Blind Man with a Pistol

What is to be done?

I’ll spare you the SMS joke-headline, but Bell and Telus have decided to start charging the outrageous fee of fifteen cents when users receive text messages. That includes unwanted spam and advertisements. The reaction, predictably, has been fierce. “Outrage” is a term that comes to mind. “Price Gouging” has made an appearance The NDP, Canada’s left-wing party, has bravely decided to take on these callous cellphone robber barons. After all, who better than the NDP who previously stalwartly took our side over ATM fees?

Defenders of Bell and Telus claim that if you don’t like the user fees, you can simply switch providers (at a $20 per remaining month fee for breaking your contract, natch). Or, you can stop using texts. Or stop using cell phones. You aren’t entitled, after all, to free messaging. If the service is worth the money, you’ll pay it. The market will sort it out.

And of course, such apologists are absolutely right. As participants in consumerist culture, we aren’t entitled to anything. We don’t have rights, influence or control. There is something ridiculous, impotent about the response to incidents like these. Hitherto unseen environmental destruction proceeds at a blazing pace as a direct result of the capitalist, consumerist system. A thousand jobs disappear in an instant, devastating communities, yet the public responds with incredulity, bewilderment, apathy. “How could this have happened?” Yet we know, rationally, exactly why this happens. We know, rationally, that our economic encourages, even relies upon such acts of violence, yet all we can do is wring our hands and hope for something better to come along.

And yet, when a phone company unfairly raises prices on our mobile phones, we can see with crystal clear precision the inequalities and injustice that motivate the practice. We become organized, mobilized, united (did you sign the NDP’s petition yet?) We rail in righteous outrage against corporate oppression, impotent in our anger, feebly shaking our fists.

k thx bye

Sex in the City

As Shameless points out, there is something sexist about the kind of criticism coming out about the new (and ubiquitous) Sex and the City movie.

Why isn’t anybody calling out movie producers for their assumption that all it takes to get male movie-goers to the box office is car chases, explosions and breasts? If thousands of men flock to see the latest action flick, why isn’t that film’s very success suddenly a mark against it and proof that all men are shallow and vapid?

It’s a good question. So-called “chick lit,” for example, frequently makes the rounds on talk radio in a highly pitched discussion over whether or not it is worthwhile, whether or not it is “good for women,” and whether or not it should be read at all. Action movies, on the other hand, are taken as given, for what they are, and never have to endure bouts of soul searching or self-justification.

The problem arises because action flicks and macho video games never have a progressive politic incorrectly ascribed to them. It is characteristic of a society so terrified of feminism that any display of female empowerment, however stereotypical and however much it serves the interest of patriarchy, immediately earns the label. As a result, those who wish to buttress the term against erosion are compelled to join an almost frivolous debate: is Samantha’s “gut” feminist or not? In fact, it is in patriarchy’s best interest to enact this mischaracterization, to call what is expressly not feminism, feminism, because it subsumes dissenting voices in an act of self-affirmation. Meanwhile, the kind of feminism that gave women the vote, that pressed for equal wages and employment, that protected a woman jurisdiction over her own body, is relegated to the sidelines.

Consider the trajectory of the original series. Four strong , independent women decide to repudiate the stereotypes that society imposes upon them and live the lives that they want. So far, so good. There is a lot to be said for the subversive potential of public sex. If you believe that sex and gender politics are informed by sexual acts, then relegating sex to the bedroom, to the private sphere, is an ideological maneuver to keep us from discussing such implications. In their essay “Sex in Public,” Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner argue precisely this point.

The [heterosexual] sex act shielded by the zone of privacy is the affectional nimbus that heterosexual culture protects and from which it abstracts its model of ethics, but this utopia of social belonging is also supported and extended by acts less commonly recognized as part of sexual culture: paying taxes, being disgusted, philandering, bequeathing, celebrating a holiday, investing for the future, teaching, disposing of a corpse, carrying wallet photos, buying economy size, being nepotistic, running for president, divorcing, or owning anything “His” and “Hers.”

By refusing to keep sexual acts in the (imaginary) private sphere, sex in the city becomes a political act. Consider how gay and lesbian sex in public places is such an affrontry to our sensibilities. If we rescue the shame, intimacy and pleasure from the bedroom, we can introduce these impulses where they could really shake things up.

Intimate life is the endlessly cited elsewhere of political public discourse, a promised haven that distracts citizens from the unequal conditions of their political and economic lives, consoles them for the damaged humanity of mass society, and shames them for any divergence between their lives and the intimate sphere that is alleged to be simple personhood.

