Thursday, February 28, 2013

Book Review Round-Up

'Sometimes when I go with you into those old, empty houses I think that all the people who ever lived in them are still there, watching and listening. The night we went to look at that house on College Avenue, while you were down in the cellar with the light, I was so frightened I couldn't even call you. I remembered the old lady who used to live there, and all the time I was standing in the hall, the wind was blowing, and the branches of the trees were creaking, and I thought I could hear her crying and scratching with her nails against the walls, as if she were trying to get back in again where all her memories were. I couldn't live in such a house.'

Sorry, I can't be arsed to write full or even half write-ups of these novels. Suffice it to say that I loved all six of these books, especially Boyden's debut (of which I've written almost 8,000 words for school). The above quote comes from John Marlyn's novel, which I read only because it was set in Winnipeg (my hometown). With each Pat Barker novel I read, I'm convinced she's one of the best English authors of the 20th century. Also, Daniel Woodrell is my new favourite author and in 2013, will probably be the most read author. Here's the list.

Under the Ribs of Death
by John Marlyn

Give Us a Kiss by Daniel Woodrell

Border Crossing by Pat Barker

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

The New Centurions by Joseph Wambaugh

The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Too late to re-stage the play: the rise of irony and the fall of prog rock

Marillion is an English rock band formed in the late seventies, just when prog rock was winding down as a genre. In 1979, the year Marillion formed, Pink Floyd released The Wall, Supertramp released Breakfast in America, Electric Light Orchestra released Discovery, and in the last month, The Clash released London Calling. Prog rock was turning culturally irrelevant with the rise of punk rock and hardcore punk such as Black Flag (their debut EP was released in 1978) and The Dead Kennedys (who formed in 1978). Despite prog rock's decline, Marillion released four concept albums in a row, starting with their debut, Script for a Jester's Tear. As the 1980s drew to a close, Marillion's lead singer and lyricist, Fish parted ways with the band. Steve Hogarth was hired to replace him, marking a distinct change in the band's direction. Where Fish's lyrics were dense with allusions, alliteration, and painfully earnest, Hogarth's verses were simpler and often laced with contemporary references. The band's career can be neatly divided in two chapters: the Camp era of Fish and the ironic era of Hogarth. The rise of irony as a dominant mode helped nail prog rock's coffin.

In her essay, "Notes on Camp," Susan Sontag writes that camp "is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such. Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration" (275). Camp is a sensibility that is difficult to point to, and difficult to discuss. It takes the deathly serious and turns it "frivolous" and "depoliticized" (276, 277). Most Camp objects are unnatural and emphasize their unnaturalness because "nothing in nature can be Campy" (279). Using the example of Art Nouveau, Sontag argues that the art style is "experienced as Camp" rather than simply "is Camp" (281). Rather, Camp is a lens through which objects are perceived. Objects are that are unaware of their Campiness are more satisfying than objects completely conscious of Camp. Naive objects, such as Fish's earnest, emotionally honest lyrics, are essential in their seriousness. The naive Camp object has "the spirit of extravagance" (283) such as the cover to Marillion's debut album, featuring a crying jester.

Marillion's early work with Fish are entirely examples of "art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is 'too much'" (Sontag 284). The art style of the albums, the aggressively epic song lengths, the lyrics that cry out with full intense emotion are all indicators of Fish's tenure with the band. In the debut single, "Script for a Jester's Tear," Fish sings:
Yet another emotional suicide overdosed on sentiment and pride
I'm losing on the swings, losing on the roundabouts, the game is over
Too late to say I love you, too late to re-stage the play
The game is over

I act the role in classic style of a martyr carved with twisted smile
To bleed the lyric for this song to write the rites to right my wrongs
An epitaph to a broken dream to exorcise this silent scream
A scream that's borne from sorrow
Emotional suicide, silent screams, broken dreams are all examples of high seriousness but without any self-awareness. Fish's lyrics point to pure unmediated emotional honesty, without the shield of irony to protect from cynicism. It is the very lack of irony that helps push Marillion's stubborn hold onto prog rock into the realm of Camp.

As prog rock's career trajectory entered into its descent, Marillion's style becomes all the more campy. With more time separating the perceiver and the object, detachment grows or "we become less involved in them" (Sontag 285). The band's wistful nostalgia and painful honesty becomes tolerable once prog rock has laid to rest and irony has become the dominant mode. Marillion is perceived as Camp and becomes palatable despite its extravagance and extraordinary lyrics, "extraordinary in the sense, often, of being special glamorous" (284).

What makes "Script for a Jester's Tear" especially interesting is that the speaker is portraying a character, the titular jester. The song features, then, multiple layers: Fish performing a performer. While this type of self-reflection normally engenders detachment in the listener, such as the mode of metafiction in postmodern literature, in this particular case, the layers resist any emotional distancing by insisting on the emotion. It is as if the jester is no longer the poetical speaker but rather Fish himself is the jester. It is the "glorification of character" where "character is understood as a state of continual incandescence — a person being one, very intense thing" (Sontag 286). Despite its metafictional layers, the subject of "Script for a Jester's Tear" remains Fish, rather than the speaker.

When Steve Hogarth joined the band, the lyrics became less filled with literary allusions, less dense and loquacious, and more often than not, detailed multiple subjects. Rather than high medieval fantasies or high class garden parties or epic length poems on Grendel, Hogarth's lyrics almost exclusively examine relationships, either of their deterioration, their sabotage or their banalities. In 1995's "Cannibal Surf Babe," the speaker depicts a relationship between the speaker and an aggressive female surfer:
Singing: I was born in nineteen sixty weird
And I'm your nightmare surfer babe
Mr. Wilson where's your sandbox and your beard
'You still looking for the perfect microwave?

So I really did my best to get across to her
I said: "One day every pebble hits the beach"
And I kissed her face and held her like a long-lost friend
But she was too far out there to be reached
To be reached
She was too far out there
The lyrics are much simpler, less wordy, and not nearly as direct. Rather that deploy over-the-top references to jesters or suicide, the speaker allows the emotions to come through by oblique irony. The nebulously defined 1960s are flattened and reduced to a cultural referent, rather than the realistic depiction of a complex period of time. This ironic move mirrors what Fredric Jameson calls "the nostalgia mode" and what David Foster Wallace refers to self-conscious irony. Much like American "hyperrealism," Hogarth's irony-laden lyrics use products, objects, and cultural referents to sustain a particular emotional tone rather than Fish's direct address. As Wallace writes in his essay "E Unibus Pluram":
In fact, pop-cultural references have become such potent metaphors in US fiction not only because of how united Americans are in our exposure to mass images but also because of our guilty indulgent psychology with respect to that exposure. Put simply, the pop reference works so well in contemporary fiction because (1) we all recognize such a reference, and (2) we're all a little uneasy about how we all recognize a reference. (Wallace 166)

Like the many examples of postmodern art in Wallace's essay, Hogarth's lyrics rely on the ironic detachment of the listener in order to achieve an emotional tone. If Hogarth had not couched emotional language in references and irony, the lyrics would closer to a direct address, which does not fit the dominant mode. Wallace charts the dominance of irony with the rise of television as a medium. TV internalized the self-conscious unblinking gaze of the audience and presented it back to the viewer in order to assuage the self-consciousness. In order to do this, TV turned self-referential and ironic. Wallace argues that TV anticipates the self-conscious reaction of "too much" gaze by emphasizing that very sensibility. Thus, TV avoids Campiness by prioritizing the frivolousness through cultural references. Hogarth's lyrics, like all art produced in the age of irony, avoids Campiness by avoiding the high seriousness and focusing on the pop.

Of course, prog rock's ethos is not about pop, but rather the seriousness of itself. When Marillion's career trajectory shifted towards pop, it left behind Fish and prog rock's campiness in order to maintain relevancy in an era utterly dominated by irony. The emphasis on the modern conveniences of the modern age, the ironic detachment, and the consumer culture all mark Hogarth's tenure with the band as being part of the ironic era. Prog rock has become irrelevant because it is "too much" and we no longer live in an era of direct emotional address and "screams of sorrow." Irony has taken over, with its focus on products, barcodes, microwaves, and hi-fis.

Works Cited

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and other essays. New York: Octagon Books, 1978. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction." Review of Contemporary Fiction 13.2 (1993): 151-194. Print.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Book Review Round-Up

The previous book review round-up was fiction, while this one is entirely non-fiction. Since I can't be arsed to write long reviews of each them, as I'm currently swamped with reading/writing/marking, here are capsule reviews that surely do not do justice to the books.

