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Thursday, Dec 1, 2005

The national savings rate for Americans remains a negative number, dropping from -.8 to -.7 percent, so collectively Americans continue to spend more than they earn as they move into the holiday season and the houses whose equity they have increasingly drawn on are starting to stabilize in price. You don’t to need be especially morally troubled by this national rejection of pay-as-you-go budgeting to foresee serious trouble on the horizon. Robert Reich predicts some here and Gretchen Morgenson has similarly gloomy things to say in Sunday’s New York Times business section, citing economist Paul Kasriel, who calls the American economy “accident-prone.” There’s nothing accidental though about overspent consumers; American culture often makes it seem as though one is a sucker not to be in debt, not to be taking advantage of every iota of leverage one can muster—the idea being that whatever you can get someone to loan you is actually already yours (just like government deficit spending, which “doesn’t matter” as Dick Cheney has told us). And the culture is so thoroughly saturated with the encouragement to spend more, to see the solution to all ills in consumption, to reject all nonconsumption solutions as mirages, as wacky or insane. Impulsive therapeutic buying is the American way, and to question that is to insult the way Americans live. Just ask the “liberals” who are now defending Wal-Mart as an important cultural institution. With 76 percent of the GNP coming from consumer spending, a record high, one might start to wonder whether we could be reaching the breaking point of the consumer society, the point at which consumer demand can no longer absorb increasing supply, can no longer sustain the imperative of perpetual growth, and no amount of badgering, cajoling or enticing can convince people to spend themselves into dissatisifed debt any further. I doubt that we are, but it is interesting to see the possibility entertained. It might be a brief window where the “downshifters,” who preach stringent yet sensible limits on the amount one consumes, might be able to sell their ideology to a broader base of Americans.

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Tuesday, Nov 29, 2005

Press release from MuscleTone records:


United States District Court Judge John J. Feikens of the Eastern District of Michigan dismissed a federal lawsuit filed by the widow and children of the late Rob Tyner (aka Robert Derminer), former lead singer of the MC5, against the band’s surviving members and managers. Mr. Tyner died in 1991.

The judge’s ruling is a victory for the group’s surviving members Michael Davis, Wayne Kramer and Dennis Thompson as well as their managers and respective companies.

Ms. Derminer claimed the MC5’s surviving members had infringed copyrights, and the MC5 trademark, which is jointly owned by Ms. Derminer and the surviving members. He ruled that Ms. Derminer failed to prove her ownership interest in the alleged copyrighted works. He also determined that Ms. Derminer could not bring trademark infringement claims against the co-owners Davis, Kramer and Thompson.

Judge Feikens’ ruling follows the July 2005 denial by Magistrate Judge Mona Majzoub of Ms. Derminer’s request for a preliminary injunction against the group. Magistrate Judge Majzoub issued a 24-page opinion stating, among other things, that Ms. Derminer possessed “unclean hands” with respect to her claims of exploitation of the group’s copyrights, trademark and accounting revenues, and that, as a result, Ms. Derminer and her family were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their case.

“We are pleased with the judge’s decision. Becky Derminer’s repeated harassment of our clients is tiresome and disingenuous,” said Margaret Saadi Kramer, Wayne Kramer’s long-time manager. “Angela Davis and I will continue to defend our clients’ right to work.”

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the MC5 composed and recorded three full-length albums, but are best known for their controversial hit “Kick Out The Jams.”  The last performance of the original lineup was in December 1972.

In recent years, the surviving members of this influential band have reunited to perform concerts throughout the world. They also periodically release recordings of their work, most recently last year’s successful DVD “Sonic Revolution: A Celebration of the MC5.”

“This is a vindication of our clients’ position. Their intellectual property rights have been upheld,” said J. Michael Huget of Butzel Long, the Detroit-based firm which represents the surviving members.

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Tuesday, Nov 29, 2005

In an essay on “The Pornographic Imagination” Susan Sontag writes, “Most pornography points to something more general than even sexual damage. I mean the traumatic failure of modern capitalist society to provide authentic outlets for the perennial human flair for high-temperature visionary obsessions, to satisfy the appetite for exalted self-transcending modes of concentration and seriousness. The need to transcend ‘the personal’ is no less profound than the need to be a person, an individual. But this society serves that need poorly.” While bizarrely phrased (“perennial human flair”?), this assessment seems to point in an interesting direction. To Sontag, the use of pornography, entering its totalizing universe that’s free from the accepted logic of cause and effect—is a deformed, sexualized version of a spiritual impulse—an impulse to that hyperrationalist capitalist society tries but fails to squelch. Pornography deindividualizes both its users and those whom it depicts, and we take it for granted that this is bad. (It’s “dehumanizing,” which in the context of late capitalism means it doesn’t celebrate the myth of the autonomous individual agent maximizing his or her marginal utility.) But if you accept the critique of capitalism’s hyperindividualism, you can see how an obsession with pornography can seem a misguided attempt to break free from that straitjacket of subjectivity. It demonstrates an eagerness to deindividualize oneself, embrace operative instincts that transcend your individual desire and root you instead in some form of species-desire—not the noblest instinct of the species but a trans-personal one. In a way, porn is a substitute for what meaningful work might supply, if our society provided it for anyone. Rather than losing oneself in some social work—a path that our culture scorns and obfuscates—one loses oneself in smut, a path that yields profits to many and is thus well encouraged with a variety of cultural winks and nudges.

