Sunday, November 28, 2010

Football Intersectionality: The Collision of Ethnicity, Class, and Memory in "My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes"

If one believes the authors of Soccernomics, the provincialism of the nation’s working class remains one of the maladies plaguing English football. Though the authors acknowledge England’s creeping post war “embourgeoisement”, working class attitudes continued to dominate footballing circles and not necessarily for the better. In America, football depends largely on the middle class, but in England, for much of its sporting history, working class culture produced the vast majority of players. Soccernomics laments this development, suggesting the exclusion of the nation’s middle classes from competitive soccer acts as a “brake” on England’s international hopes. Furthermore, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue that the provincial proletarian mindset continues to bedevil the sport. Pointing to the insights of Manchester United Manager Alex Ferguson as evidence, Britain’s working class players subscribe to a theory of work in which they are “entitled” to a couple pints every night (provided they’ve put in an honest day’s work), not to mention the semi-frequent Saturday night bender. Ferguson identifies this belief system as a direct result of “the shift worker’s mentality”. How very Scottish.

The authors are not completely unkind. They point to long traditions of self education among working peoples, the rise in college attendance among the general British public, and the blame that the middle and upper classes deserve for the wayward educational opportunities of England’s proletariat, yet despite these examples “the anti-intellectual attitudes that the soccer administrators encountered do seem to be widespread in the English game,” write the authors, “These attitudes may help explain why English managers and English players are not known for thinking about soccer.” [21] For many players and managers, education serves as a mark of suspicion rather than achievement; Kuper and Szymanski label this the “anti-educational requirement.”[22] While Soccernomics points to many truths about the game, it is not the rosetta stone of football. The book is sometimes guilty of ahistoricism (or at the very least flawed periodization that doesn’t always fully reveal all the nuances and turns of their subject’s narrative) and economic determinism (which some fairly point out should not be a surprise considering its title). The question is, how to get at these slippages?

Gary’s Imlach’s My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes refutes, validates, and illustrates several of the arguments presented in Soccernomics. Perhaps, more importantly Imlach essentially attempts to craft a memoir of his father, Scottish footballer Stewart Imlach, based on memorabilia, his own recollections of the man, and the fading, flickering shreds of memory to which his father’s few remaining contemporaries tenuously cling. The book is encased in the fallibility of memory. Soccernomics supposes to judge a sport that many argue remains qualitative, with a distinctly quantitative approach that sometimes rests uncomfortably on its social science scaffolding. In contrast, My Father and Other Working Class Heroes suffers the indignities of a past remembered only by the individuals who lived it. The narrative carved out by Imlach provides a welcome human perspective on the game, adding historical context that confirms some and refutes other arguments in Soccernomics, yet undoubtedly My Father remains hostage to sources that might be generously described as fluid.

The Dodgy Scots?

Thirty voters, two-thirds of them Labour loyalists or Labour-leaners, the rest floaters, were presented with biographies, speeches and interviews of five potential candidates for the Labour leadership, including Mr Brown. Worryingly for Mr Brown, they found him stale and too Scottish.
Economist, “They’ll Miss Him,” 28 Sept. 2006.

One might be forgiven for at times forgetting that the creation of the UK required a large amount of state violence, oppressive rule, aristocratic sell out, and cultural friction. With that said, acknowledging the unique ethnicities that comprise its population, it still seems odd when observers remark about the Scottishness of an individual as a potential pitfall. Former English Prime Minister Gordon Brown represents this phenomena. The Economist repeatedly referred to his “Scottishness” while also pointing out Tony Blair’s reticence toward his own Scottish heritage. Describing Blair as “reticent” on the subject, the British news magazine pointed out that, “[h]e never, . . . makes anything of his Scottish roots: he was born in Edinburgh of Glaswegian parents and went to Fettes College, Scotland's poshest school. “ The periodical suggested Blair’s Scot heavy government required him to downplay his own Scottishness. (Economist, “Scots in the Government”, 6 June 2006). The article titled “Scots in the Government: Jocks Rule, is that Ok” came with the odd subheading, “The government is full of Scots. Oddly, this may turn out to be good news for England’s regions.” Well who can argue with that? One could go on with other examples, but it would only belabor the point. Still defining this apparent “Scottishness” remains a murky task that seems to exist on two poles 1) the thrifty emotionally parsimonious Scot or 2) the outlandish lovable idiot who drinks too many pints and smokes too many cigarettes but god bless that crazy bastard. Certainly, one imagines the Economist might be referencing the former rather than the latter. Gary Imlach views the stereotype a bit differently, summarizing his father’s locker room contributions, “But in the dressing room and on the field his role in the cast of characters that makes up every football team was the chirpy Scot. The decent, honest, humorous Scot, who always gave 100 per cent. And he was, and he did.” (85)

The elder Imlach’s story unfolds throughout the small nation, however, his soccer career does take him to England to play for Nottingham Forest along with coaching stints at Everton and other English sides. Playing for Nottingham Forest brought Imlach to the pinnacle of his career but also, with the exception of the 1958 World Cup, served to exclude him from the national side as (due in part to structural changes in international soccer that would take to long to explain here) other Scots playing “abroad” in England failed to receive the attentions of Scottish selectors.

Class Class Class

Clearly Stewart Imlach played in the pre-Premiership era. His story, or at least the story constructed by his son, undermines some of Soccernomics class based analysis. Players in Imlach’s era were paid poorly, often lied to, cut without regard, and ultimately owned by their club. The examples are too numerous to recount, but they are persistent and always present. Few players from the era seem bothered by the low wages as according to Imlach many never expected soccer to make them rich. Often, players developed a trade skill on the side to deal with the inevitable retirement from the sport, Steward Imlach worked as a joiner. during and after football. Ironically, the low wage structure allowed even small clubs to compete with the metropolitan teams (Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham, and on) that today dominate the English league, meaning fans in the midlands could enjoy more than a puncher’s chance at victory. Unfortunately, one individual’s liberty sometimes reduces another’s, or at the very least modifies it negatively. Though eventual changes in player compensation led to what we know today as the Premiership, a league of ultra wealthy footballers, the super league had yet to develop, and players often feared being inadequately compensated.

Low wages failed to infuriate Stewart Imlach’s generation, but the club’s total control of their fortunes rubbed some the wrong way. Stewart Imlach endured the vagaries of such an existence. Throughout the book and often with little relation to his skills, the Scottish international shuffles up and down England’s dizzying array of divisions, After a sparkling 12 months at Forest, where Imlach had proven himself one of the team’s superior players and a key cog in their 1959 FA Cup victory, the club sent him packing to the very side, Luton, that Imlach had tormented in the final. For anyone following American Football, Philadelphia’s trading QB Donovan McNabb to division rival Washington might serve as a parallel example. Unlike Imlach who was at the peak of his powers, McNabb is clearly on the decline. The trade was widely viewed as a comment on Donovan’s diminishing talents, so an individual might wonder how Imlach took such actions. Imlach’s son attempts to get at his father’s feelings about the move but can only confirm his dad’s usual stoicism. However, others held opinions. As one of the elder Imlach’s contemporaries recounted, “You really were chattel to be bartered . The two clubs would have agreed – even to the extent of what date they were going and how much money the player would get at Luton as distinct to Forest,” he remembered, “Some just threw up their arms – your dad probably did – and said, “Oh well, bugger them if they don’t want me.” (142) When players formed a union, protesting for greater autonomy in 1959, the response of officials and coaches proved telling. The Football League president denounced players’ resistance as “sickening” and promised agents a lepor like existence within English football. FA council members protested players traveling in the same first class carriages as officials. Even Nottingham Forest coach, Billy Walker, shortly after an FA Cup semi-final victory, remarked to an audience of businessmen that players were “better dressed than he was – indeed better dressed than the committee men who ran the club. Sixteen of them had cars.” (116) As the younger Imlach notes, these provications were less about actual wages and more about place, as in one’s proper place, “Billy Walker wasn’t accusing the players of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, just beyond their station.” (117) This version of events begins to bring into question Soccernomics claims of working class bias. Might Kuper and Szymanski have mistaken stark regional provincialism for class or failed to account for the intertwining of the two?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

George Will Hates E.T.

Separated at birth?

Everybody's favorite bow-tied conservative, George Will -- known to peregrinate peripatetically, as he might say, from one asinine talk show to another -- apparently hates E.T.   Back in 1982, the columnist was one of the only commentators to pan Steven Spielberg's beloved sci-fi family film.  He saw it as an affront to both traditional values and, oddly enough, science.  Why?
The hot breath of summer is on America, but few children feel it. They are indoors, in the dark, watching the movie "E.T." and being basted with three subversive ideas:

Children are people.
Adults are not.
Science is sinister.
Subversive, for Will, means disrespecting your elders and losing faith in the power of science and technology -- a malady of the post-Watergate world, in which Americans were increasingly distrustful of the media, government and other institutions.
A wasting illness brings E.T. to death's door just as a horde of scary scientists crashes through the door of the boy's house.  Throughout the movie they have been hunting the little critter, electronically eavesdropping on the house and generally acting like Watergate understudies. They pounce upon E.T. with all the whirring, pulsing, blinking paraphernalia of modern medicine. He dies anyway, then is inexplicably resurrected. He is rescued from the fell clutches of the scientists by a posse of kid bicyclists and boards a spaceship for home. This variant of the boy-sundered-from-dog theme leaves few eyes dry. But what is bothersome is the animus against science, which is seen as a morbid calling for callous vivisectionists and other unfeeling technocrats.
What to make of this?  Republicans have been making political hay out of this cynicism toward experts and authorities for decades.  Meanwhile, columnists like Will and David Brooks have made lucrative careers out of carrying water for the GOP, the political vehicle of religious fundamentalists who oppose stem cell research and the teaching of evolution, deny climate change, and vilify college professors and other educated "elites" as tyrannical leftists.  The alliance is uneasy at times -- Will and company have worried aloud recently about Sarah Palin's anti-intellectual populism -- but the party's brainy wordsmiths and its activist base seem comfortable with each other more often than not.  Conservatives who decry any kind of government spending or intervention cannot be fond of NASA, the NIH, or the NSF -- massive spigots that keep taxpayer dollars flowing to the technocrats.  But, twenty eight years ago, one finds Will rhapsodizing on the majesty of science and the value of government funds in a moving passage:
Science does more than its despisers do to nurture the wonderful human capacity for wonder.  U.S. missions have revealed that Saturn has braided rings and a ring composed of giant snowballs. The space program is the greatest conceivable adventure; yet the government scants it and Philistine utilitarians justify it because it has yielded such marvels as nonstick frying pans. We live in (let us say the worst) an age of journalism: an age of skimmed surfaces, of facile confidence that reality is whatever can be seen and taped and reported. But modern science teaches that things are not what they seem: matter is energy; light is subject to gravity; the evidence of gravity waves suggests that gravitic energy is a form of radiation; to increase the speed of an object is to decrease the passage of its time. This is science; compared with it, space elves are dull as ditchwater.
Of course, he also vaguely implies that Steven Spielberg could be executed for poisoning children's minds -- you know, like Socrates -- so it is a bit of a split decision.
The yuckiness of adults is an axiom of children's cinema. And truth be told, adults are, more often than not, yucky... Surely children are unmanageable enough without gratuitously inoculating them with anti-adultism. Steven Spielberg, the perpetrator of "E.T.," should be reminded of the charge that got Socrates condemned to drink hemlock: corrupting the youth of Athens.

Alex Cummings

Monday, November 22, 2010

Doppelgangers, Dickens and All the Young Droods

There are few literary tropes more fascinating than that of the unreliable narrator. When one is led to doubt the honesty, perceptiveness, or even sanity of the person telling a tale, the story itself takes on very flexible and strange dimensions. The unreliable narrator forces the reader's own imagination to engage in a sort of collaborative exploration of the text along with the author. Between the covers of a book, the narrator is God; he sets the agenda, he decides what aspects of reality are to be explored, and in what manner they will be perceived. But what if God is out of his mind? Or, worse yet, what if he isn't?

In the case of the novel Drood, by Dan Simmons, the God of perception is none other than Mr. Wilkie Collins. He begins the narrative fretting over the possibility that readers of the future will have forgotten him and his works. His fears are unfounded, as Collins' reputation remains intact as a Victorian master of such works as the The Woman in White and his master piece, The Moonstone, a novel which many now view as the precursor to the modern detective novel (Poe’s The Purloined Letter notwithstanding). However despite his success, in his own time his peers often derided Collins as a writer of "sensationalist" fiction (Victorian speak for anything that might frighten or turn one on).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Taxonomy of Forest Rock

We are neither the first nor the last to notice that indie rockers of the early 21st century have a fondness for fauna -- you have Le Tigre, Wolfmother, and Grizzly Bear, and Tiger Bear Wolf for those who can't make up their minds.  Of course, from the Turtles to the Flys, bands have always favored animal names, but recent trends in indie rock have led some to suggest that a new fascination for the rural, pastoral, earthy, natural and animalistic has taken hold.  (Generally speaking, punk and grunge as genres seemed to eschew the animal band name -- Dictators, Voidoids, Sex Pistols, Nuns, Buzzcocks on one hand; Nirvana, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Melvins on the other.  No frolic in the countryside for these groups.)  

To get a better understanding of today's zeitgeist, we put together this taxonomy of "horse rock," sorting out your Deer Tracks and Antlers from your Deerhunters and Blitzen Trappers.  As Pavement once said, "Mussle rock is a horse in transition."  Hopefully, Rick Santorum is not paying attention.
marijuana wolf, seawolf, fake shark real zombie, birds of tokyo, sound of animals fighting

Monday, November 15, 2010

Behind the Mustache: The Cultural, Racial, and Class Implications of the Hipster Identity

The hipster has been an easy target in pop culture for much of the last decade. Like any social stereotype or fad, it can be identified by the shorthand of material culture: skinny jeans, aviator glasses, American Apparel. A widely discussed article in New York magazine recently did just that, placing PBR cans and vinyl records in display cases above its discussion of the death of the archetype. 

For hipsters, perhaps, such allusions amount to ad hominem attacks. But there must be a better way to get at who the hipster was sociologically, culturally, economically -- this weird social type who was always someone else, never the person speaking. Everyone always claimed to be not cool enough to be a hipster, or simply too authentic or individualistic to be one. Yet someone must be a hipster, and this category must bear some relation to the beatnik, hippie, punk, yuppie, bobo, 'culture vulture' and other tribes of pop sociology.

In his New York magazine piece, Matt Greif attempts to excavate the meaning of the term “hipster,” tracing its trajectory from Norman Mailer’s 1950s essay on the “white negro” to an early aughts incarnation that “fetishized the violence, instinctiveness, and rebelliousness of lower-middle-class ‘white trash.’” Ironic that the term and identity emerges from a white subculture that Mailer argued emulated blacks. Mailer’s 1957 essay dug deep into a grab bag of racial essentialism. What passes for 1950s masculine philosophy today comes off as histrionic, ponderous, and racist claptrap: 
Knowing in the cells of his existence that life was war, nothing but war, the Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm.
If that doesn’t sound like modern day Heart of Darkness -– black-people-live-outside-time late-1800s self-indulgent Social Darwinism –- you’d be hard pressed to find a better example. Unless, of course, you keep reading Mailer’s essay:
Hated from outside and therefore hating himself, the Negro was forced into the position of exploring all those moral wildernesses of civilized life which the Square automatically condemns as delinquent or evil or immature or morbid or self-destructive or corrupt. (Actually the terms have equal weight. Depending on the telescope of the cultural clique from which the Square surveys the universe, “evil” or “immature” are equally strong terms of condemnation.) But the Negro, not being privileged to gratify his self- esteem with the heady satisfactions of categorical condemnation, chose to move instead in that other direction where all situations are equally valid, and in the worst of perversion, promiscuity, pimpery, drug addiction, rape, razor-slash, bottle-break, what-have-you, the Negro discovered and elaborated a morality of the bottom, an ethical differentiation between the good and the bad in every human activity from the go-getter pimp (as opposed to the lazy one) to the relatively dependable pusher or prostitute.
This is where the “hipster,” as a part of America’s intellectual discourse, came from. If not problematic, it is at least ironic considering the undeniable whiteness of many people associated with the hipster lifestyle. 

While Greif avoids this discussion, he does point out important shifts in the identity. In his view, the archetype continued to evolve such that by the late 2000s it represented something distinct from the ersatz imitator of the white working class. “The more sinister strain of White Hipster style started to diminish,” he writes, as “the artistic concern with innocence turned from human absolution to the fragile world of furry creatures, trees, and TRS-80s.” Greif suggests a “green” hipster arose, with an aesthetic he dubs “Hipster Primitive.” (The podcast Sound Opinions refers to music emanating from this social group -- think Animal Collective, Blitzen Trapper, Grizzly Bear -- as “forest rock,” so Greif isn’t the only one to notice). Hipster Primitive shifted the focus from white male suburbanity “to animals, wilderness, plus the occasional Native American.” The hipster critters aptly looked to the Beach Boys’ Pets Sounds as their cultural touchstone, displacing reference points like Sgt. Pepper that had inspired past generations of rockers. 

Capitalism’s Street Team 

Following Fredric Jameson, Greif suggests hipsters represent less a rejection of anything as much as a knowing consumerism. “The hipster is a savant at picking up the tiny changes of rapidly cycling consumer distinction,” he writes. In the end, the most visible hipsters occupy two basic roles: charismatic yet detached entrepreneur or giddy yet jaded patron; or as Greif summarizes, “The most active participants sell something—customized brand-name jeans, airbrushed skateboards, the most special whiskey, the most retro sunglasses—and the more passive just buy it.” In this way, hipsters exist as little more than “rebel consumers.” Though Greif doesn’t do this, one might consider situating this “rebel consumerism” as a reaction to the “consumer activism” that exploded in the late 1990s and aughts (say “free trade coffee,” “free range chicken” and an assortment of other ways companies could market to your more vainly philanthropic impulses). Wouldn’t a cynical youth revel in this rejection of earnest capitalism? For Greif, even the less material aspects of hipster appropriation grew out of their infiltration into other subcultures from vegans to bike messengers (such as the popularity of the fixed gear bike).

This distinction between hipsterism and the many subcultures that fed into it seems unsustainable, especially given the estuaries of class and culture that define Brooklyn's topography of 'transitional' neighborhoods. The bike messengers and vegan anarchists Greif cites existed at the edges of hipsterism, if not often at its core. Indeed, some have noted before that the accoutrements of the so-called "white trash hipster" in fact borrowed from hallmarks of butch lesbian style: trucker hats, wallet chains, etc. Perhaps hipsterdom streams from many sources of refusal, mixed up with consumerism. The love of thrift store clothing surely involved a love of kitsch and a competitive spirit of discerning consumption (pulling just the right retro cardigan out of the 1.29/lb pile). Yet no doubt many young people opted for thrift duds because they didn't want to pay full price for new clothes or simply did not want to participate in the crass machine of sweatshop-made fashion; for this author's part, a desire to reuse old things rather than junk up the world with new crap was part of the motivation as well. For some struggling bohemians, shopping at the GAP was a fiscal impossibility in any case, while for many others frequenting the thrift store was a deliberate choice.

Of course, we have seen how vintage stores emerged to mine thrift stores for their finest articles, and American Apparel turned 80s trailer park style into a commercially powerful aesthetic. In this sense, the hipster's notorious preference for the new and obscure might be understood, at least in part, as a reaction to the market's ability to absorb and appropriate every activity and resell it at a premium price. A similar pattern has long been familiar to observers of independent music scenes, where participants resent bands for selling out and sounds are viewed as cheapened by mass exploitation.

Hipsters, in part, can be viewed as a class of (mostly) young people, (mostly) with disposable income, (mostly) with some higher education, who play a cat and mouse game with the market -- aspiring in some way or another to combat capitalism and conformity, but generally powerless to resist the market for long. Greif connects this ambivalence to their association with consumerism. “The hipster is a savant at picking up the tiny changes of rapidly cycling consumer distinction,” he writes. “This in-group competition, more than anything else, is why the term hipster is primarily a pejorative—an insult that belongs to the family of poseur, faker, phony, scenester, and hanger-on.” Ironically, the frequent excoriation of the trend-seeking hipster is central to the group’s own aspiration to reject the conformity of consumer culture. To be different, one must always be on the lookout for something as yet-unabsorbed by the market, which turns hipsters into the advance guard of capitalism itself – freelance “Merchants of Cool,” to cite a PBS documentary many of have used in the classroom.

Hipsters in Space
The city was reborn as the super mall, its allure augmented by its storied history, born of the diversity which would be abolished. Cheap white labor, in the form of aspiring artists, could be lured via this history, mythologized in books which marked the city through the very idiosyncratic or marginal character its advertisers had helped to systematically exterminate.
- Ian Svenonius
Adapted from the N+1 publication What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation, Greif’s article provides a great overview over the hipster phenomenon. But maybe there are other material explanations for the rise of this particular subculture at this particular time. For example, others have developed slightly different reasons for the rise of the “Primitive Hipster.” A Marxist and rock theorist, Ian Svenonius points directly to markets. Today’s indie music groups are "like the expansive rock groups of the suburban era… a reaction to, and an expression of, the real estate market and the economy as a whole,” Svenonius observed in 2006. Like any good postmodernist, Svenonius displays a fascination with space. For the former Nation of Ulysses leader, the fads for “psych folk” and “electro” represent the collapse of urban space more than anything else. Categories like “garage band,” “arena rock,” and “bar band” all reflected a relationship with a particular kind of space. The rock band, Svenonius argues, “in its very essence, declares ‘I've got space.’ Whether its an invitation for settlement (like early punk) or an advertisement of affluence, the rock 'n' roll band cannot be divorced from the idea of real estate ownership and therefore, from conquest.” The growing class divide, the increased partitioning of space into smaller and smaller units, made neo folk and electros not only an aesthetic reaction to burgeoning technology but also a pragmatic response to diminishing physical space.

Unlike many other observers, Svenonius finds the origin of hipster culture not in affluent consumerism but in the straitened circumstances of a new, insecure, "flexible" urban workforce - the part-time graphic designer, the actor waiting tables. Psych folk and electro point to a new age of penury:
These new types of micro-groups are an advertisement for a new way of living, a new serfdom to be tolerated as the class divide becomes intolerably large and the specter of home ownership and personal solvency becomes more absurd and unrealistic. They also point to the imperial reversal and the American decline. The only space in America now is cyber infinitude, to replace the ravaged "new world," hopelessly polluted after a few decades of mindless exploitation.

In this sense, Alan Greenspan was the father of the indie aesthetic of the aughts - and this before the subprime crash dragged the American campaign of suburban empire to its greatest crisis in 70 years.

For all the insights of Greif and Svenonius, they both firmly situate hipsterdom in whiteness. Granted, few people would suggest the “identity” was not overwhelmingly white, even promoting this whiteness in the early aughts, but haven’t we witnessed hipsters of all racial backgrounds? After all, the Bipster, as exemplified by Kanye West (circa black horn rimmed glasses) or possibly the Cool Kids, has become a prominent social identity. As Greif notes, nobody ever admits to being a hipster, resulting in a bewildering circle of logical violence that makes defining the term in a way that isn’t pejorative nearly impossible. If the Cool Kids represent the Bipster, they exhibit a marked reticence about it. “I can't think of any humans who have gone out and said 'Yo, I'm a hipster,’” Cool Kids member Chuck Inglish said. “What is that? It's vague and hard to define. You know, it's based upon a look, and in hip-hop that's a way to clump a certain type of artist into a genre to make it easier to understand... I didn't even know what a hipster was until a year ago.”

While the hipster lifestyle may embrace all hues under its liberal tent, their presence in urban communities tends to obliterate working class white ethnic and minority communities. Unknowingly or not, the influx of hipsters into a “transitional neighborhood” frequently lead to gentrification followed by corporate residential development. This new spatiality oozes outward to neighboring communities, who then absorb the very hipsters who unwittingly served as the knife’s edge of corporate interest. As real estate interests proliferate, attempts to expand the target area for economic expansion result in a recasting of community. For example, as Brooklyn’s Williamsburg leaked underpaid interns and artists, Bushwick (a largely Latino and Black community) took them in only to find real estate agents rebranding parts of the neighborhood as “East Williamsburg.”

Perhaps even more regrettably, the media often employs loaded terminology when describing hipster movement into largely lower income minority areas. Dubbing them “pioneers,” media outlets from the New York Times to the Village Voice present an urban landscape where the mere presence of whites suggests hope, renewal, and growth. The use of the term “pioneers” operates as a form of erasure. Pioneers venture out into the “virgin” wilderness, making something out of “nothing” – kind of like Western expansion if not for those proprietary Native Americans. Witness Williamsburg. One might be forgiven for not knowing about its iconic Hasidic population or the pockets of ethnic whites that remain around the neighborhood’s L train Lorimer stop. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Williamsburg, a multi-racial, multi ethnic community, struggled with violence, poverty, and disinvestment, but these problems receded more because of New York’s economic revival of the mid 1990s than the emergence of the hipster scene. However, the arrival of middle class kids with bedhead and used clothes somehow obscures everything else. It’s not hard to understand the ambivalence or even hostility this might provoke in some people.

Bringing It All Back to the Rat-Infested Mailbox You Call Home

Is the rent check of the “trustafarian” –- i.e. money –- what really defines this group? Is it more dollars and cents than cultural capital that matters here? We have so far defined the hipster in terms of food, fashion, drink, and even housing, all of which are based on the ability to consume. It is easy to tie this fruitless quest for individuality-through-consumption to whiteness, privilege, education, employment in a “creative class” occupation, or some combination of these factors. But there are hipsters who are not white; there are privileged, educated young white people who aspire to have a BMW and a house in the suburbs, not a spot on an ultra-underground cassette-only mixtape and cramped quarters in Bushwick. There are young musicians or web designers who eschew the clothing or competitive temperament of hipster style itself.

What does seem to define the hipster category, broadly speaking, is the existence of a new group of youngish, more or less educated people for whom career ambitions, prolonged education, or personal choice have pushed marriage, children, homeownership and other traditional features of adulthood farther and farther into the future. Such outsiders have long existed – take, for instance, the gay subcultures that existed in the shadows of American life in the mid-twentieth century. But it seems fair to say that there are more people with a degree of disposable income, an affinity for independent culture, and few family responsibilities today than at any previous point in American history. (Certainly, “pioneering” depends on a willingness to move into neighborhoods that many middle class parents, whose chief concerns are safety and the quality of schools, would be reluctant to embrace.) This new class’s aspiration to be different takes on many forms (and, some would say, pillages from many sources) to produce a soup of stylistic nods and diluted political impulses.

Indeed, we might best understand the hipster as a sort of Cuisinart Bohemian of the 21st century – the unwitting son of Beck, the musical postmodernist who jumbled up hip-hop, country, punk, and R&B influences (among others) as casually as today’s young Brooklynites mush together gestures to a variety of familiar motifs of the 20th century, from Johnny Cash to Maynard G. Krebs, John Cale to Kurt Cobain, the Unabomber to Afrika Bambaataa. The politics of authenticity so central to movements like punk or grunge seems strangely absent from hipster culture. Yet, as Greif notes, its most prominent musical representative at the moment, Animal Collective, belts out the following line in one of its more recognizable songs:
I don't mean to seem like I
care about material things, like our social stats
I just want four walls and
adobe slats for my girls.
If a new form of hipsterism is now taking shape, as in Greif’s idea of the “Primitive,” perhaps its greatest feature is a studied earnestness – earnest about the right things i.e. family, egalitarianism, and simplicity. Surely, songs by Brooklynites that celebrate a bucolic, electro-folk nature-based vision are subject to a reasonable amount of skepticism. But does this new model hipster look to the pastoral for yet another refuge from a market society that is transforming young people into either an aristocracy of snob-connoisseurs or an army of techno-serf McTemps?  Today the financial exuberance that fueled both gentrification and the arts and media in American cities is waning; in a new economic reality, it remains possible that the nascent yearnings of the Primitive could sharpen into something more than a vague refusal of mass culture.

Ryan Reft and Alex Sayf Cummings

Suggestions for Further Reading

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hollywood without Hollywood: Las Vegas from the Periphery

For the architect or urban designer, comparisons of Las Vegas with others of the world’s “pleasure zones” – with Marienbad, the Alhambra, Xanadu, and Disneyland, for instance – suggest that essential to the imagery of pleasure zone architecture are lightness, the quality of being an oasis in a perhaps hostile context, heightened symbolism, and the ability to engulf the visitor in a new role: for three days one may imagine oneself a centurion at Caesars Palace, a ranger at the Frontier, or a jetsetter at the Riviera rather than a salesperson from Des Moines, Iowa or an architect from Haddonfield, New Jersey. (53)
Writing in 1977, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steve Izenour attempted to provide a new urban model based on the rapid development of the then burgeoning gambling oasis. The Las Vegas they encountered seems more akin to a proto-Sin City than the reality we know today. Their Las Vegas appears low slung and devoid of the monumentalism that now towers over the strip. The growth of the city in the 1990s alone dwarfs the size of Las Vegas in 1977. For example , from 1990 to 1992, the population in the city itself grew by 14%, totaling 300,000 newcomers. From 1990-1995, Clark County expanded by 37%. By the mid-1990s, the actual physical size of the city had increased to 92 square miles. Undoubtedly, the respected authors of Learning from Las Vegas fraternized with the parent of today’s Strip. With that said and despite these limitations, in many ways, Venturi et al’s observations remain salient. 
Driving into the city, the amount of signage imposed on the driver and passengers increases exponentially the closer they get to the strip. Whether 1977, 1997, or 2007, Las Vegas signage is the equivalent of desert monarchy. Yet despite this dominance, its rule often proves malleable.  “The most unique, most monumental parts of the strip, the signs and casino facades, are also the most changeable,” the authors observe.  (34) Michael Dear agrees. Dear, an expert on urban postmodernity, remarked that as hotel building took off in the 1950s, signs served as a kind of “logic and grammar” providing “coherence and form to adjacent buildings.” (Dear, 202) However, in the 1980s, economic expansion of the Strip resulted in larger hotels, sharply crafted marketing schemes, and a general ordering of affairs under a more organized business approach. Alan Hess has labeled this period “corporate splendor,” as “blockbuster corporate architecture” towered over The Strip, thus, “elbowing out the glorious neon signs.” (Dear, 203) Such monumentalism created spaces between the now “self contained islands” that Las Vegas Casinos had become. Here a “lively” street life emerged. Signage’s importance persisted in these spaces.

In a bizarre way, this street life has become one of Vegas’ central draws. Las Vegas is one of the most walking friendly cities of the American West. Though the sidewalks exist as a confused agglomeration of public private space (low level cheap amusements, street performers, and sex info workers – the men and women who so generously hand out the baseball cards and magazines for escorts and other sundry sex industry fields) tourists traverse them in a kind of sensory overload state of consumeristic bliss. As one notable historian commented at the recent UHA conference, the proliferation of Southern Californians might cause one to pause and consider the attraction. Perhaps the contrast between the dearth of public spaces in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Orange County and Las Vegas’s overflowing cup of consumer communalism unwittingly draws Nevada’s neighbors to the West. 

Maybe that’s all wrong. The aforementioned Alan Hess built on the opening quote provided by Brown et al, observing that “corporate splendor” architecture created a Strip that operates much like a “video for the national consciousness,” delivering images of a stereotypical past to the fore or as Michael Dear notes, “the sophisticated West is nowhere to be seen in Las Vegas today.” (Dear, 206)  So is Vegas Blade Runner? Certainly, the obvious comparisons exist: the massive signage, the enormous video advertisements, the new City Center architecture, and the mix of peoples (if Vegas is anything, it is definitely diverse) serve as evidence. Safe to say, the dystopian nature of the movie does not really parallel a night out in the city, or at least if things go well -- please do not reference The Hangover.

Here, finally, the point. The above arguments are relevant and aspects of them certainly apply. However, one might suggest another or related theory. The above comparison to Disneyland in Learning from Las Vegas serves as the starting point. Undoubtedly, as Las Vegas grew, it did so in conscious dialogue with Walt Disney’s Disneyland. The often mentioned John Findlay, Eric Avila, and Lisa McGirr, among others, have all pointed to Walt Disney’s creation as an influential factor in post war conceptions of suburban/urban development. Disney incorporated numerous aspects of filmmaking in the construction of his amusement park. Movie studio art directors supported by a slew of “architects, writers, special effects artists and other motion picture” trades emerged as the park’s chief designers. These film experts employed techniques such as “forced perspective” - tricking the eye into viewing buildings as taller than in reality - and “scaling down” - the parks features were not life size, for example the trains traversing the parks are built at “approximately five eights scale” -while threading narratives through “the rides, the several lands, and the general park” that reflected those of Disney movies. (Findlay, 68) As noted in Learning from Las Vegas, people come to pretend they are something else. Everything from the architecture to the signage operates as kind of movie set backdrop, not unlike the efforts of Walt Disney. If we are all stars in our very own life movies, the Strip finally provides us with the necessary backdrop in front of which our great human drama can unfold (predictably, of course -- lay by the pool, gamble, drink too much, return home with stories of indulgence, etc.). 

But what does it take to run a glorified movie set? At T of M, we decided to abandon much of the Strip for its outlying regions, snapping photos here and there, checking out hipster tiki bars, cheap gifts, UNLV, Chinatown and downtown or “Old Vegas.” As it turns out, the shine of the Strip remains dominant, but the glow means something very different. Tiki Bars exhibit dark interiors with pockets of intense red and green (tiki galaxy, green light), sexualized caricatures (id city), stiff Polynesian styled drinks, and bathrooms awash in 1950s kitsch (pop bano). Fresh Water signs glow in isolation. Chinatown pulses with commerce, diversity (it sure isn’t just the Chinese) and political mobilization (reid pagoda). Housing failures find a friend (chance and survival, foreclosures r us) while homeowners (small suburbia) prepare for Halloween. For all the writing about the Strip, one wonders what these parts of Las Vegas mean. How does their story end? Basically, what role do they play in the movie? 

Ryan Reft


Large Variety: From Blade Runner to Myrtle Beach

Monday, November 8, 2010

Peeling the Onion: The A.V. Club Takes on '90s Alternative Nation

So we’ve entered the second decade of the 21st century. Having just emerged from the Aughts (one can only begin to wonder what lay in store for its future historiography) bruised, bewildered, but still here, it would seem an appropriate time to reflect on past decades if only as a form of escapism. In this way, the Onion’s AV club contributor Steve Hyden turns to his own recollections, theories, and musings regarding each year of the 1990s. Entitled “Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation?”, Hyden’s first three installments traverse a broad cultural landscape, however, if one theme or band ties them together its undoubtedly Nirvana. At first this sounds off putting, so much space has already been accorded to Kurt Cobain’s band, but Hyden does well to tease out the larger issues and underlying ironies that the band represented. (Example: Did you know that Axl Rose loved Nirvana and repeatedly made overtures to Cobain, who rebuffed him numerous times even exaggerating there famous altercation at the Video Music Awards?  Which of course also seems indicative of the 1990s the power of MTV in regards to music).

Admittedly, Hyden remains tightly focused on the kind of music the series title announces, (“Alternative Nation” -- think the aforementioned misanthropes, Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction, Urge Overkill, Liz Phair, you get the idea) but he also points out (and for the most part in the first three installments stays true to this) his lack of connection to this period, whereas once it had been integral to his life, that animated his thoughts on the subject:
The truth is that I feel little nostalgia for ’90s grunge, and almost no connection to the version of myself that once felt part of the Alternative Nation. I once believed that the rise of so-called alternative music in the early ’90s was the greatest thing to happen in my lifetime—world-changing, no less—but now this notion seems almost too embarrassing to admit in print.
Additionally, so far the series seems to focus on heavy hitters like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Guns N Roses, exhibiting a great man/women sense of history. In this regard, Hyden tips his hand a bit in his first piece, “Once Upon a Time I Could Love You”:
So, yeah, it’s worth noting that 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' sounds like Pixies, and that 'Come As You Are' is a direct lift from Killing Joke’s 'Eighties.' But Pixies and Killing Joke never got played on the radio in places like Appleton. Nirvana did, and this fact alone makes that band more important than any of Cobain’s underground precursors, who only started to matter on a macro level because they were Nirvana reference points.
Okay, but with the exception of the opening essay, Hyden's articles remain circumscribed by alt rock deities (including the Zeus-like giants previously mentioned and smaller gods like Teenage Fanclub). One hopes that at some point he places the increasingly commoditized genres of "alt rock" and the decades true behemoth, rap in conversation. Still, small criticisms for what so far has been enjoyable pop culture candy.

Yet, its not only about music. Hyden enters the 1990s 12 going on 13. Growing up in Appleton, Wisconsin, Hyden’s reflections also illustrates the stark changes that have washed over the music industry, the ethereal nature of popular memory (did you remember that Use Your Illusion I and II came out the same year as Nirvana and was greeted with pandemonium?), and the role of technology. Perhaps most importantly he captures a critical site of the burgeoning proto hipster identity, the independent record store, remembering it “as an oppressively cool place that frankly terrified me, as most things did back then.” So I guess not everything changes.

Ryan Reft

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sanity vs. the Left

Before the guys from Mythbusters finished taking their seismic measurements, you could hear the professional haters whipping out their Macbooks to scold Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and their followers for something or the other. As in Colbert’s widely panned (and courageous) speech at the White House correspondents’ dinner, the media chafe at this kind of satire for good reason: they fail to see the humor when their own failures as journalists and keepers of the public trust are treated with scorn. (I’ll give you a second to catch your breath from laughing after that bit about “public trust.”) 

Pundits on the Left were also quick to pooh-pooh the significance of the Rally to Restore Sanity, albeit for different reasons. Michael Kazin of the New Republic (that repository of high-minded New York liberal opinion) called the rally’s message of civility “a fine and pleasant thing,” but reminded readers that moderation alone could not inspire a movement. Adopting the tone of a patronizing theatre critic, he judged the event “only a moderate success, considering the wretched sound system… and the odd musical coupling of Ozzy Osbourne and Yusuf Islam” (how terribly gauche!) – and found its ideological content as wanting as its logistics. Stewart may treat moderation as both a means and an end, but Kazin seems to doubt whether it can serve either purpose. 

Similarly, Chris Hedges complained that centrist liberals like Stewart use a fictional “phantom left” to position themselves as reasonable and moderate. Stewart erred by lumping together “Marxists actively subverting our Constitution” with “racists and homophobes” like Rush Limbaugh, as if some radical socialists were out there in the body politic, having as great an impact as the reactionaries who just swept to control of the House of Representatives on a wave of xenophobia and resentment.

To me, the Rally to Restore Sanity's "moderation makes right" schtick was a little annoying, but I see it as a strategic maneuver. There was little question that Stewart's agenda is liberal, and I don't think many conservatives would exactly rally to his Kumbaya message after seeing their own side portrayed by Colbert as an irrational, fear-mongering caricature. There was false equivalency going on, as if both Right and Left are equally guilty of extremism, but all Stewart could come up with is the Juan Williams firing and a few clips of Ed Schulz and Keith Olbermann being dicks. (The ratio of Fox to MSNBC clips in the rally’s montage of televised absurdity was extremely lopsided; if Stewart really wanted to lampoon the Left, he might have thrown in a video of a grad student ranting about how diphthongs “do violence” to Asian-American spectrality.)

Stewart and Colbert wanted to portray themselves as above the fray, while presenting a message that was pretty favorable to liberal Democrats. After all, their slogans about civility and reasoned discourse, the age-old hallmarks of liberalism since the Enlightenment, are not without political import: if we weren't talking about death panels, maybe we could have been talking about actual healthcare reform, a situation that seems like it would be much better for the Democrats.

What is Hedges's gripe exactly? It’s not Jon Stewart’s fault that there is not much of a Left in this country to even seek a voice, much less have one. Hedges views the Rally as simply a televised pageant for middle class liberals – part of the bigger “society of the spectacle” that muscles out any truly leftist discourse. Is this anything new? Did the Left ever get much real estate in the public arena – outside of, perhaps, the zenith of organized labor’s influence in the 1930s and 1940s? As Elizabeth Fones-Wolf has shown in her book Waves of Opposition, unions were once able to use radio and other media to present their perspective to the public, although concerted efforts by the business community helped quash this voice and turn the media over to near-total corporate control.

Indeed, the biggest change for "the Left," whatever that is meant to mean, has been the drastic reduction in the labor movement, which has had a profound political impact. Union members have provided the ground troops for Democratic politics for almost a century, and to a great extent they still do -- with an impact that is disproportionate to the movement's small numbers. Beyond unionists, who makes up the Left's constituency in the US? The traditional African American and Latino civil rights groups; vegan anarchists; a small group of lefty professors, maybe. Today’s young academics appear to be less radical than their predecessors, for what it’s worth. But it seems to me that middle-class liberals (like Stewart) have almost always occupied a good deal of space on the Left of American politics, from the Progressive Era through Civil Rights and environmentalism and, most recently, the rise of the netroots. If anything, the Daily Show seems like a Trojan horse for sneaking a center left (or quasi-social democratic) message to a socially liberal middle class constituency that instinctively dislikes the Tea Party Right, but has no other ideological home to go to.

The most interesting thing to me was seeing the difference between the Sanity rally and the One Nation Working Together rally a few weeks ago, which brought thousands of union and civil rights activists to DC. In one you see Stewart's base -- aging boomers, college students, young professionals, people in general who don't get why their fellow citizens might be feeling cranky -- and in the other you see the traditional base of the Democratic interest groups, chiefly the AFL-CIO and NAACP. These two factions should have been talking to each other, but the fact is they don't really know each other.  

Stewart's followers attracted more media attention than the white Teamsters and Latina SEIU activists who marched in support of an explicitly Democratic agenda.

As Eric Foner noted of the abolitionists, every successful political movement needs to pull strength from a wide range of opinion. You needed both mealy-mouthed moderates like Abraham Lincoln and fire-breathing true believers like Wendell Phillips or William Lloyd Garrison to end slavery, even if the different parties seemed to espouse contradictory strategies. We need an articulate and forceful Left today, just like we need a strong labor movement and support among the young, middle-class professionals, seniors and other groups to advance a progressive agenda. But belittling the importance of 200,000 Americans who cared enough about peace, the environment, equality and other issues to come out to the national mall does not seem like a great strategy to get us there. 

Alex Cummings