Friday, June 29, 2007

Consumerism, cultural politics, & the Supremes Diana Ross and the Supremes. This post is about the Supreme Court of the United States, and what its recent decision in the case Leegin v. PSKS can tell us about the state of cultural politics today.

Now, I haven't had sufficient time to review the case or the decision closely, but according to The New York Times: "The Supreme Court on Thursday [June 28th] abandoned a 96-year-old ban on manufacturers and retailers setting price floors for products. In a 5-4 decision, the court said that agreements on minimum prices are legal if they promote competition. The ruling means that accusations of minimum pricing pacts will be evaluated case by case."

A few reactions:

  • First, I'd be curious to see on what economic grounds the Court was able to reason that price fixing can promote competition. That seems rather counter-intuitive to me.

  • Second, I'm intrigued that the law Leegin overturned, which passed in 1911, corresponded roughly with the "birth" of consumer capitalism in the United States. What might Thursday's decision say about the extent to which consumerism (or a particular version of it, specific to the early 20th century) continues to drive capitalism today?

  • Finally, and relatedly, I'm inclined to locate the Leegin decision within a broader context of changes that have been occurring over the last twenty to thirty years, in which the interests of consumers have gradually given way to those of business. Here I'm thinking of: recent revisions to bankruptcy law that have created conditions less favorable to ordinary folk who want to declare bankruptcy (and hence conditions more favorable for creditors); the growth of digital rights management technologies, which regulate what users can and cannot do with the digital items they've purchased; efforts to implement tort reform, which would make it more difficult for ordinary people to sue businesses; and more.

  • Back in September, I posted my thoughts on the film, V for Vendetta. I speculated there on how the movie and its reception might suggest not the end of cultural politics per se. They may, however, register something like a shift away from the prominence cultural politics enjoyed in the decades both immediately preceding and following the Second World War. Leegin v. PSKS, like V for Vendetta, only underscores that point. Our relationship to consumerism and culture are becoming more and more tenuous--juridically, economically, and technologically. Thus, it's becoming increasingly difficult for people like you and me to marshal the kinds of resources that have long made cultural politics possible. It also suggests that, in order to effect meaningful change these days, we might well need to direct more of our political energy beyond the realm of culture.

    Friday, June 15, 2007

    Summer reading

    This summer's hardly been lazy, to be sure. That said, the break from teaching has given me some time to catch up on my reading. And in that spirit, I thought I'd say a few words about my summer reading list. I'm quite excited about it. They're all academic books, so for those of you anticipating literary recommendations, you'll have to look elsewhere (although recently I enjoyed Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, which just became an Oprah's Book Club selection).

    I loved McKenzie Wark's A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard U.P., 2004), and so I was thrilled to pick up Gamer Theory (Harvard U.P., 2007) at the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa this past April. I wasn't disappointed. Though perhaps a tad uneven compared to Hacker, Gamer Theory is definitely worth reading if you're interested in everyday life, digital (and non-digital) gaming, and what it may be like to live in what Gilles Deleuze has called "a society of control." (This is a theme I develop in my forthcoming book, by the way.)

    I met Alex Galloway, author of Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization (MIT Press, 2004), when we were graduate students (he at Duke, me at nearby UNC-Chapel Hill). At the time I didn't really know what he was working on, so I became intrigued when I ran across Protocol about a year or two ago. I knew I'd like it, but I just never had the time to read it--until now. It's a gem. Not only is it an insightful elaboration of how control works in contemporary networked societies, but it's smart about the technical aspects of computer programming and networking. I'd describe it as a "must read" for those interested in new/technology studies.

    Friedrich A. Kittler's Discourse Networks, 1800/1900 (Stanford U.P., 1990) is a book that's been in my library for some years now. I've only just begun reading it, so I don't have a whole lot to say at the moment--except that I should have read Discourse Networks ages ago. The foreword provides a wonderful contextualization of Kittler's work, and I'm especially enjoying the "1900" part of the book.

    There are two more books that I've been sent recently, both of which I'm hoping to get to before summer's end. Last year on D&R I reviewed Daniel Heller-Roazen's amazing book, Echolalias (Zone Books, 2005). By the good graces of the folks at Zone, Heller-Roazen's latest tome, The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation, arrived on my doorstep. I can't wait to read it. It's about the perception of perception--a heady topic that couldn't be in more capable hands.

    Last but not least on my list is Tarleton Gillespie's Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2007). I had the good fortune of meeting Tarleton at an intellectual property symposium in Iowa in 2005, and we've corresponded off and on since then. As with several of the books on my summer reading list, I suspect it's going to have a lot to say about control. And did I mention I just love the title?

    Okay--that's it for now. Of course, I'd welcome any suggestions for further reading.

    Thursday, June 07, 2007

    Second class music?

    First off, apologies, apologies. I've been swamped with writing projects of late, and so the prospect of writing still more just seemed too out of reach. Now that I'm out from under the really heavy stuff (at least for the moment), I figured I should get back into the swing of things on D&R. Thanks as always for your patience, dear readers.

    I'm likely to get some smirks for telling the world this, but I download music from Apple iTunes. I know they're not the friendliest of companies when it comes to music downloading, especially since they've long maintained Digital Rights Management (DRM) schemes that regulate what you can and cannot do with your paid-for music. I'm not a huge music downloader, though, and so I've never really bothered to look elsewhere, despite my professed uneasiness with DRM.

    All that's just a lead-up to tell you that I receive regular emails from iTunes, telling me about new music releases and other pertinent news. The other day, this message arrived in my inbox:
    Now you can download music and videos from EMI that are free of DRM rules and restrictions. With iTunes Plus, you can burn the music you download from iTunes to as many CDs as you need, transfer it to as many computers (Mac or PC) as you want, or sync it to as many devices as you like. And because it's encoded in 256 kbps AAC, your iTunes Plus music is virtually indistinguishable from the original recording. Hear it for yourself — you can preview all iTunes Plus songs before purchasing. iTunes Plus music is available now for many EMI artists, such as Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Norah Jones, Coldplay, and many more. DRM-free EMI music videos are still $1.99 and music tracks are $1.29.
    I'd been aware of Steve Jobs' mention a few months back of how he thought music should be stripped of its DRM. Needless to say, I was pleased to see some movement on the issue from Apple.

    But then I started to think about it further. Regular, DRM-laden music downloads are 99 cents on iTunes. That means, if you want to be free of DRM, you have to pay 30 cents more per song. That's not a lot of money, admittedly, though if you're a real music aficionado, I suppose it could add up over time. Anyway, what bugs me is the principle; what's happening with schemes such as this is that Apple and other companies are creating (at least) a two-tier system of property owners. Those with more money can own their songs and videos more or less free-and-clear. Those unwilling to ante up the additional money, on the other hand, become indentured to iTunes and the record companies with respect to DRM-induced terms of use.

    Something strange is happening to property, in other words. We're slowly creating a system in which there are "haves" and "don't quite haves." I'm also troubled by the way in which these companies are beginning to leverage the mere prospect of DRM to extract more money from consumers.

    I'm not altogether sure what my solution to the issue would be. I'd be inclined to say get rid of the DRM altogether, though I'm sure that wouldn't sit well with intellectual property producers and distributors. Then again, maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing after all.

    P.S. If you want a copy of the article to which I linked above, you can email me at: