Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘late capitalism

David Simon Provides the Audio Commentary for the Film ‘He’s Just Not That into You’

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DAVID SIMON: I like to tell everybody that the real subject of this film is Baltimore. Its particular set of social problems drive the romantic conflict here. Baltimore is a medium-sized city, as East Coast cities go. It’s a stand-in for every place like it, these ports whose economies were just hammered by the collapse of the New Deal. Even so, there’s an appealing human scale to the place. To a certain extent, that old-school solidarity still characterizes the social life of the city, if not the culture of local institutions. In Baltimore, everyone is one or two degrees removed from everyone else, more or less. You have these characters’ social entanglements interfering with weaker professional or institutional ties—but which tie really is weaker? Are people more committed to their partner or to their institution? And that uncertainty breeds a natural suspicion. It’s a culture where people live with a fundamental lack of trust in the goodness of other human beings. So it’s not like he’s not calling because he isn’t into you—it’s not about you! It’s not about anybody, specifically. You never know who’s talking to whom, or what anyone is up to. It’s about this idea that the personal needs of an individual are not worth as much of a time investment as they used to be.

David Simon provides the audio commentary for the film He’s Just Not That into You.

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February 17, 2009 at 7:14 pm

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‘The Next President Will Disappoint You’

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The very structure of American politics imposes its own constraints. For all the clout that presidents have accrued since World War II, their prerogatives remain limited. A President McCain will almost certainly face a Congress controlled by a Democratic and therefore obstreperous majority. A President Obama, even if his own party runs the Senate and House, won’t enjoy all that much more latitude, especially when it comes to three areas in which the dead hand of the past weighs most heavily: defense policy, energy policy and the Arab-Israeli peace process. The military-industrial complex will inhibit efforts to curb the Pentagon’s penchant for waste. Detroit and Big Oil will conspire to prolong the age of gas guzzling. And the Israel lobby will oppose attempts to chart a new course in the Middle East. If the past provides any indication, advocates of the status quo will mount a tenacious defense.

Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich, last seen in these parts talking with Bill Moyers about the relationship between consumerism and American imperialism, had some tough words in a Los Angeles Times op-ed two weeks ago: “The next president will disappoint you.”

National Mall as Metaphor

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The National Mall serves as a tragic metaphor for our nation, whose own infrastructure has been left to crumble. The irony is that the way that the National Mall has been allowed to crumble literally in front of the government is like how our nation has slowly crumbled while the government grows in size and power.

Written by gerrycanavan

August 25, 2008 at 4:03 am

‘Empire of Consumption’

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The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit. The chief desire of the American people is that nothing should disrupt their access to these goods, that oil, and that credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part of through the distribution of largesse here at home, and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad.

Retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich talks to Bill Moyers about the consumerist origins of American foreign policy, what Charles Maier called the ’empire of consumption.’ Of course, once again Carter comes up::

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I would be one of the first to confess that – I think that we have misunderstood and underestimated President Carter. He was the one President of our time who recognized, I think, the challenges awaiting us if we refused to get our house in order. 

BILL MOYERS: You’re the only author I have read, since I read Jimmy Carter, who gives so much time to the President’s speech on July 15th, 1979. Why does that speech speak to you so strongly?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, this is the so-called Malaise Speech, even though he never used the word “malaise” in the text to the address. It’s a very powerful speech, I think, because President Carter says in that speech, oil, our dependence on oil, poses a looming threat to the country. If we act now, we may be able to fix this problem. If we don’t act now, we’re headed down a path in which not only will we become increasingly dependent upon foreign oil, but we will have opted for a false model of freedom. A freedom of materialism, a freedom of self-indulgence, a freedom of collective recklessness. And what the President was saying at the time was, we need to think about what we mean by freedom. We need to choose a definition of freedom which is anchored in truth, and the way to manifest that choice, is by addressing our energy problem.

He had a profound understanding of the dilemma facing the country in the post Vietnam period. And of course, he was completely hooted, derided, disregarded.

More immediately important, though, is this about Obama, McCain, and general election 2008:

BILL MOYERS: …Do you expect either John McCain or Barack Obama to rein in the “imperial presidency?” 

ANDREW BACEVICH: No. I mean, people run for the presidency in order to become imperial presidents. The people who are advising these candidates, the people who aspire to be the next national security advisor, the next secretary of defense, these are people who yearn to exercise those kind of great powers.

They’re not running to see if they can make the Pentagon smaller. They’re not. So when I – as a distant observer of politics – one of the things that both puzzles me and I think troubles me is the 24/7 coverage of the campaign.

Parsing every word, every phrase, that either Senator Obama or Senator McCain utters, as if what they say is going to reveal some profound and important change that was going to come about if they happened to be elected. It’s not going to happen.

BILL MOYERS: It’s not going to happen because?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Not going to happen – it’s not going to happen because the elements of continuity outweigh the elements of change. And it’s not going to happen because, ultimately, we the American people, refuse to look in that mirror. And to see the extent to which the problems that we face really lie within.

We refuse to live within our means. We continue to think that the problems that beset the country are out there beyond our borders. And that if we deploy sufficient amount of American power we can fix those problems, and therefore things back here will continue as they have for decades.

It’s a truly exceptional interview. Read the whole thing. Via MeFi.

Good News for culturemonkeys (All about the 1950s)

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Never say Hollywood can’t learn from its mistakes. The producers have figured out how to please everyone: maintain earnestness regardless of the inherent absurdity of the genre, be ‘topical’ by way of empty allegory, be spectacularly violent, never stop moralizing. Meet these requirements, and a great deal of variety is possible: one has free reign to be jokey or serious, bright or gloomy, undisguisedly sexist, racist, homophobic, or none of the above, ‘critical,’ or ‘wish fulfillment.’ Or all of the above. These labels are simply not the creator’s responsibility. Restore the superhero’s propaganda function, in short, and in so doing prove Sontag’s thesis that “pure camp” is always so for the future and not the present.** The comic book-loving nerds of my generation are now faced with the dubious realization of our pubescent dreams: the nerds have taken over Hollywood, and the responsibility thus falls to the Figure of the Superhero to ‘teach us’ something about the “human condition.”

Good news for culturemonkeys: Ryan has a great post on superhero cinema over there. (And here too.) It’s more or less the definitive post on Dark Knight. But a few quick thoughts. First, I think Acephalous’s attempt to rehabilitate the film from attempts to understand it solely as a “balls-out obvious apolog[y] for the authoritarian, repressive ‘excesses’ of global capitalism” is instructive, and definitely worth reading.

Second, Ryan writes that we are currently experiencing the”repetition-as-farce of the ’50s”—but this doesn’t strike me as a new phenomenon. Isn’t it more the case that postwar American culture is perpetually returning to the ’50s as a site of degrading, doomed unity?

This is to say that Jameson’s claim that WWII is the moment of highest American nostalgia par excellence is, I think, fundamentally correct, with the revision that it’s more the period from Dec. 1941 to August 29, 1949, the day the Russians exploded their first atomic bomb. The ’50s are the memory of “the good ’40s” combined with and juxtaposed against the reality of 8/29/49—they are the dawning but perpetually unfinished recognition of how it all will go / is going / has already gone wrong. In other words, the ’50s themselves were a repetition-as-farce the first time around of the ideologically unacceptable, apocalyptic shock at the end of the previous decade—and we find ourselves going back to the ’50s for answers whenever we get shocked again.

That’s why, when 1973 is the year of disaster for American capitalism, Happy Days premieres in January 1974.

Leftovers: Cell Phones, Harold and Kumar, Scrabulous

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Friday leftovers.

* The director of a leading US cancer research institute has sent a memo to thousands of staff telling them to listen to Ze Frank and use a cell-phone headset (even if Salon is right and it won’t really make you a safer driver).

* Hometown heroes Hurwitz and Hayden are writing another Harold & Kumar—which is a good thing, because it was always conceived as a trilogy. (I’m told they actually have nine H&K movies planned out, including the three prequels.)

I regret to admit I missed the second in theaters, but I plan to make up for that error when the DVD is released in just four days.

* Now that its competing Facebook application is up and running, Hasbro has renewed its lawsuit against the makers of Scrabulous. More at Slashdot, which notes: “EA’s version has netted fewer than ten thousand players, versus Scrabulous’ estimated 2.3 million.” I still say they ought to just buy Scrabulous and be done with it.

* Math may be hard, but there’s no gender difference in math performance, according to a new study in Science. Via MeFi, where the poster adds: “Bite me, Larry Summers.”

* And the Edge of the American West continues to impress: here’s a look back at the decision in United States of America v. Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States, handed down 24 years ago today.

* The minimum wage: a disgrace and a scandal.

Here is how the political and economic system has been ripping off workers. Once upon a time, if you worked hard and were productive, that translated directly into your paycheck. Not anymore. From 2000 to roughly 2007, productivity went up 20 percent — while the median hourly wage was up 3 percent. My friend Joel Rogers,director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, made a stunning calculation not too long ago: Had wages tracked productivity as they have over the past 30 years, “median family income in the U.S. would be about $20,000 higher today than it is.” Check this out: Taking into account productivity, the minimum wage should be $19.12 — which would make it almost 50 percent above today’s median wage (not to mention the pathetic $6.55).

That’s right. The minimum wage should be more three times what it is today. At that level, you would make almost $40,000 a year. Not an outstanding amount given all the other costs and the likelihood that you would not be in a job with health care and a pension (that’s another issue). But, beginning to be in the realm of respectable.

Flag-Waving American Companies Cheat On Us With China

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Flag-waving American companies are cheating on us with China.

Written by gerrycanavan

July 21, 2008 at 2:42 pm

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More on Dams

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That photo below reminds me of one of the best pieces on globalization to be found on the Internet, Arundhati Roy’s essay on dams: “The Greater Common Good.” I must admit I was completely naive about the realities of dam-building before reading this article; dams are actually a tremendously important site for what Marx called primitive accumulation in the contemporary moment and therefore an important location for class struggle.

In the fifty years since Independence, after Nehru’s famous “Dams are the Temples of Modern India” speech (one that he grew to regret in his own lifetime), his footsoldiers threw themselves into the business of building dams with unnatural fervour. Dam-building grew to be equated with Nation-building. Their enthusiasm alone should have been reason enough to make one suspicious. Not only did they build new dams and new irrigation systems, they took control of small, traditional systems that had been managed by village communities for thousands of years, and allowed them to atrophy. To compensate the loss, the Government built more and more dams. Big ones, little ones, tall ones, short ones. The result of its exertions is that India now boasts of being the world’s third largest dam builder. According to the Central Water Commission, we have three thousand six hundred dams that qualify as Big Dams, three thousand three hundred of them built after Independence. One thousand more are under construction. Yet one-fifth of our population – 200 million people – does not have safe drinking water and two-thirds – 600 million – lack basic sanitation.

Big Dams started well, but have ended badly. There was a time when everybody loved them, everybody had them – the Communists, Capitalists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists. There was a time when Big Dams moved men to poetry. Not any longer. All over the world there is a movement growing against Big Dams. In the First World they’re being de-commissioned, blown up. The fact that they do more harm than good is no longer just conjecture. Big Dams are obsolete. They’re uncool. They’re undemocratic. They’re a Government’s way of accumulating authority (deciding who will get how much water and who will grow what where). They’re a guaranteed way of taking a farmer’s wisdom away from him. They’re a brazen means of taking water, land and irrigation away from the poor and gifting it to the rich. Their reservoirs displace huge populations of people, leaving them homeless and destitute. Ecologically, they’re in the doghouse. They lay the earth to waste. They cause floods, water-logging, salinity, they spread disease. There is mounting evidence that links Big Dams to earthquakes.

