Sunday, December 14, 2008

Literacy, Pavement, Meth Labs, Stasis.

Blogging about what we found on-line gets a lot of starchier media types twitchy. Lee Siegel published a screed-- in book form-- earlier this year excoriating (one of my favorite verbs) we Netizens for daring to discuss what we read, gasp, on the Web. He saw this as a kind of circle jerk, I suppose. I see it as literacy. Our marketplace of ideas meets Bacon's idols of the agora, perhaps? The fact that Siegel'd been outed as pseudonymously praising his own on-line contributions, and that this rage inspired his rant between cloth on pulp, gained the gleeful finger-pointing of reviewers less than awed by his shock, shock, at the messages of this medium.

I cannot get too worried about jeremiads that we're headed towards Idiocracy. Or else I have been teaching too long away from UCLA. I forget what traditional academia's supposedly safeguarding when my classmates with tenure harp about parenthetically/slashed gendered Deleuzian queering. James Gleick in the Nov. 30, 2008, New York Times Book Review sensibly divided the worlds in which many of us oldsters still roam, bifurcated between a screen and a shelf in "How to Publish Without Perishing." Ostensibly about Google's wonderful Book Search Archive settlement that will stimulate the backlists now terminated by many publishers, and I hope will lead to colleges off the elite track (e.g., my employer) hooking into databases accessible by all, Gleick also distinguishes the types of reading--and information gathering & wisdom accumulation-- we're doing. I hope we don't forget how to thresh nuggets from dross. That's what I keep trying to get across to my students, gaming and programming majors who will control this future much more radically than any po-mo theorist.

About the Google settlement, Gleick anticipates a future in which access will return. As somebody often immersed in arcana, needing interlibrary loans to ferret out nuggets, lacking a university library worthy of the name from which I can gain on-line privileges to electronic archives such as Project MUSE, J-STOR, or the MLA, I welcome this innovation. Gleick reminds us that the bottom-line publishing mentality, like the for-profit nature of the institution where I teach, discourages long-term investments. This impatience, he hopes, may be replaced by a legacy truly democratic. In the spirit of the robber barons who founded public libraries, I muse too about the corporate sponsorship that may lead, ironically yet perhaps idealistically, to the promotion of information literacy-- and our humane, if computer assisted, ability to separate lasting knowledge from mere petabytes of data.

Gleick remains upbeat. Libraries will endure, and literacy will flourish. I do fear, however, that without physical access, mediation may be more easily used to thwart entry for those who don't want to pay to play. Yet, we all manage to navigate libraries and expect that our taxes or tuition will fund the purchase of books and media. Still, at the welcome risk of fetishizing, there's something about a volume.
It is significant that one says book lover and music lover and art lover but not record lover or CD lover or, conversely, text lover.

There’s reading and then there’s reading. There is the gleaning or browsing or cherry-picking of information, and then there is the deep immersion in constructed textual worlds: novels and biographies and the various forms of narrative nonfiction — genres that could not be born until someone invented the codex, the book as we know it, pages inscribed on both sides and bound together. These are the books that possess one and the books one wants to possess.

The overload, on the other hand, can lead to breakdown. Chuck Klosterman's a writer I envy; he gets to ponder pop culture for a living, although the strain may be wearing him down. Waiting for my haircut and trying to ignore the histrionic Mexican crooners on both giant speakers and big screen T.V. this morning, my own retreat into the life of the mind was a shallow diversion. Three magazines sprawled before me: "Out," "Cosmopolitan en espanol," and "Esquire." Easy choice. My heterosexually wired if feministically suspect "male gaze" pausing at pin-up Sonia Shaji, I dutifully soldiered on to the text proper.

I found Klosterman's last column in this September 2008 issue: "The Great American Stasis." As Sarah Hepola's sympathetic "Diagnosing Chuck Klosterman" Sept. 24, 2008, Salon interview I found when searching for this "Esquire" piece informed me, Fargo's native son's been busy; he produced three columns for ESPN, Spin, and Esquire monthly for two years. Two memoirs in six years, two collections of essays, a new novel "Downtown Owl," and lots of journalism. Coming out of Akron in 2001 with "Fargo Rock City," he wowed those beyond the heartland for his tale of coming of age while blasting metal, in its hair and heavy styles, in one of the most remote flyover states, pre-Net, pre-grunge, pre-practically faux-vintage t-shirts. He's praised and reviled, looks exactly like the black-framed, retro-nerd hipster as the standard non-conformist conformist record geek you know he is-- and whom he delights in because he's also excoriating his own demographic, that'd flaunt annoyingly the t-shirt illustrated above.

From Germany, he reflects on how tedious watching baseball seems. Americans get lectured on our fast-paced relentlessness, but he counters: "What I see is a relatively static society that consciously confuses itself through media and interprets that confusion as progress. I did not authentically believe this was true for most of my life, but I do now. We have mediated our culture into concrete."

Weary of the political debates, he learns from abroad how little gets reported there, and learns not to be so obsessed by it, as he gets only fragments of the presidential campaign filtered between MLB and the junk that passes for news.
Everyone agrees that most of the information we receive is manufactured filler, not some latent subterfuge that is being used to "oppress us" (or whatever). Everyone I've ever met seems completely aware that the mass media is a) too large, b) mostly bad, and c) getting worse. But the moment they redirect their intellectual gaze back to the rest of society, they forget that this is what they believe.

