Category Archives: Popular Culture: General

Spluttering and inarticulate today at 3:00

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Today, I’ll be a guest on the Debbie Millman show. You can listen by going here at 3:00 Eastern seaboard time. I’ll be on from 3 to 4.

The show will open with a discussion of blogging, I think, but the discussion will then march off in all directions. You are welcome to call in questions and comments at 1-866-233-7861.

Good news on Carolyn Parrish

Carolyn Parrish, Member of Parliament, has been thrown out of the Liberal Party caucus for her several, calculated insults against US president George W. Bush.

Several days ago, she appeared on a Canadian comedy show with a Bush doll under her booted heal.

Ms. Parrish drew notice on this blog August 28 in a post called Carolyn Parrish is a big fat idiot (on anti-Americanism in Canada). You may find it here.

There were over 100 comments on this post Many of them help illuminate the Parrish problem and the anti-American position for which she speaks.

References

Anon. 2004. Maverick MP turfed from Liberal Caucus. Canada.com. here.

the anchorman

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It’s a wonder that Anchorman (Will Farrell) is doing well at the box office. “Ron Burgundy” is, after all, now a fixed stereotype in the Hollywood repertoire. As a genre, it’s a little long in the tooth.

We know that genres have a “sweet spot.” We like to catch them “in the middle” when they are sufficiently well formed to be readable but not yet so over formed as to be stale. Ron Burgundy comes late in the cycle but Farrell somehow found a way to make him “fresh.”

Stereotypes of this kind are the life blood of contemporary culture, and an anthropological question of some interest. The Anchorman (and his cousins, the talk show host, the lounge singer, and the game show host) has always inclined to self importance without substance, self congratulation without cause, and self celebration without cease. And I think it’s fair to say that for a long time we endured him without protest or even explicit acknowledgement. Everyone (or everyone with a brain) noticed his pomposity but we all noticed separately.
The anchorman was present but not fully accounted for.

Then something happened. Someone (probably a comedian) somewhere (probably Saturday Night Live) used parody to aggregrate our little acts of quiet observation into a larger moment of collective recognition. A stereotype was born. (A nice example of how cultural meanings are, in our culture, emergent.)

For the moment, it is an insider’s joke, know to relatively few. Then it goes mass. Sigournney Weaver in Ghostbusters says to Bill Murray, “You’re not really like a scientist at all. You’re more like a game show host.” If we weren’t already in on the joke, we were now.

Many comedians worked the vein: Bill Murray, Greg Kinnear, and Chevy Chase and then moved on. Well, not Chevy Chase. Murray even succeeded in giving us a glimpse of the Anchorman in his later years, abandoned by his florid self regard and and now a little “lost in translation.”

If the Anchorman has survived the genre life cycle it’s because we llike him well enough to extend his visa in pop culture. (Fictional characters, like the celebrities who play them, are foreign nationals in our midst. They serve at our pleasure…we send them packing when we, and they, are done. Chevy Chase, again.)

So why does Ron Burgundy get to stick around? Partly, there is something charmiing about sommeone who reaches extravagantly for social effect…and fails. We are all social actors tempted by gestures of self aggrandizement and we see some of ourselves in him. There is also a diminishment effect. We are charmed when potentially grand characters are self puncturing. There is also an act of gender apology at work here, filed by a celebrity male on behalf of all men. And finally there is an element of revenge. We are pleased to see the great brought low. If there is a little Ron Burgunndy in each of us, there is even more of him in the people for whom we work.

Most all all, the Ron Burgundy stereotype is an index of how thoroughly we “get” popular culture. All of us can see the “man behind the current.” We are all hip to the game. We know what pop culture is up to and now view it with our “irony” glasses firmly in place.

The culture critics believed that this moment would some day come. And they believed that when it did, we would throw off the chains of our oppression and take the high road to Culture or the low one to revolution.

Wrong, as usual. We like the “debasements” and predictabilities of popular culture. A ticket to Anchorman is actually two tickets in one. We see it for what it is as entertainment and because it gives us yet another factory tour of Hollywood. Long live Ron Burgundy, long may he reign under us.

References

Thanks to Jeff Brown of Bowling Green University for telling me about genre theory.

Ronald Reagan and the Liberal Left

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This is not the Ronald Reagan I thought I knew.

In this memorial week, an unfamiliar picture of Reagan has emerged. Reagan read the economist Hayek. Reagan took his holidays with journalist William F. Buckley. Reagan was an essayist with wide interests and deep knowledge.

When Reagan was in office, we were encouraged to think of him as an “amiable dunce,” the hand puppet of corporate interest, the entirely teleprompted president.

As a devotee of the liberal left, I bought it. This is not the place for a recantation of the ideological indiscretions of my youth (though I recant, I recant). It is the place to wonder how and why the Liberal left could have made an error of this order.

I believe the Liberal left continues to treat “we’re smarter than you” as their trump card. It is the fount of their scorn. It is proof of their political qualification. It is the argument that “proves” that they are right and ‘those bastards” are wrong. It was their charge against Reagan. It is their charge against Bush. This is one of the mightiest planks of their platform.

There are two problems here.

First, the charge of intellectual inadequacy absolves the Liberal Left from having to take the ideas of the Right seriously. It is indeed a way of arguing that the Right does not have ideas, that it is merely the mouth piece of vested interests. Ironically, the claim to intellectual superiority serves as warrant for an anti-intellectual act.

Second, there is a vicious circle at work here. When the Liberal left supposes that they are smarter, they underestimate the opponent. When they underestimate the opponent, they lose when they might have won. By insisting they are smarter, they give up a chance for victory.

How bright is that?

References

Reagan, Ronald. 2001. Reagan, In his own hand. New York: The Free Press.

through the dry wall

Last night, I went to a Montreal celebration for a magazine called FQ. It was staged in the St. James Hotel. I got there early as clueless academics always do. (The term “fashionably late” means nothing to us.) And I found myself standing in the big room surrounded by waiters with silver trays. There is a very clear anthropological convention here: “begin drinking immediately” and I did. What follows is a little feverish.

It is almost impossible to describe the grandeur of the hotel. It was built first as a bank at a time when capital was still not quite certain of itself and felt obliged to turn itself into grandeur. In those days, apparently, we still did not quite believe in banks and would only tip our money into their pool of money with the most lavish and architecturally material of assurances.

Here’s the lobby. But the room beyond this lobby is indescribably complicated with every kind of ornament and architectural elaboration. There is an upper balcony that runs, and here “runs” is no mere turn of phrase, from one end of the room, to the other.

st james interior.jpg

I talked briefly to Jeannie Beker, the editor of the FQ. She is one of Canada’s unsung marvels. If she were American, we would know her name as well as we do Diane Sawyer’s or Katie Couric’s. But this is Canada and that’s ok.

I had a couple of drinks, and stood, as all academics must, on the margin, watching the world carry on with an animation that seems to outstrip anything that ever happens in the “senior common room,” even at its most sherry fueled.

And then I had a kind of epiphany which I hesitate to share with you, because it sounds a little screwed up. But never mind, it’s for science.

The thing that occurred to me, standing in that room surrounded by breathtaking architecture, is that “you could turn all of this into numbers.” I am sure that this revelation that comes to some people easily and often. But for an anthropologist who has been raised “without numbers” (we are the enfants sauvage of the social sciences, raised without a basic language) it came with a certain head-snapping impact.

It now sounds obvious, on the one hand and addled, on the other, but for some reason I was impressed by the fact that everything in this extraordinarily complicated room could be charted and mapped in relation, in very precise relation, to everything else.

Why? Why should it occur to an anthropology raised without numbers to think about a cultural artifact as numbers. Most of my colleagues would see this as an act of reduction, a vulgar diminishment, a preposterous act in which the extraordinary is made ordinary. What what I recall thinking is this: if you could turn this artifact into numbers, you could compare it to all other cultural artifacts. But of course, you could, but why bother? The history of architecture is nothing if not a labor of comparison, identification, categorization. This field has spend the last couple of hundred years doing precisely this, comparing styles and moments and transformation in architecture and anyone who has done an undergraduate course in this field knows they are pretty good at it.

So what does it matter that it could be “turned into numbers?” I think it’s because the world of contemporary culture has a way of punching through the existing categories of understanding as if these were merely so much dry wall. Routinely, we see our culture add on and do over. (This communication comes to you on a technology, the internet, that did not really exist 10 years ago, in a forum, the blog, that did not really exist 5 years ago.) In our culture, there is always something more that no one in charge of the categories (intellectuals, academics and other observers) anticipated or thought or thought possible.

These days, concepts and categories, as crafted by the chattering classes, are almost always struggling to catch up to the world that comes rushing through the dry wall. The revelation, for anyone who is paying attention to what is happening to contemporary culture, is that this is the work of a capitalism that doesn’t know, and doesn’t care that it doesn’t know, what comes next.

The real observers of the world beyond the dry wall are no longer intellectuals but venture capitalists. These are the people who glimpse the world in the works and must decide whether to pour capital in or not. It’s a little like that game that appears on the Letterman show, “Is this something or not something?” This is the VC game. (“Ok, I have a proposal for something called Mosiac. Is this something or not something?”)

I’ve taught business school students and I have a rough idea how they made the decision, and I thank God they were not trained as anthropologists, who would have, as anthropologists, said, “no, we don’t know what this is and we cannot fund it.” Happily, HBS graduates and other VCs do not think this way. They plug in the numbers, they see as far as their spread sheets can show them, and they say, “ok, consider yourself liquid.” A couple of years later, we had the most extraordinary creation of value in this history of the market place and something called the Internet. People who think about culture for a living could not have seen what was possible and would not, almost surely, have funded it.

In The Savage Mind, Levi-Strauss talked about the difference between traditional societies and modern ones. The latter, he said, are driven by scientists who are always searching after that “other message,” the one not anticipated by the code. I’ve seen HP engineers at work and they are a lot like this. They are not much interested in what is. What interests them is what’s possible. Screw the code, screw the categories, what’s on the other side of the dry wall? These days the world is routinely reshaped by scientists and engineers and more actively, entrepreneurs and VCs. These are the ones who move out of what we know into what no one quite gets. VCs are funding in the dark, as it were. They are betting on shadows that our present categories cannot quite illuminate. They are laying down bets on things that might make sense, and, hey presto, with funding, someday do. In other words, capital that once had to turn itself into great architectural declarations of the here and now is now being pressed into service to enable not the here but the horizon, not the now but the next.

This is the world we live in, one constantly transformed not by the playing out of ideas we share and have “signed off on.” (Hayek is very good here on the difference between the French notion of individualism and the English one.) We are living in a world that is constantly in a process of becoming and the becoming is not a recitation of what we know but what we can, at the limit, imagine, fund, enable, create, and then live. (Again, we are communicating with a technology that is almost brand new.)

Do intellectuals understand what has happened to them? I think they do. The postmodernist crisis of “representation,” the now overwhelming ordinary recitation of the instability of our analytic categories, what is this if not an acknowledgment of the fact that we live in a world where the real constantly outstrips the thought? The people who are supposed to act as the miner’s lamp on the helmet of contemporary society, what we hear from them mostly, is “we can’t see, we can’t know, we can’t imagine.” What we hear from them is mostly, “wet pavement, bridge out, don’t go there!” And the world, fuelled by the imaginations of entrepreneurs and the capital of venture capitalists barrels on right through the dry wall.

Back to the St. James hotel and that room as numbers. This room is merely intervals, that can be marked off and fixed with ones and zeroes. The creator of a video game creates a virtual world in just this way. This room and every room is a choice of intervals marked on or off. And, yes, of course, architectural history precedes us and it can show how and why certain configurations of marking take shape and press themselves upon the world, shaping the difference between the Rococo and the Renaissance. But this post hoc determination doesn’t serve us as a way of marking a world that is much more fluid and unpredictable. What happens when innovations of the order of the Internet come every few years or so? To think about this world, we will need a much more open conceptual system. To live in a world that changes more quickly, more variously, and more unpredictably, with new speed and power, the old ways of seeing and categorizing will have to go. And then seeing things as numbers may be so much an act of reduction but a way of keeping track, of keeping up.

In a sense, this is, to borrow an image first from Hegel, and then from an early post, really just Minerva taking wing at dusk. This is the moment when the anthropologist understands that his categories can’t keep up with the world. And in this moment of crisis, the qualitative mind looks for quantitative salvation. I think there’s a good chance that it’s only because I am quantitatively innumerate that I imagine there is any help here. Certainly, when I look at the categories, the methods, the intelligence that economics and other numerate arts put at my disposal, my first thought is “what, this is it?” We will need some combination of the qualitative and the quantitative to develop the ways of thinking that a truly dynamic world will demand of us. Numbers will have to do things that economists haven’t yet made them do for those of us who wish to understand the world the keeps coming at us ‘through the dry wall.”

References:

Hayek, Friedrich A. 1948. Individualism and Economic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 8. (The quote in question: “The difference between this view, which accounts for most of the order which we find in human affairs as the unforeseen result of individual actions, and the view which traces all discoverable order to deliberate design is the first great contrast between the true individualism of the British thinkers of the eighteenth century and the so-called “individualism” of the Cartesian school.”)

Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1972. The Savage Mind. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. p. 20. (The quote in question: “The scientist, on the other hand, whether he is an engineer ora physicist, is always on the look out for that other message which might be wrested from an interlocutor in spite of his reticence in pronouncing on questions whose answers have not be rehearsed.” emphasis in original)

the art of the ordinary

Short form:

Many artists have embraced what Trilling called the “adversary intention.” From an anthropological point of view, this is strange because it means that the people in our culture given greatest liberty to engage in cultural innovation end up using it in the mechanical reproduction of “resistance,” ‘transgression,” and the “alternative.” This is a little like insisting that the only alternative to due North is due South, when in fact there is quite a lot of compass left to explore (as it were). This post compares the art of Spencer Reece, our hero, to that of Jon Routson, that schmuck.

Long form:

Sunday’s NYT gives an account of Spencer Reece who works as an assistant manager at Brooks Brothers in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. After years of 23 years of refusal and rejection, Mr. Reece is on the verge of the poet’s idea of stardom. He will have his first volume published this month. He was recently published in the New Yorker and he just won the Bakeless Prize for new authors from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College.

Those who saw his New Yorker poem will have been struck at the way in which Mr. Reece took such clear and patient interest in his subject matter, working in a men’s clothing store. I couldn’t remember the last time that a writer took such an unsneering tone towards the everyday, especially the commercial everyday. The NYT tells us that “The Clerk’s Tale” “portrays…the interior lives and routines of the kind of people society tends to overlook. In this poem, they sell clothes at the mall.”

This makes Reece conspicuous because many more artists have signed up for the “adversary intention,” as Lionel Trilling called it. Trilling asked writers to “detach[] the reader from the habits of thought and feeling that the larger culture imposes, [and give] him a ground and a vantage point from which to judge and condemn, and perhaps revise, the culture that produced him.” This no doubt makes for stirring feelings of self righteousness, but it also makes for pretty predictable stuff, on the one hand, and atrocious anthropology, on the other. (There are so few anthropologists studying contemporary culture that those of us who do always hope that artists will help out. Those who have not fallen into the tractor beam of the adversary intension often do.)

A couple of days ago in the New York Times, Roberta Smith complained that new laws designed to discourage the “pirating” of Hollywood films will prevent artists like Jon Routson from making art. It turns out that Mr. Routson makes his art out of images taken from Hollywood films.

Here’s what Ms. Smith had to say:

It does not matter whether you think that Mr. Routson’s work is good or bad art; it is quite good enough, in my view. It does matter that the no-camcorder laws may not do much to stem pirating while making it increasingly difficult for artists to do one of the things they do best: comment on the world around them.

Our surroundings are so thoroughly saturated with images and logos, both still and moving, that forbidding artists to use them in their work is like barring 19th-century landscape painters from depicting trees on their canvases. Pop culture is our landscape. It is at times wonderful. Most of us would not want to live without it. But it is also insidious and aggressive. The stuff is all around us, and society benefits from multiple means of staving it off. We are entitled to have artists, as well as political cartoonists, composers and writers, portray, parody and dissect it.

I have to say that I felt the world spin briefly at the second sentence of that first paragraph. Commenting on the world around them? This is one of the things artists do best? Actually, they don’t comment very well at all. What they do generally is condemn and the thing about condemnation is that it is too busy with grand rhetorical gestures to give us anything as nuanced or useful as a comment.

But it’s the second paragraph that really gave me pause. For it plays out the prejudice with which artists, under Trilling’s spell, condemn contemporary culture, insist on its bankruptcy, justify their estrangement from it, and then mandate, an art that comments on the world only to scorn it. (I am giving Trilling all the credit here. Plainly, this is a larger cultural tradition. We mustn’t forget Baudelaire’s “Il faut épater les bourgeoisie.” “We must shock the bourgeoisie.”) In other words, Smith is insisting that artists get special dispensation from the law so that they can help themselves to a culture on which they heap ridicule. I don’t doubt that they have and must have this right. I do doubt that they have used it in an interesting or useful way.

Thank goodness for the likes of Mr. Reece.

Norwich, William. 2004. O, Khaki Pants! O, Navy Blazer! New York Times. Man 9, 2004.

Smith, Roberta. 2004. When One Man’s Video Art Is Another’s Copyright Crime. New York Times. May 6, 2004.

Trilling, Lionel. 1965. Preface. In Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning. Lionel Trilling. 9-16, New York: Penguin Books, p. 12

death of a comedienne

There are some inalterable rules of culture.

Even popular cultures have them.

One of these is that comedians have the authority to scold us only if they have the ability to make us laugh. It’s one of those “pay as you go” (fund your own credibility) deals.

Last night, poor Janeane Garofalo broke this rule on Jon Stewart.

This morning, Gene Koo observed,

I rended my garments and beat my chest in embarrassment tonight while listening to Janeane Garofalo rehash tired and unfunny liberal tripe on the Daily Show, while Jon Stewart valiantly tried to point out that liberals are the new conservatives with their hands over their ears.

And then he asked,

When did Garofalo quit being a comedian?

Koo’s just kidding. He knows it was last night at 11:17.

neo-con footwear, just in time for spring

A ripple of excitement ran through Neo-Conservative world today as news of the Black Spot Sneaker spread.

“These are slammin,” said David Frum.

“It’s what to wear on the half pipe,” said Norman Podhoretz.

“Nothing gives me better traction in the corridors of power.” said Douglas Feith.

The shoe in question was created by Kalle Lasn and the Adbusters organization. It looks a little like a Converse All-Star. And it goes well with everything.

Well, not everything. The Neo-Conservative Design Council (NCDC) feels strongly that, worn with a bow tie, Black Spot Sneakers give the wearer a ‘Professor PBS’ or “children’s educational television” look. “This is not something we recommend,” a NCDC spokesperson said yesterday, “But they really work with gray flannel trousers.”

Neo-con insiders say the footwear trend is driven by something more than aesthetics.

“I guess what really caught our attention was the black spot,” the NCDC said.

In this month’s Adbusters, Lasn published “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish.” He provided a list of the “50 most influential neo-cons in the U.S.” He put black spots beside the name of anyone on the list he thought was Jewish. Twenty-six people got black spots.

“I mean, the coincidence is striking, don’t you think? Black spot sneakers for black spot neo-cons. We feel the symbolism is irresistible.”

And indeed the Neo-Con camp is reportedly rushing to the website.

“Look, I know there are only 26 of us, but we’re high profile. The trickle-down effect will be tremendous.”

Not everyone agrees.

“This can’t be good for business. I mean Norman Podhoretz is not a fashion forward early adopter. I think these guys might be jamming the culture jammers. And that’s just mean,” said one Adbusters critic.

Lasn’s reaction is unknown. Industry insiders are waiting to see if he will ask corporations to require Jewish Neo-Conservatives to wear the Black Spot sneaker, especially on days when they might be party to conversations concerning Israel.

Adbusters: Why won’t anyone say they are Jewish?

(All quotes invented, all attributions spurious.)

Courtney Love and the Mennonite drug lords

There was Courtney Love on David Letterman a couple of weeks ago—an accident no longer waiting to happen. First, she flashed the stage hands, then Paul and the band, and finally Letterman himself. In a calm, genial manner, Dave said, ‘thank you very much.”

Old Colony Mennonites live in Canada and Mexico. They are hard working, devout, world renouncing, low church Protestants who wish to be left alone. Recently some of them set up a drug ring. By the late 1990s, they controlled 20% of the marijuana market in Canada. They now traffic in cocaine and methamphetamine, sometimes working with biker gangs to do so.

We think we know what is going on with Courtney Love. Once credible, or at least interesting, Ms. Love can feel herself falling from the celebrity heavens and she must now engage sensationalism to maintain altitude. We know she knows this will not help, that the slide is inexorable, that this accident will happen in slow motion, and that the kindest thing that can happen to her is that she will be reduced to a Sally Kellerman character who waits on the edges of the red carpet of Oscar Night, hoping, sometimes pleading, for an interview. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make famous.

What is happening in the second case is harder to say and we might resort to something biblical. The devil is ingenious. He found a way in. There are more sociological explanations: a drought, a devalued peso, and new trade rules hit the Mexican community. The Mennonites became drug lords to remain simple farming folk. (Where is my Advil.)

But we cannot see the larger pattern here if we focus only on conspicuous players. Let us take the case of Neko Case, the singer who began her musical career in a punk band, and now sings Country and Western? Or a friend of mine who started out a sports writer and is now a museum curator. Or another friend who began as a radio personality and now runs a start-up. Or the case of Donald Trump who started out a short fingered vulgarian and eventually became…well, not everyone changes.

There is no evidence that our culture has come to terms with this new modality. I think most of us believe that we can have the right of self authorship without stepping onto a dance floor strewn with ball bearings. This is to say we want the modernist right of self authorship without the postmodernist outcome of a slippery world. Most of us shake our heads at Courtney Love. I don’t know anyone who nodded and said, “Yes, that’s what transformation looks like.”

in fact, the argument that explains the Mennonite drug lords should explain Courtney Love as well. After all, the Mennonites, in their 125 years in North America, did divorce themselves from the real world, and this makes their disaster a kind of “systems” problem. Once they began to engage with the real world, there were almost no checks, no antibodies, no instincts, no precedents, no lessons in place to protect them. Their culture was missing an important piece of code. The long slide into drug trafficking was not inevitable, but once it started it was exceedingly difficult to stop.

We act as if Courtney’s difference was her opportunity, and that her failure is therefore her fault. Unlike those poor, clueless Mennonites, Courtney was a product of a culture that knows all about the corruptions of fame. More than that, she, and it, know about the perils of self transformation. How many entertainers preceded her down the path of self destruction? (Michael Jackson, Jim Morrison, um, Kurt Cobain, the list is long.)

But in fact Love’s culture is not much better prepared than the Mennonite one. When it comes to personal transformation, it’s not clear than we have more checks, antibodies, instincts, precedents in place, lessons to protect us from the rough air of personal transformation.

In a more robust culture (more or less postmodernist, it’s not clear which), there would be a well established body of understandings of what transformation is and how it must be managed. We would understand it as well as we do city planning or smoking cessation. (Five days and counting.)

What we would not do is shake our heads reproachfully in the face of another Icarian descent. We would react to Courtney as we do to the news of the Mennonite disaster: with astonishment, sympathy and a deep curiosity about this could have happened. Because, honestly, we not know in either case.

For the next installment of the Courtney Love episode, see her appearance on the Jay Leno show scheduled for April 15.

Details on the Old Colony Mennonite community from:

Mitrovica, Andrew and Susan Bourette. 2004. The Wages of Sin: How God-fearing Old Colony Mennonites –’the plain people”—have become some of Canada’s biggest and most dangerous drug smugglers.” Saturday Night. Vol. 119. (3): 29-36. (sorry, not posted on the web.)

Mr. Peanut taken captive!

The inestimable Stuart Elliott did a recent article on the rebranding of Mr. Peanut. (NYT March 19, 2004)

He quotes Sandy Greenberg, an executive vice president and group creative director on Planters at Foote Cone Belding, the advertising agency in New York City. “It [the new campaign] started with a strategy shift to focus on the fact that all the occasions of your life, large and small, are worthy of Planters.”

I’m sorry, I thought you said occasions of my life might be worthy of Planters. Really, I can’t possibly begin to say what an honor this is.

That parts of my life might be worthy of Mr. Peanut, this is, by itself, well a little overwhelming. That all of the occasions of my life should be worth of Mr. Peanut, it is really too much too hope for. Surely I can expect a promotion, renewed respect from my family, the adoration of my neighbors. And surely this is just the beginning of a climb up the ladder of recognition: Cannes, the Golden Globe, an Oscar. “I’d like to begin by thanking the Academy…”

In the last few years, PR and advertising have drawn together. The new conventional wisdom is that, with advertising saturation and new consumer vigilence, it is a good thing when a product or a brand can find mention in a conventional news story.

This may well be true. But what damage does the brand suffer when the brand stewart is revealed to be an idiot? Poor Mr. Peanut. He was designed by a Virginia school boy in 1916. He is, in the words of David Altschul, president of Character in Portland, Oregon, “a toff in the body of a peanut.” He is, in sum, a toff twice captured, once by caricature and again by stupidity.

In a perfect world, there would be a team of “operatives” who specialized in “brand extraction,” busting in to save brave little icons from the captivity of bad marketing and marketers. Well, I guess there is such a team. It’s called another “advertising agency.” And one must wonder what Weiden Kennedy would have done with this opportunity.

In the meantime, let us remember Mr. Peanut in our prayers.

Hunting the cool hunt

Historically, the relationship between mainstream and non-mainstream music has been love-hate. Pop stars love the welter of ideas in the underground and the indie world hates them precisely for their avarice. Whether it’s the newfangled French disco influence on the last Madonna record or the electronic strains on Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac, when mainstream musicians seek inspiration, they inevitably look underground. (from Mayer, Andre. 2002. Listen: Snap, Crackle…Pop? Shift Magazine. 10/3 September, 63-64, p. 63.)

This is the received assumption: the mainstream takes, the non-mainstream gives, that the mainstream exploits and the margin is exploited, that capitalism feeds on the innovations of the groups it excludes and despises.

But it is, anthropologically and economically, only one way of looking at things.

MSP (mainstream parties) are speaking to their publics, only thus do they sustain themselves. They know their audiences are interested in the “new”. They know that their audiences can “hear” innovations in, say, French disco, if only distantly, and that they have perked up their ears. French disco is a little strange but not unattractive. This means three things: 1) that the MSP must incorporate the “new” into what they take to market, 2) that if they don’t do it, someone else will, 3) they must chose their moment exquisitely: too early and the audience recoils, too late and they sneer. Accessing the “new” in this way is part of their contract with their audience. It is, to use the language of the Harvard Business School, the way they create value for the consumer.

By this rendering, it’s not clear that the MSP are “raiding” cool, as Thomas Frank and now Naomi Klein would say (and as Mayer implies, though his argument is more subtle). They are acting on behalf of their audience…both when “sourcing” the “new” for them, and when “stepping it down” so that it thrills but does not frighten.

