts to spending more and more time in consumption activities.” 

Then the problems incipient in the “attention economy” come into play. It takes time to use the goods we are amassing, but time is limited. So we will be motivated to choose activities that allow us to use our goods over ones that don’t require things. We won’t want to walk in the park when we have a stack of DVDs to watch. Incidentally, This problem is exacerbated immeasurably by the ability to download massive amounts of media for “free.” Of course, it’s not free; we pay in time, which we seem ill-equippped to properly value in relation to consumption. That is economist Staffan Linder’s insight in The Harried Leisure Class, what Leiss calls a Gresham’s Law of consumption—“wants for ever greater numbers of commodities tend to depreciate all types of desires that are not dependent upon the consumption of things.” This erodes “craft knowledge” (in Leiss’s terminology) or what I think of as a kind of happiness biofeedback—we lose touch with how to use goods efficiently to satisfy ourselves and concentrate instead on simple maximization. Hence iTunes library with 10,000 songs, many unplayed. Nothing rings more true for me than this comment of Leiss’s: “The simple want for larger and larger numbers of things means that the individual must pay correspondingly less attention to the particular qualities of each want and ech thing itself. In other words, the individual must become increasingly indifferent to the fine shadings and nuances of both wants and the objects which he pursues in the search for satisfaction. (Explains a lot about pop culture, I think.) And this process of trying to achieve “increased goods intensity” (as Linder calls it) entices us to incorporate more and more gear into any activity, so that use of the gear preempts the activity itself—we go camping to make use of all our camping supplies, not because it’s fun to sleep in a tent.

Contemplating the situation we find ourselves in, Leiss sounds a lot like Al Gore before the fact: “There are some tolerance limits in the biosphere; the industrial production systems of the developed world are now testing those limits; we do not know what these limits are at present; it is unwise to continue along our present path until we reach or overshoot these limits, since by that time it may be impossible to mitigate the adverse effects or to do so only at the cost of catastrophic social disruptions.” He then suggests we might limit our economic development by extending legal rights to nonhuman life and considering the “needs of nonhuman nature,” to my mind a terrible way of putting the important concept of considering externalities and the mounting problem of environmental destruction. The phrase suggests I should care about environmentalism because the trees have feelings too, and despite what some believe about the secret life of plants, I remain skeptical. The reason it is imperative to reform our environmental practices—the only reason that can resonate universally—is the debt we owe to one another, to other humans who inevitably suffer from the damage we cause and to posterity. A tree can’t advocate for itself; only humans can do so on its behalf, and that’s when it becomes especially slippery, because who is to say that what the human advocate does is not simply on that specific human’s behalf, at the expense of other humans.

by John Bohannon

13 May 2008

“Louisville is death you’ve got to get up and move, because the death do not improve” – Silver Jews “Tennessee” from the album Bright Flight

In a recent interview I conducted with David Berman, renaissance man of the Silver Jews, he was thinking of changing the aforementioned lyric for the upcoming tour. He also claimed he’s never been able to play it in Louisville, obviously. But this is a lyric that needs to be heard by the people of Louisville – and they need to be confronted with it directly. Mr. Berman beating around the bush is going to do no good as far as a songwriter goes – because during his near two decade career and many one-liners – this is one of the most prominent lines, one which struck home with a lot of people (including myself) in the town.

If you’ve never spent a decent amount of time within the city, than this line may just be another bundle of words that sound meaningful coming out of Berman’s growl. But let me let you in on a little secret – Louisville, as Berman claims, has had a “dark star” hanging over its head for quite some time now. Not quite as bad as it did back in the ‘90s, but it’s still dangling in sight. The town is full of a never-popping bubble of musicians that attract a wider audience for a local show than a national show – some may say this is a good thing, but by alienating themselves from the rest of the musical world, it only hurts a musical community. This mentality has kept a lot of musicians within the city from getting widespread acclaim. The one’s that have made it generally dispersed to outside cities such as Nashville and Chicago to get in with a different crowd of musicians, such as Tortoise and David Berman himself.

With this said, Louisville has somewhat detached of this clique mentality over the past several years, mostly because so many different genres are coming out of Louisville and bands find themselves not working on common ground. The town needs to take to heart Berman’s words and not fall inside the hole they once created.

by Bill Gibron

12 May 2008

Leave it to film’s last agent provocateur to do what a sloppy stoner comedy couldn’t. A couple of weeks ago, when the lackluster lampoon Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay opened, audiences were treated to a last act exercise in paltry political commentary. Briefly, our Asian/Indian heroes try to reclaim their good patriotic name after being mistaken for terrorists. Through a series of stodgy misadventures, they somehow wind up in Crawford, Texas. There, they hook up with our current Commander In Chief, and after a few blunts, the supposed purple haze induced belly laughs begin.

