Grow Up? The Answer is Never

Growing old gracefully sounds and seems so dignified and appealing. I have no idea what that would look like for me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve certainly gotten better at handling responsibility, being a student, meeting deadlines, dealing with adversity and change, and knowing what all of that means in a larger context. At the same time, I became a better skateboarder in my thirties than I ever was in my teens, I’m more into music than ever, I’m still riding little-boy bicycles, and I still don’t own a suit or a pair of dress shoes. As Fight Club‘s narrator famously puts it, “I’m a 30-year-old boy.” The phenomenon is what anthropologist Victor Turner calls “liminality” (1969) or the “betwixt and between” (1967): an interstitial state without status.

How can children grow up in a world in which adults idolize youthfulness? – Marshall McLuhan

Turner’s forebear, Arnold van Gennep (1960), defined what we think of as rites of passage, celebrations of transition from one stage of life to another. As these are mostly studied and most prevalent in other cultures, I have often wondered what makes an adult in the Western world. It seems that we can now pass the tentative tests—getting a driver’s license, graduating school, getting married, having sex, having babies—and still emerge as unscathed youth.

All his peoples moved on in life, he’s on the corners at night
with young dudes. It’s them he wanna be like
It’s sad, but it’s fun to him, right? He never grew up.
Thirty-one and can’t give his youth up.
He’s in his second childhood. – Nas, “2nd Childhood”

Ageing and Youth CulturesAgeing and Youth Cultures: Music, Style, and Identity (Bloomsbury Academic, 2012), edited by Andy Bennett and Paul Hodkinson, explores the second childhood between adolescence and adulthood predominantly as it pertains to pop culture. From straight-edgers, punks, and ravers to B-boys, B-girls, and feminists, so many of popular interests and causes are tied to youth. Using methods familiar to anthropologists, sociologists, and other social scientists (e.g., ethnography, interviews, etc.) the scholars in this book examine the conflicts between growing up, growing old, and staying true to ourselves that are more and more evident in 21st-century, Western culture. Our memories are fallible and ever-more mediated, yet they are important to study. “They tell us about the ways in which people construct the past,” writes Mary Fogerty in her study of ageing breakdancers, “and within this practice they reveal the value systems highlighted by different generations…” (p. 55). We construct and cling to pasts that our presents can never live up to.

Part of the problem is cognitive. Our brains’ ability to create and store new memories simply slows down, to a near-stop, therefore making our most cherished memories those of our youth. And when we remember those times, we reify them, making them stronger (Freud called the process “Nachtraglichkeit” meaning “retroactivity”). So, being stuck in the past is basically a somewhat natural state for our brains—and our technology lets it linger more than ever.

About the “betwixt and between,” Turner (1969) also writes of “the peculiar unity of the liminal: that which is neither this nor that, and yet is both” (p. 99). If I can be both grown up and not grown up, then I refuse to choose: I’ll take the good and bad of both. As James D. Watson puts it, “…there is no good reason ever to be on the downward slope of experience. Avoid it and you’ll still be enjoying life when you die” (p. 93). Never mind growing old gracefully or being age-appropriate. Let’s concentrate more on having fun now—and from now on.

References: 

Bennett, Andy & Hodkinson, Paul (Eds.). (2012). Ageing and Youth Cultures: Music, Style, and Identity. New York, Bloomsbury Academic.

Jones, Nasir. (2001). 2nd Childhood. On Stillmatic [LP]. New York: Columbia Records.

Marshall McLuhan & David Carson. (2003). The Book of Probes. Berkeley, CA: Ginkgo Press, p.138.

Milchan, A., Uhls, J., Linson, A., Chaffin, C., Bell, R. G. (Producers), & Fincher, D. (Director). (1999). Fight Club.  Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox.

Turner, Victor. (1967). The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Turner, Victor. (1969). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

von Gennep, Arnold. (1960). The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Watson, James D. (2007) Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. New York: Knopf.

Weyland, Jocko. (2002). The Answer is Never: A Skateboarder’s History of the World. New York: Grove Press.

