Thursday, March 31, 2005

Wall Street Journal Roundup

I don't have much time to develop arguments today, but these items from the Journal speak for themselves. Arizona police are worried that allowing volunteers with guns to patrol the Mexican border might lead to vigilantism. Boy, that would be shocking, huh. Aren't these just fair-minded, self-surrendering citizens who want to police the border? These wouldn't be people with a personal grudge against immigrants. Also, some parents are now "outsourcing" their children's potty training to "fussy-baby" services. Perhaps you'll be able to send your infant to Banglalore to have its diapers changed. The current administration's tax policy hypocrisy is addressed in a piece about the AMT, which, because it isn't indexed to inflation, is shifting more and more of the tax burden to middle-class families in Democratic-leaning states. I wonder why Congress isn't fighting to cut these taxes? Maybe because the shortfall for cutting business taxes is made up conveniently by this little loophole. Also of note, a front-page story about Chinese tax collection reminds us that in America, 83% of the tax burden is bourne by individuals rather than businesses. And why shouldn't it be that way, when our friends at the largest insurance company in the world, AIG, have confessed to essentially systematically defrauding their investors for several years. What! Insurance companies defrauding? I thought we the people had the problem with defrauding them -- as when we refuse to report our addresses honestly or pwn up to our preexisting health conditions so they can bar us coverage. I'm just shocked to see a scandal like this in such an honest, straightforward business as insurance. Next you tell me that there's waste and needless paperwork in the medical-billing industry. To finish things up, the heart-warming story of the executive with MS who didn't feel comfortable enough to admit his condition to his employer. Though companies are mandated by law to be tolerant of such medical conditions, this person must not have felt reassured that his company wouldn't find little ways to screw him over that would be hard to prove on the record.
Also: the Bush administration is prosecuting blacks for their discrimination against whites, is cutting funds to the victims of crime, and is gutting the protection of whistleblowers. All in all, a banner day.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Democracy and business interests

One of the reasons it's so hard to take George Bush, the buisness-class lackey extraordinaire, at all seriously when he champions the march of democracy in the Middle East and the old Soviet republics is the tradition emnity of business for democratic ways. Business prefers a despot (cf, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan), who can overrule popular but not especially profitable notions like higher standards of living for wider swaths of the population and environmental protections that democratic bodies have a tendency to pass. (America has a workaround in the form of demogoguery -- cf Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?) Business prefers stability to all other things as well, which a despot (or Alan Greenspan) can provide in spades.

In The Passions and the Interests, Hirschman cites two striking insights made early on in capitalism's history regarding the compatibility of private business interests and despotic, antidemocratic governments. The first comes from Adam Smith's Scottish contemporary, Adam Ferguson: "Liberty is never in greater danger than it is when we measure national felicity . . . by the mere tranquillity which may attend on equitable administration." The point is that keeping the waters calm for business is no sign that liberty is spreading, any more than more diverse and abundant consumer markets are. These things may actually be preoccupations distracting us from the curtailment of freedom, the dismantling of social safety nets. Married to our material interests, we are likely to agree to whatever depotic measure is pitched to us to stave off some supposed economic crisis just around the corner. Think of the current social security demogogery coming from the president: a perfect example of a phony crisis being trumped up to preserve the interests of the wealthy and their heirs and the expense of the liberties of the rest of society. The other comes from Toqueville, who is more customarily quoted in support of the proposition that commerce only thrives in free societies. His views weren't so simple: "People think they follow the doctrine of interest, but they only have a crude idea of what it is, and, to watch the better over what they call their business, they neglect the principal part of it, which is to remain their own masters." When people have their attentions fixated on profit, and see it as a proxy for freedom, actual liberty in the form of rights is readily shelved, espcially in imperialist scenarios where the rights-exporpriation is exported to third-world countries far from the stockholders who benefit by it.

The point is that isolated individuals watching out for their own financial interests don't automatically aggregate into a free society that preserves everyone's rights. The fight for profit is often a zero-sum game. And often individuals are so divorced from collective politcal power, that they are led to believe they must mortgage their rights in order to secure profits. They allow themselves to become so preoccupied with their personal gain that they let society become progressively worse (the NIMBY phenomenon). And as society worsens the political landscape ripens for demogogues like the current charlatan in the White House. A vicious cycle, indeed.

Theses about commercial fiction, consumer societies

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Our facility at enjoying commercial fiction, adopting to its conventions and enjoying its foreshortenings and its illusions, makes us able to enjoy shopping more -- its necessary pre-purchase fantasizing, how ads are metonyms for powerful narratives of our values, how there can be a dramatic arc to our market experience.

8. Connoiseurship in the market -- the quest for distinctive goods -- has roots in the connoiseurship of feeling, experienced vicariously through the earliest commercial novels and the taste in reading it allow to be expressed.

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

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

Drug store blues

If I've read the commercial real estate markers right, there's a new Duane Reade drug store coming to the corner of Broadway and 57th street. Of course, there's already a Duene Reade on this corner, and one a block away at 58th and 8th. But that's not stopping the company from opening another one in this apparent epicenter of pharmaceutical consumption. Crack dealers can't even work the same corner profitably. How come Duane Reade can?

It is the most extreme example of a nationwide phenomenon of drug stores multiplying with an obscene, bunny-like promiscuity. Even when I lived in Tucson, I was astounded by all the new Walgreen's going up, opening faster even than predatory paycheck loan cabanas. How can the market sustain all these drug stores? It seems to be a dark commentary on the profit margins involved in the drug industry, or at least on the ways in which retailers can piggyback frivolous purchases on the necessary medicine purchases people must make. LIke paycheck-cashing kiosks, drug stores can apparently make money anywhere they choose to open; they have a kind of captive market that can freely predate upon. The typical drug store is like a Wal-Mart in miniature, or a steroidal five-and-dime with all sorts of sundry goods available, from groceries to truck-stop-caliber CDs and cassettes to makeup to toys to liquor to stationary. They behave as though they are the only store in a fifty-mile radius, even though there is often another store just like it in the next shopping center down the boulevard (or at the next corner for those cities that still have pedestrians). Maybe I'm not in the demographic for drug stores, but no one I know is ever excited or relieved to see another drug store open. It usually just seems like a waste of commercial space that could have gone to something your neighborhood really needs (like a Trader Joe's or something). Like fast-food restaurants, the drug stores seem to muscle out other potential businesses and reduce commercial strips to the bland sameness of cheap-apartment wall-to-wall carpeting. It seems like we're edging closer to the logical endpoint, where nothing will exist but drugstores, and all commodities will be perceived as drugs themselves, each in their own way.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Follow your greed

How did greed (aka self-interest) go from being one of the deadliest of sins to become the underpinning and core value of an entire civilization? That's the question that A. O. Hirschman attempts to answer in The Passion and the Interests, which traces the evolution of the intellectual concepts that undergird capitalism. Hirschman argues that greed came to be considered a counterveiling passion to the more destructive passions of lust and hatred and honor and so forth because of its predictability and presumed universality. Also, it's very insatiability came to be seen as a point in its favor, because the presumed fact that the desire for more wealth can never be sated means that avarice is always operating in all men, and can be used as a lever to rule over all men alike. As Simmel explained, "as a thing absolutely devoid of quality, [money] cannot harbor either surprise or disappointment, as does any object." Coveting money so easily beccomes a single-minded mania because it is never subject to the law of diminishing marginal utility: one ham sandwich is nice, but five of them is overkill. But a million dollars is nice, and five million is even nicer, and fifty million is nicer still -- as long as one doesn't try to convert money into specific utility. The lust for money is insatiable only when it is fetishized as an end unto itself and not a means to another end.

Reduced to his greed, man's psychology is rather simple, and manipulating him into participating in a social order becomes that much more plausible. To this end, one might conclude, man is henceforth encouraged in his greed at the expense of other pursuits. He is encouraged to fetishize money as an end in itself. Self-interest is held to be the only interest; all other interests ultimately can be reduced to it (a la Rochefoucauld's Maxims). From this point, self-interest can be defined as the only form of rational decision-making, and refusal to be greedy can be seen as a kind of insanity. Because the greed of a host of independent agents is seen to check and balance each other in the aggregate, and produce a growing and expanding society, refusal to be greedy is positively detrimental, subversive. But following one's greed is perfectly natural and excusable.

Monday, March 28, 2005


I had to buy a new mattress over the weekend, which meant an entirely depressing encounter with a salesperson. I had a pretty good idea what I wanted, something exactly the same as the bed I already own, except new and king size. When I found the like model in my local Sleepy's, the saleswoman basically ignored my plea to circumvent salesmanship, told me I didn't really know what I wanted, forced me to lay down on a computerized gizmo that purported to tell me what was most comfortable, tried to steer me to Sleepy's house brand, gave me a bunch of flimflam disinformation about comfort zones and so on, tried to force me to buy a $60 mattress "protector" and only barely stopped short of calling me an idiot when I refused, quoted me an excessive price, laughed at me when I told her I wanted to shop around and price compare, told me that "price comparison is a waste of time," then offered to call her manager to see if she could plead on my behalf for a better deal to prove that I shouldn't shop around, and then tried to insist the Sleepy's price guarantee made comparison shopping irrelevant. I don't know why I tried to reason this woman (even going so far as talking about "information asymmetry" at one point) who so clearly intended to regard me as a dimwit mark and a pushover. But she probably learned that her method is most successful, especially considering she'll have one chance with the average mattress purchaser every twenty years. The rarer the purchase, the more aggressive and deceitful the salesperson, who has to make most of her money on commissions from sporadic sales. This is why real estate agents are the most deceitful of all.

But commission-driven salespeople break out all the sleazy tricks, it seems, to mystify the process and make you feel weak and anxious. They prey on your instinct to be civil and nice and cooperative and use that against you, because they feel no civility toward you, seeing you as an opportunity to make money. High-pressure sales is a very bizarre career choice, seeming to require more than the usual amount of sociopathy, cynicism and contempt. It seems a refuge for the desperate, because it takes a kind of Hobbesean chip-on-the-shoulder desperation to fuel their aggressive pitches. Or it requires people who simply enjoy manipulating others, for its own sake, or for the sake of measuring the reach of their powers. Perhaps each boiler-room encounter is like chess to them, and they end up admiring the ingenuity of their tactics. But it seems to me that you're a fool if you don't view sales encounters like combat. Threaten to go to a competitor, call bullshit on what they say, laugh at their pitches, and see how flustered they become.

I ended up walking out on the saleswoman who was pressuring me, going to a Sleepy's down the street, and buying the same bed from a guy with a soft-sell approach who gave me the discounted price, which incidentally was advertised in company's newspaper circular.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Theses about consumer societies

1. When a consumer society becomes dominant, aesthetic value is measured in marketability and commercial values merge with artistic values. (Hence, the Grammies). What is valuable is what we imagine ourselves owning; this dream of ownership gives a work of art its aura.

2. In a consumer society, advertisements replace entertainment. Their purpose is to inspire insecurity, which becomes synonymous with desire, which is treasured as that which propels one into society. Advertisments mimic rationalism so that its parodies of logic, its fallacies, can be mistaken for reasoning, can convince.

3. Advertisements manifest the unifying ideology in a consumerist society, providing the imaginative space where citizens can comingle, replacing the physical space where conversations once occurred. Ads are the matrix undergirding the consumer society, its atmosphere, its substance. They are not merely an aspect of such a society, but it's very atomic structure. The fantasy in the ad space is now where our most meaningful interactions, our deepest and most affirming conversations with (imagined) others takes place.

4. Brands attached to products are emotional triggers. Ads attach emotions to inert words, to neutral everyday concepts and necessities, vivifying them, glamorizing the drudgery of subsistance, the necessities of reproducing our current ways of life. In this they replace ritualized religion.

5. The habit of narrating our existence, of making a unified, coherent story of our lives, derives from our exposure to advertising, which mythologizes the individual and his autonomous potency. The experience of sympathy, of vicariousness, these precede the notion of ourselves having a life story worth telling. A life story is always a public phenomenon, even when its completely personal and inarticulate. Because the personal narrative is socially generated, it internalizes in the interior monologue social mechanisms of control, the various insecurities to which we're subject. The degree to which we feel insecurity is simultaneously the degree to which we feel we belong to society. This is why our consumer products seem to assuage and intesify this insecurity at the same time.

6. The experience of vicarious sympathy as pleasure, a pleasure in the misery or joy of others, compensates for the loss of solidarity that stems from individualism. Consumer society depends on our experiencing sympathy as more satisfying than solidarity. Thus ads and commercial entertainment illustrate and emphasize the pleasures of observation and undermine the pleasures of participation.

7. Under capitalism, having an inner life becomes a commodity, an experience that is sold to the individual, and valued to the degree the individual has to pay for it. This inner life then becomes subject to the pressures of social emulation -- one compares its depth and profundity to that of other people and measures oneself accordingly.

Musique feminine, continued

Now I've reached practioners of la musique feminine proper, artists who express feminism not merely through their lyrics but through the very form their music takes, a form that is theoretically particular to female modes of consciousness. To do this properly, I should really have my copy of "The Laugh of the Medusa" (from The Newly-Born Woman) open in front of me, close-reading passages and appying them to these songs I've picked out. But I'm in the porcess of moving, and it's packed in a box somewhere. I just think there's an interesting parallel to me made between these musicians and writers like Cixous, Wittig, Sarraute. I've tried to avoid music that is merely meant to be marketed to women, that is created according to the very stereotypes of essential femininity these artists were trying to undermine. This leads one to the usual conundrum about essences. I'm not necessarily endorsing such an essentialist view of gender, however. I only report, and you decide. I don’t think one can gender techniques – that to do so is to apply a social construction, and attempt to naturalize that by developing its web-like reach. But who knows? Perhaps if you strung these songs together and looped it for an afternoon, you might really start speaking from the body and destabilizing the masculinist hierarchies that enable logicentric "thought."

1. The Slits, “Spend, spend, spend,” “Typical girls” (1979)

According to guitarest Viv Albertine, this is how the Slits developed their musical style: “It came completely out of nowhere, this weird, self-taught organic thing. As we became more aware, we didn’t want to follow male rhythms and structures. . . . We consciously thought about getting girl rhythms into music and concluded that female rhythms were probably not as steady, structured, or as contained as male rhythms.” Albertine also admits the “influence of the whole 70’s feminism thing.” This is somewhat ironic, since the Slits ended up with a male drummer playing traditional reggae beats with deep historical roots. Nevertheless, this exemplifies self-conscious attempts at making “female music.” One can hear the hallmarks in the unrestrained vocal style and the pointed lyrical critiques. The Slits try to claim the call-and-response structure as an aspect of essential femaleness, an approach that will continue to crop up. Ari Up's singing illustrates Kristevan semiosis: yelping pre-lingual nonsense noises from outside the oppresive paradigms of comprehensible language (aka the Symbolic). The guitar playing is unconventional: “angular” or “jagged” in rock critic terminology. The song's evince an untutored "purity" that's supposed to ensure that this is tapping into some sort of pre-rational spontaneity. The idea is that training means automatically training into a phallologicentric musical heritage/hegemony.

2. The Raincoats, “No looking,” “Fairytale in the supermarket,” “The void” (1980)

The Raincoats approach is in my phallologocentric opinion, a bit more sophisticated and a bit more radical. The lyrics are not as overt in their critique, and the music is more complex on its own innovative terms. The rhythms here really are unconventional and uncontained. The musical influence of Nico and the Velvet Underground is very apparent (The Velvet Underground had a female drummer who was often praised for her “primitive” style). In his liner notes Kurt Cobain (a big fan) claims that “They’re playing their music for themselves,” and that makes it appealing, moving, reassuring. Again, the fundamental myth behind this concept of female music is that the musicans are removed completely from the commercial and cultural matrix by virtue of something – here it might be their faintly foreign status – the singer is Portugese and the drummer Spanish. With the Shaggs, it was that they were rural children. With later bands it will be because they are crazy, or foreign, or gay, or something.

3. Kleenex (aka LiLiPut), “Ain’t you,” “Hedi’s head” (1978), “Feel like snakes twisting through the fog”, “Outburst” (1981)

It's kind of amazing that this band, who hail from Switzerland, of all places, ever existed. If Kleenex hadn’t have existed, Cixous and Kristeva would have had to invent them. It is as though they read “The Laugh of the Medusa” and Desire in Language, and interpreted them as though they were Rock and roll for Dummies books. The liner notes for reissue of their complete works are pretty amazing too. About “Hedi’s head”: “As far as anyone had ever heard before, what the group produced was absolutely female -- noises males would have been ashamed to make. . ., the syllables racing in a circle like a boomerang. . . . It was the language of so full of resentment and desire, playfulness and fear, that they simply cannot keep quiet discovering there was no reason why they should . . . the feeling of breaking loose is irresistable: they sound like ten-year-olds maniacally cutting up their Barbie dolls.” According to the liner notes, Kleenex wrote lyrics in English because English is a language where precision was especially difficult for them to achieve – sometimes words were chosen randomly from a dictionary: “meanings would be lost and meanings would emerge out of the mess.” Kim Gordon, the bass player for Sonic Youth, who does this sort of music herself, claims “they used girl voices in a joyous language that pronounced freedom without commercialization of girlhood or political pedantry.” All of this goes to show the way this idea of female music is shaped by critics and practioners eager to define a genre. The musical ideas of this genre are here realized in their purest form – this would be, then, if you buy the argument, music at its most female – with all the abject semiotics and non-linear irrationality that would be supposed to connote.

4. Throwing Muses, “Stand up” (1986); “Red Shoes” (1991)

Throwing Muses employ a number of the stylistic features of la musique féminine: quirky rhythms, swirling arpeggiated guitar figures, impressionistic lyrics that subvert grammar and monologic interpretation, and a yelping, yodelling vocal style whose influence is all over the Ani DiFrancos and Alanis Morrisettes to follow in their wake. Kristen Hersh, who possesses that voice, has had well documented struggles with mental illness and that contributes, for better or for worse, to the band's essential female mystique – her vocal style and her lyrics, often dubbed “irrational” by the sort of writers for whom that is a positive thing are presumed to give vent to some feminist truths and frustrations à la The Madwoman in the Attic. Often the music achieves a palpable and disturbing intensity, as if you were eavesdropping on a schizophrenic or listening to a precocious child throwing a tantrum – perhaps this is the intended well-accomplished effect. Throwing Muses streamlined and popularized the kind of music the Raincoats were making, but more likely they were more overtly influenced by early 4AD Goth music like the Cocteau Twins. Later the band Belly spun off from Throwing Muses, and had a big '90s alternative radio hit, “Feed the Tree.” By that point the radical aspects of their kind music had been completely dulled into easily marketable idiosycracies, stylistic tics that differentiate in a crowded market. Around then sonically crafted female angst became a dependable niche market: witness Hole, Garbage, Fiona Apple, Alanis Morrisette, etc. Kristen Hersh never got to cash in, except in cultural and intellectual capital – she gets taken seriously as a poet/artist.

5. Sonic Youth, “Flower” (1985)

Sonic Youth's bassist, Kim Gordon, who takes up feminist topics and concepts in the songs she contributes. All of their music has intellectual pretensions; the avant-garde feminism is just one of those concerns. Gordon became a role model for the riot grrl acts that took many cues from her look and sound. This song features her angry, noisy polemical style – her other style is a half-talk, half-whisper approach where the concern is to delineate some confused and disturbing subject position.

6. Sleater-Kinney, “Banned from the End of the World” (1999), “The Drama that You’ve Been Craving” (1997)

Sleater-Kinney originally got a lot of press for being lesbians, which means something to some people and perhaps serves as a guarantee of their femino-centric approach. I include them because of their style, which I think is a successful evolution of some of the stuff above – the guitar work is still amateurish by Van Halen standards, but is expert and proficient by its own. The layered vocals allow them to achieve the “female” polyrhythmy simultaneously while injecting some healthy destabilizing dialogism and polysemy at the same time. The overlapping vocals move at different tempos in different keys, different lyrics in different rhythmical patterns that comment on each other in various intriguing ways. They can serve to represent the whole riot grrl sound, even though they are really post riot grrl. That whole movement was about seizing rock and roll from men, and deriving some sort of mode for women to rock in – some bands, like L7 just sounded like male grunge bands with female singers, but others were more experimental in their approach. Bikini Kill is the band that best represents the genre, but their music is basically straightforward punk. Sleater-Kinney are technical innovators.

7. P J Harvey, “Yuri G” (1993)

Harvey usually works a blues-rock vein, but she veers over into “female music” strategies occasionally. This song is from Rid of Me, which is probably her most confrontational work. She wanted to challenge stereotypes of feminine passivity and daintiness by projecting this larger than life persona, described in another song as a “50 Foot Queenie.” Most of the songs describe sexual desperation with unsettling intensity. This, presumably, is unlady-like to some people, and makes her music a bit of a jolt for them. She will use her share of histrionical vocals, and will use repetition as a musical strategy in a way that could be linked to psychoanalytic theories of pre-symbolic experience.

8. Erase Errata, Other Animals

Strongly influenced by Liliput, Erase Errata employs the strategies of spontaneity, fragmentation and repetition and gutteral, semi-lingual singing and pursues evergreen feminist topics such the male gaze, consumer reification, and the like.

Obviously I have left out much I could have included under the shifting criteria I have employed in compiling this. I could have, for example, thrown in representative music of the Lillith Fair variety, or Ani DiFranco, or Tori Amos, but one could argue that its commerciality disqualifies it, makes of it a compromised music that shows the way the “system” will co-opt female music and smooth it out, and nullify its radical potential. Yoko Ono should be included somewhere too: not only did she break up the Beatles, the quintessential homosocial band, but she made her own atonal antimusic that codifies many of the feminist formal approaches described above.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Musique feminine

I had this idea for a compilation CD of "feminist" music, or at least what some have called feminist anyway. This was one of my track lists, with annotation. When music labelled feminist, it's because it either dignifies female subjectivity (and problems typically classed female), or it presents women who defy cultural stereotypes of femininity (it presents women as aggressive, sexual, funny, etc.). A smaller subset of this music is labelled feminist because it defies what one normally expects of pop music formally and structurally. This is female music that can be made by men (the way Judith Butler argues that gender lebles have little to do with biological sex). Or this music could be likened to the écriture feminine idea of French feminism, where the form the work takes is analgous to some presumptive unique female perspective on experience, to modes of subjectivity specific to women alone (or accessible perhaps to only very special, very feminized poet-men like Mallarmé and Rimbaud who are okayed by Irigaray). This would be disc one:

Roots of la musique féminine

1. Bessie Smith, “You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon” (1925)

Bessie Smith is allegedly the first recorded female blues singer, notable also because she wrote a great deal of material for herself. She unapolegtically sings from the female point of view with undeniable emotional authority in a time when much music sung by women made women seem significant only in their availability as love objects or in their childlike dependence on male financial and emotional support. Women singers sang to tempt and tittilate men and incite their pleasure. Bessie Smith, in her songs about sex, sings viscerally about procuring her own pleasure. In this, Bessie Smith is hardly unique among blues singers; and any of her successors (Lucille Bogan, Odetta, Big Mama Thornton, Nina Simone, etc.) could be included. She is the first, though.

2. Billie Holiday, “Trav’lin’ All Alone” (1937)

Another of Bessie Smith’s successors, Holiday is female blues singer whose work is most likely to pop up in a teenager’s collection. She achieved iconic status probably because her life as was notorious and self-destructive as her talent was transcendent. Critics primarily champion her earlier work, Tin Pan Alley songs she invested with unlikely emotional depth through sheer vocal technique. Her popular success came later, on songs “God Bless the Child,” and “Strange Fruit,” where her voice is cracked and mannered, ravaged, but thereby more easily able to communicate unambiguous sentiment. The lyrical content of most of the songs she recorded were standard appeals for or celebrations of heterosexual love, but a knowing irony lurking in her renditions always seemed to undermine it.

3. Peggy Lee, “Why Don’t You Do Right (Get me some money too)” (1948)

Peggy Lee has a reputation for being a risqué popular singer, a sort of anti Doris Day. She recorded songs that were overtly sexual and clearly articulated undeniable and unembarrassed female desire, as on her most famous hit, “Fever”. But her career started with her absorbing Billie Holiday’s influence while singing with Benny Goodman’s band. Later she abandoned the big bands, and became, like Frank Sinatra, one of the first vocalists to “go solo.” She wrote many of her hits in the '40s and was involved in the construction of her own image in the media, which makes her a proto-Madonna. This song was her breakthrough hit with Goodman’s band. It showcases a feistiness that often earns the “proto-feminist” label, probably because anything critical coming out of a woman’s mouth tends to be labelled that way. I think one has to read this song as ironic in order to call it feminist; one must see her mocking this gold-digger stereotype. Anyway it embodies an un-self-conscious right to be demanding in a way that didn’t also connote weakness.

4. Leslie Gore, “You Don’t Own Me” (1964)

This feminist anthem speaks for itself. Gore also had a big hit with “It’s My Party” (and I’ll cry if I want to, etc.). She had a “bratty” image because she comes across in her music as resistant and assertive. Some of this song’s potency has been lost through its trivialization by Hollywood, which loves to use it in “women’s movies” like The First Wives Club. It certainly retains more of its power than Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” which is awfully corny in its eagerness to exploit the '70s women’s lib movement. That song neutralizes and trivializes the power of that movement by containing it in that trite music, sending the message that the establishment was now "with it," too, and that all was okay, because the fight for women's rights had clearly already been won if this could be on the radio.

5. Joan Baez, “Pretty Boy Floyd” (1963)

I don’t care much for Baez’s academic folk music, or her preternatural, pitch-perfect voice, but she merits inclusion because she is one of the first examples of a female pop musician taken seriously for her intellect. Much was made of her crazy voice, but much was made also of her impeccable taste in blues and folk and of her innovative renderings of this material, which amount to scholarly presentations and academic arguments for new ways to understand it. Her influence on Bob Dylan is widely noted, and her mark is all over serious female singer-songwriter types – most notably Joni Mitchell.

6. Janis Joplin, “Kozmic Blues” (1969)

According to her bio on, Joplin “did much to redefine the role of women in rock with her assertive, sexually forthright persona and raunchy, electrifying onstage presence.” She certainly didn’t make it on her looks: Leonard Cohen summed the situation when he sang of himself and Joplin, “we are ugly, but we have the music.” Joplin belts out her songs without restraint, which is what qualifies her in the eyes of some as a groundbreaking woman artist – it certainly makes a marked contrast with Joan Baez. This same lack of restraint may also explain her death by drug overdose in 1970.

7. Nico, “Frozen Warnings” (1969)

Nico’s music is usually described as “uncompromising,” a quality that anticipates most directly the music I'll call la musique féminine, music analgous to the écriture féminine in that its very form constitutes (allegedly) some sort of essential femaleness. Nico wasn’t operating within that theoretical context as her successors would be, but her music presents many of the later music’s hallmarks: Her monotone singing voice would be widely adopted, often to the point where native English speakers would mimic her European accent; the atonal screeching of the instrumentation would also figure largely, as would the intensity developed through echoey, repetitious, swirling melodic figures. The lack of any steady driving rhythm or traditional popular-song structure completes the recipe that would later produce the Raincoats and LiLiput. Nico first became famous for her cameo in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and had a career as a fashion model in the early '60s. Perhaps because she was so striking and lacked any apparent talent for singing, Warhol recruited her to sing for the Velvet Underground, who basically invented the concept avant-garde/art rock music. After releasing solo albums of inpenetrable remoteness, she solidfied her image as some kind of ice goddess, whose recorded output stands as an ineffable monument to "female mystery".

8. Joni Mitchell, “California” (1971)

Joni Mitchell wrote some peace anthems and sing alongs for the Woodstockers before she became the introspective singer/songwriter who produced the album from which this song is taken, Blue. Here she analyzes the vagaries of heterosexual relationships from the female point of view, and takes herself to task repeatedly for not being able to live up her standard of individual freedom. The need for love, familiarity, and stability always seem to drag her back. This appears in her songs as the quintessential problem for modern women, and by voicing the tension so clearly, Mitchell seems to become a spokesperson for them. After having made a series of albums that were so closely identified with female point of view, she would abandon this sort of introspective music and gender as a defining characteristic to pursue an interest in gender neutral avant-garde jazz fusion. Here's what has to say about her: “Fiercely independent, her work steadfastly resisted the whims of both mainstream audiences and the male-dominated recording industry.” A trend begins to develop: feminist music is almost by definition anti-commercial, “uncompromising,” and unpopular with mainstream audiences.

