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November 11, 2011

Mash-Ups in Fashion, Music & Literature

Johanna Blakley

Mashup Compilation from Eduard Minobis on Vimeo.

When I think about mash-ups, I can't help but think about Julia Kristeva and her notion of intertextuality.

The term has been used in many, many different ways since she first coined it, but, quite generally, she was using it to talk about literature and the way that it exists within not only a network of language but a network of texts. Every text, even something you wrote on a sticky note, is in dialogue with the entire linguistic system - you've just selected a few words from that system. Those words, of course, are weighted with meaning: they have a long history of being used by lots of other people, for lots of different purposes - both constructive and nefarious.

Now a literary text - something that's trying to assert or achieve the status of a cultural object that deserves a reader's consideration (something more refined than your sticky note) - is part of a network of language and also a network of previous texts. Kristeva was very interested in how it is that the meaning of a piece of literature is produced in the mind of a reader, who cannot help but situate their understanding of that text in a larger context, one that includes what they've read before and what the writer is both self-consciously and unconsciously referencing.

If you think about it, the process of writing anything could be described as the process of sampling.

Some authors are far more self-conscious about this process than others. I wrote my doctoral dissertation about literary modernism and so I became very familiar with T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, a poem infamous for its intertextuality. Eliot's literary and historical references were so numerous and so intricately interwoven that he was prevailed upon to provide footnotes for later editions. Nowadays I don't believe you can find an edition without the footnotes, which themselves have become the subject of detailed literary analysis. Even though I was a big fan of Public Enemy at the time, it didn't occur to me that what Eliot was doing in his "high modernist" masterpiece was not all that different from what hip-hop artists were doing with recorded samples - creating multilayered, multivalent texts that engage with the past as they try to grapple with the present. (You can find out a bit more about my continuing research on The Waste Land here)

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November 22, 2011

Fashion in Rio de Janeiro (Part I)


Just in case you haven't noticed, Brazil is really hot right now. With its incandescent economy and its reputation for sensuality and Mardi Gras decadence, Rio de Janeiro, in particular, has attracted an unprecedented amount of global attention. As the sprawling city prepares for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, all eyes have turned to Rio to better understand how it ticks and how it might brace itself for the world stage.

When the Lear Center's Johanna Blakley was interviewed recently by Ronaldo Lemos for Brazilian MTV, he mentioned a new report that his research institute had issued about the growing Rio fashion industry. The Lear Center has long monitored the global fashion industry, its rather surprising lack of copyright protection and its relationship to media and entertainment. Territórios da Moda (Fashion Territories) is currently only available in Portuguese so, Johanna asked Ronaldo and the project's leader Pedro Augusto Pereira Francisco if they would answer some questions about their findings. They generously agreed and so this is Part One of a two-part interview about the inner workings of Rio's booming fashion scene.

Johanna: I think most people are familiar with the bright colors and body-conscious style that's typical of fashion in Rio, but you mention in your report a certain "hi-lo blasé" that defines the carioca lifestyle. Could you tell me a little more about that?

Ronaldo & Pedro: Sure, in our research we have identified three important segments in the Rio fashion industry. We have called them "fashion", "off-fashion", and the "atelier" circuits. The fashion circuit is the higher-end designers, the off-fashion is the incredible industry that developed in the outskirts of Rio, far from the posh neighborhoods. They are an important economic force, and have become also a creative force. And the ateliers are small-business, producing very exclusive pieces, and doing sometimes conceptual work, in a small scale. There is a lot of diversity in these segments, but they are all influenced to some extent by the image of Rio de Janeiro, that is, a casual-chic mixture, where flip-flops can be mixed with a very well-designed dress, and the combination ends up being a very sophisticated look.

Johanna: You indicate in the report that higher-end designers are less concerned with being copied than with being accused of copying, or getting caught on the back-end of a passing trend. In fact, I think one designer you interviewed said that they need to "escape trends" in order to remain relevant in the marketplace. Could you talk a little more about that?

Ronaldo & Pedro: Absolutely. The "fashion" segment is a fairly recent phenomenon in Brazil. The Rio de Janeiro fashion week (as well as Sao Paulo's) only really took off in the last 12 years. So it is natural that designers find it important to establish their own identities and make a point that they are not simply copying the trends they saw in the previous shows in New York, London, Paris or Milan. In this sense, it is important to mention that seasons in Brazil are the opposite of what they are in the US and Europe. With that comes the temptation to simply copy the trends presented in the last seasons in the US and Europe. But the movement now is to establish a local identity, to strengthen the local brands and their ideas. There has been quite a lot of consolidation in the market in Brazil, and many local brands have been acquired by investment groups.

Continue reading "Fashion in Rio de Janeiro (Part I)" »

November 28, 2011

Warning: Political Ads Make You Stupid

Marty Kaplan

MKnew125.jpgThis is the disclaimer that Britain's Public Interest Research Centre recently proposed for inclusion on billboards:

"This advertisement may influence you in ways of which you are not consciously aware. Buying consumer goods is unlikely to improve your wellbeing, and borrowing to buy consumer goods may be unwise; debt can enslave."

For this buy-buy-buy holiday season, those words are a spritz of pepper spray.

Imagine, then, that advertisers were required to admit that the underlying premise of consumerism - Buy this, and you'll be happy, beautiful, desirable and immortal! - is a con. Imagine that they were also compelled to meta-confess that the craft they ply is actually black magic: Beware! This ad will end-run your reason and hijack your judgment.

It's not as farfetched as it seems. After all, tobacco companies have to put this-will-kill-you warnings on cigarette packs. Drug ads are obliged to tell you that their wonder pills may cause hallucinations, impotence, falling asleep during eating, nightmares, compulsive gambling and thoughts of suicide. The sheer length of time it takes to list side effects - often longer than the pitches themselves - is a tacit acknowledgement that something about these ads is nuts. Why shouldn't all ads be ordered to give up the game?

By the time of the 2012 elections, some $3 billion of campaign commercials will have run on TV. It'd be a new day for democracy if political ads were required to include a disclaimer: "The scary music, PhotoShopped pictures and misleading sound bites in this ad are tricks intended to manipulate you in ways of which you are not consciously aware. Voting for this candidate is unlikely to improve how awful things are; hope can heartbreak."Maybe on some other planet that will happen, but not this one. In the absence of consumer warnings on political ads, we have five things to pin our hopes on.

  • Education: Critical thinking and media literacy - understanding the history and methods of propaganda - are part of the school curriculum. An educated citizen can't be fooled by meretricious bull.
  • Freedom of speech: The best cure for bad speech is more speech. If ads lie, they can be countered by other ads that correct them. The robust free market of ideas will ensure that truth prevails.
  • Transparency: Candidates must appear in their ads and say, "I approved this message." The sources of funding for ads to elect or defeat candidates are required to be disclosed.
  • Freedom of the press: The fourth estate is part of our system of checks and balances. Fact checks, ad watches, financial disclosure sites, "keeping them honest" segments: the sunlight of journalism acts a disinfectant.
  • Social media: Citizens have been empowered by the Internet. Everyone with a laptop can now be a publisher and broadcaster. You don't need a paycheck from a news organization to investigate claims and report abuses.
So how's all that working out?

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