Stronger Loving World

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Sunday, April 25, 2004

Love Ovals with Voids

"Nothing will ever make you weirder or more culty than Geri Halliwell is. ‘Culture jammers’ are just anti-matter advertising executives. Anti-corporate activists are people who want to meet Policemen and can only do so within a socially-accepted framework of mutually agreed confrontation. As Gnostics hated ‘the Flesh’, so do Situationists hate ‘the Spectacle’.-Grant Morrison

I recently watched Douglas Rushkoff's 1999 documentary on Cool-Hunting, "The Merchants of Cool" in preparation for an article I am writing on 'fad-gadgets'. If you don't know him, Rushkoff is a kind of wandering hippy who stumbled into the alchemical world of fractal logic, chaos mathematics and new-wave psychedelia at a crucial moment in the early 90's. Though chaos culture shouldn't force us to favor agency over structure, Rushkoff attacked these issues with an interpretive framework that painted culture with a cartoonish 60's Marxist logic. A 'culture industry' theorist looking at 'commodification', 'subcultures', etc, Rushkoff was, is, a media theorist still shaking off the biases of the Frankfurt School, still whirling in the dizzying currents of global capitalism and squeezing that Greatful Dead patch for dear life somewhere in his pocket. The documentary is very us vs. them, youth culture vs. corporations, art vs. marketing, authenticity vs. simulacra, flesh vs soul, letter vs spirit, pikachu vs UltraMan. You get the idea. I'm much more interested in structures than agency.

Cool-Hunting is a strategy where independent firms seek out trends and intercept them on their way from emergence to their potential marketability. Most of these trends (I refuse to use the word memes, and I'll explain why some other time.) spread unaided, through a complex information technology called 'orality'; or 'word of mouf', as cultural theorist Ludacris refers to it. Cool-Hunting expedites the trip from point A to point B. It's information aggregation of the most exciting kind; the "cool-hunter' is charged with the task of forever stalking the throbbing pulse of the beast with no body, Zeitgeist. "Merchants of Cool" is narrated by Rushkoff in a kind of lilting, friendly, squirelly voice. Close ups of Rushkoff's face as he stares upwards into the flashy polyvalent lights of Times Square provide segues between his examinations of professional wrestling, the Insane Clown Posse, Jay-Z(I said late 90's)Wondering to himself if anything is truely authentic, if his own youth culture was marketed to him, Rushkoff's persona is a kind of avatar for the pale faced optimist caught in a culture he doesn't understand. Always wide-eyed and slackjawed, he has the perpetually entranced 'gee-whiz' of Wired magazine forever glued to the subordinate clauses of his sentences and the lower half of his cleffed chin. In the concluding few minutes, it dawns on Rushkoff...'it's a feedback loop', corporations and youth are playing off of one another, feeding eachother and co-creating consumer capitalism. Great. Was I watching a Frontline documentary or the Lion King?

If we are using the model of 'feedback loops'; the issue now is that the speed of cultural communication that has been employed since Rushkoff's documentary has tightened our loop into the eye of a needle, so dense that its elements break into eachother,a genetic cocktail, a continual '2 Many DJ's' mix of the Mind. This is Avant-Capitalism; where "the edge is the new center' and the distorted bricolage of commodified images is among the most highly potent, emotionally charged art pieces on the market. Advertising is a reverberation of Art, a mutation, genital mutilation of Art. I'll always have a place in my heart for the archetypal image of the wacky corporate ad-man--the Ad-man sculpts images, drifts zeitgeist and attempts to compose a Jungian cross-cultural access code with the fragments of image and sound he collects. F.T. Marinetti was an ad-man--his manifestos and personae were (cultural studies students, duck! razor-thin buzzword aproaching) performative, speech-acts, texts who are their authors. What I am referring to specifically when I talk about increasing speed is wireless internet access, digital photography, featherweight laptops and the synchretism between the three in scouting sub-culture. Groups like Youth Intelligence, and most famously Dee Dee Gordon's Look-Look, employ hundreds of researchers world-wide as their eyes and ears. Young people between the ages of 14 and 29 are given digital cameras and wireless laptops, and told to report on trends, pieces of clothing, tattoos, images that catch their eye. We could cower and ramble on about what an Orwellian, panoptic nightmare this is, or we could look at the entire visual ultra-text on its own level. The beast with a thousand eyes that never sees itself. Pan-Capitalism doesn't consume all it encounters. That's Pac-Man, you moron! Why do you always get the two mixed up? Pac-Man is an interesting creature. He's infinitely dense, he never changes shape. No matter how much matter he takes on, his mass remains the same. His speed is not impeded by the thousands of pellets he consumes. (The phosphorescent Ghosts are forgiven because ectoplasm is fifth-dimensional and not constrained by Newtonian physics) Pan-Capitalism, however, staggers under its own genetic instability, it's an amoeba with a hundred thousand legs made of glass and mirror, swaying in motion with all it sees. British theorist Boy George, from the 'culture club' school of thought, called this the "Karma Chameleon." "You come and go, you come and go", he said, clearly referring the Freudian 'Fort-Da' game that structures the pleasure principle.

I think Look-Look's Dee Dee Gordon embodies the Avant-Capitalist, the ad-(woman) who sees herself as bold and artistic. She takes my metaphor a step further and suggests that she is empowering youth, giving a voice to the muted, providing a sounding-board for youth who would otherwise feel powerless. This is the mission statement of her youth culture webzine:

I can't help but wonder if--despite her hubris--she is right. In the echo-chamber of global capitalism, Generation XYZ,The Plug and Play Generation,Generation Pac-Man, whatever you want to call it, is the most studied and marketed demographic in history. So why do they (we?) feel so powerless? Do I care?

It's very difficult for me to write about this stuff from a human interest standpoint, because, as I said, I'm more excited by structures than subjects. When I write about communications technology, I prefer to find out what kinds of shapes are mapped out when communication finds a new way to move, when centers shift, when cultures gain new bodies. I like to see what kind of a spider-web is produced, and then point at it and say "look how pretty it is!" And then someone tugs my pantleg and asks, "but what does it mean?", and I, still smiling vapidly, say "look how pretty it is!"

Unfortunately, you can't have a structure without subjects. If I were Dick Hebdige, my subject in this framework would be 'the cool', and I would explain to you with watered-down semiotics what you probably already knew: that an emerging trend begins in the center(there are two models to use, but they're both the same; one puts the 'mainstream' on the outside one places it in the center. We'll put it the center.) and finds its way to the outside, where it is radiated to all points of the circle. A new edge emerges to replace the last until it too flows to the center and is spit out again. The circle is in different shades, so that the unit in question is always displaced in context. This leads people to adapt the retarded "pac-man" model I discuss above, wherein capitalism is ravenous and mean and chews up everything in its sight and spits it out with a nike swoosh on it. In order to believe this, you have to believe that a) Authenticity exists at all, which it doesn't. b)information can spring up in a vacuum, and that cultural information is not already composed of recombined fragments.

Why don't we balance democratic models into this without becoming utopian; let's say that the agency our actors gain when communicating with marketing executives is 'demonstrative'. Through demonstration, the subjects perform an act that not only transfers information, in this case lucrative cultural capital, but demonstrates it, allowing corporations to see not only what it is but why it is, and how the subject has been organically engaged with it. So when our Avant-capitalist masterpiece returns to us, our bricolage text, it is still outside its original context, still inhuman and other. But its cadence, movement, its rhythms and dance patterns remain. Everything that made our 'cool' culturally healthy remains, because it has been demonstrated that this is part of the market's demand. In this case, its the role of the actors and subjects to engage with their own texts and understand their own relationship to it before they decide its been redistributed in a way they see unfit. The tragedy is that Pac-Man's synthesized soundtrack will no longer be playing in the background. Is retro still cool? What year is it?


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