August 2nd, 2005

operesque

Bass culture

In the comments section to yesterday's entry I quote an article in Monday's Guardian in which Julian Baggini and other philosophers examine imaginary scenarios designed to present typical modern problems and paradoxes. I particularly liked the first example, in which a "cosmopolitan" called Saskia is annoyed that a white waiter brings her poppadoms in an Indian restaurant, because she wants to be multicultural herself but prefers the wait staff in the "exotic" restaurants she visits to remain monocultural. "Saskia highlights one of the great inconsistencies of contemporary western liberalism," comments David Goodhart. "The Canadian scholar Eric Kaufmann calls it asymmetrical multiculturalism, meaning that minority groups should express their ethnicity while dominant ones should transcend theirs."

I usually refer to "asymmetrical multiculturalism" as the strange collusion between liberal internationalists and conservative nationalists. Marxy put it rather more bitchily in a debate we were having yesterday about the meaning of a swastika he saw on a Harakjuku fashion-punk: "I'm against right-wing politics, Momus is for, as long as they aren't Western peoples." (My counter-argument was that there's nothing inherently right wing about preserving national cultural differences: artists, museum curators and restauranteurs do it as well as right wing bigots. What's more, the punk in question was decontextualizing a foreign symbol; he was more like the non-Christian Japanese women who wear crosses around their necks than a rabid nationalist.)

To me, the Guardian piece is great journalism. It gives me an outline of a plausible situation, a familiar contradiction, one I've attempted clumsily to describe myself, and it gives me a handy term for it, one I can carry around in my pocket and produce at dinner parties. I'm free to google "asymmetrical multiculturalism" or order books by the Canadian academic who coined the term. It's exactly the kind of thing that didn't happen in the piece about blogging I participated in last week, broadcast by BBC Radio Ulster last night.

Radio Ulster blogging item (3.2MB mono mp3 7min 01secs)

Now, maybe my memory is as selective as any editor, but when I think back to what I said in answer to the intelligent questions producer Stephen O'Hagan was asking me over the satellite line last week, I think the two most important things I said were citations of other people's ideas. I mentioned Thomas de Zengotita's book Mediation and spoke about blogging as "self-mediation". That made it into the programme in highly edited form; the word "self-mediation" appeared, but not the reference to Zengotita or his book. I also explained how network theorist Clay Shirky had somewhat changed my mind about my aphorism "In the future everyone will be famous for 15 people" with his essay "Power Laws, Weblogs and Inequality".

Now, I understand that the show's producers thought that these academic references were too clunky for a seven minute piece on blogging on a local BBC network. I realize that editors have a layman listener in mind, a kind of internalized granny character who's never even heard of blogging and doesn't want her first meeting with the concept to be cluttered up with incomprehensible jargon. I realize that you can't put links in a radio broadcast, and that the books I mentioned probably aren't easily available in Belfast. I realize that to make the references useful I'd have had to spell "Zengotita" and "Shirky" on air. I realize that the producers had to condense ten minutes of Momus-on-blogging to about 90 seconds, so that they could fit in the highly relevant (and much more accessible and amusing) points being made by Rhodri Marsden (rhodri) and Neil Scott (neil_scott). But the result of all that "plain commonsense" and "professionalism" was that the bit in my spiel that did make it past the gatekeepers of the show was a reference to Hollywood and blogging as a star system. The piece got bookended with a Moby track and much talk of Moby-as-blogger. In fact, at the end of the item it was Moby's blog address that was given out instead of mine (although Rhodri and Neil got their blogs plugged). It was assumed that the putative granny who hadn't heard of blogging had heard of Moby. "Ah yes, that nice young Christian vegan with the bald head and the coffeetable techno records," says your putative granny.

What really irked me about the presentation was the attempted populism of it: the assumption that people want recognition rather than cognition, repetition rather than revelation. So the producer inserted something familiar, a track from Moby's "Play" album, left in a bit about Hollywood but took out the "ladders" I deliberately inserted, googlable references interested listeners could have used to climb from what they already know to things they don't yet. Zengotita and Shirky are both "ladders" to really important stuff completely relevant to the debate on blogging, stuff that might have been made accessible even if there was no time to discuss it on air. I wasn't there for the money (there was none) or even to get my blog plugged, but I do feel I was there to point to those "ladders", and I feel irritated that they were kicked away.

I'm disappointed with the BBC Radio Ulster piece because I'm actually a big fan of Lord Reith of Stonehaven, the BBC's stern, tall, somewhat Presbyterian leader who, from 1922 to 1938, propounded the network's public service ethic of informing and educating the audience. I don't think you have to be populist on an arts show on a publicly-funded network like the BBC, or use baby talk, or indulge in "repetition culture" (only tell 'em what they know already), or prioritize recognition over cognition, or play fucking Moby records to get people's attention. "John Reith maintained that broadcasting should be a public service which enriches the intellectual and cultural life of the nation." The 6'6" ghost of Lord Reith still stalks the BBC — he's hovering over Paganism in the Renaissance, for instance. But in some weird way I think Lord Reith now belongs to us bloggers more than he belongs to the BBC.