Saturday, March 27, 2010

Self-harm and self-fashioning (8 June 2006)

Advertising blog AdPulp is worried about the youth of America:
Marketers everywhere are trying to figure out the best way to reach the teen and twenty-something markets. Perhaps, we ought to drop that pursuit and instead focus on why this generation is busy hurting themselves.
According to Associated Press:

Nearly 1 in 5 students at two Ivy League schools say they have purposely injured themselves by cutting, burning or other methods, a disturbing phenomenon that psychologists say they are hearing about more often. For some young people, self-abuse is an extreme coping mechanism that seems to help relieve stress; for others, it's a way to make deep emotional wounds more visible. The results of the survey at Cornell and Princeton are similar to other estimates on this frightening behavior. Counselors say it's happening at colleges, high schools and middle schools across the country. Separate research found more than 400 Web sites devoted to the subject, including many that glorify self-injury.

I immediately wondered if these two seemingly disparate ideas are related: that this generation is turning to self-harm as a result of being the most-marketed-to generation in the history of humankind. Self-harm would be an attempt at achieving authenticty, some sense of real feeling, in the face of the perpetual reinforcement of the importance of surface charm, the continual insincere flattery the media basks them in, and the instrumentalization and commodification of emotion (feelings become on-demand, like an episode of The Sopranos or a porn flick). Media culture -- entirely given over to marketing impulses at this point -- thrives by inducing insecurity and then offering ersatz solutions for the feelings of inadequacy that invite you to become even more alienated. No wonder they are so miserable.

Culture, doing the bidding of consumer-goods markets, rationalizes the phoniness, the passivity, the sheepishness, the shallow notion of individuality on offer via shopping for identity as natural; self-harm becomes an irrational response trying to shatter that consensus, make ones rejection plain and irrevocable. Self-harm is the one thing you can't buy on the market, it's one thing you can never feel like a sucker for buying, it's one thing you own completely -- an act that can't be traced directly back to some form of cynical manipulation on the part of some corporation. Thus the fact that websites have begun to "glorify" ritual self-abuse suggests that perhaps it's exhausting itself as a viable retreat from media culture; that it too has been co-opted. Once you can cut on yourself to be cool, you can't really cut on yourself for relief from the pressures to be cool.

Gaming airline fares (6 June 2006)

Boing Boing linked to John Battelle's blog, which reports on a new service, Farecast, that will attempt to thwart the mother of all price targeters, the airline industry. Perhaps nothing seems as arbitrary as the price of flights, because the airlines are always trying to keep its customers off-balance as to what the real cost of a trip is. Though it seems like services like Expedia cut through the nonsense and force competition on airlines to drive prices down, in fact such sites work for the airlines, not customers. As Battelle explains, "something funny happened on our way to internet mediated bliss: the big companies figured out how to game our demand. Dealers realized they can make more profit if they cooperate and withhold pricing information from the aggregators, and the aggregators got into bed with the supply side of the equation (if you think AutoByTel or Expedia is on your side, you're kidding yourself). Nowhere is this more true that in how an airline prices its tickets." So rather than dissemenate information, sites like Expedia make information more asymmetrical while giving the illusion of doing the opposite. Very nefarious. This is why shopping on Priceline is like working a Magic 8 Ball. "Price unclear. Ask again later." The process is mystified until it's positively occult, because customers have no leverage. (You can't build your own airplane, at least not without a lot of trouble.) Airlines and travel brokers are thus free to play whatever games they want to assure that every customer pays how much they can afford rather than what the trip costs in material terms. Should some travelers pay more just because they can? Should there be a kind of progressive tax on their extra means, even if this money was redistributed to allow the less well-off to fly rather than to line the pockets of airline executives? One might make the argument that airlines would provide no service at all if they lost price flexibility -- just like drug companies would stop researching if they couldn't gouge the sick of America for maximum profit. The profits generated from bilking the those who can afford to be bilked subsudizes the entire industry. The problem is that sometimes those who are bilked aren't those who can most afford it but those who can't opt out at a given moment.

Anyway, Farecast attempts to to track pricing changes based on historical data and put that information in a customer's hands so that they may time their purchases and not get caught in that situation. While this system might work, it really sets one set of savvy customers against those other customers too lazy or ignorant to know about Farecast. The other customers generate the data that you then exploit, while the airlines continue their same business practices. What's unclear to me is this: if everyone used it, would that bring about fairer pricing for all, or would it simply make the available data opaque again?

The error of generosity (6 June 2006)

In the perfect world of econometric models, everyone would be forced to pay as much as they were willing to in every exchange, bringing about what economists would deem perfect efficiency -- maximizing not the usefulness of the world's resources but the accuracy of economists' supply and demand curves. Economists like Tim Harford in The Undercover Economist assume that since we are willing to pay a certain price, we consider that price fair, even if, say, the person sitting beside us on a plane paid half as much for his ticket. This seems strange to me -- it seems patently unfair. If democracy now finds primary expression not in the voting booth but in the marketplace (if historian William Leach's notion of the "democratization of desire" is accurate; if the way we feel equal in America derives from the fact we can all shop in the same stores and dream about owning the same things; if purchasing power means more than the franchise; if we vote with our dollars) then this kind of pricing is a subversion of democracy. My votes in the marketplace are being devalued if I am induced to may more for a good than some other American. I suppose it would be wrong to go around holding a grudge about every time I was duped into paying more than somebody else; the reason I've paid more is that generally, ultimately (hopefully) I have benefited from other past privileges that gave me more purchasing power in the first place than the people who paid less, and my overspending eventually will help level that playing field, distributing the privilege that accrued to me around to the underprivileged people out there catching discounts. (This is the paradigm that makes drugs cheaper for Africans than they are for my insurance company.) But a look at the way money tends to be accumulating at the top of the income pyramid suggests this is too hopeful. Often benefits, discounts, privileges beget further privilege, and disadvantaged people in the economy are merely more vulnerable to exploitation, both in their jobs and in their consuming -- just pop in to a grocery store in a rundown area and see what deals are to be had on the stripped-down, limited supply of goods there.

And if we always paid what we were willing, we would experience not perfection but some sort of dystopic misery, as one of the main pleasures of shopping (and shopping is itself our main pleasure) would be robbed from us -- the feeling of getting a deal. When we pay just what we're willing, we are never getting to enjoy the experience of knowing we would have paid more but didn't have to. That difference between what we would have spent and what we did is a kind of happiness dividend that comes to us at serendipitous times and may just have the kind of slot-machine like randomness to it to help keep us addicted to consumerism.

Also, more important, when I receive attentive service at a coffee shop, where the leverage of my upcoming tip has no business attracting it, I end up feeling a warm glow of gratitude for the human race, a sense that people are willing to be polite and friendly not because economics compels them but because their humanity does. It's irrational and unpredictable, but it seems perfectly natural when I am enjoying my lunch because of it, and makes me want to do some irrational things myself, like write a long encomium to such behavior in a blog that no one pays me to write. It's a beautiful thing when sheer sociability trumps the logic of price targeting and positional-good selling, creating an environment wherein people seem to be enjoying their work for the sake of professionalism, for the sake of the comfortable interaction it brings. I know that is a bit utopian. But it's a scenario that for better or worse can't ever be modeled, predicted. You can't script unmotivated "random acts of kindness" (the best you can do is promote them with glib bumper stickers). If economists had their perfectly efficient world, I'd never get that service in low-priced establishments, just the surly indifferent service that admittedly I typically get. Perfect pricing, perfect efficiency, presumes nothing can be given, but thankfully the world isn't that perfect and people make the error of generosity every now and then.

Price targeting and apathy (5 June 2006)

Financial Times columnist Tim Harford in his recent book The Undercover Economist spends a lot of time discussing the retailers' practice of price targeting, by which they inflate their profits by duping customers to paying what they can afford for something rather than what it actually costs to make. Generally speaking, he argues, everything at Starbucks costs the company the same amount to make, they just dress their base product (espresso) with a bunch of inconsequential options that permit them to charge a bunch of different prices for the same thing and allow customers to self-select their price range, (dumb or dumber or venti dumb) -- if you mistake those little differences for significant identity-defining decisions, you're just that much more susceptible. Much of the economy in fact seems predicated on our finding mammoth significance in these inconsequential differences; advertisements systematically instruct us to take great pleasure in determining the difference between someone who drives a VW and someone who drives a Ford truck.

Harford focuses on customers' insouciant shopping. "Starbucks isn't merely seeking to offer a variety of alternatives to customers. It's also trying to give the customer every opportunity to signal that they've not been looking at the price." Part of that indifference would likely be Veblenesque conspicuous hauteur, but part of it is a consequence of deliberate deception, inculcated shopper ignorance abetted by such tactics as random pricing, illogical sales, exaggerated differences between similar products (if not the same product), misleading labels, sabotaging already finished goods to price them cheaper and so on. All these things are designed to confuse, to create situations of imperfect information which can then be exploited. Like a true economist, Harford sheds no tears for customers who are duped into paying more than other customers for the same product; he figures that they know better what they can afford (though the mountains of American debt and the existence of paycheck-loan kiosks and rent-to-own predators and installment-plan scams often makes me wonder, personally) and sees nothing unjust in a little enterprising duplicity.

Customers tend to feel differently. Some, when they discover these practices, perhaps engage in some guerrilla consumerism, turning bloated corporate policies against chain stores, capitalizing on slipshod return policies, buying sale items in absurd bulk, exercising iron discipline with price comparisons, and speading the news of these counterinsurgent tactics to anyone who will listen and who has the nerve to execute them. As Harford notes, price targeters must plug leaks -- must stop goods targeted for one group from selling to another. In other words, they have to stop middle class people from shopping at Dee & Dee or Dollar General. And retailers must stop people from reselling goods they've acquired at a discount -- this is why these strategies are mainly applied to services and perishables. Price targeting typically takes advantage of our willingness to pay for an experiential goods (rather than tangible ones) like first-class seating or to get competent attentive service from clerks. The hierarchy of customers that results makes customers think their opponents are other customers (who they need to best by being in a higher class, by being waited on first) rather than the retailers themselves who are gouging and duping them whenever possible.

Part of the way price targeting works is to have a sheeplike shopping populace to embarrassed to protest it, or to inconvenience themselves, the clerks, and other shoppers by insisting on refunds or price matches or spontaneously-negotiated bargains. Of course, even if you are aggressive in taking advantage of shopping loopholes, you are still shopping, which probably keeps retailers happy, no matter how much you shave their margins. Perhaps the best way to fight price targeting is to buy as little as possible, or at least spend as little time as possible thinking about acquiring stuff.

Interns exploited (2 June 2006)

Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt, had a ludicrous editorial in The New York Times the other day about the pernicious growth of internships, which has already prompted these takedowns from economists and policy analysts. Kamenetz worries that interns are exploited on the one hand, because they are often unpaid, and that they distort the job market by taking away paying jobs from other qualified college graduates. She even compares them to illegal immigrants, which doesn't really make any sense. Interns aren't stupid, and they know the value of what they are doing. No one points a bayonet at them and forces them to open mail for a Conde Nast deputy editor or a state senator or whatever. The point is that interns can volunteer to work gratis because they have parents who can support them while they extend the lucrative network that got them the internship in the first place. Internships are actually well paid in social capital; the contacts you get more often than not launch you in your career (or get you out of it before it is too late). As Will Wilkinson points out in one of the takedowns linked above, Kasenetz herself profited immensely from the network her internship at the Village Voice procured for her. He writes, "I think that perhaps one thing that Kamenetz may have in common with me, and many others, is that her success shakes all our faith in the meritocracy."

Kasenetz is right that internships "fly in the face of meritocracy — you must be rich enough to work without pay to get your foot in the door. And they enhance the power of social connections over ability to match people with desirable careers." What's scandalous about internships, if anything, is the nepotistic way they are usually distributed, to someone's niece or nephew, or to the last intern's roommate, or to the students of a college professor who has a buddy in a corporation. These sorts of internships entrench networking as basically more valuable than actual work skills, which leads people to naturally conclude that the only work skills our postindustrial economy needs are people skills, the ability to not piss people off and ingratiate oneself in the elevator. (Of course, America's most famous recent intern found other ways to extend her people-pleasing skills.) And because the networks are nepotistic, they seal off the upper eschelons to outsiders, who have to work their way up the old-fashioned way, which is not at all, usually. That seems to me what internships are all about; they are like Ivy League admissions. Corporations get the "right" people in whlie extorting something from them (free labor, onerous application fees, etc.) to make it look less egregious. Economists tend to reject these sorts of complaints about meritocracy's failure with the tough-shit apothegm: the upper class always has the advantage in every situation (not just internships), so that inherent fact becomes an externality. As Andrew Samwick puts it in his takedown: "No one would deny the simple fact that students who come from well off families have more opportunities than those who come from less well off families." Yes, it is a simple fact, but it is still lamentable, and democracies, if they are to mean anything other than laissez-faire economics, should address it and work to correct it. Internships do the opposite; they preserve the advantage and mystify it so it doesn't seem so outrageously unfair.

Art into fashion (1 June 2006)

Some more on that director from Sotheby's astounding declaration in BusinessWeek that China is “an exciting, hip and cool place to be collecting.” Art, Chinese or otherwise, generally just sits there inert, unchanging. But by claiming that it is "cool" and/or "hip" one inserts it into the fashion cycle, which allows it to be used up, even if it doesn't make the art entirely useful. In other words, because it can be used up, it can suddenly be consumed, something we all understand without any special art-history instruction. Better still, in consuming its "cool" we are really consuming our own ability to keep up with cool rather than the specific artwork itself, which gets left behind and is actually insignificant to this process. "Cool" always elevates us to the level of the abstract, wherein we ourselves are the only real substantial thing. We are raised to a heightened awareness of ourselves, and our own ability to anticipate fashion's flow, or at least follow it adeptly and belong to an elite status group. We become all-meaningful and Chinese art means nothing, a temporary signifier, a placeholder for ourselves, the people who are actually important.

"Hip and cool" (31 May 2006)

BusinessWeek ran a short item about collecting Chinese art that featured one of Sotheby's directors declaring that China is "an exciting, hip and cool place to be collecting." Not only is it exciting but it's hip and also cool? So I guess collecting there is not a bad idea because it doesn't suck. Chinese art is totally awesome because it's so amazingly righteous and far out.

The redundancy here makes it obvious that words like hip and cool don't really mean anything objective, that they are just overheated rhetorical attempts to generate excitement. But nevertheless the world is saturated with coolhunters and hipsters who are all brokering these empty concepts into a way of making a living. This item makes clear what is pretty much always the case, that these words signify nothing but the ability for someone to make a quick buck, probably at your expense. They who will profit have already got there first and declared it "cool," which means they probably own the rights to the proceeds of its exploitation, whether "it" is Chinese art, cell-phone TV shows, an energy drink or a band about to break through. When something is held to be cool, it's best to avoid it unless you want to pay to be swept up in some pointless phenomenon for the hell of it -- unless you are one of those people who like to do the wave at stadiums and ignore the game that's going on.

Business best sellers (31 May 2006)

Why are business best-sellers so frequently idiotic, when businesspeople themselves are not? Peter Hansen's review of business books like Who Moved My Cheese? suggests a few answers. (Also, it's astounding that a blog for a fairly obscure think-tank publication could attract this much comment spam.) It may be that motivational business books are primarily escapist vehicles offering a simplistic world of easy answers, many of which any sentient reader will have already thought of his own. This makes a reader feel smart and secure, reassuring him that his own thoughts are probably sufficient enough to help him weather any career crises. But for those nonsentient denizens of the cubicled world, they are escapist by allowing people to dream of taking clear and simple steps toward success (always simplified into sheer wealthiness) while sitting around having facile fables decoded for them in third-grade level prose. As Hansen puts it, "People who merely dream of being big winners in the rat race are the ones actually reading these books; the real winners, the successful entrepreneurs and executives, can't have time for such distractions." Achievers don't need their intellect flattered by reading silly books and anticipating their self-evident arguments. They actually confront the challenges of surviving capitalism's brutal competition. (A side thought: capitalism's defenders always like to tout the healthful benefits of competition to character, yet it seems that the loudest defenders of competition against welfare-state interventionism are those who know full well that the game is already rigged in their favor).

Hansen also points out the dark side of these books, what he calls their "peculiarly American nihilism" which suspends all ethical judgments and reduces all forms of friendship to self-interested manipulation, what economists sometimes like to call "rationality." This generally culminates logically in advice to be a kiss-up, kick-down management stoolie in order to get ahead in hierarchical power structures. Such books refuse to acknowledge a skill as useful if it can't be used to help a corporation grow: "One subtle effect of books like [Now, Discover Your Strengths] is to redefine human strengths as the ones that productive organizations in fact need. The authors encourage us to discover our strengths so that we can put them to use in our careers. Thus empathy makes one suited for sales (rather than, say, friendship or raising children); imagination makes one suited for formulating business strategy (rather than art or, if allied with other abilities, philosophy or science); and so forth. There is no suggestion that our strengths or virtues point to anything higher than our careers." In Hanson's view, this fosters a false consciousness that redeems the emptiness of our atomized lives (stripped as they are of meaningful community or family ties) by stressing the workplace as the arena where one discovers identity. I'm more inclined to think they rationalize the absence of meaningful work for most people in this economy and try to drum up significance for workplace accomplishments that leave most of us feeling hollow. Soul-crushing jobs and rote consumerism don't add up to fulfillment, no matter how much family joy you inject into it.

Books about Dylan (31 May 2006)

It may be that the only good book about Dylan is the one he wrote himself, Chronicles: Volume One -- you don't even have to care about his music to appreciate the insight into the mercurial process of artistic influence explored there (not to mention the effortless creation in prose of an inimitable voice). All the other ones I've tried have been weirdly evangelical in their fervor for the man.

The worst one I've encountered by far is Dylan's Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks, an English professor who specializes in specious interpretations of the lyrics and ignores the fact that Dylan is a musician altogether. He is one of those critics who has to outperform whoever he is writing about, so he indulges in all sorts of performative linguistic free association that often verges of schizophrenic glossalalia. What Ricks accepts as evidence for his interpretations usually seems entirely arbitrary, the product of sheer accident and the delusions that eventually emanate from obsessive concentration.

Lately I've been reading Paul Williams's Bob Dylan: Watching the River Flow : Observations on His Art-In-Progress, 1966-1995, in which Williams actually claims that Under the Red Sky is a great album, and offers defenses of the rest of 1980s work too. Williams has a religious faith in Dylan's genius, and will take it upon himself to find deep, compelling insight in the most banal and hackneyed of his offerings. To Williams, Dylan can do no wrong -- that is the fundamental tenet -- so if something seems off about Down in the Groove the problem must therefore lie with the listener. This pushes Williams to some inspired bits of improvisational explanation for, say, "Wiggle Wiggle" but it at the same time compromises his critical credibility. But then some Dylanophiles probably appreciate reading material that preaches to the choir, that elucidates the wonders of the faith from the perspective of the already converted. Within the confines of the devotional literature, the cult of personality can be unchecked and revealed without qualification, allowing readers to bask and indulge in the high solemnities of hero worship. But if you don't see Dylan as an oracle, a cosmic combination of Picasso, Jesus and Casanova, these hagiographies can be wearying. So why do I keep reading? Probably because I get tired of musical agnosticism at times and want a taste of pop-star idolatry, but in a high-minded quasi-intellectual iteration. I like immersing myself in a literature that takes a familiarity with such songs as "When He Returns" and "Dead Man, Dead Man" for granted and repays me for the vast, pointless knowledge I bring to it. It makes me feel like my many hours of listening and keeping up with record after record has earned me entrance into a small self-selecting community - the books give me a sense of belonging, even if I think the majority of what's in them is total bullshit. I get the pleasure of belonging without it spoiling the even more satisfying pleasure of disagreeing.

I'm the sort of superfan who enjoys discovering the worst of the worst in an artist's oeuvre and forgiving them for it; it's a way of reenacting unconditional love without the danger. I draw up lists in my mind of the worst songs and the worst albums; this seems like a far more devotional act than deciding what's best -- picking the best seems to lead to a greatest-hits mentality of fandom, it leads to filtering out the rest and taking away only the cream. Not that the greatest-hits mentality is wrong; in 99 percent of cases it seems perfectly appropriate. There is only so much time to listen to music after all. But it seems worthwhile to preserve that other one percent as a realm in which one can test one's own capacity for thoroughness and to open up the possibility of having solidarity with a small group of fellow obsessives. Everyone should be in at least one fan club.

Dylan's worst songs? Not counting covers, I say Neighborhood Bully, Clean Cut Kid, Man Gave Names to all the Animals, Rainy Day Women, and The Ugliest Girl in the World.

Video snacking (30 May 2006)

If once I was a curiosity for not carrying a cell phone, I think I have become downright irritating, performing a willfully perverse act of downward mobility pointless protest against a world that has left me behind. I've become a kind of vegan of technology, with this annoying predilection against cell phones that inconveniences everyone around me and seems vaguely hypocritical and entirely self-defeating. It comes across a this point as a peculiar selfishness about myself, a rejection of the access everyone I know has been encouraged (by the ubiquity of cell-phone technology) to expect a right to. No wonder the surveillance society proceeds with little protest; we are already used to having intrusions at any time and at any place, we are used to paying companies to keep track of wherever we are at any given moment and distribute the information freely. Paranoid, I know. What am I trying to prove anyway? What's next? Am I going to insist on an outhouse, and only communicate through tin cans connected with string?

Popular culture makes general assumptions about what people require to live, which helps foster collective national aspirations, shared dreams and values. It channels desire into anticipated sluices so that business won't be wrong-footed, and it creates a mundane sense of normal that can give one a sense of stability in the most chaotic of personal situations. The routine presence of cell phones have become part of that matrix of normality. In America, a cell phone has become like a car: It seems unfathomable that you wouldn't have one if you could afford to. To lack one is to be a second-class citizen, like someone who rides the bus. To the rest of the world, you are either poor or you are one of those benighted refusniks trying to make a point by making oneself miserable and wasting time craving after abnormality.

It was brought home to me how my culture had passed me by while I was reading this article in the New York Times Magazine about TV programmers designing shows for cell-phone screens so that users may indulge in "video snacking" -- watching three-minute shows at lonely, vulnerable moments where more immersive entertainment is not readily available and there is no real person one can actually call. The article could have been discussing developments in Swaziland for all these changes would affect me. American culture has become path dependent on cell-phone technology and I have stubbornly refused to get on the path. The further along the path society goes, the more irrelevant I'll become.

So take this observation with a grain of salt. The writer, Randy Kennedy, cites one of the producers making the comment that content on a phone becomes personal in a way it doesn't in other media. A celebrity on the screen is saying, in effect, "Hey, it's me, on your phone. I'm talking to you." The phone seems to have the effect of creating intimate space in public places; the little screen carves out a deeply private realm. Once we let entertainment and ads reach that space, we've permitted them into a much more vulnerable place. Ads, entertainment already draw much of their power from flattering viewers, making it seem like their act of attention to the ad is actually in fact the ad paying careful attention to them, trying to make them feel special. Althusser, in his essay about what he calls "Ideological State Apparatuses," makes the argument that this is how we are defined as subjects in the ways our institutions want us to be defined -- the institutions hail us, and we respond, molding ourselves to become the sort of person they were calling out to, seeing ourselves as that kind of individual without once suspecting this personality was induced in us. This effect is only going to intensify when cell-phone screen are enlisted in the process. The weird susceptibility we have when we are alone, truly alone -- and we are always alone in our private cell-phone space -- will be exploited like never before as we are encouraged to make decisions while we are atomized in that isolated, alienated place. Nothing curbs impulsiveness like the good sense of other people; if ads can reach us when we've chosen to shut them out, they have us right where they want us. Just as food snacks satisfy that part of us that has rejected the rigors of family meals and all the socialization and traditions passed along there, video snacks satisfy the aspect of ourselves that wants to feel more important than everyone else, that craves flattery at the expense of cooperation and coordination with what's around us. The cost for this is that we chase a shadow, calling it our true self, while the stick figure projecting that silhouette is shifted around idly by culture industry conglomerates (now in league with telecoms) casting about for profits.

Manufactured desire (26 May 2006)

Early in Land of Desire, William Leach's history of the rise of advertising and retailing in America, he argues that "brokers" -- his term for people with no fixed convictions other than the righteousness of profits who facilitate the flow of money on its circuitous route through the economy -- have fostered a "new amoralism essentially indifferent to virtue and hospitable to the ongoing inflation of desire." Ordinarily I would have simply said to myself, Amen, and rolled right along with my reading, but instead it became a stumbling block for me. What is the "virtue" that he's talking about here? Is it defined tautologically as that which is not profitable of self-interested? Brokers are often parasites, yes, but you could almost argue that they spend all their energies pimping other people's desires, catering and fomenting other people's pleasures, stimulating other people's desires. Is this really selfish? It seems like a lot to sacrifice for cash. The implication that desires are manufactured suggests that there are "natural" desires that are inherent to us all and only these are appropriate to satisfy -- it seems more likely that all desire is socially produced, and the "inflation" of desire is simply an expansion of the field of motivation, giving people more incentives for more aspects of their lives. Inflating desire gives people a reason to do things; it gets people out of bed. It makes things in life seem worth doing for their own sake -- the very thing brokers have extricated from themselves and sold off.

My objection to inflated desire has hinged on the notion of some "bad" desire, inherently unfulfillable, that leads to dissatisfaction and depression, feelings of hopelessness. Possibly desire can be inflated to a point past what people can tolerate, and they start to break down from an excess of longing. The economy as a whole grows as desire expands, but perhpas each individual is strained to the breaking point carrying the restless burden of keeping up with one's hyperstimulated dreams. But the "moral" aspect of this perhaps begins with a rejection of hedonism but soon corrodes into a subjective disapproval of other people's priorities, a contempt for what gives them energy. I wonder if the existence of that energy, no matter what has prompted it, is not a blessed thing. The real problem is when that energy is robbed from us, when industry profits from our laziness or from an instigated desire for oblivion.

Scarily enough, marketing guru Clotaire Rapaille says something in this Salon interview that gets at the benevolence of manufactured desire. He contends that American culture is "adolescent" -- that we have juvenile ideas about sex and money and a teenager's impatience and attention span. But he prefers this to "senile" cultures like those in Europe. "I don't want to know what I'm going to do when I grow up even if I'm 75 because I don't want to grow up. I want to have fun, to be rich and famous now, to play. Now, I choose to be American because I'd rather be part of an adolescent culture than a senile culture." There he reflects the at times imbecilic immaturity and hedonism typical of Americans, and fomented by American capitalism -- get what you want now, have paradise here now via material goods, via this great car, this HD television or this ultraefficient egg poacher. Fun is made to seem synonymous with media attention and the cultivation and gratification of whims. For example, my leisure can lead me to idly read about yerba mate in some lifestyle magazine (the drink of Che Guevara!), and then I can go out and immediately buy some at Whole Foods and brew it for myself and have a revolutionary beverage experience. But this same adolescent mentality is imbued with energy: "To be an American you have to have a big dream, for you, for your family, for the world. In some other cultures, this is just ridiculous: Save the world? I just don't want rain tomorrow. On the other hand, because we don't know it's impossible, sometimes we do it." This smacks of the insouciant crypto-optimism I generally complain about, but these big dreams might be more credulous than cynical and that seems to redeem them a bit. That credulity activates hope and obviates the force of truths that inevitably push us toward indifference. It may be that capitalism's effect is to make credulity the necessary prerequisite to energy and enthusiasm, to make cluelessness synonymous with happiness.

Baby photo boom (25 May 2006)

Breaking news in today's Wall Street Journal: having baby photos e-mailed to you can be really annoying. Working America is in the midst of "an onslaught of online baby exhibitionism, fed both by Americans' increasing love affair with digital photography and their obsession with their children." How do we know this? By 2009, 25.7 billion photos will be sent in e-mails, and "experts believe that a significant percentage of these photos will be of babies or children." Hmm, they might have been a little less specific; I'm surprised the fact checkers could verify that "significant percentage." The story goes on to relate gory instances of birth videos and ultrasounds being disseminated via YouTube. What's next? Smellograms of dirty diapers? Videos of the bris?

But really, how is this a problem? If this stuff bothered you, couldn't you just delete the emails? If you can't muster up the polite effort to look at a picture of a friend's kid, that what kind of a creep are you, anyway? I refuse to accept that people are truly overwhelmed with the responsibility of responding to baby photos, but then again, I'm the sort of creep who never thought for a minute they required a response. Also, a bullet-pointed etiquette primer is provided for how to send photos appropriately, with such useful advice as "Make sure they are good quality photos."

So okay, this is probably one of those bogus trend stories, with the half-conscious agenda of making it clear that the office is still basically a masculinzed realm, no place for family talk, baby photos, etc. (Though another article on the same page revisits and refutes the notorious 1986 Newsweek story that argued that women who hadn't married by 40 -- who pursued a career, perhaps -- were more likely "to be killed by a terrorist" than to get married.) But part of it resonated with me, because I've long had the feeling that Americans are obsessed with their own children at the expense of being able to muster up any interest in anyone else's children or anything else at all in the world.

Touting one's children can seem the worst sort of narcissism, acting as though no one else has ever had children before and that one's own experience is entirely unique to the universe simply because it is new to oneself. And the consequences of childcentric obsession is to atomize society that much further. Inevitable we prioritize our own families at the expense of society in what seems a perfectly natural act of selfishness that no one could possibly blame us for. Family feeling is the wedge driving society further apart from itself; it can be the spike into the heart of cooperation: Justice is irrelevant if our children end up with advantages. The irritation expressed at e-mails of other people's kids is simply impatience at the very existence of those kids, when we all know that only ours really matter at the end of the day.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tattoo you (24 May 2006)

I'll admit up front that I have a pretty strong revulsion toward tattoos on the purely physical level. When I see them, I don't see a iconic imagery or cool Chinese calligraphy or anything, I just see pain. Indeed recently psychologists have documented cases of tattooing as self-harm, as an new iteration of cutting on oneself. Perhaps they are now receding back to the alienated subcultures from whence they came.

Once tattoos had a specific anti-social purpose; before they achieved their current semi-respectability, these marks of Cain served to show that one was unwilling to play along with society; one literally branded oneself as an outcast, voluntarily. Or perhaps a tattoo was supposed to prove that you had enough stature and undeniable talent (as a rock star or an athlete or whatever) to rise above what anyone might say about you. Or it was an emblem of solidarity amid a tightly-knit group, like a group of sailors or something. If you inflate and generalize all those motives you probably have an explanation of the 1990s tattoo boom, which in the process nullified what tattoos once connoted and left them signifying only that you were desperate enough to permanently scar yourself to be trendy.

Of course, everyone with tattoos always insists how personal they are, and there must be some truth to that. But still they seem a symptom of the loss of faith in subtler, richer means of communicating things about oneself -- to others and even to oneself. It's a sign of a crisis of belief. A tattoo is perhaps a way to signal that you really mean something; it's a way of swearing on someone's life, only you substitute your own skin for that someone. It's a drastic way of committing oneself, one that seems to suggest that just your word isn't enough to show you really mean something. Tattoos are a way to make communication seem less like bullshitting and more like action -- doing something instead of just yapping about how much you love your girlfriend or how cool you think your car is or how into some band you are -- but the 1990s proved tattoos could be a form of bullshit too.

Theses about commercial fiction (23 May 2006)

I ran these before on the old blog, but with little time for writing today, I thought I'd trot out a slightly revised version of them again.

1. Commercial fiction exists to justify the status quo and make such justifications be experienced as pleasure, either through flattering the reader for his ability to predict what will happen, dignifying his customary circumstances or positing fantasies that dovetail with the commodities markets have to offer.

2. Commercial fiction thrives on the reader's isolation, which allows his fantasies to develop unchecked in the channels provided by the fiction and allows for a more absorbing suspension of disbelief. This corresponds well with how the consumer society depends on isolated consumers to permit a wider array of unnecessary purchases and to allow unsubstantiated claims about products and the lifestyles they purport to provide go unchecked. Resistance, even to the flimsy premises of genre fiction and advertisements, requires social organization -- you need a network of communication outside of mass media to set up a discourse counter to it. Isolation, on the other hand, streamlines acquiescence.

3. Vicarious participation is a prerequisite of both commercial fiction and commercial societies. In both instances we must be prepared to enjoy our emotions more thoroughly through proxies than through direct experience of nature or society. We must be prepared to choose mediated forms of experience, because of the illusion of control it affords us, over direct, spontaneous, unpredictable "natural" experiences.

4. Plausibility may be redefined within the realm of commercial fiction to suit the consumer society's requirements. Reading commercial fiction reconfigures the plausibility threshold so that only matters inconsequential to commerce and consumerist fantasy are rejected as "unrealistic."

5. The question of the commercial novel's form may best be seen as a problem of industrial design.

6. The commercial novel was one of the first commodities, and as such, it contributed to the notions that acquiring goods constitutes a story itself. The dream world we enter in fiction is akin to the dream lifestyle a product, typically branded, hopes to posit for us via its ads. A story unfolds, closure is obtained (the good is purchased) and a new story must begin. Commercial novels, in being utterly worthless after they are read once, are emblematic of consumer goods generally, which become beside the point once the pleasure of acquiring them has been acted out. (Example: the home espresso machine. Note how many of these you find in thrift stores.)

7. Our facility at enjoying commercial fiction, adopting to its conventions and enjoying its foreshortenings and its illusions, the clockwork execution of its familiar formulas, makes us able to enjoy shopping more -- the necessary pre-purchase fantasizing, how ads are metonyms for powerful narratives illustrating our values, how there can be a dramatic arc to our shopping experience, how the invisible hand is really a kind of deus ex machina.

8. Connoiseurship in the market -- the quest for distinctive goods -- has roots in the connoiseurship of feeling experienced vicariously through the earliest commercial novels and the taste in reading it allows to be expressed. The cult of sensibility taught culture to value the calculated display of feeling and find nothing inauthentic in it. Authenticity was brought to the surface as a set of signs.

9. Pleasure does not preexist systems of distribution and consumption. It manifests itself through those systems; the shape pleasure can take is defined by those systems. The 18th century commercial novel is an artifact of first forms of pleasure enabled by capitalism. (Needs are "set free" by economic growth.)

10. For commercial novels as well as consumer societies, anticipation is far more important than satisfaction.

Which beer am I? (22 May 2006)

I like to think that when I choose a beer to drink, I'm picking based on which one I think tastes best among the available options. In this I'm probably wrong. I'm exercising my taste, but not my taste buds; rather I'm probably picking based on my taste for who I want to pretend to be. That's what I learned, anyway, from an article about Miller Brewing's recent market-share renaissance in the latest BusinessWeek. This in't really news, but the brewer's various brands are all designed to target certain male lifestyles, or certain moments in the drinking man's life. "The imported Peroni targets trendsetters. Milwaukee's Best Light is for the hard-working man. Icehouse is positioned as the beer for young guys to drink before going out." What a touching image: "Miller wants Icehouse to be the beer for those times when you're hanging out with the guys, playing Xbox. or gearing up to go out."

That's funny, I thought this might be the beer they were secretly interested in. No mention is made of which beer to have when you are having more than one, or which one to have when you're looking for a little of the hair of the dog in the morning, or which one to have before you go careening off the road drunk driving. A beer I drink sometimes, Pilsner Urquell (it's plan B after Spaten at the Bohemian beer garden near where I live), is designed for "discerning drinkers," so it figures I would foolishly think I was buying it for the taste rather than to send out the signal that I'm discerning.

Anyway, this illustrates the insidious way brands are supposed to operate. Through sheer advertising and promotional clout, a brand is associated with a lifestyle, a concept of masculinity or modernity or insightfulness or free-spiritedness or whatever, and one might gravitate to that brand in an attempt to reinforce one's own sense of oneself. But inevitably -- maybe this already has happened -- it begins to seem that you must buy the appropriate brands to be masculine or fun or discriminating, that you can't demonstrate those qualities without being on the playing field of brands, without speaking the language of brands to get the message out. It's no loner enough to simply act in the way you want to be perceived. If you aren't accompanying that with the sanctioned products, you are insufficiently invested in your chosen identity, you are not putting your money where your mouth is, you are inauthentic.

And then we're where anthropologists Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, among others, insist we are, where consumerism, brands, etc. are deemed necessary to be able to express oneself in any meaningful way at all. Ultimately, brands and advertising have this corrosive effect on behavior itself, refuting its ability to stand on its own, to be understood plainly. But perhaps the idea that it ever was so straightforward and legible is itself a mystification. A hypothesis: Perhaps the relance on consumerism for behavior authentication comes with a loosening of the class hierarchy. Once, the context within which behavior becomes comprehensible was determined by class-based identities that were fixed; there weren't opportunities for dilettantism. With social mobility a need opens up for something new to supply context -- hence lifestyle consumerism, backing up certain behavior with the effort and resources required to acquire the accoutrements of such behavior. This thereby proves your commitment to the lifestyle and makes people feel comfortable in really seeing you that way. So authenticity is turned inside out -- you establish it by investing energy in maintaining the illusion of it by discovering and acquiring the appropriate products, not by simply responding spontaneously to whatever situation you are confronted with. So next time you are pounding a few 12-packs of Miller MGD, rest assured you've proved you are a "mainstream sophisticate" far more convincingly than you would by actually acting like an adult.

We are all stupid girls (18 May 2006)

It's worth navigating through the site pass to read Rebecca Traister's article in Salon regarding the alleged "return of the brainless hussies" and whether celebrity media and culture product manufactured for teens encourages girls to act stupid and/or cute (Is there a difference?) in order to earn approving attention. Traister finds redeeming qualities --intellectual content, encouragement to think -- in teen lifestyle magazines like Elle Girl and Seventeen but indicts reality TV (and the parents of contestants therein) for prescribing class-ridden consumerist values and encouraging the notion that all attention is good attention: "On Super Sweet Sixteen and Tiara Girls, parents seem to be seeking the same cable-television spotlight that must motivate their children to self-exposure, without any concern that a nation (let alone their neighbors) will get to see them pushing their daughters to get collagen lip injections or enabling their offspring's insatiable greed by never setting limits and getting them two cars."

This segues to her main point, that parents produce stupid girls, not culture:
Adults have made careless consumption the crowning American pursuit. We have invented and happily consume magalogs full of luxury items. Teenagers didn't create Paris Hilton. In fact, they wouldn't have any idea who she was if adults hadn't elevated her from a dull table-dancing heiress by circulating a porn tape and giving her a reality show. Teenage girls don't write the "Gossip Girl" books; 35-year-old Cecily von Ziegesar does. And consider the cabal of studio heads, publicists, club owners, photographers, designers and magazine publishers who have colluded to make Lindsay Lohan famous, drunk and ubiquitous so that she can sell their magazines, movies and handbags to teens who might rightly get the impression that they should live like her. Eliot Spitzer, of all people, recently accused the grown-ups over at Lohan's record company of goosing her popularity by bribing radio stations and MTV to play her music. It's all in the name of legitimate American enterprise, sure. But how can we be surprised when the kids we are hustling take our cues and mimic even our most corrupt behaviors?
And how about the fact that it's not just teens photo-realistically aping the adults, but adults who are aping their own teens? The Alcotts and Austens and Brontës that Wolf recalls with deserved reverence would have blanched had they encountered the slice of the maternal population currently striving to look and dress like their daughters. Which is more alarming -- reading about Lohan drinking too much and collapsing from "exhaustion," or reading about her mother, Dina, sponging off her daughter's success and cavorting with her beyond every velvet rope? It's fair to ask, as Pink does, how many girls long to mimic Lohan. But it's also reasonable to wonder whether any of their mothers long to live like Dina?

But Traister concludes by assigning blame to the fragile male ego: "Working on this story, I received an e-mail from a Harvard graduate student who told me that while he'd dated only smart girls, he 'liked the idea of dating a dumb girl.' The fantasy, the student explained, 'is almost certainly formed for us by the media representations of ... celebrities [like Hilton, Lohan, and Simpson]. Blonde dumb girls are sexy. And won't talk back. Add in various shades of male ego/guaranteed superiority notions, and you've pretty much got it.' In a world in which male superiority is no longer guaranteed, it becomes a lascivious desire that can be gratified, performatively if need be, by willing women."

Growing gender equality, then, creates a market for passé sexual stereotypes. So in other words, the media representation of female stars being dumb, manipulatable and compliant services the male ego, even though one wouldn't think of men consuming such media -- though every morning I see plenty of hombres on the subway studying Page Six the way fantasy-baseball nuts look at box scores. These depictions of Paris Hilton, et al., then, are like "Under My Thumb," mechanisms that allow men to fantasize about having the upper hand, having total control when really men's lust and sexual cravings -- stimulated by these same media renderings of copious sensuality -- are out of control, and men are helpless to live up to what they are shown as the dream. Humiliated by the tease of unfulfilled desire, men in turn seek to humiliate women, who they mistakenly blame for the frustration. So the corollary to such representations are the Neil Labute-type paranoid fantasias that assault women and depict them as cruel and controlling because they turn out not to be brainless, available and eager-to-please. The surveillance of young woman celebrities foments the myth of women generally always being available, always being flattered by the attention, that no attention is unwelcome (no matter how creepy or inappropriate) -- in short, that they are simply waiting around with no purpose other than to be noticed.

But then the culture industry generally lionizes passivity, spectatorship, and so on; that is what its business model is built on. Typically feminism is blamed for male-ego fragility, as in the risible WaPo Style section trend story that Traister lampooned a few days ago, but probably it has as much to do with an entertainment industry that profits by emasculating them and then promising them the secret formulas to restore their lost manhood. If women can be blamed in the process, so much the better. And anti-intellectualism has practically become a patriotic badge of pride in America. The point is, as far as the entertainment industry goes, we are all stupid girls: passive, frivolous, attention-challenged, in thrall of shiny baubles, desperate for recognition and flattery and assurance that we are succeeding at being just what we're expected to be.

Crazy creativity (17 May 2006)

Prepare yourself to see something really crazy. I mean, something absolutely psycho. Are you ready? Click here. Look! It's the craziest ad guys in America! Oh my God, those guys are wearing blue jeans! And a couple of them don't even have their shirts tucked in!! And the one on the far right, the guy with the radically long hair who's flipping a Madison Avenue gang sign, he's not wearing any shoes! They're crazy!!!

It's a cliche to portray ad men as wild, nutty "creative" types in the business press, guys who "think outside the box" and "reinvent" brands and devise campaigns that are really original or more unique. Sometimes they are depicted as bordering on subversive in the way they challenge management to question all their assumptions about their business and how to reach customers. But it hardly needs to be said that advertising is never subversive; its goals are always in the service of business, always for hire, always about selling more and grabbing market share. (Often when ads are extra wacky, it's because the product itself is extra shoddy, or haunted by some scandals regarding quality, as is the case with VW, a primary client of those kookoo nutcases on the cover. If the ad obscures the product, it seems safe to assume the product is junk and you'll be expected to continue to consume the ideas of the ad instead of the product.) Maybe we want to temper the contempt and manipulation inherent in advertising by lauding its cleverness; it makes us seem less vulnerable and gullible in our reaction to it. And that's not to say ad guys aren't actually creative, it's just that they aren't that much more creative than any sales person. There's not much separating an ad man from a used car salesman, particularly when you view then from the perspective of their mutual goals. They have to get your attention, they have to disorient you so that you forget what you thought you wanted and then smoothly introduce new ideas into your head that you'll mistake for your own. Used car salesmen are on the front lines; they are the foot soldiers in the sales war that ad men are allowed to conduct on high from their executive suites in Midtown.

It seems at first that depicting advertisers are zany and creative is an attempt to redeem them of their explicitly commercial motives, make excuses for them, but really it seems an attempt to harness all creativity to entrepreneurship, business expansion and customer management. In our culture, creativity is measured in sales, and we are constantly reminded that the drive to increase sales is what inspires the most truly authentic creative acts. It's become harder and harder to imagine creative acts outside of the business paradigm; that is, the impulse to create and the impulse to earn are blurred together. They seem synonymous. The growth economy's insatiable demand for novelty absorbs all creativity to itself, and makes it seem as though creativity is merely the invention of something novel rather than the primordial act of making itself.

Attention economy redux (17 May 2006)

Here is a more fleshed out version of Michael Goldhaber's lecture on the attention economy, which I had linked to previously. It smacks of business-culture oversimplification, pitched with the hucksterish hype one must apparently use when talking to management types, but it still offers an interesting case. If goods and information are no longer scarce in Western economies (a big if) then economics -- the study of the allocation of scarce resources -- should shift to attention, as its limits become more obvious the more we are oversaturated with media and data. (It seems as though one of the definitive contemporary struggles everyone goes through, one of the determining dialectics for an individual's sense of self, is between accumulating and purging. Our personality is a by-product of how we have our cultural filters calibrated. For instance, I marvel at all the new things available to me and find the pull to acquire them irresistible; yet each new thing I get robs me of some of the value I used to find in the stuff I already had. Always the allure of quality, then undertow of quantity taking me out to sea.) Goldhaber suggests attention is even more fundamental than money, less a medium to measure value than a primary, transcendental good in itself, always valuable regardless of context, thus a suitable Archimedian point upon which to move the world and explain everything:

But, just as in a money economy practically everyone must have some money to survive, so attention in some quantities is pretty much a prerequisite for survival, and attention is actually far more basic. This has always been the case for tiny babies. About the only thing they can get for themselves, or can give, is attention, which they begin to do within a half hour of birth, by smiling at those who smile at them. Without attention an infant could never satisfy its material needs, for food, warmth, fresh diapers, being burped, and so on. At a slightly later stage infants and toddlers need attention if they are to develop any sense of themselves as persons, and neither of those needs ever completely goes away. So even if you do not especially make a point of reaching for attention, even if you are very shy and reclusive, you still probably cannot do without some minimum, which however reluctantly, you may have to fight for. And no matter how humble you now may be, at some time in your own childhood you certainly sought attention, or you wouldn't be here.

As we move towards an attention economy in a fuller sense, the ethos of the old economy which makes it often bad taste or a poor strategy to consciously seek attention seems to be giving way to an attitude that makes having a lot of attention rather admirable and seeking it not at all to be frowned upon. Think of the sorts of things people are now willing to admit about themselves just to get on the likes of Oprah or the Sally Jesse Raphael show. Even the President of the United States is willing to discuss his underwear on nationwide television.

Goldhaber points out that a culture fixated on the distribution of attention will privilege individuals over communities: "It is no coincidence that some of the most popular uses of computers, fax machines, networks, phone systems, etc., have more to do with getting attention than with directly aiding what they are supposedly about, increasing productivity of an organization or society as a whole. For an important truth is getting attention is of primary value to individuals rather than organizations, and attention also flows from individuals." I wonder to what degree the entertainment industry abets the process of investing attention with value, no matter what kind of attention it is, elevating attention to the status of gold, a basis for all other value. Are the pleasures of attention really transcendent, or has the advent of a relentless 24-hour global entertainment industry devoted to exploiting fame made it seem so?

"Stupid girls" (16 May 2006)

I haven't heard the new album from Bucks County's finest, Pink, (okay, I haven't heard any of her albums, but I do know a guy who claims to know a guy who claims to have made out with her in high school) but this article from The American Prospect by Devin McKinney piqued my interest. McKinney argues that Pink could be on the vanguard of a backlash against the feminist backlash.

Many teenagers manage to elude the stupid-girl virus. But as many as escaped it 30 years ago? Pink’s song asks precisely the right question -- are we going forward or back? -- and spots the single salient detail in what seems to be no more than the latest pop style for girls. Namely, that vapidity and vacuity are not mere byproducts of stupid-girl style -- they are key to its chic. Where competence and self-sufficiency were once considered essential to the pop-cultural female image, now the behavioral accessories are docility, ditziness, and a dazed willingness to spread -- with maybe a dash of diva sass for tossing at some predatory ‘ho."

However, McKinney also worries that teenagers may end up thinking Pink's negative message is what's stupid -- if they were right-wing dogmatists rather than teenagers, they might call her a cynic. Of the You Tube videos of girls' lip-synching to the song, McKinney notes, "you can’t tell if these mirror starlets are making fun of stupid girls or being them -- recasting Pink’s wrathful screed as their sitcom theme, their vindication as a subspecies of modern celebrity: stupid girls who emulate stupid girls to the tune of 'Stupid Girls'." Perhaps pretending to be stupid in order to get an audience can be considered a special kind of smart. I am sure there are some "optimists" out there willing to argue for that kind of empowerment. But I tend to agree with McKinney.

Pink should also be thanked for churning up something we pluralistic pop punters don’t always like to admit: that, as liberating as it can be for some, for others popular culture is a plastic bag over the mouth, a caul suffocating the abilities and the imagination, allowing only the merest possibility of escape from the blandishments of consumerism and the brain-dead end of tabloid celebrity. The way it happens, these “others” are usually girls.

Tuangou (16 May 2006)

More about how optimism depresses me: In Walker's "Consumed" column in last Sunday's NYT Magazine he profiled a young optimist who had eagerly begun "challenging consumerism by participating in it" and buying anti-branded products, as though anti-brands aren't also brands themselves. (Just as so many major-label "indie" bands in the 1990s had "no image".) According to Walker, such products as the anti-branded Blackspot shoe is meant to appeal to the "cynical" consumer -- cynicism being the slur used to discredit anyone skeptical of the status quo or the mainstream.

The accusation of cynicism shifts the blame away from structural flaws in society to the individual cynic for his discontent -- he is discredited as a malcontent complainer and probably some sort of hypocrite. Walker is ultimately able to call his sample cynic consumer an optimist because he embraces consumerism largely in the individuated, atomizing form it currently takes (The practice often isolates us, alienates us from others seen as competitors, as we really on it to draw the outlines of our unique self, and it reinforces values of acquisitiveness and greed, etc, and suggests we can only buy our way into communities with the right goods.) The shoemakers say they hope "to establish a worldwide consumer cooperative and to reassert consumer sovereignty over capitalism," which sounds pretty good, though I'm not sure how shifting brand allegiances necessarily achieves this. Yes, it's better to consume products that have been made with less exploited labor and resource waste, but the underlying problem -- self-definition through consumption -- is merely strengthened. It may be that it can't be reversed.

In China such patterns have not yet been firmly established, and the mores of consumerism are still in flux, the sorts of lives it will foster still open to adjustment. This article details a Chinese phenomenon called tuangou, or team buying. Consumers organize to meet over the internet and descend upon a retailer en masse ad demand better deals via their strengthened bargaining power. Bargaining itself has already been eradicated from most Western economies, where the fixed price is seen as a comfort and convenience rather than an arbitrary mark set to see how much of a sucker you are. Personally I would hate to have to haggle upon every purchase, but I sure as hell would be a lot more conscious of every purchase I was making and might decide to invest my energies elsewhere. In China, bargaining is still apparently the norm, and a group brings much more leverage to bear on any negotiation. This seems a much more direct way of reasserting consumer sovereignty over capitalism to me, far better than buying special products to display how skeptical you are.

Total Information Awareness and commercial culture (15 May 2006)

Americans reading this probably understand by now that their government is spying on them and logging their calls, and likely also monitoring their financial transactions, e-mails, medical records and so on. As billmon explainsthis is all reminiscent of a Defense department program called Total Information Awareness, a project led by Iran-Contra notable John Poindexter, designed to, in his words, make the government "more efficient and more clever in the ways we find new sources of data, mine information from the new and old, generate information, make it available for analysis, convert it to knowledge, and create actionable options." (Read his description of the project here and be amazed at some of the most leaden, cliche-ridden speechifying imaginable. It's the totalizing, abstract and institutional language of the Whitney Biennial wall card applied to national security and privacy issues, rendering them opaque, nebulous, limitless. It's probable that thinking to yourself in this kind of language makes any bureaucratic nightmare possible; this is Orwellian Newspeak made horrifyingly real.) The public was led to believe that program was spiked, but apparently it was broken into smaller programs scattered throughout the government, presumably ready to be reassembled whenever the Decider needs to smear some enemies of the state, wage preemptive war on whistleblowers or bully some reporters who haven't yet become Pravda-style stenographers. Some Americans (somewhere between 40 and 60 percent according to polls) apparently take comfort in the surveillance security blanket, perhaps they regard being spied upon as a kind of reality-TV cameo, with the government as a rapt, interested audience. It's pleasant to be paid attention to, after all. So even if your neighbors ignore you, considering how adverse to strangers we generally are, we can rest assured the NSA is interested in our special lives. Billmon suggests white-collar corporate environments accustom many Americans to petty spying and invasive bureaucracies.

We know our phone calls and emails may be and often are monitored, that company net nannies will stop us from visiting certain web sites (and not just porn pages: I’ve been blocked out of labor union sites, progressive political sites -- even that notoriously subversive left-wing web magazine, Slate.) We know that if we say the wrong thing to a company snitch it could be reported to our supervisors, that those reports could end up in our personnel files, and that really serious thought crimes could cost us our jobs. We know the security cameras may record when we walk in the door and when we leave. We know we can’t make certain jokes or raise certain topics because they might be construed as sexual harassment. We know how to smile and feign enthusiasm when the pointy-haired boss has a really dumb idea. We know what a cult of personality looks like, because it looks like our CEO.

I would add that it's also familiar to many of us through the increasingly invasive style of commerce, wherein our habits and preferences are stored so that we may be surprised by unwanted recommendations and targeted ads. The surveillance society will in the end likely remain a commercial one, because the nexus of advertising, shopping, identity construction and consumer preferences is where surveillance can be sweetened and made benevolent.

Whitney Biennial (14 May 2006)

I didn't get a whole lot out of the art at this year's Biennial, but that may be because I was so distracted by the fatuous wall cards purporting to explain the significance of the works to me. Maybe it's because I always need to tamp down my own proclivity to write hedging, obfuscatory sentences like you find on the cards that I'm so fascinated by them, by the one place in the world where they are considered appropriate rather than absurd.

Consider this description of an artist who pickled jars of film and exhibited them in a cabinet: "He took the Structuralist engagement with the apparatus and materiality of the film medium to its conclusion by transforming film into sculpture through cooking, frying or pickling the film." Of a painter of everyday objects like buckets: "In these paintings Norsten's cultural anthropology incisively debases its themes while challenging the modes of representation appropriate to them." One work was dubbed "a paradoxically staged reality". I wish I could quote them all; I was copying nut sentences furiously in my notebook. "Both an expression of remembrance and a gesture of reclamation, Throwback acknowledges the allure of violent protest while suggesting its ultimate ineffectuality." Of what I thought was the best work in the show, the photographs of Hanna Liden: "It transforms the pointedly sublime tableau of the human subject dwarfed in an immense but romantic landscape into an uncanny apocalyptic vision" These were pictures of topless women outside wearing goat heads or masks. (In general the photographs seemed like the best work; the least pretentious by nature of the medium, perhaps. My taste runs against concept art, which is more typically usurped by its wall card. Sometimes it relies on the wall card for its very existence if the concept's not inherent in the piece and would be totally lost without an explanation. I'm more affected by bravura displays of craft over ideas, I guess. Tours du force stop me and make me think about what drove them; petulant spats of ideas dashed off in some monumental fashion -- a slogan painted on a board in front of a decimated gallery wall, for example -- make me want to run, the way I would flee the campus of an art school, where I'd surely be expected to feel uncool.) By far the most pretentious wall card was for Sturtevant, whose concept is to meticulously reproduce the works of other artists: "Despite the formal similarities between Sturtevant's work and its sources, she maintains that the "brutal truth" of her works is that they are not copies but conceptually 'authentic' artworks.... They thus deconstruct the mechanisms of art production and consumption, shifting the emphasis from objects to ideas." My favorite wall cards, though, were the ones that had to describe works where the artists refused to admit they were "about" anything. "She shifts responsibility for an answer from the artist to the viewer." "Through the elaborate process of demolition the point of the joke is lost." "Munro relishes the enigmatic and avoids clearly resolving any potential narrative." "These works create liminal space where narrative resolution is suspended in favor of creative interpretation." (That reads like a graduate seminar parody.) You wonder why art that is open to interpretation requires an explanatory card saying as much. You'd think the artists would just forbid it, since they are clearly distracting and undermining.

It seems the key to writing wall cards is first to cast everything into verbose abstractions: "The work is suspended from the ceiling thus enabling the viewer to circumnavigate its four-sided form." A work made of trash demonstrates "a recovery of entropic material." "Physically sited at the entrance of the exhibition, they blur the boundary between the gallery and the street." You should always point out how the artist is "blurring" or "challenging" or "questioning" or "reconfiguring" or "transforming" something, but preferably two opposite-sounding things simultaneously. "In Sheeploop Snow investigates spatial dynamics and physical disjuncture." "She activates a dialogue between presence and absence." "The awnings also question the mythic status of artistic originality and challenge art's status of permanence." "He conjoins these opposing aesthetics of the pragmatic and the whimsical." In fact you should never use one abstraction or verb when you can link two, preferably with "while" or "both": "The implicit danger of erotic desire is heightened by the glamor of fashion photography as Minter both questions and celebrates its role in defining sexual display and constructing the self." "...challenging notions of self-portraiture, the resulting images raise questions about the many devices we use to conceal or transform our own identity." "He often explores the materiality of film and dissects cinematic appartuses and processes in what he calls 'thought experiments' ". "Blakemore's stolen glimpses are meditations on fragility and transience. Nebulous in appearance and incomplete in narrative, they fleetingly appear and then quietly recede in the past." "People caught in profound and mundane moments of life are presented in all their poignantly ephemeral luminescence." (Note the passive voice there, always good for evoking the institutional tone that discourages questioning and attributing responsibility for what amounts to the writer's speculation.)

I'm guilty of all these stylistic tics; they constitute the diction that makes one sound important in academic circles. What's so tempting about the discourse is the way it seems to wrap things up, embalming a living artwork in verbs like "interrogates" and "raises questions" and "problematizes" so that you can move on and put the finishing touches on something else. The discourse obviously has a deep distrust of art's capability to speak for itself, and in audiences being able to come up with its own sense of a work's significance, even if it wouldn't be able to articulate it. When you try to supplant art with words, you end up with these abstractions, generalizations and dismissive gestures piling up. You have to assume people want to be able to dismiss the art rather than understand it when you write such sentences, and certainly you feel like you're doing people a favor explaining what they probably wouldn't have bothered to deduce from the work in question. My idea for a conceptual art piece? An exhibit that is only wall cards, no works. That will really question and interrogate institutional space and the process by which work is rendered both meaningful and circumscribed in meaningfulness while elaborating the matrix within gallery-goers, artists, historians, and critics conspire and labor to produce concepts themselves.

Broken windows theory (12 May 2006)

Much has been made of James Wilson's broken windows theory of criminal justice, the premise of which is that if a city attends to policing petty crimes like vandalism and so forth, crime in generally will be more effectively deterred. In other words, concentrate on the small problems and some of the larger problems will begin to fix themselves as well. Whether or not this holds is another story, but I thought it was interesting that in last Sunday's NYT Book Review a review of Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness pointed out that book's broken-windows sort of approach to happiness. Taking care of the little problems in life, having the simple things work right, give us much more happiness than major events; and little nuisances bother us much more than major catastrophes: "Our day-to-day happiness may be predicated more strongly on little events than on big ones."
Events that we anticipate will give us joy make us less happy than we think; things that fill us with dread will make us less unhappy, for less long, than we anticipate. As evidence, Gilbert cites studies showing that a large majority of people who endure major trauma (wars, car accidents, rapes) in their lives will return successfully to their pre-trauma emotional state — and that many of them will report that they ended up happier than they were before the trauma. It's as though we're equipped with a hedonic thermostat that is constantly resetting us back to our emotional baseline.
Maybe this is why the logic of the broken-windows theory is so compelling, feels true even if it's not -- it confirms biases built in to our own emotional regulation system. Nuisances register more deeply than crimes, so it makes sense that the benefits of policing them would appear all out of proportion to us. It is the same sort of mentality I found myself slipping into all too often as a composition instructor -- I would think if only my students could make their subjects and verbs agree, then maybe their arguments would start to make sense of their own accord. It's in that spirit that I should probably copy-edit these blog entries. Maybe they'll start making some sense too.

"Poptimism", the death of pop criticism (11 May 2006)

I always suspect people are being disingenuous when they foreground their alleged optimism. It seems like the kind of thing that would never occur to you to remark upon if you actually lived it. Real optimists are grounded in an instinctual self-reliance that isn't pricked by the complaints and doubts of others. These people don't need their hopefulness ratified at the expense of others. They seem to be completely secure in their own significance and can thus project an aura of unselfconsciousness that directs energy out at others and tends to lift the moods of everyone around them.

That's not the case for the self-professed optimists though. In the hands of these reactionaries, optimism is invoked to bash the nattering nabobs of negativism who have the annoying habit of questioning the status quo, of expecting more from the institutions that hedge individuals in, of seeking to resist culture-industry manipulation when it's so much more pleasant and pleasing to simply give in. Self-proclaimed optimists want to shine the light on people who resist and humiliate them -- they'd prefer to direct the tanks that rolled into Tiananmen than be the guy getting run over by them, and who can really blame them. (I'm sorry; I know that comparison is way over the top.) Naysayers always try to encourage people to ask more questions about what they are doing, to analyze one's own motives, and that is admittedly irritating. Better to simply enjoy what has been made for us to enjoy rather than to ask why it sells our aesthetic capabilities so short. Why not just forget pride or any high-falutin' notions of dignity and have fun, the fun you're told to have? Optimism is a dogma to such people, an anti-critical code committed to finding the least-resistant path through the official culture being promulgated by the big media, big government, etc.

So "poptimism" -- an antirock attitude in music criticism meant to free us from the Boomer cultural hegemony -- as a critical mode seems almost oxymoronic. Optimism in this context is used as pure rhetoric meant to discredit a view that some contemporary critics find out-of-date, restrictive. Here's how Jody Rosen, in the Slate article linked to above, sums it up:

The poptimist critique of rockism squares with my sense of musical history and resonates with my taste. I love hip-hop and commercial R&B and Nashville country and teen pop, and have spent much of my professional life listening to and writing about pre-rock Tin Pan Alley pop, a genre that rockists insult by ignoring completely. I'm not so crazy about most indie rock, never cared much for Neil Young, and will listen to the new Pearl Jam album only out of a sense of professional obligation. I think Britney Spears' "Toxic" is one of the greatest songs of the new century, that the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" was one of the great ones of the last, and that R. Kelly's "Ignition (Remix)" is as transcendent as any Holland-Dozier-Holland Motown classic I've ever heard—and what's more, most other critics I know agree. In fact, arguably today's two most influential pop critics, Sanneh and The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones (who was also Slate's music critic), are firmly in the poptimist camp.

Reading this made me depressed; sad to think the sharpest critics drowning in self-importance while believing they are shedding themselves of it. Basically by rejecting all that was once deemed important by a previous generation and embracing the opposite, you can make the case for your own importance. This is not optimism, it's reaction. It's opinion making as posturing. It's not open-minded or perceptive, it's just hipsters shitting on shibboleths. The main problem with this as a critical methodology is that it fixates on the idea of taste being central to the phenomena of popular culture, which to my mind misses the entire point of thinking about the stuff in the first place. It doesn't really matter who likes what specifically; what matters are the means by which the big players seek to control the entertainment market. Whether that market is in boomer-friendly rock records by 50-year-olds or cross-over hip-hop records is sort of beside the point, and carping over that, over your right to feel cool because you love Britney, means you are ignoring what is really at stake in the realm of culture-production. In capitalist society, culture is business, one that's always trying to expand. Nice of the poptopian to do the marketers work for them and expand the reach and provide the ideological justification for the hegemony of the big commercial music manufacturers. ("Buy what records they've already decided to manufacture the most of; this will make you a positive optimist. Don't reject what's already been prepared for you; that's so last year. It's your patriotic duty to support blockbusters.") Rosen endorses the notion that pop critics "should spend some time trying to understand other's tastes rather than building ideological buttresses to bolster their own." That's probably something we all should do in general, as part of being social human beings. Part of that understanding, though, is not simply fatalistic acceptance but interrogation of those tastes. While critics are pondering the righteousness of their own tastes and biases ad coining clever ways to discredit those of others, they miss the questions that might actually engage others at a more significant level. How are these mass markets made, shaped and controlled? How must entertainment be formulized to achieve this? How do the formulas change-- in reaction to what changes in ideology, under pressures from what subcultural swells?-- and what are the by-products, the externalities of this market-shaping, after the main goal of boosting profits is met?

As Rosen points out, pop critics of the Boomer mold that these poptopian fans of top-40 ephemera loathe sought to form a canon and some aesthetic criteria to give their discourse a reason to exist. Reversing the old 'rockist' criteria may make some of the new generation of critics feel clever and original and iconoclastic, but they are just trapped in the dialectic. And if they are ignoring the dialectic itself and they aren't erecting new criteria -- if they are arguing that people should be left alone to listen to what they enjoy with no interest in investigating where those preferences come from culturally-- then they are writing their treasured discourse (which is about canon building and nothing else if it ignores socioeconomic questions in favor of taste spats) right out of existence. That is not necessarily a bad goal, but probably not what they're intending. Really these critics are proposing counter-canons and perpetuating rock criticism as one of the supports for building little taste communities, cliques wherein one can discover what's in and out on any given day by reading the right magazines and scorn those who haven't taken the trouble to be in the know. Knowing what's in lets others in the community know you got your priorities straight, and that your mind is on the marching orders.

In the end Rosen endorses "gluttony" -- a non-discriminating, non-taxonomizing ingestion of all the varieties of music we can jam on a 60 GB iPod. It used to be that secret discoveries deep in the heart of some specific genre had currency, had meaning to a select few, earned you special admission somewhere -- probably a back room in an indie record store with some pasty-faced vinyl snobs. You could be one of the few people who know about some band, some sound. Those days are over, and the criticism that functioned along those lines is over as well. Before the Internet there was a tyranny of the top 40 charts -- if you were stuck in the suburbs, you couldn't escape it, and trying to was an important symbol of freedom to 1980s teenagers (when Blender readers apparently were not yet finished with their cribs). When access to music was limited -- when you couldn't get the obscure records Rolling Stone writers discussed reverently just by going online, when you couldn't find out about foreign or underground bands without digging deep into an archive of old magazines (people use to save rock magazines; I kept a stack of Spin magazines from 1985 for seven or eight years because the information in there seemed so precious and rare) -- one had to appreciate the music one could get one's hands on much more deeply, which invited an intensive close-reading style of criticism of those few albums -- even if it was just in our heads, thinking how it was that these songs worked themselves into our minds so deeply, seeming almost to spur the events of our lives. Now, in the age of pop gluttony, what we seem to be left with is list-making and promotional blurbs. The best we can hope to do is filter some of all that music all out. Slowly but surely, I'll have my filters perfected, and I'll enjoy pure silence.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Me media and self-induced shallowness (11 May 2006)

I'll try to be reasonable and measured in my rhetoric in this post, but frankly, the whole notion of -- the site where college kids post profiles of themselves for fellow college students -- turns my stomach. The objectifying name, first of all, puts me off -- I don't want my face in a book (I'd rather just have words in there, I suppose). The idea of being an image in a human catalog seems about as dehumanizing a condition as I can think of -- and so what if that's in fact what our condition is. (If I were Kenny Rogers, I would just drop in to see what condition my condition was in.) And the thought that by design, this catalog is full of, in the words of a Facebook VP, "the upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum of the 18-to-24-year-old age group" doesn't settle my queasiness any.

Facebook has the pretensions of being the country-club MySpace, where the lesser orders need not apply and you can be sure of mingling with only the right sort of people -- just like on the campus at Princeton. Just what we need, a site for rich kids at privileged schools to flaunt their advantages and show off to each other while the national media looks on -- this week The New Yorker has an article about the site.

But at least the article afforded a few details that made me believe the author was eager to stick the knife in to the preening kids of Facebook -- the college students come across as vain, shallow, inane, conformist, pretentious, selfish and gullible all at the same time. One of Facebook's flacks tells John Cassidy, the author of the piece, that if you aren't on Facebook, "you don't exist," and students seem to believe this. Says one: "I tried to hold out and go against the flow but so many of my friends were members that I finally gave in." (How many friends would have to jump off the proverbial bridge before he would? How many would have to be stoning an embassy before he would join in? What kind of reasoning is this?)

Cassidy reports how some students feel helplessly addicted to the site, logging time on it "obsessively". Eventually these sites will be able to measure exactly how much time you spend watching your own profile and grooming it, and that information will likely prove very useful to advertisers down the road. Already ads are targeted to users based on what interests they list, and some users join corporate-sponsored groups voluntarily. (Cassidy here affords himself the opportunity to point out the hypocrites who belong to anti-corporate groups like "Not a Corporate Whore" and to groups sponsored by Apple.) Another student describes "agonizing" over what bands to list as his current favorites "I'm a musician: what I play and listen to has always been an important part of my identity." Though I'm always arguing that people define themselves via pop music, it's still sad somehow to see it so baldly stated. Aren't there better ways to make your mark on the world than by being known as a fan of Babyshambles and Lady Sovereign? (Though what a marketing coup for another band the student names, Marxy, who by being mentioned in this article just got the most prominent advertising they will ever get.) One hopes this kid discovers politics, and starts staking his sense of self in that instead. At least it seems to matter a bit more in the grand scheme of things.

Though more than anything else, I sympathize with this student. Reducing yourself to a profile is a totally humiliating experience; it's like hollowing oneself out. I know I wouldn't want any of my actual friends looking at my canned profile on one of these "Me Media" sites because they would immediately know what utter bullshit it is. How can it not be? None of us can live up to some ideal notion of ourselves in front of other people, especially people who like us and pay attention to what we do. Any actual friend would immediately be able to highlight all the phoniness, no matter how earnest my attempt at self-description might be. These profile pages offer an embarrassing glance at one's daydreams and posturings, it renders you shallow to those who probably know you more deeply. The idea of having a life online seems ultimately reductive in just this way: for all the promise of interactivity, it still seems to reduce you to an array of items you display on your 1-gigabyte shelf. You sell yourself in search terms and provocative photos, and you use site meters to measure your significance, and you compete to amass the largest number of "friends" as though it means anything.

You can only have meaningful friendships with so many people; studies have placed the number, if I remember right, at about eight. (How's that for crack research? Plucked that number out of thin air. I think I read about the studies in an Economist article a few weeks ago and I can't find it now.) It seems a shame that Facebook has people racing to compile thousands and thousands of fake friends while neglecting those eight people who actually matter. Though these sites are often called "social networking" platforms, Cassidy cites a sociologist who reveals the truth about them: "It doesn't have anything to do with networking at all. It's voyeurism and exhibitionism." One user tells Cassidy, "It's a way of maintaining a friendship without having to make any effort whatsoever" -- you just add someone to a list and you have performed your duty as friend. You get to feel like you have a lot of friends, without having to go through all that troublesome business of getting to know them or giving a shit about what they are up to. Instead you can think of them only insofar as they are looking at you and making your profile page seem more impressive. What else are friends for?

Perfect credulity; or impression management (10 May 2006)

Via comes a link to this article, which explores recent developments in shopping research, including Jennifer Argo's anthropological-style field studies from drugstores,

Argo's research centres on the retail experience itself. Like an anthropologist in the field, she goes to stores and watches shoppers in the aisles. She even hires "mystery shoppers" -- plants, in effect, who do nothing more than stand nearby and look at different products.

To analyze shoppers buying batteries, for example, she asked her mystery shoppers to stand at a rack looking at camera film located near a rack of batteries. There was no interaction between the battery shoppers and the film browsers. Argo wanted to know if the mere presence of another shopper affected a buyer's choice. It did.

When anyone was standing beside the battery shoppers, most would buy the most expensive brand. If no one was there, they'd buy a cheaper brand; if there was a crowd of three or more, they would always buy the expensive brand.

Argo's findings held up in three separate studies involving hundreds of shoppers and were published in the September issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.
"It's impression management -- people don't want to look cheap," she says. "We will spend more money to maintain our self-image in front of others."

It seems that in the store, in public, is one of the moments we feel most vulnerable. Does this mean it's best to shop alone, in a state of hyper-efficient focus that obliterates the presence of others (shopping paranoid, as I recommended here, or does this simply underscore the fact that what we buy when we shop is not products but the approbation of others? There's a defensive component to that as well -- it depends on what you are more paranoid about, getting ripped off or looking like a cheap skate.

The article also explores neuromarketing, the brain-scanning science that tries to figure out what biological mechanisms are involved in purchase decisions, what part of our mind is engaged by brands. One neuromarketer admits, "We still haven't found the buy button." But it seems pretty troubling that they are looking for it. If retailers found such a button, it's a sure thing that it would be pressed even more than the rats would press the lever for more cocaine in those addiction experiments. The whole notion of a trigger that could make a purchase irresistible evokes eternal questions of agency and desire -- if the fulfillment of a "phony" desire provides real pleasure, who wins and who loses? What makes for a real desire anyway? If we are all brainwashed into loving Coca-cola, but the satisfaction we get from drinking it feels real, aren't we glad we were induced to love it so much? The Matrix is the logical endpoint to such inquiries -- if the whole world is fake but it feels real, what difference does it make? Maybe reality actually sucks.

The somewhat scary truth is that as much as we celebrate autonomy, we also enjoy being manipulated, whether it be by a tearjerking movie or an ad that makes us feel as though what kind of razor we buy is Important. Not to wax too psychoanalytic, but perhaps there is a primal, regressive allure in passivity that recalls for us a time when all our needs were attend to from without and we were free to react without any guardedness or suspicion. At certain moments in our shopping excursions we experience inklings of this perfect credulity, Wordsworthian "unremembered pleasures" that remove us from what is at stake in the economic exchange and shifts us to another resister of experience altogether, where we are contemplating the sweetness of surrender to the inherent benevolence of the mothering universe. I'm tempted to say the shopping mall has become our Tintern Abbey, but that's probably more pithy than true.