Friday, March 26, 2010

Rockin' the Sexisms


My tolerance for sexism in rock n'roll music is pretty high, especially when the music is good. This is strange, considering I have almost no tolerance for sexism in advertising (chocolate commercials make me throw things), a low tolerance for sexism in humor (sitcom wife/mothers keep me away from most television), and I heartily appreciate all angles of feminist criticism (part of which is looking for sexist or "phallogocentric" language) when it comes to literature. And of course, real life sexists can eat it.

Today at the gym, while the 80s music blasted, I got to thinking about why so much rock n'roll, despite its sometimes campy sexism, its sometimes blatant misogyny, is music to my ears, while other rock music -- modern rock in particular -- pisses me off as much as the Yoplait commercial where the guy thinks his perpetually dieting wife is going to beat him with bars of soap as punishment for eating her yogurts.

Here's the shortlist of who doesn't bother me at all, and a song or two by each in case you can't think of anything sexist (kind of impossible with Van Halen):

Van Halen (Hot for Teacher, Beautiful Girls, the list would fill the screen...)
Steely Dan (Can't Buy a Thrill, Haitian Divorce, My Old School)
Robert Palmer (Addicted to Love esp. the video, Bad Case of Lovin' You)
The Guess Who (American Woman)

...and many more, whom I will never knock no matter how highly they rate a woman's knockers over her personality.

Before I get to the songs I hate -- the mostly modern rock, whiny, youth-composed anthems to all kinds of sexist views -- I'll explain why I enjoy Van Halen and Steely Dan and their ilk, and even tolerate some of their weakly sexist inferiors.

Don't tell me you take these guys seriously...

Van Halen's songs are so cheesy they can't possibly be serious. The David Lee Roth era produced some stupid yet funny songs and videos that seamlessly merge the sexist humor of their approach with the male urge to look at boobs, hair, and high-cut 80s bikini bottoms. "Hot for Teacher" is about a young boy's impotence as much as his objectification of his teacher. "Beautiful Girls" throws sex out there as something to be desired by men and women alike ("She looks to me like she'd like to fool around"), not something women have forced on them. So, even if these songs and videos express Roth's or any of the Van Halens' real-life attitudes toward women, there is nothing threatening or deeply insulting about them. They would just be the jackasses who make lewd comments, the jackasses who don't get your number. They don't really offend women, or they shouldn't anyway. They are sexy and superficial about women as much as they are about themselves. We can laugh at them, and even pity them. And when the music is fun (Van Halen is hardly my favorite kind of rock, but they are a good option if "the 80s" is all that's on the table) it just makes the lyrics extra funny. "I like the way the line runs up the back of the stocking." That's literally nothing to get your panties in a bunch about.

The words of men don't always bother me, and oftentimes neither do the images they make. I have plenty of words and images too.

So I think what's going on here is that Van Halen mostly lacks any kind of threat or hint of violence (read: rape), which is one real concern when it comes to determining whether the sexism exhibited by some form of art is actually damaging or dangerous. I did argue long ago that there may be some suggestion of violence in "Hot For Teacher," but I was comparing it to The Police's "Don't Stand so Close to Me" which is a much more two sided (but not completely), more carefully treated example of teacher-student romance. The little boys at the end of the "Teacher" video, the "future gang rapists" I think I called them, were probably not permanently altered by a couple days of shooting in pimp costumes and watching grown women do a lingerie show on desktops. It was probably fun for them, and for the women -- who got to work with little boys (who we all love, in their Oedipal innocence) instead of possibly stinky men. And it was all probably very silly.

Steely Dan is a tougher nut to crack when it comes to explaining away my deaf-ear turning and sometimes even appreciation for what some critics have called outright misogyny. I may like Van Halen, despite all their offenses, but I am enamored of the Dan. Since the first time I heard them and knew what I was listening to (it was "Josie"), I started to bounce and couldn't stop. It was like exceedingly excellent porn music, a catchy TV jingle, and a smooth jazz fusion all in one. The mid-catalog Dan is my favorite. The earliest stuff sounds too predictable, too much like rock with some extra instruments thrown in. Once they get into the funkier beats and had the constant high-hat going is where I really start to like it.

There was once much talk of Steely Dan's lyrics, because of the "perversities" their characters indulge in, and the supposed irony with which many of their lines are delivered, whether they are singing about women, drugs, or some "scene." The Yacht Rock series explains it all, if you are interested (It takes a lot of arm twisting to get good music fans to watch this show, but believe me it's worth it! My own arm was twisted into watching it a couple years back -- I resisted for months -- and I'm so glad I gave in.) Or there's this vintage '70s review of Aja that I treated a while back, wherein the Dan's misogyny is labeled downright "violent" and the author goes so far as to point out all the phalluses on the album. At any rate, the lyrics and the music go well together, but the lyrics and the music are two very distinct topics for discussion when it comes to what makes Steely Dan awesome (or awful. I think they're a love-it or hate-it thing). As for any violence that might lurk in Dan-land, I think it's the characters' and not the musicians'. The review I linked to explores the connection between the men and their madmen.

So I don't have a good excuse for them or myself. It was the '70s. I am entertained by the lyrics. I am moved (or at least my butt is moved) by the music. It's the Dionysian effect! I'm outside of myself and don't need any explanation. Or maybe, for me, it's Steely Dan's being pretty intelligent compared to their peers -- it's been called pussy rock (pertaining to both the wimpy listeners and the female subjects I guess), dork rock, etc. because of its appeal to some segment of smart people. The Eagles (mainstream, not incredibly bright) wanted to kick Fagen and Becker's dork asses. There was a feud. So exciting. Maybe this is why I like it. The stories.

I would defend some other rockers in a similar fashion to how I defend Van Halen. It's rock music -- it's not serious. Sometimes it sounds a little serious, but in many cases the male rockers are just acknowledging women's power over them, and their own impotence and helplessness when faced with a certain kind of "mama." By the 80s, I think a men's movement had begun.

Some more bits of not-so-bad and a-little-worse sexism... There are some classic rock artists who bother me, but they don't really make me angry. I think they are just not intelligent or creatively gifted enough to work properly with the sexisms they are trying to pull off. Three of them, Mellencamp, Springsteen, and Seger, create an ugly trifecta of burly American motorcylcing rock jerks in my book. I'll run'em down quickly.

John Mellencamp needs a lover that won't drive him crazy (don't get me started on people who purposefully use "that" instead of "who" to refer to other human beings), and his desperate cry for that lover, a cry with which we are supposed to empathize, is backed up by anthemic female voices and a wailing guitar riff that's supposed to stick with you, and either make you agree with Mellencamp or acquiesce to becoming someone's very agreeable doormat. The closing line of the chorus says it all for Mellencamps red-blooded outlook. He needs "Some girl who knows the meaning of/'Hey hit the highway!'" I think Mellencamp got caught up in copying The Boss's undying anthem approach to music, and accidentally used it for a song about something that should really be sung a little more coyly or tongue-in-cheek.

I could never figure out if Bob Seger is singing about prostitutes or just loose women in "The Fire Down Below." He finds her in the street every time, so we can probably assume the worst. I think this song might have been meant to make us aware of the problems of sex workers, but it comes off as sounding like they really want to be sex workers because they too have "got the fire down below." The message is unclear, the "they" is always unclear, and I worry that he wants us to feel sorry for the men who pay for sex. Second on Bob's list of shame is "Roll Me Away," where he picks up a girl, carries her halfway across the country and dumps her somewhere because she starts crying too much. No one can contain him, or his motorcycle. Grunt! I think Seger's sexism is kind of innocent, and he's trying to make us aware of situations that come up in American life, in cities and on the road (like he does successfully in "Turn the Page") but he's just not very adept at telling a woman's side of the story.

The Boss has the worst musical offense of the three motorcycle jerks I think. "Born to Run" is a pretty awful song. It's not purposely charged with sexism (at least his blind lust is aimed at a specific female target), but it's pretty tasteless. Maybe that's these guys problem -- no taste. From "Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims/And strap your hands 'cross my engines" to the juvenile attempts at Kerouac-like descriptions of life in the street (that make for a most rambling, monotone line delivery with moans and grinding teeth in between), it's just bad.

