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Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
In Which I Critique the Culture of the iPod: My Latest For Tikkun
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.

Tags: , ,
Current Location: 85721
Mode: wearing headphones
Muse: Rollin' And Tumblin' - Bob Dylan - Modern Times

20 comments or Leave a comment
_luaineach From: _luaineach Date: September 18th, 2006 06:48 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
You mean other people who drive SUVs blast hip hop?! I thought I was the only one. I need to start driving on your side of town because the handful of SUVs I see over here aren't ever blasting nuthin'! I now feel like I'm missing a whole group of friends.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 18th, 2006 06:51 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
My body may be in Tucson, but my head remains in California. . . Seriously, if ever there were someone I'd expect to be a sonic extrovert, it's you!
_luaineach From: _luaineach Date: September 18th, 2006 06:58 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Well, I usually don't listen to music in the car unless it's the Chill station by Sirius and then I don't blast that. The blasting of music occurs when Jet is in the car and wants to listen to "his CD", in which case Nelly, Alien Ant Farm and Usher get blasted.

I can't comment on the rest because I don't own an ipod nor have I even used a walkman of any sort probably in the last 15 years or something. I always say I could give up my hearing in the blink of an eye (in the 'which would you rather lose, sight or hearing' question) and, in general, prefer the sounds of my environment over music. But, yes, even when listening to music I have absolutely zero desire to have it plugged directly into my ears because music is social to me, rather than not; part of the environment, rather than a screen from it.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 18th, 2006 07:04 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
You have the right idea about a lot of things. I have great respect for your ability to be forthright and clear in stating what you want and striving for it, without shutting out the views of those who might think or feel differently. And for making room for sports on television, to narrow the field of desire somewhat!
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 18th, 2006 06:53 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
That is, where we lived in the Bay Area and in similar communities, notably Oakland, the tricked-out SUV has long been a prestige vehicle among the hip-hop crowd. But it's true that SUVs here carry a different connotation.
masoo From: masoo Date: September 18th, 2006 07:19 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
The bad guys on The Wire all drive SUVs. But as far as I can tell, the hip-hop vehicle of choice in the Yay Area right now is the Buick LeSabre and other such cars, thanks to E-40 giving them a shout-out. Scrapers, they're called, which is why even though I'm not one to name my cars, I now think of our beat up POS as a LeScraper. (I also have a feeling, based on talking to some of the younguns, that I could sell that POS for a lot more than its worth right now. And that two years from now, it will have returned to being just another POS.)
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 18th, 2006 07:32 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Oh, those big GMs were big way back, as you know. Even Chuck D went on about his "98." But SUVs with booming bass were big when we were in V-Town. Maybe it's a freeway-commute thing. Or maybe the tide has shifted in recent years. You still see a lot of tricked-out SUVs in L.A.
masoo From: masoo Date: September 18th, 2006 07:15 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Good stuff!

I had a longish reply to post here ... I found your piece fascinating, of course. It was so long, in fact, that LiveJournal didn't want to let me post it :-). So I turned it into a post on my own blog. If you read it there, just consider it the comment that had to leave home.
kdotdammit From: kdotdammit Date: September 18th, 2006 09:04 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I'm totally guilty. I love using my iPod to shut out the world. That's my favorite part about it -- that it's so light that it becomes part of my body and it shuts out everything and everyone around me so I don't have to engage and can just be all up inside my head. I embrace the anti-socialism of the iPod. I love wearing it on airplanes so that the people sitting next to me don't feel compelled to make small talk because I really don't want to talk to them. I want them to disappear. So I plug into my iPod and make Satanic looking art. Bad me.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 18th, 2006 09:16 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I like the formulation "anti-socialism." It works on a variety of levels. And I understand the impulse, obviously, even if I have had some deeply illuminating conversations with strangers on airplanes. I mean, if I'd had an iPod back in October, 2001, I might never have gotten to know that New Age undertaker from the Netherlands who was moonlighting as a baseball umpire!
celebrian_3 From: celebrian_3 Date: September 27th, 2006 07:22 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
As in all things, I believe that most people fall somewhere on a spectrum in regards to this kind of behavior. It's true that there are people who use devices like this to prevent themselves from interacting with others--but, I think that it's only another device that more readily enables a behavior that the person is likely to engage in anyway.

Using myself as an example, even if I didn't have an iPod with me (and I don't tend to use it except on a bus or plane), I have an innate tendency to shrink away from social interaction with strangers. I'm an introvert, and usually require some time to settle into my environment before I'm comfortable speaking with random people. It's not that I dislike people in general, but more that I am often uncertain and self-conscious in public, and I have a tendency to be absorbed in my own thoughts. How outgoing I feel on any particular day, will pretty much determine how willing I am to engage the people around me. I can withdraw even without the use of such a device. For instance, reading a book (although this is an interruptable activity lacking the "stand-back-I'm-not-really-listening" quality of the iPod) can sometimes be an effective discouragement to interaction, except to the more intrepidly outgoing.

I sense that I'm beginning to ramble. Did I have a point? :-)
From: bobo_amargo Date: September 18th, 2006 10:35 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Old Dude Goes Agro over iPowerment

Can't help remarking that back in the late eighties, Allan Bloom and Stanley Cavell had a brief exchange on the cultural import of the Sony Walkman. Bloom, precursor to Bertsch ;-), had read the wearing of the Walkman in his Closing of the American Mind as a gesture of empty youthful restiveness, restiveness emblematic of "their" general deafness to what the great tradition has to say.

Cavell asked whether or not it was rather the case that the young were trying to circumvent negative opinions from adults about the choices they were making, both musically and otherwise. Cavell elsewhere has defended Rousseau's so-called antisocial behavior as a response to the antisocial behavior inherent in socializing. Thus the iPod can be seen as a sheltering space from which to rebuild my desire to consent to the socius -- a place from which to prepare a face to meet the faces that I meet. There are and ought to be places, Cavell argues, from which I am not obligated to answer to the demands of others, places from which I can conceive of more genuine responses. Hence, his interest in Walden. (Imagine how Bloom took the comparison of the Walkman user to his much-beloved Jean-Jacques!)
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 18th, 2006 10:49 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Old Dude Goes Agro over iPowerment

I was thinking of Bloom's argument right as I was wrapping the piece up. It was an uncomfortable realization. As my discussion of the piece here suggests, I had mixed givings about making such a strong argument without much in the way of counterpoint. I do agree with Cavell -- and my significant other -- that having a place, however virtual, to retreat inside from which to not meet the hail is important and good, so long as it doesn't become a kind of unheimliche house arrest. At the same time, though, I also think that it's important to think through the aggressive coccooning that iPods and their ilk seem to promote. A refuge that's carved out of public or semi-public space testifies, as I wrote, to a deep unease with the places that used to provide refuge. And, while I can certainly see the appeal of "nomadic" thinking, I'm not afraid to discern within it a symptom of our historical conjuncture.

I loved the poem, BTW. I may have already written that. But in case I forget, know that I read it with relish a bunch of times and regard it, as well as the others you've shown me, as an inspiration for something I'd like to try in verse.
From: bobo_amargo Date: September 19th, 2006 12:32 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

The Reveries of a Solitary Walkman

Earlier this year there was a job posted at St. John's College (which, I later learned, had been one of the schools you considered, back in the early days). I wrote a long job application in which, among other things, I accounted for my vexed relation to Allan Bloom (who, you may recall, taught two separate semesters at my benighted alma mater, the University of Nevada, Reno). Here's the relevant passage:

///That someone of the international reputation of the late Allan Bloom should frequently sojourn in Reno, to lecture and to teach at the university, was, on the face of it, relatively strange, if not quite inexplicable. (The running, albeit sotto voce, explanation, perhaps apocryphal, was that -- unlikely though it seemed and, if true, ironic though it was -- he was an on-the-sly enthusiast of gaming.) But whatever the reason (or, to make a distinction he himself would have deemed nice, whatever the cause), there he indubitably was, making no fewer than three extended on-campus visits.The “pro”-seminars over which he presided were akin to public lectures in which, true to form, he took liberties, divagating as he saw fit.

I saw fit, in my turn, to learn as much as I could from the fits of incredulity Bloom could work himself into when decrying the desuetude of the republic of letters in the United States -- a desuetude that, despite his pronounced animadversions against the 60s and their aftermath, he in fact believed to be immanent in any Locke-inspired democracy from its outset. In other words, he held, with both Martin Heidegger and Leo Strauss (Bloom’s teacher), that the corruption of Western thought had begun, insidiously, long before the scabrous soixante-huitards had effected the scandal of cultural relativism -- the devaluation of all values -- so ardently deplored by the current generation of neocons.

