Yes We Can Can

It took listening to Jesse Thorn's Bullseye to remind me of the greatness of The Pointer Sisters. The song “Yes We Can Can,” written by Allen Toussaint, was the hit single from their first self-titled album in 1973. When I listen to it today I can hear echoes of the time, the song coming out of transistor radios, car radios and television sets. Richard Nixon had been re-elected, the Viet Nam War continued on, Pink Floyd released “Dark Side of the Moon,” E.F. Schumacher published “Small is Beautiful,” Watergate began to heat up, the Skylab space station was launched, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its DSM-II and the Endangered Species Act was enacted. Even in the face of the rising backlash against the counter-culture 60s, that song captured something of the strong optimistic spirit of those times.

The “Yes We Can” theme was famously used in Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. Given the political battles that have unfolded in the interim, we look back on that sentiment as naive. From this vantage point we're singing more about going it alone than moving forward together.

Faced with global warming and the sixth mass extinction event, it's difficult to see how we can alter the course of the biosphere through uncoordinated individual action. Actually, that's how we got ourselves into this mess. We act at the level of species whether we intend to or not.

Beyond “Yes We Can” might be “Yes We Can Can.” Beyond the scientific observations and the rhetorical hammers is a groove that shows us something about the kindness that we can give.


They Never Were Ecosystems: distributed machine parts

We like to call them “ecosystems.” Perhaps there's an appeal to nature there, as though somehow they really are like coral reefs. Technology companies are rated on the robustness of their “ecosystems.” At bottom the difference is that ecosystems don't have an underlying operating system that controls all of the elements built on top of it. We call technical infrastructure an “ecosystem” to erase the element of corporate ownership. For a while it gives us the illusion of freedom, then later, a sense of betrayal.


Robots of Taste

The whole reason the feudal stacks of the Network have been tracking everything that you do is to pigeonhole your taste. If the machine knows your taste it can create a virtual simulation of your taste and then quickly scan everything available for purchase and pre-stock your shopping cart with the kind of things a person like you would like.

Things were going along swimmingly with this business model until the personal data stacks learned an uncomfortable fact. Lots of people who have money don't actually have any taste. They're not sure what they like. If you take all the personal data they've spewed across the Network it doesn't add up to any kind of coherent taste. Turns out in many cases the consumer needs to be sold on a kind of taste before they can be sold an end product. The tastelessness of the masses results in a lower return on investment.

As a nation of individuals, we are bred to believe that an array of products can be tailored to match our unique taste. The products that gather beneath our freak flag will much different than someone else's. All we require is the capital to cause the presents to materialize beneath the tree. With the millions of products circling round us, we need a refined sense of taste such that as many consumables as possible can be packed on to our taste buds.

If we can't develop a taste on our own, we'll need to purchase a few from a pre-packaged selection. Tastes accessorized with shelves up to the moon with a spot for everything and every thing needing a spot. Taste, you see, must be optimized. Simple tastes are fine for the unsophisticated, but they leave one at such a disadvantage in the age of technology.

Once you've purchased your taste the whole world comes into focus. Faced with a shelf full of soft drinks in the supermarket, you have clarity on whether Coke or Pepsi is the real thing. It's helpful if you've got your Google Glass affixed to your face so you can receive real-time updates on the state of your taste.

For the most part there's no need to keep the fruit of your taste on physical media cluttering up your house. That's what the cloud is for, your stuff is just a click away. Your taste is already conveniently stored in the cloud–think of it as a custom set of shelves made to fit your stuff perfectly. As long as you can afford to keep the engines stoked, the hunger pangs of your taste can be satiated. And you can rest assured you've invested in the optimal configuration for consumption.

As you watch the wheel of your desire spin faster and faster, it's natural to feel a little superfluous. You wonder if you stepped away would things continue whirring away. The desiring machine only requires fuel, with sufficient capital you could keep any number of plates in the air. Flipping channels from this set of pre-packaged tastes to the next.

Your Network profile shows off the set of tastes you've acquired. It tells the world that you're the kind of person who likes this stuff and not that stuff. You've optimized the filters to let in the good tasting stuff and spit out the disgusting stuff. In the higher realms of your taste you travel via negativa, here you simply separate yourself and point a finger at things that represent bad taste.

