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by Rob Horning

24 Oct 2005

Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change sheds a great deal of light on the dawn of the commercial-print business and the advent of fiction-writing as a profession. This seems a pivotal moment, the beginning of the culture industry as we know it and the various paradoxes that adhere to the making of art for profit—are artists disinterested arbiters of taste or are they simply craftsman making a specialized commodity? Should one judge one’s merit in terms of how wide an audience one reaches, how many people’s attention you can hold, as the logic of the marketplace suggests? Or should artists properly resist such philistine assessments, and define themselves in opposition to market rationale. How do artists balance the need for publicity with the need to establish a reputation by scorning it?

Eisenstein theorizes that the divide between “competent businessmen” with no leisure or interest in imaginative fiction and fiction writers who had inherently “a vested interest in idleness, in promoting the value of pleasure seeking and leisure, in cultivating consumption of the ‘finer’ things of life” surfaced with commercial printing. This opposition, this “inversion of values” leads to uneasy alliances when fiction-writers would try to scandalize bourgeois values to make profits with the help of those they were scandalizing. She posits an inevitable sensationalism developing in print culture, fueled by the professional writer’s need to hold the attention of the idle, who would be drawn to “vicarious participation in this particular sport” of scandal. In this, novels are merely following the pattern of consumer products in general, as they become sold increasingly for the novelty rather than their usefulness. The novel (the name is not accidental) is the ur-commodity in this sense, because it was never particularly useful and always was the quintessence of an object valuable only for the semblence of novelty it promises. The printing press transforms writing into a commodity (one of the first, pathbreaking ones pointing the way to a consumer society driven on marketing branded, specicoulsy differentiated goods) and makes writers into an especially alienated species of widget maker.

And Eisenstein’s characterization of the earliest professional authors is unsparing. “Alone with his quill pen, altogether remote from workshops and foundries, equally remote from the fickle readers upon whom his fame and fortune hinged, the professional author did not simply mirror the alienation of others from an industrial or urbanized society. He was himself an alienated man who worked hard to promote leisure, fought for commercial success that he despised, set wives against husbands, fathers against sons, and celebrated youth even in his old age.” (This description remains depressingly accurate for many who write for lifestyle magazines.) The professional writer relies on a novelty that he comes to despise and must manufacture conflicts to create the cultural space for his product to exist, all while regarding his clients as rubes, sheep. In Eisenstein is right, this kind of professional writer is in bad faith with himself, his audience and his culture. It’s a wonder anything gets written at all.

by Jason Gross

24 Oct 2005

It’s sort of a oft-repeated mantra that the whole idea of A&R, artist development has been pretty much croaked out of the major label mindset in the last 10-20 years.  How true is this though?

by Rob Horning

21 Oct 2005

It once was that what was good for General Motors was good for America (that is, as long as the union had any kind of leverage with them). But now that GM’s own mismanagement and the shoddy health-insurance situation in America has given the company the opportunity to put the screws to the union, that may no longer be true in the shared prosperity sense. And when GM idiotically yoked their future to gas-guzzling, unsafe, enviironmentally destructive SUV behemoths while Toyota was working out hybrid technology, what they were trying to do was definitely not good for America. In the 1990s, as SUV production and sales boomed, we had a taste of the American way a la GM: legions of tank-driving family folk congesting shopping center parking lots, reducing road visibility and making every automobile collision a death blow to those chumps who haven’t armored up with an Escalade or a Hummer. And that’s just the trivial transportation aspect of things; our dependence on foreign oil supplies is severly worsened by the negligent atitude fostered and fomented by GM’s sales practices. (Yes, destructive wastefulness has been a status signifier since the days of the potlatch, and automakers hardly invented such a mind-set, the attitude that one’s power is equal to one’s ability to waste what others need. But one of the chief laudable aspects of capitalism is how it can make it imperative to replace such waste with rationalized efficiency, which when pointed in the right direction can alter social behavior for the good of the species.)

