Friday, 2 September 2011

Intensity, velocity and ennui.

I have just come off summer vacation. Back at work, back into the maelstrom. One of the things I like about extreme weather, hot or cold, is the slow down effect it has on daily life. Hot weather creates an abundance of flora and fauna, it also imposes limits on our physicality: struggle too hard against summer and the net result is heat exhaustion, migraines and dehydration. The beauty of slow down is that it gives us an opportunity to reflect. Life is way too fast and as a species we seem to be obsessed with cramming as much as possible into the shortest period of time. We are addicted to multitasking, we are so proficient that we carry it into the most intimate areas of our lives. We sleep in front of TVs, have a smart phone under the pillow, maintain twitter, facebook and email accounts, simultaneously. Various human pleasures (listening, watching, reading, writing) are consolidated into discrete, private devices which increasingly map our use patterns and determine future use patterns and products. And then, along comes summer.

We retreat into air-conditioned bliss, jealously inhabit cool, sterile spaces conducive to our private reveries of consumption. And amid this electric, electronic cacophony we find myriad ways of avoiding long and deep engagement. Digital society, it seems to me, encourages us to graze without memory or responsibility, we are herded by whatever zeitgeist toward certain conclusions and forget to exercise the talents our forebears developed for generations before us: skilled orality, memory, attentiveness and reflection. While the “convenience” (now there’s a weasel word) of a digitally encoded society cannot be denied, in our full and unquestioning embrace of it we are substituting our wetware for corporate produced software/hardware combinations.

It seems as though digital society requires an ambivalence which in turn requires insensitivity and callousness. This is because we are overwhelmed by information, there is simply too much for us to process. Take it or leave it. And even if we had all the time in the world, we would be unable to process it all. And yet it is always there, we can always reach out, access it on a whim.

Previous patterns of cultural appreciation favored depth. Current patterns emphasize speed, intensity and ennui. We are taught that being on the frontier is the place to be. We are discoverers, adventurers, colonizers. We want to go there, be there and do there first. Or as close to first as possible. Then in the shortest possible period of time we are required to develop a deep knowledge of the product, even if we only fake it. And then, as the tidal wave of zeitgeist catches up we must abandon the product before the crest reaches us. For there is a shame, it seems in not being there first and not abandoning first. End. Repeat. So the pleasure of appreciation is in fact divorced from the object of appreciation and instead aligned with the principles of intensity, velocity and ennui favored by the digital realm. It is the movement we take pleasure in rather than the stillness.

Recently I have been working with software engineers and programmers and so I have of course taken an interest in their labor. Growing up with the primitive early days of digital society taught me that even the simplest looking software applications require painstaking effort and attention to detail. Superior, excellent software code does not just appear out of the ether, it is not merely the result of cut and paste (aka script kiddies), but instead the culmination of years of study, practice and writing. And while the result of that writing may not be literary in the sense of a novel or a poem, at its best, code is poetic. When I was younger I often played video/computer games. In fact as a child of the dawning of the digital age, games are never particularly far from my life. In my youth, it was enough to play the game, finish the game and move on. But often, money, availability and time constraints caused me to engage with certain games over a protracted period, discovering their limitations (Pacman’s legendary level 256, Pokemon’s non-game world navigation glitch, finishing Super Mario Bros in less than ten minutes etc) and the very edges of programming elegance and incompetence. Discovering limitations, glitches and secrets required perseverance and sustained engagement. However, in the present climate there are three factors which inhibit a late eighties to mid nineties level of intimacy with a game: (1) Difficulty level, (2) Over-abundance of information (FAQs/Walkthroughs) and (3) in game tutorials. Games today are much easier than games from two decades ago. Just last week, I fired up the original NES Zelda only to be reduced to the game over screen in around five minutes. The next time was within a minute! It took time to reacquaint myself with the play logic and level of difficulty circa 1986. Given how epic and convoluted the game is I could not help but to check online for maps. I found them. What made me look online? The lack of in game tutorial. The only advice you get early in the game is that it is dangerous to run around without a weapon, so your character is given one. The learning curve is steep and the game is hard. But unlike modern games where the feeling is one of being babied through the first half a dozen levels as all of the in game material is explained, Zelda throws you into the action. So, not only is it necessary to make sense of what the game is but also what the overall quest is.

This is not a rant on modern games. Modern games are perfectly fine and deeply entertaining, but they are less puzzle/mind based and geared more toward stimulation through simulation. Rich with light sources, shading, polygon counts and texture maps in the millions modern games can render an imaginative world so thoroughly and completely. They guide us through their worlds, envelop us with sensation and provide lasting images. At the same time though, the Western obsession with realism has resulted in a genre homogenization. Apparently gamers want certain games and that is what their given. So we see clones of first person shooters, clones of those clones, the same again for MMO games such as WOW etc. Yet the abstraction and symbolism of older games still holds an allure that is not only to do with nostalgia. The minimalism of older games lends them to active re-imagination and reformulation in the players mind whether in-game or away from the game.

The same applies to music. Just when I think I have finally wrapped my mind and ears around the new Autopsy album, I discover Disma. Then Morbus Chron. And I have to make a decision: do I listen to this variety of new music, or just let my knowledge of it subside and fade and listen to what I have? But even if I let the zeitgeist fade, that music is always there. Just how am I supposed to listen to it all, let alone buy even a fraction of it? Do I really need the new Sepultura album, as good as it is, or should I just go listen to Arise again? Does Entombed really need to release a new album or should they just re-release their seminal albums on vinyl? Everyone is scrambling to be in the limelight, yet fame is perhaps more fickle now than ever before. Amid all the clamor of self promotion what we choose to like seems almost arbitrary. And even as we might click that dreaded “Like” button along with 13,000 other users our appreciation remains private, isolated and lonely. And even when, even if we were with it, the moment passes, our investment of intensity and velocity crushed under ennui.

Wild Fermentation – Sandor Katz (Review)

It is hard for me to say which is true: do I hate or love Sandor Katz? Starting with an interest in cheese several years ago I have worked my way through yogurt, labna, cottage cheese, butter-milk, nukazuke, sauerkraut, kimchee, dosai, beer and wine. Although my ambition started small after witnessing the alchemy of fermentation first hand, synapses were ignited and before I knew it my very concept of nature and the world was transformed. I went from being a timid beginner, following recipes closely equally for authenticity as for hygiene. With more practice and more research I soon learned that both former and latter were much more fluid concepts than my beginner’s mind was able to accept. I learned of the inherent strengths and weaknesses of “good” versus “bad” microorganisms and the conditions favorable to their abundance. This was a valuable lesson, after all, it taught me that cause and effect are not as simple as isolated phenomena and that they are part of a larger active environment. Fermentation can teach us all one very important lesson: that single-mindedness results in disaster.

So along comes Sandor Katz with his excellent book, Wild Fermentation. Essentially a more refined, detailed and articulate version of my experience, Wild Fermentation is a DIY textbook. It does not require obtaining special equipment, ingredients or chemicals. It eschews industrial production logic and reconnects with tradition as living practice and not frozen knowledge. It even presents an ethical, ecologically responsible perspective and rationale for why we should all be fermenting. My only problem with Katz’s book is that he wrote it first. And that I did not.

The Buffy Factor

There are certain scents, sounds and tastes which transport us. Whether we want to or not, they drag us into different places, different times, different selves. Television is exceedingly good at taking us back, we trust it to guide us to memories and feelings in a time and a place. It is no wonder reruns of certain zeitgeist shows are so popular, they help to reconstitute bridges between us in the past and us in the present.

While much has been written both during and after the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer phenomenon, there is one dimension left largely untouched and that is Buffy as an interstitial window. Starting in 1997 and finishing in 2003, Buffy spans the pop culture landscape of: the complete loss of metal to grunge, the rise of Generation X aesthetic, the celebration of self-reference, pastiche, tribute and juxtaposition due to the rapid development and expansion of postmodernism from the halls of the academy to the mainstream. We witnessed the fall of an American president to a sex scandal and the subsequent ascension of a war mongering good-time boy to the presidency. War was waged on the US and revenge extracted/inflicted upon two third world cultural others. And during this, words like terror, justice and even America itself as a signifier took on new, deadly meanings. Postmodern playfulness took back seat to the seriousness of tragedy and war and a backlash to the anti-discrimination gains through “political correctness” assumed the volume of a roar.

Buffy’s aesthetic was self-reflexivity, it took well worn tropes and injected them into the present, it then gave those tropes a self-awareness. Buffy used stereotypes to eat away at the stereotypes, destabilizing their edges, spreading doubt. But this was not necessarily as negative as the narrative suggests. Although most of the time we pride stability as a virtue, we as frequently forget the power and delight of contradiction, dis-ease and fluidity.

In addition to this conceptual and visual aesthetic, Buffy also played with music zeitgeisting at the time. The grunge aesthetic, the rise of American college radio as a genre and other self aware Gen-X resulted in a melodic stew of melody, prettiness, grit and darkness. This is a genre aesthetic naturally not confined to the Buffy-verse, it happens elsewhere too.

For example, while Galactic Cowboys were never featured on Buffy and their most relevant album (self titled debut, 1991) predates the show by six years, their melodic and harmonic commitments, reminiscent of a pre-Napster pop world yet to be dominated by a specific and very limited type of hip hop, combined with a thrashiness yet to recede in the imminent face of a Seattle onslaught. Like Mindfunk and Tumbleweed, Galactic Cowboys married a plaintiveness to roughness, rode between the genre landscapes and created something new, engaging and very much of the time. The irony being that in all three cases, the capture of nuance was perhaps too subtle for the time and now they are all but forgotten.

To me, Buffy captured the spirit of the times with subtlety, grace and originality. Its spanning of the period pre/post terror, from democrat to republican, domestic to global, analog to digital is most effectively captured in its narrative, its dialogs, its ethics as much as fashion, music and intent. Although fiction, Buffy may well tell us more of a certain time than any other more traditional historical resource.