Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Dave Lull is a conscientious library executive who keeps me up to date on a number of subjects by lobbing me downloads he knows I will welcome.  Then I try to hit the “tennis ball” back to him with a bit of spin on it.  One of his (and my) interests is this roiling, tumbling thing that used to be “publishing.”  It runs into another interest that used to be called “copyright.”  It’s not in any better shape.  What do we do with the commodification of creativity?  Why do we think we ought to convert art to money?  What CAN we do?  Aside from becoming an intellectual property lawyer?  (If you can’t make money at either end, squeeze yourself into the middle role of intermediary.) 
In reflecting on this, I find myself stumbling onto new phrases and definitions.  One of the troublesome words is “consciousness” which is hard to define in terms of individual experience but even harder to define in terms of culture.  I found on an S/M bibliography (I’ll read anything -- even bibs.)  a book called “The Consciousness Industry,” from Seabury Press.  They publish “The Book of Common Prayer.”  You don’t get more respectable!  Yet their featured book at   is “From Sin to Amazing Grace: discovering the Queer Christ.”  Is that a change of consciousness or what?  
So I go looking for this book about “consciousness” (not the one about queer Christ -- I don’t even have much use for a straight Christ) but only see “The Consciousness Industry” on the used book market -- seems pretty heavy-duty.  And, reluctantly, I end up at Wikipedia as a point of entry to this whole discipline, though I worry about its consciousness and conscience.  (They act as authorities but no one identifies who they are or their credentials.  Why is this okay for them but not for self-publishers of books?)  For what it’s worth, here are quotes.
The Consciousness Industry is a term coined by author and theorist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, which identifies the mechanisms through which the human mind is reproduced as a social product. Foremost among these mechanisms are the institutions of mass media and education. According to Enzensberger, the mind industry does not produce anything specific; rather, its main business is to perpetuate the existing order of man's domination over man.  [He’s evidently not a feminist.  Emphasis added is mine.]
Enzensberger, who is living, was expelled from the Hitler Youth because "I have always been incapable of being a good comrade. I can't stay in line. It's not in my character. It may be a defect, but I can't help it."  Sounds French or American to me!  He’s a poet.
Hans Haacke elaborates on the consciousness industry as it applies to the arts in a wider system of production, distribution, and consumption.  Haacke specifically implicates museums as manufacturers of aesthetic perception that fail to acknowledge their intellectual, political, and moral authority: "rather than sponsoring intelligent, critical awareness, museums thus tend to foster appeasement."
Haacke is ten years younger, in New York City, and an artist who belonged to the Zero group, one of those recurring German romantic nature-oriented groups, in short, Euro-transcendentalists.  Haacke's interest in real-time systems propelled him into his criticism of social and political systems.  In most of his work after the late 1960s, Haacke focused on the art world and the system of exchange between museums and corporations and corporate leaders; he often underlines its effects in site-specific ways.  (My emphasis.)  Hmm.  I’m thinking about the day 7-11 decided to leave its “Marlboro Man” image and sold off its entire collection of photos of cowboys.  Something similar happened to the fortunes of many Cowboy Artists of America painters.  The consciousness of the public that once cherished that grizzled loner and his horse now worries about cancer of the throat.  Movies with smoking get an R rating.

These obscure (to me) German thinkers provide at last a context big enough to ask meaningful questions about publishing, copyright, galleries and museums, churches, schools, media -- to get at the assumptions we make about what is valuable, what is dangerous, what we should support and what we should destroy.  Usually the questions are far too small:  what should we do about scanning books?  What should we do about punishment in schools?   Is cowboy art really worth money?  Etc.  Usually we never quite escape the medium under discussion or the specific context of some public or commercial institution. 
What are the broadest definitions and principles we can invent or discover that will protect what we cherish and create what we value?  How can creative individuals who are outliers, possibly deviant, defiant or destructive, be protected -- or ought some to be disciplined or even snuffed as in Nazi Germany or China?  If troublesome individuals are preserved, how do we “use” them?  What are the uses of inequity and what inequities are there?
The fascinating thing about all this is that it deals with the commodification of intangibles -- thoughts.  The publishing industry, made possible by the printing press and commodified by venture capital invested in the costs of printing, works by convincing consumers that not just this book but “books per se” are objects of value and status.  Not very hard when the early versions were so precious that only the wealthy had them.  
It’s only natural for publishers to try to hang onto their investments through copyrights, which they pretend are held only by the writers.  But now, in terms of ebooks, corporations control not the printing press but the reading device.  The writer is even more left out.  No local manufacturer can make a Kindle.    One really owns and controls a bound book.  One never really owns or controls the ebook -- a device produces an illusion that only works with electricity and access to a larger device (huge industrial hard drives) existing and controlled somewhere else.  Like nations.  Of course, the other side is that some Third World person with a smart phone and a way to recharge batteries can link in to the whole planet at low cost -- at least what the international corporations (some of which are nations) will allow to transmit.  More powerfully, email links individuals by affinity.
What publishers (and writers) have a harder time controlling is the very consciousness that makes people read books or watch movies or sit in church or attend symphonies.  The youngsters are all wandering off, their earbuds tucked in, playing downloaded music.  Experts obsess over this.  How do we get people to want what WE want them to want.?  This is a more primary question than how we control access.  You can’t commodify just any old thing -- it’s linked to desire, even indirectly through status or money or power.  Curiosity is a desire, but a lot of young people seem incurious.  On the other hand, I think of oppressive countries where in darkened back rooms little groups cluster to watch satellite feeds.
The politicians who run our country either get this or not.  If they can plug into desire (fear is the backdoor to desire), they’ll be in office a long time.  Their problem is that pretty soon the only thing THEY desire is staying in office, and they’ve totally lost track of voting citizens, or have become absorbed in devious ways of converting public desires like safety and prosperity into some sort of fancy program or theory that serves their own ends.  Where to locate military bases.  Ag price supports.  Not taxing the wealthy.
All the time this goes on, the consciousness of everyone on the planet is changing because of science: access to reality that has nothing to do with what we desire.  The sense of the cosmos stretching out so inconceivably; the ferment of disease; the shifts of weather that dissolve coral atolls and impose long droughts or deluges; the realization of human contamination of basics like water -- all this awareness (often a synonym for consciousness) is pressing us to think harder.  And that means that we need more idea exchanges, which used to be the work of books and institutions, but aren’t anymore.  Can we afford to commodify the salvation of the world?  Shouldn’t we at last challenge the religions of the books and churches?  
How did I get so radical?  Another post, I guess. 

No comments: