30.7.08

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"Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. [...] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. [...] In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture." - Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy


I started today thinking about fiction published on the internet - fan fiction, original fiction, whatever - after a brief conversation on the subject with some friends the other night. I went to Marshall McLuhan to stir up some thoughts on the subject and wound up completely sidetracked and with a new train of thought. Now I'm not really sure what I want to discuss. Stick with me if you can. This'll be bumpy. Also, it is probably helpful to at least check out the Wikipedia page on Marshall McLuhan before reading this if you're not familiar with him because I want to draw on a couple of terms and tools that he developed.

First, I want to look at a pedagogical tool McLuhan developed intended to focus attention on the four types of effects (as defined by McLuhan, of course) a medium has on society [image below]. Wikipedia, offering a theoretical tetrad with radio as the medium (McLuhan defines medium as "any extension of ourselves" i.e. a hammer extends our arm), gives this example of the effects:

"1.) Enhancement (What the medium amplifies or intensifies) - Radio amplifies news and music via sound.

2.) Obsolescence (What the medium drives out of prominence) - Radio reduces the importance of print and the visual.

3.) Retrieval (What the medium recovers which was previously lost) - Radio returns the spoken word to the forefront.

4.) Reversal (What the medium does when pushed to the limits) - Acoustic radio flips into audio-visual TV."

McLuhan further categorizes these four effects into groups called "Ground" and "Figure." Again, refer to the Wikipedia page for a better discussion of these terms, but basically "Figure" refers to how a medium interacts or operates in its context. That context is "Ground." Figure = medium; Ground = context, to simplify. In the tetrad, Enhancements and Retrievals are Figure qualities; Reversals and Obsolescences are Ground qualities.

Initially, I wanted to write about fiction on the internet as a medium and use the tetrad to interrogate the medium - its Ground and Figure qualities, cultural effects, and so on. But I realized "Fiction on the internet" is probably not a medium; the World Wide Web is a medium (probably a more accurate term than saying "internet"). I'd gotten close to writing on the subject, though, because putting "Fiction on the internet" in the middle of the tetrad seemed to fit - I could imagine writing about the enhancements and reversals triggered by fiction on the internet. But it was unsettling, and I feared flat out wrong, to consider "Fiction on the internet" a medium.

So I backed off. Instead I tried to put the World Wide Web in the middle of that tetrad. What does the World Wide Web enhance? Radio enhances "news and music via sound." Well, the internet does that, too. Does the World Wide Web enhance moving images, like television? Yes. Does it also drive TV and radio from prominence (Obsolescence)? Yes, it does that.

This is a simple path to follow; when it comes to Enhancement (which I would not consider synonymous, here, with "betterment") and Obsolescence, I could see making a case that the World Wide Web enhances all information based media while simultaneously making all information based media obsolete.


I am careful to distinguish by saying "information based media" because McLuhan's definition of media that I'm working with - "any extension of ourselves" - applies to hammers and bicycles as well as newspapers and videogame consoles and the web doesn't cover the territory of the hammer. Yet. But from here on out, I'll just say "media" for the sake of brevity, but I'm addressing information based media. (Furthermore, I will admit that I am unsatisfied with the term "information based media" - if you've got a better one, I'm all ears)

The World Wide Web has a chameleon-like nature - it is able to imitate the characteristics of other media almost exactly. In so doing, it destroys the media it consumes. Newspapers, music, television, radio - all are available online and all are available for free, too, if you're clever enough (and you don't need to be that clever). Those four mediums are all about to go belly up and are happy enough to blame the Web for many of their problems.

What the Web really does away with is center. Television exists to serve one purpose: to project sound and images by way of a screen. When you watch television, you are participating with the medium in the only way you can. But when you watch The Office on Hulu.com, are you watching television? No, not really, you're watching a television show broadcast via the World Wide Web.

What is the original content of the internet? Newspapers, magazines, movies... the World Wide Web enhances this media, makes its original source obsolete, but can the World Wide Web become a newspaper? Or only imitate it?

McLuhan warns us that, "it is only too typical that the 'content' of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium." I think this is especially true of the Web because the content is illusory; it is a mirage. The content of the Web does not exist.

What is the original content of the World Wide Web? The videos, writing, music, news, talk, that can all be found on the Web are conveyed by an imitation of the media that created them. The Web itself is incapable of creating content. Perhaps the quintessential Web agent is the search engine. But how does Google function? I input data and then Google has algorithms, calculations, procedures which take the data I input and spit back out results. This is the domain of the computer: "A machine that manipulates data according to a list of instructions." The World Wide Web imitates a computer. Of course one does not exist without the other, but I think even here the World Wide Web plays the chameleon and puts on the costume of a computer.

What about blogs? Again, the web imitates other media - a personal journal, diary, opinion letter, editorial. These things are offered as a unique blend via blogs on the Web, but, still, the Web just allows you to imitate a diary and editorial simultaneously, if you wish, but the form is still ripped off from something pre-existing.

What I’m trying to get at is the wraith-like quality media assumes on the Web; the New York Times on the Web is an apparition of a newspaper as the real thing, somewhere behind it, approaches death.

I guess the question at this point would be to return to that tetrad and say, “Ok, so the Web might kill off TV, radio, and print as they exist independent from the Web, now. So what happens in the ‘Reversal’ phase, when the internet is pushed to its limits? Into what does it flip?”
One answer is the internet will become the media it kills off. All that “illusory” content suddenly becomes solid because there is no alternative; the NY Times will only publish electronically. But I don’t think this is the case. I don’t think once these other forms die off and exist exclusively (or almost exclusively) on the Web that it will somehow give an article on the Web the flesh it lacks now.

McLuhan thought the result would be a “global village,” that is a reaction against the fragmentary style of life caused by print culture. Instead of breaking away into little cliques based on language, we’ll be one throbbing, frightened mass desperate for the iron rule of one person that makes us forget how terrifying it is to be in close contact with every other person on earth by being even more terrifying him/herself:

“Is it not obvious that there are always enough moral problems without also taking a moral stand on technological grounds? [...] Print is the extreme phase of alphabet culture that detribalizes or decollectivizes man in the first instance. Print raises the visual features of alphabet to highest intensity of definition. Thus print carries the individuating power of the phonetic alphabet much further than manuscript culture could ever do. Print is the technology of individualism. If men decided to modify this visual technology by an electric technology, individualism would also be modified. To raise a moral complaint about this is like cussing a buzz-saw for lopping off fingers. "But", someone says, "we didn't know it would happen." Yet even witlessness is not a moral issue. It is a problem, but not a moral problem; and it would be nice to clear away some of the moral fogs that surround our technologies. It would be good for morality.”

Rapper or Republican?



Play along! I suggest everyone watch this, um, now. Spectacular.
"Rappers, Republicans... what's the difference? They both love money, they love guns... gay people scare the shit out of them, every other word out of their mouth is n****r."

14.7.08

Lessons of Darkness, 1992, by Werner Herzog

I was going to write something about the New Yorker cover that everyone is picking at like a bug bite in the hopes of turning it into a gangrenous limb which can then be self-amputated, but, then, I realized that I don't find the cover funny, I don't find it offensive, and I don't find it clever; if this be madness, I find no method in't. So instead of many words, watch this Werner Herzog footage from Lessons of Darkness, which I think summarizes what I would have said quite well.

11.7.08

Desperation

I want to review Nas' new album, Untitled, but I don't think I can do it without discussing a dynamic in hip-hop that's been on my mind for a while. I want to talk about first albums. This'll lay the groundwork for a review, to come later, of Nas' new album "Untitled." For now, take a look at this list of my ten favorite hip-hop albums and the discussion below. I'll drop back next week to review Untitled.

Wu-Tang Clan - 36 Chambers: Enter the Wu-Tang
The Gza - Liquid Swords
Raekwon - Only Built for Cuban Linx
Ghostface - Supreme Clientele
Madvillain (MF Doom) - Madvillainy
Jay-Z - Reasonable Doubt
Nas - Illmatic
Cam'ron - Purple Haze
Notorious B.I.G. - Ready to Die
Eric B. & Rakim - Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em

Of those ten albums, six of them are the artist's/group's first album; 36 Chambers, Liquid Swords, Cuban Linx, Reasonable Doubt, Illmatic, and Ready to Die. Some of these guys rapped other places before those albums dropped. But the Wu-Tang affiliated albums were the first under Rza's five-year plan. Nas appeared on a couple stray tracks that got him hyped, but Illmatic was the breakthrough. Same with Jay. Same with Biggie.

There's not much revolutionary about including those albums on a top ten list. They are in the Pantheon of great hip-hop albums. You can argue their respective ranks, but no one worth their salt is gonna push any of those six albums far from top-ten to twenty status. And when it comes to Nas and Illmatic, you move that album out of the top three at your own peril.

No one came closer to perfecting the New York hip-hop sound than Nas on Illmatic. Premier's beat on "New York State of Mind" dripped with the cacophony of the city and Nas probably earned the title "Greatest Rapper Ever" by the end of his first verse on that track. But since Illmatic, writers have spilled plenty ink on Nas' inability to return to that pinnacle. Nine tracks (plus an intro skit) and Nas had set the bar higher than he'd ever be able to reach again, the story goes.

I would argue, furthermore, that no one on that list of first albums equalled those works with any of their subsequent releases. Life After Death was solid, but I'd take "Machine Gun Funk" and Ready to Die over it any day. Raekwon has undoubtedly not come close to Cuban Linx since - we'll wait and see what Cuban Linx II offers, if it ever drops. Wu-Tang Forever and The W are solid albums, but not the gritty, raw, sublime masterpiece that is 36 Chambers. Liquid Swords is unparalleled in GZA's catalog and in my mind sits not far from Illmatic.

As for Jay, this tends to be the diciest claim. A lot of people put The Blueprint above Reasonable Doubt, and I could have seen the justification until Jay's "Takeover" was utterly obliterated by Nas' retaliatory "Ether" and "Got Yourself A Gun" and, for me, proved The Blueprint's braggadocio hollow and shut Jay's mouth. Reasonable Doubt was Jay at his coldest: "Nine to five is how to survive, I ain't trying to survive/ I'm trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot."

Are all these first albums at the top of my list coincidence? I don't think so. All of those albums partake of what I call "experiential rap" - rap that is born from the artists' observations and feelings as opposed to something didactic or "conscious hip-hop" (in the Tribe Called Quest/ De La Soul vein of the time, though I never liked that term because, what?, Nas was unconscious?).

I've accused Nas before of having laid the groundwork - but in superlative aesthetic terms - for the dynamic that is now pervasive in hip-hop, what Nas himself calls "microwave rap." Rap that people use to feed themselves and their families; pre-packaged, caricaturized drug rap like 50 Cent, Young Jeezy...

Great experiential hip-hop requires desperation as its motor. Biggie said, when asked why he started rapping, that he just wanted to get out of the streets, or, more famously; "because the streets is a short stop/ either you're slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot." Nas looked back, in a Vibe Magazine interview from 2005 on the tenth anniversary of Illmatic, and stated that he couldn't believe what his life was in 1995 as a 21 year-old kid, that he knew he had to take his future on his own shoulders or he wouldn't survive. Rap is at its most poignant, emotive, is most bared to the world when, as Jay says on the intro to Reasonable Doubt's "Can I Live," it has "nothing to lose, everything to gain. So we offer you, well, we offer our lives. What do you bring to the table?"

9.7.08

Yelling At Wall, Wall Yells Back

It turned out to be fortuitous, ironic, "just desserts"-serving, that a post I published on June 11, 2008 was the one in which I chose to reveal my name. I'd attended an n+1 panel discussion on the state of the internet the night before and felt chastened by the discussion of the anonymous blogger/commenter as one who criticizes from behind the name "anonymous" and does not afford the commented-upon the same anonymity. So I owned up, posted my name.

A week later, in my next post, I criticized the Do-It-Yourself concert scene and The Market Hotel in Bushwick. The BushwickBK website linked to my blog and amped my readership up to about 100 visits per day (for about five days). It resulted in eighteen mostly antagonistic comments in response to my post.

It was not the first time my writing inspired an angry response; I caused a few letters to the editor as a columnist for my college newspaper from various groups that took issue with my writing. But those interactions were different; I had a byline, a picture of myself next to my columns, and my detractors signed their letters and, even when upset, wrote cogent, mostly civil responses to my work because obscenity laced tirades don't get published in newspapers.

All of which is a far cry from, say, this anonymous commenter's response to my Market Hotel post: "A lot of the above responses were great and touched on many of the reasons why your argument is bullshit. The only thing I can add is that you should go fuck yourself you elitist douchbag know-it-all prick."

I was surprised by the response my Market Hotel post got. Not that I didn't find the response deserving - I criticized a group of blogging-and-anonymous-posting-savvy people. But not much I'd written in the past had gotten attention outside some guy in Missoula, Montana who said, in reference to a post in which I criticized MSNBC for putting Pat Buchanan on the air every night, that "Pat Buchanan has never said anything about black people that haven't been true."

Suddenly, I had a lot of piranhas taking little bites out of me and swimming off unnamed back into the murky waters of the internet. As my friend said, "yelling at a wall is all well and good until you realize that the person behind the wall can yell back." I suppose I'd forgotten that after being ignored by the internet so consistently.

Keith Gessen, an editor and co-creator of n+1, discussed on his blog yesterday the implications of self-publication. He cited a Jonathan Baumbach essay on the creation of the Fiction Collective in the '70's: "The publication of any worthwhile novel is necessarily... a deeply anti-social, even violent act. And when a publisher publishes your novel, he is taking on at least part of the responsibility for that act. You wrote it, but he published it—you share the burden of whatever anti-social message your novel contains. When you self-publish, Baumbach went on, you take that entire psychological burden upon yourself. There is nothing between you and the reader, in terms of the violence of your work."

I have spent a lot of time since the fervor (a minor, not-even-drop-in-the-bucket sized fervor in terms of the scale of the internet, but significant nonetheless for me personally) over my Market Hotel post died down trying to figure out my take on the episode.

I consulted with a few people. One said, "yeah, I liked that post, don't worry about the comments, nobody notices you if you're timid and civil." Another said, "everything you're not supposed to say about cool white people... you were right, but set 'em up first, then knock 'em down." One of my roommates noted that, "one of the key flaws in your blog, I think, is that you tend to make people very defensive."

My post was aggressive and tactless. But it did get people talking, I hit a cyber-nerve. But if the "violence of my work" results in violent responses, I think we just cancel each other out. No real progress is made. One of us, as Gessen went on to write in his post, may be "totally sincere" and the other "totally cynical." We wind up where we started, blood pressure, and hit counter, up a couple points.

That said, if I'd been tactful, if I hadn't called the Market Hotel "the flag of an imperialist hipster culture" (which BushwickBK used as the tagline for their link to my blog) would anyone have paid attention? If I hadn't made anyone defensive, would anyone have felt the need to consider their thoughts and write a response to my post?

My roommates still might have responded, but they know me. There is no wall of anonymity between us. It is much easier to lean on anonymity and be aggressive, dismissive. But knowing you have to look that person in the face at the end of the day might encourage you to be logical. This goes both ways, of course; poster and commenter.

Caleb Crain, another panelist at the n+1 internet event, wrote in his opening remarks, "it may be that communication is compromised when interactions are completely public, that grabbing attention often substitutes for deserving it, and that solitude is more refreshing than a company in which trust and tenderness are habitually threatened."

This seems to leave us at an impasse. Either self-publication (blogging, in this case) is antagonistic in order to "grab attention" and then results in the sort of unproductive back and forth that my post on the Market Hotel did, or it is private, even-tempered, and read by those who will uphold "trust and tenderness." This may be a richer experience, but it will not extend to a wide audience, and if you're just writing to your friends, why not just have the conversation over a beer?

To find a middle ground, look at form and style. I think it was also Crain who, at the n+1 panel, said that he blogs on subjects he is interested in, but does not want to necessarily read ten books of research to write about thoroughly. Several commenters who criticized my post also derided it as a "college-style essay." I admit that I try to avoid a colloquial and casual style of blogging. Although I don't claim to read the "ten books of research" for a scholarly essay, I often do internet-based research for my posts and try to adhere to an essay-like form in my blog writing.

When I don't do research, and I didn't do much for the Market Hotel post, I find I resort to emotinal arguments instead of fact-based arguments. When I have facts to cite and support my argument, my writing is less emotional; I have far more confidence in the efficacy of my research than my emotions, which tend to cloud judgment and obscure meaning. So I found it odd that my least research-based, most emotional, post was criticized for its "scholarly" tone.

If blog posts can be productive and incite discussion that does not rely so heavily on the term "douchebag," they should be far less like my Market Hotel post and far more like a "college-style essay." I assume the disdain for the essay expressed by my readers comes from the fact that they sucked to write in college when all we wanted to do was get a beer and pick up women, but there is a reason the essay has hung around for 450 years; it is an effective tool for making a point, conveying an idea, starting a discussion.

Blogging as we practice it now may resist this idea, but it does so to its own detriment. My failing was embracing my emotions when I should have resisted them and engaged in scholarship. Not every blog post needs to be a didactic, well-cited jump-off for a thesis. But the condition of trading fact for emotion seems widespread and unproductive, antagonistic. Blogging's intellectual scene would be better off if it were just that: intellectual.