Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Probably Not In The Cartesian Sense

I can't believe I was actually about to write a new post entitled 'Things I Have Two Of'.

I might leave that one for another time.

Of Lavender And Blogging

I've been summoned back to the UK just as I was getting used to my exile in foreign parts.

I finally realised I'd gone a bit native yesterday evening, as I was wandering through the sun-dappled vines among terraced vineyards cascading down ancient hills, an armful of lavender in one hand and three ripe purple figs in the other. If only I'd been taller and prettier, and wearing a flowery dress instead of black vest, jeans and battered iPod, I could have been mistaken for an 'ambient media' advert for L'Occitane.

Although if I had been, L'Occitane would have been wasting their money, because for an entire hour and half I didn't see another person.

Anyhow, back I come on Monday, so that I can meet up with the tutor, who wants to discuss some 'minor' issues (his inverted commas) with my dissertation. I'm a bit worried about those inverted commas; they look like sarcasm. But he did alert me to this week's New Statesman cover story, which is all about how big business is paying bloggers to say nice things about their products. It's well worth a read, although I do notice an almost complete lack of concrete information about how many bloggers are doing this kind of thing, and how much they're actually getting paid (rather than how much they hope they're going to get paid).

Sooo....has anyone tried If so, does it actually pay up? How much is my reference to L'Occitane above worth? How much more would it be worth if I gave them a link? But what if I said that every time I go into their shop in Béziers (ker-ching), I see lots of things that seem very nice (ker-ching), but on further investigation, they also seem very overpriced (oh) and not quite as special as they make them out to be (ah)?

And how can L'Occitane be sure that my blog will always be a good standard-bearer for its brand? If they pay me to say nice things about them, will I still be able to write about going to court for not paying my council tax, being tear-gassed in Park Lane, or - erm - experimenting with hallucinogenic substances? Or will I be condemned to talk for all eternity about wandering through the sun-dappled vineyards with armfuls of lavender and a basket of freshly-fallen almonds? I think cello probably has the answers. Cello?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Avatar Of The Week!

We interrupt this edition of The Late Raymond Williams Show to bring you exciting news from the world of, errr, I dunno, the carnivalesque production of the self in disembodied space or something, otherwise known as my new Avatar Of The Week award!

This week's award goes to user and Swamptrash fan hdickins, who may or may not look a bit like this:

Who knew the chance articulation of fruit and lego could be so entertaining?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Part 1.1 - The Lost Organic Community

Well everyone, I have in front of me a glass of one of the classier local red wines and a slice of warm fig 'n' blackberry tart wot I made earlier, with some crème fraîche, and here for your delectation is Part 1.1 of the dissertation, which is all about the idea of the supposedly lost organic community and its authentic folk culture. There was an intro bit before this bit, but I've left it out because it was quite similar to the abstract.

I've generally tried to avoid academic jargon as far as possible, and I've bunged in links to the people referenced, for your info:
1.1 The Lost Organic Community

The idea that industrialisation, mechanised production and mass culture obliterated an older, organic community and its grass-roots folk culture is prevalent among the earliest British cultural theorists, including F. R. Leavis and Richard Hoggart. Leavis, in Culture and Environment (1933), locates the lost community in the seventeenth century, explicitly stating that "there was, in the seventeenth century, a real culture of the people…a rich traditional culture…a positive culture which has disappeared." In Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture (1930), he describes some of the attributes of this supposed community thus:

"What we have lost is the organic community with the living culture it embodied. Folk songs, folk dances, Cotswold cottages and handicraft products are signs and expressions of something more: an art of life, a way of living, ordered and patterned, involving social arts, codes of intercourse and a responsive adjustment, growing out of immemorial experience, to the natural environment and the rhythm of the year."

Hoggart, in The Uses of Literacy, also bemoans the loss of a more organic way of life, in which people create, share and participate in their own culture. He locates the lost community in the north of England of his own childhood in the 1930s – the very period in which Leavis was writing of a lost community in the seventeenth century.

Hoggart identifies the same type of "responsive adjustment…to the…rhythm of the year" in this community as Leavis did with his:

"…throughout the year, Pancake Tuesday, Voting Day, which is always a holiday, Hotcross buns on Good Friday, the Autumn "Feast", Mischief Night, and all the weeks of cadging and collecting for Bonfire Night."