You know, I've been writing this column every month for something like five years, and I feel as if the vast majority of these columns have either vaguely or directly dealt with the meaning of mediated culture, usually concluding that whatever topic I was writing about was both troubling and compelling. I underestimated both of those qualities. The mass media is the single most detrimental entity within the United States right now, and it's having the exact opposite effect of its theoretically intended one--it's making people less informed and less complete. It is much more harmful than I originally perceived. But it's also more interesting than I initially realized, because the people who are most acutely aware of this problem are the same people making the problem worse. Bloggers blog about how blogging ruins their lives. Newspapers deliver insignificant reports on the declining significance of newspapers. Entourage is a commentary on shallow celebrity-driven entertainment such as Entourage. A writer named Nicholas Carr [**] wrote a long essay in The Atlantic Monthly about how the Internet is making it difficult for people to concentrate on long essays, which was subsequently published on the Internet. I'm writing a column in a magazine that could essentially be read as an essay against magazines, and I don't think anyone will find that strange.

Klosterman concludes with the morose, humbled air of one whose début fiction's compared by Hepola to "Winesburg, Ohio" meets "Last Picture Show." Not for nothing does he long to be Jeff Tweedy, from Belleville, Illinois, another Midwesterner who turned from the easy pop path into his own darker detours. Chuck does not want to be AC/DC, Angus Young pounding the same riff for thirty years to adoring fans. (I see their "Black Ice" is very high on the charts; they are second to the Beatles in total album sales. I have nothing to add to this statement that astonished me in the NYT the other day.) Chuck plays the final number on his tour; a dream gig many of us yearn for.

He will keep on nagging, typing away for other publications. Yet, Klosterman wonders why so few of us get ticked off by this static pattern we find ourselves in. Why do, come to think of it myself, so many folks my age (I heard this from a pro musician at Thanksgiving dinner) rush out for their copy of "Black Ice" rather than the latest from Black Kids/Keys/Rebel Motorcycle Club/Dice? As I saw-- but did not click open-- a discussion thread on Amazon yesterday titled: "Does music suck, or am I just getting old?" I bought fewer CDs than ever this past year. Blame my budget, but also my tastes. My last visit to Ameoba Records: nine months ago. I bought at most three CDs last summer, on-line. Blame me for music sales' decline. Or what's sold.

I delight in deleting from my iPod as much as I upload, and what I have comes skews the past's playlists rather than the now sound. Winnowing the best from my backlist pleases me more than accumulation of third-generation retreads of early-70s craft. Now, much of what I hear about, if rarely hear, sounds recycled. There's one recent CD that manages this retrofitting smoothly, but even it, I admit, hearkens back to, say, a more pastoral phase that'd fit into 1972 or so on the Sain Welsh-language label. It's on my wishlist at Amazon, an obscure and so far too pricy import "Cheer Gone" from the bittersweet tenor of Welsh folk-psych wanderer (ex-Gorky's Zygotic Mynci) Euros Childs. Regressing from teenaged experimental lysergia the past fifteen years into a haunted rural balladry, he's long remained one of my favorite singers.

Yesterday's inclusions on that wishlist: three reissues with bonus tracks-- "Brighten the Corners: the Nicene Creedence" edition from Pavement; upcoming first-time-on-CD Volcano Suns. Their two earliest LPs. The kind of vinyl Klosterman and I probably share; mid-80s college indie rock that blended harmonic heartland with post-punk-pop distortion. It, too, sounds as dated as 1972's freak folk. Not that I do not cherish it, but what replaces it for me today? Nothing really so far.

Do we all circle back to our formative years with what we dig up in our dotage for entertainment? Or, perhaps an indication of the end of inspiration for what followed the post-punk disruption? "The Bright Orange Years" & "All-Night Lotus Party." And that's it. As ironic hipsters Pavement warned us fifteen years ago, two records earlier than "BTC," as they sniped at glam-grunge, goodbye to the rock n'roll era.

Here's Klosterman, to wrap it up in a less than shiny package for these somber holidays.
Yet as I sit here, across the Atlantic Ocean, browsing random online reactions to fake news I have not seen (nor need to see), I find myself growing more and more depressed about all the things I used to love. It's not difficult to be the cop in the car watching the meth lab, but you will drive yourself sad. You'll find yourself thinking, Maybe the lab will blow up. Maybe the lab will blow up. Maybe the lab will blow up. But it doesn't blow up. It just sits there, falling apart and declining in value, while the people sitting inside lose their teeth and get crazy high.

(Back to me for a word in edgewise. **Yes, I cited Carr myself last summer here. Not much to add to Klosterman's summary of it.)

Photo: DespairWear: Demotivational Corporate products sardonically if perhaps profitably peddled for misfits like you and me. Who comprise yet one more demographic. None of us escape.


Anonymous said...

Did I read you correctly that you don't have access to JSTOR? My emphatically non-elite private college of 600 students in the heart of Central Appalachia, two hours from the nearest city, has JSTOR. I'm reminded (if I needed to be after four years as a store clerk in the San Diego area over the Carter-Reagan transition) that life in California isn't what it's hyped to be. Rodger Cunningham

Fionnchú said...

Sad but true, Rodger! I can get ILL's only the past two years or so, which is a blessing. However, not any of the academic databases except those under EBSCO, which is not really in-depth for much of the humanities, at least the esoterica I tend towards, which keeps emerging in Googling as on, of course, J-STOR!

Adam Tramantano said...

I agree with, "goodbye to the rock n'roll era" although Pearl Jam is still great to me ( I'm a bit younger).
And I also agree with your idea that talking about the internet on the internet is a form of literacy, or rather it means something about literacy.

How far we've come from being afraid to look at screens too much because of the impact it might have on our eyes (that was y2k)!

I think the internet makes everyone but people under 20 feel old.

That's a great and scary picture that goes along with this post

some of my posts that you might find interesting: