Tag Archives: popular culture

Lady Gaga, copyfighter?

Google search results for “Lady Gaga infringement”: 630,000
For “Lady Gaga copyright”: 270,000,000

That’s a lot of Intertubes about Lady Gaga and copyright. Sifting the results, though, turns up little by way of actual actions. She threatened to sue the maker of a “Lady Gag Gag” sex doll, for instance; and action against her has been threatened by an alleged co-writer.

(If anyone knows of other actions, please comment — I just haven’t time to sift all two hundred and seventy million results!)

Rather more of the results have to do instead with Gaga’s perceived lack of originality, pointing out rather obvious similarities between her image and music and those of Madonna, or, say, between her meat dress and Canadian sculptor Jana Sterbak’s 1987 meat dress.

I had bristled at first that Lady Gaga so nakedly plagiarized the meat dress. But it now occurs to me that what she’s doing in music and fashion combined is oddly representative of today’s remix culture, in a political climate of ever more restrictive IP regulation. Lady Gaga, a major presence in both fashion and music now, is, in a way, bringing something of the copyright-indifferent business practices of the former — in which “there’s very little intellectual property protection” — to bear on the copyright-mad business practices of the latter.

Maybe not intentionally, maybe just inadvertently.

In any case, the various productions and performances of Lady Gaga stand open to some very suggestive interpretation, as critical statements on the present state of tensions and negotiations between the corporate-backed hegemony of “originality” and the creativity of open appropriation.

Update: I’ll take this story about Lady GaGa’s endorsement of a little Canadian girl who covered “Born this way” on Youtube as some solid evidence supporting my hunch here.
The Youtube vid in question is pretty excellent.

UPDATE 2.0! TorrentFreak confirms that “Lady Gaga Is a BitTorrent Loving Pirate.”
Apparently “she asked her fans to send a torrent (or YouTube) link of the Top Chef Just Desserts finale.”
Now, about that thing with the photographers

Zombies and the political economy of precarity

The blood-smeared public-radio booth in Pontypool (2008), the great Canadian zombie movie

The zombie has been a tenacious mainstay of popular entertainment for decades. But this soon-turning decade seems more plagued than most, of late, by hordes of zombie pop cultural productions: movies (28 Days Later, Pontypool, Zombieland, as well as remakes like Dawn of the Dead); books, especially in the booming genre of mashed-up “monster classics” (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Jane Slayre, Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter); television (the forthcoming Walking Dead miniseries); pop music (e.g. Major Lazer’s “Zumbi”); new media, teeming with parodies; and “live” performances like the so many big cities now host. And it gets weirder: last year, Ottawa mathematicians published a study using zombie attack to model infectious outbreak. This fall, the U of Baltimore’s “Media genres: Zombies” undergrad course has been getting a degree of press coverage that would seem inordinate…if zombies weren’t the It monster just now. Even my toddler — who, let me assure you, has never watched a zombie movie (although we have read Wake the Dead, come to think of it) — is onto it, battling imaginary zombies at the bedroom window last weekend. (Zombies conveniently vulnerable to pinching, apparently: “Pinch the zombies! Pinch the zombies!”)

Why zombies? Why now? These questions came up recently over breakfast with colleagues at Athabasca U. But none of us had ready answers. Surely some of the blockbuster zombie activity can be attributed to the rejuvenation of pop cultural narratives of the undead that the Twilight franchise catalyzed. (This theory can be reduced to an observation on market trends: “Zombies are the new vampires.”) And some of the DIY material made by consumer-producers (conducers? prosumers) — the fan fiction, the Youtube parodies, the street theatre events — can be attributed to the ubiquity of digital media, and especially social networks, where pop-culture references mix, mutate, go viral, and spin off in all kinds of creative, hyper-mediated and performative directions.

But while watching 28 Weeks Later last weekend, just to get into the Hallowe’en spirit, I noticed some formulaic features of the zombie movie genre that suggested a tentative hypothesis. The zombies usually attack in a horde. The protagonists usually hide in some kind of bunker or fortified space. The zombies can easily smash through boarded windows, and yet they are themselves quite easily smashed. They attack with their hands and mouths; they bite. They want to eat the flesh of the living: preferably brains, the zombie’s delicacy. There’s no arguing with zombies; force is all they understand. Nobody is ultimately guaranteed not to become a zombie. When somebody becomes a zombie, it usually happens very, very fast.

As Susan Tyler Hitchcock observes, in her Cultural History of Frankenstein, the 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein (like the earlier and successful film version of Dracula) did brisk box-office business not despite but because of the Depression in which it debuted. Desperate economic times made horror and monster movies particularly suitable flights of fancy, allowing those who could afford the tickets to live vicariously through horrific, apocalyptic tragedies that afforded a perverse but fitting escape from their real-world worries and woes.

Last week, too, my AU colleague Paul Kellogg gave a fascinating talk about the use of the Great Depression as an analogy in more recent economic crises. Using Time Magazine as an archival index of the mass-media Zeitgeist, Kellogg pointed out that the most frequent use of comparisons to the Great Depression occurred in the mid-1980s, the height of Reaganomics. And the next most-frequent use of comparisons to the Great Depression is happening, as you may have guessed, right now. But Kellogg sees a contradiction: during the Depression, the statistical drop in real full-time wages plummeted. Now, stats show that real full-time wages are, gradually, climbing. The problem, he maintains, is that the numbers on full-time wages don’t reflect the representative sample of the work force they once did. That is to say, not nearly as many people now have full-time employment. Even if they work forty or more hours per week. Major sectors of the work force have been reconfigured for flexibility and disposability. In Canadian universities, for example, the bulk of undergraduate teaching is no longer done by tenured or tenure-track professors; it’s done by “sessional” or “adjunct” instructors — or, increasingly, by graduate students — who have no job security from one semester to the next, though they may go on teaching at one institution for years or even decades. Such are the norms of labour and its exploitation under the globalized, financialized, and flexibly mobile world-system of neoliberal capital that’s been taking shape since the late 1970s. Such are the labour conditions of the work force we call “the precariat.”

So. What’s this detour into history and political economy got to do with zombies? It occurs to me that the pop-culture zombie today is a figure of the precariat and the poverty-stricken, and the zombie narrative is an allegory of mass impoverishment and middle-class retreat. I don’t mean this as any kind of insult to labourers without job security. I’m trying to sort out the cultural function of the zombie figure in texts that are, for the most part, products of a culture industry and the implicit hegemony of values, norms, and perspectives that it imposes.

"Don't talk": the radio talk-show host tells you so. Pontypool, 2008

The zombies usually attack in a horde; the precariat labours as a fast-growing multitude, simultaneously grouped in social environments and subjectively isolated by the conditions and technologies of work. The protagonists usually hide in some kind of bunker or fortified space; the dwindling middle class retreats to gated communities, rural properties, condominiums, dwellings that maximize architectural and social distance from the multitude. The zombies can easily smash through boarded windows, and yet they are themselves quite easily smashed; in an economic downturn, society becomes more unequal and more unstable: crime escalates, criminals get creative, weary and beaten scapegoats (immigrant workers, ethnic and other minorities) are hauled before a public conditioned by increasingly neoliberal media, and job security becomes a constant concern, easily smashed at any time by any number of instrumentally rationalized management decisions. (As Ed Broadbent discussed at Congress, with reference to the social study The Spirit Level, the more unequal societies become, as social services and safety nets are scaled back or ripped away in favour of “austerity measures,” the more dysfunctional and volatile they become.) They attack with their hands and mouths; they bite. The precariat and the impoverished have no tools or technologies at their disposal, they are reduced to “bare life.” They want to eat the flesh of the living: preferably brains, the zombie’s delicacy. There’s no arguing with zombies; force is all they understand. The precariat and the impoverished not only become demonized themselves but become instruments for demonizing education: the public sector most critically resistant to neoliberal hegemony. The zombie is a middle-class image of the precariat or the poverty-stricken, a figure instrumentalized by the culture industry to represent a certain kind of ideal consumer (fast-acting, unreflective, bent on consuming only other consumers), and weaponized to assault the institutions that raise critical consciousness about labour, exploitation, and ideology today: educational and intellectual institutions. Nobody is ultimately guaranteed not to become a zombie; nobody’s job is secure enough not to get fired. When somebody becomes a zombie, it usually happens very, very fast; just like getting fired.

These are just a few preliminary thoughts, then, on the ways in which the current popularity of all things zombie might be used not just to model infectious outbreaks (the adequacy of which modelling, I have to say, leaves me skeptical), but also to stand (or maybe stagger) as a cultural symptom of the globalized political economy that has dispossessed and continues to dispossess so many, leaving them ravenous, their hands outstretched, grasping at any purchase, crazed with rage and frustration, clamouring at the doors and windows of the dwindling few who survive the layoffs and cutbacks — the embattled few who — just like in the movies — usually harbour, whether knowingly or unwittingly, the selfish and treacherous individuals who are responsible for the plague in the first place.

