Author Archives: Grant

No logo bad anthro

I like this sign. It’s a ‘no logo’ logo. I’ve been admiring it on my walk through the McGill ghetto. The leaves have finally fallen away so I could get a picture.

As you can see, it’s not official Pepsi issue-it’s home made. Someone took a stencil and made their own. Why? Well, it’s a store front, isn’t it? And store fronts have signs. And probably (though this is hard to imagine) Pepsi wouldn’t give them one. So they made their own.

It is a ‘no logo’ logo in another respect. This insistence, that a commercial message is appropriate even when unpaid for, suggests that this sort of thing is so much a part of the furniture of contemporary culture that we must supply it even when it doesn’t exist.

What would the store be without it? Less identifiable, less formed. So much of our landscape is created by commerce, virtually all of it is, that it is part of our real and conceptual way finding system. What doesn’t exist, we are obliged to invent.

Naomi Klein, and you knew I was getting to her, didn’t you, would have us believe that logos are a blight, and more than that, that they are an invasion, and more than that that they are a predation. But in fact, no logo is bad anthro-a failure to see, to reckon with the fact that we are, whether we like it or not, almost nothing if not an artifact of commercial forces.

It may be that Klein is right to insist that there are costs and penalties to such a thing, and it is certainly true that we need people to ferret these out and sum them up. What we should not do, I believe, is to make our unhappiness with commerce grounds for a constant posturing against it. If only because the argument is well and truly made. Enough already. But no. The argument is returned to again and again as if it contained difficulties and complexities we hadn’t quite got to the last time round. Some version of this argument has been with us throughout the Western tradition (see Brantlinger, Carey and Docker, below). Certainly it has been robust since the Frankfurt school, and more recently as a result of the efforts of the likes of Ewen and Stuart Hall and the Birmingham school. But it keeps coming back with unexpected freshness, as if the argument were brand new, or, as I say, somehow hard to think.

Here’s something fresh and hard to think. So much of commerce is warp to culture’s woof that it is now almost impossible to distinguish them. To insist on doing so is almost single handedly responsible for the troubling ironies that so amused, but why preoccupied, the 1990s: oh, that Klein is reported to be getting rich from the sale of her book, that Michael Moore is rumored to have bought 3 condos, that Moby used clothing stores and advertisements to sell his music, that Courtney love sold Kurt’s memories for $4 million. No good things can come from commercial motives. No authenticity can come from something touched by the market place. Commerce is pandering. These are a few of our favorite things to think about the commercial culture. They prevent us from the real intellectual challenge here: not how to think about culture and commerce separately, Klein demonstrates that anybody can do this. The real challenge is thinking about how they go together. Not to celebrate that they go together. God knows we have had enough of that. But to understand what it is to live in a society where culture and commerce live out of one another’s pockets. Like it or not, this is who we are and how we live. It will decide what becomes of us.

The time has come to stop protesting the effect of commerce on culture and see how the two run together. How else are we to understand why someone would make a logo for their store front.

Brantlinger, Patrick. 1983. Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay . Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Carey, John. 1992. The Intellectuals and the Masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939. London: Faber and Faber.

Docker, John. 1994. Postmodernism and popular culture: a cultural history. Cambridge. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Phatic TV

Hello Goodbye (as seen on TV!)

There’s an exceptional amount of time and attention given to greetings in the cops shows of the moment: NYPD Blue, Law and Order, the Canadian Da Vinci’s Inquest, and the immortal Homicide.

Everyone’s always coming and going, and with each arrival and departure there is a ritualized greeting. Often this carries the weight of the scene in its few words and simple gestures. We can tell exactly what Andy thinks of the captain by the way he says goodbye to him.

But a lot of these greetings are a kind of phatic texture, meant to show that these are real people and not TV robots. Some of the “gritty authentiicity” of the cop show comes from the minimalism of these gestures, as if (and this may be true) the middle class viewers of the show are obliged to offer greetings are bigger, brighter, more enamelled and gregarious. Any show that features these tiny, grudging greetings must be very authentic indeed.

Still it is odd that so much “action television” should consist in the frequent repetition of words, phrases and gestures that are, after all, not so very demonstrative, animated or active. Don’t try this at home, kids. It’s only for trained professionals on a closed course.

Post card from Mexico I

Postcards from Mexico

I was so lonely in Mexico I send out about 30 postcards. Weeks passed. And finally one found its way home, beating its way through bad weather and high winds to my friend Jim in Montreal.

To Jim
This turns out to be a city of lazy light and shadow, filtered by smog we can’t do in North America, not enough (or the same) particulate content, I think. They have these little machines, I believe they call them Volkswagens, that travel the city, constantly producing more and seeing to an even(ing) distribution. Got to the anthropology museum just in time for closing but they let me walk the courtyard. Magnificent. And outside little carts with multitudes in shrink wrap, lighters, playing cards, children’s toys. Their Halloween is coming! Hope you’re well. Seen you soon.




Looking for M. Richler

I am determined to find some place in Montreal where people meet talk and smoke and talk and drink and talk. I recall that Mordecai Richler was famous for his bars and so I google: Richler Montreal bars. And that’s why I am standing outside Winnie’s at 1459 Crescent Street.