Well, the interlocutor might say, but this merely pushes the Frankian accusation down the path to the ultimate beneficiary of the raid. Whoever benefits, marketer or consumer, the charge of cool hunting still stands.

But does it? The ultimate recipient, the consumer, does not “profit” from the receipt of the cool in any obvious way, certainly not in the ways that a studio or magazine does. The “new” works for them as a kind of “cultural capital” but what they do with this capital and why they care about it, these questions demand ethnographically nuanced answers that the “raiding” metaphor cannot deliver (and actually serves to obviate). (One such question: “what does the main stream use the “new” for? How and why does it use it to construct self and world?”)

A post Frankian model has several advantages. One of them is that it helps to explain the likes of Moby. We might say that when Moby made his music available to clothing stores as the sound track of commerce, he was merely cutting out the middle man. He was delivering cool “direct,” so to “disintermediate” the studios and magazines. Clearly, it would be wrong to ignore two external conditions that made this possible: first, that the music in question wasn’t as difficult as avant-garde artifacts sometimes are, and, second, that the mainstream has moved away from the banalities that were once its stock in trade. Moby may or may not be a fair test.

Naturally, the margin (M) disdains the whole affair. That someone should steal their innovations, that they should then water them down, that they should be driven by commercial motives and not artistic ones…all of this is galling. But it is still not clear that M is an injured party. It would have moved on to new innovations in any case and that it is not, therefore, being driven by market predations. Second, this system actually sees to the distribution of music without the M having to step it down. (There are some in the M camp who argue that they don’t want anyone else to have access to their music…and some who say that those who want it should only be allowed to have the “raw” original form. We can agree, I think, this is anti-democratic in the first case and elitist in the second. Parties in the M camp are entitled to these arguments, but they can hardly use them as the cri de coeur of an injured party or as the foundation of their “j’accuse” attack on the mainstream.)

We could push this notion a step further, which I do now mostly for the sake of argument. We could say that M is rather well provided for. Its structural position is inevitable. It can invent without regard for popular taste. It can speak to very small audiences and even merely to itself. In an egoistic, individualistic society, many people want this liberty, only M gets to have it. Indeed, it looks as if M are the classic beneficiaries of an avant-garde model. The deal here has always been poverty (or at least an insufficiency of goods) in exchange for freedom and a superfluidity of currency. Even when an avant-garde artist is not very good or productive, s/he has a robust cultural capital and the right to sneer. In the history of the West, fierce contests have been fought over the right to sneer, the right to claim status. To think that, in our moment, it comes merely from a subfluidity of goods is…well, perhaps not such a bad deal, after all.

Let us push the argument one more step. We could say that when the MSP and the M interact as they do, they create a division of cultural labor. The M creates cultural innovation, the “new,” for the mainstream. (It is another and relatively unexplored question why the mainstream should be so dependent on the “new,” but it is.) The MSP act as conduits here, capturing the “new” and, with appropriate and progressive modification, passing it along to the mainstream. Like any trans-shipper, they chip off some of the value they are helping to distribute. This division of labor pays out in two quite different ways. The M is paid for their trouble in “currency,” the MSP is paid for their trouble in value that is more tangible but not obviously more valuable. This is one of the ways cultural capital and economic capital meet and doe-see-doe in the economies of a capitalist society.

Let us push the argument one last step. There is perhaps a division of symbolic labor at work as well. The MSP need the M to create the “new,” to render the currency with which the economy, desire and especially the modernist and postmodernist self perpetuate themselves. And the M need the MSP and the mainstream in order to create an anti-new, a terra cognito, a center which in its turn creates an edge, a verge, a new. In this division of labor, the antagonists are mutually defining and the complaint in Frank and Mayer is not actually a complaint. It is an exercise in the process by which a modern and post modern cultures construct themselves out of the interaction, the contest, of disparate groups and conflicting projects.

See also:

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. In Other Words: Essays toward a reflexive sociology. Oxford: Polity.

Brooks, David. 2000. Bobos in paradise: The new upper class and how they got there. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gladwell, Malcolm. 1997. The Coolhunt. The New Yorker. March 17, 1997: 78-88.

Frank, Thomas. 1997. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Klein, Naomi. 2000. No logo: taking aim at the brand bullies. Toronto: A.A. Knopf .

Thorton, Sarah. 1996. Club Cultures: Music, media and subcultural capital. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press.

CBS and gender separatism

In King of Queens, "Doug"” is true to the new form.  He’’s a big lug.  He fails to wrap his wife’’s present and ends up hiding it behind the Christmas tree.  He compares coitus to hitting a baseball and later in the episode refers to his sperm as "bullets."”  He is, in short, a dolt.   