Big Dams haven’t really lived up to their role as the monuments of Modern Civilisation, emblems of Man’s ascendancy over Nature. Monuments are supposed to be timeless, but dams have an all-too-finite lifetime. They last only as long as it takes Nature to fill them with silt. It’s common knowledge now that Big Dams do the opposite of what their Publicity People say they do – the Local Pain for National Gain myth has been blown wide open.

For all these reasons, the dam-building industry in the First World is in trouble and out of work. So it’s exported to the Third World in the name of Development Aid, along with their other waste like old weapons, superannuated aircraft carriers and banned pesticides.

Written by gerrycanavan

June 2, 2008 at 5:30 pm

‘What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Movies’

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This backlash follows a perfect storm of anti-intellectual prejudice: Movies are considered fun that needn’t be taken seriously. Movies contain ideas better left unexamined. Movies generate capital in all directions. The latter ethic was overwhelmingly embraced by media outlets during the Reagan era, exemplified by the sly shift from reporting on movies to featuring inside-industry coverage….

This disrespect for thinking—where film criticism blurred with celebrity gossip—has resulted in today’s cultural calamity. Buyouts and dismissals are, of course, unfortunate personal setbacks; but the crisis of contemporary film criticism is that critics don’t discuss movies in ways that matter. Reviewers no longer bother connecting movies to political or moral ideas (that’s was what made James Agee’s review of The Human Comedy and Bosley Crowther’s review of Rocco and His Brothers memorable). Nowadays, reviewers almost never draw continuity between new films and movie history—except to get it wrong, as in the idiotic reviews that belittled Neil Jordan’s sensitive, imaginative The Brave One (a movie that brilliantly contrasts vengeful guilt to 9/11 aftershock) as merely a rip-off of the 1970s exploitation feature Death Wish.

If the current indifference to critical thought is a tragedy, it’s not just for the journalism profession betraying its promise of news and ideas but also for those bloggers. The love of movies that inspires their gigabytes of hyperbole has been traduced to nonsense language and non-thinking. It breeds a new pinhead version of fan-clubism.

“What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Movies”: Armond White argues that film reviewing in America has gone completely off the rails.

What we don’t talk about when we talk about movies these days reveals that we have not moved past the crippling social tendency that 1990s sociologists called Denial. The most powerful, politically and morally engaged recent films (The Darjeeling Limited, Private Fears in Public Places, World Trade Center, The Promise, Shortbus, Ask the Dust, Akeelah and the Bee, Bobby, Running Scared, Munich, War of the Worlds, Vera Drake) were all ignored by journalists whose jobs are to bring the (cultural) news to the public. Instead, only movies that are mendacious, pseudo-serious, sometimes immoral or socially retrograde and irresponsible (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Army of Shadows, United 93, Marie Antoinette, Zodiac, Last Days, There Will Be Blood, American Gangster, Gone Baby Gone, Letters From Iwo Jima, A History of Violence, Tarnation, Elephant) have received critics’ imprimatur.

That there isn’t a popular hit among any of these films proves how critics have failed to rouse the moviegoing public in any direction.

There’s a little too much of Matthew Arnold here for me, and anyway I think he’s misread There Will be Blood (actually very good) and World Trade Center (actually pretty pernicious) at least—but I can’t disagree too vehemently with anyone who gets this out there:

Critics say nothing about movies that open up complex meaning or richer enjoyment. That’s why they disdained the beauty of The Darjeeling Limited: Wes Anderson’s confrontation with selfishness, hurt and love were too powerful, too humbling. It’s no wonder that the audience for movies shrinks into home-viewership; they also shrink away from movies as a great popular art form.