9. The Shaggs, “Sweet thing,” “My Pal Foot Foot” (1969)

Music doesn’t get any more uncompromising or uncommercial than this. The Shaggs are legendary. Encouraged (forced) by their father to form a group, the teenage Wiggins sisters were driven into a recording studio with instruments they could barely play to make an album of all original songs. The result, Philosophy of the World, has been lauded by some as a work of pure, uncompromised genius and has been deemed by others a tragic souvenir of a peculiar form of childhood torment. The Shaggs are important to the idea of musique féminine because of their myth: Music made by women would presumably sound like this if it were completely free from outside influence (the myth is that the Wiggins sisters were these perfect naïve artists). Without any indoctrination into Western (phallologocentric) musical standards, the Shaggs create their own rules, rejecting fundamental ideas about music such as consistent tempo and key. They defy the idea of counterpoising melodies by having the vocal melody match that of the guitar, note for atonal note. They do away with traditional harmony altogether, creating raga-ish dischord. None of this has anything to do with the logic and mathematics that underpin traditional Western music, so it can be hailed as beautiful on its own radical terms, the terms French feminists celebrate, the irrational, the messy, and the abject, the circular and self-referential, the spatially (rather than linearally) repetitive. (I am particularly fond of the drumming, which is completely chaotic but compelling in the way it adheres to its own arhthymic patterns.) One can’t help but notice the similarity between this music and music made by later iconclasts who viewed their lack of musical training as a positive advantage. I don’t think you can listen to the Raincoats without hearing echoes of this music. But the Shaggs remain much more radical. The lack of steady tempo, the off-key singing, the rambling unbounded song structures; all of this will turn up in the consciously radical female music of the late '70s and '80s.

10. Patti Smith, “Gloria” (1975)

Patti Smith’s idea of concept art, and it remains radical, was to invert the typically masculine codes of rock music and make them express an androgynous, bisexual sensiblity. To say she defied stereotypes understates her accomplishment. She took rock standards like "Gloria" and opened them up to the inclusion of her poetry, which seems to have something to do with gender, but I can’t really tell. She was the first woman to play punk rock, possibly the first person of any gender to play punk rock. Her debut album, Horses, is one of the best rock albums of any genre. Her work, like Nico’s, establishes the precedent of including inscrutable poetry as a marker of female music. Her butch image also becomes a kind of standard for the defiant female musicians who follow in her wake – she makes rejection of codes of feminine appearance an important aspect of the serious woman rocker.

11. The Pretenders, “Precious” (1980)

Chrissie Hynde certainly owes a lot to Patti Smith: She adopts a lot of her look and attitude from Smith’s early work. Around this time critics were beginning to recognizing women such as Hynde as feminist in their intent. The lyrics she wrote for the first Pretenders album are usually championed for their uncompromising female point of view and for embracing rightous female anger – the usual things really that critics never tire of pointing out, things that just never seem to fail to surprise mainstream Americans – women can be angry? women can desire sex? women can curse? women can reject heterosexual love as the end all and be all of existence? Shocking! Critics also like to point to a vulnerability underneath Hynde’s tough veneer, which seems particularly patronizing. Vulnerability and toughness are not necessarily opposites. In fact, their coexistence may define one of the most piquant qualities of la musique féminine. What does it mean for music to be vulnerable? A willingness to risk being labelled incompetent, uncommercial, non-conformist, unfeminine in a society where those things are not negligible sacrifices?

12. The Roches, “Pretty and High” (1979)

The queens of dork folk, the Roches are not unlike the Shaggs in that they are three sisters who harmonize in unconventional ways and sing quirky songs about unexpected topics. I find it all pretty annoying, which I figure means that it is working the way it is supposed to, alienating my male consciousness. This is how I feel about Ani DiFranco, so I suspect the Roches are one of her influences. There is a tendency toward histrionics in this music that many associate with music by and for women. I hope they are not right in that association.

Disc two later ...

Friday, March 25, 2005


No one could have been more pleased than me when I got Thomas de Zengotita's Mediated out of the free pile at my work a few days after an excerpt appeared in Harper's. I thought the Harper's piece was extremely provocative, gave me material for many a blog post. I put off reading it for a few months, sort of the way you put off listening to all of a new album by your favorite band, or read a letter from a friend very deliberately, allowing the joy to sink in. I wanted to savor the anticipation I had of reading it a little longer, much in the way Colin Campbell theorizes in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I was enjoying imagining all its insight and all the pleasure I would get from it that would, alas, inevitably come to end when I finished reading.

Only once I started Mediated it quickly dawned on me that I hated it. The central thesis, that our apprehension of reality is compromised by the series of options we are confronted with for refashioning it, is still extremely useful, but the manner in which its presented is relentlessly brash, in prose amped up on Mountain Dew and saturated with in jokes desperate to signify that the author's "with it." It's smug, arch, David Brooksian tone grated on me in every possible way, like Laura Kipnis multiplied by ten. I find it extremely upsetting when people who are obviously articulate in social theory pooh-pooh it and refer to it disdainfully even as they patronizingly dumb it down and employ its arguments. It's as though they think theory is embarrassing, and they would no sooner employ its terminolgy than expose their genitals in a gatefold insert. They try to posture as though theory is in some crank-intellectual ghetto, while they are comfortable in the mainstream of rational thought, purged of fanciful excessiveness and silly jargon. By adopting this stance, they suggest that the mainstream is synonymous with reasonableness, that "everyday" language is not already ideological in character. That's the problem with trying to translate social theory into slack tweener slang or commonsense conversational tones. The language of mainstream journalism, of op-ed columns and lifestyle magazines, is built to buffer people from the kind of insight that social theory and media criticism is trying to elucidate. So it seems like de Zengotita is bending over backward to undermine his argument with his own prose style. His arguments tend to devour themselves as he loads them with contrived real-life examples and jokey asides. It's can be as awkward as one of your parents telling a dirty joke, or scripted Acadamy Award banter between presenters. It's like late Baudrillard without the nihilistic glee.

But worse than that is the implication of his "Justin's helmet" principle, which, if I've understood it properly, suggests that it's okay and perfectly understandable for parents to suspend what's in the best interests of society to do what's in the best interests of their precious child. This is the very essence of capitalist hegmony as it's enforced by the nuclear family and its cadre of "family values." This is what the culture war with its "defense of marriage" is all about, reinforcing this selfish attitude (as well as the gender roles that cement this set of social relations) at the expense of a cohesive society. By stressing overanxious "family values" and instilling divisive hostility in the community at large, atomized families are encouraged to turn their backs on each other and accept the war of all against all as natural and even preferable. It is the essence of the Republicans' salt-the-earth, fuck-the-poor platform, which destroys all the safety nets and attempts to sell it on the short-sighted principle that "you get more for your family." Forget Justin's helmet, this should be called the SUV principle: "I dont care if I waste gas and destroy the environment and make it infinitely more difficult for other drivers to negotiate the streets, I just want to make sure if I cause an accident because I can't really manage a heavy truck, that I kill someone else's family and not my own." It's troubling that de Zengotita seems to endorse this perspective, albeit with a lot of codicils and semi-regrets and hyperventilating excuses. Because if someone who so clearly is capable of "getting it" still caves in to this principle of personal family-oriented selfishness, and elevates it as a universal, unalterable norm, there may really be no hope, as he never tires of insisting.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Flaubertian copy and the Ur-idea of capitalism

Victor Ozols directed me to this 1938 article about sloganeering in the early days of mass marketing. It details the efforts of Elmer Wheeling, who invented "Tested Selling," a quasi-scientific foray into the levers of persuasion with systematic ways to rejigger a customer's common sense so that it embraces pitches rather than resist them, as it ordinarily would reject something so obviously biased and self-serving. One of his methods was to labor lke Flaubert in search of the perfect wording for his catch phrases, the "sizzle" that could sell the steak. This is yet another way that literary and ad-copy methods overlap; they pursue the same meticulous care with language for the same ultimate reasons, to manage the responses of readers and channel their reactions in certain narrow flues.

The cliche runs that "failed" poets become advertising copywriters, as though their poetry is ineffectual. But oftentimes, what has failed is the market for disinterested poetry, poetry that doesn't accomplish any specific goal. Failed poets are not always bad poets. Many copywriters are exquisite poets in the service of the only industry that will reward such talents. They are akin to those journalistic acrobats who wind beautifully intricate, tightly coiled sentences aren't such trivial topics as the latest 50 Cent album. Ours is an ends-conscious, pragmatic society, and we tend to respect discourse which has a clearly recognizable purpose. As freshman composition classes laborously teach, we can then evalulate this rhetoric on how well it accomplishes that explicit purpose. What we don't learn is how to appreciate to ambiguous discourse, writing with no obvious and specific intention, for instance, entertainment that doesn't telegraph the emotions it wishes to elicit from you with genre conventions or lyric poetry or exploratory essays, et cetera.

Ad copy is easy to appreciate on its own merit because its intentions are so clear and because it so eagerly panders directly to us. It is designed to make us feel like experts even as they are being persuaded to maintain our ignorance and go with our gut. It flatters us by seeking our opinion and we never reflect that we've been presented with loaded questions -- not if but which, like Wheeler's "One egg or two?" campaign.

But the more sinister bogus question ads invite us to answer is "How persuasive was it?" as when people watch Super Bowl ads and rate them. The illusion is that you are somehow transcending the persuasion by appreciating the commercials for their abstract efficacy or artistry, that you have put yourself on the level of the copywriter and not of the copywriter's mark. But as the autoconfessional nature of the industry's honchos suggests, advertisers want you to know the inner workings of their business, as they seem to feel it is intrinsically glamorous and exciting (as opposed to caustically cynical). They want your empathy in the struggle to open recalcitrant minds, so that you'll overlook the fact that you are one of them. The more we are brought into the conference room where ad campaigns are designed, the more we will feel like soil-sports for not going along with them. Invited into the inner circle, we'll think applying a critical eye to ads is simply an aesthetic question -- how elegant, how effective is that Ford truck ad? -- rather than holding on to the true standard of criticism which asks instead, How honest are this ad's claims, and what values is it promoting in the people it addresses.

Best of all, the most critical mind might block out all questions regarding the ad, and ignore it altogether in a bravura feat of intellectual negation (as I wished I could regarding the "coldest tasting beer in the world" campaign). But, you might ask, if we are ignoring all marketing messages, might we misss the ones that are actually disseminating useful and important information? Isn't it true that all ideas, noble ones as well as commercial ones, need a marketing push behind them to become efficacious in our culture? We'll set aside the point that this may be so only because we have allowed ourselves to be saturated with so many attempts at persuading us that good products and important ideas have a hard time breaking through. Obviously, marketing inevitably breeds more marketing, the way highways simply make the demand for more highways that much more acute.

Of larger significance is this: Can the dubious means of marketing and PR be used to promote noble causes without tainting those causes in the process? Is a product, once advertised, corrupted by the claims made on its behalf, all the ways in which it has failed to sell itself? In other words, if you had the cure for cancer, would you need to market it? And if so, why? Can the means by which phony significance is manufactured then be employed to amplify the significance of something truly important? Marketing posits resistance, presumes skeptcism to be overcome, injects skepticism into things like the theoretical real cancer cures, where it should not be. Marketing makes it impossible to distinguish between the real cure and the patent medicine without more marketing, and that only worsens the problem.

Marketing exists to create profits, not to disseminate information. It is easy to confuse the two, because marketing uses information (or cleverly disguised pseudoinformation) to achieve its ends. But whereever a marketing campaign exists, there also exists someone who's main goal is to make a buck. It may not even be the product's inventor; it may just be the marketer himself; but their presence will leach away the dignity of whatever cause they're backing. But I know, I know, I've got this all backwards. Profits are the only important idea, the life-sustaining ur-idea that capitalism gloriously trumpets in all its discourses, the only source of dignity, its mark and its measure. Maybe if I extend my Journal subscription, I'll finally get that through my head.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The advertising-fiction nexus

I've long argued that genre fiction and advertisements are essentially the same, that they rely on the same emotional hooks to function, that reading one prepares you to be more deeply affected by the other, and it all gives enough pleasing stimuli to keep one satisfied with the whole system. So I don't think it's at all strange or coincidental that James Patterson, the author of a series of inexplicable best-sellers, was once CEO of J. Wlater Thompson, one of America's largest advertising agencies.

Usually I stress the ways in which corporations, advertisers, etc. use confusion (or asymmetrical information, for the jargon-minded) as their weapon (think of cell-phone pricing schemes) so that you are worried about something that you can't pin down and you don't know what you are getting for what you're paying or even have a means to compare prices and find out what the best deal is. But another strategy is soothing simplicity, where motives are made to seem much more simple and much more easily analyzed than they really are, leading to false deductions, a faith in conventional wisdom misapprehended as one's own reasoning, and a lulling sense that common sense is unerring. It is this species that Patterson's fiction and ad copy have in common.

The anti-conservatives

For once The New Yorker is worth reading this week -- it's not one of the ninety-seven "Style Issue" editions that they put out each year to appease their advertisers or yet another "Fiction Issue" or "Humor Issue" or what have you. Instead of giving us too much of something, this week's issue actually gives the standard blend of these things its known for: unfunny cartoons, wry front-of-the-book observational pieces, a good feature story (about advertising history, admittedly a hobby-horse of mine), a think-piece profile (on Antonin Scalia) and reviews by their A-listers -- Menand, Updike and Anthony Lane (not the increasingly annoying David Denby). No Adam Gopnik in sight, thank God. The only thing to make it better would be a column from the ocnsistently excellent Peter Schendjahl to round things out.

Anyway, enough New Yorker dorkery. I brought it up only because Hertzberg made the point I was trying to make (in regard to electricity deregulation) about social saftey nets much more concisely:
Social Security -- like the public-school system, the progressive income tax, the neighborhood public library, the subways and buses, food stamps, and a host of other socialistic schemes -- runs counter to the narrow economic interests of the rich, because they generally have to put more money into it than they get out. It does benefit them as citizens, however, assuming that they prefer to live in a society of civic peace, civic order, and civic decency -- a society of trust. It is not helpful to them, or anyone else in the country or on the planet, when the President announces, "There is no trust."

The president is not especially interested in decency or order, other than the orderly dismantling of government. Disorder and confusion, in the short term, seem to provide the maximum profit to those already vested with power and capital, as the chaos creates a plentitude of fear, anxiety, and haplessness from which to harvest speedy profits. But the windfall profits Bush and his clueless ilk are trying to seize in their brief window of opportunity, with their dubious and contemptible "political capital" earned through gay-baiting, bigotry, nationalism, the exploitation of terrorists, and the declaration of unnecessary wars, are not renewable resources anymore than the oil reserves of Arabia are. Windfall profit is based on the premise that you bankrupt the future -- you don't acknowledge its existance, and you don't concenr yourself with how the society in which you live reproduces itself for a new generation. You essentially declare that you don't care what the society of the future looks like as long as you can live like a pasha now. This masquerades as conservativism but it is really its opposite. It is destroying the possibility of the way of life we know now, the life we would want to "conserve," surviving into the future.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Organic Cuba

Every now and then I read something that reminds me the consumerism-free paradise I occasionally invoke in more bombastic utopian moments may in fact already exist in the from of Castro's Cuba. The recent history of Cuba suggests that one can only banish the various modes of manipulative, sneaky, disingenuous and dishonest anxiety-inducing persuasion aimed at citizens by corporations and advertising agencies and their various proxies by supplanting it with a far less subtle form of political "persuasion," aka the repressive police state.

The April 2005 Harper's has an interesting article about Cuba, detailing the rise of small-scale farming, which has been forced upon Cubans by the rest of the world's refusal to trade with them. By being forced out of economic globalization, Cuba has managed to provide a working vision of what environmentallly conscious food production on a nationwide scale might look like, a back-to-the-future organic farming style employing oxen and natural bacteria and specially bred pest-eating insects and some folk wisdom retrieved from Victorian-era agricultural manuals. While author Bill McKibben clearly wants to celebrate these developments, he's careful to dutifully remind us that they are possible only because Castro's repressive dictatorship prohibits the country's entry into the global market, and he stresses that the people aren't especially happy being forced to farm. They aren't free in freedom's contemporary meaning, that is, free to consume in the most wide-open markets from the most diverse array of consumer goods the planet can provide. They are not free to "vote with their dollar" the way (wealthy) Americans are.

I won't say that I would rather live in Cuba, or rather have the dictatorship of the proletariet here in New York. But this organic farming phenomenon demonstrates the good things that happen when monstrous economies of scale are inhibited (although this inhibition can be brutal) -- how suddenly intelligence is respected instead of mocked, education becomes specifically useful rather than a boring distraction brand-name-recognition training, food becomes healthy and diverse rather than monolithic and leeched of flavor and nutrients, people work together to fulfill their shared needs, and so on. Cubans had to undergo nearly a decade of starvation before they were willing to reorganize their farming system. What will have to happen to us to make us change?

Power play

Today's Wall Street Journal brought on its front page a surprisingly restrained account of electricity deregulation in Texas, and how it is allowing companies to gouge deadbeat customers and offer discounts to people with good credit. This (and the graph showing rising stock values) is the bait for the hook of deregulation; this is how it is supposed to improve the lives of honest billpaying people like us, at least until an "error" gets our service promptly disconnected, leading to our desperate overpayment for services until the "error" is corrected and an endless struggle wiith bureaucracy to then get our money back. One of the great lies about deregulation is that it removes government bureaucracy and makes things inherently better -- but have you ever thought that your medical bills were easy to follow and understand? Do you look forward to your electicity bill being as straightforward?

Deregulation permits TXU, the Texas electric utiliity, to "market aggressively." This maybe stupid of me, but isn't electricity one of those services that really sells itself? Does anyone who's not Amish need to be convinced of the benefits of using electricity?

Of course, the article is not refering to that kind of marketing. It is referring to marketing itself against other electricity companies as they rival to squeeze the most profits out of unsuspecting Texans, who are alrady getting shafted by their legislature passing the most regressive tax package in America. Electric companies are now free to court customers who pay their bills reliably and free to ignore those who they deem not so reliable for whatever reasons they might have. (This is much like their friends in the insurance business, who have gained greater latitude in recent years to refuse to cover people who they dub as risks, protecting their profits and passing along the catastrophic care costs to people like you and me, which incidently, are wildly inflated because of the total breakdown of preventive care or medical intervention at a much earlier point.)

The article's key paragraph is in the first column of the jump: "Under regulation, old-fashioned utilities enjoyed regional monopolies, charging rates based on their costs and pre-set profit margins. In exchange, electric companies had to offer service to all paying customers in their areas. Electricity was seen as close to an entitlement, like water service." In the richest country in the world, the self-appointed beacon of freedom and enlightened governance, shouldn't electricity and water be entitlements? Shouldn't the costs of these basic benchmarks of a high standard of living be bourne socially? Deregulation is always about removing social safety nets and permitting companies to replace social responsibility with profit. Anything else that is said about it is propaganda to mask this fundamental fact.

This morning, BBC radio reported efforts to privatize water service in developing nations, under the ruse that such privatization would bring in more efficiency. The idea is that companies with the know-how to implement better water distribution would only be willing to do it for maximum profit. The idea was that this outsourcing of the basic governmental guarantees would speed up these countries' development, as if this kind of governmental laziness doesn't assure that the country will be forever backward and imperialized, a place for offshore companies to come and loot without fear or reprisal from their lackeys in the statehouse.

What kind of society would prefer to make a profit then see to it that no children go without clean water? The kind of society that the Republicans wish to usher in. This is the essence of their plan to destroy social security: to undermine the notion that society shares burdens to make it stronger and that it doesn't subject its weakest members to the anxieties of basic survival. Republicans want the rich to be able to keep more of their social security money and pass it on in their own families as an inheritance. In their greed, they can't stand the idea that money they pay in might be distributed to someone else to make sure that someone else doesn't live in a refrigerator box. They despise the idea of distributing the costs of social welfare across the spectrum of society and would prefer to see the enfeebled punished for their weakness, while those born entitled can use that entitlement as leverage to further enrich themselves. They like to recast the weak and infirm as deadbeats who deserve to suffer, that it's indeed their moral duty to suffer.

This segregation, wherein the rich are afforded the dignity of Amrican life and the poor are treated like so much refuse, seems to even bother the Journal (or this particular writer, anyway), which contrasts the fate of Graham Beechum III, a wealthy tech-company president, and Eddie Williams, a retiree. When Beechum's power was mistakenly turned off, his case was deemed "sensitive" and an executive council intervened immediately to restore his power and assuage him with giveaways. But when Eddie Williams couldn't pay because he had to use the money to pay for his parent's nursing home, he was told to get help from his children. Boy, thank God TXU showed that deadbeat.

Monday, March 21, 2005


Conde Nast plans to launch yet another "shopping magazine" to accompany Lucky (for women) and Cargo (for men) called Domino (for blacks? for sugar freaks? for convicts?). That these magazines thrive is puzzling, especially when you consider the intense competition in that field from something much humbler and easier to produce, the catalog.

In certain ways, catalogs are the quintessential modern reading material, the medium for which we are prepared all our lives: It requires little attention; it encourages pleasant, projective, imaginative daydreams (while discouraging daydream-dousing critical thought); it pitches itself to our sense of individual importance and reinforces that; and it reinforces the positional-goods hierarchy that stabilizes our identities in a capitalist world. Its copy affords us the haughty tones with which to furnish our interior monologue when judging strangers and, in darker moments, ourselves. The degree to which we read nothing but catalogs is the degree to which we are cooperative, complacent and happy citizens. They are the "CNN of consumerism" (with apologies to Chuck D), the newspaper for ordinary citizens, whose general concerns with the world should ideally not extend beyond what new goods are on offer.

And as Cargo, et al, prove, there's no clear divide between catalogs and other forms of media; there wouldn't be much more than a broadsheet left if you removed all the service pages from the newspaper, and most commercial magazines minus their ad and service pages wouldn't amount to all that much. Thomas Frank has a whole jeremiad against tht Gannett newspaper group, whose "editorial content" seems to consist primarily of repurposed PR material, on the grounds that this sort of "optimism" is what readers want. And that's probably right. Catalog copy closes the world around you, it digs the hole for our ostrich heads.

As usual, this goes back to the beginnings of commercialized culture, the early 18th century. The commercial novel was often a miscellany, read like a shopping catalog by bourgeois in the market for new emotional experiences. This reading remains linear, but consists of skimming, searching for peaks and valleys tied to a narrative predictable enough to not require careful or sustained attention. Identification is not single, to a specific hero or heroine, but instead multiple choices are offered for a variety of potential pleasures, many of which are contradictory. The audience must have been able to ignore the heterogenous methods without having their ability to identify with the characters necessary for the emotional experience their reading experience engendered on any given occasion. A sustained identification was not yet necessary for a plentiful yield of satisfactory emotional tittilation. Readers could partake of vicarious pleasure in unrelated moments through characters diametrically opposed. Sometimes, too, readers must have identified with the storyteller as well as with the characters within the story, for the peculiar pleasure that comes from being the presumably unimplicated observer.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Market evil

There's a seductive simplicity to the logic thatthe market aggregates public opinion and allows it to be expressed, that each "dollar-vote" signifies assent for a particular good on the market, and for the capitalist system in general. But markets exist to separate profitable from unprofitable businesses and it cares about nothing else. It can't "care" at all. It's regulated by heartless mathematics, not the will of the people. What makes for profits is not simply winning the hearts and minds of all the John Q. Consumers out there, but ruthless competition, driving your competitors off the playing field with whatever leverage you can muster. Sometimes this leverage is in the form of popular products or recognizable brand names, sometimes it is in the form of having this much less ethical restraint than your competitors. Economies of scale reduce the field of options and force consumers into choices of the lesser evil. This cannot be considered to be the voice of assent.

The point is corporations by their nature have no choice but to pursue profit, regardless of what people want or what people are harmed by it. If it is profitable to make lead paint, no amount of brain-damaged babies would stop a corporation from doing it. I'm no theologian, but I learned one thing about Christianity in a Milton class that's stuck with me, and that's evil is always predictable, evil is incapable of doing something disinterested. What differentiates the Son from Satan is that he is able to make a purely unmotivated sacrifice.

The market assumes we are all Satan's capable of only self-interested actions and incapable of inexplicable sacrifice or true charity, that we are all essentially evil to the core. (Call it the taint of original sin?) The competitiveness inherent to it assumes an all-out Hobbesean war of all against all, as real cooperation has no market value and thus doesn't really exist from the market-legitimizes-everything point of view. Of course this is the winner-take-all, social-safety-net-free world Republicans, in their pious hypocrisy, like to imagine.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Petty disobediance

Some of us around the Esquire magazine offices were dubious of the newsworthiness of this article from the New York Times a few days ago, which details such titanic blows against the system like addressing mail to "England" instead of "United Kingdom" or ordering "small" coffees at Starbucks, petty acts of disobediance, refusals to participate in annoying marketing-engineered games of language destruction and waste, which I, by the way, wholeheartedly endorse. De Certeau celebrates this sort of thing in The Practice of Everyday Life as "tactics," a kind of quotidian creativity, a David vs. Goliath blow in the face of totalizing institutions. (He's one of the theorists whose work is unfortunately repurposed into the kind of indiscriminate celebratory cultural studies I referred to in the previous post, who view, say, Star Trek fan fiction as a subversive strike against the status quo).

It seems strange that it's the most popular story on the site, until you consider that it suits to a T the level of rebelliousness and subversion most people are capable of. Nobody likes "the system." Even the Man hates the Man. This is why most of our ads hinge on mininarratives of foiling the Man, expressing your uniqueness in the face of the System that wants to grind you down and make you into a comformatron. We love opotunities to be disobediant without offending any specific people, and the article lists ways we can "fight back" without having to have open confrontations, which would immediately end our subversion and stifle our timid dissent. We all tend to balk at the idea of actual confrontation with actual people who have been enlisted to serve and implement the System -- we ourselves are these people, after all, and we don't necessarily like to think of ourselves that way, but it's so. When we do these petty acts of rebellion that the Times details, we buy a little forgetting of who we really are.

Pornography is not sexual

One of the last places I expect to find interest political comment is Time Out New York -- I usually don't even read much other than the film listings. But I happened to catch a sidebar interview with Catharine MacKinnon, of all people -- she must be promoting a new book. MacKinnon is known for antipornography crusading, and is usually held in contempt by liberal types who want to see the porn industry as part and parcel of a freer culture, where "the man" doesn't tell you what kind of sex you can have. From that point of view, MacKinnon, and her compatriot Andrea Dworkin (who is typically denounced as a "radical" and a "castrating feminist" for her frequently misrepresented argument that all penetrative sex is rape), are ridid, prudish, humorless censors who hate sex, hate men, and would prefer that procreation be performed like a dour duty, with no spice whatsoever. The argument is that they refuse to recognize to acknowledge how women in porn are willingly exploiting the opportunities the industry affords them, and that it empowers them to use their body as a money-making tool. It's an extention of the cultural studies premise (that Thomas Frank eviscerates in One Market Under God) that discovering your market niche renders you a more complete person and that consuming pop culture is actually an empowering and quite possibly subversive act of self-production, as if the culture industry doesn't want you to make an identity for yourself out of their junk. The porn industry is all too happy to "empower" women sexually, as it makes them willing to reduce themselves to commodities, which are then subject to the predictable marketplace give and take of value establishment and profitmaking. These women are eager to commodify themselves so as to participate in a market that will assign them a value, something that society at large withholds from women generally. They become objects to be able to be priced, and they accept price as a measure of self-worth -- this is the liberating triumph of pornography, and of consumer culture generally; you make yourself a quantifiable value, a sum in a table drawing up profits and losses in an active speculative market, while your most restrictive and compromising desires for instrumental sensual pleasure and thoughtless gluttony are reinforced as those things that make you special and important.

MacKinnon, in this brief Time Out interview, is very concise and astute about the absurdity of making pornography the site of a battle between liberal free-thinking and conservative puritanism. "Pornography isn't about decency, and it isn't about sex per se. It isn't about smut or perversion or dirt. It is sexual bigotry. For women, it's degrading, and for men, it's conditioning their sexuality to objectification and abuse."

There's not much to add to that. Pornography's main function is to remake male libido into a selfish, isolating, distancing desire for ownership and property-collecting, and to make women into that willing property. In this it epitomizes what consumer culture acheives by and large, encouraging us to think of ourselves as the sum of what we own rather than what we do and whom we do it with. In the porno-consumer world, we're always doing ourselves, and we're always doing it alone.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Real amateurs

I've been listening to that new Sleater-Kinney album, the one that is so special and precious it can't be released until May, though the press has had it since January. The band released this statement: "We don't think of The Woods as some product getting out there early, we think of it as our art and lives and dreams. For us it's about respect and about people supporting us by being aware of our artistic intent. We ask that you please respect our wishes to present this record the way we intended. We're certain that you would want the same for your own endeavors, artistic or otherwise." Allow me to decode: The label wants to get the PR push coordinated with the mainstream press far enough in advance to place fawning articles and break the band out of the indie ghetto, so they can get "respect".

Hey, more power to them. They don't make records for fun; they make them to make a living. They are professionals. And the new album sounds like the work of professionals, punctiliously competent and confident. But I say this because my only context for forming an opinion about the album is the one formed by their statement, by their eagerness to professionalize and maximize their respect. Until its released to their fans and not just to media business types, it's just a product with a calculated pitch, it's a marketing campaign. Without a community of fans to share my response to it with, I can't really listen to it like a fan. I listen to it, wondering how it will play with their fans. I make jourrnalistic calculations about how it will be come to be described. But I can't yet really enjoy it as plain old music.

An ambitious journalism student surveyed me on my attitude about online music 'zines and the threat they may pose to the mainstream music press. Here's an excerpt:

Q: It seems like the fact that they provide timely reviews and news, specifically on their release date is one of the most attractive aspects of web zines…do you think this will effect how mainstream newsstand magazines approach reviewing
albums (rolling stone, AP, Spin etc.)?

A: It won't affect it at all. Mainstream coverage is typically guided covertly by PR and advertising considerations. Web zines are motivated by a willingness to cover anything they can get for free from the labels or their PR firms. Placing a review in a mainstream publication remains a signal that an act has "made it" on the national scene in some way. That is its function, not to offer timely information about the quality of a band's music. (That is almost never the point of mainstream coverage. It's a recieved fact that if the mainstream press are covering it, it's already supposed to be worth your attention. No one has time
for negative reviews. With so much stuff, why waste time finding out about what sucks?) Placing a review in a web zine probably means you have hired a PR firm. That web zines can occasionally scoop the mainstream press is purely incidental.
But because they are largely staffed by amateurs, web zines will give you actual opinions, not professional assessments of the current zeitgeist inflected with hedged bets on whether an act will "break out."

Q: One thing about online music journalism is that there is much more expression of opinion in the reviews, whether it be through a sense of humor, sarcasm, concept reviews…do you think people (music fans in particular) are attracted to this
type of journalism?

A: I don't know. I think people say they are, and want to be, but aren't really. They are looking for confirmation of what to be into culturally, and that confirmation comes from established mainstream sources. They read to make sure they aren't missing out on something "important." I think people want to make sure they know about the things they ought to know about and that they aren't becoming ignorant culturally, and that they ultimately enjoy tighter, more polished writing animated by the authority and confidence a professional writer brings and the clarity of story-pegs that editors bring out. It may be that people like online music journalism when it's brief, sharp, and funny, and that standard of quality is pretty rare. Opinions for their own sake are pretty boring. And the judgement of online reviewers is pretty erratic, adhering to no
coherent criteria. For better or for worse, mainstream music magazines are guided by the same criteria -- they cover what they think will sell magazines and they pretend that whatever that is is good and important. There's a consistency to that.

Well, I felt awash in cynicism after sending these answers off, felt that this bleak outlook wasn't entirely representative of how I feel. And I neglected to mention the one form of music writing that always brings me joy, the one type that gives me hope: the music reviews on

I love to read the reviews of records on I think it is the most reliable source of opinion out there in the music marketplace, far more entertaining and illuminating than what you find in the music press, which is larded over with bombast, hype, and treacle. These are often the ravings of enthusiasts, making their case for their favorite band, or angered ex-fans venting their sense of betrayal. But sometimes they are these measured, articulate accounts of the record from people who are congenitally addicted to giving their opinion, who can't withhold their opinions on anything, and have to express them somewhere. In other words, these are pre-professionalized critics, untempered by market/audience considerations and unhampered by editors. What is great about these reviews is that you don't have to wonder about what's really at stake for the writers. The real amateurs are motivated by some raw need to communicate and leave their mark somewhere, and I recognize myself in them. This sympathy makes me trust their authenticity completely.

Reading reviews makes me understand why I read any reviews in the first place. It's not for information about the music. Taste in music is pretty fickle and idiosyncratic; it resists coherent explanation and steady criteria, and it often depends on context: where you are when you hear something and how popular it already is and what your friends think of it and what the musicians look like and how cool their CD designs are or whatever. One reviewer's opinion isn't likely to worth much as an assessment. But what's so nice about the Amazon reviews, especially when there's a lot of them, is that it creates a sense of consensus and community. And only within a community is it even worth forming an opinion about something, articulating it in clear terms, even to yourself. One of our culture's biggest fallacies is the idea that you can have an opinion on culture in isolation from fellow participants. There is no pure reaction, no way in which some essential ontological you unaffected by environment is able to register how it feels when hearing some ontological essence of the music free of all the implications of how it was made and distributed to you. That history, the way both you and the record got to be in the same place at the same time, is not just a factor in the listening experience; it is the entire listening experience. And those histories are made by people, by a variety of intersecting communities who all ultimately configure what we end up cherishing as our unique personal self-defining opinion.

Without a community within which to situate your position, you don't even bother to have opinions about things as ephemeral as pop music. It would just exist, pleasant noise; all albums become an ambient Eno record. I am one of those people who needs to have a reason to listen to music, who wants to express an opinion, for whom the construction of an opinion constitutes meaningful work, salvaging life experience and redeeming it, making it amount to something. I can't stand the idea of having things happen to me without my commenting on them, assessing them, remembering and reconfiguring them in some way -- I don't want to be passive, I want to rework everything I experience to take claim of it, to stay actively engaged. So I am so grateful that these Amazon reviewers are there, to provide a community, to give me a mirror in which I can recognize myself, to validate my whole approach to life. So I read reviews to find confirmation not even of my attitude toward a particular album, but of myself, my whole way of thinking. I read them to consume authenticity.

It's refreshing to think that there are real people out there, not professional opinion-makers but real amateurs, who are having these spontaneous, unrehearsed responses to music. And that sense of spontaneity, that sense of unpracticed being-in-the-moment is something we have learned to value, something that seems to be more and more rare in a hypermediated culture full of pseudoevents and entertainment wholly given over to emotional engineering, extracting Pavlovian emotional responses from us without ever really challenging our preconceptions, our ideological safehouse. Spontaneity guarantees a kind of truth, a freedom from the calculation -- the ads and the flattery and the manipulation and the efficiency -- that dominates the public sphere. It shows us that people can really still be "in touch with themselves" and know their "real" feelings. But then, it's ads themselves that conjure this spontaneity as the true ultimate value, as the guarantor of truth. Spontaneity is already been reified into a product, another manipulative device. Paranoia closes in. These reviewers, are they just marketing spontaneity to me, too? Already, I'm sure, savvy PR firms have begun to hire fake fans, fake amateurs to gush about records on Amazon, perhaps Amazon themselves will hire them and get them started. There are some reviews that read suspiciously like the press releases that barrage my inbox every day, I'm sure of it. These aren't real amateurs. I want some real amateurs, dammit!

The fact is, in a culture so phony that it must fetishize spontaneity and authenticity to the degree that ours does, even amateurs have to be self-conscious about their amateurism. The false notes creep in to their reviews, the posturing the preening. And we are all pitch-perfect unforgiving critics of those. I can look in the mirror and see that, too.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Damn hippies

The Wall Street Journal frequently finds room on its front page for purely ideological stories, that is things that are in no way newsworthy but establish some cherished ideological point for the Journal's core readership. In today's case, a story called "Left in Nepal at 3, Daja Takes Decades to Find Out Why" (in the first column), that point relates to the selfish foolishness of those who sought alternatives to the status quo in the sixties. The story manages to massage all the sweet spots of mainstream anxiety, which stems from middle class folks being encouraged on the one hand to be radical non-conformists (in their consumption choices, consuming ever more "extremely" to differentiate themselves) and on the other to be passive anti-intellectual quietists who go with the flow, lest they begin pursuing "alternative lifestyles" that will lump them in with homosexuals and habitual drug users and Muslims and all the rest on the lunatic fringe. Stories like this one help assuage the cognitive dissonance that threatens to overtake those whose lives must be lived in the nexus of these cultural contradictions. Human interest stories are always about enforcing ideology, about reassuring readers that the prevailing values are the only logical ones, the only ones that make sense, the only ones that work. In exchange for subscribing wholeheartedly to such ideological values, stories in publications like People and Reader's Digest are able to inflate with a fulfilling sense of uplift, a satisfying sense that all is right in the world, at its core. The Journal story is especially effective, because it allows a vicarious imaginative escape into hippiedom while ultimately condemning it, rewarding readers for having done nothing about their own daydreams of such a liberated life.

