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Archive for March, 2011

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March 29, 2011

28-3-11 Performance of Self

28-3-11 Performance of Self

Over the weekend a friend sent me a brief article on The Authority Of Law In Cyberspace, written in a lucid style that almost persuades me that I can understand the issues, happily accompanied by a note that I may ‘feel free to read not a word of it.’ I’m flattered that I’m on the mailing-list while I’m aware that as a semi-detached member of the editorial board, if I can make a head or tail of the piece, then informed scholars will have no excuse.
The article is largely a critical comparison of several legal theorists’ models of on-line jurisdiction, an elusive topic which seems to me similar to an attempt to explain the spirit of Christmas by reference to the wiring and disposition of Christmas tree lights; the technology and its ritual function create between them ‘meaning’ in a semiological harmonic. I have the non-participant’s luxury of playing with such picture-book metaphor without the responsibility of framing workable regulatory structures.
I’m frequently reminded when I read exerpts from my friend’s prodigious output on this slippery legal terrain of an aphorism in one of A.P. Herbert’s ‘Misleading Cases’, that while a barrister may be unfamiliar with vast stretches of specialist law, the Court will hold that for the plaintiff, ignorance is no excuse.
My only recourse is to drag the debate down to my level and to regard the legalities as objectified models of familiar social transactions and internalised motivations (what we more or less understand by ‘human nature’).
Maybe it’s the designation of participants of on-line commerce as ‘actors’ that sent me looking for Erving Goffman’s The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life as a grid to throw over the legal tangle, to see how it fits. Goffman’s sociological approach has the ‘performer’ running ‘routines’, often by employing ‘props’ to present a credible and consistent ‘front’ to an ‘audience’ aided by informally codified dramatic enactments of her/his role.
The Escher-like perspectives created by the question of whether we visit websites or import their content to our Desktop becomes a more urgent conundrum when some kind of deal or contract is involved between actors/performers living in discrete territories, cultures and jurisdictions. The credibility of actors and their authority to enact their roles has to be played out in some mutually recognisable way.
Those phishing scams that direct the unwary to ‘update’ their credit-card details on meticulously recreated corporate websites exploit the familiar con-artist’s grasp of compliance-psychology, our general deference to conferred authority. How could we possibly question the authority of the TV ad dentist in his professional overalls, seated in a treatment-room, who recommends that we see for ourselves the immediate benefits of rubbing the product into our sensitive gums? If proof were needed of the effect of a shampoo to render our unruly mops into shimmering, swishable tresses, lo! – CGI gumball molecules rush to adhere to individual strands of hair; the screen becomes our domestic electron-microsope through which we view the hair welcoming and absorbing the molecules of pro-hypermartium 27. This is not vanity, nor mere marketing: it’s science.
Somewhere in the back of our minds we assume that these are dramatic enactments and that somewhere there are ‘real’ scientists who could produce formalised research findings. One current ad includes a subtitle that the findings represent the opinion of 92% of 51 women questioned, which my pocket calculator makes a dissident faction of 4.08 women, but I’m not a scientist. (Er… what was the question?)
Similarly, actors in international e-commerce may reify or enact their regard for legal probity and ethical commitment to compliance by employing legal advisers, even funding an in-house legal department with its value-added display of status as a corporate city-state. If transgressions occur, the actors are able to demonstrate that alternative readings of statute are possible or that the local culture legitimately understands differing obligations in the stated terms and conditions.
Should it come to it, in the theatre of a court hearing, the Corporation resolves in a paid performer presenting a front corroborated by routines (corporate ethics/ vision statements/ reputation) dramatised by enactment, a script of due diligence.
Ideally the outcome would be the consolidation of an honourable ‘front’; in practice even we civilians have enough anecdotal evidence that a penalty of the legal process is that a skilful lawyer may be retained expressly to leave the Court with no alternative but to make a counter-intuitive judgement in accord with an established code. What we refer to as finding loopholes – the valiant defence of a stronghold – may be more like escaping through a handy cat-flap.
In international e-commerce the defence is quite likely to be a simple ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’ , if you can afford the expense and time to fight it out in an away-match. The front will of course be more elegantly phrased.
The prompt to glance through Goffman’s book again threw another light on my recent run of pop show-biz memoirs with their relentless focus on perception-management. It’s pretty banal to point out that fame, notoriety and ‘success in the industry’ only sketchily approximate to artistic talent and technical excellence. Paraphrasing Wilde simply because I can’t be bothered to look up the quote: fashion is a form of ugliness so extreme that we can only bear it for a limited time.
My very-slightly guilty pleasures, X-Factor and lately American Idol are narratives that begin with the spectacle of the auditions, very often a Self-Delusion Olympics where my only ethical cat-flap is that the competitors are self-selecting, and which progress to a gradual planing-down and streamlining of the raw material into marketable product. This packaging process is actually what seems to encourage some of the early no-hopers to believe that they may be sprinkled with the fairy oofle-dust that will transform them from Pinocchio into Real Boys (or Divas). This on the face of it seems a not-unlikely proposition; they might have read the manual. Goffman:-
‘In analysing the self… we are drawn from its possessor, from the person who will profit or lose most by it, for he and his body merely provide the peg on which something of a collaborative manufacture will be hung for a time. And the means for producing and maintaining selves do not reside inside the peg; in fact these means are often bolted down in social establishments. There will be a back region with its tools for shaping the body, and a front region with its fixed props. There will be a team of persons whose activity on stage and in conjunction with available props will constitute the scene from which the performed character’s self will emerge, and another team, the audience, whose interpretive activity will be necessary for this emergence. The self is a product of all these arrangements, and in all parts bears the marks of this genesis.’

I’ve just finished pop-journalist Nick Kent’s ‘Apathy For The Devil’, his memoir of the 70’s, which included his brief ascendant as New Blood in the Brit music press, and he’s probably right that he was instrumental in the rehabilitation of New Musical Express as a serious alternative to the mighty Melody Maker as the bush telegraph of pop.
If memory serves I’d been a frequent if not regular MM reader almost entirely on the strength of Chris Welch’s reviews and articles. His relation to his subject was irreverent only in that he seemed to keep both an enthusiast’s informed eye and one raised eyebrow trained on the passing circus, neither cruel nor mystical about the parade of performers.
As a bit of a student of the scene I tended to search out Zigzag, the cottage-industry counterpart to cineastes’ Sight & Sound, and to pick up Rolling Stone, which was hardly counterculture but reported on the zeitgeist with a swaggering professionalism and air of authority that the Brit pop press rarely approached until the appearance of The Face in 1980, opening the door for Q magazine a few years later.
The other major player in 70’s pop journalism was Sounds, which doesn’t get a mention in Apathy, possibly because it arrived with an agenda to report on the scene with  more of a fan’s eye view than the industry-insider slant of the established papers.    Sounds started out in the direction NME probably needed to go.
Nick Kent’s memoir is as much about his history managing a consuming heroin habit as it is a memoir of the interviewees he more or less remembers and it’s no coincidence that many of those shared his hunger. He seems to have taken as his text Sartre’s description of Rimbaud: ‘He undertook the systematic derangement of all his senses; he smashed this pretended nature which was derived from his bourgeois birth and which was only a habit. He was not putting on an act; he really did set out to produce extraordinary thoughts and feelings. … Rimbaud didn’t waste his time working up a horror of nature; he simply smashed it like a money-box.’’
Hmmm, well… it may have worked for Rimbaud, and Genet and Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, may have unlocked something for be-bop jazzers, but it’s a dicey form of method-acting your way into authenticity.
There’s a bitter turning-point when Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill set up their puritan bunker in the NME offices as prog rock got the elbow and the ska, punk and dub scenes gathered momentum. Burchill made a name for being ‘spiky’ and difficult-to-like but, like, not giving a toss; Parsons was the mod-resurgent, the sartorially immaculate no-nonsense East-End wide-boy; get into a battle of wits with him and you’d better come tooled-up.
Only a few years after Kent had been in the vanguard of the New Breed, interpreting rock-Babylon to an earlier generation of journos experienced in monitoring the Tin Pan Alley stables of pop acts (see Tito Burns’ management style in ‘Don’t Look Back’ for an example of Bob Dylan’s commodity status in this world), Kent and his clique became exactly the sort of throwback boho dandies despised by the do-it-yourself punk rabble. You can hardly blame the man for sounding a little sore and sour, ousted rudely from the tippermost of the hippermost to a suspect subaltern of the Old Guard. The journo who’d held the standard for Iggy Pop, and The Stones’ visceral rauc’n’roll against the virtuoso symphonic complexities of Yes and Gentle Giant might have expected the pendulum swing towards garage thrash to acknowledge him as a dodgy uncle, especially when you have to remind yourself that by the time Anarchy became a yoof logo, Kent was still only in his mid-twenties.