So when GM president Robert Lutz to say, “Toyota scored a major coup with hybrids even though they didn’t have a business case,” he’s looking for some kind of excuse to justify GM’s reckless, ignorant course. Rather than use their size to force positive social change (the way California sometimes does through its size and influence with certain legislation), GM hoped to maximize its own profit while wedding Americans to a wasteful way of life, which many consumers are feeling the pain of now that gas costs around $3 a gallon (as it probably should). In GM’s mind, Toyota should have failed with hybrids, because their cars didn’t make sense from the standpoint of maximum greed, in both the companies and the consumers. They don’t save either group money, all they do is cut down on the burning of gasoline. The masterminds at GM underestimated the consumer’s wish to not only save money but to make an environmental impact (regardless how small and insignificant that may be). GM totally missed the chance to exploit vanity environmentalism, in which one congratulates oneself for making painless “sacrifices” for the good of the world. GM prefered to try to reinforce another kind of vanity that comes more naturally perhaps to humans, the me-first selfishness that the SUV epitomizes. That GM would seek to promote a American society populated with that kind of person (“choads” in my high-school argot) is why its demise should be celebrated (presuming they can restructure to keep people employed). Toyota, by providing an avenue that could channel vanity environmentalism, has allowed a consensus to build and a critical mass to be reached to the point where Lutz must now admit that “If you have hybrids you are okay, and if you don’t, you’re not.” Toyota built a product that could aggregate and coordinate the various vain sensibilities of individuals, people with no real interest in social organization for change, to make that change come about. The paradigm of automaking has shifted decisively toward something less wasteful and destructive because enough consumers bought one kind of car over another.

Did those consumers make a difference? Does this prove that one can “shop for change”? That shopping can consitute political action, in fact is the primary vehicle of political expression in a consumer society? So the device for recording and expressing the public will is not a voting machine, but a garden variety of products brought to market: Priuses, iPods, ETFs, Interrest-only loans. But what if Toyota rejected the hybrid because it didn’t make business sense? Then there would have been no product through which to record the collective social desire for this particular change. What happens to that desire then? Does it dissipate and disappear?

by Rob Horning

20 Oct 2005

Occasionally, I review albums. I know this practice is slowly destroying my ability to appreciate music altogether but I wasn’t sure precisely why. I started listening to anything new with a kind of bitterness at the recalcitrance of this material I was responsible for processing into words. I resented anything I struggled to categorize or compare to something else. (By the way, I think this could be true of many reviewers; many cease to be music fans once they professionalize their responses to music, the same way English professors begin to treat poems like a job. A postulate: the less professional the music writer, the more sincere and useful his response is likely to be. The amateur is not writing to flex his own chops or to position himself in some hipster hypeathon or prove that he was there first with some well-lauded band. This is why amazon.com generally is the best place to find music advice outide of your circle of friends.) I thought my growing contempt for new music may have been a product of the surfeit of mediocre music reviewing exposed me to that ordinarily I would have ignored, but that’s not it—that’s not the only reason, at any rate. It’s more that once I finish reviewing an album, I never feel like listening to it ever again, even when I’ve purported to really like it and insisted on how often readers will find themselves listening to it should they happen to buy it. I mean those things when I write them; it’s just that saying them suddenly invalidates the comments by standing in as a proxy for them. Once I announce I’ll be listening to some record forever, I no longer feel the need to actually do it. Also, the act of articulating what I feel about a record ossifies it immediately; the summing up of how it made me respond foreclosed the possibility of having further responses, of having those initial responses deepen or transmogrify. Fixed by my careful formulations, the record is no longer dynamic to me, and thus there’s no more reason to listen to it.

When I first began reviewing records, this felt like a blessing. Writing about a record seemed to complete the consumption experience, bringing to it a satisfying, productive sense of closure. Overwhelmed with music to play, it felt good to lay some options permanently to rest; it was like working through an accumulated pile of magazines, or the Sunday paper, and earning the sweet freedom of throwing sections away. But then I started to have a sense that music was becoming too disposible to me, and that the fault was not with the music itself (much as I was initially inclined to think so) but with my attitude. I was trying to use it up like it was bread going stale rather than accept it as some permanent contribution to the storehouse of human culture. Art is presumably timeless, capable of yielding new appreciative responses as the context in which one stumbles across it changes. But music-as-commodity, if the music companies have their way, is meant to be completely disposible, so you have to keep buying new product month after month after month. So here I was, thinking I was striking a blow against junk culture by decrying how ephemeral most music was and really I was just doing the record companies’ bidding. (It may be that in reviewing any record you are inevitably doing their bidding; it really is true that no publicity is bad, when you think on an aggregate scale especially.)