The Journal story details the fate of a white man who was raised in Tibet, de facto proof, apparently, that his parents, wealthy privileged liberal ingrates with Hollywood connections, were negligent. The key paragraph is halfway down the column: "He was an odd casualty of an era in American history when many young people dropped out of the mainstream and abandoned their families in pursuit of enlightenment and adventure. Some turned to communal ways of child-rearing. Some, like Daja's parents, essentially quit parenting and left their children for others to raise."

The hypocrisy of this paragraph is almost beneath comment. Never mind the nannies who typically raise the children of the Journal's core constituency. Never mind the "essentially" slipped in there to allow this distorted picture to pass as representative. Never mind the man is referrred to as a "casualty," as if his upbringing in a monestary (where he was forced to spend "lonely years" exploring "broad philopsphical riddles" such as "what is right?") made him for all intents and purposes, dead. Note the way that communal methods are elided with abandonment as if they are equally reprehensible choices and the way "enlightenment" is linked with "adventure," to make the package of the two seem equally capricious and irresponsible.

Damning details mount, including Daja's parents' experimentation with "psychedelic drugs" and "love-ins," which made them "flower children in the classic sense" and the fact that Daja's mother refused to sufficiently mourn her mother's death by suicide, which the story strongly implies was caused by Daja's mother's marrying in a tie-dyed dress. Daja's mother, now known as "Wongmo" remains a Buddhist monk, which has taught her that "Just because it's different doesn't mean it's bad or wrong." The story's writer, Clare Ansberry, has thoughtfully and diligently endeavored to trivialize Buddhist life with such well-chosen quotes and details, emphasizing everywhere Wongmo's selfishness, shallowness, and inauthenticity, and then quoting liberally from her mea culpa to her son to solidify the emerging epitomizing portrait of a bad parent, one who leaves the mainstream with idealistic visions only to produce a misfit child who spends his life trying to atone for her mistakes. Never leave the mainstream, not if you love your children. Don't question how things are. Your children will despise you for it.

What an uplifting story. It buoys the good feeling I received when I saw reported enthusiastically that Philip Morris hopes to expand tobacco operations in Indonesia, "a tremendous growth opportunity," since American smokers have the unfortunate tendency to quit or die of cancer. All is indeed right with our world.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Management gurus

In One Market Under God, Thomas Frank raises an interesting point about the evolution of management theory. Citing the rising tide of critiques of Taylorism in management literature, he argues that scientific management, while maximizing profit across the board for industry, raised two ideological problems for corporate interests. The first was that its repressive totalitarian implementation lent itself well to labor organizer's critiques and helped union recruitment. The mechanisms of exploitation were simply too overt, unmistakable to even the most resolutely quietistic working-class stooge (Wal-Mart employees voting against unionization being perhaps the exceptions). The second is that top-down management schemes suggested that central control and command did make things more efficient (as opposed to something more like the chaos of competing interests in a marketplace). If central commmand worked, then government intervention had an ideological basis that profiteers were unwilling to admit. Thus the apologists of management literature set out to give scientific management a makeover. As Frank points out, management theory almost never affords new techniques, it always serves to legitimize those which already exist, and those that exist always serve the same function -- to "manage" labor by masking the manner in which it's exploited. That is where "human relations" departments come from, they manage the relationship between employer and employee in order to make that relation best serve capital. So they confuse you about your benefits packages, discourage your using your vacation days, perform all sorts of harassing inquiries ostensibly to demonstrate they care about employees but really reminding employees that they are being carefully watched, proliferate all sorts of euphemistic jargon, and so on and so on. They are agents of distortion and confusion, not unlike real estate brokers and used-car salesmen.

Management tracts have recently been called upon to justify worker insecurity in the face of downsizing and outsourcing and other stock-price-inflation tactics employed by options-rich CEOs. Hence the success of Who Moved My Cheese? which is quite possibly the most moronic book ever taken seriously by adults, and that includes the Harry Potter series, Dr. Seuss, and The Tao of Pooh, which reads like Moses Mainomides in comparison to the idiocy contained in Cheese. The core point of Cheese is that a worker must be flexible in this day and age. No repsonsibility is assigned for the chronic instability of the economy. It's simply presented as a natural condition, as God's work in his unfathomable wisdom. No longer sufficient to ask, How high? when told to jump, Cheese encourages workers to just start jumping like crazy, whether or not they have been asked. It pushes meek sycophancy and misplaced self-flagellation to new extremes and expects no worker to protest or sense irony in being compared to a helpless rat trapped pointlessly in a maze while its masters move its food around for no other reason than to see how obediant the rat will be.

No one should make the mistake of taking management theory seriously. (In fact, Frank ran a pretty severe risk by immersing himself in them to criticize them. Repeated exposure is wont to corrupt your thinking process and infect your language with insidious jargon and passive-voice sentence constructions) In practice it serves as a palliative for those undertaking corrupt business practices, a salve to managerial consciences when money no longer works (as if that day ever comes). The only question worth pondering, perhaps, is the degree to which these gurus are believers in their own bullshit.

Real estate brokers, petty thieves

I am currently looking for a new apartment in the neighborhood where I live, Astoria, in Queens. Perhaps this would be a trying experience anywhere -- an old professor of mine who enlisted me to lug boxes of books for him when he moved insisted that studies have shown that moving is as stressful as a death in the family -- but it is especially difficult in Astoria, where the apartment rental market is controlled by that rarefied species of parasite known all too well to New Yorkers, the real-estate broker.

Now, one does not grow up dreaming of becoming a real-estate broker. There are no children's books glamorizing their profession. Real-estate agents don't appear as the heroes of films (if they appear they are usually caricature villains, comic relief, emblems of a habitual, institutionalized corruption or hysterical phoniness -- like Annette Bening's character in American Beauty) and the real estate profession is not one assumed as an alter-ego for superheroes. No one has epiphanous moments when they realize that real estate is their calling (unless you call the moment when they hear how much money they can make for what little they do an epiphany). And parents don't marshall up all their persuasive forces and save all their money for fancy colleges to insist to their children that they grow up and become real estate agents. No, people drift into the real estate business because they think it's easy money. It's not a business attracting the best and brightest a society has to offer. It's a profession attracting the sneakiest and greediest.

Deception is part of the real estate agent's stock-in-trade, even in places where the real estate market is not as contentious as it is in New York City. They must be deceptive because they spend they time helping customers while their financial interest and duty lies with the seller or lessor. They are duty bound to encourage the customers to take the worst deal offered them, and if these clients do the brokers maximize their profits. The ones that are successful are the ones that are best able to make their clients think they are watching out for them while stabbing them in the back. They are the slick talkers, the ones who seem so empathetic and understanding, the ones who want to take care of everything for you (so you won't know how badly you're getting fucked). Real estate agents thrive on the complexity of transactions as these discourage people from understanding what is going on. They benefit from confusion and do what they can to foment it, like their evil brethren in the advertising industry.

In most apartment-rental markets, brokers are hired by slum lords to rent out their unrentable properties. These brokers collect only from the landlords for the service of strong-arming a poor desperate sucker into one of their flea traps. The actions of these brokers are ethically dubious enough, but at least they earn their pay, even if through ignominious deeds. But in New York, inexpicably, brokers collect both from the landlords and the renters, presumably on the theory that they are matchmakers when really they are like fee-charging double-dipping ATMs that hit you up at the machine and on your end-of-month statement. Their fees are openly contigent on the amount of rent paid per month, so they have no interest in serving as an honest broker between negotiating parties. And because of the chronic shortage of apartments in the city, their work does itself. They just sit back and collect when anxious renters come to them. In longtime immigrant communitites like Astoria, the brokers are typically bilingual mediators between generally suspicious homeowners with no mastery of English and no savvy with real-estate law, people who long ago left the city but maintained their childhood homes, and renters, who are usually desperate to find a place in a tight market.

Don't expect a New York broker to call you with apartments. You end up calling them daily, begging to be shown something as if you were a temp calling every morning hoping for an assignment. Usually they will try to distort your sense of what are fair prices by showing you a few hell-holes that haven't been inhabited for years so that you'll take the first mediocre thing that comes along. Generally they prefer to deal on an all-cash basis, likely to mask some of their earnings from taxes. It is easy for them to do, because there is no product of their labor that can be readily traced. They don't produce anything; they simply leach away money by virtue of being favorably situated and totally shameless. Long practice has given these bloodsuckers a truly contemptible sense of entitlement, that their money should be easy and that you'd be crazy to resent them for it. This is the system, they seem to say, you have no other choice. Grow up and deal with it. Like all status quo systems it's very existence serves as the strongest argument in its favor, and it can always resort to using the "be realistic" case for justification. It exists because it's realistic, and one is being unrealistic if one expects something better.

Obviously, if markets were truly efficient and the consumer was truly sovereign, an honest, fair broker should make a killing, and they should force dishonest brokers out of the field. But efficient markets break down here for a number of reasons. It may be that cloistered ethnic groups ambivalent about renting tolerate poor service and have an artificially limited set of brokers with whom they feel comfortable working. And rent stabilization may play a part in discouraging honest types from entering the field and in keeping the number of openly and honestly leased apartments on the market minimal. And the graft-like nature of the business seems institutionalized, so these profit margins are preserved at the expense of greater ones theoretically available to those willing to do a more legitimate day's work. I'm sure everyone's maximizing their utility somehow (Gary Becker would be able to defend it as rational, I suppose) but having been on the cusp of taking a truly compromised apartment, I don't feel that way. I felt like utility has been minimized for me, as my time has been wasted and my willingness to spend more is meaningless. Just another petty gripe, I guess. I should grow up.