Tuesday, January 10, 2012

My blog has moved!

Blogspot just wasn't offering me the creative control I wanted... Now my posts will be displayed as a gallery format, rather than as one super long list. Please check it out below!


If you liked this one at all, I hope you'll think the new one is better. And it's going to feature Dublin study abroad details! Become a follower if you want updates when I post/make me feel better about putting creativestuffs on the web. Thanks for checking it out!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


This is how my semester abroad in Dublin starts: 10 hours in the Newark airport.  Gate C125.  Seemingly miles of pewter blue vinyl-upholstered chairs stretch out on either side.  Time passes like a long film clip, all scrunched up into a few shots, the way you see the subways in some movies, people flowing in a blur of their most noticeable characteristics of denim shirts, wailing kids, droopy gauge earrings, fake tans.  Travelers have come in tidal swells for departures to Denver, Houston, and some other flight whose destination I didn't care to check.  You can see the New York skyline off in the distance, the Chrysler building gleaming in the afternoon shimmer.  Taunting.  Flying in to Newark only cemented the negative connotations I had associated with New Jersey.  Desolate cargo bays, freighters coughing up black smoke, schoolyards built on brown, dirty scrum, these otherworldy cargo cranes that stand solemnly, a hundred feet above the massive cookie-cutter housing districts.  As I write, I am actually watching drab little birds–maybe sparrows–fly around the gate, trying to poop on travelers waiting for their flight.  All along the windowsills are little mounds of dried and cracked bird poo.  And the accents aren't a joke–big guys in sweatsuits with gelled hair talking to their wives like their mouths are filled with marbles, laughs like old engines, trying to turn.  There's also the largest preponderance of Hassidic Jews I've ever seen–full suits, wide brimmed hats, and they appear to be speaking Yiddish.  Even their kids have cute earlocks already, bouncing as they run around the terminal.  I think there must be a convention.  Or maybe just a flight to Israel.  All the while, these birds are chirping, the mom bringing the little ones scraps of SmashBurger and Auntie Ann's.  The TV drones, showing me various politicians, all vowing to the evils of taxes and immigration laws.  They tell me that all of this will change soon.  Mass applause.

Yet my plane to Europe boards in three hours.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas from Gail Louise Schmidt in 1950!

It's December 25th! Merry Christmas! Hope family time is swell and all.  What a great time of year–relaxation, reflection, love for fellow humans, and obviously oodles of loot.  But as we all celebrate good times and a good year, I wanted to post this absolutely incredible piece of heartwarming, tearjerking Americana.  I found these in a dresser that I picked up at an estate sale this summer (they were hiding under the paper lining in the drawers!)  This is the holiday calendar and a note to Santa that a young girl, Gail Louise Schmidt, wrote in 1950!  This is the real deal–read the letter if you can, it's totally worth it. Doubt she ever thought her holiday calendar would end up here, let alone now.

62 years later and I think we can still learn a lot from a wonderfully endearing girl. Happy holidays!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Alone, Among

Preface: this is an essay about our culture, and our generation.  Its long, I know.  I think about this stuff a lot, and you might notice that a few of the moments in the essay have been touched upon by my first two posts–but this is a far more comprehensive look at the changes underfoot, and what the hell they might mean.  If you are interested in my tact, please stay with it, there's sort of a fundamental switch that happens later in the piece that perhaps serve to inform our moment.  We've got no choice but to be critical of our moment.  If we neglect that, we're blind.  The artwork which propagates the essay is by Leif Podhajsky, who's a really interesting current artist, and I included it so you have pretty things to look at, but also because there might be some kind of dialogue available between the images and the ideas presented.  In the name of not having a homepage that's enormous, there's a read more link that takes you to the rest of the essay.  If you end up reading it–thanks.

Alone, Among:
How the Web Has Rewritten the Rules of Society, History, and the Self
It is late in the year 2011. It is in this moment, this late inchoate cultural age, that demarcations between producer and consumer have blurred; we find ourselves steeped in a milieu of products and services aimed at a newly formed ineluctable need to share, to become through our sharing. If this appears an oblique statement, let me clarify: we have been sublimated, ourselves, as products of a digital climate which envelops many prominent and far flung reaches of societal engagement, the pulse of which depends on users who develop this need to share. This is a new digital construct which involves an essential social aspect of the web has become known as web 2.0. This summer, the United Nations declared internet access a “human right.” How has a technological construct reached such prominence in less than two decades to be deemed a human right? In 2004, sociologist Mark Poster laid his finger on the portentous uncertainty of this new state, asserting that “we are within something that is huge and perplexing, something that engulfs all cultures and standpoints, providing perches of epistemological privilege to no one.” The scope of this new technology is baffling–yet a blind capitulation in the name of its dazzling opulence will only exacerbate the obfuscating qualities of its composition. I attempt, as every member of this ultramodern society must, to make sense of the changes afoot within our current culture, and the products it produces–namely, us.

The proliferation over the last decade or so of ever-more sophisticated search engines, and the widespread dissemination and embracement of social media outlets has fundamentally altered the ways in which we engage with creative material. We have become prisoners to it, a chaingang of supplicants. It is a complex social system in which power relations appear warped to the user. Herbert Marcuse, who was extremely wary of falling into familiar, easy cultural practice notes in One Dimensional Man that “the power over man which this society has acquired is daily absolved by its efficacy and productiveness.” He implicates a structure which breeds complacent ignorance. The governing society’s “supreme promise is an ever-more-comfortable life for an ever-growing number of people who, in a strict sense, cannot imagine a qualitatively different universe of discourse and action, for the capacity to contain and manipulate subversive imagination and effort is an integral part of the given society.”

It would certainly seem as if no one desires a radical change in the trend: the internet’s presence has become ubiquitous through widespread dissemination of, and clamor for, powerful gadgetry which allows users to incorporate digital portals into all aspects of everyday life. Paper is out–the fiendish dedication with which the users of these technologies check their email, read the news, update themselves on the “statuses” and on-line social happenings cannot be supported by physical media any longer. It seems unthinkable that there won’t be a place for the paper novel, the birthday card, the holiday family photo–but these forms will become progressively more outmoded and quaint. It seems there is no other alternative: the disintegration of the print newspaper is inevitable, the social media giant Facebook recently passed the 500 million user mark, and CD sales have plummeted astronomically while YouTube videos boast over 600 million views. These all represent basic changes which are occurring–namely the celebration of sharing, of group taste and hyperbolic consumption. In Donna Haraway’s seminal “Cyborg Manifesto” of 1985, she asserted that by the “mythic time” of "the late twentieth century... we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism." It certainly seems as if Haraway was on to something. Users of the web sink large amounts of time feeding this machine–the more you dedicate yourself through sharing to this social industry, the more you receive in return.

Tech companies love this change. Their products and services allow us to connect and share at all hours, and with incredible ease. But yet this seemingly friendly offer has subtle thorns: the means of production have been laid into the hands of the masses, yet those producers have no ownership or rights to their creative efforts. The vast predominance of user-generated content has no economic benefit for it’s creators–yet this free labor is channeled by a small number of entrepreneurial arbiters who use user-donated content to effectively determine the deployment of adspace, who herd us to more content generating hubs, who hold the keys to economic opportunity on the web. But if it’s such an exploitive system, why do we busy ourselves with the frantic sharing? For one, the social syndicates like facebook and twitter, and to a lesser extent, sites like tumblr, YouTube, and blogspot, are so pervasive that a rejection of them seems commensurate to a rejection of society itself. But even more so, the sites implicitly restructure our social life and identity in the manner of our online transactions of self: we become self-conscious of our identity as a purposed construct, while continually being offered more effective ways to manage our online emblem. We are allowed certain manifestations of “expression;” our favorite bands, movies, websites comprise our character; the “profile picture” becomes our static placard, an online avatar of our physical selves. Add-ons encourage users to display their music listening statistics, their rank among all other users in games, challenges, mini-competitions. We are allowed–encouraged, even–to engage with each other as brands, mere objects of taste. It seems tempting to trumpet Haraway’s grim sentiment, that “our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”

Yet the users of the internet are not inert. Not in the way one might describe a TV watcher–the users provide the material in this system. Videos flood sites like YouTube which are comprised of simply one person, speaking into their computer’s webcam (disturbingly attached as a cyclopean eye), describing everyday minutia, voicing their opinion, reviewing a game–always bathed in the pearly cerulean blue glow which their laptop emits. The resulting video has no physical properties, it exists simply as code which corresponds to a specific arrangement of light particles, accessible from anywhere. All around the world, other users are able to view this video, they themselves awash in the same light, the screen serving as a virtual valence, a vacuous portal through which users are able to summon any various setting. The experience of sifting through the internet can be described as interacting with a planar web. The virtual world is just that–virtual, existing only in abstract terms until we decide to interact with it. It doesn’t live on our computers, it floats above in static potential. When we are faced with a ‘page,’ it appears to us as a unique plane which has been brought before our eyes and dominates the monitor; within this plane live ‘links,’ pathways to other pages which exist only as abstract concepts until we click on the link, and our monitor swiftly replaces our current plane with a new one. Fundamentally, the web cannot exist in its totality for the user, but only as individual, unique planes which are woven into the web’s spanning fabric.
The experience of the digital world is a fundamentally individual one–only one person can be at the helm, controlling moves from page to page, marshalling any amount of content before their eyes. We have been indoctrinated subtly into a new dialectic of private and public spheres; user content is privately produced, publicly shared, and privately consumed. As the perceptive social critic Walter Benjamin demonstrates, there lives an eternal quality in consumers which in the contemporary age has been given resources beyond conception, but which has existed since mass culture began its tumultuous flux. Benjamin describes a “desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.” This appears to our present condition as divine prescience, yet it is only a testament to culture’s unwavering dedication to these principles. With current levels of ephemeral as well as artistic consumption, the user can be perpetually faced with newness. Yet, because it is always new, it becomes the same, although this is not consciously acknowledged by the user. In this manner, we cannot be defined as true consumers–as the user only requires to engage with the pleasurable baseline of mental activity, we have become grazers, lifelessly loping through the web. One only needs to regard the numbed facial expression of a user in a state of grazing to observe this.

But this cannot be the sum total of the effect of social media and other web 2.0 fundaments have on our lives–certainly there is massive potential unleashed by these services. The dynamic and explosive life of the hive mind, a reinvention of social relations at a previously undreamt level of connectedness, ads targeted specifically for our interests, the ability to connect and structure disparate cultures and ideas: these are effects too. For our contribution of content, we are not compensated monetarily: rather, we are bolstered with a more concrete conception of self, one which is measurable in how many friends you have, how many times your content has been shared, how many photos you have, how many likes, thumbs-ups, stars, +1’s your submissions receive. But this sense of self is fragmented, and grounded in unsubstantial measures. These sites are social scaffolding, foisting the cultural composition upon users as a method to establish a digital identity–yet our constant offerings to the surfeit confound a coherent sense of ourselves. We evaporate time away, sifting through forgettable chunks of ephemera, surrounded by thoughts and opinions drained of true purpose, and we fail to perform any useful synthesis. In this informational deluge, there is no impetus for synthesis: users are allowed to perpetually digest new, but inherently empty, content. Consumerism has reached its apogee in this age. Though perhaps this is not the only age charged with making sense of pervading content: Aldous Huxley writes in 1934 “in all the arts the output of trash is both absolutely and relatively greater than it was in the past; and that it must remain greater for just so long as the world continues to consume the present inordinate quantities of reading-matter, seeing-matter, and hearing-matter.”
We have constructed for ourselves today a digital metropolis–a functioning and independent society within the larger, physical one, a metametropolis. In the metametropolis, societal rules are rewritten. Users of any social class have access to all the same public services and opportunities for creative production, and no one is held accountable for where they go when they’re inside the web–agency is offered through secrecy. Though unavoidable social forums such as facebook require accountability, many sites allow your presence to remain anonymous–which explains the incredible selection of crassly unmediated comments on videos or blogs, or any other such forum. The strict emphasis on political-correctness and tact which exists in mainstream culture causes a violent backlash in the metametropolis–a site of a cultural rejection possible only through a wholesale acceptance of the new culture’s costs and benefits. Poster notes this change as well, outlining certain changes as a result of this new digital society: “At every point of human life old lines of division–systems of order, relations of signification, hierarchies of value and power–are palpably beginning to crumble.” This is not to say that this crumbling is good or bad; for a Marxist critic, the delineation of clear lines of class in the digital sphere pacifies the striving class, giving the illusion that real, palatable forms of oppression do not exist anymore if you live in the internet.