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by Rob Horning

7 Jan 2009

What impact will the recession have on our cultural preferences? Social psychologist Terry Pettijohn, who has done a great deal of research into the subject, offers “the environmental security hypothesis”:

Our perceptions of environmental security influence our social preferences and what we find most desirable during different social and economic conditions. Uncertain and threatening times cause people to consider their safety and security, leading them to adjust their preferences and make decisions that are more adaptive. More meaningful, mature themes and items should be preferred during these difficult situations to help mitigate the threat and uncertainty. When times are more certain and less threatening, themes and items related to meaning and maturity should be less necessary; therefore themes and items related to fun, celebration and expression of carefree attitudes should be preferred. This general pattern of preferences may help explain the popularity of music and artists across changing social and economic conditions.

Seems plausible enough. But I am having a hard time assimilating that finding to my own tentative exploration of Depression culture, which consisted of watching Gold Diggers of 1933, easily one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen and not merely because of the extravagantly surreal Busby Berkeley production numbers. One movie is hardly a representative sample, I know, but when thinking of this film, “maturity” is not the word that comes to my mind. The film tracks how out-of-work showgirls manage to get back to Broadway and land wealthy husbands, and certainly it seems to shoot for “fun, celebration and expression of carefree attitudes.” All the characters are virtually one-dimensional typecasts (“the ingenue,” “the flapper,” etc.) There’s barely any conflict to speak of, and the problems the women face tend to solve themselves almost immediately upon being recognized. They are out of work for all of five minutes after the opening showstopper—Ginger Rogers singing “We’re in the Money,” including one verse in Pig Latin (this is highly upsetting in a way that’s hard to describe; as it transpires, it feels like you’re going aphasic)—and that problem is resolved in one scene by what’s basically a deus ex machina. There is some mention of hard times, but the plight of the “forgotten man,” struck by the Depression and struggling without a social safety net, is represented in the film almost as an afterthought in a somber dance number sung by Joan Blondell. Instead, the bulk of the film is taken up with the free-spending courtships conducted by the rich suitors who buy $75 hats and such, and nights out on the town at Stork Club-like speakeasies. And then there’s “Pettin’ in the Park,” a number featuring midget actor Billy Barty in a diaper, cracking open a showgirl’s tin bustier with a giant can opener.

In other words, the movie is pure escapist fantasia rather than an effort to signal that mature leaders are in charge to guide the country through troubled times. (I can’t even begin to imagine a country run on the same logic as this film.) The meaning of the movie, if there was one for Depression-era moviegoers, must have been a kind of reassurance that at least one industry still existed that would spare no expense and would not stop short even of nonsensical excess in its efforts to blow its audiences away. For the duration of the film, viewers could forget about restraint of any kind, before returning to deal with the inescapable economic constraints that afflicted most of them.

But Gold Diggers of 1933 now seems determined most not by its socioeconomic context but by its being made in the medium’s infancy. It seems like a filmed variety show, more like Donnie and Marie than a movie proper, and the shows within the show only multiply that effect. The indifferent pacing seems completely arbitrary, and the idea that a plot needs a conflict is foreign to its dramaturgical approach. It’s all about immediate gratification; rather than delaying the pleasure to enhance it, the film just keeps trying to out do itself with elaborate stage numbers. It was probably much easier to go over the top when their wasn’t much history behind that kind of spectacle, and the “top” wasn’t that far to go.

by Nikki Tranter

7 Jan 2009

They say you should never take an ink pen to a book. My mother would faint at the very idea. I’ve always argued with her (and others), though, of the bite-sized pieces of history lost if we all subscribed to that idea of books as sacred, untouchable artworks.

I write in my books. I do it all, from notes in the margins, to underlines, highlights, and even phone numbers if I absolutely have to (ie. am reading on a bus and that book is the only paper I have). I’m happy to do it, and I get a strange thrill when my secondhand books feature those very same scribblings. I feel like the next bearer in some great literary torch race. From reader to reader, taking notes as we go, each pointing out to the next just what it was about A Thousand Acres or Lord of the Flies that captivated us so (my secondhand copies of those books are filled with red pen comments and multi-coloured flouro highlights). 

Better, however, than the notes and the markings throughout are those two or three-line inside jacket cover inscriptions when books are passed on as gifts. As much as I enjoy finding those inscriptions when book shopping at Saint Vinnie’s, I always feel slightly sad for the giver that their great gift has ended up with a peeling one dollar price tag in a thrift store. Did the receiver, I wonder, not like the book? Have they read and re-read it and feel it’s outlived its use? Did the reader ... die? So many questions, so much history.

We, as book recyclers, don’t know the giver or the receiver, but we can relate. We can look at the title of the book and know very quickly why it was handed over—Bridges of Madison County to an unrequited love, perhaps? Maybe Sophie’s World to a friend needing to see the bigger picture? And often the inscription will intensify our ability relate with short words of wisdom: “you need to read this book” or a line of Xs and Os.

I thought it might be fun to have a look at those bites of history, those moments marking a book’s move from one reader to another.

For our first post, I picked two key inscriptions, the first inside Richard Bach’s Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, and the second from Conversation in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa.

Back in my first year at university, a friend handed me Illusions as a gift. Not a new copy bought just for me, but their own copy, with the words, “No, it’s okay, I’ll find another one”. Apparently, I needed it then and there. I went on to discover that such an idea was a major part of the book—what we really need, the universe will always provide. Sean-oh, in Christmas of 1980, very likely needed messages of inner strength and self-belief. There’s not much to this inscription on first glance, but look more closely and you’ll see the sunlight-like rays beaming from the word “love”, an extra expression of fondness just right for such a book.

As for Margie’s Christmas message to Kate, now that’s a little more mystifying: “Here’s to some successful duck rescue missions in ‘94”. Talk about a piece of history. Here’s a dedication you don’t normally see—just who is this Kate and what birds is she out rescuing? And why Canvesation in the Cathedral and not, while we’re on the subject, Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull? I haven’t read the Llosa book, and there may very well be ducks in the cathedral. Whatever the case, it’s a magical moment that reminds us that readers are all types of people, and that books as gifts transcend standard occasions and sentiments.

by Zeth Lundy

7 Jan 2009

The day before their supposed Final Show Ever at Madison Square Garden on August 7, 2008 (a hyped-up moment to cap the already hyped-up Improbable Reunion Tour), the Police recorded an appearance on Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel). Costello strives to get at the crux of the group’s musical chemistry through individual interviews with Andy Summers, Stuart Copeland, and Sting, but the episode ultimately revolves around their tenuous relationship, breakup, reformation, and second breakup.

by Jason Gross

6 Jan 2009

Barring the appearance of Apple overlord Steve Jobs, who had to assure the market that he’s just got a hormone problem (which kept the company’s stock buoyant), the big announcement at Macworld was not about any new gizmo to rival or update the iPhone but some changes in iTunes as their big attention getter at their last appearance at the fest.  In their battle with the big labels, Apple finally decided to cave in and offer ‘flexible’ pricing, which means that hot new hits will cost more than 99 cents/song while less sought-after olders may be priced lower.  The labels figured that the laws of supply and demand would work in their favor this way rather than the easy one-size-fits-all model that Apple’s touted since it started their music service. 

For Apple, it will likely change very little since they were making tiny profits actually selling songs- their dough comes from sales of their sleak little gadgets (iPhone, iPod, etc..).  For the labels, it’ll be interesting to see how much this change effects their bottom line, if it does at all.  You can maybe assume that most iTunes users won’t jump ship unless the pricing gets too high for the songs but since iTunes is the biggest online music seller now, the change will definitely help the labels rake in more money.  But will it be enough to keep them afloat?

The other big news about changes in the iTunes model is that the songs offered there won’t have DRM anymore.  That means that they can get transferred freely and without any restrictions from one device to another to any computer to anywhere else.  That would be great news for the people who are gonna start buying now but what about all the chumps that already bought iTunes songs with the DRM on them?  Are they gonna be able to automatically get the same songs from iTunes without the DRM now?  Doubtful.  That might lead some resentful users to find their songs from other sources, especially ones that the labels don’t approve of.  As such, maybe Macworld will miss Apple at their conferences but some of their users might not.

UPDATE: Apple is offering uses the chance to convert their old DRM-tagged songs that they’ve bought from iTunes to be stripped of the copy protection for 30 cents a song.  Jobs and friends really should know better than to fleece consumers like that.

by Rob Horning

6 Jan 2009

Via 3QD comes a link to a Guardian article by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, lamenting the lost art of kindness. The gist is that the rise of rational self-interest under capitalism has made the inherent impulse to be kind seem suspect. Of course, this is hardly a new question; it was a dilemma that greatly exercised 18th century moral philosophers. The authors cite Hume (somewhat misleadingly) and attribute to him this rather maudlin commonsense view: “Any person foolish enough to deny the existence of human kindness had simply lost touch with emotional reality, Hume insisted: ‘He has forgotten the movements of his heart.’ ” But the question of whether we have a moral sense that compels us to varying degrees to be benevolent stretches through much of the English philosophical tradition, most notably in Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson, an influence on Adam Smith, whose Theory of Moral Sentiments has a great deal to say about human motive and instinctual sympathy.

