Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The never-ending cycle of consumerism

The urge to purchase non-essential items stems from an urge to better one's self, mainly by altering or reinventing one's persona. The cycle goes like this:

Seeing an item -> Picturing one's self with the item -> applying the associations of the item to the context of your own life -> evaluating whether these associations could be attainable -> purchasing the item with the view of changing one's character -> trying out these new associations for the first time and, to a degree, believing it has worked -> after a while, the new item becomes commonplace -> human nature and a strongly conditioned, pre-existing personality comes back, overriding the influence of the new item -> the search for a newer item begins, the customer starts looking for an item with associations strong enough to override human nature and break the cycle -> the cycle begins again, identical every time.

The most important part of this cycle is the associations drawn between items and people. The media is the all encompassing associative tool and these associations are far more important than the functionality or quality of the item in itself.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Hyperunreality: the paradox of bad acting

"The conduct of man [...] changed into mere mechanism, where, as in a puppet show, everything would gesticulate well, but no life would be found in the figures" - Kant

This quote found in Kant's Critique of Practical Reason, even though it is describing the change which would take place if the Thing in-itself were to be discovered (as interpreted by Zizek in The Parallax View p. 22), could be applied to the strange phenomenon of bad acting.

Hyperreality, where the thing appears more real than real, because of some standards set by an outside representation of the thing in the past, meets its opposite with hyperunreality. I would say that hyperunreality can be applied perfectly to bad acting:

Acting out something which is unreal in a way which seems unreal by the standards of acting. A total and utter destruction of the suspension of reality. The believability of bad acting is a strange paradox, considering that a viewer of a fictitious television show, film or play is conscious of the fourth wall. When actors are overacting and emphasising and gesticulating more than they would in real life, the audience and the actors know something is wrong. The paradox lies in the fact that the actors are acting out something they don't feel, and the reason they are acting it out badly is the fact that they don't feel it. If they were to feel it, it would not be acting as much as reacting, so the good actor is one who can pretend they are feeling something without the emotion behind it?

Good acting, in my eyes, constitutes hyperreality. Especially in the mass media. Reactions to things are, again, paradoxically, stronger and more real than real life. When we are faced with the reactions of those around us, which are true and genuine reactions, we may feel underwhelmed by the fact that they are not as strong, luminous and emotive as those we have seen on the big screen. In fact, if you have never seen someone in real life act out a certain emotion or mindstate, hyperreality (or hyperunreality, depending on the circumstances) will come in to play. Standards of real life will be judged against the standards of the total and utter fantasy. As society relies more on media to 'feel things', the line between fantasy emotion and real emotion will either blur or turn into a gap, as we are no longer sure we are feeling the right things or when we judge our own feelings on the performances of those who are just acting - whether the acting is good or not.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Art or entertainment? Pop songs of today, in the year 2300, treated as classical music of the past, in the year 2014.

This is a reaction, in part, to Alan McKee's essay, 'The power of art, the power of entertainment'. The essay which I'm about to talk about is available through Sage Publications, published in Media, Culture & Society 2013 35: 759 - the online version can be found here.

Before I read the whole essay, I read the title as it was printing. I took the printed essay with me to read on the train on the way to work. As I walked down the road, I was thinking about what the actual differences are between art and entertainment - what are their purposes, what are their essences?

Based on Adorno's assertion that art is not art if it makes you happy and that it is the philistine who enjoys art (since this is a blog post I will reserve the right to not have to reference that - it's harder than I imagined it would be), art and entertainment must be completely polarised. Adorno's view stems from his belief that cultural products, unless they are revolutionary are mere pacifiers. Depthless rubbish which only distracts you from how terrible life is.

Plato's theory of art, as demonstrated in The Republic, is that art is representation. Making the assumption now that the world around us is terribly depressing, as it was in the eyes of Adorno, art must represent a bleak and monstrous universe if it is to be art. This ties in with the Greek theory of mimesis, which judges art and poetry by how well it reflects the world around it.

With these points considered, is the realisation that the world around us is bad an entertaining one?

Maybe it doesn't actually matter about the product being consumed. Maybe it matters more about the form it comes in, or way it is consumed. Is there a difference between analysing art and visiting an art gallery? Art is a form, the gallery is a leisure activity - a day out. Shakespeare's plays were originally performed to a rowdy lower-class audience; now they are analysed by scholars who have taken the entertainment factor out of it, and turned it into art - something more to be analysed than to be absorbed without reaction - whether you enjoy analysing it as much as a TV watcher enjoys watching television, for example, (or are 'entertained' by it) is immaterial.
 I think the point not is whether something is entertaining to the individual or audience (considering that 'the audience is an abstract entity representing all consumers'), but that there are two separate categories: one for art, one for entertainment. These were created and have been perpetuated by two opposing camps: the academics and the media.

McKee starts by saying that 'art wants to change audiences; entertainment wants to be changed by audiences'. This is not entirely true. While art is personal self expression which has 'the power to raise you to a higher spiritual level', the agenda of the artist may not have actually been to change the audience. It might have just been plain and simple self expression.
 I would argue the other way round; not that art wants to change audiences, because in some cases it doesn't even care, but that entertainment wants to change audiences. While it needs some sort of starting point to base itself off, it is, in the end, mediated by capitalist gatekeepers. Marx says that in capitalism, the product precedes the need. The need is created by the existence of the product. Rick Roderick puts it a good way on of the lectures he did for The Teaching Company. He says something about how when companies invented the hula hoop, the whole nation didn't breathe an excited sigh of relief that their needs had been met, but in fact an entirely new need was created.
This is how entertainment works. Did people used to need reality TV shows? No, but now half of the TV listings is filled with them. They do work on the human desire to spy on the lives of others, for evaluation against our own life, but I'm sure that has always been available by just going outside.
Going back to Adorno, McKee says that '[entertainment] they argue, does not represent the masses. It is imposed on the masses by capitalist institutions that have the 'power' to control what is seen'.

 The boundary between art and entertainment is blurred in musical performances. McKee points out that 'in the creation of art, audiences must be silenced'. In the 19th-century, he says, audiences at classical music concerts 'stamped, hissed, whistled and groaned' until the orchestras played their favourite songs. Today, you are judged to be a better member of the audience at a classical concert the more you make it seem as if you are not there. Again, like Shakespeare, this is another shift, over time, between art and entertainment. What started off as a means to entertain a crowd has become a text to be picked apart. It seems that the era a text was produced in gives it more power in the fight to become classed as art instead of entertainment. Perhaps today's action films and popular music will, one day, be classed as art. Perhaps the audiences of 2300 AD will gather in a silent concert hall, waiting for a world acclaimed cyborgian cover band to perform a meticulously accurate representation of Miley Cyrus' Wrecking Ball, waiting until the piece is firmly over before a polite applause ripples through the hall and writers for new critical journals take notes on the quality of the piece to aid them with a lengthy write-up.

In response to McKee's view that it is binarised what shall be art and what shall be entertainment, I think that it is about the personal reading of the text. After all, it is the choice of the audience whether they analyse a text or not. It is a personal reaction to the text which determines whether you are elevated to a 'higher spiritual level' or whether your eyes glaze over and you forget where you are for the following ninety minutes. If you analyse an all-guns-blazing action film, it becomes art. If you walk around an art gallery and don't read any deeper than the surface, it becomes entertainment. Who knows which cultural relics of our time will reach unimaginable critical acclaim in 2300 AD?

Monday, March 31, 2014


When I was little, right before I'd go to sleep some nights, I would get stuck in a loop of images that would run over and over as I am perfectly awake and conscious of it happening. These images were sometimes a cat chasing a mouse round and round a garden shed, sometimes a grainy stick figure, trying to carry different punctuations marks on his/her shoulders, but unable to carry it very far.

One of the most memorable ones which put me in a terrifying trance when I was around twelve years old was when I imagined myself looking up at a castle, trying to see the very top of it, but as I looked, higher and higher, the castle wall was just getting taller and taller and I could never see the top of it. With my eyes closed, the camera in my mind was panning higher up the wall while I was shaking. It took a lot of effort to physically shake my body against a wall so I could wake up from the trance. These images were somehow silent and somehow not. The actions involved in the images (chasing, dropping full-stops) weren't making any sound, but there was a sort of roaring and hissing noise which sounded in my head, combined with a heightened sense to any noises going on around me, in the real world.

Today I'm getting the roaring and hissing noises, without being in bed, without being tired and without the images. As I type, my thoughts are very loud and there is a swirling shouting sort of noise which mirrors what I type on a delay. The strange part is that it came out of absolutely no-where; I used to be able to feel these states coming on, and sometimes even use them to feel like I was projecting out of my body and going places. At one point I closed my eyes and could actually imagine my body not existing at all and I thought that I was a little ball of consciousness, floating somewhere in the world.

Maybe, if anyone reads this, they could share something similar they have had in the past? Or share some insight into what triggers these feelings? Anyhow, even if no one wants to respond, maybe it's an interesting insight into the psychological things that go on.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Cliche: in soap operas and beyond

A strange topic, but I seem to remember observing that the dialogue in Coronation Street is constructed almost entirely out of cliches. I've seen similar programs since and this one seems to stand out. This could be explained with the Adornian theory about 'pre-digestion' which was originally applied to popular music, using the argument that it had all been heard before in such a way that the listener almost knew what was coming next. The familiarity of listening to the 'same song' over and over again is only a good feeling, Adorno says, because the listeners are too exhausted after work to pay attention to anything of any value. Considering the time-slot of Coronation Street, could this be true for this too? And possibly any mainstream television program showed after working hours.

Cliches are terms that actually need no concentration whatsoever to understand. They resist concentration by their meaningless passivity, which pushes the listener in the direction of simultaneously ignoring and acknowledging them, like a subconscious process of phrase recognition. Just like well-known musical phrases (the Nokia ring-tone, television theme tunes), cliches in speech are so familiar that they can be predicted, recognised and processed in a split second. This is the opposite to anything fresh, new and unexpected. The first time we experience anything we must force our brain to think in an entirely new way to understand it, for example the first line of Orwell's 1984 ('It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen').

Going further than cliched phrases in speech, many of the story arcs in Coronation Street are familiar. While it may not always be predictable who the father is, who set fire to something or who is sending hateful letters, it is still a time tested device, tapping into the pre-existing ideas which are employed to make sense of a storyline when it is presented to us. Nonlinear storylines, dream sequences, new characters, inventive camerawork, all of these things need to be 'digested' in a fresh way. In a way, by relying on predictability and simplicity, the writers are insulting the audience by not presenting them with more challenging material. The simple, self-resolving sequences of events, often ending in moral victory, are a dangerous way of pacifying the public. The more times that it is stated that good will triumph over evil and that events will resolve themselves simply, the more frustrating it will be when it turns out to be increasingly true that life is a complex story with hundreds of overlapping narratives. However, perhaps the freedom from these indecipherable story elements of life is what makes the simplified television plot so appealing?

The cliches used in popular television such as Coronation Street further establish themselves in the common pool of phrases used in speech, which will again permeate into scriptwriting in self-perpetuating nature. The thing is that cliches are embedded in our minds, masked as the true way of expressing something, when they are actually metaphorical. For example, hearing that the 'heavens opened' instead of 'it rained' is not  uncommon. First it was seen as a descriptive and perhaps poetic phrase, it has now become as common as a simple report that it rained. The dialectical relationship between these two technicalities of expression means that they are struggling against each other when the speaker is recounting, for example, the weather. Since time constraints don't allow speech to be ever so premeditated, the speaker will likely opt for the first term which comes to the forefront. At some point 'it's raining' will sound commonplace.

I'm not sure the criteria of a cliche, but watching 22 minutes of Coronation Street, I picked out a list which seemed to be cliched phrases - picking them out was a reversal of what normally happens when I hear them:

Last minute
With all my heart
On the way
I've done everything for you
Caught in the act
For the best
I'd better go
Taking it slowly
Over the road
Get rid of it
Getting her own back
No offence / none taken
Over before it began
Girl of your dreams
Thinking things through
We can make things work
These things take time
Clean break
Five minutes
Just for a bit
Going out of my head
Bored to death
Behind my back
Do you good
Save your own skin
Keeping me sweet
Check it out
You are a right misery-guts
Oh, charming
Don't be daft
Never been better
I opened up to you
You were using me
Sordid little affair
Buttering me up
On your back
Give over
We're square
I could kick myself

Of these, some of them were more interesting to analyse than others. Particularly the generalised time period of 'five minutes', which is used here as an overly specific interval. The widespread use of 'five minutes' as opposed to any other phrase denoting a short amount of time probably stems from the division of time on the clockface, or the human satisfaction of rounding things to the nearest five or ten. Saying 'four minutes' is regarded as odd. 'One second' was once a quasi-meaningful expression of a short time period, but lately that has become overused as well. The less cliched 'thirty seconds' seems to be an attempt to instill confidence in the person who you are making wait, by giving a time period which is actually realistic. It's unlikely someone would be able to accomplish much in one second; thirty, however is more reasonable.

Some of the sentence structures and ways the words are used could seem, to a modern audience to be archaic or at least dated. Two examples, 'get rid of it' and 'for the best' seem to be constructed in a pre-modern way, suggesting the cliches are slightly older than the rest. The impact of these phrases, since they are cliches, is deadened dramatically, despite the fact they are out of place with the structure of the rest of the sentences they are found in. Things would not be 'for the best' as much as they are 'the best option' or 'the most moral choice', but these phrases are not cliched (as far as I'm concerned), which makes them a less popular choice in everyday discourse.

As well as cliche in television scripting, it may also be worth mentioning a study, quite an old one now, conducted analysing the assumptions made from the name of television characters by John Sumser, entitled Not Just Any Tom, Dick or Harry: The Grammar of TV Names. Published by SAGE in 1992, it uses characters mostly from the hideously politically incorrect 1970s to reveal that script writers have racist and classist undertones which are successfully conveyed to the audience, who were able to guess the role of a character by their name alone. The questions included: 'Which of these characters might be rich?' I quote Sumser here when he says "virtually no one believed that Israel Sanchez, gardener and murder victim might be rich, but 24% mistakenly identified him as a criminal." That alone should speak volumes about the sinister results of the study. I wish I could scan it and upload it here, but I wouldn't want to get in trouble with SAGE and I'm sure it's available through their website.

As much as it is a danger that the media dilute language and perpetuate stereotypes in this way, it is we who are susceptible to it. Sumner's study was quite shocking because it shows that it's not just a handful of writers who hold prejudices on whole character based on name, but it is also picked up and interpreted 'correctly' by people, 20 years later! Similarly in the Coronation Street episode viewed, it was surprising how many cliched phrases are spoken in such a short period of time. Is this lazy writing or deliberate circumvention of the need for contemplation?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

ghosts and nostalgia

I was reading a piece by Janna Jones in Critical Studies (2001) which compared the perceived existence of ghosts with a postmodern need for mystery ('otherness') and an outlet for nostalgia in the age of hyper-visibility - where everything is instantaneously available, where science provides proof and the internet provides a huge source of information (this was my reading of the passage, anyway).

 Jones says that "telling ghost stories should not be confused with nostalgia, because nostalgia claims that the past does not persist in the present, and stories such as these surely suggest that the past and present are forever intermingled". This seems like an odd argument to make, considering that ghosts, by their very nature are less than fully realised. They are the essence of something, without the form. They are the echo of something, without the sound. Nostalgia, although its selective memory can be compared to a story, is also not fully realised. Ghosts are a reflection of the past and nostalgia is a yearning for it. A ghost in the mind as opposed to a ghost in the world.

In this way, ghost stories and nostalgia are almost identical. Their ends are different - one, to scare by reflection, the other to compare and contextualise by reflection. However, their means are the same. They both involve reflection because by their very nature they must be told or recounted in the past tense. Ghost stories work because they are fuelled by the threat that something from the past may still be with us today. This is a thrilling principle precisely because of how nostalgia works; nostalgia is based on something from the past which cannot be with us today. That is its very 'purpose'.

As for the postmodern hyper-visibility claim, it seems feasible because of the conditions under which ghosts appear. They cannot appear through media any more. Photo-editing software has become too adept at fakery for any rational being to believe that a ghost photograph is genuine, no matter how well it has been spoofed.  They can only appear in real life, in front of our very own eyes. Jones says about ghosts that "we may be tempted to lure them into the spotlight so we may relish them. But in the bright light, ghosts disappear, and all that remains are ghost stories".  My reading of the 'bright light' would be the all encompassing mass media which seeks to mystify and demystify ghosts. Ghost stories are all that is left because stories, traditionally are assumed to be fictional. The thrill comes from fiction crossing over into reality, exactly like nostalgia. Jones proves this point when talking about the Picture Palaces of the 1940s. She says:

the screening of a classic film and the theatre's structural design and atmosphere create a "sense of occasion" that encourages contemporary audiences to practice the behaviours of the picture palace patrons of the past [...] the Tampa Theatre audiences want more from the experience than seeing an old film - they want the feeling of being enveloped in a different time period. (Jones, p379)

The legacy of the Picture Palace runs on a 'public memory' which connects place to feeling because of pre-made assumptions about that place. When wrapped up in the experience with hundreds of other patrons, crowd psychology dictates that a nostalgia would come naturally. Ghost stories are, in fact, exactly the same as this. For one, (false) nostalgia is a feeling triggered by something which you have (or have not) experienced in a time which had some sort of essence which can no longer be captured. Nostalgia is a recounting of that essence in a mournful, half-smile of a way. Ghost stories are a definite false nostalgia. They are triggered by something from the past which you have (most likely) not experienced before. They produce a feeling of the essence of the times, the ghost being a culmination of the 'times' (e.g a Victorian ghost - you know exactly what they would be like from your own image of Victorian culture, whether that image is accurate or not, it is all the same to you). And those 'times', as it were, like nostalgia, come back (?) to haunt you and provoke a reaction. The reaction may be different, but there is certainly a thrill from both ghost stories and nostalgia.

Avery Gordon argues that hauntings, or belief in spirits, contests the belief that everything in this postmodern age can be explained as and reduced to a "mere sequence of sequence of instantaneous experiences that leave no trace" (p18). Ghosts are nothing more than a hyper-real manifestation of memory. More real than a memory because it has some earthly form. If people believed that life was just a 'total flow' (as Jameson would call it) of images which left no afterimage, nostalgia and memory would not exist or at least not be recognised to exist. The belief in spirits is an anti-materialist reaction to Nietzsche's God is Dead axiom. Science killed God, but what about memory? Memory still exists and can breach the walls of the mind to re-atomise at the edges of our consciousness in a poorly lit room. Is it our eyes playing tricks on us? If it is, it's only because we want them to, to be able to face up to the existential nihilism of postmodernity.



Jones, J. Consumed with the past: nostalgia, memory, and ghost encounters at the picture palace. Cultural Studies, Critical Methodologies. 2001. 1:369. Sage.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Muted afternoon glare through the window. Find myself an outlet on a moribund Saturday. I want to start saying something and I'm well aware less than two people will see it. Nothing will get me to write though, so I need something habitual and this can be it. I have ideas all the time which I forget or write down on paper, bundle into my pocket and then throw away because I can't be bothered to unfold them. So what makes me think I'll be bothered to update this? I probably won't, it could turn out to be one of those relics you find by mistyping, last updated 10 years ago. I always feel a profound sadness when I see it and I don't even know why. Maybe in this age of hypervisibility, when something stops 'responding' it's as good as dead. I spent this afternoon mourning blog graveyards I stumbled across, left behind as archives from the blogging craze a few years ago. Special moments occur when someone lapses out of the usual content of their blog and focusses on something deeply personal. It makes me glad that the internet keeps these things. What are people thinking deleting 5 years of blogged time? Very strange to me but I think I've done similar things in the past. People being too hard on themselves, seeing the change taking place in their own character and then being ashamed of the character they used to be. Delete that horrid blog full of 'artistic' pictures, that one's gone for a while now.

Echoes of doors being slammed in the other flat across the corridor. I actually can hear birds singing here which was something I never heard in Hackney. I did see a squirrel once in Bethnal Green, though. The quiet today is emotionally unsettling. Reading these posts from as far back as 2002 stirred something up inside me. I wouldn't mind having years of records of my thoughts. It might help me understand things better if I didn't keep forgetting things.