Tag Archives: Non-Fiction

Marc Woodworth & Ally-Jane Grossan – How to Write About Music

 How to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers

Marc Woodworth & Ally-Jane Grossan, EditorsHow to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers (Bloomsbury 2015)

The implicit premise of the book is really “how to get paid to write about popular music in a journalistic setting“.  This is not a book that talks about how to publish a book about music (biography, academic text, etc.).  It does not deal with getting a job writing the text for programs to euro-classical orchestral concerts, as just one more example.  While much of the book admirably tries to offer tips on the mechanics of writing for newspapers, magazines and large web sites, readers should bear in mind the underlying assumptions of the editors who put this together.

It is inevitable that all critics write from a certain cultural perspective.  Readers either share (or aspire to) that cultural perspective, or they don’t.  But more than that, professional critics for newspapers and magazines tend to get caught up in the economics of a popular music industry that, as a whole, makes money hyping one fad after another, covering the release of new recordings in order to generate demand for live performances.  The biggest problem this cultivates in critics is a tendency to foster a kind of privileged clique of insiders who are “up to date” on the latest fads.  Their writing accordingly spends as much — or more — effort developing and maintaining that sense of insider elitism as it does explaining and contextualizing the music that is ostensibly the focus of their written pieces.  A few contributors here acknowledge this and describe it as reasonable and inevitable.  But of course, it is neither of those things.  Yet writers do need to either choose the path of “professional” writing laid out in this book, or reject it, and only by overcoming the underlying assumptions and dictates of “capital”, that is, the large media businesses that pay professional music writers, can writers actively reject such dictates.  Of course, some writers are just shills who will say just about anything for a sufficiently large paycheck, or too dim-witted to comprehend what is going on.  But more insidious are those who simply internalize the dictates of their industry, constrained by dependence on their salary to not say anything against industry interests.  That can fairly be called “drinking the Kool-Aid.”  On the other hand, it is worth remembering that most critics who eschew remuneration do what they do to advocate for certain music against the commercial marketplace.  Critics often want to praise was has yet to or may never garner commercial success, which doesn’t necessarily reject elitism but merely shifts focus from an economic sphere toward a cultural/symbolic sphere.  So they don’t get off the hook so easily either.

Another aspect of this book is its liberalism.  Liberalism describes the political outlook of nearly all the contributors, and especially the editors.  There is a pervasive belief that the post-WWII golden years of the working class — the time when pop/rock journalism was first created — represents the norm.  Such an outlook is the embodiment of liberalism.  People on both the political left and right of liberalism see the post-WWII years in the global West as a historical anomaly — but with different subjective reactions.  On the Right, the post-WWII welfare state was a tragedy, and they make attempts to return to a new gilded age, or even to outright feudalism.  On the Left, there is a desire to re-attempt a Paris Commune or other egalitarian utopia, which the welfare state was an attempt to stave off.  While in places some contributors acknowledge that popular music criticism of the type the book emphasizes is a uniquely post-WWII creation, it definitely stops short of acknowledging any sort of coherent theory of why that is.  So questions like the following are outside its scope: is popular music largely a creation of the working class and, if so, wouldn’t bourgeois capital therefore want to suppress or undermine working class aspirations in the long-run by under-funding and co-opting musical criticism?  Before WWII, there was something known as the “Cultural Front” and the theories of “Cultural Hegemony” or a “Culture Industry,” or even of a “Leisure Class” that drew connections like this on the political left.  On the flip side, around WWII and the dawn of the welfare state, you have people on the political right like Ayn Rand writing The Fountainhead to advocate for toppling an existing aristocracy to (de facto) install another, with a firm insistence that the reasons for doing this cannot be questioned (because “A is A” and this is “objectivism”, among other nonsense retorts), followed after the war by the open attacks of the McCarthy witchhunts that eliminated almost all viewpoints to the left of centrist liberalism.  With the ascendancy of conservatism during the neoliberal “austerity” age, the working class base for music criticism has shrunk along with the sort of journalistic outlets that went along with it.  In short, the economy as a whole has shifted away from the one that for a brief window of time supported a robust middle and working class base interested in “legitimate” popular music criticism (i.e., from a working/middle class perspective), and critics and readers seeking to bolster it during its decline necessarily see the conservative shift as a negative, while still retaining the elements of professional elitism that largely keeps them at a distance from the political left whose militancy once arguably brought about the conditions for it in the first place.

Anyway, the contributors to How to Write About Music surely have the editor’s implicit assumptions in mind.  Numerous contributors, for instance, mention writing on an amateur basis for free on a web site of your own creation.  Some even go so far as to praise the “democratization” that web sites provide in that respect (other contributors are clearly threatened by it).  They mention these things as they chafe against the narrowness of the questions posed to them by the editors of this book.  It is to the credit of the editors that they leave these things in the book.

A number of contributors here make the same joke: in order to survive as a music writer, you should have a trust fund.  In other words, the means for making a living doing professional music criticism are limited at best.  Give up hoping against the odds!  But those jokes kind of avoid the larger implications.  Mostly, this book is about the mechanics of the current music industry: how to submit a successful proposal to an editor, how to take notes for a concert review, examples of the most common formats for the most common things editors publish.  And much of that discussion is pretty shallow.  Most writers will intuitively understand that you can prepare to write a concert review by bringing a notepad to the concert and scrawling some notes, expanding upon them later.  The more interesting of these discussions of industry mechanics describe the editorial process and the various defenses of the status quo offered by editors who retain a large degree of control in that arena.  The short take home message, once summarized obliquely by David Graeber, is that you only get to do what you want (write about music!) if before and above that you are a salesperson.  If you can’t “sell” (pitch) to editors effectively, you will be denied access to the largest mass-media publishing platforms.  End of story.  Those parts of the book resemble Chad Harbach‘s MFA Vs NYC The Two Cultures Of American Fiction, which detailed the two leading commercial hubs in the United States for fiction publishing (see also the companion e-book, Vanity Fair’s How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding by Keith Gessen).  The editorial pitch process is driven by emotional “gut” reactions, not rational decision-making, and there is absolutely nothing like a meritocracy in play.  The editors of How to Write About Music do not intend to make that topic the focus of this book, and certainly never question editors who go along with that regime, but at the edges this emerges and the occasional statements along these lines provide some of the most valuable information documented here.  Yet implicit in much of the book is a crude and tentative attempt to disabuse readers of the myth of a meritocracy in the world of published music writing.

The writing samples, culled from books, magazines, etc. are generally underwhelming. This reviewer has been largely unimpressed with the 33 1/3 book series, which seems to range from tedious drivel to the mediocre, with a few exceptions.  It is therefore unsurprising that a book by and about music writers this reviewer finds to be mostly bad or mediocre would have limited appeal.  Even excerpts drawn from places beyond the 33 1/3 book series are no better, and tend to be from the likes of Alex Ross and other writers working for urban liberal publications, especially a few web sites like The Quietus (which this reviewer has largely dismissed as uninteresting liberal multiculturalist blather).

So, on the one hand, readers who accept the basic premises of this book may actually find a lot they like.  On the other hand, readers should very much question the basic premise of the book and what it represents.

William S. Burroughs – The Best of William Burroughs from Giorno Poetry Systems

The Best of William Burroughs From Giorno Poetry Systems

William S. BurroughsThe Best of William Burroughs from Giorno Poetry Systems Mercury 314 536 701-2 (1998)

Burroughs was the godfather of the Beats.  And yet, his extensive career giving spoken word recitations is, in a way, just as significant as his writings themselves (most of his readings were of his own writings) — setting aside entirely his sonic cut-up audio field recordings and mixed media visual artworks.  As a live performer, he worked his way through small venues, much like punk bands (and often in the same clubs that did punk shows).  His intonation, pacing and inflection did evolve though.  Listening to four CDs of material covering a long stretch of time reveals how he fine-tuned his delivery.  He mastered his sneering, nasal delivery, with certain words drawn out for effect, speaking often in a kind of deadpan but breaking from it regularly for emphasis.  And comparing these recordings from 1975 onward shows marked advancement over his 1960s recorded monologues.

Burroughs came from a fairly privileged upbringing and was highly educated.  He mostly used that background to more effectively mock rich elites and to astutely document what goes on in the world outside the realm of respectability.  He gets inside the self-important, smug and arrogant sense of entitlement in cutting, satirical narratives, which often explore basic countercultural themes and the realities of life for the poor.  His aloof, profane, magnificently unsentimental, and often scowling demeanor had a way of depicting vileness with an icy frankness that makes his accounts endearing, in their own startling and unexpected way, fostering a kind of cabal or union of outcasts and freaks who are onto the cons too.  As Barry Miles said about Burroughs in an interview,

“His overall concern was always to confront control systems and attack them.  In literature it was usually done through humour . . . where he would take ideas to some absurd length which breaks through all the normal boundaries of good taste and decorum and it was often hilariously funny.”

No doubt, Burroughs exudes a kind of political libertarian populism, but it runs close anarchism.  At his best (and this Best of collection surely lives up to delivering the man at his best) he could hilariously depict the “country simple” wisdom of the underclasses as fully aware of the grim power struggles playing out under the guise of “neutral” politics that just so happen to prop up elites (something that was most explicit in his essays and Cities of the Red Night).  Burroughs was always on the look out for new techniques to disrupt the smooth functioning of oppressive social structures, taking particular glee in uncovering the overlooked (if not explicitly hidden) and elemental institutional mechanisms that maintain such relations between people.  He can be delightfully ruthless in exposing the vile motives of the self-satisfied “pillars of the community,” like doctors, journalists, police, and so on.  Burroughs’ characters are sometimes surprisingly conventional, even as he takes a very unconventional approach to developing and introducing them.  Burroughs also knows how to deliver an iconic catchphrase, taking colloquialisms to new heights by building so much around them to contextualize their lasting value.  He can also summon a sense of paranoia like few others.  And all this is not to mention his pervasive interest in fringe theories: UFOs, orgone accumulators, and that sort of thing.

Burroughs’ writings were often picaresque, heavily influenced by Céline, but also drawing on the influence of Denton Welch, Rimbaud, Genet, Conrad and others.  The picaresque style lends itself to short — and humorous — readings, the excerpts able to stand on their own.  But from Welch, Burroughs also drew on an ability to describe the ordinary in an uncommon way, and how to reveal with honesty that which is obscured.  Burroughs is able to summon and expand on those qualities in his readings.

As to the actual recordings here, they are mostly arranged chronologically by the date the underlying text was published — irrespective of when the audio was recorded, to some extent.  Then the last disc features a segment called “Nothing Here Now But the Recordings,” which are not based on any previously published texts, but includes lectures and audio experiments, such as the “inching” technique Burroughs employed by manually moving magnetic audio tape through a recorder.

Burroughs actually made many, many commercially released recordings.  This set is exclusively material released on John Giorno‘s label Giorno Poetry Systems, often originally released on albums with contributions from many different performers (rather than exclusively from Burroughs).  There are many more Burroughs recordings out there, very few of which were ever sold in any quantity.  What is here focuses primarily on spoken word recitations, mostly readings of Burroughs’ own published writings.  The recordings not present here delve more fully into experimental sound collages (see Real English Tea Made Here) and collaborations with musical groups (see Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, The Black Rider).  But there are also various other spoken word albums Burroughs made that were simply made for other record labels (see Call Me Burroughs, Break Through in Grey Room, etc.).

Reading Burroughs is near mandatory.  But a complete picture of the man’s work requires exploring his other efforts, especially his audio recordings.  The Best of William Burroughs From Giorno Poetry Systems makes an ideal introduction to those audio recordings.  And just as to Burroughs’ outlook, a world that continues to lurch closer to a police state can stand to learn from Burroughs’ intelligent studies in ways to counteract those tendencies.

Slavoj Žižek – The Fragile Absolute

 Cover of: The fragile absolute or, Why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? The fragile absolute or, Why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for?

Slavoj ŽižekThe Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (Verso 2000)

Typically Žižek writes long and short books, with the shorter ones restating concepts he had introduced in longer works.  But The Fragile Absolute is a bit different in terms of being shorter but also developing (relatively) new concepts.  His views on christian atheism are significant enough that this book was reprinted years later as part of the publisher’s “Essential Žižek” series.  Yet for as important as the the core christian ideas are to the book, given its title, most of the first half or so scarcely mentions religion at all.  And for that matter, Žižek doesn’t ever mention Thomas J.J. Altizer‘s “death of god” theory, or Ernst Bloch‘s Atheism in Christianity (1968), which seem to set forth a similar frame of discussion.  Instead he starts with Alain Badiou‘s Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism (1998).  In short, Žižek’s thesis is that christianity offers a radical position that used “love” as a way toward universality.  Using his typical Lacanian psychoanalytic techniques, and a heavy reliance on Hegelian philosophy, he explores how a sense of duty in the christian concept of love — specifically Pauline agape (love as charity) — can rupture the duality of law and transgression and the pagan notion of life cycles built around a global social hierarchy (of each person and thing in its “proper” place).  In other words, he sees christianity as offering a significant step forward toward an egalitarian society by asserting that each individual has immediate access to (and the right to participate in) universality, without seeing it as “evil” when a person (or strata) no longer is satisfied with a position within an ordered social hierarchy (which inherently has masters who must be obeyed).  Žižek’s key arguments are as profound as ever, yet those could have been distilled to more potent essay or article rather than a book that comes across as rambling in the first half.

Carl Wilson – Let’s Talk About Love

Let's Talk About Love A Journey to the End of Taste (33 1/3)

Carl WilsonLet’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (33 1/3 #52) (Continuum 2007)

Carl Wilson tackles Céline Dion‘s album Let’s Talk About Love.  His approach is intriguing, based mostly upon the theories of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (particularly as set forth in his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste).  In essence, Wilson asks whether his distaste for her music is really a way to distinguish himself from her fan base.  While the basic premise of the book is worth reading about, Wilson stumbles a bit when going about applying the theory to the work of Céline Dion.  For one, Bourdieu was insistent that the point of his analytic framework was to expose systems of domination in order to permit them to be challenged.  Wilson, though, eschews that sort of purpose.  He notes that aspect of Bourdieu’s theory but glosses over it in his own analysis.  He instead ponders endlessly how her fame doesn’t make sense.  But it does!  The essence is that she supports modes of domination, providing a convenient coping mechanism for the victims of domination without challenging the oppression by the powerful.  She is therefore supported and promoted by those who benefit from that domination (key to her having a huge Las Vegas show).  Wilson skirts this issue.  Take this passage concerning her penchant for sentimentality:

“Her songs are often about the struggle of sustaining an emotional reality, about fidelity, faith, bonding and survival — continuity, that is, in the destabilizing flux of late capitalism.  While business and rebel-schmaltz stars alike tout self-realization, social negation and the delegitimation of traditional values, Céline’s music (like Nashville country) tends to prioritize ‘recognition and community,’ connection and solidarity.  Granted, she also promotes overwork, ambition and luxury, which is to say she’s still a pop star.  But in that matrix, sentimentality might be her greatest virtue.”  (p. 127).

Wilson is right that the palliative aspect of her sentimentality can be seen as a redeeming quality, but in positively noting that perspective he deflects attention from who benefits from it.  He recounts an amusing anecdote about how Jamaican gangsters often played her music loudly.  Isn’t the core of gangsterism the direct, physical expression of domination, just as Céline’s music is a facilitator of it through the more subtle economic and political mechanisms of late capitalism?  Gangsters liking it makes perfect sense when ideological alignment is considered.

There are many perspectives on Céline’s music that Wilson never quite considers.  He comes close for some.  He talks about how Céline appeals mostly to people who make use of her music, for weddings, events, and as the soundscape of life, not people (like professional critic Wilson) who scrutinize and analyze it.  Joe Boyd in his memoir White Bicycles, wrote about how in the 1960s folk music scene there was a divide between those like archivist Alan Lomax who pursued “gregarious” music meant for social events — sing-alongs and such — and record collectors more interested in virtuoso performers.  This is a very similar divide between Céline’s fans and Wilson and his cohorts.  But he does not really go there in the book.  Also, could it be that Céline’s music appeals to extroverts, while most music nerds are introverts? This is not to say that these other lenses are the correct ones, but rather that the way Wilson struggles to find an explanation for Céline’s appeal means that he never quite has the crucial insight that explains the divide between her fans and her many detractors.  Put more simply, this is why Wilson’s approach is unscientific and superficial.  He acknowledges that he lacks the funds to perform a large survey like Bourdieu (for that, look to the likes of Gerry Veenstra).  He would be better off looking to the style of Thorstein Veblen, but he disses Veblen and misquotes him (flattering himself by trying to coin the phrase “conspicuous production” in a way that is already subsumed by Veblen’s original theory of “conspicuous consumption”).

There are many passages of great insight in the book.  They unfortunately don’t hang together into a whole, and are offset by unfortunately blunders.  For instance, Wilson contrasts Céline with the Carpenters.  And yet, the Carpenters are actually credited by many with creating the genre of pop power ballads (“Goodbye to Love”) that are the core of Céline’s repertoire.

The extensive personal anecdotes that Wilson injects throughout the book are a distraction.  While those sorts of things can orient a reader to the ideology and perspective of the writer, Wilson is not as candid as he claims to be (for one, he points out that he writes for leftist publications, but his endless claims about misunderstanding Céline’s music is purely centrist liberalism).  The book would have been better without those digressions.  It could have stood to go much further into the application of Bourdieu’s theories as well.  What’s more, his eventual “review” of Let’s Talk About Love is limp and uninteresting.

In spite of its limitations, one hopes that Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste still encourages other writers to take up a similar approach to criticism.  There are few more intriguing ways to look at the nature of criticism.  (Actually, David Lee‘s The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field is a much more substantial book applying Bourdieu to jazz music and practice).

Astra Taylor – The People’s Platform

The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age

Astra TaylorThe People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (Metropolitan Books 2014)

“There is a war between the ones who say there is a war /
And the ones who say there isn’t”

Leonard Cohen, “There Is a War” from New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)

Filmmaker and sociologist Astra Taylor has written an excellent and much-needed book about Internet technology, culture and economics, critiquing the so-called “Web 2.0” phenomenon.  In the beginning of the book, Taylor sets up the supposedly false dichotomy of the debate about the Internet: techo-boosterism that sees everything about the Internet as great vs. Luddite anti-technology naysayers.  However the rest of the book reveals that dichotomy to be kind of a slight of hand distraction.  Taylor spends most of the book talking about how mainstream discussion of the Internet and its political and economic implications tends to be framed as a debate between the political center and the political right, with positions of the political left excluded.  Taylor tries to inject a leftist position.  So she critiques the likes of Lawrence Lessig for advancing what amounts to a Standard Liberal Position (i.e., the political center): finding the “right” amount of inequality.  Taylor, on the other hand, advances the (largely blacklisted) Standard Left Position, which seeks an egalitarian society.  She sees too much in common between the liberals, the fascists, the royalists, and the libertarian right, and therefore offers a politically different perspective, one that many people probably would agree with, except that they never hear it in the mass media.

She particularly objects to the neo-feudal aspects of “Web 2.0” that are premised on a neoliberal, techno-libertarian obsession with creating tycoons and massive inequality, without a democratically-controlled government to act as a check on private power, and tries to reveal the mechanisms those boosters try to conceal.  This is the essence of social science.  She fits into a long line of writers from Thorstein Veblen to Peter Drahos to Nicole Aschoff. Perhaps most on point in a general sense is Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello‘s influential The New Spirit of Capitalism, where they make the argument that corporate capitalism is co-opting the empowering rhetoric of the past (the New Left 1960s especially). Aschoff explicitly cites Boltanski on this point in The New Prophets of Captial. Taylor just adopts that same argument (perhaps reinventing the wheel a bit). But Drahos’ Information Feudalism is quite apropos too.

A rather similar observation about growing neo-feudalism has been made by the economist Michael Hudson, who has noted how the “free trade” of classical economics was meant to promote an economy freed from feudal aristocracy, rentiers, and any other predatory interests who sought to siphon off wealth through special legal/social privileges, whereas the neoclassical economics of the neoliberal era seeks to set up an economy free for predatory interests to set up wealth-extracting privileges akin to setting up private tollbooths on otherwise public thoroughfares.

Taylor’s book sets out a kind of narrative that maps rather well onto Hudson’s theory.  For Taylor, the problem is that (a) Internet technologies are praised for the socially beneficial possibilities they suggest, with those possibilities backed by lots (!) of paid advertising.  Despite considerable media attention, (b) little attention is paid to whether there is empirical validation for the theoretical possibilities that Internet technologies suggest.  It is assumed that internet technologies produce positive results without many people bothering to check.  Most importantly, (c) only those internet technologies that bolster concentration of wealth and capital are supported — those who do check up on empirical circumstances and report on the disconnect between theory and reality are marginalized and ignored.  This last point is crucial.  Usually the internet technologies that succeed are not the ones that actually provide the benefits they suggest, but rather ones that meet the dubious criteria of venture capitalists and Wall Street, which are — quite intentionally — never listed as being socially beneficial, because they tend to be parasitic and socially corrosive.  It’s a shell game.  Attention is drawn to dead ends and pipe dreams while the real and often repugnant drivers of the widespread adoption of these technologies drift into the shadows, away from public view and scrutiny.  Taylor re-frames the question, away from that of the mainstream media and tech-boosters (often one and the same people), and toward the vetting process that lurks in the shadows.  She instead asks the great question of the ancient Roman Consul Lucius Cassius: “Qui Bono?” (“to whose benefit?”).  The answer to that question is usually a small minority, often morally repugnant violators of user privacy and owners of parasitic platforms hosting content by those whose labor is exploited.  In many ways, Taylor’s analysis also mirrors that of Jeffrey Reiman‘s “Pyrrhic Defeat” theory in criminology:  while a Pyrrhic Victory is a victory that comes at such a great cost that it amounts to a defeat, “Pyrrhic Defeat” is a nominal “defeat” of stated objectives in which those with power to alter the system benefit from the actually-existing conditions of “defeat”.

One key debate involves those who want the Internet to be a free-for-all, and those who want draconian control over it.  While it is unsurprisingly a small but vocal minority that adopts the draconian approach, there are flaws in the other, free-for-all argument too.  Taylor cites Elinor Ostrom, Peter Linebaugh, and other defenders of the commons against those who frequently take a right-Libertarian view of the Internet as a (market-based) “commons”, pointing out that, “In reality, differing circumstances, abilities, assets, and power render some better able to take advantage of a commons than others.”  (Taylor doesn’t touch on it, but Michael Hudson has again written about “free trade” theory as causing economic polarization in much the same way).  Taylor suggests that having a commons is socially-beneficial but to succeed requires regulation and enforcement of democratically-determined regulations.  In other words, she once again sees the mainstream debate as being between the political right and the center-right, to the exclusion of a politically left position, which she adds to the debate.

Much like Aschoff, Taylor picks apart the fundamental insistence on neo-liberal capitalism embedded in “Web 2.0.”  Drawing from the writings of Alice Marwick, she notes how online “self-branding” and relentless self-promotion is really about an insistence that neo-liberal political values be internalized.  Any other views are marginalized.  A similar argument was taken up by Miya Tokumitsu with her book Do What You Love, exploring how the injunction to do work that you love masks promotion of inequalities, victim-blaming and anti-labor sentiment.  It also has been the subject of some in-depth writing on the so-called “sharing economy” subsequent to Taylor’s book.

The book is written in a “journalistic” tone, but unlike most books of that sort that rely on dubious citations (if any) and anecdote without a coherent underlying theory, The People’s Platform is much, much more informed.  Yes, some of the citations are still a bit light (many are digressions rather than clear support for her statements).  Perhaps the biggest issue is Taylor’s injection of her subjective perspective as an independent documentary filmmaker into the book.  This proves useful, in that it allows the reader to clearly identify her own point of view, given that every writer has one (some just refuse to admit it).  Mostly Taylor’s own personal narrative provides examples to illustrate concepts she develops more generally.  She does an especially good job conveying the nuance of the debate over intellectual property, and especially copyrights, noting how creative workers rely on it for income, while the “Web 2.0” companies use Internet software platforms to develop audiences that are sold to advertisers without any feeling of obligation to pay a living wage — or in many cases, anything at all — to content producers whose works are distributed on those platforms.  Those who want everything to be free and open tend to be those who don’t depend on such compensation to survive.

And yet, Taylor does kind of overlook an old argument of the Standard Left Position.  In the Nineteenth Century, the third best-selling book in the United States was Edward Bellamy‘s Looking Backward, a Rip Van Winkle tale about a man who goes into a trance in 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000 to find an essentially socialist utopia.  What is interesting is that in that fictional socialist utopia Bellamy suggests that novelists are not compensated.  They raise their own funds to publish — though there is a job guarantee so every citizen has a right to other gainful employment in a socially useful occupation.  The key difference is that Taylor assumes (without explicitly discussing it in her book) that it is socially desirable to have “professional” creators of cultural/creative works.  Bellamy suggested that an ideal society should not have such full-time content creators, but instead such things should all be done on an amateur basis, albeit in a society that provides ample leisure time and guaranteed income to enable substantial self-directed work to be performed.  This is a small loose end, though, in an otherwise thorough treatment of the topic.

In terms of the suggestions for the future, Taylor (implicitly at least) draws form the likes of Richard Wolff in suggesting cooperatives online, Robert McChesney in suggesting that media delivery companies should be taxed at full market value to eliminate the advantages that their natural monopoly or quasi public utility positions give them (e.g., for exclusive broadcasting licenses), and that content producers should be directly subsidized by the government.  While many books like this that critique and criticize the existing state of affairs tend to fall down by making a bunch of absurd and/or unrealistic policy recommendations, Taylor is thankfully brief and vague about specifics, but offers a multitude of general suggestions that point toward improvements that could be pursued individually or all together.  They aren’t really new suggestions but they are meaningful alternatives.  She does, however, stop short of suggesting that neo-liberalism or capitalism as a whole be jettisoned, even though that is implicitly (and obviously) where her arguments point.

Morris Berman – The Twilight of American Culture

The Twilight of American Culture

Morris BermanThe Twilight of American Culture (WW. Norton & Co. 2000)

Disappointing. I ended up just skimming through a lot of this. Berman presents an interesting topic, but this feels like a five page essay spun out to book length. His analysis is pretty superficial. In describing the decline of American culture he seems to be “preaching to the choir” as they say. The best parts are his personal anecdotes about teaching experiences, but those alone don’t support his premise.