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The power of negative thinking

I'll admit it: My first impulse when confronted with the celebration of "optimism" or "fun" is to cringe and then to mount a skeptical attack on whatever subject is basking in that warm and fuzzy glow. This may seem to be a pretty stupid, contrarian thing to do, and I'll also admit it often seems that way to me, too. But Jameson's account of Marcuse's philosophy in Marxism and Form offers a highly dialectical and erudite-sounding defense of negative thinking (which I find very reassuring). According to Marcuse, we are on the far side of postindustrial capitalism, in which greater freedom and access to culture have become mere smokescreens, or worse, have become the surreptitious means for implemening inescapable social control -- inescapable because we volunteer to subject ourselves to it (it operates on us without our knowing), because it caters to our vanity (we are unique individuals, our pleasure is more important than society, etc.) and because it has effaced through the media and advertising and rampant hedonism all "sense of the negative" (abundance means one should simply shut up and be happy, even if that also means a mechanistic trudging through life while dogged with a sense of emptiness). In this situation it becomes harder to imagine any alternatives to what already exists. As Jameson explains, "thus it is that the happier we are, the more surely we are given over, without even being aware of it, into the power of the socio-economic system itself." In order to break out of this hermetic system requires the ability to imagine something different, but lacking the material to even fashion such an imagining, to posit such a utopia (our deeply internalized "reality principle" makes it impossible to imagine a world not driven by consumer capitalism -- instead we think we've achieved the End of History, and alternatives range from wildly "impractical" to plain absurd) we must make recourse to straight negation of what is. "It is only when individual happiness, subjective contentment, is not positive (in the sense of ultimate satiation by the consumer's society), but rather negative, as a symbolic refusal of everything which that society has to offer, that happiness can recover its right to be thought of as a measure and an enlargement of human possibilities." In other words, being happy by this society's terms is to shut off the human species' chance to develop and enlarge itself, to broaden the terms of happiness and extend it to everyone. How utopian is that?

What matters are acts of resistance, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant -- not laughing when the laugh track cues you, not saying "have a nice day" when you don't mean it, adopting a stubborn literalism in the face of "witty" ads trying to win you to their snarky side, etc. One can help but be implicated in the consumerist system -- one can't simply stop shopping unless one has survival resources that extend beyond what the typical American habitus equips one for. But one can begin to seek out the sorts of tactics Michel de Certeau writes about in The Practice of Everyday Life, the subversive moves wherein the producer's intentions are subverted by the consumers in an effort to manifest a sense of life outside of the market hegemony. Debord advocated cultural detournement, taking cultural artifacts and parodying them, using them in ways opposite to how they are intended. Sontag called it camp, approaching culture with an incisive irony that turned the consumer society's soporifics and stupefiers against it. All of these are semi-idealistic, optimistic ways to be negative.

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 Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

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