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by Rob Horning

11 Apr 2007

Via comes a link to this Stay Free! interview with Giles Slade, author of Made to Break, a book about planned obsolescence. (I wrote about the book before here after reading about it here. The whole thing is worth reading, but these exchanges I found particularly interesting:

STAY FREE!: How did book come about?
GILES SLADE: I came back to North America from teaching in the Arab Emirates after 9/11, and every interaction I had in public was very curt, very rude. I wondered where that shortness developed and ultimately became convinced that it has to do with our attitudes toward material culture.

I thought this was an interesting connection—rather than attribute rudeness and impoliteness to cultural mores and leave it at that, the move to ground our understanding of the mores in material culture seems an absolutely necessary next step. I wonder whether our fixation on efficiency leads us to build in the desire for convenience into our infrastructure, into our commonsense approach to the environments we find ourselves in and how we read them, making that pseudoefficiency hard to resist. And since convenience is so often understood as the elimination of human interaction, does the way our preference for it seems already built in to society then justify to us that ubiquitous rudeness Slade mentions? The expectation and privileging of convenience seems to make things road rage seem reasonable, normal. I rarely pause to doubt my righteous intolerance when someone in front me at the bakery where I get my morning rolltakes a long time to count their change out. I get frustrated when everyone isn’t in as much of a hurry as me, and I feel that’s somewhat a product of living in New York, where haste is institutionalized.

And this:

STAY FREE!: When you talk to people about your book, do you notice a generational divide in how older people and younger people feel about these issues?

GILES SLADE: Yes, younger people don’t want to hear anything negative about the iPod. I might as well put a turban on and grow a long beard. It comes down to the social value of consumer goods as icons. If I’m saying something negative about your tribe’s icon, it’s as if I’m attacking you personally. Also, younger people have much less sense that things should last. I find that really disturbing.

STAY FREE!: It makes sense, though. If you’re born into a world where things aren’t made to last, naturally you won’t expect them to.

GILES SLADE: Sure, but then things less than 20 years old become what we think of as antiques. So your sense of duration, of history, of culture has collapsed and evaporated. If your favorite toys are constantly updated and replaced, how is that going to effect your relationships with people? I think you’re less likely to have lasting commitments to people, to family, to a country, even. There’s a well-known book called Bowling Alone, and I think this is where it comes from. We’ve become so accustomed to things only lasting for a few years we don’t invest in them anymore. We don’t see beautiful things like paintings and rugs as lasting.

If the values are built in to material culture, which is made up mostly of consumer products and embodies consumerist values, then it makes some sense that generations raised entirely within that culture, which has been proliferating steadily, would be protective of it and grow defensive if you imply that there’s something damaged about it. It’s as though you are saying they can’t help but be impaired by the culture they grew up in. But that situation holds for everyone, no matter what generation; it takes a special effort of negativity and critical thinking to escape the biases built in to the society we learn to adapt ourselves to. It’s made easy for us to seamlessly assume the prejudices of that society, and there’s little benefit in resisting that process—just a faith in principles, in the idea that there is some “real” beyond those prejudices worth aspiring to. It’s easy, though, once you’ve adopted that negative attitude (hard to differentiate from cynicism), to assume that it’s harder for the generations after our own to make the same effort, that things have become much worse.

by Wendy McCardle [McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)]

11 Apr 2007

In still images from the documentary, Editor-in-Chief Jimmy Young looks over the day's paper.(Courtesy Prince Spells/Centre Daily Times/MCT)

In still images from the documentary, Editor-in-Chief Jimmy Young looks over the day’s paper.(Courtesy Prince Spells/Centre Daily Times/MCT)

Like many Americans, Aaron Matthews said he was feeling let down by the media. He tested his lack of faith by putting a campus newspaper in the spotlight of his latest documentary, The Paper, which had its first airing April 7 at the Philadelphia Film Festival. The film is slated for a national airing on PBS as part of its Independent Lens series that begins in October.

Matthews’ film focuses on the staff of Penn State’s student newspaper, The Daily Collegian. It highlights the frustrations and difficulties the staff faces in simply getting the story.

Although the Collegian rivals many campus newspapers, it, like many media outlets, faces declining circulation and disappointment from readers. On a day-to-day basis, its up-and-coming rookie journalists test their morals and beliefs against what is newsworthy, all the while trying to beat the many obstacles that stand in the way of their information.

by Rob Horning

11 Apr 2007

In the course of my reading recently I somehow ended up on some anarcho-capitalist blogs and stumbled across a link to a 20-year-old article from Theory and Society called “A Capitalist Road to Communism.” The authors, Robert Van Der Veen and Philippe Van Parijs, take the Marxist recipe for a society worthy of humankind and argue that socialism may not be a necessary historical stage on our way there. I found it interesting in light of the confused ideas I was trying to express about productivity the other day. The gist of the most idealist Marxist vision of society is that work will become so meaningful to people that they won’t need to be motivated to perform it by material gain. In fact people will be “paid” in the ability to work more, as work itself will be the essence of a person’s fulfillment—work will have become “life’s prime want” to use Marx’s description (which Van der Veen and Van Parijs cite). In the most utopian vision of society, productivity gains, which are necessary to fulfill material wants, will be effortless to achieve, since work itself will grow ever more meaningful, and people will be ever more dedicated to its completion. (The only way this would be possible is if technology improvements had advanced to the point where all drudge work could be automated, performed by robots or something—this quickly turns into science fiction.) The distinction between work and leisure would disappear, and altruism would be indistinguishable from self-interest (and the sky would always be full of rainbows and it would rain lollipops every Sunday).

Anyway, if that’s the goal, if improved productivity accelerates us toward the time when we are all liberated from exploitation and alienation via our grubbing after our material interests, then what sense would it make to stage silent slowdowns, to retard productivity as a way to trip up the bosses extracting it from you? Why would it be a worker’s instinct to find ways to subvert productivity, as De Certeau, for one, seems to suggest in The Practice of Everyday Life? One way to look at it is this: Subversive nonproductive actions on the clock are a way of extracting more wages (when increased productivity suggests they are due—theoretically the percent increase in productivity should eventually provoke an equivalent bump in wages) in the form of time or office supplies or internet access when the cash is not forthcoming in one’s paycheck. But in Marxist theory, the point when workers begin to work against the system—when their working conditions are so perverse and contrary to their interests that they become intentionally unproductive—is the point at which socialism (workers’ collective ownership of the mean of production) is supposed to become a better arrangement for society than capitalism (which pits individuals against each other in exploitative arrangements that suddenly no longer serve the common good through the workings of the invisible hand Adam Smith posited). If you are a true fellow traveler, you can perhaps see in these petty moments of office rebellion—IMing at work all day long, stealing reams of paper, etc.—the first inklings of socialist revolution. The same goes for the the alleged epidemic of workplace boredom—a sign that the current social relations of production have outlived their usefulness.

Here arises a conundrum: the capacity for boredom seems to run counter to the self-motivation a socialist system would seem to require. If workers are going to be more productive under some scheme of self-management, then they would need to be able to supply themselves with meaningful tasks—they would be in a position to see what needs to be done and do it on account of its own needfulness. If boredom is a consequence of having that impulse thwarted, that’s one thing. But it often seems that people grow bored not from having their natural incentive to get things done thwarted but from having grown complacent with being told what to do. One’s internal initiative atrophies, and one waits for one’s orders while reserving the snarky right to complain about them. Boredom is at once a symptom and a cause of the workplace alienation problem socialism is supposed to solve. Theoretically, socialism removes the parasitic management class, but what will become of us if the managers vanished and left behind the bored, scratching their heads, no longer able to motivate themselves to accomplish anything without management’s contrived blandishments?

Capitalism, of course, offers entrepreneurship as the next step for thwarted, bored workers—they can become their own boss by starting their own business. (This, according to a Danish guy I met on vacation, is the beauty of America. “Do you do your job better than the other guy?” he asked me, over and over again. “Then you start your own business! It’s so easy! The American dream!”) If the management class ever withers away like the state is supposed to, will it be because enough workers will have embraced capitalism to the extent that they feel obliged to become entrepreneurs? Should the aim of technology be not only to provide a material surplus sufficient to fulfill everyone’s basic needs but to enable more small business and independent proprietorships? Is the future of socialism a bunch of 1099s?

by Matt Mazur

10 Apr 2007

Director Michel Gondry has long made a career of re-hashing his particular brand of French surrealism. He’s given us a number of mildly interesting music videos (from such cutting edge acts as The White Stripes and Bjork), as well as the intriguingly dreamlike features Human Nature (which is sorely underrated), and the surprisingly popular Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (for which Gondry somehow managed to take home an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay). The biggest problem with being a whimsical man-child (which Gondry clearly identifies with through his work) is that it permeates everything you create: every precious maneuver becomes repetitive, every fantastical sequence becomes obnoxious.

Perhaps Gondry needs to perhaps step back and re-evaluate his stock style as his current offering, The Science of Sleep, is merely another regurgitation of his boyhood dreams and fears. The director is searching for explanations that connect reality and dream life, but only offers us his own point of view (which is more akin to a 13 year-old girl’s romantic sense of love and starry graphics—I half expected a parade of glittery unicorns to spring from someone’s imagination and begin a chorus line). Unfortunately, it’s the same point of view we have been “treated” to for years.

Centering in on Stéphane (a multi-lingual, appealing Gael Garcia Bernal), The Science of Sleep wants to detail the tribulations of an artist’s turbulent mind, but actually plays out more like the fantasies of a petulant little boy (this point is driven home by the fact that Stéphane actually sleeps in his boyhood bedroom—something I found singularly irritating and cutesy). In the world of Stéphane, spending so much time alone is detrimental, and everyday objects begin to animate themselves as shadows creep around ominously. As he says “dreams are very tiring”.

He watches everything from “Stéphane TV”, the control room inside his chaotic brain that produces a cadre of bizarre images: the imaginarily heroic Stéphane sprouts gigantic hands to fight his “evil” co-workers, while in another scene, he battles an electric shaver that gives his boss long hair and a beard instead of cleaning him up. In true Freudian fashion, the filmmaker brings up a recurring dialogue with his mother (French icon Miou-Miou) that always seems to arrive at inappropriate time, much to his chagrin. In his head, Stéphane is a dynamo; in reality he is swallowed up by issues with women (notably his mother), his jealousy (professional and personal), and his own narcissistic ego.

Stéphane is given a job doing typesetting for a calendar company, a job which his mother arranged from him. The whiny young man is shocked to learn that he will not be performing creative tasks, but instead will be doing formulaic work that could be done by a machine.

As he becomes disenchanted with his job, surrealism begins to show in everything. It’s in Stéphane’s dreams (which is the only place where he realizes his artistic potential), his waking life (where he is essentially awkward), and all places in between. Perhaps what Gondry is trying to say with his audaciously colorful mise-en-scene is that the surreal isn’t all that significant; that we all experience such wildness in our dreams and in our reality all the time. It’s really no big deal. Everybody daydreams, so in this respect surrealism and dreams are quite mundane—they are perhaps vivid when happening, but they are also quite commonplace. 

That the film takes place in Paris is a grand homage to pioneering surrealist films such as Rene Clair’s Entr’acte and the concept of Dadaism. Stéphane and his new friend/paramour Stephanie (the amazing Charlotte Gainsbourg—the sole force that saves the movie from complete disgrace), actually at one point ride a giant, animated “hobby horse”, an image that pounds it’s message home like a hammer to the brain. The pair is practically engulfed in ineptly obvious bizarre imagery.

Stephanie implores Stéphane to “stop acting like a child” (an additional bit of sound advice for the unstable young man might be to also get some Prozac, ASAP), but she is really no authority on the subject: Stephanie is equally plagued by whimsy, and by the looks of it, she enjoys letting go of control over her actions every bit as much as Stéphane. She is generally reserved and quiet, but something in Stéphane brings out her dormant, girlish feelings. And the next time someone decides to cast Gainsbourg as a piano-playing singer/songwriter, they should have the good sense to incorporate her lovely compositions into the story. That was an unforgivable foible on Gondry’s part.

The inane parade of images from a film such as Entr’acte (which was fairly cutting-edge, given it was made in 1924), from the weirdly-angled shots of a ballerina twirling to the little black dolls with expanding, balloon-esque heads, are all intrinsic to Gondry’s overall purview: his body of work seems to solely rely on these sorts of silly, almost repetitive images and concepts. It’s as though the director wants the viewers of The Science of Sleep to think they are engulfed in dada, that everything happening is totally random. The opposite is true of his finished product: everything is so meticulously scripted, so neatly-packaged, and so ably tied together that the concept of happily not making any sense is thrown out the window for the banality of extreme, rigid logic.

It would be refreshing if Gondry could completely escape this stale style so deeply ingrained in his own conventions and tackle his next filmic subject with fresh eyes and more detached focus. For a director that people believe to be so cutting edge, Gondry is really just another imposter - borrowing (or should we call it stealing shamelessly?) from his predecessors. We get it; your childhood was filled with bizarre, artsy French magic and you have mommy issues. Can we finally move on to something a little more original that fulfills some of your artistic promise?

by Rob Horning

10 Apr 2007

Yesterday I had dinner with Chris O’Brien, author of Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World. To grossly oversimplify, O’Brien looks at brewing practices around the world to show how they often reflect some of the tenets of environmental activism—use of local and naturally grown ingredients, development of craft knowledge, building community tradition, supporting sustainable agricultural practice, etc. I mention this not merely to shamelessly plug his book, but because I wondered what he would make of these findings (via Mind Hacks) by the Violence and Society Research Group correlating the level of violence to the price of beer. Cheaper drinks leads to more violence-related injury, and I’m guessing that is not the kind of revolution O’Brien wants to see fermented (despite what Lenin said about breaking a few eggs). Here’s how Vaughan at Mind Hacks summarizes it:

The researchers examined admissions to 58 hospital accident and emergency departments over a five year period and found that as the price of beer increased, violence-related injuries decreased.
In general, studies have found that alcohol consumption increases both the risk of being a victim of violence and the perpetrator of it.
There are three main theories on why alcohol and violence are linked: i) due to the drug effects on the brain; ii) because people use alcohol as an excuse for violent behaviour; iii) because people who use alcohol might be more likely to be violent, perhaps due to personality factors like sensation-seeking, impulsivity or risk-taking.

It’s easy to blame the nature of alcohol itself for the behavior of those who abuse it—it lowers inhibitions, impairs judgment and distorts perceptions and can induce psychosis if routinely abused. But part of the problem is—and this line of thinking is inspired by O’Brien’s book—that culturally, alcohol is regarded as a commodity, something to be industrially manufactured with the intent of having the most units of it consumed. The link between cheap beer and violence may be a matter more of the cheapness than the beer—the economic incentives that distort our natural impulses. Once beer becomes a industrial product whose only significant metric is units sold, it’s inevitable that marketing campaigns will be devised to increase sales, efforts that distort the nature of alcohol use and pervert how a community might otherwise deal with it in a benign and controlled fashion. And of course, one can point to the relentlessly competitive nature of capitalist society as generating stress that leads individuals to abuse alcohol—to consume unnatural amounts to relieve unnatural amounts of social pressure to be efficient and productive, or to compensate for the inconsolable exclusions that derive from class conflict and status seeking. In other words, one probably shouldn’t blame an inert substance like beer, which is what it is, for the uses human beings end up putting it to. A different set of social arrangements, a different set of cultural practices with regard to alcohol, would very likely divorce beer consumption from violence.

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