Preserving Our Junk Culture bzzzt

On the heels of my last post about retaining critical theory with digital applications to the humanities, I saw this pretty interesting thing:

The Long Now Foundation is a group that is concerned with the idea of digital obsolescence.  The thought of our everyday culture being lost though, is a little amusing—

ATTN: In writing this post, I accidentally refreshed all my safari tabs and lost two hours worth of work. I was going to post something really snarky referencing the way we perceive time, Adam Frank’s thoughts on transit of Venus, the tyranny of permanence, typographic culture and Neil Postman’s citing of Michael Welfare’s unintentional attack on the epistemology of the written word, eschatology in modern times and the fear of a digital dark age, and how myth is a form of memory we don’t need digital technology or analog objects for.

Unfortunately all that was lost, and now I’m a bit frustrated. Which is ironic considering the subject matter. But perhaps all that thought being lost proves my point, more than a few thousand words most people won’t remember.

 

Deleuzions of This American Life

I should begin this by saying I’m a late adopter – my wife and I just got our first iPhones in late November. I hadn’t had an iPod since about 2006, and all my Mp3 players have had horrific interfaces which made any sort of regular listening to podcasts a traumatic exercise. Consequently, I just recently got into listening to them – and I love it. My craving started with Radiolab, and blossomed into regular listening of On The Media, Snap Judgement, a few other shows, and an incredibly fervent week of listening to every single 99% Invisible episode ever made. I didn’t start listening to This American Life until the beginning of last month, so I missed the big Foxcom/Apple story that was apparently partially fabricated. But I can honestly say, I’m not surprised, and I’ll try to explain why.

Disclaimer: I don’t consider Ira Glass to be a journalist or This American Life to be journalism. I know there is a thing called explanatory or narrative journalism, but journalism itself depends on these critical investigations which This American Life manages to avoid getting bogged down in (as Oppenhiemer’s critique later points out). The definition that was thrown around during my undergraduate was that journalism is a craft through which information is provided as necessary for the proper involvement of citizens in a democratic society. It’s what we need to know to make our society work. Glass is concerned with more than our civics, he is engaging us on other levels, and I’ll talk about this as well.

One of the great things about an audio medium is the way it embodies a modern ambition of oral culture. You see, before there was any medium for media, human beings communicated through this intensely personal, proxemically defined zone with no materiality – strictly phenomenal, lacking that “theoretical oscillation” between phenomenology and materiality that Mark Hansen writes about. We used linguistic and nonlinguistic methods such as gestures, expressions, and music to create our culture – Geertz cites Kluckhohn’s definitions of culture, which encompass both the “storehouse of pooled learning” and a “precipitate of history.” Geertz identifies his concept of culture as “a semiotic one” –

Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, constructing social expressions on their surface enigmatical. – Thick description, P. 5

Ira Glass graduated from Brown University with a degree in semiotics.  In his own words,

Semiotics is an unfortunately pretentious body of mostly French literary theory. What I liked about it was that it gives you a toolbox of ways to think about how to make a story. Semiotics is uninterested in questions like, “What did the author intend?” Or “What does this story say about the author’s era?” Semiotics is interested in how a story gives us pleasure, how it draws us in, why is it satisfying for there to be suspense and for a story to resolve. It’s all about what makes narrative engage us. And so there are things that I learned as a semiotics major that I use every day on my job.

Mr. Glass has given us a key clue to his modus operandi, the importance of narrative engagement and the arrangement of signifiers and signified to create relevance (or meaning) for the audience.  This narrative engagement was key in an oral culture. Walter Ong is probably the authority on such traditions, and he wrote on the memory of such a society being “thematic and formulaic.” Epic myths were repetitively told with mnemonic devices to aid the performer. The values and words of such societies take on a type of permanence, forming “the substance of thought itself.” In writing/recording the Poetic Edda, for example, Snorri Sturluson was not concerned with the truthfulness of the story, but it’s poignancy and ability to provide an audience with a chance to create meaning.

Such a thing is not uncommon in the world today. An episode of On The Media examined the contentious relationship between essayist John D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal.

Have I changed the meaning of anything here, Jim? No, I’ve just streamlined this quote in order to help things move along a little better and to create a bit of resonance with neighboring paragraphs. It’s what writers do… An essay is an attempt, Jim, nothing else. And fundamentally for centuries, that’s all it’s been. Even etymologically, “essay” means an attempt. And so, as a writer of essays my interpretation of that charge is that I try, that I try to take control of something before it is lost entirely to chaos. That’s what I want to be held accountable for as a writer. It’s how I want to be judged. -John D’Agata

As an essayist, D’Agata is concerned with uncovering some sort of deeper insight or revelatory meaning within or behind the empirical details of an event – he and Fingal are drawn into an ideological quarrel over a second, with regards to how long it took teenager Levi Presley to fall to his death in a suicide jump. Beyond his frustration over D’Agata’s commitment to an inaccurate number, Fingal has an interesting objection:

I don’t necessarily believe that a nonfiction essay has to strive for an objective account of an occurrence as its primary project or that the writer is ethically obligated to secure the reality of an event in cultural memory. And I’m all for the beaux mots (note: I thought he said Pomo in the original piece) historiographic metafictional appropriation of events and personages.

But there still seems to be something strange about doing this sort of thing with someone like Levi, who is just a teenager, after all, just a kid in Las Vegas, not a cultural figure or an icon whose life is for the taking and can be radically manipulated and reinterpreted. I mean, clearly it’s not like you’re defiling his grave by propagating these inaccuracies, but it’s kind of like you’re being dishonest about where that grave is.

Note Fingal’s conditions for poetic licence with regards to a “cultural figure or an icon whose life is for the taking and can be radically manipulated and reinterpreted.”

Ira Glass works in much the same way as an essayist – he is concerned with the performance of a story. While he works in an area with traditions of accuracy and accountability, as a cousin to journalists and in a medium where you either create radio dramas or the news, he has more to do with Cicero and Demosthenes, who was coached by an actor, and had a routine to perfect a technique. Glass himself has a method.

I’ll be honest and say at this point, I’m not a huge fan of Glass. I don’t really know why, but in searching for why that might be I came across a terrific critique by Mark Oppenheimer, from when Glass performed live at the Schubert in New Haven.

The contrived (though totally winning) world of This American Life depends on a perfect marriage of form and content. The form is provided by the three-act structure, Glass’s pause-swallow-um, the perfectly selected music (I didn’t know Stevie Wonder’s sublime Mistra Know-It-All until I heard it at the conclusion of an act on This American Life), and the rest of the radio architecture that Glass and his crew have mastered so well. The content, however, is a bit harder to pin down. Certainly there is an emphasis on the little people, non-celebrities. But it’s not quite the kind of relentless emphasis on the common man and woman for which, says, Studs Terkel or Joeseph Mitchell is celebrated.

Oppenheimer’s criticism is more directed toward’s Glass’s lack of critical or journalistic investigation that we would be used to in such a production. As he writes about a segment seemingly filled with holes, “One gets the sense that [Alix] Spiegel could have parachuted into Vietnam in 1970, asked the villagers about their innovative rice-farming techniques, then hitchhiked to safety, neglecting to ask where all the men in the village had gone.” But again, Glass is an expert at delivering the non-cerebral to an audience that gets its fill of such intellectual pleasures elsewhere. This American Life is about a search for meaning, not truth.

Such distinctions also bring to mind Deleuze’s interpretation of the virtual and the actual. The reality of the virtual is “actual” reality  produced by many different potentialities.

Purely actual objects do not exist. Every actual surrounds itself with a cloud of virtual images. This cloud is composed of a series of more or less extensive coexisting circuts, along which the virtual images are distributed, and around which they run..

…an actual perception surrounds itself with a cliud of virtual images, distributed on increasingly remote, increasingly large, moving circuts, which both make and unmake each other. These are memories of different sorts, but they are still called virtual images in that their speed or brevity subjects them too to a principle of the unconsciousness.

…memory is not an actual image which forms after the object has been percieved, but a virtual image coexisting with the actual perception of the object. Memory is a virtual image contemporary with the actual object, its double, its ‘mirror image,’ as in The Lady from Shanghai, in which the mirror takes control of a character, engulfs him and leaves him as just a virtuality; hence there is coalescence and division, or rather oscillation, a perpetual exchange between the actual object and its virtual image: the virtual image never stops becoming actual. – Deleuze, The Actuality and the Virtual

What we see in Glass’s work is this type of oscillation, the same type that creates myths and stories and legends, the way memories shift and take a form which we can relate to and cherish, in positive or negative ways. But we see it at a rate which goes past actual perception – in the Foxcon story, the mirror image has engulfed This American Life and left it as a virtuality, and now that we know this, we are terrified by the implication, but we were truthfully ready to believe it because of what we already know to be true about Foxcon, predatory capitalism, and terrible conditions for industrial workers who manufacture Apple products. We are aware of the meanings, the morals of our myths, and we are more than eager to adapt reality to this virtual understanding.

As the most valuable company in the world today, Apple certainly meets Fingal’s conditions for beaux mots/pomo “historiographic metafictional appropriation.” News media refers to the economy with all the reverence owed to the chief god of a pantheon. If economy is a cosmological deity, then Apple could certainly be one of its sons, or at least a Demigod; son of Steve Jobs and the tech boom. Writing of Foxcom as a Fenrir character, personified moral guilt unbeknownst to us, waiting to destroy Apple’s supremacy, is only sensible. To fudge a few facts is only expected when we are more concerned with creating an engaging narrative than we are journalistic traditions. Which is why Glass produces these pieces of audio theatre in acts and episodes, with story arcs and all the trappings of literature, rather than history or journalism. Mike Daisey, with his theatre background and openness about how he made the story, at least appears honest about that process. If Ira Glass protests, it’s because he has to maintain a pretense of legitimacy, and pay homage to the traditions he knows as a reporter and to the medium through which he produces his show. It may not be straight news, but it certainly isn’t purely radio drama. Disavowal of the story lets you know that This American Life still cares that its signs and symbols, characters and plot devices still exist somewhere in the real world, in some shape or form. The arrangement may still be an artistic process, but they still try to be authentic to some actual objects.

And if I got anything wrong, remember, this is an essay, a virtual “reality,” and not any sort of concrete, material, empirical phenomenon.


Gills Deleuze, The Actual and Virtual, in Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, dialogues II, Columbia University Press, 2002.
Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books, 1973, pp. 1-30.
Mark Hansen, “Media Theory,” Theory, Culture & Society, 23(2-3) (2006): 297-306.
Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy (New York, NY: Methuen, 1982) 35.

Genres And Aesthetics In An Aging World

Yesterday in my Media Studies: Ideas class, we were talking about expression and composition in art as part of our continuing study of aesthetics. We got to this point where we were talking about genres and artistic conventions, and people asked if we humans are “lazy” because we have the same simple genres (romances, comedies) as we’ve ever had – was that the best we could do? The conversation was moving really fast and I never got a chance to talk at that point. There was something I had read that I couldn’t recall, and our professor kept trying to rein us back in before we got ahead of ourselves. But we missed a few things:

  1. Yes, there are conventions, but they are continuously growing and expanding. We talked briefly about outsider and “anti” art, about which Adorno says “even the abolition of art is respectful of art because it takes the truth claim of art seriously.” It would seem the role of such artists on the fringe is to challenge conventions, as well as create new ones.
  2. We’re really short sighted if we think “there’s nothing new under the sun” in the terms of genre and artistic form. Sure, tragedy has been around since the Greeks, but what about science fiction? Sure, there was proto-science fiction centuries ago, but as a literary genre it really came out in the 19th century and is still trying to find it’s stride. I think we had a high moment as it emerged from pulp with the work of writers like Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K Dick, Bradbury and Vonnegut, and other authors who are only barely defined by the “science fiction” label. In these cases the genre is a vehicle for stories which are otherwise unacceptable to the society (like how 1969’s horror Night of the Living Dead was able to speak about domestic racism and cast a black man as the hero and the main protagonist). Even now there are mutations of science fiction which challenge the idea of strict classification. Midnight In Paris is a weird fantasy/romance/drama. Which leads to my next point:
  3. Genres are disingenuous restrictions on any work of art. What I couldn’t remember in class was something I read in Narrative In Media, an excellent overview of narrative theory and its application to mass media.

In the relationship between genre and ideology it can be argued that genres adapt to hegemonic changes – the way a dominant ideology secures consent to its world view, but has to keep on securing it in the face of oppositional forces… At the level of ideology it is interpreted as helping to create a new consensus or dominant ideology. In this way, genres act to articulate, in a very powerful way, what Roland Barthes calls the ‘myths’ of society. P. 138

Although hybrids of genres are out there, they are still create this idea of hegemony through these myths. What are the myths of society?

Media myths are, by and large, the myths of late capitalism in Western societies, which function to produce the coherent subjects of capitalist economies. As subjects, we are prepared to keep working to maintain the status quo of power as long as we have access to the media products and consumer items that construct and reinforce our identities.  P. 7

So it’s not that we’re lazy, it’s that we’ve stopped being able to imagine alternatives. Slavoj Žižek articulated this very well just some time ago.

In mid-April 2011, the Chinese government prohibited on TV, films, and novels all stories that contain alternate reality or time travel. This is a good sign for China. These people still dream about alternatives, so you have to prohibit this dreaming. Here, we don’t need a prohibition because the ruling system has even oppressed our capacity to dream. Look at the movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism.

Why are we still watching the same kinds of movies, reading the same kinds of books, listening to the same music, which ordinarily must fit in some box labeled comedy/drama/romance/rock/jazz/hip-hop or some thing of that sort? Because we cannot dream anything but this “American dream.” Dreams supposed to be intensely private affairs. But more and more often, we are dreaming about the incredible way things are, rather than how they could be.  When we dream about lives as they are (wake up, get dressed, get out the door, then wake up again) we never feel as though we’ve slept well. But worse than that, we’ve lost the ability to imagine life differently then how it is.


