Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Sharpening my negative dialectics

There's a fresh abomination perpetrated by the advertising industry seemingly every day (whcih the Wall Street Journal of course duly reports) and it's hard for me to summon the venom to continue to recount them. Today it's under the A-hed, a story about how advertisers are trying to destroy once and for all the distinction between pop song and ad. I haven't digested it all yet (it's hard to swallow and pretty indigestible, like a thirty-pound Tootsie roll) but I wanted to pause to make this apocalptic remark: Advertising won't stop until it has co-opted the human being's enthusiasm for life itself in all its various manifestations and put a price tag on it. The industry won't rest until all excitement is for sale. Consequently, when critical thinkers want to preserve what is truly human, they are forced to adopt the awkward pose of having to reject enthusaism for living, lest they be mistaken for affirming all the blather and brouhaha that ads froth up and spew in our defenseless faces. Ads have made it such that to think at all you have to be in a permanent snit of negation, rejecting all signs of life, the flowering of springtime itself, because it has so thoroughly been saturated with ad hype and phoneyness and exploitative designs. Every expression of human creativity seems suspect now, because lurking behind it is the crafting of false manufactured desire and the covert guidance of that desire to unworthy, profane ends. Ad culture has sucked the soul out of life and marketed it back to u sin the form of sugar cereals and luxury cars and it is now incumbant upon those who cherish the human soul to behave as though they haven't got one until the village that is mankind under capitalism is torched to the ground.

Die Mensch Maschine

Last night I paid $40 to see four gray-haired men in buisness suits stand in front of computer terminals for an hour and a half. I was not alone. The 9:30 club, where this spectacle -- Kraftwerk's first American performance in many years -- took place, was sold out, and the club was teeming with fans (mostly male, mostly middle-aged) as enthusiastic as any I'd ever seen at any rock show. Except there was no rock. There were no instruments. Ostensibly the men were creating music, but nothing they did suggested that, save for the rare occasions when the one wearing a headset sang a few words. Though many of Kraftwerk's compositions are putatively "dance music," no one danced. The "music" blasting out from the PA was less dance music than tranquilizing pulses that mimicked the sound of the machines that keep the modern world running: computers, trains, cars, geiger counters. I spent most of my time trying to figure out what any of us were doing there.

You don't often get an opportunity to see performers who have invented an entire musical genre from scratch as Kraftwerk had done with electro-pop. In its way, seeing Kraftwerk is akin to seeing James Brown or the Ramones or the Sugar Hill Gang. So surely lots of people were their out of a sense of historical duty, to pay acknowledge the wellspring of all music made with computers and sequencers. But I suppose much of the reason the show was sold out was the rarity of Kraftwerk's public appearances in America. Combine that with the sterile non-humanity of their music, and it creates a palpable, undeniable sense of mystery -- who are these people who make this music? Are they real? Do they think and feel and breathe like other human beings or are they actually machines, like they claim in their anthem "We Are the Robots"? When they first appear on stage, back lit at their terminals, projecting huge silhouettes on the curtain before it opened, it was a breathtaking moment -- the curtain was about to part -- would they be alive, or would they be those hollow line drawings, outlines of human shapes, like on their album covers? And then there they were, basking in the glow of their monitors at their terminal stations, beatific smiles on their faces, clicking their buttons and rolling their fingers over what looked like little trackballs. Part of Kraftwerk's intrigue stems from the impossibility of determining how seriously they take themselves. You want to laugh at them, with their silly overstylized gestures and their blank stares, but you're never sure if the joke is really on you. It was hard to tell if their smiles were directed inward, derived from the purity of their vision being executed, or if they were a spontaneous outpouring of gratitide at the really pretty unlikely sight of such a devoted audience, or if they were cynical sniggers at what the band was getting away with, that they were being paid so much to simply stand there and barely put on even the simulacrum of a performance. (It was most likely all three simultaneously.)

You could never really connect their actions with the rigidly programmed presequenced sound. Behind them, these mesmerizing videos were projected on three giant screens: usually they matched the theme of the songs -- images of train depots, neon lights, men riding bicycles, empty highways, streaming flows of digits and simulated cities drawn in vector graphics, and, at the film's most abstract, free-form Mondrian-like designs of lines and shapes. It was all synchonized precisely with the music, and reinforced the sense that despite what the men on stage were doing wiith their keyboards, nothing spontaneous could possibly happen.

It may be that with music as sterile as "Autobahn" and "Trans Europa Express," it's necessary that the band be present to consecrate it in the flesh, even if for all they contributed they could have been performing remote from Germany. (During the half hour delay that was due to what the club called a "weather incident," I stood wondering if they'd ever show, and whether the curtain wouldn't rise to four television sets on stands, tuned to close-ups of their heads.) With a band like Kraftwerk, one pays to absorb their aura. And that's all they do: They stand there and project their aura, the myth they have manufactured for themselves as prophets of the future synthesis of man and machine, when the technology man creates to master nature suddenly starts to integrate him with it instead, revealing all rhythms to be natural rhythms and everything mechanical to have an organic purity and harmony in its design. Kraftwerk's songs can thus be seen as spiritual hymns, religious music for a society that venerates technology as its god. Perhaps we were all really there to be sanctified, to be led by robotic mystics through ritual worship of the miracles we take for granted: our pocket calculators, our highway grids, our trains that run more or less on time. The beeps and blips become a benediction, blessing us for precisely all the humanity we've lost, promising us a new and improved soul, all the better because we've manufactured it for ourselves with great deal of R&D. Again, it's impossible to tell if this technical ecstasty is meant to be utopic or dystopic, and again, it seems meant to be both at once. With their soulful machine shtick, Kraftwerk seems to promise a future where the problem of emotions and all their messiness and ambiguousness is solved permanently. But when you leave the concert, you don't know if you should laugh at such a silly dream, be fearful of its inevitability, or be envious that you'll never live to see it.

Friday, May 27, 2005

War economy

Growing up, I thought a kibbutz was a person who stood around and watched at the pinochle table, but later on I learned that they were socialist collectives in Israel that held out the tantalizing possibilty that communal living could succeed (albeit under strongly nationalistic conditions). No one in kibbutzs had private property, necessary services were paid for by the group as a whole, and even the nuclear family was dissolved in a spirit of encouraging a greater fidelty to the entire community. But yesterday's Journal featured an article chroncling their demise in the face of commercialization; kibbutzs are starting to privatize their resources and open the value of things to the market, inviting competition over the distribution of goods. They are adopting the depressing priorities of money management and marketing "niche services" like spa treatments. I suppose that kibbutzim are "growing up," and "getting real," to apply a commonplace American ideological spin.

Part of why this is happening, the billl suggests, is the government resources once devoted to aiding the kibbutzs have been diverted to fighting Israel's frontier wars -- no surprise that a right-wing program of intolerance and pre-emption and war would rend the fabric of communal life, but is it a just a happy by-product for them that a policy of perpetual war also forces a people to adopt the inherently bellicose economic system of ceaseless market competition?

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Stranger-owned life insurance

Financial speculators will truly stop at nothing. A morbid piece from the "Personal Journal" section of today's Wall Street Journal called "Letting an Investor Bet on When You Die" deatils how you can take out a life insurance policy with borrowed money and then sell that policy anonymously to a speculator who will then be hoping you die as soon as possible. You make a little money from the sale, but some ghoul you've never met really cashes in when you kick the bucket. (This isn't the only dubious and disturbing insurance scheme where strangers pray for your death. Even more disturbing is "janitor insurance," where bosses collect the life insurance for policies employees never knew they had.)

It's a scenario destined for a murder-mystery novel, wherein anonymity is breached and a greedy speculator has the seventy-five year-old granny (who fits the age demographic these instruments are marketed to) whose policy he owns bumped off, making it seem like natural causes. But no one would believe this story because no one would believe that this financial instrument actually exists. I'm frankly astounded; but apparently many laws exist to regulate this sort of thing, because it's been tried many times before, selling the financial rights to your own death. My jaw dropped when I read this: "In one instance, a client of Peter Katt, a fee-only insurance advisor, was given a spreadsheet with data on three life-insurance policies--all on strangers--in which to invest. The spreadsheet included the insured's names, ages, life expectancy in months, size of the policies and premiumns, and gross rates of return--as high as 114.9%--if the policy happens to reach "early maturity." How creepy is that? Even the Journal seems to think this goes too far. Insurance agents might be the only people who dehumanize and objectify human beings more than people in Human Resources Departments.

