What could possibly be better than David Byrne giving advice to musicians for the digital age? Why, it would be him interviewing Thom Yorke about the music industry and Radiohead’s odd semi-revolutionary digital experiment In Rainbows. Needless to say, this is going to go very well in next semester’s Media, Technology, and Sociology course. I’m overwhelmed with the possibilities…
A few weeks ago there was a ‘race incident’ where I teach. It ballooned into a campus-wide conversation, with a few panels and lots and lots of questions. The thumbnail sketch of it is that a student and her boyfriend showed up to a ‘Celebrity Rehab’ costume party in blackface, as Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown. (Bobby wasn’t in rehab, though. Just Whitney. FYI.) From what I’ve heard, the Black Student Association mobilized quickly and approached the student in as respectful and non-confrontational way as could be expected, and the woman went to the bathroom to take off the make-up.
I went to one of the campus-wide conversations and it was a tense but polite affair. Many of the students were thoughtful and I learned a lot. One thing that bothered me is that students wanted for-credit courses on race, but a student in my class stood up to stay what I was thinking: “There are classes like that, they’re called ‘Sociology.'” Overall, there has been a lot of talk about the history of minstrelism, and I am really happy there has been a campus-wide conversation about this. We had a few of my best class discussions about it in my theory course–particularly when we were talking about Du Bois a week afterwards. Naturally. (The affects of the ‘small’ movements at the dawn of freedom for African-Americans that W.E.B. discusses are truly chilling in their implications. The entire class was floored as we read it all.) I have thought about it a lot, and re-oriented my classes a bit around it, but didn’t tackle something…
Here’s one thing that I have not noticed: much of any discussion about the boyfriend. From what students told me, the woman was crying as she came to find out that the Philip Rothian human stain wouldn’t be wash away so easily. There is very little mention of the boyfriend, save for the fact that he didn’t seem to think that it was such a big deal, and resolutely refused to make the symbolic gesture of attempting to take off the make up, and just stood there as his girlfriend was in the loo. Such defiance makes me wonder about what his role was in the decision-making. Why has she been so assailed in the discussion, and why has he been ignored as a silent partner? Yes, he’s not a student, but still. I’m not saying that all men are racist or that there are no women who are racist (but here’s an interesting article about how the lack of racist women is undermining the KKK). (Nor am I attempting to further the binary oppositions of gender and sexuality.) However, it is within the realm of possibility that this student was a reluctant accomplice in her boyfriend’s boneheaded scheme. It’s not to absolve her role (or the role of her friends who let her leave her dorm), but I wonder if there is an unwillingness to address the issue of gender politics here. I’m not suggesting that the race-issues are unimportant but that they have, perhaps, eclipsed something else in the mix. I feel that it is a rare occasion when a gender issue of male dominance isn’t tackled on this campus. (And didn’t Bobby Brown have a whole power thing too? Arrested for battery?)
I’m not going to write too much about this, but I picked up an interesting yet complete fluff piece on advertising this morning. I can’t remember who said, ‘If you want to know what’s going on in culture read the business section,’ but s/he was right. (Actually, I think that it was my art professor David Hickey. We all showed up ready to read Frankfurt School and he had us read Isaish Berlin‘s Four Essays On Liberty and The Tom Peters Seminar instead.) Advertisers are better sociologists. They are like Sith lords, if you can handle the reference, working in pairs and sniffing out ‘cool‘ amongst unsuspecting teens. Anyway, the fluff piece comes upon the realization that there is ‘ad placement’ in television. I think the little chart they offer is interesting. There are a series of brands that show up the most in television and the usual suspects are there (e.g., Coke and Nike), but so are ‘The Pussycat Dolls Lounge’ and ‘Alpinestars Apparel.’ Hmpf. I can’t explain the latter, but the former has it’s own show on ‘The CW,’ which I would say makes for a curious–completely unmentioned –phenomena that would really get at the heart of the issue: the television content is the cultural product and the ‘duping’ of the viewer is beside the point. The article goes on to talk about how people don’t seem to notice the product placement within shows–and that the FCC might look into that (??)–but nothing about how people don’t seem to notice that they are watching shows about a product itself. (I have this vision of a Philip K. Dick-dystopia where people watch a Pepsi assembly line for entertainment… Although, to see how much people prefer not knowing what that kind of labor is like see David Redmon’s Mardi Gras: Made In China.) It seems like the perfect set up for my research on branding cities, which is much more about how an entire landscape gets commodified and co-opted (see Wallerstein…)
…a small point, however, belabored a bit too long.
It could, quite possibly, be a terrible admission on my part, but yesterday I used Google Books to find two quotes in books that were sitting right next to me. Need to find what Richard Florida has to say about careers for that chapter on ‘cultural workers?’ No problem. Lecturing on Veblen and you aren’t quite sure where that line is about how women are the ‘chief ornament’ of the pecuniary class? You’ve got it. Even when the pages aren’t included in the limited preview, it seems that the search allows you to see the page if you request something specifically. (And yes, Google Scholar includes Google Books in its searches.) It’s enough for me to have one of those dark moments wherein I realize that I could never be an academic if not for technologies like word processing (I keep an Underwood in my house to remind me of it), and mull further thoughts about how Google is secretly destroying all the information that it cannot index.