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The Eiffel Tower as fountain of illogic

In his essay about the Eiffel Tower, Roland Barthes seems somewhat dazzled by its singularity, but part of what he says about it seems true not just of the tower but of much of totemic goods circulated in our consumerist economy. Barthes points out the essential uselessness of the tower, which makes it a "pure signifier, i.e., a form in which men unceasingly put meaning (which they extract at will from their knowledge, their dreams, their history)." The key to its usefulness as a signifier is its functional pointlessness. "In order to satisfy this great oneiric function, which makes it into a kind of total monument, the Tower must escape reason." In this, it resembles our advertising discourse, which is increasingly desgined to achieve our blithe acceptance of illogic as a matter of course and is likewise aspiring to the level of "total monument" -- its monolithic presence and fluid adaptability offers everyone a reason to become wrapped up in it. Barthes continues, "The first condition of this victorious flight is that the Tower be an utterly useless monument." But since we are under the illusion that ours is a pragmatic, rational culture, we are scandalized by this apparent lack of function, so, as Barthes points out, we supply alibis enumerating its usefulness to science and engineering. These are "quite ridiculous" since they "are nothing in comparison to the great imaginary function which enables men to be strictly human."

It seems to me that what Barthes is saying about the Eiffel Tower is very similar to what Rob Walker argues about various brands in Buying In. Hello Kitty and Red Bull are gloriously meaningless in and of themselves, which make them adaptable to whatever personal uses we want to put them to in order to conjure our identity into being through the language of goods -- before this articulation identity remains notional and inchoate, something we can't define or prove. Once we make our identity manifest in the goods, we need to broadcast our ownership of the goods to make the identity functional in the social sphere. So the Eiffel Tower is not useless, it's just that its purported use masks its real one, the same way that Red Bull (or Coca Cola for that matter) pretends to be a beverage while truly offering us a malleable symbol -- a lifestyle or personality building-block. What's more, if Barthes is right, the prevalence of these symbols is not a blight but the essence of our humanity, that which "enables men to be strictly human." One wonders if there are any alternatives to the commercial brands for the sort of symbols that can be at once deeply personal and near-universally recognizable -- through which, as Barthes describes the Eiffel Tower, "one can feel oneself cut off from the world and yet the owner of a world."

From what repository did such symbols come from in the past, before consumerism? Were people simply human in a different, more circumscribed way? Would we want to return to it, even if we could?

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

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Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

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Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

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