Firing the Canon: Read This, Not That!

I know you have your giftcards handy, and you’re looking for something new to read. In these times, I often think about books everyone’s supposed to read. I’ve read some of them. Many are damn good and on the list for a reason, but some need to be avoided like carbs or fat or sugar. So, in the tradition of Eat This, Not That!, here are a few of my recommendations:

The Wisdom of DonkeysInstead of the whiney tedium of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig (William Morrow, 1974), read Andy Merriman’s The Wisdom of Donkeys (Walker & Co., 2008). I reviewed the latter a while back, writing,

Andy Merriman explores his humanity through the calm eyes of the donkey. A former academic, Merriman escaped that bookish bedlam to the south of France to roam the hills with a donkey named Gribouille. He visits the outdoor clinic of the Society for the Protection and Welfare of Donkeys and Mules in Egypt and finds it more inspiring than the Pyramids. The economy there is driven by donkeys, not camels as is widely assumed. Donkeys plow the fields, carry the equipment and supplies, and since they are being bred less and less, the few extant donkeys are more precious to the economy and subsequently evermore overworked… The workers there don’t seem to think that donkeys feel pain. They treat them as machines.

digging-up-motherThough it contains some similar lessons, the book is just so much better in every way. Instead of a longwinded, pretentious narrator, a whiney kid, and a fixer-upper motorcycle, you get a thoughtful storyteller, no children, and a donkey!

Instead of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (Vintage, 2001), read Digging Up Mother: A Love Story by Doug Stanhope (Da Capo, 2016), which I reviewed for Splitsider. I won’t ruin it for you. Mother doesn’t die at the end. She dies at the beginning. Do know this: Mother’s death was an inside job.

Both of these books are about the narrator’s mom dying, but one of them is as real as it is funny. The other one is depressing and not even a true story. One of them has a foreword by Johnny Depp. The other does not.

The Faraway NearbyIf depraved comedy is not your thing, do not retreat to Eggersland. Go get Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013). As I wrote previously, there are several intertwining allegories threading through The Faraway Nearby. One is about a windfall of apricots rotting slowly on the floor of Solnit’s bedroom, and that story is connected to the very dire story of the diminishing mind of her mom. Overall though, the book is about moving, about going, coming, and becoming, the crisis of living where cartographers have yet to tread, losing your way and finding it again.

Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band (Dey St., 2015) is another solid option. She has helped define the art of her time, but she hasn’t been limited by it. Her art, performance, and writing all feel completely fearless.

Instead of the fumbling, faux intelligence of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Grove Weidenfeld, 1987), read The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Scribner, 2013), or grab this year’s best book, The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House). Both are better in every way. Instead of suffocating under the overbearing sloth of Dunces, you can grow with the lovely language of either of the others. Also, there are motorcycles and art in one (The Flamethrowers) and hippy communes, rockstars, and murders in the other (The Girls). You can thank me later.

Instead of the woefully contrived Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Crown, 2011), read any one of the following:

We’re all going to die. There is only a certain amount of time to read, which means only a certain number of books are going to get read. Your brain is not a computer, but the old phrase “garbage in, garbage out” still applies. There are no deadlines, but there’s no time to waste. Choose well, choose wisely, and don’t read or finish crap writing of any kind.

Kim Gordon: Femme Fearless

When I started discovering music on my own, Sonic Youth was already a band with records out. In that sense, I don’t know a world without them. I once wrote that they weren’t a band, that they were an institution. One could say the same about Kim Gordon. Her presence in the band and her relationship with Thurston Moore showed us what was possible—and not only that it was possible but that it was also sustainable. Writer Elissa Schappell said that they’d shown an entire generation how to grow up. And then it ended.

Kim Gordon in controversial t-shirt (according to MTV).

Gordon’s is such a singular story, and her memoir, Girl in a Band (Dey St., 2015), tells it in perfectly placed prose. From art to music and back again, she’s been at the center of so much important work. It feels so good to see her emerge as a force of her own through the book. Her sociologist dad coined the vocabulary for the high-school social groups that we still use: geeks, freaks, preps, jocks, and other members of the Breakfast Club. Her mom contributed her sense of fashion: a love of thrifting and mixing styles into something unique. Her brother’s shadow unfortunately loomed over much of her early years, and until reading this, I didn’t even know she had a brother.

Girl in a BandLong-time friends with such creative souls as Dan Graham, Cindy Sherman, Kurt Cobain, Tamra Davis, Chloë Sevigny, Spike Jonze, Kathleen Hanna, Gerhard Richter, William Burroughs, Danny Elfman (whom she dated in high school), and many others, Gordon came into her own as an artist when it meant the most. At five years old she knew art would be the center of her life. “Nothing else mattered,” she writes: “Sometimes I think we know on some level the person we’re going to be in our life, that if we pay attention, we can piece out that information” (p. 67). As a dear old friend once said of our own high-school years, “Who knew we were already who we were going to be?”

When Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, Dave Grohl asked Joan Jett, Annie Clark, Lorde, and Kim Gordon to sing renditions of Nirvana’s songs. Seeing Joan Jett sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with Pat Smear (whose first band‘s only record she’d produced in 1979), Krist Novoselic, and Grohl is its own kind of amazing, but Kim Gordon’s unhinged version of “Aneurism” is the absolute shit. She writes of the performance,

I sang ‘Aneurism,’ with its chorus, ‘Beat me out of me‘, bringing in all my own rage and hurt from the last few years—a four-minute-long explosion of grief, where I could finally let myself feel the furious sadness of Kurt’s death and everything else surrounding it (p. 272).

kSUncPXtE9k

I saw her walking up the sidewalk on California Avenue in Chicago last summer. We made eye contact, and her expression seemed to say, “Please, don’t recognize me.” I just smiled and nodded, and she did the same. The following passage from the book reminds me of that day:

One day I caught a glimpse of Warhol himself crossing West Broadway—the blond-white wig matching the white of his face, the black-framed glasses. It amazed me how in New York celebrities felt free to roam around the city with no one ever hassling them, in contrast to L.A., where famous people hid out in hidden gated hilltop communities. New York felt so much more real (p. 91).

Kim Gordon has helped define the art of her time, but she hasn’t been limited by it. Her art, performance, and writing all feel completely fearless. After reading this book, I can’t help but think that her story is just getting started.

Contested Boundaries and Saturated Selves

In her book The Social Machine (MIT Press, 2014), Judith Donath outlines designs for living online. Echoing George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), she writes, “We are embodied beings, who have evolved in the physical world; our thoughts and imagination are rooted in the sensory experience of our physical surroundings. Online, there is no body; there is only information. We comprehend abstract ideas by reframing them in metaphoric terms that ultimately derive from physical experience” (p. 9). One needn’t look any further that a computer’s desktop to see this in action. “Immersion” was once a strong notion in computer-mediated communication studies, online communities, and virtual reality. Now we are not so much immersed in media as we are saturated by it.

The Social MachineDonath points out that these are boundary issues. Walls, fences, locked doors, online moderators—“the doormen of discussions” (p. 159), spam filters, and other gate-keeping contrivances protect the private from the public and vice versa. Even with such boundaries in place, our embodiedness is still at risk. We are as sieves, filtering news from noise, or as sponges, soaking up information and influence of all kinds. The latter evokes Psychologist Kenneth Gergen’s “saturated self”:

Emerging technologies saturate us with the voices of humankind—both harmonious and alien. As we absorb their varied rhymes and reasons, they become a part of us and we of them. Social saturation furnishes us with a multiplicity of incoherent and unrelated languages of the self (1991, p. 6).

Nearly twenty years ago, Nicholas Negroponte (1995) pontificated on the fading boundaries of the “post-information age,” writing,

In the same ways that hypertext removes the limitations of the printed page, the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence upon being in specific place at specific time, and the transmission of place itself will start to become possible. In the post-information age, since you may live and work at one or many locations, the concept of an “address” now takes on new meaning (p. 163).

The history of the internet is largely a story of broken-down boundaries (see Grodin & Lindolof, 1996; Jenkins, 2006; van Dijck, 2013). Its architecture “rests upon principles of convergence, which enable multiple and overlapping connections between varieties of distinct social spheres” (Papacharissi, 2011, p. 305). The inherent irony of Negroponte’s observation is that since physical location no longer matters in the digital, post-geographic workday, it makes it matter even more. If you can work from anywhere, where you live means more than ever. You can live wherever you want regardless of where your work is. The old boundaries are gone.

The End of AbsenceThe overwhelming irony now is that where we are matters less than the digital wares with which we saturate our selves. On the commute, at school, at work, at home, on a trip, visiting friends—the smartphone usurps all of these with a persistent and precise hold on our attention. In William Gibson‘s term, the online world has “everted” itself into physical space. The fact that it is now inescapable is what writer Michael Harris calls “the end of absence.” His is an example of what I have called the Advent Horizon. We feel a sense of loss when we cross one of these lines. From the Socratic shift from speaking to writing, to the transition from writing to typing, we’re comfortable—differently on an individual and collective level—in one of these phases. As we adopt and assimilate new devices, our horizon of comfort drifts further out while our media vocabulary increases. It takes 30 years for a full, generational change and with that a full shift in advent horizons. Harris notes, “If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the internet and without. You are making the pilgrimage from Before to After” (p. 15).

Reaching across one of these divides, Thomas de Zengotita (2005) writes of digitally zombified youth,

… It was if they were somnambulating, hypnotized, into some newborn zone of being where hallowed custom and bizarre context were so surreally fused that the whole tableau seemed poised to shimmer off into the ether at any moment (p. 155).

Ours is a chronic presence in a chronic present. Donath (2014), writes of our online personal presences, “The stranger, as we think of him now, may cease to exist” (p. 336). But Harris (2014) adds, “Before all memory of those absences is shuttered, though, there is this brief time when we might record what came before. We might do something with those small, barely noticeable instances when we’re reminded of our love for absence. They flash at us amid the rush of our experience and seem to signal: Wait, wasn’t there something…?” (p. 8).

Well, was there?

References:

de Zengotita, Thomas. (2005). Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It. New York: Bloomsbury.

Donath, Judith. (2014). The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gergen, Kenneth. (1991). The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. New York: Basic Books.

Grodin, Debra & Lindlof, Thomas R. (1996). Constructing the Self in a Mediated World. Thosand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Harros, Michael. (2014). The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. New York: Current.

Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Lakoff, George, & Johnson, Mark (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Negroponte, Nicholas. (1995). Being Digital.  New York: Knopf.

Papacharissi, Zizi. (2011). A Networked Self. In Zizi Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 304-317). New York: Routledge.

van Dijck, José. (2013). The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. New York: Oxford University Press.

Writing Women: Don’t Care If You Like It

Sometime in the year since reading Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, I noticed that I’d been reading a lot of books written by women. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but looking back, it struck me as notable. But just as there are two kinds of racism, there are two kinds of sexism: noting the difference when it doesn’t matter and not noting it when it does. I love the writing of Rebecca Solnit, Chris Kraus, and Lauren Beukes regardless of their gender. I aspire to write like them because they are great writers. Several of the books I’ve been reading though tackle and twist ideas about feminism and femininity into new shapes for consideration.

Dare MeMegan Abbott already has another novel out, but 2012’s Dare Me (Reagan Arthur) is populated with the illest, fiercest, flyest cheerleaders you’ve ever seen. Chelsea Cain of The New York Times Book Review describes it as “Heathers meets Fight Club.” If that doesn’t sell it for you, then this might not be the book for you. These girls wield power that Thomas de Zengotita’s book Mediated (2005) calls “absolute” (p. 82). Describing the mise en scène of the halls of high school, he writes,

Girls, certain girls, dominate these settings because they are impresarios of an evolving social art. Propelled by incipient sexuality, yes, but across the whole range of its sublimations, they devote enormous energy to mastering an array of symbols and cues, an interplay of appearance, clothes, accessories, music, slang—a totality of customs that constitute their emerging world. And when they understand it well enough to play with it, improvise with it, innovate and disseminate, they take up their positions in that ruling clique and their authority will be recognized by all who know them. It will be their privilege to control the tones and terms that catch and shape the flow of days, and the long weekends. This clique of girls dominates because it presides over a Wittgensteinian language game—meaning, not just a language, not just the slang, but also the whole form of life that goes with it. Everybody who wants to be anybody must live by it, and they are the gatekeepers (p. 82-83).

Addy Hanlon, Beth Cassidy, Brinnie Cox, Emily, Mindy, Cori, Tacy, RiRi—the girls of Dare Me—are these certain girls. Untouchable, they run their school from a level above the workaday drama. To the common masses of lockers, duffel bags, and backpacks, their taut, tight existences carry nothing nonessential. No baggage to see or speak of—or so it seems from the outside. As Louis CK once puts it, speaking about his own daughters,

Boys fuck things up. Girls are fucked-up. That’s the difference. Boys just do damage to your house that you can measure in dollars, like a hurricane. Girls, like, leave scars in your psyche that you find later… That’s the difference between boys and girls. And it becomes the difference between men and women, really. A man will, like, steal your car or burn your house down or beat the shit out of you, but a woman will ruin your fuckin’ life. Do you see the difference? Like, a man will cut your arm off and throw it in a river, but he’ll leave you as a human being intact. He won’t fuck with who you are. Women are nonviolent, but they will shit inside of your heart (C. K., 2008).

All of the musings of men above smack predominantly of one thing: misogyny. Louis is joking, of course, but the inherent irony of a joke is often lost in the laughter. Some of the female revenge stories (e.g., Monster, Hard Candy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo née “Men Who Hate Women,” etc.) may feel like they go too far, but there is rarely a point at which the righteous anger of a woman is not completely justified.

Tampa Turning the profile of the predatory pedophile on its head, Alissa Nutting’s newest novel inverts our gender-based perceptions of the perverted. Tampa (Ecco, 2014) tells the story of Celeste, an attractive middle school teacher who preys exclusively on her underage male students. Clare Swanson of Publisher’s Weekly calls it “Lolita meets American Psycho.” Only metaphorically feminist, Tampa is erotica wrapped tightly in satire, or possibly vise versa. Its critique turns on flipping gender expectations but also social mores; Nutting mixes gender-roles with sociopathy. “We can all tell when people have crushes on us, sexual or platonic,” writes M.E. Thomas (2013), “and we enjoy wielding that small amount of power over them. If anything, sociopaths are just a little better at it and enjoy it in a particular way” (p. 218). Always on the inside edge of getting caught, Celeste’s sociopathic obsession with young, male suitors never relents. Thomas explains the intersection of sociopathy and sexuality further as follows:

One of the manifestations of sociopathy in me is an ambivalence in regards to sex and sexual orientation. Sociopaths are unusually impressionable, very flexible with their own sense of self. Because we don’t observe social norms, we don’t have a moral compass, and we have a fluid sense of right and wrong… This extends, at least in some degree, to our sexuality (p. 241).

M. E. Thomas, a pseudonym used by the author of Confessions of a Sociopath (Broadway, 2013), evokes the prominent Victorian novelist M. E. Braddon, about whom Bruce Sterling says, “no one knew whether she was a man or a woman; she was passing for human” (quoted in Smith, 2014, p. 89). “Passing for human” might seem a sad phrase to use for escaping the trappings of gender, but it’s never quite so easy. “The problem isn’t so simple as a man-versus-woman frame,” Rebecca Traister writes in a recent piece for the New Republic. Citing an anecdote from Tina Fey’s Bossypants (Reagan Arthur, 2011) in which Amy Pohler tells off her friend Jimmy Fallon (See “I Don’t Care If You Like It,” pp. 143-146), Traister concludes,

I wish it were different. I wish that every woman whose actions and worth are parsed and restricted, congratulated and condemned in this country might just once get to wheel around—on the committee that doesn’t believe their medically corroborated story of assault, or on the protesters who tell them that termination is a sin they will regret, or on the boss who tells them he doesn’t believe in their sexual choices, or on the mid-fifties man who congratulates them, or himself, on finding them appealing deep into their dotage—and go black in the eyes and say, “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”

References:

Abbott, Megan. (2012). Dare Me: A Novel. New York: Reagan Arthur.

C. K., Louis. (2008). Chewed Up. New York: Showtime.

Cain, Chelsea. (2012, August 10). Bring It On: Dare Me by Megan Abbott. The New York Times.

de Zengotita, Thomas. (2005). Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It. New York: Bloomsbury.

Fey, Tina. (2011). Bossypants. New York: Reagan Arthur.

Nutting, Alissa. (2014). Tampa: A Novel. New York: Ecco.

Smith, Patrick, A. (2014). Conversations with William Gibson. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Swanson, Claire. (2013, August 22). Q&A with Tampa Author Alissa Nutting. Publisher’s Weekly.

Thomas, M. E. (2013). Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight. New York: Broadway Books.

Traister, Rebecca. (2014, July 16). I Don’t Care If You Like It: Women are tired of being judged by the Esquire metric. New Republic.

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P.S. In the meantime, Lauren Beukes has written another outstanding novel. More on that one soon.

Slayer: Building Bridges With Fire

Opinions often vary widely on the most important bands and records of any era, but only a few dare dispute the reign of Slayer and their thrash watermark Reign in Blood (Def Jam, 1986). There has always been a weird rift between punk and metal, but thrash was the first sub-genre to draw heavily from both. The two major movements have since spawned such tributaries as grindcore, metalcore, murdercore, power violence, and various strains of post-metal. “What do you think would get a bigger reaction: a Minor Threat cover or a Slayer cover?” Tim Singer, of long-defunct Seattle metalcore band Kiss It Goodbye, asked me during the recording of their one full-length record, She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not (Revelation, 1997). “Isn’t it weird that it’s debatable?”

Slayer
Fuckin’ Slayer.

As hardcore, post-punk. and new wave were expanding out of the punk explosion of the mid-1970s, thrash metal was also fomenting. Slayer and several other thrash bands helped knock parts of the punk/metal divide down during the 1980s. By decade’s end, there was a whole lot of genre trouble in heavy music. What exactly was Barkmarket? The Jesus Lizard? Helmet? Even Pantera, emerging from the most staunchly Southern forges, had sharpened its edges on something other than metal. Slayer was one of the early major bands to flaunt its roots in both genres, and Reign in Blood is clearly a blend of the best of both. “It wouldn’t be accurate to say it unified the metal and hardcore punk-rock crowds,” D. X. Ferris (2014) writes. “But no metal album did as much to open the channels between the two distinct cultures” (p. 6). Making those influences explicit a decade later, Slayer did a punk covers record called Undisputed Attitude (American, 1996) that includes tracks from Minor Threat, TSOL, D.I., Verbal Abuse, Black Flag, and The Stooges (via Sid Vicious).

Reign in Blood: 33 1/3 Metal Hammer‘s recent Thrash issue names Reign in Blood #1 in its list of the top-50 thrash records of all time. Calling the album “perfect,” Dom Lawson writes, “Reign in Blood towers above every other thrash album for several reasons, but the most important of them is its swivel-eyed intensity.”  There’s something about this half-hour slice of metal that no other band has ever come close to matching. It sounds as fast, as fresh, and as menacing now as it ever did. When I first heard it, I knew that things were different — for me, for metal, for music.” “It sounds like it’s ready to derail at any second,” Kerry King tells Ian Winwood, yet it sounds tightly controlled at the same time. There’s a tension, an anxiety to it that no one has touched in the almost 30 years since its release. Its terror so taut, its aggression so relentless, it’s focus so fierce, “It may never be surpassed,” Lawson concludes. He is not alone in this assessment.

It’s been a year since we lost Jeff Hanneman, and in the meantime, D. X. Ferris, who wrote the 33 1/3 book on Reign in Blood (Bloomsbury Academic, 2008), has cranked out another book about Slayer. Slayer 66 2/3: The Jeff & Dave Years (6623 Press, 2014) is a highly readable rush job that fills in the blanks surrounding his 33 1/3 book. No one questions the fact that Slayer has done their best work as the classic line-up of Tom Araya, Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman, and Dave Lombardo, and Ferris’s book is mainly about those times. After all, Reign in Blood was the first of what is one of the strongest three-album runs by any band in any genre: Reign in Blood (1986), South of Heaven (1988), and Seasons in the Abyss (1990). They remain the one metal band that punks who hate metal still revere.

Slayer: 66 2/3While Kerry King came up on traditional metal like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, Jeff Hanneman and Dave Lombardo were the punks in Slayer. Hanneman was weaned as much on Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys as he was Black Sabbath. Thrash is as close to punk as metal got in its formative years. James Hetfield listened to the Misfits, and Dave Mustaine loved the Pistols. Others in the scene were into it, but Slayer was the only band actually jostling with the punks at the time, banging elbows with the likes of D.R.I., TSOL, Bad Brains, and Suicidal Tendencies. They weren’t burning bridges, they were building them with fire.

I saw the O. G. Slayer line-up live in 2009, and it remains one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. “I don’t know, there seems to be this aura about Slayer,” King says, “and I definitely think our live performances have something to do with that.” No question. The show I saw was everything a Slayer fan wants from seeing Slayer: speed, aggression, evil, volume — classic thrash metal played with absolute abandon. And as much as I was looking forward to also seeing Marilyn Manson, no one can follow Slayer. No one.

They’re currently continuing without Jeff and Dave, and there seems to be no way to offer genuine support without sounding shitty about it. I have no doubts that Paul Bostaff and Gary Holt are holding down their half as they’ve both done with Exodus, who are widely considered the original thrash metal band. Regardless, Slayer will never be the same without the raw, punk aggression of Jeff Hanneman and Dave Lombardo.

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Postscript: I interviewed Jeff Hanneman on the phone in 1996 for the August/September issue of Ride BMX magazine. A little while after the interview, I got a call from their publicist. She said Jeff and Slayer were so stoked to be in a BMX magazine that they wanted to send me something. In the weeks before the package arrived, I made a joke that Slayer was sending me something to show their gratitude. Friends speculated wildly. Would it involve blood, bones, body parts? It turned out to be a Slayer hat, which I still have. Rest in peace, my brother.

References:

Ferris, D. X. (2008). 33 1/3: Reign in Blood. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Ferris, D. X. (2014). Slayer 66 2/3: The Jeff & Dave Years. Akron, OH: 6623 Press.

Lawson, Dom. (2014). Metal Hammer’s 50 Hottest Thrash Albums of All Time. Metal Hammer Presents… Thrash, pp. 100-105.

Mustaine, Dave. (2010). Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir. New York: HarperCollins.

Winwood, Ian. (2014). Slayer: Reign in Blood. Metal Hammer Presents… Thrash, pp. 106-109.

Is Anyone There? On her and Transcendence

Cinema is our most viable and enduring form of design fiction. More than any other medium, it lets us peer into possible futures projected from the raw materials of the recent past, simulate scenes based on new visions via science and technology, gauge our reactions, and adjust our plans accordingly. These visions are equipment for living in a future heretofore unseen. As video artist Bill Viola (1995) puts it,

The implied goal of many of our efforts, including technological development, is the eradication of signal-to-noise ratio, which in the end is the ultimate transparent state where there is no perceived difference between the simulation and the reality, between ourselves and the other. We think of two lovers locked in a single ecstatic embrace. We think of futuristic descriptions of direct stimulation to the brain to evoke experiences and memories (p. 224).

Miles explains love to Edgar the computer in Electric Dreams (1984)
— Miles explains love to Edgar the computer in Electric Dreams (1984)

Welcome to the world of Pinecone Computers. This model will learn with you, so type your name and press Enter key to begin.
— Miles Harding reading from a computer manual in Electric Dreams (1984)

Since the big-screen tales of the 1980s’ PC-era, the idea of machines merging with humans has been a tenacious trope in popular culture. In Tron (1982) Kevin Flynn was sucked through a laser into the digital realm. Wired to the testosterone, the hormone-driven juvenile geniuses of Weird Science (1985) set to work making the woman of their dreams. WarGames (1983) famously pit suburban whiz-kids against a machine hell bent on launching global thermonuclear war. In Electric Dreams (1984), which is admittedly as much montage as it is movie, Miles Harding (played by Lenny von Dohlen, who would go on to play the agoraphobic recluse Harold Smith in Twin Peaks) attempts to navigate a bizarre love triangle between him, his comely neighbor, and his new computer.

From the jealous machine to falling in love with the machine, the theme remains pervasive 30 years on. As Ray Kurzweil writes of Spike Jonze’s her,

Jonze introduces another idea that I have written about (and that is the central theme of Barry Ptolemy’s movie about my ideas, Transcendent Man), namely, AIs creating an avatar of a deceased person based on their writings, other artifacts and people’s memories of that person. In her, the AIs get together and recreate 1960s philosopher Alan Watts (whom I remember from my teenage years).

Theodore Twombly at work in her (2013).
— Theodore Twombly at work in her (2013).

I’d say “her” is a movie about (the education of) an interesting woman who falls in love with a man who, though sweet, is mired in biology. — , Tweeted on February 16, 2014

in her, Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) writes letters for a living. Letters between fathers and daughters, long-distance lovers, husbands, wives. He condenses stories from the vapor of their nuances. In doing so, he is especially susceptible to the power of narrative himself since his job involves the constant creation of believable, vicarious stories. His ability to immerse himself in the stories of others makes it that much easier for him to get lost in his operating system (“Samantha,” voiced by Scarlett Johansson) as she constructs narratives to create her personality, and thereby, their relationship.

In many ways, her can be read as a response to Lost in Translation (2003), directed by Jonze’s wife at the time, Sophia Coppola, who, like Jonze did for her, won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. That movie is in part about the dissolution of Jonze and Coppola’s relationship. Where Giovanni Ribisi plays a goofy, self-involved Jonze (“John”) in Lost in Translation, Rooney Mara plays an ununderstanding, judgemental Coppola (“Catherine”) in her: mere caricatures of themselves played out in bit parts. Where others have no problem with it, ex-wife Catherine has no truck with Theodore’s new OS love. He nonetheless remains incredulously committed.

Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter calls our imbuing machines with more intelligence than they have—even when we know better—“The ELIZA Effect,” after Joseph Weizenbaum’s text-based psychoanalytic computer program, ELIZA. Hofstadter writes, “The most superficial of syntactic tricks convinced some people who interacted with ELIZA that the program actually understood everything that they were saying, sympathized with them, even empathized with them” (p. 158). ELIZA was written at MIT by Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s, but its effects linger on. “Like a tenacious virus that constantly mutates,” Hofstadter continues, “the Eliza effect seems to crop up over and over again in AI in ever-fresh disguises, and in subtler and subtler forms” (p. 158). To wit, in Chapter One of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (2011; specifically pp. 24-25), she extends the idea to our amenability to new technologies, including artificial intelligence, embodied or otherwise: “And true to the ELIZA effect, this is not so much because the robots are ready but because we are” (p. 25).

More germane to her is a program called KARI, which stands for “Knowledge Acquiring and Response Intelligence.” According to Dominic Pettman‘s first and only conversation with Kari (see Pettman’s Look at the Bunny, 2013), there’s a long way to go before any of us are falling in love with our computers.

Kevin Flynn getting zapped into the computer in Tron (1982).
— Kevin Flynn getting zapped into the computer in Tron (1982).

Others imagine a much more deliberate merging, postulating an uploading of human consciousness into the machines themselves, known in robotic and artificial intelligence circles as “The Moravec Transfer.” Its namesake, roboticist Hans Moravec, describes a human brain being uploaded, neuron by neuron, until it exists unperturbed inside a machine. But Moravec wasn’t the first to imagine such a transition (for another early example, see Stine, 1979). NASA’s own Robert Jastrow wrote in 1984 that uploading our minds into machines is the be-all of evolution and would make us immortal. He wrote,

At last the human brain, ensconced in a computer, has been liberated from the weakness of the mortal flesh… The machine is its body; it is the machine’s mind… It seems to me that this must be the mature form of intelligent life in the Universe. Housed in indestructible lattices of silicon, and no longer constrained in the span of its years by the life and death cycle of a biological organism, such a kind of life could live forever (p. 166-167).

Dr. Will Caster merges with the machine in Trancendence (2014).
— Dr. Will Caster merges with the machine in Transcendence (2014).

In Transcendence (2014) Dr. Will Caster (played by Johnny Depp) and his wife (“Evelyn,” played by Rebecca Hall, who almost seems to be filling in for an unavailable Johansson) do just that. Caster is terminally ill and on the verge of offloading his mortal shell. Once uploaded into a quantum computer connected to the internet, Caster becomes something less than himself and something more simultaneously. It’s the chronic consciousness question: What is it about you that makes you you? Is it still there once all of your bits are transferred into a new vessel? The Casters’ love was strong enough for them to try and find out.

If Kubrick and Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) can be read as an allegory for gays being accepted by their parents (see Kraus, 2004, p. 182), what sociological anxieties can we superimpose over her and Transcendence? I am admittedly a lapsed student of AI, having dropped out of the University of Georgia’s Artificial Intelligence master’s program several years ago. My interest in AI lies in the weird ways that consciousness and creation butt heads in the midst of such advanced technologies. Mix a love story in there and you’ve got questions and quests for a lifetime. As Jonze himself puts it, “… a lot of the feelings you have about relationships or about technology are often contradictory” (quoted in Michael, 2013). Love and technology willing, when one of us has to be leaving, we won’t let that come between us, okay?

References:

Hofstadter, Douglas. (1995). Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Jastrow, Robert. (1984). The Enchanted Loom: Mind in the Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kraus, Chris. (2004). Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness. New York: Semiotext(e).

Michael, Chris. (2013, September 9). Spike Jonze on Letting Her Rip and Being John Malkovich. The Guardian.

Pettman, Dominic. (2013). Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology. Ropley Hants, UK: Zer0 Books.

Stine, G. Harry. (1979, July). The Bionic Brain. Omni Magazine, vol. 1, #10, pp. 84-86, 121-122.

Turkle, Sherry. (2011). Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books

Viola, Bill. (1995). Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Weizenbaum, Joseph. (1976). Computer Power and Human Reason. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.

Mixed Metonymies: Mechanization and Culture

Meanings are malleable. Words bend and break under the stress of unintended use, abuse, or overuse. Like machine parts pushed past their limits, cogs stripped bare of their teeth, the language we use wears out, weakening the culture that carries it and our knowledge thereof.

Charles Babbage's wheel work.

Aldous Huxley (1970) writes, “In the days before machinery men and women who wanted to amuse themselves were compelled, in their humble way, to be artists. Now they sit still and permit professionals to entertain them by the aid of machinery” (p. 11). We use metaphors and metonymies of the machine to explain everything from individual bodies  and brains to society and the cosmos (see Lakoff, 1993; Raunig, 2010; Wilden, 1972). Aristotle used many anthropomorphic ideas to describe natural occurrences, but the technology of the time, needing constant human intervention, offered little in the way of metaphors for the mind. Since then, we have compared the human mind to the clock, the steam engine, the radio, the radar, and the computer (Vroon, 1987). Machines, engines, motors—these are visible, tangible things. The mechanizations we need to watch are the ones we can’t see. As Bettina Knapp (1989) writes, “…machines increasingly cut people off from nature in general and from their own  nature, in particular” (p. 28).

Mechanization Takes CommandIn Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), originally published in 1948, Sigfried Giedion attempts to elucidate the cause of this splitting from our nature, the break between thought and feeling in modern society. The culprit according to Giedion? Mechanization. He uses a typological approach, moving chronologically through each of his categories: springs (movement), means (hand, key, assembly line), agriculture (gardening, bread-making, meat production), household (chair, table, furniture, feminism, refrigeration), and bath (steam, shower). This provides a matrix of mechanization (time vs type) that creates a fresh view across this “anonymous history.”

In spite of the machines, interesting people are still central to the story. Giedion follows how the in-house feminism of Catherine Beecher and “curtailed drudgery and improved organization” (p. 512) lead to the further mechanization of the home. He illustrates how Charles Babbage informed Frederick Taylor’s time studies, scientific management, and the division of labor of Taylor and Henry Ford, the inventors of modern industrialization.

“More perhaps than machinery,” writes John Kenneth Galbraith (1967), “massive and complex business organizations are the tangible manifestation of advanced technology” (p. 19). Institutions, bureaucracies, organizations like organisms led to the globalization of the machine: processors, keyboards, harddrives, screens, spreadsheets, websites, databases, fiber optic cables, satellites, wireless clouds bulging gray with data… Paul Virilio (1995) shortens the term “cyberspace” from its imaginary original form “cybernetic space-time” (p. 140), the extending of which evokes the ultimate mechanical prosthesis of the mind, a planet-spanning, command-control system to end all such systems.

The usually glum Huxley (1970) has his high notes: “Giving leisure and wealth, machines make general culture possible. There can be no doubt that many people, who would otherwise have longed in vain, are now permitted, thanks to machinery, to satisfy their longing for culture” (p. 11). From tilling machines to networked screens, our technology curates our culture. Like the precision workings of cogs and gears, let us be mindful of the language we use to describe it.

References:

Galbraith, John Kenneth. (1967; 2007). The New Industrial State. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Giedion, Sigfried. (1948; 2014). Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Huxley, Aldous. (1970). America and the Future: An Essay. Austin, TX: Jenkins Publishing Company.

Knapp, Bettina. (1989). Machine, Metaphor, and the Writer: A Jungian View. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Lakoff, George. (1993). The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor. In Andrew Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought (pp. 202–251). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Raunig, Gerald. (2010). A Thousand Machines: A Concise Philosophy of the Machine as Social Movement. New York: Semiotext(e).

Virilio, Paul. (1995). The Art of the Motor. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Vroon, P. A. (1987). Man-Machine Analogs and Theoretical Mainstreams in Psychology. In W. J. Baker, M. E. Hyland, H. van Rappard, & A.W. Staats (Eds.), Current Issues in Theoretical Psychology (pp. 393–141). New York: North-Holland.

Wilden, Anthony. (1972). System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange. London: Tavistock.

————-

Babbage wheel-work image from James Gleick‘s The Information (New York: Pantheon, 2011, p. 97).

Dispatches from Digital Dystopia

David Hoffman once summarized George Orwell’s 1984, writing that “during times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Aaron Swartz, Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning, Adrian Lamo, Aaron Barr, and Edward Snowden have all been pawns and prisoners of information warfare. As the surveillance has expanded from mounted cameras to wireless taps, hackers have evolved from phone phreaking to secret leaking. It’s a ratcheting up of tactics and attacks on both sides. Andy Greenberg quotes Hunter S. Thompson, saying that the weird are turning pro. It’s a thought that evokes the last line of Bruce Sterling‘s The Hacker Crackdown (1991) which, after deftly chronicling the early history of computer hacker activity, investigation, and incarceration, states ominously, “It is the End of the Amateurs” (p. 301).

These quips can be applied to either side.

Sousveillance: Steve Mann
Sousveillance device via Steve Mann, 1998.

The Hacker Ethic — as popularized by Steven Levy’s Hackers (Anchor, 1984) — states that access to computers “and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works should be unlimited and total” (p. 40). Hackers seek to understand, not to undermine. And they tolerate no constraints. Tactical media, so-called to avoid the semiotic baggage of related labels, exploits the asymmetry of knowledge gained via hacking (Branwyn, 1994; Lievrouw, 2011; Lovink, 2002; Raley, 2009). In a passage that reads like recent events, purveyor of the term, Geert Lovink (2002) writes, “Tactical networks are all about an imaginary exchange of concepts outbidding and overlaying each other. Necessary illusions. What circulates are models and rumors, arguments and experiences of how to organize cultural and political activities, get projects financed, infrastructure up and running and create informal networks of trust which make living in Babylon bearable” (p. 254). Sounds like a description of the tumult behind Wikileaks and Anonymous.

This Machine Kills SecretsIn This Machine Kills Secrets (Dutton, 2012), Andy Greenberg explores the infighting and odd cooperation among those out to break and build boundaries around certain strains of information. It’s a tale of rogues gone straight, straights gone rogue, and the weird gone pro. It’s a battle over stiffly defined contexts, lines drawn and defended. He writes of the leakers, “They take an immoral act out of some special, secret culture where it seems acceptable and expose it to the world of moral human relationships, where it’s exposed as obviously horrific” (p. 311). Theirs are easy acts to defend when the extremes are so evident, but what about the more subtle contexts? As danah boyd puts it, “Privacy isn’t a binary that can be turned on or off. It’s about context, social situations, and control.” Privacy is not secrecy, but they’re so closely related that the former seems to be lost in the fight against the latter. They’re also so close as to be constantly conflated when debated.

We Are Anonymous

Following Matt Blaze, Neal Stephenson (2012) states “it’s best in the long run, for all concerned, if vulnerabilities are exposed in public” (p. 27). Informal groups of information insurgents like the crews behind Wikileaks and Anonymous keep open tabs on the powers that would be. After a cameo in This Machine Kills Secrets, Aaron Barr takes a more central role in We Are Anonymous (Little, Brown, 2012) by Parmy Olson. A high-end security consultant, Barr set out to expose Anonymous unprovoked, and quickly found himself on the wrong side of the line. Again, hackers are easy to defend when they’re on your side. Wires may be wormholes (Stephenson, 1996), but that can be dangerous when they flow both ways. Once you get locked out of all your accounts and the contents of your harddrive end up on the wrong screen, hackers aren’t your friends anymore, academic or otherwise. The recent DDoS attacks on several major torrent trackers should be raising more eyebrows on both sides.

Hackers of every kind behave as if they understand that “[p]ostmodernity is no longer a strategy or style, it is the natural condition of today’s network society” (Lovink, 2002, p. 259). In a hyper-connected world, disconnection is power. The ability to become untraceable is the ability to become invisible (Kluitenberg, 2008). We need to unite and become hackers ourselves now more than ever against what Kevin DeLuca (2007) calls “the acronyms of the apocalypse” (e.g., WTO, NAFTA, GATT, etc.; p. 47). The original Hacker Ethic isn’t enough when Shit is Fucked-Up and Bullshit (Wark, 2012). We need more of those nameless nerds, nodes in undulating networks of cyber disobedience. “Information moves, or we move to it,” writes Neal Stephenson (1996), like a hacker motto of “digital micro-politics” (Lovink, 2002, p. 254). Hackers need to appear, swarm, attack, and then disappear again into the dark fiber of the Deep Web.

Lovink (2002) continues: “The world is crazy enough. There is not much reason to opt for the illusion” (p. 259). Who was it that said Orwell was 30 years off? Tactical media is where we watch the ones watching us.

References:

Branwyn, Gareth. (1994). Introduction: Hackers: Heroes or Villains? In Knightmare, Confessions of a Super-Hacker. Port Townsend, WA: Loompanics Unlimited.

DeLuca, Kevin M. (2007). A Wilderness Environmentalism Manifesto: Contesting the Infinite Self-Absorption of Humans. In, R. Sandler & P. C. Pezzullo (Eds.), Environmental Justice and Environmentalism: The Social Justice Challenge to the Environmental Movement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 27-55.

Greenberg, Andy. (2012). This Machine Kills Secrets. New York: Dutton Adult.

Kluitenberg, Eric. (2008). Delusive Spaces: Essays on Culture, Media, and Technology. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.

Levy, Steven. (1984). Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Lievrouw, Leah A. (2011). Alternative and Activist New Media. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Lovink, Geert. (2002). Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Olson, Parmy. (2012). We Are Anonymous. New York: Little, Brown, and Co.

Raley, Rita. (2009). Tactical Media. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Stephenson, Neal. (1996, December). Mother Earth, Mother Board. WIRED, 04.12.

Stephenson, Neal (2012). Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing. New York: William Morrow.

Sterling, Bruce. (1991). The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. New York: Bantam.

Wark, McKenzie. (2012). Telesthesia: Communication, Culture, & Class. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Shooting Starlets: Girls Gone Wildin’

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is rarely an easy one. As we watch Miley Cyrus shed her youth in real-time, I am reminded of a young Drew Barrymore, coming out of rehab for the first time at age 13. The movies Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring represent the grown-up debuts of beloved childhood Hollywood princesses, Selena Gomez and Emma Watson respectively. The two films are also similar for their adult themes and media commentary. No one would say that a refusal to grow up is endearing, but resistance is fertile. There’s nothing quite as cool as youthful nihilism — especially when wielded by young women. Live fast, die young: Bad girls do it well.

Spring Breakers

The similarities here remind me of when in 2007 the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson both did adaptations—both camps tend to write their own scripts—of stories set in West Texas. No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood are companion pieces in the same way that Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring are, but here the ladies are the ones with the guns.

Spring Breakers‘ heist scene might be the best few minutes of cinema I’ve seen in years. Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) rob the Chicken Shack restaurant with a hammer and a squirt gun while Cotty (Rachel Korine) circles the building in the getaway car with the camera (and us) riding shotgun. Our limited vantage point gives the scene an added tension because though we are at a distance, it feels far from safe. Much like the security camera footage of Columbine and Chronicle, and the camera-as-character of Chronicle and Cloverfield, we receive a crippled information flow while experiencing total exposure. Their mantra: “Just pretend it’s a fucking video game. Act like you’re in a movie or something.”

Alien (James Franco) arrives as the girls’ douche ex machina, an entity somewhere between True Romance‘s Drexl Spivey (1993), Kevin Federline, and Riff Raff, the latter of whom is supposedly suing over the similarities. He bails them out of jail after a party gone astray and takes them home to his arsenal. What could possibly go wrong?

Spring Breakers' Alien

Selena Gomez does the least behaving badly, but her role as Faith is still a long way from Alex Russo or Beezus. As she tells her grandmother over the phone,

I think we found ourselves here. We finally got to see some other parts of the world. We saw some beautiful things here. Things we’ll never forget. We got to let loose. God, I can’t believe how many new friends we made. Friends from all over the place. I mean everyone was so sweet here. So warm and friendly. I know we made friends that will last us a lifetime. We met people who are just like us. People the same as us. Everyone was just trying to find themselves. It was way more than just having a good time. We see things different now. More colors, more love, more understanding… I know we have to go back to school, but we’ll always remember this trip. Something so amazing, magical. Something so beautiful. Feels as if the world is perfect. Like it’s never gonna end.

Spring break is heavy, y’all. “I grew up in Nashville, but I was a skater, so I was skateboarding during spring break,” writer/director Harmony Korine told Interview. “Everyone I knew would go to Daytona Beach and the Redneck Riviera and just fuck and get drunk — you know, as a rite of passage. I never went. I guess this is my way of going.” Ultimately the movie illustrates Douglas Adams’ dictum that the problem with a party that never ends is that ideas that only seem good at parties continue to seem like good ideas.

Speaking of bad ideas, Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, which is based on a real group of fame-obsessed teenagers, is full of them. Not since Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (2003; which features Spring Breakers‘ Hudgens) has a group of teens been so overtaken by expensive clothes, handbags, and bad behavior. This crew of underage criminals uses internet maps and celebrity news to find out where their targets (e.g., Paris Hilton, Audrina Partridge, Megan Fox, Orlando Bloom, et al.) live and when they will be out of town. Once caught, they seem more concerned with what their famous victims think than with the charges brought against them [trailer runtime: 1:46]:

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It would be remiss of me not to note that two of my favorite composers, Cliff Martinez and Brian Reitzell respectively, put the music together for these movies. The mood of Spring Breakers is mostly set by Martinez in collaboration with Skrillex, Gucci Mane (who’s also in the movie), and Waka Focka Flame, among others. The Bling Ring features a mix of Hip-hop, Krautrock, and electronic pop that reads more eclectic than it actually sounds: Sleigh Bells, Kanye West, CAN, M.I.A., Azeailia Banks, Klaus Schultze, Frank Ocean, and so on. Discounting the importance of music in creating the pressure that permeates these films would be an oversight.

Though these films are both cautionary tails of an extreme nature, they prove that caution isn’t cool. Youth might be wasted on the young, but our heroes don’t concern themselves with consequences.

Paradigms Crossed: Building and Burning Bridges in Skateboarding’s Disposable History

Ever since I first saw Wes Humpston’s Dogtown cross on the bottom of a friend’s skateboard in 6th grade, I knew the wood, the wheels, and the art were going to be a part of my world. Like Alex Steinweiss and the album cover, skateboard graphics created the look of skateboarding. There were years where the only thing one knew about a particular skateboarder was the image on the bottom of his (rarely her) board. In the pre-internet world of skateboards, there were only a few companies, fewer videos, and only a few people who controlled almost everything. If you know anything from this era, it’s probably tied in some way to Powell and Peralta’s Bones Brigade.

The Bones Brigade

Only a few professional skateboarders outside of those pictured above mattered on as large a scale during the 1980s. Arguments could easily be made for Christian Hosoi, Gator Rogowski, Mark Gonzalez, and Natas Kaupas among others (my favorites from the era are Neil Blender and Jason Jessee), but The Bones Brigade defined the times. Stacy Peralta, already a skateboarding veteran from the Zephyr Team and the Dogtown of the 1970s, handpicked an iconic group of guys. From the household name of Tony Hawk to the kooky innovations of Rodney Mullen, from the longevity of Steve Caballero to the fierce fun of Lance Mountain, The Bones Brigade is the most legendary team in skateboard history. The empire they built only crumbled when it grew too big to feel or follow the zeitgeist.

Sean Cliver's Disposable

“While other companies scrambled to reinvent themselves with fresh, young teams and a more street-oriented direction,” Sean Cliver (2004) writes, “Powell Peralta remained steadfast in sticking to its guns but floundered in exactly how to go about bridging the old and new generations–especially when it came to graphics” (p. 50). Two main people bridge the genetic fallacy of the Big Five of the 1980s to the populist era of the early 1990s: Rodney Mullen and Sean Cliver. The former invented many of the maneuvers that make up modern street skating, and the latter designed the graphics and artwork. All credit due to Steve Rocco, Craig Stecyk, Mark Gonzalez, and Marc McKee, but those guys all remained in separate and largely opposing camps. Mullen and Cliver are the only ones who worked under the Bones Brigade banner at Powell Peralta as well as the Jolly Roger at Rocco’s Word Industries (Mike Vallely notwithstanding, who was more of a pawn than a player and who didn’t seem to want any part of it).

Skateboarding pro-cum-team manager Steve Rocco was once told by a company owner that skateboarders couldn’t run companies. After getting fired as a team manager, Rocco decided to do just that. He sniped team riders, pirated images for graphics, and concentrated on a street-smart street style that immediately connected with the kids of the time. The intense intricacies of freestyle were dead and the barriers to entry for riding monolithic vert ramps were prohibitive to most. Street skating was anyone’s game. Walk out the door, jump on your board, grind a curb: you’re street skating. Focusing on that and the irreverence of youth garnered Rocco unmitigated hate from the established skateboard companies, cease-and-desist orders from copyright holders he violated, and millions of faithful followers.

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A lot of what Rocco did for skateboarding was no different from what Marcel DuChamp and, later, Andy Warhol, did for art. It’s also no different from what sampling and Napster did for music. In his book Disrupt (FT Press, 2010), Luke Williams writes, “Differentiate all you want, but figure out a way to be the only one who does what you do, or die” (p. 2). The irony in skateboarding is that the products don’t differ very much from brand to brand. The subtleties of one board, wheel, or truck are infinitesimal. A world like that needs a Kuhnian shaking-up once in a while, and a lot of the shaking Rocco did back then is still reverberating today: Most skateboard companies are run by current and ex-skateboarders, most BMX companies are run by BMXers, street is the largest genre of either sport, and, thanks in large part to Rocco’s Big Brother Magazine, Jackass is still a thing. As the founder of Foundation and Tum Yeto, Tod Swank, put it to me (2007),

…when Rocco started World Industries, what he really did was liberate skateboarding so that it could move forward. He helped a lot of people start companies, not just me. He lent money and gave advice to a lot of other skateboarders who wanted to start companies. He wanted to see the industry run by skateboarders (p. 274).

“The life of an oppositionist is supposed to be difficult,” wrote Christopher Hitchens (2001, p. 3). Conformity is its own reward, dissent is not (Sunstein, 2003), so by upending the established order, Rocco brought a lot of grief upon himself. There’s the world the way you want it to be, and there’s the way that it is. George Powell and Stacy Peralta depicted skateboarding as they wanted it to be. Steve Rocco was more of a mirror of what it was becoming. For better or worse, it’s still going and growing in that direction.

References:

Christopher, Roy (2007). Tod Swank: Foundation’s Edge. In R. Christopher (Ed.), Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes (pp. 269-276). Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear.

Cliver, Sean. (2004). Disposable: A History of Skateboard Art. Ontario, Canada: Concrete Wave.

Cliver, Sean. (2009). The Disposable Skateboard Bible. Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press.

Hill, Mike (Director). (2007). The Man Who Souled the World [Motion picture]. Los Angeles: Whyte House Entertainment.

Hitchens, Christopher. (2001). Letters to a Young Contrarian. New York: Basic Books.

Peralta, Stacy (Director). (2012). Bones Brigade: An Autobiography [Motion picture]. Santa Monica, CA: Nonfiction Unlimited.

Sunstein, Cass R. (2003). Why Societies Need Dissent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Williams, Luke. (2010). Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business. Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press.