A Thin Line Between Documentation + Surveillance

In the wake of the PRISM leaks, I’ve been a bit perplexed by the responses of some of my Facebook acquaintances. A number of them have openly expressed their disdain for PRISM (and its implications), which given their general critical and political dispositions is no surprise. And to be clear, I don’t begrudge them for their (or mine for that matter) disdain.  But what has fascinated me is how some of those individuals who express their anger for the US Government’s PRISM practices-citing it as an invasion of privacy and state sponsored surveillance-also behave in similar, boundary crossing ways: documenting strangers to publicly (via FB) shame for a good laugh. What confuses me is trying to understand what, if anything, distinguishes documentation in this instance from surveillance. Humor me here as I think aloud.

What I am seeing in my FB feed is basically trolling: people taking pictures of strangers on the bus or at restaurants who are dressed “funny” or have some other aspect about their behavior that these acquaintances find humorous or worth sharing with their “networked public” (see: danah boyd + alice marwick’s paper) via FB.  It’s usually a post via FB with a caption that reads something like “Look at this sap” or “Maybe we need to gay makeover this tired queen’s outfit” (I’ll save my thoughts for the overuse misuse of “shade” for another post). A more popular example of this kind of behavior is the People of the CTA Facebook page, where people post pictures of the people they see on Chicago’s public transit and followers troll their asses off. You get the gist: see someone who looks ‘funny,’ document them and distribute to your friends. 

So when people do this on a micro level, they are documenting, collecting what they deem odd when they deem it so for their personal archives. And at any time, anyone could become an object in this personal or potentially public collection. And when said object is posted, people laugh and maybe even share with their friends. Things only get ‘real’ when we are confronted with someone we know in one of these pictures. But I’d argue that in our culture of ubiquitous documentation (via Instagram and the like), are we not already accepting a certain level of surveillance from our peers? Aren’t we already at the point where we risk being ‘watched’ by someone, somewhere? And why is it okay in the interests of humor and bullying to tolerate this behavior but openly voice our disdain when it’s done in the name of ‘national security’? 

 I am interested in trying to understand where the boundaries between surveillance and the above form of documentation are located. Moral? Epistemic? Cultural? For me, PRISM and snapping pictures of strangers to ridicule are disturbing. But why do we not read something like “People of the CTA” as a kind of surveillance? It seems silly and frankly too simple to reduce it to just a difference of state power or individual power, though I think the distinction is one worth making. I suppose one could argue that what constitutes public and private information differ greatly in those two examples, which is a fair point as it raises issues of consent.

To me they seem like different manifestations of a similar kind of logic.That it’s okay to take what we want without consent because we’re amused, because we can. And for me, this attitude of taking what we want because we can is no different if it’s coming from the state or our friends. It’s dangerous in every instance. Maybe it’s an indication of my cynicism that I am not as bothered by the prospect of the state watching me, as I am by the prospect of someone deciding they don’t like what I have on and deciding to subject me to public shaming on some social network somewhere. This isn’t to say that I think one is worse than the other but rather, to see surveillance play out in the guise of humor or trolling or whatever creates troubling norms. It trains us to stop seeing each other as beings who demand respect and empathy. This training at the hands of peers is what scares me more than anything. 

What are people’s thoughts on the matter? 

My post on the importance of contextual thinking is up on my agency’s blog. 

The Novelist: A Trailer

Some random thoughts:

Digital marketers are obsessed with the ‘gamification’ of everything. Make everything a game and people will be interested, ya dig? You get the drill here. It’s lazy and dated strategy. The industry’s approach is basically the equivalent of killing a cow in order to milk it: instead of working with a trend, we strive to own it and in the process render it useless. And instead of looking to see where we might have failed, we look for more cows to kill in the name of milk.   

The Novelist is the most clever combination of design, storytelling and gaming I have seen in some time. It gets right what so many of us in the industry get wrong:

- It combines interaction and emotional design in a meaningful way. The player is directly implicated in the story and the actions of the characters. You feel morally obliged to stop writing and put together the boy’s toy car.

- It allows the player access to the interior world of the characters and allows the user to engage in a kind of dialectical exchange with the characters.

- It assumes the user is smart and uses the player’s awareness as kind of baseline for engagement

And the really brilliant part, I think, for marketers: allows players to have agency in a controlled environment without (appearing to) reducing their engagement to a set of limited interactions with the game (i.e., click this and get that)

It seems to me that a lot of digital design experiences fail because marketers (and others) assume users are too lazy for anything complex and too stupid to be emotionally engaged without complete manipulation.  Maybe if we give people more credit they might actually surprise us. 

Can we talk about this Amanda Palmer TED talk for a minute? To be up front, I’m not a particular fan of her music or the way she handled criticism of her Kickstarter funding practices or the practices themselves (i.e., raising $1.2 Million dollars and asking musicians to play for beer, hugs, etc). 

Here’s the point of Palmer’s talk: if you ask for help - if you’re willing to trust in and have faith in people, they will help you. So you should ask for things, especially as a musician or creative person. 

This idea doesn’t bother me. I think bartering in whatever sense is useful. But welcome to capitalism, people need cash money to pay bills, get by, etc. We can’t all get by on hugs and couch surfing like Palmer and her bandmates do. Oh, but see, here’s the thing: she’s financially comfortable. And she’s married to someone who is financially comfortable too. It’s really easy to ask for help when you have the means to support yourself if you don’t receive it. Asking for help when you need it, when you’re completely desperate, is fucking hard. It breaks people. Drives people to suicide. Because when you’re broke and dependent on others, you are not just asking: you’re begging. Gloss it up how you like but for some, it’s a very ugly reality.

Palmer performed on the streets for $60 dollars a day and worked her way up to be able to live as a full-time musician. And asking from her fans was a big part of helping her get there. That’s great. But the minute you raise $1.2 million in funding and have a well off husband, you run into murky waters continuing to ask/barter for things. Why? Because of class privilege. That’s why. You’ve become a person of means. I’m not saying you lose your right to barter, but you should acknowledge the privilege at work, allowing you an even larger selection of people and places to “ask” from. Privilege aside, I think there is something unquestionably gross about being a person with money asking for free things because you can. 

Not that these things are mutually exclusive, but there is something to be said for being a relatively famous white woman with a famous husband asking strangers to let you into their homes and extolling the audience’s willingness to trust and have faith in you. What if she were an unfamous, unmarried man of color making the same kind of music? Would he be so welcomed into homes? An undocumented person of color trying to get their music out? Maybe these aren’t the best examples. I’m not saying she should feel bad for being a white woman with money but I do think she needs to discuss what class (and potentially race) privilege affords her in her model of “asking and trusting” between artists and fans. Is this a model that can be adopted and applied by more than just a select few musicians? What would a broader model of trust and faith look like? Some critical perspective would have made a simple, somewhat interesting approach even more compelling. 

A Perpetual Noise, A Perpetual Chance

It’s been a peculiar, less than ideal start to the year. A year of firsts for me, which I’ve tried to take in stride. I’ve struggled and shut down, probably shutting a lot of people out.  But in some odd way, it seems this year, or at least this phase of it, is about chances to start over. Opportunities to reject the past, reject abstractions and resignations.  Something between reinvention and redemption. A gesture at forgiveness. A Response.  It’s all a bit abstract. 

A few years ago, I woke up with a ringing in my ear. A perpetual white noise. After going through one round of tests, I was told that everything was in working order and the sound, the noise, would become a ‘quirk’ I would have to learn to accommodate. And so I tried. I made space in my life for the noise. For a year and a half, I trained myself to ignore the sound because everything else seemed okay. I could still hear. But it exhausted me mentally and physically. I couldn’t sleep, think clearly, or concentrate. The energy it took to compete with the noise in my head wiped me of any real desire to create, write or think. The noise, the noise, the noise. Loud. Constant. The worst kind of bedfellow.

Qualities about myself I’ve spent years developing were starting to diminish and I didn’t really understand why. I felt like I was losing some part of myself into some kind of abyss. But this wasn’t depression. This was starting to feel like a peculiar kind of alienation. Meanwhile the noise was growing, taking shape and nesting in my ear. A particular tenor that started to cause pain and steal sounds, fattened with all of the fragments of conversations and bass lines I could no longer hear. A glutton stealing the finest pieces of meat. I was starting to hate this unknown part of myself.

And so I dragged myself to the doctor’s office for more testing, afraid of what I might learn. What I learned was that this glutton had a name: cholesteatoma. It is a cyst but it behaves like a benign tumor, eating bones in its path like Goya’s Saturn.  It must be removed, excised by a surgeon. But removal, of course, has risks. I’ve been lucky. I caught the glutton before it ate through most of my ear bones. There’s still unknown damage, damage that won’t be named until surgery in a few weeks. I try to tell myself it will be fine, that this Saturn will be cut out with minimal damage to my hearing. That I will go back to some kind of normal, to full hearing and nights of good sleep. I will remember what it was like to experience silence. But there’s a good chance that I’ll always have to live with the ringing, the noise.

But this is just an ear. This could be worse. And yet, the prospect of recurrence  of more gluttons returning throughout the rest of my life to continue feasting on my ears scares me. I am a musician, regardless of whether anyone cares for what I create or regards me as such. I live in the world of sounds. Music is my greatest love, so the thought of losing it scares me. It stirs a kind of fear in me I have never experienced. I am bracing for heartbreak, the possible end of a romance with a notion of myself. But I am trying to treat this as a chance to reinvent, to rename and maybe reclaim other parts of myself. That the small speck on the audiogram, the mound resting atop my eardrum is some kind of metaphor. A chance to cut out and reject the parts of myself I don’t like?  To fight harder for the things I love?

In the past, I’ve been fortunate to have escaped major health issues. I’ve never known the particular betrayal of a sick body. The past few months have been rough, as the lack of sleep has caused some serious exhaustion and daytime drowsiness issues. I am not used to this. I am a thinker and a doer. The noise makes me feel mad, on the verge of losing it. Sometimes it makes me want to scream like a colicky baby, but I shove the sound deep inside of myself. When I take longer to respond to questions, people think I am being deliberative, thoughtful even. But I’m jarring myself awake, trying to make myself care over the noise. I am reaching deep into the noise to find responses to the banalities of daily life.

I haven’t felt like myself in a very long time. And I might never again because that sense, that notion, is maybe more relative than I care to admit. What I’ve learned is that there are but a few with whom you can discuss this fear, this feeling of a fleeting self. It seems it’s too much to tell people you’re scared, that you’re unnerved. This disclosure is an imposition because it’s too real, too sad. Too human? That we should talk about the weather instead and everything will be fine. But this fear is neither a bad thing nor a sad thing. It just is. Can we not be serious for a minute or two? Am I the only one who finds the extent to which people go to maintain pleasantries and banalities suffocating? Sometimes life is heavy and people want to talk about it. Get over it. This is it and we’re all we have. Frivolity will be right where we left it.

But everyone seems too busy to be bothered with anything, too busy to respond to calls, texts, emails, etc. No one lacks the capacity to care, to listen to someone express their vulnerability. They choose not to. And if I reach out and no one responds because they’re instagramming their way through the day or too busy promoting their band to respond to an email, what then? Is this the new normal? And if I try to make new friends because my friends are “too busy,” how do I compete in a world with others who are busy being busy? And by writing this, am I opening myself up to ridicule and shame? So  I’ll just learn to live with less because most don’t have the time to give more. But really, what is there to say that can’t be said in a Facebook status update? “Like” the fear. We all win: you with your happiness and me with my noise. 

And yet I worry that I’m overextending  the few that do respond. We’re some kind of endangered breed of humans that want to talk about life and chances to do better and be better. A limited stock. But if nothing is said about fear, then it grows unnamed. It competes with the noise. And this chance to talk through the fear, to make the best of it, disappears. What’s growing in one could spark something in another. Might the perpetual noise be a perpetual chance to reclaim and recreate?  But the noise requires a response. 

Tricia Wang, of Ethnography Matters (a fantastic blog about all things ethnography), asked me to participate in the group’s “Summer Reading” series. The series is basically a bunch of interesting researchers, some of whom identify as ethnographers, writing about what books they’re reading this summer and why they’re reading them. The jury’s still out on whether I’m an “interesting researcher”  but the above link is my contribution. 

Add to that list some recent additions (i.e., added after I submitted my post), and you have my summer reading list:

Zizek’s "Welcome to the Desert of the Real"

Salome Voegelin "Listening to Noise and Silence: Toward a Philosophy of Sound Art"

(Critical Theory and Sound!)

Now Available on Imgur: Memes as Branded Ad Units On one hand, I think selling memes as a branded unit is kind of brilliant, in a deeply misguided way. Given the kinds of audiences that develop and share memes, branding a meme is a pretty risky and bold move for a company. Imgur’s Promoted Image Ad Unite is basically the equivalent of Facebook’s “Sponsored Stories” for the 4chan crowd, which could potentially d/evolve into a really interesting critique and parody of online advertising. And I hope that it does because this parody/’cultural jamming’ could actually teach online advertisers about the inefficiency of branding and turning everything into ad unit-I’ll save other points about culture and capitalism for another post. As someone who works in strategy and online advertising, I really struggle with the corporatized branding of consumers in the name of advertising. On an ethical level, I think many digital outreach efforts (i.e., engaging online influencers to promote products or brands) veer into exploitative territory, bordering on unpaid forms of digital labor. I do, however, recognize that there are consumers for whom this kind of relationship with a brand is desired because of the potential affect on a person’s social capital or Klout (pun intended) within their social networks. But beyond my ethical qualms, there’s another more pragmatic point that I struggle with: if everything can become an ad, then aren’t we as an industry training consumers to stop seeing ads? Aren’t we anesthetizing consumers to online ads, making them and our efforts somewhat worthless? Are we not shooting ourselves in the foot in the long term? We’re essentially creating a model where we have to continue to up the ante in order to get a consumer’s attention, requiring levels of creativity I’m not entirely convinced our field has to maintain long term. Personally, I think the most radical thing a brand can do to get a consumer’s attention right now is to suspend advertising for a year and pour the money into meaningful, in-depth consumer research and product development. Stop building obsolescence into products. Start solving problems. Value should be more than just a brand talking point; it should be a philosophy that informs product design and utility.

Rejecting Materiality for the “Authentically Digital,” Or a Note about Windows 8 New Logo

Certain corners of the web seem to be all aflame, debating the aesthetic merits of the updated Windows 8 logo. Some, like Venture Beat, deem it ugly, denouncing it as as Microsoft’s “Gap Moment” and declaring that it looks like it was made in “MS Paint.” Others aren’t sure what to make of the new, Pentagram-approved design. If Michael Beirut and Paula Scher are behind it, it can’t be all that bad, right? I enjoy its minimalism and think it does a nice job of conjuring up the Metro UI of Windows 8. I do, however, hate the non-font font that is Segoe UI. It reminds me of a knock off helvetica, akin to a “brada” or “jucci” bag. Debates about whether it looks like a window or a flag aside, there’s something else about the logo I’d like to focus on: it’s representation of the “authentically digital.”

On a Windows Team blog post, Principal Designer of User Experience Sam Moreau wrote that the new Metro inspired logo not only invoked the new Metro UI of Windows 8 but also represented the “authentically digital”:

It was important that the new logo carries our Metro principle of being “Authentically Digital”. By that, we mean it does not try to emulate faux-industrial design characteristics such as materiality (glass, wood, plastic, etc.). It has motion – aligning with the fast and fluid style you’ll find throughout Windows 8.”

There is something intriguing to me about rejecting design characteristics that invoke materiality for something that conjures motion and fluidity. It suggests that it is possible to reject the materiality of the device hardware from the operating system. As a marketing ploy, it’s actually quite clever, especially given that Windows 8 is being positioned as a game changer of an operating system that combines platforms, apps and hardware. And what I’ve seen of the fluidity of Windows 8 across multiple devices, it’s enough for me to think that this approach might actually resonate with consumers. It’s slick and minimalist enough to get people thinking a little more about the system rather than the device. But is it enough to get people to fetishsize the system over the device? Let’s face it, no company has cornered the market on commodity fetishism quite like Apple has. 

Now in full disclosure, I work as a global search account planner and strategist for an agency that handles Microsoft’s commericial and consumer accounts. I work with our sister agencies to plan media strategy for all of Microsoft’s major business units and yes, I’m working on Windows 8 planning (don’t ask for any information because I will not provide any; I’m disclosing my client relationship because it’s the ethical thing to do). Even more disclosure, I am a user of Apple products. Disclosure out of the way, this phrase “authentically digital” has haunted most of my planning documents. It’s sort of rubbed me the wrong way, mostly because years of critical theory have trained me to cringe every time I hear the word “authentic.” Moreau’s post is as close to a definition of the phrase as I have seen yet. 

But can anything be truly authentic when it comes to discussing digital anything? Moreover, can we conceive of anything digital without the materiality of the devices that allow entry points and access? Personally speaking, I can’t have a conversation about the digital web without talking about the devices that allow me access or how my environmental context shapes my use of the devices which then shapes my digital access and experiences. Arguably the metaphors of materiality (e.g., space,borders, boundaries, etc) have allowed theorists and casual observers alike a language to discuss the complexities of the internet, digital ecosystems, software, etc. Will the phrase “authentically digital” resonate, will it become a way to demarcate digital experiences? If it is the turning point for the ‘authentically digital’ then what will become inauthentic, the falsely digital?  

P.S. Some interesting, smart responses to my post can be found here and here. 

RE: On Beauty, Which Really Does Not Have to Be Dull

Although I agree with Nitsuh Abebe's observation that ideas aren't always sounds and sounds may sometimes be ideas, I'd like to suggest that there is a third option as well: sounds can create contemplative spaces for ideas (revolutionary ones or otherwise). In short, there is some kind of alternative, third space between ideas and sounds that can be created or afforded by beautiful or pleasant music. 

"Most music lovers carry around some shred of a very powerful myth that says the opposite, that pleasant music can never really be where the meaningful ideas are.” This sentence in Abede’s post really struck me as a strange observation. Perhaps I run in very limited circles but I’ve never known anyone to say anything close to the statement above. Defining what constitutes pleasant music might be useful. For example, I find Burial's music incredibly pleasant but someone may find Skrillex's music more pleasant to listen to instead. The stylistic difference between Burial and Skrillex is massive but I think it boils down to restraint versus excess. I assume pleasant music for Adebe is music that demonstrates some kind of restraint or almost minimalistic quality, as his examples of Cocteau Twins, The Mountain Goats and The Chap generally suggest.  But it remains an assumption until he defines “pleasant” for readers. 

I favor music that demonstrates restraint. For me, restraint typically, but not always, suggests a higher level of sophistication, thought and attentiveness by the producer or songwriter. Subtraction and absence can create interesting spaces for communication, affect, and contemplation. Conversely, excess tends to obliterate those spaces in almost an imperialist, colonial like fashion: excess (i.e., over production) can result in kind of hand-holding between the artists and the listener, as if to say that everything is important so that nothing is actually important.

Saying more with less is hard. Saying something interesting and thoughtful with less is an art. That being said, there are times where I react to all of the minimalist, restrained music I listen to and actively seek out something more maximalist in its approach. If anything, this is exactly why I love Florence and the Machine.  A song like “Cosmic Love” is so massive, so epic and grand that it borders on obscenity. And in a way, it is obscene because it is so big. It’s brave in its boldness, in its willingness to be grand because it knows it has to be: an Aphex Twin style piano ballad would be kind of a let down for a song about love that’s as massive as the goddamn cosmos. And yet, the excess affords some breathing room for you, the listener, to consider your own thoughts on ‘cosmic love’ or at least appreciate Flo’s magnificent pipes.  So maybe this means I am more of a hypocrite than biased. Or both. 

Those who have read my blog for awhile know that I have a real love and deep appreciation for Foucault’s essay "Of Other Spaces." He discusses (and defines) heterotopias as place-less spaces that engender alternative modes of being or knowledge production. They allow for re-imagination which may or may not be political in nature. Lately I’ve been thinking about how music can act as a heterotopia in Foucault’s framework, especially as it relates to the music I write. On some level, music as a contemplative space is a bit self-evident insofar as people often discuss their personal relationship to a song or music in terms of evocation (e.g., “this song makes me feel x” or “I think about y differently because of this band”). But usually that kind of contemplation has its roots in something personal and emotional and often in relation to universal experiences of love or grief. Restraint in music creates enough breathing room for this level of contemplation because there is less competition between sounds, beats, ideas and feelings. You can hear yourself think and feel.

A few years ago, I went through a phase where I started combining my love of critical theory with the art I made. I tried to use the art I made as a way of explicitly explaining the theory through the medium of fine art in almost a pedagogical sense. Part of it was an exploration of how to resituate theory and part of it was about making theory accessible in different ways. Sometimes this was successful and sometimes it was not. Now I find myself wanting to do the same thing with music. While I won’t go into the project too much, I’ve started working on something that begins to scratch at the surface of this a bit. 

A few months ago I wrote a post-dub song that sampled Zizek discussing the nature of love, which a few folks seemed to appreciate. As a result of that experiment, I ended up connected with another critical theory and electronic music loving producer based in Paris. Over the past 6 or so weeks, we’ve been ‘remixing’ Zizek’s Occupy Wall Street speech. The process has been really fantastic on a lot of levels. Our project initially started as an attempt to turn the speech into a protest jam for the club kids and evolved into something more like sound art. We realized that as much as we wanted to create something dance oriented, the ideas Zizek was communicating were being lost to the dance music. So it became about, I think, creating music that created space for both Zizek’s ideas to be resituated but also creating something like a heterotopia for the listener. 

We’re in the process of wrapping up the mix, creating cover art, etc for the track. We’re also drafting a statement about it and deciding on what kind of political life we’d like it to have. I can’t say if I think it’s successful or not because on some level I don’t think that it’s my place to make that call. But maybe, just maybe, the end product will be a solid effort to articulate that space between politics, ideas, beauty and sounds. 

Note: This is a link to the completed Zizek remix

Eulogy For a Friend, or A Note About Suicide

A high school friend of mine committed suicide this weekend. He hanged himself in one of UChicago’s research buildings. We hadn’t been close in the last few years and I found out through a mutual friend’s Facebook status update. John was important to me in a way I can’t fully articulate. But I am going to try to anyway because I am upset and feel this is necessary, this public articulation of sadness. I can’t cry anymore, so I must write as if to document the feeling before it disappears altogether. But also, because this is grief and grief does not have to be well-put or logical.

John was one of my closest friends in high school. Probably my closest friend. I had many acquaintances but few friends, few people I wanted to be around when things got complicated. We were the weirdos, the ones who didn’t fit in. This had everything do with us being gay, but we didn’t know it at the time. We had an inkling we were different. But because we were close and spent all of our time together, everyone thought we were a couple, so they spared us some harassment. He was my prom date and a fantastic date he was. He went through great pains to find a shirt the same color of red that my hair was dyed at the time, a deep shade of crimson. He was the only one who laughed at my “one of you will betray me” joke while I broke bread at dinner before the dance. And because we weren’t actually a couple, we could dance as terribly and crazily as we wanted. He exposed me to the worst of hip-hop and I tried to get him to like punk. On this front, we both failed each other.

We took American Sign Language together, worked at these ridiculous PGA golf outings in Dearborn to make extra money for band camp, and were in a terrible emo band together. He drummed, which was hilarious because he couldn’t drum at all. And his cover of “Smells like Teen Spirit” was deafening, but every time I hear that song I think of John. During one of our high school talent show performances, we came out and performed an absolutely horrid version of Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady.” I had never heard the song before him and now won’t ever be able to hear it because of him. A class trip to teach social studies to students in a small frontier-esque town nestled in the Cascade mountains would have been a nightmare without him. We were each other’s beards. I loved him because he reminded me that I wasn’t alone and I think on some level the same was true for him. I loved him for his willingness to be nothing less than who he was. Any fondness I have toward my high school years, I owed to him. 

We talked periodically during our college years. I remember when he came out to me over lunch one day. I simply said, “I know and I am too.” We just sat there, relieved. Coming out can sometimes just be a confirmation of the obvious. But in that moment, we confirmed, I think, what we were to one another in high school. But as happens in life, we grew apart. I never loved or respected him less. I assumed that, for the time being, we didn’t have a place in each other’s lives. You grow up, go figure yourself out, and maybe grow apart. We shared a mutual friend, a friend through whom I learned of John’s adventures and successes. John was brilliant and I had no doubt he would become a famous scientist. I looked forward to seeing his magnificent self on something like The Colbert Report, waxing hilariously but intelligently about climate change and evolution, rocking an incredible, bedazzled Louis Vution man clutch. I looked forward to saying I knew him when we were in a shit emo band together, when he wore anime t-shirts and pretended to drum by violently beating on toms. 

Now, without the fame, I just knew him and am deeply saddened by his loss. Nonetheless, it was a pleasure to have know him. Just last week he sent me a note asking for advice about transitioning from the academy to agency life. He seemed upbeat, albeit burnt out, but looking for options. I didn’t respond immediately because I wanted to craft a thoughtful response to a serious question; I wanted to give him the advice that I wish someone had given me. Now it’s too late. Now his note sits in my Facebook inbox, dated five days before he decided to give it up. It’s arrogant of me to think that a prompt response would have made a difference. But were there other unanswered notes? In aggregate, would it have made a difference? Maybe that’s a point in itself: in aggregate we matter to one another, we impact one another?  I don’t know but I am cursing myself all the same. 

So now I am staring at my bookshelf, waiting for some dead philosopher to come and help me find solace, understanding in John’s decision. It seems all too easy to say that suicide is a selfish act, a permanent response to a temporary state of being. I believe in human agency. I believe that as actors we have the right to determine the course of our lives, the terms with which we will act, love and ultimately leave our lives. I see suicide as an extension of this agency. I suppose that on some level I think we are fundamentally selfish creatures. But herein lies a great irony, that in as much as we can  be selfish about our decision to live or not live, we too are selfish in our desire to force a desire for life onto to those we love. Almost as if to say, if you can’t live for yourself, live for me. That the act of living for another may help you find a reason to live for yourself when despair is all you see. Whereas some might be inclined to turn this into a moral quandary, I’d rather leave the point at the level of irony. Moral debate or not, someone that meant something to me is now gone and a discussion of morality will not change that very real fact.

I want to believe that whatever suffering John was feeling has been alleviated. But it’s the aftermath of your search for grace (maybe?) that is the hard part, John. It’s erasure. It’s dissonance. We have your Facebook page, now a public grieving post, a central point of collective remembering. But everything seems so inane now: posts about falafel sandwiches and crappy christmas songs on Spotify in between a digital stream of grief. So now I’ll turn to a passage in Adorno’s Minima Moralia that helped me get through the hell of graduate school, that helped me find hope on days when I thought it was impossible. Each time I read this passage, I realize that I don’t fully understand the entirety of what Adorno is saying in it. Still, I find comfort in it and think I get closer to comprehension after each reading:

The only philosophy which would still be accountable in the face of despair, would be the attempt to consider all things, as they would be portrayed from the standpoint of redemption. Cognition has no other light than that which shines from redemption out upon the world; all else exhausts itself in post-construction and remains a piece of technics. Perspectives must be produced which set the world beside itself, alienated from itself, revealing its cracks and fissures, as needy and distorted as it will one day lay there in the messianic light. To win such perspectives without caprice or violence, wholly by the feel for objects, this alone is what thinking is all about. It is the simplest of all things, because the condition irrefutably call for such cognitions, indeed because completed negativity, once it comes fully into view, shoots [zusammenschiesst] into the mirror-writing of its opposite. But it is also that which is totally impossible, because it presupposes a standpoint at a remove, were it even the tiniest bit, from the bane [Bannkreis] of the existent; meanwhile every possible cognition must not only be wrested from that which is, in order to be binding, but for that very reason is stricken with the same distortedness and neediness which it intends to escape. The more passionately thought seals itself off from its conditional being for the sake of what is unconditional, the more unconsciously, and thereby catastrophically, it falls into the world. It must comprehend even its own impossibility for the sake of possibility. In relation to the demand thereby imposed on it, the question concerning the reality or non-reality of redemption is however almost inconsequential.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams

I recently finished Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, a short but incredibly dense and affective work. Handke’s writes about the suicide of his mother, a woman who lived through Nazi Europe and its aftermath. The book is as much about her life, the cultural context in which she lived and was shaped, as it is about her death and its impact on Handke. In short, the book is truly remarkable. It is also heartbreaking. This is not a book to read on the bus. You cannot half-assedly read this book. You must give it your undivided attention. The book demands, even requires it of you. But the tradeoff for reading a book that is a tome in its emotional scope yet brief in its physical form is that Handke’s writing will move you, arresting you with its ability to articulate the erasure of individual identity, namely the erasure of his mother.

Most compelling is the empathic yet clinical tone Handke takes when discussing his mother’s life. He pieces together her story: lost dreams, stolen moments of joy, frustrations and ultimately the nervous breakdown before her suicide. What remains is a portrait of a woman going through the motions of life, occasionally exercising agency when she remembers that she is an actor in her own story. And yet, fleeting moments of joy only seem to steal her away from the memory, the burden of the unyielding sense of oblivion she carries within herself. Beyond feeling alone in a crowd, she goes outside to run from the gradual, yet unending sense of disintegration that waits for her at home. 

In a small way, the book is a kind of feminist analysis of the impact of socio-political culture-in this case, german fascism- and its manifestation in the institution of marriage. Here we are provided with an example of how the lack of viable alternatives can result in internalized shame, self-perceived failure and regret. How a life unlived can yield a loss of humanity: 

"I talk to myself, because I can’t say anything to other people anymore. Sometimes I feel like a machine. I’d like to go away somewhere, but when it gets dark I’m afraid of not finding the way home again. In the morning there’s dense fog and then everything is so quiet. Every day I do the same work, and every morning the place is a mess again. There’s never an end to it. I really wish I were dead. When I’m out in the street and I see a car coming, I want to fall in front of it. But how can I be sure it would work? [A letter from Handke’s mother to Handke, p. 64]"

It’s difficult not to be reminded of Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the banality of evil in her work Eichmann in Jerusalem. Banality takes on a double meaning when applied to Handke’s mother: there is the (marco and) micro evil of German totalitarianism looming over Europe and trickling into daily life, as well as the even more micro evil of Handke’s mother’s home life. Yet there is the oblivion that Handke’s mother carries inside of her and there is the aftermath that Handke articulates as a witness. There is a passage from Arendt’s chapter on evidence and witnesses in Eichmann in Jerusalem that speaks to this relationship between witnesses and oblivion quite well:

"The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing can ever be "practically useless," at least, not in the long run…Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that "it could happen" in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation [p. 232-233]."

Although Arendt is discussing the erasure of a class of people, the significance of her point about witnessing the erasure of an individual or individuals can be applied outside of a discussion of The Holocaust. To watch the nervous breakdown of another is to, in a way, witness their erasure, even if it’s self-perceived. It is the disintegration of their humanity. Toward the end of the book, Handke writes of narration and memory, penning one of the most compelling and riveting sentences I have ever read:

"Obviously narration is only an act of memory; on the other hand, it holds nothing in reserve for future use; it merely derives a little pleasure from states of dread by trying to formulate them as aptly as possible; from enjoyment of horror it produces enjoyment of memory [p.72]"

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is perhaps a kind of protest against the conditions that gave rise to his mother and ultimately led to her death. Handke articulates oblivion in order to curb the growth of its reach and depth.

All the Single [Straight] Ladies

You know that feeling when you like the initial idea of something and then it’s execution is so terribly offensive (but arguably well meant) that you can no longer support the idea? Subsequently, the terrible execution makes the mere mention of the idea irritating to no end. For me, Kate Bolick’s recently published piece, "All the Single Ladies" in the The Atlantic is a perfect example of that feeling. 

The article starts off with an interesting premise: what are the socio-cultural and economic reasons undergirding the trend of single females? A larger philosophical question about what it means to be single as a woman has the potential be a really interesting, insightful and engaging piece, even if the author’s arguments are not points I agree with. Needless to say I read this article excitedly with the aforementioned hope in mind. What I ended up reading was, frankly, five webpages of a relatively privileged heterosexual white woman bemoaning the state of her love life, looking to the blacks and the dutch for an explanation (or solace?) for her singledom. I won’t spend too much time discussing how racially insensitive Bolick’s discussion of single females in the African American community was, as others no doubt have already done so - a former graduate school classmate of mine, Ali, has a nice post about this article. I did, however, find this particular passage horrifying:

But the non-committers are out there in growing force. If dating and mating is in fact a marketplace—and of course it is—today we’re contending with a new “dating gap,” where marriage-minded women are increasingly confronted with either deadbeats or players. For evidence, we don’t need to look to the past, or abroad—we have two examples right in front of us: the African American community, and the college campus…Given the crisis in gender it has suffered through for the past half century, the African American population might as well be a separate nation. [emphasis mine]

What troubled me beyond the biologically deterministic, Gloria Steinem obsessed feminist rhetoric was an absolute disregard for what being single woman means outside of a heterosexual union. Bolick gives a hat tip to gay men and how homosexual marriage creates an opportunity to rethink the notion of marriage. But nowhere in her article does she discuss non-heterosexual women and how they too might be freaking out about being partner-less.

This is a missed opportunity because discussing queer women would have been a chance for Bolick to tackle a larger philosophical question about the social function of love, of intimate connections between two human beings without the immediate reference of a biological ability to reproduce (e.g., “love is just a precursor to making babies”). Singledom, whether self-imposed or an undesired by-product, is a very pertinent issue in the queer community, especially so because being queer for many means a life in the margins or being ostracized by family and friends. I promise you that there are as many queer single women freaking out about being single as there are straight women worried about the lack of ‘marriageable men.’

But instead of treating the discussion as an analysis of the marketplace of marriagable men, maybe we could talk about the marketplace itself. Why is there a marketplace at all? Why frame love in a capitalist model, relegating it to a mere transaction between two beings? Is marriage or partnership the only acceptable outcome for love between two people? What does it mean to feel like you’re not ready to “settle down”? What forms-life-does love take on in the context of connecting to another person whether they’re “the one” or a future ex? Anything would have been better than “I have so much privilege thanks to second wave feminism and now all this agency has left me single.”

Two Long Notes on Radiohead’s Roseland Ballroom Show

Part One: The King of Limbs Live

In the middle of listening to Feral live, I had a realization about TKOL and my inability to connect with it as a studio album. At first listen, it seems like an album of sonic gestures, a sketchbook which for any other band would be considered brilliant, even masterful. For Radiohead, though, the gestures disappoint an audience largely accustomed to RH albums mixed with depth, presence and warmth. TKOL became for many RH fans a disappointment, something to grow into  or a ‘concept’ album - 90% of the time I think people ascribe the label of “concept album” to a body of songs they think they should like but for some reason don’t quite get (assuming there is something to get). There are concept albums but there are also albums that are disappointing. I’m not convinced TKOL is either. 

Prior to the Roseland show, I felt like TKOL was an album that left me wanting but for what I was never sure. Something was always amiss, there was a depth of sound I felt was missing from it. The influence of post-dubstep and ambient downtempo electronic music on TKOL is pretty obvious, with the work of Burial, Four Tet and Caribou occasionally present throughout the short album. As Radiohead continued playing through other TKOL tracks ["Bloom," "Little by Little,"], I noticed that I was feeling and hearing a depth and range of bass drum and synths sounds which are compressed into mid-levels on TKOL, if present at all on the studio album. Johnny Greenwood’s work on what I think is a Moog Phatty was so vivid and present live that I felt like I must have been deaf because I didn’t remembering hear those parts on the album. Then it dawned on me that influence of dubstep on TKOL may have also extended to the actual production of the album not just the writing and arrangements.

Dubstep is, generally speaking, a genre meant to be heard live not listened to on an album. This has to do with compression levels and techniques used to hit the low and dirty bass sounds, meaning a majority of the time those deep levels can only be truly heard and experienced through a sophisticated PA system and not the average person’s sound system. Songs which sound flat on albums take on a whole new life when performed live. I understand this when I am listening to an dubstep producer’s work because the absence is intentional. However, I didn’t make the connection with TKOL because I am used to understanding their work as a kind of avant garde alt rock with electronic influences and so I’ve come to expect that their rock roots will still inform their production techniques. I understood TKOL as an album with dub influences not as a dubstep album. I’m not saying that it is a dubstep album but I do think that it is an experiment in production and sound for the band. It’s also a probable indication that Radiohead will move into that territory in a more pronounced way. 

Maybe this was self-evident to the hardcore Radiohead fans among my readers but it wasn’t so obvious to me, which is kind of ironic given how much time I spend listening for and reading about production techniques in electronic music. TKOL live was absolutely incredible and the two drummers are completely necessary. It also doesn’t hurt that the new drummer happens to have worked with another favorite band of mine, Portishead. The entire show felt and sounded like a post-dubstep, minimal and jazz inspired dance fest. As much as I love The Bends and Ok Computer, I can fully embrace post-TKOL Radiohead with as much zeal.

Part Two: Street Spirit Live

For the better of ten years I have been trying to see Radiohead live and prior to Wednesday night I had very bad luck. In short, we were never in the same place at the same time. I was starting to feel that I was fated to never seem them live. When I head that they were playing Roseland, I had this ridiculous idea that I should try and go see them. Everything kind of fell into place and I finally, FINALLY, got to see this band that eluded me for the last ten years. 

Although I was grateful to finally see Radiohead live, especially in such a small venue, the one thing I really wanted out of the evening was to hear “Street Spirit” live. In that place where one wishes for silly things they know are never going to happen, I wished to hear this song that Radiohead rarely plays because Thom finds it draining to perform live. When I was twelve, I heard that song for the first time. It’s the reason I fell in love with Radiohead as a band. It completely blew open my worldview about music. Music could be beautiful and intelligent. It could also be guided by an ethical imperative. In a much as Thom Yorke describes a world of despair, of violence, he offers “immerse your soul in love” as a plea, a kind of safeguard against the despair and violence. It’s not a way out, it’s the only way out.

The crowd kept cheering after the encore ended. They may have been finished but we clearly were not. And for ten minutes people stood there a bit confused as to whether RH would come back out. Yes, the house lights went on, albeit very briefly, and roadies started clearing the stage. And then out of nowhere the lights went dark and Radiohead came out and started playing the intro minor chords of “Street Spirit.” Somewhere between my own elation and surprise, I looked around to see that everyone else around me had the same look on their face. Everyone was crying and singing the words with this look of “is this really happening?” on their faces. It was. It was really happening. And when Thom messed up the lyrics, the audience kept singing.

And then it happened, the moment I really wanted to experience: the audience of 3000 started singing Thom’s plea “immerse your soul in love.” This was fucking magical, a convergence of elation, surprise and nostalgia. This was the kind of moment when the universe hands you a gift, a gift that connects you to the rest of humanity even if only for five minutes. Maybe it seems silly and pretentious to some of you that I had my moment at Radiohead show. I’m sure people have similar moments during Nickelback or Hoobastank shows. Nevertheless, everyone should have a moment like that. Everyone should have a reminder that there is still beauty in the world. 

Meet Charli and Alex. Charli is German. Alex is American. They may have boys’ names, but Charli and Alex are girls. Straight girls. But they love each other, or at least working with each other.Charli’s visa expires on october 9th and she will have to return to Germany, unless she gets hired or married. Alex needs a job too and doesn’t want her partner to leave. Charli and alex love working together so much that they might have to resort to getting married to do so. But you can save them years of feigned lesbian interest by hiring them today or by granting them an interview.” [Emphasis Mine]

I appreciate that this effort is probably earnest in its attempt to help keep one member of a creative duo from being deported, but it’s incredibly insulting and offensive to LGBTQ people. As someone who is employed at a marketing agency, I understand that the industry forces people to pull inventive and creative stunts to get noticed. Some people do this with flair and outright camp, like Mathew Epstein’s efforts to get hired by Google. Others, like Alex and Charli, choose to mock queers, being incredibly offensive in their efforts to get jobs. 

Oh, they’re just being funny, you say? They’re just trying to get jobs and keep Charli in the country. Where’s the harm in that, you say? See, here’s the thing: there are LGBTQ couples that can’t get married in their state of residence and face deportation as a result. I personally know a couple that had to negotiate a partnership across two countries because they couldn’t get married. Recently there was a story about a gay couple, one of whom had AIDS, that had to face deportation. Not funny at all. A job wasn’t on the line. Fear about losing one’s partner, one’s life, was on the line. Losing a friend to another country is sad but losing a life partner is, frankly, sadder.

Stances on gay marriage and deportation aside, Alex and Charli’s efforts to keep Charli in the country are a perfect example of the kinds of homophobia that are allowed to slip through the cracks because they’re perceived as harmless or in jest. It’s an egregious display of heterosexist privilege. It’s just a joke, but at whose expense? The gays shouldn’t just “lighten up.” Wasn’t it just a week ago when another queer teen killed himself, one who even made an “It Gets Better” video? Most of us know it doesn’t get better for everyone in the same way. And it can’t better if stunts like “Hire Us So We Won’t Have to Marry Each Other” are allowed to exist without any push back, without some kind of self-awareness from Alex and Charli. 

If Alex and Charli were truly serious about getting jobs, they’d post parts of their portfolios on their FB page not pseudo-lesbian gal-pal cuddle shots. Their work would speak for itself. They would dream up some kind of campaign that would get them noticed and wouldn’t come at the expense of a politically, socially, and economically marginalized group. On a side note, have these two ever worked at a creative agency? If they did, they’d know that there are lots of LGTBQ folks in the industry. It’s not smart marketing strategy to potentially piss off the group that might be responsible for hiring you. I say this to you as a professional marketing strategist at an agency. 

But judging by this stunt, they’re not creative “out of the box” thinkers because homophobia vis-a-vis straight dude fantasies of girl-on-girl action is as tired a marketing trope as they come. So, creative agencies, don’t hire these two women. They won’t have to marry each other and insult the gay and lesbian couples that actually want to marry one another. 


A (Short-ish) Note About Music and Dating

Sometime ago I read one of Ryan O’Connell’s “How to Be…” pieces in Thought Catalog about the dating habits of 20 somethings. Buried in the caustic, somewhat self-effacing essay, he noted that music for some inexplicable reason matters a great deal in dating. A person’s taste in music can be a dealbreaker, a central reason that romance between two people ends or never even starts. I admit I agree with O’Connell. Music is as much a deal-maker as it is a dealbreaker for me on dates. Feel free to call it snobbery or elitism but there is no way in hell I could date someone who names Smash Mouth or Sugar Ray as their favorite bands. Just thinking about it makes me die a little inside. 

But why? Why do I (and presumably others) place such an emphasis on another’s taste in music? My sense is that for those who experience music in a more profound and pronounced way, the musical taste of a prospective mate matters for two reasons: their taste suggests their ability to connect (or at least appreciate) your connection to a song or band and it signals their potential to share in a mutual experience of a song or live concert. 

Before I can talk about why I care so much about it, I think I should try to describe how I experience music. Bear in mind this is a brief post, so my description is going to be a bit simplistic. I tend to experience music in three ways. There are some bands I experience in an intellectualized way, which means that when I listen to them I tend to think about the technical aspects of the song, changes in time signatures or clever uses of effects pedals. Conversely, there are other songs I experience in physical, visceral way. They are songs that are not particularly inventive or clever but I want to dance to them or run to them. My body responds without irony: the tapping of a foot, the clapping of hands, melodic moments without the pretext of over-intellectualism.  The bands that I love the most-the ones whose music hits me at the core of my being-create a musical experience that combines the intellectual and visceral. 

There are of course people for whom music means nothing. The sort of people who say things like “Oh, I don’t listen to music” or “I’m not into music.” I admit that I have a hard time connecting to those kind of people. To be fair, there are other, less profound reasons for dismissing someone based on their taste music. The first that comes to mind is the hassle of having to listen crappy songs on repeat when you’re in the car or making dinner with your significant other (see Sugar Ray’s “Fly”). More importantly, I struggle with connecting with people who utter statements like the ones above because their comments close off a space for us to connect and share an emotional, non-verbal experience. They close off a space to share in something that is a very constitutive part of who I am and how I experience the world. In short, it’s a dismissal of me. 

And this is what I think is at stake when people dismiss a potential love interest based on their taste in music. Generally speaking, most people want to intellectually, emotionally and physically connect with a potential love interest (“friends with benefits” are another beast entirely). Music can be a powerful way to connect people to one another on each of those levels. A song or a concert can allow a love interest to access an intimate connection point between you and a song- a connection to your ability to express and emote. Music can also create to spaces to share a mutual experience between two people, further solidifying (or creating) existing emotional, intellectual and emotional connections. Maybe what’s at stake is more than just musical snobbery. Maybe what’s called into question is intimacy between two people. Or maybe it’s really just about pre-emptively removing the possibility of having to listen to “Tubthumping” before getting ready to have dinner with friends.