Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Decommodifying to Disempower

Via his Twitter account, my brother linked the other day to this editorial about how humanities departments are paying the price for deficits which, you guessed it, nothing at all to do with university humanities departments.

I won't even begin to pretend I understand what a shitstorm California finds itself in. This seems to have been going on ever since Enron prolonged those roving blackouts, indirectly killing a bunch of old people in the midst of a heat wave and plunging the state deep into seemingly insurmountable debt. The bulk of the fiasco though can be attributed to the cozy relationship between capital and government, master and servant ("it's a lot like life"), which has facilitated a corporate "nanny state" for businesses. These companies outsource their risks to the public sector and we pick up the tab, because the results of inaction would be disastrous.

The kind of behavior described in the article should be no surprise to any one who has read Mark Fisher's book Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? or who has followed his Fisher's K-Punk blog for years (there's a great conversation here about the rise of free education and the danger of de-monetizing pedagogy- click the link to the left- it took me a while to find it) where he has long pontificated on the subsumption of education, public services, and the commons into what he calls "business ontology".

Professor Watson points out that the humanities departments are actually run pretty efficiently from an economic standpoint, whereas engineering and sciences run at a deficit to their grants. Liberal arts get the short shaft, Watson says, because the students lack proper marketization of their skill sets post-graduation in what is commonly referred to as the (Capitalist) "real(ist) world":

"No sane citizenry measures its public elementary schools by whether they pay for themselves immediately and in dollars. We shouldn't have to make a balance-sheet argument for the humanities, either, at least not until the balance-sheet includes the value, to the student and to the state, of expanded powers of personal empathy and cross-cultural respect, improved communication through language and other symbolic systems, and increased ability to tolerate and interpret complexity, contemplate morality, appreciate the many forms of artistic beauty, and generate creative, independent thought."

The assumption of education's business ontology is that these are all useful neoliberalist attributes, but they have no direct measurable exchange value, even if they might broadly improve markets in the long run. From a market standpoint, this might seem like a good reason to subsidize this kind of education, given that it creates a labor force with skills of great use value and very little exchange value. Yet, ironically enough, running government as a business forces public executives and managerialsits to extract/compress what it sees as inefficient costs. Though higher education is a long-term money maker regardless of the course of study, science, math, medicine, etc., provide the biggest long-term economic returns (the kind that donate buildings to universities). Even bigger returns can be seen by contracting out the free market to perform public services, or reinvesting in what were once cash cows (the bank bailout was actually a great investment- it has already been repaid, though there's little hope that any of us will actually see any of the money we spent on it).

As there is no longer any divide between the commons and the market, the "common good" we all strive for now is the good of the market. And postmodernist capital achieves "common good" training through the free or subsidized application of immaterial labor. It behooves financial titans and governments run by business ontology to outsource the expense of teaching developing minds "expanded powers of personal empathy and cross-cultural respect, improved communication through language and other symbolic systems, and increased ability to tolerate and interpret complexity, contemplate morality, appreciate the many forms of artistic beauty, and generate creative, independent thought" to venues where labor is either cheap (adjuncts, assistants, interns) or free (the internet/ libraries). After all, any one can read a book. Any one appreciate a work of art. Any one can buy a Rosetta Stone course. Haven't you heard the liberals chattering on about this grand new society we live in? Information, it is said, wants to be free.

I wouldn't be surprised if liberal arts educations are the next to be completely decommodified, just as Newspapers and Music have been (the arguments for the dissolution of these industries being that any one can read/write a blog/look at Google news or start a MySpace band page/stream new music on Youtube/read about music on the web, etc). There was certainly a period in my life when I believed that music and, to a lesser extent, journalism's disengagement from the Capitalist model would empower the users and free their content. Certainly, there have been new freedoms realized under a decommodified system for those fields. However, it's freedom without access to the one lasting source of power of all of culture in which TINA (there is no alternative); capital.

I had a professor once who taught a class on comic books. He used to say that people don't like comics, but they like the "idea of comics", meaning that they would never actually purchase a comic book themselves but they hold stock in whether Superman dies or whether a film is "based on a graphic novel". Similarly, decommodified cultural fields have similar value to their non-users. People want to hear new music, but don't necessarilly need to be the consumptive pruchaser it in order to satiate their cultural desires. Similarly, they like to hear that a report was published in the New York Times even if the report and its extended content is of no real concern to them.

Obviously, this obscures and alienates consumers of media from its labor costs as any classic Marxist model would tell you. This is why the celebration of P2P and freeware is really more of a victory for the relationship between voracious consumers and capital rather than the relationship between consumers and media ("interactivity" becomes a means of performative unpaid marketing). People will continue making music, reporting the news, designing software, etc., on a volunteer basis (even at a personal loss), while somebody somewhere (mostly social networking sites and adbots) is still making money off of it. Meanwhile, consumers and the corporate owners get the value without the cost.

I haven't read Raj Patel's new book, The Value of Nothing, but from the interviews and reviews I've seen on it, Patel seems to opine on the danger of measuring all value by cost. According to supply and demand, the availability of free resources should deincentivize the costs (and hence devalue) of their marketized alternatives. However, costs don't necessarilly go down when there are free alternatives, the math just fails to accomodate the costs because there's an assumption that teachers, musicians, and journalists will just pay the extra expenses out of pocket. Therefore, these externalities don't bother getting factored in.

Again, I'm not even going to begin to pretend to be an expert in economic science as this post may prove (and part of the reason Wall Street's math remains so abstruse and esoteric is because it is designed specifically to be so), but it seems that economists have long been struggling to try to bend people to the math rather than to build a new equation. More than likely, this is because the old equations have worked out so well for those already at the top of ladder slinging shit downward.

The consumer's role in this is no longer to just keep gobbling up commodities with high exchange and little use value, but rather to assemble their identities into an aggregate, a numerical that can be marketed to in terms of specific needs, eliminating spontaneity and change (the jailers of profit), but maintaining the illusion of freedom from a stranglehold of Deleuzian control. This is the grand scheme of social networking, to make humans more deterministic, more constant and less variable, to systemetize them. (PopMatter's Marginal Utility keeps great tabs on the way the use of social media functions as free labor for advertising agencies). As Fisher points out, we're no longer being made into materialists, but rather having our psyches materialized into monied resources:

"I don’t see the problems as one of objectification. For me, the problem is almost the reverse: it strikes me that contemporary capitalist culture is characterised by its emphasis on subjective experience (increasingly, what capital is trying to sell us is not commodities in the old sense of objects, but experiences). "

From this vantage, "expanded powers of personal empathy and cross-cultural respect", et al. become far less attractive for a market trying to zero-sum identity and experience. The added value of the complexity intrinsic to humanities studies works at a loss for the aggregators, who become unable to predict how critical and informed consumers will behave and hence unable to easily profit from cybernetic marketing. So, if this enlightenmnet criteria is to come at a loss for Capital, it should be incurred at a loss for those who wish to dole it out, namely expendable or expandable educators.

Extorting free value at no cost is not a new tradition, thought it's particularly useful during tight budget crisises when companies that a real free market would have rid themselves of years ago have to prove their worth by demarketizing others. Patel points out in an interview with Alternet that the oldest example of free labor training comes from the housewife:

"Marx also made another point that I think is tremendously important, which is that modern capitalism doesn’t pay for household work. Modern capitalism doesn’t pay for the business of making new workers. Bringing up kids, educating them, and building new community won’t be paid for by capitalism because that’s a subsidy that capitalism needs in order to survive. Some U.N. researchers figured out that women’s unpaid work (in 1995) would cost $17 trillion if we were to pay market value -- pretty much half the total world output. Yet women own less than 10 percent of the world’s resources in developing countries and less than 10 percent of the land. And this is not an accident, it’s integral to the way the system works."

The American feminist movement was pretty radical considering the patriarchy that preceded it and one should not underappreciate the great strides women have made in a considerably short period of time, particularly the near-universal solidarity from men on certain (though not all) inalienable rights. However, when demands are made of a higher authority, it is in the nature of power to cede as little as possible unless it can retain its losses elsewhere. Women entering en masse into the workforce, as Patel illustrates above, essentially amounted to capitalism gaining a greater exchange value from women, who could now be both mothers (free labor) and workers (cheap labor-often at lower rates than men). While this seemed like a gain for women, it was actually really just a gain for capital. Capital parasitically sucked out value from women without recompensation. Mothers in the US aren't even guarenteed maternal leave, which is mandated in all other first to third world nations (including Iran, Congo, Sudan, North Korea, China, et al.). Whereas now women in the workplace get to be oppressed as labor in the same way men were, they can also be doubly oppressed as women.

Essentially, this is the compromise that humanities professors will be offered: give more for less. It's the privilege of, as one Congressman said of homosexuals, allowing you to exist. Since teaching is such a motherly profession, it makes sense that a ruthless neoliberalism would forfeit these nurturing skills for a paternal spirit of competitive dominance or trade "personal empathy and cross-cultural respect" for constants in an equations.

The Difference Engine 2

I must call attention to my colleague Alan Ranta's first contribution to our shared Difference Engine column for PopMatters, which seems to be introductory as mine was, but from a seemingly different perspective...although I must admit that our "discovery" of electronic music seems to have some overlap in eras and tunes listened.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Musicking Utopia and Nu(um)-Skool vs the Old Skool

Two great new posts at Rogue's Foam:

The Firstis a transcript of a lecture on the potential for a utopian musicking. The "k" in musicking is intentional, a term I've been using for years, but just now found out has its roots in the theories of Christopher Small who broadened the term "music" from an abstract nound describing a specific quantifiable sound object to a series of interactions, relationships, and processes.

Christopher Small's debunking of music reification is left somewhat unremarked-upon except to say that iPods make great containment units. However, one can't simply assume that reification is necessarily a bad thing, even though it may mask the spectacle-ular alienation that musicking's terms may reveal.

