Archive | March, 2008

“Why, Mr. Klein, You’re Sitting On a Veritable Trove of Consumer Data!” *twirls mustache*

18 Mar

Originally posted at Iqra’i.

The most eye-opening thing I’ve read in the blogosphere in the last week or two is probably the list of responses to Ezra Klein’s comment poll asking “Which three magazines do you think of as must-reads?”

The results aren’t hugely astounding — The New Yorker gets a lot of votes, The Economist and TNR come in for the standard liberal ambivalence — but the volume of responses, and what those responses reveal about Klein’s audience, is market-research heaven.

Being partial to market research (and the larger message apparatus) myself, I embrace this sort of thing and would love to see it harnessed better. I can’t imagine that Klein — or at least the American Prospect site that hosts him — wouldn’t appreciate getting a better picture of who his constituents/consumers/ readers/participants are.

My preferences aren’t actually universal, and I know plenty of writers of various stripes who recoil at the thought of having their process corrupted by grubby business technique. But the best argument I can think of against market research for blogs is that it would invariably lead to tailored content, which bloggers (who are on the side of Truth, remember) identify with pandering. I don’t think that taking one’s audience into consideration necessarily entails subjugating one’s own insights in favor of reflecting their prejudices; I could see such an argument being made with nonverbal art, but writing is so inherently communicative that a concern for audience seems prerequisite. Emily Dickinson, the notable exception, is about as far from Mr. Klein et al – and me — as you can get.

Blogging may be informal, but it hasn’t yet entered its Modernist stream-of-consciousness stage (Myspace blogs don’t count) just yet, and I hope it never does. In the meantime, for anyone to insist on having an audience without actively seeking out more information about it would seem selfish and puerile to me.

Dispatches From the Pomo Peanut Gallery

17 Mar

Originally posted at Iqra’i.

Mr. Suderman, trapped in the super-reified genre of the blog post (see note below), mistakes the lede for the kicker and therefore misses the point.

Perhaps that’s uncharitable. More precisely, his review of David Mamet’s political U-turn and subsequent Village Voice mea culpa/Sister Souljah foregrounds his clucking over the ways in which punditry and playwriting are methodologically different, but saves the observation that politics and drama have cogent substantive similarities for a mere punchline.

Of course a discipline based on “complicating motivations” and one based on “revealing them” will bear little resemblance to each other — it’s a simple matter of constructing the message versus deconstructing it.

Dyed-in-the-wool journo-pundits, of course, enjoy characterizing this divide as insurmountable because they like to think of themselves as being on the side of Truth (and therefore assume that their counterparts must be on the side of Falsehood). Most pundits, however — Mr. Suderman himself among them — have done their time on the other side of the message machine, and should know better than to turn the distinction between synthesizing its input and analyzing its output (a mere matter of geography, after all) into a meaningful difference of professional jurisdiction. If you understand how the machine functions you can probably work either end pretty well.

As for politics: yes, of course there’s more to its performativity than “intricate deception and vaguely suggested menace.” To begin with, of course, there’s the whole matter of motivations, implying the gaps between word, thought and deed that consume much political analysis as well as a good deal of modern drama (pretty much everyone from Chekhov onward relies on it, including Mr. Mamet, but it’s also the reason Richard III is so much fun). Then there are the scenes of politics: the public monologue of oratory, the dialogue of an interview or a negotiation, the Greek chorus of reporters at the end of Eliot Spitzer’s press conference a week ago. (“Will you resign?”)

In fairness, to me, everything is performative. But the way in which politics is performative is particularly well-suited to pundits from the world of performance themselves. Maybe Mamet isn’t any good (and I’m fully aware that not everyone likes Frank Rich, though I do) but it’s not because he’s a playwright.

Suderman, on the other hand, might consider moonlighting as a playwright — his faux-Mamet shtick is adorable.

Re “super-reified”: The compositional rules for blog posts are ridiculous. The hook, represented by a link, must be included within the first three or so sentences of the post; the main point must be the leading point of the post (though not necessarily the opener); only one argument may be introduced and developed in a single post, though the blogger can fudge this by adding a point to an ongoing discussion via linking; style must be direct, sharp, accessible and conversational; and the post should if at all possible end with a witty remark. In terms of degrees of articstic freedom, it ends up somewhere between Restoration comedy and pantoum.

