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Thought Projectors 4

October 7, 2016

Last week saw me return to the world of photography with another (this time longer and more advanced) photography course. I had been hoping to take some photos over the summer but I think my level of understanding had reached the point where I knew exactly enough to get myself in trouble and start second guessing myself.

The first session of the class went okay but I was struck by the cultural differences between the various institutions I have attended and the students they attracted. I started out at a local adult education venue on a course that was very cheap and so the group we had was relatively diverse. I then moved to a larger venue for a slightly more expensive course and we shifted from a diverse crowd to a crowd of middle-aged people in full time employment. My current class is more expensive and in a slightly posher town and it is overwhelmingly made up of upper-middle class women who evidently don’t even blink at the thought of buying expensive specialist kit at the drop of a hat.

I have long been of the view that consumerism has a negative impact on pretty much everything but hobbies in particular. When you first decide to try a new hobby, you can ‘invest’ in said hobby either by spending time improving your craft and knowledge base or you can spend money and acquire stuff. From the three classes I have attended, I have noticed that the wealthier my classmates tend to be, the more the classes devolved into weird consumer advocacy round-tables as to which lenses, graphic programmes, tablets, and tripods are ‘best’.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that the wealthier my classmates became, the more confident they became in their photographic abilities. People without much money would often be reluctant to show their stuff to the class while upper-middle class people would attend a couple of sessions and start sending their stuff off to newspapers and offering to photograph quite large events. Needless to say, the people with money and confidence were no more likely to take a good photo than the people with basic kit and little time.

This is all obvious when you think about it but I was quite surprised by the way in which the performance of professionalism interacts with class and how the perceived need to produce that sort of performance can creep into something as simple and low-pressure as taking an adult education course in the hope of taking better pictures. Frankly, I find the whole thing rather exhausting and while I thought the class showed the potential to cover some interesting ground, my alienation hackles have been raised in a way they have not been on any of the previous courses I’ve attended.

Anyway… on with the things that have recently been occupying my thoughts. In response to some comments last time out, I’ve decided to add a bit of text introducing each of the videos I embed.

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Isle of the Cheetah‘s debut EP “Mayhem, Bedlam, Hurly Burly” featuring Colin Doran from Hundred Reasons and Chris Wemyss from Das Sexy Clap:

 

 

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This recent piece by Mtraven is why I continue to read his blog. Like a number of other commentators, he considers the ways in which the internet has shifted from being a place that seemed to encourage debate at a structural level to being a place that actively encourages us to withdraw into communities of like-minded people.

It is interesting to consider how social media actively discourages the exchange of ideas. Why did we allow ourselves to be herded into spaces where everyone winds up repeatedly saying ‘this isn’t the right place for this kind of discussion’? Why did we allow ourselves to be herded into spaces where having a heated disagreement with someone inevitably devolves into their friends sniping at you while your friends snipe at them? Why did we allow ourselves to be herded into spaces that encourage us to encounter ideas in a way that strips them of both context and subtlety? Social media encourages us to withdraw into communities of like-minded people because those platforms provide avenues of uncritical and un-nuanced agreement (fav, like, retweet, link etc) while failing to support any other form of active engagement.

Spend a couple of years in an environment where all you are allowed to do is click hearts and signal-boost and other forms of engagement start to feel uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and socially transgressive. Make disagreement sufficiently uncomfortable and you have a structure that not only encourages retrenchment into communities of like-minded people but also encourages responding to unfamiliar ideas with legitimate anger: How dare you make me feel uncomfortable.

 

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Stewart Lee interviewing the legendary Alexei Sayle about the birth of the alternative comedy movement in the UK and how low rents and student grants once encouraged artistic experimentation:

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This relatively recent piece by Jonathan Sturgeon takes a long hard look at the American literary mainstream and considers how these novels portray the self, its relationship to other selves, and its relationship to the world at large.

The first thing that grabbed me about this piece was the politicisation of the term ‘realism’. Now… I understand that ‘realism’ is a piece of terminology with some heft behind it and I also understand that different cultures vary in their ideas as to what constitutes realism. I even understand that — in popular culture at least — ‘gritty realism’ has become shorthand for a vigorously misogynistic world view that panders to the beliefs of emotionally stunted post-adolescents. However, what I didn’t realise was that American literature has an entirely different conception of ‘realism’ to European film.

In European film, realism is an unabashedly left-wing style. In post-war Britain, ‘realism’ was a term used to describe kitchen sink dramas that explored the lives of working-class people as part of a broader socialist critique of capitalist democracy. Similarly, in post-war Italian film, the term ‘neorealismo’ was used to refer to films that dealt with themes like poverty, oppression, injustice and despair. According to Sturgeon, American literary realism involves focussing on the subjective experiences of wealthy, university-educated white people. The second thing that grabbed my attention was the discussion of how that style came about and how it took hold in the American mind.

One of the best things about exploring culture from different eras and cultures is the way that said culture shines a light on how different groups think of themselves and other people. Philosophers use the term ‘theory of mind’ to refer to the ideas we use to ascribe mental states to human beings. One of the questions that is often posed on those ‘History of Western Civilisation’ courses that American Universities inflict upon first-year undergraduates is whether different works of literature differ from each other a) because some writers are better than others at recreating the experience of being human in literary form or b) because different writers had fundamentally different ideas about what it means to be human.

The point that Sturgeon is working towards is that American realist literature views people as profoundly alienated from other people. It’s not just that we can’t ever really know what other people are thinking, it’s that the thoughts and feelings of other people only ever have an indirect influence upon our identities and experiences. This theory of mind naturally lends itself to a politics of selfishness and individualism in much the same way as the leftist politics of British cinematic realism and Italian neorealism flowed from a vision of the self as something that is indistinguishable and inextricable from the selves that surround it. If we view the self as something connected to other people then it follows that we should view the interests of those other people as identical to our own. Conversely, if we view the self as something that is isolated from other selves then it follows that we should view the interests of those other selves as secondary to our own. Many leftists argue that liberalism is fundamentally a right-wing world view in that it begins and ends with the figure of the individual rather than the group.

 

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The absolute fucking state of BBC Science programming at the moment:

 

 

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This quite elderly piece by David Garcia, Pavlin Mavrodiev, and Frank Schweitzer considers the pioneering social media platform Friendster and considers how it went from close to 10 Million members in June 2010 to complete social collapse in June 2015.

The piece makes two quite interesting observations: Firstly, it points out that social networks are only ever as robust as the number of connections their members manage to forge. For example, if you join a social network but only manage to make two new friends, losing one of those friends is quite likely to result in your withdrawing from that network and choosing to maintain your remaining relationship in a more direct fashion. Thus, the loss of just one connection in a non-robust network can result in cascade connection failures as more and more people withdraw from the network. Secondly, the article points out that the attractiveness of any social networks is dependent upon its ability to deliver real benefits in return for minimal costs. So, increasing the amount of work required to maintain membership of a network will cause people to leave that network. Similarly, if a scene cannot provide tangible benefits to members then people will become reluctant to invest any more time and energy in said network.

Now, obviously I don’t really care about the collapse of a Malaysian social networking site… What drew me to the article was the idea that the collapse of Friendster might shine an interesting light on what appears to have happened to the literary science fiction community.

While the roots of the genre community may stretch back at least as far as the 1930s, the last fifteen years or so have seen the slow expansion and rapid contraction of an online community that was once capable of supporting several wide-ranging and active conversations at same time. More-or-less civil and more-or-less productive, these conversations would involve not just dozens of bloggers linking to each other but also input from semi-professional sites and real-world events in the form of related programming at both regional and national-level conventions. In contrast, today’s blogosphere seems far more introverted as genre bloggers write about the works and issues that are of narrow interest to them rather than seeking to participate in the kinds of conversation that once helped to foster a broader sense of community. Naturally, everyone’s experiences of genre culture are going to be different but I do get the impression that things are objectively quieter than they were five or even ten years ago. I think the linked article provides an interesting framework we can use to make sense of what has happened to the genre blogosphere:

Firstly, I think that while the genre community does encourage the creation of social connections, it is not what you would call a robust network. Not to put too fine a point on it, genre culture is cliquey as fuck and any community that encourages the creation of small cliques rather than broad movements is at risk of having those cliques implode and so undermine the rest of the network. This has become something of a cause celebre in British genre circles of late as a lot of people now seem to believe that our corner of genre culture ceased to function when Niall Harrison left the Torque Control blog in order to take over at Strange Horizons. While Niall is admittedly superb at reaching out to people and giving them a reason to invest their time and energy in genre culture, a robust social network would never have been damaged by one person shifting their focus from one corner of genre culture to another. The death of Torque Control may have damaged the British genre community but that pattern will have been repeated every time a genre blog shut its doors or shifted away from participating in the kind of broad discussions that once bound the genre community together.

Secondly, I think that while the genre community may once have promised a pretty good cost/benefit balance to potential participants, the price of participation has risen almost as quickly as the benefits of membership have declined.

The more online genre culture matured, the more its connections and hierarchies began to ossify. This means that while it used to be possible to participate in genre culture simply by setting up a blog and linking to people, you now need to work a lot harder both in order to build an audience and to achieve recognition from those ossified hierarchies.

Online genre culture metabolised the rising cost of participation by raising the stakes on the discourse, creating a culture in which every encounter was felt to have both a winner — who was applauded for their cleverness and/or righteousness — and a loser who suffered the full price of the social transgression involved in having the ‘wrong’ opinion. Rising stakes made it possible for people with low social capital to have a meaningful impact on the discourse but it also served to raise the risks associated with engagement for absolutely everyone. However, while people with small amounts of social capital faced these risks alone, those who were already well-connected and well-respected were able to share the costs, benefits, and risks of social engagement across entire sub-networks.

Simply stated, well-connected and well-respected figures benefit more from membership in the genre community, find it easier to participate, and are at considerably less risk of being asked to pay the full price of their social transgressions. Unfortunately, because genre culture tends to be cliquey and its sub-networks rather small,  genre culture’s social hierarchies tend to both fragile and somewhat risk-averse.

The inequalities of risk between those with social capital and those without are now so acute that even the well-connected have become reluctant to risk their positions in genre culture. The problem is that while genre hierarchies do share the risks of social engagement, engaging in ‘risky’ behaviour tends to put pressure on the bonds between individuals. This has proved to be an almost perfect recipe for cultural paralysis as the unaffiliated cannot bear the price of engagement while those with enough social capital to be heard tend not to put those reserves of social capital at risk. Thus, nobody speaks loud enough to be heard.

These days, those that have opinions in public to be tied into professional publishing networks and even then, those opinions tend to be restricted to bland advertorial that serves to position products within a restricted range of ‘acceptable’ cultural narratives with the acceptability of individual cultural narratives a function of both your intended audience and the nature of your professional contacts. Either way, people are at pains to limit the range of their vocalisations for fear of incurring risk either individually or collectively.

While genre culture has been sliding down this ravine for years, it hit rock bottom rather more quickly than expected. The problem is that while the price of participating in genre culture had been creeping steadily upwards, it suddenly spiked when an attempt was made to build a bridge first between adult genre culture and YA culture, and then between genre lit culture and geek culture at large.Suddenly participation meant not just arguing with the usual suspects but arguing with the usual suspects plus hundreds of people dragged into genre spaces by GamerGate and hundreds of people dragged into genre spaces by self-aggrandising moral entrepreneurs like Arthur Chu. The well-connected in genre culture encouraged this broadening of the debate as their social capital both protected them from the downside and magnified the upside: Publishers pushed brand identities, authors pushed books and popular websites hoovered up thousands and thousands of hits a day while ordinary fans huddled closer together and hoped that nobody wrote a post designed to drop the internet on their heads.

Predictably, the level of risk soon began to outstrip even the artificially inflated benefits of protected engagement. As people stepped back from their keyboards and the stakes began to drop, the benefits of engagement fell far quicker than the perceived risks of voicing an unpopular opinion. Just over a year after peak US genre Culture wars and people are still fearful of expressing opinions in public.

 

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Speaking of science fiction, I am disappointed that the Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto appears to have gained almost no traction in genre circles. This may have something to do with the fact that it defines itself as being quite explicitly against the way that genre culture has tended to handle race, particularly post-Racefail:

 

 

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This recent piece by Nick Pinkerton looks at the state of contemporary film-writing and is pretty much spot on in his analysis, at least as far as I can tell.

Like most critical fields, film writing periodically re-fashions its own internal narratives. For the longest time, the consensus view of film criticism was that while the number of jobs in film criticism fell off a cliff when newspapers sacked their in-house critics and outsourced their film coverage to an army of underpaid freelancers, the amount of film criticism available online was still growing and so the field of criticism should therefore be viewed as being in ruddy health. Pinkerton is an interesting figure as while he writes superbly for a number of excellent publications, I don’t get the impression that he is anywhere close to being either an established figure or in a position to support himself entirely through film-writing. As a result, his view of the field is that of someone who has benefited from the system to the point of familiarisation but without those benefits blinding him to the system’s shortcomings. The problem with most overviews of critical fields is that they tend to be written by established figures and established figures are inevitably protected from the negative aspects of change. This is why venerable critics have tended to view the marginalisation of film criticism in a positive light: Their incomes and status were already secure and they welcome the freedom of obscurity.

A year ago, I made a conscious effort to start following paid film critics in an effort to get some idea of how the game was played at a professional level. One year later and I have unfollowed all but a small handful of professional critics as the ‘game’ appears to consist mostly in cowardice and careerism resulting in a discourse that is long on group-think and self-promotion but short on genuine insight or thoughtfulness. Like most of the people carving out careers in ‘online content provision’, today’s film critics aren’t just shit at their jobs, they’re terrible fucking people to boot.

Another reason I decided to link to Pinkerton’s post is that film appears to have run into a similar problem to genre culture but adapted to said problems in a completely different manner: Genre culture raised the cost of participation and depressed potential gains to the point where everyone went quiet. Film criticism raised the cost of participation and depressed potential gains to the point where everyone started saying the same kind of thing over and over again. I guess the vital difference is that while society still expects film criticism in one form or another, nobody expects to see expansive thinkpieces about genre fiction and so there was no reason for anyone to continue producing them.

 

12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2016 1:10 pm

    I’m (re)watching The Ascent of Man at the minute and although it’s very dated in a number of ways, its implicit assumption of intelligence and interest on the part of the viewer is unbelievably refreshing. A lot of modern programming feels superficial in comparison. There’s a clear assumption that to engage you need to entertain, and that means shallower material with more superficial nonsense.

    My other half watches a lot of BBC history documentaries and although I only drift in and out of them, it does seem like they spend a disproportionate amount of time on humanising historical figures by contemporary standards and trying to make them ‘relatable’. It’s deeply weird to me that history programmes should try so hard to be ahistoric in that way.

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  2. October 7, 2016 1:58 pm

    Excellent piece, Jonathon.

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  3. October 7, 2016 5:06 pm

    Thanks man :-)

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  4. October 7, 2016 5:07 pm

    I can’t watch historical tv stuff dealing with recent times as they all seem horribly right wing :-( I too would appreciate a bit more systemic analysis and a bit less cult of personality

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  5. October 10, 2016 11:43 pm

    “Like most of the people carving out careers in ‘online content provision’, today’s film critics aren’t just shit at their jobs, they’re terrible fucking people to boot.” Prescient. I withdrew from online film circles about a decade ago when it was clear that the dominant modes of discourse had no hope of escaping the gravity well of the subculture that planted its flags and built its networks on the Internet first, in this case AICN and its fan-cult descendants. (Whereas in literary chatter, I get the sense that YA built the railroads.) But in light of some of your remarks in this post it has been interesting to track the reaction to the whole business with Devin Faraci—the sudden cathartic release of validation for everyone who already knew he was an ignoramus and a boor, quietly waiting for something to stick. It reminds me of the back-channel talk among my Canadian acquaintances about the radio host Jian Ghomeshi: once the silence was broken, the reaction was not surprise, but “Finally.” Which only exposes a more insidious problem.

    When people retreat from blogs, social networks, and other Internet-public spaces, I think there is something more at work than the chilling factors of increasingly lopsided distributions of publishing power, implicit threats of public shaming, and the fear of expending social capital in a perverse career ladder that, a fan imagines, may elevate them from amateur-fan to pro-fan. Those are all forceful in ways you have articulated here before. But even among those who don’t participate in the same economies of petty social exchange, there is an additional deterrent to speaking up: exhaustion, futility. Apathy. The certitude that you can blow the whistle until you are red in the face, but nobody is listening on that frequency. And so we arrive at an end-state where nobody speaks out about rampant toxicity and material incompetence because everyone who might listen has already left. That, or they feel such a personal attachment to or sense of ownership over the subculture in question that they can’t imagine breaking away.

    In the end, the only people left are the ones complacent about sycophancy, pettiness, risk aversion, and at worst, abuse. There is a suffocating pointlessness in crowing about how genre folks ostensibly get more of a kick out of awards-season culture wars and File 770 gossip than actually reading books, or how supposedly progressive counter-movements are as complicit as anyone else in bullying or hiding behind solidarity as a cover for abuse, when everyone actually invested in belonging to these circles appears to like it that way. At some point, critics of these subcultures ask themselves, why bother? What’s it to me if these people go down with their ship?

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  6. October 11, 2016 12:18 am

    On a frankly more interesting subject: concerning realism in the American imagination, if there is a divergence along the individual-social axis between the cinematic/literary cultures of the United States and those of Britain or Italy, to me it seems that an essential part of the story involves understanding these contrasting movements as distinctly post-war. While the lineage of the white whale we call the Great American Novel extends quite a bit further back in situating the individual as the unit of dignity, I wager that where we really begin to see it distinguished from the Old World (from which America derived its liberalism in the first place) is when one side of the Atlantic has all the fertile conditions for entrepreneurship and property ownership to blossom with Technicolor pop, while the other faces the challenges of recovery and austerity in the kind of atmosphere of decline one sees in Robert Hamer or Vittorio De Sica. It’s interesting, also, that in the American literary context the individual as a subject of complex systems, in the Pynchonian mode, is explored instead as surreal or hyperreal. No less alienated, perhaps, but hardly empowered with agency or self-knowledge, and not very happy about it either.

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  7. October 12, 2016 3:00 pm

    Nicholas,

    Regarding online discourse…

    There was an interesting piece published early this year that touched on many of these issues and effectively predicted both Trump and Faraci:

    http://observer.com/2016/01/this-is-the-hollowed-out-world-that-outrage-culture-has-created/

    The trappings of the article aren’t great but its main point is that the escalating viciousness of online exchange has given birth to a culture where only the shameless, sociopathic and emotionally disconnected can ever hope to prosper. Most normal people reach a point where waves of shame, self-loathing, and cognitive dissonance force them to admit they were wrong and reverse position but some people seem capable of ignoring every piece of social feedback born of being either a bully or a boor. Faraci and Trump are excellent examples of this type of mindset but the same mindset can also be seen in people like Nick Cohen and the current president of the Philippines. Create a culture where expressing a minority opinion means getting sprayed with shit and you wind up with a culture that effectively rewards people who care not a jot about anything except themselves and their power.

    My attitude to genre culture has been exactly as you describe for a while now… I’m just not willing to put up with the inevitable bullshit so I keep my opinions either to myself or just out of public view (hence the format of these posts). I think the time might be coming when I start participating a bit more but you’re right, there is definitely a point where you want to leave the idiots to their own shallow and self-righteous hooting.

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  8. October 12, 2016 3:05 pm

    Nicholas,

    Regarding Pynchonian alienation…

    I don’t think you can have individualism without alienation. If all that matters is the self and the self exists independently of other people then it follows that other people must be either intimidatingly alien or downright Other. You can cook your individualism in a variety of different sauces (from European existentialism right through to American postmodernism) but the fact remains that the subject is utterly alone and yet beset on all sides by forces and subjectivities that are beyond his control.

    Little wonder that American popular culture has a tendency to present empathy as some sort of super-power. Imagine being able to understand what other people feel rather than simply firing your shotgun over their heads in the hope that they’ll go away! :-)

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  9. October 13, 2016 7:53 am

    “How dare you make me feel uncomfortable” makes a great quote… I’m thinking of putting it on a t-shirt — just to see how many people get the irony, and how many don’t. (Wanna bet on the outcome?)

    Individualism leads to alienation — fine, that’s a price I’m willing to pay to have a personal identity (of sorts) and a mind of my own (more or less). Despite being Scandinavian, I’ve always felt a bit “American” in my mindset.

    Here’s a pet worry of mine: If the Next Big Thing after the Internet manages to digitally connect human minds even tighter — wiring brains directly into a neural network, if that’s possible — will the result be not a lofty and wise group mind, but a supercharged collective idiocy? Will our “better angels” get the upper hand or will the sociopathic tendency we’e seen take over completely?

    The purpose of science fiction is to make us uncomfortable. I like that feeling of having the rug pulled out from under me, the “everything you knew is wrong” moment. SF is not a “Safe Space” — space isn’t safe. (Put that on a t-shirt.)

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  10. October 13, 2016 5:02 pm

    AR:

    There is definitely a risk that connecting a load of human minds together will produce more idiocy rather than more intelligence. The internet certainly supports that hypothesis :-)

    I have some sympathy for the people who want SF to be a ‘safe space’ as safe space usually means free from racism, sexism, and the risk of social assault. I can get behind that… at the very least, I think it’s fair enough to make it clear which works touch on difficult topics as that way those of us what want to be discomforted can do so without the more emotionally fragile wandering in and having horrible experiences.

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  11. October 14, 2016 12:02 pm

    Just so there are no misunderstandings: When I say “There are no safe spaces in SF” I mean the works of fiction, not the conversations surrounding them, and certainly not fandom.
    Civility in an open debate is of course a given.

    (Even civility can offer the opportunity for abuse. During a recent convention in Stockholm, one male visitor was very rude and uncouth to the Guest Of Honor. I wanted to yell at him to shut the ***** up, grab him by the collar and drag him out of the room — but civility held me back. Clearly, this is a golden age for sociopaths to exploit the basic decency of normal people.)

    But consider, say, a story like “The Screwfly Solution” by Alice Sheldon. It is, on a very basic level, a “horrible experience.” I felt awful reading the story. It left me full of doubts and anxiety about a lot of things. Even so, it is rightly considered an important work, and I don’t regret reading it.

    If “The Screwfly Solution” had come with a “Trigger Warning” in front, wouldn’t that deter lots of readers — even those who might have learned something about the horror of misogyny from it?

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  12. October 14, 2016 2:08 pm

    I agree with you AR… There’s so much to learn from a story like Screwfly Solution, it woukd be a shame for anyone to pass over it because of the unpleasant content. I guess that’s where trust comes into it :-)

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