Thursday, August 04, 2011

Stockupocalyptic musings and the fall of civilization (*already in progress)

[Original private blogpost dated 8/3/11 at 2:51 am]

I don't think I've ever in this life had a more existentially, cosmically depressing experience as shopping at Borders this past Saturday - the same store that I'd been so glad about when it opened in my hometown, so close and convenient and comprehensive in its offerings and possibilities, now with its shelves and bins being picked over and falling into disorder, no point seen in reorganizing them or even putting things back in their stated category for the benefit of other scavengers. Not quite anarchy overall, but something slower and sadder and less energetic - picking through the carcass for what is worth buying at last, for the last. One sees how others value things - or not: the clearance prices placed, the discounts announced on the signage on the gradually-entropic shelves, what is ransacked or decimated and what still remains to be chosen or left, to survive or be "liquidated." Which, at this moment of writing, strikes me as a hint of Arrakis...except that that fictional culture has far more of a sense of its own values and priorities than this one does.

The music bins - no point in looking thoroughly for anything by alphabet or genre...the space where the soundtracks A through L might generally be is filled with random DVDs, and the letters are scattered here and there amidst the other side of that shelving. I'm slightly curious about a few things, perhaps - hmm, Season 4 music of Doctor Who? - Season Two of Merlin on DVD? - but as an investment for which one must yet pay? The ends of the sections are the most stable, I suppose - I see Tom Waits maintaining his place in what would be the W-to-Zs - but the system is breaking down inexorably, the cafe closed forever, no raison d'etre for the polite unspoken rituals of browsing, and long-gone as well, it seems, are the old headphones by which one might aurally sample and taste before committing oneself to buy. I cannot guess at music at a time like this - not even certain of the John Rutter w/ Cambridge Singers CD in the "Christmas in July" bins. At a buck apiece or less (1.00/CDs, 0.50/audiocassettes) in the backroom of the local thrift store, I may indulge in all sort of eclectic acquisitions, but this is serious commerce still, even in its downfall.

One sees in the DVDs how some relative value is still imposed despite the general discount: the archaic, truly-obscure or market-oversaturated ones are at 9.99, those with slightly more prestige (ah, but I already own The Prestige since the local Blockbuster's clearance sale earlier this year, and got it for 5.99...) are at 14.99, and those which are generally-renowned "classics" or popular newer releases are as high as 26.99 listed - that for Doctor Zhivago, though I believe The King's Speech is 5.00 more because it is both a Best Picture and of recent make (and thus current popularity for its cast).

I peruse them, murmuring to myself, and select a few: ones that make sense for now, ones that I know will be good whether I've seen them before or know them only by clips and/or repute. It takes me a minute or so of slightly invective-laced self-debate before I finally add on one of the two remaining copies of what I tend to refer to as "the most depressing movie ever made" - which I haven't actually ever yet seen in full...previously to this, for the record, The Hunger was holder of that particular title, and is still at least the runner-up for its scenes of inexorable and graphic decay. I think that decay is a theme. It is also an enemy.

