Blind Man with a Pistol


The Library in the New Age

Socio-historian Robert Darnton looks at the fate of the library in the age of Google Books.

Information has never been stable. That may be a truism, but it bears pondering. It could serve as a corrective to the belief that the speedup in technological change has catapulted us into a new age, in which information has spun completely out of control. I would argue that the new information technology should force us to rethink the notion of information itself. It should not be understood as if it took the form of hard facts or nuggets of reality ready to be quarried out of newspapers, archives, and libraries, but rather as messages that are constantly being reshaped in the process of transmission. Instead of firmly fixed documents, we must deal with multiple, mutable texts. By studying them skeptically on our computer screens, we can learn how to read our daily newspaper more effectively—and even how to appreciate old books.

An historical approach to technology is always enlightening. While media critic superstars like Marshall McLuhan tend toward deterministic conclusions—that is, that technology changes our lives—history tends to indicate the opposite. My favourite such study, Raymond Williams’ Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974), argues that mass communication must be understood materialistically: “broadcasting,” Williams argues, “was developed not only within a capitalist society but specifically by the capitalist manufacturers of the technological apparatus.” He notes that the technology for broadcasting existed long before it was supposed to have “changed the world” and in fact, when broadcasting did come into wide usage by society, there wasn’t actually anything to show. “It is not only that the supply of broadcasting facilities preceded the demand,” he notes, “it is that the means of communication preceded their content.” So too with the Internet.  The technology existed in the ARPANET project as early as 1969, the “Web” from 1981. But it’s difficult to argue that the current cultural form of information technology owes its origin to those dates.

So what Darnton notes in a wonderful mixture of romantic nostalgia for the olfactory and tactile pleasures of the book (“I may expose myself to accusations of romanticizing or of reacting like an old-fashioned, ultra-bookish scholar who wants nothing more than to retreat into a rare book room.” Darnton admits. “I plead guilty”) and cautious celebration of the technological benefit the Internet affords, is that things are like they always were, only moreso:

the strongest argument for the old-fashioned book is its effectiveness for ordinary readers. Thanks to Google, scholars are able to search, navigate, harvest, mine, deep link, and crawl (the terms vary along with the technology) through millions of Web sites and electronic texts. At the same time, anyone in search of a good read can pick up a printed volume and thumb through it at ease, enjoying the magic of words as ink on paper. No computer screen gives satisfaction like the printed page. But the Internet delivers data that can be transformed into a classical codex. It already has made print-on-demand a thriving industry, and it promises to make books available from computers that will operate like ATM machines: log in, order electronically, and out comes a printed and bound volume. Perhaps someday a text on a hand-held screen will please the eye as thoroughly as a page of a codex produced two thousand years ago.

Since the Internet is an extension, rather than a replacement of the book (and here, Darnton is channelling McLuhan), we abandon the book at our peril. Rather, it is the library that must act as distributor and aggregator of the texts we seek.

Meanwhile, I say: shore up the library. Stock it with printed matter. Reinforce its reading rooms. But don’t think of it as a warehouse or a museum. While dispensing books, most research libraries operate as nerve centers for transmitting electronic impulses. They acquire data sets, maintain digital re-positories, provide access to e-journals, and orchestrate information systems that reach deep into laboratories as well as studies. Many of them are sharing their intellectual wealth with the rest of the world by permitting Google to digitize their printed collections. Therefore, I also say: long live Google, but don’t count on it living long enough to replace that venerable building with the Corinthian columns. As a citadel of learning and as a platform for adventure on the Internet, the research library still deserves to stand at the center of the campus, preserving the past and accumulating energy for the future.

Surely, such a conclusion appeases the romantic and the tech-nut in all of us.



What Is the Cause of Thunder?

I’m going to see King Lear at the Globe Theatre in London this week.

Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know we have divided
In three our kingdom. (1.1.20-22)

In The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Marshall McLuhan makes the argument that Lear’s “darker purpose” is the politically daring “delegation of authority from the centre to margins.” In fact, the powerful opening scene intimates the larger fragmentation of power and social structures as Elizabethan England moves from feudalism towards modernity. “King Lear,” McLuhan argues, “is a presentation of the new strategy of culture and power as it affects the state, the family, and the individual psyche.”

Only we shall retain
The name and all th’ addition to a king;
The sway, revenue, execution of the rest,
Beloved sons, be yours: which to confirm,
This coronet part between you. (1.1.124-129)

Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester (“there was good sport at his making”) is generally the character considered the most Machiavellian in the play, the agent of social fragmentation who rails against institutionalized structures that discredit his birth. He wants nothing more than equal opportunity, to be considered on merit rather than his given social role.

But Lear, who has already separated his duty from his name, is Shakespeare’s chief fragmenter. He has fragmented his power, his state, his family, and even, in his filial demand for bourgeois competitive individualism, merit from nature:

Tell me, my daughters,—
Since now we will divest us, both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,—
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge. (1.1.32-37)

The wages of this fragmentation are the lives of Cordelia, Kent and the Fool, who cannot overcome this split. “According to my bond,” Cordelia tells Lear. “No more nor less.” To balance the destruction this sea change wreaks, a nostalgia brings low the evil yet modern Goneril and Regan, and forces a belated contrition from Edmund, who cannot outrun our sympathies. Capitalism is displacing aristocracy, and the sympathy the audience feels for Edmund registers the necessity of such a shift. Yet residual social mores that remain embedded in modern life continue to haunt society like Hamlet’s ghost. The play, dealing with such an oppositional force “bursts smilingly,” like Gloucester’s conflicted heart, “‘twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief.” The thunder that Lear famously interrogates is a contradictory force cleaving society in two. The result is a society that promotes the success of bastards (now Edgar, now Edmund) while forever cursing them for being so.

By the end of the play, Shakespeare has made bastards of us all. Edgar, the epitome of bourgeois mobility and individualism, rather than affirming a new social order in the manner of MacDuff or Fortinbras, gives both a mournful elegy and chilling augury in the play’s final lines:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long. (5.3.383-386)

Edgar seems to offer a cynical tonic to his earlier, both hopeful and tragic comment,

And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’ (4.1.34-35)

This is the worst, but the worst is yet to come. It is the tragedy of capitalism that it was both necessary and destructive, emancipatory and fragmentary. Nowadays, the fragmentation presaged by Shakespeare has increased exponentially, and we are expected to pursue its omen even as we know it harbours secret plans to destroy us. But Edgar advises us that this shackling determinacy offers us a kind of playful liberation. If there is hope, it is the kind of failed, tragic hope that Franz Kafka offers us: “Oh plenty of hope. An infinite amount of hope—but not for us.”

Now Gods, stand up for bastards.



Carbon Copy

NDP Leader Jack Layton has “shocked” environmentalists by opposing Captain Climate Change Stéphane Dion’s carbon tax environmental platform. Stephen Hazell, executive director of Sierra Club Canada, accused Layton of “pandering to people who are afraid about rising gas prices” because of Layton’s claim that rising energy costs would hurt the Canadian poor compelled to heat their homes by Canada’s cold winter climate. Hazell has a point: a decent carbon tax scheme would offset the penalty lower-income families would have to pay with taxes from corporations and upper-income earners. Dion’s plan is allegedly “revenue-neutral.” The problem with the plan is not that it would penalize lower-income families, the problem with carbon tax shifting is that it is utterly useless in combating climate change.

In order for a carbon tax plan to reduce carbon consumption, first, the tax rate needs to be high enough to deter people from using carbon-based fuels and second, alternative fuel sources must be widely available for less money. Gas prices have gone up forty percent over the last four years, and oil prices are predicted to double by 2012. Yet consumption has not slowed; in fact, our fuel consumption levels (and greenhouse gas emissions) are at record levels. Will Dion’s Liberals be willing to match the equivalent in a carbon tax scheme? Unlikely: and they will need to do more than match it.

