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Friday, Dec 9, 2005

For many months now, I have been suffering a mysterious digestive ailment that defies ready diagnosis or treatment. (Am a celiac? Should I quit caffeine? Should I go macrobiotic? How many Tums a day is too many? How much barium do I have to drink before I am offcially radioactive? [Cue Page lick here.]) One of the fall back explanations in the absence of anything detectable and verifiable is to blame it on stress. It doesn’t matter if you are conscious of the stress or not, the presence of symptoms can be seen as proof of some underlying stress that has cleverly masked itself as a physiological symptom (a la Freudian depth psychology). And never mind that the stress may come from being ill itself and dealing with distracted, supercilious doctors; that could just be an unfortunate positive feedback loop. The key thing is to reduce stress; it’s society’s all-purpose panacea for every species of discontent.


But I don’t want to relax. Constant worrying over how relaxed I am is the kind of biofeedback monitoring process that would make me even more narcissistic and would remove me even more from the business of life. Stress is the sign that something is worth doing, that it matters to more people than yourself. Things that aren’t stressful are variants on navel-gazing.


One of the typical justifications for mind-numbing entertainment is that it helps people relax. But the pursuit of relaxation as an end in and of itself, as if relaxing could be a goal, an activity, seems just plain crazy, a living death, an admission that the actual business of living is too much trouble, always a hassle, always annoying. Part of the reason relaxing has become an activity, perhaps, is because capitalist society (or modern life generally) makes everyday life that unpleasant, removing the communal aspects that make it tolerable and replacing them with prefab entertainment, so as not to leave something that gives joy uncommmodified and unexploited. No pleasure without profit, a core ethos of capitalism.


The pursuit of relaxation is purely a reaction to the unjustifiable strenuousness of maintaining one’s life, of earning a living and keeping up with the shopping and gossip and spectatorship and so on one’s expected to keep up with. There’s no reason for the stress, so it generates a counteractivity defined by its having no reason as well, relaxing. Relaxing tries to salvage a purpose for all the pointless stress by making pointlessness itself a pleasure, a goal. But relaxation only refreshes you to take on more pointless stress. It doesn’t habituate us to having a purpose, to seizing upon and demanding more autonomy for our lives. It instead accepts the cycles dictated to us, to the stress of being directed and the relief of being able to do nothing. Built into relaxation is the assumption that activity in life is always being told to act by someone else, that activity is always a kind of slavery.


The exhoration to relax—often delivered by friends who mean well (“hey, you should just relax, man”), a most subtle and effecctive way for ideology to be delivered—is society’s effective means of reinforcing quietism and negating rebellion. When you get upset about something, you typically have a good reason, and when you are told to relax, you’re being told, hey, you can’t make a difference anyway, you should learn to accept what’s given to you and deal with it. Being told to relax is another way of being told to “be realistic,” that other deeply ideological dictum, which makes the status quo into the eternally given.


Added 12/11/2005: Peter Watson, interviewed in today’s NYT Magazine takes antirelaxation to the next level. “I do not believe in the inner world. I think that the inner world comes from the exploration of the outer world—reading, traveling, talking. I do not believe that meditation or cogitation leads to wisdom or peace or the truth.” (He also rejects fiction as “fugitive, evanescent truths. They don’t stay with you very long or help you do much.”)


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Thursday, Dec 8, 2005

Nice L.A. Times article about housing being offered to Big Easy entertainers down on their luck: New Village to Shelter Uprooted Musicians.  Better yet, if you applaud their efforts and want to help out, you can go directly to the source: Habitat for Humanity- New Orleans.


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Thursday, Dec 8, 2005

Just in time for Narinimania, The December 3 Economist has a story on the bustling, hot new market segment in America, Evangelical Christians, who in their bottomless thirst for social recognition apparently enjoy being marketed to (the more proseltyzing they experience, the better?) and make for “incredibly loyal” consumers. Churches are not houses of worship, per se, but a “ready-made distribution channel” and pastors are not spiritual leaders but “pyromarketers” looking to spread the word about some choice Jesus gear.


It seems that the merging of commercial and spiritual interests, rather than threaten the sanctity of the religion, merely serves to reaffirm its potential to take up a central place in every aspect of everyday life; it suits the evangelical dream of theocracy. So evangelicals don’t find books like What Would Jesus Eat?, a diet book, or “praise the Lord backpacks” to be vulgarizing and insulting, they don’t find it a travesty or trivializing; instead they likely see it as the inevitable conquering of the quotidian, and their religion assuming its rightful omnipresence. Such items are altogether appropriate devotional objects in a commercial consumer culture—evangelical Christianity doesn’t seek to change this quality of culture, it merely hopes to assimilate it, merge with it, spiritualize it. This may be why it is growing; it works well with the status quo economic organiztion of American society, it affirms what already exists and spiritualizes it. Christian commodities are an affirmation of the way spirituality can inform all of life’s decisions. Hence in the South, certain billboards are marked with crosses to confirm their evangelical-friendly business practices. I always have assumed specifically Christian products are automatically inferior, because they are relying to some degree on your faith in their quality. You are not buying them for their inherent utility but for a faith-based nontangible quality added on by the means of its production. In other words, the companies who make this junk are exploiting one’s Christianity, taking advantage of an established cultural identity and latching tokens of display on to it, trying to create the impression that you are not a “true Christian” if you don’t have a Jesus backpack or a Jesus chain or listen to Jesus music. (Kind of like how I had to listen to the Cure to justify my bad haircuts in 1985 and prove my alternativity.) You have to display who you are on the surface of your life through consumer goods; that is the definitive tenet of faith of the consumer society. But really, buying Christian is not so different from buying NewBalances because you are against unfair labor practices. Now, I wouldn’t personally see eating chicken sandwiches as an especially righteous act, but maybe those who eat at the thoroughly Christianized Chik-Fil-A fast-food restaurants (so pious they are closed on Sunday) do. Chik-Fil-A’s “first priority…has never been just to serve chicken,” according to founder Truett Cathy’s book Eat Mor Chikin: Inspire More People, “It is to serve a higher calling.”


It is easy to be cynical of such statements, and of the way evangelical Christians often preach profit-making as an emblem of righteousness. But those worried about church and state separation breaking down should also be worried about the commercialization of Christianity as well, not because it is trivializing faith, but because business is the State in America, and if Christians control the markets, they pretty much will control our lives.


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Wednesday, Dec 7, 2005

Ed Kilgore, a DLC operative who writes the New Donkey blog, has a pithy assessment of the fundamental problem with the kleptocrats currently running America. Tracing it back to the Grover Norquist “starve the beast” idea of forcing governement spending cuts by giving magnanimous tax cuts to the wealthy, Kilgore argues the following:


“I believe the endemic corruption of conservatives in power we are witnessing today is not just a morality play about power’s corrupting influence, or about the descent of ideologues into the practical swamps of politics. Worse than that, it’s about the consequences of entrusting government’s vast power to people who can’t think of it as a force for the common good, and thus, inevitably, treat it as a force for private gain.”


It is not the bureaucratic system or the trials of power that have made them corrupt; it’s their entire ideology, which is steeped in the corrupt notion that the only point of power is spoils. This, “conservatives” may argue, is rational self-interest in action, an extension of the principles of rapacious individualism that Ayn Rand’s gospels of greed advocate—social good is an inevitable by-product of ethically unbounded personal ambition, which is the only motivating force leading to accomplishments of any kind. They believe that government exists not to protect and enforce a “level playing field” and thus enable freedom—to allow those “who work hard and play by the rules” (in Clinton’s phrase) to prosper—but instead think it serves to extend pre-existing advantages of education, patronage, connection, access, wealth, and so on to reinforce an unequal society and reinforce an existing stratified social structure. That is a trait of conservatism through the ages, but what makes it so galling with this current crop is how they crow about their beliefs in social mobility, something their policies intend to prevent. And lo and behold, they work.


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Tuesday, Dec 6, 2005

This article by Richard Bradley at The Huffington Post is worth reading in its entirety. But what I found most interesting was this aside:


(Remember that it was the practice of the record companies to charge the most for older compact discs by artists like The Beatles and Neil Young, despite the fact that virtually all the production costs on such albums had already been incurred, apparently on the theory that Baby Boomers would happily pay the higher prices. Which, among other things, meant that young people who wanted that music either wouldn’t buy it or would steal it, which is one reason artists felt compelled to sell out to Cadillac, etc., in order to feel that their music was still relevant.)


We don’t always consider the cost of music in relation to the costs of its production and get hung up instead on quandaries of intellectual property, the rights to exploit the same ideas, musical or otherwise, over and over again with no value added. Of course, price is not a function of production costs but of consumer demand. But consumer demand, if Bradley is right, is itself a function of the perceived fairness of the price in relation to manufacturing costs. The enthusiasm that might have bolstered demand for legally sold music has been diverted into finding ways to undermine that market, which has been rejected as unfair and illegitimate by enough consumers to completely cripple its functioning. Apple’s approach to repairing this market was flat-fee pricing, which consumers accepted as more apparently fair. The record industry responded by allowing the dysfunctional market to make prices even more unfair for those still willing to participate in it, and then attempted to imprison those customers in that malfunctioning market with root-kits and lawsuits and other coercive measures.


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