The Network stacks have a stake in binding your profile to the “real” you. If they can get it to stick, then they've got you. The binding agent is made stronger by the number of ties across a diverse set of relations. If they can erase the trace of the glue then it's a short distance to the idea that there's no outside. As in “there's no outside of Google.”

But there's always a gap. You look at the set of digitally encoded tastes you've posted to represent your world view and you can't help but notice it's not you. When people admire the profile, you identify with it. When they revile it, you distance yourself, talk about its inaccuracy. If you were to walk away today, you could create a whole new profile that might look like an entirely different person.


Where to Stand: Some Notes on Liner Notes


We seem to have lost the liner notes. On some labels and for some artists the liner note provided a context or key to the music contained within. Reading song lyrics while listening to an album for the first time was an important ritual. Before the counter-culture was totally absorbed into mass culture, the photographs on the album were a window into a new form of life. An album required decoding and the casing provided some of the clues.


For those too young to remember, the liner note was an essay, photographs, lyrics, credits, etc., usually printed on the inner sleeve of a vinyl record album. The sleeve that held the vinyl platter was called a record liner, sometimes referred to as a dust jacket. When commercially recorded music became digital bits there was no need for a dust jacket and thus no where to print the liner notes. The material relationship of the liner note to the physical media that holds the encoded music can’t be replaced with hyperlinks.


The record album created the perfect canvas for the liner note. Its size was more like an art book, plenty of room for the interplay of text and image. The compact disc shrunk everything down to an unreadable size. Text is still printed on compact disc packages, but only as a matter of form. It’s like those credits that roll by at hyper speed at the end of a television show. You know they say something, but they’re not really meant to be read.

Allen Ginsberg writing about Bob Dylan’s album “Desire” is my strongest memory from the heyday of liner notes. Listening to the music through Ginsberg’s lens connected it to a long line of poetry and song. Long afternoons lying next to the stereo, reading and discussing the notes, listening to the tunes, parsing the lyrics until they were burned into memory.


Recently I’ve had a similar experience with poetry and podcasts. While footnotes to the poetry of Wordsworth and Milton don’t always give me the same charge — listening to close readings of the poetry is like getting a great set of liner notes. Here are a few that I’ve listened to more than once:

• On Wordsworth
On Wordsworth
Professor Timothy Morton
Rita Shea Guffey Chair of English Literature
Rice University

• On Milton and Wordsworth
On Milton and Wordsworth
Professor William Flesch
Brandeis University

If liner notes were to make some kind of comeback, I think they might look more like what Anil Prasad does with his web site Innerviews. His interviews with musicians are completely different than anything you’ll find in the commercial music press. His writing opens up both the players and the music. When I first discovered it I realized that I’d missed years of great interviews. I spent days going from Bill Bruford to Allan Holdsworth to Zoe Keating to Laurie Anderson, and then to Marc Ribot and Joan Jeanrenaud. I have to be very careful about visiting Innerviews. I start reading and when I look up, several hours have passed and I wonder if I can squeeze in just one more interview.


Another possibility for liner notes is the video note. Here, soprano Joyce DiDonato talks about singing an aria from Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago.” This is a warm up for a concert, but it would be a welcome addition to a recording.

The video liner note that kicked off this whole train of thought was the DVD that accompanies Jeremy Denk’s new recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” Denk is both a writer and a musician, and is particularly adept at taking you inside the music and the experience of playing it. Listening to Denk talk about what he’s playing is much like listening to Timothy Morton read and interpret Shelley’s poem “Mont Blanc.” You go back to the work with new eyes and the aesthetic object unfolding in front of you bristles with new possibilities.

The liner note was physically linked to the media it described. You’d think in an age where the hyperlink has become so dominant that liner notes would proliferate. But like a restaurant with hundreds of online reviews, you have trouble knowing where to turn. You need a review of the reviewers to even get started. Here the economy of abundance is a detriment, it’s the limitations that force the liner note to be something special.

A last liner note, this one also by Jeremy Denk. I’d always had trouble hearing Gyorgy Ligeti’s piano etudes. Somehow my ears weren’t quite ready. A work of art asks you to attune to it in a certain way. To see perspective in a classical painting, you need to stand in a certain spot with respect to the canvas. Listening to music is much the same. Sometimes it’s the liner note that tells you where to stand.

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