Where will the alternatively sourced energy come from? Canada is light years behind Europe in alternative energy sources (disgracefully, since, as a Nordic country we should be leading the world on climate change). And the “revenue-neutral” logic means that not a single penny from this carbon tax will go toward new investment in non-carbon alternatives. Since the goal of a carbon tax is to make carbon-based fuels prohibitively expensive, what can we use instead?

Of course, all this is nonsense anyway. In “The Idols of Environmentalism,” an essay that should be compulsory reading for anyone interested slowing climate change, Curtis White pinpoints the reason market-based solutions like carbon trading will never, ever work:

Environmental destruction proceeds apace in spite of all the warnings, the good science, the 501(c)3 organizations with their memberships in the millions, the poll results, and the martyrs perched high in the branches of sequoias or shot dead in the Amazon. This is so not because of a power, a strength out there that we must resist. It is because we are weak and fearful. Only a weak and fearful society could invest so much desperate energy in protecting activities that are the equivalent of suicide.

For instance, trading carbon emission credits and creating markets in greenhouse gases as a means of controlling global warming is not a way of saying we’re so confident in the strength of the free market system that we can even trust it to fix the problems it creates. No, it’s a way of saying that we are so frightened by the prospect of stepping outside of the market system on which we depend for our national wealth, our jobs, and our sense of normalcy that we will let the logic of that system try to correct its own excesses even when we know we’re just kidding ourselves.

There is something psychopathic about carbon taxes and carbon trading. You may kill this many of my children, we tell our polluters. You may poison this much of my drinking water. But no more. I have to draw the line.

Capitalism—especially in its corporate incarnation—has a logos, a way of reasoning. Capitalism is in the position of the notorious scorpion who persuades the fox to ferry him across a river, arguing that he won’t sting the fox because it wouldn’t be in his interest to do so, since he’d drown along with the fox. But when in spite of this logic he stings the fox anyway, all he can offer in explanation is “I did it because it is in my nature.” In the same way, it’s not as if businessmen perversely seek to destroy their own world. They have vacation homes in the Rockies or New England and enjoy walks in the forest, too. They simply have other priorities which are to them a duty…

It is because we have accepted this rationalist logos as the only legitimate means of debate that we are willing to think that what we need is a balance between the requirements of human economies and the “needs” of the natural world. It’s as if we were negotiating a trade agreement with the animals and trees unlucky enough to have to share space with us. What do you need? we ask them. What are your minimum requirements? We need to know the minimum because we’re not likely to leave you more than that. We’re going to consume any “excess.” And then it occurs to us to add, unless of course you taste good. There is always room for an animal that tastes good.

How can a country that subsidizes the filthiest, most destructive, most obscene project in the entire world, the Alberta oil sands, convince its population that it holds any truck with environmentalism? How can we be made to believe that paying a few million, even a few billion dollars will negate the scorched earth left behind in Athabasca? And yet we Canadians swallow such absurd contradictions when we are unable to make the connection between 500 ducks drowning in oil and the car we drive to work.

This is the message you would expect Canada’s left-leaning party to send: not some weak-kneed gesture to gas prices. The Liberals’ plan is wrong, but for reasons no one in Canada seems prepared to hear.



Middle-Aged Riot

It better work out.
I hope it works out my way.
‘Cause its getting kind of quiet in my city’s head.
Takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed right now.

Sonic Youth, the band that crystallized the meaning of a decade of slackerdom with their legendary record Daydream Nation (1988), is releasing their next album through Starbucks. What do we want from a band called Sonic Youth led by a man who turns fifty this year? And what’s the difference between Starbucks and Universal Records anyway? Besides, a slick veneer over the hardest of core was always Sonic Youth’s shtick. After all, they galvanized a generation by hiding lovely pop melodies under a layer of filthy noise and feedback. They were the epitome of suburban revolution: Dick Clark dressed up like The Stooges. And they were f’n brilliant.

