Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Mainstreaming of Strange


John Voelcker pointed me to a couple essays last year declaring 2010 to be the year of eclecticism, because with everything tweeted and nothing forbidden, credit must be assigned to esoterica as the New Black. It sure seems as though the undue attention paid to three new music releases from the outer limits is an indicator that the public is willing to tolerate more envelope-pushing than the Official Arbiters of Taste might predict:

* AFGCT is a jam session of sorts between two misfit bands, A-Frames and Climax Golden Twins. They have released a couple vinyl-only noise fests on small artsy labels, but their latest LP-plus-7-inch was released by the almost-commercial indie favorite label Sub Pop, in an elaborate fold-over puzzle package of beautiful black and white silkscreened prints. Surprisingly, it seems to be everywhere at once. Ten or 20 years ago, this sort of music would have been relegated to the "clear the room" shelf.

* Tim Kinsella has hosted a revolving band of musicians under the band name Joan of Arc, whose albums are hit and miss, but always different and noteworthy. This year, he gathered 18 close friends and ex-JoA bandmates to release a compilation and art project called "Don't Mind Control." Some of it's melodic, some abrasive, all of it is innovative, calling to mind a No New York for the 21st century.

* Finally, Vibracathedral Orchestra gave us some of the most interesting drone-instrumental compositions of the 21st century. Once Neil Campbell and Bridget Hayden left for other projects, there was some concern that Mick Flower might not have enough of a center of gravity to keep VCO rolling. Wonder no more. The band has released three full-length albums at once at the end of January on the VHF label, and they're all getting heavy circulation.

So why is this happening when the advent of Internet culture is supposed to have a leveling effect that makes us all tune in to lite jazz and American Idol? Maybe because there's also truth in Chris Anderson's "long tail" observation in Wired magazine, and we are discovering that the fan base for eclectic improvisational works has a very long tail indeed, once the fans can find each other. In the early 1980s, I told a POSSLQ at the time that "I don't deliberately look for the weird and atonal. I instinctively grab what interests me. Sometimes it's million-seller, but often I just have to wait a decade or more for others to jump on board." Right now, that lag time is at its lowest point since I was a wee sprout. I am absolutely convinced that this is not because my tastes have grown more conservative in my old age, but because there are millions of culture vultures willing to explore outer boundary marches they have never explored before. Cheers!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Why Laughter (and Forgetting) Wins

Pay attention to the wrong things, and this seemed to be a week when the great ship of state was seizing up, perhaps for good. Brown wins in Massachusetts. Edwards admits to his love child. Haiti aid distribution gets worse. Rumsfeld's name shows up in the client list of DC's leading madam. Obama expresses frustration that banks need more than spanks. Everyone lines up to oust Bernanke. The Supreme Court says that corporations matter more than you. There is nothing good, there is no "crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."

And yet, and yet.... I went to Thursday night's Studio Bee sessions and saw a band of 17-year-olds from Cheyenne Mountain High School operating under the nom de guerre of Dance Over Anaheim, who played some of the most perfect pop music I ever heard. This never fails to happen, because of tiny miracles everywhere. Even in the depths of the early Medieval period, we got the Venerable Bede. As Pynchon said in some of his most graphic WW2 concentration camp writings, the sky can show us a star. It can, and does.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Integrity of the Blogger's Voice

My friend and former colleague, Brian Fuller, has a wonderful blog on the future of media and marketing, Greeley's Ghost (link at right). At the beginning of the year, he posted his frustrations at employing Seach Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques to help drive blog traffic, and that it hadn't helped. Friends weighed in with advice on crafting the voice to meet the audience. The tiny little voice whispering "No!" in my ear became louder and louder, until I read the New York Times' interview with Jaron Lanier regarding his new book, You Are Not A Gadget, and realized why I was so upset.

Lanier, like Chris Weingarten, thinks crowdsourcing is crap, but not because he prefers elitism. Rather, Lanier said that the means of presenting the self in blogs and social networks should be strictly segmented from the marketing methods to tout products or services. The main point in presenting the digital self should be the preservation of integrity, and in many cases, eclecticism. What would happen if Thomas Pynchon or Charles Bukowski had been told to craft their voices to meet the expectations of the audience? Why, we'd have the literary equivalent of American Idol, that's what.

Yes, millions of people may want to be contestants on American Idol (which follows the law of supply and idiots), but the winners on this show are not musicians. They are crafted creatures of public demand. A musician or writer or artist should make clear to a potential audience that this is the vision or trajectory they happen to be on, "and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful." But if the potential consumer of culture doesn't get it, too bad. The artist need not change a thing. I told Brian this is a variant of what I call my "Train leaves at 12:10. Be there or be square" theory of reviewing books, music or movies: Don't rant and rave. Don't repeat yourself. Drop a pearl of wisdom once, then be a silent sage. People can listen to you or not, but it's better to be inscrutable than popular.

This can work. My good friend Ruth Mowry has hundreds of followers and has had her blog "Synch-ro-ni-zing" recognized globally, while staunchly refusing advertising and keeping self-promotion of the blog to a minimum. And no, she's not a starving artist, thank you very much.

The problem, of course, is that the quest for art with integrity flies in the face of everything we are taught about living with the new rules of social media. Lanier calls it a form of Maoism, I call it lowest common denominator thinking. If we want to preserve art with integrity, we must toss the concept of SEO on personal blogs and marketing of the self, and strive for a unique trajectory that an audience can either adjust to, or ignore. If we fail to set these kind of standards, the hive mind will not be a sum greater than its parts, it will be moronic by nature.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Cat in the Hat and Midterm Elections

It's nearly half-past five, and mom should be walking in the door any second. At this point, in either of Dr. Seuss's Cat in the Hat books, our protagonist would ride in on some Goldbergian contraption, or call on Things One and Two, and have the place spotless in a jiffy. This is what we imagine elections are for.

Problem is, this 2010 midterm is likely to be a rerun of Clinton's 1994 disaster, if not worse. The reasons are obvious. If the Republicans represent the party in power, they deny there is any mess to begin with, and let the brats fall victim to nothing stronger than the invisible hand. Then, the people get sick of infrastructure falling apart and American influence declining faster than Osama bin Laden's at a bar mitzvah, and they call upon those well-meaning Democrats to urge citizens to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

But as soon as Democrats haul out an infernal machine to do the work, someone screams that it represents socialism in America. When Fixers One and Two come in to conference committees to do their jobs, they end up making corrupt deals like giving Nebraska citizens a free ride. As a result, folks long for a candidate to tell them there was no mess to begin with. There's a mess, all right. Just as drones and extraordinary rendition squads tend to hide the blood, free-market denials of health care problems or global warming or deficits tend to hide the Cat-astrophic faults in the system. So Republicans move in, and the property values go down.

What we need is a candidate of either party (or dare we say it, a third party?) who will say, "OK, out of the pool, mom will be home soon. The USA is in a period of economic and military decline which just ain't fixable. The world's a mess (it's in my kiss). The financial system will not be fixed by new asset bubbles, nor will environmental problems be fixed by cap and trades or carbon taxes. Everything in the next few decades will hurt and require sacrifices, and the only option we will have is what means of cleaning up our mess will suck the least."

And will such a candidate have any chance of getting elected? Of course not! So we continue to alternate our lies between well-meaning machines of complexity, and moronic denial amidst shouts of "Drill, baby, drill!" And the shit gets deeper and things fall apart. This is called the government we deserve.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The China That Can Say "Feh"

Anyone remember those heady days of late-1980s Japaranoia, when high-tech execs in the U.S. read The Japan That Can Say 'No', fully anticipating a semiconductor economy run from Tokyo? What a farce. Two lost decades have left the island nation more insular and less influential than ever, and no one really cares if Japan says "no," or much of anything else, these days.

Would that this were true of China, but there is little on the horizon suggesting that China's current trajectory as emerging power will change. Google took the brave and very overdue step Jan. 12 of threatening to pull out of China completely. When human rights violations and net access issues were not enough to "put the skeer" in Google, cyberassaults on its sites made the company recognize the downsides of continuing to work with China.

Consider this event together with the Dec. 25 conviction in Beijing of Liu Xiaobo, a leading Chinese dissident, and we see the fruition of what Korean analyst Sung Won Kim calls "Eastphalia Rising." Last summer, Kim argued in World Policy Journal that China and India would form a new Asian bloc that would reject the Western world's 20th-century decision to abandon sovereignty terms of the Treaty of Westphalia. In the post-Bosnia, post-Kosovo world, the U.S. and European Union, speaking through the UN Security Council, decided that the notion of "national sovereignty above all" must be abandoned for what the French government called the "responsibility to protect."

Only one problem, said Kim and co-authors David Fidler and Sumit Ganguly: China and other Asian nations, as well as Russia to some extent, did not give a shit about the "responsibility to protect," and insisted on the notion that some subjects regarding human rights and computer use were simply internal affairs, and were not subject to critiques from the West. We see an extreme example of this in Sri Lanka, where the government has turned from defensiveness to pride regarding the way it has repressed the Tamils after the war with the Tamil Tigers ended. This is the new reality - the state that shows hubris about being dictatorial and authoritarian.

Not only did these states represent the new centers of economic power in the 21st century, but the attitudes did not reflect merely the thought of the Chinese Communist Party or Indian Congress and BJP parties. Indeed, they reflected a populist belief among common Chinese and Indian citizens that, "whatever my country does is right, and screw the world's interpretation." Thus, China and Russia find it easy to assemble legions of hackers to attack Western sites while preserving plausible deniability.

What Kim predicted would happen is already taking place. The US and Europe shuns Guinea and Myanmar, so China waltzes in and makes deals galore, because China doesn't care about a government that kills its own people. Google leaves China and China says "feh," because it's sure its own search engines will leave Google in the dust.

Now obviously, the Western industrialized nations have been pretty hypocritical about their use of power in the past century, so there is little reason to listen to US or EU clucking about treatment of dissidents. But the "Eastphalia" bloc does represent a scary new reality of nations that have increasing economic clout, but do not care about universal notions of good behavior. Nevertheless, I remain somewhat optimistic about limits to Eastphalia, for the same reason I don't see Wahhabist influence growing in the Islamic world beyond a certain point:

The U.S. and the English-speaking world remain the primary cultural referent for all nations. Everyone wants to emulate the U.S., and even as our towering deficits make us an economic flunkie, our cultural values will continue to make Google and Apple and U.S. celebrities and concepts of human rights and civil liberties the new golden mean. China, Russia, and South Asia
will no doubt say "feh" more often, and will gain some temporary accolades from the small states who have always felt overwhelmed by US and European dominance. But concepts of civil rights and cultural plurality have lives of their own, and China and Russia will begin to take more and more abuse from the world community at large as they stick noses in the air and snub the rest of the world. I'm not worried about how to cope with government leaders in the new Eastphalia. I'm worried about how to deal with populist, conservative jerks that are emergent in all nations right now, convinced that their particular nation is Number One, and that any other nation or corporate source of power deserves a cyber-attack.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Being Wrong Among Friends

In the mid-1990s, I participated in a panel at Colorado College about human rights and the breakup of Yugoslavia. The panel took place around the time that Serbian hardliners like Vojislav Seselj were saying that if the world did not understand Serbia's point of view, it was "us against the world." At the time, I posited a "Law of Minimal-Percentage Coalitions." It is undoubtedly true that the U.S. and major powers control both the dictionary and the rulebook of international power. If a state or people seek to put an alternative definition on the table, they must assemble a coalition of at least 10 or 12 percent of the concerned global audience, preferably closer to 20 percent, to give their argument some legitimacy. Otherwise, they fall victim to the law of sanity and large numbers. If 95 percent of the people on the planet think your cause is baseless and your position insane, you become insane by definition. And if you lash out as though you are a threatened idea or ideal being pushed to the wall, you will be destroyed, utterly and simply. Maybe not today, but the numbers work against you.

Obviously, the numbers rule does not apply to the small nonviolent group that always operates through voluntarism, without seeking to impose beliefs. Today's cults and small discussion groups provide tomorrow's political movements. But once violence or forced solidarity enter the equation, everything changes. Even the enforcement of values within one's own group can run afoul of human-rights standards, as honor killings show in gruesome fashion. The decision by many European nations to ban the Church of Scientology, for example, demonstrates that a faith group that operates through fraud and violent intimidation can no longer claim the protection of freedom of religion.

I thought about that after seeing the front-page article in the New York Times Jan 4 on Ugandans insisting on the death penalty for homosexuality. The most troubling aspect of the story was not the involvement of U.S. evangelicals, as they seemed to have no real part in suggesting a death sentence for being gay. The scary aspect was the defensive nature of Ugandans encouraging this hard line, saying they didn't care if they lost all foreign aid and the support of most people.

The attitude is similar to that of Salafists and Wahhabists demanding death to infidels who stand in the way of rebuilding a Third Caliphate. What happened to the notion of falling on your own sword if your ideas are outdated, wrong, or unacceptable to 95 percent of the people on the planet? Certainly, a minority culture should have a freedom of expression, provided other groups are not threatened, and provided that the value or concept gains some minimal acceptance in the world culture at large. But if your rulebook or dictionary -- or your holy book -- seeks a violent imposition and is deemed offensive to the vast, vast majority of human beings, and you cannot assemble that double-digit percentage, then it is time to change your most cherished value systems and become a different type of human being. The only alternative is to see your "us against the world" bravado slowly and inevitably crushed and snuffed out, as is only right and proper in a global, consensually-determined culture.