The PhD – the comprehensive exams

So I’m diving straight into my comprehensives now. I’m building lists and checking them twice (and more). While building these reading lists is in many ways a very personal journey, I’ve decided to blog about the process so that I might get feedback from unexpected locales, harnessing the “wisdom of crowds” (while simultaneously, in both comp areas, critiquing how such “wisdom” is in fact problematic). I also hope that documenting the process can help others through it. I won’t be posting my full notes (who’d read them?), but I will share my definitional essays, my questions and answers, and an account of process along the way. I’ve written up preliminary préces of my two exam areas below.

Area 1. Science and Technology Studies. This will involve SCOT, ANT and other critical theories, but it will also dovetail through Philosophy of Technology (I’m thinking Heidegger through Marcuse and Feenberg, and also including Ellul and others, perhaps a few off the beaten track – we’ll see). I want to ask questions through this literature about the relationship of technology, power and social organization/social change. There are also some intriguing connections with Area 2 (below) via Hennion/Latour (their work on culture industries), and, according to one of my advisors, Habermas’ Public Sphere as well as Lazarsfeld.

Area 2. Culture Industries/Sociology of (The) Art(s). Starting with Hesmondhalgh’s (2002) synthesis of political economy of media studies with cultural studies and other approaches to the sociology of art, I plan to broaden this area out to include American and Continental approaches to the study of cultural/creative industries. This will likely include a range of approaches, including Bourdieu (various), Becker (various), and DeNora’s more recent work, but this area is still under development. There are important connections to literature on occupations (Balfe, Latouche) organizational studies (Throsby, Sacco, Menger), and of course The Frankfurts. Essentially, as I told one of my advisors this morning, I want to survey the body of work that theorizes culture industries, without limiting myself to a particular tradition (as approaches vary broadly). Keep in mind that I wish to keep this area current, as well, and as such I will need to make room for Eglash’s (and others’) work on appropriation, as well as Jenkins’ (and others’) work on fan culture. Sprawling enough? It makes sense to me.

My advisors, colleagues and friends (as well as the “social web” hoi polloi) can feel free to jump in any time. Like you have any time.

AOIR Music and Sound Panel – Oct 18, 2007

This update is running quite late, but is still valuable, I think, in attempting to sustain the dialogue which was unfortunately given too short an interval at our panel on Music and Sound at the AOIR conference last week. As well, I particularly need to move among the “diaspora” of AOIR (As Nancy Baym phrased it) as, variously, splitting headaches and tons of work – both domestic and non- kept me from schmoozing to my fullest capacity. So much to do I couldn’t even attend presentations or panels that I really really needed to see (especially this one, this one and this one).

In the interest of, as I said, sustaining some dialogue about our panel, I’ll offer a brief summary from my notes, which are mainly comprised of questions that I didn’t get to ask. Where possible I’ll link to the various presenters’ webpages or blogs, and I’ll reiterate the link to my own slides with notes. Here goes:

Marj Kibby presented her paper on Myspace and bands. Having been part of a band on Myspace for several years, I came out of this talk with too many questions for one small panel. I believe her research is an excellent introduction to this sphere for the uninitiated, bringing a textual analysis directly to the live profiles of a number of her research subjects, but for a seasoned Myspace whore such as myself, there was nothing here I hadn’t already guessed. Still, my questions were numerous, as Marj’s work overlaps significantly with mine:

  • what of the myths of “overnight success” (Sandi Thom, Amy Winehouse, et al). how does the ‘gaming’ of these networks by conventional producers change the dynamics of fan-artist relations?
  • what happens when the “influences” and “genres” sections of profiles become oversaturated (as in cases where bands and fans alike list hundreds and hundreds of influences, or inappropriate genre categories)? doesn’t this degrade communication? what do fans make of this? and once certain modes of communicating identity are spent, to where does the communication of identity migrate?
  • how does one sample artists from the thousands on myspace for survey research? what strategies are there for (1) sorting through fakes, side projects, false starts, unofficial profiles, and other artifacts of the myspace ecosystem, and (2) ensuring the sample is representative of a particular slice of time in the life of the site?
  • aren’t the rules of fan/artist interaction mediated by the specificities of artists/genres/subcultures? is it the same to interact with Radiohead as with Tapes and Tapes as with SFIAS? can we make general claims about fandom based on a random sample of myspace bands?
  • how can we be assured of the value of the “long tail” value of the networks of Myspace, given the persistent power of mass chain buyers like WalMart in influencing trends in the music industry? and how can musicians monetize this in ways that subvert/get around the (parasitic or progressive?) intentions/profit of the parent corporations who provide the infrastructure of Myspace?
  • what does News Corp gain from fan/artist networks of Myspace? how are corporate goals consistent with or in contradiction with the goals of artists and fans who use the site for music discovery and sharing?

Next up, Andrew Ó Baoill presented his research into podcasting and community radio. I was intrigued by this talk, and I thought that he deserved more questions at the close of the panel. The engagement of these two worlds – community radio and the podcast community – has far reaching implications, especially for parts of the world where community radio is a primary source of news, information and entertainment for many. I’m curious about how this topic interlaces with mobile media and device adoption in developing countries, in situations where community radio is a vital communication resource, and where the adoption of mobile media outstrips that of tethered ICTs. But insufficient time prevented me from asking Andrew his thoughts on this.

Next, I presented my talk on technical micropolitics and independent music. I don’t have any questions for myself. This is just placeholder. I’m just following the timeline. O SNAP!

The last talk of the panel was by Klaus Bruhn Jensen and Rasmus Helles, tantalizingly entitled “Society Switching“. Their research into the phenomenology of sound is quite fascinating, although the talk itself seemed to be merely the tip of the iceberg. I’m particularly intrigued by the use of the concept of generativity (borrowed from linguistics) and structural-functionalism in developing their theoretical framework. I’d love to read any published work from this research (hint-hint, if you cats are reading this).

Question period followed, which included lively input from the erudite Tarleton Gillespie (who seemingly followed me all the way from 4S), panel moderator Mark Latonero and Hanson scholar Holly Kruse (whose panel I really wished to see but couldn’t due to a headache – hint hint, Holly, I want to see your paper!).

Please do chime in if you were a presenter or in attendance and didn’t get to sound off in the limited F2F session that we had. Otherwise, I’m busy trying to mentally connect all of this with Henry Jenkins’ ideas about the moral economy of Web 2.0…back in a minute or so…

Technical Micropolitics and Musical Amateurs

I presented at AOIR today as part of a panel on Music and Sound. Here’s the PDF of my talk, complete with notes.

I did this with an extreme headache, and a growing sense that I need to, as my friend and colleague Flo articulated it the other day, “coccoon” myself in books again for a while. Assez des conférences maintenant!

Rainbow Connections – or, It’s Beginning To And Back Again

In Rainbows25 minutes early, my Radiohead download activation code is emailed to me. Ten years ago, I bought my first Radiohead CD (OK Computer).

OK Computer comprised a significant portion of the soundtrack for a prolonged and significant breakup I was going through at the time, one ending a 7 year relationship (7-9 depending on who you talk to). Alright, Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space was a better record, and got more spin out of me at the time anyway, but this is a story of mirror images, spaced approximately ten years apart. If it’s any good, In Rainbows could become the soundtrack for what is thus far the happiest time in my life – happily married with a beautiful 3.5 month old daughter who babbles constantly and really enjoys singalongs, and professionally getting somewhere (not sure where yet, but it bodes interestingly).

I didn’t own a computer in 1997. Well, I had a 386 at my desk, but it was more of a curiosity, and didn’t connect to any internets. So I had no computer in the sense of what a computer is now. The computer I now own is involved in many (though not all) aspects of my life, including these internets we share. I’m presenting at a conference called 4S in a couple of days about the computer’s imbrication with networks of musical practice and listening.

I’m presenting at 4S, which is taking place in Montréal, which is in the Province of Québec. A trip to Québec in 1996 was the inciting incident for the breakup I went through ten years ago. Keeping with the dictum ’nuff said, ’nuff said. Just pointing out the mirror images: happy/sad, computer/no computer, OK computer/No Way computer (vis à vis the politics of DRM-free music as Refusal).

In Rainbows is pretty good, well into the third song. Pretty. Actually, there are moments that recall, albeit very subtly, the aesthetics of another cool pop record from 1997, Stereolab’s Dots and Loops. I probably can’t explain that one, nor include it in my hall of mirrors. I have been watching a lot of Godard lately, if that’s somehow connected.

Revisioning the Canon, for Kranks

Those who know me well know that with music, I’m a fussy eater. I can be extremely caustic (I recall trashing both Pat Metheny and Bob Dylan within the space of a single week some time ago on LJ, relishing every moment of silver-tongued venom I spat at their hapless defenders. Lost a few LJ conversants that week, did I…;) ). So naturally, when an article like this one comes out – in which a number of contemporary musicians get the opportunity to diss canonical rock records – I am both compelled and thrilled to read and vicariously enjoy their deep-seated scorn for things held precious by so many lifelong indie record store employees.

Perhaps the best and most deserved critique comes from Green Gartside (whose Scritti Politti comeback album last year would, in its half-assed aural blanduggery, ironically, be on my list of overrated records, former Scrit brilliance notwithstanding). He really tears them a new asshole. To wit:

Arcade Fire The Neon Bible
Nominated by Green Gartside of Scritti Politti

People who enjoy this album may think I’m cloth-eared and unperceptive, and I accept it’s the result of my personal shortcomings, but what I hear in Arcade Fire is an agglomeration of mannerisms, cliches and devices. I find it solidly unattractive, texturally nasty, a bit harmonically and melodically dull, bombastic and melodramatic, and the rhythms are pedestrian. It’s monotonous in its textures and in the old-fashioned, nasty, clunky 80s rhythms and eighth-note basslines. It isn’t, as people are suggesting, richly rewarding and inventive. The melodies stick too closely to the chord changes. Win Butler’s voice uses certain stylistic devices – it goes wobbly and shouty, then whispery – and I guess people like wobbly and shouty going to whispery, they think it signifies real feeling. It’s some people’s idea of unmediated emotion. I can imagine Jeremy Clarkson liking it; it’s for people in cars. It’s rather flat and unlovely. The album and the response to it represent a bunch of beliefs about expression and truth that I don’t share. The battle against unreconstructed rock music continues.

What a marvelous encapsulation of how taste can be so personal, so political, so fraught with fire and envious brimstone – “the album and response to it represent a bunch of beliefs about expression and truth that I don’t share”. I wholeheartedly agree, and toss it right back at ya, Green. Both the new Scritti and those Arcade kids (and, I might add, the most recent Scott Walker smegma about which so many armchair/laptop critics rave) utterly and completely clear the dance floor inside my head.

Of course, I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of such derision [which is the counterpuntal story (or punchline?) buried in this post, which I thought I might include to spice things up a bit]. Those who know me well may also recall the dispirited five-word dismissal my band got from Simon Reynolds, of all people. One year on, and he still hasn’t answered my email requesting clarification.

But taste can be so personal that we don’t talk to each other about it at all. This, I think, is one partial answer to a question Nancy posed on Online Fandom today (wondering aloud why last.fm friends – friends with whom we share only music preferences – are a different genus of friend than our other friends). I think that friends (and colleagues) who don’t share musical taste should talk about music more than we do, though. We should embrace and confront our differences. It’s a bit like a laboratory for exercising our critical skills with limited consequences (other than the hurt personal feelings of musicians, inherently self-aggrandizing and delicate about our works as we so often are). It’s a lot like scholarship. And… to throw in one more truncated tangent, it never ceases to surprise me how academics in the same school or in the same area of research have widely divergent tastes in music, even though they share the same taste in books. And we’re so quick to shut down dissensus over music when it invites itself into our conversations. How can that be? Shouldn’t we take up the same challenge of the debate on the subjects of Franz Ferdinand, or Morrissey, as we do when we grapple with the Frankfurts, or Marx?

Or is music just. too. personal?

Autoanalysis and Taste: Genius or totally off the deep end?

Andrew Kuo's Bright Eyes ChartsIn today’s NY Times there’s a story about Andrew Kuo, super-fan extraordinaire. He’s created some mind-boggling charts (pictured right, click the image for enlargement) of indie music appreciation indices (centering around a recent Bright Eyes concert-stalking binge), all of which stem from a very eccentric self-absorption with his own taste. He’s done this for other artists on his blog, too. a couple of years running. This is a far cry from air-guitaring, slash fiction (more on that topic than you can possibly absorb in one sitting over at Henry Jenkins’ blog, here), or celebrity stalking. This is some of the most meticulous compulsivity over music I’ve ever witnessed.

On this question I am stumped: is there anything in fandom history that is comparable to this, where the very parameters of one’s taste are subjected to such introspection? I inspect my own Last.fm stats on a regular basis (even though it’s taking me some time to build up enough data to analyze), and I can and do do a factorial ANOVA every now and then, but combining these into a peculiar hybrid art/science exploration and documentation of my own taste is, well, to be quite honest, what Bourdieu would have done if he had really been a poststructuralist. And completely insane.

My chapeau is off to ya, Andrew. I honestly have no idea what to call whatever it is you’re doing.

Via Listenerd.