This Post Isn’t About Prostitution. It’s About the Mainstream Media Instead!

13 Mar

Originally posted at Iqra’i.

My breath’s as bated as anyone’s for Kate’s promised post on “the cultural free market,” but one of her “clues” strikes me as a little archaic:

it is impossible to prevent the discourses of the noble society and the base society from negotiating each other.

Insofar as “culture” is being used broadly enough to include the production of cultural artifacts (art, etc.) in addition to value systems, the opposition of “high” and “low” culture has always seemed somewhat silly to me – plenty of people seem to indulge in both without too much crisis of identity, for one. But when the two do exist as separate discourses, it’s usually because “noble culture” is being used as a proxy for “elite culture.”

And with media (and discourse in general) having undergone a total renovation at the hands of the Democracy of the Internet Age, self-appointed arbiters of high culture have become terrified that elitism is tantamount to irrelevance – and have as a result taken a much more inclusionary position toward low culture, even questioning whether the distinction should exist at all. (Exhibit A — ripped from the pages of the newspaper of record! — is Cathy Horyn’s “Critic’s Notebook” column today questioning the presence of her own kind at premier fashion shows in favor of more “direct” consumer feedback via the Internet.)

Kate has the right idea, but her language doesn’t even begin to cover it. Noble culture isn’t just being “invigorated” by cross-pollination with the heartier, more robust peasant flowers of base culture (or resistance to its bacterial influence). It’s attempting to redefine the distinction between the two entirely — though, tellingly, usually in a way that depicts elite individuals as opinion leaders, maintaining their privileged position even as their privileged space recedes into the past.

I’m not just speaking of the “dumbing down of media.” I find the snobbishness of such laments to get pretty insufferable pretty quickly. I’d much rather speak about the microdynamics of the new laws of cultural production, such as this: the tendency to use vox populi as an excuse to turn up the volume on one’s own megaphone.

It should probably go without saying that just because high culture is an elitist construct doesn’t mean it should be eradicated, but I’d better point out to shore up my traditionalist cred that I have argued recently for the unabashed use of jargon in the public sphere. The prevailing campus attitude yokes “diversity” of viewpoints to universal intelligibility. “Fraternize with everyone!” indeed.

What Does One Equalize Power Relationships With, Anyway? A Bulldozer?

11 Mar

Originally posted at Iqra’i.

You know you’re a token when…you leave school and the Internet for a few days and discover that your friends have taken the opportunity to straw-man you in absentia.

Actually, I’m thrilled that thanks to the (post)modern age I can leave the room without leaving the conversation. But I do feel that, as the only self-identified representative of the “pomo Left” I know, I should provide a correction to Helen on McCarthy on Russello on Kirk:

I feel like power is one of the biggest differences between the pomo Left and the pomo Right: they think power relationships have to be neutralized, we think they only have to be sanctified (i.e. love is a power relationship, but that’s fine because introducing love into a power relationship makes it okay, etc.)

Only an idiot would earnestly believe that “power relationships have to be neutralized,” because only an idiot could believe that they can be neutralized. There are so many types of power bound up in any given relationship, and they don’t always flow the same way or to the same degree. The postmodern Left, more so than the postmodern Right, recognizes this, and we encourage (and, when possible, pursue) the expression of less-obvious forms of power by those who lack power by standard metrics. To call an action “purely symbolic” isn’t to make a statement about its effectiveness — its power — but to describe the form that power could take.

This is the difference between “transgressive” and “subversive”: do you look at the rulebender as a brilliant and visible outlier expressing herself without troublesome ramifications, ultimately reinforcing the norm/ative outside which she stands? Or do you recognize that she herself is exercising power, of a type qualitatively different that which seeks to bind her — moving sideways so as to avoid getting pushed down?

I’m perfectly willing to admit the latter attitude may not encompass anyone who considers himself both a postmodernist and a liberal/leftist. (I don’t think a postmodernist could use the word “progressive” with a straight face, but what do I know?) My strain of pomo leftism comes not from Foucault so much as Michel de Certeau, who doesn’t get his due inside academia, let alone outside it.

Jean Valjean and the Warm Fuzzies (Not a Music Post)

7 Mar

Originally posted at Iqra’i.

I’m sure Nicola or Kate will wax more eloquent regarding last night’s debate about welfare, but thanks to the fact that they are done with midterms and I am not, I’m waking up earlier, and I have questions that went unresolved.

  1. Is it really possible to believe that coercion is exclusively synonymous with violence — that is, that no one is ever coerced to action by circumstances (economic, social/cultural, etc.)? It seems obvious to me that the scope of options a man has is circumscribed by circumstance — sometimes so tightly that only one option remains. The normative question aside, is it even coherent to say that Jean Valjean could and should have chosen to let his sister’s child starve?
  2. It’s widely agreed upon that intermediate institutions are usually more efficient (and sometimes even more effective) than the state, and that they allow people to connect to others in a more direct way than through taxation. But their effect on civil society as a whole seems to be a bit more ambiguous, because the people to whom one feels connected through a non-state institution are only a subset of the community in which one lives. Is there hope for communitas in postmodernity? And if so, what mediates it if not the polity (and therefore, by extension, the state)? (I suspect localism might be the answer, but cities have governments too.)

While fishing for links for this post I discovered an impressive number of charitable organizations called “Communitas,” or some variation thereof. I approve of the branding but hasten to point out that the fact that so many different organizations have such a name moots any persuasive value the name would have. And the link I eventually found, while AWESOME (Wikipedia does virtual sociology, goes meta), doesn’t quite cover it either — unless we’re trying for communitas through vanguardism.

Havel in Havana, Trotsky in Tianjin

6 Mar

Originally posted at Iqra’i.

The NYT today has a deliciously intriguing piece today on signs of “cyber-rebellion” in Cuba. It’s got some similarities to the emerging narrative out of China: government tries to restrict the flow of information over the Web, pro-freedom hacker youth find creative solutions and (thanks to exposure to the Great Big World Out There) begin to understand how oppressed they really are. In the case of Cuba, however, Internet access is much more restricted so information is spread via flash drives passed on from person to person.

Technically, I’m sure this makes it less efficient and circumscribes the potential range of any given communication. But it also becomes a fundamentally different type of revolution. It’s using technology to reinforce existing lived relationships, and connect them to a broader historical narrative. What this means is that the world of “truth” represented by free flow of information is congruent to the world in which people live, and opposed to the “false world” of the state. In China, by contrast, the lived world is opposed to the virtual world, and therefore can’t help but be on the side of lies (symbolically, at least).

I’m extremely wary about citing techno-subversion as a sign of incipient revolution under any circumstance — for one thing, the mainstream media’s tendency to consider any online unrest a symbol of widespread “discontent of the young within the system” seems to rely on projecting American patterns of Internet use rather than considering whether or not all youth in a country actually have Internet access, and whether it’s fair to generalize about those who don’t. But I think if it does happen, it’ll be more likely to happen under a Cuban model, where rebellion is amphibious between the lived world and cyberspace, than under a Chinese one.

The man who said “It is difficult to imagine that even manifest ‘dissent’ could have any other basis than the service of truth, the truthful life, and the attempt to make room for the genuine aims of life” was one of the most successful revolutionaries of the past century. I can see the Havelian spirit in Cuban cyber-rebellion. The man who said “You cannot live through (life) unless you have before you a great idea which raises you above personal misery,” died, a failure in exile, at the hands of his gardener. There is some degree of Trotskyism in the internationalist, super-virtual Chinese rebellion. I like it far less.

Advertising: Consistently Mistaking the Evocative for the Effective

3 Mar

Originally posted at Iqra’i.

I know it’s poor form to throw up another link before making an honest woman of the first one. But this doesn’t need to be wrapped in the warm puff pastry of a post, except to say that comparing cigarette smoking to terrorism is wrong on the following levels:

  • It elides the distinction between a homicidal telos and a suicidal telos with collateral damage — ruinously;
  • It continues the anti-smoking trend of turning all nonsmokers into anti-smokers, which is both
    • a failure to recognize that recreational smoking exists and
    • an unnecessary introduction of strife into society;
  • There actually were lung disease risks associated with the debris from the towers, but they could have been averted by proper reactive government action rather than the proactive (and usually inappropriate) government action of smoking bans;
  • If using 9/11 imagery to make a point were effective, Rudy Giuliani would still be in the presidential race. (Thank heavens for backlash.)

h/t: Copyranter, to whom I’d be tempted to send in my resume and cover letter if I didn’t suspect it would be posted for the mockery of the masses.