Which is what this PopMatters article I think tries to convey in its argument that the physical object brings a passive listener closer to the music. Rogue's Foam's post posits that only active participation will result in the kind of utopian or near-utopian musicking he talks about. However, he's ignoring the kind of artificial utopias capable through headphones and object permanence.

Arguments against reification tend to be proposed regularly by proponents of virtualities (the MP3 generation) who laud the death of the album format because "music is music, it doesn't matter what format it's in." While this is undeniable, the unspoken assumption is that there is no room for active participation in music as an object/thing, which is simply untrue (just ask the guy who sleeps with the Zappa record under his pillow).

The more dangerous assumption intrinsic to this argument, however, is that virtual music is somehow less passive and more "interactive" a process than putting on a record. In my experience, even at the dawn of virtual music (the golden age of Napster which spawned exactly when I entered college with a T1 connection), the so-called "interaction" with virtual music does not involve an active examination of the new possibilities inherent in technology or a kind of new universal understanding of the alienations of Small's musicking, but rather just a new way of toying with music as object, the object transformed to the icon, from the physical to the clickable. The discernment between how we interact with virtualities as opposed to physical objects is a subject that requires more depth than I have time for in this forum, but considering music as a social interaction leaves one pondering the different ways in which people interact with one another online vs face-to-face. If virtual music is the analogue to object music as social networking is the virtual analogue to real human communication, the implications of these new relationships should be frightening. I'm not denying that what virtualists proclaim to be community can indeed be a new form of community, but it can also be mutually exclusive solipsism.

Virtualists also proclaim victory by stating that by seperating music from its object, it removes the potential for commodification. Surely, P2P has damaged the music industry well enough to ensure this process. Still, the virtualization of music has left unanswered a crucial question: if music is decommodified, how do you approach musical artifacts that are still found to be valuable without re-entering that value back into the market?

Another part of the lecture that's troubling is RF's resignment of feminine pressure- the female diva sample- as a non-consenual male producer subbordination. There's a definite point to this perspective when divorced from the other heterotopian aspects of rave, but at best it's a replication of the disco source material- which was generally made by male producers and imported female vocalists. I've always seen the combination of a raw masculine energy on Nuum backing tracks and sirenic nurturing female vocals to be a hybridization, a kind of recombinative transgendering of sound like the one that Burial has made explicit in interviews (as RF points out). This also seems to me to be complimented by the anonymity of the producer and the "chipmunking" of said vocal samples, reducing identity politics to a kind of guessing game at best. In addition, the gender gap RF sees in rave seems significantly narrower than those found in almost all other popular genres with the possible exception of pop.

The second post boldly takes on Simon R and the "Metalheadz Generation" on the idea of "hyperstasis" ("the scenario in which a range of original music is energetically produced using a wide range of sources and influences, but the parameters of its originality never reach a point that he feels he can acknowledge as original, hence ‘stasis’"). I have to say that I haven't chosen a side here yet, but I'd probably be leaning towards RF mostly because the failure of dubstep/wonky/funky doesn't seem to be a failure of the technologic/futurist impulse as much as it is a failure of theory to articulate why all this music gets lumped together in the first place.

The best take on this appears in the comment boxes for this post by "jasl":

"For me, this is not a parallel or ethereal dimension of 'nuum. It is as if the 'nuum has suffered from a fractal escherian cut and paste, and rearranged itself on a whole new homeomorfism perspective. In less mathematical words, this new fragmented melange is quite amazing and opens a whole new field for UK bass music. "

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

RIP Alex Chilton

To be perfectly honest, I was never too into Big Star's whole albums (and didn't follow Chilton's solo work) and thought the Box Tops were pretty generic, but Chilton did have a couple of perfect moments, which are hereunder:

and possibly the best Big Star cover ever:

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Life to Auto-Tune!

"In excess (on the chaffest of the chaff hip-hop singles) it can make a weird kind of sense, preferable to its detractors' mealy-mouthed bleatings about authenticity and integrity. We should be mindful of anything that seeks to make musicians pay dues, that imposes a hierarchy on inclusion in pop based on vocal 'talent'; indeed any orthodoxy that makes us forget what a confection pop is. But the recording angel surely has to sound like an angel, has to have a sense of battle with the humans within it — too often we find, listening to modern pop and R&B/hip-hop in particular, autotune inflexibly sitting on weedy-assed beats, shining like a fake Rolex in a suitcase, blinding the eye whist dropping a glistened turd in your ear. You can't polish it, no matter how reverse-double-bluff-with-salko be your hipster manoeuvres"

This article does a nice job of articulating the problems of the auto-tune moment, which is not so much a matter of software as it is of deployment. Auto-tune could sound great if it found the right context, or was pushed beyond its standard parameters. I can't speak to the dancehall tunes mentioned in the article, but will definitely check out some of them.

Pantha Du Prince: Black Noise

My review of Pantha Du Prince's latest (recommended) is up at PM.

Monday, March 1, 2010

RIP Larry Cassidy of Section 25

This one, to these ears, always seemed to belong in the early cluster of EBM tunes along with DAF and early Front 242: