The Mash-Up Mentality

Pride and Prejudice and ZombiesWith derivative art invading our cultural spaces like never before, is this the start of a new artistic movement or the death of originality?

In 1951, the science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon said 90 per cent of everything is crap. Since then, the percentage hasn’t changed, but the volume sure has.

Digital culture serves up more derivative, unoriginal, and – let’s face it – bad art than we ever got in the old analog world. But why?

Sixty years have passed, and we’re still primates. That means we are hard-wired for acceptance and belonging to the group. Of course, being original and outstanding is hard to pull off if you’re going to run with the crowd. Call it the Thag Principle. And we don’t really outgrow it once we leave high school, where conformity is a survival issue. It gets subsumed and expressed in other ways, such as “liking” things on Facebook.

In one sense, our need for conformity runs so deep that we are not even aware of it. One of the things I loved about George Carlin was how well he could shake out our delusions of originality. He said, “People who say they don’t care what people think are usually desperate to have people think they don’t care what people think.”

So even if we spend most of our time trading links to the latest Hitler “Downfall” video or chuckling at the latest version of the “Sad Keanu” meme, it is culture. It’s derivative culture, but evidence of a kind of originality. The kind that advertising giant Leo Burnett said “made for good ads: the secret of all effective originality in advertising is not the creation of new and tricky words and pictures, but one of putting familiar words and pictures into new relationships.”

Sense and Sensibility and Sea MonstersThe mash-up mentality has invaded all of our cultural spaces too, even the literary. When I read about Seth Grahame-Smith’s book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I had two reactions. The first was, “Well, that’s derivative.” The second was, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Since then, we’ve had Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and I’m sure we’ll see Canadian knockoffs soon:John A. Macdonald’s Time Machine (filled with lots of Morlock fighting), and Anne of Green Gables Meets the Aliens (hey, why should the horror genre get all the fun?).

So is this the start of a new artistic movement, or the death of originality? Many will argue art has always had imitation, reinvention, and even plagiarism at its heart. Hell, T.S. Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Real originality evokes many emotions when it’s first encountered, and love is rarely one of them. Usually, it’s outrage and anger. New things scare us – the Thag part of us, which likes the predictable and reassuring. How else can you explain the proliferation ofCSI spinoffs on television?

A mash-up culture is the perfect combination of those things – something that has the frisson of newness, but is, at its heart, familiar.

Digital media has opened up the means of production so that anyone can do it. Instead of leaving them in a desk drawer, now all those frustrated novelists can publish their novels themselves. And they do. And yes, a lot of it isn’t very good. But then again, look at the stuff produced by so-called professionals. A lot of that isn’t very good either.

If you accept Sturgeon’s assertion, then 10 per cent of everything is not crap. Does that make it original? Or good?

Not necessarily. The American philosopher Eric Hoffer once wrote, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate one another.” (Back to our primitive brains.) So, much of the culture we create is not original. This essay is a fine example (assuming you’ll allow that it makes the 10-per-cent cut ). I’ve quoted a science-fiction writer, a philosopher, a comedian, and a poet, and referenced numerous cultural products to make my argument.

Our only hope is the raw numbers. There are so many more people creating culture now that even if most of it is garbage, there will still be more worthwhile stuff made than at any time in history.

Of course, we may never know about it, because, hey, Thag likes his LOLCATS.

Hey, Alltop enjoys a good meme! Originally published on The Mark, February, 2011.

Classics of Literature — Ender’s Game

Ender's GameThis is a fun and page-turning read about eugenics, institutionalized child abuse, and genocide.

Humanity is at war with a distance race of aliens (called “Buggers”) and for some reason, the adults are unable to discover the best way to fight this implacable ant-like enemy. (Apparently, Boric Acid doesn’t work.)

What it really requires is the sense of wonder and innocence that only a child can have, and so, the people in charge of Earth’s governments start a breeding program to turn out kids designed to be excellent space warriors.

The children are all tagged so the authorities can monitor all their thoughts and movements, while they are being evaluated for service in the International Fleet. (A device that is similar to an iPhone, but a little smaller, and you can’t download your own apps to it.) After he is un-tagged, a young Ender Wiggin is attacked by bullies, and he kills one of them, so that the bullies will no longer bother him. The IF realizes it has made a horrible mistake. This is just the kind of ruthless logic they need in their war.

The rest of the novel follows Ender’s rise through the ranks at Battle School and Command School, a marginally creepy shower scene, and eventually, the set up for an excellent sequel, The Speaker for the Dead.