In 1988, Punk music’s anti-establishment message was over the hill. New Wave’s subversive critique had lost its edge; it became a euphemism for “synthesizer.” Enter Sonic Youth’s pleasing, melodic rage. Their music appealed because it justified an equivocal reaction to the paralyzing frustration that typified the end of Reaganism and Thatcherism. At the same time, it offered the utopian bribe of revolution and social change with avant garde coarseness and abrasion in the musical form. We could do nothing and still feel like we were fucking over corporate America. As Kim Gordon asks us in “The Sprawl”: “Does ‘Fuck you!’ sound simple enough?” And it did, Kim.  It did.

Punk music petered out because it advocated a nostalgic return to one of the founding lies of capitalism: hard-work, rustic simplicity and self-determination can change the world. Essentially, punk bought into the American dream, as if to rescue it from the mainstream that perpetuates it.  New Age disappeared because it was always too complicit in the society it hoped to critique: it mirrored the minimalism and moral void of capitalism with its sparse music and corporate costumes, while critiquing the culture with its lyrics.

Bands like Sonic Youth, mired in the malaise of the last days of the Cold War, were economically and socially prohibited from launching any kind of serious social critique so they hid their revolutionary impulses. The Western world saw unprecedented growth in multinational corporations and escalating takeovers of independent businesses by big interests; and the recording industry was no exception.  Sonic Youth made the leap, mostly due to perfectly understandable economic concerns, from indie label SST Records to Capitol and EMI in time for the release of Daydream Nation. How could they be expected to effect social change from within the corporate structure? Their response was the key to their brilliance: mass culture content that expressed its discontent through form. Their art was a tacit acknowledgment of the vacuity of mass culture, a shift from politically inspired content to interrogation of identity and form.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The Kids in the Hall and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble were comparable, contemporary efforts to achieve the same shift. But now we have Sonic Youth performing their classic album live, in full. Besides the irony mentioned above about aging rockers performing “Teenage Riot,” such a concert continues to institutionalize an act of social change. We go to this concert not to change our minds, but knowing exactly what to expect, as if to package our radicalism as essentially youthful, of a bygone era, of something no longer needed. And of course, what is most troubling about this kind of nostalgia, is the sobering thought that perhaps our daydreams were only ever leading us to Starbucks in the first place.

Say it ain’t so, Thurston.



Grand Theft Reality

Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto IV raked in more than $500 million its first week—and was linked to a real-life stabbing and mugging. The game is praised for its innovative, realistic and complex gameplay—and vilified for its simulated violence and misogyny. Make no mistake: the game is misogynist. Any attempt to excuse the game’s misogyny is revealing. There is something barbaric about the phrase “You don’t have to kill prostitutes to beat the game.”

But what makes me suspicious of such criticism is that video games seem to bear a disproportionate level of ire compared to the much more graphic violence depicted in television shows like CSI or torture-porn film like Saw or Hostel. In fact, much of the female objectification that occurs in the game is no different than what you’d see during a prime-time commercial break on NBC.

The difference, we claim, lies in the virtual participation such games enable. Simulation, the argument goes, is a small step away from reality. In fact, there is little evidence that first-person simulation offer any more of a connection with violence than watching film or television. So why does the virtual murder of a woman attract more media attention than a real one?

The war in Iraq, which has killed more people in real life than GTA4 will ever kill virtually, was a “clean war.” A war with precision weapons that, we were assured, didn’t kill anyone who didn’t deserve to die. Indeed, didn’t President Bush, five years ago almost to the day smiling in his jumpsuit in front of a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished,” assure us that the war is over? Jean Baudrillard, as he argued for the first Gulf War in The Gulf War: Did it Really Take Place?, would likely have said that it never really occurred in the first. “We are all hostages of media intoxication,” he writes, “induced to believe.” It occurs only in heavily mediated images on CNN with only cursory relevance to whatever is taking place on the ground.

Likewise Canada’s war in Afghanistan. Our government wages an imperialist act of aggression upon an unarmed nation for an act of terrorism that was neither directed at us, nor committed by those we attack; and we do it in the name of “defence.” Our military strategy, our Foreign Affairs Ministry informs us, is based on rhetoric, not substance. We are strengthening Canada’s role in the world by effecting American foreign policy. Our enemy is not an opposing army, but ethereal “insurgents.” And we are not allowed to see the bodies of our dead soldiers return home. There are no corpses, no weapons, no armies. “Just as wealth is no longer measured in the ostentation of wealth but by the secret circulation of speculative capital,” Baudrillard writes, “so war is not measured by being waged but by its speculative unfolding in an abstract electronic and informational space, the same space in which capital moves.”

The real violence our society inflicts has become simulated, and we combat this shift by criticizing virtuality as if it were real. Violence against sex workers is all but absent from the pages of our newspapers (unless it fits into our spectacular fantasies like the Pickton murders, effacing the individuals who lost their lives over a period of thirty years). Yet GTA4 comes out with attendant social outrage. It is as if the protests against the game are as simulated as the violence it represents: virtual protest for virtual violence while the real deal continues apace.

Games like GTA4 certainly provoke a visceral reaction, a watermark of the tragic misogynist violence that infects our society. But there is something altogether more tragic about a society that condemns sex-worker violence in a game yet does nothing about it in real life, for real sex workers and for real women. I suppose, when real violence becomes a simulation of itself, when the terror in which we are complicit is so overwhelming, so imposing, and so atrocious, what other recourse do we have? No wonder virtual games like GTA4 are so popular.



Leading Performance

Prime Minister Harper announced his “Canada First” Defence plan this week: “The Canada First Defence Strategy will strengthen our sovereignty and security at home and bolster our ability to defend our values and interests abroad.” But, as The Ottawa Citizen points out, when the media requested a few details as to what this strategy might entail, they were rebuffed. The content of the plan, it seems, was the speech itself:

Asked about when the actual Canada First Defence Strategy was going to be released, Jay Paxton, Mr. MacKay’s press secretary, replied: “It is a strategy that you heard enunciated by the prime minister and Minister MacKay.”

“It is not a ‘document’ like a white paperit is the vision delivered today for long-term planning for the CF,” he added. “As such, the speeches are the strategy.”

The speeches are the strategy. Who says Marshall McLuhan is unfashionable? The medium is the message, Canada. “If you want to be taken seriously in the world,” Harper declared, “you need the capacity to actit’s that simple.” The insinuation is clear: “act” like you have a strategy.  Act like a leader. (After all, don’t our wars take place “in theatre”? With “actors” and “players” in leading roles?) Harper must be taking his media cues from ex-FEMA administrator Harvey E. Johnson. “Real leadership” is performative, not demonstrative.

But the implications behind Harper’s avant-garde leadership are much graver than the opportunity for mockery it affords. Just like “real leadership” is not real but imaginary, it’s very difficult to argue that organizing the Canadian Armed Forces with an eye on the current colonialist enterprise in Afghanistan is a “defence” strategy. In fact, such missions suggest that Harper’s strategy hardly puts “Canada First” either. Why bother outlining the details of your defence policy when our priorities clearly come from south of the border?

Furthermore, the largest threat to Canada’s sovereignty comes not, laughably, from Denmark or Afghanistan, but from the United States.  While surely Canada should acquire the equipment and vehicles necessary to service trade and safety issues in the North, it is ludicrous to suggest that we should enter an Arctic arms race with the United States. You would think that Harper would recognize that Canada’s best claim to the Arctic lies in its relationship with the society that has subsisted there for thousands of years: the Inuit First Nation. Investment in Inuit society would not only repay the moral debt Canada owes the Arctic’s indigenous culture after a century of neglect and abuse, but would strengthen Canada’s historical and social claim under international law. Canada’s best chance at establishing legal stewardship over the Arctic comes from cultural, not  military sovereignty.

Indeed, if you add in to the equation the erosion of Canadian cultural integrity by the commercial monolith to the south, and the ongoing transformation project of the CAF into a subsidiary of the Pentagon, the threat to our sovereignty can’t be defended with helicopters or submarines. Yet the Harper government (and the Liberal government which preceded it) has spurned every opportunity to mend relationships with Canada’s First Nations, or to solidify Canadian art and culture against interminable American influence.

Someone has to put Harper’s improv show out of its misery.

h/t to pogge.



Waiting for Democracy
13 May 2008, 9:49 am
Filed under: Capitalism | Tags: , , , ,

Last month I expressed some of my reservations about the West’s unnatural obsession with Tibet. It seems to me that our fascination with Tibetan independence is rooted not in solidarity or concern for the well-being of actual Tibetans, but rather in the way we substitute their ascetic, anti-consumption devotion (at least, that’s how the West conceives of it) for our consumerist largesse. They are devout so that we don’t have to be. Slovenian cultural critic and all-round cool guy Slavoj Žižek, in a letter to the London Review of Books, elaborates on this contradiction and the dangers it threatens:

In recent years, China has changed its strategy in Tibet: depoliticised religion is now tolerated, often even supported. China now relies more on ethnic and economic colonisation than on military coercion, and is transforming Lhasa into a Chinese version of the Wild West, in which karaoke bars alternate with Buddhist theme parks for Western tourists. In short, what the images of Chinese soldiers and policemen terrorising Buddhist monks conceal is a much more effective American-style socio-economic transformation: in a decade or two, Tibetans will be reduced to the status of Native Americans in the US. It seems that the Chinese Communists have finally got it: what are secret police, internment camps and the destruction of ancient monuments, compared with the power of unbridled capitalism?

One of the main reasons so many people in the West participate in the protests against China is ideological: Tibetan Buddhism, deftly propagated by the Dalai Lama, is one of the chief points of reference for the hedonist New Age spirituality that has become so popular in recent times. Tibet has become a mythic entity onto which we project our dreams. When people mourn the loss of an authentic Tibetan way of life, it isn’t because they care about real Tibetans: what they want from Tibetans is that they be authentically spiritual for us, so that we can continue playing our crazy consumerist game. ‘Si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l’autre,’ Gilles Deleuze wrote, ‘vous êtes foutu.’ The protesters against China are right to counter the Beijing Olympic motto – ‘One World, One Dream’ – with ‘One World, Many Dreams’. But they should be aware that they are imprisoning Tibetans in their own dream.

The payoff for such dabbling in the internal affairs of a world power remains the satisfaction in knowing that we are ushering China past state communism, through the growing pains of capitalism, towards the ultimate goal of democracy (which we, the West, have perfected, natch). After all, we’ve seen it all before. In our presumed democratic maturity, we believe that we recognize why China is unsettled by plurality (as we are unsettled by the First Nations), and like a concerned parent we want to prevent China from repeating our mistakes, while encouraging China’s capitalist honeymoon. With equal parts schizophrenia and audacity, we actively encourage the impulses that are eroding the beloved Tibetan Buddhist in the hopes that we can defend our monastic construction until China’s democracy asserts its inevitability.

But, Žižek warns, there is a fatal assumption in our grandiose plan.

Following this path, the Chinese used unencumbered authoritarian state power to control the social costs of the transition to capitalism. The weird combination of capitalism and Communist rule proved not to be a ridiculous paradox, but a blessing. China has developed so fast not in spite of authoritarian Communist rule, but because of it.

There is a further paradox at work here. What if the promised second stage, the democracy that follows the authoritarian vale of tears, never arrives? This, perhaps, is what is so unsettling about China today: the suspicion that its authoritarian capitalism is not merely a reminder of our past – of the process of capitalist accumulation which, in Europe, took place from the 16th to the 18th century – but a sign of our future? What if the combination of the Asian knout and the European stock market proves economically more efficient than liberal capitalism? What if democracy, as we understand it, is no longer the condition and motor of economic development, but an obstacle to it?

Oh my. That is a sobering thought.

h-t to The Dilettante