“Why do you think you are here” “Can I have my phone so I can Google the answer I want to get the words just right” “You miss your phone” “Would you miss your dick if it was torn viciously from your body” “You think of your phone as part of your body” *closes eyes, breathes* “You think of your phone as part of your body” “Thinking implies rationalization and deliberation. I do not think. I see and accept what is” “A phone is a physical object. A tool. A machine for communication. It’s made in a factory in China. They break, they get lost. You get a new one” “You understand very little about the universe” “Enlighten me” “I cannot enlighten the unwilling” “Enlighten me” *sends emotional feelers out to befriend and gather together the angel-ghosts hiding in the corners of the room* “Please” “A phone is not a device it is a conduit. It is a channel through which energy flows. I can direct it. Away, out, in every direction, towards all that I am, or back, inward, toward a more physical manifestation. It does the work that my body and being require of it, the same as my brain, my eyes, my heart, my veins. A phone can be a mirror or a window or a weapon or an emotion or a story or The Truth, so how can it be a mere device. How can it be a physical object” “A phone does all that huh” “I described you as unwilling. With every fiber of your being you prove me right. In your head your job is to see the truth, yet you do not possess the ability to reckon the nature of things. This experience we share is not binary” “Amanda why do you think you’re here” “‘Here’ is a problematic concept for beings made of stars” “Why do you think you are here in this hospital” “What happened to you in life. How long did it take to build these walls between what you experience and what you believe. The person you see in the mirror is not you. You are fundamentally at odds with your true self. Your death will be a release” “My death” *asks the angel-ghosts to lend a portion of their energy* “Are you threatening me” “A threat implies alternatives and agendas. I’m just sitting here watching linear time unfold” “Amanda we are trying to help you. No one wants you to stay here, no one is trying to hurt you. You had a good life once, a successful one, by any measure, and we want to help you get back to it. You have family and friends who care about you, who are worried about you. We want to help you develop the tools you need in order to take better care of yourself.” “But you’re stressed about me having a phone” “Stop talking about your phone. You are going to be here a very long time unless you start taking this seriously. You need to understand why you are here.” *the angel-ghosts acquiesce* “I will tell you why I am here” *the angel-ghosts rise up from the floor and begin tearing the man to pieces* “I am here because life is difficult. I am here because I refuse spiritual constraints. I am here because my voice causes fear. I am here because I am unaffected by negative systems. I am here to manifest beauty. I am here to transmute ugliness as part of a larger facilitation of a universal creative process” *the angel-ghosts dematerialize, having released the energy of the man* *closes eyes, breathes*
If you don’t mind all this too much, you can make the historical argument: light fare has always supported serious stuff in journalism. You can’t have front page investigative reporting without the funny pages. But there’s difference between running some Dilbert cartoons and intermixing real, reported stories with fake soap operas cooked up by people who are bored on Twitter.
Or maybe there isn’t! Maybe we just need to become comfortable allocating trust in individual writers rather than across entire outlets, which I suspect is what a lot of readers are already doing.
The other facet of this is that, frankly, I have outrage fatigue. I could spend every week being mad about a new viral fiction I’ve been told and half-believed, or I can just accept that these stories are the modern equivalent of folklore. I can choose to treat these hoaxes as pieces of culture rather than pieces of reporting, as vessels by which we transmit values and fend off boredom.
This is mostly what I think but I am beginning to have my doubts. John Herrman’s right that a lot of the stuff you find on UpWorthy or other buzzy sites right now (“This Recently Married Man Just Realized Marriage Is Not For Him. You Have To Read What He Wrote.”) is just a new way of distributing the content you used to find in e-mail chain letters. But maybe the form of distribution matters. If the “Diane in 7A” hoax is a piece of culture, it’s a piece of corporate culture, produced by an entertainment industry professional (the hoaxer is a reality TV producer) and then distributed by BuzzFeed, a massive media company. When chain letters come to you through your relatives or co-workers, their intent is to amuse you and maybe strengthen your relationship. (Or annoy you, depending on your family.) When they come to you through a media company, the intent is to make money. Culture that serves a social function is judged by different standards than culture with a profit motive.
