December 2007


Over at Reason.com David Harsanyi critiques a book by one Andrew Keen, a self-described “veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur and digital media critic.” Not having read (or previously heard of) Mr. Keen or his book, I instead perused his article on the Weekly Standard, Web 2.0.

Now, I have critiqued the internet before, here, and here. All forms of communication have limitations- as Plato likes to remind us, writing has all sorts of problems; old Papias expressed his dislike of written manuscripts in favour of the spoken, “living” Apostolic word. However, there is criticism and then there is criticism. Mr. Keen’s criticism is, I am afraid, utterly ridiculous, not to mention glaringly elitist and statist. In essence, he complains that the internet is unseating “elite” media in favour of user-created, democratic media, and that this is a Very Bad Thing. Thus his argument is two-layered: the first half is, I think, largely correct (though caveats must be inserted), as it is merely factual. The second half- the value judgment he makes- is downright nonsensical when we consider the standards he employs. But first the factual half of the argument.

Mr. Keen discusses the new “buzzwords” being used to describe what the internet does- democratization, redistribution of intellectual capital, that sort of thing. And indeed the internet is perhaps the ultimate engine for decentralized culture, decentralized commerce, decentralized politics, and so on; though cell phone technology is almost if not equally important. The internet is accessible to the masses, almost everywhere in the world. Even in places (such as mainline China) where the elites seek to restrict the content they view as “subversive” the internet is still available, and between the methods of getting around the restrictions, and the sheer volume of users and information, statist elites are finding it increasingly difficult to control information. And once a statist elite loses control of information, they also tend to lose control of a great many other things.

Besides being an agent of freeing information from statist control, as is the case in totalitarian societies, the internet also allows greater diversity of information and material outside of the “mainstream” media conglomerates that previously dominated the market. A much greater number of people are empowered to create and distribute material, from political and cultural commentary to music to poetry. At the same time people can also produce and dissimulate pornography, urban legends, and artless rants: the internet is a genuinely free-market, open to anyone with a connection and a computer. To Mr. Keen this is an unalloyed nightmare:

It [the internet ethos] worships the creative amateur: the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer. It suggests that everyone–even the most poorly educated and inarticulate amongst us–can and should use digital media to express and realize themselves. Web 2.0 “empowers” our creativity, it “democratizes” media, it “levels the playing field” between experts and amateurs. The enemy of Web 2.0 is “elitist” traditional media.

What is the result? Traditional media- newspapers, networks, big record labels, are in “free-fall.” This means- and here is the great gaping hole in Mr. Keen’s value-judgment- that aesthetic standards are in free-fall, that culture is descending into the abyss. Because without network television, billion-dollar studios, and giant music labels, culture will die, replaced by all those unwashed masses on the internet. Without Plato’s cultural statists regulating what we should listen to, watch, and read, the world of culture and art is caput, dead, silenced, lost in the “flat noise of opinion–Socrates’s nightmare.”

But for Mr. Keen’s argument to hold water we must accept one very big assumption: that “big media” (for lack of a better catch-all) has been producing good, viable material. That this is not the case is the basic gist of Mr. Harsanyi at Reason, but I shall offer some additional input of my own, if only because Mr. Keen’s arguments make for a very easy and enjoyable target.

As I read his exaltation of big media, I asked myself, Has the man turned on his television or radio lately? Scanned the magazine rack at the check-out aisle? Watched a big-budget Hollywood film? Where is this high culture and flowering of art that is being destroyed by the internet? We’re supposed to lament the fall of network television because art and culture will die with it? Is this man serious? To take the example of music: I can turn on my radio and listen to hours of commercials and filler-noise, with some mass-manufactured pop-rock/hip-hop/pop-country/pop-Christian-schmaltz squeezed in between the commercials. The “artists” featured on the machine-generated radio stations are featured on the big labels Mr. Keen venerates, which I may purchase at my local big-box mart. If, deciding to be a Marxist rebel, I use the internet to listen to and perhaps purchase music by independent artists, I may select from a nearly unlimited number of artists, some well-established, some known to me, their home-town, and twenty people in Wisconsin. Certainly there’s a lot of worthless stuff out there, but there is also a vast amount of incredibly good music, very little of which would be available to me without of the internet- with the possible exception of NPR (which Mr. Keen likely despises as well). The wide-open free market of the internet allows globalization to develop and operate on a much more person-centered, localized basis than globalization powered by “big media” and big business. And while there is a great deal of artless crap out there, it does not have the corporate big-media backing that, say, Brittany Spears has. Good cultural products operate on a more or less equal basis with the bad; the biggest problem for the good art is finding effective methods of diffusion. Yet even with the vast size of the internet, positive cultural and artistic diffusion- the good sort of “globalization from below”- frequently and significantly takes place.

For example, I can listen to folk musicians from, say, Macedonia, who put their music out for listeners all over the world, without a giant corporate intermediary. I come across them because I heard them mentioned on someone’s blog; I like them, purchase some of their music, and perhaps blog them myself or mention them to my friends via word-of-mouth, or send them an mp3 or two. Some of my friends like what they hear and the process continues, allowing the musicians to increase their listenership and continue making music. This is globalization at its best: people sharing in an open, free market, operating on their own terms, without some powerful intermediary running things and imposing bland uniformity. The globalization powered by big media generates a real leveling of culture- McDonalds trumps the local. With the internet, local, vital manifestations of art and culture can cross boundaries and mingle with other local manifestations, without either trumping the other.

Now, will our Macedonian band ever become famous on par with, say, Bono? Probably not. Will the lack of such fame prevent them from playing and sharing their music with all who want to listen? No. Will the lack of fame prevent them from producing good art? No. Does access to fame and a giant label good art make? If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn…

The same is true of other forms of culture, from film to political commentary. The internet provides immensely more room for genuinely good art, even if it does not assure that it will have as large an audience or impact as it deserves. But traditional big media tends to level art and culture into bland or vulgar homogeneity.

Finally, there is the claim that the internet is one big echo-chamber, that we bloggers- among others- are merely fishing for accolades and amens. Hardly: one of the enjoyable things about blogging is hearing from people with vastly different perspectives, even if you disagree vehemently with them. The internet is a vast forum for ideas, and to use the internet is to be exposed to them and forced to interact, even on a very basic level, with those ideas. In my own experience I have had many an idea challenged in large part because of ideas I encountered for the first time on the internet. There is no controlling agent here, no dominant orthodoxy, no propaganda engine telling us what to think and say.

It is fear of this liberty, this openness, that has- so far- defined the internet, that is really driving Mr. Keen. He writes that without an elite media we will lose our memory: what he is really afraid of is the loss of the elite’s ability to control that memory. For the internet’s brand of “globalization from below” could well mean- though it is by no means assured- the preservation of genuine memories, of the history and identity of real people, from here in rural Mississippi to the new ghettoes of Baghdad to the villages of rural China. It could mean that localized, personalized art and culture drawn from a vast diversity of sources will trump the artless products of big media. It could even mean that the elites and authoritarians that seek to control and exploit the lives of people all over the globe will be thwarted. The internet has great potential as an engine of democratic, subaltern change- whether it will continue to be such remains to be seen, however.

After posting my favorite album list, I thought of several other musicians whom I came across this year and really enjoyed or noticed for one reason or another, but didn’t put on my favorite list for the sake of symmetry (top-ten is cleaner-looking than top-thirteen and a half).

First off: a new record label specializing in East European bands; its nom de plure is, appropriately enough, EastBlok Music. They only have a few bands signed as of yet, and only a handful of those are available here in the States as of yet. Included in the later category is the Hungarian band Little Cow: the only band in my music library, so far, with the word “cow” in their name. According to EastBlok’s website, Little Cow- in Hungarian- was the year’s improbable smash hit, with their- equally improbably titled- single Cyber Boy (on their album I’m In Love With Every Lady). You can’t make this sort of thing up. Little Cow’s sound is fun indie-pop with a smattering of traditional instruments for backing, with odd mouth-music (noises? Musical vocalizations?) bouncing around alongside as well. The title track starts out fairly slow and melodic, but builds to almost frantic energy levels at the end; the weird vocalizations in the background pulsing right along.

I’ve also gotten to listen to another group put out by EastBlok, called Shukar Collective, based out of Romania. On their 2007 album Rromatek they mix Roma trad sounds and samples with down-beats and trance, and while they’re not the only trad/electronica fusion to operate in the Balkans arena (German artist Shantel also released a Balkan-infused electronica album this year), the Collective does a good job balancing modern electronic synth and sampling with the music of traditional instruments and singing. The quality is a little mixed- some of the tracks drag along a little- but overall Rromatek is a well-executed project.

And while we’re on the subject of ethnic fusion music, I can’t forget Brooklyn-based hip-hopper and all-around mensch SoCalled, who released Ghettoblaster this year, the follow-up to his great 2005 project The SoCalled Seder. I’ve only downloaded two tracks (and saw a music video from the album on WorldLink TV), but they’re both pretty kosher. Oy. Music like this could easily be schmaltzy kitsch, but SoCalled knows how to pull it off without inducing wincing. His delivery could be more effective, but I mean how many Yiddish hip-hop tracks are you going to find?

Finally, moving back to the orbit of more normal music, one of my favorite new bands this year is a group from Southern California, Delta Spirit- but you wouldn’t know it from listening to them. They sing songs about New Orleans, social justice, life and death, with a driving up-beat Americana sound that has nothing ironic or droll about it. I first heard them play as an opening act at a concert in New Orleans; a couple months ago they played at Hattiesburg’s own Thirsty Hippo, delivering up some wonderfully blazing harmonicas and funky percussion among other things. Good solid stuff.

There is a well known midrash about the two brothers, one who had a family and the other who was single, who each night would deliver wheat to each other. The one with the family rationalized: I am so fortunate to have a family, my brother has nothing, let me at least give him extra wheat.

The single one rationalized: I have no need for all this wheat, my brother has a family, he needs it more.

One night they met while delivering the wheat to each other, hugged and cried. The place they met became the site of har habayis [Temple Mount].

A modern version of this midrash has it that the brothers each night go into the others’ field to take wheat. The single brother rationalized: My brother is so fortunate to have a family. I have nothing, Let me at least enjoy a larger portion of wheat. The brother with the family rationalized: I have a family, I need more wheat, so I will go to my brother’s field and take wheat from him. One night they met, fought, and the site of their meeting became the Knesset.

From The Distributed Republic

Came across this today: PennyJustice, a nifty new project by Bill Powell. From the About page:

But actually living justice day in and day out is turning out to be not only difficult, but ridiculously complicated. We have managed to combine an extreme social isolation with an unprecedented global supply chain. Who sewed the shirt on your back? She could easily have been paid a wage so low that even her country deems it illegal. But no one’s enforcing that law, and she’s on the other side of the world. It’s not like you can walk into a store and look for the tag that reads, No men, women, or children were harmed in the production of this merchandise. Or can you?

Meanwhile, we’re drowning in obvious wealth, but are often surprisingly poor in friends, economic security, good work, clean food, streets that are beautiful, or even bearable, and the ability to get anywhere interesting without strapping ourselves into a two-ton transport vehicle. What are we supposed to do about any of this?

Read on and see. People are working out answers all over the place. I’ve been hunting for a few years now, and it finally occured to me to start linking them together in one place. I hope to hear what you’ve found too.

In any given year a lot of very good music is recorded and released for sale, all over the world. A very small percentage of it makes it into my hands. And while I listen to all sorts of music, a brief perusal of my iTunes library will reveal that folk, traditional, and alt-country are pretty dominant; likewise, the following list is pretty heavy in those categories. All of which means my range as a music critic is fairly restricted. So, with those caveats out of the way, here are my ten favorite new albums of 2007, arranged in alphabetical order:

1. A Hawk And A Hacksaw And The Hun Hangár Ensemble: A Hawk And A Hacksaw And The Hun Hangár Ensemble. I reviewed this wonderful EP-length album a while back here, and my praise still stands. While I’m not aware of any free legal tracks available online for download, you can download and watch two performances by A Hawk And A Hacksaw at the excellent French website Take-Away Shows.

2. Andrew Bird: Armchair Apocalypse: There are very few songwriters out there who can pull off such sheer verbal cleverness with grace like Andrew Bird. And even fewer songwriters can whistle as prodigiously as Mr. Bird. Armchair Apocalypse is Andrew Bird at his best. It also contains the only song I’ve ever heard that has as its subject the ancient Scythians, and also manages to references the Thracians and Macedonians.

Heretics

3. The Arcade Fire: Neon Bible: The New York Times did a write-up on The Arcade Fire for crying out loud, as have countless other people, so I don’t really need to pile on any further. A good album, if not a great one.

Neon Bible (another Take-Away Show)

4. Iron and Wine: The Shepherd’s Dog: A superbly beautiful album, with some songs that are reminiscent of Sam Bean’s previous, more mellow work. Most of the songs however are a marked departure from that mellowness, in favour of a more up-beat, wider-ranging, more deeply textured music, with influences pulled from all over the world (without, however, sounding kitschy).

5. The National: Boxer: Another endlessly lauded album, but still very good. Where Iron and Wine has “gone electric,” The National this year eased off all the lurching around and yelling, and instead turned out a moving, lovely album.

Fake Empire

6. Okkervil River: The Stage Names: Hyper-literate alt-folk (for example: mandolin-driven songs about Beat poet John Berryman) done very well. While treading the dangerous ground of self-reference and ironic allusion The Stage Names still manages to be sincere and not simply (yet another) exercise in insider irony by indie rockers with mandolins and accordions. I saw Okkervil River perform in New Orleans a couple months ago and can report that they are as good live as recorded.

Our Life Is Not a Movie Or Maybe

7. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: Raising Sand: I just got a hold of this album, so I’ve yet to give it a good thorough listen. From what I’ve listened to so far though it’s excellent: Alison Krauss has long been a fine musician, but on this album she has gone beyond her previous work, with a richer, well-matured sound. Robert Plant’s not too bad on here either.

8. Southeast Engine: A Wheel Within A Wheel: A band I came across this year for the first time, Southeast Engine is an alt-country (with plenty of rock driving things along) flavored outfit from Athens, OH, and while comparable to Wilco among others, these guys have their own distinct take on Americana. They also deal with issues of Christian faith, and take delight in Biblical allusions and themes. “Oh God, Let Me Back In,” a meditation and prayer of repentance, is particularly moving.

 Quit While You’re Ahead

9. Various Artists: Songs Of Defiance – Music Of Chechnya And The North Caucasus: This is, so far as I know, the only currently available recording of Chechnyan traditional music out there. According to a write-up in the Times, it was actually recorded outside of Chechnya, due to the less than ideal conditions inside the region at present. The producer instead looked up Chechnyan artists scattered around Russia and the Caucasus region to give a sampling of traditional music from the troubled break-away province. The results are wonderful. The most sublime tracks on the album are delivered by Cherim Nakhushev who sings with an incredibly emotional, plaintive voice that sent chills down my back the first time I listened to him.

10. Wilco: Sky Blue Sky: Not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, to be sure, but still quite good, and still Wilco, just with less static and weird noise. Instead, Jeff Tweedy keeps the raspy vocals and throws in some introspective, mellow ballads, but lets in a lot more sunshine and bright guitars and general happiness. The songs are certainly simpler, both lyrically and musically, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is the sort of album you want to have playing on a summer day while driving with the windows down.

What Light

These days it is pretty much cliché to write about the decline of literacy. However, while there are counterpoints to the argument, the cliché exists because literacy really is on the decline, and has been for some time- though the extent of that decline and its implications are still open to debate. Likewise, it is cliché to talk about the debilitating impact of television on literacy, and intelligence overall: but here also the cliché is grounded in reality. Caleb Crain examines the much-vaunted decline of literacy, and, most interestingly, discusses how literate reading influences the way we think and act, in his article in the New Yorker, Twilight of the Books. The article turns quite depressing at the end, as Crain contemplates a post-literate world:

And he may have even more trouble than Luria’s peasants in seeing himself as others do. After all, there is no one looking back at the television viewer. He is alone, though he, and his brain, may be too distracted to notice it. The reader is also alone, but the N.E.A. reports that readers are more likely than non-readers to play sports, exercise, visit art museums, attend theatre, paint, go to music events, take photographs, and volunteer. Proficient readers are also more likely to vote. Perhaps readers venture so readily outside because what they experience in solitude gives them confidence. Perhaps reading is a prototype of independence. No matter how much one worships an author, Proust wrote, “all he can do is give us desires.” Reading somehow gives us the boldness to act on them. Such a habit might be quite dangerous for a democracy to lose.

I might add that a loss in literacy is not only dangerous for democracy- it is dangerous and destructive for human culture as a whole. Reading is an engaging activity: it demands that the reader employ his imagination and rational thought in constructing the images given by the words and arranging the arguments presented. The literary world is one open to the reader for examination, for digestion, for expansion. Good literature will not only engage the reader in the text itself: rather, it will compel the reader to act on her own. Good literature inspires, in the true meaning of the word, further creative activity as the reader goes out from the text with new visions, ideas, and a sharpened intellect.

Craig mentions the possibility that the internet will continue literacy, but notes that the increasing preponderance of streaming media- a la YouTube- is seriously undercutting that possibility. Besides this, while I obviously enjoy the internet and think it a valuable asset for a literate culture, it simply is not a replacement for more traditional forms of literacy. Serious digestion of involved arguments and ideas is considerably more difficult via a computer- if only because reading a screen is- to me anyway- much more wearisome than reading printed text. But more importantly, the ease of access that the internet entails also means that the reader’s attention is more easily distracted, and less able to focus upon a single narrative structure or protracted line of argument. The internet serves many useful purposes, but I doubt that even in its text-based, “traditional” form it can replace the written, published text.

At any rate, I plan on being a part of the “reading caste” for as long as my eyes can make out the text on the page, and I will continue to purchase books- including those ridiculously long nineteenth century British novels- as long as they’re sold. Which reminds me of one advantage of being a reader: books- quite good books- can still be had very cheaply, much more cheaply than cable or satellite or a ticket to the cinema- an advantage of increasing importance in an economy of ever-rising prices. Reading is a cheap hobby, but the payoff (excuse my elementary-school teacher cliché-ness!) is immense.

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
-Those dying generations- at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

William Butler Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium

The sparse, often un-nervingly silent landscape of the Coen brother’s latest film, No Country For Old Men, is- as others have already properly noted- truly no country for old men- or for any man, in fact. From the desolate wind-swept panaromas of the West Texas borderlands at the opening of the film to the equally desolate panaromas of human depravity and violence, the Coen brothers present an unflagging and unsparing examination of just how dark human hearts can become, and just how dark and hopeless the world can appear to those caught in the ensuing maelstrom. The result is a gorgeous, unsettling and provoking film that has rightly earned considerable praise and consideration as of late. The cinematography is magnificent, the acting top-notch, but most importantly, the film has something to say, and what it has to say is worth listening to and thinking about.

Before I examine (some) aspects of the film in further detail, I must warn against spoilers- if you haven’t seen the film but intend to, you’d best not read further.

The film is set physically in 1980’s West Texas, at the border with Mexico. The border runs through the film, though more as background and plot device than as a central symbol (as it is in another movie featuring a West Texan Tommy Lee Jones, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). The central landscape of the film, however, is the morally desolate country that lies like a cloud upon every part of the film’s physical landscape. The two landscapes- the spiritual and the physical- blend into each other, such as when Llewynn Moss peers through his binoculars at the circled pick-ups and prostrate bodies. The circled pick-up trucks, the drug job gone bad, also opens up another important symbol: the evil and the violent operating upon each other, and spilling out into the entire world around. No one is safe in this country. The highways, the arteries of any modern nation, are pervaded by the killer Anton Chigurgh, who moves like a disease from one automobile to another, sending the rejected host up in flames.

Yet Chigurgh is not an anomaly; he does not represent an exception. He is only the apex, the ubermensch who has emerged from the nexus of violence and evil, wielding his own inner logic and rationality as singular as his physical weapon, yet clearly related to the broader, chaotic and violent landscape he is a part of. While he seeks to create his own world, having rejected all other systems, he is not immune to the world- perhaps some small measure of hope. Moss wounds him with his shotgun, and he is badly injured in the startlingly random car-crash. He too is, ultimately, a part of the same “dying generation” as the rest. As a symbol, Chigurgh stands for death, death not as a pseudo-spiritual “part of life,” but death as the result of the Fall, death with all its satanic, destructive overtones lended to it in Christian theology. Indeed, Chigurgh as symbol-of-death is a very apt demonstration of what is meant by death being “the enemy.” Evil is not, as we would like to believe, merely some entirely random, unpersonalized force “out there.” Rather, evil- while truly chaotic and random- has its own internal illogical logic, its own irrational rationality, and is extremely personal, even while ultimately destructive of personality. Hence Chigurgh has no real purpose beyond his drive to destroy, to be the will-to-power for the sake of that power and nothing more. He does not care about money, or drugs, or sex, or any of those things. He has principles, but they are self-created principles.

Herein lies another reality that we moderns (or postmoderns rather) are uncomfortable with: Chigurgh is not evil because of drugs or money or guns, as a fellow law officer suggests to Sheriff Bell. Certainly, he reflects and embodies the violent world he is a part of, but the suggested things do not drive him, and are not the “cause” of his evil. They are the external manifestations of internal realities.

Chigurgh- and by extension death, evil, and the whole destructive environment- can be opposed. Yet none of the film’s characters succeed in opposing him, not ultimately. Moss is weighted by his greed for wealth and his own hubris, caught in the “sensual music” for the most part. Having become caught in the self-devouring world of violence, he must ultimately subcomb to it- not by Chigurgh’s hand, but in a sudden, off-screen act of violence delivered by nameless characters. The well-meaning and insightful sheriff is ultimately out-matched and concedes defeat, retreats.

Indeed, the symbols of decency- Sheriff Bell, the various elderly victims of Chigurgh, and Moss’s wife- are unable to stem the tide of evil. They are either oblivious to the dark world around them, or they are unable to find the means to confront it. Instead, the country is pervaded by drug-runners and the violence that swirls around them, respecting no borders at all. The two groups of young men in the film- the suggested heirs of the country in Yeat’s poem- are perhaps the saddest figures in the film. They are at once oblivious to the extent of the violent chaos around them, yet self-absorbed and nearly amoral. They stand staring at the destruction, responsive only to pleasure. The two boys who assist Chigurgh have some level of decency left in them, yet it is obvious (more so in the book) that they too are self-absorbed, a part of the amoral landscape.

If we are left with what is ultimately an uninhabitable country, is there any hope? The film only offers glimpse and slight possibilities- nothing to give any great motivation. However, the pervading theme- the brute strength of evil, and the seemingly insurmountable difficulty faced in confronting it- should serve as a reminder that indeed, no man can truly vanquish evil. We require, not the wise old sage (as valuable as he may be), or a postmodern antihero, but a New Man Who can fully defeat that very old enemy Death, in all its manifestations and across all countries.

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