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it’s synth-pop friday!

November 30th, 2012 by slewfoot

it’s black friday.

November 23rd, 2012 by slewfoot

thanksgiving with adorno

November 22nd, 2012 by slewfoot

Music: Autumn’s Grey Solace: Winterrim (2012)

I noticed, across the alley where empty carports with rusted roofs were almost emptied of their escape pods, a dog had his way with a squeaking toy somewhere out of sight. The newspaper next to the tire, slightly deflated, was fat. As the parade rolled down seventh avenue I dumped the paper onto the ottoman and there was no mention—from the screen or the paper—of the scandal surrounding the red puppet, from which came a joyful song, “nothing’s going to bring us down” (except, of course, a lawsuit that appears to be motivated less by impropriety than money). The paper itself was thin on content or story, however, there must have been a hundred circulars advertising “door busters” beginning tonight, at 9:00 p.m. The paper, like the parade, is a paean to profit and part of the logic of the gift.

The cooking will commence in an hour, for inwardness.

Long before Halloween, big box doors were selling Christmas trees to prime the confusion of sociality with consumption. The lead story on the front of the paper today announced that “Black Thursday” has now arrived, meaning that many stores are opening today, on Thanksgiving. “Retailers’ hours have sparked controversy,” Gary Dinges reports, for encroaching on “family time” (Texas retailer H.E.B. gets an implied pat on the back for closing today at 2:00 pm.). Reading this, I was caused to remember my favorite critical curmudgeon Theodor Adorno had said somewhere that we have forgotten how to give gifts. An InterTube search re-membered, it was Minima Moralia, drafted in the 40s but published in 1952:

We are forgetting how to give presents. Violation of the exchange principle has something non¬sensical and implausible about it; here and there even children eye the giver suspiciously, as if the gift were merely a trick to sell them brushes or soap. Instead we have charity, administered beneficence, the planned plastering-over of society’s visible sores. In its organ¬ized operations there is no longer room for human impulses, indeed, the gift is necessarily accompanied by humiliation through its distribution, its just allocation, in short through treatment of the recipient as an object. Even private giving of presents has degener¬ated to a social function exercised with rational bad grace, careful adherence to the prescribed budget, skeptical appraisal of the other and the least possible effort. Real giving had its joy in imagining the joy of the receiver. It means choosing, expending time, going out of one’s way, thinking of the other as a subject: the opposite of distraction. Just this hardly anyone is now able to do. At the best they give what they would have liked themselves, only a few degrees worse. The decay of giving is mirrored in the distressing invention of gift-articles, based on the assumption that one does not know what to give because one really does not want to. This merchandise is unrelated like its buyers. It was a drug in the market, from the first day.

I’m not so sure I agree, at least to the letter. Marcel Mass taught us in 1923 that the gift is never “free,” but entails a kind of reciprocity “magic,” a compulsory exchange that is the social tie. The gift exchange is fundamentally an expression of love through an economy of obligation, and this is not a bad thing, but rather a necessity: “I thought of you, here is an object of our relation, a piece of me.” The gift is at some remove a request for recognition, something we all need to be social, but it is also a two-way street; one does not give selflessly, however, one also recognizes there is more than self and the other deserves recognition too.

Still, Adorno’s point is that we are forgetting the point: if the gift concerns the relation, then gifting others what one would wish to gift the self reflects “the isolated cell of pure inwardness” that treats others as “objects.” A good example of the deterioration of the social ties of gift giving is reflected in Target’s recent commercial campaign (later edit: Target removed their full-length commercial from YouTube; here is a 15 second copy):



The spot is as cynical as it is disgusting, and it is no mistake that the ad browsing “mom” draws hearts on the gifts she wants for herself. Perhaps even worse is the second spot that celebrates the social bonding of shopping while making fun of TeenAge argot: “what if you could shop forever?” In each case, the other for whom the gift is imagined is not, as Adorno would have it, someone for whom one imagines the joy of receipt. Here the joy is in the procuring of booty, in the “bad grace” of buying gifts because they are “deals,” of imagining oneself in a kind of consumptive play or television show in which purchasing skill reaps recognition in a unidirectional manner. The gift giving here is no longer a dialogue, but a monologue. It is as if the other is an object or actor in my own reality show in which I am the star: “me me me me me me me me me.”

We might think about the logic of consumptive drift—the overtaking of Thanksgiving, fundamentally a celebration of food, friends, and family, by commercial imperatives—as another example of what I have been calling “cultural psychosis,” the same logic to which mass shooters succumb. Again, from the Lacanian vantage, psychosis refers to a state in which one has not reckoned with the law as “no,” a realization of one’s limitations and the necessary dependency on others we share as social creatures. In a psychotic state (by which I do not mean pathology, but the adjectival form), other people are objects, not subjects in themselves deserving of recognition. Hence, giving the perfect gift is couched in metaphors of war:



“Who’s your mommy now?” goes the interior monologue of the mom doing battle with the affections of her children. The advertisement reflects Adorno’s observation that children eye gift givers with suspicion, even their own mothers. And I do not think it is a mistake that there is no father or second parent in the scene: the absence of the paternal metaphor is a hallmark of psychosis (as so ably demonstrated by, for example, the film Fight Club); the phrase “who’s your mommy now?” is, of course, changed from a sports quip, “who’s your daddy now?” The joy of the children is secondary to the smug satisfaction of mother. There is no daddy, only the unbridled enjoyment of mother. Hitchcock concocted a feature-length film of this commercial; he titled it Psycho.

The real controversy here is not that stores are opening on Thanksgiving; it’s the logic that gift receivers are to be overcome, not with joy, but with gratitude—that love slays, reducing others to their proper roles in my world.

take meh stuff

November 17th, 2012 by slewfoot

I just put a bunch of ads on the local Craigslist. Here is an edited summary.

For your consideration are some electronic goods and electronic goods’ accessories just in time for boring family gatherings. Modeled by the lovely Vinnie and Vahalla, my Gnomic Security Force, these goods are in working order and only need a slight dusting.

First up is a first generation Xbox, a bunch of necessary cords for hooking it up, a couple of controllers and games, and a dandy carrying case. Asking $35 cash. Gnomes not included.

Second, the party never ends! Yearning for your living quarters is a 5-disk CD/DVD player made by Sony, with original box, instruction book (in five languages!) and remote. This player longs for you to stick your disks into it. Asking $25 cash. Gnomes not included.

Next: who wants a skinny TV? I have a Big Ol’ television of the amazing cathode ray era, manufactured in the glorious 1990s. Amazing! It’s a Samsung that boasts an immodest 25 inches. And lo! It comes with a remote. Asking $15 cash. Gnomes not included.

Now, what about a second generation playstation? It comes with a bunch of necessary cords for hooking it up, a couple of controllers, a heap of games, and a dandy carrying case. Asking $50 cash for the whole lot. Gnomes not included.

Finally, are you jonesin’ for that Samsung Cathode Magic? Why not also consider this Atlas, which carried the mondo cathode-ray for almost fifteen years. This stand needs a periodic tightening with a hexagonal tool. Asking $20 cash (it’s worth more than the television it carried!). Gnomes not included.

I ain’t gonna ship none of this mess. You come get it. You can go here for a closer inspection.

alma matters: publicity and moochy moocs

November 9th, 2012 by slewfoot

Music: War on Drugs: Slave Ambient (2011)

Those of us who teach harbor an understanding: what happens inside the space of the classroom is usually different from the perceptions of those on the outside. Sometimes the difference of perception is annoying, like when non-educators claim teachers are indoctrinating their students in left-leaning political beliefs (thereby forcing an entire state to “comply” with a mandate that allows for the general public to vet course syllabae and curriculum vitae—a mandate that a course I taught apparently inspired). Sometimes the difference is to “our” benefit, especially when positive publicity is concerned: popular perceptions are that we’re doing exciting, ground-breaking things in the classroom when, really, we’re just doing the hard work of making students understand why the difference between a colon and a dash is important, or why cutting-and-pasting material from wikipedia is not a good thing, however much it reflects “how I really think.”

For example, every other year I teach a course titled “Celebrity Culture.” Presumably the class is about Britney Spears or Lady Gaga and reality television—and it is. But these figures or genres are superficial examples of the deeper teaching of the class, which begins in public sphere theory (yes, they read Habermas) and ends in political communication theory. One of the big concepts of the class is “circulation,” which takes off from Michael Warner’s argument that “publics” and “counterpublics” are a consequence of the circulation of an object of value that brings them into being. We start with P.T. Barnum and the railroad and end with discussions of the InterTubes—circulatory infrastructures. Students who enroll in the course, by and large, do not “get” what they are expecting, but so far it seems they enjoy and appreciate the course in the end.

Part of the grade for this class is the result of a group project that investigates contemporary forms of publicity. The historical arc of the course begins with the nineteenth century and ends in the present, and over that span we trace how marketing logics give way almost completely to circulation logics (cue Baudrillard). Insofar as quality or content has given way to the buzz of momentary affect, publicity requires circulation on a massive scale. So, groups of five students are told to create a YouTube video or blog. Now, what they create is important, however, how they publicize this thing is the point of the project and the basis of their grade (to get an “A” on the project, the group must not only write a good report, but their object must get over 1,000 views, hits, likes, or so on).