I don’t care if an e-mail story my Grandma sends me is true because she just wants to virtually hang out with me. You wouldn’t fact-check a story you got told at a bar. I care if a story a media company sells me is true because verifying information is one of their two jobs. We don’t need a media company to repackage tweets for us because this is the internet and we can all just read the stupid tweets ourselves. There’s no value added by distributing content on the internet because you’re just pointing to something everyone else can see. Like I said about horse_ebooks, on the internet, our reception of a piece of culture has a lot to do with how we perceive its intentionality. The intentionality of my Grandma forwarding me something fake is to say hi. The intentionality of media companies, I assume, is to tell me things that are true. I don’t need them to access culture online, because I can do that on my own; I need them to tell me what’s true. For a media company to be reporting a hoax as if it’s true feels like I got duped at the airport into hiring a tour guide who’s bringing me to sights I could see perfectly fine on my own—and then telling me inaccurate stories on top of it. I feel like an understanding has been violated.
“The whole umbrage routine is now an established political chess move. Politicians and their advisers pray that the other guy will say something offensive, or something that can be characterized or misinterpreted as offensive. Then they take mock offense. Gotcha! Yet by its nature a gaffe is something the speaker didn’t mean to say. It may reflect his or her true belief or it may not. But if it was said unintentionally, there’s no logical reason the speaker should be held to it. Yet the gaffe/umbrage two-step is now the basic move in our politics. It’s ridiculous. This isn’t a game.”—
Politics is a game, though. It’s a game with very serious consequences, sure. But, as I’ve said before, a rational, logical way of determining how to distribute limited resources (which is what politics is, at its heart) would involve people shooting one another in the street, and so we make up the game of politics to resolve conflicts over who gets what without people shooting one another in the street. Politics has been shockingly successful in this regard, all things considered.
The thing that drives me nuts about the way we cover politics (which Halperin and Heilemann’s books perfectly exemplifies) is that we’re supposed to take the game super seriously. Certainly the players in the game are going to take it seriously. That is what game players do, otherwise they would not win. But we are the audience to electoral politics. We can take the game any way we want. And if we recognize that it’s a game, why not take it playfully? Why not recognize that some of these things are ludicrous and lightly mock them while nevertheless recognizing that they have real consequences for the players?
For instance, Kinsey’s review rightfully indicts Double Down for describing as “verbal seppuku” Rick Perry’s statement in favor of “children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own.” Clearly Perry violated a rule: in the subgame of Republican primaries from 2004 to the present, taking a stance in favor of undocumented immigrants will result in you losing points. But Perry made the choice to do so, and to regard it as obviously wrong-headed is to take the rules far too seriously as an observer. Politics is a game in which the rules are always up for debate, and Perry’s move was, in some way, an argument for changing that rule. As a move in the game, it was an unsuccessful one. But that was not necessarily obvious at the time he made it.
Being playful about the game would admit that possibility, and resist the impulse to read the past in terms of the conventional wisdom of the present—since it would recognize that the conventional wisdom is always going to shift. Actually covering politics as a game would involve not seeing it as a fixed and certain thing, but a realm where our consensus about what’s true shifts nearly daily. And that would throw into dispute the sense that political coverage always seeks to convey: that you really can know what’s going on, that you know what’s true and what’s false, that you know who’s winning and who’s losing. While all of this is true in a broad sense (the Democrats are generally winning right now), it’s almost never true in the moment. If we talked about politics as a game, we might be able to see these moment-to-moment moves as displays of players’ skill without any necessary consequence beyond the mere poetry of it all. And that might mean our sense of what is possible in the future would open up.
It is the day his son starts kindergarten. Tech dad shows the boy a graph of how the number of likes on Facebook photos of him waned, from hundreds at his birth to a piddling few of him playing in the park at age 5. “Here is the decline of your worth as a person in one chart" he says. "Now what are you going to do. What now. Have a good day at school. Make lots of friends."
It is worthwhile comparing the differences in era. I Got the Hookup—made for about six dollars, produced and written by and starring Master P, was released in 655 theaters. This year’s The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete—directed by George Tillman Jr., who produced the Barbershop franchise hits of 2002 to 2005—played in 147. The best black film I saw this year, Gimme the Loot (which won the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s SXSW) was released in 10 theaters. The highly acclaimed Mother of George? In eight. When the black films with the widest release are ones about slavery, servitude, and the slaughter of black men, it is not a renaissance we are experiencing—it is resignation.
This piece by Rahawa Haile is great and you should read it.
The embarrassing thing about Arcade Fire telling people to wear “formal attire or costume” when they attend an Arcade Fire show isn’t that they care about the visual aesthetic at their concerts, it’s that they have to tell people to do it in the first place. When I went to see Janelle Monae a few weeks back we all dressed to the nines because we knew we were supposed to, and yeah, the crowd looked great in a way that complimented Monae’s presentation. Having everyone get dressed up in a weird way for a concert can be super fun, and if Indie Dudes have a problem with this they should get over themselves already.
But if the artist has to tell people explicitly how to do it, they haven’t done a great job in making the work of being a fan very enjoyable. (Though they can playfully encourage certain activities.) It feels like an attempt to engineer an engaged, excited fandom—they’re basically requesting cosplay, after all—where none exists. Concert dress-up traditions seem to work best when they emerge more or less organically from the fans; an artist who dictates from on high what being a Good Fan consists of probably isn’t going to have a lot of committed fans. The problem, to me, isn’t that this makes Arcade Fire look like pretentious, domineering windbags. It’s that it makes them look cloistered and sterile, either cut off from what their fans are already doing or unwilling to accept that their existing image has resulted in fan behaviors that clash with how they think of themselves. It seems like the act of a band who looks at their broad success and wishes it was a little deeper instead.
I lasted three weeks at the call centre, in the end; probably the highlight of my last day was the pensioner who called in to told me that with her heart complaint these price rises would probably kill her, and that it would be my personal fault. I spent most of that day reading Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. The campaign we were on was being ended early; people had stopped calling by the end of the second week, to some extent; by the end of the third, we’d less than one call an hour. So the following Monday would have been my last day, except that I was told I had a one hundred per cent rating on my calls, (as were, I think, about 10-20% of the intake,) and so they wanted to spend the Monday running assessments to see if I were “suited to any other roles.” Thankfully I’d been offered something mildly less tedious to start that day (in a mailroom (the only way out of the mailroom is up!)) and so the temptation to actually go in and be assessed was pretty minimal. Which is good: I mean, I probably would have done: out of that whole apathy-as-a-form-of-penance mental dynamic, and because it included a maths test, and who doesn’t love a maths test.
The people at the centre seemed to split entirely down the middle into decent human beings and call-centre lifers who seemed compromised in terms of having a self or recognising other people as existing; viz., a lot of these latter seemed just incapable of navigating from one side of a room to another with respect to the people in it, just would walk into or through you and then stop and glare at you as though it were your fault. Probably the best illustration of the bone-felt weariness of the place came from our trainer’s last words on the first day I went in, where the necessary soft skills to deal with aggressive customers were taught with reference to the Mountain of Conflict, which, when sketched on a whiteboard for us, looked like this:
But, then, he said, it has a tree at the summit, thus:
And then the foothills of Dispute and Resolution were to be covered with a sort of vague scrubby brushland, thus:
But here was the thing: it seemed, the vibe I got was, that this was something the guy (his name was Greg, I think) had come up with, one day, as his Last Defiant Gesture, that he was going to draw the Badly Drawn Whiteboard Penis of Resignation and walk out of the call centre a free man; and that, instead, someone had said “that’s good, that is, a bit of the laugh at the end; you should do this at the end of all your training sessions,” and that this was thus the tenth or fiftieth or five-thousandth sad penis he’d drawn; that how to draw the Funny Penis was just there in muscle memory, and his face fell as his hand outlined it for him, almost against his bidding.
When I think about Lorde and “Royals” at this point I basically think about two questions:
What does it say about Culture Right Now that enough people liked the song enough to make it a hit?
