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by Rob Horning

26 Aug 2005

This may be an apocryphal story, but one of my friends knows a guy from college who won the lottery in Pennsylvania several years ago and will receive a thousand dollars a month for life, or something like that, on top of some huge lump sum he received when he won. By my friend’s account, winning the lottery ruined his life. Rather than finish school, he dropped out, and he remains in the tiny apartment in central Pennsylvania that he lived in when he won, doing little more than smoking really high-grade weed and playing the latest-generation video games.

This story confirms what social researchers claim about self-determination. People enjoy exerting their will and affecting the world much more than the actual specific consequences of that effort. In his magisterial The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, Robert Lane cites this finding of Martin Seligman’s: “When rats and pigeons are given a choice between getting free food and getting the same food for making responses, they choose to work. Infants smile at a mobile whose movements are contingent on their responses but not at a non-contingent mobile.” Instrumental operations, then, would seem to be pleasing for their own sake, not necessarily for the rewards, which turns the fundamental principle of classical economics—work is a disutility compensated by utility in wages—upside down. In fact we want so strongly to justify our rewards, to feel that we have determined them through our own efforts, that we believe the classical paradigm even though it doesn’t exactly hold. And it utterly decimates the phony tenet that income leads to greater life satisfaction, that money is an all-purpose good. As Lane explains, “The belief that one is effective is more closely associated with happiness than anything else, especially level of income, to which so much attention is paid in the American market society.” We want to do meaningful things much more than we want to have valuable things.

It’s despicable enough when our state governments promote lotteries—lotteries are like a tax on stupid people, and thir lot is already bad enough. We shouldn’t exploit them to pay for things whose burden should be shared—things we all want and need, such as better schools and health care. I’m sure some Gary Beckerites out there might argue that a lottery ticket is not a bad investment but a rational purchase of a product called hopefulness, which has an extremely temporary efficacy of which its users are fully aware. It’s a license to dream, they might say, an expenditure that provides much satisfaction in fantasizing what you would do if you’d win. Turns out that the fantasies are better than reality. Winning the lottery, earning a massive reward for doing absolutely nothing, destroys one’s ability to believe that there is a correlation between one’s material state and one’s own effort. You can no longer live the noble lie of autonomy. As a consequence, all effort is invalidated, and all will short-circuited. Without the illusion of control, there’s no point leaving the house. May as well play video games, where the illusion of control is restored.

by Rob Horning

26 Aug 2005

I just had some repairs done to my car, and I have the sad, helpless feeling I’ve been ripped off. Like many middle-class Americans, I know next to nothing about the intrciacies of automobiles and unable to assess whether the work I have done is necessary, ably performed, or reasonably priced. When I was teaching college classes, one of my students helped me install a car battery, and afterward he told me, “Mr. Horning, you’re a smart guy. Why don’t you know anything about cars? I didn’t know anything about cars until I got sick of paying all this money to get my car fixed, and I read a manual. It’s not rocket science. You have a master’s degree; those guys repairing your car are often high-school dropouts.”

I don’t know if that’s really true, but he had a point. If I wanted to know how to fix cars, I could learn the basics without a whole lot of effort. But as much as I wanted to follow that advice, I didn’t. My excuse was that I didn’t have the tools, the place to store them, or a place to do work like that if I needed to (despite living in an apartment complex where there were routinely cars up on blocks, month after month). Perhaps the reason that middle class folks refuse to learn how to do auto repair is that cars seem more fun to own when they are magical and incomprehensible, when their operation can seem more miraculous to us. They are supposed to make our lives convenient, and the convenience aura is stronger when it seems to suspend cause and effect. The less we know about how our cars work, the more useful they are in making us feel we’re living more conveniently and efficiently. This is doubly tue when cars are actually inefficient—getting us stuck in traffic or repair shop waiting rooms, watching horrendous daytime TV.

That mechanics prey on the ignorant should be news to no one; it’s their prerogative, a tidy piece of class warfare that you can hardly hold against them, when you think about it. But it still burned me up when one of my power windows broke (don’t even get me started on the infuriating inefficiency and planned obsolecence of power windows; they are de rigeur on cars not because people want them but because car companies make a fortune on them—new power window motor: $200, new manual wondow handle: fifteen cents) that the mechanic who claimed I needed a new motor on inspecting the part turned out not to have even opened up my door panel. And I find it suspicious that if you complain about anything, the default response is to insist you replace the correspinding part—by compaining about it you make it broken, automatically. (I fear the same is true of my body when I am dealing with doctors, those auto mechanics of the flesh.) Mechanics just want an excuse to do the labor; if you open any avenue for them, they’ll charge down it, even if it doesn’t lead to a repaired car. And judging by my latest bill, mechganics are moving to the incomprehensible medical-billing system, where you need special training in higher insurance-ese in order to decode them. The more complex the bill, the less likely it is you’ll complain, and the more likely you’llbe frustrated with circular cross-referencing from stonewalling customer service reps when you do. Doctors and hospitals have been playing this game for years; mechanics are only now catching on to the foolproof brilliance of the scheme.