Good grief, even in this reflective memoir he still sticks it to the grammar police with bravura disregard for the split infinitive and the dangling preposition, the breezy cliché and faux grandiloquence. Advice to would-be genre writers:-
“The key trick… is to somehow create prose that flows with a distinct musicality all of its own. That’s what I finally hit on in ’74: the right tone and the right groove. Before that there’d been something contrived about my writing as well as the literary persona I’d hastily adopted. But I’d toiled long and hard to find a style and approach that I was happy with. I took my evolving writerly skills very, very seriously during that whole period. I made a point of never taking any drugs just prior to and during the actual act of scribbling my texts out.’
In 1980 I was drafted in to do a comic-strip for a mag called Musicians Only, a slightly forbidding title that concentrated on gear-reviews alongside its reviews and interviews. I got to meet Chris Welch, and was pleased to meet a hero, every bit as jovial and knowledgeable as I’d expected and apparently still very happy to be writing about his enthusiasms.
The editor said that he wanted a strip that presented the ‘biz’ as a Ship Of Fools, ‘morally and spiritually bankrupt’ and I was happy to give it a go. One of my occasional characters was Nick Berks, drawn from a TV interview in which Kent had the thankless task of representing the rock press in a bear-baiting fracas with musos armed with finely-ground axes. if I remember, only Roy Harper hesitated to have a go, possibly recognising that the journo may only have a pencil-sharpener to defend himself with if he could find it in his pocket.
Berks was always ‘off on one’, stringing together Burroughs-like cut ups of possibly potentially portentous prose with barely-discernible connection to the subject matter in hand. It was cruel pastiche but instantly understood by the jobbing-journalists Kent probably despised. He was perceived as a writer wanting to be recognised as an auteur whose talent transcended his subject matter. According to the memoir he was by that time holding down a full-time job finding his next fix.
I couldn’t help but contrast this with Joe Boyd’s memoir ‘White Bicycles’. Over decades he managed to navigate the legal and logistical business of tours and recording, which get passing mentions but imply fierce, sustained attention to detail. What struck me most was that he treats this as the inevitable price you had to pay to promote talent that somehow ‘deserved’ recognition. His personal achievement was that he managed to preserve that ear for the unexpected and evident affection for ‘difficult’ musicians while maintaining his reputation in the business for reliability and acumen.
As a suitable epitaph, he only agreed to sign over his rights in Nick Drake’s recordings with the proviso that they should never be dropped from the catalogue; not merely an enactment of good faith in one of his artists, but a judgement of its worth vindicated by time.

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March 26, 2011

Dandy’s Beano

2-3-11 Dandy’s Beano

 

I picked up Sebastian Horsley’s ‘Dandy In The Underworld: an unauthorised autobiography’ for £1.99p in an Oxfam shop and it’s certainly worth every penny. This is no insult as I’m sure Horsley himself would warm to being picked up cheap out of curiosity. In every way he liked to have it all ways – a misogynist with an inexhaustible appetite for women; a snob who relished rough trade with men; an affected low-life with ambitions to be a celeb artist in an art world he affected to despise; and so ennui…

The writing is full of wordy play – ‘in a suit made to measure I went in search of pleasure’ (this could be a summary of the entire book); on a decision to dive on a shark-seeing expedition ‘There was just one slight problem. I could barely swim, let alone dive. I was a sea enemy.’; ‘Style is when they’re running you out of town and you make it look as if you’re leading the parade’.

There are moments when you wish he’d had the courage of his own affectations and written straight; difficult for one with a devouring appetite for drugs of addiction – about whose effects and withdrawals he’s a harrowingly articulate memoirist. His fascination with sharks drove him to overcome a fear of water and to seek out a diving expedition to encounter them in their own element and these encounters are vividly recalled and present one of the many moments when you truly believe that he’s discovered a sense of Self beyond style and solipsism (it’s no spoiler to reveal that this never happens).

The style is anachronistic, peppered with references to ‘Mr. da Vinci’, ‘Mr. Capote’ and treads in the fastidious footsteps of Mr. Crisp. Like Mr. Crisp he invites public gaze in order to dismiss it: ‘I was happy even when I was ridiculed. To be derided was part of the plan. I looked for ways to act and speak in a way that would be mocked. I wanted to make it clear to the world that I knew what it was they were laughing at. This was the only way I could get the joke onto my own terms.’

He repeatedly cites Marc Bolan as an early and powerful role model, though Adam Ant’s Prince Charming – that single in particular and that pantomime phase – seems closer to Horsley’s mark and couture.

This is at the core – there is little to suggest heart – of the book.

What Mr. Horsley labels ‘dandyism’ reads like textbook Histrionic Personality Disorder.  R.D. Laing described psychotic alienation as ‘ontological insecurity’, a confusion about what the mind’s ‘I’ was supposed to represent. (Laing suggested that this confusion reflected an epistemological insecurity created by the Family, in a covert and tacit collective displacement of affects projected onto a victim, on the sound traditional principal that nothing shores up a dysfunctional group better than a mutually agreed troublesome third party. But moving on…)

HPD is a variety of ontological insecurity in which ostensible vanity glosses over a sense of vacuity so overwhelming that attention-seeking is a strategy to provide evidence that where the eye-lines of ‘your’ audience intersect there must be a ‘someone’ observed.

The ‘uninhibited’ (it must always be presented to the Self as a decision) sexual promiscuity is also characteristic; a perfect trade-off between a serial reassurance of desirability and the negation of intimacy. Between the two there’s a void haunted by a hungry ghost acting out a drama of romance. The transaction is driven not by irresistible attractiveness but by constant availability.

——————————————

I began and then abandoned this draft a couple of weeks ago and since then I’ve re-embarked on Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, read Joe Boyd’s lucid and detailed memoir ‘White Bicycles’, started and put aside a clunky Brian Wilson biography ‘Catch A Wave’ and begun Nick Kent’s ‘Apathy For The Devil’, which deserves more attention. At this point I’m seeing in it parallels with the Horsley story as another Rake’s Progress.

On a couple of occasions I’ve been gripped in bouts of books about murderers, which ended in the desolate suffocating sense of the banality of evil and a need to come up for air. This can happen too with rock hagiographies, which very often present influential artists as dysfunctional misfits whose only niche is in the manipulative ego-juddering fairground Hall Of Mirrors in which their distorted reflections somehow match their self-image.

A friend once told me that he couldn’t bear to watch Fawlty Towers because each episode found him squirming through half-an-hour and then some, silently yelling ‘Just Do The Sensible Thing!’ I’ve often found myself feeling exactly that sense of exhaustion reading accounts of doomed rockers, knowing the ending, willing it to be different.

Boyd is witness and regretful eulogist to several drug-driven declines and squanderings of artistic potential, lived by artists for whom he clearly has affection. Kent immersed himself in the unreal world of pop ‘celebritydom’ he wrote about (his rock-hack style is preserved, irritating but authentic and so actually rather endearing), a Faustian deal that made him a name in NME’s Godzilla years of the 70’s and nearly cost him his life and reason. It’s another take on dandyism that usefully bears comparison with Dandy In The Underworld.