What does it say about the people who like “Royals” that they like “Royals,” assuming they like “Royals” because they think it sticks it to something or other?
For a while there I had a question zero of “what does it mean that a major record company released this song as a single” but it looks like the song’s success was more or less viral, driven by listener interest. There’s also the question of “is this song problematic?” but at this point I feel like it’s been asked and answered pretty well—which is not to say that it isn’t important, just that I don’t know there’s too much else to add beyond the good work already done and distributed. I was pretty bugged by all this stuff at first too, but came around to the feeling that a) given everything we know about Lorde at this point (very young, very talented, very at the beginning of a career) the benefits of the song largely outweigh the drawbacks, i.e. I would rather have someone in her position engaging with these issues and fucking up than not engaging at all, and b) most listeners are parsing it as a protest against mainstream culture rather than black culture, which while not dismissing the significant critiques (I still can’t stand to listen to the song too much, honestly) maybe indicates that we should privilege the “mainstream culture is oppressive” reading of the song.
I don’t quite know how to answer the two above questions, honestly, and maybe people have but I haven’t been keeping up very well recently (which is also why I haven’t been writing very much). I think #1 is a big one, given the recent trend of hit songs that engage in direct critique (rather than a veiled, ironic critique like Scritti Polittit’s “The ‘Sweetest Girl’” or something) of the culture in which the song appears. Between this and Goddamn Fucking Macklemore it seems to be a thing the audience has an appetite for right now. You can definitely make a good, strong argument that this is veiled racism, but I think there are other possibilities, too. It’s weird because I don’t agree with Lorde and Macklemore’s critiques terribly much (fashion and big cities feel like libratory forces to me) but I begrudgingly like that they’re out there. I feel uncomfortable writing them off because I get the feeling they could be the start of a good, positive trend. Right now the market for music has massively shrunk and yet “unlikely song is a hit” is still a major news story, and so less down-the-middle music can become a hit (on lower sales than ever before) and then be publicized for being a hit. Which if you believe in music as a subversive force in any way (even if you shudder at the phrase “subversive force,” which lord knows I do) should be a positive development. But is the appetite only for a certain kind of critique? Could a catchy and personally-felt protest against sexism or White Ppl find purchase in music, given that anti-homophobia and anti-materialism ones have? It seems especially likely given how TV shows have become suddenly much more interested in (non-confrontationally) representing difference—Glee is the obvious one, but it’s in lots of new shows like Elementary, Sleepy Hollow, etc. Are things changing, and if so, why are they changing in this way? (These particular issues, these particular avenues.)
Which leaves open the question of how we should feel about people who feel proud of themselves for liking “Royals” for its subversive message, even though its subversive message is rife with issues. My own feeling right now is that after years of angrily decrying rock music and other musics White Ppl like in college for claiming to promote Revolution and Fighting the Man while really being status quo ante, I think maybe that this is just one of the qualities inherent to the genre, a thing that you have to like in order to like the music. Part and parcel. Just like fictionalized romance is inherent to pop and fictionalized crime is inherent to rap, fictionalized revolution is inherent to rock, and if I’m OK with the former two I should certainly be OK with the latter. They’re theatrical gestures rather than instruction manuals, and effective ones at that. “Royals” isn’t rock music, of course, but maybe the same principle applies. If people like “Royals” because it seems to be subversive, even if it isn’t, maybe that has a value of its own. Maybe it’s better than people not liking music for appearing to be subversive. Maybe we shouldn’t read these things just literally, since people generally don’t take the literal meanings from art. Maybe there’s an important symbolic function there too.
Anyway, I don’t know; these are certainly open questions. A lot of this rests on the idea that shitty individual instances are OK if they support a positive larger goal, and if that goal is “more people being anti-mainstream / pro-subversion” I’m not convinced that’s necessarily good in and of itself; Sticking it to the Man motivates the Tea Party just as much as it motivates Occupy, after all.
