Sunday, May 2, 2010
The September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centers were events that sent a shockwave through the international community. No event in contemporary history has elicited such a strong response on a global scale. There has been a universal embrace and ownership of the event that, regardless of political affiliation or cultural identity, has assured that every person has an opinion. They may not agree, but they are not indifferent. What is it about the September 11th attacks that provokes such a universal desire to own the events? Why do people who did not know anyone who died in the attacks, even peripherally, feel compelled to place their own stamp of opinion and identification on it? I would argue that it is, in part, because communication technologies have evolved so much within the last decade that the paradigm for sharing and relating to information has shifted. Modern communication technology facilitates an instantaneous transfer of information, a flourishing of analysis and a surfeit of opinion. It is a very simple process to locate a clip online, put it under your own name and add any commentary you want, and then redistribute it to an almost limitless audience. These personalized digital derivatives are likely identical in quality to their initial form and are endlessly reusable. We may all be working with the same set of images, but our capacity to recontextualize and redistribute them to serve our purposes is unprecedented.
Information has become commodified now in a way it never was before. While it has always been a commodity, whether the case of someone paying for a newspaper to receive the news of the day (at a cost that factored in the labor involved in retrieving, collating and distributing information) or paying some industrial spy for insider tips that would affect a business transaction, it is now that there are so many different competing channels of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ information brokers that people can see how transparent the packaging of information has become. Where there is commodification, there is ownership, for a thing cannot be a commodity unless someone is there to make it a possession with value. Further, that commodification inherently implies that one person possesses it and another does not. So if we start to consider Veblen’s commentary on the notions of ownership evolving from an ownership of persons to an ownership of objects, it is fairly simple to move from an ownership of physical objects to an ownership of ephemeral objects and subsequently an ownership of ideas (e.g. evolution of patents), and then finally, now, an ownership of experience.
What does ownership even mean in this context? How does someone own an experience or their interpretation of an event experienced by millions? First we must examine more traditional demonstrations of ownership. In order to own something in a way that has any social meaning, you must demonstrate that you own it. A Ferrari in your garage that you never drive or discuss with others means nothing. The joy of ownership, for most people, is in demonstration of ownership.
In the case of modern communications and multimedia, the demonstration of ownership is two-fold: the physical possession of media and the redistribution of said media, with some form of assertion of ownership (commentary, etc.). This is a display of goods, even if the goods themselves are only somewhat physical. Well before the advent of modern technology, Veblen recognized this tendency, “The means of communication and the mobility of the population now expose the individual to the observation of many persons who have no other means of judging his reputability than the display of goods (and perhaps of breeding) which he is able to make while he is under their direct observation.” So while this may have once just meant display of conspicuous consumption of goods, the evolution of the same social tendency in the wake of modern technology extends to asserting ownership by means of opinion and sense of possession.
However, there is a dichotomic tension generated by this modern technology and our instincts to ownership. It has never been easier to possess physical ownership of a piece of information or media, in the form of, say a YouTube clip or a DVD, because effective mass distribution have driven costs down so far, but it is a veritable impossibility to retain a sense of sole ownership since that same mass distribution that makes it available to you makes it available to everybody. This tension is a source of deep-rooted anxiety in a society accustomed to demonstrations of ownership and has led to the evolution of the commentary culture to create a new stamp of ownership and authority. This media may be ours but this experience of it is mine, and you can’t take that from me.
Ownership gets demonstrated through commentary, reposting, presentation of opinion, context of reposting, repurposing of content and an imposition of experience on the part of the owner. Video is inherently problematic because it presents a myth of objectivity. The camera supposedly shows the viewer the truth of what is there and people are inclined to accept it with less critical considerations. However, film is one of the most easily manipulatible art forms, precisely because people expect a certain level of objectivity. While Benjamin acknowledged the power of film to increase our capacity for critical analysis, he did acknowledge the perils of its apparent objectivity. “As compared with painting, filmed behavior lends itself more readily to analysis because of its incomparably more precise statements of the situation.” (p. 236, ‘The Work of Analysis in Mechanical Reproduction). All film is inherently subjective, based on the context and the choice of the filmmaker in what to show and what not to show. While footage stripped of all commentary and editing may be the purest form of record, few people view film without a filter of context and commentary. However, people rarely acknowledge that filter consciously and this context gets added to their own experience of an event.
When people engage in the act of reposting media or sharing it with others, they are placing a stamp of ownership on that content. Even if the content has been viewed by millions of other people, the act of sharing allows a person to offer commentary that will be manifested to others as a form of ownership. Is it a conscious action? Probably not. But it does assuage the vague sense of threat and inadequacy brought about by the inability to reconcile manifestations of physical ownership and unlimited distribution of content, as well as a way of placing a stamp of identity and demonstrate one’s goods to an unknown public.
Assertions of ownership over content and experience elicit powerful emotions from people. These emotions range the gamut of the more simple and understandable (jealousy, feelings of inadequacy) to the newly complex emotions brought about by the ownership of ideas. Anger is one of the most common responses, and is the one that Oskar demonstrates when he articulates his frustration in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It is extremely difficult to reconcile a personal sense of ownership with the idea that other people have the same power to own things you want to just be yours. Everyone has the same agency to own an experience and to assert that ownership through a layer of personal interpretation, and we cannot stop that without restricting access to the information, something that is a veritable impossibility with modern technology.
This creates an even more complex set of emotions when people take the same content and apply radically different values to it. Consider the use of the footage of the Towers falling in the September 11th attacks. An American news station might present that as a tragedy, an inconceivable assault on American values or a call to arms. Al-Qaeda has used that same footage as a source of triumph, an inspirational way of recruiting new members. People who may be generally opposed to Al-Qaeda’s actions have a much more visceral feeling of anger and violation when they realize that that footage is being used for that purpose. If you asked them why, they might not be able to explain exactly what it is that bothers them about that, but the answers, involving a lack of respect for the dead, a corruption of the ‘intent’ of the footage, all fundamentally come down to someone else asserting ownership over content in a way that is anathema to your own.
Another aspect of idea ownership is the concept of performative processing—something that has become much more common in the post-YouTube era. Performative processing, as defined here, is the act of processing one’s own feelings about an experience (whether or not you reach a conclusion) in a public forum. Our capacity to do this has grown exponentially due to the advent of modern communication technologies.
The making of ‘Project Rebirth’ itself is an example of performative processing, and placing ownership, on an extremely large scale. The ownership is asserted at a number of levels in the film’s process—the individual participants choose what to disclose of their experiences, Whitaker chooses what to include in his final version, and finally the audience asserts ownership through identification, opinion and a comparison of feelings. The desire to make the film itself is an exercise in performative processing and a recognition that modern communication technology has made a project like this both possible and familiar to a generation that is becoming comfortable with this level of personal exposure and this need to assert ownership.
So once again, we return to Veblen’s comments on displays of goods in a public setting and consider that in this era of commodified experience and mass distribution channels, we resolve the tension of unlimited access to physical media through performative processing and ownership of experience. Experience is easily reducible to commodity so long as it can be packaged and distributed. As an example of technologies that facilitate this ownership of experience and the act of performative processing, I point you to YouTube and to VITAL. Both encourage the redistribution of media with an added layer of personal meaning and metadata—an assertion of ownership and commentary. While commentary (with intent of asserting ownership or otherwise) is valuable and provides context and common ground for discussion and increased shared understanding, there is a peril of conflating commentary and content.
Now that we are quite accustomed to the relentless presence of multiple media sources, unlimited potential for distribution and almost instantaneous access to information, we have to consider how this access to information affects our own personal capacity to own and process events. What does it mean to be a child of the information age and be denied access to information, especially critical information? Does it create a sense of jealousy because someone owns something that you don’t? Is it a completely foreign concept now? Is this an anxiety that people haven’t really experienced in the past because we take access for granted now? This ownership of ideas and experience is not going to go away. It is only going to grow more sophisticated, and our agitations will run deeper without a satisfactory understanding of why we are so frustrated, because the need to own runs so deeply within us. As Veblen stated, “Ownership began and grew into a human institution on grounds unrelated to the subsistence minimum. The dominant incentive was from the outset the invidious distinction attaching to wealth, and save temporarily and by exception, no other motive has usurped the primacy at any later stage of the development.”
Here we come to fully explore the source of Oskar’s deep-rooted anger and frustration. Even though he had a direct connection to the September 11th attacks and had the resources available to him to grant him access to multiple sources of information, he was denied that access. To deny him that access while granting it to people who did not have a direct connection to the attacks, but still claimed ownership of it by the act of posting and commenting and providing access to others, means his ownership of the experience has been denied. That is tantamount to telling him he has no right to his feelings, but now that concern has become enmeshed with a peculiar form of consumption anxiety. Modern media has redefined ownership and consumption anxiety, as people are compelled to create and perform their own interpretations and experiences as commodities. In doing so, however, they reinforce their anxiety that these things, now commodities, can somehow be taken away from them, something that is surely a profoundly modern anxiety.
Saturday, April 24, 2010
The entire book is really a story of people communicating at cross-purposes or not communicating at all. They don’t tell each other the words they need to hear (I love you, I need you, I understand your pain, I’m scared, I can’t do this, I need help) and in the process systematically lose their ability to communicate. Take grandfather Thomas. His inability to say what he needs to say, to explore his own grief over losing Anna, ends up shutting down his entire capacity to communicate verbally.
Written communication runs as a theme throughout the book (understandable for a novel), and while it has elements of an epistolary novel, it retains far too much of Oskar’s narrative to be purely epistolary—though that would have been a logical direction for Foer to take, given his intense focus on documentation-as-substitute-for-direct-interaction in the story. Thomas writes thousands of letters to the son he never meets and writes page after page in his daybooks to communicate with people. Oskar keeps a collection of “Stuff That Happened To Me”—documents and images that define his self-conception (and that fill the book itself). He writes letters to strangers that he admires constantly, in a relentless search for approval and connection. In the end, his grandmother can’t say the things she wants to say to his face—she writes him a letter. Oskar only has the key that he finds in his father’s things, the impetus for his quest, because a man cannot open a letter from his dead father in time. Oskar is haunted by the things his father didn’t say in his final phone messages. He is incapacitated when the phone rings and loses the opportunity to speak to him a final time and hear what he really needs to hear—that his father loves him, something that it seems no one in this book (except Oskar’s mother) can say in a timely fashion.
The lesson learned is both bittersweet and clear: seize the opportunity to SAY what you need to say—make your needs clear, don’t be afraid to ask for help and above all, tell the important people in your life exactly what they mean to you every chance you get because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Where to begin? The fundamental separation of women’s work and men’s work and how that helps push us towards distinctions in class and employment? The absolutely delicious correlative drawn tracing the role of exploit in men’s work through the taking of trophies through the evolution of consumerism? The most academic dissection of the concept (and futility of) of keeping up with the Joneses ? WHY we have to keep up with the Joneses in the first place? The implications of manners and the deeper understanding of good breeding? Deconstructing the differences between practical labor and status-based vicarious leisure? The status-based perceptions of drunkenness (though doubtless a shift in perception of that in modern times would be expected.) It’s really awesome, isn’t it?
This is what presents the problem. I really enjoyed the entire reading and so am finding it really difficult to pick any single passage to focus on, but I’m going to try to apply some of Veblen’s more individually minded observations to a general societal problem.
The self-evident comparisons between Veblen’s cautionary observations and America’s modern credit crisis are overwhelming and not particularly interesting to comment on, except that we clearly haven’t learned anything in a century (a common theme of its own in this class). However, a few points that he makes point to a general societal problem that is only growing more pervasive. So I give you several quotations in a row and address them all together…
“Very much of squalor and discomfort will be endured before the last trinket or last pretence of pecuniary decency is put away. There is no class and no country that has yielded so abjectly before the pressure of physical want as to deny themselves all gratification of this higher or spiritual need.”
“The means of communication and the mobility of the population now expose the individual to the observation of many persons who have no other means of judging his reputability than the display of goods (and perhaps of breeding) which he is able to make while he is under their direct observation.”
“It frequently happens that an element of the standard of living which set out with being primarily wasteful, ends with becoming, in the apprehension of the consumer, a necessary of life, and it may in this way become as indispensible as any other item of the consumer’s habitual expenditure.”
So what do we do with all of these together? Well, the mass psychosis of modern over-consumption and debt can be found here. First, people will buy long after it ceases to be prudent or advisable, because the act of gratifying one’s wants is far more pleasurable than the process of responsible self-denial, particularly in a world that makes want gratification so easy!
What makes them want so many things? Part of it is the relentless inundation of marketing, but the other part of it is the constant exposure to other people’s gains. A century ago, who did we have to compare ourselves with? Family, neighbors, and public figures. Now, it’s everyone on the internet, so really, it’s everyone. For a culture already overly comfortable with relentless consumption comparison, potentially comparing yourself to everyone on the Internet is staggering and is exercising transformative impact over definitions of ‘good breeding’ and the display of goods.
In terms of breeding, there has been a bit of a reactionary revolt against standards we had held before. Language has deteriorated thanks to “lol-speak” and texting grammar. A basic decorum and reservation of manner has been replaced by relentless over-sharing and a celebration of gauche crudity (hello reality television) because people want to identify more with the people on their televisions, so instead of aspiring to greater successes, they drag their celebrities down to their level.
However, despite bringing the aspirational figures down to a more manageable level, society still covets and produces and consumes at an ever-increasing pace. Technology has reduced product cycles and attitudes towards innovative products have shifted from ‘evaluate carefully and then plan a purchase’ to ‘buy the latest, greatest amazing thing because it will TOTALLY CHANGE YOUR LIFE’.
Easy access to credit has made that possible in a way Veblen could have never anticipated. No longer do you even have to struggle to maintain an aura of conspicuous consumption, banks will enable you to have whatever you want, whenever you want, so long as you pay for it for the rest of your life. People value goods less because they have to work less (on the front end) to receive them. Society as a whole does not fundamentally appreciate that at some point, things bought on credit must be paid for. As a result of this, while people continue to spend and spend to match up to their ‘peers’ and maintain their sense of self-worth, they are in fact destroying their own capacity for financial self-determination and potential for ascending the class ladder by indebting themselves beyond repair. If it weren’t so sad, it would be almost funny.
Monday, April 12, 2010
Amy and I went to see ‘V for Vendetta’ in theaters. I thought it was pretty awesome and under the auspices of the Bush administration, it felt very relevant and satisfying. I felt righteous, happy and emotionally… voided afterwards. I asked her what she thought of it and she was troubled. She said that the catharsis engendered in the audience watching it is extremely detrimental for the development and mobilization of legitimate social change and people would walk out of that theater feeling that their righteousness and sympathetic emotion from watching the film was somehow equivalent to actually taking action. As usual, she was right and reading this essay on ‘The World of Wrestling’ called that particular exchange to mind in a way I never would have expected.
Monday, March 29, 2010
In reading the Marcuse, I became forcibly and repeatedly reminded of the time period it was written in, moreso than almost any of our other readings, mostly because the author is discussing different economic systems and focusing on the Soviets and the Americans. Since capitalism has pretty much won this round (even in China, really), it becomes very strange to read this now.
To focus on one passage that particularly leapt out at me, “The distinguishing feature of advanced industrial society is its effective suffocation of those needs which demand liberation—liberation also from that which is tolerable and rewarding and comfortable—while it sustains and absolves the destructive power and repressive function of affluent society. Here the social controls exact the overwhelming need for the production and consumption of waste; the need for stupefying work where it is no longer a real necessity; the need for modes of relaxation which soothe and prolong this stupefication; the need for maintaining such deceptive liberties as free competition at administered prices, a free press which censors itself, free choice between brands and gadgets.” (p. 7)
In essence, yes, I agree with Marcuse that so much of what we do in modern society as workers, once one moves beyond the needs for shelter and sustenance, is work to attain material possessions and experiential purchases (vacations, etc.) that perhaps allow for those modes of relaxation previously mentioned, but also arguably expand the mind and allow for alternate perspectives on the human condition (but that depends where you go and what you do). However, it becomes extremely difficult to conceive outside the paradigm of which he speaks, not for a lack of imagination, but because this is the functional paradigm of modern affluent capitalist society and one cannot live outside the discourse.
Another argument is that people now are not so much recognizing themselves in their commodities (p. 9), but are striving instead to make connections with other people through their purchasing decisions, whether it be spending money on a laptop or a smart phone or a trip to Europe or expensive dinner. Sure, one could point out that generations before us connected fine without all these newfangled gadgets, but that argument is near petulant and willfully obtuse in the face of inexorable technological movements. These tools are here… now what do we do with them?
Perhaps at some point in the near future, we will be able to move from the illusory choices of brand and ‘leisure’ and start taking steps towards asking meaningful questions about freedom and true liberation. However, until we have made sure that people everywhere, and not just in affluent societies, are free from starvation and poverty, we aren’t really in a position to engage those other questions, I don’t think.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Monday, March 8, 2010
The market demands I compete,
Apparently fair, no mean feat,
I'll absorb my opponent
(A 'free' market component)
There's no innovation! That's sweet!
One topic that seems to pervade our readings is the constant tension between ideal economic circumstances and practical economic circumstances. So much of economic theory seems defined by the former and is reluctant to engage in legitimate policy proposals based on the latter. The limited readings we did of Schumpeter illustrate this point quite handily, as he attempts to disengage from speculative conjecture on economic policy and push more aggressively to dealing with realistic policy issues. I am not entirely certain if he is successful in this endeavor—I’d have to read a lot more of his work and study a great deal more economic theory—but I do appreciate the need to engage the reality of a marketplace.
While this topic is explored in his touching on issues of socialism and unemployment, the most particular moment for me exists on page 80. “In the general case of oligopoly there is in fact no determinate equilibrium at all, and the possibility presents itself that there may be an endless sequence of moves and countermoves, an indefinite state of warfare between firms. It is true that there are many special cases in which a state of equilibrium theoretically exists. In the second place, even in these cases not only is it much harder to attain than the equilibrium in perfect competition, and still harder to preserve, but the ‘beneficial’ competition of the classic type seems likely to be replaced by ‘predatory’ or ‘cutthroat’ competition or simply by struggles for control in the financial sphere. These things are so many sources of social waste, and there are many others such as the costs of advertising campaigns, the suppression of new methods of production (buying up of patents in order not to use them) and so on. And most important of all: under the conditions envisaged, equilibrium, even if eventually attained by an extremely costly method, no longer guarantees either full employment or maximum output in the sense of the theory of perfect competition. It may exist without full employment, it is bound to exist, so it seems, at a level of output below that maximum mark, because profit-conserving strategy, impossible in the conditions of perfect competition, now not only becomes possible but imposes itself… Is it not quite true after all that there is little parallelism between producing for profit and producing for the consumer and that private enterprise is little more than a device to curtail production in order to extort profits which then are correctly described as tolls and ransoms?” (p. 79-80)
So essentially it seems that if perfect competition actually existed (it doesn’t), then the larger macroeconomic goals of the market would be perfectly in line (equilibrium) with the consumer and all would prosper. However, as Schumpeter attests here, actual competition involves undercutting competition and squashing innovation in order to preserve pre-existing profits, minimize workforce while increasing prices, prevent sustainable opposition and encourage government involvement that reinforces corporate interests while remaining resistant to leveling playing fields. How is that compatible with the overall economic progress and innovation necessary for a large economic entity (whether multinational corporation or state) to function within a global marketplace, particularly one with socialized or semi-socialized businesses? Simply put, in the long run, it isn’t, and this methodology stunts the potential growth of the industry and participants while continuing to marginalize the average consumer/wage laborer.
What bewilders me, and always has, is how corporations seem to prefer squashing innovation rather than co-opting it. If Ford and Exxon had teamed up to offer electric cars that ran on clean sustainable energy sources right now, they would dominate the global market, guaranteeing profits the likes of which they’d never seen, and creating a sustainable business model to take them into the next hundred years. Instead we see the death of the electric car and the beginning tentative industrial explorations of renewable energy sources by organizations that lack the capital to do the R&D necessary to innovate effectively.
I digress too far from the text now, but not the spirit, I think. Schumpeter also says, “The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.” (p. 67) In that vein, entrenched industries would only seem to stand to gain from embracing innovation, but perhaps this is the same idealistic trap that many economists fall prey to when studying theory rather than practice.