Monday, October 3, 2016

The Linchpin of the Modern Economy

Advertising began as an industry something akin to land speculation. 

The first agencies would purchase blocks of space in newspapers and periodicals, and then generate profit by selling them piecemeal to businesses wishing publicize their wares. 

Originally, companies would provide their own advertising message – just as people who purchased land in the old days would contract to build their own houses. 

This is why neighbourhoods originating before the middle of the twentieth century, have residences that usually look much different from one another. 

But just as latter-day land speculators build houses before they sell off real-estate in parts, ad agencies began to employ in-house writers, and then illustrators also, to provide content for clients in the periodical-space sold off individually.

Given how advertising removed the “place” from “market”, it is appropriate that the industry got its start practicing in microcosm the age-old practice of land speculation. 

From such relatively humble origins, advertising long ago grew into the linchpin of the modern information/marketing economy. 

Advertising is quite rightly identified with corporate capitalism: revenues for this sector are estimated to grow to 660 billion dollars (U.S.) in 2016, most of which is spent by private business.  But governments also spend heavily on advertising. 

The U.S. government is ranked fortieth as the biggest advertising organization, but in the U.K., the central government is consistently in the top-five of advertising entities. 

Public-service announcements are not the only type of advertising related directly to the political system. As a rule, such advertising is supposed to be non-partisan, but governments implicitly or sometimes explicitly use them to promote their own very partisan agendas. 

There are also the fortunes spent on campaign advertising throughout the world’s democracies – more than four billion dollars in the current U.S. presidential campaign alone – which are counted as private-sector advertising, resulting from the transaction of political parties and ad agencies. 

These are avowedly and doggedly partisan in nature, of course, and campaign advertising is of greater consequence to politics in a way out of proportion to the actual funds spent on them. 

Often, campaign-advertising through mass-media is traced back to the 1960 presidential election which brought John F. Kennedy to the White House, or in the vote which brought Ronald Reagan to the presidency twenty years later. 

However, high-level politicians’ involvement with advertising agencies goes back decades before that, to ad pioneer Albert Lasker’s involvement in the U.S. presidential campaign of Warren G. Harding, which Harding won in a landslide, later appointing Lasker to be chairman of the U.S. Shipping Board. 

It exaggerates only a little to say that politicians treat their pollsters’ words as though of a divine. Policies are now calibrated mainly for the purpose of winning office next time around (again, with the help of the marketing industry). 

In order to gauge public opinion on behalf of political clientele, the marketer must be treated as trusted aide, as important or more so to an elected leader as a cabinet minister or legal adviser. We see once again that advertising and marketing executives, at the very least, have insider knowledge of another crucial domain of modern life — the political process. 

For many “Madmen” the opportunity to have the ear of powerful statesmen and to influence public policy has been more important than making money. 

In some cases at least, the two went together: Dalton Camp (1920-2002) was best-known as a newspaper columnist but, earlier in his career, was an advertising campaign advisor who helped Richard Hatfield become the longest-serving premier of New Brunswick during the 1970s and ‘80s. 

Camp did his campaign work pro bono, but in return, his advertising firm had a monopoly contract on all government advertising done by the province. 

Advertising is the application of fine art to the business of persuasion. This is by no means a novel thing. On the contrary, in past times, art was usually employed for this purpose. 

It is the modern practice of selling "handmade" visual products to an abstract marketplace which is a novelty. 

But as works designed and drawn for advertising purposes are not “done for their own sake”, they are considered mere “illustrations”, not real art. 

Nevertheless, many “real” artists have made a living through advertising work. There is a definite case to be made that, in terms of simple dexterity in technique, commercial artists and graphic designers, whose work is bought and sold in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, are more talented than most “conceptual” artists, whose work may sell in the tens of millions. 

Qualms expressed either for the payment of vast fortunes for what are, on the one hand, inanimate objects; and on the other, the wounding of the integrity of an artist who goes to work for amoral corporations, are secondary to the reality of advertising as a creative enterprise. 

Creativity became an essential part of the process, as it became evident that the mass audience responded all the more to pictorial and emotive content, rather than didactic and cajoling text (as was common before the “creatives” entered the picture). 

This occurred when magazines were still the dominant mass medium. So it is that a novel type of speculative enterprise, evolved into the organizational crossroads for each sector of the engineered economy.

Former Madman.


The modern ad agency fulfills its original function as a broker of space for all the mass media: originally printed periodicals, then radio and television, and latterly, the Internet.

It thus has intimate knowledge of all the media processes, not even possessed by professionals and personnel in each sector, in regard to the others. 

The agency acts on behalf of clientele — namely all the biggest private industries, representing the widest possible range of products. These agencies are thus exposed to the mechanics of many businesses, which in ease case remain mostly obscure and half-understood by outsiders. 

In addition to the privileged knowledge held by admen and woman, of the media business in particular, and industry and commerce generally, there is the industry’s involvement in politics. 

Marketing and advertising, long central to the conduct of political campaigning, more recently became essential to governance itself. The lucrative patronage received by ad agencies in exchange for their getting politicians in office, may even be less important to marketing professionals, beside the clout they acquire through their knowledge of public opinion. 

And, as advertisers provide the content for media campaigns political and commercial, they bring together these central facts of modernity with the creative class as well. It isn’t only graphic artists and illustrators whom ad agencies employ for persuasive purposes. According to author Mark Tungate, “advertising is a springboard for creative talent. The list of writers and film directors who have worked in advertising is long and illustrious: Salman Rushdie, Fay Weldon, Len Deighton, Peter Carey, Sir Alan Parker, Sir Ridley Scott, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry... I could go on... and on. The French creative director Olivier Altmann, of the agency Publicis Conseil, once told me, 'Working in advertising is one of the few ways you can be creative and make money at the same time.” (Adland: A Global History of Advertising, Kogan Page, p. 4).

A more direct link between “commercial” and “high” art, was seen in the activities of Charles Saatchi, the Iraqi-born British co-founder (with his brother Maurice) of the firm that bears their name (although they were both forced out in the 1990s). 

Saatchi & Saatchi was one of the first ad agencies with a global reach. Not coincidentally, it was also heavily involved in politics. It came up with the slogan used by the British Conservative party in the 1979 vote, “Labour Isn’t Working”, which helped bring Margaret Thatcher to power. 

Standing at the intersection of commerce and politics.

Even before the agency’s founding in 1970, Charles Saatchi was an avid art collector. By the 1980s, he was supporting the work of the “Young British Artists”, such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. 

Their conceptual work included a shark submerged in a glass tank filled with formaldehyde (overseen by Hirst), or a very untidy, unmade bed (of Emin’s). 

These and other words sold for millions or even tens of millions of pounds. Saatchi’s initial support for, and purchase of, these conceptual artists could be looked upon as a cagey investment, if nothing else. Often investing just a few thousand pounds to acquire the works directly from the artists, Saatchi often sold them at auction for many multiples of the original purchase price.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Reflections on the Works of the Late Alvin Toffler

Alvin Toffler, who died recently aged 87, was the first author whose ideas I took seriously. The Third Wave and Future Shock introduced me to themes and subjects that I still think about today. 

Toffler translated.

I long ago forgot most of what he had to say, but I think Toffler’s biggest insufficiency as a thinker was his tidy division of history into specific periods: in his case, the “first wave” agricultural economy, the second an industrial economy, with the third wave being the information economy. 

This is, in fact, quite common in social-science, and inevitable in the study of history. Thus, in the Occidental tradition, the past is divided up into Classical, Medieval and Modern eras, though no one during medieval times considered themselves as being in the “middle” of anything. 

In a more religious era, history was divided up starkly between the birth of Christ and after. Toffler himself had been a Marxist, and Karl Marx also followed a tripartite method by dividing history into Feudal, Bourgeois and Capitalist eras. 

These categories are all artificial, of course, but they are a way of grappling with social phenomena by grouping them according to presumed temporal and spatial characteristics. Thereby, new information can be construed in terms of the mental groupings, thus saving the energy of having to consider and examine each thing discretely in turn. 

Past Alvin Toffler.

It isn’t as though sociological and historical categorization always departs from the facts on the ground: the Latin world of the fifth century was plainly different from the “dark ages” that followed, just as the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries were different from the nineteenth. But perhaps it was reconsideration of Toffler’s central argument that the “third wave” information-economy is really so dramatically different from the second-wave industrial economy, which lead me to be wary of this kind of categorization entirely. 

Instead, I’ve developed an idea in which particular artificial forms are brought into existence, and which in turn contain all potency which are variously acted upon their users. 

In a book called simply Cities, author John Reader summarizes the first civilized society, in Mesopotamia, and the cuneiform tablets found in the thousands by archaeologists (and deciphered thanks to the Rosetta Stone) which more often than not document the quotidian acts and thoughts of Sumeria.  Reader writes that they offer many “glimpses into the lives of ordinary people thousands of years ago, and accumatively they evoke a sense of how little the fundamentals of life have changed. Our lives and theirs could have been interchangeable. Only time separates us; we could have functioned there, and they could have functioned here. That this might seem at all surprising is a consequence of the way history is told. Accounts of ancient cities and societies have for generations tended to concentrate on the higher rungs of society, implicitly stressing the presence and overwhelming importance of kings and conquerors. To a degree, this is inevitable, since temples, palaces and treasure-trove burials have always been the prime target of anyone digging up ancient remains. ... Nowadays far greater attention is paid to evidence from lower down the social ladder.” (Reader, Cities, William Heinemann, 2004, p. 33).

Rosetta Stone.

My theory has long been that modernity pushed each of the variables of characteristic of "civilization", but to an extreme. Yet all of these variables were present in ancient Mesopotamia, just as they were in classical Greece, ancient Rome, imperial China, pre-Columbian America, and anywhere else that could subsidize city life. 

Later, Reader describes how ancient Attica’s control of the trade in grain supported financially the fluorescence of Athens during the fifth and fourth centuries BC: “As their populations grew, the city-states were obliged to look further and further afield for their grain supply. Those with limited wealth, or situated inland, had precious little chance to alleviate their plight and succumbed to more powerful states, while those on the coast, with access to timber and shipbuilding expertise, looked across the sea for alternative supplies, and the interacting agencies of need, ingenuity and initiative soon created a network of trade routes across the Aegean and beyond. This was a critical point in the development of the city as a functioning entity. It was beginning to reach out on a grander scale than ever before — though certainly not as a source of benevolent influence, simply to secure whatever it needed to survive. During the fifth century BC, Athens was bringing grain form the shores of the Black Sea, tapping into the western end of Russia’s great wheat lands. By the fourth century, the city controlled the grain trade of the entire eastern Mediterranean.” (Reader, pp. 54-55).

Later in Rome, in 123 BC, “laws were introduced establishing the basic right of every Roman citizen to a monthly ration of grain at a fixes that undercut prevailing market prices. The intention here was to even out the price fluctuations resulting from variations in supply, but the taxes imposed to pay the subsidies needed to gain the suppliers’ support for the scheme made it a hot political issue for the next sixty years. A law extending the number of grain distribution recipients was passed in 62 BC, and when Clodius became tribune four years later he abolished payment for the grain ration altogether. From then on, supplying a monthly ration of grain — free — to every eligible citizen became the responsibility of Rome’s governing authority. ... Moreover, Clodius’ law appears to have extended beyond the mere distribution of grain to cover all matters concerning both public and private supplies, the grain fields, the contractors and the grain stores.” (Reader, p. 57).

Reading these passages reminded me of a book I read years ago called The History of Money, by Jack Weatherford. Given that civilization preceded the invention of money (by thousands of years for the original city-based cultures), Weatherford coined the term “tributary” economy to describe the trade before coinage. 

Civilizations in the New World didn’t have money at all before the arrival Europeans, and Weatherford describes how the Aztec empire of Mexico “operated primarily on the basis of tribute, the markets functioned as subsidiary parts of the political structure, and many different standardized commodities served as forms of near-money. ... The vast bulk of goods that passed through the Aztec Empire moved primarily as tribute from the peripheral parts of the empire to its capital. In this regard, the Aztec Empire was like virtually all other empires in the era before the spread of money. Ancient Egypt, Peru, Persia, and China all functioned as tributary systems rather than market systems.” (Weatherford, The History of Money: From Sandstone to Cyberspace, Three Rivers Press, 1997, p. 19).

The Latins ascended to civilization following the invention of money, initially using the Greek currency but ultimately adopting their own standardized coinage. 

Although the Roman state (as republic and then empire) presided over a highly sophisticated market economy, its free distribution of grain harkened back more so to the tributary systems of the pre-money era. 

Amongst the Aztecs, Egyptians, Persians and so on, the expropriation of staple farm goods was not only to enrich the upper-class, though it certainly did that. Part of what was taken was redistributed in turn, to maintain the loyalty of the urban masses, as was the case in Rome. 

It demonstrates that apparently contrasting social behaviour can coexist simultaneously within the same culture. It could be tributary relations in a monetary economy; another example is hunting, which persisted in every society until very recently, millennia after farming had purportedly made it “obsolete.” 

Similarly, Roman history also shows how ancient is the rationalization of production, supposedly a hallmark of Toffler’s “second wave.” 

The historian Howard Saalman noted that “Industrialization, it should be said, is not synonymous with mechanization. It does imply an organized process of production and distribution of goods and services — and a genius for order and organization was the very basis of the Roman state. Everything from fun to funerals found its place in the legally and traditionally ordered scheme of things and — up to a point — everything worked well. If mechanization remained relatively limited it was because cheap and slave labor provided the required substitute, as in the American south of the early nineteenth century. No project the Romans undertook failed because of inadequate technology.” (Saalman, Medieval Cities, Braziller, 1968, p.12).

According to Toffler’s schemata, ancient Rome was a “first wave” society, in no essential way different from the very first farming cultures — which is a patent absurdity. 

As Saalman writes, “The Romans enjoyed their country villas and romanticized the rural idyll of Homeric times. But the land between their cities was rationalized by division into one-hundred-foot square units and farmed with an efficiency that can only be labeled `industrial agriculture.’ With the masses of population concentrated in large cities throughout the empire, less effective means of food production, of overseas and overland transportation, of agricultural products, or of less highly developed port facilities and storage terminals were practically unthinkable. With the satisfaction of basic needs and growing prosperity came a growing demand for manufactured products of all kinds. Roman craftsmen were prepared to make, and Roman merchants were ready to distribute, an impressive variety of products which gave life in urban apartments and rural homes a standard which compares favorably with later centuries. Architecture and engineering — utilizing stone, brick, and concrete masonry as well as metal, wood and glass — achieved a level of accomplishment by which all conceivable needs from those of frontier camps to those of town palaces could be and were met.” (Saalman, p. 12-13).

A "first wave" settlement: depiction of ancient Roman city that became Koln or Cologne, Germany.

All of this was even more the case with China, which remained without a substantial urban population until relatively late in history. It developed into a organized, legitimatized state relatively quickly, however, and after some centuries became the most technologically advanced of human societies. Chinese ingenuity during the Song dynasty from the eighth century, far surpassed that of western Eurasia at the time. 

In China sophisticated engineering and advanced technology was employed to ensure the cultivation and distribution of the staple rice crop. One of the definitive features of “first wave” cultures, Toffler argued, was “decentralization”: population and authority remained scattered, uncoordinated, semi-legitimate. 

With the “second wave”, this gave way to the centralization of people in cities, and of power in formal, legitimate government. In imperial China, the vast majority of the population remained in villages, but their actions were coordinated by a despotic monarchy and centralized bureaucracy. It was a system established two centuries before Christ and which persisted (with periodic breakdowns and strife) until AD 1911. 

There is simply no way to categorize China in terms of “first wave” or “second wave”, although perhaps Toffler argued these categories only applied to the Occident. It still makes no sense, because the Roman empire doesn’t fit into them either. Its population was, too, largely on the countryside, but nevertheless depended on the centralized authority of the SPQR. 

When Rome fell, the civilization itself largely faded away for a true “first wave” decentralization of population and delegitimization of authority. In the Third Wave and Future Shock also, Toffler describes how the new society’s conceptions of space and time will supersede the “linear”, “Newtonian” viewpoint characteristic of second-wave industrial societies. 

Toffler seems to have chosen the term “wave” (to describe what later be better-known as a “paradigm”) so to convey the chaotic non-linearity of sociocultural change as wrought by technology, it being no more resistible than any other force of nature. But it turns out that Toffler’s own terminology was in itself highly “linear” in so far as he proposed that the socio-technological “waves” arrive sequentially, and don’t seem to mix together, as was plainly the case with Rome and China.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Triumph of Theatre

This past spring, after attending at the National Arts Centre a touring-company revival of The Sound of Music, I was reminded about thoughts I’ve had in the last few years as to how paradoxically in the age of the Internet, the live performance was being revived as a key part of the entertainment business. 

It is a consequence, of course, of the ability of Internet users to pass back and forth digital copies of recorded performance, illegally, of course, but nevertheless it is a fact of life.  According to figures compiled at this site, sales of recordings (compact disc, cassette, vinyl record) have declined from a peak of nearly 20 billion U.S. dollars in 2000, to around six billion inflation-adjusted dollars in 2013.

Thus, in order to be assured of a living, musicians must play live, the only type of performance experience that cannot be adequately pirated or bootlegged.  

The movie-industry has also been affected by digital bootlegging, though not as dramatically as has recorded music.  

Nevertheless, much of the revenue derived from movies comes from other than actual cinematic audiences: while sales of digital-video discs have declined dramatically from their peak in 2004, the slack has been taken up by video-on-demand and related services which bring the movie-going experience direct to the home.  

Recently, too, it was reported that Star Wars / Star Trek director J.J. Abrams, along with other filmmaking luminaries, were boosting a service that would bring newly-released movies directly to the home.

But, while the movie-theatre business itself remains moribund, there has been a very big revival in live theatre presentation, as well.

Often, "new" musical theatre productions are simply reboots of unsuccessful or long-forgotten motion-pictures.

Last autumn, for example, the Arts Centre hosting the touring production of Newsies. Opening on Broadway in 2011, the story is based on an actual New York city newsboy-strike at the very end of the nineteenth century, and is evidently successful enough to be taken on tour across the continent. 

Newsies was, however, originally a movie released by the Disney company in the early 1990s — which was (according to Wikipedia) a complete flop. 

I’ve never seen this movie, nor yet the stage production itself, but is a reversal from the original practice, wherein Broadway musicals would be made into movies; but often the movies adapted to the stage, were often not musicals themselves. 

Newsies originally was a musical, both others re-adaptation were not: such as The Producers, which was a bit of a sensation in the early twenty-first century (and based on a 1967 film starring Gene Wilder), or Hairspray, which premiered in 2002 and was based on a 1988 movie by John Waters (the musical adaptation of which was, in turn, remade into a film a few years later, starring John Travolta as an obese woman). 

Apparently, many stories are more popularly accessible when accompanied by song and dance, and when performed onstage. 

My thoughts in this direction may have been inspired by the book I read recently, No Applause, Just Throw Money, a history of vaudeville by Travis Stewart under the “Trav S.D.” pseudonym.
Stewart traces vaudeville’s origins to the rough and raunchy stage entertainments of nineteenth-century America. But by the late 1800s, savvy impresarios responded to then-fashionable pleas for moral hygiene. Figuring out that a good, clean stage-show, appropriate even for women and children, was far more lucrative than appealing to smutty instincts of the crowd, theatre-men applied systematic industrial methods to the live entertainment. 

As Stewart writes, “The revolution of the `double audience’ (appealing to women and children now as well as men) added enormously to the profitability of variety production. It had been achieved chiefly though a public relations coup (courtesy of Barnum and his vaudeville acolytes) the likes of which may never be seen again. But several other innovations not only added to, but multiplied the growth of the vaudeville industry, making its existence a foregone conclusion. Variety, after all, had been small potatoes. Its producers were small businessmen whose dreams didn’t extend any farther than their own saloon doors. Vaudeville, on the other hand, was big business. Following Adam Smith’s principles of division of labor and mass production, its producers would come to control the entertainment of the nation.” 

The difference between the old theatre-owners and the showmen of vaudeville, Stewart writes, “is essentially the same as the one between the proprietor of your local greasy spoon and Ray Kroc,” the later being responsible for franchising the original McDonald’s restaurant into a global operation. (Stewart, No Applause, p. 84)

I’ve long viewed the McDonald’s restaurant as the epitome of the division of labour, which even before engineered machinery, is the decisive factor of modern work. The technical resources of the McDonald brothers in 1950s California were no different than what was available to countless other roadside proprietors had at there and across North America. What made their restaurant so special was how they divided up the work needed to make burgers and fries in the most efficient way possible. 

Similarly, the original manufactories were not necessarily steam-driven: they instead employed unskilled workers, each doing a fraction of the total work, to achieve exorbitant productivity. As Stewart observes, “The nineteenth century saw the birth of mass production and distribution of nearly everything: furniture, clothing, tools, appliances. It was inevitable that the techniques and the philosophy of industrialism would come to the theater.” (Stewart, p. 85) 

Vaudeville performances were thus staged from eight o’clock in the morning until late in the evening, or even the early hours. Audiences could pay to enter and leave any time, and were treated to about ten separate acts, repeated over again until closing, according to “Trav.” 

There was a rough pattern the performances: novices and less-polished openers would warm up the crowd for the headliners that took up the middle of the cycle. Then, less-talented acts further down the playbill, would follow on until the final “chaser”, a performer so bad that he or she would literally chase the audience from the seats. The goal was, of course, to create room for more paying customers. Often, notes Stewart, one of the segments of the vaudeville show would be a short silent-film. 

The talking-pictures, though, were (along with the Depression) a cause of vaudeville’s demise. In the 1930s, film-production boomed even as live-theatre, and most other American industries, went into prolonged slump. 

However, as the movies could now feature singing as well as dancing, the musical talent of vaudeville and Broadway largely decamped to Hollywood, creating the great age of the movie-musical from the ‘30s to the 1950s

While vaudeville largely faded out, Broadway continued to originate musical-theatre during this period, with many of productions successfully adapted to the wide-screen. But as the west-coast became the talent-centre for the musical, the stage was set in New York for a fluorescence of theatrical drama, such as not been seen (in the English-speaking world, at least) since Elizabethan times. 

During this period, plays written by Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman met with great commercial and literary success, in spite of their often bleak and tragic content. 

They dealt in subject-matter considered too controversial and subversive to be a part of “golden-age” Hollywood cinema. Orson Welles gained footing in show business through the theatre, though he is best-remembered for his contributions to the art of the film. 

Significantly, however, very few of the classics of the “great age of American drama” — such as Our Town by Wilder, O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman by Miller, or The Children’s Hour by Hellman — were ever definitively adapted to film. 

Cast of recent staging of Death of a Salesman, with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman second from right (and Spiderman to his left).

Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire is perhaps the exception; but it is remembered chiefly, it seems, for Marlon Brando’s undershirted repetition of the character’s name, “Stella”, than for anything else. 

Apparently, the twentieth-century American dramatists were communicating something onstage that couldn’t be reproduced effectively on film. There was, on the other hand, little financial risk for theatre-owners to stage these high-brow plays, because of the relatively low cost of production (certainly compared to the expense of making a motion picture). 

Edward Albee, a playwright whose career began at the tail-end of this dramaturgical flowering, was in fact the grandson of a vaudeville impresario

Reaching his greatest success in the early ‘60s with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (which was successfully adapted into an Oscar-nominated film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton), Albee introduced strong language and nudity to the stage, though in relatively chaste form, compared to what came later. 

Perhaps the new era of the Broadway musical began with the premiere of Hair, in 1968. Featuring a group of hippies trying to evade U.S. military conscription, the play also had full-frontal nudity at its climax, a first for Broadway, if not for the American stage as a whole. 

Just a year later appeared Oh! Calcutta, a revue of sexuality-theme sketches that featured nudity throughout the show. 

In real way, both Hair and Calcutta were reviving the smutty character of the pre-vaudeville stage when, as Stewart describes it, boozing and whoring went hand in hand with theatre-going: when taverns and bawdy houses were not located right inside the venue, they sat right next-door. Calcutta’s incorporation of exhibitionism in the old-style revue, made it seem instantly avant-garde. 

Broadway's Theatre Row, 1970s version.

But soon the New York theatre district’s traditional home, around the intersection of Forty-Second street and Broadway, became far more ribald and dangerous than the worst of the nineteenth century saloons. 

Theatres that had staged dramas and musicals were often turned into pornographic cinemas, and the area around Times Square for a time recorded the highest number of offences for its land area, than any other place in the world. Broadway the street was saved by the aggressive policing of scofflaws (which in turn led to a reduction in more serious crimes), and the revocation of slot-palace business-licences. 

Major retailers were encouraged to invest in the area, significantly including the Disney company (hence the implicitly derisive term “Disneyfication” to describe the contemporary Times Square district). 

Below the famous “sign” at the Square (now a series of giant flat-screen monitors), have been installed bleachers so that visitors can sit and view midtown Manhattan as a show in itself (and they in turn are on stage for those walking through the area). 

Perhaps because of its experience in staging technically sophisticated, interactive entertainment at amusement parks in California and Florida, Disney has also become involved in a big way in live-theatre production. 

Not all recent Broadway-musical successes have been based on old movies.  In particular, Hamilton, which debuted in 2015 and features a fictionalized account of the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and his ultimately fateful rivalry with the Vice-President, Aaron Burr.  Set to a largely hip-hop score, with Hispanic and African-American actors playing Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and so on, it has been a smash with audiences, especially young people, and is strikingly original in concept and execution.  

Cast of Hamilton.

The irony of all this is, of course, that while the cinema at one time supplanted live-theatre as the main source of public entertainment, now live-entertainment has become the growth industry even as the movie-exhibitor business shrinks in size. 

Aside from being transformed into all-around leisure spots (with the addition of fast-food outlets, video-arcade games, rooms for children’s parties), the switch-over to digital projection has allowed cineplexes to transmit live entertainment as well — sometimes sports events, but also awards shows, and even opera and other kinds of highbrow spectacle. 

Contemporary musical theatre’s revival, often adapting failed or forgotten movies into box-office successes, is part of the trend in which the live performance has become the more lucrative part of the entertainment business, as the Internet and digital technology reduces the value of recorded entertainment to near zero. 

The successful live-staging of stories that were failures or forgotten in other media, demonstrates that the form of experience really does matter, over and above its narrative content. And also that live performance which cannot be reproduced effectively in other, recorded media, is all the more precious to audiences.

Monday, June 27, 2016

When Books Do the Talking

In the recent entry on the probable ordinariness of Shakespeare as a person, I remarked as to how journalism is the oral literature of the modern age. As conveyed in the synonym “reporter”, journalists speak directly to those involved in newsworthy events, quoting these accounts directly in order to write a story (another telling word). Journalism is the translation of the oral into the written. 

But for the last few decades, storytelling conceived and originally carried out in written (or typewritten) form, has been translated into a type of oral literature, as well: the audio-book

I have, myself, listened to just a single audio-book through my entire adult life: a version of the Magnificent Ambersons, the 1918 novel by Booth Tarkington that was adapted to the screen by Orson Welles in 1942. 

I obtained the recording on loan from the public library only because it didn’t have a paper copy. Listening to Ambersons, I did reflect on audio-books as a reintroduction of performance into literature. 

This is what defines “oral literature” apart from the textual kind, and was the norm at least until the advent of the book in medieval times. 

Depiction of Native American storyteller.

When I was young, there were audio “books” — mostly abridged versions on long-playing record of children’s literature such as Jacob Two-two Meets the Hooded Fang, by Mordechai Richler. These were used mostly in schools, as I recall hearing that title in class. They were usually accompanied by an illustrated text, for the students or teacher to follow along. A little chime on the record would indicate that it was time to turn a page, as though no one could figure this out for themselves. 

Audio-literature did not become commonplace until the 1980s, with the success of the Sony Walkman personal cassette player.  As Wikipedia states:

Though spoken recordings were popular in 33⅓ vinyl record format for schools and libraries into the early 1970s, the beginning of the modern retail market for audiobooks can be traced to the wide adoption of cassette tapes during the 1970s. ... a number of technological innovations allowed the cassette tape wider usage in libraries and also spawned the creation of new commercial audiobook market. These innovations included the introduction of small and cheap portable players such as the Walkman, and the widespread use of cassette decks in cars, particularly imported Japanese models which flooded the market during the multiple energy crises of the decade.

Mostly, people listened to music on Walkmans and the numerous cheap knock-offs that followed them on to the market. But the audio-cassette was also a practical medium for the reproduction of books in audio form. Each one could hold at least an hour-and-a-half of recorded sound. 

A regular novel could be contained on five or six cassettes, whereas the same running-time would occupy an impossibly cumbersome and expensive twenty-five or thirty long-playing discs.  (Checking on audio-book titles at random at the library, I found that they average something over five-hundred minutes – almost or as much as ten hours.)   

Courtesy the Walkman, and the standard-feature automobile cassette player, the spoken word became both portable and private. 

Sound-through-earphone thus continued the individuation of conscious awareness as characteristic of modern times. But vocal narration of prose must inevitably be a performance, so as to keep the listener’s attention. 

It thereby attends immediately to the emotional and holistic mind, in a way that reading prose cannot. Long before contemporary digital-reader pads, which render text without the eyestrain characteristic of previous devices of the kind, the audio-book had already transformed literature into “media” — communication of sound and images through electrical current. 

Publishers have long created audio versions of their major releases, on audio-cassette originally, and later on digital and download formats. The Walkman, however, is a perfect embodiment of the “post-modern”. It (and its successors, such as the iPod) have served to intensify the withdrawal of self from surroundings. 

The very means for the marooning awareness in this fashion, is sound that is heard fully only by the user of the device (and it is mere annoyance if played too loudly for others to hear). It affects the more primitive forms of consciousness that are neglected, suppressed and underplayed by modern society. 

Early talking book.

Traditional media for the individuation of consciousness, such as written and printed text, affected primarily the rational aspects of the mind. Electric media previous to the Walkman, could very well be consumed individually. This is especially the case with television, but it and the other broadcast medium, radio, have also been frequently consumed socially. 

 The Walkman required individual use. It is thus enhanced individuality but in a different modality than what is witnessed when writing or reading a book, or attending to some other complex task. The electronic world represents less so the “tribalization” of consciousness, as Marshall McLuhan described it, than a still-individuated consciousness that, unlike during high-modernity, encompasses the emotional and aesthetic aspects of life, as a matter of course.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Long History of (Management) Gurus

I used to deride the whole idea of the “consultant”, essentially someone who gets paid a lot to advise others how to act. 

But reflecting more carefully on their role in modern business, aren’t consultants in fact the modern equivalents of wise men and women of yore — veterans with deep experience who, by choice or not, do not actually practice what they preach?  

Consultant: medieval version.
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Not all consultants are superannuated in this fashion. But even consultancies run by those long before retirement, always tout their x years or decades of combined experience, which usually add up to the length of the career of a single retired person. 

Thus a random sampling from the Internet of quotes from various consulting firms: 

The most successful consultants do receive hefty remuneration to convey knowledge about a particular field, which comes mostly through experience, as opposed to mere academic training. 

No wonder that consultants’ preferred media of communication are the business meeting and the oral presentation. 

Their most valuable advice relates not the technicalities of the field, but to behavioural subtleties the mastery of which can lead to greater professional success. 

Certainly, consultants do publish their thoughts in books. Management consultants especially did (at least in the recent past) enjoy best-selling readership. 

But whatever the differences in the various books on management, they are characteristic for their “conversational” style, heavy with epigrams and aphorisms: for example (and tellingly) “management is about people.” 

Revealingly also, management consultants were during the height of their popularity often called “gurus”, as are the most otherworldly of the wizened teachers of wisdom. 

Certain consultants become gurus, because their ideas seem more oracular, than logical. It is their submergence in the oral culture of speech and beseech, which makes them seem like religious mystics.  

The engagement of elders for their wisdom endured long after the accession from tribal-kinship society. 

The oligarchies that controlled ancient city states especially, were in essence councils of elders, men who’d distinguished themselves in the service of the polis.  

The Senate of Rome was just such an entity, constituted originally as an advisory body only, whilst lawmaking was theoretically in the hands of the Assembly of the People. 

Eventually, though, the Assembly of Seniors took precedence over that of the People, which in turn became an irrelevance and formality to the power structure. With the rise of the emperors, the Roman Senate itself became irrelevant. 

Not coincidentally, empire’s the younger man’s project: Julius Caesar was scarcely in his forties when he began his campaign of conquest in Gaul and elsewhere, before assassinated by the elders of the legislature, fretful about his life-dictatorship. 

Casear was da bomb.

Earlier, Alexander the Great conquered most of equatorial Eurasia years before his early death at age thirty-two. Modern empires, too, were overwhelmingly the work of younger men wishing to escape the suffocation of gerontocracy.  

Apart from class struggle, there is an inter-generational contest in every major society between youthful thirst for adventure and novelty, and elders who seek stability and tradition. In modern times, revolutionary movements, like imperial conquest, have been the work of younger men.  

The Protestant Reformation, for example, was begun in 1517 when Martin Luther, then aged 35, nailed his “ninety-five thesis” to the door of the cathedral of Worms. 

Luther’s successors in the revolt against the Catholic hierarchy, were also young men: Jean Cauvin (known in the English-speaking world as John Calvin) was just twenty-one when he began to attack the church hierarchy in Geneva. 

Another Swiss Protestant, famous in his homeland but largely unknown outside, was Huldrych Zwingli, who was just over thirty when he began his theological revolt. 

John Knox, the architect of Scots Protestantism, was about Luther’s age when he became involved in Reformation. Yet even here, the old-fashioned dynamic came into play. For when the Kirk was formally Established, it was governed by Elders — the Presbyters

Similarly, the state Protestant churches established throughout the Occident, had senior clergymen taking control of matters once again. 

Thus, whatever his firebrand ways as a man in his thirties, the elder Martin Luther allied with the German dukes and princes who wished to reign in the instability of ecstatic religiosity, propagandizing against the even more radical young churchmen who succeeded him, as they were suppressed by the nobility. 

The Prussian church to which Luther gave his name, was appropriately sober and senior in constitution. The Reform clergy seemed to understand early on that the capriciousness and instability of youth, was contrary to the becalmed liturgy and lifestyle they wished to impose on society. 
Observe, young friends.

The first of today’s liberal democracies were mostly founded by Protestants, whose version of responsible government was strongly presbyterian in character. 

Thus the upper chamber of modern bicameral legislatures — the one closest to the executive — is always the Senate, or an equivalent name given to an assembly of the old and wise. 

Traditionally, too, these were appointive bodies, as was the U.S. Senate until 1912, while members of the Canadian and British upper Parliaments are appointed even today. The rationale for reviving this ancient institution in modern constitutions, was precisely to give form to the oligarchical basis of democracy. 

The Canadian Senate has been called the “house of sober second thought”, with the sobriety of the cognition therein presumed to come from seniority and a lack of responsibility to an electorate. 

If the Senate here or in any other country, gives short shrift to this function in actuality, there was nevertheless the intention (and the hope of some even now) that it would do so. What does it say, however, about the dynamism of present-day businesses, when they seem to pay so much to consult with elders?