Archive for March, 2010
I love these cut-up, punched-out maps—mountains within mountains! (Also: this post demonstrates the crucial importance of great photography and presentation. I’ll bet these maps would look kinda lame straight-down with the flash on.)
Oh why hello, Snarkmarket. I know my posting has been positively Thompsonian lately. It will get better! But in the meantime, please accept this offering: a new very short story, written this weekend and flash-edited with the help of a few dozen Twitter peeps.
There’s a book I like by this French philosopher and literary critic named Gerard Genette, called The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence. Basically, the idea is that with any work of art, you’ve got both its irreducible, thingy-ness — the physical shape and form and variation that’s “immanent” to our particular experience of however it was originally made or (especially) gets encountered by us — and this other ideal, imagined, almost Platonic form of the thing that “transcends” all of those particular experiences, but at the same time seems to hold them all together, too.
Weirdly, this distinction actually holds up better with modern artworks that get endlessly copied and translated and remade than with old-school plastic arts. I mean, with a painting like the Mona Lisa, or letters written in Lincoln’s hand, we have a sense that these things, the physical objects are unique, they have a particular location in a museum or private collection or whatever — they might have been cleaned up or dinged over the years, but they’re basically the same things that the artists originally made. They are “the real thing,” everything else is a copy, and if you can go and see these things on display, immanence and transcendence basically overlap and dissolve.
But what about a work of literature? What about a musical score? A manuscript autograph copy of either might be rare and special, but we don’t think that the novel or the symphony is IDENTICAL to those things, or is contained in them. Nor is it ever completely in the copy we own, the one we first read, the performance we loved the best. After all, it’s also in every other copy of the book, every other performance of that concert, every version and interpretation in countless variations and permutations. It’s there and it isn’t. All of those philosophical conundrums about Platonic ideas of chairs versus actual chairs, Descartes’s body/soul dualism, or Hume’s paradoxes about being the same person through an infinite succession of new experiences (biological and psychological), or every theological aporia about Jesus being fully God and fully human — even when you’ve moved past them as metaphysical problems, they pop back up once you start talking about media in the modern age. It’s crazy, but it’s true.
This is a very long philosophical frame for what could be a simple practical/cultural problem. In an age when consumers can choose among more variations than ever of a “single” artwork, in different media, formats, editions, how do we keep straight when we’re discussing aspects particular to those different “immanent” forms and the ones common to all of them, that actually stitch that “transcendent” ideal artwork together? Or should we even try?
The flashpoint for all of this is Amazon — who not so coincidentally, and unlike most retailers in history, deals in nearly ALL of the different media variations possible at the moment. Here’s a snippet of a terrific post by Jason Kottke, “The new rules for reviewing media”:
[T]raditional reviewers… focus almost exclusively on the content/plot, an approach that ignores much about how people make buying decisions about media today. Packaging is important. We judge books by their covers and even by how much they weigh (heavy books make poor subway/bus reading). Format matters. There’s an old adage in photography: the best camera is the one you have with you. Now that our media is available in so many formats, we can say that the best book is the one on your Kindle or the best movie is the one on your iPhone.
Newspaper and magazine reviewers pretty much ignore this stuff. There’s little mention of whether a book would be good to read on a Kindle, if you should buy the audiobook version instead of the hardcover because John Hodgman has a delightful voice, if a magazine is good for reading on the toilet, if a movie is watchable on an iPhone or if you need to see it in 1080p on a big TV, if a hardcover is too heavy to read in the bath, whether the trailer is an accurate depiction of what the movie is about, or if the hardcover price is too expensive and you should get the Kindle version or wait for the paperback. Or, as the above reviewers hammer home, if the book is available to read on the Kindle/iPad/Nook or if it’s better to wait until the director’s cut comes out. In the end, people don’t buy content or plots, they buy physical or digital pieces of media for use on specific devices and within certain contexts. That citizen reviewers have keyed into this more quickly than traditional media reviewers is not a surprise.
Sorry, Jason’s “Packaging is important” is making me tail back to Genette for a second. Another great idea he introduced is that of the paratext — all the writing around the writing in a book (e.g., the cover, the title and copyright pages, acknowledgments, indices, etc.) that we don’t usually think of as “the text” itself, but which actually identify the text (in a transcendent sense), that make it a “book” (in an immanent sense). It’s all part of it. If you’re a collector or a bibliographer, it turns out to be tremendously important.
Now I should note: the one case that I can think of where newspaper/magazine/traditional reviewers DO clue in to these experiential/media distinctions that Amazon reviewers have flagged and that Jason rightly thinks are important is with new translations and re-editions. This is where reviewers really do get a chance to say, yes, this new edition really is/isn’t worth your time, this translation is a lot more readable, this collection of essays just repacks stuff that’s already mostly available in another book. But it’s all content-driven. It doesn’t really get to the physicality of your experience with this media, which has always been taken more seriously with film and music, and I think is beginning to be taken more seriously as books and magazines and newspapers and other reading material find themselves being likewise split asunder into a half-dozen or more readily available editions or formats. Literature even has new problems with older, out-of-copyright books — why should I spring for a new trade paperback of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience if I can download a PDF or EPUB of one or more free 19th– and early 20th-century editions on Google Books?
So why is Amazon the flashpoint for this, and not Google? Again, Amazon sells in every format: print books (in hardcover and paperback) , digital books, audio books, as well as movies in DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital download formats, so they’re the most likely place for people to compare between different media experiences. But more than that, Amazon has built its own reputation and that of the products it sells on the strength of its reviews and recommendation engine. And when folks don’t like the immanent side of their experience with a particular kind of media, they take it out on the review — which in turn jolts the transcendent artwork, in all its forms.
The most well-documented case of this are Kindle readers, many of whom have taken to Amazon to savage new books whose publishers have delayed Kindle editions until after the hardcover is out. The most recent case of this is Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, but he’s far from the only one.
But it’s not just Kindle users. Merlin Mann notes with dismay how many reviewers of the new Blu-Ray releases of The Godfather Trilogy have harped on its grainy visuals, especially compared to newer releases:
Too dark, too overexposed, too red, too yellow, and waaaaaaaaaay too grainy, waaaaaah!!! complain a phalanx of disappointed 1080p fetishists, whose gold standard for cinema seems to be the director’s cut of Speed Racer…
Not to be a meta-snob, but I’m getting the impression that Blu-ray’s giant format and astoundingly clear resolution has begun breeding an aggressive new species of insane home theater nerd. With philosophical crazy uncles in our previous generations’ hi-fi hobbyists and reel-to-reel pedants, some of these folks seem way more into a good demo than a cohesive piece of art. And their dipshit reviews reflect that.
In the case of the early Godfather movies, the visual quality of the restoration is a combination of the film being older, the original negative and several early workprints being treated like crap, and cinematographer Gordon Willis having intentionally shot the movie dark as all hell. But this is context that many of the negative Amazon reviewers either don’t have or wouldn’t care about.
I think this signals, though, what the real problem is. There is a mismatch between what some people (a subset of shoppers and amateur reviewers) are doing and what other people (another subset of shoppers, and most retailers) expect. Some people — and I think Alan Jacobs articulates this POV excellently — think that a review should be, above all, an intellectual and aesthetic engagement with the transcendent work, removed as much as possible from the immanent details of the attendant capitalist transaction. And I would say that this is a whole, established, totally legitimate, and culturally valuable genre of the review. It’s just that now it’s banging up against this other thing.
Print media has hosted lots of other kinds of reviews, too. It used to be pretty typical for a reviewer to comment on the moral effect (or danger) of a work — it’s less common now, but hasn’t gone away. And of course, there are the cheerleader, “I loved it/I hated it,” star-laden reviewers that don’t exactly probe deeply into a film’s texture, or show you how a film that everyone’s praising for its superficial virtues actually harbors deep flaws.
Over time, we’ve learned how to distinguish between these different kinds of reviews, and tailor our expectations accordingly. In the new regime of exploding media, where we find ourselves reading a review for a format that we can’t even use, that we’ve never even seen, where the recommendation algorithms haven’t figured out how to make distinctions quite so sophisticated, and where we still have this whole immanence/transcendence problem that’s dogged us for centuries to boot –
– Well, is it any wonder that we are all just a bit confused?
I really liked Ryan Sholin’s Q&A with Rex Sorgatz not only because I like Ryan and Rex, but because it surprised me! It’s less about internet media and more about organizations, and Rex’s experimental new model.
I’m reading this mind-blowing book on the history of capitalism right now, and of course a big part of the story is the rise of a bunch of weird new forms of human coordination. Reading Ryan and Rex, I feel a little itch at the back of my brain: it’s happening again.
Also, at one point Ryan says…
I’m trying to go all Robin Hood’s merry men with the metaphor here, but it sounds more like an all-star posse of Robins.
…to which I reply: it is all about an all-star posse of Robins!
In the past month or so, since Apple’s iPad was announced, there’s been an increasing pushback against the idea that the tablet will be a meaningful stand-in for a dedicated e-reader. In particular, it seems to have really disappointed folks in the e-reading/publishing/new media community, many of whom expected a lot from the Jesus tablet — in some cases expected diametrically opposed things. It’s more ambient complaints than a specific detailed argument, but the general beef goes something like this:
- iBooks is an afterthought, it’s US only and doesn’t even come pre-installed;
- Nobody’s going to want to read a book when they’re constantly tempted to check their mail, play games, and browse the internet instead;
- A lot of the “enhanced ebook” demos so far look pretty crummy (this unites folks who prefer plain-text and people who wanted enhanced books to be more interactive);
- It’s a closed system, which means Apple controls it, Apple could censor what you read, and keep you from taking your books anywhere else;
- Nobody reads anymore anyway / Big-time e-readers have already invested in their Kindles / Real readers like print.
Now if you’re playing along at home, with the exception of the first, none of these criticisms are really iPad-specific. #2 is the supposed reason people don’t and won’t read on their laptops or smartphones, #3 is the criticism of early efforts at interactive books on the web or CD-ROM, #4 is the iPod, and #5 is just a repurposed version of the anti-Kindle argument, except here it’s strangely (but only occasionally) mounted in defense of the Kindle.
So here’s my argument as to why books on this thing will work. It doesn’t have much to do with the future of Flash or HTML 5 video (or any of the other stuff brainy futurist web people think about), the agency vs retail model of selling books (or any of the other stuff brainy futurist publishing folks spend a lot of time thinking about) or with the future of multimedia unbooks (or any of the other stuff brainy futurist new media folks spend a lot of time thinking about). It’s all based on my imagined psycho-anthropology of an average iPad user.
I’ll start with an axiom. The iPad is not intended to be an ebook reader, or even a music or movie player, or even really a cloudbook. In fact, it’s better if you stop thinking about it in terms of the kind of media you’d like to play or create on it at all. It’s not really about that. Or rather, media is only incidental to it.
It’s better if you start thinking about it in terms of the geography of the human body. This is how the iPhone worked. It had great software, handled all sorts of different kinds of media. But its real success in incorporating all of those different media, and different applications, is that it conquered what had been a highly competitive place on the human body. It conquered your pocket.
It’s not all that different from the kitchen gadgets we see advertised on late-night TV. “You can get rid of all of these gadgets, replace them with the ______, and finally get your counter space back!” It’s weird because we don’t think about our computing devices this way. But that’s really how they work.
The iPad obviously can’t fit into your pocket. And Apple wants you to keep your iPhone there. No. The iPad wants to conquer your backpack.
It wants you to leave your laptop, your books, your magazines, your notebooks, your portable DVD player, your netbook, your Kindle all at home. Or it wants you to never buy them. It wants to monopolize your mobile bag. If not at the airport, then definitely for short trips.
Now, let’s say I buy the first-gen, cheapest available iPad, the model that comes with 8GB 16GB of memory and Wi-Fi only. What is the geography of this device? I could use it at home, as a second computer, especially if I don’t have a laptop. But if I do have a laptop, either the laptop or the iPad may begin to feel redundant. The iPad’s superior portability suggests that it’s best used as a portable device.
But unless you sprung that extra dough for 3G, or you’ve got a local café with decent free wi-fi, you’re stuck with whatever you’ve got on packed away in local storage on the device already. This might be a movie, sure, or music, or a video game. But you don’t have very much room for a lot of any of these things. The only thing you really have a lot of room for is text.
(This is actually why I suspect plain-jane, text-only books are going to have a long life as the de facto default for a while. Dedicated reading machines like the Kindle or Nook can’t support anything else, and more versatile portables like the iPad don’t have the built-in memory or everywhere-internet to support a whole library of these things. Add our inertial devotion to document formats like PDF and it may be a very long time before multimedia books or magazines become mainstream items.)
Now, video games are a good example of another phenomenon that bodes well for books on the iPad. I’m going to call this “the principle of adjacent media.” Here’s the theory. When you buy a heavily multifunctional device, you usually have a fairly limited set of things you’d like to do with it. For instance, when I bought my iPhone, I wasn’t really in the market for a video game machine. I wanted something like could make calls, keep up with email and my calendar, browse the internet, maybe play music and show photos and maybe even read some books. I like video games, but I was pretty much web– and console-only; I never even had a Gameboy, or bought a game for my computer. In other words, video games had no claim on my pocket. But soon enough, I said, what the heck, and bought a few games for my iPhone.
That’s what’s going to happen to books on the iPad. For every user who does a bunch of reading on their iPad, you’re going to get a dozen who are going to buy books based on the “what-the-heck” factor. It’ll be better than buying a book in an airport, or at a shopping mall. The store will be right there. There will be several of them. (iBooks, Kindle, B&N and more will all have apps.)
And I bet that the relative weakness of the entry-level devices, the low memory and lack of 3G internet, will all actually drive iPad owners towards reading. First it will conquer their bags. And when they run out of internet, then they won’t have anything else to do.
(That, at least, is my wholly speculative theory about the whole thing.)
NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute is seeking the top ten works of journalism from the last decade. To seed their quest, they’ve selected more than 80 journalistic enterprises. I’ve tried to retain a detached cynicism, but I actually really, really, really like the list they’ve put together so far. It includes several of my favorites — James Fallows’ Blind into Baghdad, This American Life’s Giant Pool of Money, David Barstow’s Pentagon propaganda investigation, Atul Gawande’s look at the high cost of health care in McAllen, TX, and even Ezra Klein’s blog!
Bonus points for including the Daily Show.
Alex Chilton passed away late last night. Chilton had been a teen pop star for the Memphis soul/pop band The Box Tops, had a strong, varied solo career as a writer, singer, and producer, but was best known as the primary force behind the legendary 70s power-pop band Big Star.
There was always something self-deprecating about the group. Who names their band “Big Star” and calls their first album “#1 Record”? But Big Star is one of that small handful of recording artists — like, say, The Velvet Underground, Nick Drake, or The Pixies — who never broke through to mainstream success, only put together a handful of records, and yet managed to make every single one of them essential.
Part of Big Star’s appeal was their versatility. If you loved 60s guitar-driven rock and roll, you could love Big Star. If you loved fun, up-tempo, well-crafted pop songs, you could love Big Star. But yes, a huge portion of their fan base was drawn from the people who loved the alternative bands Big Star had influenced, the “spent a chunk of the 80s/90s rewinding the cassette of Radio City and waiting for that boy/girl to call generation”:
Most of the folks above, I would guess, are older than 35 and younger than Chilton himself. But not that much younger. Chilton was born in 1950, and he was 59 when he died. With better living/luck/genes, he might have seen his threescore and ten, but he was not, by any means, a talent cut down in the flower of youth. If you are a member of the generation I mention above, the people in the bands you like are starting to die not because of heroic abuse of drugs/alcohol, but because they are getting old. Unfortunately, that means that any one of us could be next. That’s the scary part.
I’m not yet 35, and Big Star was long-defunct before I was even born. For many of us younger fans — and even many older ones — we loved Big Star and Alex Chilton not least because we loved the people who loved them, who introduced us to him. All you need to do is to listen to Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Kanga-Roo,” Elliot Smith’s take on “Thirteen,” or The Replacements’ loving ode, “Alex Chilton.” They were perfect a band to be a second-order fan — you coud hear them and simultaneously hear both The Beatles from the 60s and Wilco in the 00s, all enmeshed together. The fact that folks like Buckley and Smith are themselves gone compounds the sense of loss.
We also embue into Big Star the love of our friends and fans who clued us in. For the most part, you never heard Big Star on classic rock radio; there were no biopics or Behind the Music documentaries; no Volkswagen commercials or key placements in a movie soundtrack; in many cases, you couldn’t even get your hands on the albums themselves at a record store. So virtually everyone had a friend who slipped them an album, dropped a track onto a mixtape, or otherwise introduced them into their lives. Very little music comes to us personally, but Big Star almost always did. Carrie Brownstein testifies:
I first heard of Alex Chilton in the Replacements song that bears his name. “Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes around… They say, ‘I’m in love with that song.’ ” Later, Paul Westerberg sings, “I never travel far without a little Big Star.” When I used to tour with my band, I would think of that Replacements tune as we traveled from one town to another. Touring is fragmentary and disjointed by nature, and you have to find home in what little there is of it — in your favorite song, in your favorite band — and then I’d think of Westerberg’s own anchor, Alex Chilton. I knew then that I was part of a continuum; one of longing, of listening, of hoping and of always reaching, both forward to the unknown and back to what I hoped would always be there. And I felt like I’d found my home.
Musicians and fans have always passed around Big Star songs and albums like a secret handshake. When you found out someone hadn’t heard #1 Record or Radio City, you were so excited to provide that missing link, to pass on all the glimmer, the jangly guitar, the big chords, the melodies, the American anthems that let you keep your teenage self — for some of us long since faded — close, etched upon your skin. And suddenly, you realized that every great band or musician you love also loved Alex Chilton and Big Star; it’s certain. More importantly, it’s crucial. I remember seeing Elliott Smith cover “Thirteen,” and I wanted to climb inside every line of that song, to be both the lover and the beloved, the outlaw, to merely exist in the wondrous realm somewhere between Smith’s version and Big Star’s.
Those links, those anchors, are breaking. That’s what we’re mourning.