Friday, August 31, 2007


My most recent post concerned the fact that the comic book 'renaissance' that has happened since the 1980s can be linked quite directly to the development of a comic book specialty market. Thinking with this, we can see how other media change when they are filtered through a specialty market.

Some elaborations follow. In the first part, I respond to fellow blogger Bob Archambeau. In the second part, I apply this model of comic bookification to the world of music sales.


My fellow blogger Bob Archambeau, in a comment on this very blog, says:

Great post! But (as Columbo would say), there's just one more thing I gotta ask here: does the whole narrowcasting/cable thing really only lead to programming by and for a creative class? I mean, sure, it does. Right. And for all the reasons you describe. But what about all of the crappo cable? The Home Shopping Networks and Spike TV-style channels? I don't mean to knock Spike -- I like MXC as much as the next giggling idiot on the couch -- but you'd hardly call it highbrow.
I'll take these one-by-one. Think of it as a Deborah Solomon Q & A, like we see every Sunday in the New York Times, except not quite as full of shit as Deborah Solomon:

Q: Does the whole narrowcasting/cable thing really only lead to programming by and for a creative class?

A: No, it doesn't. Those outside of the creative class will still have programming created for them, and this programming will likely have the same problems (and promises) as before. Stick with the model of comic books. Are there still comic books made for kids? You betcha. The difference is that the market for comics now focuses not only on children, but also on well-educated adults (whereas, once upon a time, 'adult comic book reader' really did imply that the audience member was either mentally handicapped or in the military; I'm not making that up).

Q: But what about all the crappo cable?

A: It's still there. It's going to be there for a long time. However, if cable (and satellite) move more to a subscription-based model, there could be an even more dramatic divergence of the creative class's entertainment (made by and for the members of what Alvin Gouldner called the CCD, the culture of critical discourse). By buddy Mark Brewin pointed out on the phone the other day how, in 2002, James W. Carey described an encounter with a dude from Europe, who said something like: "You know, it used to be that all the interesting television was made in Europe [okay, probably an overstatement at best--ed.], and now the most interesting television is being produced and aired in the U.S." This is, I think, tied intimately to changes in how television organizes its creative labor given the realities of a relative surfeit of networks/channels.


A friend of mine with contacts in the music retail world told me recently that there is much buzz surrounding what is going to change after the Xmas season of 2007. After that retail push, it seems, it will be likely that Barnes & Noble will give up on selling music in their stores. This means a few things. First, if you're going to do any holiday cd shopping, you might want to do it at Barnes & Noble, in January of 2008, when they will be liquidating stock. Second, this seems to be very much in line with the comic-bookification (okay, I'll never use this term again) model. The point: retail music is going to become even more of a specialty market, now more than ever. Of course, there are already specialty music stores, so this doesn't represent a sea change so much as a further adjustment. Still, once Barnes & Noble gives up on cds, others will follow, and we may see the kind of deep bifurcation between top 40 sales in stores and 'specialty' sales that we saw in the 1980s. It gets more complicated, of course, because music can easily be purchased online, and this alters the entire dynamic (here it's significant that comic books have yet to be successfully distributed as an online product). The question, which has hovered like a vulture over music for a long time, is this: can the largest corporations involved in music production and sales come up with a strategy to handle these shifts? Or will they continue to respond as they have for a while, with greater emphasis on generating a small number of mega-hits? We shall see... However, the culmination of factors that has created an arguable resurgence in comics and in television may lead the music industry away from the kind of 'creative class' approach that we have seen in these other media.

That said, there's a chance for the music industry to develop itself (and its listeners) by taking advantage of subscription-based services (satellite radio & webcasting seem like natural allies, though the industry often turns a cold shoulder to these new alternatives to broadcasting). Napster (i.e., the 'new' Napster) has already tried this, with little success. But this approach is not dead, yet.

Monday, August 27, 2007


McLuhan famously said that you know a medium has died when people use it to create 'art.' He was probably wrong to use the word 'dead', but as with much of what McLuhan said, it's thought-provoking.

For some time now, I have considered what this idea of McLuhan's means in terms of comic books. A very brief history of comic books goes something like this: In the 1930s, comic books were created largely for a juvenile audience. As comics became more popular during the 1940s, there came into existence a wealth of genres of comic books. These genres included: crime comics, horror comics, superhero comics (duh), kiddie comics, pirate comics, war comics, romance comics, and much else. Numerous producers (and a few distributors) of comics enjoyed the benefits of a robust demand for all kinds of comics. Of more importance here, the 'exhibitor/vendor' role for comic books was almost always played by supermarkets and drugstores (where comics were, of course, placed right next to the Pep cereal and the ointments). The Comic Book Code and competition from television in the 1950s began to eat away at the comic book market. The number of producers dwindled, as did the viability of the comic book market.

Cut to the 1980s, when a new way to sell comics came into its own. The comic book specialty store (exemplified perhaps by "the Android's Dungeon," of Simpsons fame) came into its own. As Amy Nyberg explains in her very good book on the Comic Book Code--"Seal of Approval"--the specialty store was unanticipated by the creators of the Comic Book Code, and gave comic book producers (including small, independently-run outfits) the chance to bypass the provisions of the Code, while also a) creating a market for adult comic books, and b) opening up a chance for autonomy on the part of comic book artists/writers/producers. By the late 1980s, specialty stores could be found throughout the suburban U.S. Journalists began running with the "comic books aren't just for kids any more" story. Long story short: a change in how comics were sold fed back into the system by which they were created and distributed. I would argue that this change in production also represented a new blooming of the comic book medium (albeit one that gets tremendously blown out of proportion).

Let's do what the title of this post suggests: let's use this as a model for other media. I'll start with television. Television was the definitive form of 'mass communication' for decades. The 3 big networks staked claims on very-large audiences. Think M*A*S*H. Think Cosby Show. Think They Honeymooners. Cable television comes along, and eventually, there is the opportunity to differentiate markets much more, creating the opportunity for something similar to the specialty sales of comics. Television has become increasingly unmoored from the "big 3" approach, and this has led to new specialty programming, including almost anything that tv critics hail as 'genius': The Sopranos is an obvious example, Deadwood goes right along with it, and let's also hear it for Turner Classic Movies. Much as when comics began to move into a specialty market, the production of television programming has been hitched to a creative class of writers, actors, and producers. At the risk of sounding like I agree with laissez faire apologists for the existing media structure (who get things precisely wrong on this stuff; more on that later), this new system is more supportive of experimentation with programming, and also more capable of supporting quality programming. This doesn't mean everything is okay now (far from it), but there are echoes of McLuhan here: just as 'television' as traditionally construed, seems to be dying, there's some really great stuff out there. In a sense, it's because the stakes have been lowered (because no one can expect the kind of ratings bonanzas that tv had in the 1970s) that creativity has crept in.

This argument I am making may sound elitist, and I'll own up to it. Opening up television to a creative class is something very different from handling it to 'the people'. But I'd rather have programming that comes from a creative class--in this case, people who have worked for years on their crafts--than solely in the hands of unresponsive plutocrats. Gramscians are rightly suspicious of manipulation of this creative class by the power-holders. Others (including Joe Turow) suspect that this breakdown of the mass audience may go hand-in-hand with the erosion of any common culture in the U.S., and that specialty audiences may represent the development of virtual gated communities. These suspicions are well-founded. Still, there is something to be said for expanding options from a surprisingly competitive marketplace. Now, the job is to make it both more competitive, more varied, and more responsive to the needs of the public. I'll try to get this done by Thursday...

The same changes that occur when a medium is hitched to specialty audiences can be applied to music, and to radio. More on that later.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Fielding A Question Regarding Democracy:

Here at Pravda Kid, I try to be responsive to my readers. In this spirit, here is a comment from one Michael K, regarding my earlier post, involving the Horner/Baker study of Salt River Tickets in 19th Century U.S. elections. Says good Michael K:
Let me see if I follow you here. Schudson is right that there is too much emphasis on intersubjectivity in democracy studies; but Horner and Brewin are right that there isn't enough of it in contemporary democratic practice? Which of these theses seems more plausible to you? Or, is there a way to resolve the apparent contradiction and assert both?
I don't think there's much of a contradiction here, but I (think I) get Michael K.'s point. Some say Democracy could use some good ol' bodily involvement, some visceral punch, a forum where people get together, get drunk, party, argue, and vote. This approach finds its roots in Deweyan thought (sometimes dried up like a prune and turned into Habermasian thought). Meanwhile, an opposed camp tells us that this love of conversation/affiliation/intersubjectivity misses some important issues. Schudson, for one, tells us that conversation has all kinds of problems and should not be theoretically situated as as the 'soul' of democracy. Amongst other things, the well-nigh single-minded focus on conversation tends to undervalue the role of information in modern ('mass'?) democracies.

Fine. So, Michael K.'s question stands: How do I resolve this? To resolve this, I begin by pointing out something that may very well not be true: there is no zero-sum situation here. It is possible for a social polity also to be well-informed while also being engaged on the bodily level (showing up to rallies, arguing loudly, getting drunk on election day). So, let's go for well-informed people with strong community allegiances. An emphasis on rationality/information (in theory or in practice) is always going to be in danger of masking underlying interests that fuel politics (Chantal Mouffe makes this point much better than myself). An emphasis on bodily engagement--often exemplified by political rallies--is always going to be in danger of being fascist. Instead of having the poorly informed, uninterested (alienated) citizens (the situation in which 'information/rationality' and 'involvement' are both 'low' on the magical democracy-meter), why not have well-informed, involved citizens?

This is all kind of obvious. The bitter pill to swallow is that I'm not finding any way to get us to this dreamy synthesis of engagement and information. So, I conclude on the following note: hanging above all of this is the idea of social control. The fear of the masses (smelly, irrational, prone to bouts of genocide) pervades this debate, as well it might after the last 100 years. The call for rationality and an informed electorate have done duty as appeals for social control. In light of this, a warping of Michael K.'s question would be as follows: "Which option [information or involvement], if each is boiled down and opposed to the other, would be the most dangerous now?" I think we're living in a situation where the culture of journalism/politics (two institutions with a 'bureaucratic affinity' for each other, as the fella says) has leaned strongly in the direction of disengagement. We're paying the price for that in terms of alienated citizens, low voter turnout, etc. But (and I think this is largely consistent with Brewin & Horner's ideas) creating greater bodily involvement--making democracy literally more fiery--might simply embolden the trampling of reason that the Frankfurt school dudes (Horkheimer especially) feared so much. I bow to Schudson, who reminds us of the limits of conversation (which I'm extending into the world of 'bodily involvement' here), and of the not-so-terrible role played by information in politics. Once again, I seem to be taking the side of gesellschaft.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

In praise of gesellschaft: notes on the quiet glory of the bureaucrat.

So, I'm reading the Nation a few weeks ago and I come across this piece "In Praise of Red Tape," by Christopher Hayes. It's a smart little essay, I think. Hayes points out that bureaucrats in the U.S. government--normally a derided subpopulation whose machinations are thought to suck the life out of all that is good in the world--are to be praised for their insistence on following the rules and making things relatively difficult for the Bush administration. Because the Bush administration wants to break the rules, and because bureaucrats are all about minding the rules, this puts U.S. government bureaucrats in the role of button-down 'truth to power' types, unwilling to bow to the cult of Cheney that demands loyalty (a charismatic concept, after all) above all. Who stands in the way of the Bush administration's destructive swath? Midlevel intelligence professionals, State Department planners, scientists "in the bowels of the" EPA, and other clipboard-holding Bob Newhart types.

When thinking about this, I'm reminded of cinematic tributes to the low-level bureaucrat, and I think we see this kind of praise of the bureaucrat, or of rational-legal authority, in a few different movies: Hot Fuzz, Jaws, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

First, Hot Fuzz. The plot: a truly incredibly talented and successful cop (Simon Pegg) is determined by his supervisors to be an embarrassment to the London force, where his efficiency and results put his peers to shame. He's rather forcefully directed to become a cop in a small English town, where there is said to be the lowest crime rate in Britain. The plot thickens, and in time, the small town is shown to be a violent place where a cabal of city leaders exterminate anyone and anything that get in the way of their dreams for a picturesque, Village Green kind of place. Hilarious violence ensues. The upswing of this? The movie pits a supercop--a stand-in for the written law and for meritocracy--against the idyll of the small town. A lesser (and less funny) film would show the cop falling in love with the slower pace of the small town. But no, this gemeinschaft striver cop peels the surface off the small town, to show all the wriggly, evil stuff that goes on in the gemeinschaft-y little town. Without sermonizing, the movie suggests that the comfy small town has problems of its own (without getting into the very dumb American Beauty-like suburb-bashing that I'll take on some other time). The viewer is left with a sense that strong community bonds aren't all they are cracked up to be in our 21st century world.

A similar theme turns up in Jaws. For those who forget what Jaws is all about (except, one assumes, for the shark), it's really the story of a small town (on an island, no less) sheriff (Roy Scheider)--here it's easy to think that he might be the grown-up version of Simon Pegg's character in Hot Fuzz, after years in the small town--who keeps does his level best to face up to the challenge presented by a 25-foot Great White Shark that keeps on eating the visitors to his island. He struggles with bureaucrats who, like the town leaders in Hot Fuzz, keep on getting in the way, making his job impossible. He also faces off against a raft of amateur, self-appointed shark-hunters, who are portrayed as a bunch of drunken dimbulbs. But against the odds, he winds up joining forces with an ichthyologist and a whale-hunter to go out and kill the damn shark. Gemeinschaft rules. The villagers simply don't have the ability to do what needs doing (and many fight against the worthy goals).

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three pits two minor bureaucrats against a ring of international crooks, who have taken the titular subway train, and threaten to kill everyone on it if they don't get paid. It's the same thing: the mayor's a feckless boob who is concerned mostly with his television image, the regular folks mostly don't know what's going on, and it's up to transit sub-chief Walter Matthau and mid-level policeman Jerry Stiller to save the day. Using their expertise for how things really work, they do indeed save the day. Then the crooks' leader (played by Robert Shaw) kills himself by touching the third rail. Classic.

What am I trying to say here? I suppose I'm trying to bring out an apologia for the bureaucrat. While communication and other fields cling stubbornly to the idea that truth and value are excised somehow through the involvement of bureaucracy, a simple rejection of bureaucracy seems terribly wrong-headed. The critique of bureaucracy can often be traced to the ideas of Max Weber, but it is easily forgotten that his take on bureaucracy was far more complicated than the 'iron cage' imagery in some of his writing would suggest. Indeed, the problem he found in bureaucracy was that, because it worked so unbelievably well (I believe, at one point, he called it 'awesome,' but I may be making that up), it became difficult to notice some of the problems that it inflicted. Now, I think we face a different problem. We are so accustomed to bad-mouthing bureaucracy that we find it difficult to remember what it can do for us. Hayes' "In Praise of Red Tape," coming at about the same time as Hot Fuzz, seems to indicate that we may be starting to realize why clipboards and flow charts might do for us after all.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


So, some comments rolled in last night concerning my post last summer on Indietorrents, that very fascinating community of music-file-sharing folks. I described Indietorrents folks as rude and pretentious. The Indietorrents community has replied. Some comments on my comments:

You OBVIOUSLY don't understand a damn thing about us.


I wish you has an acoount so I could bring down the bannation hammer.
So, though I think Indietorrents is fascinating and terrifically important to understanding what's happening to music these days (many good things are happening, mind you), I may have emphasized the 'pretentious' and 'rude' (my terms) elements a bit too much. So, I now turn to my other dear readers, and ask: what's the deal with this response? It's hard not to feel for these folks. They're trying, and that's something. But their concern for distinctions between those in and out of their network (hence the itchy 'bannation' trigger finger here) seems to drive them more than anything else. A very glib, functionalist aproach would tell us that they have been alienated in the past, and now (return of the repressed) take a pleasure in applying the rules of alienation to their own interests. Here's lookin' at you, Indietorrents! You have spirit! And, in today's thin world, that really is something.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

"You Lose, Asshole," and other elements of democratic discourse.

I very much enjoy some of the research and theorizing that has addressed the issue of democratic discourse. One of my favorite articles to take on this topic is Michael Schudson's (in)famous "Why Conversation is Not the Soul of Democracy," in which he addresses the widespread assumption in communication research that interpersonal communication can be thought of as a necessary component of democratic functioning. This assumption runs through the work of Dewey, Tarde, Katz & Lazarsfeld (imho), Habermas, and many others. Schudson points out to all of us that democracy isn't just a bunch of people talking. Any reasonable definition of a working democracy today must address factors (e.g. information, news, structural elements, and much else) that cannot be found simply in a bunch of folks talkin' about stuff.

Another really great piece that addresses this larger issue is Carolyn Marvin & Pete Simonson's "Voting Alone" piece, where they examine the role of the body (ever undeniable) in democracy, particularly in the U.S. They remark on the seemingly long-gone tradition of treating elections, for example, as a kind of sociable event in the 19th century U.S. Want a functioning democracy? Put some booze, some sex, and some torch-lit rallies into it. That'll get people going. [yes, of course, Marvin & Peterson are aware that torch-lit rallies are also associated with some non-democratic events as well]

Along come my pals Jen Horner & Mark Brewin, taking on this very issue of embodied democratic politics with their new piece in Critical Studies in Media Communication, entitled "The Salt River Ticket, Democratic Discourse, and Nineteenth Century American Politics". In this article, they describe the tradition whereby citizens in the mid 19th century who voted for the winning candidates handed out what were called Salt River Tickets to those who voted for the losing candidates. What were Salt River Tickets, you ask? They were mock tickets to ride on a fictional steam boat up the Salt River (the place where losers went back then). Here's the copy from the Salt River Ticket Horner & Brewin quote in the beginning of the article:
Free ticket to the Saline Spring
For all 'Wooley Heads,' 'Nigger Thieves,' 'Underground R.R. Directors,' and 'Black Republicans.'
Pass the bearer through to Salt River on the Wooley Horse.
FREMONT, Captain; 'JESSIE,' First Mate; GREELY, Pilot; E. DOUGLASS, Mourner; 'ISMS,' Undertaker.
State rooms reserved for the col'd voters of New York
Reed, Gibbons & Co., will be provisioned on 'Wooley offal' and 'Fusion' Hash during the trip in consideration of their distinguished services during the campaign. Lloyd Garrison and Luc. Mott will lead the party to the storm scow 'Disunion.'

So, if you were a supporter of the Democrats, you would have done the following with this ticket:
a) find out who won the elction
b) get really freakin' drunk (Horner & Brewin don't theorize this as a necessary component, but it's easy to imagine it playing a major role)
c) pick up a bunch of Salt River tickets
d) hand these tickets out to the supporters of the Republicans
e) laugh your ass off

After an exhaustive analysis of Salt River Tickets as an example of Bakhtinian carnivalesque, Horner & Brewin conclude that "The ticket established a bond between winner and loser at the same moment it articulated the tensions that the election had introduced within the world of white masculinity" (p. 15). Horner & Brewin maintain a rather complete ambivalence here. I may be getting what they're saying wrong, but I think they admire the degree to which people got fired up about politics with these Salt River Tickets, while also realizing that these things were hardly some kind of 'democracy potion' that helped achieve any of the goals that we associate with democracy. Forms of political communication like the Salt River Ticket, they argue "can serve as useful corrective to the ponderous, guarded style of communication of established media channels and major political parties" (p. 15). They compare this to the blogs of today, noting that we see the same kind of "shrill character," "self-congratulation, disdain for compromise, and narrow-minded worldview" (p. 16) in blogs that could be found in the Salt River Tickets. This seems entirely right. Blogs are used to rehearse already-developed rivalries, to satirize (often with the kind of body-talk and inversion [i.e. fart jokes] that made Rabelais such a big deal), to spew vitriol, and to voice tensions.

Horner & Brewin see how this fits into democracy, and in this their work represents its own corrective to the tendency in communication research to focus too much on 'eat your spinach' journalism, or public sphere theory. Salt River Tickets did not create democracy. But the passions they stirred remain something to consider.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Moral Panic and the City: Steve Macek is makin' 'em hurt!

I grew up in the far west suburbs of Chicago, IL, in a city called Geneva. Geneva was (and remains) a rather idyllic little berg, about 35 miles straight west of the big city. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I recall how Chicago looked from Geneva. Chicago seemed like a terrible place, full of drugs, crime, AIDS, and scary people.

Why might a dorky kid from the 'burbs get this understanding of the city? Steve Macek tells us exactly what time it is with his most excellent book on this very topic. The book in question is called Urban Nightmares: The Media, The Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City. In this book, Macek shows us how the right wing in the U.S. did the ideological equivalent of turning straw into gold. The story works like this: because of a very large number of structural reasons (deindustrialization, changing ethnic face of the inner city, the expansion of the drug trade, the failures of public housing, and what we could generally call 'continued class warfare'), the inner cities in the late 20th century were facing some tough times. The right wing in the 70s and 80s took quick action, not to solve these terrible problems, but to sculpt a narrative whereby this urban catastrophe could be made out to seem like the active choice of the victims. Violent crime as a result of the drug trade? That's because inner city folk have chosen not to educate themselves. High infant mortality in the inner city? That's because the people in the inner city actively choose unhealthy ways of living. High divorce rates amongst the working class in the inner city? That's because the working class has chosen to ignore the family values that could save them. And so on.

Sometimes a book's quality can be gauged in part by considering how much pain the author must have withstood. Macek demonstrates real Herculean powers by reading, and explaining, the ideas of many of the most prominent conservative thinkers who stoked the flames of this moral panic concerning the city. He shows us the arguments of Gertrude Himmelfarb, Dinesh D'Souza, Myron Magnet, William Bennet, Charles Murray, Edward Banfield, Lawrence Mead, and others. Macek is most thorough. He demonstrates where these ideas come from (tellingly, many of them get tremendous support from right-wing think tanks), and contextualizes them in the all-too-real problems that the big cities face in the U.S. He uses the notion of 'moral panic' to explain this. The idea of a moral panic comes from Stuart Hall and Stanley Cohen, who examined moral panics in the UK. The idea was originally developed to explain how (in Cohen's words):
A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or...resorted to.

Macek does an expert job of applying this to the moral panic concerning the city. Succumbing to a right wing push, the media images about the city for years involved images of cities that fell in line with the moral panic frame of what cities had become. Magazines and newspapers reported about U.S. cities as if they were populated entirely by evil, thieving monsters. Movies made cities look like hell incarnate. And, of course, television shows (especially including the news) ratcheted up the drama even more. This could have been construed as responsible reporting, of course. If there were problems in the inner city (and, of course, there were, and are still today), then we should know about them. But the images in the media didn't just call attention to problems. With few exceptions, media outlets made the problems of the cities appear to be the result of moral decay, individual choice, utter depravity, or some kind of creeping spirit of evil. Mentions of structural problems, political processes, or anything else that pulled the emphasis away from the right-wing approach were few and far between.

One of my favorite chapters here involves how movies in the 80s and 90s cast a particularly grim light on the city. Macek provides a high level of detail to show us how movies like Seven, Mimic, and Grand Canyon portrayed the city as the kind of place you wouldn't want to go, on account of the evil, evil things that lurk there. Here I think he misses one thing. What's that one thing? It's the movie Adventures in Babysitting, starring a young Elizabeth Shue. This movie was about a babysitter and the kids she is watching over having to go into the big city (Chicago, incidentally), where (by the laws of stupid screwball comedies of the late 80s), these suburbanites get caught up in the things the movies made synonymous with the big city: organized crime, random street crime, and violent non-white people with knives and guns. Good lord is that a bad movie.

That said, Urban Nightmares is the best book I've ever read about media depictions of the city. Bravo, Steve. Keep hurtin' Bill Bennett.