A Rambling Preamble

Yes, hello there. He sings it better than I ever could. So this is blogging/another way of acceptably talking to yourself/therapy minus the crippling bills. Another blog in an ocean of them reminds me of the silent person struggling in … Continue reading

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A Stranger’s Gaze

Even a trip to the nearby shops can be fraught with social anxiety. Out there in front of our noses are more of us, more of the same, more of different types, more of everyone and everything doing much the same or completely different things altogether – people maybe on their way to or from a meeting, interview or overdue catch-up with a long lost friend, celebrating this or that news or commiserating whatever has once again brought them close.

Ships in the night become strangers illuminated by streetlight, which doesn’t really live up the romanticism of the first phrase, but it’s difficult to remain razor-sharp, quick-witted and with an empty compliment to hand each time someone passes by who, for reasons unknown, catches our eye. What interests us about any of these people vying for position out in the wilds of public decency could range from their kind of walk, sense of style or facial expression at our precise second of mute yet profound interaction. We might plain fancy this person and notice nothing else about them at all, in which case our imaginings don’t get much beyond the one-dimensional and predatory. We fill in no back-story or invent a scenario to which this stranger can be understood in the scarcity of a moment never to happen again in these exact same circumstances.

The anxiety arises from being able to account for how each person in turn evaluates our presence, if indeed ours warrants it through the eyes of those who, to only add to the trauma, may take no interest whatsoever that our paths had crossed for the first and only time. The point being there’s no socially acceptable method of knowing the thoughts of another person in the great silence that looms over being unacknowledged. They’re either too busy returning to their illegally parked car or in a rush to collect the kids from school to wonder about that soon to be forgotten person whose eyes they met in a sea of thousands that week. But still we look, searching for something – or at least I do. I’ve never been one to hold a downwards gaze while on parade, for that’s what even this most functional of behaviours is – walking along the street from one place to the next is as much an invitation to be critically appraised, though this judgement occurs more discreetly than it might should it happen in a more conventional situation, where socially acceptable rules allow for the exchange of rapidly made assumptions.

A quick glance at a stranger is followed more swiftly by a return to whatever occupied our minds beforehand, before we ready ourselves for the next interruption caused by another person willing to hold the briefest of returned gazes that transmits a complexity of information the opposite expected from its duration. ‘This is me, so that must be you’. ‘I see you being yourself – now see me realising that while being myself in exchange’. ‘I wonder where he/she bought those glasses’. When we look at ourselves in the mirror we see only the person we’ve come to know, expect, love or despise. No matter how hard we try there’s no way to view what we know greets us in the mirror we return to for confirmation of the fact in the manner every other person on earth does – by looking into our own eyes from afar, without the aid of an object only ever fascinated with our own reflection as much as we are with it. But it never acknowledges us in a satisfactory way – often people don’t either. But when they do there’s a primal acceptance that what makes our own flesh and blood is the sum total of the other’s humanity staring right into its equivalent.

We justify our right to exist by facing through the faces of those unknown to us the equal of our own stroke of temporary good fortune. What it means to be human is too much for just one person to come to terms with – by looking at those unfamiliar to us as we pass, and when all conversation with people we do know has been exhausted but fallen short of an answer, we silently share and confirm that life is indeed happening right now, between us both and those who we’ll acknowledge but not speak with later. These temporary yet repeated moments between two strangers allow us to recognise that through one the other confirms what neither can see in themselves but is common to both, no matter the difference in appearance or reason to be wherever it is we happen to reveal what lies behind this exchange. That conversation has never been one of verbal communication’s strengths.

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False Modesty Apprentice

Even though I have a thing for numbers it would suit me better were I not drawn to their sour aftertaste, but a glutton for punishment never gives in to weak starvation. You see I hate them, but that doesn’t stop me firing them all too often from one side of my brain to the overwhelmed outer-reaches of its opposite. Although words consist of numbers I can’t help but love them, given their scope for the kind of mental agility no quiz show participant would covet. Numerous letters make up the words which dictate the number of sentences that give me the total of those making up the paragraph to add to the individual ones contained in the separate words that results in a number of some kind of finality. My favourite thrill comes when alternating letters of a word can be rearranged to spell out another – if with soppy palms you’ve clung on to that you’ll recognise the OCD in me, and maybe yourself.

Odds and evens, primes and whatever the rest that aren’t primes are called. Attempting to teach me maths was as futile as my explanation of what I find compelling but gruelling about playing pointless mind games based on adding up numbers representative of their place in a word or sentence, other than blaming it on a skewed mind with an appetite for the forensic dismantling of stuff. The pity is we can’t remove numbers from underpinning either designing a bridge that doesn’t sag in the middle should we stare at it too long or inventing new and convoluted ways of extracting simple patterns in language that sums help construct. They give a peculiar satisfaction when operating in unexpected ways, but more still when they do what we anticipate – then we, the collective who bother wasting our time on the senseless, reclaim the upper hand. Our toil has become worth it.

So I was never going to be the one who figured out when presented with a blank piece of paper how to plonk a person, simian or wealthy businessman sick of continents on the moon – submitting a doodle in the corner or game of tic-tac-toe I conspire to lose against myself are no substitute for funny graphs with pleasing arcs and gibberish symbols or formulae that build rockets and reliably inform an astronaut the moon’s on your second left after the really bright star. No, I lose track of a shopping list. But numbers are fascinating all the same – particularly three. Based on something most likely dubious I learned years back my lucky number is actually five, but naturally it’s brought me no joy whatsoever. When I stubbed my toe on May 5th I washed my hands of five and moved on to pastures new, like all good defeatists should.

Three word statements are a favoured device of mine. When there’s a (to these ears at least) nice rhythm to one I like to make it the headline for a piece of writing, even when there’s no obvious relationship between the two (that two is one fewer than three causes me great difficulty, as does a reliance on brackets). They’re a bogus tactic to try and confidently suggest a meaning where there’s none to be found, or conjure imagery it doesn’t deserve should it be a snappy read. It might seem they serve no purpose at all, other than to indulge me as their producer the right to occupy myself with a hobby of no consequence. Like most people I have my secrets and this is one of my easiest to confess – I find three word statements amusing. The title of this is more important than that though, as it long precedes the content still deliberately skirting the issue.

I came up with it as a means to describe myself. If it’s pompous or arrogant then in the final analysis I’d have to own up to being often both simultaneously. Hanging some words from the frayed thread of the title’s influence allows me to hide behind the purpose set out for it – that of coming to terms with myself. Either the title’s up to the task or I’m not able to justify it, in which case becoming my own subject is too difficult a task to comprehend fulfilling with words only I get the honour of choosing. Despite not being a gambling man I keep my own cards as close to my chest as a poker player guards his hand against prying eyes – in their case suspicion is a healthy buffer against revealing too much to a table of sly enemies, but suspicion over how to tackle the subject or how explicit to be is a poor starting point for the autobiographical.

I suspect writing’s the most selfish of the arts and the obvious home for the vain. Immodestly I believe I know it, otherwise why would I be here? Scratch the surface of any writer’s material and their personality clings to the atmosphere like morning dew. It can’t remain hidden forever.

 

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Language’s Own Curse

Some months ago I found myself again at the bar of my local pub, but if the answer to every conundrum’s not to be found at the bottom of your umpteenth drained pint glass I didn’t really find myself there as the revelatory and I had crossed paths yet again – more I happened to be in the same place as myself at the same time, which is a difficult habit to ditch. This was no pilgrimage of discovery so I left just as confused as when I arrived, but I was definitely there despite appearing to the contrary as I daydreamed the time away.

Another punter dared interrupt my thoughts. If these formulate coherently we think of them as a train – sometimes they meander until we pick up the pace again and coax them back on track, before steadily wafting into their destination with a sense of placid certainty a conclusion has been reached so the journey worthwhile, if not always comfortable and the catering toxic as always. On this occasion the analogy’s doomed to failure as my thoughts were scatterbrained and full of holes for me to press my nose up against, but not every day finds us on an even keel.

I was looking to swap places with him as he’d accomplished fetching more drinks. There’s a passage in Orwell’s Down And Out In Paris In London where he perfectly describes the atmosphere of a Parisian worker’s establishment where the evening yawns invitingly before the ragtag assortment he finds himself about to grow drunk with on a Tuesday evening for the fifth time that week, only to find the early optimism wane as the atmosphere sours with each passing hour. The unnamed punter shoved this memory down my throat so hard I gagged like a pork-scratching had performed the Heimlich manoeuvre on my Adam’s apple, but I was cheered his enthusiasm to get another round in sharpish was the summit of his woes at this early stage of the game.

He was having a good time, and on a Friday evening who could blame him the luxury. It was still early doors so his mood couldn’t yet imagine the blow of last orders pouncing on its prey as regularly as a pint of poorly kept beer loses its head, so as we danced the drinker’s jig of sidestepping one another with accomplish we exchanged a few words in recognition that the evening was ours for the taking. His language was fruity enough to sting a paper-cut from sixty paces, but I’m not easily offended so was happy to listen as he cursed and blasphemed until his heart’s content and a perimeter had formed around us as souls more sensitive to the profane retreated a safe distance to continue talking about mortgages.

But here’s the thing – this punter, still unnamed but if he offered it when we shook hands I beg his pardon as I forget it now, had a sloppy way of swearing. He favoured overuse instead of using a choice vulgarity at an opportune moment to reinforce the substance of his words, as like it or not I believe there’s an art to swearing. Bad language can add drama to a dull sentence begging to be throttled alive, or stress emphasis the match of any punctuation. If anything swearing is the last word in punctuation – it doesn’t belong everywhere but deserves respect in its placement. Too much of anything gets boring eventually, even if that thing at first encounter seemed an activity we’d never tire of. Overuse blinds us to what we found pleasurable in the first place.

Our friend hadn’t cottoned on to this, so onward he ploughed with diluted talk suffocated with the predictable. Somehow culture has never quite come to terms with swearing, except once in a generation allowing a word at a time to lose its ability to shock. Once this happens it can be used around the dinner table should the carrots not be in reach or waft from the television without causing fidgeting in a family aghast with the decline of standards but the increase of their annual licence fee. There are so many horrors to choose from in the world nowadays that swearing as a reaction can’t ever hope to be adequate – everything’s so hyper-rapid and fragile words literally fail us. The price of progress is the cutting off of our tongues.

We spoke barely a minute before he’d rejoined his table with his bounty and I’d been served again, but in that time my thoughts had suddenly joined themselves up. There was no artistry in his swearing, but he spoke loudly and clearly about the subject. It’s just a shame he didn’t notice.

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Hidden App Character

It can be tricky knowing where or how to begin an argument, save aiming to win it come the final triumphant breath, particularly when it hopes to be persuasive despite being a challenging and rarely considered counterpoint to social phenomenon generally thought harmless or useful, but which contain enough scope for an alternative analysis should their consequences be closely considered.

With the above though I’ve tripped over my beginning, so typing out loud has its uses – as does having the wherewithal to examine these trends for lack of anything much better to do, except reckon on it being important and an invitation to pause for necessary thought. As much as technology helps push the world round, it contributes to behavioural changes in consumers that transcend learning the techniques of an item’s function and integration into a routine until steadily everyday habits alter to accommodate the adapting. As a result a culture changes, presupposing one existed to warrant the label, or develops anew from the point at which some technological advancement becomes its solidifying moment.

From here we can easily consider the value of technology in two distinct ways. Firstly it contains its intended practical use – a new-fangled phone seeks to reunite users with the notion of communication with the introduction and suggested convenience of perpetual connection. This is the outcome of its basic function, and the purpose for it satisfactorily meeting a prior demand. If it’s true the market doesn’t always know what it wants until a mysterious device plugs a gap whose existence it was oblivious to, then the technology sector responds either by inventing solutions to problems which don’t exist, if you happen to remain sceptical of an industry very few people (myself amongst them) truly understand, or through being a prophesying fulfilment of society’s needs and lusts, should you instead be evangelical in their commitment to doing no wrong by improving everything bit by bit.

This first aspect of considering use value is as old as the hills, and can be applied to bread as much as the latest gizmo. If our bread works as bread, it’s a good product because of the fact. Should it sandwich together a filling to make an edible whole, it’s easy to grasp the reason for its being – its sole function is satisfied almost unnoticed, as outside of the white sliced the world remains undisturbed from the simplicity of its practical value. The second aspect is a little more abstract, so naturally the area I’m more interested in. An obvious example – bread never changed anybody, other than filling an appetite. It contains no revolutionary aspect or potential for change. A perfectly baked crust is no call to arms, despite the aroma nobody can resist. We may tremble at its majesty once a loaf emerges scalding hot from the oven, so even the ordinary wields surprising power.

However this power is very basic and satisfies only a crudely one-dimensional craving, whereas a technological device purports to change how society organises and expresses itself – this is power with a dual character. A smartphone must first still meet its basic function to satisfy the first condition of its right to exist, which fortunately isn’t difficult for manufacturers to achieve. In this it’s the equal of bread – as a utility to make calls either desperate or trivial we’re onto a winner, but it’s no substitute for engineering a quick sandwich. While the end results of use value differ wildly, they remain comparable in their objective to achieve what no other thing can. But the secondary element of such a device’s value is to alter our habits in a way bread could never imagine, leaving any relative comparison on this level hopeless – unless you enjoy crunchy sandwiches spread with impressive screen resolutions or holding stale bread to your ear while you blabber pointlessly into oblivious dough.

We use a smartphone in favour of the village-idiot conservatism found in their predecessors for two reasons – firstly to make calls in affirmation of their being, but secondly to inhabit the promise of the second aspect of its value beyond the strictly practical – their capacity to change society through their dual value validating the promise. Wanting to change the world for the better appears a difficult objective to resist, but it’s also a lofty ambition which technology companies insist they’re blessed with. As such their certainty must be taken seriously, as if communication and our perceived lack of empowerment within it is being replaced for its opposite, we must be certain we understand the true nature of that which grants us the privilege. A good starting point is apps. On the face of it these appear the latest Good Idea, which has an unfortunate habit of proving ultimately faddish. This was my initial impression, but limited experience has convinced me otherwise. So what is there to wonder about?

As useful as some are, their makeup warrants a closer look. The chief characteristic underlying their worth is they make a virtue of disposability. If one doesn’t measure up or satisfy every whimsy we can throw at it, we just replace it for another. Again this appears favourable – choice benefits the consumer, especially when many incur no financial cost (the concept of them being ‘free’ remains an invention – they did not spring from the ground, and monitoring data and consumption when installed is a civil liberties discussion unique to the industry). What we find in this arrangement is a retreat from permanence, which impacts at the micro-level of society. In life we hope not to be stuck with any form of relationship we don’t enjoy. But if the key to eternal bliss is never experiencing even brief dissatisfaction with something, most of us will die unfamiliar to this state. From time to time we have to tolerate things which make us unhappy – ideally these will be brief moments, but the one certainty is they will occur.

Whatever these problems consist of, they share one thing in common – they cannot be switched off, reset or swapped for the less debilitating. Life is one big coping strategy, without which we neuter our strategies and mechanisms once a period of struggle arrives. It’s not immediately obvious there are parallels here with our freedom to discard one app for another, but incremental changes to modes of behaviour plot the future the device would have us follow. How we react and interact to the unique problems they present shapes the cultural psyche as much as any belief system. Our possession over these apps becomes entirely transient once we become hooked on the sudden thrill of shopping without scruples. This kind of approach has no solid ground on which to build. A noisy marketplace brim full of competitors jostling for position gives an immediacy to exchange we cannot pay back with consideration and extended use when it doesn’t seem bothering with.

Instead we remove without hesitation an app we don’t enjoy. When buying an object with physical properties it’s rare we think of the circumstances of its production, or the material labour which helped announce its presence. Those software developers find their labour condemned to the immaterial as it’s poured into an ephemeral application are more distant in our thoughts still. Consumerism has always been about rabid accumulation, but the tactic of satisfying a bloodlust in the shape of a consumer only the internet could recognise as such distorts any kind of appreciation for that which proves below par. Yet the encouragement to participate within this environment not only persists but becomes the chief USP dressed up as offering a degree of customisation to ownership and purchasing we’ve always wanted but had been denied. Finally the user has control over their device – except it’s not that straightforward, despite the insinuation being partially accurate.

To compensate for the erosion of control we feel over aspects of our lives more pressing than the mere gadget, we want to establish a sense of ownership over our devices rather than feeling hostage to their limitations. But the culture which our response to apps introduces raises questions over our treatment of things when we indulge an instant refusal to tolerate displeasure from any source. Wanting to swap something becomes our default position, simply because in the app scenario we find ourselves able. For its own sake an exchange for something else no longer appears obscene or gratuitous – instead it’s our fundamental right. The relationships we build demand an investment of time and energy. Should we find ourselves no longer inclined to make this kind of commitment, only to find other apps just variations on a theme and likely as far removed from an ideal solution as perfection itself, so the trickledown effect of seeking cheap and instantaneous fulfilment stains our impression of everyday life. Naturally this is a very gradual process, but everything begins somewhere.

The sheer volume of apps and the hurry to accumulate as many as we’re able satisfies a gratification of the senses far removed from the solidity of an exchange or transaction built on the foundations of obligations and trust. Competitive individualism to possess a new app becomes the means to its own end, and not much else. ‘There’s an app for that’, runs the famous slogan. Though when choice is made complex through volume and repetition and making an informed judgement based on sound practice and experience is traded for briefly sampling without due consideration, we find ourselves acting on flawed advice. Viewed this way the slogan has never been found more wanting.

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Overly Sensitive Much?

Aspiring to being considered a person of the people in the eyes of whoever considers such a position laudable draws no sharp intake of breath from most onlookers with matching ambitions, making good the manifest reality of the phrase ‘I’m a decent, honest man of the people’. Women can be men of the people too as last I knew gender was no barrier to achieving a state of commonality with others, which is how I choose to view the meaning of the phrase. In so doing we chuck our hats in with the lot of the majority, fearing the exclusion and uncertainty of whatever the hostile minority might consist of. Belonging finds its justification via the implied protection of safety in numbers, but we must be mindful of overcrowding as well.

Those of an overly sensitive disposition object to the restriction of boundaries and groups, preferring to roam rather than risk an identity courtesy of categorisation, despite belonging seemingly the obvious state for social beings intent to hunt in packs when cementing societal relations. Affirming membership of the human race is one of the reasons people congregate, much like the velvet rope at a VIP club segregates those who by dint of not being inside must remain outside. People crave company and companionship, if not literally then by association, but why this should be isn’t so clear; much like the lone drinker can’t answer whether he overindulges purely because of the profound joy he’s free of any cautious word in his deaf ear advising him that perhaps his thirst has been quenched after a persistently drunk fortnight or because the supposed terror of being alone condemns him to see no further beyond some exile of the mind.

Not subscribing to a populist agenda risks the offender being labelled an untrustworthy refusnik or arch trouble maker with questionable principles for making a decision not in keeping with conventional methods of thought and civility. These days keeping your curtains shut through the daylight hours will have your neighbours falling over themselves to report your imagined misdemeanours with their most powerful tool – malicious gossip. Playing by your own rules has always been a risky business, which leaves the notion of pluralism dead in waters polluted by hypocrisy. None of this has much to do with what I’m about to elaborate on, but it does help understand my approach in wondering why some perspectives grate against prevailing wisdom like platelets forming their own identity though the destruction of another.

Being overly sensitive is a curse in permanent contradiction with itself and the highpoint of an existence spent on the nerve’s threshold. Apart from that it’s a barrel of laughs with much to recommend it, provided you’ve the constitution to get by on a combination of strength of will, force of character and hefty levels of chutzpah in the face of opposition whenever you can expect it, which you will soon come to learn is always and forever, real or invented. A coping strategy in the arrogant face of adversity is a must, which may put us in the territory of our friend the drunk above, provided we can drag ourselves from the latest stupor brought on by finding our feelings wounded by another unintentional slight of the slightest kind. Think of it as the emotional substitution for those overly attached to their shoes finding them stepped on at every turn. Offending abstract sensibilities will never do either.

The most precious commodity the overly sensitive protects is our ability to manipulate worry into an ever present reaction to every circumstance we face. It’s probably true there’s no love like a mother towards her children, yet should they be overly sensitive themselves this love has an immediate rival in their devotion to vanity in the face of hopeless odds, for the overly sensitive finds pride in being their own King, judge, jury and executioner. Add to that our conviction of our own rightness about everything, despite finding when we actually are these rare instances pale into insignificance when compared to believing this hubris, we have an odd moral quandary indeed. This gets sidestepped by adding the obvious contradiction here to the worry list, so all is well again – the more the merrier becomes the more the worse, but there’s a peculiar thrill in needlessly adding to our troubles. In fact we can’t get enough of it, as in spite of ourselves we can’t find anything else to be so passionate about. Anything that gets in the way of our being misunderstood is just a waste of mediocre air.

We’d have it no other way though – being understood can never measure up to the pride in remaining permanently aloof, as the misguided fear of emotionally relating becomes a kind of instant failure. Conversely this is exactly what we crave, but only ever on terms we change so often our own perfectionist minds can no longer keep track of the rules. This helps explain our unhealthy distrust of groups – they comprise members in some kind of agreement with one another, or with sympathy for a particular viewpoint or grievance. The overly sensitive is so selfish they’re unwilling to show acquiescence to anything other than their right to be some kind of conscientious objector. In this our pretend strength becomes our mortal weakness, but we nurture this characteristic for all we’re worth. Of course I can admit this – should anyone else lay this on my immaculate facade I’d have no option but to strike up a hopeless argument to the contrary, as giving myself away offends the sensibilities like nothing else.

So there it is – the overly sensitive differ from people of the people by instead being people of and for themselves. Our group membership expired after the first entrant closed ranks around itself, so insisting that the remainder are default challengers to our well rehearsed delusion. Our divine right to reply gives us freedom to deploy the opinions we design to offend rather than sympathise, which mask the opposite truth we’re too afraid to speak. I shouldn’t have confessed to that though, as you’re getting too close for comfort.

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Endlessly She Probed

What is the purpose of a question, other than flaccid opening gambit in this instance? For a critical blog which hopes to investigate the space opened up by being inquisitive about everything all at once, it seems a natural progression that my penetrating gaze should turn inwards on itself, to see whether it can come to terms with that which gets it crawling ever alert from bed each morning.

A question acting in retaliation can demand an explanation to an answer considered false or curious, or refute or refuse a predictable reply in favour of coercing another more preferable in return. Apart from its usefulness as such a tactical device, one can be a deployed to fill a gap the size of an entire day when there’s nothing much better to talk about. Asking one entirely without aim defeats the object, yet routinely such wastes are accepted courtesy of a trivial answer the honest measure of its reception, when really they should be encouraged to dissolve pointlessly into an atmosphere not quite hostile enough to have ignored it.

To me questioning is a method of getting stuck into the mind’s housework. Following Wyndham Lewis’s belief that laughter is the mind sneezing, I view properly intentioned questioning as the mind pausing to draw breath and take stock. In the material world we organise our bank statements, although personally I struggle to even open them as my chairmanship of the eternally broke squad has yet to be challenged, much like we do our stamp collection or tea-towels. Generally these objects are better off arranged into some kind of sense, and the same is true of information – we store it away in reach of the mind’s-eye, so that we can respond to any question or dilemma we face with a well directed response. Digesting the items we find interesting in and of the world helps develop the one trait which distinguishes us from the pack – our own opinions.

We find clarity by trading perspectives off against the other until we settle on what become, via a process of forensic self-assessment, our view on ourselves, the world and whatever fills the gap in between. Questioning is the foundation for developing a moral position solid enough for us to hold our own reflection without flinching, while the decisions we make springing from these determine our character through the eyes of others. We file away our considerations until they need to be dragged from the ordered mind either to cheaply impress a desperate admirer, win an argument by flummoxing he who dares object to our absolute authority or make a mockery of the competition down at the pub-quiz for a reward of fraudulent dry-roasted peanuts doomed to the slightest Trade Descriptions Act scrutiny.

The mind’s quest for rationality is vocalised when we ask a question, although some are more partial to it than the norm. One such person was the instigator of this piece, although she’s a long way from being able to acknowledge my gratitude that she in turn made me question why I myself am overly fond of the very same. Not long after Christmas I was on a bus heading from Nottingham back to my parents’ house when on walked a girl I never shared a word with at school and hadn’t had the pleasure of still ignoring for many years subsequently. She was with her young daughter while I was equally content with my purchase of another bottle of Muscat de Beaumes de Venise after finding its floral, sweet fancy perfectly countered the sour Christmas aftermath.

