Archive for May, 2012
Reggie Watts is famous in the most interesting way. He’s been on my radar for many years, but for most of them, just a distant ping. Like, the technician reports: “Sir, we’ve got a beat-boxing bogie up near… wait. It’s gone.”
But in the past year or so, I feel like the pings have been coming faster, with a steadier rhythm, and to me that indicates a strong, resilient rise: slow-growing fame, deeply-rooted. Reggie Watts is on my radar again, and this time he’s not going away.
Now, this is a guy who is obviously super hard-working. It’s evident in his virtuosity, but also in the places he pops up: little conferences and big ones; video blogs and Conan; micro TEDx spinoffs and “the real TED” too:
I feel like Reggie Watts’ fame is way more interesting and durable than, say, Lady Gaga’s. It is, first of all, entirely his own creation—it feels like an asset he’s nurtured and grown, not an investment that someone else has made, contingent on certain outcomes. Also, it’s somehow scale-free: Watts is capable of performing on a big national late-night talk show and at a weird little regional conference, too. The former doesn’t intimidate him, and the latter doesn’t diminish him. Gaga is the opposite: she’s operating at a much bigger scale, sure, but she’s trapped there. Even if she wanted to perform at the, like, Shelby Township Asparagus Festival, I don’t think she could. Stripped of the sound and fury of big-time production, she is weakened, made mortal: Superman under a red sun. A large part of her fame (and I’m obviously using her as a proxy for a whole class of performers here) now derives precisely from the trappings of fame. Which is a crazy situation to get yourself into! That’s how you end up alone in a giant mansion, eighty-four million dollars in debt.
- More broadly, I think often about the flavors of fame—or almost a taxonomy of fame. I think about the ways that people become famous; the people to whom they are famous; the ways that their fame fades (or endures). I don’t have much of a theory going, except that being on a reality show is almost certainly the worst flavor of fame, and Reggie Watts’ flavor is almost certainly the best.
Sam Anderson takes to the pages of the New York Times to praise Roland Barthes, “the man who essentially created cultural criticism,” from the systematic analysis of novelistic structure to the TV recap:
Instead of constructing multivolume monuments of systematic thought, Barthes wrote short books built out of fragments. He was less interested in traditional coherence than in what he called jouissance: joy, surprise, adventure, pleasure — tantric orgasms of critical insight rolling from fragment to fragment…
His critical metabolism ran unusually high: he would flit from subject to subject, defining new fields of interest (semiology, narratology) only to abandon them and leave others to do the busywork. He treated canonical French works with such unorthodox flair it drove conservative professors crazy…
In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France — a sort of mission statement for the most prestigious academic post in the country — Barthes announced that he aspired above all to “forget” and to “unlearn” and proposed, as a kind of motto, “no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom and as much flavor as possible.”
I have a hard time giving up knowledge so easily — and really, Barthes did too. (I think it’s mostly the pretense to knowledge, the use of knowledge as a cudgel, that he saw as the problem.)
The part I probably love best and most fully endorse is the section on what a critic is supposed to do:
“Mythologies” is often an angry book, and what angered Barthes more than anything was “common sense,” which he identified as the philosophy of the bourgeoisie, a mode of thought that systematically pretends that complex things are simple, that puzzling things are obvious, that local things are universal — in short, that cultural fantasies shaped by all the dirty contingencies of power and money and history are in fact just the natural order of the universe. The critic’s job, in Barthes’s view, was not to revel in these common-sensical myths but to expose them as fraudulent. The critic had to side with history, not with culture. And history, Barthes insisted, “is not a good bourgeois.”
The pairing of these things, the genuine jouissance and the relentless critical awareness, the ruthless crusade against the conventionally obvious, is what makes it all work.
Never just a cheerleader. Never just a killjoy. Something beyond either. And listing always in favor of flavor.
PS: Mythologies was just published in a terrific new edition/translation which is like twice as long as the bowdlerized version we’ve had in English for forty years. That’s the occasion for the essay.
Michael Sippey riffs on Jennifer Egan’s new short story that takes the form of a list of lessons, each 140 characters or less. I just read the collated first installment over on the New Yorker site and loved it—surprise, it’s totally a spy thriller!
Of course, it’s always a bit galling when an established writer invents media better (and more beautifully) than the media inventors. But that just means it’s time to up our game.
Anton Chekhov via Derrick Leon via David Markson via Reading Markson Reading:
You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem, and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist.
Nico Muhly is the best blogger. He consistently delivers weird cool insights into creative processes and creative organizations, especially within the strange realm of high culture, and he always does it with loose limber language. It’s such fun, especially when you go from stuffy ballerinas to shuffling wombats in a single post.
Just tweeted this, but I like it so much it bears repeating here: The Listening Machine, a 24/7 stream of music generated live, based on the activity of 500 Twitter users in the UK.
Here’s the trick: it’s actually good music. In fact I think it’s beautiful—though keep in mind I’m a huge Steve Reich fan. I could listen to this for hours. I probably will.
Glance down at the little visualizations of the music’s inputs. It’s so easy to make a project like this opaque and alien…most of them are. Here, they made it clear and lovely instead. Bravo.
Randomly clicked on a NYT profile of the “power players of New York City”—I think maybe it was an accident; maybe I meant to find out about The Avengers’ opening weekend and my finger slipped on the trackpad—and my favorite entry by far, by far, is… the duo that designs the subway cars.
Now that’s influence.
The “how I read” genre is really delivering the goods lately. Snarkmarket favorite Jenna Wortham writes up her daily routine for The Atlantic Wire, and the whole thing is a fun read, but two parts jumped out at me.
First, she’s turned Twitter into an almost tactile medium:
I rely heavily on text alerts to keep me from missing important tech news. I’ve set a few select Twitter feeds to push their tweets to my phone via SMS from 7 in the morning till 2 at night. It drives my friends, family and everyone I’ve ever dated absolutely crazy, but it works as a kind of early warning system for news. If there’s big news breaking in the tech world, the rapid-fire series of pings clues me in. I’m a big fan of making my phone do as much work as possible in delivering relevant information to me, instead of me having to go out and fetch it constantly, and this is my best hack for that. Plus, I like knowing that I’m not likely to miss out on some big news event – and it’s never let me down. (When Steve Jobs died, for example, I was in my evening writing workshop, but I could feel my phone blowing up in my bag. So I fished it out of my bag, saw the tweets and bolted for the office.)
Two, Jenna totally dances the flip-flop:
While I skim [the tech blogs], I take notes the old-fashioned way: With a fine-point Sharpie and a stack Post-it notes. I do a lot of pattern matching — emerging themes among new start-ups, the types of companies that are getting funded, a VC or entrepreneur catches my eye — and make a note or a list, and I keep these in a row on my desk for easy reference. […] I often take photos of these handwritten notes and file them in a separate folder on my iPhone for easy perusal later.
Screen to paper back to screen again. Now just imagine if Jenna compiled all those photographed notes into a mosaic and printed it out, poster-size…