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eliot / auerbach

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Very strange, and not at all sure what to do with this yet. Might just be a false echo… But as I’ve indicated on here before, I’ve long been fascinated by the final paragraph of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Namely…

Beneath the conflicts, an economic and cultural levelling process is taking place. It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible. And it is most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and exterior representation of the random moment in the lives of different people. So the complicated process of dissolution which led to fragmentation of the exterior action, to reflection of consciousness, and to stratification of time seems to be tending toward a very simple solution. Perhaps it will be too simple to please those who, despite all its dangers and catastrophes, admire and love our epoch for the sake of its abundance of life and the incomparable historical vantage point which it affords. But they are few in number, and probably they will not live to see much more than the first forewarnings of the approaching unification and simplification.

I discuss it, for instance, in a (strange, wandering) post here. At any rate, I’ve been getting ready to give a lecture today on T.S. Eliot’s essays, and found the following in his 1921 piece The Metaphysical Poets. 

We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

The play of simplicity vs. difficulty (and the gap of a few very important decades) does make me wonder whether there’s a responsive echo going on in Auerbach. Something to look into… (If only there was a good Auerbach biography in English!) What makes it more interesting, perhaps, is that arch-small-c-conservative Eliot is in the midst of laying out his theory of the “dissociation of sensibility” that somehow happened after the seventeenth century (hmmm) while – if very obliquely – Auerbach seems to be suggesting a sort of “re-association of sensibility” in the aftermath of modernism…

More soon if I can find a way / get a chance to look into this further…

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February 9, 2014 at 1:53 pm

porn and democracy

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From Hannah Dawson’s review (paywalled) of Margret Grebowicz’s Why Internet Porn Matters in the current issue of the TLS

Grebowicz [...] argues that despite its theoretical potential, internet pornography tends to oppress rather than emancipate. The “free speech” that it embodies still belongs in large part to men, objectifying and subjugating other human beings. The many testimonies of self-empowerment from the “victims” of the industry are matched by first-person reports of misogyny, degradation, rape and incarceration. Rather than opening up an egalitarian space for self-construction, the file-sharing, file-ranking chatrooming online realm is creating communities all the more powerfully by normalizing discourses that preclude our saying anything new or real. “Internet pornography”, writes Grebowicz, “emerges as the perfect manifestation of the babbling political body, the speechless mass, in which every subject is interchangeable for every other, exercising its rights and expressing, more and more, telling us what we already know, climaxing, climaxing, always recognizable and predictable.”

The final sentence of the paragraph rings a bit oddly against what precedes it. While “speechless” sounds ominous, the “babbling” of the “political body” sounds like an only slight pejorative rendition of democracy. Interchangeability is ambiguous too, as it is both the result of capitalism’s reduction of us labourers to replaceable parts and, again, a quality of democratic equality. The exercise of rights, in particular the right to expression, too is of course a staple of the democratic diet. But the point of the paragraph seems to be that porn is underwritten by and a source of profitable reenforcement to the powers that be, in particular, men.

So there’s complexity at play here: internet pornography presents an ambiguous vision of freedom that is subtended by a business apparatus that depends upon the very opposite of freedom. In this, it stands (like so many other cultural products, but  more intensely and viscerally) as an uncannily accurate aesthetic mirror – a reflection more than a representation – of the political and economic conditions that obtain today in the world. On the aggregation sites, it seems, everyone has a voice, the cascading streams of thumbnails suggest a world in which all are represented, all represent themselves, and all are of course taking great pleasure in this rhythm of representing and being represented. And the consumer in turn sifts her or his pleasure out of this capacious pot of pleasure-taking and freedom-having. Everyone is equal, ostensibly, in their interchangeability – one’s acts are as free and pleasurable as those of the next. It can start to sound almost utopian, when described this way. But, of course, in the end and as in the world itself, almost all of this performance is stage-managed by those who profit from the exploitation of others. *

Given all this, a few questions to start. First, a quiet aesthetic question posed by internet pornography, perhaps, is what we do with its banality – the fact that it is constantly “telling us what we want to know” – in view that we incessantly come back to taste the banality again. There further is another quiet question, this time politico-aesthetic, about what this banality has to do with the conditions of its production and the means of its distribution.

But beyond these two, there’s an age old matter of ethics – and the ethics of the aesthetic – at play, one that queries the relationship between exploitation and representation, empathy and what we might call “forced performance” which has troubled the better sort of critic and writer since the very beginnings of literature itself, and which manifests itself at certain vividly aporetic moments as history moves forward. (One relatively recent example – Ruskin’s implication that the gothic cathedral is actually more beautiful than the pyramids because of the freedom of the workers who made them. But can that be right? Does free trade coffee actually taste better than that which is more exploitatively sourced?)

How much relieved sexual dissatisfaction is the suffering of a single human being worth? What am I to make of my enjoyment of the fruits of other’s struggles? Does it matter whether I am aware of the mechanics of production of that which I enjoy? How are we to understand the nexus of volition and exploitation, of willed self-exploitation and exploited wilfulness, that underwrites not only pornography but the increasingly illiberal world-space of “liberal capitalism”?

I have a sense that this perpetually recoded algorithm of suffering and enjoyment, repression and representation, is one of the matters that it has always been and still is essentially worthwhile for us to take up. Further, it is a question that has everything to do with the issues at play in the article by J.M. Coetzee that I discuss in this post. But more on that, I promise, soon…. A continuation of this is already in the works…

* Please note that I am – for the sake of starting up a line of thought – side-stepping for the moment several very important issues here. They include the very non-representative nature of porn (obviously not anything like “everyone” is represented there, no matter how many hundreds of thousands of videos exist to be viewed) as well as the extremely complex issues of exploitation and agency in the production of porn. These need to be addressed… but for now, let me just juggle a bit with the terms of the argument and description of the situation as presented in the review I have started from…

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January 6, 2014 at 1:30 pm

the default mode: sociality, distraction, and concentration

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From Julian Baggini’s essay / review on “sociality” in today’s Financial Times. Here, in particular, he’s discussing Matthew Lieberman’s book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.

Lieberman’s task is in some ways the most straightforward. His aim in Social is to impress upon us just how much we have learnt in recent years about the wiring of our brains. Social thinking is so fundamental that it fills our consciousness whenever we switch off from any pressing task. This “default mode network” activity “precedes any conscious interest in the social world”, having been detected in babies as young as two days.

Most neuroscientists believe we have a dedicated system for social reasoning, quite different to the one that is used for non-social thinking. What’s more, when one system is on, the other turns off. Lieberman explains how the social system fulfils three core tasks. First, it must make connections with others, which involves feeling social pains and pleasures, such as those of rejection or belonging. Second, it must develop mind-reading skills, in order to know what others are thinking, so as to predict their behaviour and act appropriately. Finally, it must use these abilities to harmonise with others, so as to thrive safely in the social world.

This notion –  that we have two parallel systems, one for the non-social thinking involved in dealing with “pressing tasks” and another “default mode” that inherently angled towards the social – is an interesting one. And it’s one that seems intuitively true, given how incredibly easy it is to slip from concentrated hard work to checking in on what one’s friends (real and “only electronic”) are saying on social media networks and the like. Of course, it doesn’t even take an online connection to feel the gravitational pull of the social (or even that particularly intense form of the social known as the “sexual”) when we are hard at work on something that requires fixed attention. (See, for instance, Inigo Thomas’s recent LRB piece on the British Library pick up scene – he’s basically written down what everyone chatters about when on the topic of the BL). 

But what I’m wondering about here is not so much the default social mode (which I’m convinced exists) but the other mode, the mode of that runs when completing the “pressing task” – the mental state that we are in when we successfully refuse ourselves yet another check of our email accounts or twitter scrolls. I’m working from a review here, so Lieberman might have it completely differently in his book, but isn’t there also a complex “sociality” to the ostensibly non-social forms of concentrated attention?

In my own work, for instance, which consists mainly of writing, preparing to teach, and marking students’ work, there’s always a implicit, virtual conversation going on as I compose or correct with the readers or audiences that I am planning or at least hoping to communicate with. Of course, the forms of work that require my concentration may be more social that what others have to accomplish – an accountant or an engineer isn’t necessarily expecting to deliver the fruits of her spreadsheet calculations or CAD diagrams to a lecture hall full of people. But even then – and even when I have to devote myself to the calculation of student marks or the tedious estimation of MA admissions returns – isn’t there a deeper, more cryptic sociality involved in the completion of these seemingly inherently solitary tasks. After all, without a sense of the students who are awaiting the marks, my boss who expects me to get the numbers right and on time, the university superstructure that expects students to graduate with full transcripts and seminar rooms next year that are full of students, would I ever even begin to get these (often excruciatingly boring) things done?

Freud coined a term for the deepest, darkest, and most hardwired of the secret interlocutors that converse  (if “converse” is the word, rather than “cajole”, “chastise,” etc) with us as we complete our daily tasks – or engage in any aspect of our quotidian behaviour. He called it the “superego,” that aspect of our psychologies which takes the shape of an internalized, virtual version of authority figures – first parents, later other figures like teachers or religious leaders – and with whom we negotiate constantly. As he has it in The Ego and the Id:

The super-ego retains the character of the father, while the more powerful the Oedipus complex was and the more rapidly it succumbed to repression (under the influence of authority, religious teaching, schooling and reading), the stricter will be the domination of the super-ego over the ego later on—in the form of conscience or perhaps of an unconscious sense of guilt.

In other words, I agree with Lieberman’s thesis about the inherent sociability of human thought and work. But – again conceding that I haven’t read his actual book, only the review – I wonder whether the “default mode” isn’t even more default than he’s making it there. I wonder, in short, if  it isn’t when when we’re most alone, when we’re as concentrated and “unplugged” as we can be, that the voice of the other – even if it comes from nowhere but within our own minds – shouts at us the loudest.

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January 4, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Posted in distraction, sociality

americans in limbo

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Most Americans – me included before I moved here – have a difficult time reading British “class” through accent and its other accoutrements. Sure, there’s My Fair Lady cockneyism on the one side and chinless Royal Familyism on the other, we can detect that, but between lies just a fast undifferentiated middle. Which of course not how British people hear it, not in the least, as they sniff each other out with the subtle discernment of dogs testing each others’ asses.

But on the other hand: Americans are completely indiscernable to Brits as well. They can’t detect the subtle differences of speech and gesture that mark the well-born or earned-through from the other sorts, and all the complicating and obsfucating play that goes on in between. But whereas Americans default to “rich and polished” when they hear Brits, I think Americans are assigned a lower and more ambiguous place in the eyes of my hosts here. The best analogy I can come up with for where we are placed is the way that Dante handles the virtuous non-Christians in Inferno. Greek philosophers and the like aren’t mixed into the bottom, not quite, but they don’t quite merit the middle berthing either.

They are placed in Limbo, for lack of anywhere else to settle them – technically in the game but ultimately not really.

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October 10, 2013 at 11:01 am

forgetting to remember the reminders of old

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The experience of a new sense of paranoia, about our intellectual capacities, our attention spans, our abilities to concentrate, to retain. “I simply don’t seem to have the wherewithal to make it through a long book anymore – twitter’s ruined it all.” “I can remember when I’d simply sit at my desk and will my way to finishing an essay, as an undergraduate, more than a decade ago. But now, there are all of these sites to check, and emails and texts pinging their way into my awareness all of the time, and so…”

And so… one lays in bed at night worrying that the game really is up, what one could once do one can do no more, lost now in the funhouse of the always-on mediasphere. “In or around June 1995 human character changed again,” a recent essay tells us. Another, by a self-proclaimed saint of seriousness, warns us of a coming apocalypse. Reading in bed, yes, it’s true – why can’t I remember what happened in the previous chapter of this history of Byzantium? Why, furthermore, am I still not finished with this history, months after my trip to Istanbul? In the early morning, more panic to ring in the day with worry: will today be like yesterday, and the yesterday before that, where despite my best intentions I still don’t get anything done, instead always taking “five more minutes” to scan the social media screens, to surf around in the flotsam of trivial news?

Between the articles and the personal sense of guilt, then, a creeping sense of despair. Perhaps it’s the personal and intellectual version of what the ancient Romans must have felt about their Greek predecessors. Despite all these resources, all of this wealth and power and worldly awareness, why can’t we get the statues to stand up without props? Why can’t we write an Odyssey or an Oedipus Rex? Where are our Aristotles, our Platos? 

But then this morning a second thought about all of this: Undoubtedly, undoubtedly, all of these new screens and devices, fora and threads, have a major impact on my – and all of our – mental and psychological ecosystems. There’s no doubt either that having the world’s body of information searchable on my desk has made me lazy about retaining information, and the ease of electronic contact has made me less willing and able to do the quiet, self-circumscribed work that I used to do when there simply weren’t many options for finding continual, causal contact with friends and strangers. But…

I am wondering this morning when, exactly, was my worklife not organised around long periods of apathy and distraction, punctuated by sudden rushes of illumination, focus, and productivity? Long before I had a working web browser and wifi setup, that’s for sure. I can’t remember what happens in novels or histories now, sure – but then look back and the notebook after notebook I filled with notes during my undergraduate and graduate years? How much of War and Peace did I really have in hand, despite just having read it, back in 1996? And further, when was it that I didn’t blow off reading interminable critical monographs to read the newspaper, magazines, or whatever was at hand? In short, when wasn’t my internal intellectual life organised in a manner resembling a factory with lazy workers, constantly off for a smoke break or getting distracted in conversation, and with a manager staring down at it all in despair, occasionally shouting at the shiftless individuals to get the hell back to work?

Not sure there’s a wider point to all of this, except perhaps to offer a slight rejoinder to the prophets of social media apocalypse who would tell us that we’re screwed… and who often succeed, as with my night time worries, to convince us of this. More than that, I guess I’m trying to remind myself – to remind myself that I’ve always needed reminders, and that if ADHD or dementia there is growing in my brain and mind, it’s been growing there from the very start.

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September 18, 2013 at 10:33 am

Posted in distraction

crime and punishment

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The sentence that is wrong in this otherwise interesting post is this one:

“Perhaps this is our world-historical punishment for the failure of communism.”

Who is the “our” in that sentence? Who is doing the punishing? Who is it that’s concerned, in that sentence, with the failure of communism?

Got to take care with your metaphors, as they’ll trick your political analysis into theology… And theology leads, as it always has, to the worst sort of quietism.

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August 17, 2013 at 7:57 pm

Posted in catastrophe

ads without an audience / an audience without ads

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From Choire Sicha’s review of Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future in the current Bookforum

Put most simply: “The primary business of digital networking has come to be the creation of ultrasecret mega-dossiers about what others are doing, and using this information to concentrate money and power.” There is, quite literally, no future in this for almost any of us. Apart from this sprawling system of digital vampirism, publishing in general (books and newspapers especially) has taken a major hit from technological change—as did, you know, the lives of people who made cars and worked in offices. (The number of people in the labor force in America has now returned to the levels of the late 1970s, also known as the heyday of postwar economic malaise.) Colleges may very well be next—Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen said earlier this year that “higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse.” So might various science industries, or home health care, or international shipping, or taxi drivers, or accountants, or who knows what. We can each in turn go to our deaths giving away our value for some other entity’s benefit while working in industries that are losing their value as well, all for someone else’s disruption game.

The “creation of ultrasecret mega-dossiers” which, of course, as of now are generally used to fuel logarithms in order to serve us up ads on the websites that we visit to see the very stuff that no one’s being paid to produce anymore. As Sicha notes, this process has or threatens to put us all out of work: the media, artists, writers, and next educators, scientists, health care workers, shippers, taxi drivers, accountant – the list heads off toward encompassing just about everyone employed in post-industrial first world society.  (Even the bankers and hedgefunders are turning into machine minders and point of sale contact assistants).

But of course, there’s a massive historical irony haunting this process – one that is both very old and utterly new. The value of these universal archives of marketing-friendly information declines as the general financial welfare of the population declines – it’s useless running ads for those without money to spend, and the system itself threatens to make us all into just that. The situation takes the shape of a national or global version of the Walmart that moves into a rural town, undercuts the local shops, destroys the livelihoods of those that live town, and eventually is left with no one to sell to and thus closes up shop.

The situation feels ripe for the emergence of some sort of new, post-modern Fordism, where it dawns on the information industries that they themselves need to maintain some sort of consumer base to sell to, just as Henry Ford realised that if his own workers couldn’t buy his cars, there wouldn’t be many customers left over to sell to. If not, it seems we’re tending towards the situation in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, where the ads somehow keep rolling, even though there’s barely anyone left to view them.

 

Relatedly, a strange situation is emerging at the intersection of internet technologies and television. See this post by Jessica Lessin, which I found via a David Carr article in the New York Times.

For more than a year, Apple has been seeking rights from cable companies and television networks for a service that would allow users to watch live and on-demand television over an Apple set-top box or TV.

Talks have been slow and proceeding in fits and starts, but things seem to be heating up.

In recent discussions, Apple told media executives it wants to offer a “premium” version of the service that would allow users to skip ads and would compensate television networks for the lost revenue, according to people briefed on the conversations.

Consumers, of course, are already accustomed to fast-forwarding through commercials on their DVRs, and how Apple’s technology differs is unclear.

It is a risky idea. Ad-skipping would disrupt the entrenched system of television ratings—the basis for buying TV ads. In fact, television broadcasters sued Dish Network when it introduced similar technology last year.

On the other hand, it is no secret that fewer and fewer people are watching commercials thanks to DVRs; networks may very well be eager to make, rather than lose, money off the practice.

It is a “risky idea,” for both parties, but what is interesting is that the added loops of the situation bring to the fore some of the strange effects that I’d like to label the “metaphysics of advertising.” (I’m following from Marx’s description of the commodity in the section of Capital on commodity fetishism – “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (italics mine).

At any rate, in the case of the television negotiations, the advertisement is there at once to bring to market the value of the customers’ eyeballs, but also as a sort of ransom-able distraction from the content itself. I.e. one side pays to put them in, the other side pays to have them taken away. In a sense, we’re drawing close to the situation I blogged about yesterday with what I called the “Sisyphusian capitalism” of Goldman Sachs’s entry into the commodity handling business, where they draw a rent simply by slowing an economic process down. Could one imagine a situation where the advertisements are included solely so that they might be destroyed? 

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July 30, 2013 at 9:58 am

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