Gender anxiety and marketing

I'm sure this is a tired question to people with hipper, more extensive familiarity with the delicacies of international cuisine, but what's the deal with Men's Pocky? It's a chocloate covered pretzel stick. What about this can women not handle? And what's up with the "Yorkie" candy bar from Nestle, which has emblazoned on its wrapper "It's NOT for girls" and even features a silhouette of a woman in a circle with a line through it in place of the O in its name. I'm not alone in my confusion. Nestle's marketing director explains it thus: "We felt we needed to take a stand for the British bloke and reclaim some things in his life, starting with his chocolate... Most men these days feel as if the world is changing around them and it has become less and less politically correct to have anything that is only for males. Yorkie feels that this is an important part of men's happiness and is starting the reclaiming process of making a particular chocolate just for men." That pretty much makes plain the risibility of accusations of "political correctness." When someone accuses someone else of political correctness, it usually means some reactionary attitude toward femininsm is lurking just below the surface. Oh no, these damned women are taking away our chocolate! What's next? Our penises?

Also, what these products point to is the marketing value of gender difference. These products are not subtle in anyway about it, the way most products that leverage gender are (i.e., virtually everything advertised in Stuff or Lucky magazines), but they are functioning from the same logic. Gender purports to be an absolute category, and ideology everywhere reinforces this, but in reality it is not so fixed and this ideological pressure makes us constantly anxious, constantly vulnerable to products like these, when presented in their subtler guises. Gender anxiety then becomes one of the typical byproducts of consumer capitalism, which is fueled by insecurity. The engines of the marketplace and the logic of profit always finds categories like gender to destabilize and exploit.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Crying sheep

I may have mentioned this before, but one of my favorite recurring features in The Wall Street Journal is the "Advertising Report" in the Marketplace section. The report usually features an interview with an ad executive, who can always be counted on for an extremely cynical statement about the autonomy and credulity of those subjected to their wares. It's one of the few places in the Mainstream Media where one sees how the scions of the culture industry really think, and what they really think about you. Usually the viewing/reading public come across as rubes desperate for more bread and circuses and so bedazzled by any kind of technological novelty that they'll drop any dreams of their own to see how those wizards of Madison Avenue where able to make a dog talk in a commercial. "Customizing television ads to keep viewers on the couch" the deckline calls out today, as if this was a good thing we all approve of.

Also, today, Seth Halberman, a president of an ad agency, said something so astounding and so conducive to the Journal's worldview, that it made it into the pullquote beneath his photo. (The "Advertising Report" is one of the rare sections where real photos are used instead of those line drawings that make the shriveled greed-perverted oligarchs and power-mad politicians look so noble and dignified in the other sections.) "I've never seen anything interactive that could make you cry," Halberman remarked, in discussing why the 30-second TV spot will remain a powerful weapon against the consumer. It seems like innocuous enough hype until you think about the ideology behind it: participation in life (even in the bastardized form of "interactivity) is believed by admen to inhibit your emotions. Passive spectatorship, on the other hand, is what is truly moving and fulfilling. You, as a member of the masses, have a duty to yourself to be a passive consumer, because that is how monolpoly capitalism and its quislings like Halberman have decided you will attain your dollop of emotional connection with the world. If you want to cry sweet tears of sympathy with the world, shut up and do as your told and cram down a few more hours of Daytime TV. "When you seize control," Halberman elaborates, "It changes the way your mind is working." In other words, your mind begins to work, which in his view prevents people from being able to feel. Thinking means no feeling: the most repressive plank in the ideology that controls us today. And heaven forbid you seize control of anything. You prefer it that everything is controlled for you -- no, you do, really; it makes your life so much easier. You didn't like being bothered by all that thinking anyway. Just get back to crying, thank you very much.

Our band could be your blog

Yesterday I saw a new documentary about the Minutemen, a band who epitomized everything that was ever any good about American punk rock. Here they were, three working class guys who turned out to be Gramsci-style organic intellectuals, proseltyzing endlessly for a particpatory ethic ("there should be a band on every street and a club for them to play on every other street," late guitarist D. Boon explained) and demonstrating through their open-ended abstract-to-the-point-of-haiku lyrics how political commitment isn't about dogmatism and party loyalty but restless questioning and an eagerness to take positions and then continually revise them. What struck me most watching the film, though, was a comment one of the interviewees made about their songs: He noted how diaristic they were, how they would take a scrap of inspiration and transform it immediately into a finished scrap of song to share with the world, committing to it with total intensity for the moment that it's fresh, and then moving on just as quickly to the next scrap of an idea, the next moment of inspiration. No song is meant to stand in isolation, but all are part of the "river" of songs bassist Mike Watt mentions, the ever expanding and multi-dimensional totality that made up their music's message. This sounds to me like the Minutemen were proto-bloggers.

Blogging, of course, is DIY journalism and opinion making, a refusal to be passive in the face of current events. You want to participate in the conversation about ideas and you take your positions in public, serially, explaining them while they have a hold of you in as concise a form as you can, and then you move on, start somewhere else when the next idea takes hold of you.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The point of criticism

Some continued mining from Martin Jay's The Dialectical Imagination: Of mass culture, Leo Lowenthal wrote that "the criterion of love is continuity and this is just the phenomenon which is never admitted. Mass culture is a total conspiracy against love as well as against sex.... Spectators are continuously betrayed and robbed of real pleasure by sadistic tricks." This sort of puts into perspective what is at stake in writing tirades about the vulgarization of culture, of bothering to worry about tendencies in entertainment. It can't simply be ignored; it has the power to inhibit people's ability to even apprehend the possibilities for life's pleasures. Usually I feel as if I can barely see them, and even then it is only with a great deal of effort -- such effort shouldn't be necessary; that effort is an expense of my labor power that is likely being harvested and exploited by the culture industries whose products inhibit pleasure while promising to grant it. What the effort of criticism consists of is to point out continuities and traditions and patterns where consumer culture wants people only to see the now, the incommensurable newness, the pseudo spontaneity of all packaged experiences. Finding this continuity is not a matter of congratulating oneself for exposing the man behind the curtain or proving that you are more perceptive than the "masses" but a matter of love -- the very possibility of maintaining an emotional commitment (be it to a person, an idea, or an ideal) over time. So that's my fatuous excuse for writing this blog about the topics I write about.

Thinking of schematized biographies, the way an entire life can be conveyed in biographical shorthand through a few heightened moments altogether predictable, in a few scenes in a movie montage, Horkheimer wrote that the "trimming of an existence into some futile moments which can be characterized schematically symbolizes the dissolution of humanity into elements of administration" and that when "eating, drinking, looking, loving, sleeping become 'consumption' ... that means that man has become a machine outside as well as inside of the workshop." A critical turn of mind, a ceaseless critical practice is required to salvage moments of real life, totally unpredictable moments, from the totalizing administration of a planned life conducted by our culture via the media blanket that wraps itself all around us. Then we live life as opposed to consume it. Then we create experience rather than replicate what we see in films. Then we move the species forward rather than repeat what status quo has been established. This is always happening, and there are reasons to be optimistic, but there are powerful forces (not to sound like Bob Shrum here, but) out to prevent it. It is always necessary that people choose to resist them.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Adorno's music criticism

Theodor Adorno was both a notorious music snob and a profound cultural critic. What can be salvaged from his ethnocentric elitist writings about music and be used to analyze contemporary popular culture? If he was right, then collectively our ability to even hear music has regressed to the point where much of what he has to say about authentic music (i.e. the atonal compositions of Schönberg) will be incomprehensible to our infantile ears. As Martin Jay explains it in The Dialectical Imagination, Adorno believed that one of the effects of commercialized popular music was to regress a listener to an infantile state where "like children who demand only food they have enjoyed in the past, the listener ... could only respond to a repetition of what he heard before." Such a listener's attitude toward culture is like "that of the meaningless leisure of the unemployed." Commercialized music, by destroying the link between performance and listening (you can hear it in an inferior reproduction with no apprehension of what's been lost, whenever its convenient for you the listener with no attention to the work involved in creating it) also destroys the Benjaminian aura of a musical work, which destroys its critical function, its ability to comment negatively on the culture and suggest something larger. Adorno had none of the faith that some later pop culture theorists have in the ability of consumers to subvert the intentions of the culture industry and find liberating and creative uses for Madonna songs or Star Trek episodes. Adorno argued that any use of pop culture consigned one to greater conformity, betokened further submission to the nebulous, possibily decentered authorities that run monopoly capitalism. That we mistake playing with the culture industry's toys for a kind of real freedom shows only how impotent and short-sighted we've become. Adorno distinguishes not between popular and classical music, between high and low culture, but between commercial and non-commercial music, the latter of which has no recognizable place in mass society. Music has become a commodity first and foremost, almost impossible to perceive independant of that context. Commodification removes genuine compositional spontaneity and "soul" from music and replaces it with empty virtuoso gestures of showmanship and flair, which amount to dictatoral impositions by the manufacturers. Because the music commodity consists mainly of these gestures, one can't subvert them without obviating the commodity itself, removing the pretense for even using it as a launching pad for listener-creativity in the first place.