Written by gerrycanavan

April 24, 2008 at 1:11 pm

How the Rich Starved the World

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What biofuels do is undeniable: they take food out of the mouths of starving people and divert them to be burned as fuel in the car engines of the world’s rich consumers. This is, in the words of the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, nothing less than a “crime against humanity”.

The New Statesman explains how the rich starved the world. Via Cynical-C.

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April 22, 2008 at 3:40 pm

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People frequently fret that we can’t afford the measures necessary to fight climate change. That is false. We are an enormously rich country. We’re in the midst of spending trillions on a war that is providing no benefits whatsoever, just to stoke the imperialist fantasies of our ruling class. We can afford whatever we want. It’s whether we really want it that’s the question.

Some good polemic from David Roberts at Gristmill, via Ezra Klein. More key facts from the post:

1. Projected total US spending on the Iraq war could cover all of the global investments in renewable power generation that are needed between now and 2030 in order to halt current warming trends.

5. In 2006, the US spent more on the war in Iraq than the whole world spent on investment in renewable energy.

6. US presidential candidate Barack Obama has committed to spending “$150 billion over 10 years to advance the next generation of green energy technology and infrastructure.” The US spends nearly that much on the war in Iraq in just 10 months.

The Dickensian Aspect: Thoughts on the Wire

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Spoilers for the last season of The Wire are below, if you haven’t seen it yet.

One of the clearest villains in the final season of The Wire is Baltimore Sun editor James Whiting, constantly instructing his reporters to uncover “the Dickensian aspect” in the stories they cover. For Whiting, prophet of the bottom-line, these appeals to Dickensian social realism are completely cynical as the rest of the management style that has eviscerated newspaper journalism in the Internet age. But there’s a self-critical irony here, and possibly even a bitter self-loathing, as The Wire in its final season has never been more Dickensian, nor its characters more typological. This aesthetic is made inescapably clear as the entropy of the series winds down in its final season, with most of its main characters defeated or destroyed (often by their own hands) and new characters arising to fill their necessary social space. The players change, but the game goes on.

The musical chairs surrounding the police commissionership, the drug “connect,” and various desks at The Sun are just a few salient examples of this. The Major Crimes Unit’s most quiet cypher, Lt. Sydnor, quite literally steps into McNulty’s shoes (and even his suit), taking up the slack as the last man standing from the unit. The most unrepentant and unsympathetic characters of the entire series, defense attorney Maurice Levy, seems to double himself twice in the final episode, taking both Herc and Stanfield on as corrupt protégés.

Most poignant for me—and even moreso for Jaimee—was Duquan’s slide into oblivion, reproducing the resurgent Bubbles just as clearly as Michael’s new brutality stepped into the void left by the superheroic Omar. Omar’s killer, another cold cypher, the demon child Kenard, has a thousand-yard stare on his face as he is led away at the end of the season that brings to mind the brutal stoicism of Marlo Stanfield.

(That last sentence contains the three moments from the season that stick more clearly with me. The one thing for the whole season I was spoiled for was Duquan’s use of heroin, so I had a few weeks to prepare for it—but it hit poor Jaimee like a ton of bricks at the end of episode 5.9. Omar’s shooting was so entirely unexpected that I refused to believe it had happened for several minutes, and only really accepted it when the body was zipped up at the end of the episode. And Bubbles’s final ascent from the basement to the kitchen was structurally obvious in retrospect, but totally unexpected until the moment it happened; I was nearly moved to tears.)

Seasons four and five of the show dance to the same score, the story of how the situation of late capitalism reproduces itself along explicitly Althusserian ideological status apparatuses like the school, the mayoral bureaucracy, mass media. The city of Baltimore becomes not a character, as some have said, but in some ways the only character—a reality that is best seen in the long montage at the end of the season, which stops following the characters we know and begins to flash shots of unknown, presumably authentic Baltimoreans, as the original theme song begins to play. We’re back where we started. In fact we never left.

In the face of this ideological steel trap my attention is drawn again to the few characters able to escape the grinding of the machine. The poignant, hopeful shot of Namond on Bunny Colvin’s porch that ended season four—which I said somewhere or another could have been a beautiful last shot for the series as a whole—is called back by the late discovery of a Namond who is now thriving as a champion debater. Pretty to think about—until we remember Randy, Michael, and Duquan, each with the same or more potential, just unluckier.

Likewise, Poot, the last of the original Barksdale kids—not the best, not the most worthy—is able to walk away from the game. He gets a job at Foot Locker. He seems happy.

Still more complicated is the ambiguous final image of Marlo Stanfield, cut in the street in his fine suit. Stanfield, always powered by an inexorable inner drive and an interiority that has always been totally inaccessible to the audience, remains just as frighteningly inscrutable at the end as he ever was. Is he going straight, as Stringer wanted but never could? Is he unable to stay off the street, like Avon? What is he thinking?

I’m sorry these thoughts are so late and so fragmented, but the show is much bigger than a single blog post. So here are a few others:

* A shot-by-shot commentary on the final montage from New York Magazine, alongside 10 Unanswered Questions and a last long, boozy Irish wake for the show.

* The MeFi thread.

* The American Prospect‘s roundtable.

* The Wire and women. This is a rather important topic I didn’t even get to in my ramblings above.

* Alan Sepinwall’s interview with David Simon, and his end of show recap. The House Next Door’s recap.

* Heaven & Here, The Wire blog.

* Kottke has a whole lot of other links, and I notice now that I’m finally going through my links that he keyed into the same doubling I wrote about above. He gets a few I didn’t mention, too: Carver is the new Daniels, Kima is the new Bunk…

Great show. Perfect, almost. In the last year and a half we’ve lost The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood… I’m afraid the Golden Age of Television finally ended last week.

Written by gerrycanavan

March 16, 2008 at 1:54 am

Why Academics Love the Wire

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Like The Wire, academics? As How the University Works explains, that’s because you’re actually living it. Warning: contains minor spoilers for the first half of season 5, which, as every blog post I’m trying to avoid will tell you, came to an end last night.

Quality management takes advantage of the fact that most people don’t behave as the self-interested clots modelled by neoliberal economics. Most people are animated by profoundly pro-social impulses. To a limited but real extent, depending on individual factors, janitors do their work for love of clean floors. And it is the overt, cannibalistic intention of quality management to see that—to the absolute limit of the possible—they do that work for love alone.

Only management, in the quality scheme, isn’t done for love. One can see why. Management in the quality scheme is done for hate–for hate of democracy, equality, and the public, in service of a totalitarian culture of subservience to “leadership.”

In the quality scheme, management is paid more to do something most of us can’t do. Most of us can’t live in mansions while our neighbors can’t afford chemo; most of us really believe that accumulation has reasonable limits.

Only a very unusual person can do what the sleaziest small contractor does–pick up day labor, pay them less than the minimum wage to rebuild a suburban kitchen, collect fifty grand, and then dump the workers back on the street corner.

The task of academic quality management is to find those rare people and make them deans, provosts, and presidents.

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March 10, 2008 at 1:16 pm

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Internet as Copy Machine

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March 6, 2008 at 4:26 am

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Memories of Marshall McLuhan

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Memories of Marshall McLuhan.

Like all original thinkers from Blake to Einstein, McLuhan was much misunderstood. He never promoted TV over books as popular accounts gave out. He never expressed a preference for tribal culture over individualism. He never said the patterns of perception imposed by the ear are superior to those of the eye. One small aphorism sticks with me: “When the globe becomes a single electronic web with all its languages and culture recorded on a single tribal drum, the fixed point of view of print culture becomes irrelevant, however precious.” However precious! Those are the operative words, about as far as McLuhan went in taking sides. But they also bring his innermost sympathies to the fore.

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January 25, 2008 at 2:08 pm