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I was reading boingboing today and followed a link to an article by Elizabeth Minkel in the NewStatesman that compares the media response to different sorts of fandom. Minkel notes that the emotional reaction from young girls to Zayn Malik leaving One Direction was roundly mocked, but that a similarly emotional reaction from middle-aged men to Jeremy Clarkson leaving Top Gear was mostly met with sympathy. She argues that this disparity in treatment of the two sets of fans is directly tied to gender, a conclusion that I think is accurate (although I would add that it is probably also related to age). To this extent, I agree with Minkel. The way the media responded to these two situations reveals, once again, that our culture still has a profound gender-bias.

I disagree, however, with the underlying implication that we should treat Zayn Milik’s fans with the same sympathy as Jeremy Clarkson’s. Quite the opposite. We should treat them both with the same apprehension and alarm. We need to realize, not with mockery but with concern, that it is in fact ridiculous for young girls to invest themselves so deeply in the members of a boy band, and that it is just as ridiculous for middle-aged men to invest themselves so deeply in the host of a car show. The strange bit isn’t that we mock Zayn Malik’s fans. The strange bit is that we don’t mock Jeremy Clarkson’s fans just as much, or even more, considering that they might be expected to have matured a little by their age. The problem isn’t that we criticize the fans of boy bands. The problem is that we don’t equally criticize fans of other actors, musicians, athletes, and every other kind of celebrity that gets trotted out across our media consciousness.

The fact that grown men pay huge amounts of money to gather in the thousands at sporting events, drink too much, paint their naked bellies, scream at the top of their lungs, and sometimes do violence to each other is without doubt bizarre in the extreme. The fact that young girls exhibit similar behaviours at pop concerts is equally bizarre. The obvious gender-bias in their media portrayal should not obscure the fact that both are deeply problematic symptoms of a culture that has been distracted from anything resembling a significant issue by the worship of celebrities.

Now, I have no interest in cars. I don’t even own one. I’ve never seen an episode of Top Gear, and I wouldn’t recognize Jeremy Clarkson if he was right next to me having a fit about his lunch. But I do like to play sports, even watch them occasionally. I also like music of many different kinds (even if One Direction isn’t one of those kinds). Despite my interest in these things, however, I can’t imagine being invested enough in their celebrity culture to be considered a fan. I might have an opinion as to the skill of these celebrities (I might think that Daniel Day Lewis is an excellent actor, for example, and that Tosin Abasi is an excellent guitarist, and that Tim Duncan is an excellent basketball player), but I have nothing invested in them. Their retirements, even their deaths, would have almost no effect on my life.

And they shouldn’t. My time and my energy and my money and my passion need to be invested in the real people around me, in the real lives that they live, in the real issues that they face. Think of what we could accomplish with even a fraction of the resources that we dedicate to our celebrity culture. Think of the changes that could be made to real lives if we weren’t so distracted by our ridiculous fandoms.

Religion is no longer the opiate of the masses. Sports and entertainment now play that role, and whether it’s young girls crying about One Direction or middle-aged men crying about Top Gear, we have to stop pretending that any of these obsessions are worthy of sympathy.

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I’m not much for live radio, so I never heard any of David Cayley’s radio documentaries when they aired on CBC Radio’s Ideas, but the podcasts of those shows played a significant role in my post-university intellectual life. They introduced me to the work of Ivan Illich and Rene Girard, and they deepened my appreciation for a number of other thinkers, like Simone Weil, Charles Tayler, and Richard Kearney.

Cayley was also gracious enough to meet with me in person a few years ago, and though our conversation was unexpectedly shortened, I have always looked back with appreciation on his willingness to sit and talk with an absolute stranger about Ivan Illich and homeschooling. Our very brief interaction left me with the impression of a man characterized by what I call intellectual hospitality, by an openness to ideas as a place for people to share themselves, and there are few greater compliments that I can offer.

So I’m truly pleased to see that Cayley has launched a new website to host some of his radio shows that are no longer available elsewhere. The shows are free and include the the ones on Ivan Illich and Simone Weil that I enjoyed so much. There are also links to additional shows hosted by other sites, a blog of long-form essays, and information about Cayley’s books.  There is a lifetime of shared ideas here, and you could hardly spend your free time better this holiday than by sharing in those ideas yourself.

I have been reading Jean Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil, not for any very good reason, just because my particular university education made me an addict to a certain kind of theoretical style, and I needed a fix.

At the end of the first essay, “After the Orgy”, Baudrillard says, “One day the image of a person watching a television screen voided by a technicians’ strike will be seen as the perfect epitome of the anthropological reality of the twentieth century,” and this reminded me of a curious incident in my own experience.

Once, during my MA, I walked into the University of Guelph’s McLaughlin Library, intending to study at my carrel on one of the upper floors (fourth or fifth, I can’t remember anymore). On my way I had to pass the computer pool on the main floor, a bank of computers set row by row, and I was met by the sight of seventy or eighty students all staring blankly, fixedly, at their screens, not typing, not working, just staring. It only took a glance to realize that there had been some sort of power outage or something, and that all of the computers were rebooting at once, but the effect was so eerie, so disconcerting that I decided to skip studying altogether and go find a beer instead.

My discomfort was with how the void on the screen seemed to have revealed a similar void in the people looking at them, as if they were only capable of activity when they were reflecting the activity of their monitors. Baudrillard describes this through the metaphor of an electrical circuit, where communication requires messages to circulate without interruption, and where silence breaks the circuit, revealing that it is only an “uninterrupted fiction designed to free us not only from the void of the television screen but equally from the void of our own mental screen.” In other words, our minds are now as void as our monitors when the electrical circuit of constant communication is broken, so that we now require this communication in order to maintain the illusion that we have any content at all, in order to keep us from staring blankly at our screens as they stare blankly in return.

I have been reflecting on the multiple levels of meaning that lie in the word ‘device’ and that are unconsciously invoked every time we speak of our devices, of our phones and tablets and computers, though we usually intend only the dominant meaning of a contrivance or an invention, especially a machine.

The first of these unconscious meanings, or the first constellation of meanings to be more accurate, has to with device as technique, where a device is a plan or a scheme or a means to an end, most often with the implication that the end is not entirely savory. This sense of the word also relates to a more archaic sense where a device is the power, state, or act of devising. In both senses, a device is the means or the power, usually sinister, to bring about a particular end.

The second of constellation of meanings circulate around ideas of signification, where a device is a decorative design (especially in embroidery or manuscript illumination),  a graphic symbol or motto (especially in heraldry), or a literary contrivance (such as parallelism or personification), used to achieve a particular effect.  In each of these senses, a device occupies a symbolic or imagistic role, functioning variously to illustrate, to represent identity, or to deepen and clarify the words of a text.

All this symbolic subtext relates in interesting ways to the devices on which we increasingly rely.  While we keep telling each other that our devices are merely technological, merely inventions and machines, they are also quite obviously the technique or the means through which we arrive at our ends, and if these end are not necessarily malign, our use of the word ‘device’ perhaps implies a certain amount of concern about the kinds of ends that are being achieved through our technologies.  This ambiguously malign character that is invoked when we refer to our devices is all the more interesting as our gadgets come to represent us more and more, come to be the dominant symbols and images through which we produce our identities.  It is as though our very language is suspicious of how our technologies are recreating us, how they are recreating our ways of being and understanding, how they are leaving us to our own devices.

The often made assertion that most people read and write less now with the advent of smartphones and tablets and other such teletechnologies is patently absurd.  It is only necessary to watch people interact with their devices a short time to see that they actually do little else but read and write for considerable portions of their day, churning out more words with their thumbs than writers of the past were able to accomplish with pens or typewriters or computers.  It is not the case that people read and write less.  Rather, it is the case that what they read and write, to a degree that no one could have expected, is the minutia of each other’s lives, the commonplaces of their immediate social relationships.  The culture of the device has made this fact seem obvious and natural, and yet, no previous generation could have imagined that reading and writing would come to serve this purpose, that the personal and the commonplace use of the written word would come to eclipse any artistic, political, economic, or practical use of the written word, at least in sheer volume, that the verbal chatter of our kitchen tables and office water coolers and gym locker rooms would become the dominant literary mode of our time, not in a form that tries to raise it to any artistic or practical significance, but in a form that revels precisely in its commonness, in its insignificance, in its detachment from any greater social or political meaning, because to our great relief, we have at last discovered a literature that will not disturb, by any means, the isolation of our own lives.

I am by no means an expert on the history of mnemonics, but it has always interested me to see how growth in literacy has tended to cause a corresponding decline in the practise of memory, as people become more and more content to have the written word remember for them, to replace their memories with archives. There is something to be said for this arrangement, of course, since writing allows us to recall and transmit far more knowledge with far more efficiency than even the most highly trained memory ever could, but writing also permits us the luxury of a peculiar forgetfulness, where we need not know what we can find in the archive, and we need not find it if we would rather remain forgetful, for reasons of politics or expediency or even sheer laziness.

The rise of the technologies that are commonly called the internet are pushing this relationship between archive and forgetfulness to even further extremes, because we know submit everything to the archive — our photographs are on Pinterist or Flickr; our videos are on YouTube or Vimeo; our lives are journaled on Facebook or in our blogs; our correspondence is stored in our email accounts; even our water-cooler gossip is preserved on Twitter. This capacity for archiving ourselves, however, has been accompanied by an equal capacity to be forgetful of ourselves. We have recorded our lives, but we have not remembered them, have not understood them, have not told their stories, and so we no longer know ourselves, or if we do, we know ourselves very differently, as media creations that we no longer recognize as ourselves.

This is not what the internet must mean, of course, because the internet can be made to mean other things, but for many people this is what the internet has in fact come to mean: both total archive and total forgetfulness.

As some of you already know,  I am working with a few people on a co-operative publishing venture that I am not yet quite prepared to announce officially, and so I am having to learn a few things as I go, which is always an amazing and terrifying experience, especially since I am trying to do things as open source as I can.  Here are a few of the things I have learned:

1.  In Canada, ISBN numbers are granted free of charge through Library and Archives Canada, with the requirement that the publisher send a copy of each publication to be catalogued in the national archive.

2. You can create ISBN barcodes very easily using an online barcode generator, like the one provided through www.terryburton.co.uk/.

3. The Gimp is an effective image editor for creating book covers and dust jackets, though the learning curve, especially for someone like me who has never really used this kind of software before, can be pretty steep.  I must confess that it took me several days of playing with the thing to get a real sense of composing an image in layers, and I get the feeling that I am only just scratching the surface of what the program can do, though I am very pleased with what I have managed to create so far.

4.  Inkscape is my latest self-education project.  The program is used to produce vector images, which can scale to any size and retain their image quality.  I am using it to design some logos and whatnot, but I have only just begun, so I am currently hacking my way through a test project and getting to know the user manual.

5.  I have already mentioned sharelatex.com, but I have also been using scribtex.com as I continue my education in writing LaTeX.  Along the way, I have also found stackexchange.com to be an invaluable resource when the answers I am looking for are somewhat less than intuitive.

6. I have learned that though there are print on demand publishers in every design and flavour, very few of them allow authors merely to submit print-ready files without purchasing a publishing package.  There is lulu.com, of course, and it is an acceptable option as far as it goes.  There is also Amazon’s createspace.com, which offers similar services, with greater default distribution but less choice in terms of book sizes and bindings.  The best option seems to be lightningsource.com, though they really only deal with publishers, so you will have to create yourself as a publisher in order to deal with them, and you will need to set up credit with them in some way as well, even if only through a credit card.

In short, I have learned that some parts of learning to self-publish high quality books are far easier than I had imagined, some are far harder than they should be, and most of them require a certain amount of trial and error, though I think I may now finally be exhausting the trails and errors and getting to the point where I can produce books with some proficiency.  Of course, I might still be wrong.  I have been before.