As far as Adorno is concerned, popular music ("jazz," in his terminology; think "smooth jazz" especially, in today's marketplace) is never about praxis and always about relaxation, of lulling to sleep the individual's critical awareness, of wallowing in passivity. Is dancing a passive response to rhythmic music? Yes, in Adorno's mind. It's mimicking the martial movement of troops massed and marching past the dictator's parade stand. The use of music as background has the effect of moving the listener to the background, dissolving him into the mass. It required no conscious thought to be "appreciated," and thus was useless as an experience to foster individual subjectivity, which always comes as a result of meaningful work -- in this case in synthesizing one's listening skills with the compositional skill of whoever created the music.

All of this seems pretty apt to me. Popular music rarely asks a listener to engage with it at any level of complexity, it instead seems to prmise an immediate shift in status on the level of fantasy, encouraging vicarious flights of fantasy in which one harnesses the power of the status quo to please oneself rather than engage critically with it. Music is an occasion to show off one's superficial knowledge of names and details and earn membership to subcultural groups or demonstrate cultural capital of some kind. And music production is obviously guided by recurring formulas that cater to a listener who only wants to repeat past simple pleasures -- something to remember when "critics" in lifestyle magazines write things along the lines of "remember when music was fun...?"

Saturday, May 21, 2005


In Rob Walker's "Consumed" column this week in The New York Times Magazine is a piece about the re-re-reissues of Elvis Costello's albums that entirely misses the point about them and reveals what is generally wrong with the column, which makes wry observations only to retreat from any of their implications, shrugging its shoulders at capitalism's vagaries, as if to say, "Boy, it sure is something what people will do, huh?" Just another chapter in the wacky annals of shopping -- the essence of this column every week is to laugh away the extremities of consumerism and make it all seem like whimsical fun, inviting you to rationalize your own cosumerist behavior and embrace it as a definitive sign of yor own uniqueness within the social matrix now defined exclusively by retail stores and commodities and the rites of passage that lead to their purchase. The piece on the re-re-re-issues winds its way to that climax, as each week's column inevitably seems to when reflecting on the superfandom that drives people to buy the same thing over and over again, Walker concludes "It's only other people's fandom that seems embarassing or irrational." In other words, you're a self-deluded snob if you are dismayed at wasteful obsessive-compulse consumption; you're blind to how you play the same game because ultimately our society makes it absolutely mandatory that you play this game, for you to even give yourself depths to contemplate, to give you some kind of grooming activity to get to know yourself through as you comb through and organize your most cherished possessions. Walker spends no time discussing the exploitation of these superfans, perhaps because it's so self-evident, and he never explores why culture generates superfans of Elvis Costello and Star Trek rather than informed voters. (Politics is just another form of superfandom, as the fawning profile of "Man on Dog" Santorum in the same magazine suggests.) Superfandom marshals mammoth amounts of creative energy and channels it into a comparatively passive activity controlled ultimately by the corporations that manufacture "new" product and carefully schedule its release to maximize desperation in its audience.

Friday, May 20, 2005

The most repulsive lifestyle magazine of them all: Money

The premise of lifestylle magazines seems to be this: The editors shape a magazine's content to conjure up some ideal reader that you then can pretend to be when you flip through the pages and that advertisers can then evoke in their pitches. (You can really be that person if you buy this kind of gin or this kind of monogrammed handkerchief.) Hence the utter revulsion I feel when I start to look at Money magazine, which fabricates for its ideal reader the most noxious money-grubbing soulless self-obsessed bourgeois cretin you could possibly imagine. Just look at the plastic people on the cover of the June 2005 issue -- the vacancy behind their eyes is truly frightening. And remember, they didn't have to use these people beccause they are celebrities or anything. Out of all possible people in the universe they selected these white suburban doll-people to stand in for you the reader. That's because they expect you to aspire to be as empty as this, with your status-symbol watch and your oversized house and your fastidious hairdos. The articles inside follow suit, where there is a positive obsession with retirement savings and home refinancing. I suppose there isn't much substance to the concept of "personal finance" beyond these things -- you certainly shouldn't make the mistake of looking to a magazine like this for actual information about financial markets or how the economy works. But if you want to know which mutual funds are "hot," you've come to the right place. And if you want to know who's making a really innovative set of golf clubs, you're looking at the right source. You want to see pictured anyone who is black or Hispanic or Asian? Turn to page 164. That's the only one (aside from a feature about suckers who fall for get-rich-quick schemes). Paging through Money is looking at a depressing galllery of upper-middle class mediocrity, a celebration of their total lack of imagination or aspiration for anything other than money and lifestyle gadgets and decks on their McMansions. These are the useless people, the fat cats and parasites and middle managers who have sucked the lifeblood out from the working classes -- the people who change their kids diapers and mow their lawns and deliver their groceries and police their streets, etc. -- in the full-flower of their unvarnished repugnance. If you enjoy reading this magazine, take a good look in the mirror into you dead hollow eyes and ask yourself, when did I stop being a member of the human species?

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Snob power

Original Idol Kelly Clarkson has managed to survive the stigma of winning her music contract through a game show, not to mention the ignominy of making a film with Justin Guarini, to earn grudging respect from critics in such places as The New Yorker, where Sasha Frere-Jones recently praised Clarkson’s hit-making instincts and her stolid determination: “Anti-poppists will have a hard time holding the line against Kelly Clarkson,” Frere-Jones writes, “who currently has the best rock song on the charts.” With Clarkson edging toward respectability and evincing some surprising cultural staying power, does her success then represent a vindication of the American Idol method for manufacturing pop stars? Is the ability to withstand the media glare and remain interesting (or at least tolerable) to watch to a stuporous yet fickle television public week after week ultimately more important than actual ability? Do the rigors of its season-long schedule, with all the audience pandering and carefully orchestrated indignities involved, make it akin to American presidential campaigns, where one’s mere ability to survive the inane scrutiny and the endless repetition and meaningless questions and the contrived face-offs with one’s competitors, proves one has the fortitude necessary for the national stage?

The comparison seems apt, because both American Idol, and our presidential elections function as celebrations of voting for its own sake, showcases for our ersatz democracy in which you, the wise viewer/citizen, are endlessly applauded for “exercising one’s rights” and choosing among the limited options offered without questioning why they are so pathetically inadequate and demanding better ones. No one thinks the performers on American Idol are the best the country has to offer any more than they think the customary presidential candidates represent our nation’s best and brightest. But voting isn’t an expression of one’s confidence in the choices. It’s an expression of self-satisfaction in one’s power to choose, and have one’s choice tallied. Awash in the ideology of democracy, of the sanctity of having a right to one’s own opinion and having one’s voice heard, we believe we are fulfilling our most exalted spiritual duty whether we’re trekking to our polling place on Election Day or we’re registering our whims in an Internet instapoll or phoning American Idol to weigh in on whose Elton John cover sounded better. Content that their voice is being heard, people can be complacent and apathetic about what they are choosing from and about. The voting booth becomes the best political pacification tool ever invented; it makes passivity seem like participation.

It’s easy to see why token voting has happened in the world of politics. Few Americans have the patience for policy details (typically dismissed as “wonkery” only a geek would care about), so they are content to let all the terms of all political debates be set by pundits, lobbyists and professional activists as long as thy get their moment to play-act the exercise of power every four years when everyone else seems to be paying attention. But it’s less clear why viewers would abdicate control over aesthetics, over the kind of entertainment that brings them pleasure, over the culture that furnishes our fantasies and aspirations. Why would anyone invest any time choosing between a few pop idols dredged up by a game show, why would one limit oneself to those meager options, when one can exercise one’s cultural tastes at any time in a myriad ways from a virtually limitless array of possibilities?

American Idol rests upon a contradiction in the ideology of democracy; it attempts to resolve the conundrum of everyone having a perfectly valid point of view on the one hand, and the majority always being indubitably right on the other. Taste is held to be absolutely subjective and yet is subject to the leverage that mass popularity brings to bear. The show captures in miniature what is generally true of art in a capitalist consumer culture, that we are free to register our aesthetic opinion in a “marketplace of ideas” that is always already circumscribed by the lowest common denominator of the largest feasible demographic. In the magic reconciliation the show tries to pull off, these incompatible ideas synthesize into the utopian notion that everyone's taste has equal value in the culture, which the voting process certifies and protects. But there are tastemakers in our society, and wielding certain kinds of elitist taste does manifest real power, drawing the shadowy lines of class that determine opportunity. So our eagerness to embrace the show and the bland talent it puts on offer reveals just how much we’re willing to sacrifice to wish away the reality of cultural capital. Before we'll admit the reality of snob power, we’ll listen to Clay Aiken sing and we’ll even pretend to like it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Speaking of anti-intellectualism, this item from Salon seems to show how insidious it can be, worming its way into the most casual and offhanded remarks of an allegedly liberal journal about culture. Salon's music columist Thomas Bartlett is basically providing a link to a Pitchfork feature in which David Cross lambastes Pitchfork's peculiar over-heated style. I'm not much of a fan of Pitchfork, but I respect the quality of writing they've achieved while establishing an idiosyncratic, instantly recognizable style whose influence is far reaching in the cloistered (fetid) rock-journalism universe. Pitchfork is basically the Lester Bangs of this era, redefining rock criticism for those benighted enough to want to start writing it. Pitchfork writers are not afraid of throwing out allusions that maybe five other people who can read English would get, they're not afraid of making ludicrous arguments that put pop music on a level of metaphysical significance with Kant and Thomas Aquinas, they manage to blend irony and enthusiasm in such a way as to refute the silly post-ironist argument made by dour Believer types that they're irreconcilable. More than anything, the writing is smart, and the intelligence is preserved even in the face of inscrutability. Thus writers are allowed to elevate rock criticism to Adornoesque levels of tortuousness with statements like this, which Bartlett (following Cross) singles out for ridicule: "Our self-imposed solitude renders us politically and spiritually inert, but rather than take steps to heal our emotional and existential wounds, we have chosen to revel in them. We consume the affected martyrdom of our purported idols and spit it back in mocking defiance." This was written about the Arcade Fire's album (not Lukacs's History and Class Consciousness though I suspect the author of this quip is familiar with it). Cross selects it for ridicule because it's a statement rich with personality, it is redolent with belief and in love with its own complexity; the writer seems anxious to follow her train of thought straight into its implications for the totality even if that makes her sound silly. But it is perfectly comprehensible and pretty cogent considering Arcade Fire's oft-repeated insistence that their music is cathartic. By citing this remark, Cross underscores how entertaining this kind of writing is in spite of being diffuse, how it longs to be read and re-read, as an example of someone who is alive to thought. By imitating it to mock it, Cross pays respect to it at the same time. That's why Pitchfork ran the piece in the first place. But Bartlett assumes the sentence has no meaning and is unwilling to even try to parse it or take its claims seriously. He cites it just to scorn it and the writer's attempt to say something meaningful instead of spout the weary cliches of hype prepared and market-tested by the PR releases the music industry unflaggingly generates and mainstream rock critics dutifully adopt. He accuses Cross of sour grapes, but I wonder if its not he who suffers instead, since apparently he has surrendered his own intellectual pretensions long ago, writes neutered paragraphs for a lifestyle zine, and has nothing left to do but cackle impotently at those who still dare to try to make meaning. Thus Cross's joke, while it seems to be on Pitchfork, is really on him.


Why does the American media and American politics lack grandstanding and showmanship like this? Or am I just missing it? Is the joy I derived from this the same kind of pleasure that hate-radio aficionados derive from master rhetoricians like Rush Limbaugh? The substance of what Galloway says here is nothing new, but the vigor and venom with which he says it makes it seem as if these things are being disclosed for the very first time.

Americans seem to prefer that their politicians act like sonorous simpletons so that they can feel wiser than those glad-handing, cliche-spouting dullards and believe that politics has no impact on their lives and curtails none of their personal autonomy, even as their tax dollars are being misappropriated and the very real impact of decaying social conditions impacts their precious personal freedom. Most likely America will never have fire-breathing politicians like this (who are not spouting religious invective, anyway) because this kind of rhetoric teems with wit, and Americans of all poltical persuasions seem to be unite in one thing, their contempt for intellectuals. Smart politicians conjure immediately the "know-it-alls in Washington who presume to know what's best for you and your family" attack and quickly become unviable.

Also, boring politics leads to voter apathy, which leads to protected incumbents and entrenched systems of political patronage. Apparently, nothing is better for the powers that be in a "democracy" than an uninterested electorate. So it is in the vested interest of politicians to be dullards and bad speakers, characteristics that are likely enforced collectively, each upon the other, through traditions and passed-down rules of decorum and myriad other little ways. Perhaps that's why it's so refreshing to see someone come in from the outside (a real Washington outsider as opposed to all the phoney pseudo-populist ones the system dredges up) and blows all that self-protecting crypto-gentility away.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The game of life

More breaking cell-phone technology "news," courtesy of The Wall Street Journal. I was thinking how I seem to write about nothing but cell-phone innovations lately, and was going to castigate myself for my futile Luddite obession with resisting it, but in fact, I'm not to blame here. The Journal continues to pump up these "developments" as if they are news, giving the air of triumphal inevitability to these technological tweaks, promoting the advance of cell-phone culture because it's unmistakable good for commerce, if for nothing else. Today's big news? "Videogame Makers Bet That Playing on the Go Will Be Hot," a headline from the front page of the Marketplace section. The idea here is that your cell phone rings you with important information in immersive role-playing games you can participate in: "online play on the go," so that the real world need not impinge on your fantasy world even when you have to go palces in that dreary real world. This is such an obvious fit for my argument that the cell phone is the anti-communicaton device whose real purpose is to encase you in a solipsistic, personally target-marketed bubble that renders all commitment to the outside world inconvenient, a scarily impersonal hassle that I won't waste any words connecting those dots. But what's important is not the idea that Americans might start playing fantasy games on the their cell phones. What's important is that they already have; that cell phones make the responsibilities of everyday life take on a fantastic air of unreality. They encourage the idea that life is already a game, that everything is basically optional and provisional, subject to change at whim and a phone call from anywhere. Cell phones afford the illusion of autonomy and ubiquity, of God like power, that one used to only experience in immersive role-playing games, where you really do have unquestioned power over all the details of your existence in that world. The real world is not so malleable, no matter how urgently cell-phone makers and their shills in the buisness press argue that technology empowers you. The reality of life remains that one is embedded in social networks of power. If one is willing to deal with that loss of total autonomy, who knows what feelings of connectedness, spontaneity, surprise, and meaningfulness one might derive from engaging with something truly other and thus truly unpredictable. But the cell phone reviles all those things; it encourages you to choose the fantasy of total control over all circumstances and encasement in a bubble of one's own narrow preferences.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Class warfare

It was nice to see this morning that The New York Times has begun an inquiry into class in America, even if it was joined with all sorts of risible codicils qualifying class's very existance, and ultimately endorsing only this tentative definition: "Class is one way societies sort themselves out."

The article is full of mixed blessings. It repeated the discredited claim by economic ideologist Gary Becker (who also argues that addiction is a rational choice) that the children of the rich and the poor have equal opportunities in life in such a way that its later refutation seems in question. (Part of the bogus "balancing" style of reporting that equates lies with truth because one side of the political spectrum prefers lies.) It presents some compelling data about the degree to which class affects well-being (in terms of health care and education) but then undermines it by soft-selling it in the analysis, emphasizing instead Americans' "optimism" about social mobility. We get the usual fatalistic bromides from interview subjects about being realistic and about how you can't fix the system and how it's "as fair as you can make it" and how in the end one can still work hard and get ahead, off-handedly pinning all the blame for social inequality right on the shoulders of the poor -- if they can't get educated or get health care, they simply haven't worked hard enough. As usual, those suffering by this ideology of hard work are depicted as the ones espousing it and endorsing it.

We do learn that social mobility is lower in America than in Europe -- thanks to winner-take-all economic policies of the oligarchic right, the "American dream" is now more easily fulfilled in Europe than in America. And even though it waffles about class's existence, it does summarize the reasons why class consciousness is crippled in America: the surfeit of cheap goods, the stubborn materialism that leads people to ignore the invisible but overwhelming factor of social capital in policing class barriers. Class is less a matter of what stuff one has (that is itself an ideological notion of a consumer society; that we are all the same class because we can all own DVD players) than one's habitus, one's mode of reacting and responding to the world that communicates where you are in the hierarchy. Sometimes this is mystified as "aesthetic sensibility" or "charisma" or "social connections" or "etiquette." But whatever it is called, it is the true hallmark of class.

The article also gingerly offers the thesis that Americans' faith in social mobility is an ideology supported by shows like American Idol and The Apprentice, which attempt to dramatize meritocracy in action, and by rags-to-riches stories derived from Ben Franklin and Horatio Alger. But the article also opines that "fixed class positions ... rub people the wrong way," and then justifies why these people are right to wish class into the cornfield and pretend it no longer has any effect on them. You have to believe in social mobility in order to have any chance at it, it concludes, arguing for a placebo effect version of the classless society.

One can only hope that future installments in this series will explore further the way in which class privilege is hidden in America. At this stage there should be no debate that it exists; the only question is to explore the ways in which it works and they way in which is hidden, to quell the inevitable dissent that would otherwise result.

Friday, May 13, 2005

"Donkey punch"

I was recently forwarded an email message about activists who are protesting Cafe Press, a company who makes T-shirts and things celebrating the "donkey punch," which (for those of you who don't listen to Howard Stern and his ilk) is a maneuver by which a man surprises a woman with a punch to the head during sex when he's about to come so that her vaginal muscles (allegedly) contract or to distract her so that he can sneak in some anal sex. Ha ha, right? (If you don't think this is very funny, please share your views with Cafe Press: Call toll-free at 1-877-809-1659 between 7AM and 7PM PST. Ask for Candice in the Legal Department.  If they won't put you through, her direct number is 510-877-1926. If Candice isn't available, ask for Maureen or Lindsay.  Once you have a live human, explain why you are offended by the 225 "donkey punch" products currently in CafePress stores. Or write an email to: cup@cafepress.com, mjain@cafepress.com, fdurham@cafepress.com, and pr@cafepress.com.)

Now I doubt that many men who haven't spent substantial time in prison out there or who haven't been clinicallly proven to be sociopaths are out there doing this. And few men are going to be convinced by a T-shirt to start doing it. I'd like to think that the men who wear such gear never get laid anyway (and if they do, then their partners, if they are willing, should be asking themselves some hard questions). But that's not the point, of course. These shirts are made, sold, and worn because they allow men to advertise a cavalier attitude toward women and sexuality itself, scoffing at the idea that it is anything but a zero-sum power struggle where you must extort your own pleasure from your partner at his or her expense. Phrases such as these, that commemorate sexual acts that rarely take place (if ever) are capturing a cultural fantasy that no one individual exhibits. Few men, left alone, conceive of this kind of pointless hatred for the women they are intimate with, but culture as a whole conjures this sentiment, which seems to be required for patriarchy, for a commercial consumer culture that revolves around misdirected libido. They reflect and redirect the humilation that society subjects many of its members to giving those some members a vested interest in its perpetuation -- it's funny!

Thursday, May 12, 2005


I know I'm hopelessly retrograde in my thinking about phones, quaintly and antiquatedly believing their function is to allow one person to speak to another person at a remote location. I haven't yet accepted that they are so much more than that, and that communication is really the least of their functions. Communication is so last century: what's happening now is the phone as personal marketing manager, a device to allow advertisers to tailor things specifically to you that can reach you wherever you are and whatever you might be doing and help you transform any environment you happen to be in into a personal you-specific playground of desire. Wherever you go, your phone, your portable personal buddy, is there to reinforce that you are at the center of the universe and all digital roads lead to you.

Once it was the Internet that put you firmly of the center of the universe, and it was pornography -- that solitary, masturbatory, self-contained form of libido management -- that led to its rapid adoption as a media format. Now, according to a story called "Sex Cells" in today's Wall Street Journal, pornography will also lead the charge toward the widespread use cell phones as tiny TVs. Thanks in large part to port-a-porn, spending on video content for phones is up to one billion dollars from virtually nothing a few years ago. In Asia, cell-phone users can play with "Vivianne" a "virtual girlfriend" and in Europe you can have live chat with strippers who get naked on the little video screen.

None of this is much different from what's already available via cable and the Internet at home. But the essential difference is its portability, which allows one isolate oneself with his porn in increasingly private places -- you won't need to lug a laptop into the bathroom to masturbate in private. And you since you can carry your fantasy-gratifier around with you, it will always be there to pull you away from the real world, the world where social interaction is necessary, where it is not scripted by prearranged money exchanges and contractual expectations. It is a more enveloping way to not be where you are but to be in the phone world instead.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


With the creeping advance of religious bigots on the fart Right, it's hard to ignore how intolerant a country America is becoming, and how much more intolerant it may soon become if Frist succeeds in nuking the Senate and the judiciary corps is packed with activist judges who intend to legislate morality. We edge ever closer to a 21st century Test Act, where one must swear to believing in a particular religion in order to qualify for office. Then it will seem only natural to treat the unorthodox as second-class citizens, as individuals who really can't be trusted with the levers of society because they fall so far out of the "mainstream of American values." Certainly most religious folks are sincere in their faith, but just as certainly some wrap themselves in religion as demogogues wrap themselves in the flag, because it provides them an unassailable platform from which to pontificate. For those who feel required to bully with their faith via politics, religion is a pretense for power, as one draws personal authority from one's special relation to the Almighty (a la the President, who purports to receive divine instructions). Morality is a zero-sum game for the intolerant, they feel secure in their god to the extent they can make others feel insecure in theirs.

Liberals like to congratulate themselves for their own tradition of tolerance, which typically amounts to indifference or patronizing ackowledgement of those who choose to reject the status quo or fail to conform in some conspicuous way. But this tolerance is ultimately a "soft bigotry" of its own, "a mask for moral laissez-faire . . . never extended to protect serious threats to the prevailing order," as Martin Jay explains, articulating a Frankfurt school argument in his history of Critical Theory, The Dialectic Imagination. Tolerance is essentially a way of not caring if other people are persecuting some group as long as you can feel comfortable that you yourself aren't. Tolerance of this sort is self-centered indifference to life as others live it -- not in terms of what peculiar and concupiscent things they might be up to, not in terms of lifestyle choices, but in terms of what struggles they confront in simply trying to achieve everyday life. Tolerance ultimately means tolerating poverty and social injustice as well as pierced eyebrows and sex clubs. The sex clubs are the alibi for the poverty. (This may be what Michel Houellebecq was getting at in his novel Platform.)

It only emboldens the American Taliban (as blogger Atrios aptly calls the Republican right wing) when liberals are content with passive tolerance as a political outlook. It is quietist, uninspiring, negative, and a bit of a sham, belied by its own selfishness. No wonder the rigth attracts converts; they at least confront the world with their ideology and attempt to transform it into some kind of practice.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005


No, not ebonics, that right-wing scare word of the Political Correctness crusades of the 1990s. We're talking hedonics, a controversial method of attaching a value to the increase in pleasure new goods are supposed to provide, which in turn can be weighed against periodic price increases to keep the rate of inflation down. I never heard of hedonics until the Wall Street Journal mentioned it yesterday in an front-page article about hidden inflation and its eventual effect on bond investors. (Bonds need to beat the rate of inflation to make sense as an investment, but if hedonic adjustments mask as much as 3 percent of inflation, then bond owners may actually be losing money in the long term without realizing it, finding themselves suddenly unable to get the anticipated value of their money in goods when the bonds come to term.)

I've spent this afternoon trying to figure out the rationale for hedonics, and just how it is one can measure the marginal pleasure afforded by innovation in the commodities on the market. Apparently, the gist is that there is a straight conversion possible that translates quality improvements into price reductions. A typical example cited by the irate investment bankers who tend to write/blog about this topic is a computer: If it's twice as fast and you pay the same price, hedonics concludes that you're getting twice as much for your money, and that the price of computers have been cut in half -- even if what you are using the computer for hasn't changed a whit. (My computers get faster but I keep "processing words" at the same stubbornly slow rate.)

