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Thursday, Aug 18, 2005

A few bloggers have today noted this astounding statistic: Toronto detectives have found that all but one of the more than 100 pedophiles they have arrested in the last four years are “hard-core Trekkies.” Ellen Ladowsky, a psychologist, offers a pretty intriguing thesis as to why this might be, that Star Trek posits a utopian world where all sorts of inescapable boundaries (gender, race, etc.) are broken down, which would have an obvious appeal to the pedophile.


This reminded me of another quasi-utopian subset, the garage-rock obsessed music nerd who is on a messianic mission to save rock and roll. Last summer when I went to a big garage rock festival in New York, I was struck by how much the average Cavestomper was like a Trekkie. The show convinced me once and for all that rock and roll is utterly dead as a genre, quickly going the way of traditional jazz to become a solemnly lauded museum piece, a specialization for avid superfans eager to tunnel into a subculture of nostalgia. With its eccentric fashion statements, an uneasy mishmash of Carnaby Street flash and Austin Powers parody, and its vigilant gatekeepers preserving the sacred knowledge about things like vintage fuzz pedals and the teen-rock scene in 1960s Wichita, garage rock can satisify fans with arcana while allowing them to criticizing anything not sufficiently faithful to the strictures delimited by the Beatles and the Stones and the Who. Rock and roll might have once been about rebellion and teenage angst and youth and new horizons of cool, but now it is undeniably a geek scene, and the festival was a Star Trek Convention with amplifiers. Like Trekkies, garage fans are absolutely shameless about their love for their obscure niche but perhaps unlike Trekkies, they are apparently unaware how marginalized their passion makes them and seem to believe instead that they are on the vanguard of a cultural movement instead of the comet’s tail.


People, mostly in their thirties and forties, came dressed up in costumes—their fake-vintage mod trousers and their tour shirts for bands whose last meaningful tour was twenty or thirty years ago and their Cavestomp shirts, testimony to their having gone conventioneering before and their white go-go boots and their mintskirts and the rest) and they passionately swapped cherished bits of hopelessly obscure information that no one else in the world cares about while their aging, decrepit heroes emerged from retirement to go through the motions of their heyday thirty or forty years ago and mouth platitudes about the significance of the audience’s enthusiasm, collectively vindicating what often seems to be an insane preoccupation, perhaps even to those laboring under it. No angst, no innovation, just a reiteration of well-cherished truths, a kind of day-long sermon. Band after band testified to the all-important power of rock and roll—to do what? Inspire you to “rock” more? Usually rock and roll is supposed to have changed the world, and we the audience, were making it happen still, keeping the tradition alive, as though it were a suppressed religious faith and we were contributing to some as-yet-unfulfilled prophecy. How has rock and roll changed the world, though? It changed some fashions and it altered the contours of pop music for a while, but “changed the world?” It may once have been the soundtrack for young revolutionaries plotting to throw monkey wrenches into the workings of consumer society, but that revolution was squelched and co-opted in 1968. These days, garage-rock fans are intent not on changing anything about the world but on consuming as much as possible from their tiny niche. Whatever computer hackers are listening to as they are retooling their viruses, that is the revolutionary music of today. (I’m guessing it sounds like Four Tet, which is as uncompromising and unlistenable as I would expect truly revolutionary music to be).


I mention garage rock (which, incidentally, flourished at roughly the same time Star Trek originally aired) because more than a few of the 40-something music nerds I’ve encountered have had an unhealthy fixation on young girls. Part of this may stem from the fact that the music they love fetishizes youth, is made by teenagers and glorfies teenagerdom as the end-all and be-all of existence, it’s incandescent and melodramatic moments rendering all adult dilemmas humdrum and a bit pathetic. But as with intense Star Trek fans, intense music nerds seem to refuse to accept the intractability of adult problems, seem fixated on the uncomplicated ideals of their childhood that can nonetheless be elaborated endlessly with the limited set of symbols the object of their fan love affords. Which is to say, basically, what Ladowsky argues in part, that pedophilia, like being a Trekkie or music nerd, is a form of escapism, a regression to a simpler time of childhood, but one that has ceased to be benevolent. That pedophiles are specificallly Star Trek fans is possibly a matter of the correspondance with when today’s pedophiles were adolescents. The pedophiles of the future will probably turn out to be big Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanatics.


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Thursday, Aug 18, 2005

If you get The New Yorker you might have noticed that discount retailer Target bought all the ad space this week. Seems like as good a method as any for the retailer to buff up its middlebrow bona fides. Bryan Curtis was inspired to write this account of Target’s rise on Slate, detailing how carefully it cultivated its upscale image and its dedication to pointless stylization of mundane household objects, the kind of thing that gets shills like Virgina Postrel all excited. They basically cajoled celebrities into promoting the store on TV and managed to get Style sections of newspapers to run fluff pieces about their stores under the guise of trendspotting, a la the current fascination with the iPod.


It’s interesting to read how an ideological ediface is built and interesting to consider how commonplace it is for people to pay to participate in ideology, the idea that there is some mark of distinction to buying toilet paper at Target rather than Wal-Mart or a bodega. In a consumer society, buying in is the only socially recognized way to exhibit your values, so it makes sense, I guess. But Target’s popularity also suggests the sheer pleasure of participating in ideology—people are willing to pay for the privilege of duping themselves about their social status. (One of the problems in marginal utility theory seems to be its inability to account for a shopper’s pleasure in wastefulness. People are eager to spend, not reluctant, because they are led to believe that spending is the best way to exhibit power and have fun.) Ultimately the problem I have with Target is that it promotes the idea of destination shopping, investing consumption with even more ephemeral symbolic resonance than it already has. Target would like you to believe that coming to its store signifies more than the fact that you need socks and a saucepan. Social symbolism may very well be a zero-sum game, and the more resonace various aspects of consumption have, the less potency is left for non-commercial aspects of culture; in fact, when Target openly cannibalizes fine art for its commodities, its destroying the arts’ ability to stand independent of consumption—what happens is the only reaction to art and design we have is, Wow, I’d love to own that.


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Thursday, Aug 18, 2005

A comment on my post from yesterday inspired me to clarify further my response to Schor’s description of “downshifters”. I don’t think these “downshifters,” people who self-consciously try to consume less, are making matters in the consumption society worse; it’s just that I wonder whether we lack a way to talk about them without playing into the hands of the forces that create the hyperconsumer world—our public discourse may be so shaped by consumer practice and its values (via ads and passive entertainment and gizmo fetishes and so on which all celebrate acquisition and direct personal interaction toward social comparisons and shopping talk) that to talk about those who reject those values inevitably calls up our skepticism, immediately makes those people seem suspect. I’m as inclined as anyone to want to sympathize with downshifters, but I found myself thinking they seemed pretentious—perhaps it is hard to publicize the noble things anyone does without the act of publicity itself tainting the noble deed and cheapening it.


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Wednesday, Aug 17, 2005

All hail the iPod. How did we ever know ourselves before we had this technological “window into our souls”? This Washington Post story reminds me just how much we should be grateful for the iPod for serving as a useful device in which to record our memories. Says one iPodder: “You’re making a little collection of emotions and memories for yourself and you stick them all in this little machine and you carry it around with you wherever.” Who needs a brain if you have an iPod? And who has memories that aren’t encapsulated in a pop song? Whose entire life hasn’t been like a montage scene, like in 90210, where the characters have wordless fun in two-second snippets while Sixpence None the Richer plays?


And anyway, what good are memories if they are not indexed to pop songs and cataloged on a portable device? We want to be able to carry our fondest moments with us (and even access them randomly! Hurray for shuffle play! My life wasn’t nearly random enough before this wonderful tenchnology. I wish I could hire someone to shuffle my furniture while I’m at work. It’s so frustrating to go home to the same old arrangement.) And having them tied more tightly to pop songs makes my remembrances that much easier for advertisers to exploit. So a song that made me fall in love with my girlfriend could be used to help me fall in love with a car. Who doesn’t want to fall in love? The iPod can help me fall in love over and over again. God bless Apple!


The story reports that “In the upcoming book iPod, Therefore I Am, part memoir, part valentine, the English journalist Dylan Jones writes: “The big thing about the iPod, I thought, was the way in which it forces you to listen to your life in a different way.” That is so true. I was listening to my life through a jelly jar pressed up against my television set, but now the iPod has changed all that. Now I can hear songs I didn’t remember liking, at any given moment. The iPod does the thinking for me. It’s wonderful! Can I get it to pick out my dinner from a menu? Can I get it to shuffle my wardrobe?


Do you remember the first time you heard “Witchita Lineman”? What a golden memory. Yeah, that song was never trendy, not even when Urge Overkill covered it. The other day, when I was in my fifth rep at the gym and my iPod played that really kickass song by Coldplay, the one where he whines, I thought, God, how relaxing is this! Thank you, iPod, for teaching me some more about myself, all those important things I forgot.


According to Sherry Turkle, director of the Initiative on Technology and the Self at MIT, where she teaches the psychology of the relationship between people and machines, “The iPod is a very powerful identity technology… a reflection of who we are as people, a way of seeing ourselves in the mirror of the machine,” she says. An important reminder: Having an identity requires technology. The notion of being obsessed with one’s own identity is a relative recent innovation. Before techology we were content to develop our sense of self through our interactions with other people and through the functions we actually performed in our community. But thankfully we have machines to isolate us from communities and permit us to construct a self based on our adolescent memories and fantasies. Technology filters out the troublesome opinions of other people, and lets us be exactly who we want to be with no regard to reality.


What is so nauseating about stories like these, aside from their being free advertising, is that they prop up lifestyle consumption; they function only to help you rationalize a purchase or make you feel like it is absolutely necessary to buy something to fit in with the zeitgeist. The more articles like this that run, the more it becomes anamolous that one doesn’t have an iPod; the more I time I have to spend explaining why I don’t have one and don’t want one, questions I never really wanted to answer, because in answering them I sound like one of the self-righteous downshifters mentioned below. Can’t people enjoy their technology in peace? Why do newpapers have to whip them up into a frenzy of self-congratulation for using technology, if it’s already supposed to be so great as it is, due to its own functionality? That so much ink is spilled trying to remind us about the wonders of technology should be enough to tell us just how inconsequential it really is. Not only that, but it remakes your sense of self in its own image—we become dependent on machines to even know who we are; we are what the machines permit us to be and nothing more. What a cause for celebration.


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Wednesday, Aug 17, 2005

I finished reading Juliet Schor’s The Overspent American last night and found myself annoyed by her description of “downshifters,” people who self-consciously cut back on their consumption and live in places such as Seattle which allegedly facilitate a simpler lifestyle, where people pay less attention to positional goods and restrain emulative spending. Written in the mid-1990s for the mass market, the book felt a bit dated, and nowhere more than in the section on “downshifters.” Didn’t these people have anything else to worry about than their own budget? Confronted with the current American political situation, it’s hard to image such compacency, where the only thing to worry about was making a political decision to drink fewer lattes. No wonder the right-wing coup succeeded.


What’s frustrating is that the people Schor describes are doing the things that I generally believe to be the right things—spend less, ignore status goods, organize processes to help neighbors share things, waste less, etc.—but as Schor describes them, they come across as self-involved ninnies who want a pat on the back for saving money and expect our sympathy when they turn down meals at expensive restaurants or wait until movies come on cable to watch them. It seems the whole point of curbing consumption is to try to remove yourself from the system by which your place in society is affirmed because of your cosumption choices. It becomes a radical individualist goal, but individualism is what reinforces our current social system. But this goal is probably impossible to achieve, because ultimately spending is always a social activity—its means are determined socially, the ends toward which it is directed are determined socially. Downshifters come across as though they believe they can transcend all this and set up their own rules for society by an individual force of will. Schor wants us to pity them for the sacrifices they make by removing themselves from the mainstream of society, wherein most sociality is fostered by spending and consumption. But by virtue of being singled out for the book’s purposes, they come across as smug holier-than-thou types utterly detached from the larger poltical situations—like people who think because they recycle they have done their part to make a difference, even though recycling achieves virtually nothing, and does nothing to stem the flow of waste and pointless packaging.  (It may in fact rationalize it to an extent.)


The downshifters probably weren’t looking to be congratulated for the example they might set; it just comes across that way in the book. They whine about how hard it is to make sacrifices, which has the effect of making readers think they are blind to what a luxury it is to be able to choose to opt out. They seem ignorant of the many sources of social validation they can retain by virtue of having already had money and status. The lower classes, who have none of the social capital that comes from being raised in a certian class and absorbing their socially approved habits and demeanor (the idea behind Bourdieu’s “habitus”), can’t afford to stop playing the consumption game because it is the only avenue capitalist society offers for gaining status that one isn’t born with; it is the only open route to achieving more social recognition—spending more to make oneself a more significant blip on the social radar. But this ostentatious spending compulsion becomes a lower-class marker itself; moreso as thse above them “downshift” and make their habitus, the thing that can’t be bought, stand out more prominently as the essential class marker.


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