The bar itself, I mean, the very bar is whirled walnut. That can’t be right. There is a copy of Sir Winston’s portrait, the one that shows him sitting with his arms “astride” his armchair, the way heroes use to stand astride a patch of ground. They are playing that song from the 80s, the one by a one hit wonder, a man of indeterminate gender, a disco number that featured the lyric “pump it.” This is playing real loud (and that’s louder than really loud). “Where’s the cigar bar?” I ask. “There’s a box of cigars in the corner,” the bartender says. Now they are playing “take my breath way.”

The bartender gives off a whiff of fetal alcohol syndrome. Some people claim they can tell by looking. I’m not one of them. There is a hockey game on, tiny, hyper active figures gliding over translucent white. It’s real dark in here. There’s one table of guys who look like they might be talking talking (as we say). They are of Richler’s generation, girth and inclination. Now the music is Under my Thumb by Lionel Ritchie. Ritchie meet Richler. Can the tape really be as old as this? Or is this a “programming” choice?

I ask the bartender if there is a day in the week when people come to talk. He stares at me wordlessly. A guy enters the bar shouting, “yeah, baby,” his tribute to Austin Powers. They are sitting across the bar in what I took to be a no-space created by the mirror image of the bar. Ghosts? None of them looks like MR. “Is there another place people go to talk?” “I think it’s like this up and down the street.” The newcomers have a great appetite for life and for popcorn. They keep jamming their meaty fists into whicker baskets. They are drinking beer.

There is a deeply worried looking Asian guy at the far end of the bar. I am beginning to get a little worried myself. This reminds me of my one moment in a bar in Cologne when a table nearby suddenly burst into song. A Dutch companion said quietly into his beer, “Any second now they will start marching.” The “yeah baby” man is now making dancing motions.

I happen to know that Richler also used to frequent the bar of the Ritz Carleton. I believe I may be safe there. It proves to be subdued in exact proportion to the frenzy of the Winnie. I have not yet popped the Richler question to the bar staff. But I have a felling I will get another look of incomprehension. Americans would be bursting with a boosterish joy at a celebrity association.

Oh, there is something crawling on the bar, a tiny little bug, so small its hard to say what is is, and all those years with my mother spent at natural history meetings in church basements conducted by men with dry hands and aggressively bad clothing who would comment with great and grave dignity on the wonders of the natural world. (This is what I will do when I grow up, I promised myself.) The lessons do me no good at all. No sooner do I see the little bug than he disappears into a crack in the bar surface, black laminate (no whirled walnut here!).

The music is smooth big band, horns and drums huge but syncopated. Now a jazz solo. When I can I struggled to move one of the bar chairs. The wait person says, with a wide gaze, flawless skin, and a certain vacuity of her own, “it’s heavy.” “Yes,” I say, “that’s my exercise for the day.” “Well,” she replies, “Now you can relax.”

There is no one here. Just two tables. The first is occupied by an older man with a cigar and a spectacularly coiffed woman of indeterminate age (but, between you and me, way younger than him) and a table in the alcove concealed from view. I struggle to listen “in” but I cannot make out what they are saying. I am getting a “tone” however and I am guessing it might be Charo or one of those notorious Charo imitators.

The waiter is in his 30s, plain, obsequious, and probably, originally, a Spanish speaker. He has no neck so his head and shoulders very nearly shared the same plane. He is talking to another man at the bar, a chap, who is, I’m guessing, Middle Eastern in origin. He has a newspaper, a sheet of paper, a glass of water and a glass of beer. A moment ago he answered the bar phone. He is discussing whatever he is reading with the bartender. The young beauty has fled.

It’s a least space exercise. Who here is most likely to have knowledge of the history of the bar? The alcove has disgorged itself. They are putting on expensive outer coats. It is cold outside. Both have beautiful gray hair. “yeah, cause I’m leaving” says the man. And his wife replies, “that’s ok then. So they are in the car.” As they leave, they are replaced by 4 thirty somethings who sit in the far corner and warm to conversation in a way that suggests that the spirit of Richlerian conversation is upon them. Though, to be honest, I have no idea what this style was. Though surely it was engaged, careful, garrulous, and smart. Them, too.

I ask the ME guy about MR and he is courtly in his interest in my question but no help at all. “What period?” He returns to his bar stool and after a moment he leaps us and says, “I think I know who you should talk to.” In a moment he returns with Antony, a man in his 60s, perhaps 70s, with the last of an aspirating Irish accent and a controlled comb over. He wears a high buttoned suit and a concierge’s badge.

Yes, he knew Mr. Richler. He drank here often. And Antony then spoke uninterrupted for about 5 minutes, bringing a pretty coherent stream of recollection out of memory but only by a process of constant encouragement directed first at the body that then returned to the mind. Antony worked so hard to remember that he rocked in a place and he held his hands away from his body on either side, so that they looked like rails designed to keep the rocking steady. And they did.

No, I was wrong to think of Winnie’s as a place that Richler would drink at night. The place changes its tone depending on the time of day, Antony explained. No, it might be lunch at Winnie’s and then drinks at Vinnie’s. I know, I know. The ME guy and I listened with interest and I was thrilled to think that some part of the oral history of the hotel was passing from one generation to the next. Lots of interesting details including references to a Rabinovitch, who was Richler’s friend. “He always asks for a 30s suite,” I thought I heard Antony say. 30’s suite? Could they really have rooms untouched since then. Daz and I will have to smuggle in and investigate. Daz can detect olfactory evidence as far back as the mid 19th century and is positively Holmesian in the things he can deduce therefrom.

So nothing and then a gusher. And then another gusher. The ME guy and I returned to the bar and introduced ourselves. His name is Ghazi, a last name he uses as his all purpose name. I ask him if he can remember the names of the rooms in the hotel that Antony has mentioned. He gives them to me: Grand Prix and Maritime. And then he says, “would you like to see them” and away we go. First to the front desk to retrieve a man with keys and then down a stairway and into a wainscoted piano bar (the Grand Prix) and on to the oval Maritime room, passing through a mirrored doorway that proved first to have a very discrete lock and then to roll invisibly into the wall. Rooms waiting. No sign of the ghosts to whom the young beauty had referred when she heard where we were going. Just embarrassed glances as couples parted and departed the space they had made their dance floor. Ask and ye shall receive.

Adieu Bourdieu?

According to Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times (Oct. 16, 2002), symphonies have a problem. Some people who used to buy season tickets prefer single ticket sales.

In a culture of commotion, this makes sense for three reasons.

First, we are moving from the culture that reveals the Arnoldian notion of culture, the idea of a hierarchy of taste that puts fine things on high and more popular culture below. This conceit, hypnotically powerful in one form or another in the West for at least 500 years, is now losing its vise-like grip on the way people think about themselves, the culture they care about, the things they consume. (See book 2, Transformation, for more on this.) This means that the status giving, identity defining importance of symphony subscription is on the wane. This is not to say that people don’t care about high culture and the status it brings them. It is to say they care about many other kinds of culture and identities as well.

And this brings us to the second reason. Because people now have bundles of selves that cover a range of class, age, experiential, stylistic, gender definitions, they are obliged to have access to a range of cultural events. This means we have to spread the same dollar over symphonies, clubs, web access, diverse books, several magazines and so on. That symphony subscription takes up too much of our available resources. Better to dip into the symphony season as and when it looks useful and leave those other resources for deployment in a different venue, for a different purpose.

There’s a third reason. The just-in-time nature of our culture. We can’t know when we are asked to sign up for symphony season who we will be at the end of it. And we certainly dont know where contemporary culture is going to be. Don’t make us choose early. Give us the latitude to choose as and when it becomes apparent who we are becoming and where the several groups to which we belong are heading.

Thoughts only.

Hiya Gaia

Last night I was coming home from dinner through the ornate, lo-fi, rain slick streets of my neighborhood in Montreal. It was about 10:00. And there, in the rain and the dark and October, was my neighbor…gardening…with a pick ax.

She was struggling to remove the ashphalt between her building and her sidewalk. The idea was to plant vines that would take root in the earth and cover the 3 stories expanse of the wall above her. This summer she put down planter boxes and grew climbers. But what she wants is one of those high, deep vineries. We have one down the street, it covers the entire wall, standing, in full leaf, about 4 inches deep, and serves as a kind of bird condo, with hundreds of sparrows, mostly, coming and going, and carrying on. and holding forth. For this she needs plants that can take deep root.

Montreal, and especially the plateau, is filled with acts of reclamation/reforestation. My own contribution, planters on my 3rd story balcony, with sun flowers, morning glories, “meadow” flowers, and a little tree that is quickly out growing its box and will shortly have to be transplanted to the mountain. Everywhere you look people are planting as opportunistically as nature herself. Give us a horizontal surface, we give you a garden.

Victorians would have got this, I think. They were digging out from the predations of the industrial revolution. But not the 1950s, a decade quite in love with asphalt. I used to keep an eye out for those period post cards that put the motel, the shopping centre, the factory, high and way back in the image, the better to show off the expanse of asphault that was their pride and joy.

We dug for some time, and eventually a great chuck of ashpalt sprang from the earth. Eight inches deep. Why did they pour so much of it? And one little vine took root.

Vin Diesel, endangered?

I picked up the latest Entertainment Weekly to figure out why and how Vin Diesel has become such a big hit. (Yes, I saw Fast and Furious. I still didn’t get it.)

Here’s what they say:

“What’s going on,” explains one Hollywood agent, “is that there’s a shortage of action stars in Hollywood.”

How could Hollywood run out of one of its staples.

I figured this would be a good problem to put before popular culture experts not least because it cannot be (well) answered with the usual platitudes about Hollywood. You actually have to know something the industry and the moment in the industry.

Second, this is a genuine wobble in popular culture, something truly anomalous. It satisfies the anomaly test: “If someone had written an essay 10 years ago saying that Hollywood would someday run out of action stars, would anyone have taken it seriously?” The answer here has to be no.

So what happened? How and why fail to produce more action adventure stars?