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz sheds light on some of this in his discussion of the dorm-room-poster study: A group of students were offered a choice of posters (some fine art, some cartoons), and the students who were forced to justify their choice of poster in writing chose different posters than they would have had they simply chose on unreflecting instinct. Those who had to write chose the (theoretically) funny cartoon ones because it was easier to put in wards why they were funny; those going on instinct took the fine art posters. Schwartz concludes that the students who took the cartoons would have chosen the fine-art posters only they weren’t confident about explaining their reasons why they preferred it—they lacked the vocabulary to describe their appreciation of fine art, while it was easy to make a plausible justification of why a cartoon was funny. So if forced to articulate why we like something, we’ll like more facile things; we’ll like what we’re already capable of articulating, rather than like that which forces us to come up with new explanations and new ways of thinking. Also, once we commit to one justification for a choice, we stick to it, and let it preclude our awareness of other reasons and factors, of criteria that might induce us to question our choice. People who chose the cartoons defended their choice but didn’t actually hang them up. People who chose the art did.

Applied to record reviewing, this suggests that the most well-reviewed records will be the most easy to understand at a single listen, and that the criteria evinced, on the whole, in reviews will be the most shallow things about music. And once reviewers say these things, they’ll feel locked-in to them, even though they reflect what’s easy to put into words more than what they actually experience when they listen. Music that summons inchoate, contradictory, complex responses; this will either be dismissed or go unreviewed, or will be apprciated for simpler reasons. And once those simple reasons are put down, the record, for that reviewer, will be forever limited to those simple reasons, and will be far less interesting to her than the records she hasn’t reviewed.

So if this is true, our conscious justifications for our tastes have more to do with our verbal skills, our critical vocabularies, than with anything in the objects we seem to prefer. This is one argument for reading sophisticated pop-music criticism (as if it exists) as opposed to the bite-sized nuggets of snappy prose in The Village Voice or Rolling Stone, which sing with punchy dexterity but allow for very little sophistication of thought. (Try working in an intricate point in 150 words. The very best of them, the allusive poets of the medium, can only hint at such nuance.) But it also is an argument for never thinking about your taste, never becoming reflexive about your aesthetics, and thereby allowing them to continue to grow and to accommodate things beyond your current grasp. The suggestion is that reflexivity automatically leads to refication, that language captures something elusively alive and kills it.

But what of the notion that the unexamined life is not worth living? The road of the “inarticulate as truth” leads inevitably to dubious ideas like the innate moral sense and spontaneity being mistaken for authenticity. It leads to a Calvinistic sense of cool, that some people, the Elect, just have it, as demonstrated by their natural interest in sophisticated things, and some people don’t. (Renaissance Italians such as Castiglione called this sprezzatura, the by-definition indefinable—it’s a bit of a paradox—suaveness of the effective courtier.) Those without aesthetics would be doomed never to learn them. Isn’t it better to see aesthetics (and love) as not being inexpressible, as not being somehow too ineffable for words, and see it instead as something worth refining and expanding one’s language for? Even if it is an unmaintainable illusion? I console myself with the thought that writing about all those records and ruining them permanently for me has made my overall responsiveness to music more sophisticated, more intricate, more articulate; they were the sacrificial lambs to the development of my music taste. I sharpened my skills on them to better treasure that which I won’t speak of.

by Jason Gross

19 Oct 2005

Most poignant thing I’ve seen on a list recently:  Skip Heller’s comments posted on the Zorn mailing list:

‘I gotta quote my local supermarket checkout lady.  I was through the grocery store to buy some shampoo and there was no express line, so I was incarcerated in front of a bunch of magazines had Jennifer Aniston and so forth on the front.  She looked at me and said, “My son’s about to be deployed to Iraq, and this magazine tells me I should worry that Jennifer Aniston’s wedding got cancelled? You ever wonder if Americans are worried about all the wrong stuff?”’

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