As they passed I thought better of comparing stories of our mutual progress since last we never spoke, as neither of us could pretend to care. Instead they sat nearby whereupon her young daughter, at best maybe 4 years old, began an assault of indiscriminate questioning of whatever took her fancy. ‘Mummy, what’s that?’. From the response it was nothing more than an advertisement on the bus. With this answer passed on came the first of endless replies spurred on by dissatisfaction and a need for elaboration, cloaked in the mystique of a single forceful word – ‘why?’. This young girl took absolutely nothing for granted, or relied on her mother’s answer as gospel. She needed to investigate exactly why things are the way they are. After all, who decides?

Sometimes her monotonous, and I mean that with all credit, insistence on resorting to a single‘why?’ threatened a simple bus trip home from town with her mother and hopefully a new dolls house or thesaurus might disrupt the calm surface of logic, though at such a tender age who am I to object. ‘Mummy, what’s that?’ came the familiar cry for knowledge. Following the reply and as regular as clockwork, the usual demand – ‘why?’. Why are those adverts? Why are those things there for standing passengers to hold onto? Although the answer to that’s already implied, there’s no telling she might not have a better solution to the plight of those laden down with bags but condemned to a post-shopping life spent stood up. Who knows? Something tells me this kid will become whatever she wants when she’s all grown up, which at this rate should be some time this side of 5.

She was really quite something. Every ‘why?’ carried the same intonation, while each followed a period of deliberating whatever answer came from the preceding question. Sometimes this would take a few seconds of consideration; often the dismissal would be instant so the probing followed without her mother pausing for breath. She relished challenging at every opportunity information she is expected to take for granted, as she was concerned only with whatever constitutes her own truth. To feel mildly intimidated but equally impressed with such a young person was more than I ever expected from a trip for more dessert wine, but I can never get bored of finding material by keeping my ear close to the ground. I suspect hers is even lower than mine, and she’d find this article inadequate in helping her understand anything – in spite of her age though she made me understand more about what makes me tick than I’d ever dared contemplate.

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1 In 919, 760, 419

Last night I gave this Gangnam Style thing, and forgive me spelling out the figure but it gives ample opportunity to rinse such a total’s full magnitude around your captive mouth, its nine hundred and nineteen million, seven hundred and sixty thousand, four hundred and nineteenth viewing on YouTube – not making it beyond halfway may count for a paltry 0.5 towards that figure, which would have swelled several thousand higher in the brief time I decided my time would be more wisely spent doing something, or indeed anything, else.

Listening to it was a strange choice to make in the first place. Like everyone with the exception of children in the womb, deaf animals and lampposts with enviable resolve, this ‘sensation’, as the excitable press would have it, had stained my vision like cataracts. It’s inescapable when in its original form, or when parodied by game show presenters across the world – in some cases probably even the news has weighed in with a segment devoted to it come the end of their broadcast, a period generally set aside for the comparably light-hearted once the weighty stuff has been glossed over by hosts wearing too much make-up.

Gangnam Style is unavoidable and inescapable. Or to put it in grander terms – omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient over what is known as popular culture. That this also describes the presence of however God is derived, revered or feared in society makes the impact of this South Korean, and I’m really struggling to pin-down exactly what it is as ‘song’ is no longer up to the task so ‘thing’ will have to do, all the more troublesome. Apart from the references to it I’d picked up, I’d never put the time aside to listen to what all the fuss is about.

This was a deliberate choice, as weeks and months can pass without me being aware of who might be enjoying the Number 1 song in the UK charts. Assuming whoever it might be isn’t lording it in the back of a limousine with tender lobster and empty lies to impressionable groupies while they nip to the corner shop, I’d walk past this kind of artist in the street with not a hint of recognition. Curiosity got the better of me though, as did my momentary desire to take a peek under the bonnet (by which I mean a ‘hood’ should you be lounging in a Los Angeles duplex), of what drives the culture industries these days, which to stick with the metaphor has clean blown a gasket.

The global success of this is astonishing and disturbing in equal measure. Culture naturally depends on crossover appeal, but in many instances a concept or point of origin for a work or text ensures its reception beyond an intended audience can only ever be some kind of inauthentic experience, where the motives of a work remain misunderstood or misinterpreted. For a text to achieve its aim, assuming it has one other than to rejoice in its pure right to exist, it seeks authenticity through its target audience only if they engage with it in the terms in which it was intended – when both parties meet in the middle of this relationship its true meaning is granted. Postmodern texts though have a habit of ignoring the merits of authentic inception becoming its equivalent in reception, as immediately many of them begin as parodies lacking a sense of humour or style of things not worth bothering with in their original form.

Gangnam Style sets out to be deliberately bad for the sake of it. In this respect it’s an overreaching success. In doing so it has become the immutable fact of popular culture, ably supported by the internet. This raises aesthetic problems about taste and judgement, but not least the role of the internet as champion and distributor. As sentimental things people become attached to artefacts. Our books become peculiarly precious possessions, whose importance is explained away in misplaced poetic terms such as enjoying their smell and general appearance, not that these aren’t contributing factors. What we crave in and through them happens to be ownership, as from that comes a sense of control. This book, by it not being yours, can only be mine. That millions are reading the same international best-seller is beside the point – each experience is individual, rather than collective.

The lack of technology contained in books prevents an immediate discussion as to plot, opinion on narrative with a stranger across the globe. About as much as we can expect is that a friend or relative shares similar taste, in which case we converse with somebody already familiar about its strengths or weaknesses, or to notice that a stranger on public transport somewhere is several chapters behind wherever we might be so is yet to discover Margaret is actually Robert in disguise, which immediately shuts the door on public discourse with them, as the shift to what is actually private discourse via the internet, regardless of its empowering claims to the opposite, is all consuming. We cannot own cyberspace in the same way we can a tangible object gathering dust on a shelf. We can do what we like with a book, even use it in a method against its design – a doorstop maybe, or weapon to throw at a partner when they forget your anniversary.

We can do nothing about the internet, which has become the final judgement over what constitutes popular culture. Skype and PayPal both use the same participation count as YouTube, but there’s a vital difference in how each function sharing the same medium is used. While we talk with distant relatives on Skype, we can see that millions of others are doing exactly the same thing, but crucially the conversations are bound to differ given the limitlessness of topics and local news stories of interest. As we buy something using PayPal, we see that, again, millions of others are up to much the same, but the items they buy and the reasons for these purchases have nothing in common with our own. This is plurality in action. With YouTube however, viewing figures relate to the identical – despite it containing countless millions or billions of clips, mass congregation around the Gangnam Style clip can only be viewed as standardisation on an epic scale.

Here we find the death of diversity. That someone is simultaneously watching the same thing as me in China loses its appeal once we realise it makes no positive difference to either party. While this is also true for a couple of readers of the same book separated by many thousands of miles, the difference is a book makes no liberatory claim beyond the individual. Postmodern texts though find their ideal foil for their conniving tactics in the shared ideological devices of sites such as YouTube, whose purpose is not to free or reach out to strangers in the aim of bringing them together, but to confirm the unimpeachable status of the internet at large. When considered alongside my earlier point about our ongoing lack of control or ownership of this space, we find ourselves stuck in an entirely undemocratic and perverse situation.

Soon enough Gangnam Style will rack up its one billionth viewing – a pivotal moment once it happens, but not for the reasons YouTube will celebrate it. According to the World Bank, the global population currently stands at 6, 973, 738, 433 – give or take, 1/7th of us have felt the same kind of suggestible influence from somewhere by watching it without a hope of understanding. The freedom of choice still exists to watch what we please whenever suits, so in many respects the direction of popular culture lies in the hands of users. The insignificance though of my isolated view amongst that many provides a stark reminder of our mortality. While acting as a pure transmitter of material, the internet’s insatiable desire for consumption as its own justification is matched only by its indifference as to how, when and why this occurs. Caught in the middle of this dichotomy are people reduced to the empty signifier of ‘end-users’, where all subjectivity is lost to the conceptual, while the medium itself is irreducible to nothing whatsoever.

When popular culture and the internet combine to deliver supposedly harmless content which triggers such reflection, this is the clearest indication that their power is being abused. Inward and solitary thinking is a negation of the emancipatory aims of the hegemonic medium of this or any age.

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