And this is a scene of war. People may or may not recognize it as such, as they move through the stacks, if they even come. I remember the midnight release party here for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - yes, I came to that; I even came in costume, and had preordered my copy online. Contents and circumstances: the one a celebration of anticipation and shared sense of community, and this an apologetic funeral, without positive outlooks or even community to bind to. This could have been a center of intelligent life in my hometown still - it could have stayed relevant, it could have made itself more vital, more connected. Is it the fault of bad business planning alone that sunk it? - or the inexpensive ease of buying online and going right to what one wants and/or the search engine suggests, without the niggling hand of regional taxation demanding an automatic share? - or the migration of some critical mass of readers to e-books as the next big thing, however sparse in their selection compared to the total realm of publishing? Physical publishing will suffer as a species - that much has been written on the wall, because without a certain preponderance of physical places to browse and select what might catch one's fancy, paper-publishing houses will bet only on the most sure horses when it comes to stocking shelves. Print-on-demand and self-publishing, although still a definite sector, will be driven almost entirely through social media, even if the traditional book tours and signings still happen in actual physical bookstores. Brick-and-mortar music stores no longer stand on their own recognizance - book sections in larger stores, as we know, are restricted by what the retailer approves of. Specialty books are likely to retreat to specialty stores for their guaranteed effective niches, though accessibility and cultural demographics are likely to be problematic. The one thing that that large and comprehensive bookstores have, which social media assiduously prevents and libraries possess only by virtue of community tolerance and valuation, is the possibility of encountering and tasting - without searching specifically for it - material that challenges and opens one's existing experience and worldview. The element of chance, of change, of random (or serendipitous) exploration. A bookstore that serves only the already-likeminded is no different than a Facebook feed showing only the posts and the ads that you and your 'friends' like - homogeneity breeds homogeneity. 'People who bought this book also tended to buy these books'...peer recommendations, in the absence of being able to randomly dowse and scan through books unprohibitedly on one's own. Does it make any difference to you? - that completely depends on what kind of a reader and what kind of a person you are. If you don't appreciate that experience in the first place, then you're probably not going to miss it. But the most intelligent and thoughtful readers are those who are open to exploration, and it is the breadth of content available for exploration that tends to breed and sustain that kind of circumspection and discerning openmindedness. Just as with the deliberate reduction of language and therefore the available range/nuance of thought and emotion in Orwell's 1984, the deliberate or inadvertant narrowing of ambient exposure to literature (as with all media) inevitably has an effect upon one's mentality and the possible range of acceptable truths - whether factual or fictional in vehicle. Is this a covert strategy to heighten the inertia of intolerant and/or ignorant minds? - are there darker currents at play here? I would tend not to doubt it - but then, I am a pattern-seer and analytical by nature, and therefore I do see more possible meanings than most people will allow themselves to entertain without linking themselves to a single diehard theory. Afterall, there can be many meanings happening at once, all of them concurrently valid and bundled in a running braid.

Does that mean that all of my purchases were ultra-deep and pointedly intellectual? Not by half, actually, though all of them have their 'investment value' in my eyes. I already have a sizeable library amassed when it comes to significant literature, and copious quantities also of literature that others might not find quite so significant. But I collect on the basis of what I myself find, not what others think of it. "Browsing and dowsing" is my way of finding new books, along with following the trails of homage and reference and themes between otherwise-separate works and authors and genres and disciplines. Search engines can only assist one so far in that - the process with me is necessarily both active and intuitive, as opposed to the encouraged/enabled trend to be a passive recipient of technically-targeted in-network advertising based on one's gathered preferences, with deliberate searching for an already-known object or keyword being the most consciously active task. Mental self-reinforcement is not just a base psychological tendency or defense-reaction, but the way that commerce and consumption are increasingly engineered, to deliver advertising as effectively as possible to those apparently primed to accept it. Be a sheep to any sector or demographic profile and you'll have your comfy reassuring niche of community and concerns; be diverse, unpredictable and irreducible, on the other hand, and you'll have no stable place to lay your head...not that I'd entrust my head to an ad-generator anyhow, mind you...

But this is the future that I see, increasingly bereft of the elements of actual mental stimulation, as niche marketing - with or without a popular mainstream of "bestsellers" to refer to - erases the field of recreational literary exploration for all but actively intrepid readers. Genres will become closed enclaves unto themselves again without aisles to wander and real books to peruse as one chooses - eventually, the very concept of a "bestseller" is likely to become irrelevant to the general population, for good or ill, and mainstream popular fame to be found only once a book or story reaches the point of film production or television series, at which point its advertising exposure just might take it out of target-demographic categories...then again, that depends on the TV/cable stations and their angles, and on the targeting of in-theatre (or not) film trailers to likely audiences, and on the insularity of social networks, and all the other such factors of calculation and closed community.

But what does it matter to a civilization anyhow, whether its structures of shared communication, mental language and cultural self-reference break apart into Balkanized factions serviced by all the obliging and dedicated mechanisms of post-physical self-segregation? What does it matter whether we have have any shared cultural watershed at all, so long as each "community" can have what it wants and only what it wants automatically delivered to its members' eyes and ears and minds? Debates over what can be said and taught in public schools will go on; the much-feared exposure of young minds to diverse points of view will go on, at least in such colleges that offer the so-called "liberal arts" (so called because they used to be areas of study deemed useful and necessary to free persons - those not enslaved or indentured/apprenticed to a limited trade or menial role in life)...but outside of those places and wherever they can be avoided, the terminal specialization and decentralization of modern culture goes on, even with the illusions of greater "community" granted by nominally being on the same social networks, video-sharing sites and other online mega-applications. We are all more connected than ever, but we are more deeply separated; we are globally visible and yet unseen unless sought for.

As with books, films, music, art - creative releases of any kind - so with us, each in our own shelves and categories as they all move farther and farther apart...and who will come to look for us (for any good reason) or follow our trails of connection and theme, except for the purpose of trying to sell us something? This, to borrow words I've found (also by roaming serendipity) and found useful, is a war between curiosity and ignorance - and those who are not curious will be aided and abetted in their ignorance, be it innocent or willful, even if all things and all knowledge are available at one's fingertips.

It is also and at the same time a war between meaningful structure and anarchic chaos, with the seeming paradox of being rooted in the most complex structures and algorithms imaginable - so much in the way of technical order and calculations that there is no meaning left between the lines - even with the recent effort to restore some sense of context to otherwise-literal Boolean search engines. "The center cannot hold" - there is no center, there is no meaning or consensus to appeal to, no heart or other vital center of debate and hammering out of truth by common understandings and foundations. The town square, as some call it, does not exist in any functional sense online, no matter how many comment threads and online petitions and polls one may take part in. Even with factual news and Snopes at hand, online truth is a highly relativistic concept. Meaning, there is no generally-accepted meaning - and nowhere that it can be argued to general resolution.

The idea of "agreeing to disagree," one might say, is a rule that has been so far enforced upon the very workings of the Internet, since it provides only the framework for others to add both content and their own self-designated centers of interaction. And the only alterations from that are hardly in the direction of facilitating greater confrontation but rather that of quashing dissent and/or blocking out controversial matter. Rather like large-chain bookstores/retailers stocking only books that agree with their own ideological or social slant - not that Borders has been immune to that, as in the post-9/11 leadup to war it took public pressure and actual customer ordering of copies to get them (locally at least) to stock Iraq Under Siege as any hint of balance to the flagwaving, warmongering and military idol-worship of other books prominently displayed en masse in their stores.

This self-segregation cannot be wholly undone, nor would it be wise to break all online barriers of intentional community indiscriminately. Those who do wish to subvert it with any effectiveness must pick their battles and tactics carefully, rather than just coming in as partycrashers, which is bound to bolster defensiveness and rouse claims of victimhood from their adversaries. Just as all social media is a tool to find those who are likeminded to one's interests and views, it can also be used to preserve connections with whose who are just in moderate disagreement, so that there is at least the chance for conversation and some degree of focused argument on issues that arise. In the greater picture, though, I see the widening divisions of worldview as being too great to overcome by rational online discourse - that is, ideological perspectives will tend to remain self-insulated and always have a safe place to reinforce themselves, both online and off, until direct confrontation is inevitable in the physical realm of actual consequences. And for some, I think it will be a relief to come to that point of open conflict...there's something like a longing for Armageddon there, to finally, finally have it out, knowing completely who stands for what and having the battle-lines completely drawn - and not just have it be the proverbial tempest in a teacup of forum/comment-thread argument. All this self-specialization is fermenting the extremes, making opinions more diehard, facts more malleable to desires, reality more than ever a social construct and arguably quite often a shared delusion in whole or in part. But whose interpretation is actually "the truth" - or even which delusions are simply more true than others - is something that cannot and will not be played out until this ferment of self-segregation has reached a breaking point in offline reality - when the social fabric is too frayed, the feelings too strong, the chasms too wide for us to co-exist without conflict's revelation.

Not that all this fatalistic train of thought is passing through my mind as I browse and ponder and select...mainly just the melancholy, the sense of mourning - feeling the loss of the real connections, whether or not they'd been well-used while we had them in their heyday. It will be a bit harder from now on for us to discover what we need - even though it has never been easier to find what we want.

I scan through world history and snap up a book on Greek explorations and wanderings of the Homeric hero-era; skim an ancient biography that catches my eye but by both certain passages and its original date of publication is both incomprehensive and prejudiced...still somewhat intrigued - we'll see if it's still there when I go back for one last foray. "Once more unto the breach"- a little short of sacking cities, and a mercy to take what one can. The libraries and what they hold must be valued now - they are the best place to find without seeking, and their sharing nature itself is a challenge and a goad to this jealous, proprietary, multi-insular world. And without the flood of variety in physical book-publishing to choose from, selection and retention in public library collections is likely to become a more pointed and contentious issue. How do we choose what is worth having on hand? -how do we choose what we will support and will even endorse as truth or as creative treasure? These are the decisions we're faced with more acutely now, with unprecedented profusion of works and yet so little means to gather and hold them, and so much implicit pressure to pare everything down. My private library's like an ark and always has been - always this sense of gathering against some coming tide of knowledge's devaluation, preparing for needs not yet fully understood, trying to understand as deeply as possible all the best and the worst within humanity - and the possibilities to which it may be and has been led. Classics and popular fiction, fantasy and fact and lore, all having in them something worthwhile or else I would not keep them by me...and even some of my own ideological adversaries' "scriptures," acquired in one way or another without direct contact or purchase, because one must know one's enemies rather than ignoring them, even though it is so easy to ignore many sides of reality if one wishes. Spiritual positivists, for example, often exhort one to avoid negativity in all possible forms and media, as if it were some kind of a mental toxin...perhaps it may be, to some, but this is also the excuse for their own kind of cultural self-insulation - the idea that willful ignorance/avoidance of all negativity or conflict is bliss. It's not just crooked wingnuts who censor and skew their awareness of reality...

There are 2012 calendars for sale already - why am I surprised at this when I notice them on hand? Everything seasonal is produced at least half a year early now - just like the bins of Christmas music and holiday-themed DVDs, these must have been moved in out of the wings when the dissolution was announced. I fall into a veritable daze of deliberation as I peruse them, flipping through them and debating what is the best choice for me, the right imagery and focus for my surroundings and my framing of longterm time - which is, after all, why I keep a wall calendar in my bedroom. There is no perfect choice: I vacillate between several in my short list, but none of them combine enough of what I want in aesthetic effect with enough absence of what tends to irk me in the way of perceivable slant or didactic pressure. The one I consider longest, though, is a quasi-apocalyptic Christo-Pagan calendar with Celtic-style illuminations and a pointed emphasis on protecting and reconnecting with the Earth for the sake of our own survival through these times. The main reason that I leave it unbought (by myself, though I do think it a good idea) is that it is a bit heavy-handed in both messages and well as that I have several of my own calendar ideas that need to be put out into reality themselves. I'm a creator by nature, not just a consumer - whatever I take in from the rest of the world always spurs me to make more of what is mine in vision. I select a leatherbound 2012 dayplanner instead; the wall calendar question is put off so far as purchasing goes, and I make a mental note to get started designing (and carry through firmly) the projects I already have in mind.

The magazine section has the most frenetic sense of being timebound and urgent, as well as the most friction of disparate subjects - Renaissance Fairs, Gothic style, health and fitness, motorcycles, tattoos (and scantily-clad pinups therewith), writers' resources and advice. Since I hardly ever buy magazines at newsstand prices, the only reason I'd buy one at the moment would be for current professional usefulness or for some collectible value...neither purpose finds fit material though, despite my wandering the few rows of the section with what would otherwise - i.e., without the rather-transparent distress were I not wearing sunglasses - be my typical "wonders of modern civilization" look, which probably gets its best cinematic demonstration from Gerard Butler in Dracula 2000. As it is, this would be my "horrors of post-modern civilization (or what passes for it)" look, newly discovered for the occasion and in evidence more-or-less since I arrived, though at its peak of intensity both here and previously while noting the disarray of the music section. I skim quickly through a horror film mag, gleaning what is worth gleaning from its interviews...if there were something in this transient genre that showed some lasting worth, perhaps I'd bite, but I feel no sufficient impulse to take any one of these home. There's nothing I need here - the prices are too high for what value I place on them right now. And so this process of evaluation, its episodes laid out in rambling order, draws to its close.

At least for now, as I leave with several heavy-laden bags and this continuing strange sense of existential shock throughout the day's remainder. I do intend to return and see what's left before the close, what better deals I might find to justify a few more acquisitions. We are all scavengers, though some of us scavenge with more of a conscious purpose here - acutely conscious, on my part. I think too much: it's the one complaint that others most tend to have against me, that I am always thinking, always analyzing, never content to just sit back and enjoy a mindless entertainment mindlessly. But there is quite enough to think about in this situation, and around it and after the fact of the experience, and with all that's been said and being said now - no, this is not just all in my head.


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