Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Francesca Eastwood’s handbag: all bound for Mu Mu land

Francesca Eastwood, spawn of Clint, has prompted a minor brouhaha thanks to her involvement in an art stunt that involved a $100,000 Hermès bag being chainsawed and set on fire. It’s essentially a reality-show re-run of the KLF’s notorious Burn A Million Quid event, albeit on a smaller budget, and some of the aghast responses are pretty similar – Ms Eastwood should, we are informed, have put the money towards some more worthy cause. But is it really so much more heinous to destroy a bag worth $100,000 than to spend $100,000 on a bag in the first place? Or to sell it for that much? (Unless of course that’s what Eastwood and her conspirator/boyfriend were actually intending to say, in which case I’ve suddenly decided that it’s lame, studenty gesture politics of the most obvious kind.)

One more thought: how much direct involvement did the Hermès marketing department have in all this?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The needle and the damage done

Plenty of you will have seen the news snippet about the man who had a tattoo made of the passage in Leviticus that forbids homosexuality, oblivious to the fact that a few lines on there’s another passage condemning tattoos.

I would have thought that serious believers might be very much in favour of tattoos, because if there’s one thing I associate with permanent body art, it’s absolute certainty – fundamentalism, even. When someone has his predilection for Angelina Jolie or Gary Numan or Plymouth Argyle inked on his person, he’s not just saying that he likes them; he’s saying that he will like them until he dies. And there’s a paradox at work: most tattoos are done when the recipient is young, a time when tastes and desires are at their most passionate peak, but also deeply mercurial. The thing you love when you’re 17 may be the one you loathe five years later. And it’s only as the waste waist (sorry, Mum) thickens and the arteries harden that your If-I-Ever-Get-On-Desert-Island-Discs list stays the same from one month to the next. I mean, I know what I like and I like what I know, but do I really dare to ask for Evelyn Waugh on one scrawny, pasty bicep, TS Eliot on the other?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I’m Damien Hirst and so’s my wife!

An interesting article in the Independent introduces a couple of artists who call themselves Damien Hirst. Inevitably, it’s not just a straightforward case of fakery or passing-off. These ersatz Hirsts claim to have aesthetic motives for their appropriation, one turning Hirst’s name into a Duchamp-style readymade, the other commenting the lack of originality in the echt artist’s work, and his own lack of direct involvement in many pieces that go to market under his identity. 

Hirst and/or his representatives appear to be unhappy with the situation, which is odd; surely, neither of the provocateurs would have changed their names had young Damien not appeared on the scene, so he can legitimately claim both artists to be his own creations, which gives him the right to auction them off for some absurd sum. If they’re really lucky, he might dismember them first and put them in a fishtank.

PS: While we’re there, Jonathan Jones disembowels Hirst’s latest exhibition.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

New nods and updated winks

In a piece of research that will startle very few, mathematicians at Dartmouth College have shown that modern writers are far less influenced by “the classics” than their predecessors were. Well, yes, um, maybe. Of course, nobody reads Walter Scott any more; or, more to the point, nobody feels the need to pretend to have read Walter Scott any more. The canon is still there, but like a football team or the cast of The Archers, the list of names has changed; so we get that slew of novels about Henry James a few years ago, or maybe Martin Amis rehashing his fanboy schtick about Saul Bellow.

So writers are still influenced by writers, but they’re different writers. What’s really changed is that the references aren’t just to writing. A Victorian author might have expected readers to pick up on references to Shakespeare or Virgil or the King James Bible; her 21st-century successor will pack in nods to the Zapruder film or Ricky Villa’s goal in 1981 or the structure of DNA or Donna Summer’s sighs in ‘Love To Love You Baby’. And writers already have the ability to offer their product in formats that can include not just references to those memes, but actual pieces of footage and audio embedded in the words – and the academics at Dartmouth will have to work out a completely new method of textual analysis to pick that up.

In fact, pretty soon there will come a time when Literature – as the name for a discrete academic discipline – will fail to do its job. What’s going to replace it? Media Studies has been pretty much discredited. Any thoughts?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Birth, school, work, #Klout

After I deployed those Klout-related ramblings, I was wondering why employers and marketers are starting to pay so much attention to a metric that is apparently so easy to manipulate by retweeting gossip about Pudsey the dog or getting on the right side of someone on that bloody Observer list. And I realised that Klout doesn’t really measure the subject’s online influence – instead, it measures the subject’s desire for online influence, even if it’s an ersatz version of the same. Today, in the decadent West, what few jobs there are involve selling the abstract ideas that we call brands, so the ability and inclination to game one’s own Klout score 20 points higher than it really should be is something of a marketable skill, one that potential employers will hope you can apply to the ethereal gewgaws that they’re trying to flog. They know your enormous Klout score is utter bullshit; and they want a slice of that bullshit.

Similarly, there has been much grumbling over the past couple of decades about the increasing pointlessness of examinations. Exams don’t measure what people know about English or maths or physics any more! They just measure how good people are at passing exams! Which is, in fact, entirely what they want to do. Most employers don’t give a toss whether you can calculate the surface area of a sphere or explain why “a slice of that bullshit” is stretching a metaphor just a little too far. Instead, they want to see the alacrity with which you’ll jump over barrels and through hoops of their devising. “Raise our Klout score,” they bellow, and you only need to respond: “How high?”

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Klout: I get a pain in the back of my neck

Oh dear, Klout’s everywhere all of a sudden. It’s a service that aims to quantify your social media influence, deploying algorithms that translate to a score out of 100; the bigger cheese you are on the interwebnets, the higher your score. This might have some validity if Klout were to operate with the ethos of an old-fashioned gentleman’s club; those who push their claims for membership too loudly and brashly are doomed to failure. But increasingly, those with high Klout scores are not truly influential, but simply people who have the time and energy and inclination to rack up high Klout scores. Like people whose self-worth is determined by number of Twitter followers or blog eyeballs or Panini stickers, they modify their online behaviour to game their own statistics.  

And even when applied to someone who is properly (if not rightfully) famous, the statistics really don’t add up. Singer of popular ditties Justin Bieber has a Klout score of 100, apparently, but it’s not clear what portion of that score derives from people who use Twitter to express their heartfelt desire that Mr Bieber might be elbowed to death by Joey Barton (who scores 85).

Of course, purely in the interests of research and solipsism I just had to find out where I fit in the grand scheme of things; and Klout tells me not only that I have a Klout score of 45*, but that I am an influencer when it comes to the subject of “pak”. Unfortunately, it neglects to explain what “pak” might be and I spend several hours in a state of heightened agitation, worried that businesses and governments and criminal networks throughout the world will seize on the notion that Klout scores actually determine whether or not one is good at something, and ask me for my opinion on pak, my advice on pak, on whether we should privatise it or subsidise it or abolish it or put it in the water supply. I suddenly feel like Chance, the innocent gardener in Being There, whose ill-informed platitudes are interpreted as great wisdom. And then I remember that one of the main uses I have for Twitter is making facetious comments on cricket matches, and “#pak” is just a hashtag that indicates that Pakistan is playing.

And that, my friends, is why Klout is silly. Far better, if you must jump on any sort of virtual bandwagon, is social media for existentialists: “All passwords on the Being and Nothingness Network are vaguely menacing anagrams formed using the maiden name of Martin Heidegger’s paternal grandmother.” You know, if anyone at Klout reads this, I’ll immediately become one of the world’s leading experts on Heidegger. It’s between me and Joey Barton.

* 45’s not brilliant, but it could get me free noodles at San Francisco airport.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Dragons circling over Cardiff

No, it’s not a Torchwood storyline. The Malaysian owners of Cardiff City FC want to change the club’s strip from blue to red, and replace the bluebird on the crest with a dragon. The argument is that the new image will be more helpful to marketing efforts in Asia, the importance of which to European football has escalated in recent years. They may have a point. Glancing at the car stickers on the streets of Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok would certainly suggest that Manchester United and Liverpool have a numerical advantage over those, such as Birmingham or Everton, which are owned or sponsored by Asian concerns, but persist in playing in blue. Even the resurgent Manchester City, once the plaything of Thailand’s former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is an also-ran if the criterion for support is the trade in counterfeit shirts at the stalls on Silom Road. Red, especially for people from China and the Chinese diaspora, represents success, prosperity, victory and all that good stuff. Dragons are just the icing on the cake.

But how far should we follow this logic? If every football club wants to increase its fanbase in the Asian market, should they all don red shirts if they don’t wear them already? Indeed, if Manchester United is the brand leader, why doesn’t every club just call itself Manchester United and be done with it? It would make matches a bit confusing, but the marketing guys would be happy. And that’s what matters, isn’t it?

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Marginalia: the blue-ink brigade

When I acquired a Kindle, I wondered whether I might never buy a book again. But then I remembered that when I bought my first CD player, some time back in the early 90s, I didn’t stop buying vinyl. OK, so if a new album came out, I’d probably buy the small expensive version in the case that cracked, rather than the larger, slightly less expensive version in the sleeve that bent at the corner and split along the edge. But I’d still be mooching around dank second-hand shops and windy car-boot sales for Northern Soul singles and kitsch MOR LPs and limited-edition translucent 10-inch discs by cod-psychedelic wastrels from Ashton-under-Lyme.

So it’s not terribly surprising that last weekend found me taking away very nearly an armful of variously damaged paperbacks, including Toby Litt’s Finding Myself. One of the quirks of this 2003 novel is that the text consists of documents supposedly retrieved from the laptop of a fictitious author, Victoria About, with blue, handwritten amendments, corrections and suggestions from her editor all over the hard copy. For those used to pages of neatly justified, spaced and kerned black-on-white type, it might be a tad distressing.

But I vaguely remembered hearing about this gimmick when the book originally came out, so I didn’t embarrass myself by asking for a clean copy or demanding a discount. In fact, I went to the opposite extreme: when I found squiggly add-ons in the next book I picked up –  Retro: The Culture of Revival, by Elizabeth Guffey – my instinctive reaction was that this was all part of the author’s intentions as well. The following is underlined in angry biro:
The literary historian Jean Starobinski has suggested that it was only with the advent of bacteriology and pathological anatomy in the late nineteenth century that nostalgia disappeared from medical journals, becoming the province of poets and philosophers rather than doctors.
Now, Dr Guffey didn’t provide the underlining on that bit. But I bet she wish she had done.

(The image is the title page of a biography Jorge Luis Borges, with contributions by its owner, the late David Foster Wallace.)

PS: A different angle on the paper vs digital debate: Julia Jones on the fire that destroyed 40 years’ worth of her partner’s work.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

The Observer gets Twitter (wrong)

When I’m not here, pontificating about French theorists and Japanese novelists and Charlotte Rampling’s legs, I’m often to be found on Twitter. Have you heard of Twitter, by any chance? There’s so little coverage of it in the mainstream media, sometimes I rather think I might have imagined it.

I’m being sarcastic, of course; one of the modes of discourse that Twitter isn’t very good at conveying, to occasionally disastrous effect. And another thing that Twitter can’t do very well is to express to non-participants what’s so good about it. I usually just tell people to sign up and plunge in; and if they respond with that tired trope that 95% of Twitter is people telling you what they had for breakfast I say nonsense, it’s 70% at most.

So it’s good that a serious, respected newspaper such as The Observer has taken the task of explaining to naysayers and noobs what the attractions of Twitter might be. Nah, it’s that sarcasm again. What they’ve done is to ask 50 people who use Twitter to name three people they follow, and why. Now potentially this might have been an interesting exercise, a chance to investigate the more unlikely corners of people’s cultural hinterlands, the strange nexuses of real and virtual friendship, the digital spin on six degrees of separation that Twitter offers. They could have delved into people’s experiences of RTs and hashtags, FFs and tweetups, of how trends can erupt from nowhere then evaporate just as fast, of the collective joy and anguish of livetweeting elections and cricket matches and riots and revolutions and The Archers. They could have selected people who have used Twitter to do extraordinary or amusing or horrible things, people who have pushed its capacity to change perceptions and attitudes, sometimes even lives.

But no. They chose 50 variably famous people who happen to use Twitter. Now, some of them (Caitlin Moran, Grace Dent and Peter Serafinowicz for example) have clearly thought about what Twitter can do, and use it with wit and passion and imagination and inspired daftness. But Rio Ferdinand? Danny Alexander? Does it help our understanding of Twitter to know that Gary Barlow has “always been a fan” of Jonathan Ross? Or that Joan Collins follows her daughter? Or that lots of people follow Stephen Fry? Fry, incidentally, is not among the 50 – I can’t imagine they didn’t try to get him – but instead they’ve one Edna Fry, a Tweeter who pretends to be Fry’s wife. Which could have been a springboard for all sorts of ideas about the pleasures and perils of concocting an online persona. But isn’t.

In the introduction to the piece, Lauren Laverne quotes Graham Linehan (someone else who should be on any self-respecting list): “Celebrities who don’t follow anyone! You have in your possession a magic mirror, and you’re just using it as a mirror!” Anybody reading further to find out what’s so great about Twitter would find a rather grubby window, through which they might be able to discern a small group of famous people talking to each other about being famous. Which is even more tedious than breakfast.

PS: Mic Wright (another who ought to be on the list) reaches similar conclusions.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Of putrefactive brainfarts and fanciful testicles

My recent ambles through the ones and zeroes have thrown up two nicely judged slabs of wording, separated by 400 years or so. First, Grace Dent, in The Independent, characterises the qualities required to be nominated for a Turner Prize as a “dogged determination to grab fanciful brainfarts and build them.” Which is, if you think about it, the same tenacity required to do anything that isn’t tedious and banal. We then turn to the anonymous surgeon who carved up the corpse of the monstrously inbred King Charles II of Spain, whose unhappy life ended in 1700. The autopsy revealed “a very small heart the size of a grain of pepper, the lungs corroded, the intestines putrefactive and gangrenous, in the kidney three large stones, a single testicle as black as coal and his head full of water.” Had chronology been more accommodating, perhaps the operation might have been recorded and entered for the Turner.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Duran Duran and the Olympic gig: white boys always shine

I’ve never been a big fan of positive discrimination, mainly because it doesn’t work; inevitably it’s easier to base quotas on empirical criteria such as race or gender or disability, rather than things that are harder to quantify but no less real, such as socio-economic status class, there, I said it. But I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at the choice of acts for the gig marking the beginning of the Olympics. Leave aside for the moment the galumphing tedium of all the performers on the bill; Duran Duran were moderately amusing for a couple of albums in the early 80s, while the others (Paolo Nutini, the Stereophonics, Snow Patrol) have never even aspired to such lofty standards. That said, do we really think that London in 2012 is best represented by a dozen or so white men in their 30s, 40s and 50s, many of them playing guitars?

Obviously nobody wants blatant tokenism: I’m old enough to remember the line-up for the Band Aid single, with a few members of Shalamar and Kool & the Gang hovering around the edges. But for an event that aims to show off 21st-century Britain to the world, this is a bit embarrassing.

PS: In the Telegraph, Lucy Jones fumes.