“My” celebrity collage…

August 30, 2006 at 8:20 pm | In fashionable_life, social_networking | 4 Comments

Lately, in every photo, I look like …well, some sort of really tired person, which hasn’t done a heck of a lot to make me feel better (or less tired). It’s this blasted thing called middle age, I guess, and I’m beginning to gather that all the droning hype that you’re not getting older, you’re getting better is just that: hype, designed to effect a mass-hypnosis of us baby-boomers. Like this:

Repeat after me: you are sleepy, and your eyes are getting heavier, and you will believe every single bit of drivel I will tell you. You will not notice that your face is falling to the floor, having abandoned itself utterly and completely to gravity. You will be an airhead, so that the vacuum created in the space between your ears has the effect of sucking all that sagging flesh back onto what remains of your cheekbones, proboscis, and skull…

Gee, is that too harsh? Bwahaha, but there’s always Web 2.0 revenge, isn’t there? For example, check out My Heritage, a seemingly cool and useful site designed for genealogy buffs. They offer a fun option where you upload a photo, run it through a face recognition program, and have it come up with a “celebrity collage” of supposed matches. I say “supposed,” because I sure as heck can’t believe who I’m supposed to resemble. (See below.) My husband got Al Pacino and Ehud Olmert as matches. The program refused to recognise my daughter’s face, but my son’s photo matched with male pin-up types I’ve never heard of, and with Raquel Welch. Hey ho.

So here’s my collage… followed by one based on a different photo of yours truly. It just keeps getting better, don’t it? Ah, the hypnosis is kicking in, I feel all warm and fuzzy already… Oh, but wait: I have to add a third collage, undoubtedly the best of the lot. This time I get a 72% match with …Bing Crosby!! Wheee! Wheee? What am I thinking??

“Windy place(s)” in cyberspace(s)

August 25, 2006 at 5:42 pm | In social_networking, wiki_victoria | 8 Comments

I started a private blog recently, which doesn’t exactly account for my absence(s) here, but it means that I now have three virtual spaces that I can neglect: this blog, my new one, and my wiki. Sigh.

“Sigh” — sounds almost like wind, doesn’t it? Well, I did finally get around to putting a new item on my Victoria City Style Council wiki, although it’s an anomaly since it concerns a development outside the boundary of downtown, which circumscribes my usual area of interest. I included this project, however, because it’s in my neighbourhood, Rockland. My commentary (strictly my own opinion) is on the wiki page called Schuhuum — 1322 Rockland Avenue. (“Schuhuum” supposedly means “windy place.”) The piece was sparked after I attended yet another city council meeting during which the project came up, and I started to think about the problem (and the fabulous opportunity) of dealing with what is in my opinion a dreary piece of “heritage” or traditional architecture that desperately needs a modern complement to make it wake up to life again. But I also realise that my opinion is of the “if pigs could fly” variety: i.e., dream on, and …sigh.

Still to do on the wiki: add more “letters to the editor.” Add some photographs, too.

My camera and current computer set-up are speaking to each other again, so this should now be possible. But then again, it’s also the case that my camera just this moment died — I hope it’s only the battery, although the camera usually tells me if that’s running low. Instead, it simply shut itself off. It did this right after I took some shots of an old sheep, which I intended to post to my private blog’s “about” page. Perhaps the old beast (the sheep, not the camera) is so beat-up and destroyed that its sheer decrepitude broke the camera. It’s not every day, after all, that one shoots a nearly 50-year old lamb (no worries, it’s stuffed, but it’s nonetheless quite dilapidated…). It has led a distributed existence quite different from the kind one might now associate with that concept, although its life, too, has been entirely virtual. My anti-vivisectionist stance forbids that I dissect my virtually alive lamb to find out what its stuffing is made of, and (as that famous 19th century anatomist, Rudolf Virchow, already noted apropos of corpses), I might dissect its corpse, but will likely not find its soul. (Virchow is alleged to have said, “I have dissected many corpses, but never yet discovered a soul in any of them,” a comment considered unspeakably “philistine” and materialist by the “soulfully” geist-oriented abstractionist Vassily Kandinsky.)

Well, to each his own. But with my virtually alive sheep I can at least be fairly certain that its stuffing is animated by nothing but my memories, experiences, and emotions. With other distributed experiences (including perhaps myself), I certainly have lost that …certainty. It’s entirely possible that we’re the stuffies now, filled with the “souls” of all the virtual experiences we randomly encounter and even go out of our way deliberately to create ourselves… Technology is my virtual exoskeleton, and the soul of the new machine is us.

Attention Economics

August 14, 2006 at 2:06 am | In scenes_victoria | Comments Off on Attention Economics

It’s 8:30 on a brilliantly drought-sunny summer morning, and I’m in the park at Dallas Road, taking my dog for a walk in the dogs-off-leash area. In front of me, below the cliffs, lies the ever-frigid Juan de Fuca Strait. I hear a woman conversing very loudly on the hillside that rises up behind me. She is in the middle of what in spring is a deep sky-blue meadow of camas flowers, speaking as distinctly and as comfortably as if camas grow from her living room carpet. Perhaps they do. It occurs to me that the pitch of her voice also resembles a TV announcer’s used to speaking to unseen masses. Next to her is a man, holding a bicycle. She is telling him about some relationship — how she told a man what’s what, and why; and what he said; and what she said; and how she told him. He speaks, too, but since he doesn’t enunciate with quite the same level of enthusiasm, I actually can’t hear his voice at all. These individuals are at least 150m away from where I am, which makes my being able to hear the woman speak clearly so strange: my attention is absolutely rivetted to her, I am almost anxious to know what she will say (or do) next.

Suddenly, she becomes agitated, and appears to accost the man holding the bicycle. Precipitously, her anger subsides again, and she says, “The police were here this morning,” the way someone might mention that Aunt Ida called to say hi. Another man arrives, and another, and after a scuffle and subsequent departure of two men, it slowly dawns on me that I am observing a group of transients or homeless people — the camas meadow really is a living room for the duration, and we passers-by shared in domestic entanglements usually hidden from view, behind walls and closed doors.

She is animated, yet oblivious. What matters is that the men around her are paying attention, and they are. So are other people, whether they want to or not. Not that it matters. We spectators will be cheated, for this conversation we’re overhearing isn’t going anywhere. It’s just a dramatic display destined to end, which perhaps accounts for the woman’s obliviousness. Everyone else might feel compelled to pay attention to her, but she doesn’t need to pay attention to us. Her attitude is a curious combination of self-absorption and spectacle, a narcissistic cloaking. Wrapped as she is in such attention-grabbing splendour, why indeed would she need real living room walls to live her life? Her interior mental spaces (such a quaint notion, now), exteriorised on the meadow this morning, are as good as any house, and they’re well-insulated against reproach or introspection.

It’s midday and I jump aside as yet another cyclist careens down the sidewalk. He didn’t hit my dog. He didn’t hit me. But it’s only a matter of time. These gentlemen and ladies (they’re not children, I am refering to adults) feel it is their right to ride on the sidewalk because of course it’s unsafe to share the road with “the man” who evilly controls the roadways with his combustion engine powered deathmobile that sucks the last of the peak oil from Mother Earth’s very teats. As for helmets for cyclists, mandated by law? Not for these free spirits: why bother when socialised medicine will pick up the bill for any cranial injury that may occur? The important thing is to make a show against power, to Speak. The. Truth. To. Power. If a couple of pedestrians get run over in the process, that’s collateral damage. (Incidentally, some especially crotchety and unbalanced senior citizens and other malingerers unwilling to walk on their own power, riding on their damnable SUV-style mobility scooters, are just as hateful and just as selfish. They’re a menace to pedestrians, but they think that because they’re “handicapped” — or so overweight as to be unable to walk — they should get special dispensation to zoom motorised down pedestrian walkways. Bloody bother.)

The cyclist (and to a lesser extent the “mobility scooter”) reminds me of that strange young woman in the park: They’re attention sinks, they are literally the black holes of other people’s attention, oblivious to the exchange they’re having with other people. What matters is their strange universe, and that it gets some attention: your silly desire for attention (perhaps as oblique and selfish as not wanting to be run over on the sidewalk) is utterly irrelevant. You must pay attention to their world(s). At the same time, my impression is that they are the servants of their worlds, not vice versa. There’s little, on their part, in the way of control or mastery — it’s all about another world, which, like a falsely pathetic Tamagotchi, has to be kept alive through the attention given to it. One wonders what benefit that world is to anyone, but the question can’t be voiced. Attention must be given, that’s the key.

It’s evening and I visit a newly-formed internet forum about the city I live in. It includes a regular contributor who has already been kicked off another forum for posting inappropriate material. He gets up to his usual tricks and gratuitously posts a photo of a woman’s midriff clothed in nothing but a thong. Her pubic hair is shaved off, she looks simply ridiculous, like something inbetween; but clearly, without the pubic hair markers, unthreatening enough for a man who, while getting on in years, has obvious castration anxieties. His post has absolutely nothing to do with the thread’s topic, but this person needs to draw attention to himself, if necessary by inviting his homies to join him in masturbating in public (more on this in a moment). The actual contents of his vapid forum postings aren’t important; what matters is that his postings stand out because of the liberal addition of pussy shots. This gets him the attention he clearly is addicted to.

These individuals, seemingly so different, are participants in the attention economy: as information increases (go on, tell me more — uurghh! — about how and why the police stopped by this morning, what colour thong you like on what colour skin, and show me more regarding your attitude on sidewalk safety), what becomes scarce is attention. Unless you get in my face with it, I won’t care about you or your world. The really seriously scary and sad thing is that neither will you! Which could well be why you feel this need to get into my face. (Note: these are not aspects discussed in the papers I’m pointing to via the links — they all focus on the web and business. But think about it… This is psychological, too.) You might think you’re doing it because you’re “alternative” or “contrarian” or “out of the box,” but you’re actually doing it because like every other worker drone in the sad sad worker drone hive, you are hooked to the economy. Its current flow is attention. You might think you’re dropped out and have “chosen” to live as an outlaw, but you’re still part of the system. In environmental psychology, the concept has far wider applicability than just web-based business apps. And for an inkling of what artists can do with attention (namely, create veritable “attention traps”), read Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention; Style and Substance in the Age of Information.

So: with your outrageous behaviour, you’re not escaping the system at all, least of all its economic predations. In fact, you’re quite possibly its worst exponent.

Take public masturbation, for example. (Stop me, I feel a joke coming on….)
Frank Furedi writes a biting little article in spiked-online called Maybe self-loving does make you blind. Furedi is intent on skewering the narcissicism underlying a recent event held on August 5th: England’s first Masturbate-a-Thon Event presented by the Center for Sex & Culture. The event was a challenge to the original Masturbate-a-Thon, which of course came from the US. Furedi deftly slaps down (sorry, couldn’t resist) the pretensions to public health that underpin this event: masturbation is safe, it’s not risky, it’s good for you (no arguments from me on that front, but competitive masturbating? C’mon!). Furedi points out that this mental-health pablumspeak is part and parcel of taking the risk out of life, making it as safe as houses — whether your house is a camas meadow or an internet connection or your personal mobility scooter, I might add. And I think he’s on to something. But I also think there’s a deeper connection to the attention economy here, too.

Economic life is dangerous and risky. At the very worst, you could starve to death, and many people do, every minute of the day. Most of them couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the attention economy as discussed in relation to a surfeit of information, however, because their efforts at staying alive are focussed on more basic stuff, like a dearth of sustenance. Here in the West, on the other hand, surfeited with information, attention is our daily bread: o give us this day… Ask anyone who has managed to glue the eyeballs and ears of passers-by to her tales of woe on a camas meadow, or has grabbed your attention with semi-porn on public forums, or has nearly blithely run you over on the sidewalk because he’s getting your attention with his “statement” against the oppressive, imperialist Man-and-His-Rules. Or ask the folks who have masturbated in public. Competitively. It’s an economy: you gotta compete. These people are starving: they need your attention.

So, one and all: let’s give the economy a loving hand (we really can’t get away from it anyway) and feed the masses…

Oh, and just to add another ingredient to this pot I’m cooking up, which suggests that the attention economy is a spice that infiltrates every dish, from mental health to pocketbook wealth, feeding even those who think they’re on a diet: take a look at this blog entry, which looks critically at Wikipedia and asks, “…what are the consequences of giving so much search-engine driven attention to information of such broad scope from a single project?”

Style Matters: “grump and frump” or “open and kinetic”?

August 2, 2006 at 1:51 am | In fashionable_life, wiki_victoria | 4 Comments

A few days ago I finished reading Cosmopolis by Stephen Toulmin. It took me a long time to finish, and I’m still not sure that I’ve entirely comprehended it. The title gives an indication of its vastness, though, and helps explain why I might have difficulties distilling its insights into a mere gloss. I can’t remember when I acquired the book, but it was published in 1990 — not recently, in other words. It has been in my library for a while, but it’s not the case that I read it years ago and simply forgot that I did. No, this was a new read.

This evening I started on another book, a new one which I really did just acquire: Fashion at the Edge by Caroline Evans. It has a deceptive coffee-table book format and heft, but its real weight comes from the theoretical I-beams holding the arguments aloft: take a look at the bibliography, a poured concrete foundation capable of withstanding earthquakes and similar intellectual upheavals. Or its footnote references to Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin, Joan Riviere, Karl Marx, Donna Haraway, Carolyn Dean, Michel Foucault, and Lisa Tickner — all of whom are referenced in the first 7 pages.

Evans cites another author even I [ahem] haven’t read yet, Gilles Lipovetsky, who wrote The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy. In a particular passage I will cite shortly, Evans is coming to explain how she uses the term “modernity,” as per her book’s subtitle. Before we look at Evans more closely, note that Toulmin’s Cosmopolis was all about modernism and modernity: how we define it, what it means, and what its historical inflections have been.

With that in mind, the ideas in both books suddenly started sparking each other: I was reading Evans’s discussion of late-twentieth century fashion in relation to Toulmin’s analysis of the Platonic v. Aristotelian views of “cosmopolis.” The former (i.e., Platonic) being a static, eternal and unchanging ideal valid for all times and all situations, the latter (i.e., Aristotelian) being contingent and particular, rooted in an openness to case-by-case analysis. At the same time, I thought about a local SkyscraperPage forumer named KeyPlan, who has commented on my wiki a few times. On Sustain and Retain: A Short History of the Upper Harbour (written by my son), he noted (among other things) that Victoria is a “Terminal City,” terminal as in The End. According to KeyPlan, Victorians also express this terminal condition in their utter lack of style. He writes:

It’s the end of style, of grace, of form, including bodily form. Think of a body type and universal “dress code” for the City. I apologize for causing that thought. Is there ever a place where the rule of grump and frump still reigns.

“Grump and frump” (wonderfully onomatopeic) refers, I would guess, to what in Seattle was rebranded as grunge — a style given wings by music — but which here has remained mired in stylelessness. It’s true that many of Victoria’s youth (and most of its non-youth) are …let’s say: grumfy? Not quite cool enough for a musical style, not American enough to get in people’s faces the way Seattle bands did, and certainly not savvy enough economically to, as the New York Times Magazine article The Brand Underground puts it, figure out how to turn one’s lifestyle into a business. (Exempting yoga studio entrepreneurs, and the suppliers of yogawear — even here, they are in a category of their own…)

But wait, let’s get back to the Caroline Evans passage in Fashion at the Edge that ignited my fire. On p.6 Evans writes:

The late twentieth-century articulation of the idea of the self as culturally constructed has important implications for fashion.

Note that this connects with Toulmin, who argues that it was the historical turmoil of the early 17th century (think assassination of France’s Henry IV, who represented the hope that Frenchmen could be defined as loyal Frenchmen, vs. as exclusively Catholic or Protestant; think the 30 Years War; think the Counter-Reformation and its climate of religious intolerance, etc.) that made Descartes’ search for certainty, grounded in absolute rationality and science, so compelling for many people. Sixteenth-century “case ethics” and humanism consequently seemed inexcusably wishy-washy, while certainties based in rational analysis appeared to offer a way out of the mess that was the early 17th century.

Toulmin constantly re-examines the twin beginnings of modernity — in a more particularistic (Aristotelian) 16th century Renaissance humanism that explored individual human potential on the one hand, and in a hard, and hardened, 17th century scientific rationalism born of reaction against the historical horrors of religious excess, armed slaughter, and economic downturn on the other — and traces this birth and subsequent becoming through the historical epochs that followed.

(An aside: I can’t figure out why the First World War figures as a key 20th century watershed for Toulmin, while he more or less completely ignores the Second World War and in particular the Shoa, which was surely representative of an even more comprehensive crisis in Western rationality. Toulmin spends some time analysing the ideological function of “the clean slate,” that wicked idea we have of being able to start over again and again and again, from nothing. The tabula rasa, the uncontingent, clean, fresh start: that was a huge idea in the immediate post-WWII period, and it seems odd that Toulmin ignores it in favour of “clean slate” discussions after World War I.)

Back to Victoria and our question of style: I’m picking on KeyPlan a bit because in other postings on the forum, he had argued against taking seriously the question of style, which (he seemed to suggest) really shouldn’t matter and is a mere distraction. Well, I would make several arguments against this view. Here in Victoria, we’re dealing with a city that may be a tourist destination (and hence preens its quaintness quotient), but it is an urban centre (it is the capital city of British Columbia, it is the core for the region), and it’s undergoing changes, which makes some people rejoice and makes others feel very anxious and unsafe. It’s also a city located on an island, which can elucidate how or why the “feeling safe/ feeling unsafe” factor kicks in: many people seem naturally to think that life on an island should be safe …and mostly unchanging. (This might be a key component of the Terminal City complex, too: change stops here, the thinking goes.)

This mindset persists, despite that fact that living on an island is inherently unsafe, especially on this island: we live in a highly dangerous earthquake zone, and if A Big One hits, we’ll be cut off from everything, including our life line to the mainland. Even something as basic as our water supply pipe, running right under the Johnson Street Bridge, which will undoubtedly collapse and crush the pipeline, will be cut, leaving everything east of Vic West without drinking water. We have enough food to last 4 days, according to a food security study (in the fifties, much more food was locally produced, but since then everything’s been centralised and now comes to us via the ferries and the mainland — in the event of a Big One, the ferries would surely stop running while the collapsed piers get repaired — a couple of months, maybe; as for airport tarmac: think peanut brittle…). Victoria, unchanging and safe? Not in any realistic sense.

All this by way of explaining why change might subconsciously really push people’s buttons here. They come to Victoria thinking that nothing will change (the “Island Ideology” of eternal recurrance of tea at four). Yet now the city is changing (again), and who knows what other existential fears (see Earthquake Anxieties enumerated above) bubble to the surface like so much liquid earth in an 8.0 Richter scale event…

So what does style have to do with all of this? Victoria’s changes are happening in its urban fabric, which is part built environment, part increased population density, part economic activity, and so on. The built environment certainly isn’t the same thing as yet another fashion show by Alexander McQueen — if your budget allows it, you can buy a dress and throw it out when you tire of it. Throwing out a building is possible, but not advisable. So we have to think about the built environment’s style in a different time frame than the one of haute couture‘s season-to-season shelf life. But think about the built environment’s style we should. Continuing directly from Evans’s above-quoted sentence, her passage on p.6 concludes:

Gilles Lipovetsky has argued that fashion is socially reproductive, training us to be flexible and responsive to change in a fast-changing world: “fashion socializes human beings to change and prepares them for perpetual recycling.” [Lipovetsky, p.149] The kinetic, open personality of fashion is the personality which a society in the process of rapid transition most needs. No longer derided as superficial, frivolous or deceitful, fashion thus has an important role to play, not merely in adorning the body but also in fashioning a modern, reflexive self.

The “grump and frump” KeyPlan refered to is an expression of the absence of change in Victoria. With change, however, we’ll see more social reproduction, which means more fashion and awareness of style. “Perpetual recycling” means constant change and rebirth, contingency and particularity vs. timelessness and universality. It’s also the oppposite of deadly stasis. Awareness and encouragement of style “socialize[s] human beings to change,” which (extrapolated to the built environment) suggests that stylish, attractive buildings will ease the transition to a change culture, even here. Ugly or not particularly well-thought-out buildings will only make people dig their heels in even more. What’s attractive and what’s ugly is of course contentious, but it’s important that the debate takes place, and that people’s prejudices get deconstructed, dismantled, and explained. I would argue with anyone whose idea of “stylish” is “traditional heritage,” a perpetuation of the ideology of “unchanging” (not to mention: colonialist) “island” life. I will champion historical buildings and their preservation, however, just as I’d argue for devastatingly attractive new architecture that really knocks your ratty old unstylish grungy socks off.

Like constant whining, grump and frump simply expresses the absence of change. What we, who are in a “process of rapid transition” globally and locally, need now is the confident style of the “kinetic, open personality.” Style really does matter.

Mr. Gumby writes a letter to the editor

August 1, 2006 at 12:18 am | In media, wiki_victoria | 6 Comments

Many things have conspired to keep me from composing or posting or composting, whether here at the blog or at my Victoria City Style Council wiki, hence no updates to report on the wiki just now. But the local papers did publish a couple of my letters-to-the-editors, which was “a good thing,” I suppose, although I sometimes imagine that angry peasants with pitchforks (oh, wait, that’d be status quo devils) can’t be far behind.

While I will post an update on my wiki with the letters that saw publication, along with some that haven’t, I can’t resist sharing the following especially idiotic letter-to-the-editor, published on the same day as my endorsement of a new downtown development appeared. The letter writer, whose name, surprisingly enough, was not Gumby, wrote that high-rise development has to be stopped because it … well, because it’s all… well, it’s all sexual, you see, and the politicians should finally DO something about it, because all this SEX, you see, is leading to overpopulation, and well, I mean, well!, more people just means more… well, more sex, doesn’t it? See? Point proven!

Mr. Gumby wrote the following, which the local paper entitled thus:We have too many people:

Re: “Towering dreams for ‘uptown,’” July 15. [This was the name of the newspaper article both I and Mr. Gumby responded to — Ed.]

The headline makes me shudder. Developers think that expansion can go on indefinitely. No politician ever addresses overpopulation, the world’s biggest problem. Naturally, people like sex, and developers are never satisfied and think that this game can go on forever and ever.
[For the sake of Mr. Gumby’s children, I deleted his name.], Victoria.

Well, there you have it. All is explained. (And now you know what the calibre of some of the people who populate this city is.) Canada may be a relatively underpopulated country (and we hope Mr. Gumby is an evolutionary dead-end) and we might not have the population in generations to come to support the boomers coming down the pike now, but since there’s overpopulation in other places like India, China, etc., it’s probably a good idea if we, too, get over all this sex business and stop breeding. Then maybe Mr. Gumby can stop shuddering (I wonder, has he considered shaking instead…?), and all will be as once it was, even here.

But then again, perhaps Mr. Gumby’s worst nightmare will be an influx of ageing, non-child-bearing boomer women, described by Kay Hymowitz as Desperate Grandmas? Wouldn’t that be ironic — all those new residential condos filled with lustful women in their second adulthood, prowling for The. Best. Sex. Ever. Watch out, Gumby, if you’re not careful, they’re gonna getcha!

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