Just about everything Bloom asserted set my teeth, newly cut, on edge. Spoiling for a fight of the mind, I would puff and argue, argue and puff, either in his presence or, more regularly, in the bravado forum of my own head. Whether dissenting or (here and there) concurring, I nevertheless encountered in Bloom a presence and charisma the indelibility of the impression of which, though from time to time attenuated, has never been quite effaced: it was the intimation that I and others, together, had a grand philosophical narrative to discover or actively to unforget. We had souls to complete. ///

The point of posting this here is to say that, though I hate to be ecumenical, I think you're right, Bloom's right (to an extent, though his tone, as always, is peremptory, smug, and elitist), and Cavell's right. I think what I jokingly referred to as iPowerment can be seen and used as a means to a further reach of public commitment and discourse; I fear me -- as you eloquently fear you -- that it's probably going to be used, more often than not, as a further expropriation of public space, as an infantile and infantilizing cocoon out of which no public-minded butterflies will metamorphose.

I also think you're right about one of the facets of the romantic urge to nomadism -- an idea that brushes the corners of my mind like a sparrow's wings since we used to discuss it back in grad school (I here and there defending, you there and here decrying). Though my attack on the old dude who wrote the Tikkun piece -- no latter day Irving Babbit, God be praised -- seems to belie it, I've actually budged a bit in your direction (even back then my thesis of embarrassment was, among other things, a critique of all such Bartleby-like gestures). I just think we need to be careful not to miss a psychological possibility that Shakespeare might have taught Lacan: the Other is always younger (and older) than I already, hence in some sense placidly bides her (or his) own time (the child is father of the senex figure).

Glad you liked the poem. You would've made a great son-in-law for pre-glasnost Bebe Finale. ;-)
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 19th, 2006 01:22 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

P.S. = <em>Pre-Script</em>

I have to go ride bikes. But I have to declare, in response to your last sentence, that I like older women and therefore bridle at the thought of being barred the station of partner-in-law for Bebe!
From: bobo_amargo Date: September 19th, 2006 09:33 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Concupiscent Curtness

Sorry, Charlie.

It is what I shall peremptorily (after my erstwhile mentor Bloom-with-His-Vast-Accumulation) call a structural impossibility that you should be Bebe's lover. If you are to enter into the Allegorick Tableau that is "Lack Design" (Lac des cygnes), you can't but be the unnamed Siegfried, lover and beloved of Odette, hence of Odile. Bebe Finale's work, as RISD-educated costume designer, is to undo the spell cast by Rothbart (aka Barbarossa), and thereby conjoin the good girl/bad girl in one, namely, Trudy Booth (with whom, and only with whom, shall you enter into human history and the happiness its accession will excite).

That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 19th, 2006 11:50 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Concupiscent Curtness

Well, when you put it that way. . . I suppose Trudy Booth represents the booty truth.

I still want to respond to your comment from yesterday in more detail. Busy now, but I'll try to do it soon.
From: maruta_us Date: September 19th, 2006 03:00 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

re: ipods

Sorry for the late response; I'm in the final stages of footnote-checking on a report. Does Cultural Studies mean focusing solely on the consumption side of politics? That's not a dis of your piece; it's a question--I don't know the field. Way back when, when I was doing arts reporting, it pulled me in to reporting on things like development and housing policy, because artists I was interested in were getting evicted from their spaces and couldn't perform in the city. Articles such as this one ripping Apple ("Electronic Trash a Ticking Time Bomb", http://www.commondreams.org/views06/0413-27.htm ) emphasize the production of toxic trash, which says something about the culture too. Hope all's good in your hood.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 19th, 2006 04:33 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: ipods

You're not late!

Cultural Studies generally has focused on the consumption end. There are exceptions, but the focus has usually been on end users and, more specifically, diversity of ends to which they put cultural goods to use.

I was actually thinking about some of that toxic trash stuff, as well as the labor practices at the Chinese factory where iPods are made, when I wrote the piece. I think that may have led to it having a more negative slant than I had initially envisioned. But you can only do so much in 1400 words and that's what I chose to do.

But I totally agree that it would be great to think about something like the iPod in a dualistic -- dare I say "dialectical"? -- manner, bearing in mind the relationship between practices of production and consumption.
From: jsterne Date: September 21st, 2006 01:59 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

ipods and trash

I noticed the trash thing too. It's not out yet because of the speed of academic publishing but I wrote a whole piece arguing that the only reason anyone calls computers "new" media anymore is because they keep getting thrown out. iPods and cellphones are even worse, of course.

Very interesting piece Charlie, heaps better than most of the iPod-studies stuff out there. I've got a longer comment over at Steven's blog. Been a busy week otherwise I would have caught this sooner.
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