Wednesday, November 29, 2006


I've spent the last couple weeks thinking about the video game Duck Hunt. I think Duck Hunt makes for a pretty good metaphor for what some parts of the new media environment are all about.

Duck Hunt appears, on the surface, to be simplicity itself. The player uses not a joystick, but a controller that looks like a rifle. Aiming this rifle at the screen, the player attempts to shoot a duck that flies across the screen. When a duck is successfully shot down, a hilarious-looking (and strangely gleeful) dog picks up the duck, retriving it for you. So far, so good.

Like any other twelve-year-old video game fanatic in the early eighties, the following question occurred to me: how the hell do the makers of Duck Hunt (Nintendo, I believe) configure a screen that is capable of registering the shots of the rifle? How does this screen know what is a hit and what is a miss? Is this some kind of special screen that can act as a sensor, as well as a monitor? This question became even more pressing when Duck Hunt was introduced as a home version, so that normal televisions could could 'register' the shots of the rifle on the screen. Were tv's suddenly made capable of acting as video game rifle-sensors?

Of course, the monitors/tvs never acted as 'sensors'. Instead, the process was the exact reverse of what I had assumed, and was the reverse of what shooting a duck is all about. The Staight Dope's Cecil Adams deals with this quite well:

You shoot at a duck, which appears on an ordinary TV screen. The gun is connected to the game console; pressing the trigger blackens the screen, then causes a duck-shaped white target to appear momentarily. If your aim is true, a photo sensor in the gun detects the shift from dark to light, and bingo--dead duck. In short, the TV emits the light pulse and the gun detects it, not the other way around.

So, what seems like a process of throwing out, or 'shooting,' information is actually a process of pulling it in. This leads me to the metaphor that's been haunting me for a couple of weeks. It goes like this: we think the media are only there as passive screens/speakers/whatever. But, much like the rifles in duck hunt, they're not just emitting information and culture. They're also collecting information, about us. So, as we consume media products, increasingly we find that information about us is being used to create algorithmic profiles of what we are like. This is then used to construct increasingly complex models of media consumption patterns. The process is described in detail in a number of newer sources in media studies. I think Oscar Gandy's The Panoptic Sort (1993) and James Beniger's The Control Revolution (1986) were both prophetic in detailing how much this kind of process will come to matter. Many other scholars (too many for this very tired scholar to describe right now) have stepped in to apply similar ideas to the internet and to the information economy.

But for me it's still all about Duck Hunt. What we think is emitting, is in fact collecting.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


I've got a bunch more to say about Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, but today I'd rather talk about rock and roll. In particular, I have found myself spending a lot of time considering how surprised I have been with my own reaction to two albums that were released this fall: The Hold Steady's Boys and Girls in America & Boom Patrol, by the Slats.

I have been a big fan of the Hold Steady since my buddy Rob Sieracki burned me a copy of their first album, "Almost Killed Me." The Hold Steady's earlier incarnation, a band called Lifter Puller, is a deservedly legendary band, and Almost Killed Me struck me as an attempt to take some of the snide wittiness and riffage of Lifter Puller and apply that in the context of a kind of self-conscious classic rock motif. This album still knocks me out. At its best, it's downright hilararious, and the tunes benefit from a learned amalgamation of punk rock and early Springsteen. Their second album, Separation Sunday, was perhaps a bit too studied in its use of recurring characters and blues riffs, but I thought it was still an outstanding record.

This fall brought the third Hold Steady full-length, Boys and Girls in America. For the first time, the music, the lyrics, the timbre of the guitar, and the gestalt of the lp all strike me as underwhelming. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that this record has also been the subject of numerous fawning profiles of the band in middle-brow publications from coast to coast. Like the White Stripes, Wilco, and the Flaming Lips, the Hold Steady are one of the small number of bands that folks in their mid-thirties are told it is okay to like. Why is it okay to like them? Because, we are told, they are smart, and mature, and did we mention they were smart?, and they use irony (hmmm...), and their song-writing involves a mature synthesis of elements we thirty-something folks should get: punk, classic rock, new wave, and more.

But there's a problem, I think. I think The Hold Steady have gotten so self-aware that they've actually gotten hung up on themselves. Whatever edginess they may have had--in the form of riffs or in the form of sarcasm/insight--seems to have been replaced with the dull sense that they're simply putting together a classic rock album with quotes around it. The whole record (title included) seems to say: "Hey, this is like a classic rock thing, and you should enjoy it in the same way the hipsters at a dive bar enjoy it when a Meatloaf song comes up on the jukebox." It reminds me of the 'wink, wink' sarcasm that tv commercials developed after Letterman made irony safe in the mid-1980s. There's irony IN this stuff, obviously. However, the irony is so toothless and self-referential that it fails to serve any aesthetic purpose besides self-aggrandisement (or, even worse, populist audience-aggrandisement). The irony OF this album is that, by assembling an album of tunes that constantly allude to hook-filled, riffy, bluesy, exciting rock music, the Hold Steady have created a record that is smoothed over and boring. They have taken a long walk off the surprisingly short pier of irony in rock. I know they're creative enough to do better in the future; I hope they do so.

If the Hold Steady's Boys and Girls in America is my disappointment of the year, the Slats' Boom Patrol is my most pleasant surprise of the year. Like the Hold Steady, the Slats attempt to be funny, and they make specific references to existing genres. On Boom Patrol, they seem more than ever to be embracing their goal to capture the specific sound of new wave music in 1981 (seriously: they specify 1981 as the year they want to sound like). And, of course, it's worth pointing out that few people seem to take the Slats seriously. Perhaps this is because there's little reason to take them seriously at all. They're a jokey band, with a simple approach: poppy, anthemic songs, usually with some kind of humorous slant. They're from Iowa City and Minneapolis, hardly the centers of the rock intelligentsia. At WMXM (the college radio station where I have a show), the Slats record came to us from a promotional company called Pirate, who are not regarded as a likely source of quality music. So, I started with pretty low expectations with the Slats.

But man, this Boom Patrol album brings it. The fun thing (for me, and for this little essay) is how Boom Patrol mirrors some of the tendencies on the Hold Steady's Boys and Girls in America. Both bands try to be funny, both quote pop music history, and both relate to the tradition of punk rock. But whereas the Hold Steady seem to have attempted to swallow a dinosaur in order to sound like dinosaur rock, the Slats manage on Boom Patrol to be cocksure in their simultaneous lampooning of and tribute to cock rock. A great example is the song "Call My Telephone," which has every single element of 1981 power pop that one could imagine. First of all: IT'S ACTUALLY ABOUT USING THE TELEPHONE. Strangely astute, this observation: pop songs in the early 1980s were very much hung up on (pardon the pun) telephony (cf. "Call Me," "867-5309," and plenty of songs by the Cars and the Romantics). Secondly, the song involves the structure of a carefully-crafted new wave song. The introduction is ridiculously involved, the call and response between lead singers and backup singers is utterly anthemic, and the blunt directness of the whole thing puts one in the mind of Gary Numan on one of his rare happy days.

What does all this tell us about punk, about irony, about rock? Perhaps not much. But still, I think we have in these two records a good contrast between music that attempts to coast on irony that increasingly isn't there (Boys and Girls in America) and music whose unpretentious sense of humor reminds us why wit and irony aren't such bad things after all (Boom Patrol).

Monday, November 13, 2006


In what remains a peculiarly Sisyphean adventure, allow me please to continue moving forward with some blogging notes on Theodor Adorno's Aesthetic Theory. First, I would like to address some tendencies that have already developed in the blogging on this (something I'm doing with Mark Scroggins and Bob Archambeau, poets both). Then, I'm going to move on with some notes on the second section from Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, a section that is entitled "Situation".

First, some notes on the blogging experience. Scroggins, Archambeau, and I have quickly developed a pattern of simply going over what Adorno puts forth in Aesthetic Theory. What I think will develop over time will be a more gnarled and involved set of blogging strategies, wherein the three of us begin commenting not just on Adorno's writings, but also on each other's understandings of Adorno's writings. One hopes that Adorno's penchant for the dialectical insight could be burnished by an intertwining set of critical notes on Aesthetic Theory. Those who enjoy rhyzomic discourses should enjoy this, I think. But for now, I think it's reasonable simply to expect a few more weeks of trying to get a grasp on what Adorno is all about in this book, with a slowly emerging critical dialogue soon to come.

Now, let's get to the second section of Aesthetic Theory: "Situation". This section features more of an emphasis on instantiation than the first section, and Adorno's ideas here link up quite explicitly with those of Walter Benjamin and (I say) those of the great media theorist/historian/whatever Harold Innis.

Adorno begins this "Situation" section with a riff on the autonomy of art. He is concerned that the seeming autonomy of art in the 20th century is but an illusion, a vestige of the proper autonomy art once briefly had. What Adorno wants in art is more distance from the "viewer" (p. 16). Allow me please to start splitting hairs here. Adorno at times conflates all art into one category. Can all art be 'viewed'? I submit that music is not viewed, per se. Is this conflation a problem? Perhaps it will be, for Adorno. I argue that Adorno moves from artistic medium to artistic medium, and blows off some of the distinctions between them. If Adorno were only concerned with visual art, this would not be much of a problem. We would be able to bracket his insights as relevant only to the visual arts (what, after all, a lot of folks simply call 'art'), and move on. But let's keep in mind that Adorno wishes to address literature and music as much as any other arts. Are these media 'viewed'? I think that's a warping of the term.

This all becomes (I hope) something more than an exercise in 'gotcha' polemics when moving on to the broader question that is prompted by this: might the loss of autonomy that Adorno describes work differently in different media? This is Adorno totalizing a bit too much, I think. Adorno seems to argue that art in general is losing its autonomy because of the encroachment of the culture industry (significantly, a term he uses for the first time in this book just before this quote I'm dealing with). He does not allow that there may be some differences between different media in this. It's like some master switch has tied the essence of all art together, and ruined it all at once. I suggest that the process he describes--to the extent that it can be said to exist--is almost certainly more messy. Music, painting, literature, printmaking, cinema, photography, dance, and other media involve different phenomenological routines, and even if they were all undermined by the master switch of late/capitalist modernism, should we not expect that this effect would be differently timed or differently inflected across different media? Adorno seems to blow this off (so far...).

A much bigger idea in this section puts me in the mind of Harold Innis's "Plea for Time" in contemporary culture. Allow me please first to summarize some relevant bits of Innis. Innis addressed what he saw as two dimensions of media: time-binding and space-binding. The time-binding dimension is the dimension that allows certain message to reach out over time. Hieroglyphics (or any kind of symbol system carved into rock) was particularly time-binding, because it lasted for a long time. Wanna know what happened a very long time ago? Wanna know what the values are that are important to a society and have kept it together for hundreds of years? You'll want to look at what they've carved into rock. It's no accident that Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with a couple tablets of God's word (and not, say, a post-it, or a voice-mail). The space-binding dimension referred to how media move through space. Here a classic important development was papyrus (which could be moved very far, without much trouble), but electronic media (telegraph through internet) are particularly space-binding because they move messages everywhere. Want to expand an empire (be it the British empire or the image empire loosely associated with the U.S.)? Space-binding media can help you with that.

The almost-always pessimistic Innis (and the early McLuhan with him) was concerned that modern culture had lost touch with tradition, throwing time-bound ideas away in favor of the evanescent vagaries of electronic media. Why pay attention to the Ten Commandments when you've got this great YouTube video of some college sophomore lip-synching to 50 Cent while standing on his head? The culture of critical discourse (to write Alvin Gouldner onto Innis) disappears without some kind of time-bound grounding.

This idea can be quite easily compared to Adorno's concerns about art and tradition. Adorno tells us in Aesthetic Theory that "the experience of the modern...does not...negate previous artisitic practices, as styles have done throughout theages, but rather tradition itself; to this extent it simply ratifies the bourgeois principle in art" (p. 17). The emphasis on time becomes more clear later, when Adorno notes that

"it is not only reactionary rancor that provokes horror over the fact that the longing for the new represses duration. The effort to create enduring masterpieces has been undermined. What has terminated tradition can hardly count on one in which it would be given a place. There is all the less reason to call on tradition, in that retroactively countless works once endowed with the qualities of endurance--qualities the concept of classicism strove to encompass--no longer open their eyes" (p. 27)

So, some factors outside of art proper--like, society, man--have killed the potential for the kind of conversation over the longue duree that Adorno identifies as crucial to the sustenance of the autonomy of art. Here the parallel to Innis is (for a hack like myself) irresistable. Like Innis, Adorno charts a path by which ideas (in this case, art) has become much less involved with itself. Art that is informed by tradition, and uses tradition as a launching pad for its own revolution, becomes impossible because our society doesn't work that way any more. Innis and Adorno both identify modern capitalism as the culprit for this, and they both speak in the somber tones of the narrative of decline. Innis wanted a gyroscope to be installed in our society (I should point out that this metaphor is David Riesman's), so as to prevent us from losing our balance. Adorno wanted our art to maintain touch with the traditional because without it all art would become little more than the kind of carnival distraction that subverts the very potential of autonomy/creativity/spontaneity/individuality.

So, there you have it. What I find particularly enjoyable about the comparisons between Innis and Adorno is how well Innis fills in some of the gaps that Adorno leaves in here. Innis gives us a political economy and a media perspective that Adorno leaves out, in favor of a focusd discussion of the phenomenological and the historical.

Having done this, I find myself bummed out.

More soon on popular music, and probably something else.