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We need an anatomy of nostalgia. I've been giving a lot of thought to the sort that overcomes me when I spend time with cultural content from my pre-school years, 1968-1972. It's enormously powerful, but also quite different from the nostalgia I have for my life in Pennsylvania as a ten-year-old or the nostalgia I have for the early years of the MTV-style music video or the nostalgia I have for the graduate-school debauchery of the early 1990s I'm watching early episodes of Sesame Street right now, which resonate for me with special force. They showcase the design sensibility that I absorbed as a toddler, when my mother would spend hour after hour in the fabric store and the television was on most of the time. But they are distinguished from other culture of hat period that conjures a general sense of, say, 1970, by the fact that I actually watched them as as a very small person. Like most people, my memories of pre-school are spotty at best. Nevertheless, I find myself repeatedly brought up short in these episodes by an uncanny feeling that I'm watching something that affected me deeply when I was at my most tabula rasa-like.

Just now, as I was typing that last sentence, I recalled how hard it was for me to say the word "lollipop," what the outside of my play pen felt like and a visit to Philadephia, when I was three, in which I had to sit at the little table appended to the big one where the adults were sitting. When I say I'm nostalgic, I don't mean that I'm musing on specific events, though, so much as a desire to be transported back into the frame of mind in which the world was not yet intelligibly framed. Perhaps my favorite thing about being an exchange student in Germany after high school was that my inability to understand the language and my lack of experience with the texture of European experience gave me a few weeks, at the beginning of my stay, when I felt as close to reliving early childhood as it's possible for a grown-up to be.

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I've been thinking a lot about circles of influence in the independent music world. Also on my mind have been their antecedents in the domain of literature and fine art, as in the first flowerings of "Bohemia" in pre-1848 Paris and its subsequent rhizomatic dispersals and revivals. The other day, though, I realized that I have plenty of material to reflect on that is directly bound up with my own experiences, particularly in relation to Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life and the "Bad List" it presided over in the mid-1990s. Take this message, for example, from an exchange during the list's first year:
Date: Fri, 13 May 94 13:52:29 CDT
From: ana marie cox <amc2@midway.uchicago.edu>
To: Derek Kompare <dkompare@macc.wisc.edu>
Cc: BADSUBJECTS@uclink.berkeley.edu
Subject: Re: The Baffler

> Well, The Baffler *is* one of the most interesting journal/zines/critical voices around
> these days. The last couple issues are angry and thought-provoking.
>
> But...
>
> Are these guys full of themselves or what?!?!?!?
>
> I find The Baffler's editorial "we" to be just as oppressive as the corporate consumer
> "we" force fed to us. I thought I was being clever in calling them "latter day
> Menckenite wanna-bes" in a paper I presented last month; but I had no idea they'd
> already taken *pride* in touting themselves as the new American Mercury. Jeez!

MEGA DITTOS FROM U of C, home to the Baffler Boys.

If you think that Seth, Tom, Diamonds etal are annoying in print, I officially invite you to come to Hype Park and hang with them in person.

I too dig their scathing ribbing of the culture industry, but jesus, they must realize that any attention the baffler has gotten (nice blurbs at the end, eh?) has come from the very industry they critique.

they also refuse to believe that anyone besides psuedo-academics like themselves can possibly muster the acumen to resist this culture industry. Tom's essay on Sassy (baffler #5) is a great example: he says "look, these people are trying to tell young girls that dressing in a certain (grunge) way is equivalen to rebellion, then using this to sell (grunge) clothing." ok, fine, but then he says "and these girls are (metaphorically and literally) buying it." i don't think tom has spoken to a teenage girl since his youth, and i bet even then he was scared of them.

but sexism in the baffler is another subject...that's just one more thing they have in common with the 30s lefties they ape. (jesus they even dress like funking ezra pound clones, tiny speckles, wide-legged trousers and all..)

sorry to flame, but they annoy me. great martinis, tho.

ana

Ana Marie Cox * "I listen to *Primus,* I listen to
University of Chicago * *Pavement*..."
amc2@midway.uchicago.edu * --tv ad for Best Buy dept. store
Ana, as many of you know, went from her tender undergrad days to a year in a doctoral program at UC Berkeley, during which time she joined our editorial ranks -- and greatly helped us to improve our design sensibility, I might add -- before leaving school to become an editor, then a pundit, then a novelist and now, I guess, a media personality who moves within the interstices delimited by those terms. And Tom Frank, he of the wide-legged trousers and "tiny speckles," parlayed his skills with gin, vermouth and an olive into an impressive career as someone who writes screeds of substance, such as What's the Matter With Kansas? Not to mention that, in his undergrad days, he used to DJ in the time slot after Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, an association that no doubt charmed the insider-trading mindset of Ana, despite her complaints about how his boys club -- "like Urge Overkill," she once told me -- treated women with smarts and sass. The Baffler, in other words, is a good place to track circles of influence pertinent to our generation, just like McSweeney's -- to which I am more remotely and tenuously connected by personal experience -- or N+1.

Read on about Bourdieu. And me, sort of. . .Collapse )

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This is a self-interview I conducted while in the process of trying to write a big "statement" piece about the study of popular music for the Bad Subjects "Music" issue that I was then in the process of editing:
Q: What's the basic point I'd like to convey in my piece?

A: The fact that the vast majority of popular music thinks of itself as being outside of a degraded mainstream. In other words, even the seemingly most 'mainstream' music (to alternative sensibilities) has its own ways of defining its artisitc expression as genuine, authentic, or culturally worthwhile. Often these depend more on the *context* of the music's production or reception. Madonna's music may be mainstream, but the apparatus that surrounds its marketing and performance strives hard for an alternative effect. A band like Bon Jovi thinks that it matters to its fans because it establishes rapport with them. Pet Shop Boys music sounds very mainstream, but its reception within gay/queer culture marks it as doing something else.

Q: So the real point is that popular music almost always distances itself from the supposedly democratic mainstream of 'popular culture' because it recognizes that 'democracy' has become synonymous with capitalism?

A: Maybe. That reading would suggest a 'moment of critique' within almost all popular music that I would feel inclined to deconstruct. I mean, isn't it the illusion that popular music provides something alternative to what the free-market in general provides a large part of what makes it sell so well? This would introduce Jameson's reading of the Utopian dimension to mass-cultural forms.

Q: Alright. I thought you wanted to talk about popular music as a 'means of distinction'?

A: I do.

Q: Well, how does it tie-in with the fact that almost all popular music distinguishes itself from a degraded mainstream?

A: I realize that there are two separate lines of thought in y argument. On the one hand, I want to talk about distinctions *within* popular music--'taste-preferences'--, on the other hand, I want to talk about the way in which individual taste-preferences within popular music define other taste preferences *as* the mainstream in order to make themselves 'alternative'. Popular music is a medium for the expression of 'negative identity', identity fashioned at the expense of others.

Q: What about 'cross-identification' and the cultural capital questions raised by the Bourdieu stuff? Are you going to throw them to the wayside? It seemed as if you were building up to an interesting point analogous to Annalee's point about trans-gender people and drag (of course, her point was based on economics--but it occurs to me right now that poorer people, particularly ethnicities, spend a lot of their money dressing in 'drag', i.e. as someone better off than they are--think of Darnell at Vallejo High who needed money for clothes). Do you want to evacuate the class issue?

A: No, I *do* want to note how an interesting combination of economic and cultural capital allows better-off people to musically 'trans-gender' themselves. It's harder to sustain collections in four genres than one. It occurs to me right now that music critics tend to promote diverse genres because they tend to get albums for free!--the music business gives them albums for review...I don't know, I'm getting lost here.

Q: Eat some pizza!

A: I did.

Q: Let's try this again: what do you want to say?

A: I want to suggest ways in which popular music differs from other mass-cultural media like mainstream film and T.V. by showing how it functions as a 'means of distinction', a way to separate oneself and one's subculture from a mainstream figured by other people's identities, taste-preferences, subcultures. By way of explanation I want to take alternative rock and rap as an extreme example of this. It occurs to me even more strongly now that both alternative rock and rap try to capture their alternativeness *within* the text more than supposedly more 'mainstream' acts like Van Halen or Madonna do. Maybe that's too fine a distinction to make. It *is* clear that alternative musics strive to interrupt pleasure with what is painful (white noise_), jarring (violent, sexual, or Joycean lyrical content), or otherwise demanding interpretation.

Q: So are you going to find a 'safe' way of explaining how alternative musics take the inherent anti-mainstreamness of popular music to its logical extreme?

A: I guess.

Q: What about the generational thing?

A: I do want to raise the issue of generational distinctions. It seems to me that music of a given generation has always tended to define itself against an older mainstream: the mainstream is the world of stable, secure, grown-up, self-satisfied fathers (and mothers). I think there's some blurring between such generational distinctions and the distinctions made within a generation between 'alternative' and mainstream youth for example: somehow the mainstream kids get coded as being like their parents. I think I might also want to bring up the hatred older artists like Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton arouse in younger generations.

Q: And where does Bourdieu fit in to all of this?

A: As far as generational distinction goes, clearly younger generations have a 'temporary class consciousness' as the not-yet and possibly never empowered lackeys and toys of the older generations in power. Whether this makes any sense within Bourdieu's schematics is a mystery. It occurs to me that his definition of taste is extraordinarily static and not particularly receptive to the notion of generational distinctions *within*, say, the working class.

Q: How about cross-identification and drag?

A: There would appear to me both generational cross-identification or 'generational drag' (me liking the 60's) and generational *identification* through the mixing of disparate musical genres *within* a particular generation's music (rock and rap co-mingling).

Q: Is this drag emancipatory a la Butler's *Gender Trouble*?

A: Not inherently. Maybe I should address the non-fixity of cross-id, the fact that temporary alliances form (90's rock and rap) for one situation (hating older folks), and are then replaced by other temporary alliances (60's psychadelic rock and alternative rock of today) for another situation (bonding with/or having nostalgia for Boomer music and time).

Q: So how does this tangent tie-in to your basic point about popular music as a means of distinction?

A: Maybe I just want to say that popular music is a particularly potent means of forging identifications and thus constructing an identity (however temporary a particular identity might be!) and that we must consider it not as a unified mass-cultural form so much as a potent aesthetic means of dividing the whole into subgroupings and individual.

Q: Would that just be a bad thing?

A: I think I'd like to isolate the capacity to make distinctions itself as a potentially useful political tool honed to sophistication by popular music. The trick would be to transfer the moment of distinction from the aesthetic realm (sucks/doesn't suck) to the socio-political realm (sucks/doesn't suck), *then* use it to distinguish between passivity and praxis, cynicism and commitment.
The issue turned out nicely, with pieces that continue to impress me. And my editor's column, composed in a matter of minutes, provides the most succinct summary anywhere of my take on the politics of taste. But the essay itself went down in flames. I'd tried -- and not for the firs time -- to do too much, to do more than I needed to do. And what I ended up with was the difference between my aspirations and my capacity to realize them. Still, the remainder lives on, reflecting scattered light onto the potentially breathtaking but always already benighted shapes that rise from the vast steppes of the counter-factual.

Although I haven't even looked at what I wrote for this abortive essay since October, 1993, I can see now, rereading this self-interview and a number of other fragments from the same period, that I ended up making many of the points I'd intended to make back then in the conference presentation I delivered at the UCLA DisChord conference on May 8th, 1997, a piece I later revised for publication in Bad Subjects as "Autobiography in Music Criticism." Even though all the sentences in that one were composed from scratch, a good number are eerily similar to ones that I had written for the "Music" issue and then filed away in the crawl space of trauma. "Autobiography in Music Criticism," incidentally, continues to be the essay of which I am proudest.

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Muse: a mental breeze from The Chronic

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The concept of "youth culture," even when it referred to the culture of actually existing youths, has always been the result of adults looking back on their own pasts. It is, in other words, a back formation transposed forward, predicated on the assumption that to have been a youth once is all that it is required to understand a youth in the present. That mode of identification through recollection is the sine qua non of pedagogical theory as well. The threat posed by technological innovation is that it guarantees that successive generations grow up with a set of experiences and aptitudes different from their forebears. Shoring up the breach demands the presumption of further equivalences, such as that learning to write on a typewriter is more or less the same as learning to write on a computer or that learning to use a rotary phone is more or less the same as learning to use a mobile phone. But that "more or less" opens up a margin for error that must be wished away with the help of that first equation, itself imprecise: one generation's youth is more or less the same as another. The result is a loop bound to introduce distortion with each repetition. The concept of "youth culture," in other words, is motivated by the desire to stop the very process of development it supposedly seeks to trace.

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Many of the problems that confront the study of culture -- or, to speak more narrowly, the discipline of cultural studies -- can be solved by retrieving the mental note that falls onto the floor when the wind we generate in walking towards particular works pries it loose from the spot to which we had carelessly affixed it. Edges torn, the trace of a footprint covering the text, it reads, "In the end, we begin with words." The struggle to define what a work is or isn't is fueled by a fantasy of being in which we forget that to be is inevitably "to be."

William James presents a puzzle. There's a squirrel in a tree. Trying to get a look, a man circles below. But no matter how fast he moves in one direction, the squirrel moves faster in the other, denying him what he seeks. "The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go around the squirrel or not? He goes around the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel?" Some say, "Yes;" others, "No." The answer to this seemingly intractable dispute, James goes on to argue, "depends on what you practically mean by going around the squirrel." Words will never fall away to reveal a truth that transcends them.

We find ourselves in the midst of the same dilemma. You argue that "punk" is x. I argue that "punk" is y. We exhaust ourselves trying to come up with examples to prove our points. But the only truth of the matter is that "punk," like "truth" and "matter," was a word before we convinced ourselves it is a thing. And, yes, even "word" is a word, so there really is no way out. To study culture without studying the way we apprehend it through language, is to circle James's tree in search of that squirrel we can never hope to see without obstruction.

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My piece in the latest Tikkun, which has been on newsstands for a few weeks now, is also up on the magazine's website. I think it came out well from a writing standpoint. I was able to use more of the research I conducted than is normally the case for a short piece. And the line of argument is strong. I had selected the following passage for the pull quote, which ended up not getting used because of space constraints:
By building on a longstanding belief that music is tightly bound to identity—you are the music you hear—Apple was able to imbue the iPod with the aura of home itself. If the rumbling bass of an SUV blasting hip-hop breaks down the invisible walls that divvy up our personal space in the public sphere, the iPod does exactly the opposite, building new barriers between us. Music may “know no boundaries,” but the purpose of the iPod is to protect them. As anyone who has spent some time sitting in a Star-bucks can tell you, the customers who work there use iPods to minimize the possibility for social interaction.
I do have some misgivings about the piece, though. Because I was consciously trying to construct a classic Critical Theory about the iPod, my argument is actually a little too strong for my taste. Although I stand behind my words, I would like to have had the space to acknowledge more positive aspects of the iPod phenomenon. While the way people listen to their portable digital music players in public is disturbing to me, I recognize that those moments of self-absorbtion may spur listeners to strike up conversation about music when their earbuds are out, suggesting that the devices are less anti-social than my argument implies. And then there's the fact that space and style constraints make it impossible for me to incorporate a self-reflexive dimension in my critique. After all, I'm also an iPod owner and that didn't stop me from achieving critical distance on their uses and abuses. Anyway, I'd be interested in hearing your responses to the piece, should you have the time and inclination to read it.

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Mode: wearing headphones
Muse: Rollin' And Tumblin' - Bob Dylan - Modern Times

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The term "Cultural Studies" has been suffering from dilution for a long time now. But its co-optation by the American military has taken this process to another level:
George Hethcoat, UFMCS operations officer, said the program is about looking at the world through a different set of eyes.

Speaking at Thursday’s ceremony, Lt. Gen. John F. Kimmons, Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence, said the military has left the era of simple cause and effect analysis.

“This is not point and shoot,” he said. “We are behind that.”

He told the graduates they have to hold assumptions and truisms up to a bright light.

He said understanding things in the proper context becomes an issue of life and death on the battlefield.

That's like tempering a shot of vodka with the contents of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

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Mode: after Life

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After reading the comments to my last entry, a late-night rant on the Anthropologie holiday catalogue, I decided I needed to follow up with a more sober-minded reflection on my response to it. First, I should note that I never doubted the aesthetic interest of the image itself. The photographs throughout that catalogue are both sumptuous and unsettling. As I tell my students all the time, the way to learn something about both yourself and what you are studying is to focus precisely on those things that provoke, disturb, and perplex you.

To the extent that the image I posted manages to elicit that sort of reaction, it represents, not only an aesthetic success, but a commercial one as well. While the claim that there is no such thing as bad publicity in the advertising world may be exaggerated, I'm sure that Anthropologie would rather have people discussing their catalogues than not. And then there's the possibility that my getting riled up has as much to do with the realization that part of me is captivated by this sort of imagery as it did with my high-minded assault on patriarchal property relations.