By the end of the series, however, all four protagonists pair off into heteronormative couples, some with children, most with typical soap opera lives. Any political potential has dissipated, any subversiveness vanished. It is perhaps what viewers always wanted, but the city registers a sense of disappointment that pervades the final season. When Samantha convinces her “steamy love interest” Smith Jared to pose for a billboard advertisement for Absolut Vodka, his nakedness is only tempered by a strategically placed Absolut bottle. Essentially, the commodified image of the vodka has replaced the sexual organ that had such primacy at the beginning of the show. We no longer have sex in the city (or even simply its promise) we have its trademarked image, a Times Square billboard of public sex utterly drained of political (and libidinal) potential.

Pulp fictions like Sex and the City are thus doubly anti-feminist. They advertise feminist dissent while selling its cosmetic image (and the companion martini); and such a bait-and-switch trick invites further attacks by weighing feminist fantasies on a harsher scale than masculinist ones, on the off-chance that such fantasies might actually empower women. As a result, in the popular imagination, Sex and the City becomes synonymous with feminismwith the cynically useful side-effect that once the show’s feminism disappears, so does ours.

The Play’s the Thing™

Canadian playwright Judith Thompson, author of Lion in the Streets (1991) and Perfect Pie (2000), has been commissioned to produce a play by Dove as a part of the soap producer’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” advertising strategy. From the Globe & Mail:

The production [entitled Body and Soul], which features 12 “real women,” that is to say, non-actors 45 to 78 years old, telling an interwoven tale of their real-life experiences, was commissioned by soap producer Dove as part of the company’s Campaign for Real Beauty (an award-winning ad campaign) and bears a prominent corporate stamp that is bound to inspire skepticism in theatre purists.

Thompson, 53, remains undaunted by potential detractors and has gone so far as to call the production “the most gratifying and illuminating creative work I have done in my 30-year career” – no mean claim, given her two Governor-General’s Awards for drama and her status as an Officer of the Order of Canada.

“It’s obvious that theatre has always had sponsorship. Shakespeare was sponsored by the monarchy. When you read his plays, there’s clearly pandering, because he had to pander to them so that his theatre would survive. There’s no pandering here,” she said.

Well, if Shakespeare did it, it must be all right then, I suppose. After all, his plays turned out fine. I wonder, however, if Thompson has heard of Thomas Carew’s Coelum Britannicum, a Caroline masque sponsored by King Charles I (grand-nephew to Queen Elizabeth):

MERCURY. From the high Senate of the Gods, to You
Bright glorious Twins of Love and Majesty
Before whose Throne three warlike nations bend
Their willing knees, on whose Imperial brows
The Regal Circle prints no awful frowns
To fright your subjects, but whose calmer eyes
Shed joy and safety on their melting hearts
That flow with cheerful loyal reverence (1-8, spelling modernized)

It goes on like that. Charles I also liked to take part in these masques he sponsored, along with other members of his court and professional actors. In fact, he likely played a staged version of himself when Carew’s masque was performed at Whitehall Palace in 1634. And Carew was sponsored by Kings. You can imagine the quality of work sponsored by lesser nobles in private courts. Unfortunately for the legacy of sponsorship in the arts, Shakespeare’s sponsored works (along with Ben Jonson’s and Edmund Spenser’s) represented the exception, not the rule.

Judith Thompson is a wonderful artist; Canada is lucky to have her. I have friends involved in Canadian theatre and publishing, and making a living as an artist is not easy (especially considering the Harper government’s recent cuts to the National Gallery of Canada). But as skdadl at Bread n’ Roses points out, regardless of the quality and integrity of Thompson’s production, it nevertheless runs the risk of undermining the already fragile structure of Arts funding in Canada.

Thompson insists that she won’t “pander” to Dove, and I admit that I believe her. But it is difficult to make the argument that art will remain unaffected by such corporate sponsorship when the content of the play is identical to the content of an ad campaign. Should I then write a novel based on the woeful soap-opera that played out on Taster’s Choice commercials in the 1990s? (Irony alert: Susan Moody beat me to it.) As Rick Miller, artistic director of WYRD Productions in Toronto, rightfully cautions in the Globe article above,

“I am very nervous about this. I’m not sure this is the production that actually crosses the line, but I think that it’s not far off. I think this sort of invasion of the theatre could happen very quickly if we don’t pay attention,” he said…

“Dove tells us to talk to our daughters before the beauty industry does. Well, they are the beauty industry.”

Miller is right. Dove is owned by Unilever who also owns Axe (Lynx) body spray and counts Johnny Vegas as one if its spokespersons. With these kinds of mixed messages, it’s difficult to justify the integrity of what Thompson identifies as Dove’s motive: “for women to feel good about aging.” It is a big step in artistic sponsorship when corporations move from “simply” attaching their logo to the title of plays (Ford presents Mambo Italiano) and proceeds to dictate theme or content.

Dove’s tactics become especially problematic when you consider what theatre is meant to accomplish. The theatre is a space of play. This latest step in the commodification of theatre does not promote real beauty, whatever that is, but Dove’s trademark of “Real Beauty”: an image of beauty and identity with a product on the market. It reifies a dramatic conceit that should be organic. Dove has made the play the thing.  Do we really want “Real Beauty” to become a trademark owned by Unilever? As Antonin Artaud writes in The Theatre and its Double (Trans. 1958), the object of theatre

is not to resolve social or psychological conflicts, to serve as battlefield for moral passions, but to express objectively certain secret truths, to bring to light of day by means of active gestures certain aspects of truth that have been buried under forms in their encounters with Becoming.

Becoming. Not the commodified image. This sounds a lot more like the “real beauty” I want to believe in. And Becoming’s struggle against stagnation is a concept that Shakespeare knew a thing or two about:

I am ashamed: does not the stone rebuke me
For being more stone than it? O royal piece,
There’s magic in thy majesty, which has
My evils conjured to remembrance and
From thy admiring daughter took the spirits,
Standing like stone with thee.

The Winter’s Tale, 5.3.43-8

h-t to Zastrozzi at Bn’R.

The Thin Edge of the Wedge
25 February 2008, 5:20 pm
Filed under: Technology | Tags: , , , , ,

As the entire world already knows, Apple Inc. revealed the MacBook Air last month at the 2008 Macworld conference. The “world’s thinnest notebook” retails from $1799 to $3098 USD. It’s “ultrathin, ultraportable and ultra unlike anything else” according to the Apple website. It “rethinks conventions.” “Innovation” is thrown about like it’s going out of style. In short, the MacBook Air promises revolution. I’m not interested in discussing whether or not the Air constitutes a “smart” buy, or if it performs better than other lightweight laptops, but rather, to examine this “ultra” computer as the fulfillment of the bizarre technological fantasy of the thin. What’s the skinny in technology?

Curiously, while the MacBook Air is the thinnest notebook currently on the market, it is not the lightest; despite the fact that the Toshiba Portege R500 underweighs the Air by more than a pound, unsexy featherweights remain far behind Apple in pursuit of the cool. It is no accident that Apple eschewed a lighter computer, a model doubtless better suited to the commuter crowd ostensibly targeted by the Air, in favour of a slender one. Bypassing the unsettling tendency to label most of Apple’s products indiscriminately “sexy” (a label adopted by the Apple website) it seems to me that the slimness of iPods, iPhones and now the MacBook Air, have much greater cultural implications.

Not only does technoculture exhibit a fanatical obsession in its flight toward the ultimate (or “ultra”) in slim, it does so at the expense of function. In fact, Apple’s counterintuitive choice to build a thinner, rather than lighter product indicates that it is not really interested in function at all. We don’t want to see the guts of a computer (begone Cray-2! You are banished from our memories!) we just want an image of one. The image of a computer sliding out of a manila envelope is much more engaging to contemporary society than a computer that does stuff.

In Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Fredric Jameson posits a theory of “depthlessness” in which a logic of depth–say, interior psychology to exterior expression, or meaning to word–has been replaced by a logic of surfaces. There is little doubt that Apple masterfully converts its products into desperately desired commodities and excels at promotion of the image. But what’s more, as Jameson argues, “this depthlessness [is not] merely metaphorical: it can be experienced physically and ‘literally’ (12). The MacBook Air, which seems to insist that it is less a computer than a conception, not a box of chipsets and wires but a simulation of one, represents the embodiment of this logic of superficiality. It’s called the “Air,” after all: it’s not even there! Indeed, the Air seems to enact a kind of technological physical closure: it lacks a removable-media drive, Ethernet and multiple USB slots. The body of the Air is as inviolate as its perfect, slender image.

What does this say, then, about technoculture in general–besides, that is, that they like their gadgets svelte? As our desktops, redolent with speaker and monitor cables that cheap IKEA and Office Depot desks ceaselessly attempt to conceal (without success), silently retreat into PDAs and two-dimensional laptops, computer commodification dispels the myth that technology increases the opportunity and potential for social change. Instead, it would appear, technology is complicit in capitalism’s ongoing project in perfecting the image, the spectacle. Of course, it’s not as if Apple ever pretended it was pursuing anything else, but it’s nice to know what kind of revolution we’re talking about.