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Tuesday, Nov 29, 2005

Stores use mail-in rebates for exactly one reason. They are hoping you won’t follow through and redeem them. It is the company’s way of having a pretend sale where you think you are paying $29 when at the register you are shelling out $49. The hoops and forms and reciept saving and coupon clipping and so on is all there for the sole reason of making the process so cumbersome that you won’t go through with it. (In a great irony these methods are dubbed “fraud protection,” though that the main fraud that euphemism protects is the one the company perpetrates on us by that very name.) It is one of the plainest siutations where the customer’s best interest is at complete odds with the retailer in a near zero-sum game, and one that invites the most hypocritical sloganeering, as though the rebate was for your benefit. So I shouldn’t have been all that surprised or outraged—though I was—when I read in “The Great Rebate Runaround” in BusinessWeek that redemption services provider TCA Fulfillment used to make specific promises of how low they could suppress the customer’s rate of redemption—90% unfulfilled on a $10 rebate, 65 % unfulfilled on a $50 rebate toward a $200 purchase. You know how that is accomplished: the company “loses” your paperwork or mysteriously misinterprets your handwriting or strings you up over some hidden codecil in the redemption directions. Or they might simply ignore you, hoping that you’ll forget about it or be too lazy to demand it from them. These parasites, these redemption companies, suck out a profit by frustrating and misleading and stonewalling average consumers; that’s the value they add to society.

BusinessWeek call rebates a “tax on the disorganized” but that’s far too kind a description for what is really an expression of contempt for the consumer. They are more like a temp job that pays pathetically, $10 for who knows how much work and worry.

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Monday, Nov 28, 2005

There are some obvious problems with the publication of year-end best-of lists for books and music and films, the most obvious of which is that many years don’t produce anything that deserves a superlative. Such lists impose a horse-race approach to entertainment commodities, as though they are all striving to finish in the money. I tend to think that sales figures are the real measure of a commodity’s significance, but critics will continue to try to correct the expression of the popular will with these annual interventions, telling us all what we should have been buying and listening to. You might protest that what is popular and what is good shouldn’t be conflated, but these lists always serve a promotional purpose; they are trying to make neglected albums more popular; they are shoppping guides.

What makes something “best” too is always a pretty random matter, which is why I would prefer to see a list of significant records or films, works that made a cultural impact of some sort, rather than a list of what some critic preferred. The criteria for significance seem much more rigorous than those for being “the best.” Alos, there is the problem of forcing comparisons between incomparable things. What is the sense of evaluating 50 Cent’s record against some obscure independant release? The history of their production and promotion is so different that that really have nothing in common. And 50 Cent is a cultural fact that one must reckon with is one hopes to understand the climate of popular entertainment; obscure artists are not social facts, they are of local importance at best and tell you nothing in and of themselves of the zeitgeist—they are only significant in the aggregate with other obscurities, pointing to “underground” trends. And then there is the fact that no one actually listens to all the albums that come out in year or read all the books—with film it might be possible but it is becoming less so.

My main problem with composing these lists for albums is that I’ve spent most of 2005 listening to pop music that came out in other years. My top 10 for 2005 in terms of the albums that meant something to me, that crowded their way into my life, looks like this:

1. Thin Lizzy—Fighting.
2. Donovan—Open Road.
3. Nas—Illmatic.
4. Bee Gees—Mr. Natural.
5. Buckingham Nicks.
6. Emmitt Rhodes.
7. MIA—Arular.
8. Tegan & Sara—So Jealous.
9. Iron Maiden—Killers.
10. Blind Faith

Not a very useful list, one that is entirely specific to me, one that would only become less interesting if I elaborate my reasons. It’s really a personal thing, oriented to a narrative of my life how it unfolded over the year. A list of the best records of 2005 that I could come up with would be little more than a list of records that I listened to more than once. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Compiling such a list, I’m tempted to include albums I’ve merely heard of, albums I never even listened to, just beause I liked the band in the past. This may be why these lists end up so predictable; everyone is filtering in terms of the same hype and hearsay.

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