Monday, August 30, 2004

Protest yourself

I was part of the "protest" march on Sunday afternoon in New York, though what was being protested was not entirely clear. It was an opportunity to clamor about whatever world situation upsets you, so people were out protesting the occupation of ireland by Great Britain, and Venezualen dictator Hugo Chavez, and lamenting the fact that the American Socialist party is not regarded as a serious alternative. "Less sun, more shade," was my particualr favorite chant -- a sentiment which Mr. Burns, who insists that it has long been man's wish to blot out the sun, could endorse. But the lack of one single focus made the march seem to be aboutt whatever you personally wanted, meaning it was essentially about yourself, and nothing more. You shouted your favorite cause, and if people joined in, score a triumph for yourself in the "idea marketplace." But it wasn't much of a place to find solidarity, to feel like you belonged to a larger group who shared your views, to create a general chorus of meaningful dissent that might register anywhere else but among yourselves.

I would also hesitate to call it a protest not only because there was no discernible message the marchers were trying to send, but there was no actual resistence to authority, no willingness to register one's disapproval through a rejection of established rules. Subtract civil disobedience from a protest and you have a parade, which is what this was. A parade with lots of vendors set up along the route. I was pricegouged for a bottle of water, and I thought what am I protesting for if not to stop that kind of casual exploitation? That is the triumph of republican values in a nutshell; everyone should be tolerant of everyone's else's eagerness to exploit, since after all that is only "natural" of them to take advantage of a situation -- that's market conditions!

Many came dressed to impress with cleverly sloganed T-shirts and signs; some just looked fashionable, with impressive sunglasses and expensive sandals; and most had cameras, of the digital and cell-phone variety, to record themselves "making a difference." This was the main thing I observed: people relentlessly photographing themselves and their friends in front of various displays of genuine protest. Call me old-fashioned, but if you are more concerned with yourself, and capturing yourself in quasi-heroic poses of "making your voice be heard" than what you are ostensibly protesting about, then you are not a genuine protester, and are in fact part of the problem with American society, which is mainly a matter of rampant individualism, which leads to a disregard for community and shared values and civic duty, producing monstrosities like SUVs, private lawns, suburbs, gated commnuities, school-voucher systems, and other various shibboleths of the Bush Republican party. Such self-flattering regard seems to underscore the point that these "protesters" have little at stake in who wins the election beside their peace of mind and their self-righteous notion of themselves and the claim they wish to stake for radical chic (Hence, the Che Guevara T-shirt craze, the natral progression fro CBGB and Ramones shirts), and that those who really suffer at the hands of Bush's war against the poor are strangely, sadly silent.

"Limosine liberals," indeed. You get a sense of why the rural poor who would benefit from the Democratic platform reject the party; instictively retreating from something so hypocritical and self-satisfied. Maybe the protests will sharpen as the convention begins, and the lies start spewing from the podium in Madison Square garden. And at that point, Sunday's self-indulgence will be forgotten.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The tyranny of reason

A prescient book from the fifties called Motivation in Advertising, by adman Pierre Martineau, reads like a map to our current public sphere, delineated as it is by the kinds of advertising Martineau pioneered and promoted with tireless and extremely sinister enthusiasm. The point he harps on constantly is that consumers make decisions based on emotional rather than rational logic, and though they may need some pseudo-logic to excuse their emotional indulgence, it's always the emotional connections they feel with a product that sells it. Buyers typically repeat an ads logical claims as justification for their purchase, he reports, even when they don't understand it; all the while indulging semi-conscious emotional reasons for their purchase -- feeling important or young or secure, to belong or stand out or what have you. He states flatly that style and obsolescence are the primary reasons for product sales, not utility, reporting it as a received truth that warrants very little comment. This kind of meaningless consumption raises the standard of living, he explains, as the striving to stay up to date mirrors the collective will a society must exhibit to cease living in caves or without cable TV.

Now that may sound like a tautology: we typically define raised standards of living as the ability to consume more (so one can't really lead to the other). But that would be altogether appropriate to Martineau, who urges tautology and meaningless jargon as ways of breaking down what fellow adman David Ogilvy called "the tyranny of reason." The circular logic short-circuits reason and allows an emotional assent of the standard-of-living justification for consumerism. Thus, it is a more satisfying and persuasive reason, one likely to convince more people, and therefore one that contains more truth, which of course a matter of collective belief rather that substantated fact (An idea that finds justification in James Surowiecki's recent book The Wisdom of Crowds, which argues that aggregate data collected from a mass of ignorant individuals will be more accurate than any individual expert's opinion. So maybe those factoid poll bubbles in USA Today are something other than completely fatuous and pointless.)

Admen's impatience with the "tyranny of reason" makes them strange bedfellows with a variety of radical groups -- beatniks, French feminists, hippies, mass-society sociologists, etc. -- who espouse the same distrust of "instrumental logic" and "technological reason" and "utilitarianism." This strange confluence of opinion is explored in Thomas Frank's The Conquest of Cool, in which he argues that the business world's discovery of market segmentation and the ideology of personal creativity (which is a jargon word coined after the Industrial revolution, necessitated by the meaningless of modern work) presaged the countercultual movement of the sixties, feeding it its tropes as well as its consumer fetishes and its rock bands. The common thread running through them, to which the rejection of reason is a corollary, is the celebration of individualism as an end to itself. Reason rules against this, because, again, it's tautological. (Why is it necessary to prove one's individualism?) But advertisers celebrate it because it represents an impossible quest that one will be forever outiftting oneself for, buying more and more commodities as one tries harder and harder to discover oneself.

This was one of the main thrusts of Martineau's argument, that admen should flatter a consumer for his individuality, training him to value it while calling it into being as an issue, a process akin to the way advertisers invented halitosis or Fahrvegnugen. (What is fahrvegnugen, anyway, but an ersatz individualism?) For really, ads succeed when other sorts of social information networks fail, and these word-of-mouth networks can be destroyed by promoting an extreme individualism, one that feeds on suspicion of and competition with neighbors and friends, one that encourages a withdrawal from the public sphere and civic involvement, one that equates personal convenience and entertainment with personal fulfillment and duty (the duty to relax).

So ads appealing to the individual's feelings rather than a shared set of social values helped promote the idea that one should be motivated primarily by one's selfish desires rather than by a desire to fit in to a larger community, described in ad cant as that bane of modern existence, "conformity." Conformity is something the Soviet Union forced on its citizens, just as it forced them to all vote for the same party and shop at the same store. Individualism is the prerogative to not conform, the basic freedom that America supplies. To indulge that freedom, to earn it and to experience it, one must consume those things that make one different -- you must shop to show you are free, as President Bush reminded us after the September 11 attacks.

To appeal to individual feelings, ad copy needed to infuse products with emotional triggers. Admen need people to respond to things with the kind of spontaneous warmth and assent that other people once inspired in them. Commodities must replace the good feelings being part of a community once inspired. It may be that advertising has been so successful in accomplishing this that we now model our expectations and our reactions to other people on our relationships with goods. We need them to present themselves the way ads present the goods that give us emotional pleasure. We need other people encapsulated in a Friendster profile, one that cross-indexes the various products that they respond to, in order to understand how to respond emotionally to them, in order to derive the emotional satisfaction from them we are searching for.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Music as identity

I had the misfortune of having to drive from Queens to Jersey City this afternoon in the midst of the weekend escape traffic, and while I was on West Houston Street by the Film Forum I had this peculiar impulse to roll down my windows, even though it was hot and muggy outside and my car's air conditioning was working fine. My impulse had nothing to do wiht climate control, however. It had to do with the fact that I was listening to 60s French pop singer France Gall on my stereo, and I thought that if the people walking down the street could hear that, they might have a favorable impression of me. They might think I was someone. They might be impressed in my taste for obscurity and realize there was more going on than would meet the eye if they just happened to peer into my Toyota Corolla and see me sitting there without my carefully chosen personal soundtrack. I have to confess to this ridiculous impulse on the subway as well, when I'm listening to music on my headphones, and I see people on the train who I imagine might be surprised and impressed if they could hear what I had chosen to listen to.

It is this same impulse that leads people to outfit their cars with deafeningly loud stereos and bass boosters that rattle windows -- the need to impose oneself on others in the form of some music you feel represents you. The car stereo is little more than a device for projecting your identity in sound to as far a radius as sound can travel. But the problem is that no music could do a fair job of representing you; it was made with no idea of your existence, in my case, typically before I was born. The music, as music, has no connection to what message I'd be trying to send when I start using it for social communication rather than personal pleasure. All that is significant is the cultural capital it embodies -- the effort it would have taken to know about such music and obtain it -- or the subculture membership it implies.

I was frustrated with my impulse because I usually resent people who try to establish their identities through ostentatious consumption, thinking its a phony way of being something, a way to pretend to something you are not. If you like some kind of music, you don't need others to validate it or you, or serve as rapt audience to your alleged enjoyment of it. I didn't roll down my window because I figured anyone I would want to impress would immediately see through my ruse, my self-advertisement, would immediately detect my poseurdom. I wouldn't know how to live up to the implications of what I was advertising myself to be, and my real personality (supposing I have one) would come across as contradictory, false.

But I'm probably wrong about this. Anyone who would notice this music I had playing would probably be impressed in exactly the way I would hope, and if I could commit to conducting my entire life on that superficial level, of making outward displays (with the aid of some expert consumption/shopping choices) to suggest every trait I want others to think I have, I would continue to get along with these new friends perfectly well. Its more likely that I'm afraid my ruse will work too well, and I'll be seduced into worrying more and more about the image I present to the world, and soon I'll be spending hours in front of mirrors, and dropping a grand on louder car speakers, and a cooler car, for that matter, maybe a VW or a vintage Fiat or something. It would be a life with more pressure in some ways, but in other ways it would be simple, I wouldn't have to be anything more than what was read on my surface -- I wouldn't have to justify the choices, whose attractiveness or purpose would be self-evident. I wouldn't need any "depth." People would be comfortable with me immediately, since it will be like they already know me at a glance.

After all, why do I think there is a deeper level to my listening to France Gall than the idea that it might impress people with a certain notion of who I am, what kind of eccentric tastes I have. In a society where social being is flattened out into the sum of one's tastes and shopping choices, where consumerism is the only method by which to participate in a public sphere, I can be exactly what I calculate in my pretension; it's not a pretense because there's no way to listen to music that would not be a pretense, is there? Popular music exists to serve as counters, tools for marketing a certain version of yourself to others that they can recognize in an instant. "I can name that personality in five notes."

Is it too cyncial to suspect that many lives are conducted in just this way, where their caluclated displays for attention are the ultimate essence of what they are, so there is no pretense no matter what posture they are assuming? No matter what message you try to send through conspicuous consumption (I'm into obscure French pop, I'm into heavy dub reggae, I smoke weed, I'm ironic, I'm very conscious of my sexuality) the real, overriding message is that you are dependent on the validation of others before you accept some notion as being really true about yourself. And this likely reassures everyone else who feels the same, who plays the same game. This is essentially David Reisman's thesis in The Lonely Crowd, in which he describes America as a nation of "other-directed" conformists who are untethered, without a core of beliefs about themselves that come from somewhere other than the fashion mill, to anchor them.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Personal ads

I was riding an N train to Astoria after work a few weeks ago and I observed something that I had thought was only urban legend. Two guys were on the train discussing, very loudly and very pointedly, their respective iPods. One guy was very obviously meant to be a stereotypical IT guy -- long hair, heavy metal T-shirt, an aura of intense geekery. He was showing a guy who looked like a middle-manager yuppie type how to work the new features that were available on the new iPod, explaining at great length all these new features he should be able to access through iTunes. Normally I'm really good at ignoring people's conversations on the subway, even when they are as annoying and irritating as this one, but this guys were stationed in such a way and talking in such a way that they were impossible to ignore. I noticed other people on the train noticing them too, and I realized that these guys, so obviously straight from central casting, had to be living advertisements, planted on the train to promote Apple, an insidious guerilla-marketing concept often rumored to take place by paranoid anti-corporate types (It gets indicted in the recent documentary The Corporation, which a compelling and overwhelmingly depressing investigation of the sociopathy of big buisness firms).

I always doubted such things occured because it seems so ineffcient from a cost standpoint, but what do I know? Here it is, a month later, and I still haven't forgotten it (though in no way does it make me want to get an iPod. The smugness with which the brand is saturated repulses me totally). It was just so strange to have these product placements in a random moment in the movie of my life. At first I was amused, as if it made my whole day, as if it were a privilege, and only later was I a bit outraged. My life is not a movie, and I didn't like being encouraged to feel as though it were, and as though someone else was in charge of scripting it. And their performance upstaged the public sphere and prevented any other kind of discourse from occuring within it. They turned public space into a theatre and turned me into an audience, a spectator, in the midst of my trying to live my life. It's hard enough not to be a passive spectator by choice, with so much persuasive and compelling entertainment being generated for just that purpose, that I'd appreciate not having staged commercial spectacles thrust upon me. It starts to make you feel that all spontaneity is endangered, that everything you see is staged, as though you are living in The Truman Show, that Jim Carrey film where the protagonist unwittingly lived a life scripted by someone else, with walk-on product placements, and phony conflicts contrived in advance.
Remove one's faith in spontaneity, and everyone will be awash in a thoroughgoing cynicism that makes all hope and enthusiasm seem naive, as it would eventually turn out that you've been duped. And with no hope, there's no point in resisting, no point in lamenting the ad constuct that houses more and more of our personal lives.

On other subway rides, I noticed that l look at stranger's faces the way I sometimes view ads, with a momentary curiosity and a muted, assured condescension, looking for what their angle is, what notion of themselves they are trying to pitch, trying to see what appeal they might have designed for me. Judith Williamson, in Decoding Advertisements, makes much of the way ads individuate us and interpolate us into ideology (to use a good Althusserism). They isolate you and make one a "subject," that is a subject to outside forces who at the same time feels a total mastery over his own subjectivity and subjective point of view. Ads are never addressed to a group, even though many see them simultaneously; they are always designed to single you out and make you feel special, as though a great deal of trouble has been made for you alone to receive this message. This is one of the ways ads are most persuasive, whether or not we accept their overt message, we appreciate their reinforcing our notions of our individuality, and hence our superiority to the collective, to a social body, which is the great promise of capitalism, that it elevates the individual subject over the collective and thereby makes him more free. All of that is ideological, of course, and ads are one the more important material bases for that ideology, sustaining the fiction of our individual autonomy in the face of otherwise obvious contradictions and stabilizing the worldview in which we are accustomed to living.

So when I take in faces this way, like ads, it is as though this person on the train exists only to be seen by me in this moment (like the iPod shills). It's an automatic, reflexive assumption. And following Althusser's logic, their look reaffirms my sense of self, my sense of being a subject (and not an object -- the other person is that). These people are advertisements to me for what it means to have a self (which denies them an autonomous selfhood of their own, or at least makes it exceedingly hard for me to remain cognizant of it). So if I look out at these faces looking for some sense of community, some shared sense of reality, I end up feeling more isolated and alone, because my apprehension, has been so systematically perverted by the miasmatic climate of ads. Really, other people constitute the most important ads I see everyday -- the most pervasive, the ones I attend to the most, the ones selling the single-most crucial product in a consumer society, the ideology of the self.

Perhaps people seem so much like ads is because ads now make up the only universally acknowledged public discourse; ads are the only kind of communication now accepted in public space (obviously, since they are virtually everywhere), thus to register in public space, to participate in public society, one must be like an ad. Strangers feel prohibited from talking to each other, so they display themselves, as expressive objects, tapping into the most expressive language of contemporary consumer society (as Baudrillard argues in The System of Objects and elsewhere), that of commodities, by posing as one themselves.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The man-machine

An article by Mark Greif in the September 2004 Harper's (reprinted from the journal n+1) offers an interesting assessment of the American obsession with exercise. Exercise always seemed to me to be unproductive work, an intentional waste of effort, a discharge of activity in a harmless way that threatens none of the existing powerholders, as opposed to a subversive irrational expenditure of energy a la Bataille's theories. Exercise adheres to a strict rational regime which is its essential feature; as Greif notes, the most essential piece of equipment to exercise is "counting." Rather than an spontaneous activity that "recovers certain eccentric freedoms and private techniques of the self," exercise permits a surrender of the self, an effacement of any private codes for self-evaluation. One becomes machine, monitored and maintained by public notions of fitness.

If you have spent all your excess energy and all your pent-up frustration at a less than fulfilling life on a treadmill (and then have retired, drained, to your sofa in front of your televeision set), then you are a lot less likely to expend the effort to develop any political positions or participate in any civic duties. Exercise, in that way, is a peak example of selfishness, sending the message that one would rather work on one's pecs than contribute to the community. Just one more example of bourgeois atomization.

It must please captains of consumer industry to see how many people voluntarily exhibit the kind of unthinking discipline necessary for conformist consumption. If people will run in place for hours at a time just because of someone else's notion of beauty has been planted intheir heads or some magazine told them they have to to "stay fit," then they'll certainly do something much easier and buy something that they are told to. On the face of it, exercise seems renunciatory, ascetic, a refusal to consume, but in fact, as Greif points out, exercise is a kind of self-consumption (with the Thanatopic imperative to comsume onself up lurking behind it), a way to make yourself into a beloved object, since our society has taught us to train our affections only on those objects that are for sale.

The key point to know about exercise is that the pursuit of healthiness usually offered as rationale is just an alibi for something more insidious, the desire not to be a healthy human, or even a human at all, but to be a machine, to fulfill a fantasy of mastery over oneself that is only assured of total success by being, at its heart, a destructive process. Greif points to an exerciser's desire for "certain states of feeling" that hinge on being able to judge "his total healthiness at each moment based on what he ate, what he drank, how much he exercised, and what relation this all bears to the new recommendations and warnings he just heard on the television's hourly health report." Food, drink, activity are all converted into signs by which one can measure one's self-control, which is itself measured by conformity to media-driven stipulations. This apparatus allows one an illusion of mastery over death itself, but it can only be achieved by emulating it, by producing emaciated bodies that are spiritually vacant and dead. Exercise itself is an ersatz spirituality, which places its faith not in a higher power but the media reports Greif cites, and is entirely unabashed about the self-serving nature of the faith it inspires -- the dream of immortaility, the immortality of a well-maintained machine.

Greif posits a pleasure, too, in the "unending struggle" exercise sets one on, a lasting pleasure unlike the fleeting effervescent ones offered by consumerism. But these aren't opposites -- the pleasures and stuggles of shopping are as unending as the struggles for mastery of the body according to an extrinsic code. This makes "biological life a spectacle". Basicallym regulated exercise is a program for the commodfication of the body, to make it another thing on the market, and to make its regulation another covert argument in favor of markets, another way to naturalize the operation of markets at the deepest level of self-maintanence and reproduction. It accustoms us to think of our activity in terms of quanitity rather than quality (how many reps?, not, what is the point of this?). It subjects us to norms foreign to what our body actually needs (diet regimens, weight strictures, muscles not for activity but display). It makes idiosyncratic humans seem mass-reproducible, urging them to a rigid sameness so that flaws are more obvious and encouraging us to forget that indivuation could serve any other purpose but encouraging endless competition to achieve some arbitrary ideal.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Garage rock: the new Star Trek

This past Saturday I went to Little Steven's "International Underground Garage Festival," a curious name, because it took place above ground, in a field on Randall's Island, with a lovely view of a Triborough bridge ramp in the distance. And I was surprised that there was not a single big parking-structure constuction firm represented. There were a lot of mediocre rock bands there, impossible for any but the hardest of hardcore fans to differentiate, and the sameness tended to diminish them all. And there were a few legends who tried to recapture their magic from decades past. Some succeeded (David Johanssen, Iggy Pop, and most implausibly, Richard and the Young Lions) and others failed (The Pretty Things, and Bo Diddley, who, inexcusably, performed a rap song).

There were numerous technical difficulties and the ominous perpetual threat of rain. With the rotating stage, there wasn't supposed to be any break between bands, just non-stop music, but when that stage broke, it led to endless delays and truncated sets for most of the forty bands scheduled. And worse, it led to their being a stream of people filling time with endless yammering. For a while Kim Fowley could entertain with his rambling non sequiturs ("Donuts are the food of young gods!" he proclaimed at one point) but the British radio hack who co-emceed was awful and the parade of celebrities sent out to eat up time were embarrassing. It was sad to see Sopranos actor Tony Sirico up there trying to ad-lib and connect to an audience he had nothing to do with. And it was all unnecessary, since every one in the audience would have preferred silence while the bands set up. But the promoters seemed to think the show was to be like a radio program, and that dead air was anethema, as if we would go home if we weren't continually distracted by noise. But all this noise had nothing to do with entertaining us; it affirmed that we were a captive audience Like commercial radio, the concert offered music as bait to make us listen to promotional messages for the show' sponsors and for Little Steven himself, as he tries to make himself the brand name associated with garage rock. All the blather was an attempt to co-opt the genre, for which the audience has a true and sincere passion nurtured independent y of the major marketing arm of mainstream radio, and saturate it with the names of Dunkin Donuts and Pepsi and Q104 and Little Steven. The between-set jabbers talked on and on about how much we should thank Little Steven for making this festival happen and for "saving" rock and roll by getting it on the radio again, offering hollow testimonials to how much they love rock and roll and what it means to them.

All this did convince me once and for all that rock and roll is utterly dead as a genre, quickly going the way of traditional jazz to become a solemnly lauded museum piece, a specialization for avid superfans eager to tunnel into a subculture of nostalgia. With its eccentric fashion statements, an uneasy mishmash of Carnaby Street flash and Austin Powers parody, and its vigilant gatekeepers preserving the sacred knowledge about things like vintage fuzz pedals and the teen-rock scene in 1960s Wichita, garage rock fans can satisify themselves with their arcana while criticizing anything not sufficiently faithful to the strictures delimited by the Beatles and the Stones and the Who. Rock and roll might have once been about rebellion and teenage angst and youth and new horizons of cool, but now it is undeniably a geek scene, and this festival was a Star Trek Convention with amplifiers. Like Trekkies, garage fans are absolutely shameless about their love for their obscure niche, but unlike Trekkies, they are apparently unaware how marginalized their passion makes them and seem to believe instead that they are on the vanguard of a cultural movement instead of the comet's tail.

People, mostly in their thirties and forties, came dressed up in their costumes -- their fake-vintage mod trousers and their tour shirts for bands whose last meaningful tour was twenty or thirty years ago and their Cavestomp shirts, testimony to their having gone conventioneering before and their white go-go boots and their mintskirts and the rest) and they passionately swapped cherished bits of hopelessly obscure information that no one else in the world cares about while their aging, decrepit heroes emerged from retirement to go through the motions of their heyday thirty or forty years ago and mouth platitudes about the significance of the audience's enthusiasm, collectively vindicating what often seems to be an insane preoccupation, perhaps even to those laboring under it. No angst, no innovation, just a reiteration of well-cherished truths, a kind of day-long sermon.

Band after band testified to the all-important power of rock and roll -- to do what? Inspire you to "rock" more? Usually rock and roll is supposed to have changed the world, and we the audience, were making it happen still, keeping the tradition alive, as though it were a suppressed religious faith and we were contributing to some as-yet-unfulfilled prophesy. How has rock and roll changed the world, though? It changed some fashions and it altered the contours of pop music for a while, but "changed the world?" It may once have been the soundtrack for young revolutionaries plotting to throw monkey wrenches into the workings of consumer society, but that revolution was squelched and co-opted in 1968. These days, garage-rock fans are intent not on changing anything about the world but on consuming as much as possible of a narrow subset of production. But whatever computer hackers are listening to as they are retooling their viruses, that is the revolutionary music of today. (I'm guessing it sounds like Four Tet, which is as uncompromising and unlistenable as I would expect truly revolutionary music to be).

In a sense the audience for this festival is "underground," in that they have been marginalized by mainstream indifference. But this underground carries none of the subversiveness of other underground scenes -- this group threatrens no established order. Would it be right to call the people who hang out in comic-book stores the "Comic Book Underground"? So why should we call the music of people who hang out in record stores "underground music"? Even more than a Trekkie, a garage-rock fan is like the comic-book collector, who brings the same amount of articulate and obsessive passion to his particular field, which the average person finds equally baffling for an adult to be invested in, even as aspects of the peculiar obession bubble up now and then to mass awareness. Bands like the Strokes (who put on a pouty, petulant performace, knowing the crowd was too old and too narrow for them and would resent them in comparison to Stooges and the New York Dolls, who they were sandwiched between, and perhaps knowing also that they shouldn't identify themselves too closely with this set of fans, lest they get stuck on the senior circuit forever) bring elements drawn from garage rock geekery to the charts, but they don't signal a return of rock any more than Spider-Man 2 signals that you'll be seeing people on the subway and at the lunch counter reading comic books instead of the Da Vinci Code.

Over and over, Steven Van Zandt (and his sponsors, Dunkin Donuts and Pepsi and Sirius satellite radio) was thanked for "saving" rock and roll by working hard to bring it to more people on his syndicated radio show. But if that is what it means to "save" it, it seems strange to cling to the word underground. Can you have it both ways? Can rock and roll be saved by being popular yet remain cool for being undergound? The incoherence of this points to the fact that we're dealing with pure fantasy here, aggrandizing the fans (and Van Zandt) and pandering to them with little recourse to reality. It doesn't matter, really, if rock is popular or underground, if rock is "saved" or not. What matters is that people can invest themselves in it with a missionary zeal, even if they aim for no converts. They can consume pop culture with a religious fervor, which puts them squarely in the main current of American society even as they feel beyond it and better than it, feel like they're in a position to try to rescue it with precious rock and roll. Hence they are quintessential consumers, buying significant objects for something above and beyond their use value, pursuing a meaning that is only evoked by the objects but not contained in them, and it will take a lifelong committment to buying more and more to keep the dream of achieving that meaning alive, even as it never is reached. This is what it means to save rock and roll.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The diet alibi

This article in the London Review of Books -- LRB | Steven Shapin : The Great Neurotic Art -- investigates the Atkins diet craze from a loftily skeptical point of view, concluding that all diets all serve the same function of calibrating the balance between the self that desires (an appetitive self) with the self that controls desire (the moral self), and that these latest diets sell the promise of magical self-control without willpower, a transformation that requires virtually no will or determination of your own. Strange that people would be so eager to be transformed and yet have no special wish to control what they are transformed into. "The Atkins diet is a latter day theatre of agency," he explains, and very profitable for the corporations which now stage it. It seemed to me that Shapin backed away from some of the more incisive implications of what he argues, but he does raise a number of extremely interesting points.

Eating is the most basic kind of consumption, and thus perhaps it is the most constituitive of our notions of self in a consumer society. Shapin puts it this way: "the practices attending the production, preparation and ingestion of food make up much of the substance of moral and social order. Foods are clean and unclean as well as nutritious and non-nutritious. They define racial, regional, religious, national, class and cultural identity: consider the haggis, the hot dog and chicken soup." This ties in very closely to anthropological interpretations of consumption like that of Mary Douglas. The rituals of eating provide a society with its boundaries, with tangible manifestations of its values. Consumption practices constitute a language through which we can speak our identity in a way more fundamental than words.

Because eating involves literal ingestion of the symbols embodied by food, a kind of transsubstantiation is implied, where you eat what the food symbolizes and become that thing in the deepest way available to us. Shapin explains, "The material transformation is simultaneous with the possibility of social and moral transformation or the advertisement of the social and moral states to which you are laying claim. A temperate person is someone who eats temperately; a posh and powerful person is someone who gets an 8 o'clock table at the Ivy; respect for life is shown by vegetarianism; red-blooded machismo by the consumption of red meat; your friends eat with you at home; you have coffee with your colleagues; the High eat later than the Low, thus making a standard display of delayed gratification and acquiring the associated status of those who can wait an hour longer than others for their food. Self-nourishing and self-fashioning both happen at the table."

In other words, eating is a way that we manifest our class position, our identity, without conscious thought, and it's a way that ideology is made materially manifest, in the way Althusser theorized. Nothing seems more given, more natural than eating, when in fact how we go about it is highly constructed, full of messages. Baudrillard was so struck by this that he went so far as to posit, in "For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign," no natural needs, no natural appetites at all, that they are all produced by the demands of a given socioeconomic system, a social formation. Apparently, if the social formation demanded that we not eat at all, he opined, we'd never feel hunger, and see it as a perfectly natural life to gradually starve to death. Or we just wouldn't experience hunger as a kind of privation, we would exist in a society where food was always made plentiful, and was consumed at a subconscious level.

But the concept of which needs are natural and which are unnatural is at the heart of any diet regime; diets serve to draw that boundary: "The metabolic science that justifies the low-carb programme inscribes characteristic views of the will and the self. Some of the appetites in the motivational menagerie of the late modern self are natural, healthy and not to be resisted, but others are unnatural, brought into being by the artifices of the civilising process." Diets try to pitch themselves as more natural, using as evidence the supposed more natural and more healthy condition that being on the diet results in. But the ideal state of health, too, is culturally produced, in inflicted with class distinctions -- healthy is what the powerful/wealthy deem it to be, how they appear publicly to manifest their superiority.
It becomes tautological: the concepts of "proper diet" and "healthly state" are defined mutually, and confer legitimacy on each other. And both in turn are used to define which foods are "real" (Meat is, sugar isn't) and which appetites are appropriate and which are addictions, aberrencies that must be corrected by systemic intervention. In other words, the dieting industry is an institution that defines deviancy, like prisons, health care systems, schools, and so on, as any of Foucault's work can explain at length.

Atkins diet books, according to Shapin, makes their readers recognize their deviancy, but allows thn to rectify it without much effort or will. He sees this as a major shift from pre-modern dietary regimes, which emphasized self-control and moral restraint. The sin, the deviancy these diets fought was gluttony, overconsumption, failure to recognize one's proper limit. This fits well with the mercantile economic theory, and its strictures against luxury consumption, and the social status system, which relied on luxury consumption to manufacture and make legible class distinctions (this was encoded in sumptuary laws). But under consumer capitalism, subjects must be encourage to go beyond their inital sense of limit in their appetite; their appetites to consume must be continually stimulated, not suppressed. The entire economy rests on this. So it makes sense that new diets encourage you to indulge, and stress how much luxurious eating you'll be permitting yourself. Shapin details this motif at length, concluding, "Weight-loss the low-carb way is said to be wholly compatible with lusty connoisseurship." But diets hold on to their aura of being a disciplined regimen, thus giving dieters the best of both worlds, a illusory feeling of self control and agency as well as a moral alibi for luxurious indulgence.

So there is change in the conception of self traced by contemporary dietetics that is in perfect keeping with the demands of a consumer society: new diets show "the submergence of notions of individual volition, partly in ideas of external or genetic determination, but also through the straightforward rejection of the notion that self-control is either instrumentally necessary or morally desirable." The Atkins diet takes as its moral basis that we should indulge ourselves in the proper "real foods" when we eat, that the reward for natural eating habits (minus sugar) is being able to eat as much as we ever feel like (we'll never want more than what is right and no appetite control therefore is necessary). The reward is not better control over our impulses, but the freedom to indulge impluses completely -- this is the exalted natural state, entirely opposite of what was held to be the essence of humanity before, that is humankind's ability to exert rational control over his animal lusts. The new human is absolved of all forms of guilt, encouraged to banish guilt as a pathological sign of the aberrant self shaped and called into being by false needs (stimulated by the sugar nexus).
The result is a modern subject who feels obliged to consume as much as possible, to view his reluctance to consume as pathological, and finds his reward not in any inner-dervied satisfaction but from conforming to an ideal that comes from without, generated by a logic the subjet has never generated or asked himself to consciously affirm.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The customer is always wrong

At Duane Reade, a drug-store chain in New York City, you typically don't get what anyone would call good customer service. Chronically understaffed, the only person working the floor will typically be a security guard covering the front door while one or two clerks try to handle the chaos of customers trying to check out. No lines form, people just mill about and dart in when they see an opportunity. The clerks seem to take a perverse pride in working as slowly as possible, as if an award will be given to the cashier who rings out the fewest on a shift. They never greet you, they never look you in the eye, and they don't count your change out to you, and they don't say goodbye, and they certainly don't say "have a nice day." And for all this they should be applauded.

I'm against customer service, which is typically a bogus way of making a shopper fel more important than he really is for an activity that should in no way be thought to dignify him. You shouldn't expect to be treated like a grandee or a pasha simply because you are buying a few razor blades and a tube of toothpaste. Spending money shouldn't give you a sense of accomplishment or make you feel important, and that is the ideological function of customer service: to accustom people to receiving social recognition only when they buy something, and to make them accept that unless they have money to spend they are invisible in the public sphere. Self-worth becomes a matter of spending power, and can't be derived from any other activity, because these won't be publicly recognized and lauded the way a customer is at some chain restaurant where he is fawned over for eating his fajitas and enjoying his 2-for-1 light beers during happy hour.

Customer service takes the kind of easy-going, friendly exchange that should occur between strangers in free civic space and stages it as a commercial exchange, suggesting that pleasantry must be purchased along with the pack of gum or the bottled water. The consequence of so many people seeing friendliness as a kind of theatre, whether because their job prostitutes their inclination to be polite or because they have been pimped to so often as consumers that they have become jaded, is that they don't want to perform offstage, they don't believe in friendliness as a spontaneous reaction to those they share society with, and they tend toward surliness in non-shopping public space, preferring to isolate themselves from all but a few trusted intimates. This suits the commercial world well, isolation breeds vulnerability, and it reinforces the notion that the only place one can find civility is in the shopping mall, on the spending end of a dollar.

Customer service is like human resources departments -- they flow fom the same ideological fount, whose principal tenet is that people are functions to be managed, not people with diverse, particular qualities and needs. It breeds in chain stores, it erupts wherever management hierarchies are installed. Customer service comes in with wage slavery, when a personal investment in the businesss concern is lost, when a faceless corporation is what profits. It is bureaucratized civility, it is what happens when economies of scale affect basic human interactions, leading to mass-produced politeness.

Hence, the absence of customer service is a healthy jolt of reality, an almost subversive act of dymystification. You are forced to see the clerk not as an automaton dispensing friendliness but a real person in a shitty job. You are forced to see your purchase for what it is, a simple functional exchange, without glamour, imparting no special dignity. It knocks you out of the complacent, compliant role of customer, and thrusts you back into a more basic role, of responding to what's around you. And it undermines the self-centeredness of comsumerism, it affirms that in fact the customer is always wrong, always reifying the good things in life, always content to purchase rather than experience pleasure. The anger that many feel at bad customer service is a displaced anger; they are angry at themselves and how their expectations from life have been reduced to such squalid petty demands like a smile on the face of the person who pours their coffee.

And let's not forget that customer service is often surveillance with a smile. When I worked in a mall bookstore as a teenager, I was told to engage customers to make them know that they were being watched and discourage them from stealing. When I worked in a convenience store I was told to greet every customer, for the same reason, not because I was actually happy to see them, but to make them aware that they are being watched. That's how customer service is: it uses friendliness as an alibi, a mask for other functions, and reduced to a means, civility no longer can stand as an end in itself.

The end of craven customer service could return some dignity to the world of consumption, something you see hints of in those boutiques and bodegas that have the feeling of doing you a favor by being open at all. You walk in, you are left alone. If you are noticed at all, it will be on a human level, because you've been there enough to be recognized, or because you've made some real connection with the clerk. To interact with the clerk, you have to talk to him like a human being. I go to this taverne in my neighborhood that epitomizes this. It's privately owned, and it's character is specific to its place. When you earn respect by going there often enough, the waiters start to acknowledge you, welcome you to the community. It feels real because it's grounded in actual commitments. Until then, you get your food promptly and efficiently, with no fuss or frills. You remain conscious of the fact that you are an outsider, but at least you know that there is something really there, something to become part of after a while. Whereas when you go to the IHOP and you are given the suck-up service with a smile, you are made to feel like you belong, but you have to wonder what you belong to, and if that's a club you really want to be in.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Olive-oil soap

Because the neighborhood I live in is predominantly Greek, the local grocery stores will carry some Hellenic specialty items: the deli case will be stocked with different makes of Feta cheese, the olive oil section takes up half an aisle, there's a shelf of thyme honey from Crete and a shelf of paximadi and flat bread, and in the health and beauty products row, alongside the Dial and the Dove and the Ivory are a few different brands of olive-oil soap. I'm partial to Abea rather than Oliva, which bills itself as "aromatic," which basically means it's chemical-smelling odor will eventually give you a headache. In general, I like olive-oil soap because it's hard (it won't melt in a wet soap dish) and it's mild (you can wash your hair with it everyday if you wanted) and because it's deep, earthy green might be my favorite color in the world. But I may also like it because my use of it makes me feel at some level like I've shed some layer of ethnocentricity and American provinciality and embraced some larger transnational identity. I think I'm co-opting some integral piece of Greekness, and therby making my presence in their neighborhood less anomalous and less offensive. And maybe I secretly believe I am at once transcending the ethicity they cling to in one magnanimous gesture. They must inevitably remain Greek, while I can pick and choose like a cultural magpie, cobbling bits from different traditions to make something unique to me and altogether cosmopolitan. Of course, in believing that, I'm a fool. The only reason I would think that is because as an American I basically have no traditional ways of my own, no ethnic identity that's visible to me (no matter how blatant it must be to others). th eonly American tradition is just this: buying products to attain an identity of some sort. Consumer goods lose what ethnic meaning they have when detached from a deep-seated, lived tradition and become just another interchangable sign, no different from the flood of other priducts saturating the American marketplace. In fact, when I use their soap, I am robbing it of meaning for the Greeks, not acquiring its Greek meaning for myself. And at the same time I am contributing to the way America reduces ethnic groups to the products they can bring to market (while thinking entirely within that paradigm), the way a people become in America, for all intents and purposes, their nation's cuisine. Everything I know about Ethiopian culture, for instance, I learned from the menu and placemats I've read in Ethiopian restaurants. My owning the products gives me known of the knowledge of what they mean to their culture of origin, and my using them doesn't make me a participant in that culture. If I really wanted to participate in Greek culture, I'd have to actually talk to my neighbors and hang out in the cafes with them, I'd have to risk a bit more than simply daring to use their soap in my shower. I'd have to offer more than my dollar in the supermarket.

