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Thursday, May 11, 2006
Virtua EMP Paper, Part 1

(Disclaimer: this is a quick pass at what would have been my EMP paper, had my proposal been accepted. As such, it does not incorporate all the various readings and research I would have done had I had an actual conference presentation to get me to do it, to say nothing of the $50 I still owe the library that would've allowed me to get books out again. So anyway, there are some parts that I am going to go ahead with even though I don't know if they're true or even necessarily what I'm talking about, and I will indicate such parts with the following symbol: ~. This is meant to represent the twirly motion you do with your forefinger by your temple to indicate that something or someone is crazy, because I believe in academia this is referred to as "hand-waving" or, once a few drinks have been consumed, "talking out your ass." But this could be listed as a skill on my resume, so whoopdeedoodle.

On the bright side, I can now focus less on the one section I was going to limit myself to for EMP and present the theory as a sort of broad-based whole. I'm sure you are wetting yourself with anticipation, so, without further adoo...)

"Why Would You Like Them?" : Performative Speech in an Economy of Shame

At this particular moment in history, arguing about music is as American as apple pie, or at least as American as "Cherry Pie," and as much a part of growing up as pimples and hormonally induced manic depression (but not hormonally induced "Manic Depression," which only afflicts a certain segment of the male population generally known as "shredders"). We discover music, we find artists we like, and then we argue about their worth and the worth of other artists, both with those we agree with (the "Metallica vs. Megadeath" argument) and those we disagree with (the "punk sucks vs. no it doesn't" argument), repetitiously and vociferously. We continue to do this even beyond the heady years of adolescence, not only as listeners with emerging sensibilities (i.e. college students) and full-fledged music geeks, but as casual listeners; even people with a minimal music collection are likely to have an opinion on the suckiness of Coldplay or the awesomeness of Johnny Cash. At first glance, the reason for this might seem to be obvious: we do it to define our identities. But this merely explains the possession of taste, not the arguments about it. After all, we don't feel the need to argue about our clothing with other people (though of course we will pass judgment on others' decisions, because this is fun) or to loudly declare how a particular model of car is not really a true hatchback. (Unless we are nerds, but this caveat applies to everything.) So what is the point of all that arguing?

Fig 1: The "Shredder," here pictured in semi-repose.

Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron have this widely-known theory~ of cultural capital, you see, the idea of which is basically that some kids do better than others in school because of the particular familial, i.e. cultural, background they come from: because of your parents' place in the culture, they have instilled in you certain values that confer advantages other people don't have.

This is nice, and apparently very useful, but I think it's unfairly claiming a really useful term. And they're doing it inaccurately, too--one of the main characteristics of capital is that it's fluid, but "cultural capital" as conceived by Bourdieu and Passeron can neither be traded with another person for goods or services, or accrued in greater amount by a given individual through participation in a given economy. I think it's much more interesting to conceive of cultural capitalism as the arty cousin of Richard Neustadt's (god rest his soul) theory of political capital ~, a term that was, unfortunately, introduced into the popular vernacular by our current President.[1] Like that slogan for that game ~, it's a concept easy to understand but difficult to master. In brief, political capital seeks to explain why a particular actor in a particular position can sometimes get what they want and sometimes cannot. It encompasses variables like favors owed to and from, public image, the party's strength, the actor's strength within the party, a general sense of inevitability, etc. and etc. and etc. It's very interesting but we're just going to get bogged down.

What, then, do I mean by "cultural capital"? An easy but misleading shorthand would be "cred," but given that disowning "cred" is a great way to accrue cultural capital in this day and age, it's probably the wrong tree in terms of barkability. Basically, it's a representation of the fact that some people's opinions have more force than others', and an attempt to track why, exactly, that is the case. Cultural capital is primarily gained and lost through speech acts, which makes these speech acts, in the context of cultural capital, performative speech, like the courtroom pronouncements of judges, another useful holdover from politics. You can't assign a numerical value to it, but hell, since when was economics about actual numerical values?

Where things start to get interesting is when you notice that an actor's cultural capital is actually tied to the cultural capital of particular art objects. After all, people might disagree about the worth of, well, pretty much every piece of art ever created (except for Prince's "Kiss"), but that doesn’t mean we can't assign a particular value to it. Thus, people accrue cultural capital based on what art objects they back, the absolute value of that art object, the change in value of the art object over time, the time period in which they choose to back the art object, and how they actually go about backing said art object. But the value of different art objects is different in different cultural markets: the Beach Boys, for instance, will have a widely different value depending on the group of people making the valuation, as would Tupac Shakur, although the accrual of individual opinion, depending on the cultural capital of the individuals, can drastically change the valuation of a given artwork in a given market.

But given all these givens, let's talk a bit more abstractly, and focus on the two basic marketplaces of cultural capital: economies of shame (hereinafter referred to as EOS) and economies of pleasure (hereinafter EOS).

[1] He said this after winning the election of 2004, but what he really meant was "I have a mandate," which is one of the ways you can have political capital but by no means the primary one, and even then it still wasn't true. It would have been far more accurate to say that he had a near-monopoly on political capital after 9/11 but blew through that in two years and was now back in a competitive market, with his stock being particularly volatile, with allegations of accounting irregularities surrounding it. But now we're just getting baroque. be continued in part 2.

But first, some illustrative graphs.

This graph illustrates a typical value cycle in a "mixed economy," i.e. one neither shame nor pleasure based and of whatever genreic affinity. The cycle in question is one familiar to most of us: the process wherein a song, having languished in obscurity, is discovered by a small set of tastemakers and then enthusiastically embraced by the market at large, followed by a falling-off in value as the market begins to regard the work as "played out" or "dated," and ending up in the settled value position of a classic, although I am being a bit generous here, and it can easily fall off even farther. (See: Langley Schools Project.)

1-2: Obscurity.
3-4: Discovered by a small, generally "elite" segment of the market, and passed around for consideration; value within this mini-market has already hit a high and will enter its falling-off period about twice as fast as it does within the larger market.
5: The work's "IPO" if you will into the market, with near-universal awareness acheived through the means of its prominent use as a sample, its placement on a well-known MP3 blog, its reissue on a prestigious label, etc.
6-8: Value falls off, initially merely as a function of wider penetration (the plateau), but then steadily downward as early adopters see later adopters taking up the work and viewing it through the prism of their own familiarity.
9-10: Value falls / levels off to its "normal" level given near-perfect knowledge.

Which leads right into the next cycle:

The previous cycle is an exceptional one, but so familiar to us as a perceptible process that I thought it might be a useful initial example. In slight contrast, this one can be encountered at any point in a work's life cycle, assuming a certain constant level of regard.

1-2: General respect, but no particular attention paid; somewhat forgotten and thus useful to bring up if it has not been brought up in a while; a pleasant surprise.
3-4: Sudden spike in value as it becomes a common reference point for artists who themselves are ascendent or already at a high level of value, or as it is used in a well-respected movie in current release, or as it is otherwise embraced actively by the market for whatever reason.
5-6: Steep dropoff as it is now a "dated" reference, fixed in time by its value-spike rather than its actual date of release.
7-8: Languishing, which allows it to retain its previous value as a constant of constant quality.
9-10: Back to normal.