The worst part about the repair experience, at dealerships anyway, is dealing with the smooth service reps who are there to serve as a barrier between you and the guy who actually works on the car. These are professional bulllshit artists trained to create teh maximum of confusion in the customer. These are wite-collar guys who instinctively side with management; the trouble with mechanics at these big dealerships is that management is screwing them as much as its screwing you, the car owner. So they might actually tell you the truth about your car if you had a chance to meet with them. So these service reps intervene and spew the nonsense and doubletalk at you all while making sure you can never get a straight answer from someone who’s actually wearing spattered overalls. In the end the service rep is meant to make you so frustrated that you are relieved just to pay whatever you’re being charged and forget about all the hassle and lying and treachery. They make your money into a magic wand that you wave and wish all irritation away. I guess we should thank them for that.

by Rob Horning

24 Aug 2005

Record companies reaped a windfall when they managed to convince people they needed to purchase all the music they owned all over again when CD technology made moribund the patently superior but more inconvenient analog sound of LPs. Of course, convenience is the supreme utility in American society, attaching itself to any commodity and usurping whatever original function that commodity might have had. We used to want records because we wanted good sound, now we want music only to demonstrate that it is at our command. That is what convenience boils down to: an expression of our illusory mastery of the world, a reassurance that since things are getting more facile and more quickly responsive, that they are then inherently getting better. Convenience buoys the myth of progress even as quality of life for most people regresses. Analog nostalgia has this going for it; it is a repudiation of convenience. But it is at this stage of the game an expression of anti-convenience more than anything else, a proof of the leisure time and storage space you can devote to an expensive hobby, like keeping polo ponies or Victorolas.

Anyway, there is justice in the fact the very digital technology that the music industry introduced to sucker its customers into buying a shoddy version (smaller, poorly mastered, tinny-soundng, etc.) of records they already had has now enabled those same exploited consumers to pirate music effortlessly, with hardly a thought to the criminality of what they are doing. The digital nature of music makes it routinely and eminently copiable—the technology encourages you to mistake the copy for the “real thing.” It undermines the notion that there is a “real thing” to begin with. And by making music a shoddier-sounding product, the industry enabled customers to treat it like its worthless, to believe that it is unreasonable to be expected to pay for it. Some people must be delighted to see how this exploitive industry through its own rapaciousness sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Maybe the reports of the death of the dialectic in post-industrial global capitalism have been greatly exaggerated.

By making music digital, and synthetic, the record companies unwittingly further dispatched music’s aura, in the sense that Benjamin explained in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as the value of a work’s authenticity. (See this TNR article for a similar take on this.) The aura, as I experienced it, was a matter of access. It’s hard to remember how hard it was to hear the albums we take for granted in the age of reissues. It’s hard to remember what it was like combing used album bins looking for a copy of Forever Changes—now everybody has it, but when I was in high school, I knew one guy who had it. It was referenced in some record review I had read as though it was the greatest album there was, and so I had to pester this guy to tape it for me just so I could hear what it sounded like. The object itself, his copy of the record, was rare and precious. It had an aura. It made the music seem almost mythical, otherworldly. Now, I could hear Forever Changes immediately after a few mouse clicks. There would be no quest; the loss of quest means a certain loss of meaning for the music. But the removal of obstacles to musical access means you are not rigidly bound to listen to what you already know or what you can tape off your friends. You don’t need to be a strictly defined marget segment. You can cross all genres, all periods; you can be into as much as you’re curious about. And it won’t even cost you a dime, if you don’t want it to.

But people must be willing to take advantage of the freedoms the record industry enabled. It never ceases to amaze me how many people show scruples about Internet piracy, people who seem to believe that because it is an entire industry rather than an individual fucking them over, they should just continue to take it instead of fighting back. Certainly, some fear our increasingly invasive government will track them down—a crime against corporations is a crime against the state, after all—but some people just feel its wrong, and I’m not sure if I should admire them for maintaining a personal ethical code in a reflexively hypocritical culture, or despise them for holding back the revolution.

Beyond ethics, I think those who refuse to pirate music are clinging to the value of the musical artifact. They are nostalgic for the aura, the kind of value that once adhered to unique objects, a value we only sense traces of in modern society in the guise of family heirlooms and museum-kept works of art. Possessing something with an aura, with a patina becomes more attractive, not less attractive, as all of culture becomes more readily reprodicible. Benjamin thought that “the masses” would celebrate the refutation of the aura, arguing that the object was now free to mean something new to each and every beholder/listener. “In permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.” Benjamin suggested the aura deadened art, made all art about its aura and not its more mercurial content, which could shift with whatever context an audience brought to it. But it may be that photographic, and then digital, reproduction enhanced the aura, made it more powerful, and deadened works saddled with it even more. Their meaning is reduced essentially to their value at an art auction.

So some works become about nothing but their own unique status as objects, while all other things, so freely deployed in any way imaginable by anyone who uses them, lose their ability to have any collective, transpersonal meaning at all. In both cases, the discourse that we presume to be enabled by great art is obviated. There is no meaningful public debate about aesthetics. All “the good” is either purely subjective or a matter of collectibility.

Sadly, many people appear to be comforted by this; these twin principles constitute an aesthetics that they can understand completely, without study. If these principles reign supreme, these people believe that then cultural capital, the knowledge required to have a public discussion over art’s function, no longer has value. No one need ever cower again at the judgement of people who have actually studied art history. (Those effete snobs.) And most importantly, it protects the meaning of life—how many understand it, anyway, and have invested themselves in—as the accumulation of valuable objects rather than the performance of meaningful social activities. The expensive, precious object reassures us that things can have a value in and of themselves that transcends us—that diamonds are indeed forever—that we can possess and thereby exceed and enlarge ourselves. And the cheap, endless reprodcible item—the pop song—reassures us that we, as individuals making our own private, purely personal meaning of things, are rightly and safely at the center of our respective universes.

by Rob Horning

22 Aug 2005

At the movies, it’s fairly stunning that people quietly tolerate the commercials that are typically foisted upon them. Perhaps most Americans view commercials as a legitimate form of entertainment and nothing to be skeptical or resentful over. Maybe they see commercials as a plus, a benefit, a blessed relief from having to sit there making small talk with the person one came with. But wasn’t part of the attraction of the theater the freedom from such messages? Didn’t you pay your toll to enter a commercial-free space? I guess not. (By the way, this may be the future, I think: Freedom from exposure to commercials will be seen as a privilege worth paying for, and commercial-free zones will become new enclaves for the elite).

Coming-attractions trailers are more tolerable because custom justifies their presence to a degree, but what surprises me about them is how efficiently they make all movies seem equally repugnant—trailers flatten all films out to predictable moments of sitcom cleverness intersperced with splices of scenes of sex (if its a romance), explosions (if its action) or landscapes (if its an art film). If there’s a voice-over, it drips with condescending pretension, soaringly confident in the film’s ability to manipulate you as planned, blithely assuming it can predict your emotional reaction to every one of the film’s carefully choreographed moments. Who wants to consent to this kind of social engineering? Doesn’t everyone recoil from this? Obviously not, since these previews continue to be made.

What’s obvious is that for most people, being manipulated is entertaining, it’s the essence of why they go to see movies. The whole point of entertainment is to experience manipulation, not resist it. (This may be the whole point and benefit of belonging to society as well.) People want their emotions predictably exercised, the way you might work your abs and pecs at the gym. These trailers are likely carefully focus-group-tested (I imagine test audiences strapped in with electrocardiograms) to establish their efficiency as emotional stimuli, thus they are ideal occasions for moviegoers to calibrate their own responsiveness. If they don’t react as the preview seems to anticipate, they aren’t filled with superiority and disgust (as I, shameless elitist, am) but with a sense of foreboding, that they are culturally out of step, that their chance to remain easily entertained is fading. I’ve always felt (to my detriment) that it’s shameful to be easily entertained when it’s really a great accomplishment, a suspension of ego, a surrender to a collective norm, an assent given to one’s culture (like getting married), a vote cast with one’s deepest nature—one’s ability to feel pleasure. If one is capable of being stirred by previews and by ads and by all of culture’s various ruses and pitches, one might convert the drudgery of the status quo into a perpetual buzz of jouissance. Conformity isn’t weakness, nor is it easy, as cultural critics typically suggest in their fulminations. (I know I have.) It may be the supreme act of rationalized pleasure calculation, directing effort where it will be rewarded with the most happiness. And that makes it even scarier.

by Rob Horning

22 Aug 2005

In the science of real estate listings—I think I read this in Freakonomics—certain words communicate key sales information to other real estate agents in code while suggesting something totally different to prospective home buyers. This quaint form of collusion is used to help real estate agents rig the game against buyers while maximizing their own commissions. Like Bush’s old stump trick of talking in coded phrases to his evangelical base while disguising his intentions from the general public, it’s a good example of the way language allows multiple meanings to coexist in any single instance of speech. And it also points to different ways of hearing or reading: real estate agents scan listing for the key words to decode, buyers take the language at face value and puzzle over the peculiar specificity and recurrance of certain arbitrary seeming adjectives.

You can see something similar at work in music reviews; there often purports to be an argument at the sentence level, some semi-coherent point about the construction of the music or the intentions of the artist or something, but littered in among those points are adjectives—“angular,” “dark,” “sunny,” “hooky,” which function independent of the argument and serve to cue certain subsets of readers to the genres involved. Some genre fans—if genre music can be likened to something like romance novels—aren’t especially interested in arguments about their chosen subject, or rather they have specialized criteria that can be evoked by buzzwords. Genre fans don’t need to be convinced that something in the genre is worth hearing; they often have an almost professional interest in hearing whatever the genre produces, well-reviewed or not. When the code adjectives seem to have nothing to do with the logic of the argument, the different audiences reading are both likely to be disappointed.

It may be that adjectives in all criticism generally function this way, as a shorthand for illogical criteria that defy labored explanation. The adjectives are subverting the pretense of logic and objectivity (which are discarded by genre devotees, who are partisans beyond logic) even as they seem to serve it by providing the illusion of specific detail. Critical adjectives pretend to specify while they are in the process of generalizing and categorizing, exploding the very notion of specificity in favor of assigning everything a genre.

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