Media Studies vs. Marxism

November 8, 2011

…it is important to point out that however materialistic [Walter Benjamin’s] approach to history may seem, nothing is farther from Marxism than the stress on invention and technique as the primary cause of historical change. Indeed, it seems to me that such theories (of the kind which regard the steam engine as the cause of the Industrial Revolution, and which have recently have been rehearsed yet again, in streamlined modernistic form, in the works of Marshall McLuhan) function as a substitute for Marxist historiography in the way they offer a feeling of concreteness comparable to economic subject matter, at the same time that they dispense with any consideration of the human factors of classes and of the social organization of production.

–Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form (1971)

McLuhan-esque media studies as a bad kind of historical materialism, one that precisely leaves out class struggle (in other words, real human beings) as the motor of history. Wish social media boosters and Twitter revolutionaries thought about this, but their bromides go down so well! Until they don’t:

The cruel truth of the emerging networked news environment is that reporters [i.e. workers] are as disempowered as they have ever been, writing more often, under more pressure, with less autonomy, about more trivial things than under the previous monopolistic regime. Indeed, if one were looking for ways to undermine reporters in their work, future-of-news ideas would be a good place to start:

• Remind them, as often as possible, that what they do is nothing special and is basically a commodity.

• Require them to spend a portion of their workday marketing and branding themselves and figuring out their business model.

• Require that they keep in touch with you via Twitter and FB constantly instead of reporting and writing.

• Prematurely bury/trash institutional news organizations.

• Promote a vague faith in volunteerism.

• Describe long-form writing as an affectation or even a form of oppression; that way no one will ever have time to lay out evidence gathered during extensive reporting. Great for crooks, too.

Bad historical materialism: great for crooks, too.

Lil B and the Based Mode of Production

March 15, 2011

I have an essay in the latest issue of Jacobin Magazine on Lil B and social media.

I’d like to dedicate this one to Amtrak for providing me with hours of writing time on the computer, sans wifi-powered distractions.

p2p music sharing…

February 23, 2011

…captured on video:


the neverfuture

February 20, 2011

The contemporary crisis exhibits a number of unfamiliar characteristics stemming from the inability of advanced capitalist societies to bear the costs of a new socio-technical infrastructure, to supersede the existing fixed-capital grid. The latter currently entrenches a 60-year-old complex of productive forces at the core of the world economy. The structural impasse that this has created has not been fully grasped, leading to difficulties in historicizing the last quarter-century of capitalism. Fredric Jameson’s conception of postmodernism as the cultural logic of the period is arguably the great benchmark of contemporary epochalism. In the early 80s, Jameson originally conceived of this new order of things as a prefiguration of groundbreaking new technologies and energy sources of capitalism. In order to understand the subsequent trajectory of capitalist society, it is important to recognize that this great leap forward, what Ernest Mandel called the Third Technological Revolution, never really materialized. Even a more modestly conceived ‘post-Fordism’ failed to release a productivity revolution that would reduce costs and free up income for an all-round expansion.

Instead, the latest phase of capitalism got an ersatz form of growth primarily through credit-card consumerism and asset bubbles. Jameson’s explanation for contemporary society’s inability to experience and represent the totality of the world system initially attributed it to some immeasurable disproportion between human agency and newly unleashed nuclear and cybernetic productive forces. But in later accounts, the locus of the problem silently shifted to mapping an opaque, pseudo-dynamic world of financial markets. Initial anticipations of an exhilarating new cultural condition gave way to totalizations of a more closed and derivative situation. Capitalism’s culture became an organized semblance of world-historic dynamism concealing and counteracting a secular deceleration in ‘the real economy’.

But what about information technology and containerization—the two signature technological breakthroughs of the period? These have undoubtedly powered a huge increase in world trade, over and above the growth of the world economy itself. Computerization and ‘just in time’ modes of organizing supply chains made it easier than ever before to bring manufactured goods to the world market, and relocate production. These cost-reducing technological and organizational changes countered the potentially inflationary consequences of the growing supply of various forms of money. Alongside American deficits, these trade-promoting changes were responsible for accelerating East Asian and especially Chinese growth. But unlike a ‘nuclear-cybernetic industrial revolution’, or the shift to some alternative energy source, technological change in this form has, by and large, brought vast quantities of goods from countries with lower labour costs into world markets already weighed down by overproduction of their higher-cost equivalents, instead of fuelling growth through the creation of whole new lines of production.

In the 90s it seemed plausible that containerization, post-Fordist production and supply chains and information technology in the new office place were the driving forces of a transition to a New Economy, one more productive, and in different ways, than anything that had come before it. But this great transformation somehow failed to show up statistically and, in due course, the stock-market crash of 2001 brought an end to the decade of cyber-hype. Altogether less plausible was the subsequent expectation that technologically retrograde real-estate bubbles, providing markets for exporters of consumer durables and raw materials, could be a sustainable basis for economic growth. Rather than leading to any ‘New Economy’ in the productive base, the innovations of this period of capitalism have powered transformations in the Lebenswelt of diversion and sociability, an expansion of discount and luxury shopping, but above all a heroic age of what was until recently called ‘financial technology’. Internet and mobile phones, Walmart and Prada, Black–Scholes and subprime—such are the technological landmarks of the period.

–Gopal Balakrishnan, “Speculations on the Stationary State”

Cyberpunk dreamers and postmodern fantasists were wrong. The same old mode of production was merely dressed up in debt-financed wrapping paper. The future literally never happened.

Facebook and Privacy

January 12, 2010

Lots of hubbub since this article has run:

Talking at the Crunchie awards in San Francisco this weekend, the 25-year-old chief executive of the world’s most popular social network said that privacy was no longer a “social norm”.

So, Zuckerberg’s inaccurate and shockingly inarticulate speech (“A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they’ve built” — oy vey!) aside, what exactly has changed? When Facebook altered its privacy settings last December, they encouraged users to make their data public to the entire internet (i.e. Google search results). Here’s a video that shows how to change most of these settings.

I would add that you should never use Facebook apps, since these are third-party developers that now have access to your information. Always read the labels, people! Fan pages probably do the same thing, but I don’t use them — I’ve grown out of my “flaunt my tastes” phase I think.

These issues have brought other issues to the surface as well, including lots of underinformed paranoia. I saw this interview with a Facebook employee linked with accusations of “Evil!” attached. To my mind, the idea that Facebook employees could read your information or that Facebook stores everything that occurs on its site should not come as a surprise. Practically everything offered for “free” on the internet comes with a (barely) hidden price: your data. Social networks were, from the beginning, potential troves for data-mining operations. Web-based email functions the same way: Gmail has been reading your email for years. And, if you didn’t know, the IT department at your workplace or university can read emails from those accounts as well. Cookies track your web usage. Yes, Virginia, private corporations are trying to make money off your internet activity!

In fact, the privacy statements of Twitter, Google, and Facebook are remarkably similar, though Facebook has made its privacy settings overly complex and tedious, probably so the lazy or less savvy won’t bother. They agree to track your web usage, save and access anything you do on their networks, obey requests by law enforcement, and use your information for data-mining operations. The main reason to mine your data is to target ads at you. So install Ad Blocker on Firefox, and never see an ad again. I’ve never voluntarily clicked on an ad in my life, but apparently other people do.

Instead of the hysteria over privacy settings, I’m more interested in how social media networks coerce human behavior into ever-more self-disclosure. For many people, especially young people, if you aren’t on Facebook, you can’t fully participate in social life. You won’t be as up-to-date on goings on, you will miss invitations, and you won’t be able to judge everyone’s music and film tastes as efficiently. I know someone whose romantic life was stymied because he refused to be on Facebook — some girls wouldn’t date him without being able to do a background check. He has since succumbed. As Mark Andrejevic has written brilliantly about, we are seduced and disciplined into welcoming ever more surveillance in our lives, through varied means such as traffic cameras, reality television, and yes, social networking. We are encouraged to divulge information as a means to find romance and employment — in the neoliberal world, where you must continually market yourself as the “entrepreneur” of your identity/personal brand (and thus, if you can’t find a job it’s YOUR fault), turning yourself into a walking advertisement is practically essential. Look at this guy: he makes more than a lot of people I know who have college degrees, and he probably isn’t even on LinkedIn.

In hyperreality, we’re all celebrities and we’re always on the clock. So, yes, insist on greater privacy on Facebook (though it’s been a month, so any mass movement is probably too late out the gates). But as Trotsky said about the German parliament giving dictatorial powers to Hitler as long as he didn’t abuse them, “To demand such promises is ridiculous, to hope for their fulfillment – utterly stupid.” Facebook is a corporation, with a CEO who strikes me as stupid as he is narcissistic (guess that’s what happens when you throw a billion dollars at a 20-something). The only way out is to limit what you put on Facebook (I put very little original content on there, and my profile consists of varying levels of tongue in cheek), or commit digital suicide.

Rather than these half measures, I think it’s more productive to look at what an internet run by private corporations has wrought. The Big Brother of 1984 was a Stalinist government, but it turns out that capitalists are just as into surveillance and tracking as The Man, and far better at marketing it. The consumerist narcissism that we’ve been raised on in the West dovetails perfectly with “voluntary” self-disclosure of all our valuable data. It’s fun to have our iPhones automatically update our longitude and latitude coordinates on Twitter; after all, there aren’t any Predator drones after us! We enjoy being on display, marketing and being marketed to, even being stalked — it flatters us.  We have to make ourselves into commodities, otherwise no one will want to date us, or buy our book, download our sweet remix, or give us a job. Social discourse has been commodified. We’re vying for attention in the gaudy supermarket of humanity and it turns us on.

I’d advocate turning social networks into public utilities to better hew it towards the Bill of Rights, but not in a country that passes the Patriot Act. We’ll have to wait until the revolution comes to nationalize Facebook. And by that point, lots of people won’t even be able to afford the internet.

Against the Brave New Streaming Future

December 4, 2009

So these guys aren’t the only technological determinists to say this, nor is the streaming future limited to music (see “cloud computing” hype). But they are emblematic of a line of thought that needs some strong tempering.

JS: It’s a streaming future.
EVB: Yes. I believe downloading music for free will eventually be seen as a waste of time and disk space.
JS: Music fans who can just grab it elsewhere are losing interest in P2P. The RIAA had very little to do with it.
EVB: And as fraught as the whole “bundling with service providers” thing is (will I have to subscribe to multiple ISPs if I want both ESPN and Spotify?), bundling is a promising option for getting people to pay.

These guys predict that the future of music is not in downloading files like mp3s, but in streaming services. Like cloud computing, the idea is that instead of containing files and programs on your hard drive, they are instead web apps hosted on a remote server that you access with a device connected to the internet. The real advantage to this scheme is that small devices with tiny hard drives, like phones, can have all the capabilities of a computer.

But there are some serious disadvantages to cloud computing that smart people are raising as well. They center around control — a company, such as Google, will hold your data and you have to access it remotely. You don’t have to be a huge privacy advocate to worry about hacking or internet outages keeping you from your stuff.

A “streaming future” shares some of these problems, as well as containing their own issues. What immediately leaped to my mind is how streaming-only would destroy a big part of what interests me in contemporary music production — the border-crossing remixing, mashing up, sampladelic world of global internet pop. Streamed music is fundamentally out of your control. You do not have access to the file, and therefore you cannot re-edit it, remix it, sample it, or incorporate it into a DJ mix — Goodbye Web 2.0, hello Web 1.0. You cannot play songs unless you are connected to the internet (so pony up that $4.95 when you’re at Starbucks or the airport for wireless access) and have a subscription to the streaming service. The streaming future effectively re-installs record labels (with their tech company allies) as gatekeepers between artists and listeners, with the added bonus of a frictionless data mining operation.

This is the pernicious aspect of the streaming future hype — it’s a ploy to get listeners to go back to the old model with corporations controlling distribution. Where legal action and threats failed in stopping P2P filesharing, technology promises to succeed through convenience (aided on the other side by significant victories against the major bit-torrent sites). The implications are huge — in a streaming future, music will need to obtain access to whatever services control access to devices (phones). You can imagine the cartelization that could ensue — just as telecoms allied with phone manufacturers, labels might align with particular streamers and ISPs to the exclusion of others, as the above quotation points out. If music samples or remixes unlawfully, it will be kicked off the streaming service (if it’s allowed on in the first place), just as YouTube repeatedly pulls videos for copyright infringement. And when it’s gone, it’s gone — you don’t have a file on your hard drive, so you can’t listen to it any more.

I’m not opposed to streaming out of hand — I “listen” to a lot of YouTube uploads as part of my steady diet of music. My concern is that it will replace P2P filesharing, in essence a far more radical threat to music as private property, as the primary way of distributing music online. If you care about at all about the incredible leveling effect the internet has had on music, and the unique creative forms it has inspired, you should oppose the streaming future. P2P filesharing will always have a significant following, but if it ceases to be the dominant form of obtaining songs, corporations will have re-asserted dominance over music.

Battleground States Conference Tellem

February 29, 2008

Last week I prodigally returned to the barren wasteland of northwest Ohio to participate in the latest, most excellent installment of Bowling Green’s Battleground States Conference. Yes, although I was merely a humble presenter (repping independent scholarship), I would have to say I thought this conference was better than the ones I had a hand in planning. Maybe hotel parties make all the difference.

I delivered a paper on Soulja Boy that was well received, and at the prompting of colleagues, I will make this paper available below. I had entertained thoughts of trying to get an expanded version published somewhere, but who knows when I’ll do that? Independent scholarship is a tough game. Paper below (I don’t particularly like the title; I was originally going to do something more general on YouTube dances)…  Read the rest of this entry »

YouTube Rap

September 17, 2007

It’s a truism of course that, in the words of Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message”: the type of distribution system for particular media not only affects the content of the media, but actually determines it in some sense. There’s an echo of a “vulgar Marxist” political economy in this aphorism (content is determined by who’s paying), although McLuhan himself was happier quoting Finnegan’s Wake and consulting for businesses than brandishing the ol’ hammer-n-sickle.

Anyway, I have no interest in dredging up the corpse of a Woody Allen cameo. My interest lies in music, which seems to undergo a revolution in distribution methods every three years or so. And hip hop proves to be the avant-garde of capitalist realist pop yet again. It was first on the ringtone bandwagon, and the spacious high-and-low-frequency productions characteristic of snap music was nothing less than the perfect ringtone. D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” is probably the quintessential ringtone track; with its poor quality Casio production and mostly incompetent rapping, it’s suited much better for a 15-second loop than a 3:30 pop song (although it went to #1 regardless). According to Wikipedia, The Source hailed it as the worst hip hop beat of all time.

Ringtones are passe now (you heard it here first); after the novelty wore off, people realized that hearing the same 15 second snippet of whatever was hot two weeks ago wears thin rather quickly. The new hot distribution method for music is YouTube.

That’s right, just as MTV and MTV2 had all but done away with music videos, the form rears its oft-ugly-but-done-up head yet again. Funny, really; I’ve read plenty of music video scholarship from the 1980s, and most of its bandwagony predictions for new forms of postmodern Ur-art were hilariously off-base. Lauding “experimental” videos like Madonna’s “Material Girl” rings rather hollowly when you realize that music videos only got worse and less imaginative as the 1990s wore on, i.e. when making videos became an integral facet of music promotion instead of a weird niche for film students. Videos, despite predictions from TV scholars talking out of their asses, never became the predominant mode of music distribution — people still bought records after all, in ever-increasing (until 2001) number, even though Madonna records suck compared to her videos. When you have the recording, you can control the song that’s on; you can’t control what MTV shows (although TRL, MTV’s last hurrah, inserted an element of pseudo-control via voting).

YouTube offers instant (and free and legal) access to practically any recording through its catalog of videos, making it one of the best places to listen to music when you’re online — better than the Java-choked ad-catastrophe of MySpace. And it’s not only label-commissioned promotional music videos, either — anybody can upload their own videos using their new favorite song as a soundtrack.

What exactly is this doing to music? We’ve had rumblings, but no one to my knowledge has hit the nail on the head. They cheered when OKGo went from corporate-indie never-weres to YouTube stars on the back of some choreographed dancing. Kelefa Sanneh noted that despite everyone still getting their panties in a bunch over those evil rappers, “[h]ip-hop radio is full of cheerful dance tracks.” Not just dance tracks, but literally tracks about how to do specific dance moves. It’s like dozens of little Electric Slides all over your FM dial. Sanneh’s article implies that increased policing and censorship of hip hop has lead it to abandon controversial lyrical content in favor of tricking out the beats, and I think that’s partially the case. But the real story is the medium: because people listen to new music through YouTube, and are encouraged to participate in its distribution (if not in its production — important to note, all you fandom apologist Henry Jenkins followers) through their own videos, the natural — indeed, ancient — form of particpation in music is through dance. And the music is meeting the medium.

Think about this: if you’re an aspiring hip hop star, you want as many people as possible to watch your video on YouTube, and then go out and make their own video tributes to your song. The easiest way to do that is to promote a new dance (usually with some sort of regional roots), sit back, and watch as teenagers across the country record and upload their best attempts. And this is way, way bigger than the Hustle — because it doesn’t have to rely on Soul Train or Saturday Night Fever to spread the moves, a new dance can come out every week. Hell, every day.

Here’s a sampling of dance-rap tracks to make it big on the charts in the past year or so:

  • Dem Franchize Boys – Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It
  • Fat Joe – Lean Back
  • Huey – Pop Lock and Drop It
  • Crime Mob – Rock Yo Hips
  • DJ Unk – Walk It Out
  • DJ Unk – 2 Step
  • Ciara – 1-2 Step
  • Lil Jon – Snap Ya Fingers
  • Young Dro – Shoulder Lean
  • Young Leek – Shake and Jiggle It
  • Cupid – Cupid Shuffle

I considered listing Gwen Stefani’s “Wind It Up” too, since that’s a dance move (also prominent on Daddy Yankee’s “Impacto”) but it sucks a little too hard.

Search any of those songs on YouTube and you’ll get not only the official video (itself little more than a demonstration of dance moves), but dozens of fans doing their best 2-step on crappy webcams and cell phone cameras. My favorite manifestation of this trend so far is Chicago-native (holla!) Soulja Boy’s “Crank Dat Superman.” The video acknowledges not only the YouTube distribution method, but also the crucial demographic of young children.

If you didn’t catch how to do the dance, here’s an instructional video. Soula Boy seems to really understand how to tap the YouTube market.

Now competing dances have sprung up on YouTube, DC Comics copyrights be damned. Here’s the Spiderman, which is my personal favorite:

And the Robocop of course:

The Aquaman:

And the Batman:

The peculiar democracy of dirt-cheap keyboards is in full effect — anyone with a Casio can make their own version and get in on the fun. And Soulja Boy can count on plenty of homegrown promotion for his upcoming album. Not bad for a 17-year-old.

Oh, and one little side note: YouTube dance got at least one guy a record deal: Bamabounce AKA Dj Taj, a young Baltimore club fan from Alabama, got the attention of hipster booty DJs Tittsworth and Ayres with the Wu Tang Slide, a mashup of “The Percolator,” “Moments In Love,” and that Bmore shuffle. He’s now released several records on their T&A label. Do how you do it, slow it up, do the Matrix:

All you ghetto dance producers take note: if you want to break into the mainstream, this is probably the best way to do it.