Saturday, 24 October 2009

Stuff White People Like

'A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.' Robert Frost

During the course of reading a special issue of the online journal Dark Matter devoted to my favourite television series, The Wire, I came across a reference to a website called Stuff White People Like. Intrigued, I had to investigate. (This in turn reminds me of a comic formula on the PhD Comics website printed in the THE, to the effect that the time saved having research material at one's fingertips online and the time wasted procrastinating because of distractions - or unplanned excursions at best - cancel one another out. I would suggest this is an optimistic estimate.)

Closing the loop: a week or two later a friend sent me a link to an interview in The Guardian with, Christian Lander, the guy who created the site, and he claims that the site emerged from an instant messenger conversation he was having with someone about The Wire:
Myles, who is Filipino, said he didn't trust any white person who didn't watch the show. I agreed with him, so we started talking about what white people might be doing instead of watching The Wire. Going to therapy, watching plays, doing yoga and getting divorced were the first things that popped into our heads. For some reason, the idea that a white person was too busy getting divorced to watch television was particularly hilarious to me, so I started a blog about it.
The site did not disappoint. A lot of it made me laugh hard, and some of made me wince, its observations rather too close for comfort (a friend told me he had had the same experience with the entry 'Moleskin Notebooks' ). I suspect most people would get a few laughs just from the list of entries (a few of my favourites: 'Sea Salt', 'Being Offended', 'Standing Still at Concerts', 'Knowing What's Best for Poor People', 'Apologies' [for the last one, at least, the title is funnier than the entry]).

As Lander has acknowledged, and as one might suspect from reading the entries, he is criticising tendencies he recognises in himself as much as other people. If you read a few entries, you quickly get a feel for how the site works.

The observations made could easily be presented in rant-format, but a different - and I would argue much more effective - mode of address is adopted. The entries are couched somewhere between a work of ethnography and a bluffer's guide: the reader is addressed as someone who is hitherto unaware of the strange habits of the groups of people the blog concerns itself with and therefore needs things spelling out for them, but also as someone who might need to move amongst this group and pass as one of them.

This dual address makes for an effective and fertile brand of irony. Pretending to address a reader who knows nothing (whilst really addressing a reader familiar with the phenomena presented) allows the writer to re-present and linger upon what might be taken for granted and remain unsaid, thus returning it to conscious attention, and making it appear strange. And employing the detached tone and vocabulary of the reference guide in order to skewer pretension manages to strike deeper than a personalised diatribe written by an 'I' and/or directly and heatedly attacking a 'you'. (One thing I will remain silent on is the precise force and function of the term 'white people' in the blog. This is a delicate issue, and I have failed to come up with a brief set of observations that satisfies me. I leave it to the reader to ponder.)

Here is part of entry #82, 'Hating Corporations':
No Logo has been responsible for more white person “enlightenment” than any book since the burning of the library at Alexandria. By reading this one magic book, white people are able to get a full grasp on the evils of multi-national corporations and then regurgitate it to friends and family.
Advanced white people will supplement No Logo with a subscription to AdBusters, where they will learn how to subvert corporate culture and return it to the masses. Specifically, this means taking ads and redoing them to give a negative message about a product. Apparently the belief is that when other people see this ad, they will be hit with an epiphany that their entire existence has been a Matrix-style manufactured universe.
The writer delivers a rapid series of jabs here. (Admittedly, it is not possible to read the first paragraph entirely straight: 'enlightenment' is in inverted commas, and the book is described as 'magic'! Nevertheless, we are still dealing with merciless critique delivered with an almost straight face.) The small effort expended and knowledge gained by reading No Logo is contrasted with the large claims to knowledge (in fact, uncritical reproduction of an argument) that reading of the book, according to this post, leads to. The entry then goes on to imply a similarly risible/grotesque disparity between object and uptake/reaction in relation to 'busted' adverts.

At this stage in the blog's life, it is unlikely that anyone who reads it will be able to honestly declare themselves innocent of all the pretensions put on parade. But... so much of 'Stuff White People Like' is devoted to lampooning those who want to put on superior airs because they possess a certain piece of cultural knowledge, or a particular habitus, and yet the blog itself feeds the same desire. It is just one more stage of recuperation. Perhaps the blog's logic demands that one of its entries should be 'Stuff White People Like'. The entry might go something like this:
White people love self-reflexivity, and holding their own beliefs and habits - sometimes even sincerely-held ones - at an ironic distance. Pointing out to a white person the suspect or baseless nature of aspects their worldview will not always result in denial. It is just as likely that, when confronted with such an argument, they will concede it cheerfully, with unruffled equanimity. White people will often deal with criticisms by anticipating them and joining the critic - but then carrying on doing what they were doing anyway. One of the most important things to a white person is that they remain at the frontier of attitudes and sensibilities, and appear knowing. If this means that they must also be knowing about themselves, then this is a piece of psychological gymnastics that comes naturally enough, and is more than worth the effort.
Unable to myself resist the impulse for autocriticism, I should add that were the above a real entry, whatever else might be different about it, it'd probably be a bit funnier.

Piles of crap

One fortunate area of compatibility between me and my wife is that we both gain great satisfaction from reordering/rearranging stuff in our house.

With the arrival of 'Little Miss Z' drawing ever closer, and with my wife on half-term this coming week, she (the latter!) decided that she couldn't wait any longer to get stuck into the rather major rethink of our upstairs.

So we disassembled the double bed in the spare room - the one we're keeping, because it's better than our newer one (not to mention being our wedding bed). That was the smaller job. The bigger one was to move all the books/helves in the study into our new study, along with the desk, computer-related stuff, etc.

We chucked out a small fraction of stuff - and we've managed to get all the novels upstairs (I had pragmatically split some of the older ones off onto the downstairs shelf). The short stories had to go downstairs, but never mind.

There is always an especially beautiful moment in rearranging where you have brought all the good stuff into your project room, and it looks the best it will ever look. But then you have to go back into your bombsite of another room and go through the piles of crap that you're left with. There will always be stuff that you can neither categorise nor throw away. And sometimes you can't hide it either. So then you have to blemish your pristine new layout with a holder full of pens or paperclips, or a pile of papers you haven't sorted through or still need. There will always be piles of crap.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Credit crunches/Baby booms

Earlier today I was waiting around in Costcutter for a document that I had sent for binding (work-related) to be returned, so I did a bit of magazine skimming. There was an article in New Scientist about drugs that improve your concentration and memory, but it didn't really grab my attention; and an indifferent review of The Corner (the book) in the TLS. The main thing I read was an article advertised on the front page of The Spectator, called 'The Quiet Agony of the Recession Generation' (available here). The basic argument that the article presents is that:
According to a new sub-branch of economics, the way we view risk, the way we choose to invest, even our political predilections are determined by the prevailing economic conditions in our late teens and early twenties.
The article cites a paper that presents evidence suggesting that 'individuals experiencing recession during the [sic] formative years believe that luck rather than effort is the most important driver of individual success'. The Spectator article adds:
Recession babies are, say the authors, ‘more willing to increase taxes’ — and little wonder. They’ll be keen to help their less fortunate comrades, because they know it might just as easily have been them. But, strikingly, this is not good news for Labour. They tend to remember which government dropped them in this mess, and be suspicious about government authority.
An interesting combination, to be sure. The article also spends time discussing the fact that many graduates will justifiably feel that they have been 'mis-sold' their degrees, as they do not lead to increased employability or income.

Living through a recession is certainly a humbling and sobering experience, and an eye-opening one. When I used to hear or read about the Wall Street Crash that led to the Depression of the 1930s, my thoughts were mainly limited to direct and immediate material realities - unemployment, hunger - rather than long-term impacts upon people's attitudes to credit, risk, security, etc.

Another thing that I've been hearing lately is that we're experiencing a baby boom. There's a recent article about it in the Times Online here. The article - which is concerned with the UK only - refers to increased 'fertility' - rather misleadingly, as what is at stake is not advances in medical science or health but, from what I can gather, more women choosing to have more babies. The swell is being helped by immigration. The only other reason the article offers for the increase is that fewer women are waiting until their thirties for babies. I was surprised to read that there are indications that the boom is slowing due to the recession, because in my mind I had it that the recession might itself lead to a birth rate increase. This line of reasoning, if one can call it that, was inspired by a long passage in The Corner, which boils down to: if your other dreams and goals are blocked, this might increase your focus upon and desire for parenthood. Obviously, there has to be a trade-off between this and the prudence borne of straitened circumstances that the article (and The Spectator one) point to.

And the Times piece warns that the baby boom will lead to an increased strain on nurseries, schools, etc. - just as public spending cuts are in the air. Oh dear.

Like many other people, I certainly feel less 'untrammelled' than I did twelve months ago.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Thoughts on The New

I can only think of one person amongst my friends who might relish new beginnings more than I do. A few things over the past few days have turned my thoughts to 'the new' (typical academic prose gambit: take an adjective and turn it into a noun preceded by the definite article), so I thought a good way to start this new blog would be to try and work out what I want to say about them.

I went to a wedding this weekend - an event that simultaneously signals a new beginning and a formalisation and continuation of an existing commitment. Some of my friends commented that the number of traditional choices that had been made by the couple surprised them slightly - but at the same time, there were some fresh sparkly touches. (Something old, something new...)

It was a lovely day, and very relaxed, giving me the opportunity to catch up with some friends. I particularly enjoyed chatting with one of these friends about her job working in marketing for a large and prestigious newspaper, and about the way we might be headed. My automatic reaction to the accelerating changes we are seeing occur in the delivery of media 'content' (the very phrase itself indicating how quickly we've altered some of our vocabulary and mental mapping in relation to this area) is a negative one: I resist it, dismiss it as a gimmick or a cynical ploy, adopt David Simon's view that it is part of the destruction of in depth reporting (and, more broadly, complex thought), etc. etc.

It may be partly my recent experience of working in an office and absorbing myself in systems, efficiency, effective means of communication within a large institution, promotion through a website, and so on, that meant that when I spoke to someone whose job it is to adapt to and employ these new developments and possibilities, I found myself getting excited about the possibilities these developments might afford.

One thing I wanted to find out about was RSS feeds. They've registered with me, and the idea of not having to 'trawl', as the saying/selling goes, through my cycle of sites certainly appeals to me. A good and quick way to go nuts whilst unemployed is to bounce between job websites, e-mail accounts, and reports about the recession, in between googling phrases like 'need a job', 'why are there no jobs' (and darker things in darker moments) (does anyone else treat google like a new form of oracle?). So my friend and I talked a little about the benefits and possibilities of RSS feeds (and I saw some on a sexy phone), and I resolved to give my browsing a bit of a tidy-up next time I went online.

The next day I went to the cinema. Perhaps I was kidding myself, but I felt supersharp about spotting contemporary cultural symptoms in the trailers and adverts. Showcase, like the Odeon, are marketing a new loyalty card. Unlike the Odeon card though, the Showcase one is, in a particularly naked way, addressing its audience as one that is canny and clued in in relation to the private lives of celebrities. The card is called an 'Insider' card or something similar though. (I don't think the campaign pulls it off though. A title card before the ads began asking patrons to turn their pagers to silent didn't help.) A new Renee Zellwegger picture indicates the return of the diabolical child movie (I wonder how much the explanations offered and the ones that they're hiding differ from those identified by Andrew Britton in the 70s). Another apocalypse movie is on the horizon (aren't we all feeling a bit apocalyptic at the minute??).

The movie itself was District 9, something I've been waiting to see for a long time. It made a strong impression. I'll have to re-visit it to see how much of its impact was sound and fury, but I suspect it's a masterpiece or something close. I don't think it handles as well as Children of Men (the film that, for me, it most strongly recalls) its blend of a fascinating near-future realised through an overwhelming mise-en-scene and a captivating narrative premise that drives a recognisable popular-cinema plot. District 9 slightly outstays its welcome, loosening its grip slightly in the final half hour or so, but it still demands serious attention.

As someone who spends a lot of his time looking at old movies and (slowly!) constructing arguments about their value and sometimes their superiority to contemporary filmmaking, it was thrilling to have a cinema experience that made me want to go out and write about what I had just seen for positive reasons - not because what I had seen was evidence of creative bankruptcy or simply symptomatic of the contemporary moment.

Last night I spent a lot of time getting googled up. I set up Google Reader. As usual, there's a gap between what you expect and want the thing to be able to do and what it can do. I can get feeds from, but nothing that exactly replicates the 'film' search that I depress myself with about once an hour whilst online. No RSS there I'm afraid. Oh well. Perhaps it wouldn't really do for the official website of a sixty year old man to cater to shiny young things.

I also set up my blog - agonising for a long time over my url (is a statement too strident/cloying?; a clever thing would get old quite soon). A small example of new media not simply providing new bottles for old wine, but obliging one to make decisions about the 'container' that didn't hitherto exist. (I often find myself opting for the most unobtrusive, 'vanilla' layouts for customised pages, blogs, etc - itself, of course, a form of vanity.)

Today I set up a homepage that gathers together a fair amount of useful stuff. I feel quite good about it. We'll see how the 'to-do' 'gadget' works out. I suspect a piece of paper might do the job better. And Radio 4, listened to on the radio, will remain my principal source of news.

And I actually got around to writing the blog! Not as profound or articulate as the exciting little cluster of embryonic thoughts in my head, but it'll do. I'll save the polish for elsewhere. And there's another fresh start spent. Oh well.