No Such Thing as Society

Andy McSmith's history of Britain during the 1980s is equally fascinating and frustrating. It's clearly meant for an audience already familiar with the people, topics, and backstory, which is something I'm often looking for in non-fiction. However, in this case, the book's lack of hand-holding is somewhat exclusionary. I appreciate McSmith's organization of history around themes rather than linear chronology, but it does get a bit confusing when there is such obvious skipping around. I quite liked the book, and it helped orient my thinking around particular British subjects such as Thatcher, Live Aid, and the mining crisis of 1984. Perhaps it's due to my birth year, a total accident of course, but I find myself intrigued by the 1980s as a periodizing category. McSmith's book does a fine job of helping to fill in some of the blanks of my own memory.

Wicked Beyond Belief

The Yorkshire Ripper is something that has fascinated me for a long time, especially after reading David Peace's Red Riding Quartet. Michael Bilton worked as a journalist during Peter Sutcliffe's activity as murderer and rapist and thus he has an excellent grasp of the people, the culture, and the institutions. Though, as a journalist, Bilton is suspicious of ambiguity or subtlety, and announces his book's theme at every occasion. What is the lesson of the Yorkshire Ripper's continued legacy but one of the utter failings of a matrix of institutions? Almost at every turn, the police, the media, the government, and other systems failed to protect the very citizens they are sworn to serve. It's a depressing yet utterly captivating portrait of a police investigation before the rise of digital record-keeping. Bilton's long addendums (coming after a decade in print) are helpful illustrations of the power of DNA testing, stubborn investigatory labour, and governmental inquiries to prevent further serial killings of this magnitude. I thoroughly enjoyed Wicked Beyond Belief, if enjoyed is the correct word for such an exhaustive and exhausting experience.

Capitalist Superheroes

Dan Hassler-Forest, the author of this work, and I have enjoyed a Twitter friendship in the months since I heard of his book's publication from Zer0 Books, producers of consistently fascinating works such as Nina Power's One Dimensional Woman and Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism. This particular volume, much longer than others in the series, focuses on the Zizekian idea that within cultural objects, ideology is no longer hidden, waiting to be examined, but rather dispersed across the surface. Superhero films are the objects of interest in this particular discourse, as Dan skillfully and perceptively manipulates the objects to reveal their surface-level ideology. Dan provides a concise history of the intersection between neoliberalism and culture while demonstrating what nonsense we swallow and clap for with each subsequent superhero film. The only negative thing I can say about this book is that this volume is rife with typos as well as an egregious gap in the bibliography. But this is something that can easily be fixed in a second printing, so I can't hold back my praise because of it.

The Corporation

Joel Bakan gave a speech at my university a month or so ago and I missed it due to sheer laziness as well as unfamiliarity with his work. I fixed this by reading Bakan's nonfiction exploration of corporations. He traces their history and the absolutely bizarre phenomenon of anthropomorphizing these corporations while simultaneously accepting this very fact as logical. In fact, the thesis of Bakan's book is to argue that corporations are intrinsically sociopaths and are actively damaging society. In order to demonstrate this, Bakan takes the legal personhood of corporations as logically sound. It's obviously a bit of a stretch, and I had no need of such logical back-bending to be convinced of corporatization's danger. Otherwise, The Corporation is rather enjoyable read but this is a bit of confirmation bias. I don't read books that are ideologically opposed to my own views, so I am dangerously close to the type of isolationism policy that I accuse right-wing thinkers of adopting.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

January: the changing corporate identity of restaurants

"So as this guy got up to leave, he turned and grabbed my girlfriend's tit," Rob says, a six foot tall giant hunched over the crowded triple sink, scrubbing with great effort a daunting pile of saute pans. "And it wasn't like a honk. It was a squeeze. Not cool, man."

"Have you said anything to him yet?" I ask, standing there with a couple pans in my hand, waiting for Rob to make space in the triple sink. I'm genuinely interested in this controversial event, but I'm also needed back on line, away from the dish pit.

"Not yet," he replies, squinting at a particularly stubborn bit of food burnt onto the pan.

It has not been a great week for Rob. His girlfriend (a model and cheerleader for the Blue Bombers) was molested and he worked the fabled — but almost never heard of — 45 minute long shift. Instead of the usual 4 or 5 hour day of work, Rob was gifted a shift not even an hour long. At his current wage, it's not enough to pay for the gas to get him from his job as a manager of a sportswear store to his job as dishwasher at our restaurant.

He tells me, "I would've been happy working another few hours. I could use it. I'm not working for fun, I'm working for money. So yeah, it's been a shitty week."

January represents a very specific time for those working in the service industry. After the gluttonous orgy of Christmas spending and consuming, middle class customers tend to stay in for the month of January in order to recoup lost funds and lose gained weight. In Winnipeg, January often bitterly cold, making eating out less attractive to those warm on their couches catching up on DVR'ed episodes of Homeland. This means for restaurants, January is easily the slowest time of the year and because restaurant employees are generally not salaried, it's also the weakest month for accumulating hours.

The scarcity of business is even replicated in customers' choice of food. Once the Christmas pounds are packed on and New Year's resolutions are made, people try to stick to healthier choices, such as salads, for the first month of the year. Unfortunately, the price ticket on a salad is not the same as on a steak. Sales are down due to lack of volume, but also to lifestyle choices, as arbitrary as these might seem thanks to New Year's.

Ultimately, this cascades down to the lowest employees on the corporate hierarchy; namely, the cooks and dishwashers. The change from December to January is abrupt for those at the bottom of the ladder. When hours and tips were plentiful in the weeks leading up to Christmas, January is the stark opposite, a Dust Bowl of opportunity and cash.

Solutions to alleviate this are limited, unfortunately. Most of the cooks at our restaurant are students, trying to balance working part time with an increasingly competitive academic environment. Since the cooks are primarily engaged in school, they do not have the possibility of seeking a job in their field. Rather, in order to supplement their income, cooks turn to more cooking jobs. But if all restaurants are experiencing slow times, which is the foolish restaurant that would hire more people?

The downwards trend happens sharply for the cooks, coming as a short shock. Another cook at our restaurant, Ashton, noticed that he was being scheduled half an hour later than usual. He reported to me that normally he works at 5 pm, but he noticed that even on busier days, such as Friday or Saturday, his start time was 5:30 pm. Other employees noticed the same. It turned out that our management team, in an effort to save even two hours, pushed back every single start time. But for employees such as Ashton, ones who only know two or three stations, they tend to have shorter shifts in favour of employees with knowledge of all stations. This means that Ashton's 5:30 shift probably ends at 8 pm or earlier.

Just before working, Ashton sends me a bitter text, "I love working for an hour and a half. I hope they push my start time back further." I reply, "Next week we'll all be starting at 6."

I shouldn't have joked. It was as if the management team had read my text and thought it was a good idea. Starting the following schedule, many line cooks were scheduled at 6 pm. A few had the terrible fate of starting at 6:30 pm. I knew then that it was only a matter of time before the 7 pm shifts reared their ugly heads.

While Ashton and many other cooks live at home while they toil at school and work, some of the other cooks do not live with parents and do not have school in the cards. For a few, working at the restaurant is their primary mode, their only source of income, and their main avenue of interest. Most of these few are supervisors who lazily aspire to something more but put in little effort or ambition. For a handful, the restaurant is all they have. This means that these employees are labouring for less than thirty hours a week at a wage close to minimum, and trying to pay rent and other bills.

Most employees at the restaurant are making under 12 dollars an hour. The minimum wage in Manitoba is currently 10.25 while the minimum living wage is around 12.12. The percentage of minimum wage earners who do not live with their parents is around 40 percent.

To put this in perspective, if one of our employees makes 11.50 per hour and works 30 hours per week, his or her annual income is less than 18,000 dollars. Of course, in Canada, thanks to the social safety net, people such as Ashton and I are getting back 2,000 dollars in income tax as well as quarterly cheques reimbursing for general sales tax paid.

But this is not enough for employees such as Rob, who works two jobs in order to live. RRSPs, savings accounts, debt reduction, and other long term economic plans are just not feasible when one makes less than 1,200 dollars a month. It's also not feasible when Rob comes into work at 7 pm and is asked to leave at 7:45 pm.

What makes this so egregious for employees such as Ashton and Rob, there is often a less than equitable distribution of scarce hours. Certain employees are given opening shifts, which are almost as a rule, 4 hours or longer, and these are the same employees who enjoy working five days a week, rather than the three or four that Ashton and Rob work. Quintin, one such employee, has the pleasure of working the line-opening shift five days a week. Starting at 8:30 or 9 and then working until 3 or 4 every single day. Quintin lives in an apartment and works two jobs, making his need just as great as Rob's. However, Quintin enjoys the greater portion of hours because the management thinks he has a future with the company.

This makes sense in terms of long term thinking. I sat down with Jeff, the kitchen manager, and asked him about the hours situation. He was truly surprised to find that many people are bitter and disappointed that their hours were so significantly reduced. He said, "Honestly, I had no idea. Nobody ever came to me and talked about this."

He told me that when he first arrived at our particular restaurant, he was struck by the dearth of ambitious employees that could possibly move up the corporate chain. In our location, the main motive for working there was because our friends worked there, rather than to make something of the restaurant world. Jeff noticed that supervisors would be hard to come by unless he shook things up and brought in new people with fresh eyes. The result of which is that veterans such as Ashton and myself are meant to have one foot out the door to make room for those with both feet in.

Thus, the problem of the slow times of January are compounded when hours are equitably distributed. Jeff remarked that practically nobody had expressed issues with this loss of hours and that his figurative door was always open. However, sitting down with the kitchen manager does not solve a systemic problem.

Jeff wanted to make sure that I understood that the restaurant industry has changed. It's no longer the fun times party machine of decades previous. When I started working in the kitchen world, around 13 years ago, the partying level was commensurate with the effort of working. It was boom times for all within the industry. However, within the past few years, working in a restaurant has become more corporatized and finely tuned, in order to compete on a national or even international level. There is a greater pressure from stakeholders to run the restaurants more efficiently and to squeeze every possible penny from the labourers. No longer is this an industry of friends working with friends, but a cold corporate system of atomized individuals, easily swapped out if not at peak efficiency and efficacy.

The main issue that workers such as Ashton, Rob, and I have is that working there is no longer fun. Being on line is more difficult as there are less of us to share the burden, and that time on line is being drastically reduced for employees more interested in towing the corporate line.

Restaurants have traditionally attracted a specific personality type that is familiar to the general public: the irascible foul-mouthed leathery irritant. The type of employee that doesn't fit well in the office or cubicle structure. The type of person that carries long knives, does drugs in order to maintain a level of energy, and owns a huge repository of wildly offensive jokes and one-liners. These types of people express their frustration through verbal sparring, pointed barbs, and withering sarcasm. Our main mode of communication seems to be a passive aggressive form of sarcastic reply. This is entertaining for us, irritating for corporate management types who are required by unspoken social protocols to maintain a level of positive energy at all times.

What better proof of the changing face of the industry than Jim, an employee who made the mistake of deploying the resident sarcasm throughout social media? Restaurants such as ours, like all businesses now, see social media as a tool to promote, rather than as a communicative tool. According to our place of work, Twitter and Facebook are not dialogic but discourses for advertisement. Through official channels, the management ceaselessly posts photos of food and notices, any and all attempts to bring in business. Even individual managers advertise for the restaurant through their own personal Facebook statuses and Tweets. The thin line separating business from personal becomes perforated in this model.

Jim, one of our surly but hilarious employees, made the mistake of Tweeting something specific and disparaging about the company. Our restaurant is big enough that there are employees whose sole function is to trawl social media looking for mentions of the company name. Thus, they stumbled across Jim's venomously sarcastic Tweets and promptly sent the word down the corporate chain that this kid must go. When Jim was sat down to be fired, one of the managers told him that he'll never work for the company ever again and that he was personally offended.

In the company's eyes, the dismissal of Jim is totally and unequivocally justified. Part of being an employee is being a good ambassador and keeping problems within the circle. It is about maintaining a flawless facade so that potential customers aren't turned away by the reality of what goes on in a kitchen. Jim, as with all employees, must sign a document outlining expectations, which include the aforementioned good ambassadorship. By Tweeting about the company, Jim violated the document and thus needed to be removed from employment.

But he would have left anyway eventually. Jim's hours were being cut back in favour of employees who were more likely to follow orders without question, without retort, without sarcasm. Employees who might have a future in the restaurant industry should be developed and nurtured; it only makes sense from a business perspective. Thus, the environment is being made increasingly unwelcome for the casual employee who wants to work while going to school, joke around with his friends, and maintain a visible presence on social media.

The casual employee, such as Rob, Ashton, and I, are being shown the door because in the company's eyes, it's not worth putting in the time developing us as employees. This isn't intrinsically a negative thing. This is merely the changing face of the corporate identity. After all, it's simple economics to focus on the employees who will provide the most amount of profit for the company. What gets lost in this particular transaction is the human element, the specific individuals who are left working two jobs that barely pay the same as one salaried job. Employees such as Rob, who have strangers grope their girlfriends and get cut after 45 minutes, are the ones who suffer in the slow times of January, the slow times of an entire industry that is trending downwards.