Eddies in the mainstream

How cold is it in Montreal? It’s so cold many of us will not survive the night. This may be my last journal entry.

A couple of weeks ago (see entry for Oct. 3), I was surprised to learn from Entertainment Weekly that Vin Diesel was being heralded as the new action star to some extent because, as an Hollywood agent put it, “there’s a shortage of action stars in Hollywood.”

Then a couple days ago, a NYT article by Cathy Horyn called “Young Stars of U.S. Fashion Can’t Seem to Find Right Fit.” (December 7, 2002). The title of the article is misleading because the gist of the piece is that there is now a shortage of young fashion designers.

“Since 1998, when Isaac Mizrahi closed his doors, a succession of promising stars have gone out of business – Daryl Kerrigan, Pamela Dennis, Todd Oldham and last month, Mr. Bartlett, who in 1997 was the industry’s top men’s wear designer.”

A shortage of action stars and fashion designers? Is this the historical outcome of the great exclusion that happened in the very late 80s? People raised with Michael J. Fox expectations (Beemers, law school, yuppie riches) found themselves shut out. It wasn’t really until the dot.com thing got rolling in the mid late middle 1990s, that they were let back in…and nothing in this new regime encouraged people to think about action adventure or clothing design.

It’s 12 years later. Hollywood and the design world look for the next generation…and parts of it are missing. Some of this is the work of exclusion. But some of it is the result of refusal. The alternative values of the 1990s scorned action stars and fashion design, one for its preposterous gender constructions, the other for its self aggrandizing vanity. And some of it was both: those who learned to disdain action and fashion were disinclined to enter it.

But the larger question: is there a hole in the demography? Are parts of Gen X still missing?

pre fab culture

David Blum recently wrote  "Tired joke or cultural touchstone: The sitcom clam." The clam, he said, is a joke from Friends, say, that has found its way into daily life. There are lots of them.

"Too much information!"
"Don’t talk to me, talk to the hand."
"I’m not going there."
"That’s why they pay me the big bucks."
"You think?"
"It doesn’t get any better than this."
"Good times."
"Did I say that out loud?"

The last was delivered by Cliff Clavin on Cheers. It is now in wide circulation.

Writers hate clams. They see them as lazy, pre-fab humor. But they are obliged to use them. It’s as if they have been taken hostage by their own work. These lines are now so much a part of everyday speech, they are sometimes the mot juste. Not to use them can compromise a scene.

But the rest of us are less conflicted. Clams are the stuff of speech. They come to us unbidden and they score. I was fielding an odd comment from a student in a class room. He asked, for some reason, what I thought about those moments when cocaine is suddenly not available. I could hear the class come unhinged. A carefully crafted teaching plan now hung in the balance. "I hate it when that happens," I heard myself say.

Big laugh. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t made it up. Indeed it was funnier because prefab. We are happy to have our jokes ghosted by comedy writers. And why would we not be? (You have heard people tell their own jokes? How about professors?)

It is, generally, a good thing to be scripted. We deliver better lines, and our "audience" is ready for us, cued as surely as if an applause sign had just lit up.

This is not always true. I recently did a pub tour, looking for the ghost of Mordecai Richler (Looking for M. Richler, November 7, 2002, below). The evening was going pretty badly, when suddenly the door blew open and in came a man yelling "Yeah, baby," his tribute to Austin Powers, which he liked so well that he repeated it over and over till I felt obliged to leave.

A Budweiser ad armed perfect idiots with the right to say "whazzup" until this clam was finally put to rest by the people at www.tinyriot.com. A little clam can be a dangerous thing.

Clams may come from sit com writers, but they belong to us. A friend of mine was struck by the new maniacal laugh of a friend of hers. My friend was surprised to hear this laugh again in the movie Mars Attacks (1996, Tim Burton). And when she saw her friend next, she said,
"so that’s where you got it."

"What?"

"That laugh!"

"What laugh?"

"That one you got from Mars Attacks."

Her friend was mightily offended. She may have got the laugh from Tim Burton’s movie but now it belonged to her. Something in us supposes, apparently, that we deserve some of the credit for these performances.

Our skill with clams comes from media exposure. I went to a wedding a couple of years ago in which every member of an otherwise pretty typical family stood up and delivered "A" material as part of their roast of the groom. I was stunned they should be so good. The only moment of real creativity came when one of the brothers got up and said, "I’m the odd one in the bunch" and proceeded to do a satirical treatment of the Catholic minister who had performed the ceremony. This was so funny that people were actually shouting at their plates with laughter.

But the rest of the time we were co-conspirators in a reproduction of popular culture. "A river runs through us," I thought. (I’d had a lot to drink.) We have all of us absorbed so many media feeds. We have bathed in so many comedian routines, we are now pretty good at them.

If we were in a diminishing mood (and this is the tone of a lot of pop culture criticism), you could say that we have been reduced to participants in that famous comedian’s convention in which all the jokes are so well known they have been identified by number. You only have to say "57" to get a big laugh. Culture has been flattened. Creativity has been diminished. We have been turned into robots, thoughtlessly reproducing bits and pieces from the stream of popular culture that passes constantly through us.

But I’m not in a diminishing mood. Clams are consistent with a lot of what we see now in popular culture: "Like" talking, air guitar, Lip sync, Karaoke, Flight Simulator, Sim City, fanfic, Blade Runner (the game), Goth theatre in the streets of San Francisco, MUDS, MOOs, Virtual Worlds, Rotisserie baseball, and HSX.com (reviewed Transformation, pp. 287-296). People are taking the theatrical resources that come to them from TV and movies into their own hands. They are using these props to step into someone else’s personae (real or fictional). Clams are perhaps the smallest moments of transformation. We can insert them, just in time, in a little space in the conversation.