You can read my nasty remarks about Jimmy Buffet's offense, "Fins," here.

And then there was Kiss. I do hate Gene Simmons, and I won't make excuses for him like I did for the other American boys who just lack a little taste or intellect. Simmons is a first class dick. And he would interpret that as a compliment. So let's call him a jackass instead. If you have any doubts, here's an NPR interview he tried to suppress.

There are also a lot of classic songs that put me on the fence, but the silliness of the messages in them (if that's what they're supposed to be) make me like them anyway and sing along in a mocking voice. They are not part of substantial catalogs, so they don't necessitate any rearranging of the rock canon or anything. "Don't Fall in Love" is a good example of this kind of song that's so bad and inconsequential that it's OK. I mean who really needs to sing to his friend (or himself?) about why he shouldn't love a stripper? "If ya do yal find out sh'don't love yooo!" Hilarity. Also The Outfield's hit "Your Love" makes me wonder, with that line "I like my girls just a little bit older." Does he date young ones to keep up appearances and then sneak around with the older ones who can show him a trick or two? I guess it's ok, 'cause his girlfriend Josie is away having her own fun. She's back in Steely Dan's neighborhood being a raw flame and a livewire.

So now that I've either defended or waved away the sexisms of classic rock into the 1980s, I have to explain why I think there is no excuse for the sexisms of today's rock.

Nickelback: Take us seriously or we'll fuck you up, and then whine about it.

One of the disturbing things about today's music is the youth, and consequential lack of tact or forethought, of its lyric writers. Maybe some of our classic favorites were young when they wrote their first songs, but being 19 years old in the 1970s was a far different stage of life from being 19 years old in the 2000s. Our adolescence has grown sickeningly long, and I don't mean by that that I think everyone needs to grow up fast. I'm not even grown up. But I do know how to be independent. I think part of the problem with "these kids today" is they have their asses wiped for them, so when they get hurt they think they can say whatever they want about women (or men). They're not used to not getting their way. I think a couple generations back, young people not only got pushed around a little more and had to make their own way more often, but they were paradoxically more idealistic and had a healthier (even if it wasn't always optimistic) outlook despite their trials. I think of Neil Young writing "Sugar Mountain" at the turn of 20. You don't get that kind of thought and sincerity from young people's music today.

Another factor in the proliferation of rock sexisms is our desensitization. Now that the hip hop scene has made all kinds of sexisms mainstream, the rockers have carte blanche to do the same thing, only they put their tongues in their cheeks a little so we don't question their motives or accuse them of actually believing what they sing.

One more factor in these songs' disturbingness is that they get personal. Van Halen, for instance, addresses women. A woman, an individual, can shake that off. The motorcycle dudes address idealized women in their stupid innocent way. A modern rocker douche sings to a specific girl about the specific offenses she's supposedly perpetrated against him, and sometimes about the specific punishments he'll administer. It's creepy. We have come far enough, women, that blanket statements slide right off. Personal, directed violence will probably always be offensive and disturbing to us, and rightly so.

I was getting my hair cut the other night and I heard "Girls Like Cars and Money" by Good Charlotte. The song, if you listen real close at the end, it supposedly lamenting the fact that so many girls like cars and money("losing their souls in a material world"-- we've heard it all before, whiny Charlotte), but by the time you get that far the damage is done. Good Charlotte just told a whole lot of girls they're only good girls if they like cars and money. They sing it like it's truth. Maybe the reason girls like those things is because everyone's telling them to? Even the "rock" music, which is supposed to rock the boat.

There are plenty more where that came from, but then their are also all the break-up songs nowadays that call women (girls, at their age) bitches in so many words, and mask the violence of their lyrics by whining away so poignantly to muffled, bass-heavy, digitally compressed guitar churning. Puddle of Mudd has continual hits with songs where the speaker is "drowning in a pool of misery" where "she fucking hates me," or "she's fucking someone else." In one gem off their 2003 album some girl is told "you better shut it...or you'll be sorry." We have to wonder what this guy does to all these women that they so often sleep with other people and leave him quickly enough that he can write ten or more songs about their successive abandonments (he really wants us to feel sorry for him) to fill up an album every year or so. I first saw a video of theirs in 2001, and I knew some bad shit was going to rain down. (Why, it's not mudd at all! It's sewage!)

Nickelback will be my last specific example (just turn on the radio -- I don't want to keep looking up the horrible lyrics to these things). They have a huge fan following among those impressionable teenaged girls. I know they are impressionable because I was one once. Only my '90s heroes were too depressed to constantly hate on women, and while they may have contributed to my tail-end-of-GenX cynicism, they didn't make me want boys with cars or destroy my feminine self-worth like these jerks nowadays seem to want to do to their female audience. The Cobains, the Staleys, the lot of them, had bigger problems.

So then there was Nickelback. I think their mainstream, radio-friendly songs have been crafted to draw attention away from some of the filth they hide in their deep tracks. Filth about burning buildings and vandalizing places while getting shitfaced. And there's no humor to it, or social message even. The Ramones could sing the same thing and have it be funny or commentary. But wait, that's not about sex -- here we go. Nickelback has a song (I didn't bother to keep looking once I found this putrid thing) called "Figured You Out" that says it all for what we are to believe (some) young men expect from (all?) young women today. I won't put any of it here, you can click on it, and shudder away. Maybe today's rockers (the Nickelbackers are getting up there in age) have figured the young ladies out so well because they told them how to act in the first place. Leaving men isn't good -- Puddle of Mudd details the consequences. So I guess girls are supposed to stick around, get "figured out," and...wait...are they supposed to like the cars or will they get in trouble for that too? Shit!

I was just relieved to find this article on people not taking Nickelback seriously.

In my band I sing "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" back to back with "I Hate Myself for Lovin' You" and I introduce it as our feminist rock block. These come off as our best songs because, yeah, I get into them. I don't put notches in any lipstick case, but that line always brings out the feisty in me ("Put me in my place, muthafucka!" Haha.). The energy from Benatar's lyrics rolls right into the grunts in between the verses of the Joan Jett number (I heard that at the gym today too, and I think I like my extra bitchy version better -- we've permanently change the lyrics to "can't break free from that SHIT that you do"). These women were reacting to the sexisms they heard and experienced in the 1980s. If they could write those songs over today, I bet there would be a lot more anger there. Jett and Benatar's songs (as they are) seem like a healthy, measured reaction to dummy '80s boys being boys, and I don't feel like a she-sexist when I use their music as the same kind of reactionary outlet.

A final question. Where are the reactionary songs from today's lady rockers? Perhaps they're all too busy looking good and singing nonsense, or being good, by singing very quietly.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

2010 Corporate Speak Tour

I'm writing about music for you (you, expanding, half-anonymous, foggy cloud of blog readership) right now, but I got sidetracked when I accidentally landed on a terrible corporate website. I did a "2008 Corporate Speak Tour" that was pretty scathing (with good stuff on reading indexes too), but there is bound to be some fresh nonsense out there by now. Plus I let myself curse publicly now, so it's bound to be even more fun to get pissed off in twunny-ten.

Let's ask the corporate internet some questions. Today we'll deal with management consulting, one of the most enigmatic I-don't-know-whats that somehow employs a lot of rich bastards. The questions are mine. The answers are all them.

If I hire your management consultants to help my business, what are some long term goals I can look forward to achieving?

"Organizational and industry pre-eminence, manifest by the realization of sustainable change at core as a strategy(s) aimed at breaking from the status quo is implemented."

What are management engagements and how do they work? (I still don't know)

"Engagements are structured to enable the simultaneous achievement of short term, business-as-usual financial and operating objectives, in parallel with the orderly but rapid transition to the desired end state while mitigating for the temporary diminution of business momentum and organizational focus that can occur."

Can you list a couple examples of successful management overhauls you've...um...implemented? (I cut these off, but they don't get any clearer if you read them to the end.)

  • "The development and launch of a retail affinity business at one of the top 20 global asset management organizations, separate from but adjacent to a maturing core business...
  • The overhaul of a mission critical fund accounting platform...
  • The design of, negotiation of seed funding for and the launch of a transformational business application...
  • The rationalization of a large corporate services group..."
What is your firm's mission statement? (Notice "therefore" in the first line of the paragraph. Reminds me of a plagiarized freshman paper I read that started with "Thus...")

"(Company Name) was therefore founded with a single purpose: To enable the rapid, well executed implementation of sustainable change at core – that which is necessitated by the adoption of strategic decisions aimed at breaking from the status quo."

I looked around to see if this kind of corporate speak is standard in management consulting, but I seem to have found a real treat with this one. I am positive that it is not my misunderstanding of management nomenclature that makes deciphering such a website near impossible. There is a page on "implementation" that is just as painful, but amazingly it communicates things (since it's about the actual, concrete steps they take to overhaul the management), and I understood it just fine. Moreover, I don't think it's my problem understanding this lady's writing, but her problem knowing how to write, because the large reputable firms out there were able to find writers who use standard English. They still use stupid industry fad words like "solutions" and "holistic," but they are not trying to hide anything, or confuse, or impress.

Here's an excerpt from a big Boston firm that acts as sort of a mission statement:

"Our objective is not simply to apply best practice, but to invent it. We think creatively and partner with our clients to solve their toughest challenges."

Pretty clear, huh? And short. And besides the management-specific terms here and there, the rest of the site is just as clear and non-wordy.

"Hmm...Solutions...Uhh...Implementations... This shit is money!"

I don't know who decided it would be cool to have doctoral programs in "writing for business" or some shit, and I don't know why it became the standard to hire PhDs to write web copy. They do that, you know, when they have the money. As if having the most-difficult-to-understand website means you'll win the bid for building that museum or whatever. The museum folks will see right through your word-dickery. I think you might just trick other small to medium businesses into using your services, because they hire the same guys (or MBAs anyway) to write up their mission statements. Maybe the problem is not that these companies want too much expertise (or just dressed-to-impress bullshit) for their copy, but that the MBAs and business doctors (haha) aren't trained for that sort of thing. That writing thing.

I'm not saying everyone should hire an English degree holder to do this stuff. We hate this stuff! Stay away from us. But I think maybe those grad school programs I've seen for MAs in English are onto something when they market themselves toward corporate America (doesn't bother me -- those programs are usually on separate tracks from the lit degrees). Their websites, in good English, suggest that businesspeople, communications execs, technical writers, and copywriters of all sorts study some goddamn literature and write some decent, intelligible papers on specific topics before they venture out into the corporate world to barf out all sorts of gibberish onto their big flat screens. Of course the English departments use some line like "the MA will help your management style by making you a better communicator" or something, but I'm sure their motive is a little more selfish. They want some of that corporate money sending executives back to school on tuition reimbursement (there are no scholarships for those sorts of MAs), and they don't want to be inundated by the terrible writing produced by businesspeople anymore.

At the email marketing seminar I attended last week, we looked at a real sample email sent out by a finance company. The ladies at my table thought the copy was too long, but blamed themselves. "It's sort of in another language (finance)... so I can't judge it." Oh yes you can! It was not as bad as this management website, but it was a little pointless and wordy. You can tell those things without being a financier. I didn't say anything though, since copywriting is not part of email marketing education beyond the all important "email subject line."

So that's it for today. I've confirmed that the internet is still an awful place for the written language. This website is just one of millions of examples I'm sure you can find with minimal effort. I'm going to go finish your Van Halen etc. article now.

***In case you aren't adventurous or intrigued enough to have clicked the link to 2008's entry on corporate speak, here is the JuicyStudio.com link from that entry. It's got built in reading indexes (not the end-all be-all of whether something's readable, but useful especially for internet writing), and a funny interpretation of the scores. Today's site scored only at "academic paper" level despite its wordiness, but I chalk that up to its not really having said anything. A management firm should really be trying for a Newsweek or Wall Street Journal level of readability -- and for communicating something in the first place. Pharmaceutical sites, because they're so impressive, usually rate in "the government is covering something up" category.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

An Introvert's Delight

Robyn, Henry, and Erica
A Backyard Introvert Party

My friend Erica and I (introverts have friends! good ones too) have always laughed at how many people's first word choice to describe themselves is "outgoing." It makes her so mad, she put it in her blog profile, which ends with the hilarious line "I just choose to use better adjectives." Besides the stupid fact that whenever someone says this word it's usually with some dialect of Valley Girl up-speak (i'm, like soooo out-go-iiiiing?), we think the way people use the word is also really stupid.

There are some problems here. Outgoing does not necessarily mean extroverted. An introverted person can be "outgoing." How else would they ever get anything published? Or patented? Second, extroversion (the personality type that is always associated with outgoingness, the personality type exhibited by most Americans) is not essentially superior to introversion. In fact, for the sake of science, technology, literature, art, etc, introversion could be said to be the superior personality trait. To judge us by the modern standard of "productivity," we do quite well with our ingoingness. To judge us by a more classical standard of a well-rounded outer life and a healthy inner life, we might still pull ahead of the social butterflies. 60% of the gifted are introverts. Only 25% of the American population are introverts.

So the misunderstood definition problems lead to real life problems when all the extroverts assume that introversion is negative because A) we are not outgoing (an egregious assumption!) and B) we are a minority population, so our actions and behaviors should be judged against the majority's. Instead of two socially acceptable personality types (which is a generalization anyway -- of course there's a spectrum there), we end up with the good personality and the bad personality. And I might add that C) since so many of us are gifted and quiet, we come off as jerks. So now we're really the bad guys.

I've been stuck on Lisa Simpson lately, so I'll use her as my example of an introvert. Plus I think both introverts and extroverts can appreciate the example. Lisa may not have many friends, but that's not only because the writers like to make fun of nerds. They are equal opportunity with most of their approaches to two-sided funny situations, and they are also poking fun at the rest of the Springfield (American?) population for not accepting a Lisa, and for being generally stupid. Lisa is gifted. Lisa is disliked. Lisa spends time in her room alone. Lisa doesn't have constant companionship or a sidekick like Bart does (although he is pretty independent for an extrovert). Lisa worries about her lack of a schoolday social life, but revels in the very opportunities and advancements that set her apart from her peers. Despite her seeming lack of outgoingness, Lisa has fun with her family. She approaches people she admires to ask advice. She talks to grownups and intimidating people. She does get sad sometimes. But she is probably the most balanced character on the show. Despite her freakish intellect (she's supposed to be 8?) I think she is a very realistic portrayal of an introvert at work at life. It is work for us, but we like work.

While doing some sloppy internet research on people's perceptions of introversion, I came across an About.com article by a child psychologist who works with gifted children and their proud yet traumatized parents. She said many of the same things I'm saying here, nothing earth shattering. But a really fun thing she added to the definition was a comment box with a prompt -- "If introverts ran the world..." I was afraid to click on it, thinking lots of extroverts had probably snuck in to tell the introverts what jerks they are! But then I realized they wouldn't take the time to do something like that unless About.com accepts text messaging posts. They wouldn't be looking up information on their personality type in the first place. Anyhow, the responses, mostly by kids, were amazing. The poor things (I shouldn't pity them, but in high school introversion can be as bad for your image as being poor or something. Weee, I got to live with both!). They talked about how they can't get through study hall because everyone is texting and making noise while they write, how "friends" would walk in the door to their homes and call them "antisocial" even after being invited over... and everyone mentioned popularity contests coming to an end if introverts ran the world. And the quiet. They wanted some quiet.

While most of these symptoms clear up or become masked by adulthood, college does provide a second dose of unsolicited bad medicine. Group projects continue. "Greek life" is all the rage (I could never for the Greek life of me figure out what the hell sororities are for and why a university would endorse them). People still dress a certain way and look at you funny if you don't. I was lucky enough to finish undergrad as something closer to a 'grown-up,' so while I was pissed sometimes, I didn't feel too much pressure from anyone. But even in my last semester I felt the extroversion push -- I was embarrassed by the professor in front of a full class. She had offered us the choice of working together or finishing a problem on our own. So naturally I just sat there and started working, like I had in astronomy class a couple years back. I can't do math with other people. Only two of us opted out, and she called us out in turn. She asked me why I wasn't in a group. "I thought it was an option. I can do this faster alone." The stares were awful. They were already mad at me for knowing what a Fibonacci sequence is (jesus, isn't that from fourth grade?). Now I'd really done it.

Now that I've graduated and am trying to get into grad school (I don't know where else I'll fit in...I guess I am still worried about it, even at almost 30), I'm excited by the prospect of meeting more introverts with whom I can socialize. How about that? I would love to go out for drinks (or bowling, or hiking, or shopping -- we do things too) with a small group of people and talk to them in public. Introverts like each other, and some of us yearn for a social life. Certainly we yearn to have some close friends to share our ideas with. And sometimes we even like extroverts, because they're different. But they can be draining. That's one big problem I have with the definition of introvert. It always says we are "drained by being around other people." I think we're drained by being around people who talk a lot without saying anything, who get easily distracted from us and our ideas, and who expect us to hold up our own end of some small-talk and gossip dance. I think we introverts are very often energized by each other, even if we still need our alone time.

Next week I'm going to New York (The Bronx -- I love places that start with "The") to visit Erica, my fellow introverted thought-recorder. We have a time together. We talk to strangers together. We wander neighborhoods, make fun of people, eat out, visit libraries, write things together. We're smartypants together, but we laugh too often to look like a pair of nerds. She is probably a little closer to the middle of the spectrum than I. She initiates the stranger-danger conversations, gets people to buy drinks for her, etc. It's an adventure to do those things while all your thoughts are internally focused. Kind of like watching yourself. So even when we live out, we're still sort of living in.

Here's what happened last time I visited Erica, when we turned down an invite out to sit home and co-write a language gripe.

I'd thought of titling this post "Against Extroversion" but that's mean and polemical. Besides, if not for them, we wouldn't have as many people to poke fun at, we wouldn't be exceptional, and we would have lots more people trying to be friends with us (because they'd be like us), which would just be a pain in the ass. Yeah I said it.

Finally, I know there are introverts who give "living in your head" a bad name. I bet most crazy people were introverts before they snapped. I'll have to look that one up. But like I said about Lisa Simpson, being an introvert is work if you want to live a well balanced life, outside the asylum. (My friends and I are also guilty of making fun of fellow introverts who don't do the work.)

So we work. I never do things I don't want to do, like adopt a stupid fashion or talk to someone I loathe. (Frank Sinatra sarcastically said it best, "She never bothers with people she hates/That's why the lady is a tramp.") But I do push myself to have some kind of social life, to not neglect my friends even if they might be appearing to neglect me (not out of lack of care, but out of being caught up in their own heads like I am, not knowing what to say or not say, or being intermittently swamped with recording and working with the fruits of their thinking), and never allow myself to be labeled as shy or use my sometime quietness as an excuse not to speak up for my own interests. This is all work, but it makes life rich. It makes friendships meaningful. It makes creativity amount to something. And to borrow a word from extrovert vocabulary, in many ways this work leads to our own special kind of success.

immediate UPDATE:
I'm getting pretty excited about my trip now, and I just thought of another reason we intro nerds like to be around each other. Some of us are funny, and the only people who will laugh at some of the things we say are the other Lisa Simpsons. For instance, E and I joke that the way to get a guy to stop listening to you (if for some reason he's already listening) is to say "In the Renaissance..." We also enjoy linguistics and philosophy jokes, which are the best. Humor seems to be a very social thing. I realize now it might be the most social thing about some of us. Well, except the whole "writing things for other people to look at" thing. But that's just introversion pumped through a converter of sorts. There you have it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

City books, City hopes


After two days of email seminar I knew I wanted to go to a real good bookstore. Exit one personality, enter another. The transition was hard -- my feet hurt, I was hating the Loop; I almost turned around and crawled back on the train that would take me to the suburbs, where at least the sky is mostly visible. But then Michigan Avenue broke through, along with bright lake sky and "deconstructivism" as embodied by architecture. Refreshed by some warm air that didn't come from a stinky alley and some sun glints off the Gehry decon-band shell thing (what's it called?) I went underground to Millenium Station (millenial I guess, because the train's electric), and a few minutes later I was in Hyde Park -- and I was my whole self again.

Hyde Park is where the University of Chicago lives. With two of its bookstores. I've heard people say things about Hyde Park, "don't go there at night" kinds of things. I don't get it. Why would the area around U of C be unsafe? They can buy more cops if they need them, right? And they do buy a lot of them -- campus safety is everywhere, and I think they're real police officers. At least more real than the ones at my school, who were just bullies who happened to have a key that would get them into girls' dorm rooms in the middle of the night. Anyhow, I think Hyde Park is great. Parks full of kids. Young folks with dogs. Cafes and coffee shops (not intimidating). Used book smells. Sky, sun, warmth. Postage stamp yards under skinny houses. If this is still "the city," then boy do I like cities.

The Seminary Co-op Bookstore is a church basement full of books. Well organized books. New books. Obscure books. All the books on all the U of C syllabi. The ceilings are low, the books are jammed together on cheap wooden shelves. The literary criticism section is in a narrow niche in what used to be the furnace room. The furnace is still in there. They keep a straight-back chair in that cubbyhole, so you can sit and read a little, but not for too long. By the time the chair gets uncomfortable, the furnace rumbling has numbed your head anyway. There's a slim crack between the back shelf and a brick support column. Roland Barthes lives in it. You just kind of have to reach in and grab for him, and see what part you pull out.

Books and Pipes Coexist

I spent an hour and a half all over the store, fawning, drooling, leafing, skimming, hemming, hawing, equivocating. Once I'd finished my pile of wants (I let myself collect about 10), I then pared it down to four I couldn't do without. I needed the two brand new ones for reviews -- I'm writing a couple for the little humanities journal I'm editing. I also picked up a Kristeva reader and a Cixous text, to finally get down to business on some things. I had had, in my 10-stack, a third new title -- Philosophy in the Present, which is Badiou and Zizek yelling at each other about democracy and shit. Sorry guys, I took home the pair of girls instead. For today, lady theorists trump man philosophers. Men suffer too, I guess.

Four books was enough, especially when there are plenty of old things to be read, things that can be found for pennies on the dollar in used and scribbled-on form. And usually with cool 1960s covers, and usually translated by somebody I've heard of. Having no German and only some French so far, I have to know my translators' reputations going in.

One of these new treats, On Eloquence, by Denis Donoghue, is really up my alley (which is not a stinky windswept Chicago Loop alley), and translation is not an issue. It is on eloquence in literature, English literature specifically. I read the first chapter in transit. It begins with reasoned arguments and ends in eloquence. Part of Donoghue's main argument is that eloquence is gratuitous, and that eloquence is not rhetorical. But he can hardly convince us without some appeal to rhetoric (if he convinced us with eloquence he might prove himself wrong). So far he's got a nice mix going.

There's a cat lady on the train! Leopard pants, cat-print roller bag, pink pussycat purse, and you can picture the rest. She reminds me, I was recording city happenings.

After making a sound book investment (damn, I didn't buy any books on sound!) that will hopefully bear intellectual dividends, I made an even sounder investment in something more personal, a kind of spiritual investment. A block from the university, four kids in their postage stamp, picket-fenced yard were having an ART SALE! I jaywalked frantically to get to it. They saw me coming. "Oooh, are you having an exhibition?!" I called out. "No, it's a sale." And so I entered a third personality. I traipsed over their sidewalk chalk messages ("Stop here!" "Buy some ART!") to eye the pieces hanging on the fence, and began babbling to the cute little creatures who had fashioned those construction paper lovelies. Did they know how well they would brighten my day? Upon closer inspection, I realized that around a third of the objets d'art were bookmarks. Those kids are geniuses. I only had a little change on me, so I couldn't clean out their inventory, but I dropped 50 cents on what I selected as the best -- and the one I just knew, by its subject, was the little boy's. A skyscraper, blue, with paned windows and a penthouse protruding on top, all cut out carefully along its well-drafted outline. A perfect reminder of a city trip, and the perfect bookmark.

Now I'm laughing at the perfect blue skyscraper sticking out of The Portable Kristeva. She might ask, "Why is there a phallus protruding from my head!?" You tell me, Julia. I've often wondered the same thing. Anyhow, there is probably nothing in her writings on maternity or the phallic mother that can explain why a mother to a little boy would get so much joy out of purchasing a little cardboard piece of masculine expression from someone else's little boy. I just do.

I asked the kids if they were selling their art to buy ice cream. "If we get enough money!" the oldest said hungrily. I walked back to the train station, past the overflowing playground, past smart looking students, past lots of dogs and grown-up people, and my feet didn't hurt anymore.

Before the semi-narrative leaves Hyde Park behind, I forgot to mention the U of C campus, the very thing that was on my mind this morning on the way out here. (Where is here? I'm on a train again.) I had decided at the turn of the decade that "material conditions" would keep me local for my schooling (at least for right now), a decision that held up no matter how many times I listened to Bob Marley tell me not to "let da system get into ya head again." I had to choose some Chicago schools.

When I met with Mark Walter, my former philosophy professor, the other day, he said, "You applied to University of Chicago, right?" Um... no. I was intimidated horribly by it. Same goes for Northwestern. My first excuse? It's their web designers and department heads' faults. Whoever determines the "image" for the department has someone translate that into a brick wall of a website, or an online writeup of what appears to be an exclusive club, complete with photos of bespectacled, well-off looking mid-twenties students having very serious discussions. These images, coupled with department-head-drafted copy that haughtily boasts things like "we admit five students per year" can frighten a girl from the desert. Add to that anxiety over having transcripts from a community college and a no-name suburban liberal arts school, and those school's images contain a nightmarish amount of the "formidable." It is silly that an image (and I know it's just an image) could intimidate so well (intimidation seems to be their sole aim), and Dr. Walter made fun of me for it, as well he should. I've surfed so many school's websites I should know better. But so should the schools! Today the only way to apply is online, so naturally instead of mailing documents to some unknown location, prospective students will try to find out as much as they can about what goes on at, and how to get into, the school they love before clicking "submit." And they might never click. Why do the schools try so hard to intimidate? Princeton's website is just as snobby looking as any competitive school's, but with encouragement from a friend there, I realized that that snobbery is partially just a front. I ignored the front, and became totally confident that I could get into Princeton -- an Ivy League school! But not the University of Chicago. No way.

Finally, as if I haven't listed enough excuses, anecdotal evidence of rejection from the University of Chicago weighed heavily on me as well. My friend's father works there, and brings home tales of 4.0 GPAs and 99th percentile scores as being the only ticket in. Even with the scores (my verbals have always hovered around the 99th), according to him, a community college transcript will land you in the recycling bin. Or maybe even in the dumpster, just to add insult to injury. (WHAT was that kid thinking!?) Why he tells his daughter these awful things (I know she'd love to go there too, and she totally could) may have something to do with dysfunction, but the bad news has gotten to me now, and that can't be totally undone. My other anecdote comes from a young guy (MA in English holder, law school hopeful) who always chats me up or flirts with me or something at the coffee shop (attention, I feel silly I have to admit, that is heartening to a young mom). The future lawyer's friend has kids and applied to U of C for law. They told him he shouldn't even think about it if he wants to spend any time with his children.

These images, these stories, are horrible. And it's horrible that they have any effect on someone who knows they shouldn't have such an effect.

Mark Walter and Gerald Butters, the history professor with whom I took my Luxembourg trip,as well as my English adviser Dan Hipp, had all encouraged me to try for U of C. My excuse for Dr. Walter was the "intimidation by images." He properly laughed that away, and gave some encouraging words. I am supposed to be in grad school, he says. I definitely have all the qualities I need, and then some, he says. I don't need to worry about anything like that, he says. I guess I trust Dr. Walter best, because he's read more of my work than any of the English professors. And he's something of a celebrity with the current bunch at the DePaul philosophy department. As we walked across campus to the sound art class I talked with his wife (also a student) and used my French to make fun of Kristeva a little. "How can you be afraid of students speaking French at Chicago?" Dr. Walter butted in. "You can do that here in Aurora!" he says. Maybe he's onto something. My excuse for Dr. Butters was the "no kids allowed" anecdote. "You're no stay at home mom!" he says. "You'd go crazy! You have to go there." he says. My excuse for my very supportive adviser was "You didn't get in." 'Cause he didn't.

There's always 2011. This year was hard, from having to back off on big decisions I was excited about, to the subsequent reevaluation I had to make of myself and my abilities. In the panic of application season I had behaved as if I were a superhuman. In the post-graduation lull, too much time has become too much time to doubt.

So yesterday, just like the last time I visited the Seminary Coop Bookstore, I came out of that splendid church door and down the steps to gaze across the street at the sunset playing with the funny little knobs that decorate the spires of all the university's old buildings, at the argyle-clad and bespectacled students who speak French to one another, at the hippie-ish professors talking about their kids' colds, and wished I could be a part of it. Or anything like it.

The bookstore is not owned by the school (it really is a co-op). The campus begins on the west side of the street there. Where those glinty spires and the grassy quadrangle live. It occurred to me yesterday that I've never crossed the street.

A block away, there was a cute house for sale. "Urban Search Realty." It had the requisite postage-stamp yard, tiny basement windows encased in wet looking bricks, and a crooked front porch sagging under the weight of time. I pictured my little guy in that little yard, maybe having a block-wide "art sale" with the kids four doors down. He would try to outdo little David's skyscraper bookmark. Their cars, trucks, balls would roll off the saggy porch and into the daffodils. Think they'd trade for a Cape Cod in Batavia? (The Hyde Park Victorian's worth more than three times as much.)

We're doing pretty well this year, with mama working full time and all. There are cute and modest 1920s townhouses steps from U of C that cost less than my house did, thanks to the magic of cooperatives. I could always just forgo extra responsibilties and rent something nice. We've been schooled in small space living. When Mikey was born he came home to a 450 square foot duplex. If we need more help squeezing in, there's always IKEA's "living in 733 sq ft" (sounds great), "living in 285 sq ft" (god no!) room setups. Plus the elementary school is right next to the university. That's where the overflowing playground lives. Perhaps I could even perform a permanent merge of mother-self and scholar-self in a place like that. I could come in from da cold.

So now I'm thinking practically. For me, that means I might actually do something about something. I don't need that MA from DePaul to get a PhD. A year of writing grad school papers there would do me lots of good. Plus more French classes. We'll see. The University of Chicago isn't going anywhere. Nor are any of the other grand and storied schools who might take me in. There's always 2011. "Oh, sweet life!"

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Language and Experience of Listening: A Framed Thought Bubble

There are no cupholders on the Metra train. And I'm always drinking something. I've grown accustomed to transcribing scrawls from tea-stained, curly-edged pages.

This spring -- out of the institution, eager for the institution -- I'm sitting in on a special topics in philosophy class at my old school -- not every day but once every couple of weeks. It's a class in sound art, specifically the aesthetics of sound and the phenomenology of listening. My former professor asked me to come by once in a while to help facilitate good discussions. I guess I came in handy in that German Romantic Aesthetics class last year (I was all about the Schlegel), and maybe he fears a dead room in this half-term class. They are a large assortment of mainstream-looking students. I'd be fearful too. And I hope I'm not the only "student" who does the reading.

The reading list, and of course, the listening list, is exciting. I'm definitely going to read along with the class, and I even want to make a listening journal like the kids are required to do. (I wouldn't be so inclined to call them kids if it weren't for their outrageous hairstyles and destroyed jeans.) I thought of turning my Twitter account into a listening journal, exclusively. "A micro-blog of experiential learning through sound." What a tagline. I'd probably get more followers than I'd know what to do with. Gawd, I'm starting to think of my own online presence as a social marketing experiment. It's bad. But the real social marketing experiments I'm working on (for clients, for money) put shoes on my feet and put bacon in the boy's belly. So I can't remove that thinking model from my brain completely. (Train just arrived in Chicago. I'm here for an email marketing seminar!) So while I cannot fully lobotomize the marketing out of my brain just yet, I will at least make some attempt to keep'em separated. (In this paragraph, the frame intrudes on the thought bubble.)

Back to the good stuff. Wait. I'm realizing how weird I dress. Jeans (oops), 1940s looking heels, pearls (I look up to Lisa Simpson I guess) and a light blue shirt I just picked up that looks like the past and the future at the same time. A short tunic with 1960s Star Trek shoulders. The kind of thing some princess on a planet of advanced peoples was always wearing, reminiscent of the classical heights of Earth civilization, but with some geometric embellishment to prove her technological futuristicness. I, with my pointy shoulders, am the interloper here. I come from the planet BATAVIA. Look at our picture! We used to have the largest particle accelerator in the galaxy (it is true, friend), until the Swiss outdid us. They still send us their particle data for our expert analyses. So I, citizen of BATAVIA, Planet of Energy, am still quite superior to all of you. Now, teach me this skill you call "email marketing," earthlings. (See what happens to my brain when I have a regular job?)

BATAVIA and the edge of the Particle Accelerator's Cooling Ring

Ok, now back to the good stuff. The stuff of philosophy, which (if we trust our etymologies) is love and knowledge. I am loving to know about:

A) How we experience sound and sound-as-art, i.e. the phenomenology of listening

B) How we articulate the experience of sound and sound art, specifically how this language (really, all language) is so founded in the visual, so that some qualities of sound and the experience of sound might get lost in translation. Is this loss of understanding, or this "misreading" of sound inevitable? Can we bypass our seemingly visually oriented hard-wiring by simply creating a new aural lexicon?

The funny thing is, speech is aural. Maybe we were always trying to communicate what we were looking at (eventually, what we were thinking about) instead of what we were hearing. Onomatopoeia is good enough for that. We can make some good noises.

In class we listened to sound art of the genus musique concrete -- embers burning, doors squeaking, and a symphony of forest floor sounds. Also some garbled and flipped recordings of Blue Suede Shoes that were more like sampling. I took notes, to begin my listening journal, and I found myself describing the pieces in visual terms. Not only in vulgar visual terms, but in terms from the study of art. As an erstwhile art student I couldn't help but make analogies to various art movements and plastic media for each piece. Henry's "...pour une porte" is a ready-made-aided. Tenney's Elvis inspired "Collage #1," well it really is a collage. Xenakis' embers I likened to some kind of found object art, which can be said of most musique concrete. M...'s (don't have my notes, I'll fill the name in at home) piece, a harmonious composition (but with no melody) played by humans on instruments, I called a colorfield. This kind of categorization helps me to remember the sounds, and to more clearly analyze the elements of them. But even though I have a personal reason to be so grounded in the visual, I don't think I'm unique for it. The other students were not exactly visual in their descriptions, but they were very sucked into the concreteness of them, and re-expressed the sounds in worldy terms -- images conjured by the sounds-- like falling rain and creaking rocking chairs. Any non-painting sort of images I saw were filmic, timed and edited to the sounds. That kind of image is a little more in line with sound I suppose, since film is a temporal medium. The embers sounded like a psychological break, the Blue Suede Shoes like someone who wished to speak but couldn't make any intelligible noise.

So how can we listen without seeing images? Do we even want to do that? You know, we look at things without hearing them every day.

Lunch Break. Crazy city tea shop. "Tea Bites." Muffin shaped croissants with aromatic ingredients like Earl Grey tea leaves and pesto salmon (none of them are "Tuscan" thank goodness), bubble tea (coconut with red tea) wherein the bubbles are actually cubes. It must be from the future. Even in BATAVIA, bubbles are round.

Some kind of representation is the aim of much art, whether it is figurative and literal or not. It's very easy to see representation. Listening for it is a little more subtle. Language in all its arbitrariness is no practice at listening for representation. Music is practice at listening for representation. With mainstream aural art (such as music), representation is still quite accessible. We hear joy, despair, tension, speed -- well we sort of feel these things almost directly, without mediating them much (at least not very consciously). But music also represents, for instance, pastoral landscapes. The end to the musical means, in the case of say Vivaldi, seems to be almost completely visual, even if we are reminded of some real-life sounds on the way to the pasture. Many sound impressions become just as visual once we intend ourselves toward them. Industrial sounds are common in music, and they act a little like musique concrete in that they are real sounds of industry. But don't we end up with an image of a factory in our heads by the time a piece is through?

Some music, like Vivaldi's, was probably meant to put the pictures in our minds. Other composers probably cringe at the thought of their sounds being mediated into images. Some of the greats may have been capable of "music language immerision" and did not need any visual aid either to listen or to compose. But they must know that most of us do! Even the good, careful listeners. But anyhow, what poor deaf Beethoven wanted us to hear is none of our concern.

More on this very soon. I'm being kicked out of Chicago, and it's time for band practice. I will try not to envision anything at all as I sing.

No more pictures, of course. Just enjoy BATAVIA.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tuscany, by any other Name


I have long been disturbed and maddened by advertisers' use of nearly meaningless words and catch-phrases to strike people's fancies. Any meaning these phrases originally had has been lost, and replaced by the advertisers' intended meaning (or sometimes not much meaning at all). I've written before on the phrase "Now More Than Ever," and that one had a lot of angles to tackle. Today's awful word is a proper noun (or an adjective, depending on whether they're using it in copy or as a product name), and though it may not have the potentially devastating powers of manipulation as the aforementioned phrase (NMTE!), it is quite, quite stupid. TUSCANY.

I have two other beefs that I'll lump together with this one. Tuscany is on my shit list, but there are a couple of other examples of naming-manipulation that don't rub me quite so roughly in the wrong direction. They just irk. Paint colors -- specifically Ralph Lauren's are on my list of ridiculousness. (Though I'm sure there are worse paint names out there, I'm familiar with Ralph's. As a loyal customer, I can make fun of them.) Finally, I have to return to my feeble complaints about Anthropologie, this time about their product names. Feeble my complaints are, because Anthro's name games, more than any others, work like heck on me.

Tuscan chicken. Tastes like a dish from Tuscany. Reminds you of the Tuscan hills. Do people even know where Tuscany is? It's become the poster child for everything Italian, even though it's only one specific region not even home to the biggest cities people think of when they think "Italy." Most of the Italian food we eat is southern Italian, with the red sauces and all. Or Sicilian even, like the meats and some pizza styles. I'm no Italian foodie, so I know Toscana for its cultural contributions more than its culinary ones. Florence is there, you know, where Michelangelo's David is? The marketing doesn't remind us of that sort of thing. Advertisers working for fast food joints, housepaint brands, supermarkets, etc. have led us to associate "Tuscany" with peppers, chicken (they're actually bigger on beef there), cheese, beige things, things with pictures of grapes on them and a faux crackle finish...cypress trees, maybe. Hills. Something like California, but better (in consumer's minds) because it's Italy. I'm sure it's a lovely place, but the attention it's getting is directed at all the wrong things, and being used to promote some very American products. Mostly awful food.

Fortunately no cars have been Tuscany's namesake. I think the Hyundai Tucson beat carmakers to it, and fears of dyslexic drivers confusing the names (they probably don't know where Tucson is either) may have GM holding off on putting the "Chevy Tuscan" out just yet (they're the worst at car names). I did see a suburbanite with the license plate "Tuscan 1" on her champagne colored SUV. What the hell does that even MEAN!? I bet she has a beige kitchen with faux crackle finish walls and a wallpaper border of purple viney grapes. And lots of chicken in the freezer. And those friggin' bottles with oil and peppers and shit in them that just sit there on the counter looking "Tucsan."

Ralph is next. Ralph Lauren paint is great. I try to buy it exclusively for my tiny old house. It has a cream base instead of a white base, which makes it look warmer, more natural, muted, a little dirty, maybe even a little Tuscan. Goes with my ancient wood floors and the cobwebs on the crown molding, and covers the mystery spots on my walls that are made out of some pressed material that predates drywall. Behr paint, on the other hand, has a white base and I hate it. I used the Behr in my bathroom because I got some free paint. I thought the bathroom might be one room that would benefit from not having paint that looks pre-aged and pre-dirtied, but I was wrong. (See photo. "My God what have I done...white base!") So there, I love Ralph but I can't stand his paint names.

In the series that I usually buy from -- the "Vintage Masters" series -- the colors are great and really come from a master's palette (a term we arties actually use). Some of the names follow the series theme and are spot on -- "Vermeer Blue" is just like the blue on the head wrap of the girl with the pearl earring, "Impressionist" is just the color of a Monet sky, "Medieval Purple" matches the faded, once royal purples on the tapestries.

Some are typical paint names, you know, something about a meadow or a lilac, and those are okay. Others leave too much up to the imagination or just miss the mark, in both the realms of the concrete and the abstract. What color is "Basalt"? Well it's not a faint whisper of light blue like Ralph thinks it is. Ralph failed geology I guess. And most people probably would have no guess what "Basalt" is supposed to look like anyway. Next up, "Countess" -- what color is a countess? She's grey. And the "Duchess of Windsor" is pink, apparently. And what color is a "Hotel Room"? They're all grey. My living room color is called "Composed." Unless you've seen my living room, would you have any idea what color that is? It's a beautiful muted gold that changes colors in the light, accepts sun-dappling with grace, and resists scuffing from toy hammers, Hot Wheels cars, and little shoes. I love it. But "Composed" sounds like a blue to me, or a deep grey. It deserves better. I would have called it "Buckskin" or something. Or even "Sun Dapple." Though I guess my living room does compose me pretty well. "Temptation" is another interesting and abstract one. It's a light delicate pink, not deep pink or green or some other passionate color. Maybe delicate pink was "temptation" to a Victorian dandy who looked for that color in the face of his betrothed (since he couldn't see any more of her).

So "Composed." Me in my yellow living room.

Finally Ralph just has some "what were you thinking" color names. "Essex Cream"? -- I can hear Beavis and Butthead snorting at that one. "Pink Lips" (another delicate barely-there pink, maybe the china lips of someone who's had massive blood loss) is another doosy. And the made up person names! I can accept the paint namers trying to associate well known figures from history with regal looking colors (Edwardian Burgundy, Victorian Lace, Lady Elizabeth White...) but who the hell is "Larrington"? It's like you're supposed to make up some high falutin' story for the guy and make your guests think your dining room is painted like the fictitious Lord Larrington's salon. Maybe he was some 18th century fop who liked swollen purple colors on his painted floors. Ralph should make up the story for you and print it on the back of the paint chip. Then you can bring home a little pile of paint chip novellas and decide which narrative best suits your mud room.

Last for today I will complain a little about Anthropologie, but like I said, they know what they're doing with names. The 2010 spring catalog doesn't even use traditional names for the articles of clothing being described. Not only does the one-shoulder, drop-dead gorgeous piece that's caught your eye have a whimsical write-up, but it's not even referred to as a swimsuit -- it's a maillot! A gleaming pewter maillot! How can a girl resist? I can't blame them for fancying up the name. Their swimwear passes as evening wear. This one's even being worn as a shirt by this distracted Demeter over there. Other items I liked at first look but got pulled in by the name: Inked Paradise Dress (perfect -- I must have it), Drifting By Dress (shown on a blonde, probably wouldn't work on a brownie like me), Warm Season Romper (that sounds a little off, but real fun), Archeologist Button-Up (jeez!). I think that last one is the shirt you buy if you don't have an archeologist boyfriend to give you his. Then you can wear it around and play hard-to-get at the next big dig. "So... are you seeing anyone?" "Not really. I just sleep with archeologists and steal their shirts."

As I write these names out I can see some of them are not as whimsical when not paired with the photos, and some of them are just as devoid of meaning as "Tuscany." However, they are poetic. They lend themselves to story-weaving, like Ralph's made up lords and ladies. The sound of Anthro's names is good. They sound like they look.

Perhaps when you have a product that is good, waxing poetic about it is not a bad idea. Especially in a smaller target market like romantic clothing for 20 - 30 year old women, or paint for people who like old-looking houses. But using imagistic or emotionally loaded language to sell something crappy to everyone who walks by is just not cool. Tuscany, I'm boycotting your products (that have nothing to do with you). Anthropologie, I know what you're doing to me, but I'd like to place an order...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Struggling with Philosophies of Culture


I've been to a couple of conferences (mostly Germans, mostly Kantians) in the past year where philosophies of culture were a hot topic. I have mentioned here before that cultural studies lose me quite often, even when they have a philosophical approach.

One distinction that came up at both conferences was between philosophical approaches to culture and anthropological approaches to culture. I do understand this distinction. Whereas philosophies of culture are concerned with "acts of the human spirit" (the transcendental stuff of culture), anthropology seeks answers about the human animal. Kant treats both approaches to culture, and though I think he only uses the word "transcendental" in reference to culture but one time (I think his most famous and recurring use of "transcendental" was for describing that space between a priori and a posteriori knowledge, in trying to figure out how things like math can possibly apply to the real world -- and that's not how these guys are using it), that seems to be the word that some neo-Kantians have latched onto for cultural philosophy's use. At the "Kant's 5 Questions" conference at UIC last November, one presenter read a paper with "Trancendental Anthropology" in the title, which slapped the two together and just confused the hell out of me. I wasn't the only one there who didn't think what he was doing was very rigorous. But at last month's Chicago Area German Philosophy Consortium conference at DePaul I started to get worried that I wouldn't be able to follow the paper when "trancendental" surfaced again in reference to culture.

Of course I know what transcendental means in a few different contexts, but it gets confusing when the culture philosophers all seem to use it differently. Or at least these guys writing the papers do. I don't see it used in any of the Kant/Kantian quotes on the presenters' handouts. Sebastian Luft gave a paper titled "From the Critique of Reason to the Critique of Culture: The Concept of Culture in the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism." So I knew going in I'd be confused anyway. The paper was mostly about Cassirer.

Here are some interesting points (some from my notes, some from the handout):

The relationship between culture and science, including science as a culture. Cassirer seems to sort of demote science to a kind of culture, equal to all the others, and therefore it is to have its concepts determined by that great over-archer of human endeavors, philosophy. I love that science is in quotes, like it's less real than either culture or philosophy. The bold parts are what I took away as the meat of the thing.

"This one basic factum -- the equivocation of the notion of 'science' in culture -- proves the necessity of philosophy. This is the definition of philosophy that it sublates this equivocation, that it in principle determines the concept of science, that it points out the constant factor of science in all directions."

Luft seems to be very interested in the science problems, yet he kept saying "I'm no philosopher of science" during the Q & A. Maybe he should be, because he likes to talk about it! One consideration that he made, and that his commentator asked for some expansion on, was that Kant's excitement about Newtonian science fueled his discussions on science, and that now that Newtonian science has been asked to roll over by several new "sciences," maybe someone needs to start from scratch instead of latching onto whatever bits of Kant still make good sense and trying to build on them, like so many neo-Kantians seem to want to do.

Next, here is Cassirer talking about a philosophy of culture and what it should do, which, even if he didn't use the word, sounds like something the neo-Kantians would call "transcendental."

"[Philosophy as a critique of culture] seeks to understand and to show how every content of culture...presupposes an original act of the human spirit. Herein the basic thesis of idealism finds its true and complete confirmation."

So anything that calls itself (or is called) a culture is essentially idealistic. I can dig it. More in that vein...

"Idealism in all its various forms rejects the conception that mind submits to an outward fate. Mind must realize and actualize its own freedom in order to possess it, and the whole work of culture is this very process of self-actualization."

This last quote is a little problematic because it requires culture to be sort of mentally or philosophically active and/or progressive, and to think of itself as necessarily autonomous. Cassirer says he wants to resist Hegel, but he can't totally shake the progressive spirit thing -- the ghost of the geist. Today someone might argue that Cassirer's above passage poses too stringent requirements for what can be classified as a culture, and that this is not a very pluralistic view of culture. Luft argued throughout that Cassirer was a die-hard pluralist, and some of the professors in the audience took issue with that. I was kind of on the fence, because, really how pluralistic can we expect someone to be after they've fled the Nazis. As the commentator brought up, Cassirer's concepts of culture may be a little dated, coming from an us-and-them era. That's nothing to hold against him, but it might be a clue that his philosophy needs some updating or expanding upon. If culture really is progressive, than its philosophers must be progressive as well.

Another possible objection brought up (but not held by) the commentator was that Cassirer's repeated references to forms would bring charges of "formalism" against him by "the postmodernists." That's a pretty big group to lump together, and a pretty trumped up charge, but I wouldn't put it past them to make such charges, if I might (for a moment) jump on board with generalizing about "the postmodernists."

I don't have too much trouble with Cassirer's work on man as the symbolic animal and his system of symbolic forms. I've read enough stuff like that to be able to manage it. It's all this transcending, neo-Kantian, philosophy-to-culture relationship stuff that confuses me, and I'm not sure what the point of some of it is, i.e. whether it's supposed to be liberating or what.

Finally, Cassirer is interesting to me because he and my buddy Heidegger were at odds for some time. At one point Cassirer demanded that we "escape the concepts Heidegger bequeathed us and get on with the unfinished project of modernity." (Actually that line was in the commentating grad student's paper so I don't know if he was quoting it or if he wrote it. It has a nice ring to it, even if it is un-Heidegger!)

This last conference was cool because all the commentators were young and nervous. A professor would give a paper and some doctoral student from another school (so they're critiquing a professor with whom they don't have a working relationship) would have lots of questions and some polemics prepared for them. Luft's commentator was a late-20s kid from Northwestern complete with round spectacles and a bowtie, who had just about finished his dissertation. His suggestions and objections brought a lot of these confusing things into focus, even if he was a little funny to watch. A caricature of a junior philosopher.

Well these are some things I learned, some things I can talk about, and some things that I don't know where to begin in order to be able to talk about them. I don't have a big question to end with, because honestly I'm at the stage where I'm not grounded enough in philosophies of culture to even ask a good question. I bet I could bullshit a paper on some of these things, but I certainly don't feel confident in discussing them with anyone intelligent. Now that I've blasted my confession out into the ether, maybe someone can embarrass me with some answers to any questions I might appear to be nebulously posing.

Also all this German immersion has me embarrassed about not "having any German" as Nietzsche puts it. Even the Victorian girls in the novels have some German. They love to read their Schiller. Really all the German I know is from philosophy, so if you have some aufhebungen or a dasein to discuss, that's cool, but don't ask me if I spreche.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Whole Lotta S&M...I mean...SMM

Social Media Marketing! It can be sadistic and it can be masochistic.

I began working as a pretty much full time social marketer this week. I'm not totally new to it, having frequented the social venues of the web for a couple years and having worked as a Jane-of-all-trades at an internet marketing firm for a couple years as well. But boy is it different interacting with people online when you are a business! In one week I have inherited one Twitter personality, developed one new Twitter personality from scratch (I like to call them personalities, but I guess they're really just clients), ditto on these clients' Facebook fan pages, and as the only in-house writer/Englishy sort I've started both of their blogs from scratch. I feel like I've been doing it for a month already. The learning curve is steep. And I'm also a little overwhelmed.

Going into this week I was skeptical -- both about whether I would enjoy this (or whether I could even pull it off) and about whether SMM really does anything at all. I'm not going to become one of those SMM bloggers, but I have to say I have been pleasantly surprised both by the quality of interactions with people and other businesses, and by my own sustained interest in and stamina for continous mini-research-projects and daily posting efforts. I'm still getting the hang of things, for sure, but because of the numbers I think I'm doing something right.

The only drawbacks to this are 1) I am online way too much (at least I am paid for it and building my clients' customer bases in the meantine), and 2) now I'm pretty much tied to Facebook at least until I start grad school and hand over some of the SMM torch flame. I had downgraded Facebook in my personal hierarchy of internet-stuffs to the point where I only checked updates through email. But now I actually have to go there. That part could change though, since I just got Tweetdeck.

Downloading, installing, "syncing," and now just staring at these Tweetdeck feeds was the culmination of this week's efforts. As my triple account management began to get hairy, I broke down and looked for a handy tool. The whole time I just kept thinking how weird this is to be "LinkedIn" (another SMM tool) to everything at once. All my Twitter personalities, including the real me, are there, and Monday morning's project is to get my clients' Facebook pages hooked up to it. I feel a little satisfaction and a little self-loathing (there's the masochism in the "SMM") at the same time as the Tweetdeck updates fade in and out at the top right of my screen, not really distracting me from writing or reading.

A good thing that happened? I found Twitter @robynebyrde messages (ahem...mentions) that I missed! I also figured out that you can make an account to better follow your clicks on bit.ly and see how many people actually look at your stuff. (I can't use Google Analytics or anything to track those bitties so I'm glad bit.ly does it for me.)

Of course I have all kinds of philosophical thoughts on these sorts of communication, but I'll save those for later. For now I'm caught up in the reality of using all the thingies, and seeing their measurable results.

(And just look at all my cute new labels. Again, I'm a little grossed out by them, even though I know they mean people will find my blog and read it.)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Empty Gadgetry? Or not.


I search for all kinds of things online at my job, and some of those search strings always seem to land me in the "techie" or "gadget junkie" communities. Sometimes there's revolutionary, cool stuff to look at, other times I'm just amazed at the pointlessness of a device. Today I'm experiencing a bit of both.

This morning Google News threw an article at me about a "new" device that turns any skin surface into a touch pad. The name is "Skinput" which is hilarious. The article writer, Clay Dillow, is a little thankful that some "creative thinkers" at Carnegie Mellon and Microsoft could come up with such a thing, but his suggestions for its use are anything but creative. After explaining the technology, which is actually pretty cool (it even takes measurements of body tissue densities to know precisely where you're tapping...), Dillow's first response is to "question the benefits." But his examples that are supposed to show that the device is cumbersome are all about entertainment and mobile communications! "[If using] my TV remote means I have to don an armband at all times, I’m not sure I’ve gained anything," he comments. Of course, the gadget hounds who are reading about Skinput because they want to use it for all their iPod apps might be turned off by the realization that it works like a remote control, complete with extra hardware you have to carry around and not lose.

Dillow comes back to say that the technology truly is amazing, and could be convenient and useful once it is developed to the point where armbands and other devices are not necessary, and interfaces are projected onto any surface you choose without wires or doohickeys. Sure, this is the kind of thing we've seen in movies for the past fifteen years (or maybe even in the fifties...). Yes, it would be very useful. But is that all this Skinput thing can do?

I've seen projected interfaces in the most humble settings -- my son and I played a game of virtual bubble popping and lily pad jumping that was projected onto the floor of the Old Navy store. This thing used light beams that you interrupt as its sensors (how old fashioned) but the creativity was there at least.

Aside from the video game sorts of possibilties for Skinput, I was thinking that this could be a medically revolutionary device, especially for children or disabled adults. At its most basic it could be an aid at the doctor's office where extra hardware is not an issue ("Tap where it hurts," or "Here's where your tummy is inside you...now poke it and make it digest something!"), and at a more sophisticated level there must be a million possibilities for therapeutic uses. Children with sensory issues, speech disorders, and other disabilties could be Skinput's best benefactees, and their innate, unspoilt creativity could help develop it even further. Except for momming, I'm no child educator so I can't expand on that too much. But I can at least imagine!

Finally, (but not finally, really) even more technologically crazy would be the use of this device as a body map (or something) to aid in surgeries where the surgical assistants have already been traded in for lasers and micro-robotics. If it was just a projected light I wouldn't say this, but the fact that it senses densities, etc, perhaps means this idea isn't so far fetched.

The Skinput article ends with Dillow giving it one last weak push: "If nothing else [nothing? ...really?] it will turn heads on the street when you start scrolling through your apps via your forearm." And we are back to the apps and the turning of other gadget junkies' heads.

One commenter so far suggested a medical use -- lost limb therapy. Brilliant. The rest were excited about virtual joysticks, etc.

Reading things like this just makes me wonder how much real-world imagination (oxymoron? I think not!) the creators of such gadgets have -- hopefully more than their reviewers. I also worry that all the efforts in communication and computer technology these days are being funneled into making apps easier to use and way more interwoven with our lives than they really need to be. Shouldn't technology help the real world? Not just help itself keep proliferating onto and into itself?

Of course, reader, as you may suspect, I had some more risque ideas -- some risque but also psychologically or sexually therapeutic -- for what a Skinput device could do (another angle overlooked by the techies), but I didn't let my imagination run too far in that direction. I'm still at work. It would be inappropriate.