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Thursday, Nov 10, 2005

According to Louisa Thomas, writing in Slate, “the secret language of jeans” consitutes “consumption conspicuous only to those whom conspicuous consumption doesn’t offend.” This immediately seemed wrong to me, because it attempts to elevate the discourse of trendy and needlessly expensive status goods into a kind of covnversation those the uninterested can just tune out, as though the designer jeans wars playing out on Prince Street were some recondite discussion about Booker Prize candidates being conducted on the letters page of the New York Review of Books. It’s not. It’s more like an ostentatious cell phone conversation taking place in public that you wish you could ignore only the person talking is trying their hardest to make sure you can’t. Because you are forced to listen, forced to bear witness to the fashion parade, you are forced to involve yourself in the status symbology of jeans while being deprived of yet one more thing in your life that was once free of implications, that was outside of the whole competitive consumerist game that is devouring all of life’s experiences.


The whole point of expensive jeans is to take something that once symbolized egalitarianism, that once neutralized the arbitrary distinctions of fashion, that once communicated the dignity of the working class, and destroy it, make it into an exclusionary symbol of frivolity. It’s class warfare conducted by mindless drones too insoucient and ill-informed to even realize they are soldiers in the war. People who wear these stupid jeans probably think their choice has nothing to do with any one else, that is merely an expression of a personal preference, that it is an exercise of freedom (if they push their thinking far enough to encorporate that moronic piece of free-market dogma). They likely think that it has no social import whatever, that they live their lives in a transcendent bubble far above other people. But any attempt to be cool has a political dimension, and because those invested in the concept don’t recognize or acknowledge its politics, because the biases are so deeply internalized and personalized, it may be one of the most powerful sites for politics to play out. What is “cool” drives investment, it shifts power, it creates winners and losers, it erodes all pretenses to meritocracy and replaces them with new tools to preserve existing orders. Coolness may seem dynamic and cutting edge, but it is deeply, deeply conservative.


Thomas concludes, “Regardless of the particular designer, though, the message of the back pocket is clear: The wearer is someone with disposable capital, who cares about her image, and who knows that other women will be surreptitiously checking out her butt.” I draw a slightly different conclusion. The only thing any sensible person need read out of the hieroglyphics on designer jeans is that the wearer is an impressionable idiot.


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Wednesday, Nov 9, 2005

Who would be against personal responsibility? Everyone believes that they should be responsible for their own actions and sensitive to the effects of their actions, right? It’s the price we pay for all that autonomy we have in our free society as unique individuals jousting in the wide-open arena of the marketplace. Through our choices we create the life we want to lead, and if that life sucks, it’s because we’ve made poor choices, consciously or unconsciously, out of some pathological fear of success. As Margaret Thatcher so shrewdly pointed out, “There is no such thing as society,” and for every thing that happens to an individual, there is some other individual that’s culpable.


Of course that’s all silly. That presumes all individuals are born equal, and that institutions function transparently and are entirely neutral entities with no superceding aims of their own, and that the goals of corporations are no different than the aims of human beings, a myth nicely debunked by the documentary The Corporation, which details the sociopathic things corporations can do through an amalgamation of human action focused on smaller goals that individuals wouldn’t ever take on were they concentrating on the entire picture. The myth of personal responsibility is similar, in that it attempts to protect institutions from scutiny and force those individuals who suffer because of them blame themselves and feel guilty and helpless in the face of “reality,” in the face of “the way things are.“You’ll notice that people who are well insulated from the consequences of actions, people like George W. Bush, for instance, are especially fond of yammering on about how important personal responsibility is. It’s because he knows it is a cudgel that clubs only the heads of the poor.


Personal responsibility is an all-purpose explanation for things that forestalls critical thought, much like “lack of discipline” explains all phenomena in football. In some ways it is a reassuring explanation, even for those who suffer by it, because it promises a simple solution—pay more attention to what you do and you’ll see the results that you want. But in order for that to work, one needs a religious worldview to accomodate the gaps, to rationalize the failures, the ways in which institutional intractibility wastes and foils individual effort. “I am responsible for everything that happens to me” usually has a corollary of “things happen for divine reasons I should accept on faith and not try to understand.”


Eli Zaretsky, writes in Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life of “proletarianization and the rise of subjectivity,” arguing that the consequence of capitalism’s removing production from the family space and centralizing it in factory and office space (making it entirely exploitative and useless in affording the worker a sense of meaning—her work is alienated, a thing that is taken fromher rather than defining who she is) is the creation of a separate non-productive sphere, “personal life” where workers can find life’s meaning and compensation for their empty work. The crux of this personal life is the feeling that one’s individuality is important, and should be nurtured through intimate relationships, which are rewarding for their own sake, and for the sake of reminding you that you are special and not an interchangable pawn in the hugh profit-making machine. But of course, while capitalism is setting up the conditions for dignifying the individual in private life, it is also making him into precisely that pawn. The contradiction holds in the ethos of consumption, which, as Zaretsky explains, “the rise of ‘mass consumption’ has vastly extended the range of ‘personal’ experience available to men and women while retaining it within an abstract and passive mode: the purchase and consumption of commodities.” (I love the scare quotes around personal in there). In other words, our vaunted individualism and our hallowed personal responsibility under capitalism amount to little more than shopping. And we dignify shopping, not autonomy. We replace spiritual identity with “lifestyles” which Zaretsky dubs “a word that is used to defend one’s prerogatives regardless of the demands of ‘society’ ” A lifestyle is what’s left when individual choices are seen as divorced from social reality, or are made in opposition to it, as a reaction to it rather than a part of it. A lifestyle is a parody of what personal repsonsibility is presumed to mean. When capitalism fails to dignify our lives, and consumption proves an endless acquisitve treadmill with more desperation and fatigue than pleasure, we’ll not blame the system that has empowered us to make such important and responsible choices (do I want a Ford or a Chevy?) but will instead wonder what is wrong with our lifestyle that makes us miserable (maybe I should go on a diet.)


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Tuesday, Nov 8, 2005

Riddle me this.  CD’s are supposed to dead.  Vinyl is supposed to be even more long gone than that.  So why is that WFMU just had its most successful record fair with over 4000 people attending their show in Manhattan?  Granted that it’s gone from bi-annual to an annual affair (so as not to interfere with FMU’s spring but still, you have to wonder why thousands of people would still cram into a convention center to worship what’s supposed to be a bygone media format.  I mean, could you imagine having an MP3 fair… offline, that is.


Some record companies and artists (notably Garth Brooks) have cried about their music being resold though thankfully, they haven’t taken to shut down fairs like this.  You think that some tiny little voice of reason is saying “Hey dummy, these people love music and want to keep buying it!”


I myself walk into the FMU fair always thinking that there’s nothing else I could possibly want to buy after some 30 years of music hoarding but I’m always wrong.  I wind up buying a new pile of records that I didn’t even know that I wanted before I walk in there.  This time it included Joe Ely’ s Live Shots, Music for Computers, Electronic Sounds and Players (including Charles Dodge), Neville Brothers’ Fiyo on the Bayou, Good to Go (a D.C. go-go collection), the Windbreakers’ A Different Sort…, Root Boy Slim’s first album, Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano (with Frederic Rzewski), the Reds’ self-titled album, Yung Wu’s Shore Leave (aka the Feelies) , Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s Music from the Penguin Cafe, the Motors’ Tentative Steps, Robert Fripp’s God Save the Queen, John Cale’s The Island Years and the Minatures collection (which I already had on CD but wanted the vinyl copy for the poster).


Again, try to imagine doing this in a digital realm.  E-Bay does sell CD’s burned with Windows media files but how soggy is that compared to getting a real CD or album.  Yes, we people at these record fairs are a bunch of obsessive geeks who still crave the physical object when it comes to music but so what?  What’s so bad about that?  Sure it bucks every trend that’s supposed to be happening in the music biz now but who said that these trends were worth following or that it has to make sense for all music fans?  It doesn’t and I for one am thankful that I’m not alone in thinking that.


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Monday, Nov 7, 2005

This Slate article about how pathetic rock snobbery is was occasioned by a new book that skewers music reviewers and their pretentious vocabulary. The rock snob is a pretty easy target; he is much like sci-fi nerds and computer geeks. And they are almost always he, women who become rock snobs—like women who become sports fans—often seem to be performing a kind of gender masquerade, trying to have their culture perceive them as essentially male, as “one of the guys”. Obsession with this kind of minutia, for better or for worse, is gendered male in our culture, and is the stuff that male homosocial bonding is made from. In fact the ability to establish an intense but non-sexual relationship is predicated on having something innocuous but endlessly elaborate like rock music to discuss. Eve Sedgwick famously argued in Between Men that love triangles in literature served to provide a homosexual bond among two men an alibi in the form of a woman they both love, transforming it into a homosocial love, the male friendship that transcends the pettiness and bitterness and selfishness that clings to male-female relationships as our culture routinely depicts them (what, with men being from Venus and all). Rock snobbery (and other forms of pop-cultural obsession—video game playing, car repairing, communal drug taking, etc.) perhaps serves a similar function, while skirting some of the sexism implied in using women as a cover-up.


This is why those who mock rock snobbery often do so in sexualized terms, referring to snobs as “effete” and usually implying they are “pansies” because of their knowledge. Anti-intellectualism of this sort, that sees people who care about knowing things as sissies, may be a covert expression of an underlying homophobia, which is itself an expression of gender panic, of insecurity in how to establish and maintain one’s own gender identity while assimilating all the various things the world has to offer.


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Monday, Nov 7, 2005

When it comes to cavalier stances that set it apart from the rest of the world, you won’t find many adminstrations more stubborn or xenophobic than the Bushies.  As a result, a knee-jerk reaction to any of their positions on global treaties are usually dripping with suspicion.  But their stance on the cultural protectionism does raise some important questions that haven’t been seriously thought out or discussed otherwise.


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