Friday, March 21, 2008

Enough with the talk of revolution, already

As an Internet skeptic, it always does my heart good to read pieces like Chris Wilson’s recent Slate article on Wikipedia and Digg and the much-hyped Web 2.0, a supposedly more democratic version of the Web (which, if you remember, was supposed to be a more democratic version of the older media forms it was going to replace.) Wilson points out that about one per cent of Wikipedia users account for over half its edits. As for Digg, turns that that many of its top stories—44 percent in 2007, 56 percent in 2006—were submitted by only 100 people. When the site tried to fiddle with its algorithm, in order to reduce the influence of the top contributors, they threatened to boycott. “Despite the fairy tales about the participatory culture of Web 2.0,” writes Wilson, “direct democracy isn’t feasible at the scale on which these sites operate.”

If I had blogged this entry when it first appeared (which is what I meant to do), I would have ended it about here, with some snide comment to the effect of “how are the cyper-utopians were going to try to spin away Wilson’s claims?” Then I came across a link to another piece by Nicholson Baker, on the manner in which Wikipedia deletes subjects it deems unimportant, and his efforts to protect threatened entries: “I found press citations and argued for keeping the Jitterbug telephone, a large-keyed cell phone with a soft earpiece for elder callers; and Vladimir Narbut, a minor Russian Acmeist poet whose second book, Halleluia, was confiscated by the police.” Although I’m not always Mr. Baker’s biggest fan, nonetheless his protests against the administrators’ dicta seemed to fit into the general theme I was working on—Wiki as Internet elitism, disguised as Internet egalitarianism. So I googled the article, hoping to find more fodder for my argument. Turns out Baker is not anti-Wiki. The piece begins, in fact, as follows: “Wikipedia is just an incredible thing.” Reviewing a manual by John Broughton on how to make the most of one’s Wikipedia experience, Baker celebrates the democratic feel of the site. That is, democratic in a sort of Bahktinian, medieval carnivalesque sort of way: Wikipedia is, we are told, “fact-encirclingly huge, and it’s idiosyncratic, careful, messy, funny, shocking, and full of simmering controversies.” Baker’s complaints, such as they are (and even he admits that some entries deserve deletion), are made with an eye to getting more participation, so that other folks will join with him, in his defense of the obscure and the trivial.

(Your point being, perfessor?)

(Uh, not much, I guess. Maybe just this:)

The Internet is not inherently democratic: not in its 2.0 version or any version that is likely to appear in our lifetimes. While it may reduce the importance of some forms of social inequality, it builds upon, perhaps even heightens, the importance of others. At the same time, it would be misguided to ignore the ways in which the new media environment has increased the scope for human creativity, and opened up possibilities for human interaction that most of us couldn’t even have imagined as recently as ten years ago. It would be nice to see more media scholars working at the intersection of those two claims.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Michel Gondry's Vision of Media Democracy

Michel Gondry's most recent film, Be Kind Rewind, may be one of the most poorly-reviewed movies of the last few months. Critics have generally adhered to the notion that Gondry works best with someone else handling the screenwriting (often citing The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a successful collaboration between Gondry and Charlie Kaufman). Though I'm now writing my second consecutive post about 'how the critics are wrong,' I do beg to differ.

Be Kind Rewind directly concerns ideas that are of direct concern to almost any theorist of the media. The movie takes the form of a melodrama (complete with a Mr. Pinchpenny character and a threatened town landmark) wherein the crew at a video store that features only VHS movies begins to make their own versions of the movies they rent out, putting them in conflict with regulatory agencies and big media. (far better plot synopses are available; go find one if you want) The theme of the movie--perhaps stated in an artlessly bold manner--is that we should like it when members of a culture (alone and, especially, in locally-based groups) make their own 'stuff'. Who can make a better version of Ghostbusters? Some jamochs from New Jersey. Who can tell the life story of Fats Waller? The people. It's a blatantly populist film (another weakness, perhaps), and it resonates with much of the John Dewey-derived theory and research concerning organic community-building through the media.

As someone who generally rankles at populist appeals (even a defender of professionalism), I find the movie compelling not because of its pitting of big corporations against 'the people', but because of its less blatant celebration of making movies. Gondry once made a short film about himself called (if memory serves) "I'm Always 12". Right. The movie is largely about getting in touch with the kind of enthusiasm me and my friends had when we made 8 mm movies (most of them Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-offs) in my suburban neighborhood in the early 1980s. This is, perhaps, a kind of weakness of the movie (after all, not all people have access to media-making tools). But, taken as a utopian vision--which is I think appropriate--Be Kind Rewind pictures a world where everyone is working in front of and behind the camera. And I must admit, I'm with the Deweyans on this one. Bravo, Gondry! At the very least (and I mean the VERY least), you've made a case for community-based media that actually celebrates the potential, without getting bogged down in the dilemmas we have faced so far.

There's much more to be said here, about Be Kind Rewind's potential relevance to the whole "Youtube" phenomenon, but I will let that wait for a different day.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Maus Effect: Comic Book Criticism and The Middle-Brow

It's a well-worn story by now. The comic book started off as a truly maligned product of the Great Depression. After World War II, comic books in the U.S. explored a number of different genres. One of the most popular was the crime comic book. With their abundant violence and apparent celebration of a criminal lifestyle, crime comics became a kind of stand-in for the whole medium, and an increasingly well-organized attack on comic books eventually (with a number of ironic reversals along the way) took the form of the Comic Book Code in 1954. The Comic Book Code a truly demanding self-censorship code that (along with the introduction of television) relegated comic books to the lowbrow. Flash forward thirty years, and we find in the 1980s the introduction of the comic book reborn: the graphic novel.

The graphic novel was (and remains) the new, more adult comic book. Graphic novels wore their cultural aspirations on their mylar sleeves, with fancy art and 'adult' themes. There is probably no better example of what the 'graphic novel' was about than Art Spiegelman's MAUS. Released in the late 1980s, MAUS enjoyed glorious praise for addressing the Holocaust through the form of a comic book. It was widely reviewed in magazines and newspapers throughout the U.S. (and would win a Pulitzer Prize for literature). The classic review went somewhat as follows: "We all know that comic books used to be about superheroes and silliness. This new graphic novel is about the Holocaust, and shows us that comic books can be better than we ever thought. MAUS has, effectively, breathed new life into the medium of comix."

For the critics, MAUS became nothing less than the redemption of a medium (mind you: a medium that few of those critics had bothered to notice before they picked up MAUS). I have nothing bad to say about MAUS, but it is difficult for any single work (graphic novel or whatever) to prop up an entire medium, and this reaction to MAUS has become a broader theme in comic book criticism.

So, when newspapers and magazines (I'm thinking in particular of the NY Times book review) feature reviews of comic books, their reviews often favor those works that seem least like what comic books supposedly used to be. It gets frustrating, seeing the same old "comic books aren't just for kids anymore" observation 20 years after the 'MAUS moment'.

The recent graphic novel that most clearly benefited from the fawning MAUS effect on comic book criticism was Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. For those who do not know, Persepolis is an autobiographical tale about the author's growing up in pre-revolution Iran, moving to Switzerland during the Iran-Iraq war, and returning to Iran afterward. It has recently been turned into a (more or less well-reviewed) feature film.

Something bugs me about this, but before I get on what bugs me, allow me to set the record straight: I think MAUS is great. I also very much enjoyed Persepolis in graphic novel and movie form. But even though I find myself in agreement with the consensus that these are amongst the salvageable (even essential) graphic novels of our time, I cringe when I read the reviews of these works. Because what I see in the criticism involving these works is a kind of lazy criticism, which relies on assumptions that don't work. Specifically:
a) the assumption that comic books have always been 'bad', and then got saved when critics started noticing them. Why do I disagree? Because it turns about 50 years of comic book art into something that can be comfortably blown off. This, in turn, buys into familiar (and all-too-easily mocked) assumptions about the separateness of high and low culture.
b) the assumption that 'serious' themes make great art. This is classic middle-brow stuff. As if the "very special episode" of tv's "Facts of Life" is probably going to be better art than other episodes of "Facts of Life." Or as if Jerry Lewis's almost unseen movie about the Holocaust is better than other Jerry Lewis movies. Giving a pass to culture that deals with 'issues' is not good criticism. Points for good intentions can be saved for different arenas. It only insults comics all the more when critics fawn over 'issues'-related graphic novels.

So: do I HATE Persepolis? No. I thought it was pretty good. But I find it disappointing that commentary about it (as graphic novel and as movie) dealt with the supposed novelty of graphic novels that touch on serious themes, instead of dealing with: the quality of the draftsmanship, the writing of the dialogue, the pacing of the story, the decision to use black & white, the autobiographical mode in comics in general, Satrapi's own voice, and much else.

Talk about getting upset about small things...