Now, there is nothing new with painting our sitting President as a foolish frat headed party boy. It was a legacy that he carried across two elections (and two wins), and South Park savants Trey Parker and Matt Stone did something similar - and far funnier - with their 2001 sitcom That’s My Bush. Comedy Central cancelled that sage-like series, only to revive the leader as loser ideal with their Our Gang rip-off L’il Bush. Since the advent of humor, government officials have born the brunt of satire and comic criticism. The powerful have always found themselves in mirth’s machine gun sites.

Mostly, it’s viewed as harmless fun, a chance to knock down an elected official with the only weapon remaining inherent in the people - the freedom of speech. Of course, the current administration has used every post-9/11 tactic they can to curb such rights, but leave it to the jesters to maximize what few liberties are left. The portrait painting is also kind of lame. Bush is dumb. Bush is out of touch. Bush is controlled by advisers out to forward their own agenda, not that of the nation. None of this is new, and seldom is it clever. But it avoids the real problems with this presidency, so it’s also more or less ignored.

Where someone like George W. really needs to worry however is when someone serious takes up their cause. In this case, Oliver Stone has just announced the final casting on his proposed limited biopic on our 43rd executive officer (Entertainment Weekly offered a sneak peek in this week’s edition). The project, entitled W., will begin filming in a few weeks, and while not every role is set (the writer/director is still looking for someone to play vilified VP Dick Cheney), Stone seems ready. With the suddenly hot Josh Brolin parlaying his No Country for Old Men cred into the title part, and supporting turns from Elizabeth Banks (as Laura), James Cromwell (as Daddy Bush Sr.) and Ellen Burstyn (as Momma Barb), this promises to be another controversial send-up of history.

It’s well worn territory for the criminally underrated filmmaker. Even though he owns two Oscars (for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July) and has made several sizeable box office hits, including Wall Street, Natural Born Killers, and Any Given Sunday, it’s his political pictures that have raised (and equally reduced) his reputation. Many see JFK as a misguided masterpiece, a conspiracy theory tricked out as actual fact, while Salvador is too liberalized to explain the Central American crisis of the mid ‘80s. He’s taken on Fidel Castro (his 2003 documentary Comandate) and made one of the most jingoistic films about the terrorist attacks of seven years ago (World Trade Center).

Yet for anyone looking to gain some insight into what Stone might be attempting here, they need look no further than the brilliant deconstruction of the only US President ever to resign from office. 1995’s Nixon was seen, at the time, as the perfect combination of man and material, a subject that Stone could really sink his teeth into while exploring the post-Vietnam Watergate watershed that drove a decade into decadence and indecision. Yet, oddly enough, the famous burglary celebrated by the Washington Post and its pair of supercop journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein, was a minor part of the narrative. Instead, Stone looked for a big picture pronouncement, hoping to highlight the paranoia and pettiness that drove this leader to illegal acts of insane arrogance.

While some considered the hiring of Anthony Hopkins antithetical to the movie’s designs (how a British actor best known for playing a suave serial killer could take on one of the most American of political icons was frequently questioned), it turned out to be a masterstroke. Stone wasn’t looking for a mimic, or worse, a Rick Baker manufactured make-up version of Nixon. He wanted to showcase the human being inside. What Hopkins did was genius. By finding out what made this predatory political animal tick, he literally turned into the crooked Commander in Chief. It’s impossible to watch this film 13 years later and not see the media made images present in the UK thespian’s mannerisms.

Apparently, W. won’t be so broad in its scope. Nixon went from the leader’s days as a poor California boy to almost every electoral benchmark in his career. In recent interviews, Stone likened this latest project to The Queen, a narrative that takes seminal events from the subject’s life and shows how they add up to the man we see today. In comparison to Nixon’s “symphony” he says, W. will be more like “chamber music.” Of course, there are other hints at the approach within his comments. He calls Bush “an alcoholic bum”, pointing to his “conversion to Christianity” as the driving force in his professional and political decisions. For a director who never skirted scandal, embracing hot button concepts like addiction and religion seems par for the course.

Yet just like Nixon, one expects extensive dramatization in order to get to the essence of an area. One thing films can be faulted for is such a shorthand concept of truth. It’s impossible to cover all facets of an individual’s personality, even with the jaded judicial notice of an already clued-in audience. Composites have to be created both in characterization and circumstances. Stone is often raked over the coals for taking such a condescend view, but within the language of film, it’s literally impossible to deal with an entire lifetime in three hours. Of course, some might argue with the intent of those who try, but with all great art comes even greater ambition - and hubris.

Additionally, W. is planned for an Election 2008 release date. That means that Bush will still be President when the movie is in theaters - barring any production delays or problems (like the upcoming Actors Guild strike). How that will affect Stone, or his cast, remains to be seen. Additionally, movies like this usually strive to set the tone for someone’s legacy. Nixon wanted to humanize someone that was systematically demonized. It may have wound up doing a little of both. Similarly, W. has the potential for shedding some light on the current Commander’s often puzzling decision making process. It could also go Harold and Kumar all over his rationale.