An unrelated point: I used to make my own olive-oil soap from scratch, which was enormously satisfying but totally inefficient, akin to making one's own bread. Soap is the perfect example of something that economies of scale makes perfect for industrial manufacture, and insane for making at home. You pay much more for the ingrediants to make soap then you ever would for soap itself, and the homemade soap will never be as good as the mass-produced bars, unless you dupe yourself with the ideology of artisanship (It's made by an individual craftsman, a person who I could meet, therefore it's as unique and special as I am). The joy of making soap has to come from the making of it, not the using it or the thrift of it. In a way, it's more fun to make it once you are aware of how impractical it is. It seems like you are thumbing your nose even more at the technological rationality that rules society. (Adorno would be proud). And not only is it irrational, but the lye invoved makes it dangerous as well. So it has a daredevil appeal -- it's Xtreme. Next, I might start trying to make my own Mountain Dew.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Getting old sucks

During my post-lunch dérive, I saw in front of one of those monolithic apartment buildings on 57th Street a heavy-set, gray-haired woman in a T-shirt that read "Getting Old Sucks." I wasn't sure how depressed to become over this, to find that our voracious youth culture now bullies even its victims to adopt its characteristic medium (the slogan T-shirt) and to promote the essence of its value system. Now, one could argue that she is subverting the medium and the message, and the discomfort I felt at seeing her was testimony to how effective she was. But you could also argue that she was forced to resort to an alien, self-abnegating attempt at cool just to get someone like me to even notice that she exists at all.

Youth has long ceased to be about age, being instead an all-purpose ideal posited to make consumers of all ages feel inadequate and insecure. Everyone can now be tyrannized by the pressure to be young. The old woman was no more disturbing than the baby with a cute T-shirt on, except that the baby is worse, as it evinces a set of parents with no qualms about using their own child as a cool accessory. Once, there was a dignity to the wisdom of maturity which offset the inherent appeals of youth, the freshness and innocence. Now, youth has been stripped of those qualities, made instead into a relentless prod to be better than you are, to be happier than you are, while maturity has lost all dignity, as its wisdom has been rendered useless. Knowledge is worthless, because the cycles of fashion obey no logic, adhere to no traditional notions. Cool, which is the quality youth now is advertised as possessing instead of innocence, is the anti-wisdom, offering a more direct, more effortless route to happiness than knowledge or wisdom, which it suggests will only make you old (which sucks). One doesn't know how to be cool, one is cool. Ads make sure we know we aren't cool, and leave us no hope but to imitate the avatars of cool they put before us. Everybody learns how to live from the media now, and from its images of the cool and youthful. The old, stripped of their former function as teachers, find themselves worse off than their erstwhile pupils, thrown back upon the cool merchants that have usurped their role, trying to learn themselves what can't be taught, what can only seemingly be bought, but which of course can never really be possessed, even by the ad campaigners who themselves dreamed up these despotic images of the good life.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Real cynical

In a Time Out New Yorksidebar interview with Thom Andersen, the director (or cine-essayist, as Time Out refers to him) of a recent documentary about LA as film set, he makes a remark which struck me as extremely apt. He's condemning the film LA Confidential for "preaching a kind of political defeatism, which is misleading and condescending, because the people who preach it aren't always politically disengaged. They're preaching political disengagement to other people, which produces disenfranchisement."
How true is that? Films routinely portray political committment with cynicism in an attempt to convey "realism" that way. Realism, in this case, means hopeless and intractable by definition. It's not "realistic" that anything can be changed, that corruption can be controlled, contained, or at least fought. Movies so often portray sunny wish fulfillments that perhaps such dour cynicism is necessary to cue viewers that we're supposed to consider ourselves within the realm of the real. But it is condescending to peddle this discouraging view of what is actual and possible.
Also, such films discourage viewers from political activism because such activity would take them away from theatres -- theatres do good business when people can't find any hopefulness or meaning in their real lives, which investment in political causes might give them. Instead these movies reassure you that you shouldn't bother, that it's all a racket, and you should consider yourself wiser, the "realist," for already having learned this from films, and for spending your time watching fictional characters live and confront problems rather than doing so yourself.
Popular films necessarily try to pich themselves beyond politics, to alienate no potential portion of their audience, but the cumulative effect of consuming all this post-political media is to absorb their apolitical pessimism as your own political position, to imagine it necessary that you yourself be beyond politics, or see through all politics as shallow lying, too, so perhaps you won't alienate any potential friends, or that you can claim some of the inherent glamor of movies for yourself by adopting their point of view on the world. This is a shame, because being beyond politics is simply disenfranchising yourself voluntarily, which is a de facto vote for everything you might stand against.