October 27, 2011

In the beginning….

Filed under: craft_obsession,writing — jrice @ 8:48 am

In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Barthes asks: “What is the meaning of a pure series of interruptions” (94). Barthes extends this question by reminding the reader that his “autobiography” is nothing more than a series of beginnings. “To write beginnings, he tends to multiply this pleasure: that is why he writes fragments: so many fragments, so many beginnings” (94). A rhetoric of the beginning, we might believe, consists of such fragments. Interruptions. “Once upon a time” without the lead in to what occurs. “In the beginning” without the creation of the world. Such a gesture is a rejection of totality, the complete understandings or all encompassing meaning we tend to depend upon for stability.

In any given subject – as many have already written – totality is a preferred gesture since it assures a reader or general audience of capability, knowledge, ethos, expertise, insider belonging, etc. An academic totalizing gesture as beginning might begin as “In this paper, I argue….” Or the gesture is not phrased as such but lives up to the spirit. In this paper, I argue….I argue…. There is condition. I comment. I analyze. I dissect. I explain. A totalizing gesture, of course, is hermeneutics. At some point, the paper/essay/project promises a complete and concluded meaning. “Because of this…..X is Y.” This is hardly a bad thing. Yet, as Barthes shows, there is value as well in beginnings.

Take any object of study and we find its first impulse is to totalize. Digital Humanities, for example, is born into a discourse of totalizing (historical totalizing such as “we were always here” or interpretative totalizing such as “X platform generates hegemony and control and we must be aware” or coding totalizing such as “now the entire body of work can be accessed and searched”). As we also learned long ago from Lyotard, totalizing gestures are grand narratives whose recitation (repetition) grant them power as topoi. As soon as a movement, like Digital Humanities, emerges, it must move quickly from beginning and become a body. It must be total in order to have meaning.

I only note Digital Humanities because of its growing popularity nationwide, a popularity affecting the local as well. In the Humanities, in some locations, there is a rush to join this totality. The same would be true for another movement. Every movement has a beginning, but no movement wants a Barthesian beginning, a return to the same fragment of introduction again and again without totalizing gesture. Digital Humanities, we find, focuses on the totalizing gesture “we are not new” because what is valued is the big story, “what we are.” Age lends credibility to definition.

I turn to Digital Humanities Quarterly and read Helen Burgess beginning her piece with the declaration: “Digital scholarship is not new.” In the Blackwell A Companion to Digital Humanities, Susan Hockey introduces the text with a statement of “age”: “Unlike many other interdisciplinary experiments, humanities computing has a very well-known beginning. In 1949, an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Roberto Busa, began what even to this day is a monumental task: to make an index verborum of all the words in the works of St Thomas Aquinas and related authors, totaling some 11 million words of medieval Latin.”  Thomas Rommel’s contribution also clarifies age: “The systematic study and analysis of literature dates back to the beginnings of literary ‘text production’; even the earliest forms of oral literature were practiced in a context of descriptive and prescriptive aesthetics.” And Stephen Ramsay reminds us that databases, as well, are not new. “The design of such systems has been a mainstay of humanistic endeavor for centuries; the seeds of the modern computerized database being fully evident in the many text-based taxonomies and indexing systems which have been developed since the Middle Ages.”

So many nods to a beginning, but only so that we, disciplinary readers, can move on to the grand story. Let’s go back to Barthes, then, for a moment. Let’s interrupt this totalizing gesture. Let’s practice a rhetoric of the beginning because there are so many fragments, so many beginnings. To practice this writing, we don’t move outside of that beginning. We stay there exploring the introductory fragments of the story that we will never completely tell. What beginning should we tell? We could tell so many. The one I will tell, however,  is the one I alluded to posts ago: the beginning of craft beer and social media.

October 6, 2011

Corporate Love

Filed under: All Dog — jrice @ 8:16 am

One of Barthes’ principles points is that there is no totality. All texts contain contradictions. We see this now as protesters may simultaneously critique an imaginary corporate America (represented as Wall Street) while mourning the passing of one of America’s great corporate minds, Steve Jobs. We could call this hypocrisy, but that gesture is meaningless. Every text is built on such contradictions.

Indeed, we are fascinated with the corporate. In 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy offers the satirical love affair with corporate life; his passion for Don Geiss, too, is endless. But this is corporate life with a face. This is passionate corporate life since we are meant to sympathize with Donaghy and his many flaws. Donaghy, as well, sympathizes with the goofy Liz Lemon. And Donaghy’s corporate quest is interpreted as harmless: microwaves and porn on demand. Donaghy is a silly version of Jobs.

Our emotions for Jobs were beyond sympathy; we loved him. We loved the aesthetic, design, fashion, and some overall, non-representable feeling that Barthes calls “air” but others call affect. Jobs introduced “air” (and not just the MacBook Air) into computing. If anything should be cold and heartless, popular culture has told us, it is computing (think of Hal’s cold demeanor). Apple created the image of computing as warm and acceptable, what we might call Applicity. Applicity is that feeling we get when we see or hear about a new Apple product, what Steven Levy called “the perfect thing.”

Apple’s warmth also was delivered via the great corporate message: advertising. Even though most critics of corporate culture detest advertising (Adubsters started Occupy Wall Street apparently), they have also been attracted to Apple’s slick campaigns. The  Think Different campaign offered us a cliche: Iconic figures signifying the “difference” Apple represents. We ate it up. The cost to buy enough songs to fill an iPod might equal $10,000. We didn’t care. Apple, as beautiful as its products are, has been associated with the same problematic Asian labor practices that other companies have. We ignore the critiques.  Whereas Google’s “Don’t be evil,” has come to bite them in the rear (as critics attack Google’s desire to control), Apple has not suffered from similar turnarounds. Apple is not evil. Its message is that Apple is Apple. Applicity.

All that is not to say that we are guilty of hypocrisy. We are not guilty of anything. Do not judge, Barthes advises. Never apologize, he argues. Instead, we work to understand why an image or idea is attractive and another is not. Bill Gates signified all that was wrong; Jobs signified all that was right. Microsoft was controlling, but so is Apple.  Think different by filling a house with Apple products: iPod, iPad, iPhone, Macbook, iBook…..our house resembles a small Apple store. So do many others. This is hardly the embodiment of difference. Then again, what is?

What, then, is my point as I note a tension (and I note  only one obvious tension here; there are many tensions) within our emotional responses to something called “corporate”? Our efforts may be better spent in some kind of discussion outside of the limits of argumentation. The argument – however expressed – defaults to the exposed contradiction because it fails to represent. One response to Occupy Wall Street is that it doesn’t represent anything; there is no concrete argument. True, but even if there were, there would be no representation because we are already corporate.

October 3, 2011

The Aesthetic of Angry Consumption

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 3:42 pm

In The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes asks what is the aesthetic of the consumer (a point I, as well come back to again and again).

This aesthetic, in the age of new media, might be termed anger. We have anger at Netflix for changing the way it distributes movies. We have anger at Facebook for changing its layout. We have anger at Google for directing traffic to user location. We are angry consumers. “Rest assured,” Comic Book Guy says on The Simpsons,  “I was on the Internet in minutes, registering my disgust throughout the world.” New media is also the age of the review, and review culture becomes obsession with being pleased every step of our consuming ways – whether we paid or did not pay for the service.

This anger, however, seems to differ from being angry at customer service or wanting to return something that is broken. The anger at Wall Street, for instance, is categorized as one of inequity (power resides in the few and Wall Street represents the few). But it could just as easily be described as a consumer anger since this imagined totality (“Wall Street”) as economic power represents the goods and services we are accustomed to buying. John Robb notes that Occupy Wall Street is an Adbusters campaign. Adbusters is the aesthetic of the consumer only redirected (appropriation).

If you drink Pepsi, are you still angry at Wall Street? If you eat at McDonald’s? Or buy Nike? Do you watch films or shows owned by Warner Brothers? Disney? Do you use an Apple or Dell? But this is an argument against banking and the stock market, you say. And those entities are not tied to consumer products? Of course, they are. But aren’t the protests really about how capital has altered politics and corrupted democracy? Are politics not a product we consume (including pay for) as well? The network is too complex for simple separation of interests.

Comic books consumed as protest symbol.

Maybe in this network of circulated interests, our aesthetic is, indeed, anger. Anger is a form of pleasure. We are angry that we sent our jobs overseas in the name of cheap consumption. Do we blame the imagined “Wall Street” of the metaphor of Wall Street (as in the film)? We do not blame our habits, of course.

Pink Floyd as protest allusion. Daddy's gone...across the ocean...

In this network, what is actually occupied? The space of emotion more than anything else.  Whether that is good or bad is inconsequential. What I’m most interested in, following Barthes, is the aesthetic of this moment as it ties into other related, and contemporary moments of consumption and anger.

September 8, 2011

Zeppelin. Pleasure. Loss.

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 10:17 am

I’m still writing a post about stories and beginnings (as a way to start working on the craft beer book; beer narratives begin in the same ways), but the other day, listening to WUKY, I heard a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” As I heard it, I thought, wow. I like that. I was caught up in a moment that interested me. Then the moment passed. Today, talking with Thomas on Facebook, I thought, what was that song again? I want to hear it. I’ve looked through the station’s playlists. I can’t find it again. The question I ask myself first is, of course, was it WUKY where I heard the cover? If not, where? Then the question of representation appears. As I search for this representation, I ask, was the cover this:

I don’t know. Thomas sends me a link of a different Zeppelin cover. It was not that. Was it from this album, Whole Lotta Bluegrass: A Tribute to Led Zeppelin? I want to click on the preview button, but it is not available. I can view the album on iTunes. There, I find preview. I try to match memory with the current representation. Was this it? Was this it, for me? Is my search successful?

What is the aesthetic of the consumer, Barthes asks. Search? We spend significant parts of a given day searching. The Web first materialized to us as search. Lists of sites to search through. Today, on NPR, I hear a story about Yahoo’s continuing problems to redefine itself from search (a site which was part of such a Web beginning) to portal of represented information. Search is the process of sorting through the details (the Google return, the list of possibilities) in the hope of some sense of closure (I found what I am looking for). We begin somewhere with a query; then we find satisfaction in the returned response. I am prompted to search via the aesthetic of repeating the moment of pleasure I begin this post with: sitting in my car. Stuck in traffic. Listening to a bluegrass over of “Rock and Roll.” Even if I find my confirmation on WUKY or some other station’s website (maybe I wasn’t really listening to WUKY….but what? ESPN? Did Collin Cowherd play this song for some reason?), will I be satisfied with the supposed confirmation? Barthes tells us that the difference between pleasure and bliss is loss. Gaps. A lack of beginning or end. Of course, he confuses which term embodies that sense of loss (first bliss, then pleasure, then bliss). In that loss of representational meaning (which is bliss, which is pleasure), we also find pleasure (bliss). We have no closure. Closure, Barthes tells us, is not pleasure. “Why this curiosity about petty details?” A cover of a song. It is a detail which sticks with me despite the closure I may find.

That sense of the detail, that, too, is a type of narrative beginning. Once, I heard a cover of “Rock and Roll….”

February 8, 2010

A Barthes Guide

Filed under: nu media,writing — jrice @ 3:52 pm

Following the lead of my mentor, I treat Barthes as a manual. If you have to flip through the text, what does it teach you to do?

Anecdote #1. Our class wiki is acting up. Students are suddenly unable to login or save pages. Some can. Some can’t. Some can from one computer, but not from another. It is as if there is an infectious IP address flagging our accounts. How to solve this problem, I ask? “A Lover’s Discourse,” a student says. “Yes. I say. We could do it the instrumental way and check the online mediawiki guide, but instead we will do it the Barthes way. I will use my “insistent” reading to tell me how to fix the wiki.” I still haven’t fixed the wiki.

Anecdote #2.  What is it about academics that cause them to reject consumerism? The passage that returns to me over and over is the one from Pleasure of the Text. What would an aesthetic of the consumer look like? Vered,  forced to stay home today because of an inch of snow, and I went to the grocery store today. “We need chocolate milk,” she said. Chocolate milk is an in house code for soy milk. “There it is!” she noted pointing to the boxes. She was right.

Anecdote #3. I reach for a citation, but I come up with an anecdote. “You call this snow!” I say to the clas.  All of these anecdotes function as citations. The biggest fear writing teachers have is plagarism. Such teachers forget that a citation is an anecdote. Each time we quote, we tell a story that is meaningful. These stories are our relationships with the text. “What wounds me are the forms of the relation,” Barthes writes. We do not teach the relationship. We teach credit. But paying credit is not the same as having a relationship with a citation. Paying credit is a form of respect, true, but also a forced respect. I may not respect you, I may barely know you, but I am being told to write your name down. “I am jealous of the book,” Barthes writes. Teach that as citation. Be jealous of your references.

January 26, 2010

Consumer Pleasure

Filed under: nu media,writing — jrice @ 3:56 pm

“Imagine an aesthetic based entirely on the pleasure of the consumer” (Barthes).

Moment #1. A newsletter. Every few weeks a newsletter from South Bay Drugs and Pharmacy arrives via email. Each newsletter highlights a current sale item. South Bay is a major point for craft beer purchasing, in San Diego or online. For instance, from the other day, I received this note:

The Bruery Mischief 750ML

Their new year-round offering. Big citrus hop flavors balanced by a tropical fruit-like maltiness with a kick of Belgian yeast. I’d call it a cross between a West Coast IPA and a Belgian Golden Ale. Very tasty stuff.
$10ea, 8.50%abv

Items drive desire, whether they be featured as advertisements or on shelves. The other element that pushes me to hit reply and order something is: I have never had that before. I want to experience it. What is this, I ask. And when can I have it? If consumption is a distraction, I welcome that distraction. It is an aesthetic I find pleasing.

Moment #2. A commercial. Cultural studies ruined commercials for academia. McLuhan, too, is a culprit. The Mechanical Bride set in motion years of critique of the advertisement. Advertisements interpellate. Interpellation creates identity. The problem, we are told, is that identity cannot be tied to consumerism. We must liberate ourselves from the yoke of the purchase. Cultural studies, in this way, resembles a high school version of Buddhist thought. Break your bonds. Yet we are all consumers. We are not nearly opposed to bonds as we like to believe. For instance, I opened my MacBook to write this.

Moment #3. A Bud Lite commercial. I don’t believe I have ever had a Bud Lite. When I open an email newsletter like that from South Bay, I am not drawn to a new shipment of Bud Lite (not that the store would even stock Bud Lite). Still, despite no intersted in Bud Lite,  I return to the one beer commercial where a penguin is hiding in a speaker. Doo be doo be doo, we hear. It is the sound of Sinatra coming from somewhere. Doo be doo be doo. When the voice is revealed, we find the Bud Lite penguin. Someone shrieks in horror. The commercial is repeated in a number of ways (one version involves a phone call; the person who picks up the phone yells, “WHO IS THIS!”). The aesthetic of the consumer is often the aesthetic of the unexplainable. Why do I like this commercial? Why does it speak to me? Why does it interpellate me in a specific way? I won’t buy Bud Lite, but I will remember the product. Who is this, I might ask of myself. Why does it please me?

November 19, 2008

Music I Don’t Listen to IV

Filed under: nu media,writing — jrice @ 9:36 am

Blog writing, particularly writing about popular culture, focuses on the aesthetic, but also the fetishistic. Places of displaced emotion. Love is often at the forefront.This is how we often interpret pleasure: what we like. I write about a movie or song because I like it.

But what does it mean to write about what we don’t like, or, at least, what we don’t have much opinion on, yet that we maintain relationships with? These relationships are cultural, often based on memory, or merely exist via association. Writing, in this sense, is still a pleasure-based writing. Its focus, however, is not love of the text or object. It is a different kind of image-repertoire than the one Barthes spells out. This writing does not define me in exactly the same way the image-repertoire does; but it does offer some type of self-definition.

One object that I may write about is AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. I grew up in the years AC/DC was a major band; Bon Scott had recently died and Brian Johnson had taken over the singing duties. As a ten, eleven, or thirteen year old, I liked AC/DC, and I liked this album (Scott’s last). Such likes (or dislikes) don’t necessarily live on, and it is not important that they don’t. We shouldn’t like the same thing for too long. My anecdote about this album comes from a camp trip, sitting on the school bus the camp rented for trips, and everyone on the bus signing the new song “Big Balls.” Children love innuendos. We loved this one. We made all our counselors know we had caught on to the dual meaning. They didn’t care. They, too, were young (18? 19?), and they probably thought it was funny as well.

The anecdote is just a quick memory. Still, desire carries over in odd ways. I sing these songs from time to time for no reason. I sing them when we are driving, I am playing with Vered, I am sitting at my laptop wondering what to blog about. Sometimes, pleasure does not need a solidified meaning or interpretation. It just returns.

If you’re havin’ trouble with your high school head
He’s givin’ you the blues
You wanna graduate but not in his bed
Here’s what you gotta do

And when you catch yourself returning to what has been absent for a long time, and you see reason for this return, you feel an odd sense of desire catching up with you. What we no longer admire is as important today as it was when we admired it. I can imagine (the way Barthes likes to imagine) a series of writings that only focus on what I no longer like: REO Speedwagon, Family Ties, baseball, literary analysis.

The following is a true story
Only the names have been changed
To protect the guilty -
Well I left my job in my home town
And I headed for the smoke
Got a rock ‘n’ roll band and a fast right hand
Gonna get to the top
Nothing’s gonna stop us, no nothing
So if you’ve got the money, we’ve got the sound
You put it up and we’ll put it down
If you got the dollar, we got the song
Just wanna boogie woogie all night long
Yeh boogie

In this way, desire is memory. The pleasure of memory writing without the need to find the item remembered pleasurable.

May 16, 2008

Atlantic Montly Pedagogy

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 11:03 am

I love how this “teacher” comes to this conclusion about students who struggle in his/her community college classroom:

She simply was not qualified for college. What exactly, I wondered, was I grading? I thought briefly of passing Ms. L., of slipping her the old gentlewoman’s C-minus. But I couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t be fair to the other students. By passing Ms. L., I would be eroding the standards of the school for which I worked.

Yet, reading over this narrative of students who “don’t get it” my question is: how is this teacher qualified for the classroom? Inappropriate instruction, sending returning students, state troopers and so called “needy” students to Jstor for a first year writing course, asking them to write about issues that are as boring and cliche as the responses Ms. L delivered, falling back on the “find a thesis” generic assignment…..the teacher is there in his/her part time gig because he/she is not really qualified to teach in general. And while the instructor professes to not being a snob or “aloof,” she/he clearly is bound to highbrow values regarding education:

Reading literature at the college level is a route to spacious thinking, to an acquaintance with certain profound ideas, that is of value to anyone. Will having read Invisible Man make a police officer less likely to indulge in racial profiling? Will a familiarity with Steinbeck make him more sympathetic to the plight of the poor, so that he might understand the lives of those who simply cannot get their taillights fixed? Will it benefit the correctional officer to have read The Autobiography of Malcolm X? The health-care worker Arrowsmith? Should the child-welfare officer read Plath’s “Daddy�?

Will it have benefited anyone to read these texts? Maybe. Maybe not. The value of Joyce over Lost is one of aesthetics or taste, not of inherent quality. The instructor’s narrative is a cliched one. “Why don’t these students (regardless of age) understand how wonderful these classic novels or poems are?” I am an English professor. I don’t understand the value either. I read these books once, I don’t read fiction anymore (or much). Fiction, story telling, is not the key to being able to think anymore than washing your car is.

That’s not to say there is no value to literature. There is as much as any kind of expression may have value.  I just don’t get the highbrow value of Sinclair Lewis over James Bond, Sylvia Plath over Stan Lee. Even more, I don’t get folks like this teacher who cling to such beliefs as “natural” while working hard to dispel students’ beliefs (what the student thinks is “natural”) in the name of critical thinking.

And while this instructor feels the responsibility of lowering the “hammer” on those who do not belong in college, he/she also has this tidbit of insight: “Everyone wants to triumph. But not everyone can—in fact, most can’t.” Neither, it appears, can this instructor triumph. For that she/he is not just stuck in a part time job, but stuck in a bad pedagogy, unable to see that her/his methods are the main problem here, not the students. Someone ought to bring the hammer down on him/her so that this instructor can find employment outside of teaching.

Anyway. We get upset with these narratives because they are stupid, but also because they speak to some of the real problems in writing instruction, problems tied to the ways people teach. We get upset because this bad pedagogy is the result of an interpellative process that can be impossible to redirect. This instructor will continue to be a bad teacher. And she/he will continue to blame the students. And this narrative will be repeated in classroom after classroom, in university after university. Quite depressing when you think about it.

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