I looked through the whole catalogue again this morning, trying to make sense of the sense of outrage that hit me when I first set it aside to scan. Anthropologie's catalogue is an extreme example of the sort that, rather than simply showing the items for sale as neutrally as possible -- think the classic Sears Roebuck tome -- seeks to immerse them within a scene that cannot be reduced to what can be purchased, where there is always a remainder of what I like to tell Skylar is "for display purposes only." Actually, in the case of the Anthropologie catalogue only some items are given this treatment. The scene-setting pages alternate with close-ups of shirts, sweaters, accessories and household goods. But because these human-free shots are color and background-matched to the ones presenting staged scenes of human interaction, they are still bound to a particular context.

What disturbs me most about the image in my last entry and the ones I share above and below is the way that the remainder of that which is "for display purposes only" works together with the posing of the grown-ups and children in the photos to blur the line between property and person. Believe it or not, the only thing technically for sale in the "Visions of Sugarplums" image is the blonde woman's jacket. Everything else is there purely for show.

Read on to see more images from the Anthropologie holiday catalogue and two famous female nudes!Collapse )

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Mode: tastefully appointed
Muse: three happy girls squealing in the front room

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In sorting through my extremely large stack of things I want to scan today, I came across the Anthropologie holiday catalogue. The chain is a spin-off of Urban Outfitters, making it a "red state" enterprise, since the company's big-wigs donated primarily to the Republican cause. As it turns out, those donations were tiny -- less than $5000 total, according to the chart I read -- making the label seem overblown, especially compared to other "red state" concerns like Wal-Mart and Dell. This discovery doesn't change my feelings about Anthropologie, though. The company still disturbs me deeply.

The people going and out of Anthropologie retail outlets are bad enough. But it's the company's mail-order catalogue that really makes my skin crawl. It contains page after page of images designed to conjure up nostalgia for a past that never really existed, fleshed out with details worthy of soft-core pornography. Indeed, you could easily argue that Anthropologie markets nostalgia as pornography.

I suppose you could also make an argument for the store's catalogues on this basis. There's something intriguing about an image in which a woman's clothing and the furniture surrounding her generate a degree of salaciousness that is typically found only when private parts on display. Every time I look through one I think of John Berger's Ways of Seeing. What's naked in Anthropolgie catalogues are not the sultrily sullen women who grace their pages but the nexus of sex and property itself. "Buy this outfit," a typical spread says, "and you can have the body inside it."

As distressing as the regular Anthropologie catalogues are, though, the holiday one I'd set aside to scan is unparalleled in its creepiness. In addition to the usual tight-lipped women, it features children arrayed with the same coldness as pillows and drapes. Many of the "family" images in the catalogue also have festive captions. Take this one, for example:

That's right, this cheery picture is accompanied by the phrase, "visions of sugarplums." The mind reels.

Who, precisely, is having these visions? The woman, who holds the boy with the same affection she extends to the various machines she uses at her gym? The man, whose gaze comes from above the frame with the full weight of patriarchy? The boy, who looks as happy as the latest victim of extraordinary rendition? Or is it the target market for the Anthropologie catalogue that is given the gift of sugary sight, masking the bitterness of the tableau with simulacral nostalgia?

To be fair, I must admit that, for all the fury that images like this one provoke in me, they have a curious power. Maybe the answer is to regard them the same way one would a Douglas Sirk melodrama, where the pleasures of plot are subtended by a menace that cannot be contained by any narrative cage. Although it is unlikely that the photographer intended this photo to function as a critique of the catalogue, that possibility is worth exploring. And, even if the photographer didn't have any such intention, the photographs seem to have an agency of their own. Someone or something is hard at work deconstructing the upper-middle-class American dream.

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Mode: pick a "de-" prefix
Muse: replaying The Cure from memory

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The perpetually awesome Michael Bérubé has just detailed his various publishing ventures, including a collection I eagerly await that includes the perpetually awesome Steven Rubio and Jonathan Sterne:
Meanwhile, I've just learned that my edited collection, The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies, featuring essays from Rita Felski, John Frow, Jane Juffer, Jonathan Sterne, David Shumway, David Sanjek, Barry Faulk, Irene Kacandes, Steve Rubio, and Laura Kipnis, will be out in October from Blackwell (it will also have a brilliant jacket design).
The other contributors are pretty awesome as well.

I'm proud to have known people who can keep it real while keeping it smart.

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Mode: thorny
Muse: Anythang That Walks - Hawnay Troof - Get Up Resolution:Love

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