Friday, July 22, 2005

BBC America and its discontents

I hesitated setting up a personal blog for many reasons. Primarily, I got through phases where I am wanting to write something of substance but lack the will (read: too bloody lazy) to really work out the ideas in a cogent way. Secondly, I feel the urge at times to say trivial things of little important. In other words, what 90% of other bloggers do. For example, today I want to write something about BBC America programming rather than the London bombings, Bush’s choice for Supreme Court Justice, the Downing Street memos, the price of oil, etc. Call it leisure guilt but I sometimes (SOMETIMES) am overcome with the romantic notion that these text spaces are of value only if they speak of global things and to trivialize it with talk of the lack of The Avengers on the Friday night line up, the leaking of the new Depeche Mode song, or the genius of David O. Russell’s “I Heart Huckabees” just seems irresponsible. Why not just post to Craigs list “Rants and Raves” and be done with it?

But then it occurred to me that no one will ever read this space so who cares?

Why does BBC America hate it’s viewership? Why don’t they just devote their entire schedule to What Not to Wear, Cash in the Attic, and Footballers Wives? Oh, I forgot, they already do.

I don’t ask for much out of life, and yes, I could watch less television than I do, but I recently caught a rare, incurable disease called myoliteratae – the inability to read anything longer than a comic book. I blame this on my James Joyce seminar of two semesters ago. I have islands of sanity in this life – cheap wine, chunky peanut butter, Soulseek, JLU, and Friday nights of The Avengers on BBC America. Two hours of Steed and Peel (or Steed and King. I was not a purest. I found both ladies have their charms.). Eleven to midnight then midnight to one, then a lovely sleep with dream of lead-filled bowler hats, trounced would-be saboteurs, and funny, sexy, kung fu-ing heroines.

BBC Am. started this routine two months ago. Lovely. I had never been an Avengers fan prior to this, but there was something lovely about the weekly routine of elegance and wit that kept me looking forward to week’s end. I was hooked. Now, scanning my program guide I see that they are instead featuring a marathon of something called Footballers Wives followed by something called Prime Suspect. Now, I am sure these shows have their own following, but aren’t there enough programming hours during the week to feature all these shows? I mean, how does it serve a Prime Suspect fan to not be able to plan a viewing when the broadcast plan keep moving? Do the program planner even care about viewership?

Similar annoyances and disappointments abound with other BBCA shows – Goodness Gracious Me, Look Around You, The Kumars, Black Books, etc – but I assumed the lack of these shows over a consistent period owed more to the relatively few episodes available. Look Around You, for example, are very brief segments of about 10 minutes. They are only a few years old and there simply aren’t that many of them. But The Avengers was on for nearly a decade, surely they could plug even a consistent hour of the show on the channel on a weekly basis.
Cable TV really is becoming a wasteland, isn’t it? I bark at the BBCA but it’s an epidemic of idiocy. Too many channels, to little programming. How many sport channels do we have? Ten? Why should there be 12 poker shows on at the same time? Now they are showing competitive eating on ESPN. Who is really interested in watching cars being rebuilt? Who is that audience? I am sure its out there… but is it that sizeable? Even National Geographic is dumbing down – the shows seem to be about “extreme” nature and why you should be scared shitless of it. Very different than the magazine.

And what the hell happened to A&E, TLC, and Bravo? When did “Arts and Entertainment” come to mean 18 hours (I subtract the infomercials they run overnight) of poker contests between D list celebrities, humiliation-based “reality” shows with E list celebrities, murder investigation shows and celebrity exposes? Look, I’m not expecting marathon runnings of Mansfield Park or a Robert Bresson marathon, I just want truth in advertising. Even Pro Wrestling had the good graces to change it’s tag to “Sports Entertainment.”

Bottom-line mentalities in corporate board rooms erode cultural diversity.

But kudos to a few good players. Cartoon Network and Boomerang offer a quality product. I am not by nature a huge fan of animation but if it’s “the good stuff” I can be corralled. What I admire, especially about Boomerang, is its clarity of vision. Basically the producers are saying “look, we’ve got nearly 100 years of short animation here. Why not watch some of it?” Boomerang, at least in the US, is commercial free. This is a huge relief to non-Tivo folks like me. The commercials on cable TV are perhaps the most banal cultural artifact we can possible generate – diet pills, crap gadgets, real estate schemes, you name it. And, although the programming itself is hit or miss – I can’t stand more than 5 minutes of any Hanna Barbara ‘toon – there is plenty else to admire.
So what was the point of this rant? Mostly to organize my thoughts on the subject. Deeper meaning may be forthcoming…

Monday, July 18, 2005

How to Enjoy Popular Culture

this is an article that i wrote and presented at the CSUN Gradute Reading Series event in November of 2003. I had hoped to do more with it but it has rapidly gone stale due to the obsolete references to tv shows and other ephemeral nouns.

The Patent-Leather Pill Box Hat
How to Enjoy Popular Culture
An Inexpensive and Sympathetic Guide For Enriching Your Consumer Experience

Humorous Introduction

Back when we lived in caves and ate whatever flew into our mouth and had sex with whomever we could render unconscious with a large cudgel, there was no such thing as a consumer experience. No one went out from their caves to another cave and gave the man behind the counter pieces of kindling for a new wall-painting set. Indeed, very, very few of our ancestors ever left their cave unless it was to stave off imminent starvation or cudgel some unsuspecting cave girl. We were a sorry lot, all those years ago. We were mean, smelly and altogether rude. Do you think anyone would have let you merge into their lane back then? Can you imagine Fred Flintstone allowing you to go ahead of him in line at the supermarket when all you are buying is a pint of Haagen Daz and he's loading up that ridiculous stone-wheeled car of his with a dozen or so meaty bronto-ribcages? No, I am sorry to say that those were not exactly the 'good old days'. As we all know, the 'good old days' began in 1947. Everything before 1947 was crap and should best be relegated to brief peeks into dusty text books while in high school.
So, now that we have established that we no longer live in the stone-age we should be delighting in the fruits of our Popular Culture, right? Wrong! Many of us are sad, or worse than sad. Some of us are very sad. Worser, some of us are bored. We wake up in the morning and look at the glob of toothpaste cementing itself into the porcelain of our sink and begin weeping and crying out 'Sweet Jesus, why hast thou besmoted me thus? Have I not been a good consumer of goods both durable and non-durable? Do I not take a slew of very thick and heavy magazines and do I not partake of the perfume inserts therein?'

Orwell Was Right! (Thank Jesus)

We are moving into a future of surveillance and paranoia. There are people who sell their privacy like a $10 blowjob by installing cameras throughout their houses and apartments thus allowing anyone with a credit card and an easily satisfied libido the opportunity to watch college coeds going to the toilet or making a fried egg sandwich. This is considered a entrepreneurial inroad. But the camera doesn't necessarily stop filming when you leave her house. At the intersection you are being filmed by the local constabulary under the pretext of public safety. You cannot escape into the grocery store because there are even more cameras - some to keep you honest others to assess your buying habits.
Actually, I say paranoia but in reality very few people outside of the ACLU are displaying any disquiet. The reality of optimistic Orwellianism is the reality of its acceptance by the rank and file citizen. Ask enough people and it breaks down into two modes of thought: 1) why should I be afraid if I am not doing anything wrong? If I am surfing the internet and want to buy a cashmere turtleneck for my Welsh Corgi I don't care if anyone knows about that or what credit card I used. I don't even care that my C-drive is stuffed with cookies (cookies: the benevolent consumer chancre. Alternatively: hard drive herpes). 2) There are so many people doing things that they shouldn't that the government cannot possibly care about my obsession with online road-kill jpgs. What's one more deviant? As long as I keep up my end of the bargain which is to spend enough money to drive the consumerist economy.
The first point of view is not new and certainly not the result of the new consumerism. The petty bourgeoisie has always registered a disconnect from the uglier aspects of a free society. They judge by proxy - allowing the illusionary, and sometimes not so illusionary, agents of forceful authority (more prevalent in pre-consumerist societies like Pinochet's Chile and the old Soviet Union where such authoritarian behavior was the closest things they had to real glamour) to make manifest their moral outrage with a few well placed shoulders into front door of the deviant's apartment. These folks are really reverse anarchists - happy to let the world outside their suburban home go through social meltdown as long as QVC still accepts their Diner's Club card and Pink Dot can deliver the White Zinfandel by 11:30. The idea at work here is that there are two worlds inhabited by two distinct societies - the world of the good and righteous tax paying citizen who knows their place, and the world of the deviants - malignant, unshaven, perverts who sniff glue and molest children. There isn't a lot of room for gradation with this world view. The occasional online masturbator is the same child molester, the same necrophile, the same beastiaphile, the same cannibal, that they have seen on one of a dozen of afternoon chat shows. The Maury's and the Springers of the world are really de facto agents of the consumerist authority; the vanguard of Madison Avenue. They parade the circus of bottom dwelling opportunists and losers in the hope that the viewer will conclude that they represent some heretofore hidden underbelly of society. There must be a lot of them if the producers found them and keep finding them (ever notice that these guests typically speak with southern accents?).
The advent of the true Orwellian paradigm in our day and age is the result of not governmental forces but consumerist market demands. In other words, we are buying are way into Winston Smith's world. Take for example a recent article in Forbes magazine describing how a major car insurance company is offering a service whereby a 'meter' in the form of a GPS tracking device would monitor the customer's driving habits throughout the month. The idea being that you can control how much you pay by driving less, at lower speeds, and in better neighborhoods. Of course, civil libertarians and privacy advocates are rending their garments over the idea but the real surprise is the programs popularity with drivers who evidently are saving as much as 50% on their insurance premiums. What's more, the program portents many soft benefits including an overall decrease in driver miles which in turn could reduce carbon emissions, occurrences in accidents and traffic jams. It is also thought that women and the poor would reap a benefit since both groups tend to drive fewer miles than males and the middle class[1].
What needs to be kept in mind regardless of the examples forwarded, whether its auto insurance companies installing tracking devices, security cameras scrutinizing your moves in a grocery store, or a private citizen opting to have their day-to-day habits viewed over the internet, is that it is the market and consumerist institutions that have brought Orwell's future shock home and not the government. Strangely, conservative and libertarian organizations continue to warn against state encroachment in the private and public sector. As the number black helicopters hovering over our heads decreases, anxiety over real or believed threats to individual freedom rises exponentially. The reason for this, I suggest, is that the attacks on privacy stemming from personal decisions and market realities - accepted though they are, do indeed play into the collective paranoia. The fact that the source of the fear is completely misplaced is besides the point. The cheap, candy-floss pop world and the seemingly disinterested consumer world are not targets of militia for the very reason that militia-minded persons continue to watch television and shop at Target and WalMart.. These habits may actually be feeding their paranoia - any episode of Springer or Sally Jessy will 'confirm' their ideas about minorities and women and any trip to Target will confirm their own sense of disenfranchisement.

Retroism and the World to Come

Commodities and services reduced or perhaps enhanced via the imagination's ability to make the possible sound more appealing than the actual - this is the promise of on-line consumerism. There is still an uncanny sense of disbelief - at least among those born before 1980 - that what comes through the modem can actually be manipulated; made manifest somewhere in the world of hands and finger. Those over twenty-five are locked into a single idea of computers - hence the sticking of the word itself in common parlance: compute - er or Ur-compute - that is a television set attached to a typewriter attached to calculator. In other words, a pastiche tool, like when dad affixed a screwdriver to the end of a flashlight, the various components are distinct, independent, but coming together like good citizens in a liberal society to work towards a common good. This is absolutely not how those 25 and under view things. Having not grown up in a world without the computer and not having to go through the liminal period of assimilating it into their consciousness[2] young people in the year 2003 view computers as an integrated system, a device - one device with peripherals. To get an idea of this, you oldsters out there, consider the automobile. The car is an integrated system. We don't think about the separate parts, the engine, the fuel filter, the gas tank, the distributor, the solenoid, the transaxle, the dark-matter converter, the pine-scented dangly, we use the car and in its utility we give over to the magic of its promise and its purpose. Young people are satisfied to get on with the business of hammering the nail.
Such an outlook has made the made youth less nostalgic for the past then their parents. Traditionally, youth culture likes to appropriate the past. Retroism in music, heard in the late nineties in the swing revival and other consumer extensions are not the same as ancestor worship. No one wants dads old Apple IIe, or mom's Imagewriter. Such items are cold, chronically obsolete with terminal sophistication. Retroism is only interested in juxtapositions in style like a house beat behind a Sam Cooke vocal or a patent-leather pill box hat. The culture that they create then is trend-centered, starting on the coasts, developing the nuances, the modes of dress, the vocabulary, hand gestures, appropriate drugs. The trend is then picked up on by some diplomat from the world of consumerism and spun into pure mercantile gold. By the time the kids are buying a Squirrel Nut Zipper's CD at the Wal-Mart[3] in Wichita the trend has become a fad and has been drained of style and enigma. If you go to a swing club now, the ones that are still opened, you will find only the original acolytes. Even the jocks from the local university, with their baseball caps on backwards have moved on to the next thing (which as of this writing is the Rave culture, but stay tuned for further poseuring[4]).
In moving beyond Retroism, youth culture is becoming more interested in interior travel. Whether it is a trip to a chat room, the on-line grocer, gaming, P2P music purveyor, or book purveyor the romance of the computer is not so much the gray utility of the boxes and the mess of wires but the portal into new realities. Only the advent of the automobile with its promise of sustainable distance movement has there been such an opportunity for individuals to 'make something happen' with such little expenditure of energy. Eventually, in maybe seventy five years, there wont even be a desktop. People will be 'on-line' all the time via 'fleshware' or internal computer adjuncts implanted into their heads. If you think we are couch potatoes now, if you think the sociologists really had something when they suggested that the middle class seeks to 'cocoon' then just wait around until century twenty-two. Current trends seem to dictate a future off the desktop and away from the keyboard. The 'meat' will literally fall off the bone. William Gibson's neural nets may be available from The Shaper Image quite soon.

Damage is Good

In order for this modern life to be livable we need to feel a degree of intimacy with our machines. When my machine makes noise, when it moans, I give it a smack on the back of its mainframe, just above the whirring fan, and it goes quite again. It is good that my car makes strange noises and that the automatic safety belt tries to throttle me. Cars are always doing things like this. It is no mystery that we feel so close to our automobiles. They are dirty, unwieldy, a mess of sooty, greasy pipes, gears and pumps. So many things can go wrong and so many thing do go wrong that it requires a sort of emotional adoption on our part to accept the thing with all its dysfunctions. I have to believe in my Ford Escort they way I believe in a flaky friend. The fact that he may be late for an engagement is forgiven just as when my car wont turn over in the morning. If we didn't invest emotion into things we would grow despondent. God would take the blunt of our wrath because free will is not functioning correctly. There is chaos on my hard-drive and double anarchy when it and I go onto the internet. My computer, a personality like Rainman, is the perfect companion for a world that I could never comprehend but that my computer helped create. It can't get there without me and I can't do anything when I am there without it. By anthropomorphizing the machine I am tailoring an otherwise cold and distancing experience into something manageable and oddly human. So who am I to deny it a smack on the back on its tower when it is out of sorts?
Another way in which we use anthropomorphizing to deal with the reality of our machines is to invest them with a degree of humanist will and desire. When I first bought my new VCR, my first real brand name VCR[5], I discovered that the new wave of machines were 'smart' and that one didn't need to perform such heretofore required tasks such as setting the date and time, the machine would do it itself by tapping into a signal from the local cable company. In fact, there was no way to set clock at all one ones own. Once plugged in the familiar 12:00 display came up and I waited. And waited. The machine flashed 12:30, then 3:25, then Tuesday, then Wednesday. All in all it eventually 'figured it out', about an hour later. The entire process had a trial and error quality to it. My humanist side doesn't want to admit this but there was another conclusion to be reached: the machine learned. But the way in which it came about it was so scatter-shot, so bumbling, I am thinking that the machine actually experienced frustration as it tried a day that wasn’t the day, a time that wasn't the time, and then, once coming upon the correct day and time it experienced something like satisfaction, or something much more simple. The arrival the point of absolute correctness. What we feel as satisfaction is a protean mix of elation and calm as the task we were struggling with comes to an end and the conclusion is precisely what we expected and desired. The machine would have to have something in it like a satisfaction response in order to stop its searching otherwise the it would continue on, trying various protocols and algorithms until its little thinking unit reached its capacity and gave up[6].
Of course we as humans routinely instill our 'things' with such sentiments and have been doing so since the dawn of civilization. Anything that we interact with on a day to day basis becomes in many ways a surrogate for household spirits. The totemistic aspect of 'things', whether they be cars and computers or more seemingly mundane items like coffee pots and shoes, is important and is an important player in consumerist cycle and it is perhaps the factor which is least understood by industry. Whether or not this ignorance is based on oversight or denial is unclear, but at the same time it is precisely this ignorance of the consumer totem which sustains the manufacturing base. If the consumer were to keep the totemistic product beyond its scheduled date of obsolescence[7] industry would not be able to sell that consumer the replacement product (the 2.0 version of anything). So-called durable goods are therefore extraordinarily expensive due the long 'down time' between purchase and obsolescence and there is a double-curse of those items, the comfy chair, that classy end table, that they will incur more totemistic sentiment the longer they are used and the consumer will be less keen to part with it[8].
Beyond sentiment and neurosis, humans have developed a capacity for thinking that our machines are actually becoming quite malevolent. Edward Tenner has written about this phenomenon in his book Why Things Bite Back. According to Tenner, for every step forward we make with the aide of technology there are unforeseen consequences or 'revenge effects' which are implicit, although hidden, in the machines. Tenner provides several example of this such as the advent of air conditioning in the urban office spaces which has had the effect of not only cooling off work places but raising the ambient temperature "by as much as 10 degrees F"[9]. Machines are also exacting revenge in the form of car alarms going off at all hours - who listens to them? Acts of violence committed against these cars have been documented[10] thus undermining the very reason for having the device in the first place. Outside my window a car chirps and screams, my first impulse is not to call the police (who at this point would perhaps only sigh) but to find a large, Luddite-empowered sledge hammer to silence the bleating beast[11].

'State of the Art…My Ass'

As I write this the closest presidential campaign in US history, not to mention the costliest is a three-year old memory. The two candidates had once been separated by the just over three hundred votes, the kind of margin more familiar to a local race for county assessor or head of the water management district than a presidential election. The nation and its electoral system was made mock of from Bangkok to Belize and it was said its easier to elect a president in Yugoslavia than it is in the world's bastion of democracy[12]. Meanwhile, the 'Florida Show' was, for the second time that year[13] hadbecome the most watched program on television as accusations ranging from voter fraud to civil right's violations erupted from every pundit and professional loudmouth who CNN can train their cameras on.
One issue which fascinates me and the one most relevant to the topic is the matter of the less-than-satisfactory voting apparatus utilized by Palm Beach Country and ballot machinery in general. The one in Palm Beach which was the cause of so much controversy is called, ephemerally, the 'butterfly ballot'. Candidates on the left hand page and candidates on right hand page and down the middle (where the binding of a book would be say) are the holes for punching which candidate the voter desires. Now, if there is one thing I know about Americans is that although they like the idea of there being choices - somewhere, out there, on the other aisle, on the other channel - they really prefer to gravitate to the brand names. And in this case there were, depending on what sort of pundit you are, two or three choices for election 2000: Gore, Bush, and Nader - brand X, brand Y, and The NEW product that has to prove itself against the leading brands. Somehow, through some twining of confusion with excitement, many people who had meant to vote for Gore (brand X) ended up voting for Reform Party candidate and Nixon-era unfrozen caveman Pat Buchanan - which, for the sake of continuing the comparison, is that off-brand knockoff that you see at those 'Nothing-Over-$12’ strip mall outlets. Pat is that shirt with the buttons misaligned. Considering that the holes for the candidates down the middle of the page aligned questionably, this parallel works to the point.
So when the voting was done many Gore supporters realized they had made a terrible, terrible mistake. Of course it was too late, the die had been cast. But for some, there was a thought that if they just punch the card a second time, this time for Gore, everything will be alright. After all, who the hell would vote for Buchanan[14]? Lamentably for those Floridians, the ballot counting machine was not so forgiving. Nearly 20,000 ballots were disqualified for irregularities such as double-voting and write-ins for candidates already listed on the ballot. The thought that these voters were simply naïve crossed the minds of many talk show hosts, especially those of a conservative bent, but most had to agree that that even under the best of circumstance the system by which the oldest and most powerful democracy selected its head of state had a lot to be desired.
Among other things, critics condemned the entire electoral college system as wholly undemocratic[15].
However, what was a revelation to me (and relevant to this discussion) is that the methods of actually voting - the process by which a hole is made to select one's choice for president, are subject to the vagaries of 40 year-old equipment. Many jurisdictions still use the machines that nearly elected Thomas Dewey back in 1944. The big hand crank, the plodding gears, all relics of the pre-digital era. The talk of ballots with their 'chads' and 'pregnant chads' needing to be examined after the election - the scrutiny of the cards by volunteers with coke-bottle glasses that was the subject of a great deal of national and international ridicule- was a cold splash of water across the face of anyone who thought we were living in the future. Not very much really needs to be said about the irony inherent in a country that can order its groceries via the computer while electing its highest officials with the equivalent of a gumball machine.
What was perhaps the biggest revelation of the election were how the different states varied so wildly in their methods of demonstrating votes - differing even within the state. While some counties in Florida and no doubt elsewhere complained of confusing, insect-themed ballots other areas bragged about the touch screens of their 'electronic' ballots. Oregon decided as a state to forego the entire process altogether and make their ballots 100% mail-in. This wide array of machine types spanning the age of mimeograph to the age of the voice activated computer can be seen as a microcosm of a world not quiet ready to go totally on-line. At the end of the day, what do tribes in sub-Saharan Africa who have never placed a long distance phone call have in common with rural Americans who's voting rights were compromised by faulty, outdated balloting machines? The poor in Florida, ostensibly supporters of Democrat Al Gore, had thousands of their votes excluded during the recount for technical problems or deadline issues relating to the abovementioned chad problem (read: the self-proclaimed ‘prophet’ of the digital age being trounced by analog technology) while wealthier areas of the state proceeded smoothly along utilizing touch screens for voting and optical scanners for tallying (read: digital technology). The cynicism, of course, cuts both ways - the Republicans are playing the game to win by disenfranchising those who wouldn't contribute to campaign war chests and Democrats are exploiting those who may join unions or take public-assistance. The point is that this election has brought to the surface the technological disparity between rich and poor[16] and as of October 2003, with creeping déjà vu welling up in California, the issue has been forgotten for the sake of expediency and the promise of big-time entertainment..

The way it feels now, and perhaps it has never felt this way before, is that there is a sense that we already live in the future. After years of bemoaning the lack of visible, wish fulfillment-orientated technologies such as robot maids and flying cars the world finally has caught up, or is in the process of catching up with the original ideas we had about the future. Computer technology, for example, is approaching the silicon threshold. Soon the hardware designers will be looking to for more spacious substrates, perhaps the size of cel nuclei, on which to write the seemingly infinitely complex codes. Processors are currently capable of handing the billions of daily electronic transactions - both personal and public - faster than could have been comprehended a decade ago. Of course speeds are nowhere near what the average consumer thinks that they are or should be. When the downloads are slow or the virus scan is taking 'forever' the impatience born in expectation is palpable. This premature expectation that the future should already be here is itself a symptom of a larger notion in the society at large that things should already look and feel like 2001, even in 2003. The fact that we are not summering on a gently spinning carousel of a space station or routinely commuting in hover cars only makes the hunger of expectation more ravenous and helps to create a consumerist void in the marketplace for increasingly more forward looking gadgets. But even with the ascendancy of sophisticated and increasingly affordable products as flat screen TVs, cable modems, DVD players, cel phones, and hand held computers the reach of consumer demand seems to overshoot what is actually coming off the assembly line. What seems missing from the equation, and what seems so adamantly needed in the consumer world is a way of coalescing the various technologies. The parts are all there but no one has seen fit to assemble them: why do I have a TV set AND a computer monitor? Why do I need to buy a DVD player AND a DVD-ROM drive? Why do I need to pay a phone bill AND a cel phone bill? Why do I have FIVE remote controls? The sense of propriety that companies like Motorola, Microsoft, Panasonic, Pioneer, AT&T, Verizon, etc. feel for their product places their innovations on an island of patent paranoia and it narrows the scope of potential uses. A few brave companies have attempted to bring about the doodad dialectic - WebTV attempted (and failed) to bridge the gap between the TV and the computer monitor and AT&T has slowly begun to role out affordable, cable-based modems, but by and large the technology has remained no more interactive than it was thirty years ago.
Science fiction writers, those low-rent prophets of our age, had quite a few ideas for the future of technology which while perhaps far fetched at the time were nonetheless good ideas that have often come into their own in one way or another. Take, as one small example, the state of the art in cel phone technology nowadays, and I am talking about the first years of the new century, consists of devices that look remarkably like the flip-top communicators of old Star Trek. In addition, even as I write this, the newly sworn in President of the United States has made a speech promising a future military consisting of unmanned robot planes, an idea common to at least a hundred science fiction movies and books although perhaps first theorized by the remarkably brilliant crackpot, Nikola Tesla.[17]

Meeting Celebrities

It will happen, especially if you live on the coasts (well, maybe not the Gulf Coast). You put together enough lucre to take your lady-friend, gentleman-friend, whatever, out to a posh bistro. You are thinking, you know, I've always wanted to a have a sun-dried tomato experience and by god, tonight's the night. You are sitting at the table, maybe feeling a little glamorous, feeling a bit expensive. You causally track the room while sipping - Mer-lot? - gee, what expensive looking people, right? And then you see him - the guy from that show. The guy who's always walking into the room? He isn't exactly the star of the show but he's the one everyone remembers. Looks like he's eating…yes, the guy from the show is eating food, just like you do. He does look a little different in public, a little out of focus, a little vague. But that's him. The guy from that show. You point this out to your date who, upon noticing, lets out a little shriek which, to your relief, is only heard by the couple at the table next to you. When the waiter comes over, even though you know who the guy is, you ask him if that guy sitting over there is that guy from that show. The waiter looks up, glances over in the general direction of the table in question and with snap of the neck affirms, in a manner that could only be described as bored unto death, that yes, little man, that is indeed that guy from that show and wouldn't you prefer a lite beer with your potato skins?
Sadly, the night will unfortunately end rather unsatisfactorily. Wanting to 'connect' with the celeb on some level you sheepishly walk over to the table and ask for the celeb's signature on a napkin stained with Caesar salad dressing. The celeb is annoyed and sighs as he scribbles something resembling an EKG pattern on the soiled napkin - which you wont be able to keep anyway since it is a cloth napkin belonging to the restaurant. You and your date then leave and spend the rest of the night arguing over how the encounter could have gone better. Suffice to say, there will be no sex and both you and your date will speak ill of each other at work that Monday.
The need to make a connection with a celebrity is very real PoMo symptom of a larger condition engendered by the consumerist culture we live in today. On the pie-chart of entertainments (keep in mind, this is leisure culture so everything that is not work or sleep is entertainment[18]) a sizable wedge has been allocated for the celebrity-driven product. Television, motion pictures, radio shows, and music exist today as mediums through which we witness 'our' celebrities in action. In fact, it is nearly impossible to imagine these mediums without their agents although in fact, the early days of movies - the teens and early twenties, consisted of anonymous 'models' - to use a term coined by Robert Bresson to describe human bodies utilized for the sake of the film and not the other way around - going through the motions of an activity. But it wasn't long before the cult of celebrity infected that fledgling industry as it had done for the dominate entertainments of the late Victorian era, the theater and the opera. What changed was the magnitude of cult - instead of a hundreds of thousands turning out annually for a performance by Caruso or Sarah Bernhardt the same number in one night would flock to see Valintino's sheik in hundreds of movie houses playing in dozens of cities around the country. Later, it was the advent of television and the cult of viewership grew to perhaps billions.
The growth of celebrity-generated entertainments is a direct result of the combination of the blooming of the middle class and the expansion of a concept of mass leisure entertainment that really begins with radio. Prior to the twentieth century the masses of mass entertainment consisted of a small, tightly knit group of moneyed urbanites, a situation unchanged from the old world[19]. Of course, an assumed factor in all of this is the introduction of the concept of leisure time for the lower and middle classes where the contributing elements would include the arrival of the machine-powered labor and the mass production line. Each decade of the new century seemed to offer some way of exponentially increasing the size of the audience - from radio to the motion picture to television to the internet, each step along the way picking up millions of consumers. Markets expanded as they never had before and with that reality came the marketing of a human experience which we call celebrity.
Neil Gabler in his terrific book Life: The Movie, succinctly outlines the idea of the creation of the celebrity mystique. In explaining the persistence of celebrities whose only claim to fame is their fame he describes the processes involved in the creation of entertainment commerce:

"The conversion of life into an entertainment medium would never have
succeeded…if those who attend life the movie hadn't discovered what the
early movie producers had discovered years before: that audiences need
some point of identification if the show is really to engross them. For the
movies the solution was stars. For the life movie it is celebrity. Though
stardom in any form automatically confers celebrity, it is just as likely
now to be granted to diet gurus, fashion designers and their so-called
super models, lawyers, political pundits, hairdressers, intellectuals,
businessmen, journalists, criminals […]. The only prerequisite is

The "life movie" celebrity, someone like Elizabeth Taylor or Princess Diana, exists as speculation and titillation. To simply concede that the audience (those who follow the tabloid exploits or engage in break-room gossip) is living vicariously through these celebrities is patently wrong. No one wants to live like Princess Di or Liz Taylor. They exist as sort of hyper-fictionalized characters, think Catherine in Wurthering Heights or Hardy's Tess. We read about their tragedies and have our emotional moment with them but there is really very little after-affect as say a loved one's tragedy would have upon us. It is the perception of a twisted sort of glamour based on the celebrity's enigmatic life (which in itself may be result of a virulent strain of neurotic wish-fulfillment on our part) that perpetuates endless speculation and debate.
It is essential, then, to annihilate the celebrity as a three dimensional human being. In order that we, the consumers of their celebrity (and now I am speaking about celebrities in general) to digest the 'product' of their lives they need to be stripped of their natural invisibility, the day to day anonymity which accords all of us the public, herd protection of society. The fact that we recognize an actor from a television show or a movie and may only recall the role they played and then, in turn treat them - at least in our minds - like the aforementioned character speaks to this process of dehumanization[21]. In the extreme this has meant stalking, death threats, home invasion, and in the case of actress Rebecca Schaeffer, murder. Recent media coverage of Athena Rolando, the female fan who snuck into Brad Pitts' home, put on his clothes and slept in his bed was treated as a minor, somewhat wacky event. The press treatment only speaks to the basic inhumanity of the celebrity machine. Had this been an average citizen, the matter would not have caught the public attention at all. Any private citizen who had been accosted thus would certainly by all rights be on the verge of paranoia, those who discovered the plight of the victim would rally around them with sympathetic vigils and all manner of assistance. But given the celebrity billing of the Brad Pitt stalking the matter becomes farcical. It is a part of the 'Brad Pitt Show', an episode like any one of his films or his marriage to Jennifer Aniston We watch the comings and goings of the celebrity with a detachment better suited to prime time television than real life.
A factor accounting for this process of dehumanizing of the celebrity is a concept I would describe as the anonymous enigma. In the four-color world of conventional comic book superheroes it is a well known fact that a costumed avenger need only employ the barest of conceits in order to retain his secret identity. Take as an example Clark Kent and Superman. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen have day-to-day interactions with both characters. Lois and Jimmy often enjoy a good bull session with Clark at the water cooler and they both require saving by Superman when they are launched by Lex Luthor from atop a skyscraper. In other words, Lois and Jimmy have socially intimate contact with both personas and yet seem none the wiser about the shared identities. All that is required of Clark is a pair of spectacles and a willingness to make himself scarce whenever trouble is afoot.
The reason for this phenomenon lies in the enigmatic celebrity nature of Superman himself. The suit, the semiotics of power and heroism, is what is all important when considering any relationship between Supes and those who come into contact with him. There is no recognition of the humanness of Superman. The power of what the suit and the identity represent renders the flesh anonymous. In the comic book, Superman is a walking, talking, flying representation of what really amounts to George Bernard Shaw's conception of the superman. As such, 'mere mortals', everyday 'Joes', the Clark Kents of the world, instill in the suit their own ideas about what it means to be more that human. The suit then becomes filled with these conceptions and the human vanishes. For Clark Kent this relationship has worked extremely well. In his workaday life as Daily Planet reporter he is in no peril of being elevated beyond his own basic humanness. Those who may have suspicions quickly cast them aside as the very thought of this intermingling of the humanness of Clark Kent and the enigma of the suit is outside the realm of possibilities.
Superman, then, can be seen as a super celebrity, a fictional and extreme example of our own, real world celebrities who must contend with their own issues of anonymous enigma. The difference being that while the Man of Steel uses his enigma to maintain his private life our celebrities have no secret identity to escape into. This is, in fact, the key to understanding the problem. Celebrities are always in their 'super suits'. They are always on duty as who they are. Elizabeth Taylor, who has done little credible work in the past thirty years, lives as a perfect example as Neil Gabler's life-movie. Her 'suit' or her 'movie' is what she does, who she sees, who she dates, what illness she has. This odd, mini-industry is perpetuated by tabloids and gossip-orientated TV shows like Inside Edition and Entertainment Tonight who, in the tradition of Louella Parsons (who Taylor portrayed in 1985's Malice in Wonderland) and Walter Winchell keep the wheels of publicity rolling even after a star's career has seemingly faded.[22]
Face-to-face contact with a celebrity is, for most people, an uncanny experience. The old cliché that such-and-such an actor looks taller on TV is a very telling remark that speaks directly to the difficulties 'regular' people have in distinguishing the individual from the enigma. In Christian iconography, divine and saintly figures were often depicted as several heads taller than the worshipers at their feet. Piero della Francesca's Polyptych of the Misericorida (1445 - 62) portrays a solemn, fifteen foot Mary with her arms held wide in blessing over various local personalities - priest, nobleman, executioner. More recent examples also abound. Salvador Dali's The Crucifixion, depicting a clean shaven Christ on a hypercube cross suspended in midair, is a titan compared to Mary (actually Dali's wife, Gala) who, although quite adult in stature, is proportionately half as massive as Jesus. Artists represent the divine as larger than life as a way of signifying the essentially different nature of holy persons thereby inspiring awe and wonder in the faithful. This method could be seen as a form of early publicity for the faith - after all, prior to mass entertainments the highlight of any week would have been Church with all its attendant glamour and mystery.
In a similar way, contemporary pop culture also reconfigures the celebrity beyond their body. Anyone driving down Sunset Boulevard or Times Square will bear witness to the gargantuan representations of Jennifer Lopez, Denzel Washington, and Britney Spears on billboards at near-sky level. One can only imagine what the celebrities themselves think of all of this. It must be beyond daunting so see one's visage blown up to such proportions. Residual psychological affects up to and including paranoia would seem an almost reasonable reaction to this stimulus. Is this why celebrities tend to fraternize and mate with their own kind? It would seem likely given the inability of the consumer population to accept the corporeal existence of the celebrity body in day-to-day life.

High-Speed, Dial-up, and Decadence

As I mentioned earlier, I've only been an active participant on the net for little less than three years. In an attempt to make up for lost time I have spent a lot of time which would have ordinarily been absorbed by prime-time television surfing the byways of the electronic frontier[23]. I've seen a lot on those excursions - oh, of course there is a lot of porn but that doesn't even begin to describe the Gomorrah-like visions, the Dantian horrors, the Miltonian nightmares that awaited me on sites with names like,,,, and - each of which, in some fashion or another, managed to peel back and expose another layer of my tender, suburban innocence. For those of you who have not paid a visit to sites like the ones I mentioned, I can't honestly say that delight awaits you or that you will walk away a better, more synchronized human being. However, I think a brief description of some of the 'wonders' that these sites (and perhaps hundreds of others like them) is worth some comment.
Basically, this sites are clearinghouses for images (jpegs, gifs, mpegs, etc.) of a disturbing nature. Autopsy photos, car-crash victims, executions, human deformities, aborted fetuses, and suicides mixed with beyond-hard core porno[24]
[1] Carnahan, Ira. "Insurance by the Minute". Forbes Magazine (online) Dec. 12, 2000 ; note: researching this portion of the essay brought to mind the taglines Allstate and State Farm use in their advertising: You're in Good Hands with Allstate, Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm is There - it should come as no surprise that the old slogans which sound so much like Maoist propaganda originated with the very consumerist institutions that are now pushing for the use of these monitors.
[2] ("Where do I put this?" I am thinking of a well known home and lifestyle personality who squirms at the idea of putting a TV and a computer in the same room. Both objects are beyond homely. Design and style has come late to the world of personal computing. I liked the trend towards laptops and notebooks and palm devices because they are slight and relatively unobtrusive. The Apple's that came out in 1999 - multicolored, translucent - 2002’s iMac’s, with their articulated ‘desk lamp’ grooviness, are both steps in some direction but there's only so much you can do with plastic. Televisions are still the ugliest things in the house. The toilet, on the other hand, is gorgeous. Kitchen appliances are works of modernist brilliance, even a cheap toaster has more aesthetic charm than the gray, wire strewn mess that’s on my computer table).

[3] You know what's a little frightening? I typed Wal-Mart as Walmart and my spell check caught it! It knew how to spell Wal-Mart. Meanwhile, I have to get out the ten pound Merriam-Webster's to look up purslane.
[4] The dumbjock (might as well be one word) from the university exists as a barometer that can easily be utilized by hipsters to ascertain when a mode has become outmoded and gauche. Not having much in the way of native style, the dumbjock will simply gravitate to where he/she can find a good party. Since they are charmless, styleless, consumer sycophants, they tend to drain a scene of its purity and its allure. Like shock troops for Madison Avenue, the dumbjocks commit cultural genocide by ransacking these scenes and driving out the denizens. In this way, the dons of the consumerist culture can step in and homogenize the now vacuous scene and pitch it to middle-America. Evidence of this can be found in Tijuana, New Orleans, the coffee house (the ones still open), Seattle, punk rock, the Beats, techno, 'generation X', the Volkswagen Beetle, gay and lesbian culture, all of which have been strip-mined of whatever it was that made the scene attractive in the first place.
[5]A moderately pricey JVC. I have discovered after more than 10 years of serious consumerism that it doesn't pay to 'go cheap' with electronics. There is a broad, canyon-like gap between the $80 Korean knock off and the JVC. The mini-euphoria of saving money for something that, at least on the surface, performs the same basic function as the name brand item, is quickly dissipated usually within a thirty day period after installation. The vagaries of the cheapo innards will soon make short work of the third or forth video you attempt to watch and within six months you are attempting home surgery in an effort to broach the mysteries of the slap-dash inner workings. This is really your only options since taking it to a repair shop will result in expense and ridicule in the form of a lecture about buying cheap and how you might as well buy another VCR, or, (for god’s sake) a DVD player - for the money you are spending on the repairs!
[6] I imagine a malevolent machine at the cable company, the one responsible for sending my VCR its proper time/date signal, altering the signal slightly in order to confuse the VCR, torturing it in effect. But thus far, machines do tend to treat each other with a degree of aloofness that is quite English in some ways. They are polite to one another, they do their assigned tasks and carry on without lingering. Compatibility, a term once only used in the context of human relationships, has become the bread and butter of software engineers over years. Computers are now more compatible than power cords and outlets.
[7] I am alluding here to the oft told story of the Edison light bulb which evidently continues to illuminate a small room somewhere back east after 100 years or something like that. The fact that we cannot buy 'solid-state' anything is an important factor in the scheme of planned obsolescence - one of the few verifiable conspiracy theories. The rich, in a sense, are getting as screwed as the middle and lower classes since eventually they will have to contended with the vagaries of plastic just like everyone else.
[8] More boo-hooes for the industry: the market for what is colloquially called 'antiques' (read: second hand, formerly sat-upon, etc) is an anathema to the consumerist cycle as it recycles not only the obsolete item but the sentiment as well. People will buy a banged up, warped, pee-stained sofa for $30 in heartbeat because it will 'glow' with all kinds of usage-karma and infused sentiment. This can go on indefinitely. It is the curse of the durable goods to be durable.
[9] Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back (New York; Random House, 1996), 9.
[10] Ibid. 8.
[11] It is interesting to note that despite rising popularity of anti-theft devices in the market place, motor-vehicle theft rates have been declining since, in parity with overall declines in theft, for the past ten years. This according to the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics website. 1999 reported the lowest levels ever recorded for auto-theft. Contrast this with the website, a site devoted to the hawking of all manner of anti-theft devices; leaving one with the impression that we are living in some post-apocalyptic, Mad Max outlaw world that requires constantly security bolstering .
[12] Other countries, especially the troubled ones like Russia, India and China, absolutely treasure the entertainment value garnered from the American election. But what most Americans probably don't comprehend is what role America, The Show plays in their lives. Comparisons to soap operas and night time dramas are the most common expression. At other times our military is derided collectively as acting like Rambo or John Wayne. Nations are known for their cultural rather than their material exports - the most popular television shows in the past twenty years in Europe include the American prime time pantheon of Dynasty, Dallas, Falcon's Crest and more recently Bay Watch and Seinfeld. If you can take your mind back to the halcyon days of the first George Bush and the first Gulf War, Iraqi radio personality 'Baghdad Betty' would issue invectives against the American soldiers telling them that their wives back home were having affairs with Bart Simpson. Why? Because, for all intents and purposes, our entertainments are who we are.
[13] Anyone remember Elian Gonzalez? The tragic story of a boy, his dead mother, and Janet Reno. There was some talk that this incident with its accompanying images of shock troopers with guns shoved up the crying boy's nostril would come back to haunt Al Gore at election time - he being guilty by association.
[14] Nearly no one, proportionately speaking. According to CNN, nationwide Pat received a total of 442,637 votes which is only 70,000 more votes than third place finisher Ralph Nader received in a single state, California, where, by the way, Pat wasn't even forth. He finished fifth behind the Libertarian candidate. The real scandal is that this trite, butter-mouthed angry little John-Bircher actually managed to garner as much publicity as he did during his ridiculous campaign. In the final weeks of October Pat could be heard regurgitating his petty, fascist spiel on supposedly respectable public radio talk shows. This being said, it is something that despite having millions of dollars in government matching funds for his campaign (the subject of a violently contested Reform Party convention that resulted in two candidates, Buchanan and John Haeglin, being put up by two warring factions within the party) Pat has very little to show for it. Where were the rallies? Where were the radio and TV spots? Compared to Nader, who, without a dime of federal money, put together what many have called the best run presidential campaign of the last decade - well attended super rallies, fun and on-message TV spots, and a seeming whirlwind of volunteer activity that turned a sleepy, no-name Green party into a real movement. As of this writing, the Green party is the third party in this country. I am sure there are those in Perot's Reform party that will be mounting an investigation regarding the whereabouts of the millions Pat squandered in the name of his lackluster presidential bid.
[15] Only when you are on the losing end of the system, it seems. Bush, during one of many election night foot-in-mouth moments decried the electoral college as not reflecting the will of the people. He said this early on Tuesday when he was ahead in the popular vote while running a distant second to Gore in electoral votes. Later, and for a week thereafter, with the table turned, Bush vocalized his impatience with Democrats wanting a hand recount of Florida votes - which at the time were in his favor and therefore would have spelled a popular victory for the Texas governor.
16.Delany, Bill "Florida's African-American Voters Upset Over Disqualified Ballots", (online)
[17] In 1998, reported the successful flight of the Air Force's Global Hawk, an unmanned spy play. The plane flew at a height of 65,000 feet during a flight that lasted 56 minutes. The article, which was less than 150 words in length, while never going into too much detail about the future military uses of the vehicle, did offer that the Global Hawk could "read license plates" from its cruising altitude.
[18] Although the lines are blurring, at least at work. Even causal internet usage by workers is a concern of many managers in corporate America as hourly associates spend their down time scouring the web for diversion. There are evidently programs available which can track a particular users on-line habits - where they go, what they do, whether or not it was a work related 'trip'. On the other hand, workers are, on average spending more time on the clock than ever before. Is this to 'catch up' with work they had put off in order to ogle the Girls Gone Wild website or is it a result of ever increasing productivity demands from management?
[19] I exclude, with some reservation, street theater and venues like The Rose or The Globe theaters in London where cheap seats could be had for a tupence. While this is indeed true I would argue that those entertainments were for consumption by urban audiences with both the money and the leisure time, a concept foreign to the average Londoner prior to the late 19th century.
[20] Neil Gabler, Life: The Movie (New York; Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 7.
[21] Soap opera stars seem to be the biggest victims of this process, especially the villains. A heel is a heel in these dramas and there is very little maneuvering room for subtleties of character. In interviews, these actors reflect, often with thinly disguised dread, on being accosted in restaurants or supermarkets by avid fans (read: fanatics) who are convinced that the malevolent role played by the actor is part-and-parcel with the character of the actor himself/herself. Tabloids abound with these stories that range from a harmless berating to real violence inflicted upon the actor.
[22] To her credit, Taylor has managed to parlay her enigma into publicity for her many charitable causes. Her seemingly tireless support of AIDS research has drawn praise from even her harshest critics.
[23] Ironically, this high-tech slacking was made possible by the fact that in my ancient apartment - built as a motel back in the late 1950s - I am unable, for some technologically arcane reason which the phone company does not see fit diagnose much less fix, to use conventional, dial-up modems. This forced me, be default, to look into high-speed, cable-based sources of access. Only a few regions of the country are using this type of modem as of this date and given the comparatively exorbitant price tag per month - anywhere from twice to three times as much as some of my friends and relative pay for conventional dial-up service - it may be some time before this technology really clicks with the GP. This isn't to say that there isn't a lot to shout about. Despite my measly first generation Pentium processor I am still able to rocket through the net any time of the day or night without much delay. Fans of downloadable porn rejoice…the average four-minute clip of Jeanna Jameson giving a messy blow-job takes approximately 15 to 20 seconds to download. Just enough time to get the buckle loose…I would imagine.
[24] The list of grotesque and morbid materials displayed actually hits a wall after only a few items - listed above. However, I was impressed by the sheer variety of sex-acts that go on in this world. I couldn't even begin to make a list, such is the sheer volume of material out there (and I haven't even been to more than a dozen or so sites - there perhaps hundreds of thousands) of sites out there. If you want a rough idea of what goes on in the realm of deviant sexual behavior on the net, simply take a few seconds and try and think up the most transgressive, bizarre, disgusting, alien, sex act you could possibly fathom. Got that image? Well, I can assure you that it is on the web somewhere and that a good search engine can direct you to it. For my money, nothing beats the clip I watched of two naked, Japanese girls sitting in a bathtub vomiting on each other. Vomit-porn seems as popular in Japan as shit-porn (scat) is in Germany and bestiality in the States.