The moral sense was a kind of mental organ that conveyed the rightness or wrongness of a deed without our having to make recourse to logic or reasoning or upbringing. People of better quality were presumed to have a more strongly developed moral sense as a given, though it could be sharpened through exercise—this is one of the early excuses for sentimental fiction; it trained readers when to cry as if on cue. Thanks in large part to sentimental fiction—one of the first forms of entertainment to reach a broad audience—the issue of the moral sense became the crux of the sensibility fad, one of the earliest examples of a commercially manufactured zeitgeist. Typically sentimental heroes and heroines are depicted as emotional sounding boards, passively responding to tragic events and modeling the reaction readers are supposed to have. Meanwhile, rational calculators pursing their interest are demonized as heartless and cruel, eradicating kindness of altruism and the rest of it. Luckily, God generally steps in to resolve the impracticalities of ignoring the realities of incipient capitalism. (Outside of fiction, we don’t have that leisure.) The appeal to innate kindness was invariably a method for building up class distinction, whether to preserve aristocratic prestige from vulgar upstarts or to give the vulgar upstarts a way to compete with aristocrats on a level playing field. The moral sense, which anyone can claim, supplants the bloodline as the preferred mode of innate justification for class privilege. Sensibility also serves as a way of redeeming the cruelty of what Marx calls “primitive accumulation”—the various methods of dispossession and immiseration and proletarianization necessary to launch capitalism in earnest. If you assert the durability of the human heart under siege, and furthermore imply that the heart’s glory is revealed only under duress, you do much to justify that siege and embrace that duress as a necessary if not fortunate evil.

Also, by associating kindness with extraordinary heroism, it makes it into a kind of abnormality, as the authors of the Guardian piece point out. “Kindness is seen either as a cover story or as a failure of nerve. Popular icons of kindness - Princess Diana, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa - are either worshipped as saints or gleefully unmasked as self-serving hypocrites. Prioritising the needs of others may be praiseworthy, we think, but it is certainly not normal.” But I don’t think it follows that kindness is now universally regarded “with suspicion” as the authors assert—that seems like a purely polemical proposition intended to evoke the possibility of some revolution in friendliness after which everyone will smile on everyone, no polite nicety will go unperformed, we’ll all ride on unicorns, sing and dance with peace and love, and anger will be an altogether forgotten emotion, a distant memory, like racism and sexism and all those other forms of discrimination we have defeated. Maybe if we solved some of society’s obvious injustices, kindness would take care of itself. The authors assert that “Most people, as they grow up now, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers.” That is wrong; I think that they openly know that it is the condescension of the entitled.

There’s a good chance that I am precisely the curmudgeonly sort of independence-loving troll the authors would like to gulag, but I found this utterly false:

There is nothing we feel more consistently deprived of than kindness; the unkindness of others has become our contemporary complaint. Kindness consistently preoccupies us, and yet most of us are unable to live a life guided by it.

Is there really such a deficit of kindness? I live in a reputedly unkind place, New York City, but I experience quotidian kindness from strangers on a near daily basis, whether it’s someone reminding me that I’ve dropped my scarf, or someone slowing down in a revolving door so I don’t get smashed, or someone exchanging a look with me about something odd going on, or what have you. It’s hardly the “forbidden pleasure” the authors make it out to be. I get the sense of humdrum human solidarity so routinely that I only realize how much I take it for granted when I experience the false pleasantry in the suburbs from salespeople, who are virtually the only strangers I have occasion to interact with. Usually I have no need to be preoccupied by it and am not afflicted with the absence of opportunities to express it. That doesn’t mean there are not also routine expressions of callousness either—every time someone stops at the top of the subway steps to continue their cell-phone conversation, I am reminded of how easy it is to slip into a private world of blithe inconsiderateness. And when I am approached for spare change and fail to break my stride, my own callousness is brought home to me. But I’m hardly preoccupied by it and rarely complain of it.

I wanted to sympathize with the authors’ concern with the dearth of kindness, which seems closely related to my cardinal complaint about society, its celebration of convenience as an end in itself. But the authors’ nannyish tone about the subject, I must admit, made me increasingly annoyed. Probably because I am desperately rationalizing my meanness:

Kindness - that is, the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself - has become a sign of weakness (except of course among saintly people, in whom it is a sign of their exceptionality). No one yet says parents should stop being kind to their children. None the less, we have become phobic of kindness in our societies, avoiding obvious acts of kindness and producing, as we do with phobias, endless rationalizations to justify our avoidance.

But a concern with kindness seems like a fundamental evasion of more substantial problems; kindness itself is the rationalization, the way to short-circuit arguments about the institutional change we should be seeking. Alas, I am one of those “radicals and socialists determined to replace charity with justice, elite kindness with universal rights.” I should recognize that instead, we just ought to worry about being nicer and less competitive. The authors recognize the “bullying” of kindness welded to power, but seemingly fail to recognize that they are inseparable. Kindness only becomes salient, becomes worthy of note, as a dimension of power. Outside of power, it’s just an expression of the species’ inherent activity (as the authors’ reference to Darwin supports). It’s nice to be nice, but something is not nice about noticing it and advertising it. At that point, kindness is being offered as justification for something unkind we are doing elsewhere.

A theory: When kindness is performed out of social necessity by those without the privilege of inward-looking selfishness and individualist isolation, it doesn’t register as “kindness.”  When one finds they must make a conscious effort to be kind and must trumpet their efforts to have it recognized as such, it’s probably already too late for them to be worrying about kindness—they have already become the beneficiary of an unequal society to the degree that they are conscious of being or not being kind. If you think, “how kind of me,” how kind have you really been? Being kind has already become an expression of class privilege, not human fellow feeling.

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