Monday, 30 November 2009

Feeling listless? If only...

As the year draws to an end, so polls of the "best" albums, films, books etc. of the last twelve months appear in newspapers and magazines; as the decade draws to an end (allegedly), so polls of the "best" albums, films, books etc. of the last ten years appear in newspapers and magazines. These are disparagingly but inaccurately called "lists", presumably by those who think that election results are just meaningless itemizations of random people's names. Such critics' polls are especially common in those cultural forms where academia hold little sway, like rock and pop, or where consumer opinion is noisily heard, like film: you don't get many polls about the "best" Greek tragedies or Victorian poems. Consequently, the results are to a certain extent canon-making, in the absence of professionals thought to possess the socio-cultural capital (the authorityl) to create them. The recurring "best albums of all time" polls found in the NME, Rolling Stone, Q etc have wound up by establishing a sense that certain texts - Revolver, Astral Weeks, etc. - are of an exceptional quality regardless of how many copies they sell or what the punters may think.

Texts of the year polls, on the other hand, come too early to be worthwhile. The NME chose "Heroes" as its album of the year in 1977, a verdict surely nobody would today wish to endorse (even Bowie). On the other hand, they sum up a mood among critics, which has a certain interest in itself. The fact that in 1989 the NME plumped for De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising, although four years later they chose the first Stone Roses album as the greatest of all time let alone of the year of its release, reminds me of the critical popularity at the end of the 80s of postmodernist theories of pastiche and intertextuality, and therefore the modishness of sampling. It brings back an era, regardless of whether it's "true" or not.

So what have I learned from the current glut of lists, sorry, polls?

(1) That the transformation of American and consequently world popular cinema into a form of children's entertainment continues apace, and that although some of its manifestations are cynically sterile (Transformers 2: etc etc), many of them are brilliantly original (Up, Fantastic Mr Fox. I expect that the Christmas Radio Times which will be out in a fortnight will be packed to the rafters again with "children's films". What these have replaced is not, as some drearily and disingenuously moan, towering works of film art like 2001 and Taxi Driver; instead, they have superseded earlier forms of popular entertainment. Thirty years ago the Christmas Radio Times was a litany of MGM musicals, 1930s slapstick comedies, and war movies. Some of these were brilliantly original too, but tastes change.

(2) That the rock/pop album is dead. The results of the various albums of the decade polls that I've seen have been truly pitiful. Kid A, a very good record that pales in comparison with its predecessor in Radiohead's oeuvre, as the best album of the past 3600 days? Or The Streets, the only artist in the history of rock to provide its own devastasting parody at the same time and in the same place as its music? Some ancient rocker, I forget who, once complained that critics were so lazy that, were they to review a record called "I'm Completely Crap", they would just write "You said it, mate" even if it sounded like "Good Vibrations". Bearing this in mind I don't quite know how to respond to the fact that NME chose Is This It? as the best long-player of the noughties. Is that it? (Sorry.) That slab of diet Coke Marquee Mooning? The best we can come up with? You might as well have listed the "best" music hall artists of the decade. The point is, of course, that a poll of the best downloads would yield far more impressive results, since that is now the format in which rock and pop achievement comes.

(3) That TV drama and comedy has been, across the decade, of an extraordinarily high standard. They have, I think, culturally outpaced their film equivalents. The advent of "box-setting", whereby TV shows are written and structured largely with a view to being watched at home in a self-scheduled and intensive run analagous to the reading of a novel, has vastly improved these genres, especially American drama. This is important to note, because just switching on your set every night and flicking through the channels you can get the impression (a) that TV is crap, and (b) that TV is nothing but wall to wall docusoaps, reality TV, and futile "challenges". The point is, of course (to repeat myself) that box-setting takes shows outside the economy of television: they're deprived or freed of the advertising that bankrolled them. Fantastic for the viewer, tough on the networks.

(4) Somebody writing on Wikipedia called my "The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond" an "entirely pessimistic" take on 2000s culture. Since writing it in 2006, I've come to the conclusion that my negativity about the quality of contemporary culture owed too much to a backward-looking conventionality (the same that causes critics to cling to notions of "best albums"). The real achievement of the decade hasn't been the appearance of great works in established formats so much as the emergence of new formats of expression. I shouldn't therefore have been looking so much for terrific new novels, plays, films etc., as exploring the new kind of textuality that has emerged. If I were invited on to a show discussing the drift of culture in the 2000s that's what I would emphasize: the extraordinary flowering of new avenues and economies of expression, rather than sensational new instances within long-established forms.

Mea culpa? Yes, all right; but 2006 was, in digimodernist terms, a very very long time ago.

Monday, 23 November 2009

A Mysterious Affair of Style (with apologies to Gilbert Adair)

I decided to write Digimodernism in a very particular style, and alluded to this in the Introduction, where I wrote:

I’ve tried to address here a hybrid audience, and for an important reason: on one side, it seemed hardly worth discussing such a near-universal issue without trying to reach out to the general reader; on the other, it seemed equally pointless to analyze such a complex, multifaceted and shifting phenomenon without a level of scholarly precision. Whatever the result may be, this approach is justified, even necessitated, by the status and nature of the theme.

With this in mind, I tried to phrase my points as if writing for two kinds of people: academic specialists on the one hand and the intelligent general reader on the other. So I looked for interesting ways into subjects, and tried to maximise references to actual cultural examples and to minimize allusions to theorists. At the same time, I also aimed to be as judicious, exact and analytical as possible. There's an obvious danger in such a double-barrelled approach, which is that you wind up pleasing no one: the general reader finds it too offputtingly abstract and rarefied, and the specialist finds it shallow and argumentative.

There was, however, an ulterior motive at work behind my choice of style. One of the few books I talked about at length was Terry Eagleton's After Theory, and while I was fairly critical of its intellectual content, I felt that its style suggested the possible emergence of a new approach to writing about cultural issues. If it was true that postmodernism was over, what would become of the jargon-clogged prose most wonderfully (ahem) exemplified by Homi Bhabha? It was already no longer possible to believe, as the likes of Gayatri Spivak seem once to have imagined, that world justice and liberty could be measurably advanced by a better critique of Heart of Darkness. If cultural criticism's day of messianic delusion was over, so surely was its use of jargon for its own sake.

This is not to be confused with populism. Philosophy and cultural analysis should be hard to understand if they are to have any sophistication to them. People who jeer at the prose of theorists have usually never tried to read any other philosophy; you can in truth only mock Derrida's style if you can honestly say that you have worked through the Critique of Pure Reason and you find it more lucid. A friend of mine who works as a postdoctoral researcher in genetics recently showed me a paper he had contributed to; its title composed 7 or 8 words, of which I knew only "the" and "of". Why then should abstract reasoning, thought about thought, be simple to understand?

[As postmodernism has been the dominant theoretical trend for several decades now, and its influence has crossed many disciplines, it tends frequently to be the only form of abstract thought people are familiar with. Consequently, it is often confused with philosophy itself, as witness complaints about how tough it is to understand. Another instance of this is when people describe postmodernism as casting doubt on all our systems of thought and values. No; it's philosophy that does that; and postmodernism is a form of philosophy (among much else).]

What I mean is slightly different: it is an abandonment of deliberate obfuscation. My objective was to write prose that was precisely as difficult as its subject matter. It is to my mind shameful that there are today academics writing no more than criticism of novels in prose that is harder to grasp than the philosophical writings of Wittgenstein; the chances that the former are saying something more profound or original than the latter are zero. This may be partially attributable to the popularity on campus of French-language theorists, whose writings translate uneasily into English: Freud and Nietzsche are far easier to read (though not necessarily to understand) than Lacan and Derrida. But this should not be overstated: some French theorists, like Foucault and Barthes, are very lucid indeed, The Postmodern Condition is a very accessible text, and most of Baudrillard is, though peculiarly expressed, not actually that difficult to figure out. The real demon is the Anglo-American academic who wants to work with this stuff but lacks the intellectual equipment or training to get inside it. S/he therefore dons its outward form, its linguistic "noise", which shrouds an absence of any real philosophical engagement.

There are issues too regarding deliberate obfuscation, which I don't want to talk about for now, that relate to the role and place of the university in the digimodernist society. These are socio-economic and political questions, too.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Electric Literature

Yet more news of digimodernism in literature. Why so much recently? Maybe because literature has hitherto been so far behind the digimodernist game. There were digimodernist films (well, one anyway) in 1993 already. Two New Yorkers have created Electric Literature, a fascinating and entirely positive venture. This comes from their website:

Electric Literature’s mission is to use new media and innovative distribution to return the short story to a place of prominence in popular culture.

As A.O. Scott wrote recently in the New York Times:
The blog post and the tweet may be ephemeral... but the culture in which they thrive is fed by a craving for more narrative.”
Fiction transports us. It uniquely captures the experience of human consciousness like no other art form, revealing underlying truth and opening us to life’s possibilities. Like any creative act, writing fiction carries within it an implicit belief in the future. Electric Literature was created by people who believe in the future of writing.

We're tired of hearing that literary fiction is doomed. Everywhere we look, people are reading—whether it be paperbooks, eBooks, blogs, tweets, or text messages. So, before we write the epitaph for the literary age, we thought, let’s try it this way first: select stories with a strong voice that capture our readers and lead them somewhere exciting, unexpected, and meaningful. Publish everywhere, every way: paperbacks, Kindles, iPhones, eBooks, and audiobooks. Make it inexpensive and accessible. Streamline it: just five great stories in each issue. Be entertaining without sacrificing depth. In short, create the thing we wish existed.

Here's how our model works: To publish the paperback version of Electric Literature, we use print-on-demand; the eBook, Kindle, iPhone, and audio versions are digital. This eliminates our up-front printing bill. Rather than paying $5,000 to one printer, we pay $1,000 to five writers, ensuring that our writers are paid fairly. Our anthology is available anywhere in the world, overruns aren’t pulped, and our back issues are perpetually in print. We hope that this model can set a precedent: more access for readers, and fairness for writers.

Publishing is going through a revolution. There's opportunity and danger. The danger lies in ignoring or resisting the transformation in media. New platforms present an opportunity to adapt. We believe the short story is particularly well-suited to our hectic age, and certainly for digital devices. A quick, satisfying read can be welcome anywhere, and while you might forget a book, you’ll always have your phone.

To us, literature is what is important, not the medium. If eBooks, Kindles, or iPhone apps help literature survive, then we’re all for them.

People of our generation—with one foot in the past and one in the future—must make sure that the media gap is bridged in a way that preserves and honors literature. We don’t want to be sentimental old folks in a world where literary fiction is only read by an esoteric few.
Andy Hunter & Scott LindenbaumEditors