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Mon, Feb. 2nd, 2015, 12:29 pm
Nonfiction

Eduardo Navas et al., The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies: I tore through this theory-heavy collection instrumentally, as I’m furiously working on our DMCA exemption. This is a collection of theorists and practitioners talking about remix, a lot in very general terms and some in very specific terms. Kembrew McLeod’s oral history of sampling has a lot of great quotes from people in the music business, including an RIAA lawyer who says that sampling isn’t necessary unless you pay as against a bunch of people who talk about chilled creativity and how it’s financially impossible to use multiple samples in a song now. Navas has a nice piece about how modern capitalism wants us to participate, just in controlled ways, so it can monetize us—it doesn’t want us to shut up because it learns more when we talk. I also liked Lev Manovich’s point about modularity in culture: just as remix makes specific units of shows and music modular and configurable, modularity is also showing up when Facebook lets you select an area of a picture and annotate it, or when Medium allows you to comment on a particular paragraph. Katarina Freund’s article on boundary policing in vidding is interesting and probably controversial among vidders I know. Video remix is the default meaning of remix in most of the articles, with some on music and a few on text.

Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: This is a really well-written, depressing and thought-provoking book about dying in a high-tech society. Gawande argues that American society has prioritized the safety of older people over their autonomy, to the great mental and physical detriment of the people whose choices are removed not by age alone but by the failure of society to support their continued independence. Also, we resist talking about issues until it’s too late and painful and expensive interventions have often made things worse. He suggests focusing on some basic questions: What do you understand about your condition? What do you value most (e.g., living even if you can’t walk; living long enough to go to a specific event; etc.)? What compromises are you willing to make to reach those goals? Well worth reading.

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: Really ambitious attempt to track the rise of cotton and its role in the global economy and imperialism. I would have benefited from some clearer definition of what Beckert meant exactly when he discussed “war capitalism”—which basically seemed to mean conquering territories or opening them to trade by force in order to find new markets for goods. He also emphasizes that western industrialization corresponded with deindustrialization in places like India, where spinning and cloth production had been well established at the household level and then was displaced by growing cotton for market—a change that contributed to the death by famine of millions when prices collapsed. And he contends that countries that successfully industrialized were those that managed to protect their nascent factories with tariffs until their production could compete with cheaper versions. The West, almost literally, pulled the ladder up behind it.

Bryce Hoffman, American Icon: The return of Ford Motors to national prominence and relative health. The most interesting thing to me here is how workers/unions appear as burdens to be shed. That left the hagiographic account of Ford’s CEO with a little of the flavor of “the operation was a success, but the patient died.” It was also funny to read how Ford negotiated its way out of a lot of its retiree health care promises, then Ford executives got huffy that the other big two carmakers were getting federal money they wouldn’t have to pay back—they saw the promises they broke as completely justified, but others were egregious ne’er-do-wells.

Nickie D. Phillips & Staci Strobl, Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice, and the American Way: You know most of the stuff about the retrograde treatment of gender, race, and sexual orientation in most mainstream comic books, with outposts of “diversity.” The authors’ almost all-male interviewees were fairly explicit that they needed characters to be male to relate to them; female heroes seemed “unrealistic.” When they discussed Hank Pym’s violence against Janet, they were “most engaged” with Hank and the threats to his masculinity; they were “less focused” on discussing Janet and her victimization.

The authors don’t tie those topics deeply to crime, though clearly there’s a bunch of stuff about threatened white masculinity going on. The authors discuss villains’ “deathworthiness,” which leads to debates in the comics themselves about incapacitation versus retribution; their interviewees say that they enjoy the violence and retribution but clearly distinguish it from real life. In fact, they say that reading about superheroes’ ethical dilemmas helps them test their own morality. Also, their interviewees tend to judge deathworthiness by fit with the hero’s character (Superman doesn’t kill) rather than by the villain’s own acts. Some gleefully identify with the Joker—at least while they’re reading. Comics don’t show rehabilitation or anything beyond a sob story that “explains” either a deliberate choice to lead a life of crime or a disordered inability to control criminal impulses, and of course the comics show incapacitation failing on a regular basis. Visions of utopia require a constant rooting out of the evils of today, leading to an emphasis on crime, danger, and broken government institutions. But the presence of the possibility of redemptive violence seems satisfying to the comic readers they talked to—it doesn't need to end with a bloody death for the Joker as long as the potential is raised in the narrative.

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