Economists may have a sophisticated mathematical defense for hedonics as a regression analysis of some kind, but it seems like the adjustments ultimately boil down to introducing the deeply flawed psychology of utility theory into the calculations of the CPI, which ultimately affects how much grandma gets in her Social Security check, and how much your inflation-protected securities are really going to be worth. It may be that the value of money is always contigent upon one's willingness to adopt that vulgar utilitarian mindset as a personal ethos. Money is only worth the joy you get in spending it, thus protecting its value is mainly a matter of protecting those pleasures that derive from it -- which usually consist of trying to make more of it, faster. Thus back to the utilitarian bias again -- more is always better, and too much is never enough.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Ideology and news broadcasts

Caution: what follows is an unmitigated account of my news snobbery. In the morning, my alarm clock plays the local NPR station, which from 9:00 to 10:00 is devoted to BBC News Hour, typically a very un-American roundup of news from a variety of international locales with no particular stress given to what America's interest in these places might be. It's insanely boring, and usually irritating enough to make me want to get out of bed rather than listen further. But usually it seems to me what news is supposed to be, dry accounts of unrest and upheaval in the world's trouble spots along with accounts of political diplomacy and election results and that sort of thing. But this morning, several minutes were devoted to a news item about the first Rolls Royce imported to India since the British colonial rule ended. Whether this is newsworthy in any way is debatable -- perhaps it could be seen as symbolic of the return of Raj style economic oppression, since all the fat cats of the colonial ruling class enjoyed driving Rolls Royces back in the day. But that was hardly the emphasis of the reporting, which took on a decidedly celebratory tone, and it certainly wasn't the point of the interminable interview with the 33-year-old Indian millionaire who made the purchase. Oooh, how much did you pay for it? Do you enjoy its power or its prestige more? Where are you going to drive it, oooh? How fast does it go? It was an extended advertisement for Rolls Royce, a paen to heroic consumerism on an individual level, embedded in the heart of all this internationalist news about nation-states and mass peoples struggling under the yoke of poverty and tyranny and natural disaster, undermining the credibility to a degree of all that preceded and followed (which I, admittedly, didn't hear from the shower).

Then on the train, while I was trying to open my Wall Street Journal without spilling my coffee or elbowinng the person beside me, I noticed that what he was reading was a page full of crime reporting in one of the tabloids -- someone was shot here, someone else was shot there, cops did this or that, a lot of "dog bites man" stories, essentially. And it occurred to me why I've been able to continue reading the Journal everyday whereas I could never read a daily paper before -- it's because despite rejection the ideology expressed in virtually all of its content, I agree fundamentally with the paper's ideology when it comes to its selection of what is newsworthy. There is no crime report in the Wall Street Journal -- crime happens everyday and the specifics of it don't really matter to anyone but its particular victims. There are very few profiles of individuals, but pages and pages of numbers, statisitical analyses, charts, graphs, and brief paragraphs detailing the doings of corporations. This is because individuals aren't really capable of shaping the course of the world -- the world is moved by numbers and corporations and by the host of social forces the Journal keeps tabs on -- lobbying groups, coalitions of politicians, boards of directors, regulatory commissions. Nothing is sensationalized; because reading the news is not presumed to be entertainment.

The ideology of other papers, of most TV news broadcasts, is the opposite. The only thing held to be newsworthy is what happens to individuals, which is presented in the most sensationalized way to invite you to imagine it was happening to you or someone you know. It tries to place you at the center of allegedly dramatic events and glamorizes the agency of indiviudals even as it obfuscates causal relatinoships. The Journal always at least posits a possible explanation for events it considers significant -- market movements, political pronouncements, etc. TV news, especially local news, usually dispenses with an explanation of cause and effect, reporting news as simply inevitable, encouraging viewers to wallow in fatalism. I believe that there is no worse thing a person can do than watch the local news on television; it distorts reality dangerously, implants destructive ideological tendencies of fatalism, sensationalism, racism, bigotry, insecurity, parochialism, and fear in viewers; and it flatters viewers for their ignorance. A person would be much better off letting her children do nothing but play Grand Theft Auto instead.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Notes on Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer society (1970)

Baudrillard’s basic premise in The Consumer Society is that the logic of exchange value in consumption has rendered all activities equal – distinction through goods is impossible because they all essentially signify the same thing. He outlines a theory of consumption based on the acceptance of “formal rationality,” which assures an individual pursues his individual happiness through objects expected to provide the maximum satisfaction. This ideology is founded on the myth of "needs," which Baudrillard is anxious to refute. In a useful survey of consumer behavior theory, he explains that utility and conformity/emulation motives amount to the same thing; and that neither are accurate. Galbraith is closer when he suggests the “revised sequence” – consumers don’t initiate the production process, producers do – conditioning the needs of the consumers to what they produce. The implication is that man studies man’s psychology when it becomes more difficult to sell him something than it is to make it. In short, needs are not inherent in either the good or the consumer, needs are produced by the system of production. This makes the imposed “freedom of choice” the hallmark of industrial ideology, an idea Williamson corroborates in Decoding Advertisements when she claims that “We are trapped in the illusion of choice. Freedom of choice is in fact part of the most basic ideology, the very substructure of advertising.” Baudrillard pushes the critique further than most economic critics by refusing to see a basis for distinguish real from artifical needs. “The pleasure obtained from a television or a second home is experienced as ‘real’ freedom. No one experiences this as alienation.” Individual needs are nothing, there is only a system of needs, which represents “the most advanced form of the rational systemization of productive forces at the individual level, one in which ‘consumption’ takes up the logical and necessary relay from production."

According to Baudrillard, consumers are not passive victims, but actors within a social system that is perpetuated by the use of it, no matter for what end. Consumption, and its attendant social system, survive as a language, which consumers choose to speak through, perpetuating it. Consumption “is directly and totally collective.” “When we consume, we never do it on our own (the isolated consumer is the carefully maintained illusion of the ideological discourse on consumption). Consumers are mutually implicated, despite themselves, in a general system of exchange and in the production of coded values.” Consumption “assures a certain type of communication” in society; failure to communicate would be regarded by others in this context as anti-social. Needs are like symptoms in a hypochondriac, a hysteric. There is no necessary connection between need/symptom and object/body; just an arbitrary one. The “need” is an unfulfillable desire for distinction; it has nothing to do with pleasure, except for maybe the denial of pleasure. Pleasure is the rational end, not the objective, it is a constraint, a compulsion, a social imperative without which one becomes anti-social, inexplicable, alien and scary. This is “fun morality,” which mandates a universal curiosity and a complete exploitation of things according to the rules for extracting pleasure.

Credit is one means of socializing groups to the fun morality; it prevents their having an excuse for not participating. Finally, consumption helps atomize the individual, enhancing social control and legitimizing an increase of bureaucracy which circumscribes the freedom simultaneously offered within the system. So one is urged to consume, and then urged to accept the social responsibility inherent in the consumption. The world of goods treats consumers as a group in order to classify them into different statuses, but the individuals within the group feel no collective impulse; have no sense of being a part of a group – so the process is impervious to collective resistance. The individual feels his voice as a consumer is strong and powerful as long as he is consuming; if he refused to consume, he would be stripped of the power/pleasure afforded him – this is even more true of women, who are constituted as subjects primarily by consuming in the early days of commodity capitalism. This explains why consumerism is embraced and accepted early on, it shows what task culture performs; illustrating the “power” of the “freedom” of consumer choice; illustrating the “autonomy” one has over her own experience of pleasure (when in fact such pleasure is less autonomous, more dependent, or at least as dependent on the social system that classifies and neutralizes the individual).

Consumption as magical thinking – "happiness" appears when the signs of happiness are assembled. We consume to remain at a safe distance from the real – “the consumer’s relation to the real world . . . is not a relation of interest, investment or committed responsibility – nor is it one of total indifference: it is a relation of curiosity.”

Happiness is made measurable in order to perform a distinctive function, to register in a consumer society. It becomes measured in accordance to the egalitarian ideal that equal amounts will be distributed, but this is just an alibi. This measuring of happiness rules out immeasurable inner happiness, and only accepts as happiness that which can be displayed, signified. We accept this change because it promises a means to legislated equality.

The "right" to happiness signifies the disappearance of actual enjoyment of happiness. Just as the right to clean air indicates clean air’s manufactured scarcity. Capitalism systematically turns natural values into rights, or commodities, which enable economic profit and mark social privilege. So democracy’s victories in providing rights cloak the scarcity of those things that its economic system produces.

“Consumption makes maximum exclusion from the (real, social, historical) world the maximum index of security. It seeks the resolution of tensions – that happiness by default. But it runs up against a contradiction” between the old morality of action and the new values of passive, removed consumption. “Hence the intense sense of guilt which attaches to this new style of hedonistic behavior, and the urgent need, clearly outlined by strategists of desire, to take the guilt out of passivity. . . .In order for this contradiction between puritanical and hedonistic morality to be resolved, this tranquility of the private sphere has to appear as a value preserved only with great difficulty, constantly under threat and beset by the dangers of a catastrophic destiny. The violence and inhumanity of the outside world are needed not just so that security may be experienced more deeply as security (in the economy of jouissance) but also so that it should be felt justifiable at every moment as an option (in the economy of the morality of salvation).” “The consumer society see itself as an encircled Jerusalem, rich and threatened. That is its ideology.”

Baudrillard defines “heroes of consumption” as those who fulfill the function of prestigious wasteful expenditure by proxy for a society – this makes real affluence feel like scarcity, since the inability to waste prodigiously registers as a lack, a scarcity. This keeps people feeling like they need more, even if it is only to destroy that “more” conspicuously. Thus advertising, in this light, “achieves the marvelous feat of consuming a substantial budget with the sole aim not of adding to the use-value of objects, but of subtracting value from them.” Fashion supplants use, and fashion is the cover for planned obsolescence. Is the representation of gambling an aspect of this heroic wastefulness? Of course it is. We get the proxy of destruction coupled with the reinforcement of an instrumental rationality. Later Baudrillard argues that modern economies are “growth” economies, that grow both penury and excess structurally in order to maintain itself as a growth economy. “Growth is a function of inequality.” Structural inequality prevents the harmony and balance that would prevent growth. The system produces wealth and poverty for itself, not for the wealthy.

Needs come from competition, not appetite. Needs thus have no limit, they may be socially produced infinitely, according to the logic of endless difference. And the lived experience of these needs as personal mystify the fact that they serve only the growth system. By fulfilling needs for the sake of distinction instead of appetite or their “collective significance” authentic needs are corrupted, and made to serve the system. Baudrillard contrasts this to a primitive society, which knows “true affluence” instead of its mere signs, our profusion of goods and so on. This Maussian nostalgia is built on the idea that humans outside the code of consumption experienced true symbolic exchange/communication, experienced wealth as the sum of “concrete exchange between persons,” as the collective amount of human interaction uncorrupted by power or profit.

Advertising: the industrial production of differences, the production of the system of consumption. This creates the individual’s goal of “personalization” through seeking out smallest marginal differences. “All men are equal before objects as use-value, but they are by no means equal before objects as signs and differences, which are profoundly hierarchical” – that sums up conspicuous consumption’s logic, and why that logic is rigorously reproduced – it allows not only for individuals to compete for distinction, but also products for market-share and profit margin. Advertising helps produce conformity, not in the naïve, particular sense, but in the sense that all share the code of differentiation through objects. Thus revolutionary tensions are diffused not through luxury but the code itself, which channels such energy into fashion revolutions. People become invested in the rules they are playing by, don’t want to discard them even though they subjugate.

In consumer society, pleasing oneself appears the key to pleasing others. Pleasing others, then, becomes important as a means of pleasing oneself, which is the ultimate goal. One consumes oneself in an act of self-indulgence, in the attempt to create oneself – this is akin to the paradox of self-conscious sensibility –spontaneity is celebrated so that it may be contained and effaced
Baudrillard distinguishes ads by sex – ads for men emphasize particularity, informed choice, flattering us by suggesting we meet the challenge offered by choices; ads for women emphasize self-indulgence and narcissistic concern for one’s security. Women gratify themselves however only to streamline their entrance into the male world of fetishized choices. They consume themselves in self-indulgence, thus reifying themselves, becoming object among objects offered for the male choice meant to flatter the connoisseur in him. Women ultimate experience satisfaction by proxy, by being chosen, as the self-indulgence is not satisfaction, but merely preparation for the being chosen, which will provide the fulfillment. The feminine model is extending itself over all of consumer society, B. claims, but his explanation is unclear.
The truth about advertising is that it is beyond true and false in the same way objects are beyond use value and fashion is beyond beauty – such things, he might say, are the alibis of those discourses. Advertising is “prophetic language, insofar as it promotes not learning or understanding, but hope”.

Also included is a chapter discussing the body as “the finest consumer object,” as both capital and fetish. “one manages one’s body; one handles it as one might handle an inheritance; one manipulates it as one of the many signifiers of social status”. The body is alienated in the process of its social “liberation” and is exploited – it displays, lives the structures of the consumer society, embodies them without choosing them or profiting by them. Example: woman’s sensible, expressive body in the culture of sensibility – it demonstrates the cultural prerogative without really gaining through it – conforming to that ethic is disciplinary rather that pleasurable. B. develops this further: “the ethics of beauty, which is the very ethics of fashion, may be defined as the reduction of all concrete values – the use values of the body – to a single functional exchange value, which itself alone, in its abstraction, encapsulates the idea of the glorious, fulfilled body, the idea of desire and jouissance, and of course thereby also denies and forgets them in their reality and in the end simply peters out into an exchange of signs.” The alienation of labor power, individual freedom, and the body itself finally are all enlisted in order to support the “productivist option.” All is turned to account by the productivist system, but apparently, not individual producers.

B. notes the “medical cult” develops from the notion of body as prestige object – this creates “a virtually unlimited demand for medical, surgical, and pharmaceutical services . . .health today is not so much a biological imperative linked to survival as a social imperative linked to status”.

A chapter on time as commodity, on wasting time as an impossible but necessary prestation. “we are in an age when men will never manage to waste enough time to be rid of the inevitablility of spending their lives earning it”. Leisure would be time away from rational scheduling, from productivity, but holidays themselves become rationalized pursuits of pleasure, which can only be found through producing distinctions. Which makes leisure, like consumption itself, a reinforcement of the productivist option.

A chapter on solicitude, which reminds me of the sub-discourse of gratitude within sentimental literature. This chapter would help explain Grandison’s paradox, why his solicitude is a kind of imprisonment. All solicitude is basically terroristic, B states baldly, and explains it on 169, a familiar point about paternalism. Gratitude is signified human warmth, its simulacrum rather than the thing itself. It is in fact rationalized personal relations, which lubricate the distance created by the productivist ecomony – we consume intimacy rather than experience it, this preserves our freedom from the unpredictable nature of real interaction, preserves the system from that same unpredictable energy.

A point I am most interested in is his contention that “sociabilty” means precisely a willingness to play by the rules of the code of consumption, its differential logic. Failure to communicate through objects makes one anti-social by this new definition; and this seems to have a crucial relation to the evolution of sensibility that I haven’t worked out yet. It has to do with quantifiable happiness, and produced relations, produced intimacy. Relating is liberated from tradition and formality only to be exploited in some fashion (172, Sennett also) – spontaneous relating does not follow from this liberation, in fact we have only a new tyranny. The cult of sincerity works like a new “right” – it celebrates a value whose presence has slipped away.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Pretentious as epithet

I'm guilty of it. I've used the word pretentious as abludgeon to beat down the ambitious, to mock attempts at being intellectual or to surprise or to throw an audience's expectations out of whack. But every time I see someone else use it, I feel ashamed of having ever done it myself, because there may be no more pretentious act than dubbing someone else's work pretentious. This struck me yesterday when reading a little review of Hal Hartley's latest movie in Time Out New York, a review that demonstrated a fairly shallow familiarity with Hartley's previous work before dismissing his recent film as having "pretentious dialogue." Hartley strikes me as one of the least pretentious filmmakers working, because he's operating independent of current prevailing notions of cool. But because he takes on diffuse ideas and approaches questions of social theory with the unconventional methods they typically demand in order to yield fresh insights, he is routinely dubbed pretentious, his pretense being the idea that a filmmaker should attempt to do anything other than flatter its audience, bathe them in attitude and tittilate them with sex and violence.

There are many problems with pretentious as epithet, the largest being the problem of the imputation of the critic's own lofty point of view. When you call something else pretentious -- that is, accuse a work of having a phony intellectual content, a shallowness masquerading as depth -- you set yourself up as the transcendent arbiter of intellect; you grant yourself a superintellect that never fails to understand what others have been attempting and can parcel out precisely how much intellectual validity their efforts warrant. But no critic can stand on that Archimedian ground, even if we were to agree that there is some kind of objective intellectualism that could be measured and quantified. Ad then there is the problem of the parasitical critic, who feeds off of the work of other artists to build his own self-esteem -- he sits back and points out the intellectual shortcomings of other people's work while never having to trouble to venture his own. His ability to find "pretension" in all efforts to wrestle with complexity justifies his own failures to act, to make something, to attempt to hunt bigger game than the aesthetic success of the work of other artists. Not all critics are parasites, and of course criticism can be a constructive medium of its own. But the pretentious critics are never more than bloodsuckers, feeding on other artists to nourish their own superiority. Such critics defend their nebulous intellectual turf with lofty insults because they are afraid to actually stalk it and find out what contradictions and inconscistencies and complexities lurk there. Pretentious as epithet is a vital pillar of anti-intellectualism, allowing bully reactionary critics to shout down anything that threatens the status quo of debased culture subservient to the oligarchy and the hydraulics of consumerism.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Boycott Sleepy's

I know it is a cry in the wilderness, but to anyone who happens to be searching for Sleepy's and has stumbled across this humble page, please, buy your mattress somewhere else. I have never encountered a company with more contempt for its customers. Coupled with more phony and in the end offensive "customer is always right, satisfaction guaranteed" claptrap, Sleepy's might be the sleaziest operation in an industry known for its sleaziness. I bought an expensive mattress from the company, and it turned out to be defective. Rather than offer to replace it, they told me I would have to wait several days for a third-party inspector to come and document the defects in order to have a new one shipped out. The third-party company would call me (when they were could and ready) to schedule this inspection, and they called several days later, and told me they couldn't do it on weekends, so I would have to burn a vacation day in order to have this taken care of. The soonest they could come was more than a week later -- which means I would continue to sleep on my defecive mattress for another ten days. When the inspector finally came, I showed him the defect and asked him what might have caused it. He said, "I don't know anything about mattresses, I am an upholsterer." Then he documented the side of the bed where there was no defect, despite my vain protests." But that bulge, over there, why aren't you documenting that? Shouldn't you be taking pictures of that? "I'm just here to measure what I've been told to measure," he said. This meant putting a string across the bed, holding a ruler next to it, and taking a close up. He told me then not to orry, that the bed was defecive and it wouldn't be a problem. I just needed to wait another 10 days while the inspection was filed wth Sleepy's home office, who I had to keep calling and calling until finally the results came in. Naturally, they told me my defective bed was fine and that the inspection turned up no defects. I then realized the point of their inspections was apparently to protect them from having to ever replace defective beds. So I demanded to talk to someone to schedule another inspection at the very least. In order to do this I had to wait on hold for a half hour for a customer representative, who told me she would fax the requisite paper work (which she refused to send to me as well) to another inspection company, who would contact me to schedule another appointment. A fax, you'd expect, would travel across the wires nearly instantly. But it's been several days, and this third-party company has seen nothing of my paperwork. Of course, I could call Sleepy's back and wait for another half hour on their customer service line, only to have them tell me that they'll re-fax it. Or I could sit tight and wait for the "five to seven days" Sleepy's told me it takes for these fax transmissions to be processed.
It's too late for me to get out of this mess. I share my story so that perhaps you might not get in it.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Accidental entrepreneurs

An article on the front page of today's Wall Street Journal -- the standard goofy story that begins in column four -- affords me an opportunity to expand on yesterday's post about permanent adolescents. The article details a bunch of accidental entrepreneurs who start making money selling goofy T-shirts on the Web. On the one hand, we're led to believe that these people don't think of themselves as businesspeople -- this makes their entrepreneurship seem more authentic, naturalize the urge to make money, which seems to overwhelm one's activities automaticallly. Whatever you start out doing, inevitably you'll be doing it to make money, because this is simply the way the world works, and profit-making is the way we measure success and get the impetu to continue with whatever we've started. This is how the permanent adolescents can maintain their grip on their psuedo-countercultural status while undertaking the nuts-and-bolts work of capitalism, discovering how, for instance, to "monetize the Internet," as one T-shirt vendor remarks.

And the product is one that capitalizes on the permanent adolescent phenomenon, monetizes that. "The T-shirt is the perfect fit for online commerce. It captures the Web's renegade allure and allows surfers to show off their virtual journeys." The T-shirt is a souvenir from a vacation taken into the heart of off-hand hipness, commorating the boredom-driven escape from everyday life into a meandering search for instant distraction. This would then seem to epitomize the T-shirt wearer's refusal to play the game of everyday life, to go along with the system, to demonstrate his own renegade allure. But then the Journal quotes one of these T-shirt wearers, and you get to see just what a tool he is: "There's a point where my girlfriend will tell me I'll have to grow up, but until then, one definitely can't have too many funny T-shirts." The satisfaction afforded by one is so ephemeral that it must be supplemented by serial purchases, and ultimatly the serial purchases, the search for something new to buy, is what this is about -- T-shirts, then, are no different than other permanent adolescent commodities like indie rock, Japanese kitsch, volumes of esoteric social theory, and so on.

And the paper takes an opportunity to get a gratuitous jab in at leftists by putting this in the pull quote: "One shirt shows a picture of Che Guevara and says: 'I have no idea who this is'" -- quite clever, as this mocks Guevara, his clueless followers, and radical chic all at once while pointing out how trivialized Guevara's ideas have become.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Permanent adolescence

It's obvious that adolescence in America has become prolonged: that thirty-year-old adolescents are epidemic, that entire ghettos of pre-adult, post-teen hipsters exist in many cities (especially where there is a college), that more and more bourgeois twenty-somethings seem more and more reluctant to have families of their own and thereby begin the process of socially reproducing their class. Typically when the trend is noted, this Toys R Us generation is condemned as lazy and spoiled for refusing to want to grow up, and their concerns (often characterized as revolving around pop cultural ephemera and the careful maintanence of their own image) are trivialized as juvenile and unserious.

This seems unfair. Permanent adolescence, while it may be condemned by moral pundits, is at the same time the ideal depicted in a great deal of advertising, the never-ending youthfulness combined with unlimited discretionary income. And it's natural that in a child-centric culture like ours, we should want to cling to childhood, which is set up as the natural, authentic, spontaenous, uncorrupted, inherently good alternative to the greedy, money-grubbing world of adulthood we're compelled to participate in to survive. As Zaretsky points out in Capitalism, the Family, and Social Life, adolescence was invented by education theorists G. Stanley Hall at the beginning of the 20th century to describe a transitional stage that partook of both the purity of childhood and the moral confusion and social antagonism of adulthood. Zaretsky argues that "as childhood came to be understood less and less as preperation for adult society and increasingly as a period of unspoiled virtues opposed to it, the transition from child to adult became problematic." The pure qualities of childhood -- the natural spontaneity, the impulsiveness, the openness -- seem to have no place in adult social life, and thus today's permanent adolescents have no sense of how to conceive of maturity as anything other than capitulation, surrender. There is no sense of how contribution to social life can be anything other than permitting yourself to be ground uner the boot heel of a boss, doing work that is personally meaningless, while submitting to wage slavery without end. As permanent adolescents, they can see their work as part of establishing their personal image, which is still allowed to be a matter of importance, and may be the only way one is permitted in contemporary society to hold on to the concept of meaningful work -- once you are an adult, mainstream ideology demands you to see your family (the agency of social reproduction, allowing the cycle to repeat in the next generation) as all important, not your personal satisfaction. As an adolescent, you can privilege meaningful work (in the guise of it being cool, it being a glamor job of some sort, or affording a great deal of independence) over social reproduction. If possible, the permanent adolescence can be reconfigured and dignified as a kind of counter-cultural stance -- the permanent adolescent as bohemian hipster. But because the counter-culture has been entirely engulfed by "cool," one inevitably reaches the point where one's adolescence can no longer masquerade as hipsterism -- you become bald, heavy, visibly old, vaguely embarrassing to the youth whose stance you seem to be appropriating (rather than defining, trail-blazing, as you might have had just a few years previous). Then you are in danger of falling out of society altogether, becoming one of its invisible sufferers, one of those people who are too unremarkable to every make it on reality TV, one of those people universally ignored in public, one of those people utterly insignificant to all but the most predatory advertisers, those whose stock in trade is the insecure and the desperate.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Drug style

A Target advertising insert in the Sunday New York Times pitched their stores' new pharmacy services on the basis that their pill bottles and their pharmacists are more stylish than you ordinarily expect at the drug store: In the ad there was a hip-looking young Asian woman with stylish eyeglass frames, and sleek pill bottles in fun, bright colors instead of the drab old institutional orange. So apparently no corner of our economy is immune to lifestyle-oriented advertising. You are expected to make the contents of your medicine cabinet look cooler and more impressive, presumably for those inevitable snoops who peek in there when visiting. And you should regard medicine not as a necessary product, one that should be available to all citizens in our society, but as a distinctive, positional product that demonstrates your knack for designy accoutrements. Adding a style component to a basic necessity like this adds justification to arguments that would deny it to a significant portion of society who can't afford it. It starts to seem optional rather than a baseline essential that should be provided for everyone. And it suggests that no matter how mandatory the consumption is for the consumer, our economy will try to trick that consumption out into a choice laden with options. (This is the core of deZengotita's argument in Mediated.) Meaningless options such as the choice of what color bottle your antibiotics will come in masquerade as power in our cultural, and encourage us to forget what constitutes real power.