And in that moment we appropriate the humor of a TV character, and we dress ourselves up in humor funnier than any thing we could manage on our own. We are not naive about this, neither are our listeners. But we are not without our standards. We can’t just say "57." The line has to be well chosen, well timed, and well delivered.

This is a shift we see more and more. That virtually everyone has moved from being a consumer of culture to being one of its, unofficial, producers. Even when this is borrowed production, it is still production. And this should be enough to discourage the "dupe" argument that says contemporary culture has turned us into, well, dupes. We have shown ourselves increasingly voracious in the consumption of clams. And increasingly skilled in the way in which we recreate this comedic material in everyday life.

It turns out, contrary to the Frankfurt school, Stewart Ewen, Stuart Hall, and other social scientists too numerous to mention, the culture that comes out of commerce is actually quite inclusive and participative. It does not "dumb us down." Quite often, it smartens us up.

Now it remains to do the anthropology. What is a clam exactly? Why do some sit coms lines make it into popular culture and others not? How long do they stay in circulation? Do they "diffuse" like other cultural innovations? Do people characteristically chose certain clams and avoid others? How do clams change social performances? How do clams change the social construction of the self? How much and what kind of traditional humor has been supplanted by clams? A few questions for us to contemplate.

Thank you, David Blum, for the article.

American culture post 9/11

I just got an email for Elizabeth Molinaro, one of the ablest students in a class I taught at the Harvard Business School. Elizabeth emailed everyone in the class with this question: What are you seeing/sensing that you might label a cultural/lifestyle/environmental shift?

My answer:

Elizabeth,

Great to “hear” your voice again. I guess the thing that strikes me, well, there are several, but here’s one:

9/11 created a great lining up of the heavens–a return to all the old verities and traditions as we closed the wagons against the intruder, and now, little by little, we are returning to the full diversity of American life. (And by “diversity” I mean the vast experimentation that goes on everywhere, not only the distinctions of race and gender that are normally indicated by the term…though goodness knows race and gender have been a couple of the engines of this experimentation.)

There will always be an irreducible remainder here, a changed sense of Americanness, but slowly and surely it is a return to business as usual, and this is individualism in the marketplace (so that great outpouring of collectivity now goes away) and in the cultural world (so that “we must honor elders” feeling for orthodoxy is starting to go away too).

In a way this is a part of the war effort: after all, it is in some sense a struggle between open and closed societies. But something has changed in the tone of the diversity, and I can’t quite tell what. Sometimes I wonder whether it is a new sense of unease. It’s as if we (if a Canadian may include himself for a moment), we have a new sense of how rare we are, how risky our experiment is, how alone we are. It’s as if we have discovered that we are walking on a catwalk we had never seen before and we are much higher up than we had ever guessed. Some of the play and the optionalness of our experimental world seems to have disappeared. What we used to do for fun, we must now do out of necessity.

The larger question, however, is clear: we are returning to the “trend of trends,” a culture with hundreds of little sailing ships out there in the harbor. Very few men of war left on the horizon. Surely, one or two of these little sailing ships will come ashore bearing a message that changes all of our lives, but more and more we are a culture of many trends, rather than one or two single ones.

Needless to say, this makes marketing harder to do, and much harder to sell. Clients still want monolithic explanations. But frankly I believe it means that advantage goes to people as smart as you. They used to say that marketing isn’t rocket science…but I believe that’s changing. And this must mean that in marketing, only the smart will survive. So maybe that’s my trend: the field of marketing is driving out bad and pulling in good.

Best, Grant

David Frum on commotion

this entry ported over from my now defunct LiveJournal website Nov. 28, 02

David Frum, yesterday in the National Post, called economic freedom “the first freedom.” He gives 3 reasons: that we must be able to express our “working, building, providing” aspect, that to override economic freedom is to step upon a slippery slope, it’s only a matter of time before freedoms of religion, speech and press will be compromised, and, finally, that control of economic activity expands governmental interference.

It’s a pretty standard argument. But two things surprised me. That we never hear the companion piece to this argument. I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say that the abrogation of artistic liberties puts the economy at risk. Apparently, the slippery slope doesn’t slide in this direction.

The second thing that surprised: how “siloed” is this argument. It is true that ours if a culture that thinks about religion, artistic, economic and other domains as separate, distinct, and sometimes even mutually exclusive. It is also true that the social sciences and especially the Talcott Parsons period at Harvard helped to encourage this approach to the world. (Frum went to Harvard; maybe he got it there.)

What struck me though is how much these silos have in common, how similar are the freedoms in each domain. At a certain level, deep inside the thing itself, there is almost no difference between an artist, the entrepreneur and the religious enthusiast. All three are creating and responding to a deliberate unraveling of the world. They make a tear in the surface of the world, and then they fall through it. (More on this in Commotion 0.0.)

We recoil from this idea, largely because it confounds categories “work,” “art” and “devotion.” And our feeling of repugnance may be the operation of the principle that Mary Douglas reduced in Purity and Danger to the formula “the unclear is the unclean.” (Simplifying, when things that culture renders as distinct and separate are brought together, we react as if some notion of purity has been violated. Conceptual confusion provokes a sense of pollution.)

This might be a way to make the Frumian argument. But, again, the economic domain doesn’t want to claim fellowship with the artistic and religious ones. And one wonders whether this is because art looks like an exercise in self indulgence and the irrational, two things that economic man regards as especially dangerous to his construction of self and world. Too bad. It is, after all, one culture…even and especially in its post modern moment.

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.