Each time I teach the course one or two groups has a massive success (measured usually in hundreds of thousands of hits or views or what have you). This year, however, one group really hit it out of the park: over a half million views and counting.

Within days the video garnered thousands of hits and, within little over a week, invitations to appear on national news outlets (such as Anderson Cooper Live). Wanting to get ahead of the publicity, I spoke with the college’s PR Czar and suggested a flash story (clickable banners that appear at the top of the college webpage); working with her I sent a rather detailed series of answers to basic questions she had (what is the project for? what is the course about? what do you hope students get from the experience? and so on). She penned and published the story on the college website (“Lucky Dog”). Although the story isn’t as thorough on the academic point as I would have liked, it’s probably the best one can hope for in a publicity push.

Weeks later the video has broken the million mark and keeps climbing. Morning talk shows have featured it and the dog’s student owner; the project has been mentioned on NPR; local papers and newscast have featured the video. Google the video title, “Ruff Dog Day,” and you get dozens of features and stories. What’s instructive (to me and hopefully the students) is that the story reported is about how popular the video is, that is, the story is about publicity. Every story mentions Dudley, how the project came together, and the student dog owner, but they all underscore, repeatedly, how popular the video is on YouTube. Postmodern publicity is publicity for publicity’s sake, the motor the buzz of affect—the “aw he’s so cute.”

So far so good . . . except that in virtually every story about the video, from the local newscast last night to the bit in London’s Telegraph, the point of the project is rarely mentioned. Most of the stories don’t even feature the class title for which the project is completed (or erroneously describes the project as part of a “communications class”). For example, watch the local newscast from last night on the project. There is no mention of the educational point of the project.

While disappointing, the lack of discussing why the students made the video (and by extension and more importantly, what they’re learning from it) is not surprising. And, in some sense, this “publicity of publicity” is a perfect example to use in the classroom. Yes, it’s exciting that some students are getting mega-buzz about their project, however, when the flavor fades—like a piece of Wrigley’s gum—what are we left with? A perfect illustration of media logics: the object doesn’t matter as much—it’s circulation, circulation, circulation. While it may deflate the group’s excitement about the publicity of their video, at the same time, their experience is an excellent example of how celebrity works in our culture.

So I come to an end where I began: public perceptions of what goes on in a classroom and what is actually going on there are different. Many folks will regard these students’ successful project as an excellent and exciting example of what a “good education” can accomplish. That is sad, of course, because the actual lesson of the project concerns how misguided (and irrelevant, in the end) those perceptions are. And I stress the difference of inside and outside is crucial for the lesson of the project—that the students learn anything requires outside perceptions of the classroom experience be wrong (as I predict they will).

Which brings me, of course, to the horse I’ve been beating over the past year—the horse that refuses to die: Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs (see this post and this post for more details about what I term the “online imperative”). Originally pioneered for good reasons but quickly shunted into Massive Public Relations Campaigns (MPRCs), MOOCs are large (think thousands, or in some cases, hundreds of thousands) university courses that are taught online, expressly for the purpose of making education affordable or free. To the degree MOOCs take off, however, the not-secret plan is to figure out fee structures to charge for them. At present no one knows how these courses can be figured into university curricula, but the powers who be (folks like regents), of course, want this to happen.

This week my college has been pushing faculty to develop proposals for grants to develop a MOOC. My chair has been asking the college, repeatedly, what the compensation structure is for such a thing, but the answers are unclear. As it stands, one cannot get a course release for teaching a MOOC, but the college apparently will allow for “overload” compensation. One can sniff the coming disaster with that plan—that is, the coming exploitation. But my point with mentioning this detail is that moving toward MOOCs has the whiff of technological Stuartism: “Look what we can do!”

Still, the point is that the push for MOOCs is fundamentally publicity with the expectation of financial returns somehow, down the road. The problem with this push is aptly condensed with my students’ “Ruff Dog Day” video: that MOOCs are desired and popular are more important than actually developing curricula for them. The content is secondary. Which is to say MOOCs represent a collapse of perceptions about what happens in a classroom from the outside and what actually happens inside, a difference that I’m suggesting is actually part of the logic of education. Education opens doors—but it requires them too. My conclusion is that ultimately the vision for MOOCs is not one of education. We can only hope that the educators who are demanded to teach these things figure out how to educate in the massive, online medium despite the technological Stuartism MOOCs ultimately represent.

it’s four-more-years-without-winter friday!

November 9th, 2012 by slewfoot

yes, it’s synth-pop friday!

November 2nd, 2012 by slewfoot