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.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent. You've summed up how I felt when I read what they wrote about Apple products: "Apple products tell the world you are creative and unique. They are an exclusive product line only used by every white college student, designer, writer, English teacher, and hipster on the planet." Self-reflexive - I know it's stupid that I spent extra money to buy what is essentially just quite a pretty machine, laughing along with the people that are laughing at me for doing it makes me feel more like it was a self-aware decision and less like Apple just bought a little bit of my soul.

    (I still like my mac much better than my work Dell laptop, which is ugly and loud, but has a very good screen)