Archive for April, 2010

There’s an article in a recent NY Times about this diagram:

Slide of American Military Strategy in Afghanistan

It came from a PowerPoint presentation about the complexities of the American military strategy in Afghanistan. It’s safe to say that the slide, perhaps unintentionally and certainly unironically, certainly does portray complexity….

The article then went on to discuss the military’s current obsession with and recent dissatisfaction with Microsoft’s PowerPoint slide show software because it is unable to convey complexity, which results in boring or irrelevant presentations full of “dum dum bullets.” In short, people seem upset with the technology because it cannot convey the complexities of culture.

They are right. It can’t This only the latest part of a longer and more varied critique of PowerPoint, offered first by no less than Edward Tufte, the genius scholar who was talking about visualizations and the display of data before the rest of us even thought of tweeting.

To expect that technology would be able to solve this problem is to deeply and profoundly misunderstand technology and to project one’s own hopes onto a tool that is, of course, never going to be up to the task. Perhaps the military’s problems in Kabul are not the fault of PowerPoint, but the fault of cultural and political differences between people and nations. Blaming PowerPoint for failing to represent cultural complexities is like blaming a cookie cutter for failing to make cake.

Blaming the technology is far easier than trying to appreciate the complex powers of culture, and technology is rarely better equipped to solve problems than the folks who are putting operating it. And people of all kinds and on all sides of every conflict are notoriously difficult to represent in a set of slides, to capture in bullet points or diagrams, no matter how complex those diagrams become.


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Why did I pursue a graduate degree in American Studies?  When did I know I wanted to teach American Studies?  When did I even discover that I had a knack for American Studies?  Someone recently asked me these questions.  I’m used to getting the common “What the heck is American Studies?” question, but these inquiries were more personal.  I confess I had not thought deeply about them beyond my usual rote response, “Well, I always liked literature and history.”  I applied to graduate programs in American Studies when I was 27 years old, but surely I was developing some kind of disposition for American Studies years before that.  This post is my initial attempt to pinpoint stepping stones, the episodes that guided me in the direction of American Studies before I even knew what it was.  An American Studies mini-autobiography, if you will.

When I was a teenager I wrote several songs for my high school garage band about my two primary interests (fears?) at the time: romantic love and nuclear holocaust.  The songs typically involved me falling in love just as the world ended.  This may in part explain why I am still single, but my bigger point is this: as a songwriter, my instinct was always to integrate larger social and political issues into my lyrics and have them merge with the personal, to examine how the broader world could shape and impact everyday people.  Possible stage 1: The skinny, nerdy American Studies composer, synthesizing with his synthesizer.

In college I was an English major and I wrote my senior thesis on the influence of blues music on African American literature.  I didn’t really know about American Studies back then, but it just seemed natural to me to study literature by intersecting literary works with other cultural forms, contexts, and concerns.  I couldn’t read Ralph Ellison or Jean Toomer without turning my attention to the writings of Albert Murray, David Evans’s fantastic book Big Road Blues, and the musical recordings of blues and jazz artists.  Possible stage 2: The undergraduate American Studies bluesman, ever drawn to the crossroads.

In my mid-twenties, when I was a high school teacher, I read the book Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean and also saw the film several times.  I discussed both with friends, and wrote about both in my journal.  Ultimately the book and film caused me to change my position on the death penalty, from pro to anti.  The process of engaging with this material helped me better understand the power of culture, the ways in which culture and ideas can affect our worldview and shape our identity.  Possible stage 3: The politically evolving young man influenced by the cultural work of Sean Penn and a nun.

And one last touchstone, the likely precondition for all of the above stages: I am adopted.  My adopted parents, whom I love dearly, have no information about my biological parents.  The adoption was arranged through lawyers before I was even born.  I have no knowledge of my biological family tree, my ethnicity, my roots and long generational history.  Perhaps as a consequence of this I have always considered myself simply American, born into and of this culture from the very beginning.  A blank slate.  If American Studies seeks to understand identity—how it is constructed and inscribed, negotiated and redefined—then I suspect my love of the field is not unrelated to my own personal story and journey.

So how did I end up in American Studies?  I guess I can credit love, nuclear war, Ralph Ellison, the blues, Sean Penn, and an adoption in a Philadelphia hospital in 1970.

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I know, I’m hardly the first person to weigh in on the future of music, but I spent the weekend at the Experience Music Project‘s annual POP Conference (the short story: it was amazing, truly amazing), and it got me thinking…

Although the leitmotif of the conference (for me) was the role of the military in developing sound technology (from the telephone to the vocoder), perhaps a more significant shadow fell over the conference in the form of Robert Chrisgau‘s question from a panel on Saturday morning, “Where is the money?”

It’s the question on everybody’s mind — or at least the minds of anyone who cares about popular music. Declining record sales, shrinking record labels, digital downloading and so on have sent the industry into paroxysms of doubt, worry, and anxiety about the future.

So, here’s my question: is capitalism the future of music?

David Byrne's vision of the future of music

Here’s my proposition: no.

Maybe popular music ought to take a cue from the other avenues for the arts, and maybe the former “consumers” of popular music might do well to reconceptualize their role as “patrons of the arts” instead. Instead of buying albums, they should invest in art. This is not a pretense but a shift in thinking about the relationship between consumers, producers and the art that mediates that relationship.

Maybe record labels ought to take a cue from micro-loan funds and other art-related non-profits. If they’re not making any money in this racket, maybe they ought to simply cop to that and become proper not-for-profit ventures that appeals to members and contributions rather than customers.

It’s a thought, and maybe not even a good one, but the underlying assumption that popular music ought to be a commercial product first and foremost has clearly been exposed as an historical contingency — if not by sagging music sales, than by David Suisman’s fine book. And maybe the problem lies not in the mechanisms of music production and sales, but in the industry that created them.

Consider it the kickstarter model for popular music — and maybe if we start thinking of music as art, it just might occasionally rise to that level.

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A few weeks ago I reorganized my bedroom closet.  This alone may be worthy of a blogpost, but I won’t bore you with recounting the small joy that this task brought me.  What struck me about the process, from a cultural perspective, was the sheer volume of paper memories I found myself sorting through and reordering.  Ten photo albums.  Two file crates of stories and poems I wrote as a child and adolescent.  Four different memento boxes of written correspondence from friends, family, and former girlfriends dating from high school through the recent present.  A thick stack of letters from my grandmother, starting in college and continuing through her death in 1999.  A shoebox of love letters, another shoebox of random photographs, a pile of birthday cards.  All handwritten.  All saved.  All newly organized on a shelf in my closet.  All ready to be grabbed up in case of a fire.

I always imagined that I would re-read these letters someday on my porch sitting in my rocking chair when I was old and gray.  I would revisit the words, the thoughts, the feelings, the handwriting of people I know and love, of people I knew and loved.  But as I was organizing, I became painfully aware of a gap.  The collection had dwindled substantially over the past eight years, slowing to barely a drip of birthday cards and the occasional sweet letter sent by a former partner.  But essentially the paper trail dries up around 2002.  It noticeably dries up.  Why?  Because my correspondents and I stopped sending mail and instead used electronic means almost exclusively.

My question that day, surrounded by boxes on the floor and letters and photos strewn about my bed, was this: how will we organize, preserve, and retrieve our memories, our special moments, our correspondence, in the digital age?  We communicate via email, we post our digital photos on Flicker and Facebook, we text message quips and best wishes and intimate confessions.  But how many of these will be saved?  When we are old and gray, will we sit in rocking chairs and peruse our laptop, reread thousands of emails, and revisit texts stored on old cell phones?  And if so, will anything be lost?  Or gained?

Perhaps the age we live in has merely required us to be more selective.  To print out the few emails that mean something to us, file them away, and let the rest pass into the past.  On more than one occasion I’ve been accused of holding on too much to my personal history, as I’ve carted these memories around from apartment to apartment over the years.  Granted, I do.  But mail has meant something to me in a way email hasn’t.  Maybe it’s not the medium but the message that counts here.  Still, I think reading the handwriting of others invokes a certain kind of memory, connection, and closeness in us.  Do standard text fonts have the same power?  I suppose we’ll find out in the years to come.

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