From the archives

well, Lisa Gitelman’s collection anyway (Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines). I ran across it again as I was prepping for tomorrow’s sound seminar. This is one of my favorite quotes of its type, though I’ve got a good mental radio one I’ll dig up someday.

Letter from Ike Leonard Isacson to Thomas Edison, sometime in 1914:

Dear Sir,

I am a patient, in the hospital for Insane, at Elgin, Illinois. I am not Systematized. The Idea is. I must be a System. I wish you will please Install a System for me. Hoping to hear from you. I remain. Very respectfully,

Ike Leonard Isacson.

Gitelman notes that Edison scrawled “Noans” (short for “no answer”) across the top of the postcard. She’s struck by the accidental profundity of the statement, and so am I, though neither of us has any idea what it means.

Mmm, a “theory” blog

First things first. The party last night was awesome. Good conversation and good music.

There’s a raging debate in the “comments” section of Michael Berube’s Blog about Tom Frank’s new book. I even dropped a line there. It’s turned in to the standard debate about the populism of cultural studies (and left treatments of popular culture in general), which I just think is such a nonstarter these days. Yes, there are some great moments in Frank’s work on Kansas, but I don’t think Frank’s critique of cultural studies as populist (ongoing for quite some time now) is very well-researched or grounded in the history of the field. Yes, there are lots of populists running around (many in fields other than cultural studies) and yes it’s silly to read buying as transgression, but even John Fiske backs off that line in his last book.

Let me put it this was: it’s like saying physics is bankrupt because some idiots claimed they had figured out cold fusion over a decade ago. The nature of academia is that fields produce both good and bad work, and on that score cultural studies is a pretty standard field. One judges a field by its best work, not its worst.

It’s time to question the proliferation of self-congratulating critiques of cultural studies populism. I mean, I don’t know any serious scholars who are publishing that sort of thing or have in close to a decade. Maybe I run with the wrong people, but Fiske’s books are looking mighty dated these days. Let someone take on the faux populism of cultural history, which is alive, well and apolitical, and then we’ll see the fur fly.

Frank simply that he believes in his own authenticity more than he believes in other people’s, and his writing on popular culture consistently looks down on other people. He needs his critique of cultural studies so you don’t see him looking down on the very same people. I’m not a populist either — I think it’s a morally bankrupt position — but there’s a difference between challenging people and the positions they hold and condescending to them.

As a side note, the above debate on Michael’s site led me to another academic who blogs — Catherine Liu. Hers is both interesting and one of the coolest-looking academic blogs I’ve seen. Not like I have time to redesign this thing right now. Extra points for Liu: she’s interested in machines, and she teaches in my old undergrad department: Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, for which I still have fond memories.

Broken When It’s Brand New

So there’s this thing about stuff failing, or at least not quite working. It’s affected academics, especially since Bruno Latour’s Aramis: Or the Love of Technology, and in music of course you’ve got the whole glitch movement (and truthfully, I’m stuck on the edges of it, preferring the more polished versions like Telefon Tel Aviv and Prefuse 73 to Squarepusher and Autechre, though I suspect they’ll grow on me). And then there’s just, well, any digital technology you can imagine.

A couple days ago, coming home from that very drink mentioned in my last post, Carrie and I picked up an Airport Express. We already have an Airport Extreme network at home for DSL, and both thought it would be cool and convenient to stream music from ITunes to the nice, tasty stereo speakers on the other side of our “great room” (which is so big that it’s both office and living room). Well, of course Airport is famous for being a plug and play technology, which means that I follow all the idiot-proof directions and menus and then get a blinking yellow light from our new Airport Express. Call Apple support, and pretty quickly exhaust the tech’s knowledge (to his credit, he goes to ask for help rather than bullshitting me as other techs sometimes do). We reboot, reinstall, reconfigure a few times. Finally after a little over a half hour of talking with him and being on hold while he checks with someone, he gives up and say to call back tomorrow when someone with more specialist knowledge can help me. Can’t blame the guy, he really tried. So I hang up, look over at the Airport Express and the cruel bastard now has a GREEN LIGHT. I go to ITunes and the missing output menu is now there so I can send music to my speakers. The bastard worked, but only after torturing me and this guy for awhile.

So tonight I’m using it while Carrie gets ready for the party we’re going to (more young academics, more stories). And just once, I hear it choke. The music’s streaming fine one minute and then, it chokes off. That’s how I’d describe the sound. FFFFWWWWOOOOOOOP! Then PFFWWWWOOOOO back into it. It’s like a split second, no big thing. But there is it, it’s a glitch. And after all this, I kind of like it, I kind of want it to happen again. Preferably *almost* in time with the music. But of course Mr Express will not oblige me.

Reminds me of a moment when I was packing up the studio to move to Canada and deciding what to keep and what to lose. There was an old Digitech PDS 2550 (I know that’s the wrong number — it’s a BIG YELLOW PROGRAMMABLE distortion pedal from the 1980s, that I used a lot in the late 1980s and early 1990s) which has just stopped working right. It’s intermittent. Sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t, likes to cut in and out, abruptly change settings, etc. One of those things I’d been meaning to get rid of for some time. Well, this time I looked at it differently. I wanted to bring it along and use it (to record, admittedly, not to gig) BECAUSE it was broken. In a world of increasing audio precision (which is not to say fidelity) in the analog and digital realms, here’s that element of spontaneity, randomness and eventfulness staring me in the face, in the form of a scratched up, broken, worthless yellow distortion pedal.

Is it the glitch-hop/IDM/glitch-rock in my ears, my own interest in abject media, or just another excuse to keep some old crap around? I have no idea, but I’m waiting for my home music network to exhibit its shortness of breath again.

Language and Hockey Politics

At this very moment I should be working on my SSHRC application. More about those another time.

So last night I’m at a bar with a bunch of other young faculty in Montreal (it’s a thing here, very cool) and I meet another American who just moved to Canada. Like me, he’s fascinated with the language politics stuff as well. And like me, he’s been reading about it and asking people about it. Unlike me, he’s already completely gone off the deep end. And by deep end I mean “militant anglo” (is that a position?). Well, he’s had a few drinks (probably) and may be overstating things for the sport of argument, so cut him some slack. But it was a new one for me. His reasoning goes like this: Canada is a bilingual country, but Quebec is a monolingual province. Everything has to be in French here, English signs must be smaller than French ones, and there are language police (this is true — though from a survey of signs I’d say they’re pretty lax). The provincial government generally only offers forms in French. Now, I have been looking at it as “my problem” as in, I’d better get to learning French, then. He sees it as a matter of oppression: our right to operate in English is being violated. His evidence was that the UN has sanctioned Quebec for international human rights violations. “Do a google search on united nations, quebec, and human rights violantions and you’ll see.” I wish I’d asked him what he thought of the situation of Spanish-speakers in the US, who mostly are required to operate in English. But it didn’t occur to me.

His point is well-taken with forms and the like, but I wonder about about the bilingualism of the country in fact, as opposed to in law. For Tuesday night’s World Cup of Hockey championship, for instance, the anthem was all in English. I thought that was weird, since at least here at sporting events, you get the truly odd (for a monolinnguial American) experience of some French and some English. Sure enough, the Globe and Mail had a letter to the editor the next day complaining about that fact. And of course, there’s the example of the Francophone speaker in an Anglo province I mentioned in a previous entry.

Ah well, as they say at the end of bad social science artices, “further research is needed.”

In other news, today’s business section tells me there’s lots of hand wringing about how Ford will sell monster trucks cum SUVs to Canadian men now that there might not be a hockey season. Something tells me that we don’t have to worry for Ford. . . .

Okay, back to thinking about digital audio.


Awesome band, just stumbled across them. Lots of free mp3s.

I’m particularly taken with “Mo” at the moment.

Finally hooked up a record player given to us by a friend. It works! Vinyl is back in effect. It’s 80s night here, featuring Love and Rockets and the Cure.

Other news:

I’m not so sure about this “category” thing on the blog.

Awesome teaching day

Canadians love meetings (one colleague tells me it’s a “democracy in bureaucracy” thing)

After filing requests last week, various listservs were created for me. Looked at “soundstudies” (for my seminar of the same name) and thought, “gee, maybe I should go public with this after the semester ends.”

I am a member of the pakora peoples.

It’s TV time. Over and out.

Fall has begun

and football season is upon us again. (NB: when I say “football” I mean the version with the helmets where they use their hands. And usually with 100 yard fields and 11 players, though Carrie and I are exploring the possibility of a relationship with the CFL).

So, we’re watching the games yesterday and the FOX announcers keep saying that former coach and Fox personality Jimmy Johnson “really ripped into Ricky Williams” in the pregame show. For those who don’t know, Williams was a star running back for Miami who decided to retire rather than continue playing, despite being at the top of his game. He joins a group of African American running backs who retired at the top of their careers: Robert Smith (who has since come out as an atheist and written a book) and Barry Sanders (who was inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer and still won’t apologize for quitting). Williams always hated the publicity that came with the job (some say due to social anxiety disorder), and on top of that, he was on his way to setting a record for carrying the ball. Which means that he probably would have been unable to walk at age 50. Williams is going to travel the world and eventually wants to teach kindergarten or otherwise work with kids.

What’s stunning to me is the sense of betrayal from Johnson and others (some articles actually Williams’ retirement a dumb or inexplicable move), like Williams owed them more time. It may be the case that he owes Miami some money, but he had no moral obligation to continue playing. The howls of agony from sport personalities all over the US confirm that they still believe ultimately players have no right to determine their own lives. And part of me, of course, wonders if there isn’t also a racial undertone to it all.

Pierre the Nationalist Dishwasher Salesman

Ok, so one of the things that’s totally weird to me here is that tenants (at least at the end of the rental market we’re at) are usually responsible for their own appliances. Our landlord (who is pretty cool) left us a stove, a fridge and a dishwasher. The dishwasher had a “trick” to it to make it work, and of course, the “trick” stopped working. We tried to fix it to no avail, and so — since we are hopelessly bourgeois about these sorts of things — we found ourselves in need of a new dishwasher.

We hear tell of $250 dishwashers at a place called Brault and Martineau. (Remember, American friends, all prices in this blog are CANADIAN, so your American dollar goes further. I routinely annoy Carrie by converting things into American dollars in my head to see if we’re getting a “good deal.” That’s a story for another time.) So we drive out east to a surburb called Anjou. Total Francophone land, where we learn that we want the “scratch and dent” place, which is in the REAL east of Montreal. “Est ou ouest?” I ask the saleswoman in my best Franglais; “est, est!” she says. And so we drive east on the main drag, further than we’ve ever gone, past this heavy industrial corridor, past oil refineries and into a strip-malled, suburbanish part of the island.

there, we find scratch and dent heaven, but predictably, the $250 dishwashers are gone. We wound up dropping a lot more than that, but the real story here is Pierre. We are in the Frenchest of the French part of town, and as he is illuminating us on the finer points of dishwasher technology, he slips in a few political references. A few more come after we seem not to mind. Eventually we encourage him and all hell breaks loose. First, our new dishwasher is Quebecois Nationalist Approved because it was made in Quebec. Also energy-efficient. But we got a serious education on language politics and everything else. He’s the first person I’ve met where the conversation has gotten far enough to say “yes I voted for independence and I think it would be a good idea” (nb: the polite term is “independence” — if you say “separation,” it’s a loaded term. Like “pro-life.”). So, I asked him what he thought would happen if the nationalists actually won a referendum here.

I actually can’t recount everything he said because it was so complex and made little sense to me (especially the part about the “special deal with the United States” which I just think would be bad news for the Francophones if they already dislike Canada’s language politics, since Americans are like 10 times worse). But I did come away with a takeaway point that I found quite enlightening. It is eminently clear that althoguh Canada professes to be a bilingual nation, the Anglos have a better deal on the language front than the Francophones, especially outside Quebec. I can walk into my local Loblaw’s (Pittsburghers: Loblaw’s=Giant Iggle) and even though almost nobody speaks English as their first language, if I have a question, they’ll go out of their way to find someone who can communicate with me. At least to hear Pierre tell it, if I’m a French speaker in a grocery store in Toronto, I’m screwed. thee are lots of resentments back and forth on this score, and no easy answers. But what would REALLY happen if Quebec won a referendum for independence? Probably, the province would be in an amazing strong negotiating position with Canada, since Canada needs it. And if you speak French and are worried about the assimilation of your culture into Anglo Canadian culture, it seems like you’d need to keep the pressure on.

Anyway, that’s what we learned. As for me, I’m still planning on French lessons once school settles down a bit (haha, I know, but it’s really bad right now). And it seems like a little politeness (apologizing for not knowing French) goes a long way.

Sorry for all the typos, if there are any. This just won’t be any fun if I have to proof it. So my semiliteracy will be exposed.

Oh, and I should apologize in advance for exposing my cluelessness about Canadian politics. Watch me learn.