Culture Vultures

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In this wildly illustrated transcript of a talk delivered earlier this year at a Reason conference, Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie gives thanks for a world in which Elvis enters the stage to the strains of Thus Spake Zarathustra, Phillies Blunts get packed with weed, and Sesame Street's Bert stands shoulder to shoulder with bin Laden. (In PDF format).

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  1. This talk made me feel good when I read it some months ago. Free thought spreads and creates more tangible freedoms. Beautiful.

    Now I am less enthusiastic. The Meaning Machine can certainly reassemble bits of culture in entertaining ways. It gets tiresome, too. Every word becomes a reference to some previous and pre-judged phenomenon, like in a Julian Sanchez story.

    …See what I mean?

    As we try to be clever and funny and one-step-ahead, we spend more time keeping track of what everybody else is up to. The quest for self-definition and for finding people who get our jokes makes us more like the scolds and busybodies we alternately mock. Although we lack the power of law to enforce our opinionated judgements, the mechanism seems uncomfortably similar to the state culture police.

    With the economic battle sufficiently decided, we have shifted our mental powers toward explaining why people painting their houses purple should visit the therapist. We argue tastes. Primacy of a particular taste is hard to demonstrate in physical terms; it is unlike wages or incarceration rates. Really, there is no problem to solve.

    I can still laugh and feel special when I get the jokes. Yet, all the wit proves and improves little. The more time I spend at it, the more hollow it rings. But maybe there’s nothing left to do. That’s entertainment.

  2. Mark:

    I don’t know that everyone is trying to keep track of what everyone else is doing. You just say what you think is clever, funny, or whatever, and those that get it, get it, others don’t, so what? It makes it that much easier to find your niche in the social world. Since there is no universal standard, people have to make their own, and it is possible to do that without necessarily scoffing at others.

  3. If I was smart enough, I’d write a Reason parady in which every story had the phrase “and so consumers construct their own meaning blah blah blah”

    It does get old after a bit. I sympathize with the general idea, but sometimes it seems like you’re saying, “see? by listening to this CD, I’m just as artistic and creative as the person who wrote the music!” No, you’re not.

  4. Why is this in PDF format? It looks like a Word Document to me. Are we supposed to print this out or something?

    “Save as HTML” would have been more versitile Word output…

    Why do people even use PDF?

  5. This reminds me, I heard in the 80s that a riot was started in Tibet by an American tourist wearing a Sgt Bilko t-shirt. The people thought it was a picture of the Dalai Lhama, whose image had been banned. They do resemble each other, though I think I’d prefer the wisdom of Phil Silvers.

  6. Exploiting the easy allusiveness of the past does not require “creative intellectual energy” any more than does pasting two pieces of paper together: by rearranging and reformulating things from the past, you cannot help but create something coherent – our brains are magnificently adept at generating relationships (and thus
    meaning) between widely disparate ideas.

    No where is this illustrated better than in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, where a sequence of 15 nonsense syllables nestled in the middle of Kinbote’s annotation can be made to uncode the entire book with enough logodaedaly.

    The rest of the article seems rather obvious, as the author himself knows. Refashioning your experiences is inevitable – it’s how identity emerges and transmutes itself over time.

  7. Steve in CA, I think you’re missing the point. It’s that the culture is, ultimately, interactive (as long as it’s free), and I’m not merely talking about those who use others’ art within theirs. The people who create CDs try to get consumers to buy them, while those that buy them just as certainly create the market that determines what music will be made. But many would-be custodians of our culture treat the whole marketplace as if it’s about a few people on top deciding what everyone will see and hear.

  8. Great speech. I love how Reason combines laissez-faire economics with an appreciation of pop culture.

    Some comments:

    (1) Gillespie could have made his point around Toy Story better if he had referenced the intention of its creators. John Lasseter has said in interviews that Sid was not meant to be “bad” or “evil” – they toned down his behavior to make him more like an exhuberant adolescent. Woody et. al. interpret his actions as evil because they’re conscious of their own existence, whereas Sid is oblivious.

    Not that I disagree with Gillespie’s point. I live with a teenage stepdaughter who stars in a local production of Rocky Horror and with four young children who have stripped every Barbie they own naked.

    (2) The discussion of fan and slash fiction could have benefited with a digression on American corporation’s enforcement of copyright laws, which make fan fiction something of a black market activity. (See the Fan Fiction section at Chilling Effects for a good rundown: http://www.chillingeffects.org/fanfic/)

    Years ago, the now-defunct Mangajin (http://www.mangajin.com/) ran an article on the phenomenon of Japanese doujinshi, manga (comics) based off of copyrighted manga or anime characters. Japanese companies are more tolerant of these “infringements” – indeed, doujinshi conventions flourish in broad daylight – because they help the corporations sell merchandise, which is where their true bread and butter is. Much doujinshi puts popular characters, such as Ranma or Sailor Moon, in sexually explicit situations – something which in our largely Puritanical Western culture is more likely to earn you a cease-and-desist letter(http://www.chillingeffects.org/fanfic/notice.cgi?NoticeID=534).

    I don’t see this as a legal issue – legally, copyright holders have broad rights in deciding what does and not not constitute “legitimate” fan fiction – but it adds an interesting dimension to the cultural battle portrayed by Gillespie. Franchises like HP and The Matrix have made fan fiction a pressing issue in our society, and I expect we’ll see similar turf wars in the future as fan authors do supposedly “untoward” things to the characters we love.

  9. To answr my own open-ended non-question, copyright holders will find they have no *effective* control over their works. Consider the Harry Potter cease-and-desist order I posted above, in light of how many HP slash sites are still up and running (http://directory.google.com/Top/Adult/Arts/Online_Writing/Fiction/Fan_Fiction/Books/Harry_Potter/). They even have their own awards (http://www.sarcastic-muse.com/hpsa/index2.html)!

  10. If the HP company was smart, they’d let the people who create slash fiction. etc make money off of it. In return for a chunk of the change. It’s just like sampling in pop music.

    My issue with this revolves around the question of originality. Kirk and Spock are characters created by other people. It’s great that they mean so much to people that these people have constructed stories where Kirk and Spock can practice their manly love, but what about y’know original characters? The universe they’ve made with the characters is still pretty much taken wholesale from someone else’s work. At a certain point, it just doesn’t feel particularly original or insightful. Someone out there needs to create the new characters that mean just as much as Kirk and Spock. There’s a fine line between the sampling done by some hip hop artist and the sampling done by say PDiddy. It’s just a copy of a copy of a copy…

  11. Joe: I agree that the scoffing is not mandatory, but it seems an irresistable tendency. The preceding discussions of originality and legitimacy are “taste arguments” that alternately interest and bore me.

    Once a person finds a niche and establishes a clique, the hierarchy of “cool” is established through witty references and reformulations. It is an interest, a hobby, and part of an identity. But is there any more to it than “I’m cool and you’re not”?

    Consider Bilko angering Tibetans. Mistaken assumptions combined with restricted expression seems pithy. It isn’t about the merits of Bilko, it’s about liberty. What Bilko meant to the guy wearing the shirt seems better left to the Bilkophiles.

  12. I saw the Grateful Dead on a NPR station fundraiser last night. I don’t know how grateful the Dead are, but I’m sure as hell grateful they are.

  13. How is the Larry Hagman/ Ceausescu example NOT an instrumentalist argument, and why is it cited in the pro-expressive view argument? “Dallas” caused the overthrow of Ceausescu? If I roll my eyes much further, surely my retinas will detach! 🙂

    Also, I would point out that Mr. Gillespie makes an overly simplified argument (I will not use the ‘s’-word!). Saying that there was a decrease in the violent crime rate during the Nineties while there was an increase in the amount of violence depicted in the arts and media demonstrates that there is no relationship between the two is like saying that birds and airplanes in flight are a clear demonstation of the fallacy of gravity. There are far too many variables to control in any social science survey, any number of which can have a mitigating effect on the observability of the phenomenon of interest, as Mr. Gillespie certainly must know.

    The pure expressive view is just as erroneous as the pure instumentalist notion. As far as I can tell (AFAICT?), reality is more like the feedback loop sketched out by anon@2:35 AM.

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    DATE: 01/26/2004 02:43:18
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