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Wednesday, Oct 12, 2005

Is conformity a by-product of diversity? And likewise, is individualism a by-product of standardization? In her study The Printing Press as an Agent of Change Elizabeth Eisenstein suggests this in passing while discussing the dissemination of standards brought on by the advent of printing. “One might consider the emergence of a new sense of individualism as a by-product of the new forms of standardization. The more standardized the type, indeed, the more compelling the sense of an idiosyncractic personal self.” She then cites Montaigne as the first great example of the individualist sensibility enabled by print’s standardizing.


It seems an appropriate point to keep in mind when considering the conundrum of ads that encourage you and the millions of others watching to be different in the precise way they’ve requested, or the subcultural dilemma of rejecting the mainstream for a more rigid orthodoxy. Like “realism,” the sense of individualism doesn’t have an absolute definition, an ontological verity, but instead is always relative to its context. One can only be individual against a backdrop of conformity, which itself will only appear amidst an easily recognizable diversity—which is to say its meaning is dialectically determined and always contingent. Thus theoretically the diversity present in cities afford the opportunity to spot conformity and distinguish oneself as an individual simultaneously. But it seems as though the diversity of cities makes one feel compelled to conform so as not to dissolve into the amorphousness and disappear—it impels assimilation to some stable, recognized group and the same time it seems to promise greater freedom to differentiate oneself, to realize some individuality for which the raw materials wouldn’t be present anywhere else. This fosters a tension that keeps urban identity fluid while denying the comforts of self-actualization, of having completed oneself and one’s identity once and for all.


Individuality, then, is a social trait, a public expression of personality, a quality that relies on one’s interaction with culture; it is not a matter of one’s ability to stand above culture or reject it. One can reject culture without ever seeming to stand out, without feeling the need to call attention to oneself—individuality is not rebellion but affirmation of the existing culture, a willingness to enter into its process for cycling through what’s old and what’s cutting edge—being an individual only helps culture turn the fashion wheel. True rebellion may lie in becoming as anonymous, as outwordly conformist as possible.


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Tuesday, Oct 11, 2005

Now that Angela Merkel is set to take over the German chancellorship, the Wall Street Journal is ready to close the book on the ‘68ers who have dominated Deutsche politics recently. The youth movements of the 60s managed to produce a generation of political leaders in Germany who, as the Journal (or whoever it is the reporters are quoting blindly) puts it, “made a long march through the institutions,” changing the climate of political discussion and moving the status quo, the grounds upon which discussion starts, several degrees to the left—this despite the association of the left with the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof gang.


Why hasn’t something similar happened in America? Is it because America’s student radicals really were the self-centered navel-gazing Fonda-ites that they have been caracatured to have been, that they lacked the ability, fortitude and ambition to become involved with the nuts and bolts of political organization? Or is it that the two-party system forestalled such a development, closed off all avenues to the “institutions” to those with a mind to change them or challenge them. Reading about this departing generation of Germans made me sad to think that America had been deprived of its own like-minded generation, one that is now probably irretrevably lost. The opportunity that once might have been to make progressive ideas about enivronmentalism, conservation, social welfare, human rights, etc. into commonplaces, into hegemonic common sense, is gone with it.


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Monday, Oct 10, 2005

I found this statement, quoted in a Wall Street Journal story today about inflation (“The Outlook” on A2), fairly astounding. It comes from remarks made to shareholders by the treasurer of a uniform-manufacturing company, Cintas—not exactly a sector that’s especially senstive to energy costs: “The increase in energy costs that is felt throughout the entire country has changed the mind-set of consumers and they’re more apt to accept a price increase than they were in the past 12 months.” So in other words, energy-cost increases bear only a psychological relationship to the price we regular-shlub consumers pay for goods and services? And the prices we are confrnted with are a reflection of our state of mind, of what we’re willing to pay? Paying more for gas makes us feel like everything should be getting more expensive, and then manufacturers gratify this notion of ours by arbitrarily raising prices? Is this really how the finely calibrated and unerring free market functions? I guess so. What I continue to get stubbornly stuck on is the idea that the price of something should actually reflect some inherent use value in the thing itself, but the idea that things have inherent value has become a mystification. Value is strictly a matter of what someone will pay (only exchange value, no use value). The supply/demand curves that govern prices are affected by perceptions, since we are rarely confronted directly with real scarcity at this point. So things like consumer confidence have a direct bearing not only on investment but on pricing as well, I guess.


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Monday, Oct 10, 2005

I’ve mentioned before how disappointing I find Rob Walker’s “Consumed” column in the New York Times Magazine. Given a weekly column to explore the conundrums of consumption, Walker routinely simply points to some marketing fad and shrugs his shoulders. I keep expecting a Roland Barthes-style exegesis of the cultural mythology that has allowed a product to rise to prominence, but what I get instead is an interview with someone who’s been taken in or someone’s who exploiting the phenomenon. There’s just reporting and never any analysis—I suppose that the analysis is being left to me, the reader, but are readers willing to bring that much concentration to something like this? Minus analysis, the reports seem to reinforce the sense that these fads are interchangable, devoid of specific meanings and histories; the message becomes that the mythology behind all consumer fads is always the same thing—the “aren’t consumers whimsical” explanation, or rather, “what will they think of next to make a buck?” 


The column linked above is a typical example. The opening paragraph feints at a cultual analysis, linking the “Stop Snitchin’” T-shirts to a longstanding American fascination with outlaws. But then that subject is dropped in favor of an unenlightening interview with the maker of the shirts, a rehash of the debate over whether things like this shirt reflect or create bad attitudes (with no attempt to resolve it), and an unsurprising conclusion that product placements in rap videos work to reach suburban kids, selling effluvia them effluvia that they then associate with inner-city authenticity.


The subject is rich with analytical opportunity—the link between outlaws and would-be-infamous celebrities, the sources of uncooperative attitudes in advertising that celebrates rebelliousness, the conformity of silence that the shirt intends to enforce and how that mirrors the way fads work, with no one questioning the rationality of them, the historicity of the anti-snitiching phenomenon (why now? from whence?) and much more of this could have found its way into the story if the writer (or his editor) was more analytically minded and less interested in tallying facts and brandishing reportage.


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Monday, Oct 10, 2005

One lesson that I always try to pound into writers’ heads is that you shouldn’t do an article that tries to be all-inclusive about a topic that you could only cover adequately in a book.  I’m going to break that rule here but also suggest that I can’t give the final word on the topic and this is mostly meant to initiate some discussion about the topic (like most editorials or blog posts).



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