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by Rob Horning

7 Oct 2008

I stopped getting the Sunday New York Times several months ago, mainly because having Sunday Styles in my apartment made me feel gross. The news is depressing enough and it’s far too easy to be cynical about the intelligence of Americans without being goaded by inane trend pieces, navel-gazing personal narratives, and painfully earnest and hyperbolic fashion coverage. If I accidentally began reading anything in the section, I would become irrationally angry and start ranting as if someone cut me off in traffic or something. Other times I feel like the wounded Kyle McLaughlin in Blue Velvet and whine desperately, “Why are there things like Sunday Styles in the world?” Complaining about it only makes it worse, raising its profile and playing into its transparent effort to be talked about. The best thing to do would be to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Slate’s Jack Schafer notes that the section exists to “advance the bogus” but even he couldn’t tolerate this especially idiotic Sunday Styles story by Abby Ellin about straight single guys who own cats, an article which includes this priceless data point: “Many women agree that guys with cats are extra special.”

(I wish I could believe this article was written ironically, but nothing else that’s ever run in Sunday Styles justifies such a view.)

Schafer systematically demolishes the piece in an essay that’s reminiscent of an angry rock critic reviewing a piece-of-shit record track by track, spewing venom all over it. He’s particularly irritated by the use of the word seems as a crutch (one of my favorite tactics when I feel like making a speculative assertion with scanty support).

How can it be made to “seem” that the number of single, straight, male cat owners is increasing? By presenting the most anecdotal of evidence, which Ellin does. An executive at the Humane Society of New York alleges that “she had seen an increase in the number of single, straight men who are adopting cats.” Does the Humane Society of New York really determine the marital status and sexual orientation of cat adopters? If it does, I demand that a picket line be formed around its office now. If it doesn’t, I want the executive’s finding stricken from the record.

I found it suspicious that several of the anecdotes in the story involved people in the magazine industry, which suggests that what is represented as a citywide trend is most likely just a trend among Abby Ellin’s friends.

Of course, Abby Ellin is probably having the last laugh and will most likely have many more articles assigned to her, as this gem is currently the most emailed style story on the NYT website.

by David Pullar

7 Oct 2008

There’s a funny scene in P.G. Wodehouse’s classic Joy In The Morning, in which Bertie Wooster tries to find a copy of Spinoza in a bookshop.  On asking the bookshop employee, he’s met with blank incomprehension.

`You do not mean “The Spinning Wheel”?’


`It would not be “The Poisoned Pin”?’

`It would not.’

`Or “With Gun and Camera in Little Known Borneo”?’ he queried, trying a long shot.
`Spinoza,’ I repeated firmly. That was my story, and I intended to stick to it.
He sighed a bit, like one who feels that the situation has got beyond him.

I think of this story a lot when dealing with the staff in bookshops.  To be honest, I’ve never had much use for them.  These days I’ve got a pretty good idea what I’m looking for in the way of books.  I’ve got my magazines and newspapers and websites that give me tips.  Sometimes I just want to browse and I’m pretty sure that I can read a blurb unaided.  I need someone to scan my selection and take my money, but that’s about the extent of it.

Sure, the presence of staff can help you out with identifying the location of a book—particularly something that’s difficult to classify.  Even this isn’t strictly necessary in some branches of Borders, with their library-style computer terminals.

Getting advice and recommendations, though, is another matter.  There are thousands and thousands of books in the world—who’s to say that the taste of a random person in a bookstore is anything like yours?  How can they be expected to be even aware of the kind of book you might be after?

For all that, I have a certain affection for the “Staff recommendations” that some shops attach on cardboard under the shelves.  At the very least, it’s interesting to see how they line up with my favourite books.  I get a small feeling of companionship with the staff when I see a glowing referral for the works of Kazuo Ishiguro or Vikram Seth or Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.

There’s an element of snobbery at work.  I’m inclined to think that I’m the expert when it comes to the kind of book that I’ll enjoy.  Maybe I’m underrating the taste and discernment of the average bookshop clerk.

My feeling of superiority did take a beating recently while in the George St, Sydney branch of Dymocks and was looking for the next volume of Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time.  Now, I never expected to get through the first volume and it sat unread on my shelves for five years.  The fact that I read it and enjoyed it still astonishes me.  I picture the kind of people who read and enjoy Proust as being grey-haired and wise-looking—English professors at the end of a long and distinguished career.

So picture my surprise when a young-looking employee with an American accent came up behind me and intoned, “Ahh, Marcel Proust.  That was my favourite volume.”

“Oh yeah?” I responded, only half processing what he had said to me.

“Yeah.  I really enjoyed the next one, The Guermantes Way, too but I thought it went downhill after that.  You know, he only edited the first couple of volumes in his lifetime.  The rest were done by his brother or something.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  A guy about my brother’s age had apparently read all the volumes of a gigantic work of French literature and had a favourite volume.

My friend Tim was unsurprised by this story.  He used to work at that very bookstore and said more than half of the staff were completing postgrad studies in literature.  Tim was the marketing student who read Robert Ludlum.

So maybe there’s a role for them after all, at least the staff who have read the later volumes of massive novels and can save you the trouble.

by Rob Horning

7 Oct 2008

With the federal government announcing that it will intervene in the commercial-paper market—the realm of short-term financing for businesses to maintain operations—Justin Fox links to NYT’s Floyd Norris fretting about all this rampant socialism. He makes a few logical leaps forward and concludes:

So we may soon have the government deciding which companies deserve short-term loans, and at what interest rates. Does this remind anyone else of central planning systems?

This would seem a legitimate fear, except that the government plays favorites with business sectors all the time. That’s how the housing crisis became so acute in the first place, because of the federal support for widespread homeownership that created a fertile field for financial shenanigans.

Central planning isn’t a matter of the commissars in the Politboro issuing five-year plans; it’s a matter of regulatory capture, of skewing the playing field with tax and trade policies and creating a system of crony capitalism. Dean Baker details some of the many recent ways conservatives advanced crony capitalism here; Jamie Galbraith’s The Predator State also looks at how free-market dogma masks the way plutocrats use government to loot the economy. Thomas Frank’s new book explores the theme as well.

But the government’s move to buy commercial paper remains problematic. The ultimate purpose seems to be to prevent credit from drying up for businesses that are otherwise creditworthy but can’t get funds from banks whose capital is tied up in cleaning up its other messes. It used to be that money markets would buy the paper, get a better yield than Treasurys, and pass along the better rate to mutual fund investors. But the chaos in the markets have made this too risky, particularly since the “buck was broken” by a prominent money-market fund last week—investors lost prinicpal in a money market fund. (Money market accounts seem like bank accounts, but they are not; when the buck is broke, in effect it’s as though someone else is withdrawing funds from your savings account.)

The banks themselves can’t get funding, because investors are frightened by the losses creditors suffered in the big-time failures we’ve already witnessed.  Justin Fox explains:

What’s been causing the various bank scares and failures of recent weeks has been an increasing unwillingness of anybody to extend these kinds of loans to banks. An at least partially rational unwillingness, given that senior unsecured creditors took big hits in both the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and the seizure of Washington Mutual by the FDIC. Now you might argue that this is a healthy capitalistic development, one that will make providers of such credit more discerning in the future. But there’s no way that a creditor could have discerned by looking at the balance sheets of the respective institutions that his money was in dramatically more danger at Lehman and Wamu than at Bear Stearns and Wachovia, where the government acted to protect creditors. It was purely a question of guessing what regulators would do, not weighing the risks of the financial institution.

That’s the problem caused by haphazard bailouts, but America has too many banks to for the government to secure them all, so the sense that lending to American banks in a guessing game will apparently continue, despite the $700 billion Treasury plan to suck up loser mortgage-related assets.

The NYT article about the Fed’s move notes the inevitable conflicts of interest—the Fed basically becomes an investor in markets rather than a market referee dictating the rules of the game. But without moves such as this, the Fed and the Treasury Department seem to fear there would be no game at all.

by Jason Gross

7 Oct 2008

Radiohead, Iron Maiden, Billy Bragg and Kate Nash wouldn’t seem to have much in common except their Brit connection but they’re banding together with Bryan Ferry, David Gilmore, the Verve and others to form Featured Artists’ Coalition, a collective that claims that it’ll empower musicians more by letting them keep control of their music- see this BBC article for more details.  In theory, it’s a great idea and the labels have to play nice (or appear to) and there is the idea that there’s strength in numbers.  But it’s another thing to put it into practice.  How much are all of these artists really going to band together (so to speak)?  They have different outlooks, interests, motivations and schedules so it’s hard to imagine that other than symbolically, they’d all stay on the same page.  I wish ‘em luck and hope that more artists join and maybe they could even come up with their own bill of rights for musicians.

But one guy who puts his modem (or high-speed) where his mouth is happens to be a novelty artist.  That’s the reason that some people might not take Weird Al seriously, especially when he jokes around all the time but he does take his career seriously.  That’s why he’s said in his MySpace blog that he’s putting out music whenever he feels like instead of holding back a bunch of tracks for an album.  Even he admits that his humor’s timely, tied to recent hits, so it only makes sense for him to just pop out songs when he things they’re ready- the most recent one is a bite on T.I.‘s hit “Whatever You Like.”