But there was a second theme I didn’’t anticipate: Dougie the shlemiel.  Doug is hectored by his wife and belittled by his parents.  Overwhelmed by performance anxiety, he is reduced to shouting at his penis, "come on, damn you, come on.”" 

In Still Standing, "Bill"” is incorrigible.  When he and his friend drop their pizza on the floor they try to give it away to visitors.  When his wife tries to convene a meeting of her book club in the living room, Bill mocks the idea, his wife, and the participants.  His wife has specific instructions for him, "why don’’t you and your friend watch the game, scratch yourself, and burp upstairs?"

Instead, Bill demonstrates a surprisingly astute grasp of the book in question.  Lest this take him too far off form, he explains the book by comparing it to the movie Commando, revealing that he read it while sitting on the toilet, and eventually we discover that part of his participation in the book club was scripted for him by his son.  Bill’’s a dolt, too. 

This is the new male, "man as Labrador":” happy, dim, appetitive, predictable, shameless until corrected (whereupon he becomes "aw shucks, you caught me"” bashful) and incorrigible until corrected (whereupon he starts shouting at his penis). Really, I feel like Godfrey Cambridge, who, when asked what he thought about Jimmy J.J. Walker, the TV star who entered every room shouting, "Dy-no-mite,” said, quietly, "That doesn’’t happen at my house.” 

This version of maleness has many roots and many authors.  But some of it comes from the 1980s and that extraordinary moment when feminism seemed very close to accomplishing a revolutionary shift of gender principles.  Somehow a symbolic deal was fashioned.  Some men and some women struck a deal. 

Men could then say, "We’’ll pretend you are too complicated to understand, that the subtleties of the feminist era are beyond us, And you may suppose that we are too simple to understand, really just big happy Labradors."”  This is the new gender separatism and the stuff of the situation comedy on Monday night.  It’s no longer Lucy who’s got some splaining to do. 

Hollywood warms to Transformation

Steven Spielberg and DiCaprio are about to release a film called Catch Me If You Can, a treatment of a con man who works his con by transforming himself into a succession of characters.

Transformation (the book on this site) argues that Hollywood shows more and more interest in transformational themes, especially when it takes the form of a character who plays many characters.

I use these films as my cases in point: Sliding Doors (1998, Peter Howitt), Multiplicity (1996, Harold Ramis), Fight Club (1999, David Fincher), eXistenZ, (1999, David Cronenberg), Passion of the Mind (2000, Alain Berliner), The Family Man (2000, Brett Ratner), Me Myself I (1999, Pip Karmel), Down to Earth (2001, Chris and Paul Weitz), Possible Worlds (2000, Robert Lepage), The One (2001, James Wong), The Bourne Identity (2002, Doug Liman), Catch Me If You Can (2002, Steven Spielberg)

The thing about Hollywood and a lot of popular culture is that, because it is governed by the market place, it represents more than an act of imagination. Any given film is a bet. When the bet is wrong, studios lose money, stars lose some of their brilliance and directors, some of them, never work again.

So far transformation has been a risky bet. Many of the films on my list have failed or “underperformed.”

But Hollywood continues to make the bet. If you add up all the budgets for these films, the bet now comes out to $447 million.

We can also say that the following actors have bet a chunk of their careers: Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Demi Moore, Nicolas Cage, Rachel Griffiths, Chris Rock, Tom McCamus, Jet Li, Matt Damon, and Leo DiCaprio.

The way to think about it anthropologically, I think, is to say that Hollywood can hear transformation has a new imperative in popular culture, but, like the rest of us, it is having a hard time figuring out how to treat the theme.

Cameron Crowe

Cameron Crowe is a convention is some ways, a puzzle in others.

He is one of the journalists, now directors, who is particularly good at treating contemporary culture both as observer and participant.

He’s a puzzle because he seems to have an invisble centre of gravity. How for instance did he managed to cover the counter culture of the 60s without tipping into it. How did he, at 15 no less, manage to keep the company of rock stars on the road without beginning to see his profession and his paper (Rolling Stone) as the corruptions the age now scorned.

He did the same same thing with the movie Say Anything (1989). Here he was reporting Seattle culture (before it was official). This too was a counter culture that treated Hollywood as a corruption, the very thing alternative values were designed to encourage us to repudiate.

So the mystery is this: how did he get close enough to capture without getting close enough to repudiate the media (rock journalism and hollywood movies) he was capturing with.

Is it something to do with being a Californian…so persuaded that popular culture is it that you persevere with it even in the face of values that reject it?

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.