Every time I see one of those things on the internet where someone has made a ridiculous request of some service worker (“draw an elephant on my pizza box,” etc.) and the service worker has then fulfilled said request I don’t really know how to feel, because I don’t know whether the worker regarded the request as a) a delightful respite from the otherwise monotonous drudgery of their daily tasks or b) a painful imposition over and above their existing grind. Is it an Amelie-like bolt of whimsy that enlivened their day or just another crack of the whip from a system that casts them aside unless they fulfill the most unreasonable and picayune of customer requests. I feel this way about a lot of things on the internet, honestly.
Up to the mid-19th century, composers largely built operas from three types of components. There is first aria, in which characters, sometimes alone on stage, express themselves in solo song. Second, there is recitative, in which characters prattle to each other in a kind of speak-singing. And, finally, there’s chorus, where masses of nameless faces stand on stage and lament, celebrate, or mock. Opera began at the turn of the 17th century as a way of reviving the raw, refined emotions of Greek drama, and the choruses are thus “Greek” in nature: Their feelings are reactive, unsophisticated, the id of the show.
“The history of the chorus in an opera, you know, they always represent this chorus of townspeople and various peasants. They represent sort of the multitudes,” says Muhly. “What’s exciting about this online world is that you can get the sense of people online behaving in this sort of hive mind.”
Implicit in a lot of leftist/progressive rhetoric about cutting social services is the idea that, if conservatives just saw the effect these ideologically-driven decisions were having on actual people, they would change their minds. Conservatives shut down the government because they’re opposed to Obamacare and in favor of fiscal responsibility, but the result has been to deprive people of food. Conservatives (the argument continues) would clearly be against children going hungry, but do not realize the effect their policies are having because they don’t come into contact with the hungry children; by telling the hungry children’s stories, we can show how the government shutdown is a moral wrong and change their minds.
That’s getting an interesting test as the shutdown battle enters its endgame. Currently it looks like the only change to Obamacare that Congressional Republicans are going to win is to exempt Congressional employees from receiving employer subsidies for their mandatory healthcare. Republican members of Congress see this as an unfair privilege granted to Congress, although they had received the benefits for years. The problem is that elected officials are not the only beneficiaries of the policy. Their staffs are, too. Here’s a testimonial from one staffer:
I will make $22,800 this year after taxes. That is it. I am a 30 year old married congressional staffer with a 20 month old son who depends on my job for his health insurance. My husband has to pay for his own health care through his salary, and it would cost him over $1000 a month to cover the whole family. I just started in this position 6 months ago, after being out of work for a year and staying at home with my baby. I need my health insurance, and I cannot afford to pay $600 a month for coverage. Without this so called “subsidy” (the same “subsidy” congressional staffers have been receiving for years before the ACA) both myself and my son will be uninsured. With our combined salaries, my husband and I will not qualify for subsidies via the ACA, so we would have to pay for it all out of pocket.
What we have here is a direct test of the theory. Normally members of Congress can avoid contact with the people who are hurt by changes to social programs. But now the people who will be hurt are the people they work with every day, people they talk with and who can presumably tell the representatives directly how this policy is bad for them. If the theory is correct, this should change their minds; by activating the empathy most humans have for people they are close to, this should trigger an opinion change. Let’s see if it works!
Since this has been running through my head more or less nonstop for the past five days, I figured I should post it here. The thing that got me was the way she sings “bumper to bumper” in the chorus — it’s so unusual and fluid that I thought it was just onomatopoeia for the first ten or so listens. (Like, the traffic is going “bumpata bumpa.” I know, it doesn’t make sense if you think about it for a half second.) I understand the Mariah comparisons but this track feels more specifically like a great Ne-Yo song from 2008: a loose, flowy verse that piles on hooks until it arrives at a chorus with a quiet but insistent four-on-the-floor backbeat.
I also seem to have a specific image of Honeymoon Avenue as a physical place. I see it running parallel to Ocean Parkway, starting at Coney Island and running through Sheepshead Bay until it terminates in Flatbush. It’s the name, “Honeymoon Avenue,” sounding like ad-speak from some early twentieth century amusement venture, like Niagara Falls but more urban. And the traffic isn’t highway traffic, it’s domestic, open to the air. Brooklyn on a spring day. Honeymooning at the shore.