B-Side Wins Again: Punk Aesthetics

From an early age it was instilled in me that people judge you by how you look, how you dress, how you wear your hair, how you carry yourself. My dad won’t leave the house to do business or see someone without styling and dressing appropriately. We communicate something through every stylistic choice we make. As Umberto Eco (1973) writes, “I speak through my clothes.” To wit, I have seen firsthand many books misjudged by their covers. Still, coming up with this stress on conformity alongside the drive for expression inherent in art, skateboarding, and punk rock, I can’t help but toy with the conflict. In the Summer 1988 issue of Homeboy Magazine, pro BMXer R. L. Osborn wrote,

Homeboy MagazineMy girlfriend doesn’t dig my Megadeth t-shirt. ‘You’re going to shave one side of your head? Holey Levi’s? Throw ’em away. Your hair’s too long. Your hair’s too short. Why does your hair look like a rainbow?’ Everyone feels the heat from friends, family, and whoever else about independent style, yet I can’t help feeling that sometimes envy is covered up with uncool remarks. Hey. let’s be straight about this, it’s your life, your feelings, and your own personal way of expressing yourself and showing the true you (p. 81).

The piece was accompanied by photos of street kids with wacky hair with odd angles and colors, leather jackets with lots of zippers, spikes, chains, and other scary accessories. I was 17 when that issue came out, and though Osborn’s proselytizing wasn’t the first time I’d been exposed to punk aesthetics, it stuck with me. So, when I saw my DIG BMX Magazine colleague Ricky Adam‘s new zine, I immediately thought of R. L.’s words.

Glad to See the Back of You

Ricky Adam’s zine, Glad to See the Back of You (Trajectories, 2013), is full of tattooed attitude. It’s a compendium of punk self-expression mostly in the form of custom jackets with back patches. Glad to See the Back of YouBack patches are largely the domain of bikers or crust punks, the latter of whom fill this zine’s pages. Punk back patches are often cut from old screen-printed t-shirts and hand sewn onto denim or leather jackets or vests along with other patches. The hand-done aspect of them is rarely disguised and gives the look a D.I.Y., provisional feel, and their literal patchwork lends them to subversive bricolage (see Hebdige, 1979). By mixing patches as signs together, punks engage in what Eco (1972) calls “semiotic guerilla warfare.” They express their lack of desire to reunite with the parent culture and celebrate, even parody, the alienation that causes it so much concern (Hebdige, 1979). The crust-punk style takes this alienation to the extreme. Its a war is waged against the established look via its sardonic and scathing rejection thereof (Brummett, 2008; Hebdige, 1979).

Greil Marcus (1989) outlines the complexities of punk’s signification this way:

[A] load of old ideas sensationalized into new feelings almost instantly turned into new clichés, but set forth with such momentum that the whole blew up its equations day by day. For every fake novelty, there was a real one. For every third-hand pose, there was a fourth-hand pose that turned into a real motive (p. 77).

None of this is new, and it might still seem juvenile, but the underlying sentiments haven’t changed. Who cares what’s been co-opted? And who knows what authenticity means anymore? My friend Mark Wieman recently observed how thick and long The Long Tail™ has become. There’s simply no real mainstream anymore, and when it comes to punk and authority, I still feel like my 17-year-old self. I don’t own a pair of dress shoes.

The punk aesthetic of doing it yourself isn’t about doing it like everyone else. It’s about liberating what’s unique about yourself, exposing what makes you you. As Osborn concludes, “Show us who you really are.”

——————–

Ricky Adam’s Glad to See the Back of You is out in a limited run of 300 (mine’s #154), so get yours now.

References:

Adam, Ricky. (2013). Glad to See the Back of You. Leeds, UK: Trajectories.

Brummett, Barry. (2008). A Rhetoric of Style. Carbondale, IL: The University of Southern Illinois Press.

Eco, Umberto (1972). Towards a Semiotic Enquiry into the Television Message. WPCS, 3, University of Birmingham.

Eco, Umberto. (1973). Social Life as  a Sign System. In D. Robey (Ed.), Structuralism: The Wolfson College Lectures, 1972. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 57-72.

Hebdige, Dick. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge.

Marcus, Greil. (1989). Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Osborn, R. L. (1988, Summer). Page 65. Homeboy Magazine, 80-81.

Keep Your Distance Close: Maps and Monographs

I grew up moving around. From my birth to my high school years, my family moved at least once every two years. There’s no way to gauge how much that forced mobility shaped me as a person, but it certainly made me unafraid to pick up and go somewhere else.

The day after my last final of my undergraduate studies, I moved out of my parents house, from the bucolic plains of southeast Alabama to the Cascadian coast of the Pacific Northwest. I’ve moved more times than there have been years since then and even more than I did growing up. Seventeen of those twenty-odd treks have been state-to-state moves.

Map Bookshelf by Ron Arad

There are certain things you learn from a life on the road. You learn to keep your life lean (except perhaps for the literary indulgences; books tend to be the bulk of any of my many moves), you learn to pack what you keep efficiently, you learn to make new friends and keep in touch with old ones, and you learn how to read a map.

The Faraway NearbyIn The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013), Rebecca Solnit addresses all of the above with the intricacy and intimacy for which she is known. Even the books, about which she writes, “Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone” (p. 61). And in another passage that deserves quoting at length, she writes,

This is the strange life of books that you enter alone as a writer, mapping unknown territory that arrises as you travel. If you succeed in the voyage, others enter after, one at a time, also alone, but in communion with your imagination, traversing your route. Books are solitudes in which we meet (p. 54).

There are several intertwining allegories threading through The Faraway Nearby. One is about a windfall of apricots rotting slowly on the floor of Solnit’s bedroom, and that story is connected to the very dire story of the diminishing mind of her mom. Overall though, the book is about moving, about going, coming, and becoming, the crisis of living where cartographers have yet to tread, losing your way and finding it again. Every time it feels like the story of her troubled relationship with her mother is getting more alienating than engaging, Solnit drops a paragraph like this one:

My survival depended on mapping her landscape and finding my routes out of it. We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them (p. 29).

Her ability to connect the mundane to the monolithic is time and again why she’s one of the more reliable voices in cultural history and criticism and remains one of my very favorite writers.

Close Up at a Distance

“What size is representation?” Solnit asks, “No size at all, for we get used to seeing satellite photographs of continents the same size as snapshots of babies” (p. 92). If Solnit’s book is about the territory of living itself, then Laura Kurgan’s Close Up at a Distance (Zone Books, 2013) is about the representation, the technologies, the map itself. And it’s beautiful in a completely different way. Kurgan, who runs the Spatial Information Design Lab, directs the Visual Studies program, and is an Associate Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, is not only close with mapping technologies but also quite critical of their shaping how we see the world. “The consumers of generally available satellite imagery,” she writes, “or even the ones who download images for a price from a commercial satellite database, will never know who has tasked a satellite to take a picture (unless they did it themselves) in order to see something close up, but from far away” (p. 20).

The problems of perspective that Solnit mentions above are evident in Kurgan’s critiques. As much as they reveal, remote sensing and imaging technologies remove us from the grit and grind of the realities on the ground. Kurgan investigates these processes through nine case studies, from the images of earth shot from space (i.e., Earthshine and Blue Marble) to satellites over Manhattan on 9/11. Kurgan writes, “The ease with which we can conduct these experiments often hides the reasons for the existence of the images in the first place,” (p. 20), military purposes often being the most nefarious. As Braun (2005) puts it, “…media should never be understood only through their superficial characteristics or merely as interfaces: Certain ideas of reality, society, and subject are always encoded in them” (p. 73). The assumed objectivity of these images is suspect, as they mediate (i.e., insert themselves into) our view, obscuring our ability to accurately interpret what we see.

What the map cuts up, the story cuts across. — Michel de Certeau

However tempting it might be to call Solnit’s book the micro-view and Kurgan’s the macro-, or one about life lived up close and the other at a distance, both are intimate narratives of their subject matter. New books, new stories, new places, new cities can all be a challenge, but dealing with them is manageable and fun. You learn the characters, learn the tropes, learn the plot, learn the map, learn the landmarks, learn the major thoroughfares and cross-streets, and learn when it’s okay to get a little lost.

References:

Braun, Reinhard. (2005). From Representation to Networks: Interplays of Visualities, Apparatuses, Discourses, Territories, and Bodies. In Annmarie Chandler & Norie Neumark (Eds.), At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 72-87.

de Certeau, Michel. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, p. 129.

Kurgan, Laura. (2013). Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology, and Politics. New York: Zone Books.

Solnit, Rebecca. (2013). The Faraway Nearby. New York: Viking.

—————

Many thanks to Ken Wark for suggesting I review these two titles in tandem.

Enjoy the Silence: Jonathan Sterne’s Sound Studies

Though considered the absence of sound, an entity defined by lack, silence is its own swollen signifier. We often find it awkward in social situations, public forums, on the radio. Anywhere we expect the sound of a voice, silence is suspect. “Uncomfortable silences,” Mia Wallace complains in Pulp Fiction (1994), “Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?” We fill every space with sound. But, as the sultan of silence, John Cage (1991), taught us, “[S]ilence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around” (p. 59)

The most successful ideological effects are those which have no need of words, and ask no more than complicitous silence.
— Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice

Orfield Lab's Anechoic Chamber

Silence indicates unheard voices, both figuratively and literally. In The Sound Studies Reader (Routledge, 2012) edited by Jonathan Sterne, Mladen Dolar writes, “The absence of voices and sounds is hard to endure; complete silence is immediately uncanny, it is like death, while the voice is the first sign of life” (p. 540). Orfied Laboratories’ Anechoic Chamber, built by Eckel Industries and pictured above, is a foam room within a room, built on i-beams and springs, surrounded by steel. The outer room is encased in foot-thick, concrete walls. There’s a running bet at the lab offering a case of beer to anyone who can stay in it with the lights off for over 45 minutes. In a rather psychological example of what Douglas Kahn (1999) calls the “impossible inaudible” (p. 189), no one’s been able to stay inside for more than half an hour. Its death-like silence makes its Guinness Book of World Records award as “The Quietest Place on Earth” seem sinister.

The Sound Studies ReaderIn her investigation of silence in fiction, Alix Ohlin (2012) notes, “Silence, created through ellipsis, white space, and repetition, is another form of erasure; it tells the reader of a pain that is too great to bear, yet must be borne” (p. 58). As Susan Sontag (1969) writes, “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech” (p. 11). The complaint is often hidden until heard. Breaking the silence is the first step to its resolution. Tara Rodgers’ essay in Sterne’s collection, “Toward a Feminist Historiography of Electronic Music,” also equates silence to a unspoken grievance, quoting poet Adrienne Rich: “The impulse to create begins–often terribly and fearfully–in a tunnel of silence… [T]he first question we might ask a poem is, What kind of voice is breaking the silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?” (p. 478). Similarly, in “The Audio-Visual iPod,” Michael Bull equates it with isolation. Silence makes an uneasy companion.

 Air has so much to say for itself. Sound is just bugged air.
— McKenzie WarkDispositions

Bugging the air and bugging the airwaves, sound surrounds us. In his essay, “The Auditory Dimension,” Don Ihde phenomenologically relates hearing to seeing, the silent to the invisible. Rephrasing the age-old, tree-falling-in-the-forest question, he writes, “Does each event of the visible world offer the occasion, even ultimately from a sounding presence of mute objects, for silence to have a voice? Do all things, when fully experienced, also sound forth?” (p. 27).

MP3: -The Meaning of a FormatTackling the presence of no object, Sterne’s other new book, MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke University Press, 2012), investigates the evolution and epistemology of our prevailing sound format. Originally intended as a way to transfer sound over phone lines, the MP3 has become a case study in the digital reorganization of an industry. “Chances are,” Sterne writes, “if a recording takes a ride on the internet, it will travel in the form of an MP3 file” (p. 1). Identifying the internet as its native environment, the “dot-mp3” file extension was born on July 14, 1995. “At some point in the late 90s,” says Karlheinz Brandenburg, whose Ph.D. work in 1982 landed him in the middle of the development of the format, “MP3 was technically the best system out there, and at the same time, it was accessible to everybody.” These two aspects gave the MP3 an early foothold, it was patented in 1989, and now every device that plays digital audio files can play one (Wikström, 2009). With the introduction of the first portable MP3-player in 1998, the record industry’s early-eighties nightmares were coming true (Coleman, 2004), and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) started its ongoing legal battle against the digital revolution. Once online file-sharing and the iPod came online around the turn of the millennium, the floodgates were open, and music was liberated not only from the dams of physical formats but also physical spaces. What once took rooms of equipment and stacks of physical media to enjoy is now in everyone’s pocket.

Where the printing press gave us “an eye for an ear” (McLuhan, 1962, p. 27), the MP3 gave us all an endless, solitary soundtrack. The visual is still culturally privileged over the audible (Kahn, 1999), but studying sound has never been more imperative. The Sound Studies Reader and MP3: The Meaning of a Format, along with Sterne’s earlier book, The Audible Past (Duke University Press, 2003), provide a solid foundation.

Without sound, celebration and grief look nearly the same.
— Sam in Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet

Sharing silence can be the ultimate sign of intimacy. The unspoken solace of a loved one close by manifests a complicit quiet. Mia Wallace continues, “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.” Amen.

References:

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 188.

Cage, John. (1991, Winter). An Autobiographical Statement. Southwest Review, 76(1), 59.

Coleman, Mark. (2004). Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money. New York: Da Capo.

Kahn, Douglas. (1999). Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Marcus, Ben. (2012). The Flame Alphabet: A Novel. New York: Knopf, p. 181.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Ohlin, Alix. (2012, December). “I Am In Here”: On Silence in Fiction. The Writer’s Chronicle, 45(3), 56-63.

Sontag, Susan. (1969). Styles of Radical Will. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Bender, Lawrence (Producer) & Tarantino, Quentin (Director/Writer). (1994). Pulp Fiction [Motion picture]. United States: A Band Apart.

Wark, McKenzie. (2002). Dispositions. Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing.

Wikström, Patrik. (2009). The Music Industry. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Terminal Philosophy: A Cultural History of Airports

My dad is an air traffic controller, so I’ve grown up with a special relationship with airports. These grounded waystations are like family members, some close siblings, some distant cousins. Is there a more interstitial space than an airport? It is the most terminally liminal area: between cities, between flights, between appointments, between everything. The airport is a place made up of on-the-ways, not-there-yets, missed-connections. The airport is a place made up of no-places.

Above SFO (photo by Brady Forrest)

In the late 1970s, Brian Eno attempted to sonically capture the in-between feeling of being in a airport. He’d already started making “unfinished” or ambient music, but this was his first with a specific, spatial focus. I seem to remember conflicting reports of where Eno came up with the idea for airport music, but he told Stephen Colbert that he was in a beautiful, new airport in Cologne and everything was lovely except for the music. “What kind of music ought to be in an airport? What should we be hearing here?” Eno says he thought at the time. “I thought that most of all, that you wanted music that didn’t try to pretend that you weren’t going to die on the plane.”

In a recent interview in The Believer, Laurie Anderson talks about the in-between of airports and Alain de Botton’s book A Week at the Airport (Profile, 2009), in which he explores Heathrow airport:

Because you go through Heathrow or any airport and you go, What’s behind that hollow cardboard wall? And he decided to find out, so he spent time there, and every time I’ve been through Heathrow since then, I know what’s behind those walls. The way the whole airport shakes every time an airplane lands, you’re like, ‘Am I in a structure or just a diagram of a structure?’ You’re not really sure. Added to the fact that there are no clocks there, either, so you’re sort of lost in this flimsy world, which is the way they would like to keep it.

In Christopher Schaberg’s The Textual Life of Airports (Continuum Books, 2012) he explores the texts of these structures, structures whose flimsy architecture veils stories of spaces in between public and private, screening and secreting. They’re not home and they’re not hotels. Schaberg reads airports as texts to be read, but he also looks at the very idea of reading in airports, which is a common practice. Where else do you get stuck that there’s almost always a bookstore nearby? Ironic that we need the forced downtime of a long flight or layover to do something so rewarding, and I’m speaking for myself as much as anyone as I look forward to that time and meticulously compile what it is I will read while traveling.

Schaberg’s travels through the texts of airports include many actual texts about flying, but also his time working in an airport. Inevitably, 9/11 plays a major part in these texts and his reading of them. If nothing else, that day affected us all when it comes to air travel. Everything from Steven Speliberg’s Terminal (Dreamworks, 2004) to Don Delillo’s Falling Man (Scribner, 2007) runs through Schaberg’s screening machine. It’s an amazingly subtle analysis of a very disruptive event.

“Most of us want to reach our destination as quickly and safely as possible,” writes Alastair Gordon in Naked Airport (University of Chicago Press, 2008; p. 4), which Ian Bogost mentioned in our 2010 Summer Reading List. The book is a cultural history of airport structures. His approach is starkly different from Schaberg’s, taking a distinctly historical view from 1924 to 2000 and how each of these eras dealt with the structure of airports qua airports. Gordon’s text is definitive, taking into account how historical events shaped the built environment of flight through every era. Everything from Roosevelt’s New Deal to 1960’s stewardess wear figures in the story. Naked Airport is a seductive, secret history of a common structure.

Books are always a good idea when traveling via airplane, but I urge you to consider these two texts the next time you leave home. They will enlighten your flight (and your in-betweens) in more ways than one.

————-

Here’s the clip of Brian Eno on The Colbert Report from November 10, 2011 [runtime: 6:27], in which he briefly discusses Music for Airports:

References:

Botton, Alain de (2009). A Week at the Airport. London: Profile Books.

Gordon, Alastair. (2008). Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Revolutionary Structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schaberg, Christopher. (2012). The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight. New York: Continuum Books.

Stern, Amanda. (2012, January). Being an Artist is a Totally Godlike Thing to Do–And I Have a God Complex: An Iterview with Laurie Anderson. The Believer, 10(1).

Bring the Noise: Systems, Sound, and Silence

In our most tranquil dreams, “peace” is almost always accompanied by “quiet.” Noise annoys. From the slightest rattle or infinitesimal buzz to window-wracking roars and earth-shaking rumbles, we block it, muffle it, or drown it out whenever possible. It is ubiquitous. Try as we might, cacophony is everywhere, and we’re the cause in most cases. Keizer (2010) points out that, besides sleeping (for some of us), reading is ironically the quietest thing we do. “Written words were meant to evoke heard speech,” he writes, “and were considered inadequate until they did so, like tea leaves before the addition of hot water” (p. 21). Reading silently was subversive.

We often speak of noise referring to the opposite of information. In the canonical model of communication conceived in 1949 by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, which I’ve been trying to break away from, noise is anything in the system that disrupts the signal or the message being sent.

If you’ve ever tried to talk on a cellphone in a parking garage, find a non-country station on the radio in a fly-over state, or follow up on a trending topic on Twitter, then you know what this kind of noise looks like. Thanks to Shannon and Weaver (and their followers; e.g., Freidrich Kittler, among many others), it’s remained a mainstay of communication theory since, privileging machines over humans (see Parikka, 2011). Well before it was a theoretical metonymy, noise was characterized as “destruction, distortion, dirt, pollution, an aggression against the code-structuring messages” (Attali, 1985, p. 27). More literally, Attali conceives noise as pain, power, error, murder, trauma, and youth (among other things) untempered by language. Noise is wild beyond words.

The two definitions of noise discussed above — one referring to unwanted sounds and the other to the opposite of information — are mixed and mangled in Hillel Schwartz’s Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond (Zone Books, 2011), a book that rebelliously claims to have been written to be read aloud. Yet, he writes, “No mere artefacts of an outmoded oral culture, such oratorical, jurisprudence, pedagogical, managerial, and liturgical acts reflect how people live today, at heart, environed by talk shows, books on tape, televised preaching, cell phones, public address systems, elevator music, and traveling albums on CD, MP3, and iPod” (p. 43). We live not immersed in noise, but saturated by it. As Aden Evens put it, “To hear is to hear difference,” and noise is indecipherable sameness. But, one person’s music is another’s noise — and vice versa (Voegelin, 2010), and age and nostalgia can eventually turn one into the other. In spite of its considerable heft (over 900 pages), Making Noise does not see noise as music’s opposite, nor does it set out for a history of sound, stating that “‘unwanted sound’ resonates across fields. subject everywhere and everywhen to debate, contest, reversal, repetition: to history” (p. 23).

Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.
John Cage

The digital file might be infinitely repeatable, but that doesn’t make it infinite. Chirps in the channel, the remainders of incomplete communiqué surround our signals like so much decimal dust, data exhaust. In Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture (University of Minnesota, 2011), Peter Krapp finds these anomalies the sites of inspiration and innovation. My friend Dave Allen is fond of saying, “There’s nothing new in digital.” To that end, Krapp traces the etymology of the error in machine languages from analog anomalies in general, and the extremes of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (RCA, 1975) and Brian Eno‘s Discreet Music (EG, 1975) in particular, up through our current binary blips and bleeps, clicks and clacks — including Christian Marclay‘s multiple artistic forays and Cory Arcangel’s digital synesthesia. This book is about both forms of noise as well, paying due attention to the distortion of digital communication.

There is a place between voice and presence where information flows. — Rumi

Another one of my all-time favorite books on sound is David Toop’s Ocean of Sound (Serpent’s Tail, 2001). In his latest, Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener (Continuum Books, 2010), he reinstates the human as an inhabitant on the planet of sound. He does this by analyzing the act of listening more than studying sound itself. His history of listening is largely comprised of fictional accounts, of myths and make-believe. Sound is a spectre. Our hearing is a haunting. From sounds of nature to psyops (though Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” is “torture-lite” in any context), the medium is the mortal. File Sinister Resonance next to Dave Tompkins’ How to Wreck a Nice Beach (Melville House, 2010) and Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare (MIT Press, 2010).

And how can we expect anyone to listen if we are using the same old voice? — Refused, “New Noise”

Life is loud, death is silent. Raise hell to heaven. Make a joyous noise unto all of the above.

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My thinking on this topic has greatly benefited from discussions with, and lectures and writings by my friend and colleague Josh Gunn.

References and Further Resonance:

Attali, J. (1985). Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Evens, A. (2005). Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Goodman, S. (2010). Sonic Warfare. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hegarty, P. (2008). Noise/Music: A History. New York: Continuum Books.

Keizer, G. (2010). The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise. Philadelphia, PA: Public Affairs.

Krapp, P. (2011). Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Parikka, J. (2011). Mapping Noise: Techniques and Tactics of Irregularities, Interception, and Disturbance. In E. Huhtamo & J. Parikka (Eds.), Media Archeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Refused. (1998). “New Noise” [performed by Refused]. On The Shape of Punk to Come: A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts (Sound recording). Örebro, Sweden: Burning Heart Records.

Schwartz, H. (2011). Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond. New York: Zone Books.

Shannon, C.E., & Weaver, W. (1949). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Sterne, J. (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Tompkins, D. (2010). How to Wreck a Nice Beach. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.

Toop, D. (2010). Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener. New York: Continuum Books.

Voegelin, S. (2010). Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. New York: Continuum Books.

For the Nerds: Bricks, Blocks, Bots, and Books

I used to solve the Rubik’s Cube — competitively. I never thought much of it until I, for some unknown reason, was recently compelled to tell a girl that story. I now know how nerdy it sounds. The girl and I no longer speak.

Erno Rubik among his Cubes.
Some of the things I grew up doing, I knew were nerdy (e.g., Dungeons & Dragons, LEGOs, computers, etc.). Others were just normal. Looking back on them or still being into them, one sees just how nerdy things can be. In a recent column on his SYFFAL site, my man Tim Baker serves the nerds some venom. Nailing several key aspects of the issue, Baker writes,

Thanks to the proliferation of information on the internet anyone can be an expert in anything, well a self-presumed expert. The problem is that people are choosing to become experts in things that might carry a certain cultural currency in fringe groupings but have no real world value. Comic books and niche music scenes are great, and add to the spice of life but no matter how often the purveyors of such scenes repeat the mantra, they are by no means important. They are entertaining and enjoyable but fail to register on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So while cottage industries have popped up allowing those who are verbose enough to make a case that Led Zeppelin is essential to who we are, it does not change the fact that these experts are dabbling in the shallow end of the pool.

Now, if you know me, you know that I’m the last person to be promoting anything resembling growing up, but I will agree that since the widespread adoption of the web, nerd culture often gets completely out-of-hand. It’s also treated as a choice you can make, but as every true nerd knows, we’re born not made. As my friend Reggie Hancock puts it, citing the most recent nerd icon to end all nerd icons, Tina Fey:

Tina Fey is, unabashedly, a nerd. It’s not a badge of honor she wears, but a stink of reality. She’s not a nerd because she likes Star Wars and did an independent study of comedy in junior high school, Tina Fey likes Star Wars and did an independent study because she’s a nerd. It’s not a persona she assumes, she didn’t live with a dumb haircut for years on purpose, but because Tina Fey was born a nerd, lives as a nerd, and will die a nerd.

To the cheers and glee of nerdkind everywhere, John Baichtal and Joe Meno have edited a collection of ephemera regarding every adults favorite plastic blocks. The Cult of LEGO (No Starch Press, 2011) covers the blocks’ history, how-to, and hi-tech.

Nerd touchstones like comics, movies, LEGO-inspired video games (including Star Wars, of course), Babbage’s Difference Engine, and Turing machines are covered inside, as well as the LEGO font, image-to-brick conversions, home brick-printing, Douglas Couplandbrick artists, record-setting builds, and robots — Mindstorms, LEGO’s programmable robot line, by far the most sophisticated of the LEGO enclaves. Here’s the book trailer [runtime: 1:43]:

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If you want to build stuff with more than just plastic bricks, O’Reilly’s magazine, Make: Technology on Your Time, is the grown-up nerd’s monthly bible. Volume 28 (October, 2011) is all about toys and games. There’s a pumpkin catapult, a kinda-creepy, semi-self-aware stuffed bear, a silly, copper steamboat, a giant bubble blower… It’s all here — and much more. Check the video below [runtime: 2:18].

So, whether you know someone who dweebs over arduinos, has fits over RFIDs, or just loves to build stuff, Make is the magazine. It gets no nerdier. Also, check out the Maker Shed (nerd tools and supplies galore) and Maker’s Notebooks (my favorite thing from this camp).

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Oh, and if you can’t solve the Cube, there’s a LEGO Mindstorms Rubik’s Cube solver on page 245 of The Cult of LEGO. The machine takes an average of six minutes. For the record, my fastest time was 52 seconds.

Get on it, nerds.

Guy Debord: When Poetry Ruled the Streets

Writer, filmmaker, instigator, and revolutionary, Guy Debord is probably best known for his involvement with the Situationist International (McKenzie Wark calls him their “secretary”) and their concepts of the dérive and détournement, the former of which is one of the core ideas of psychogeography, and the latter of which went on to define the culture jamming movement. Their slogans were the words on the walls during the May 1968 uprisings in France. They published the proto-Adbusters of the time, and their spirit hangs heavy over the work of Shepard Fairey, Banksy, Joey Skaggs, The Yes Men, Kembrew McLeod, and other postmodern-day culture jammers and media hackers alike. Greil Marcus (1989) puts them in the lineage of resistance movements: Dada, Surrealism, Situationists, punk rock. Wherever we attribute his influence, Debord lived and loved in line with the thoughts he wrote.

Guy Debord on the set of 'Critique of Separation', 1960

Debord’s best known and best selling book is The Society of the Spectacle (Zone Books, 1994; originally published in 1967), and the “spectacle” concept it defined have remained a mainstay of media criticism ever since. Debord biographer Anselm Jappe (1999) wrote, “The spectacle does not reflect society overall; it organizes images in the interest of one portion of society only, and this cannot fail to affect the real social activity of those who merely contemplate these images” (p. 7). Debord (1994) himself wrote, “All that was once lived has become mere representation” (p. 12). Does that sound familiar? It should. He continues, “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (p. 12). Defined as such, the spectacle sounds a bit like fellow French thinker Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra, does it not? Debord clarifies, writing that the spectacle has two foundational attributes: “incessant technological renewal” and the “integration of State and economy” (1998, p. 11-12). Nonetheless, Debord’s work has yet to receive the widespread reverence it deserves.

One might be surprised that I implicitly seem to compare myself, here and there, on a point of detail, with some great mind of the past or simply with personalities who have been noted historically. One would be wrong. I do not claim to resemble any other person, and I believe that the present era is hardly comparable to the past. But many figures from the past, in all their extreme diversity, are still quite commonly known. They represent, in brief, a readily accessible index of human behaviour or propensities. Those who do not know who they were can easily find out; and the ability to make oneself understood is always a virtue in a writer.
— Guy Debord, Panegyric 1, p. 8.

One recent attempt to remedy Debord’s unsung unrest comes in the form of Vincent Kaufman’s biography Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry (The University of Minnesota Press, 2006; now available in paperback). Kaufmann assumes the role of “unqualified reader,” as he claims no previous fascination or familiarity with Debord. This perspective gives him and his book a unique approach among books about the Situationists. Lacking an “ideological axe to grind” Kaufman sees as imperative to understanding Debord and his life of rebellion, fortunes, misfortunes, adventures, exploration, drifting. “Perhaps it is only by boat that we can really lose ourselves,” he writes, recalling Slavoj Zizek’s metaphor for postmodern rootlessness, and Debord’s persistent pursuit of authentic experience. Of the numerous biographies of Debord and books about Situationists, Kaufman’s is among the best, most thorough, and makes a great introduction to his work and their world.

“I wrote less than those who write,” Debord once said, “but I drank more than hose who drink.” The title of his sixth and final film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978), is a palindrome that he roughly translated to “we turn in the night and are consumed by fire.” If any one phrase could sum up the way the man felt about our media-mad, modern world, that one would do.

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When Poetry Ruled the Streets: This clip from Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) features Adam Goldberg and Nicky Katt as two of the gang of four, and Hymie Samuelson as Guy Debord. [Quicktime clip. Click the image to play; runtime: 2:30]:

References:

Debord, G. (1994). The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books.

Debord, G. (1998). Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. New York: Verso.

Debord. G. (2004). Panegyric 1 & 2. New York: Verso.

Debord, G. (2009). Correspondence: The Foundation of the Situationist International (June 1957 – August 1960). Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Jappe, A. (1999). Guy Debord. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Kaufmann, V. (2006). Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Linklater, R. (Writer/Director). (2001). Waking Life [Motion picture]. United States: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Marcus, G. (1989). Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wark, M. (2008). 50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International. New York: FORuM/Princeton Architectural Press.

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Apologies to Andrew Feenberg and James Freedman for stealing the title of their book for this post. Here is a mini-documentary of Feenberg’s time in Paris in the late 1960s and his archive of posters therefrom. [runtime: 8:36]

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