Today I was talking to my sister (Happy Birthday, Chi!) and we were chatting about the crazy speed of new technology. How strange it is to collapse our life experience into a series of new devices and how they affected us, and then try to imagine what it is like to be born digital, with all this shiny stuff that has no historical context. As Peter Goldman said: “Between the twitterverse and the 24-hour cable news cycle our history keeps disappearing.” Now, everything is instantaneous, all knowledge is free, one-to-one communication is a such a waste of time… “duh! old timer, how can you be so passé.” This got me thinking about the impact of earlier communication technologies and what they were like in the popular culture before they were taken for granted. What was it like 100 years ago, when the telephone was first established as a fixture of modern life? In 1880, there had only been 108,000 telephones in use, by 1890 there were 467,000 telephones installed. Think of the rapid change as this newfangled device penetrated American society. 1900 600,000 (for 76,000,000 people) reaching 0.79% of the population 1905 2,200,000 (for 83,000,000 people) reaching 2.6% of the population 1910 5,800,000 (for 92,000,000 people) reaching 6.3% of the population During the first 25 years of its existence the telephone was physically accessible to less than 1% of the population, but that number nearly tripled between 1900 and 1905, then doubled again, between 1905 and 1910. This exponential growth, and the exposure of greater and greater numbers of people to this technology — which could project their voice instantly to almost anywhere — must indeed have seemed like magic, like something from mythology come to life! So it was not surprising to find an advertisement in the 1914 Farm Journal in which the American Telephone and Telegraph Company actually portrayed their service in mythological terms. AT&T was established only nine years earlier, in 1885, and by 1914 they had been riding a totally unparalleled explosion of telephony…and yet, from their point of view, they had more than 90% of the population left to capture as customers! How to capture their imagination and then their money? That must have been the operating question for the AT&T publicity machine of the time. And here is what they came up with:
Just finished China Miéville’s _The City and the City_, a very satisfying, even inspiring, book, rich with metaphor and symbolism. It is like a film noir, set in a mythical Eastern European city — I’m convinced it is partly based on Prague — where populations living in mutually incompatible paradlgms “unsee“ each other. The beauty of this idea is that, (quite beyond the metaphor,) it could be almost any *real* city; with populations that are utterly invisible to one another. Old and young, rich and poor, leftist and fascist, black and white: there are, in fact, far too many axes of unseeing in our everyday lives…
Repost of Dark Knight Review (originally published July 2008) If you haven’t yet seen the film, Dark Knight, please do that first before reading this post, because you will definitely spoil the “tension” of the plot, assuming there is any. For some reason this film is a runaway hit, with critics pissing all over themselves to outpraise each other. From my perspective, despite some excellent cinematography and a stellar performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker, it is really just another Batman movie, but with a troubling dichotomy at its core that is getting scant attention. There are clearly two very conflicted subtexts in the film, one centered on Batman and the other on the Joker. Batman’s supposed internal conflict we are all familiar with — having to take the law into his own hands in order to fight evil — dating back to his first appearance in Detective Comics #37; on the other hand, unlike the ridiculous slapstick Joker that Burton and Nicholson gave us, Ledger pushes his exploration of the Joker’s mercurial psychology into whole new realms of uncharted territory.
Reading Jennifer Szalai’s article on Dwight MacDonald’s _Masscult and Midcult_ in this week’s Nation, gave me pause to reflect on that seemingly outmoded way of characterizing the tension between high culture (the art of museums and mid-town cinematheques) and the kibble for the rest of us low-lifes, otherwise known as kitsch. When I first encountered MacDonald’s book (in the mid-70s), there still seemed to be an impermeable wall of broadcast television and “mainstream” publishers between the zines of the samidzat press and the greater public. Although a visit to Silver Scarab Press seemed incredibly important to me, to the outside world it was just Harry O’s basement in Albuquerque, and didn’t mean a damn thing to the churning presses of Random House in New York City. From an objective point of view, midcult certainly seemed to be reigning triumphant! But from my point of view, it was the hard-scrabble avant-garde who were the only worthy contributors to and creators of culture. The clarity of my position was both reinforced and at the same time shattered when I moved to New York City on 1978, and found myself in a cultural battle zone — Sid Vicious would barely outlive the Sex Pistols, but the night scene was a mind-numbing cacophony of voices: the Plasmatics, the Talking Heads, the Ramones, the Specials, the Lounge Lizards, John Shirley’s Obsession. As fast as the record labels could buy and co-opt the rebellious new wave, another wave of furious, almost insanely self-destructive performers hurled themselves onto the ramparts. Following them were a new generation of fans, who transmitted streams of punk news through any and all channels. As much as I couldn’t actually stand listening to these punks and their continuous howl of mindless rage, they did validate my own state of war with the brainwashing of the establishment’s media.
It is rather hard to believe, but by pure chance the last three novels I read in sequence were all Metahistorical narratives - not in the sense of Hayden White or Gaian ecology… What I am referring to in the case of these three books is a Metahistory as a condition, or perhaps even a technique, for examining the inter-locking possible “worlds” which are branching off from one another at pivotal moments, like fractals in space-time. This may seem like a rather typical science fiction trope - that of parallel universes or multiple simultaneous dimensions - but strangely enough, the device was used in all three of these books in a particular way, which was to provide a narrative arc for the characters to experience another world the way things might have been, but weren’t, in their own worlds. Let me take them in the order that I read them, to explain.