Monthly Archives: May 2005

Sharpening my negative dialectics

There’s a fresh abomination perpetrated by the advertising industry seemingly every day (whcih the Wall Street Journal of course duly reports) and it’s hard for me to summon the venom to continue to recount them. Today it’s under the A-hed, a story about how advertisers are trying to destroy once and for all the distinction between pop song and ad. I haven’t digested it all yet (it’s hard to swallow and pretty indigestible, like a thirty-pound Tootsie roll) but I wanted to pause to make this apocalptic remark: Advertising won’t stop until it has co-opted the human being’s enthusiasm for life itself in all its various manifestations and put a price tag on it. The industry won’t rest until all excitement is for sale. Consequently, when critical thinkers want to preserve what is truly human, they are forced to adopt the awkward pose of having to reject enthusaism for living, lest they be mistaken for affirming all the blather and brouhaha that ads froth up and spew in our defenseless faces. Ads have made it such that to think at all you have to be in a permanent snit of negation, rejecting all signs of life, the flowering of springtime itself, because it has so thoroughly been saturated with ad hype and phoneyness and exploitative designs. Every expression of human creativity seems suspect now, because lurking behind it is the crafting of false manufactured desire and the covert guidance of that desire to unworthy, profane ends. Ad culture has sucked the soul out of life and marketed it back to u sin the form of sugar cereals and luxury cars and it is now incumbant upon those who cherish the human soul to behave as though they haven’t got one until the village that is mankind under capitalism is torched to the ground.

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Die Mensch Maschine

Last night I paid $40 to see four gray-haired men in buisness suits stand in front of computer terminals for an hour and a half. I was not alone. The 9:30 club, where this spectacle — Kraftwerk’s first American performance in many years — took place, was sold out, and the club was teeming with fans (mostly male, mostly middle-aged) as enthusiastic as any I’d ever seen at any rock show. Except there was no rock. There were no instruments. Ostensibly the men were creating music, but nothing they did suggested that, save for the rare occasions when the one wearing a headset sang a few words. Though many of Kraftwerk’s compositions are putatively “dance music,” no one danced. The “music” blasting out from the PA was less dance music than tranquilizing pulses that mimicked the sound of the machines that keep the modern world running: computers, trains, cars, geiger counters. I spent most of my time trying to figure out what any of us were doing there.

You don’t often get an opportunity to see performers who have invented an entire musical genre from scratch as Kraftwerk had done with electro-pop. In its way, seeing Kraftwerk is akin to seeing James Brown or the Ramones or the Sugar Hill Gang. So surely lots of people were their out of a sense of historical duty, to pay acknowledge the wellspring of all music made with computers and sequencers. But I suppose much of the reason the show was sold out was the rarity of Kraftwerk’s public appearances in America. Combine that with the sterile non-humanity of their music, and it creates a palpable, undeniable sense of mystery — who are these people who make this music? Are they real? Do they think and feel and breathe like other human beings or are they actually machines, like they claim in their anthem “We Are the Robots”? When they first appear on stage, back lit at their terminals, projecting huge silhouettes on the curtain before it opened, it was a breathtaking moment — the curtain was about to part — would they be alive, or would they be those hollow line drawings, outlines of human shapes, like on their album covers? And then there they were, basking in the glow of their monitors at their terminal stations, beatific smiles on their faces, clicking their buttons and rolling their fingers over what looked like little trackballs. Part of Kraftwerk’s intrigue stems from the impossibility of determining how seriously they take themselves. You want to laugh at them, with their silly overstylized gestures and their blank stares, but you’re never sure if the joke is really on you. It was hard to tell if their smiles were directed inward, derived from the purity of their vision being executed, or if they were a spontaneous outpouring of gratitide at the really pretty unlikely sight of such a devoted audience, or if they were cynical sniggers at what the band was getting away with, that they were being paid so much to simply stand there and barely put on even the simulacrum of a performance. (It was most likely all three simultaneously.)

You could never really connect their actions with the rigidly programmed presequenced sound. Behind them, these mesmerizing videos were projected on three giant screens: usually they matched the theme of the songs — images of train depots, neon lights, men riding bicycles, empty highways, streaming flows of digits and simulated cities drawn in vector graphics, and, at the film’s most abstract, free-form Mondrian-like designs of lines and shapes. It was all synchonized precisely with the music, and reinforced the sense that despite what the men on stage were doing wiith their keyboards, nothing spontaneous could possibly happen.

It may be that with music as sterile as “Autobahn” and “Trans Europa Express,” it’s necessary that the band be present to consecrate it in the flesh, even if for all they contributed they could have been performing remote from Germany. (During the half hour delay that was due to what the club called a “weather incident,” I stood wondering if they’d ever show, and whether the curtain wouldn’t rise to four television sets on stands, tuned to close-ups of their heads.) With a band like Kraftwerk, one pays to absorb their aura. And that’s all they do: They stand there and project their aura, the myth they have manufactured for themselves as prophets of the future synthesis of man and machine, when the technology man creates to master nature suddenly starts to integrate him with it instead, revealing all rhythms to be natural rhythms and everything mechanical to have an organic purity and harmony in its design. Kraftwerk’s songs can thus be seen as spiritual hymns, religious music for a society that venerates technology as its god. Perhaps we were all really there to be sanctified, to be led by robotic mystics through ritual worship of the miracles we take for granted: our pocket calculators, our highway grids, our trains that run more or less on time. The beeps and blips become a benediction, blessing us for precisely all the humanity we’ve lost, promising us a new and improved soul, all the better because we’ve manufactured it for ourselves with great deal of R&D. Again, it’s impossible to tell if this technical ecstasty is meant to be utopic or dystopic, and again, it seems meant to be both at once. With their soulful machine shtick, Kraftwerk seems to promise a future where the problem of emotions and all their messiness and ambiguousness is solved permanently. But when you leave the concert, you don’t know if you should laugh at such a silly dream, be fearful of its inevitability, or be envious that you’ll never live to see it.

War economy

Growing up, I thought a kibbutz was a person who stood around and watched at the pinochle table, but later on I learned that they were socialist collectives in Israel that held out the tantalizing possibilty that communal living could succeed (albeit under strongly nationalistic conditions). No one in kibbutzs had private property, necessary services were paid for by the group as a whole, and even the nuclear family was dissolved in a spirit of encouraging a greater fidelty to the entire community. But yesterday’s Journal featured an article chroncling their demise in the face of commercialization; kibbutzs are starting to privatize their resources and open the value of things to the market, inviting competition over the distribution of goods. They are adopting the depressing priorities of money management and marketing “niche services” like spa treatments. I suppose that kibbutzim are “growing up,” and “getting real,” to apply a commonplace American ideological spin.

Part of why this is happening, the billl suggests, is the government resources once devoted to aiding the kibbutzs have been diverted to fighting Israel’s frontier wars — no surprise that a right-wing program of intolerance and pre-emption and war would rend the fabric of communal life, but is it a just a happy by-product for them that a policy of perpetual war also forces a people to adopt the inherently bellicose economic system of ceaseless market competition?

Stranger-owned life insurance

Financial speculators will truly stop at nothing. A morbid piece from the “Personal Journal” section of today’s Wall Street Journal called “Letting an Investor Bet on When You Die” deatils how you can take out a life insurance policy with borrowed money and then sell that policy anonymously to a speculator who will then be hoping you die as soon as possible. You make a little money from the sale, but some ghoul you’ve never met really cashes in when you kick the bucket. (This isn’t the only dubious and disturbing insurance scheme where strangers pray for your death. Even more disturbing is “janitor insurance,” where bosses collect the life insurance for policies employees never knew they had.)

It’s a scenario destined for a murder-mystery novel, wherein anonymity is breached and a greedy speculator has the seventy-five year-old granny (who fits the age demographic these instruments are marketed to) whose policy he owns bumped off, making it seem like natural causes. But no one would believe this story because no one would believe that this financial instrument actually exists. I’m frankly astounded; but apparently many laws exist to regulate this sort of thing, because it’s been tried many times before, selling the financial rights to your own death. My jaw dropped when I read this: “In one instance, a client of Peter Katt, a fee-only insurance advisor, was given a spreadsheet with data on three life-insurance policies–all on strangers–in which to invest. The spreadsheet included the insured’s names, ages, life expectancy in months, size of the policies and premiumns, and gross rates of return–as high as 114.9%–if the policy happens to reach “early maturity.” How creepy is that? Even the Journal seems to think this goes too far. Insurance agents might be the only people who dehumanize and objectify human beings more than people in Human Resources Departments.

Gender anxiety and marketing

I’m sure this is a tired question to people with hipper, more extensive familiarity with the delicacies of international cuisine, but what’s the deal with Men’s Pocky? It’s a chocloate covered pretzel stick. What about this can women not handle? And what’s up with the “Yorkie” candy bar from Nestle, which has emblazoned on its wrapper “It’s NOT for girls” and even features a silhouette of a woman in a circle with a line through it in place of the O in its name. I’m not alone in my confusion. Nestle’s marketing director explains it thus: “We felt we needed to take a stand for the British bloke and reclaim some things in his life, starting with his chocolate… Most men these days feel as if the world is changing around them and it has become less and less politically correct to have anything that is only for males. Yorkie feels that this is an important part of men’s happiness and is starting the reclaiming process of making a particular chocolate just for men.” That pretty much makes plain the risibility of accusations of “political correctness.” When someone accuses someone else of political correctness, it usually means some reactionary attitude toward femininsm is lurking just below the surface. Oh no, these damned women are taking away our chocolate! What’s next? Our penises?

Also, what these products point to is the marketing value of gender difference. These products are not subtle in anyway about it, the way most products that leverage gender are (i.e., virtually everything advertised in Stuff or Lucky magazines), but they are functioning from the same logic. Gender purports to be an absolute category, and ideology everywhere reinforces this, but in reality it is not so fixed and this ideological pressure makes us constantly anxious, constantly vulnerable to products like these, when presented in their subtler guises. Gender anxiety then becomes one of the typical byproducts of consumer capitalism, which is fueled by insecurity. The engines of the marketplace and the logic of profit always finds categories like gender to destabilize and exploit.

Crying sheep

I may have mentioned this before, but one of my favorite recurring features in The Wall Street Journal is the “Advertising Report” in the Marketplace section. The report usually features an interview with an ad executive, who can always be counted on for an extremely cynical statement about the autonomy and credulity of those subjected to their wares. It’s one of the few places in the Mainstream Media where one sees how the scions of the culture industry really think, and what they really think about you. Usually the viewing/reading public come across as rubes desperate for more bread and circuses and so bedazzled by any kind of technological novelty that they’ll drop any dreams of their own to see how those wizards of Madison Avenue where able to make a dog talk in a commercial. “Customizing television ads to keep viewers on the couch” the deckline calls out today, as if this was a good thing we all approve of.

Also, today, Seth Halberman, a president of an ad agency, said something so astounding and so conducive to the Journal‘s worldview, that it made it into the pullquote beneath his photo. (The “Advertising Report” is one of the rare sections where real photos are used instead of those line drawings that make the shriveled greed-perverted oligarchs and power-mad politicians look so noble and dignified in the other sections.) “I’ve never seen anything interactive that could make you cry,” Halberman remarked, in discussing why the 30-second TV spot will remain a powerful weapon against the consumer. It seems like innocuous enough hype until you think about the ideology behind it: participation in life (even in the bastardized form of “interactivity) is believed by admen to inhibit your emotions. Passive spectatorship, on the other hand, is what is truly moving and fulfilling. You, as a member of the masses, have a duty to yourself to be a passive consumer, because that is how monolpoly capitalism and its quislings like Halberman have decided you will attain your dollop of emotional connection with the world. If you want to cry sweet tears of sympathy with the world, shut up and do as your told and cram down a few more hours of Daytime TV. “When you seize control,” Halberman elaborates, “It changes the way your mind is working.” In other words, your mind begins to work, which in his view prevents people from being able to feel. Thinking means no feeling: the most repressive plank in the ideology that controls us today. And heaven forbid you seize control of anything. You prefer it that everything is controlled for you — no, you do, really; it makes your life so much easier. You didn’t like being bothered by all that thinking anyway. Just get back to crying, thank you very much.

Our band could be your blog

Yesterday I saw a new documentary about the Minutemen, a band who epitomized everything that was ever any good about American punk rock. Here they were, three working class guys who turned out to be Gramsci-style organic intellectuals, proseltyzing endlessly for a particpatory ethic (“there should be a band on every street and a club for them to play on every other street,” late guitarist D. Boon explained) and demonstrating through their open-ended abstract-to-the-point-of-haiku lyrics how political commitment isn’t about dogmatism and party loyalty but restless questioning and an eagerness to take positions and then continually revise them. What struck me most watching the film, though, was a comment one of the interviewees made about their songs: He noted how diaristic they were, how they would take a scrap of inspiration and transform it immediately into a finished scrap of song to share with the world, committing to it with total intensity for the moment that it’s fresh, and then moving on just as quickly to the next scrap of an idea, the next moment of inspiration. No song is meant to stand in isolation, but all are part of the “river” of songs bassist Mike Watt mentions, the ever expanding and multi-dimensional totality that made up their music’s message. This sounds to me like the Minutemen were proto-bloggers.

Blogging, of course, is DIY journalism and opinion making, a refusal to be passive in the face of current events. You want to participate in the conversation about ideas and you take your positions in public, serially, explaining them while they have a hold of you in as concise a form as you can, and then you move on, start somewhere else when the next idea takes hold of you.