Santogold is to Girl Talk as Tolstoy is to Dostoevsky

Upon listening to the new all-samples Girl Talk album (download/buy the album here), my first thought was this: “misogynistic lyrics over an amalgam of beats and samples? Really? Ugh.”. After so much chatter and hype, to me this seemed remarkably… unremarkable. How was this any different from Lil’ Wayne’s new disc or countless other albums that are catchy – and sorta’ offensive?

But as I sat there, perched condescendingly atop my high horse, it occurred to me that this was a bit unfair. After all, can you really argue that the lyrics on the Feed the Animals are a projection of DJ Gregg Gillis’ views? That this is self-expression through somebody else’s words? Not really. Listen to the album and what strikes you immediately is that the voice behind the disc is not to be found in individual phrases or samples – if it is to be found at all. This isn’t one of those albums that I refer to as ‘personality discs’, works that are explicitly meant to be a reflection of an individual behind them.

The most recent ‘personality disc’ I can think of is Santogold‘s self-titled debut. As she careens through an array of influences, chanting lyrics like “Me I’m a creator / Thrill is to make it up / The rules I break got me a place / Up on the radar” there is a clear sense that this is Santi White speaking about herself. Similarly, the album’s opener “L.E.S. Artistes” suggests White worries about the sacrifices she makes for art – as in “I can say I hope / It will be worth what I give up / If I could stand up mean / For all the things that I believe” – and draws on a long legacy of personal, self-reflective song-writing.

Santgold is the musical and lyrical expression of an individual, the album becoming like a public diary of inner thoughts, feelings and opinions. Feed the Animals is an aesthetic arrangement of disparate, often contradictory elements into something resembling a coherent whole. And one way to think of this contrast is to turn to Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and his distinction between monologic and dialogic writing. To Bakhtin, a dialogic novel was one that, instead of attempting to maintain a singular ‘monologic’ voice throughout a work, aimed to arrange a number of different perspectives and ideologies into an aesthetic whole, allowing the tension or dialogue between the differing views to remain unresolved. Bakhtin’s most common way of demonstrating this difference was to contrast Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Tolstoy, he argued, maintained one dominant voice and perspective through the use on overarching narrator and, as such, a singular perspective shone through by the time the plot resolved. Bakhtin argued that Dostoevsky, on the other the hand, arranged a number of different voices and deliberately left them unresolved, and was thus the superior, more sophisticated writer. It’s a point worth considering: what is more ‘realistic’ (and poignant) than irreconcilable differences remaining irreconcilable?

So in my little analogy, the all-samples Feed the Animals is clearly the dialogic novel – it is the aesthetic organisation of a set of contrasting sources. As in a dialogic novel, it is not simply enough to have disparate elements; instead, it is the arrangment of the different perspectives into a coherent – if not necessarily cohesive – whole that makes the work… ‘work’. There is no overarching perspective that dominates in the novel, as there is no overarching generic or lyric theme that runs through Feed the Animals. Rather, the satisfaction for me comes precisely from the ‘irreconcilable’ being put together in a way that feels right, in a manner that works both with and against the very differences that are put into play.

Santogold is quite different. While it is a great album, also culled from a variety of influences, there is something less satisfying to me about the ‘monologic’ nature of it, the singular, overarching voice that sits atop the album. But what I think is most interesting is that Dostoevsky’s dialogic approach has become far more significant than what now feels like the more simplistic monologic style. The question to ask is if Girl Talk are heralding a new age in which the album will be a frame for the arrangement of styles and ideas – rather than the straightforward expression of them.

Apple Keynotes as Cultural Keystones

Sometimes an apple is not just an apple.Whenever Apple launches a product, I watch the associated buzz with a sick fascination. To call the degree of attention lavished on Jobs’ keynotes unusual would be a gross understatement and, as opposed to the geek-frothing that accompanies something like video game launches, Apple announcements show up in the mainstream media with clockwork regularity. But because I am always intrigued by why things like this happen, I just wanted to take a moment to think about the fervour behind Apple announcements and, in classic Scrawled in Wax style, make some grand and totally unsubstantiated pronouncements. So:

1) Technology is culture. Naturally, I don’t mean that in a literal sense. But what I do mean is the perhaps obvious point that if an age has a marker of its concerns and its desires – truth and science for the 18th century, industry for 19th and early 20th – then technology, specifically that of ‘the screen’, is that focal point for our age.

2) If tech is a marker of culture, then Stevenotes are, for better or for worse, like the signposts of where we are going. If modern cultural desire can be located in and around consumer technology, then one way to explain why there is so much hype about these events is that we are sheep in search of a shepherd. When Jobs says this is where digital music is going, we all listen. When he first launched the iPhone, we said, ‘oh, this is where mobile communication is headed’. When he positioned the iPhone as a platform rather than a product, we got a sense of how the entire digital economy will shift into competing silos of tools and applications made for a specific ecosystem.

But more importantly than all these industry-specific trends, Apple keynotes seem to be taken as heralding the arrival of a long-predicted future. Take Mobile Me: while very cool it is not an original idea (it is essentially the same thing as Microsoft’s Live Mesh except that it, ya’ know, works). But with Apple, I think the key is that rather than having to go out and integrate a product or service into your own life, they provide a complete ecosystem that you have to – no, want to – integrate yourself into. As the representative of the future in the present, Apple become your ticket to tomorrow. But also, take Jobs comment about eBook readers (“The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore”) and you get a sense of the problem with supply and demand economics being the only determinant factors in what amount to cultural trends.

3) If Apple keynotes are cultural signposts, then we are entering a new phase of commodity fetishism in which the product is valorised as saviour. ‘Commodity fetishism’ is a term used to describe a situation when a product is believed to have an inherent value, rather than one ascribed to it by culture and or the labour it took to create it. But the term fetish is also useful because it relates to desire and the unconscious, and this is something that is conspicuously absent from discussions around Apple. It is perhaps trite, but there is a reason that Apple products are so consistently described as ‘sexy’; imbued with desirable contemporary characteristics (sleekness, minimalism, connectedness and, um, crazyfuturehotness), Apple products become objects of desire (i.e a fetish) that capture something about what I suppose you could call the ‘cultural libido’. And in a moment when tech is the signpost of culture, and Apple the signpost of tech, then the big question is: what does this concentration of desire reveal about the current era? It’s too large a question for me, but if you want to take a stab at it in the comments, I’d appreciate hearing some ideas.

Theorizing Twitter: Narratives and Identity

Trying to explain Twitter to the non-user has become something like the tech world’s Arthurian challenge, a seemingly impossible task that no-one is able to fully complete. And while I love Twitter, the moment I try and describe it to someone not immersed in web culture, I am suddenly struck by how ridiculous the whole thing seems: “You, umm, have 140 characters to, like, say what you’re doing or, err, say something smart or funny”. In my more intellectual moments, I try and describe it as ‘the rebirth of the Nietzschean aphorism’, but in both instances, I’m met with deservedly sceptical looks. Perhaps the best way I’ve heard this difficulty captured is that explaining Twitter is like explaining sex to a virgin – you don’t really ‘get it’ until you’ve done it – which, all things told, isn’t a bad way to think about things.

Of course, that’s not to say that there haven’t been good attempts at explaining Twitter. It’s just that Twitter is so nebulous, so multiple in its potential uses – social tool, news source, microblogging and so on ad infinitum – that it’s become to difficult to explain it in terms of specific functions rather than as a platform with open-ended possibilities. Yet, the one thing that people keep coming back to is, well, the fact that they keep coming back; for some reason, one that I’m not sure we’ve been able to fully figure out yet, Twitter is remarkably compelling. What is perhaps more surprising is that this happens despite it having many uses, some radically different in purpose.

But while the tech set are in love with Twitter – so much so, that some wish to declare it an essential service – the mainstream criticism of Twitter is often its seeming pointlessness, particularly when it shows just how narcissistic people can be. And while this is quite valid – many Twitterers have a habit of describing their most recent meals or worse – it is perhaps this very self-concern that is the reason for Twitter’s success. After all, one thing that Twitter does well is to provide a space into which one can ‘write an identity’ into a public arena. By ‘writing an identity’, I mean locating one’s sense of self ‘elsewhere’, in a virtual space that we can use to not only reflect what we are feeling, thinking and doing, but also the other way round: to invent ourselves through the act of writing.

And what is interesting about the service is the way in which it allows that collection of moments that are one’s ‘tweets’ to become a sort of narrative: if you want get a sense of what I’m thinking and what I’m doing – and in some sense, ‘who I am’ – simply go and read my Twitter. It is, of course, ‘artificial’, ‘limited’ and produced for public consumption. But as Diana Kimball notes, perhaps Twitter has become “the platform on which we’ve chosen to construct our artificial authentic selves”. If identity in the postmodern era has become fractured, ineffable, merely a set of shifting markers, the linking of Twitterers and their tweets is an opportunity to locate one’s identity at a ‘site’, a semi-fixed point in relation to which one orients oneself. The persistence of Twitter – the fact that it is there when you are not – is what leads to a sort of presence for identity, a virtual space that works to produce you to others as you produce it. And in this sense of writing oneself, there’s something to the disjointed, microscopic nature of Twitter, the fact that it is only a collection of tiny snippets, that allows its users to piece together stories over time about themselves and those they follow.

But if one aspect of Twitter is its capacity to produce personal narratives, it is also interesting for the narratives of community that it creates. Take a look at anyone’s stream, whether internet celebrity or random user, and you will find a collection of anecdotes and thoughts from a group of people who, while they may have never met, form a sort of ‘community’. But unlike many other online communities that are formed around a common interest, Twitter is simply formed out of the common activity of Twittering. As such, the sorts of communities one finds are often centred around things like humour, tone, snark, geekiness or other traits that usually, by themselves, wouldn’t be enough to gather around. Indeed, what is often so fascinating about Twitter is precisely the communication with people who you wouldn’t normally talk to, whether that means a regular user like me connecting with Mathew Ingram or Molly Wood, or one of the thousands of discontinuous connections and friendships that happen when you stumble randomly across someone’s profile.

In both aspects – whether individual or community – Twitter functions as a sort of fixed point on an otherwise complex and constantly moving web. It is, like many ‘net tools, agnostic and therefore prey to not only the narcissism with which so many people associate Twitter, but also spam, sniping and an overwhelming amount of ‘noise’. But like other web tools, it is also redefining the boundaries of identity, creating a link between an online self and one’s real one, perhaps even blurring the line between the two. While the service itself is still suffering through growing pains and is still struggling with that minor issue of a business plan, it will certainly be interesting to see the stories that Twitter’s individuals and communities will continue to create.

Note: The image used here comes from this post on Consumerist.

Misreadings: Why I Like “Stuff White People Like”

2256034027_f48985d435.jpgBecause of a tendency to shoot my mouth off without thinking, I have stayed away from writing on Stuff White People Like, the wildly popular blog written by comedian Christian Lander. There has been a lot written on the topic from a variety of perspectives so I expected that everything that could be said on the topic already had. But there was an interesting piece written by Adam Sternbergh [via] a couple of days ago that, rather than singing its praises or calling it racist, criticised the site as a sort of vapid and weak satire. And, going back to look at the blog, Sternbergh certainly has a point. He suggests that that when a ‘white yuppie’ reads about white people liking coffee and Toyota Priuses, s/he slaps his knee, saying ‘it’s funny because it’s true’, and then moves on. The site works by having white people “[pretend] to poke fun at themselves while actually being allowed to feel superior”. To Sternbergh, SWPL comforts, rather than challenges its audience and as a result, actually pats people on the back for their behaviour instead of questioning them or forcing them to question themselves. Ergo… weak sauce.

While I agree with some of Sternbergh’s arguments, my response would be that there is still an interesting something going on in a couple of potential misreadings by the blog’s audience that is, besides being funny, actually good satire. First, as soon as the blog hit, you just knew that there would be a slew of comments that said something along the lines of “this wouldn’t be funny if it were about Black or Asian people” – and , sure enough, the site is littered with them. One response to such a criticism might be that the blog works because there is no real threat behind it. It is difficult to imagine the sudden disenfranchisement of thousands of white people because of a blog full of stereotypes, or even that that a white person might suddenly feel unwelcome in a store or bar because someone there has read the blog. What SWPL lays bare is white privilege: that the reason that it’s ‘okay’ to make fun of ‘white people’ is because of their dominant position in society, one that is not being challenged any time soon. Of course, there are a slew of necessary disclaimers to that statement involving class and sex among other things, but there’s also something quite true about it as well.

Another fun (mis)reading may be that Sternbergh’s inverse response – that the blog is kinda’ dumb because there’s no real critique in it – might actually obscure the fact that the blog is doing something challenging: it actually names whiteness as something other than a norm – that it instead, like all identities, is a thing constructed and performed. Furthermore, it introduces the idea of a ‘normative’ whiteness that one can or cannot adhere to, which injects the idea of power into the mix. All white people are ‘white’ but, as so often also happens to minorities, a particular version of ‘whiteness’ is conceived of and positioned as normal. In a sense, the blog does not describe whiteness but an ideal of it, the vague sense amongst white progressives that, ‘if only all white people were ironic hipsters like us’, the world would be a better place. Think about the Southern accent as a marker of backwardness or the liberal dismissal of conservatives as religious kooks and you get an idea of what I mean.