The multitude outside. Pontypool, 2008.

Works Cited
Agamben, Giogio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (2008)
Adorno, Theodor. “Culture industry reconsidered.” New German Critique 6 (1975): 12-19. Rpt. in Soundscapes 2 (2000) http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/DATABASES/SWA/Culture_industry_reconsidered.shtml
Broadbent, Ed. “The Rise and Fall of Economic and Social Rights — What Next?” Congress, Concordia U, 29 May 2010.
Hardt, Michale and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004).
Hitchcock, Susan Tyler. Frankenstein: A Cultural History (2007).
Kellogg, Paul. “The great recession, the North American workplace, and the 1930’s ‘analogy trap’.” MA-IS Faculty Symposium, 15 Oct. 2010.
Pontypool. Dir. Bruce McDonald. Shadow Show / Maple Pictures, 2008.

15 albums

I was tagged on Facebook by a friend “interested in the list [of 15 favourite albums] you would put together.”

Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen albums that you’ve heard that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Tag fifteen friends, including me because I’m interested in seeing what albums my friends choose.

Okay, but the request assumes that I listen to entire albums, which has never been my favourite way to listen to music. (Maybe I’ll follow this up with a “10 Best Mixtapes” meme. Or “10 Videos Most Like That Weird Recurring Dream You Keep Having.”) Some of these are excellent actual albums; others are excellent DJ mixes; still others just have a lot of excellent material. But all of them are excellent start-to-finish listening experiences (except maybe Substance). I thought I’d cross-post this, because good music is worth sharing, contrary to what the litigious labels say.

My list (in no particular order, except maybe the first):
1. Johann Sebastian Bach, The Brandenburg Concertos (ca. 1721)
2. Messiah, 21st Century Jesus (American, 1994)
3. Dogwhistle, The Life and Times of an After-Hours DJ (Quality, 1995)
4. The Jesus and Mary Chain, Darklands (Blanco y Negro, 1987) …won a toss-up with Honey’s Dead (1992)
5. The XX, XX (Rough Trade, 2010)
6. Enya, The Celts (WEA, 1987) …that’s right, Enya. Deal.
7. The Master Musicians of Jajouka, Apocalypse Across the Sky (Axiom, 1992)
8. New Order, Substance (Factory, 1987)
9. Dr. Dre, The Chronic (Death Row, 1992)
10. Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (Matador, 1993)
11. Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon (Capitol, 1973)
12. Delerium, Semantic Spaces (Nettwerk, 1994)
13. Elizabeth Mitchell, You Are My Little Bird (Smithsonian Folkways, 2006)
14. R.E.M., Eponymous (IRS, 1988)
15. Jimmy Cliff et al, The Harder They Come (Island, 1972)

Honourable mention (a.k.a. “cheating by adding more”):
Digable Planets, Reachin’: A New Refutation of Time and Space (Elektra, 1993)
Gordon Downie, Coke Machine Glow (Zoe, 2001)
Bob Geldof, The Vegetarians of Love (Atlantic, 1990)
Seefeel, Polyfusia (Astralwerks, 1994)
The Velvet Underground, Loaded (Cotillion, 1970)

NASSR 2010: Romantic Mediations (remediated)

This year’s conference for the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR) was co-hosted by UBC, SFU, and the U of Victoria, and held in downtown Vancouver, just blocks from Stanley Park.

View from the top-floor conference rooms of the hotel. Not distracting at all.

This year’s theme, Romantic Mediations, was particularly productive. I say this mostly because of my own research interest in Romanticism’s popular cultural legacies, but also because of the program’s focused and lively discussions, and, in part, because of the increasingly mediated culture of academic conferences.

The theme directed a lot of attention to the diversity of media forms and the materiality of cultural production in the Romantic period. In the first keynote on Thurs., Aug. 18, William Warner and Clifford Siskin advocated a “history of mediation” as a material and concrete alternative to the more traditional but abstract “history of ideas.” Their presentation seemed both coy and provocative: coy, in that their argument seemed to build (albeit productively, imho) on both Marx and McLuhan without acknowledging either; provocative, in that they styled their talk as an exhortation to adopt their approach. The discussion that followed was feisty: some took issue with what seemed a faddish adoption of computing terminology; some grilled them on their sources and precedents; and some felt they were preaching to the converted, advocating a kind of historical materialism already old very old hat to a field transformed thirty years ago by New Historicism. (For my part, I was left curious enough to at least check out their work, like the Re-Enlightenment Project.)

The theme also prompted a lot of contributions on Romantic theatre and performance, leading me to compile a much better bibliography than that which I’d drawn on to draft the talk I was to give on Saturday (in the second of Danny O’Quinn’s two sessions on “media archaeology”). Fred Burwick’s session on Romantic drama included a paper by Melynda Nuss that I initially worried would moot my own, in her claim that “the technology itself was one of the main items on display” in Romantic theatre. But for Nuss this was premise not thesis for an engaging look at the period’s spectacular “aqua-dramas”: plays on nautical themes, with water scenes that drove the invention of some pretty heavy stage machinery. Subsequently, Friday’s keynote gave me the historical puzzle pieces I didn’t know I’d been looking for, as the Welsh science historian Iwan Rhys Morus gave a tour of the theatrical culture of science in Romantic Britain, and how it gave way to the more professional, less sensational practices of Victorian science. (Now I had more than a better bibliography for my work on the first Frankenstein plays–I had to tweak the paper itself, to give a nod to Morus’ work.)

Dr Morus tells us about the predecessors of Dr Moreau.

This keynote took place at SFU’s Woodward campus, nestled between regular downtown and Vancouver’s downtown east side. Strangely, this would not be the only time the conference found itself adjacent to a zombie parade. Moments before the final keynote on Saturday, I was out on the second-storey hotel terrace overlooking Denman Street, alone except for the keynote speaker, Dr Heather Jackson, composing herself before her talk with a crossword. Shouts from the street drew us to the railing, where a hundreds-strong march soon resolved into a mass zombie walk of the kind so popular now.

What do they want? Brainsss. (Photo credit: Louise)

They staggered down the street. They swarmed a parked bus.

Zombie walk participants swarm a bus. (Photo credit: Goh.)

What a perfect performance of re-mediated Gothic. And there I was, caught for once without my camera to re-remediate it. Of course, what with the ubiquity of cameras and the end of privacy and all, most of the zombies brought along their own cameras, documenting the day in sometimes too much detail.

Surely (as Byron told Banks of vivisection) this is too much. (Photo credit: Christine)

But perhaps I digress. Among the proceedings and festivities, some recurring points of reference that were not zombies also emerged, notably Friedrich Kittler’s history of discourse networks circa 1800 and 1900, and Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s theory of remediation: the “contradictory imperative” to resort to hyper-mediation as a means to simulate immediacy, as a perennial response to new and emergent media. For example: describing a printed text as an improvised performance (the topic of Angela Esterhammer’s fascinating seminar); or, for a more contemporary example, tweeting from a conference discussion in progress (i.e. “hyper-mediating” an immediate, “live” experience) to communicate some of the interest and urgency of the moment.

Ironically, however, the growing intensity of digital remediation and back-channel dialogue that have become a much-discussed trend in the digital Humanities–“conference hacking,” if you will–were not much in evidence at NASSR (held at a hotel with free wireless, no less). I could find only one other delegate, Katherine D. Harris, who was tweeting the proceedings. The listserv seemed dormant during the event, although it has circulated some well-deserved kudos to the organizers since (which I enthusiastically echo); similarly quiet during the event was the NASSR grad students’ blog, which now has some post-game commentary. I was alerted to a Facebook page for Romantics scholars, where some delegates have shared remarks and reviews. There may well have been more digital mediating of a conference whose theme so clearly invited it, and maybe I just wasn’t picking up the right channels.

And I could have been doing more, for my own part: I could have posted my suggested hash-tag on the listserv; I could have made time for more than tweeting, which admittedly has its limits for encapsulating conceptual complexity. (After all, it’s only now that I’ve found the time to share my own reflections on the event in detail.) I suppose I was just expecting more of the “remediating,” real-time back channel with which Twitter has become so good at supplying (supplementing?) other conferences like the MLA convention.

I’m not advocating more digital dialogue and mediation because it’s increasingly ubiquitous elsewhere, or just to appear tuned in and wired up (although there is a case to be made that publicly remediating debates over literary history and politics can help to change public perceptions about the stakes–or perceived lack thereof–in such fields). As shown by so many of the talks I attended in Vancouver; as shown by NASSR’s attention to media (from prior conference themes like techne and newness to systems like the listserv itself); and as shown by the wider field’s deep and diverse investments in new media (the Blake Archive, Romantic Circles, RaVoN): the discourse networks and media ecologies around 1800 have continued to shape and resonate with our experiences of discourse networks and media ecologies around 2000. So playing more extensively with the interface of hyper-mediated and immediate modes of communication and representation–playing, that is, with remediation in the performance scene of the conference–can shed new light on the ideologies and implications of media (both new and dead), and can transform the shape and tone of the conference as such, which is by no means a new medium, but one that can be not only compromised, but also (and at the same time) enriched and extended by the myriad forms and deployments of remediation.

Heritage minister out to kill Canadian heritage

That sounds like I’m reporting this for The Onion. I wish.

Yesterday’s National Post reported that the Harper regime plans to push a DMCA-style copyright bill on Canada as early as next week. So this morning I tweeted the ministers responsible as follows:

@mpjamesmoore @TonyClement_MP Waste & unaccountability in government = pushing a copyright bill most Canadians don’t want

Harper’s government campaigned on accountability and austerity, and while the copyright bill isn’t the first 180 they’ve pulled on that platform, it’s especially bold: ignoring the public consultation results, and tabling laws that will be hard or impossible to enforce. Laws like those the old UK government rammed through last month, only to give place to a new government already looking to repeal them. (How’s that for tax dollars at work?)

So the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages looks set to kill Canadian heritage. Here’s how:

1. DVD region formats. A commentator on Geist’s blog, Jean Naimard, writes: “One thing that’s very important is to drive home the point that the bill will prohibit multi-region DVD players. This sure will ring nice with all those immigrants who are suddenly told they can no longer legally watch DVDs from China, Viêt-Nàm, India or Europe.” Another commentator, Ben, replies with a sense of the legitimate trade traffic at risk:

I have and daily watch DVDs from HK and Japan. I legally bought them (together they’ve cost me over $1000) and the Conservative Government (who I didn’t even vote for) has no right to make my viewing of them illegal. These aren’t exactly DVDs I can pick up in region 1 in HMV and I probably never will be able to.

DMCA-style anti-circumvention clauses against hacking or breaking digital locks would make workarounds for DVD region formats illegal. The new bill would do extensive damage to an international trade relationship and a vital medium for Canadian multiculturalism.

2. Denial of access to the cultural commons. The expected bill’s restrictive instead of flexible fair dealing provisions will lock away cultural products that would otherwise be accessible for study, review, teaching, and adaptation–or that could, under different regulations, be released to the public domain. The expected IP bill favours “Big Media” copyright owners at the expense of flexible personal use and public access that represents a debilitating compromise of our cultural heritage. (Lawrence Lessig and James Boyle both make the point that conventional copyright, the removal of public deposit requirements, and more recent copyright term extensions have left most of the A/V media archive of the twentieth century out of the public domain and the cultural commons. The expected law entrenches and deepens our inability to access heritage resources, whether for research or new cultural production.)

3. Un-Canadian techno-Luddism. Another Geist blog commentator, “Bobzibub,” says the new bill will “entrench by fiat an obsolete business model which drags the whole economy down. Smashing looms mandated by our government loons.”
Good point. As Maurice Charland (1986) and Arthur Kroker (1984) argued–in ways still highly relevant today–Canada imagines itself very much as a “technological nation.” The expected copyright bill is a discouraging act of technological Luddism that sabotages Canada’s extraordinary heritage in culture and technology.

4. User privatization and US ideology. This is a more abstract point: By criminalizing media consumers en masse, the proposed copyright bill could also drive a lot more Internet traffic to encrypted and private modes like Freenet; it’s outcomes like these that makes the bill wasteful for being unenforceable, and a further risk to Canadian heritage. How? By driving more Canadian Internet traffic underground, this bill would cultivate a culture of atomizing securitization and privatization that’s much closer to the US political subjectivity of a “market society” than to the traditional Canadian political subjectivity of “state society” in which a “market economy” is balanced with—not privileged over—a collective commitment to social safety nets. This bill represents yet another colonization of Canadian culture with US ideology.

But all this is perhaps unsurprisingly in step with just what the Harper regime considers to be “Canadian” culture anyway, as demonstrated by its de-funding of equity organizations, international exchange programs, new media production. I hope the Hon. Minister Moore has been too busy fielding flak to take notes on what Arizona’s been up to recently.

A scholarly take on the copyfight & pop culture

Academicalism has a new section for CC-licensed research, and the first working paper I’ve posted there is one I’ll present later this month, for the Socialist Studies conference taking place as part of Congress (Canada’s annual Humanities and Social Sciences bashment):

“The copyfight, science fiction, and social media”

Cory Doctorow, one of the authors discussed in the paper, has kindly made time to read it and post a positive response his blog, for which I’m very thankful.

Between this endorsement from one of today’s biggest “copyleft” advocates, and the Socialist Studies connection, I may think twice about crossing the US border anytime soon.