He’s hardly unique in doing this- garage/punk screamer Jay Reatrard did it recently himself as did Nine Inch Nails when they surprised everyone with two back-to-back albums recently too.  But few artists have made a point of doing it in the Net age that would and should ideally open up the idea of thinking of new, creative ways to put out music, including doing it more frequently, in different lengthed formats (singles, albums, EPs).  No doubt you’ll be seeing more of it and not just from a funny man like Al.

by Rob Horning

6 Oct 2008

For a long time it has seemed that our improving standards of living were somehow bound up with intensifed marketing and the expansion of consumerist practices—as if frivolous consumption alone assured the growth that made us all more well off. The only way to grow our economy, it seemed, was to convince ourselves that we needed to consume (both products and media) to express our identities, and that alternative sorts of identities were peculiar, if not dangerous (think of the contempt we have for people who brag about being above fashion or watching TV or eating sugar or whatever). To this end, every consumer good was stylized and branded, and design-driven goods were hailed as an increase in the collective good, since we all now had affordable access to pretty things that might make us feel special, and we could all define ourselves in society’s eyes with nicer things. If you wanted to reject the design revolution, you were some sort of spoil-sport elitist who detested the democratization of fashion. 

But hitching our collective identities to the vagaries of affordable luxury is not looking so good right now. Many are proclaiming “the end of capitalism” now that Wall Street has collapsed and the government has made strides toward nationalizing the financial industry. Stocks are in free-fall along with house prices, and everyone feels a lot poorer and a great deal more insecure. But with capitalism, will consumerism also go? At the same time the WSJ reports that vacancies at strip malls are increasing, the NYT reports that consumers are cutting spending, citing this among many anecdotes:

Daniel Kimble, 31, was putting Mr. Driscoll’s theory into practice on Friday. An independent trucker from Oklahoma, he stopped his rig outside a Wal-Mart in Cleveland on his way to a nearby factory.
Mr. Kimble ticked off a long list of his money-saving steps, from driving his pickup truck less to using less laundry detergent to buying fewer clothes. And he has stopped eating at restaurants on the road, which is why he was parked at Wal-Mart.
“I’m going in to buy some lunch meat and some bread, whatever’s cheap,” he said. “I’ve got to save money, you know?”

Ever since the housing crisis began and it became clear that consumer spending, long fueled by easy credit, was inevitably going to grind to a halt in the U.S., I have been wondering if the tumult offered an opportunity to reverse some of what consumerism has wrought or was simply a coming catastrophe. In other words, could consumerism be thwarted without at the same time harming consumption levels, the standard of living to which we have become accustomed? Or to put this even more plainly, could we stop being brand obsessed without at the same time being forced to eat dog food to survive?

In Iceland, they may already be facing this question. Felix Salmon quotes an email to Tom Braithwaite: “The main supermarket can’t get imported goods because they have no currency. The shops are half empty. One of the store managers has advised people to start hoarding. We’re running out of oil. And winter came last night - about a month early.” Kevin Drum linked to this Guardian article, which notes that “people were buying up supplies of olive oil and pasta after a supermarket spokesman announced on Friday night that they had no means of paying the foreign currency advances needed to import more foodstuffs.”

We can only hope that we don’t find ourselves in the same predicament in America, but nevertheless, the financial crisis will most likely force us to discover if there is a difference between consumerism and consumption for us—that is whether we can find satisfaction in buying less, or moving more slowly, or reusing what we already own, or joining a voluntarily-simplicity movement, etc. We may be forced to limit consumption and therefore concentrate our self-fashioning energies in areas of our lives other than shopping. This may prove a difficult psychic adjustment, considering most of us won’t be making it voluntarily.

At Murketing, Rob Walker seems to be thinking about the same thing:

So lately what I’ve been wondering is whether — on an individual level, at least — there is a perverse sort of opportunity in the current ecomomic gloom, which is that it will force us to think about our consumption differently. I don’t know, really, how bad things will get, or really how much of the present gloom is actually overdone and exaggerated. But I would suggest that either way it gives us a reason to reconsider what really matters, and what really doesn’t, in our material lives — in a way that a mere book cannot.
What I’m trying to do here, in other words, is find some rationale for optimism, in a very pessimistic moment.

It seems as though nothing was going to make us give up consumerism voluntarily—not global warming, not the recognition of the hedonic treadmill, not the tech crash, not the blight of hipsterism, not the forced nostalgia, not the hypermediation of every aspect of life, not anything. Now that we may have no choice but to abandon consumerism, it feels as though it’s too late—that there is no redemption in a forced choice, only misery.

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