Monday, February 18, 2013

Uncle Cracker's Ethical Fantasy

by Mike Ferraro

       As is customary in our age of disposable trash culture and celebrity expert opinions, people fell all over themselves to laud Cracker-man David Lowery’s response to some NPR intern regarding the alleged ethics of file-sharing and the cost of “free culture,” whatever the fuck that is. Myself, I couldn’t get through the thing. Lowery commits the only unpardonable sin for a writer: boring the reader. I did, however, skim enough of it to get the gist of his position. After all, as he is quick to point out, he is an Important Artist, a producer of vital cultural artifacts, so his words matter deeply. As a self-proclaimed progenitor of “first-generation Indie Rock,” they must. Or so he desperately wants us to believe.
          How exactly Lowery figures this distinction I leave up to the reader’s imagination. I mean, by the time Cracker rolled-up “indie rock” was in its third or fourth iteration, at least. This would be akin to Mark Hoppus anointing Blink-182 the godfathers of punk. More importantly, the fact remains that when Cracker’s one-hit pop triumph landed, all meaning beyond anything but the vaguely stylistic had been evacuated from the term “Indie Rock.” Whatever vestiges of useful classification or description the designation once held or implied—principally, signaling a state of “independence,” as in an act not signed to a major label—were long gone.
            “It’s so overblown,” Mudhoney’s Mark Arm sang about Seattle on the Singles soundtrack. That was in 1992, at the height of the “grunge” explosion, which would, temporarily at least, catapult underground indie losers into the strata of bona fide music stars, foisting yet another dose of rabid youth culture onto the hapless masses. Yet the seismic cultural shift grunge purportedly heralded was just another shuck and jive, little more than the next spin of the hamster wheel of popular culture. That these fantasies of hipster rebellion promulgated and sold were of the predominantly white, middle-class variety is of course axiomatic. These kids, like their vapid counterculture parents before them, marshaled their disaffection as if it meant something profound, signifying something other than their own vanity and endless privilege. This faux rebellion is their cultural legacy, wasted and misspent for all time—and doomed to untold generations of continued impotence. The Occupiers of today are their direct descendants.
            Goddamn. Had nothing changed since white negro hedonism appeared all those decades ago?    
            Before you sniveling indie purists throw a fit, let me add that I know all about Lowery’s tenure in Camper Van Beethoven. That storied history is precisely the problem. Much as the desire for an impossible synthesis between creative integrity and commerce plagues his overarching argument, a similar ideological clash emerges here in Lowery’s vaunted self-appraisal. Similar because, at bottom, they are one and the same, and stem from an overwrought sense of entitlement and self-aggrandizement. Let’s be clear: Lowery wants it both ways, seeking to preserve his indie-cred while simultaneously maintaining mainstream success and visibility. But these things do not sit well together. In fact, in most respects, especially economically—the central concern of Lowery’s article—they are diametrically opposed. His real grievance then is—what else?—money, specifically his stanched revenue-stream. Lowery sees significant encroachments on his financial gains and “intellectual property,” with greater losses imminent, and he’s pissed. His cultural grandstanding is a put-on and beside the point—a smokescreen for this primary objection. Worse, this playing of both ends reinforces his preposterous self-mythology, namely: David Lowery, indie-folk hero. If you’re buying into this iconographying bullshit you’re an even bigger sucker than I thought.
            Whatever the case, such shameless self-serving dreck is emblematic of Lowery's rhetoric and approach here, the principal effect of which is incessant hectoring. This is how adults behave, he admonishes throughout.
            But forget his pomposity and ridiculously inflated sense of himself, the basics of Lowery’s argument are what matter and they make no sense. His biggest mistake in this regard is that he frames the “problem” of file-sharing as an ethical one. It isn’t. But let’s pretend for a minute that it is. Let’s pretend that if we wise-up and follow his prescriptions we will abolish all forms of file-sharing, thereby righting the grievous “social injustice” at the heart of the artists’ rights matter. Who knows, a more just and democratic world might be just around the corner. We could wake-up one morning and find ourselves free of other social blight as well, world hunger ended, the environment saved. Listening to Lowery, the emancipatory potential unleashed through judiciously exercised individual ethical responsibility is seemingly limitless. As long as that responsibility finds expression and investment in the modes of pre-digital production and exchange, we’re all good.
            What world is he living in? You’re never going to eradicate piracy, neither on nor off the net. How, under our current economic arrangement, could you? The ethical argument Lowery posits runs counter to the very basics of capitalist relations, which, for the brain-dead among us, are so successful precisely because they exploit the very worst in people. Further, Lowery’s position presupposes that the regular functioning of the system, specifically the means of production and operating channels where everyday transactions occur, is principled, fair in both design and practice. They are not, nor were they intended to be. Centuries of abject exploitation instantly confirm this. Just look outside your window if you’re not sure.
            Yet, to bolster these bad assumptions—and his superhuman ego—Lowery provides a staggeringly facile and myopic overview of the last couple hundred years of cultural production. Listen to this shit:
                        The fundamental shift in principals and morality is about who gets
                        to control and exploit the work of an artist. The accepted norm for
                        hundreds of years of western civilization is the artist exclusively has
                        the right to exploit and control his/her work for a period of time...
                        By allowing the artist to treat his/her work as actual property, the
                        artist can decide how to monetize his or her work. This system has
                        worked very well for fans and artists. Now we are being asked to
                        undo this not because we think this is a bad or unfair way to
                        compensate artists but simply because it is technologically possible
                        for corporations or individuals to exploit artists work without their
                        permission on a massive scale and globally. We are being asked to
                        continue to let these companies violate the law without being
                        punished or prosecuted. We are being asked to change our morality
                        and principals to match what I think are immoral and unethical
                        business models.
Is this guy for real? There’s so much wrong here, so much taken for granted, it’s hard to know where to begin. Most egregious, however, is his absolute faith in the system’s operations, manifest in the glib assertion that “the system has worked very well for artists and fans.”
            As apologists for the reigning order must, Lowery’s got the fundamentals between the relationship of morality and commercial exchange ass-backwards. The bankrupt principles that constitute bourgeois-morality are the cause of the current predicament, not the other way around. The “immoral and unethical business models” he condemns are merely an extension of this reality, the latest wrinkle in the ongoing global capitalist nightmare, of which music industry decline is merely one facet.
            Which brings us to the main event: When has the music biz, or any business for that matter, been ethically, rather than profit, driven?
            It’s no shock that the music business is a particularly ruthless industry that eats its young. In fact, like the Hollywood-mindset it is an outgrowth of, its business model is by necessity predicated upon this predatory habit and exchange. But this state of affairs simply mirrors and magnifies the intrinsic macro-dynamics of capital where the illusion of merit-based rewards maintains the everyday reality of exploitation. The major difference now is the extremity of the carnage, exacerbated, in the case of the music industry, by the advent of digital media.
            The omission of all this makes Lowery’s veneration of the pre-digital age all the more perplexing. Yet the truly extraordinary thing about Lowery’s assessment of music industry decline is that such rudimentary connections to global developments, and a critique of political economy in general, are conspicuously absent from his appraisal—a truly astounding fact for an economics lecturer. Instead, he readily assumes the mantle of elder statesman of rock, alternating his barbs between playful crotchetiness and outright hostility disguised as self-deprecation. It’s all an act, a sideshow. No amount of false modesty or sanctimony can conceal his supreme contempt for and condescension towards the odious file-sharers among us.
            While beyond hackneyed, the crotchety old guy routine he adopts is apt, the perfect trope to express the particularity of his position, that of beleaguered small-time capitalist, which, artistic trappings aside, he unequivocally is. In fact, there is no screen there; he is that neighborhood grump keeping eternal vigil against them no good kids, protecting his hard-earned property from the vandals. 
            Unsurprisingly, Lowery’s position of relative privilege and prosperity blinds him to the realities of the situation, particularly the plight of those lacking his good fortune. When he extols the virtues of the “old” system, you wonder what the hell he’s going on about, exactly who are these beneficiaries? He means, of course, those like himself, members of that infinitesimal percentage of artists who make it commercially, the big winners of the music sweepstakes. But here’s the thing: the music industry always relied on a stupid business model, unsustainable and grossly mismanaged by intention and design. It’s only stupider now. The advent of digital media hasn’t changed its essential character, it’s only accelerated its cycles of obsolescence, elevating its superhuman tastelessness to ever more ponderous heights. In fact, with a renewed emphasis on hit singles over albums proper, the industry’s come full-circle in at least one significant way. It’s the same old story in any event. The relentless search for the next big thing to run a profit on, only to discard for the subsequent abomination, animates “industry trends.” So let’s not forget how this model actually functions: Then, as now, a few megastars subsidize the entire industry while everyone, in their infinite fear and folly, scrambles to find the next hot property or bankable clones of the current hash. The focus has always been on the superficial and disposable—the main difference is that the overall quality of these phenomena has dipped to its current abysmal level.
            But that’s the youth culture business. No use lamenting its loss or dissolution since it was dead on arrival. Same holds for the rest of the insipid dream-manufacturing enterprises our mangy popular culture grovels before. All of which exist, first and foremost, to support themselves in their primary pursuit: the endless accumulation of wealth, culture be damned.
            The real ethical dilemma in all this is the same one it’s always been, and concerns the material conditions and attendant ideology of capitalist relations—specifically the generally uncontested hegemony of the ruling order. At bottom, then, the problem of file-sharing and its ethical dimension hinges upon a critique of political economy. It is what this argument, and every one regarding “free culture,” is fundamentally about, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Typically, as it is here, this crucial component is the missing piece to most popular critiques of the subject.
            Like it or not, the stakes are much higher than any one group’s diminishing rights and financial returns. The setbacks for musicians represent the new reality for subjects under digital capital, a reality that will worsen as the global financial crisis intensifies. A return to the halcyon days of music industry returns is surely a fantasy. The crucial thing to remember here is that this shift does not occur in isolation, but rather reflects a global trend regarding the degradation of intellectual workers. Thus, the decline of the music industry is simply one result of the disastrous consequences of digital capitalism.
            This returns us to the “undoing” of the old model that Lowery characterized above. Again, he’s got it all assed-up. Not some aberration that blindsided and upended the smooth and equitable functioning of hundreds of years of cultural production, this critical rupture was instead precisely the recalibration required to sustain the endless circulation and self-reproduction that is capitalism’s goal. The breakdown of the old model of commercial exchange that Lowery laments, is not, as he would have us believe, some secondary, correctable development—the nefarious work of greedy individual corporate-entities—but rather represents the principal and essential shift of the digital capital revolution. In fact, to the extent that it was a revolution at all, this transformation of the distribution and commercial system is the revolutionary aspect of digital capitalism, its worldwide explosion marking the next step in the inexorable march of capitalist accumulation. What Lowery does in this moment amounts to the basest subterfuge since, while acknowledging the global scale of the problem, he conveniently fails to locate its relation to global socioeconomic developments.
            This is of course no accident, but rather a calculated elision, of which the motivating self-interest is already apparent, as is the fallacious logic that his position implicitly demands. Again, such manipulations demonstrate how Lowery’s sense of entitlement matches that of the petite-bourgeois. The “problem” of file-sharing, much like the insufferable middle-class mindset that spawned it, is a luxury we can no longer afford if our objective is to re-imagine social relations in a truly radical way. In fact, the bulwark of middle-class entitlements needs to go if we’re to seriously contemplate new ethical relations of exchange and a social order based on radical emancipatory politics in a real sense that exceeds the lip-service Leftists pay to the idea.
            But Lowery’s not talking about a radical transformation of any kind. Far from it. To make such demands would require us to reorder all our priorities and commitments. And lord knows we don’t want to do that. That would require a tremendous act of will we simply do not possess. I mean, is an economics instructor, a preeminent representative of reified bourgeois society, prepared to do that? Fuck no. As long as Uncle Cracker’s fat royalty checks keep floating in, he’s happy. Screw the suffering of the truly exploited underclass. If only they were more talented, then maybe they, too, could rise above the peril of their predicament.
            Right. Lurid and pandering as they are, the dead rocker anecdotes Lowery provides make the point well enough, underscoring, as if additional reminders were needed, the harsh reality of life in the arts. Most artists do not see much money, nor gain sizable recognition, from their life’s work, and they do it full well, and in spite of this fact—if they are artists. If it’s material riches you seek, don’t bother. There are far easier ways to make a buck, and woe is the individual who embarks on a creative life under any delusions of grandeur, financial or otherwise. In fact, by the fucked-up standards of the popular imagination, these woeful examples, contrary to Lowery’s romanticized depiction, are success stories of a certain type. After all, people know who they are—they are written about and listened to. Further, they received recognition and found audiences for their efforts during their lifetime. That’s artistic achievement of a not inconsequential kind.
            Under our current economic system no one is entitled a livelihood, least of all the artist. It is the relations of capital themselves that need abolishment if things are to improve for everyone, not just our artists. Rather than use these music biz casualties to highlight the universal hideousness of poverty, we get more tear-jerking moralizing regarding the erosion of artists’ rights and the alleged singularity of the individual travesty at hand, with Lowery indulging the exact behaviors—shaming and finger-pointing—he denies are his motivation and intention.
            If he sounds like a relic that’s because he is. Simply put, the struggle for artists’ rights in the digital age is a struggle for mass rights of the permanent excluded underclass, same as it’s always been. And it is with this exploding population that our sympathies must lie. In fact, through the mobilization of this group, and nowhere else, does the latent potential for a more just world reside. If the plight of musicians is not seen for what it is, and does not work to mobilize these forces, it is a dead issue and serves no purpose. Further, if it continues along the lines it has—as a cause of identity politics, fragmenting the solidarity of class-struggle and leaving the essential power-structure of the capitalist edifice intact—it deserves abandonment.
            The point here is that under our current economic arrangement none of this will change. The very notion of ownership and property rights is the problem, the biggest delusion and barrier to personal emancipation. We are slaves to this delusion, and the bondage of its attendant ideology shapes the economy of everyday life. To avoid this fact is to only further avoid the obvious fundamental realities that order our world, and to further entrench the stranglehold of this diabolical and life-denying system.
            It is an ideological war, first and foremost. Always has been, always will be—and you can’t afford to cede an inch. After all, as the ongoing global catastrophe exemplifies, everyday reality is nothing but theory put into practice, and enshrined through the centuries. Everything follows from our thinking. That is, in a very fundamental way, what and how we see shapes the world. Not in theory only but for real. To think otherwise is pure folly. But people don’t want to see the world clearly—they want American Idol and hope to hit the lotto. On the latter score I can’t blame them—fools’ game that it be.
            Eventually we must admit: it is precisely these things, the things we don’t face, that constrict and paralyze us. The thing we lack, the thing that we are most closed off from is our irreducible nature; the pervasive alienation we all feel is a direct result of the means of capitalist production and exchange. The truth and clarity of this realization terrifies us, just as the denial of its power destroys. The objective then, same as ever, is to see clearly what is in front of your nose. In the struggle of excluded subjects, the only question that matters is "what next?" All the rest is child’s play.

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