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Thought Projectors 1

April 18, 2016

I have been accumulating links for quite some time. Sometimes these links cohere into a long-form piece, but sometimes they just stay as collections of thoughts that guided my thinking for a certain period of time and then ceased to be relevant. It occurred to me that, rather than simply sitting on these links, it might be fun to share them along with the thoughts they produced. So yeah… here are some links.

 

 

Quite an old piece by Petra Davis about the Riot Grrl movement of the early 1990s. I think we naturally tend to assume that forward motion counts as improvement, this is why we tend not only to accept changes when they are forced upon us by people with the structural power to make their arguments stick, but also forget how things used to be different and more interesting because of it.

Riot Grrl was a moment in which thoughtful punk rock overlapped with feminist activism and art school provocation. One of the interesting things about Riot Grrl is that while it received far more mainstream attention than comparable acts do today, the music never really caught on as it came across as both too weird and too angry when approached via the wounded masculinity that defined the sensibility of the stadium-filling, MTV-friendly grunge acts that were doing well in the US at the time. I think Riot Grrl bands have endured better than stuff like Pearl Jam or Dinosaur Jr but it’s interesting the way that the public sphere tends to only allow for a limited spectrum of emotional expression and the forms favoured by men got precedence despite the fact that they seem ludicrous in hindsight. Riot Grrl also reminds me of Feminist SF in so far as it’s one of those moments that can always be rediscovered and used for future inspiration.

 

 

 

Quite a recent piece by Yasmin Nair about constructing the self in the age of social media and how that process of construction has interacted with the politicisation of social spaces. The article is ostensibly about people like Suey Park and Arthur Chu who worked quite hard to benefit from particular cultural moments but below the cynicism and the calling-out of these two internet celebrities, there’s a real attempt to understand why these people came to prominence in the first place.

The article is the first in a series and I’m not entirely sure what direction the series is headed in. However, having now worked my way through the entire piece a couple of times, I’m struck my a couple of important lessons:

Firstly, I don’t think anyone could possibly hold up under the levels of scrutiny to which people like Chu and Park have been subjected. Social media survives as a form of archive-quality written text but, when you use it, it feels like you’re just chatting to your friends or venting. Given the ways in which we’re encouraged to engage with social media, it strikes me as obvious that nobody is every going to be consistence, thoughtful and progressive all of the time. Pointing out that people like Chu and Park contradict themselves and stress different elements of their personalities at different times is just pointing out that they’re human and contain multitudes like everyone. Comb through anyone’s social media footprint and you’ll find both enough rope to hang them and enough gold to fashion them a crown. It seems to me that we’d be better off judging people on their actions rather than their ill and half-formed words.

Secondly, I think people like Chu and Park have benefited from flaws in a set of short-cuts we use to make our minds up about other people. As I say above, nobody is 100% consistent and understanding people’s actions and ideas often requires both a lot of context and a lot of leg-work to pull all of that context together. The problem is that nobody has the time to vet people they don’t even talk to on the internet and so we rely on a series of short-cuts: We look at people’s identities, we look at the people they are friends with, we look at what our friends think about these people, and we look at the language they use. Nair makes it clear that Park’s activist credentials were always somewhat suspect but she was a young Asian woman who used the right language, associated with the right people, and reached a lot of people meaning that a lot of people encountered her through their friends. Of course… this is nothing new as under-talented white men have been hiding in this particular cultural blind spot for hundreds of years. For example, when someone like the BNP’s Nick Griffin talks about the dangers of immigration, journalists clock his accent, clock his ugly clothes, clock his lowly social class and assume that he’s a racist thug. However, when the same views are put forward by UKIP’s Nigel Farage, journalists clock the old school tie, the easy manner, the City background, the elevated social class and assume that he’s a thoughtful politician.

I’m not sure this is a solvable problem… Much like our tendency to value loyalty over justice, these types of short cuts strike me as inherent flaws in human nature. The ways in which authority broadcasts itself may change over time and from group to group but our willingness to accept these broadcasts at face value does not.

 

 

 

A relatively recent piece by Peter Frase about four different kinds of future that might yet come to pass. One of the things I like about social media is the way in which it allows my different interests to overlap in real time. For example, the other day I was watching the announcement of the films taking part in the (tedious, predictable, disappointing, and problematic) 2016 Palme D’Or competition while other people discussed local government cuts. Despite never being all that popular with anyone visible to me, Google + is often praised for the way it allows you to disentangle different social manifestations of your identity. While I understand where this praise comes from, I really enjoy it when multiple fields of interest converge on one particular topic. Frase’s piece is all about politics but also all about the future.

 

 

 

A weirdly idiosyncratic piece uploaded to Pastebin by either an individual or a group referring to themselves as dronegod$. Humanity suffers for its acute lack of imagination… I’m not (just) talking about our complete inability to come up with a more humane and efficient system of resource management than capitalism, I’m also talking about how our inability to imagine alternatives seems frequently extends to forgetting how different things have been within our own lifetime. This piece may be nothing but another slice of inconsequential hacker bravado but it dares to challenge our selective memories and limited imaginations by suggesting that life might actually be better without the internet.

As someone who has read a lot of science fiction, I am constantly amazed by the naivety of science fiction writers. SF has always pushed at the boundaries of our collective imaginations and dared to imagine alternatives but old school science fiction never realised that things invented to set us free would inevitably wind up being used to turn us into slaves. Futurism is full of this type of shitty optimistic thinking: Every time someone invents a bigger plane, they talk about how these planes will have gyms and bars and more room but in reality more space for corporate owners inevitably results in less space for passengers as seats get smaller and the experience of flying becomes more and more dehumanising. Similarly, if you look back at the Jetsons, people genuinely believed that making businesses more productive would result in humanity working less hours and yet despite people becoming more-and-more productive, wages have stagnated for generations while the working day grows ever-longer.

I think the time has come to file the internet under inventions that had the potential to make our lives better only to wind up making them immeasurably worse. I remember when people like Clay Shirkey spoke about how Web 2.0 was going to turn us all into creative beings who would write blog posts and create art instead of sitting on our arses watching sitcoms. Fast forward a decade and the internet has become the primary means of blurring the line between the personal and the professional meaning that those bloggers who haven’t given up in disgust are either behaving like more-or-less ambitious interns or trying to reconcile their self-image as a thoughtful, progressive people with the fact that they return home too bludgeoned to do anything other than watch hour after hour of terrible, reactionary, escapist media.

 

 

 

A recent piece by Steve Erickson about the state of foreign-language film distribution in the United States made me laugh. I agree with the broad sweep of the article about how foreign films used to be more relevant and popular back when cinemas bothered to show them, but I actually think the real state of the industry is much much worse than he is letting on.

For starters, the view from New York is considerably different to the view from rural Sussex. If you live in New York then your chances of being able to see a foreign-language film in the cinema are pretty good simply by virtue of the fact that there are dozens and dozens of cinemas and a large centralised population that is likely to include at least a few people with an interest in foreign films. Move outside of large cosmopolitan cities and nobody wants to show foreign films.

I live in a rural area but I’m within a reasonable driving distance of a couple of large towns with cinemas. In fact, there are multiplexes, independent cinemas and cinemas that market themselves as being a bit more sophisticated than your average multiplex. In theory, this should provide me with some choice and occasionally allow me to watch foreign films but in reality all of these cinemas show the same Hollywood films. Outside of London, the real difference between a Cineworld and a Curzon is that a Curzon cinema allows you to purchase booze at the same time as you choose between watching superheroes levelling cities and animals making pop-culture references that will come to seem impossibly obscure by the time the films appear on DVD.

While I think that high rents and corporate take-overs account for the extreme timidity of British cinema chains, there is also a problem in that European and World cinema has long allowed itself to be painted as the inaccessible preserve of intellectual elites. For example, which is more relevant to the lives of ordinary people? A billionaire and an alien fighting a demon, or a black teenager trying to find herself in a world that insists upon her fitting into certain pre-defined roles? Which do you think is currently showing in every cinema in my area and which do you think barely featured even in London?

 

 

8 Comments
  1. April 18, 2016 11:15 am

    Lots of interesting stuff here!

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  2. April 19, 2016 10:53 am

    In all my time online I can’t think of anyone who bid for my contempt and a place in my books as the worst writer on the Internet as wilfully and aggressively as Arthur Chu. It does raise the question, on what evidence?—but despite the fixation on the personalities behind the bylines that comes with everyone having their own independent masthead on Twitter, to me it seems quite justifiable to cast aside the matter of whether we have any access to the real selves of noisy strangers via their public personae and direct our scrutiny to what we can all objectively see: the writing, if you can call it that. Too often, as you note, the imperative to consider the source is conflated with a free pass to commit to one’s prejudices about the source’s self-presentation or network of bedfellows. I think the level of discourse was better off as a whole when the personalities in play were masked. In lieu of that, I should hope we can find the sobriety and discipline to say, “This might be a reasonable thinking human being—I’m in no place to judge—but it certainly doesn’t come through in their public words or deeds.”

    On the matter of film distribution, what I find especially galling is that in my experience, the profusion of subscription-based streaming services as an alternative, à la carte means of distribution is structurally incapable of correcting for the homogeneity in the cinema landscape beyond the metropolis (which you would think is a problem of scale) instead of replicating its imbalances for the same target demographics and on the same assumptions. I wonder, however, if the problem of international cinema being perceived as elite (or at the very least niche) is all that tractable. The answer to your question at the end, after all, is that the scenario more relevant to the lives of ordinary people is the one with the billionaire and alien fighting a demon—the story of the highest generality, painted in the broadest strokes—and the victor is whoever is most capable of producing and distributing to scale. (This circumstance may be a circular creation of the market, but I have my doubts that the situation fifty years ago—a legacy of postwar reconstruction, really, when you think about how the cinema of France or Japan flourished and fed back into the United States—had any long-term global capacity for growth.)

    Of course, that’s in the absence of a truly healthy domestic cinema. An interesting statistic I picked up via Franco Moretti (“Planet Hollywood”, collected in Distant Reading) was that in the heyday of Hong Kong film, domestic productions were so popular that they effectively insulated HK from the same degree of Hollywood penetration found everywhere else, with Hollywood blockbusters accounting 6% of top-five box office hits (1986-1995) compared to 58% in France. And I can assure you the vibrancy was felt. (Erickson’s allusion to Hong Kong’s trickle to Hollywood was an amusing reminder of how belated and shorn of lustre it seemed to those already aboard.) But in the first place, that was in a concentrated metropolis without the scaling problems of distribution and access that one sees in the national cinema of even as small a country as the UK; and second, that is only considering domestic cinema as the main alternative to Hollywood exports, without leaving any room to account for any real fluidity of international exchange. To some extent we already observe analogous patterns in literature (the translation deficit of books into English compared to books from English to other languages; the evisceration of a sustainable midlist) but when you introduce the numbers and magnitudes involved in financing film productions or booking screens, the problem is ever more severe.

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  3. April 19, 2016 12:45 pm

    – The visibility of Chu does make me happy I spent a year away from Twitter. I followed the stuff about the Hugos from a distance and I kept wondering why people seemed so intent upon taking him seriously when it was obvious that he was nothing more than a self-serving social media entrepreneur who would move away from the community the second the fuss died down and people had to start thinking about all of the bridges that had been torched by inflammatory rhetoric.

    I share your desire that we judge the strength of the words rather than the structural authority of the person who wrote them but I think that ship may have sailed… social media destroys solidarity, consumes trust, encourages balkanisation and encourages us to view absolutely everything in social terms. Hence the way that structural authority and social power count for way more than insight or knowledge.

    – I don’t think that subscription film services can resolve the problems of international film distribution either. In fact, I’m quite pessimistic about the quality of the film culture that subscription models are capable of sustaining let alone creating.

    Hollywood has allowed film to become an entirely disposable medium: You pay through the nose to see stuff on opening weekend and six months later it’s £5 in Tesco, then it’s free as part of your Netflix subscription. Cinephilia offers a model of engagement that assumes almost the direct opposite namely that greatness emerges over time and that truly great films will endure for decades while superhero garbage is so ephemeral as to be unworthy of your attention. In theory, the two models are complimentary but in practice, the Hollywood model completely eclipses the other. Marvel and DC films are perfect examples of the type of film culture the studios want us to embrace as the films they produce are really nothing more than extended adverts for future films which will, in turn, be nothing more than adverts for yet another phase of productions.

    I get the impression that there are real structural barriers to the creation of the type of domestic film culture you discuss. For example, last summer 45 Years found an unexpectedly large audience but the multiplexes couldn’t put on more screenings as they had already committed themselves to a slate of Hollywood releases. This means that, even if the UK did start churning out great films like golden age HK, the films simply would not have the chance to find and grow their audience.

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  4. Shaun CG permalink
    April 20, 2016 1:28 pm

    I’m grateful to live in a city with two Picturehouse cinemas. The original of the two seems to fill its screenings with more esoteric films; the more recent is likely to show blockbusters. It is a little strange to have sat in the same room, drinking Brewdog beer, to watch both Pacific Rim and The Act of Killing. But that act of mental separation is a symptom of the problem too.

    What is staggering about the streaming services is how trash is on there. Why there isn’t more of a push to get decent documentaries on there (finally watched Longinotto’s fantastic Sisters In Law a few weeks ago, by the way) alongside more classic films I don’t know.

    Riot grrl was a fantastic thing, its influences are still many and varied and far-reaching, but I can’t say I listen to much of the music very often. Sleater-kinney, occasionally, I suppose. But I’d wager its very DIY rawness, the exposed and aggressive nature of the music, renders it difficult for listeners who aren’t dedicated to ‘getting it’. I know that I had to work very hard to click with a lot of older DIY punk as a teenager; once exposed to high production values, it requires force of will to see beyond them when listening to older music produced on a shoestring budget – especially if you’re new to fast, loud, aggressive music. Hmm. I’m probably projecting my own experience too far with this, but it’s a question I do often wonder about.

    That said, there’s a point to be made about how this is something punks don’t seem to struggle with when it comes to, say, Minor Threat, but the numbers are probably quite different with, say, Bikini Kill.

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  5. April 20, 2016 5:46 pm

    Brighton’s just a bit far for me, once you factor in getting parked etc. The Komedia cinema started really well but I get the impression that what left-field stuff it does screen is a fig leaf for its decision to run so many blockbusters. Rents in Brighton are what they are.

    The BFI and Curzon run their own streaming services but yeah… Netflix and Lovefilm are just cluttered with bullshit.

    I still listen to Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill. A lot of the other stuff was accutely of the moment and made a lot more sense if you happened to be aware of the fanzines that held riot grrl together as a culture.

    I can understand why you might have found it inaccessible at the time.

    I got into it because I got into alt rock through 4AD stuff like Belly, Throwing Muses, and the Breeders as well as pre-cursors like L7. A lot of that stuff was already quite self-consciously arty and influenced by feminist thought so riot grrl never seemed like that big a step.

    Weirdly enough, I remember really struggling with Fugazi for the reasons you mention but I pulled out my CDs the other day and it was like coming home. Evidently I have since listened to enough post-Fugazi stuff that their music suddenly makes obvious sense.

    Sensitivity to new things is always a function of how you first approached a particular form. Feed teenagers on Green Day or Sum 41 and Huggy Bear will sound like a complete mess :-)

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  6. April 23, 2016 1:16 am

    My mid-sized city has one arthouse cinema that struggles to acquire anything until it’s already released on home video due to a combo of factors including lack of interest and thus sales (a chicken or the egg syndrome). There are two other corporations running cinemas in my city: one that shows all of the Hollywood dreck (that I can’t get enough of); and one that shows some of the Hollywood dreck and some less mainstream stuff. It’s very frustrating. I keep seeing other cinemas post about their mini film fests, their retrospectives, their speakers introducing and contextualizing films, and all I have is a cinema that’s currently showing The Jungle Book in 35% of the screens.

    Not only is access to diverse cinema limited in terms of theatre, but we’re locked into regions that prevent me from accessing European releases that wouldn’t normally be released. The complex economics of distribution rights, along with region locked releases means that many many many things are unavailable to me.

    Aaron Bady, who writes for the New Inquiry (and who you probably already know of), has written a lot about the structural obstacles preventing African literature from entering the UK and N. American markets. There’s all sorts of apparatuses that need to coordinate, but cannot due to typical Western narcissism and economics. I think a lot of similar problems turn up with the distribution of foreign cinema. Even the ecology of film fests leaves a lot to be desired.

    It’s all very frustrating.

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  7. April 23, 2016 6:50 am

    Diversity is very relevant to this discussion. Film culture is really not good on that stuff… Cannes is famously terrible and it filters down from there. Non-male, non-straight, non-white and non-English-speaking filmmakers are under-represented at film festivals so they don’t even benefit from that tiny bit of signal boosting.

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  8. April 24, 2016 2:58 pm

    @Jonathan –

    Completely agree re. the Komedia. To be honest, though, I’m happy with it it being as it is. The city’s mainstream cinemas are horrible places, and if I go to see some moronic blockbuster with friends it’s nice to do so in cosier screens. So much the better if it also shows more interesting things.

    I didn’t find riot grrl inaccessible at the time as I didn’t really get into music until the mid to late 90s, ’97 or ’98. Quite a late bloomer in terms of being a teen who’s into music! My path was very much the pop-punk and nu metal of the time, and pushing outwards and backwards from there as I pursued overtly politicised music and punk rock, as I discovered anarchism and protest politics at pretty much the same time as I discovered music. So my path was very much Green Day to Conflict and Crass. :)

    You call it sensitivity to new things, I call it exposure – I remember as a teen listening to the first Deftones album and thinking “this sounds like a horrible wall of noise to me now, but friends I respect think it’s amazing, so I need to keep trying”. And eventually you get it. Fuck, I used to think the drumming on the Offspring’s Americana was the most off-rhythm horrible thing I’d ever heard at first. Realising that more exposure and some context was all you really needed to ‘get’ a style of music was what propelled me into hungrily listening to more and more (albeit mostly pursuing the aggressive, fast and outspoken styles I liked).

    But yeah, I don’t know whether I was on the right track at all with my last comment. The relative lack of widespread exposure and rep for the music of the most prominent riot grrl era, despite its huge influence, is probably more a function of social reproduction. Kids are brought up with internalised values, we live in a very sexist society, and so positive feedback loops feed attention to the big, bland nothing bands and starve out the cultural production of more interesting, oppositional cultures.

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