It is worth noting that an anagram of Ender Wiggin is “Ending Grew I.”

Alltop is wiggy to the end. Originally published in December, 2010. And no, I haven’t seen the movie yet.

Engineering an obesity epidemic

Salt Sugar Fat, by Michael MossHow would you react if I told you it wasn’t your fault you’re fat?

Not entirely, anyway. Not the way that the medical profession or society at large would have you believe.

At least part of your spare tire — and the cause of the obesity epidemic generally — is because the processed food industry has engineered it for their own needs. That is the central theme of Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. This comprehensive look at the food industry by Michael Moss is a brilliant bit of journalism.

Through the manipulation of the key ingredients of sugar (which our brain reacts to in ways that are similar to cocaine), fat (which we’re hard-wired to crave) and salt, the processed food industry has beefed up their own profits while increasing the gross tonnage of the population at large.

Of course, it’s the profit motive that drives the industry, not some evil desire to turn us all into Fat Albert. Moss’s examination of the industry is at times extremely positive. It’s clear that he admires the creativity, ingenuity and business acumen of many of the central players in this drama that is promising to shorten the life spans of our children. His reportage is scrupulous, fair, and peppered with insight. I’m not surprise he’s already won a Pulitzer. He should get one for this book too.

At times the book seems repetitive, but that is a minor flaw, given how comprehensive and wide-ranging his reportage into this secretive industry is, and how generally readable the narrative is.

The other major theme that I pulled out of the book is that while the food giants have hooked us on sugar, salt and fat, they have also hooked themselves on the profits those key ingredients generate. They are going to fight tooth and Tootsie-roll too keep our foods laden with them, and work against any efforts to make their foods more healthy. And now that the North American markets are saturated (pun intended), they’re looking to other countries. I found one of the anecdotes about an ex-Coke executive walking around a bario in Brazil kind of heart-breaking and enraging at the same time.

“The people here need a lot of things, but a Coke isn’t one of them.”

Yet the company has created smaller serving bottles for poor neighborhoods in countries like Brazil, so that everyone can afford the 20-cents they need to get a taste of “the real thing.”

While the book is informative, it is not a self-help book. There are no prescriptions for how to use this information to save your own waistline, except for the obvious one:

If your food was made by a food processing company, you probably shouldn’t be eating it!

Review: The Silence of Animals

The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

In 1961 Martin Luther King Jr. told an audience on the New York University campus: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

This seems an easier idea to accept than what John Gray is presenting us with in The Silence of Animals. The book wants us to accept that there is no progress, and more than that, the idea of progress itself is mythical. A fiction.

No matter your reaction, you will find this a fascinating read. Gray is conversant with authors I’ve never heard of, and of the writers and thinkers I’ve read and know, he casts into a new light with his lateral, almost poetic thinking.

In the first part of the book Gray examines what he calls “an old chaos” — the human propensity to sink to barbarism. Civilization, to Gray, is a thin veneer, and he makes this case quite devastatingly. He introduced me to some writers and thinkers who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, both world wars, depression, pogroms and purges … many of the darkest moments of the 20th century. (In particular, I was intrigued by his etymology of the Orwellian idea — which is not Orwellian at all — that two plus two could equal five.) Despite these stories of human depravity, I could not square his statement that progress does not exist with the reality we see today. By all measures, the human condition has improved. Some may argue that we have reached its zenith, but that is not what Gray is trying to convince us. He wants us to see that it is a delusion.

In the second part of the book, called “Beyond the Last Thought,” Gray is much more successful. His argument here shifts to the idea of myth. His ruminations on Freud are fascinating, and his discussion of myth and language is worth a read of the book on its own. The following quote is one of my favorites from the book:

Negative theologians use language as Mauthner thought it should be used: to point to something (not a thing in any ordinary sense) that cannot be expressed in words. If only that is real which can be captured in language, God is unreal. But it is not only ‘God’ that is unreal in this way — abstractions that have featured in the catechisms of unbelief. Atheism does not mean rejecting ‘belief in God’. It means giving up belief in language as anything other than a practical convenience. The world is not a creation of language, but something that — like the God of the negative theologians — escapes language. Atheism is only a stage on the way to a more far-reaching skepticism.

And of course, in the final part, “Another Sunlight”, Gray leads us on this pathway, though by the end of the book, I was not still not convinced.

He had, however, led me closer to understanding the Camus quote: “I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.”

The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths by John Gray

Alltop likes to make progress towards laughter.