On Guilty Pleasures (or, shall we eat cake?)

The more I think about it, the more I see the proliferation of guilty pleasures. What is a guilty pleasure? A guilty pleasure is a thoughtless form of satisfaction, it requires little critical effort and one engages with it in one’s own terms. The more a guilty pleasure is consumed, the more it is made as a desirable end. A guilty pleasure is something that usually one knows that they should for whatever reason know better than enjoying. One should know that there are more thoughtful, more refined or more engaging sensibilities. But for whatever reason, we will always have our guilty pleasure. So ends my definition.

I was thinking about this from one particular thing. It started with a bus advert, it was for the upcoming Sly Stallone film ‘Bullet to the Head’, which reminded me of how comforting I have found Stallone films. The comfort comes from the predictable nature of action films. It is predictable that there will be juxtapositions: of the older man handling a post 2010s world with a 1970s outlook; the juxtaposition of how physical violence is socially unacceptable, but seeing it on film gives one such an animalistic buzz when it is executed with comedy and finesse, or a one-liner. The year is 2013 and there are a whole lot of bus adverts with a 60-something action hero returning to doing films of a genre that was out of date two decades ago. However I might poo-poo on the action film. I grew up with it and many other people my age and older had, and it is a guilty pleasure. For all the critical things I have said I’m probably going to watch the film in the cinema and I’m probably going to laugh at the gags and have a good time with my friends. I find it interesting how the film critic, who is supposedly the bastion of cultural sensibility and critique, have so easily chosen to take an uncritical view of a film.

I think perhaps the most notable way of showing the guilty pleasure and how it affects our mindset is when certain topics come to mind that evoke comforting associations and a completely different way of thinking to normal, this may involve things such as: cake, sex, alcohol, LAN parties, football, poetry slams (delete as appropriate). I’ve been following the film reviews of the upcoming Kim Ji-Woon directed film ‘The Last Stand’ and many have pointed out how the film is mediocre, except for the fact that it serves as a return of action film star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Richard Roeper gives it a B- review. The editor of Shortlist Magazine, Martin Robinson (sic) said something to the effect of how despite how he may boast of his refined cultural sensibilities: he has seen The Seventh Seal maybe twice, but he’s seen Commando over 160 times. The Guardian Film Review’s Peter Bradshaw reflects on effectively giving the film a metaphorical get out of jail freecard just for reinforcing the cult of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the ‘good old days’ of action films. A guilty pleasure is a great way to hide critical thinking.

The guilty pleasure may be seen as harmless and sometimes it is not necessarily making an explicit point about the world. However, it is hardly apolitical, insofar as the following truism remains. If one chooses to indulge in a guilty pleasure, they do so willingly to the avoidance of something else. This is not harmless in itself, but what if we are surrounded by advertising appealing to guilty pleasures to a degree that temptation and it acknowledgement is impossible. Advertising for package holidays, nice shoes, the next series of your favourite drama series, celebrity gossip on your news feeds or the desserts that are right by the door on supermarkets the country over. If the way we spend our time is oriented or centred around guilty pleasures? Where is the time to think, and think differently? Where is the time to challenge the status quo? It’s one thing to talk about figuratively voting with our feet, what we choose to watch on television (or whether we choose to watch it) is something we can control. But we cannot escape many of the advertisements ubiquitous in social spaces to remind us of the ways we can find hedonistic enjoyment.

I definitely would hold that the guilty pleasure is something that is here to stay and it would be wrong to deny this. I must admit that I have mine. In my mission to redefine my body mass through weight training and other strenuous activities on a regular basis, the proclusion of cake (inter alia) is advisable. However my other guilty pleasures involve little games on my smartphone; the occaisional day in or night out with my friends; comic books; or old-school heavy metal tunes pretend to say that I have moved on from. Despite the ways in which I am otherwise Spartan and ascetic. I still accept the occaisional frequent guilty pleasure.

Part of me wonders if Adorno would have really denied the importance of guilty pleasures in addressing its ideological implications for capitalism. Adorno himself was a fan of very bad cowboy western films. I am in a broad agreement with the Adornian point that a culture of satiation has political ramifications for late Capitalism and the eroision of counter-discourses. Shall we let ourselves eat cake?

Michael (based on a conversation with Antisophie)

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The face of the High Street

I thought I’d write something relevant to the urban spaces that many people live in. This week it was announced that two common features of many High Streets: HMV and Blockbuster, have found financial troubles and have effectively gone into administration. I reacted in two different ways when I heard these two stories. The first reaction was to HMV. I felt a bit of fondness for the brand because of its history and my own personal experience with it.

In my small archive of possessions I have inherited a vinyl collection of Chopin Nocturnes by Alfred Brendel, and one of the distinctive features of it is the name of the publisher: His Master’s Voice. At first I didn’t recognise the name, but the dog standing by a grammophone had a strange familiarity. I think it is a good sign of a brand to have such a notoriety that its identity as a brand becomes part of what makes it a cherished item. I felt it was the continuity of an old vinyl of a classic piano recording being part of a commercial product of a (then) currently existing brand. In that way I thought it was sad to see HMV go. As an aside. I’ve always been saying to myself how I wanted to visit the Curzon cinema above my nearby HMV to see an art film or live streaming opera, but I never got around to it. It seems now I won’t get the chance.

One of the things I thought were interesting has been the various conversations people have had on twitter and the bloggosphere about their fondness of the experience of buying CD albums and singles and how that experience is mainly consigned to memory for the large amount of the public. Although there are many independent retailers around, many of them occupy niche spaces that are to the effect of excluding certain kinds of music.

When I heard about Blockbuster, I was reminded of a conversation with a friend a few days earlier. The conversation went to the effect of: why hasn’t this company gone bust already? There was a distinct sense in which Blockbuster was a blight on a certain Clapham high street in the backdrop of trendy and relevant shops. The irrelevance of Blockbuster as a generalist retailer for games and even providing the service of rentals seemed to me like something that was a blight on the modern high street.

In this same week I’ve been following a few online discussions about my local area. The local MP posted in a local online site that a decision to oppose a betting shop replacing what used to be a high street bank branch has been overruled in favour of granting permission to set up a shop. One of the discussions I’ve heard a lot from my local area (particularly from my involvement with a community group, and the odd conversations I hear before gym classes/badminton social games) is how the perception of the high street is changing locally.

The perception is that many shops come and go, and this is largely due to the difficult economic conditions of today, many people attempt to make a local trading shop or place a franchise to find that within a few months it cannot sustain itself. As such there are a lot of changes to local shops on a monthly basis. The shops that stick however, reflect more of the current customer behaviours and spending interests. In my area this tends is said to be (to the annoyance of many): fried chicken shops, bookies (Betting shops) and so called Pound Shops. For any non-British readers, a pound shop is a retailer which sells items usually at low value (often £1). The success of the pound shop reflects both the way in which business need to be adaptable to their customers and market conditions but also seem to be divisive in terms of opinion

I’ve heard a lot of derision about the chicken shop; the pound shop and betting stores. Usually it is the clientele that is the butt of people’s dislike. I wonder sometimes if it is a covert form of class intolerance. I also suspect part of it is genuinely a perception of accessibility and the unfriendliness of these places to those unfamiliar with it. As someone who was a teenager in the 2000s, I am no stranger to the chicken shop, and in a sense I am neutralised to the negative opinions of them. I can also recognise that it is part of the repetoire of masculinity that enjoying a chicken shop is a key staple in socialising with my friends. I enjoy the fact that there’s somewhere to get unhealthy food after midnight when I’m coming home after a 12-16 hour day at work. Or on a friday/saturday night the presence of a takeaway is very welcome. I can appreciate that with a late opening venue also comes a lot of noise from customers. One time I was at a local chicken place and I saw that its packaging was provided by the Met Police, and it contained information about knife crime. I have to admit that was pretty grim.

I’m always sceptical about the perception of social decline. However it is undeniable that the kinds of local trends and spending patterns reflect the prevalence of a generic customer profiles. I recall being present at a presentation by a local councillor who stated frankly that while many people may be unhappy about the kinds of shops renting properties on high streets today, it is much better than an empty shop. Adaptability seems to be the name of the game: in terms of how employers want their workers; how businesses and organisations need to survive; and I suppose in terms of how consumers are affected by their changing budgets. The main worry people have today I think is that when an iconic and prevalent presence leaves; the worry is not whether anything will take its place, but whether that thing will be just as memorable and cherished.

Sinistre

Barriers to Aesthetic Criticism

I think there are two barriers to having valid critical appraisals. One is having an opinion, and two is having a disposition to a view. By the term critical appraisal, I shall consider cultural artefacts as the object of criticism. By the term criticism, I take to mean the act of praising the merits or demerits of a work on the basis, or at least on the guise of an informed and considered view.
 
Lately I’ve been reading quite a bit of critical thinking on cultural artefacts. Some things are very evidently laden with feeling, perhaps praise or perhaps derision. I myself have been writing quite a bit of critical prose on music, film, comics and television within and without NR.

The ad hominem

Sometimes I wonder if for instance, there is any worth in engaging in criticism of culture when one makes a name prior any given opinion, if they have already tied their flag to the mast. If for example I were to go on a diatribe about how Justin Bieber or Nicki Minaj represented everything that was ill and sick about a culture, many may agree or disagree, but maybe not for the reasons elicited. It may be that the assent to a view is sufficient to assent to an identification of a feeling, or an identification to a clan. There is no criticism in the activity of assent or dissent to a conclusion. This kind of clade behaviour defies thinking, but appeals to feeling, namely, the feeling of approval. When appraising critism works in this way, or the sole materials of our critical framework is to be based on a feeling, it would seem prima facie difficult to make this communicable. All we can communicate is how it feels, and whether others or not have felt similar or the same before is not up to us.

Dispositions

Similar, but not the same to the ad hominem of simply holding to a view and stating it in writing, or as a spoken utterance, for example: ‘Nickelback is aweful, overly-produced generic rock for the masses!’; the notion of a disposition poses a similar challenge to aesthetic criticism .To have  a disposition is to hold to a family of views that you are inclined to agree with on the basis of something (that may not need to be specifed).

I wonder for instance what the worth of reviewing books one has an inclination to hate, if they are speaking from the dispositions they have. A Christian may dismiss all books by anyone who claims to be an atheist, and whether or not as an explicit speech act, may harbour tacit biases and may be primed against any positive (or negative) view against a given cultural artefact. Dispositions can come from many things, habit, a limited pool of experience and familiarity, or even something like cultural context and orientation. Some dispositions are by choice, or have been developed over time, and some things are not. Many cultural prejudices we don’t even know we have sometimes.

Disinterest

Why are these things important? Lately, as part of a book review, I’ve been reading an anthology on children’s literature (and its relation to philosophy). One of the things I have noticed is a distinction between what I might call ‘good’ and ‘bad’ criticism. I thought I would try to elucidate something general to highlight what I thought was problematic about some of the articles I read and where the perspectives were coming from.

Criticism is lazy when it is simply a mouthpiece for a point of view. However, sometimes being a mouthpiece for a point of view is a very important thing, An example of this is the discussion of Lana Del Rey in early 2012. My favourite such example was in (I think) Spin magazine.The criticism was directed not so much to the music of Del Rey, but the packaging of her music, and the preferred ways it had been described, as well as the iconography and multi-media nature of her celebrity presence. As a cultural critique this communicated a lot, and it also gave a more systematic treatment to what essentially is what one may consider a cynical reaction to a cynically produced cultural product.

Criticism is poor when it serves as a front for one’s own views. A good example of this would be the way in which Slavoj Zizek appropriates many things, such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I think that the activity of eisegesis has its merits, but to put it forward as criticism is unwarranted and lazy thinking. Of course, it should be said that when Zizek appropriates cultural references he does not (I think) take it to be a form of literary or film critcism. I also think that even the hallowed Adorno may be guilty of skirting on this kind of prejudice at times. To appropriate a cultural artefact as an accessory to your own views is different to criticism. To take the cultural artefact sui generis, to take it on its own merits, as its own object, and not necessarily in relation to other things (although this may be relevant if we are in a discussion of say, genre), is to give a more sensitive view of the work. In a sense it may seem contradictory to consider how our own prejudices are a barrier to an appraisal of a work of culture. I also see these barriers to criticism as a neat way of framing aesthetic appraisal in terms of the role of disinterest.

Destre and Michael

The Spoon Theory revisited

A few years ago I read an essay which is quite influential, about a person’s explanation for dealing with chronic fatigue. It is endearingly referred to as ‘The Spoon Theory’, I recommend reading it. Go on, I’ll wait.

I’ve thought about this idea of the Spoon theory, having a limited but quantifiable amount of energy, or attention or time to dedicate to all the things you want to do. Some days you can do more, others you might do less, on more other days still you might do less. Much of my life seems to be fragmented across so many different circles and interests. There’s my training partner friend who I have lately been doing a lot of weight training with; there’s my badminton buddies (which includes my brother) who lately fill my phone with irrelevant Whatsapp messages (which I check about every 6 hours and find 200 messages); there’s the garden group that I’m involved with and that’s just off the top of my head of the kinds of things taking my time at the moment.

Whatever people consider as their spoons, there’s only so much one can handle in a day. I’ve been thinking about this in a large variety of contexts.

Reading

I read quite a bit, however I’m about 3 weeks behind on my comics and the pile builds up. I like to read in my spare time, and at the moment academic reading and blog writing is not a paying job (my CV is available on request by the way!). I have a lot of books that I have planned to read and often the pile grows even more whenever Librivox releases a new volume of Hume’s History of England, or when the next bit of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica comes out. I estimate that I’ll probably read all the things I have currently listed by the time I’m in my late 40s. Which is a little bit depressing. Then there are days when I’m just too tired to read. Learning is about finding out about old knowledge, and keeping your ear to the ground about new patterns and things going on. I’m struggling to do both, and the Theory of Spoons is very relevant to me. I do miss the old days when I would sit and read Kant for 10 hours straight and write 20,000 words in notes. It’s nice to idealise the past. Especially when it involved longer hair.

Fun activities

One of the things I learned from Spoon theory is that sometimes you need to keep your spoons for other things. This involves saying no to some opportunities. Sometimes I get book reviews or I’m asked to look at manuscripts or essays (also, my fees are available on request!) but I must turn them down as I have other things that have earmarked my time. Sometimes I hear about gigs that I would really love to go to, or a new activity that I’d like to do. In the background of the metaphorical spoons in my not so metaphorical hand, I must think about balancing my resolution to try new things and expand myself, against what i can find I am able to do in terms of my time, and my energy. The spoons have been helpful to me, although in this context it is within a wider context.

Adopting new behaviours

In the past I’ve talked a little about my scheduling system, and how I’ve set it in a way where I review behaviours and whether they are useful to keep patterns or to amend or delete how I do things. One thing that often surprises me is how many people think that I am ahead of the curve in terms of technology, apps or certain trends. In honesty I really am not, and I consider myself a bit of a luddite.

I’ve had numerous conversations with people about the kinds of apps we use as part of our everyday life, and whether they are for things like leisure or more helpful tools that keep records, remind one of impending meetings or how much they want to run today. One of the most general responses I’ve heard is that they only have a certain amount of attention and things like mobile phone apps, or another social networking website oriented around their interest in say, making ships in bottles is just not for them right now because all of their time is already full up with commitments from elsewhere.

We are in an age where so many things can demand our time, whether its serious, career relevant, personally fulfilling or frivolous. I’m reminded of Adorno’s essay on hobbies and how the notion of the hobby is disparaging and effectively supports the status quo. There’s so many fun and important things to do but such little time and ability. I realise the tension between adopting new behaviours or trying out new things when there are so many other objects in our inventory of life to deal with. It also makes it all the more special when we break routine. I am beginning to realise the role of the spoons when developing new habits or trying something new, as well as how our ‘spoons’ can be a barrier.

Concluding

On reflection I find the spoon metaphor very useful. It does a lot of work and the more I’ve thought about it in my life the more it has been useful in framing my time management and activities, as well as my limitations. To put it in terms of David Lewis’ Modal Realism thesis: it does a lot of work to justify its worth as a theory.

 

Michael

The New Year’s Resolution

One of the notable things I’ve noticed about a coming New Year are projections and hopes for the future. There is a space for looking forward, it seems often for me that looking backward in taking an historical or retrospective view is something I do far too often, and I don’t look forward enough. There have been lots of articles that I’ve read lately about what people think are economic, political and cultural projection. I enjoy seeing forward perspectives on films and musical acts and games  to look forward to over the next year, as well as what they think are going to be big hits and often finding retrospectively, when they are desperately mistaken in naming ‘the next big thing’. Even in the the comics world the New Year is planned out as a series of new beginnings for well-known characters.

I haven’t spent much time thinking about New Years Resolutions, partly due to two reasons: firstly I’ve been quite busy enough getting on with goals that I’ve immediately set for myself and secondly, I think that I made some pretty systematic ones last year. In this post I will talk about my 2012 resolutions, and in writing about it I will consciously consider in the background of physically typing this, whether I need to amend my targets.

New Years Resolutions of last year

So, last year I set some resolutions of varying priorities. Some things are low priority, such as trying to read 120 books (a challenge I set on Goodreads.com). I failed at this. In 2011 I managed to exceed my initial target of 100. I thought if I set 100 I would easily beat it. I was wrong. I still have on my computer playlists of audiobooks and ebooks that still need reading. I estimate that I have between 285-310 (not including ebooks) that I have planned to read over the course of my lifetime. Some books will take longer than others (like Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire!).

The higher priority resolutions I have taken a systematic, and routinised approach to (or if one is a Kantian, a Schema). I have written a document which states my goals and targets, and I’ve set in google calendar to have a weekly review of how I have achieved these targets. I think that this year I will have a weekly and monthly review of said tasks. So my resolutions were (and I quote from my official target plan:

  1. Commit to at least three fitness activities a week (this may include badminton and gardening)
  2. Make 7 job applications. Later amended to ideal target: 10 jobs a week
  3. Putting yourself in new and unfamiliar situations, try at least once a month.
  4. Read more books – one a week would be nice!
  5. Practice more piano/get more musically involved (this can be music production, composing, learning another instrument…)

A review of targets

In setting these New Years Resolutions I learned a lot about myself. Can you guess which of these targets were the most difficult? I’ll let you wait. In the meantime here is a related memebase picture.
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I found that each of those targets had a challenge, and presented different challenges for me. The one pertaining to keeping active and applying to lots of jobs are about the very important skill of grafting (and for me that concept will forever be associated with Mo Farah). Grafting is what my piano teacher always taught to me. Practice, practice, practice. If you are dying, practice. If you are busy, practice. If you have other things to do, practice. That is the essence of being a musician. My Jazz musician of a teacher’s favourite phrase was ‘there is no excuse but death’. Sage advice from a man that was a centenarian. Keep active to keep fit, and keep working on those applications to get a lead (eventually). I must admit its not easy and giving up can be tempting. I’ve learned to change a bit of my attitude to graft more and in doing so I have discovered more about myself through making a new person out of these activities.

The third task is about something completely contrasting to the aforementioned resolutions. I am someone who as a response to my dispositions, has relied on rituals and routine to try and get out of a slump and be productive. However the extreme of this is that I can sometimes be obsessed with routine to the point of being overwhelmed by tasks or being incapable of dealing with sudden changes and spontaneity. So my response to this is a minimum of one occasion a month going to a completely new situation, whether this is a new physical place or doing something new or approaching a task that I’ve done before in a completely novel way. I’m trying to work on my plasticity through subverting routine on occasion. I said it’s a minimum of once a month, but in practice I managed to exceed this.

The other two are more personal. I really want to keep up my musicianship. I performed in front of an audience last year and some friends of mine are desperately trying to get me involved in an ensemble situation. I also started to learn the ocarina with a view to learning other musical instruments. I picked up my first saxophone yesterday and I was amazed at its similarity to the clarinet. I think I may have begun a new love affair with music.

Most of my targets I met, some of them I exceeded, some of them I failed. Sometimes this is a matter of setting expectations too high, other times it can be about unforeseen events getting in the way. I need to have a bit of a think about what my resolutions should be for this coming year, but I do quite like what I set for myself last year. I might tweak it a bit rather than making a completely new set of targets.

Some general remarks

New Years Resolutions are a cultural phenomenon, they may have religious origins but I do think it is a genuinely secular effort at self-improvement. There is a sincerity to New Years resolutions towards a commitment to self-betterment, whether that’s of a person’s outlook or wellbeing, or an external situation that relates to them such as improving a community or relationships. Looking through the Wikipedia page it looks like there’s data that the idea of the resolution is something taken up by many people, but not so much that they follow up on. A general lesson in life is that good intentions can come from a sincere place and its great to acknowledge avenues of improvement. It’s completely another thing when it’s the middle of the year on a weekday that is particularly busy or stressful and many other things need attention. On may be is tempted to oppose the intention of what their resolution was, or completely forget about it.

My intention of the day is bundled with an half dozen other things. There are many elements to keeping a resolution from my experience, and I’m certain there are many other things I’ve yet to realise are challenging.

Happy New Year

Michael