T.W. Adorno. “Aesthetic Theory”. 1970, p. 43.

Herbert Brün, “…to hold discourse-at least-with a computer..”, 1973.

John Dewey, “The Act of Expression,” and “The Expressive Object,” in Art as Experience, Perigee Books, New York, NY, 1934, pp. 58-105.

Helen Fulton, Narrative and Media. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY. 2005

Comedy Shoot, Academic Directions

It’s been a busy week. I’ve been working on several projects all at once, which will hopefully all pay off. Between a midterm essay about Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model, an annotated bibliography, testing out the DSLR to Primiere process, a meeting with a faculty member, reaching out to a media literacy project in New Haven, public relations work and preparation for an upcoming social media workshop, and the shoot mentioned in the title, a lot of things are in the works.

Tuesday night I worked with some classmates to film a comedy show at Angels & Kings in Alphabet City. We used Panasonic DVX100B cameras, which have a lot of nice functionality, but I would have much preferred the HMC150s which are also available through The New School’s equipment center, for the simple reason that they don’t take DV tapes. In my experience tapes are a hassle. Aside from the fact that it was very weird to be deciding on an apature without a light meter (I could almost feel my cinematography professor from Missouri State, Mark Biggs, giving me a disapproving grimace under his moustache), and an interruption in recording when our tapes ran out, it went pretty well. Now, other classmates (who didn’t operate a camera) are going to log the tapes – I do not envy that part of the job.

Another thing I worked out this morning is my academic direction. I’ve always been interested in mythological studies and the work of Joseph Campbell (as much of a populist as he is) but the use of myth as an ideological force and its connection to narrative and dissemination in media is what I really want to study. A more simplistic way to to put it is “propaganda.” There are some opportunities for that at The New School, but I may also look into taking some classes at NYU with Mark Crispen Miller. The other day I realized FAIR is located in NYC and not in DC as I’d thought (I must have gotten them confused with the Center for Media and Democracy). I’m wondering if a research internship would be possible to study how myths (in Roland Barthes’s conception) get communicated in the popular media for political agendas. Maybe I’m just nostalgic for my political science courses, but I feel a stronger affinity for media when there’s a clear relationship to motivated practice. As my theory teacher puts it (presumably drawing from Jacques Rancière), this is “the politics of aesthetics.” Who knew I could find a reason to read materials I had never heard of three months ago?

Encoding/Decoding: The Drawing On Of Myth

I spent the better part of the afternoon rewriting Wikipedia’s page on “Hall’s Theory” – having read his 1973 paper on the idea of responses to the messages in a tele-visual discourse, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw there was a Wiki page on it. However, it was so short and badly written I felt it was necessary to take the time and revise.

Stuart Hall was influenced by Antonio Gramski’s notions of cultural hegemony being necessary to maintain capitalism. The aspect of reception theory he developed with Encoding/Decoding was that of possible audience responses to messages developed by broadcasters. Hall says are three positions people can take as an audience. Dominant Hegemonic, Negotiated, and Globally Contrary  positions have to do with the way that people choose to either interpret or deal with the relations of signs and their meanings as presented by broadcasters, who presumably use professional codes or hegemonic codes of understanding.

We can think of professional codes as a type of institutional knowledge, or industrial/professional psychology which would lend itself to groupthink. If this is the case, hegemonic and dominant codes (which are not determined but subject to change) are a natural facet of power structures and establishment ideology. Globally contrary positions possess the quality of being accessible only by the media-literal and critical thinkers who are capable of understanding those dominant codes, yet choose alternative frameworks and personal points of reference, which they use to detotalize the positions of the broadcaster, then retotalize into a new understanding.

It is reminiscent of Barthes Mythologies and his conceptions of myth being native to the right, a clumsy artificial reconstruction of the left which owes its usefulness to the bourgeois aspirations of the dominant parts of society.

Semiology has taught us that myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal. Now this process is exactly that of bourgeois ideology. If our society is objectively the privileged field of mythical significations, it is because formally myth is the most appropriate instrument for the ideological inversion which defines this society: at all the levels of human communication, myth operates the inversion of anti-physis into pseudo-physis. – P. 142

Myth, in Barthes conception, is a form of politicized speech which conservative elements can draw upon to make their case. It exists as a type of deep embedding of meaning, the connotative level of historical record where deep semantic codes exist and ideologies and discourses intersect, according to Hall. This is why myths are so usefully repurposed throughout history and in the literary traditions of many cultures, and why constant archetypes are repeated and drawn upon, as our oldest narrative traditions.


Stuart Hall “Encoding/Decoding,” in Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, Eds., Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks, Rev. Ed., Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001: 166-176.

Barthes, Roland (1957), Mythologies