I brought my apparatus and set it up in his large office in the Kremlin. He was not yet there because he was in a meeting. I waited with Fotiva, his secretary, who was a good pianist, a graduate of the conservatory. She said that a little piano would be brought into the office, and that she would accompany me on the music that I would play. So we prepared, and about an hour and a half later Vladimir Il’yich Lenin came with those people with whom he had been in conference in the Kremlin. He was very gracious; I was very pleased to meet him, and then I showed him the signaling system of my instrument, which I played by moving my hands in the air, and which was called at that time the thereminvox. I played a piece [of music]. After I played the piece they applauded, including Vladimir Il’yich [Lenin], who had been watching very attentively during my playing. I played Glinka’s “Skylark”, which he loved very much, and Vladimir Il’yich said, after all this applause, that I should show him, and he would try himself to play it. He stood up, moved to the instrument, stretched his hands out, left and right: right to the pitch and left to the volume. I took his hands from behind and helped him. He started to play “Skylark”. He had a very good ear, and he felt where to move his hands to get the sound: to lower them or to raise them. In the middle of this piece I thought that he could himself, independently, move his hands. So I took my hands off of his, and he completed the whole thing independently, by himself, with great success and with great applause following. He was very happy that he could play on this instrument all by himself.
Along the lines of that Gregory quote, I’ve become increasingly suspicious of sentiments that paint satire as “traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful,” as this Molly Ivans quote would have it. (Though I agree with all the commentary under the quote, and lord knows I hope Molly Ivans now spends her days getting tipsy at the celestial bar with Dorothy Parker and Ann Richards.) It seems more likely that satire has, through historical accident, come to be seen as socially liberal due far more to the way it’s been used - most notably by Swift, but also Twain and the Yippies and the Daily Show - than any of its formal qualities. Because satire has been used in the past to oppose child labor and lynching and the Vietnam War, new uses of satire tend to resonate more when they’re being put to socially liberal uses; we accept a piece of creative expression’s message much more readily if it aligns with the ways that type of expression has been used in the past. (We don’t question it when one person with a gun kills fifty other people with guns in an action movie, but would certainly do so if it happened in a biopic.) But I don’t think there’s anything inherently populist about satire, and if anything it’s a little too arch to be truly rabble-rousing. It can work to the purposes you put it to, or it can’t. It’s just another way of communicating.
I think there’s a tendency when talking about comedy - a tendency that I have very much been guilty of! - to overrate its qualities in trying to combat its traditionally less-than-respectable reputation. I don’t think that does it any favors, ultimately. Claiming that comedy can accomplish certain things we value better than do serious forms of expression sets it up to fail. Comedy is a relatively more complicated way of communicating (except when farts are involved), so there’s no real reason to think it would be more effective at getting across messages - and, indeed, most studies have shown that it isn’t. (It can improve knowledge a bit when working in conjunction with non-comedic forms of communication, but those serious sources have to be there first.) Instead, it might be more useful to think about what other goods can come from comedy as a creative form, and allow ourselves to be open to new processes, or previously disreputable processes, like emotion or pleasure.
That’s why I liked that Gregory quote so much. Asking comedy to do what we already ask serious forms of expression to do doesn’t really advance our knowledge beyond wishful thinking. That’s what I think Gregory was saying: we all know comedy isn’t a weapon, because comedian make awful warlords. If we think comedy is accomplishing something in society, we have to be clear-eyed about what comedy is, and then figure out how we got from point A to point B. Gregory is suggesting that “disappointment within a friendly relation” leads, in some way, to changes in attitude. To me, that seems like a much more interesting idea than that the mere act of satire aligns you with the angels.
“When I suggest to Gregory that he used his comedy as a weapon, he shouts, “What?” so loud I get scared. “How could comedy be a weapon? Comedy has got to be funny. Comedy can’t be no damn weapon. Comedy is just disappointment within a friendly relation.”—Dick Gregory, within this great article about Dave Chappelle.