He contrasts the grass-roots culture of the 1930s working class community with the youth culture he perceives in the 1950s, in which the "contemporary forces" of mass-produced culture and mind-numbing factory work have turned working-class youths into "the directionless and tamed helots of a machine-minding class." Hoggart sees these new, passive, depoliticised, working-class consumers as an omen of an even poorer and less fulfilling world to come:

"The hedonistic but passive barbarian who rides in a fifty-horse-power bus for threepence, or to see a five-million-dollar film for one-and-eightpence, is not simply a social oddity; he is a portent."

The view that industrialisation and mechanisation had turned ordinary people into passive consumers, unable to think and act for themselves, and therefore ripe for exploitation by dominant economic and political forces, found its ultimate expression in the work of the Frankfurt School critics of the 1920s – 1960s. Theodor Adorno explicitly contrasts the activities of the profit-driven culture industry, which "intentionally integrates its consumers from above" and in which "contemporary technical capabilities" and "economic and administrative concentration" are used to exert "total social control" over its target audience of consumers, with what he sees as its polar opposite; "a culture that arises spontaneously from the masses themselves, the contemporary form of popular art." The latter, for Adorno, was characterised by an inherent "rebellious resistance", which has been extinguished by the numbing effects of the culture industry.

For the purposes of this dissertation, the primary link that I would like to make between the aforementioned texts is the role ascribed to technology in the destruction of the supposed lost, spontaneous, organic folk culture. Technological advancement, harnessed by capitalism, is seen by Leavis, Hoggart, Adorno and many others as an irreversible process that progressively disenfranchises and alienates the people and leads to the increasing standardisation and impoverishment of available cultural texts.

This view was taken up in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s by a new generation of critics concerned with the rise of television as the dominant global cultural medium.


PS I cannot believe people actually want to read this. And I have a feeling I'm supposed to sign something to say the dissertation hasn't been published anywhere. And also if they run their plagiarism software on it, they might find it here, and try and accuse the real me of plagiarising the mythical Patroclus, or vice versa. But hey, life on the edge...I might put up an instalment a week...woohoo, ready-made content!

Sunday, August 20, 2006


We interrupt this edition of Newsnight Review* to bring you important news from the Languedocien countryside.

Bong! The figs have ripened!

Bong! I had fresh figs for breakfast with honey!

Bong! The equivalent quantity of figs would have cost me £8.50 from the fruit & veg stall on Chiswick High Road!

Bong! Please write in with your best fig recipes so that I may make the most of nature's bounty!

And now back to Mark Lawson and that dreadful Kermode character.

* Bags be Germaine Greer.

TOTALLY UNRELATED UPDATE: James has a salutary warning about an outfit called BlogBurst. If these people try to flatter you into joining their 'network', do not be fooled. They are going to make you work for free, while they and the Big Meeja rake in the cash. Don't give them the time of day.

AND FINALLY... This is my 400th post! Wheeee! I'm going to celebrate with a nice cup of mint and liquorice tea.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Well, You Did Ask

Here's the abstract for the infamous dissertation. If you like this bit, I'll maybe do a Dickens/Home & Away-style serialisation, with appropriate seasonal cliffhangers:

Blogging: A New Folk Culture?

This dissertation posits the idea that the practice of weblogging has given rise to an online worldwide community of millions of cultural producer-consumers, who are collaborating creatively in the ‘blogosphere’ to create and share cultural products in a non-commercial environment.

It will examine this phenomenon in the context of four interrelated aspects of cultural theory: the idea of the lost organic community with its authentic folk culture; the role played by technology in the ebb and flow of cultural power; Adorno and Horkheimer’s concept of the profit-driven culture industry, and Fiske and De Certeau’s notion of the absence of a dedicated ‘place’ where people are free to create their own culture.

I hope to demonstrate that the blogosphere, as it exists today, embodies some of the aspects of the organic community and its authentic, non-commercial folk culture that many cultural commentators presume was wiped out by industrialisation. I also hope to show that mass access to and use of the internet as a technological tool for cultural production and distribution is tipping the balance of cultural power away from the institutions that make up the media and entertainment industry and towards this millions-strong organic community of bloggers.

However, I also plan to show that this techno-utopian state of affairs may only be temporary; as the powerful media and entertainment corporations that operate what Adorno called the ‘culture industry’ move to appropriate the blogosphere and its underlying technologies for their own profit-driven ends. In doing so, they appear to be on the verge of co-opting the community of bloggers into acting as largely unpaid workers, using them as an audience that can be sold to advertisers, and as poorly-remunerated carriers of advertising. I will examine how these shifting power relations threaten to compromise the idea of the blogosphere as a communal, creative ‘place’.

The dissertation combines established cultural theory with emerging research into the size and nature of the blogosphere, together with a number of first-hand case study examples of ‘grass-roots’ cultural production in this new, but already threatened, ‘organic folk community’.


Friday, August 18, 2006

Not Our Natural Habitat, You See

The thing with writers is that we're terribly articulate and that with the typey-typey keyboard, but stick us on the phone and we miraculously transform into monosyllabic imbeciles.

Today I was meant to have a briefing call with my client's in-house writer about an article they want me to write. The call went something like this:

[Phone rings]

Me: Hello, Patroclus speaking.

Other Writer: Oh. Ah. Hello. How are you?

Me: Fine, thank you. How are you?

Other Writer: Very well, thanks. Bit cloudy here.

Me: Oh. It's sunny here.

[Long pause]

Me: So, er, you wanted to brief me about something?

Other Writer: Oh. Ah. Yes. about I just send you some stuff? I could send you an article I wrote, and you could write something like it. Only there are lots of different versions of it. Um. Because I cut it into different lengths for different places. It's all the same though.

Me: Alright, well just send me the longest one.

Other Writer (brightening up): Oh yes, great. If I send you the longest one, that's got the bit about Jiminy Cricket in it. [Sighs] He was the first to go when it got cut.

[Long pause]

Other Writer: Are you still there?

Me: Oh, yes, sorry. I was just thinking.

Other Writer: Right. So I'll email you that article then.

Me: Great! Bye then!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Your Questions Answered

Tim asked: "But going back to first principles, why do you want your armpits to smell of vanilla?"

Cut to:


PATROCLUS is dithering in the cosmetics aisle.

Voice of Inner Petulance: I want the exact same deodorant as I have in London!

Voice of Inner Reason: They don't have it. And anyway, that makes you no better than the hordes of Daily Mail-reading Brits who move down here, refuse to speak any French, get Sky installed illegally*, only socialise with other Brits, and have cornflakes and marmite flown in from Stansted every day.

Voice of Inner Petulance: Right! Well, I'll have this one, look, it's vanilla flavour - you'd never get that in Britain. Plus it's called 'Ushuaia'. I think I've been there.

Voice of Inner Reason: No you haven't. You don't even know where it is.

Voice of Inner Misplaced Pub Quiz Confidence: I think it's in Hawaii.

Voice of Inner Reason: Then you haven't been there.

Voice of Inner Melodrama: You're in exile in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country, incarcerated in a ramshackle, falling-down old house, and you're worried about what your armpits smell like?

Voice of Inner Python: I bet Ovid never had this trouble.

Arabella asked: "Did you eat the pie yet?"

I had some of it with some mascarpone (which may or may not be the same as BiB's Russian curds). It was very tasty. Hurrah!

* Ahem.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

L'Aisselle Du Temps Perdu

I've got some new French deodorant that advertises itself as vanilla flavour, but which smells inescapably of Play-Doh.

The net effect of this is that I keep having Proustian transportations back to the cottage where we lived when I was very young, and in particular to a blue snail* I fashioned from Play-Doh at the age of about five.

That masterpiece aside (and I think I probably had considerable adult assistance), I wasn't a very artistic child. I remember once at primary school attempting to make a blue pig* from papier-mâché applied liberally to a blown-up balloon (which excitingly had to be burst from the outside once the confection was complete), and getting very confused about where its eyes should be in relation to its snout. While my classmates managed to take home something appreciably porcine in appearance, I took home a misshapen blue ball with no discernible facial features whatsoever.

Umm, I'm not actually sure why I'm writing about this. Bloody Proustian deodorant.

In other news, I have taken the unusual (for me) step of making a pie from the rubbish pears and blackberries I found along the old railway track. I considered chucking in some rosemary and unripe figs as well, but common sense luckily stayed my hand. Mind you, it hasn't finished cooking yet - it might be inedible anyway.

Ahh, the countryside. It isn't much like London, is it?

* Clearly showing a predilection on my part for blue animals. Well I never.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Blogging: Kind Of Like Tron, But Not Really

Great post and comments on Tim's blog about blogging culture vs 'established' culture. Which got me to thinking that even though I've just written 17,000 words on that very subject, I still feel like I'm no nearer to understanding what blogging 'is'.

Of course it would be wrong to think that blogging is simply one thing; it's clearly lots of things all at once. It's a new form of communication, a new way of socialising, a new form of media, a new way of establishing and controlling one's own identity.

But the more I think about it, the more I get a nebulous sense that all of these different aspects of blogging have an overarching characteristic: the fact that all this new stuff takes place inside the machine*. The 'machine' being, obviously, the internet. You might think that is stating the bleeding obvious, but I'm not sure that many people have properly grasped the implications of this.

For a start, inside the machine is very different from the physical world. An individual person can be many different people, with many different names and personalities. People socialise with people whom they would never have met in the physical world. People who are nothing but avatars and pseudonyms hold earnest, frank, funny, confessional discussions with each other without knowing, or even wanting to know, 'who' the other people are**. In a way, one's physical-world identity and attributes cease to matter, which I think is nice, but also fairly fucking revolutionary when you think about it.

But I think that what blogging *really* is is representations of people in virtual space. To my mind, my blog isn't something I write and publish, but it's essentially me, or at least my representative in cyberspace. Me, in a different dimension, but definitely me, rather than just something that was created by me. So Patroclus doesn't just write stuff, but also has conversations with people, visits people, entertains people, and so on.

And what's different about that is that not only am I lots of different people inside the machine (Patroclus being one of several), but that everything that I do in here is theoretically visible to everyone. Whereas in the physical world you can have a conversation with someone in private, and those words disappear into the ether and no one knows afterwards what you said, inside the machine those words and conversations are stuck there forever unless you delete them or ask the other person to delete them. As if we're characters in a comic and everything we say is fixed in a speech bubble forever. So I suppose the thing that freaks people like Janet Street-Porter out is that she can *see* us now, whereas before she couldn't. We're in the room with her. Like monsters. Or zombies. And there are millions of us.

And the thing with, say, Tron, or Neuromancer and the other early cyberpunk stuff, is that there weren't very many people inside the machine. The ones that got inside were like pioneers, like the first people on the moon, or the first settlers in the Wild West. It was all kind of individualistic and heroic (which is why women aren't supposed to like cyberpunk), because this is the way computers were, then - they were individual, isolated things, rarely connected to a network, and that's why we still have to put up with the image of the 'internet user' as a sad, sociopathic loner.

By the time you get to, say, Snow Crash, there are more people inside the machine, but they're still kind of marginal, edgy types, and the internet (metaverse) is still a marginal, edgy sort of dangerous underground where right-thinking people fear to enter, and I suppose that's why we still have to put up with this image of the internet as being a lawless place populated by criminals.

But there are millions of us inside the machine, even people who don't wear black vests and mirror shades and consider themselves to be lone outlaw fugitives from the real world. So, in a sense, virtual reality has become real reality. And all of the ground-breaking things about virtual reality - the collapse of space and time, the unimportance of the physical self, the ability to be lots of different people in lots of different places; the whole thing about being essentially a brain in a jar, plugged into a machine...that's what our lives are like every day now.

We try to make sense of blogging by applying real-world analogies (blogging is like the media, blogging is like keeping a diary, etc.) but it so clearly isn't like the real world that if you stop for a second and think about what it's *really* like, it's just totally freaky. But it's lovely to see people adapt to it so quickly and totally, and start to create new rules and mores and codes of conduct, and cultural pursuits (e.g. memes and games and ritual practices that play with - and help us to make sense of - the fabric of the blogosphere itself) in what is essentially a completely different dimension.

Ahh, humans are so great.

* I totally nicked this phrase, and most of these ideas, from this fabulous article in Wired. And this book. And this one. But I'll lay claim to the zombie analogy.

** An idea that's always tickled me is that two people who know each other under a particular name in one online domain (say the blogosphere) may also know each other under different names in a different online domain (say a chat forum), and not know that they are the same people. How Philip K. Dick is that!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Things That Make You Go 'Awww', Part 2

Things that made me go 'awww' today:

1. Two teenagers, huddled together in sleeping bags, asleep on the hillside as the sun rose over the Iron Age hillfort. Around them was scattered the detritus of their open-air baccalauréat results party. Awww.

2. One of my top bestest mates from university, who now appears to be BBC News 24's Washington correspondent. He hasn't changed one bit since we used to play the matchbox drinking game in the Black Horse in 1990 (apart from the fact that he now wears a suit and has a picture of the Capitol behind him). Awww.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Nature's Rubbish Bounty

What have I been doing in the real world for a whole week, you may be asking. Well, you probably aren’t, but I’m going to tell you anyway.

First of all I’ve *finally* finished my legendary dissertation, all 16,994 words and 52 pages of it. Which means that I've also *finally* finished my MA, after six whole years! I've been doing this degree for so long that the little silk dress my mum bought me to congratulate me on passing my third year is sadly no more. It disintegrated in the Venezuelan jungle, which was unfortunate, because it was the only item of clothing I had taken with me.

Travellers’ tip: when trekking in the Venezuelan jungle, it’s sensible to wear robust clothing, and not assume that a flimsy little silk dress will protect you from the elements, keep off killer flies, or retain structural integrity for the duration of the trek. However, I can take things like that in my stride as I am the queen of inappropriate apparel, a title to which I acceded that time I climbed Ben Nevis wearing nothing but a swimsuit and some walking boots.

But anyway, back to the dissertation! A huge thank you to all of you lovely blog-readers who made suggestions, sent me links, answered my survey and made generally encouraging noises at apposite moments. I couldn’t have done it without you, sob.

When not finishing the dissertation, I have been observing rubbish fruit. In the course of some lengthy walks among the vineyards and garrigues and limestone outcrops that surround my house here, not only have I noticed that tiny bejewelled flip-flops aren’t *quite* the thing for extensive hill-walking expeditions, but also that nature’s bounty as it exists round these parts isn’t really up to scratch. So far I have encountered:

1. An abundance of pear trees laden with dry, mealy pears

2. Vast swathes of brambles bearing tiny, tasteless blackberries

3. Masses of yellowish, desiccated rosemary

4. Acres of vines destined to produce France’s cheapest and most horrid wine

5. A surfeit of unripe figs (but I’m quite hopeful about them)

6. Loads of dusty, dried-up thyme

7. Things that looked like blueberries but turned out to be useless sloes.

What exactly am I supposed to do with that lot? Ray Mears never had it this hard, I’m sure.

Oh yes, I also had my exit from the local supermarket blocked by an eight-foot plastic gorilla, but that kind of thing happens all the time around here, so is hardly worthy of note.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Tower Down The Track

In the first part of this particularly fine episode of Home & Away, not only did I sensationally find romance, but the prodigal Greta also sensationally reappeared at, er, Alf's caravan park*, clad in a fetching gingham dress with a claret-coloured jumper slung casually over one shoulder. Hurrah for Greta!

Now in part 2, your star-crossed heroine (that's me) sensationally announces her imminent departure from Summer Bay**, clutching naught but a copy of Neuromancer and a one-way ticket to PNG, sorry, I mean the south of France.

So I'm off for the foreseeable future, tending to family woes, in the land of Paltry and Feeble Internet Connections. The last time this happened, I wasn't seen in the blogosphere for nigh-on two years. I'll try not to make it that long this time. But if I do disappear, my sensational return two years hence will no doubt contribute to a particularly fine future episode.

So long then, folks. See you on the other side.

* It would probably help if I'd ever actually seen Home & Away.

** I had to look that up.