Recommendations for November 21, 2012

21 Nov

I haven’t done one of these in several weeks now, so it’s probably time to try and catch up. I have been collecting stuff during the gap, though, so I have a bigger crop than usual. Lots of stuff to read for your holiday weekend. I will start, though, with a song:
Song: “She” by Laura Mvula
Lovely, quiet song, and a great performance as well. I don’t know a whole lot about Laura Mvula, but I suspect she will be pretty popular before long among those who really like Michael Kiwanuka or, more generally, find the idea of a return to an older style of soul/R&B appealing.
Article: “Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities” by Stephen Marche
Marche here makes a clear case for the limits of the “digital humanities” movement. For those unfamiliar, this is a growing trend involving the application of statistical techniques and other computer-aided forms of analysis to works of art, history, and literature to discover patterns in, say, an author’s language or employment of particular images. (There have been several pieces in the New York Times in the last couple of years or so, including this one, as well as in places like the Chronicle of Higher Education ). The idea has become prominent enough the that National Endowment for the Humanities has established an Office of Digital Humanities that, among other things, provides grants for digital humanities projects, and major academic institutions like UCLA have established their own centers
I don’t have a big problem, in general, with these kinds of projects, and some things that fall under the digital humanities banner, like digitizing archival material, seem both beneficial and necessary. I also think that looking at, say, the frequency of particular words in 19th century novels might indeed tell us interesting things about those writers and the historical and social context of their writing. But, as Marche points out, none of these techniques can actually do the primary things that the humanities are supposed to do: make judgements about a cultural production, tell us how to make judgements about other, similar objects or works, and— most importantly— tell us something about how to live in the world. It’s easy to get excited about a new perspective on familiar subjects, but we have to keep the limits of these techniques in mind. 
Article: “The Voter Fraud Myth” by Jane Mayer
Now that the election is over, this might seem a little dated, but I don’t think the issues here have gone anywhere. Mayer profiles Hans von Spakovsky, a lawyer who is the prime mover behind the movement to require state-issued identification at polling places to protect against voter fraud. It is impossible to say for sure whether this guy is simply a particularly devious political operative in the Karl Rove mold, willing to do unsavory things to get the people he prefers elected, or genuinely believes in what he says; Mayer remains agnostic. But the voter-ID movement has gained so much ground in so many places despite the fact that there is no problem to be solved that it’s interesting to see its source (or one of them), and to think about the impact that a single person can have in driving the public agenda, even when almost nobody has ever heard of him.
Article: “YA Fiction and the End of Boys” by Sarah Mesle
The fact that so many books for young adults (and younger kids as well) begin involve kids whose parents are dead has become something of a popular talking point. This is at least partly because so many YA books are about coming of age, and not having parents to guide one through this period puts some of its trials and traumas into greater relief. Whether they have parents or not, the characters in YA books are trying to figure out, in essence, how to be a person. This piece makes the argument that the answer to this question is going to be different for girls and boys, and so that, to the extent that we count on books to provide guidance in such matters, there need to be models for both genders. Her concern is that while there are now many such models for girls, with lots of books that affirm the possibilities of adult womanhood and encourage self-reliance and self-confidence in girls as they grow into adults , contemporary YA literature basically tells boys that the best they can do is avoid, if possible becoming an abusive jerk. Manhood, Mesle argues, is figured in these books as a mostly dangerous thing, and the hope for boys is that they learn not to “act like a man.”
There’s a lot to talk about in this piece, but as I read I felt that something about it wasn’t sitting right. What that was beck clear at the end of the article, when Mesle says:

I actually believe in manhood as something that’s real, that’s inherently different than womanhood, and that is, potentially, awesome. And I don’t find a belief in manhood to be reactionary or antifeminist — indeed, to blame the distrust of men on feminism would be wildly wrong, a cruel characterization of an optimistic movement. What feminism has made possible is an ability to have hope for new ways of integrating gender into the world. And I refuse to conflate a critique of the way male power is sometimes — even often — abused with a sweeping dismissal of manhood itself. This is the gift, I guess, of reading a lot of nineteenth century novels: that I think that strength and compassion can be linked, that leadership is a responsibility, that privilege doesn’t need to be apologize for if it is generously used.

I realize this argument might be a little surprising for someone like me to make — that is, someone schooled in the kind of gender theory that makes it difficult to treat something like “manhood” as a thing, rather than a construction, an idea, and, even, a bad and dangerous idea. But there is the world we desire, and then there is this world we are in, a world where I find myself raising two sons, the older of whom is beginning to wonder what his nascent manhood means. In this world we are in, I want to help my sons imagine their manhood as essential to their best selves, not as a threat to it. What I am hoping for is books that guide them as they learn to be inside their manhood, rather than always on the outs.

And this is precisely what is, for me, wrong about her argument: the assumption that “being a man” is necessarily, fundamentally different from “being a woman” to such an extent that boys and girls need to be taught very different things as they grow up, and that boys reading about girls who grow into strong, self-confident, assertive adults who still don’t treat other people terribly will be unable to relate those lessons to themselves. As I suggested above in talking about the digital humanities, part of what I see as the task of literature is helping each of us to learn how to be a person, and I don’t believe that being a male person is, or at least should be, so different from being a female person that we need totally different lessons.
Article: “Chicago Hip-Hop Murders and the Media Blackout” by Jordan Pedersen
This piece deals with the growing popularity of Chicago hip-hop, and in particular the Drill scene centered mostly on the South Side. More specifically, it addresses the fact that many of the music-media outlets, like Pitchfork, that have devoted a lot of attention to these artists and their recordings have not at all addressed the real violence associated with the scene, even after it has become pretty obvious that some of the most prominent figures are more or less directly involved in gang violence and, probably, murder. What responsibility, Perdersen asks, do music journalists have to deal with issues outside the music they are writing about? Do we care at all about what these people are saying, or only about how much fun it is to listen to them saying it? And does it matter that many of the people who are about to become very rich and very famous for talking about this stuff are very young? 
Unintentional conversation: “Spotify and its Discontents” by Mike Spies and “Making Cents” by Damon Krukowski
I am sitting in my office listening to Spotify as I write this, and like everybody else I am very happy with the quantity of music that is now easily available to me whenever I want to listen to it. Like it or not, it seems to me that once something like Spotify (or Rdio, or whatever) exists, there is no going back; as much as Napster, hess services have changed the way people listen to music, and how they pay for it.
Mike Spies writes about the downside of being able to access any piece of music any time you want, and though what he is saying is certainly partly about nostalgia, it’s still a point with which I have a lot of sympathy. He’s partly talking about things like the tangible, sensible qualities of physical objects and what those qualities add to the finding and owning of music, but also— and, I think, more interestingly— about the value of having to make choices in what one listens to. I grew up in a small, rural town in which there wasn’t really any place to buy music. So, not only was I constrained by not having any money; buying a new CD (or, before that, tape) involved a 150-mile round trip and several hours in the car. Obviously, the stakes of each purchase were pretty high, and this made me very selective. It also meant that the music you owned told people a lot about you.
Now, though, listening to something on Spotify requires no effort, and it certainly doesn’t tell anybody anything about me— at least not reliably. I listen to stuff just to try it out, and that listening doesn’t mean I endorse it in any way. It’s more like having the radio on; I am not really responsible for what comes on. I don’t mean to suggest that this is a bad thing— not wasting money on music I don’t end up liking is the best thing ever. But if this becomes the only way one listens to music, then one is never making those kind of revealing choices. Again, I don’t know if this is a bad thing or not, but it is, at least, very different.
More concretely, Damon Krukowski (of the bands Galaxie 500 and Damon and Naomi) discusses just how much he gets paid each time somebody streams one of his various bands’ songs on Spotify or Pandora. A lot has been written on the question of whether Spotify, etc., are good for artists in financial terms, but it is still startling to see just how the math works out for a moderately well-known artist. I have argued in the past, and still believe, that the alternatives here for artists are not, as Krukowski presents it, either selling a physical album at full price or having it streamed on Spotify; it’s really, more often, Spotify and the little they pay vs. the nothing that the artists will receive when somebody pirates their work. But the numbers here do force us to ask what it means if it becomes impossible for musicians, even popular ones, to make a living by selling recordings.

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