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.

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!

4S, Montreal

Production-consumption continuumI’m blogging this from the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) conference in Montréal. We (Roy Bendor, Jack Post, Peter-Paul Verbeek and I) just completed our panel on Bruno Latour (“Translating Latour”) and I’m now in a very interesting panel about “Problematizing Technological Appropriation”. My first impression is that it’s a great complement to my presentation on digital music and Latour/Hennion, which I’ve attached as a PDF here (PDF, 364 K, with notes!).

The theoretical work around appropriation has really flowered since I first stepped into this space in 2004. It’s interesting – and reassuring – to witness so many theorists constructing diagrams of production/consumption that echo, build upon, and totally dwarf in profundity the one I first proposed then (at right). I’m referring to the work of Ron Eglash – who has constructed a continuum of production and consumption that accounts for appropriation, power and marginality. Cool stuff – I should be reading this.

Other than that, I’m running on a third wave of sleep denial therapy induced by (1) a sleepless redeye flight on the same day I taught for a ten hour day, (2) compressed conference schedule (2 within 2 weeks), and (3) baby’s sleeping schedule. I’ll sleep after my head is over-full with musings on the ethics of cloning, toppling streetcars in the 19th century, the programmable web, Yahoo Pipes and postphenomenology. What dreams may come?

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.

AOIR 8 update

AOIR Program coverHere’s another update on AOIR 8, happening Oct 17-20 in Vancouver. The Program (cover featured at right) is complete and off to the printers, room assignments have been made, and things are generally getting all keyed up around here.

There’s quite a range of papers and panels happening – too much to summarize in one post, and certainly too much for one person to attend them all. It’s the same pattern we observe with the VIFF (happening as we speak), which, partly due to my involvement in AOIR (though for myriad reasons), I’m unable to attend this year. If anyone catches anything exceptionally good, toss me the IMDB link and I’ll hunt for it later.

Also – now that the bulk of my work on AOIR is out of the way, I can put a bit of time into organizing the 50 Parties thing. So, here’s another shoutout to ppl who might be interested in pitching in, who missed the call the first time. If yr on Facebook, add this event. And make your promises (and break ’em) on the 50 Parties wiki. I’d like to have people throw pies at each other.

If you’re a local venue that’d like to host 50 Parties, and can hold around 200 or so nerds, then get in touch with me directly (jeanh at clicknoise dot net) to discuss yr terms. We’ve got a DJ or two lined up already, and we’ll have a whole whack of academic and tech people from out of town looking for something fun to do between panels.

Also – if anyone could drop me a hint on a good local source for those fake cream pies that get thrown in politicians’ faces (see the image below for an example of how this works), I’d be appreciative enough to buy you a beer at the event. Cheers!

Chretien gets pie in face

Step One: sidle up at public grip n’ grin

Step Two: remove fake cream pie from pocket

Step Three: briefly show upper surface of pie to target politician

Step Four: mash it in his face

Step Five: run like hell. the security guards will think it’s an act of terrorism.

Ex-Perry Mental Geekery

Nice to be back in the swim of things. I just put a final report out the door on a research project that I’d been working on for 14 months. It was a difficult project – one that didn’t always go as planned, that got intermittently sidelined by other events in my life (buying an apartment, having a first baby), and included a whole feeling of responsibility and guilt unlike any other research project I’d ever worked on. More than anything, it was in a research area worlds away from poopular (yes, I mean poopular, it’s not just the baby talking) music, which is my number one research passion.

I’m not going to divulge any more details about that project here (details of it will soon be published elsewhere), but your takeaway from the above blurb should be that now that the project’s done, much more of my time can be devoted to my work in music and my work in mobile – both of which are central themes of this blog.

To wit, I’m TAing a 3rd year course in popular music studies this semester, and the gearing up is invigorating. We’re doing something of an experimental “taste laboratory” of sorts on Last.fm. I’ve invited the 76 students in the class to join so we can have some healthy backchannel in a music-rich environment. We’ll be sticking to the books and lectures in tutorial, but I figured having this optional addon for students who are so inclined can be instructive, and perhaps give some students some concrete experience with which to grapple whilst reading Hebdige, Attali, Adorno, McRobbie, and others (PS – I didn’t design the reading list, so if you have a problem with it, take it up with the Sessional).

The other thing I’m diving into now is a short ethnographic study (yes, the third in a series) of mobile phone use, using the Nokia 95. I’ve been playing with one of them for a couple of days now, and I am quite impressed with its ergonomic design. Something about this phone feels just alright, as Lou Reed would say. However, the phone keeps crashing when using the built in photo gallery app. Looking for a workaround.

Oh, and of course, there’s the upcoming AOIR, which I’m helping out with (and presenting at).

I’ll be keeping you posted.

On Last.fm and royalty payments

Clear Channel didn’t get away with it, and now Last.fm is taking heat for not paying out royalties to independent artists. Last.fm, recently purchased by CBS, is now heating up indie music business blogs with this policy, even though it’s been in place since the company started.

Why so, asks the intrepid indie music biz blogger/Last.fm enthusiast and indie label/band person? Well, it seems there’s some misunderstanding of how royalty collection works. Last.fm is in fact playing by the rules, paying royalties to collection societies when tracks are streamed.

The big difference between Last.fm and conventional radio (and indie labels and bands should take note) is that with Last.fm, playlist/track streaming statistics are not hidden from public view, and do not rely on the inaccurate and gameable conventional sampling methods used by groups such as BMI, ASCAP or SOCAN in tracking radio airplay. And it’s not a closed pay-per-stat-view shop like Big Champagne is. As if that weren’t enough, the problem of payola is curbed via the voluntary ‘pull’ nature of “airplay” on Last.fm. The critiques of radio cannot be transplanted to a service such as Last.fm so swiftly. It is simply a different animal.

And anyway – wasn’t the hulaballo about Clear Channel over the issue of payola in the first place? Lest we forget, “Clear Channel had responded to allegations of payola with a pay-for-play scheme“.

This is not to say that there’s nothing about which we can be critical with this Last.fm thing. I’ve blogged this previously, but I’ll say it again: it matters who owns what in Internet 2.0. And even though it feels like listeners are running the show on Last.fm, they might not be, and probably aren’t. Every boss must manage, and every company must profit, or die. It seems that the most important question is still – to invoke the terminology of radio, new and old – are we really “streaming” or are we being “programmed”?

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.