And Gregory Rodriguez’s LA Times op-ed on the blog hit onto something when he argued that “Lander is doing to whites what scores of journalists and politicians do to non-white minorities every day, “essentializing” complex identities — that is, stripping away all variety and reducing them to their presumed authentic essences”. But where Rodriguez goes wrong in his suggestion that SWPL is effective because now ‘everyone is a minority’. Statistically in some cities (like Lander’s hometown Toronto), sure. But we are long way from arguing that a particular cultural perspective isn’t still privileged in the public space. So while Sternbergh makes a valid critique, what I believe he misses is that the misreading of the blog by its intended, white yuppie audience, in addition to making me chuckle, is actually pretty smart satire. You have a bunch of yuppies patting themselves on the back from a position of comfort while not recognising it’s the very position that is part of the problem i.e. that the prioritisation of white, liberal values as normal is a form of ethnocentrism with very real material effects, a concept itself central to the blog’s otherwise shaky satire. And that possible misreading – at the sort of obliviousness at the core of the knee-slapping – is why I like Stuff White People Like. (And yes, I am fully aware that I like it because it makes me feel superior – why exactly do you think I’m a grad student… ;) )

Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Lost

lost_01.jpgThe Wire be damned! Why J.J. Abrams creation is the TV show of our time.

In anticipation of tomorrow’s next week’s season premiere, here, in no particular order, are the reasons Lost will teach you everything you need to know. (Yes there will be spoilers.)

1) Power doesn’t say ‘No’. It asks you to say ‘Yes’:
“Jack: You want me to help you?
Ben: No, Jack. I want you to want to help me.”

Ben and ‘the Others’ are masters of manipulation. Rather than forceful ‘conversion’, they work on people’s vulnerabilities and fears to coax them to behave in particular ways. In John Locke they find a willing accomplice – but not because they coerce him into joining them. It’s because he is made to believe it is in his best interest to do so. This is exactly how power works in society – it is far more effective to convince someone that ‘this is good for you’ rather than telling them that this is what you must do. Repression always fails because people rebel; beckoning someone to consent is always the best method of control.

2) We never escape our past: TV shows, particularly in America, are notorious for showing how people overcome their past to forge a new future. I call ’em “transcendence narratives”. Every happy ending – of the ex-con gone good or she who was lost now being found – always misses out on the hard stuff of rebuilding a life and the constant back-and-forth of ‘escaping your old self’. From Jack’s obsessiveness to Mr. Eko’s guilt to Sawyer’s emptiness after killing Locke’s father, no character gets a fresh start on the island. Even Locke, who miraculously walks again, struggles immensely with betrayal by his father. No-one just walks away from who they were – they only learn how to confront it or deal with it, and even then, it never fully goes away.

3) There is no ‘state of nature’: From Hurley’s status as ‘the fat guy’ to the isolation of Korean-speaking Jin to Jack’s “I’m a doctor” leadership, social stratifications don’t disappear, they just get morphed and transformed on the island. There is no “pure state” – social dynamics and power relations never disappear.

4) Evangeline Lily is ridiculously, insanely hot: Wait, what? How did that get in here?

5) People’s actions are as determined by their circumstances as by their characters: There is no way in hell Jack would have let Sayid, Bernard and Jin die in another ‘normal’ situation (Even though they live, Jack believed them shot). It is only the insane conditions brought on by the island and the Others that force him to act that way. This could be applied to other characters too – Sayid, Locke, Kate, Charlie, anyone really. Lost lays bare the myth that we always control our own actions because it so clearly shows that actions only happen in reaction to something, not in a vacuum.

6) People will have sex at the weirdest – and thus most appropriate times: See Sawyer and Kate. ‘Nuff said. You could also, if you wanted, make some point about sex being the ultimate form of human connection – but that would be just silly.

7) There is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person: No-one on the island is free of some crime. Everyone has done something wrong and everyone has done something right. The ambiguity of Lost – its refusal to box people in, whether Juliet, Kate or Charlie – is its greatest and most honest triumph. This, perhaps more than any other reason is why Lost is the show for the uncertain and morally ambiguous 2000’s.

If you would like to disagree – you shouldn’t. ;) If you insist though, hit the comments and let me know what you think.