Thursday, April 21, 2011

I have a digital hangover. There are all these cultural enclaves online, and I belong to none of them, I simply know they exist. I can't commit to many things because I'm so sensitive about how it's committing my persona to something that could be a mistake. This is the sort of thought that haunts people who are voyeurs. We're born watchers, so are forever apprehensive of what it would be like to be watched ourselves. The internet, television, books, theater- their structured narratives give relief to the endlessly self-conscious. There's a barrier, however, between being an observer and really being inside the experience of what's on display. How can we ever begin to relate to visual and cognitive sensibilities of others?

People's frames for reading experience are so fascinating, and what I wouldn't give to inhabit someone else's mind, truly. Anyone's. I'd love to know how differently others relate to routines, their social engagements, what they struggle with internally, what gives them moments of pause and happiness in their everyday experience, what thoughts they cycle through over and over again, what feels like enlightenment to them, what they would never hesitate over that I can't help but stumble on. Knowing how someone else deals with their self consciousness and how they conjure acts of will, wow, I simply can't imagine. It's so unattainable, regardless of what we term connectivity. It's a little crazy making to consider how much we can never really access someone else's internal self.

Susan Sontag wrote in a letter to Borges that the thing she feared or lamented about a future where books as she knew them would become obsolete and digitized, was that it meant "the death of inwardness."

Yet what our digital selves seem to allow for are exaggerations and dramatizations of our inwardness- interior creatures like myself fall easily into internet k-holes- we read, we observe, we reflect quietly in this dialogue with our inwardness. More external people find avenues to perform their interests, wear their influences, expose their habits and creative selves.

I think it's so funny that people all over the world love silly cats doing stupid shit- it's that rare thing where enjoyment of it transcends class, identity, ideology. Enjoyment of cute animal memes is, as long as one has access to technology that is, the great equalizer in matters of aesthetic taste. Who knew?

I am being silly. I know what Sontag was really addressing was a bit bigger than this- the loss of reading books is the loss of a particular way of being in the world, where careful consideration of voluminous amounts of information does something to the brain that allows it to resist information that is corrosive and false in spectacle culture. It builds the muscles of the mind and creates empathy and love for others' idiosyncrasies, because one can't really inhabit a character going through all sorts of triumphs and despair without having some measure of sympathy for said character. I have never-ending ambivalence and confusion about which paths to follow into the modern world, which formulas work, what decisions are the right ones. I look forward to the end of the semester when I might immerse myself in a huge novel that will help me re-orient myself to the modern world, and understand things in a deeper, sweeter, more expansive way than the way I do now, where my knowledge feels so fragmented, and I have trouble pulling myself out of it, and most of my thoughts outside of Pieter Bruegel and Augustine de Hippo and Derrida and Walter Benjamin and the agency of "things" revolve around Rebecca fucking Black and what it must be like to be a teenager in America right now and whether things are "empire" or "post-empire." I suppose a mind that treats information like some kind of game is not the worst thing, it's a sort of play. And play might be the thing to keep us sane when everything seems like so much detritus.

Do thoughts recorded without severe editing just render them hopelessly facile? Perhaps only my wandering thoughts. Le sigh.

Friday, April 15, 2011

I have been reading some of St. Augustine's Confessions, and thinking about the confessional, and how ready I am to always be making confessions myself, and how much confession dominates the way we write now. Derrida wrote about confessional discourse: "It is not a truth to be known or...revealed." "We are always already in the process of excusing ourselves, or even asking forgiveness, precisely in this ambiguous and perjerous mode."

The confession of something pervades our little streams of information, these maps we make inscribing ourselves upon others' consciousness. It's an interesting mode we use, often indicting ourselves and simultaneously making judgments and attempting to sum up neatly our ways of viewing all at the same time.

Is life rich and complicated and endlessly complex or is it all easily encapsulated in tiny little phrases and aphorisms? Why are things like Twitter and Facebook so successful? Well, a host of reasons, and a lot having to do with corporate stuff that I will never fully understand because I cannot bring myself to be interested enough, but part of it is that these small bites of information, good copy, little jokes, little morsels of universalizing purported truths move us. They make the endless streams of information smaller, easier to digest. Why do we have to be inclined to diagnose our impulses as good or bad? I hate trying to have to figure this stuff out. Once you have the question in mind of what constitutes good behavior, you have to worry you do not see what you are being complicit with in your time that is bad for other people and bad for the world. You have to start to worry that you are like Stevens in Ishiguro's Remains of the Day: too consumed with your quotidian contemporary, too narrow in vision, misunderstanding of the bold strokes necessary to make your own and other lives better, or simply too cowardly to make the moves you should, too unwilling to change. How to know if you are on the wrong or right side of history? It seems like there is simply too much in the world to know, but the burden is upon us all to know (and act accordingly).

Making a marker of yourself in the world is problematic, and starting from nowhere is worse yet. Once you draw a line of yourself that announces your small piece of knowledge of the way things are you are up for an insane amount of scrutiny. You become potential schadenfreude fodder, you illustrate this little piece of what your access to insight is and the crazy universe of what you do not know. And we are seemingly expected to know everything because everything is available to us. No matter what we make we are leaving something out. No matter what we know we do not know enough to be right. To choose one thing is to exclude something else.

Ah, I am confessing myself here, aren't I? I worry about what I do not know, it's something that's haunted me forever, the little thing that threads its way through every other thing on this little confessional blog (and this is clearly all the soliloquy of someone procrastinating, aware of this excercise being the neglect of another). And something I am not allowed to excuse because I have to at least pretend to be some kind of authority on something, and I must attempt to know, I must argue that I know. And by putting that out here, into this endless stream of identity collisions and performances, I am asking someone, somewhere, to forgive me my trespasses of ignorance and mistakes made as a consequence. Oh, the internet.

Friday, April 01, 2011

It's so unnerving to get glimpses into how another person might perceive you and realize that it differs so greatly from how you perceive yourself. It's like the moment when you hear a recording of your voice or see video footage of yourself and realize there's a big gap between the reality of yourself in the world and the you that exists in your own mind and body. Self awareness is displacing. And if it's attended by judgment then that's just never comfortable. It's downright depressing. There's a reason people repeat the platitude that "what other people think of you is none of your business." We all know how difficult it is to shake the worst things anyone has had to say about us, and how easy to just stew in them, and let them dictate how we view ourselves, completely ignoring or forgetting every compliment we've been paid, every kindness we've been shown. Shame is so fucking powerful.

I can be such a terrible student. It's so frustrating to know that caring about material deeply does nothing to yield insight about it, and no one wakes up one day with the ability to write clearly and insightfully about things outside of themselves. It takes many steps to produce something really readable, that's why stylistic formalities exist, not just to frustrate the writer but to make things more legible for the dear reader.

I know I need to give things more "air time," and context when it comes to any kind of visual or cultural analysis. I must face facts that I'm not only not getting anything down on paper because there might be just one more book out there that I should maybe read before I sit down to write that's really going to prove to be that final illuminating puzzle piece I need to get me to enlightenment and understanding, but really that I'm so terrified that what's going to come out will be unclear and that I truly just have nothing to say and that I just don't have the necessary faculties and background to get through all of these projects successfully, that I avoid even trying to write at all costs.

There's so much to account for that I don't know what to focus on any of the time. I need to have more awareness about what is impacting my thinking, too, and be careful about my behavior as a result of whatever I'm allowing to influence me.

I wrote a paper recently, and I didn't know it was terrible, but when I re-read it later it of course dawned on me that it was in fact terrible . My argument was unclear, my punctuation was a mess, it wasn't up to snuff by any particular measure. I thought I was saying something complicated, but I wasn't really saying much of anything at all. It was, rightfully, graded quite harshly.

I was dwelling on this for a couple of days, and in that time, also reading about Derrida, and thinking about the fragmentary writing of Gertrude Stein and how much closer I think it gets to expressing something true than a very polished piece of writing ever does, and having thoughts like "I hate sentences!" and generally just being a cliche of an angsty, depressed college student, when I went to a class where the professor was giving a lecture on the rudiments of good essay writing. I was feeling melancholy and self loathing and I started asking him questions in class about, like, what good a thesis does anyway when we consider that objective truth is impossible and a thesis is this assertion of illusion as truth  that you're asking your reader to buy and that seems unfair, and language is made up of signs that are part of a network of signs and isn't it better to assert that you are going to interrogate an idea or a network of ideas but not argue that something is true because that would be anathema to everything we've been discussing about the construction of meaning? My thinking about it was muddled, and still is, but I have problems with the whole framework that all essay writing should be making an argument. That seems silly and narrow. Anyway, if it sounds like I was being really annoying and inarticulate, than I've at least done a good job here of accurately rendering the scene. I can't believe I was being the archetype of the weird, antagonistic person  in class. I was that student everyone hates because she's off topic and self absorbed and is wasting the class and the professor's time.

Like anyone who becomes that figure, I wasn't doing it on purpose. I didn't even realize I was doing it. In that moment, I couldn't step outside myself, or whatever I was saying I erroneously  believed to actually be contributing to the class, not detracting from it. But self awareness came to me later, and I shudder to think how I was perceived in that moment, just as I shudder to think how all of the terrible writing I've done that I thought was great was betraying me as ignorant when I didn't realize it was. And now I shudder to consider that was one moment where I didn't realize what I was doing but had insight into it later and felt appropriate remorse and shame, but, how many moments have gone by where I thought I was doing the right thing with absolutely no perspective about how wrong it was? It doesn't do any good to dwell on the mistakes that have gone by I suppose. They can't really be remedied now. But I don't want to go about life completely unaware how ridiculous I'm being, how much people sitting around me are giving me the "judging you" face and I don't even realize it.


Friday, March 25, 2011

The British e4 show Misfits is the first show I’ve experienced as animated gif before ever viewing a single episode. I internet stumbled across this looping image of the character of Nathan Young, portrayed by the Irish actor Robert Sheehan, impaled on an exposed pipe and making the gesture that, in gif form, could be understood to signify popular internet-speak phrasings like “U Mad?” or “haters gonna hate.”

This “whatever, guys” attitude so pervasively affected in anonymous blogging makes a show like Misfits a natural subject for a contemporary obsessive fandom that finds its home on the internet. The character of Nathan speaks almost exclusively in the key of sarcasm, he is derisive of everyone around him, never second guesses the first thoughts that occur to him, is endlessly sure of himself and fiercely unapologetic about his bald crassness.  He is also transfixing, full of wit, and with Sheehan’s charismatic and nuanced portrayal, and his easily contorting, expressive face in a constant state of emoting, at once supremely gif-friendly and much more than these zippy, contained (and satisfying in their own way) moments. In the gif above the joke is that he’s making the “whatever, man” gesture while grotesquely, morbidly pierced through. His superpower of immortality is treated as mundane, a very old, traditional joke structure with uniquely modern variation. If Nathan in some respects stands-in for the perceived lack of self-consciousness that attends today’s social actors and our modes of communicating, he then proceeds to teach us how to tweak this way of being for better and worse. His sarcasm is occasionally set aside for authentic sincerity, it is also hardly ever truly mean. His gumption is almost winning, but when he teeters on nihilism, he doesn’t only irritate, he’s downright dangerous.

Misfits has mostly been compared to Skins and Heroes, or thought of as a combination of the two, and if you sum up what the premise is that appears true.  It also sounds ridiculous and awful. A band of young, amoralistic offenders sentenced to community service are caught in a lightning storm and left with superpowers.  The way it unfolds, however, it ends up having a closer analogue in something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another show with a terrible sounding conceit that was actually brilliant, where the supernatural elements were used as devices to illustrate something true about human characters, and the way it pans out is far less clich├ęd than that makes it sound. Reality co-existed with the science fiction fantasy, neither overrode the other. The structure of Misfits is also in the vein of Buffy’s monster-of-the-week stories feeding a well-plotted longer story arc. The changes the characters go through feel earned (their lack of growth or self-knowledge, likewise, is pretty believable).  Yet Misfits goes to cruder, darker places then Buffy did, and it has no admirable hero to really root for in the same way. If we’re to do the “It’s blank reference meets blank reference” summary, maybe it could be more accurately located as Buffy meets Deadwood. Its protagonists aren’t just flawed, they are often really questionable in their decisions and more often than not unsentimental in their relationship to the idea of death.  Death abounds, bodies pile up. Whenever a serious moment gets the characters close to regret about something like, for instance, killing their probation worker, Nathan is there to make some clever, Irish-brogue inflected dick joke and provide levity, and the interaction there registers that there’s something  useful, charming and really unsettling about this fuck-it attitude. You could both legitimately and kind of appallingly want to be like Nathan, which reminds me of how I felt about Swearengin. A lot of us sort of are like Nathan, or secretly want to be, or we have instincts that are actively acted upon by him and maybe that’s part of the thrill of him- that he always gets away with his id-fueled behavior.  

Everything about the show is gray. The filters on the cameras render everyone pallid. The skies are always smoky and cloudy and ominous. They live up to all my naive Dickensian fantasies. Everyone but Nathan is harangued and troubled by their desires, the girls and boys alike alternate between experiencing the pleasure of satisfying impulses, and feeling cursed by their mere existence. Arrested development, money troubles, difficulty with self-expression and the fall out of frustration that attends that- it seems apt for today that the characters are in their twenties rather than teenagers, and living out a very deranged “Breakfast Club,” scenario. These are superheroes in a prolonged recession, struggling with the inescapable knowledge of what a comforting lie John Hughes gave us about different identities communing.

The really great thing about Misfits is that in all its unabashed offensiveness (nowhere else will you hear so many euphemisms for genitalia tossed off so casually), its mixed messages about what constitutes good behavior, is that its violence and grotesquery and sheer absurdity is consistently betrayed by some core sweetness, and it doesn’t have to labor to point out its shifts to a viewer, or strike one as a wild mood swing of tone. When erratic, inappropriate, endlessly blathering Nathan sings a soft lullaby to a baby, it doesn’t come across as sudden pandering, or strange reformation. We not only want to believe he means it, we do.

There is this slippage occuring in how access to narrative works. The moving gif isn't far away from what Edweard Muybridge's photo motion studies were doing, or fragments of modernist poems that signified the new fragmentary ways of relating to information emerging as societal relationships shifted in the early twentieth century. I wonder sometimes if the popularity of the GIF is born out of this need to slow down and break down all of the complicated signs that make up how something like a television show works and give viewer/readers one small piece of information to analyze and read what it denotes and dispatches with the particular emotion it houses. Misfits works so well, is popular in this moment because, it is both so good at giving us these moments and also at allowing its audience to partipate in the narrative construction, co-opt it as their own, and take in all of the vast tonal shifts in a way that is immanently relatable, and reducible down to things understood.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

It is more impossible than ever to keep your mind in one place. It is more possible than ever to have insight into your peers mental maps, though we still experience people almost entirely as they perform themselves, and not as they are. Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr updates advertise one's persona, but can never accurately capture the many textures and senses of a person. And yet, simultaneously, what one writes of oneself might be a much more complicated and interesting reflection of a person than what they do in your company.

Social media  fundamentally changing the way our brains relate to information. It's like I can physically feel it happening... my ways of seeing are just so different now. It's not that any of it is new to me- I was one of the first people I knew to use AIM and have a Friendster account. I fell in love with someone in part because he wrote such beautiful e-mails. The difference is that NPR now does news stories about moms on facebook, and everyone knows what youtube is, and almost no one is under the illusion that one's internet self is private anymore. Collisions are more rapid, how we perform ourselves is a much more complicated and ubiquitous business, and the division between my internet experience and my experience of "reality," is so much more blurry. Is putting reality in quotes cheesy/ridiculous/too sci-fi? I am at least aware that thinking about this stuff puts me in a category that is suspicious and none too cool.

I'm worried about my ability to concentrate. I go for these long walks and am able to construct entire coherent sounding papers while wandering about, I guess partially because I'm allowing my mind to reach that "flow" state necessary for unbridled acts of creating. I think perhaps I need to start taking notes of thoughts, but I don't deal well with any kind of interruption. I'm not able to hold onto the thought, and the line of thought I'm following dwindles, becomes reduced, loses its complexity. It's something I have trouble with in constructing and writing and using evidentiary support- stream of consciousness is a style I'm more drawn to, but it isn't professional, and to make an effective argument all kinds of citation of what previous work has been done is understandably necessary. But, to pause and check something, as quickly as I can, I lose all sense of what I was trying to say and have to retrace my steps.

Is it possible to have an original thought? I think sometimes that the problem with the many blogging and micro blogging mediums is that it forces our ways of expressing into strictly advised codes. There's something both really pleasurable and stupid about expressing a thought in hashtag form, or making our expressions the expressions of pop culture with gifs. Humans are so fascinatingly dichotomous, we cleverly subvert one code and give in easily to another. Limitations are helpful to create forums for creative play, but the playing then only goes so far.

I wonder all the time what it would be like to be growing up with all this media. Maybe our parents asked themselves the very same thing. I am having the predictable thoughts endemic to a person my age. But it's just so impossibly weird to see my friend's toddler happily playing games on the iphone, using his fingers to turn things off and on, to find the one he wants and move things around as he sees fit. He's not even two years old. I don't want to be the sort of person who has thoughts like "kids these days," I also think it's so weird that I respond to things in terms of "full of fail" or "epic win." Srsly. WTF you guise. That's not a natural reaction, it's one my brain has learned to find funny and then kind of predictable, and impossible to wash out of my linguistic habits.

Research tends to bear out how much of what we think is a reiteration of something already said by someone else. Televisual and theater and music medium stuff tends to always be new because, however old and recycled the material being enacted, we can see the physical incarnation of the material by human beings that are new. Nothing is new and everything is new now. Everything is co-opted, reinvented, criticality and appropriation are production. It's crazy how much Roland Barthes knew about authorship and human nature.

I feel lucky and relieved lately when I spend time with friends, and it also feels more natural than ever to have it punctuated by digital interruptions.

Is this boring stuff to think about? I was with a friend last night and we noticed that whether we were hanging out at a monastery to learn about their history of winemaking or at a restaurant frequented by sorority girls or walking through the park everyone was talking about their facebook updates, catching up on things they actually already knew about. We also noticed that we never stop complaining about the ads on Pandora radio and we also will probably never pay for an ad-free account. We are constantly measuring how to survive and be pleased with life and get away with what we can.

I went to a lecture given by a historian this last semester and he was so angry about twitter. There's a lot of valid concern that history is being forgotten, that we're more self absorbed and pre-occupied than ever, that we don't know how to remember and think critically. I'm sympathetic, and also had to fight against this thought I had about his anger about twitter: that it was a predictable thing to be irritated about, that his students were bored with his reaction to it, that even saying that instigated this impulse to write him off when he had a lot of interesting things to say. It might be that that makes me more conservative than I ever realized. Meta meta meta modernism can be tricky and dangerous, but generating excitement about the future is a much more effective political motivator than decrying what's wrong.

The difficult thing to get away from is how enticing the chaos of people's creations on the internet are. So much is crass and strange and inappropriate and funny. I don't think meanness or bigotry are ever excusable, but many strange voices asserting themselves- I find it so relentlessly interesting and seductive.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My love for John Waters knows few bounds. I spent a lot of time this semester researching and thinking about spectacle, and of every artist, he had the most surprising and interesting things to say about it, wanting it to allow for a "tiny, private moment of joy," if it's to be incarnated at all, making room possibly for the small ways we can make spectacles of ourselves, and constitute ourselves according to our own privately constructed rubrics, defying the rules of patriarchical/dominant culture, but found the sort of spectacles of say, times square, rather loathesome.

And then, he tends to always turn around and say things like this, in a recent issue of Artforum, where artists were polled on their favorite films of 2010, where he chose Jackass 3-D as one of the best: “A scatological, gay, s/m, borderline snuff movie amazingly embraced by a wide, American blue-collar family audience. Isn’t Steve-O chugging down a glass of sweat collected from the ass-crack of an obese man and then vomiting at you in 3-D the purest moment of raw cinema anarchy this year?”

I love this kind of subversive reading of things, and how much here Waters manages to simultaneously stay true to his own unique sensibilities and yet always be undeniably the "John Waters" persona.

When someone told me once that I was undoubtedtly "an odd bird," I started to worry that continuity even in how we socially act in our day to day was an imperative at which I was spectacularly failing. But I'm finding that there's lots of theory that makes space for strangeness. Oddness, and the failure to live up to expectations, can be their own sort of win.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

It was suggested in a class recently that us post-post-post viewers/consumers of art wouldn't quite “locate meaninglessness” when there’s an intense clash of signs in modernism-era images, the kind that critic Griselda Pollock identifies in her analysis of Rosetti’s “obsessively repetitive” paintings of women so dominant in the nineteenth century, because we’ve been taught, at this point, to hold a lot of different kinds of information at once. It’s also possible we don’t hold similar conceptions of meaning now. We get and make mash-ups everywhere, pleasure from entertainment is incredibly difficult to parse. 

This is coming from someone who, with all my suspicions about decadent, commodity-driven, late-capitalist culture, finds pleasure in locating meaning where there was no authorial intent, particularly in pop culture. Even if it’s supposed to be mindlessly consumed in big old greasy gobfuls, even if there’s no Brechtian device asking me as a viewer to pause over it’s constructedness, even while  it’s chock full of complicated commercial agendas, I find something like Glee, which could very easily be read as just emphasizing a lot of empty platitudes while creating and suggesting how to fulfill all of the “pseudo-needs” that Guy Debord loathed so much, such a great embrace of absurdity, non-static identities, and a space of both hyper-seriousness and hyper-camp, extremely pleasurable.  It’s possible I should be more apprehensive about this pleasure than I am. What exactly is it speaking to? I love clashes of signs, but really only when each one seems to signify something I have an extremely idiosyncratic relationship to, and I’m the author constructing it’s meaning for my own use and delight.  This next episode supposedly contains, of all things:

A guy who played Harry Potter 
in an internet meme video
of a college DIY version
of a harry potter *musical*,
playing a gay character,
in a  private, all-boy school’s show choir,
singing a love song
in the general direction of the show’s primary queer character, in a show full of queer characters,
in an all-boy showtune style,
in the form of a cover of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream (that kewpie-doll re-inscriber of gender-identity, kind of, except she married Russell Brand, who does nothing but trouble gender-binaries, in his manic gypsy dream boy way).

It’s practically slash-fiction! Actually, it doesn't even function in the way slash-fiction does: queering hetero-normative representations of relationships (for an awesome sort of sample please see video artist Elisa Kreisinger's amazing remix series editing Real Housewives of New York and Sex and the City into lesbian love stories at where there are none, because it's supplying, first hand, queer storylines (especially in the case of the Santana/Brittany relationship which feels like the most honest, least stigmatized, least hysterical portrayal of bisexuality I've ever seen in any televisual medium).  It’s a giant fantasia of queer subversion, and DIY aesthetics, and playfulness with the rules of the commercial world, and it also speaks to every “guilty pleasure” desire in my heart of hearts that is essentially a really odd mix of someone who grew up loving showtunes and musicals, feminism, punk music, DIY culture, fashion magazines and MTV in equal measures.

Maybe I’m a sucker? Are there things I’m missing here? I really want to read it as simultaneously the most popular, ostensibly mainstream entertainment, but also, the queerest thing that ever existed, and I don’t think those things have be thought of as mutually exclusive at all. In fact, the closer they get, the more hopeful I want to feel about mass culture and where our values sit, but there’s also the very real potential that just because I’m reading it the way I want to, others are reading it very very differently- one of the major troubles of our post-author-death world, I suppose.