Archive for the ‘Pop’ Category

Vulgar Appropriationism

Friday, August 16th, 2013

I am not sure if my title is a good one for the phenomenon that I wish to describe. Perhaps I should use the adjective “vernacular” instead of “vulgar” (as in “vernacular modernism”; Miriam Hansen uses it “because the term vernacular combines the dimension of the quotidian, of everyday usage, with connotations of discourse, idiom, and dialect, with circulation, promiscuity, and translatability”). And perhaps, instead of “appropriationism,” I should say “detournement,” or even the much-dreaded “postmodernism.” In any case, these are just preliminary thoughts, that I would like to develop further at some point

What I am calling “vulgar appropriationism” is this: the way in which pop/commercial media today often appropriate formal structures from more-or-less “high art,” or even avant-garde art, of the 20th century, and use them in ways that negates the aesthetic or conceptual radicality of those structures. I can think of a number of examples of what I mean: for instance, how Spencer Tunick‘s “installations” (or “happenings”?) of masses of nude bodies are appropriated by Joseph Kahn in his video for Kylie Minogue’s “All the Lovers”. Tunick says that he “stages scenes in which the battle of nature against culture is played out against various backdrops,” and that his “body of work explores and expands the social, political and legal issues surrounding art in the public sphere.” But these self-reflexive meanings drop out in Kahn’s video, which presents Kylie Minogue as a Goddess of Love floating above a mass of lovers of all races and genders, all dressed in white and undressing themselves, making out and generally acting sexual, in both hetero- and same-sex combinations; there are also “kitsch” elements like fluttering doves and a galloping white hourse. I find Kahn’s video wonderful, in a way that Tunick’s works are not. This is partly because of the dynamism of Kahn’s editing, but also because the specific erotic content, and its link to Kylie’s persona as well as lyrics, gives the video a specificity of content (even of narrative) that Tunick’s works (with their more self-reflexive modernist concerns) simply don’t have.

Another example is Gaspar Noë’s recent video for Animal Collective’s “Applesauce”. This video appropriates its background from Paul Sharits’ 1968 “flicker film” N:O:T:H:I:N:G (excerpts of which can be found here). I don’t think serious art critics take Spencer Tunick very seriously; but Sharits is a major figure in the “structural film”. As it says on the youtube page: “N:O:T:H:I:N:G is a film being deplenished of all, of any signified stance and involved only in the manner of film itself. Just the drawing of a bulb, the projector light and a chair remain in the space of the screen. But these are just random disruptions of monochrome frames.” Or elsewhere: “Sharits’ works reduce the process of filmmaking to its most basic components – the projector, the filmstrip, light and duration.”

Now, I have only seen the excerpt of this film that appears on youtube; which means, really, that I haven’rt seen it at all, since really seeing it would require the sort of immersion that comes, not just from seeing it in an otherwise all dark room, but also seeing it on actual film, not via video transfer, which erases whatever stutter effect might come from the actual progression of film frames. Sharits’ work is a high modernist one, which reflects quite rigourously upon the characteristics of its medium (though it may well have a psychedelic sensorial effect when seen properly — obviously I don’t know).

Even though Gaspar Noë is himself evidently interested in formal processes and psychedelic modifications of the sensorium, from a high modernist viewpoint you could only say that he has destroyed the essence of Sharits’ work. Not only has he turned it into video, but he has used it as the background against which we see the silhouette of a female figure, in extreme closeup, eating a mango (I think; eating a mango comes up in the lyrics to the song, and it sort of looks juicy like a mango, but it is not possible to tell for sure). Now, the shadowy figure is extremely sensuous, as we do sort of see her lips, and the bites she takes, and the juice dripping from the fruit. Noë instructs viewers to watch the video in otherwise total darkness; so it is fair to say that he seeks to provide for digital/electronic media, an ecstatic equivalent to the effect on Sharits’ film in its older medium. Nonetheless, I still think that we have to say that Noë has eliminated the self-reflexivity, the materialist rigor, and the conceptual lucidity of Sharits’ work; he has replaced a Kantian (or Clement-Greenburgian) purity with an aesthetics of hedonism, and has denatured the meditative essence of Sharits’ film by reintroducing those very elements of moviemaking (the human figure against a background, an implicit narrative, a sense of representation) that Sharits had taken such effort to get rid of. (Not to mention that, as a music video, we have a soundtrack that is a pre-existing song; as opposed to the silence of the Sharits film — even though the latter supposedly gives a visual equivalent of a Buddhist prayer drone)

In any case, the point I am building to is this: I vastly prefer Noë’s work to Sharits’, just as I do Kahn’s to Tunick’s, precisely because these recent music videos are hedonistic, impure, unrigorous, and filled with the figurative and representational content that high modernism sought to get rid of — in short, I like these appropriations precisely because they are “vulgar.” They present themselves as part of the everyday world that high modernism took such pains to separate itself from; they have none of the negativity that Adorno demanded of art in a capitalist, commodified age. The only claims that I can make for them politically are ones that occur on the level of content (e.g. Kahn and Minogue are evidently supporting equal rights for gays and lesbians). Nonetheless, I think it is highly significant that music videos like these (and I think there are many other similarly interesting works) are engaging in formal invention without such invention implying either self-referentiality, or negativity, or a purist rejection of “mere” content or “mere” representation. I’d like to say that these works are (finally) escaping from the prison of sublime modernist aesthetics; they no longer seek to maintain modernism’s self-proclaimed distance from the “Real.” They embody a new sort of immanence, or actualism.

I am not sure i can actually support any of these claims, but this posting at least gives some indication of where I am trying to go.

Michael Jackson

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

It’s impossible to say anything original about Michael Jackson, so I won’t even try. As a celebrity and a media presence, for so much of his life, he cannot be extricated from all the words and images and sounds that he generated, or that were (and still are being) generated about him. Just as we cannot separate his music and performance from his persona, from all the allegations and scandals and media frenzies of his later years, so we cannot separate the “real” Michael Jackson from everything that has been thought and written and spoken and speculated about him. So, I can’t write about him without quoting what other people have already written about him, both now just after his death, and over the years before.

At Jackson’s spectacular height, the time of Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller (1982) and the subsequent television appearances and live tours, there really was nobody like him. He was a vision of ease and grace and energy, as a dancer and as a singer — but also with an undercurrent of sadness that was unusually knowing for one so young, and yet that did not sour into bitterness. Michael Jackson was a supernova; we loved him, we worshiped him, we found his appearances and performances almost godlike — and this “we” was probably one of the widest,most inclusive “we”s in the history of the world. I don’t see any reason to reject this, or ironically distance ourselves from this, or critique it in any way — although we should be aware of the social and historical contexts of this glory and this amazement. (I can’t write anything, in any case, that would match or even come close to k-punk’s post on “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” and “Billie Jean”).

But of course there was also everything that came after: Michael Jackson’s pain and pathology, and the sad spectacle that he made of himself — and that we all made of him as well. We learned about the horrors of his childhood, and uncomfortably glimpsed the more-than-eccentricities of his later years. None of this was unrelated to the genius of his best work; all of it belonged to the same economy of celebrity that formed his essence, and from which also he evidently so grievously suffered. But none of it could have simply been extrapolated from the pain of “Billie Jean” or the splendour of “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” and “Beat It.”

The moment of Thriller was an emotionally charged and extremely condensed one. Ronald Reagan was President; it was the dawn of the neoliberal (counter)revolution. We knew that something had ended, or had been lost; but we still had very little sense of what was going to replace it. I could not have imagined — nobody could have imagined — the hypercommodification and hyperfinancialization of the years since then; the reign of universal cynicism and marketing plans. The deep recession of the early 1980s followed the mixed expansions and losses of the 1970s; I forget who it was who (accurately) pointed out that the 1970s represented the democratization, or generalization (in wealthy countries like the United States at least) of what had been “counter-cultural” about the 1960s; what used to be “us vs them” had become common to everyone. Later decades’ sarcastic dismissals of the excesses and bad fashions of the 70s really testify only to our current utter lack of imagination. In 1982, in any case, we were only at the beginning of understanding how incomplete the projects of the previous decades were fated to remain. Punk had come and gone, an inspiring flash in the pan; and the disco wars had revealed how deeply racially troubled things continued to be — even if the Reagan Presidency was the beginning of one of those periodic efforts to deny the existence of these troubles altogether. The period was, as we now realize, one of great innovation on the fringes of popular music; but it was also one of a consolidation in which white-centric rock ‘n’ roll (including the music of all those interestingly innovative post-punks) lost its cultural relevance; it is no accident that the triumvirate of 1980s superstars, Micheal Jackson, Prince, and Madonna, all focused on dance-oriented musical forms that remained closer to its African American sources than rock had ever done. [I should perhaps also mention the fact that the release of Thriller coincides almost exactly with the midway point of my own life to date].

This is why I find Greil Marcus’ comments on Michael Jackson (found via k-punk) so utterly insufferable. Marcus is condescending and (at least borderline) racist, as he remarks (after grudginly conceding that the Jackson phenomenon was “an event in which pop music crosses political, economic, geographic and racial barriers”) that, whereas “performers as appealing and disturbing as Elvis Presley, the Beatles or the Sex Pistols” all “raise the possibility of living in a new way,” Michael Jackson did not. The Jackson phenomenon, Marcus claims, “was the first pop explosion not to be judged by the subjective quality of the response it provoked, but to be measured by the number of objective commercial exchanges it elicited.”

Even under the most charitable interpretation, this is pernicious nonsense. Elvis, the Beatles, and the Sex Pistols were every bit as much about marketing as Michael Jackson was. It was Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, who (as far as I am aware) first invented the whole concept of the commodity tie-in for pop music (Beatles lunchboxes, Beatles cartoons, etc.), and who created the feedback loop by means of which the hysteria of Beatles fandom redounded back upon the band itself and amplified its fame and reach (something that had never quite happened in the case of Sinatra fandom, Elvis fandom, etc.). As for the Sex Pistols, how can you ever extricate their rage from Malcolm McLaren’s marketing savvy? Greil Marcus makes rather too much of McLaren’s Situationist influence, and takes no account whatsoever of the fact that Situationism itself — not inspite of, but precisely on account of, its virulent critique of all forms of commodity culture — became one of the most commercially successful “memes” or “brands” of the late twentieth century.

What it really comes down to, of course, is race. Greil Marcus, as the quintessential white hipster, can only see cultural innovation and subversion when it it is performed by white people. Marcus celebrates the ways in which “the pop explosions of Elvis, the Beatles and the Sex Pistols had assaulted or subverted social values,” but denounces Michael Jackson’s pop explosion as “a version of the official social reality, generated from Washington D.C. as ideology, and from Madison Avenue as language … a glamorization of the new American fact that if you weren’t on top, you didn’t exist.” For Marcus, black people are evidently at best primitive, unconscious creators whose inventions can only take on meaning and become subversive when white people endow them with the critical self-consciousness that Marcus seems to think black people altogether lack. And at worst, black artists and performers are, for Marcus, puppets of the Pentagon and Madison Avenue, reinforcers of the very status quo that countercultural whites were struggling so hard to overthrow.

[A sidenote: we could consider here Marcus' comments on Anita Baker and the Pointer Sisters, as unraveled here and here At the very least, African American aspirations to bourgeois respectibility, and the way this is often translated musically with a smooth, elegant style, need to be understood in the historical context of American racism and black people's liberation struggles, rather than sneeringly dismissed as Marcus does when he snidely refers to the objectionable fact that The Pointer Sisters "gave concerts with ‘Black Tie Recommended’ printed on the tickets." It is sympotmatic that Marcus singles out black artists as ostensibly representing upper-class privilege. Not to mention that the Pointer Sisters were as much about "I'm about to lose control and I think I like it" as they were about smooth elegance].

All this might seem like raking over old coals; but the intersection between mass popularity and questions of race is still a central one for American culture (note: I am including the reception of British musicians like the Beatles in America as itself very much part of American culture). In the most important respects, the Beatles and Michael Jackson were very much alike, in that they both achieved a mass popularity that exceeded all bounds and crossed over many cultural divides. If we toss out (as we should) Marcus’ white mythology, then we might even say that Michael Jackson was the end of something, as much as he was the beginning of something else. Jackson’s celebrity, like that of the Beatles before him, and of Elvis before them, was only possible in an age of “mass culture” that no longer exists. In the time of Fordist mass production and mass marketing, cultural products were also mass marketed. This reached a new level of intensity when television replaced the movies and radio as the dominant mass medium. Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson are all figures of the period between the introduction of broadcast television and the introduction of multi-channeled cable television, home video players, and the Internet. The latter technologies, together with the general shift from standardized mass production to the regime of just-in-time flexible accumulation, with its endless array of customizable options, mean that no single celebrity figure can ever be as culturally dominant as Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson were. Recent debates, among music critics and on music blogs, between “rockists” and “popists” are ultimately sterile, because both sides fail to take sufficient account of our curent culture of niche marketing, “long tails,” customization, and “crowdsourcing,” not to mention that the advertising and commercial strategies initially deployed on a massive scale by figures like the Beatles and Jackson are now increasingly prevalent on the micro-level. They are no longer just imposed from above; rather, they saturate all our media and all our interactions, oozing up as they do from below. It used to be that you could accuse somebody (as Marcus liked to accuse black artists) of being a bourgeois sellout; but today, everyone without exception is a “bourgeois sellout,” because (in the age of “human capital” and self-entrepreneurship) being such is a minimum requirement for mere survival. Today, this is a structural condition of social existence, rather than a matter of personal integrity or choice.

So I think that everything Greil Marcus criticizes the Michael Jackson juggernaut for could be said with equal justice of Elvis and the Beatles as well (and also of the Sex Pistols, although their niche-marketing and publicity-through-scandal strategies were ahead of their time, and put them in a slightly different category). Of course, none of this would matter, really — it would just be another banal self-evidence of our everyday lives, alongside Ikea and Facebook and the iPhone — if it weren’t for the beauty and the genius of all of these artists’ performances, of their music and their self-presentation to their audiences, and their overall personas. That is to say, of their aesthetic singularities, or of what Bloch or Jameson would call their “utopian” dimension. The modulations of Michael’s voice, the sinuous movements of his dancing, the way that his musical arrangements took disco and r&b and gave them both a smoothness and a slightly alien sheen, so subtly that one could say with equal justice that the sharp edges of mournful or joyous black expression had been “mainstreamed,” or that the very “mainstream” itself had been alluringly or insidiously carried away, exposed to a strange metamorphosis, allowed to blossom into a new aestheticized state in which pop crassness had itself become a rare, almost Wildean, delicacy.

The point of a successful aesthetic singularity is that it crosses over directly into the form of the universal, without all those mediations that usually come between. Something is so absolutely unique (even when we can trace all the sources from which it arose) and so absolutely, achingly, joyously or heart-wrenchingly right, or just itself, that it becomes a kind of universal value. (In philosophical terms, this is what Kant was getting at with his insistence upon the universal communicability of an aesthetic judgment devoid of cognitive principles and rules; or what Badiou is getting at when he speaks of an event; or what Deleuze was getting in his account of what he called “counter-actualization”). There was a kind of crack or a rupture, something absolutely inimitable in the way it was inscribed in Michael Jackson’s own body, and proliferated throughout that body’s performance. But balanced on the edge in this way, always just short of collapse, it was something that resonated with “everybody” (and in Michael Jackson’s case, the empirical extent of this “everybody” was larger than it had ever been before, and larger, probably, than it will ever be again, at least in any future continuous with our present).

The utopia of Michael Jackson — the universality of his music, performance, and persona, his appeal to “everybody” — had to do precisely with its challenge to this history of race in America. Jackson was “the first black superstar of the post civil-rights era,” Gary Younge writes; he was the first to make a recognizably African American cultural expression (and this would refer to his body language and his demeanor, as much as to his music) available, in a way that was neither an exotic attraction for white people, nor watered-down (as so much white rock music arguably was) — and this precisely because it was addressed to “everybody” in a way that no previous black music, not even Motown, had been before. In its singularity, Jackson’s music constructed a new “universal,” one that was very much tied in with hopes for the end of American racism (hopes that were, of course, effectively dashed in subsequent decades, even as “everybody,” or at least white people, gave lip service to the idea that they had in fact been fulfilled). So that, as Younge says, “the Jackson I was raised with” was, for him as for so many black people in the English-speaking world, and beyond it, “not just an American pop star but a global icon; not just a individual but part of a family. A black family.” Or, as Greg Tate once put it, “black people cherished Thriller’s breakthrough as if it were their own battering ram [against] apartheid… It’s like Thriller was this generation’s answer to the Louis-Schmeling fight or something.” The cultural significance of this utopian triumph, this newly produced Truth, consisted precisely in the fact that it didn’t resonate just for black people, but for what I am calling “everybody” — or, let us say, for all the peoples of the world, except for those white hipsters for whom Greil Marcus speaks, who regarded the whole Jackson phenomenon (or should we say the whole racial liberation movement?) as somehow beneath them, and which they felt entitled to dismiss with contempt. Everybody aside from Marcus and his band of white hipsters intuitively understood that Michael Jackson “raise[d] the possibility of living in a new way” at least as much as Elvis, the Beatles, or the Sex Pistols ever did.

But of course, no utopia is entirely real, or entirely realizable. There’s a forbidden apple in every garden, a worm in every apple. The utopian moment of Michael Jackson’s glory was also the prototype for the determinedly non-utopian progression of black figures beloved by white America — Cosby, Oprah, Obama — whose success has provided an alibi for the continuation of what I can only call the “racism of everyday life in America” today. And of course, this was in large part a necessary consequence of the way that Jackson (no less than the Beatles, etc., but also, I would argue, no more) was marketed, commodified, financialized. The intensified commodification of all aspects of life in the last thirty years (to a degree, as I have already noted, that I couldn’t have imagined in 1979 or 1982) did indeed start at the moment of Jackson’s triumph (though I think that Marcus’ implicit association of it with Jackson’s blackness is unconscionable). And it did have to do with the fact that utopias are especially marketable in the neoliberal era. Without that flash of greatness and genius, that moment of aesthetic singularity, there would in fact be nothing for the marketers to market (not that such a lack would have stopped them; many successful marketing campaigns have been based on nothing at all). And the way that aesthetic singularity can resonate universally, the way that an entirely novel Truth can become a condition of fidelity, is itself a necessary condition for ubiquitous commodification as well. Michael Jackson both benefited from marketing as no pop celebrity had before him; and became its victim in a manner as gruesome as it was exemplary.

The tension of singularity and universalization, and its simultaneous inextricability from, and irreducibility to, the neoliberal competitive marketization and commodification of everything, was played out by Michael Jackson in the terms both of gender and of race. Let me talk about gender and sexuality first, since this is both what always stares everyone in the face when we think about Jackson’s last twenty years, and yet it is extraordinarily difficult to parse. Ernest Hardy insightfully remarks that, even at his height of success and popularity, Jackson “resonated so powerfully precisely because he upended and shimmered beyond gender convention. It seems especially noteworthy that he cemented his solo superstar status during the gender-bending / gender-fucking era of the early ‘80s, alongside Boy George, Annie Lennox, Prince, a funkily reinvigorated Grace Jones – though he was a seasoned old pro in comparison to all of them.” In his first hits as a pre-adolescent, right on through at least Off the Wall (released when he was 21), Jackson somehow seemed knowing beyond his ease, affectively in command of the cliches of normative male heterosexuality, without any of the all-too-common signs of overcommittment and anxiety about this. But as he grew older, the normative heterosexual mask became something that seemed, for him, increasingly hollow, and therefore increasingly desperately maintained as an obvious fiction. I am really just translating the common (and accurate) observation that Jackson seemed extraordinarily mature as a child and adolescent, yet seemed to flee more and more into the fiction of a pre-pubertal childhood innocence once he actually was an adult. We speak of narcissism, of Peter Pan syndrome, of the allegations of pedophilia, and so on. But it might be worth remembering, instead, how the other dominating artists of the 1980s (Madonna and Prince) also pushed sexual experimentation in certain non-normative ways; though arguably neither of them went as far as Michael did. I remember the moment (it must have been the late 1980s or early 1990s) when many people began to perceive Jackson as being a little too “weird” sexually, so that they no longer idolized him, no longer wanted to “become” him. Of course, this was all the result of hints and vague suggestions, nothing that Jackson himself ever overtly expressed; wasn’t there something here of the “dysphoria” that Poetix has been writing about? (although of course this always remains diffuse and diffidently expressed; it never takes the form of “militant dysphoria,” there are no signs of the recognition that “personal ‘dysfunction’ must be understood in the context of this system and its (naturalised) functions”, a recognition towards which Poetix seeks to move us). In a certain sense, Michael Jackson’s diffuse expression of sexuality, which so many people have found disturbing, because it doesn’t fit into any normative paradigm, is the “line of flight” along which he continued to singularize himself, to a point beyond which universalization was no longer possible. It has a sort of negative relation to the deployments of sexuality in American popular culture today, where an evident explicitness and overtness of expression are purchased at the price of an increasingly narrow and normative range within which such expression is permissible, or even thinkable. You can be as raunchy as you want to be, as long as you remain even closer to the pre-established stereotypes of masculinity and femininity than was required in the pre-”sexual liberation” times of the 1950s. Michael Jackson’s refusal, or inability, to give more than rote lip service to this requirement, is the aspect of his persona, or expression, that is least understood today, and that desperatley needs to be more fully explored.

At the same time, of course, Jackson’s “line of flight” played out racially as an endeavor to extirpate his own blackness, and to make himself white. K-punk notes how the first plastic surgery in the service of becoming-white had already taken place in between the release of Off the Wall and that of Thriller. By 1987, at the time of the release of Bad, the self-mutilation had already gone so far that Greg Tate could write that, “Jackson emerges a casualty of America’s ongoing race war — another Negro gone mad because his mirror reports that his face dos not conform to the Nordic ideal.” There’s a bitter irony to this, when you reflect that, as Tate put it, “back when [Jackson] wore the face he was born with, black folk thought he was the prettiest thing since sliced sushi.”

Jackson’s self-remaking can only be understood as a kind of Afrofuturist nightmare, a violent (to himself) leap into the posthuman. As Annalee Newitz puts it, Jackson “turned his body into a kind of science fiction story. He became an enhanced human, using plastic surgery and pharmaceuticals to change his face and seemingly his race as well. He became whiter than most white people, and his pale bandaged skin became his trademark.” Here singularrization, or what Deleuze and Guattari call a “line of flight,” becomes indistinguishable from hyperbolic normativization. Jackson sought to singularize himself by fleeing any indication of blackness (I mean this culturally, rather than just physiologically; in the sense that the physiology is fully real, but also an index of would-be transformations on all other levels of being as well). Jackson wanted to become generically normative: which is to say, in a white supremacist society he wanted to become white. But in doing so, he only became something even more singular: a kind of grotesque parody of whiteness, a zombiefied, living-dead simulation of whiteness. He became a figure like those of the first white people: the hideous forms created by the mad scientist Yacub in Nation of Islam legend (as recounted, among other places, in Amiri Baraka’s play A Black Mass, the musical accompaniment for which was provided by Sun Ra). Of course, the truth behind this sort of transformation is that “whiteness” (like any other normative, hegemonic formation) is a pure imposture and does not really exist; it can only be instantiated as a grotesque parody of itself. Only racists actually “believe in” whiteness as being anything more than a marker of privilege and control; and only someone as delirious and demented as Michael Jackson ultimately became, and as wounded by not being able to take its privileges for granted, would ever seek to achieve it in so literalistic a way.

There is an obvious psychological way to account for the misery and self-mutilation of Michael Jackson: it resulted, undoubtably, from the harshness of his childhood, in which he was driven, by his father and his family, to perform and to become a star so intensively, and from such an early age, that he never got to know any other sort of life. But such an interpretation, even if true, is inadequate to Jackson’s genius, to the way he created pleasure and hope and utopian aspirations in the lives of so many, and to the ways that his sufferings and his strangeness are quintessential expressions of American life and society in this neoliberal age.


Monday, January 19th, 2009

I am not sure whether this works at all, and at best it is extremely tentative, but I will post it anyway. I am trying to think about contemporary media celebrity, and how it is different from the kind of celebrity associated with movie stars in the early and middle twentieth century. I am writing this especially with Justin Timberlake and Asia Argento in mind, because they are the celebrities with whom I am most obsessed right now. But it should apply just as well to Brad and Angelina (and Jen), and to Britney and to Madonna.

In order to theorize this, I make use of Graham Harman‘s description of what he calls “allure.” But I should probably say that I am abusing Harman’s concept, rather than using it. I am abusing it, in the first place, because, even if I am getting his idea right (which I am not sure I am), I am trying to apply it in a particular historical context. This is wrong, because metaphysical notions, should be “generic,” as Whitehead puts it, or applicable equally to everything in existence. Harman is always driving home a similar point: for instance, to take seriously Heidegger’s ideas about our relation to Being means to reject the claim, which Heidegger sometimes makes, that Germans (unlike Chinese, Americans, or Brazilians, say) would have an especially privileged relationship with Being. In the second place, it’s wrong because Harman has recently rethought the account of allure that he gives in Guerrilla Metaphysics, and upon which I am drawing here.

Nevertheless, here goes…

Post-cinematic celebrities are perturbing presences. They circulate endlessly among multiple media platforms (film, television talk shows and reality shows, music videos and musical recordings and performances, charity events, advertisements and sponsorships, web- and print-based gossip columns, etc.), so that they seem to be everywhere and nowhere at once. Their ambivalent performances are at once affectively charged and ironically distant. They enact complex emotional dramas, and yet display a basic indifference and impassivity. I feel involved in every aspect of their lives, and yet I know that they are not involved in mine. Familiar as they are, they are always too far away for me to reach. Even the Schadenfreude I feel at the spectacle of, say, Britney’s breakdown or Madonna’s divorce backhandedly testifies to these stars’ inaccessibility. I am enthralled by their all-too-human failures, miseries, and vulnerabilities, precisely because they are fundamentally inhuman and invulnerable. They fascinate me, precisely because it is utterly impossible that they should ever acknowledge, much less reciprocate, my fascination.

In short, post-cinematic pop stars allure me. Graham Harman describes allure as “a special and intermittent experience in which the intimate bond between a thing’s unity and its plurality of notes somehow partly disintegrates.” For Harman, the basic ontological condition is that objects always withdraw from us, and from one another. We are never able to grasp them more than partially. They always hold their being in reserve, a mystery that we cannot hope to plumb. An object is always more than the particular qualities, or “plurality of notes,” that it displays to me. This situation is universal; but most of the time I do not worry about it. I use a knife to cut a grapefruit, without wondering about the inner recesses of knife-being or grapefruit-being. And most of the time, I interact with other people in the same superficial way. And this is largely a good thing; if I were to obsess over the inner being of each person I encountered, ordinary sociability would become impossible. It is only in rare cases — for instance when I intensely love, or intensely hate, someone — that I make the (ever-unsuccessful) attempt to explore their mysterious depths, to find a real being that goes beyond the particular qualities that they display to me. Intimacy is what we call the situation in which people try to probe each other’s hidden depths.

[Explanatory Note: Three additional things need to be noted here. In the first place, Harman's discussion does not privilege human subjectivity in any way. His descriptions of how objects exceed one another's grasp in any encounter applies as much "when a gale hammers a seaside cliff" or "when stellar rays penetrate a newspaper" as it does when human subjects approach an object. When I use a knife to cut a grapefruit, the knife and the grapefruit also encounter one another at a distance, unable to access one another's innermost being. In the second place, I do not have any privileged access into the depths my own being. My perception of, and interaction with, myself is just as partial and limited as my perception of, and interaction with, any other entity. And finally, none of this implies that a person, or any other entity, actually possesses some deep inner essence. The argument is that all entities have more to them than the particular qualities they show to other entities; it says nothing about the status or organization of this more -- or at least, what Harman says on these topics is irrelevant to the way I am using or abusing his ideas here.]

What Harman calls allure, however, is what arises in the rare situation — generally an aesthetic one — when an object does not just display certain particular qualities to me, but also intimates, and forces me to become acutely aware of, its deeper, hidden existence as something other than, and more than, these qualities. This inner, or surplus, existence is something that I cannot reach — and yet that I cannot forget about or ignore, as I ordinarily do in my interactions with objects, and other people, in the world. The alluring object displays the fact that it is separate from, and more than, its qualities — which means that it exceeds everything that I feel of it, and know about it. It draws me beyond anything that I am actually able to experience. And yet this ‘beyond’ is not in any sense otherworldly or transcendent; it is situated in the here and now, in the very flows and encounters of everyday existence.

This is why pop culture figures are so affectively charged. They can only be grasped through a series of paradoxes. When a pop star or celebrity allures me, this means that he or she is someone to whom I respond in the mode of intimacy, even though I am not, and cannot ever be, actually intimate with him or her. What I become obsessively aware of, therefore, is the figure’s distance from me, and the way that it baffles all my efforts to enter into any sort of relation with it. Such a figure is forever unattainable. Pop stars are slippery, exhibiting singular qualities while, at the same time, escaping any final definition. This makes them ideal commodities: they always offer us more than they deliver, enticing us with a “promise of happiness” that is never fulfilled, and therefore never exhausted. In terms of a project of affective and cognitive mapping, pop stars work as anchoring points, or as particularly dense nodes of intensity and interaction. They are figures upon which, or within which, many powerful feelings converge; they conduct multiplicities of affective flows. At the same time, they are always more than the sum of all the forces that they attract and bring into focus; their allure points us elsewhere, and makes them seem strangely absent from themselves. Pop culture figures are icons, which means that they exhibit, or at least aspire to, an idealized stillness, solidity, and perfection of form. Yet at the same time, they are fluid and mobile, always displacing themselves. And this contrast between stillness and motion is a generative principle not just for celebrities themselves, but also for the media flows, financial flows, and modulations of control through which they are displayed, and that permeate the entire social field.

Iron Man (proposal)

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

Here’s a brief abstract I wrote for a prospective paper (to be submitted in several places) about Iron Man.


Iron Man stands apart from other comic book superheroes in several striking ways. His superpowers do not come from an alien origin or a spider bite; rather, they are products of postindustrial technology. There are other superheroes whose powers are technologically based, such as Batman; but Iron Man’s cutting-edge engineering could not be further removed from Batman’s artisanal use of technology. It is also noteworthy that where most superhero costumes are disguises used to preserve anonymity and strike terror into foes, Iron Man’s suit is actually the literal source of his powers. In addition, although Tony Stark/Iron Man is a millionaire-turned-crimefighter just like Bruce Wayne/Batman, there’s a sharp contrast between Batman’s vengeful, almost sociopathic, outsider status, and Stark’s highly networked public persona, who stands at the center of corporate and military power.

For all these reasons, Iron Man is a fairly unique figure. Many American superhero stories of the last fifty years can be diagnosed as male-adolescent compensation fantasies: the nerd is empowered to strike back at his tormentors, and achieve the glory of saving the world. But Iron Man puts a strange twist on this scenario. For in his case, the redemption- and power-fantasy is also a fantasy of the military-industrial-technoscience complex, and ultimately of Capital itself. Corporations are recognized as “persons” under the law, and Tony Stark is very much the personification of a corporate entity. Iron Man’s technological triumphs, his ambivalent relations with the US military and intelligence communities, and his vulnerabilities as well (the shrapnel that threatens to enter his heart, and the alcoholism that is his constant temptation), all cross the line that separates individualist psychodramas from allegories of the ways that libidinal forces directly invest the socius (as Deleuze and Guattari would put it).

For this essay, I look beyond the recent Iron Man hit movie to consider a wide range of Iron Man’s incarnations in Marvel comics. I will pay some attention to Stan Lee’s invention of the character as a Cold War figure in the early 1960s, and to the depiction of Tony Stark’s corporate struggles and problems with alcohol in the comics of the 1970s and 1980s; but my main focus will be on Mark Millar’s, Warren Ellis’, and Matt Fraction’s radical reinterpretations of the character in the last several years. My aim is neither to critique the ideology of Iron Man comics, nor to claim that the book is somehow deeply subversive; but rather to use this comic book series in order to develop some ideas about how social fantasy works in our era of neoliberal globalized capitalism and of post-Cold War, post-9/11 paranoia and surveillance.

Warren Ellis on Storytelling

Tuesday, May 10th, 2005

Warren Ellis gives a great account of why he writes stories, how storytelling is connected to drugs and to the unonscious, and what this all means for our being-in-the-world.

Save CBGBs!

Wednesday, May 4th, 2005

Action is needed now, to save CBGB’s, the club on the Bowery in New York City where American punk music really got its start in the late 1970s. I won’t pontificate like an old geezer on the evenings I spent there in 1977-1979. I’ll just say that CBGBs is part of musical history, and doesn’t deserve to be destroyed by the forces of gentrification. Nightspore alerted me to this, and he has more information here; the official “Save CBGBs” page is here.

Once More With Feeling

Friday, April 29th, 2005

So, I am continuing to work my way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, watching all the episodes in order, as I have been doing for quite some time. I am now about a third of the way through season 6. I’m getting there.

There are many reasons why I love Buffy. (This is a topic that I will not exhaust anytime soon). A lot of it, of course, has to do with the particulars of the characters, the changes they go through, their relationships, their transformations and growth. (By season 6, the teen angst of the first two years has been left behind, for other — equally heart-wrenching — difficulties). But rather than writing a dissertation on Willow, or Giles, or Spike (let alone Buffy herself), I want to work through something about the generic aspects of the show.

Buffy works for me largely because it’s melodrama: you know, like Douglas Sirk, or daytime TV soaps. Melodrama is a machine for producing and amplifying affect. It gets its “truth” by abandoning naturalism and verisimilitude in favor of a certain kind of artifice, in which emotions are frozen and held static, and magnified and intensified through a kind of collapsing of time and place. “Melodramatic” often means “exaggerated”: and melodramas get their power by exaggerating the fluctuations of feeling, by stretching everything out into a roller-coaster ride of extreme ups and downs, and especially by theatricalizing emotion, so that all the situations and relationships the characters are trapped in seem operatic, or — to give a more postmodern turn to it — are ostentatiously placed “in quotation marks.” This artifice is a sort of distancing, which is what often makes melodrama ridiculous; but at the same time, the melodramatic focus can be intense and devastating, in the way a more naturalistic treatment could never be. At the movies or on TV, I only cry when emotions and situations are placed “in quotation marks”; if they are presented naturalistically, I remain completely unmoved. (Think of the climactic scene in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, at the Club Silencio, when Betty and Rita are utterly moved to tears by the ostentatious fakery of Rebekah Del Rio’s lip-synching of her own over-the-top Spanish-language rendition of a Roy Orbison song).

Melodrama is not quite “psychological” in the way we usually understand this word. It’s at the opposite extreme from modernist or Freudian “depth psychology.” Psychology in melodrama is literally without depth, because the psyche and all its affects are externalized. Todd Haynes, commenting on Sirk’s melodramas, said that the characters are “pre-psychological.” But I’m not convinced they are any more “pre-” than “post-”. The characters in melodrama don’t have “inner lives,” because everything they feel is acted out, made overemphatic or “melodramatic”, and “sublimated into gesture, decor, color and music” (here I am inaccurately quoting Thomas Elsaesser, who has written the best account of 1950s Hollywood melodrama). Instead of cognition, we get passion: in the literal sense that the characters suffer what they do not understand. And instead of repression and symptom-formation we get expression and objectification, often in the form of character doublings, or episodes of hypnotic influence and of possession (Personality-changing possession, or occult influence, is of course a continual theme in Buffy; and there are lots of character doublings as well, literally in the episode when Xander gets split in half, more metaphorically in rivalrous pairings like that of Buffy vs. Faith, who actually exchange bodies in one episode).

It’s precisely because melodrama is not “psychological,” not oriented towards interiority, that it so often functions as social critique. Sirk’s 1950s melodramas, as is well known, work through the gaps between what women want (or emotionally need) and what they are actually able to get; as well as the gaps between the American promise of happiness, and the dissatisfying emptiness of material wealth or commodities. More generally, and still in social situations that differ as much as middle-class American life today differs from middle-class American life in the 1950s, melodrama is always about desire as unfulfillment (or what the Lacanians call “lack”): for even if it is a general psychological truth that desire always exceeds its objects, so that it is intrinsically unfulfilled, still the hole of this unfulfillment is always filled by the social, or (better) is where the social can be located within the psyche. Because melodrama exteriorizes everything, it is always social and political, often more so than other genres that have political themes as their more explicit subjects.

There is melodrama in books and plays and of course in the movies; but melodrama really finds its home on television. The intimacy of the small screen, and the serial structure of televisual narrative, are ideal conditions for melodrama. In daytime soaps, but also in weekly evening shows with a melodramatic tinge, character is iconic, conveyed by definite, recognizable gestures; devastating plot turns are frequent, multiple plot strands can be carried through at once, and narrative closure is almost never really attained (since there always has to be something to justify another episode). One might even argue that the continual transformations of melodrama, and the continual repetitions of the same configuration in sitcoms, are the two most basic televisual forms. In TV melodrama, there’s leisure for repetition and amplification, as well as for the characters’ gradual growth on the one hand, and sudden transformations on the other. A TV series also allows for multiple allusions (e.g. to other TV narratives and genres, and more general features of popular culture) as well as self-referential turns self-parody, and so on. Dramatic television series these days tend to alternate between self-contained episodes and ones that advance the overall “plot arc,” to include topical episodes now and then (like a Christmas episode — or in Buffy, a yearly Halloween episode), and occasionally to involve crossovers with other, related shows (especially with spinoffs: in the case of Buffy, this of course means Angel). One should also mention the ways in which TV series allow for a particularly intense sort of contact with the shows’ fans, who argue online in astonishingly minute detail about the pros and cons of every episode, as well as writing fan fiction and otherwise offering alternative directions in which the show and the characters might have proceeded, but did not. (This has to do with how television remains, as McLuhan said it was, a “cool” medium, one which therefore solicits its audience to project themselves into it, and participate in it in depth: the artifice and artificiality of melodrama are strongly consonant with the artifice and artificiality of the televisual medium itself).

Buffy, of course, is something of a closeted melodrama. Its official genre, I suppose, is horror, or more precisely the supernatural thriller. And we expect that every episode will contain at least one good fight scene, where Buffy kicks ass. And that there will be some comedy to leaven the prospect of apocalypse, or Buffy’s pain at always having to do what she does. Nonetheless, melodrama is never far from the surface. Buffy’s relationship with Angel in season 2, and the death of her mother in season 5, are perhaps the two most obvious examples of melodramatic plot lines. But melodrama is everywhere in the show: it’s all about impossible situations, unfulfillable desires, and people confronting passions that they didn’t know they had, or that feel to them as if they were coming from elsewhere. Relationships frayed, and yet inescapable. The supernatural elements of the show — the vampires, the demons, the multiple Hell realms outside our own, and always threatening to break in — these are all othernesses that yet seem all too close to us, intimately close, closer perhaps than what we take for granted in the everyday. In the course of the seven years of Buffy, vampires become everyday. And if horror as a genre is about our intimate contact with radical otherness, then melodrama is precisely its obverse, the genre that projects everything intimate into the outside, into otherness. Horror, and supernatural excess, become mundane, even as the mundane is the realm where the most unbearable things continually happen. And Buffy is all about this identity-by-inversion; indeed, it’s only through Buffy that I have come to understand it. This inversion is what grounds all the great, heart-wrenching moments of the show: Buffy’s having to kill Angel precisely at the moment when, after so much suffering, she has gotten him back; Buffy having to sacrifice herself to save Dawn; the tenderness of Faith’s daughter/father relationship with the Mayor, even as this relation has drawn her into the utmost abjection; Spike’s pained lust and crippling inhibition beneath his punk sneer; Willow’s moments of desperation and grim determination and rage…. The list could go on. What Buffy does is to linger on all these moments, to draw them out, to make them both painful and awkward (I mean both the awkwardness that the characters often feel, as well as the frequent awkwardness of the show itself, as if it were continually trying to express something that went beyond its means, and that it could not portray quite convincingly). (This is also why the show’s bizarre juxtapositions, its invocations of the most unlikely and artificial genres — like the 1950s musical in the “Once More With Feeling” episode — work so brilliantly. There’s an arbitrariness that fits perfectly with the strained unnaturalness of melodrama itself).

The thing that I find most fascinating about it all, however, is something that includes but goes beyond melodrama, or (better) something that Buffy shares, not with other melodramas, but with other examples of science fiction or speculative fiction. This is the need to take the show’s situations literally. By this I mean that the supernatural elements of the show’s melodramatic situations cannot be read as allegories of more familiar emotional states, but have to be taken precisely for what they are. When Buffy can’t have sex with Angel, because of a Gypsy curse that means such consummation will take away his soul and turn him back into an evil vampire; when Buffy, returned from the dead, cannot experience life with anything but pain and dread, because she has been riven away from Paradise: these do not symbolize or allegorize any actual or possible situations that you and I might really experience ourselves. They are impossible, strictly unimaginable situations; and their emotional intensity depends on the fact that we cannot really conceive of their possibility, and yet we have to accept them (in the “suspension of disbelief” — a formulation I am not at all happy with — of our immersion in the show) as being not only “real,” but even mundane. This is the part of the experience that I find it most difficult to “theorize,” or to make sense of in terms that satisfy me.

Pop Music

Thursday, April 14th, 2005

The yearly Pop Music Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle takes place this weekend. I’ve gone to all the previous conferences, and they have been great, but unfortunately this year I am unable to attend, due to family circumstances. I was supposed to be giving a talk on the Kleptones, but I had to cancel.

The conference has always had a wide and open definition of “pop” — pretty much anything goes — but this doesn’t really address the question of what it might mean, in somewhat narrower terms, to talk of “pop” as a genre (alongside, and only partly overlapping with, genres like rock or heavy metal or alternative, or hip hop or crunk or grime or reggaeton. These days, invoking “pop” is inherently problematic: in some contexts, it sounds like a dated term from the 1960s; and in others, it bears a weight that certainly is not innocent, when it is invoked in relation to “rockism,” or when it is contrasted to music that is deemed more adventurous, more experimental, or more authentic.

Woebot raises the question with his usual sharpness and polemical verve in a thread on dissensus. I suppose it is a bit crass of me to respond with my thoughts here, instead of joining the dialogue there; but I need the space the blog affords me — rather than the rapid fire of post and response — to really work things out to my (at least semi-) satisfaction.

Anyway: Woebot doesn’t find the term “pop” to be either coherent or interesting; he works through several possible definitions, and finds them all to be lame, self-contradictory, and (to the extent that they do articulate any sort of identifiable tendency) worthy only of being resisted. It’s too vague, he says, to define “pop” as whatever music is in the charts, or to think that the Top Forty any given week somehow mirrors with precision what is happening in (American or British) society that same week. And it’s tired and unilluminating to trot out the old cliches of high culture vs. low. That doesn’t explain, Woebot says, what the positive appeal of “pop” — of defining “low” or “mass” culture in that populist way — might be, given so many other ways of working through the issue.

Which leaves the most polemically charged of Woebot’s possible definitions of “pop”: he suggests that it is just a marketing term:

When I discovered that by Pop music people meant “music for imaginary rather than real communities” I was depressed for about a month. That people could consume Grime as “Pop”, that they could do the pick’n’mix shake and vac ting and “consume” something oblivious to its source, well for me it just didn’t bear thinking about. That all music could be subjected to the whim of the consumer like this, that there were people out there for whom all music was essentially reducible to a quotient of it’s entertainment value (a mark out of ten, an “A” minus, a four star rating in their iPod ratings menu)…… sad innit. Each song becomes a unit, an equal unit, stripped of anything approaching life. How murderously void.

I think that there is a real issue here, an unavoidable one, since recorded music today really is on the leading edge of consumerist commodification. (A situation that is not really undermined by the nonetheless delicious irony that I, like millions of other people, choose on principle to download music for free as much as possible; I’ll spend hours of my time to find a song that I could order almost instantly from the Apple Music Store for 99 cents. This is not out of penny-pinching — since the time I waste tracking down the song is worth far more to me than 99 cents — but out of a kind of Kantian categorical-imperative sense that it is morally wrong to remunerate the record companies and the current copyright system).

Getting back to the main point: the fact is that music is one of the most social of all human activities (I risk this assertion despite the fact that all human activities are social, that ‘human’ and ‘social’ are virtually synonymous). Because music is so social and collective an activity, it is inevitably tied, in modern societies, to money and the commodity form (which capitalism makes into the primary, if not exclusive, conduits of sociality). Which paradoxically means, in turn, that music today is close to being the most reified and privatized of all human activities. I take myself as an example: a quintessential music consumer (even if I often don’t pay). I download music online, or order it over the web — I’m scarcely ever in one of those quaint old places formerly known as ‘record stores.’ I don’t listen to vinyl, or even very much to CDs: I rip whatever music I get in CD format, and listen to music almost exclusively over headphones, on my laptop or my iPod. Though I live in Detroit, a center of musical activity and production, I’ve never even gone to a live gig here, which means I’ve never listened to music here in the company of other people. What’s more, most of my favorite genres of the moment — grime, reggaeton, baile funk — are produced geographically far away from me, for audiences with whom I will probably never enter into contact (for reasons of race and class and age as well as geography). What’s more, I’ve ‘softened’ considerably since my twenties and early thirties, when I would never listen to music that was less grating than the Sex Pistols or Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, or less hardcore than Run/DMC, or less dissonant than Sonic Youth. Now I’m at the point where I listen to a lot of “pop”: my favorite songs of the moment include (alongside a bunch of heavy grime tracks) things like Amerie’s “One Thing” and Tweet’s “Turn Da Lights Off” and Tori Alamaze’s “Don’t Cha” and M.I.A.’s “Pull Up the People.”

I suppose this makes me into Woebot’s “Online Pop Straw-man”, listening to all sorts of cultural detritus indiscriminately while being ignorant of its particularities and its provenance, “cautious about aspiring to belong to subcultural groups (like, er, Grime) on the basis that he’s Middle Class, White and Old,” and ultimately only willing “to accept something less-threatening and fake in some compromised quasi-ironic manner. To give up on the real because it underlines the uncomfortable reality of one’s own situation.”
The very fact that I like M.I.A. so much pretty much convicts me of these charges. (“In fairness,” as Jerry Springer likes to say, Woebot never makes this point explicitly; but blissblogger — Simon Reynolds, I presume? — pretty much does, later on in the thread. Referring to the M.I.A. controversy, he complains about “the tone of sheer indignation voiced” by M.I.A.’s supporters responding to the criticisms of her: “how DARE you interfere with my pleasure, how dare you pose any impediment to my unproblematic enjoyment of this thing… that debate was so fierce because of a displacement involved… they weren’t defending M.I.A.’s right to be a dilettante-producer, they were defending their own right to be a dilettante-consumer… pop is invested in so intensely i think because it’s about the right to consume, and in this day age consumerism, that’s one of the few areas of power and agency anyone has”).

An anecdote: a couple of years ago, in a class I was teaching, a student gave a presentation on “underground hip hop,” and the dangers of its co-optation by the commercial manistream. His definition of what made the music “underground” was pretty vague; I pressed him, and he ultimately came to the position that it had to be music that I (as an outsider, from an older generation) had never heard of, let alone actually heard. But when it came down to listing specific examples of what he considered “underground hip hop,” it turned out all to be stuff that I was familiar with, and even had on my iPod.

My point in recounting this story is not to boast of my extensive musical connoisseurship (which really isn’t all that extensive, anyway). But rather to suggest that the widespread dissemination (precisely via reification and commodification, enabled by the global communications networks of transnational capital) of all sorts of music (together with all sorts of other things, from sexual fetishes to images of celebrities) makes any sort of “alternative” or “underground” position untenable. Even if you accept (as I am pretty much inclined to) that NOTHING is ever invented by Capital, that creativity is ALWAYS from below, from outside, from “the streets”… and hence in the public sphere, in that very “society” whose existence Margaret Thatcher denied — still, at the very moment that creativity is first expressed, it has already been privatized, commodified, locked up as “intellectual property,” and sold by massive corporations to individualized/privatized consumers worldwide. It has already become solipsistic jouissance, or what blissblogger describes as “the absolute denial of the producer’s existence — the absolute blanking out of the actual material origins and conditions of existence of the pleasure-source you’re enjoying — something for nothing.”

To decry this situation — as blissblogger and woebot seem to do — and to suggest there is a more acceptable alternative to it, is really to contribute to the very myths (of authenticity, of “realness”, of plucky underground inventiveness at odds with mainstream pop) that support the situation of capitalist appropriation and bourgeois-consumption-as-private-jouissance in the first place. Which is why I don’t accept woebot’s maxim that “meaning is always dwindling in Pop, it’s never accreating in the way it does in the underground rhizomes.” Rhizomes aren’t underground anymore; it’s the whole Net, the whole so-called “market”, that is now a rhizome (or, more accurately, that is now rhizomatic). And movements of both accretion and diminution are pretty much going on everywhere.

Or again: blissblogger says, summarizing the situation: “everything that once exploded into public space, becomes interiorized, corralled, quarantined from the world, insulated from ever changing anything.” Here it’s that “once” that I’m suspicious of; the same way I’m suspicious when Guy Debord writes that “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation.” The point being, not that things are always the same, but that — in both blissblogger and the translation of Debord — the “once” has no historical applicability, for it is merely a back-projection from, and inversion of, our current circumstances. It’s a fictive negation of the oppressive circumstances of the present; it provides no path to freedom, no “line of escape,” for it is only a reflection and a symptom of the oppressive circumstances.

Which is why, though I don’t really think of myself as a devotee of “pop” — and in cultural politics terms I am not in the least a populist — I am also unable to join the anti-pop bandwagon. Brecht said somewhere that we shouldn’t start with the good old days, but with the bad new ones. I seriously think that the only way out is through, and that we have to find some way of working through the paradoxes of solipsistic, hedonistic consumerism, pushing them to their limit, rather than moralistically condemning them by refusing to listen to M.I.A. or go to Starbucks.


Sunday, June 27th, 2004

Ever since I started this blog, I have been doing my best to intentionally induce people to violate copyright laws by downloading unauthorized music files for free.
This may soon make me a felon, since the act recently introduced in the Senate by Orrin Hatch and Patrick Leahy (yes, the very one whom Dick Cheney told to “go fuck yourself”) makes the “intentional inducement of copyright infringement” an offense; the bill goes on to state that “the term ‘intentionally induces’ means intentionally aids, abets, induces, or procures; and intent may be shown by acts from which a reasonable person would find intent to induce infringement based upon all relevant information about such acts then reasonably available to the actor.”
I’m happy to aid and abet copyright violation by pointing my readers to Kazaa and Soulseek, as well as by seeking rhetorically to move my readers to treat copyright laws with contempt and to refuse to abide by them.
Since I don’t really want to go to jail, or to face a prosecution which would cost me much more money than I have to even begin to defend myself, I’m being a coward and saying this now, instead of waiting until the law is passed.

Science Fiction Museum

Friday, June 18th, 2004

SF Museum Today was the opening day for Seattle’s new Science Fiction Museum, Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen’s latest toy. The museum is actually in a corner of the Experience Music Project building designed by Frank Gehry. (They took out a virtual reality ride, called “Journey to the Heart of Funk,” or some such, to make room for it. What, George Clinton wasn’t science fictional enough for them?).
I missed the opening ceremony, but I got to see the exhibits, such as they are. Basically it’s a series of dimly lit rooms, with items Paul Allen must have thought it was cool to collect, such as first editions of famous SF novels, uniforms worn on the starship Enterprise, and so on, together with a bunch of high tech displays (a touch screen allows you to choose among various imagined planets, from Solaris to whatever the planet in Dune was called; information about the chosen planet is given in that generic, slight-upper-class-British-accent voice that is typically used for nature documentaries).
Vaguely “spacy” music is played in the background.
The downstairs exhibit area is arranged like a spaceport, you have ticket areas, waiting areas, and a door (which never opens, of course) to the spaceship on which you would embark. The gift shop, which of course you encounter on the way out, is sadly understocked.
Of course, there are enough simultaneous sources of light and sound that you feel a certain effect of sensory overload; though the main result isn’t anything psychedelic, just that it becomes harder to notice how sparse and uninteresting the exhibits actually are.
Photos inside the museum are not allowed; I didn’t try to take any, though I probably could have gotten away with it.
To be less snide just for a minute: what makes the Experience Music Project worthwhile is not the silly exhibits, but the spinoff activities that the museum sponsors: such as educational stuff for kids, and the annual Pop Conference, at which I have had a great experience for three years running. It remains to be seen what the Science Fiction Museum will do in a similar vein, but if they offer anything similar it will be quite worthwhile (it would be great if they could sponsor something, emulating the Pop Conference, that was neither a fan convention nor an academic conference, but that nonetheless brought together creators and people who think seriously about the genre).
I didn’t really need to go the first day the Museum was open; but since I will be leaving Seattle for good, Real Soon Now, I thought I should take the opportunity.