No one expects Oliver Stone, a serious moviemaker, to have the President of the United States snorting coke off a stripper’s treasure trail, but it’s clear that a subject like George W. Bush places such a sequence in the realm of dramatic possibilities. Even early script reviews have argued that W. balances the administration’s tendency toward bumpkin burlesque with real insights into how the politics of fear work. Maybe Stone will settle for something in the middle. Or we could be seeing the unmaking of an already undone leader. One things for sure - this is one man who may be wishing the world saw him as a dope smoking stooge after all. The truth may be far more telling - and terrifying.


by L.B. Jeffries

12 May 2008

As any classification system necessitates, there are exceptions to the four basic categories being used in the Zarathustran Analytics. Going beyond the mere nitpicks of innovative games that strike careful balances or parallels, it is important to identify the games that specifically lack one of the three variables. When analyzing a video game by its experience rather than game design or player input, one might conclude that a game that does not feature all three variables isn’t really a video game. You don’t classify them this way to be belittling, though, you do it because these games create a different experience and should be judged by different criteria. Why criticize a game for not having a story when it wasn’t created with that in mind to begin with? Why criticize a lack of options when they would have served no purpose? There needs to be room for purists in the medium of video games and the exceptions to the four forms addresses that.

The most obvious place to start is with games that don’t have plots. Note the difference between that and not caring about the plot for a moment. There are plenty of games where the plot is entirely forgettable or the plot is one sentence long. Save the princess. Get to the end of the level. Or at the very core: beat the game. I contend that the goal of winning is in and of itself a story in a game. It has a beginning, middle, and end. The game may consist of nothing more than jumping off platforms or wanting to be “The Guy”, but that’s simply an incredibly small story. It has finality and the player puts in all the details. That doesn’t always make it a good story, but it definitely should be considered one.

by Rob Horning

12 May 2008

I referenced this n+1 article about the “hype cycle” in the previous post, but it’s worth, well, hyping. Mocking the odious New York magazine-style approval matrices, the author compares the fluctuating social capital of cultural goods to asset bubbles, lamenting that media hype “transforms the use value of a would-be work of art into its exchange value.” In other words, we don’t judge art by its underlying fundamentals; instead we trade on their momentum. I’m skeptical that those things can be separated. The degree that pop culture is enjoyed privately isn’t going to be expressed in the public sphere, where opinions become hype because they become part of one’s identity posturing. The private enjoyment can simply be experienced; the direct pleasure of listening to a song need not be mediated to be felt. What does need mediation is the pleasure of being culturally relevant, being part of the zeitgeist or ahead of it.

So how we “use” culture depends a great deal on how we regard it contextually. Without context, there isn’t much there to consume—it’s not as though the intrinsic qualities are so deep and sophisticated. That private pleasure goes only so far, and if we were after that private pleasure alone, we’d consume something other than the culture that’s mainly relevant because it is contemporary. Rather, with pop culture, we are consuming context in object form; we are choosing to engage our times through an artifact, be part of the cultural conversation. This may be why most people don’t mind hype and, in fact, respond positively to it. Hype gives us a reason to consume, an opportunity to get something beyond the things’ intrinsic qualities. We can passively consume things that were once required activity: participation, a sense of belonging to something larger, a sense of being excited. Hype sucks primarily when you have a lot of free time to discover things to be excited about on your own—a luxury for most people who are not pop-culture connoisseurs. For everyone else, the vicarious excitement of hype is welcome—an efficient solution for not having enough leisure (or imagination) to become excited from scratch, entirely on our own.

The main use value of popular culture—what makes it popular—is its ability to signal one’s personality in the public sphere. (The n+1 article limits what one might signal through culture to the reputation of connoisseurship, but most people don’t seem to care about that. They want to belong, not be singled out as snobs.) What gives popular culture that capacity is its widespread distribution and its malleable substance, and often it’s made with that kind of negative capability in mind. It is intentionally indeterminate, or in other words, “shallow.” Hype, then, does reinforce the generic, insubstantial qualities of pop culture by expanding the base that can relate to it, creating network effects and magnifying the feelings of participation it conveys and communicating potential it has. A feedback loop is created: the shallower culture is, the more useful it is to us in the ways hype amplifies, and more hype proliferates and highlights cultural superficiality. This cycle tends to abrogate pop culture for those who want to experience it as connoisseurs (the brunt of the n+1 complaint). Hype makes us (happily, for many of us) have to consume culture as zeitgeist; it ceases to be an occasion to express our refined tastes. Instead, it liberates us from having to worry about tastes at all.

Of course, there is still public discussion of culture that is not hype, but it happens on a parallel track, only among parties that have established their bona fides with one another. Often, that means talking to oneself.

//Mixed media

Violin Virtuoso L. Subramaniam Mesmerizes in Rare New York Performance (Photos)

// Notes from the Road

"Co-presented by the World Music Institute, the 92Y hosted a rare and mesmerizing performance from India's violin virtuoso L. Subramaniam.

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