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Goodbye and all that. Goodbye to all that?

September 10, 2021

I try, as a rule, not to take my earworms too seriously, but I never cease to be amazed at the way tunes I have not heard in decades sometimes resurface in my consciousness and don’t leave. I guess it works like dreams. Sometimes there’s a clear trigger – and I am easily triggered. Often hearing a turn of phrase that is roughly similar to a song lyric is enough. Sometimes, I have no idea.

Well, this week’s is in the ‘I have no clue’ category: the Sundays’ “Goodbye”. This is a song I probably last listened to on cassette. It’s been at least 10 years since I had a cassette player.

Unlike most of my random earworms, this song and I have a serious history. It’s entwined with my first year out of college (I vow that it’s goodbye to the old ways) and a relationship that I messed up, and that messed me up for many years to follow. That relationship started, in fact, at a Sundays concert in the summer of 1993, probably within days of this video, and it blew away sometime in the spring of 1994. When I was a young man, it was like an event. In some ways, the event sharpened my scholarly interest in processes of memory that I took with me on a greyhound bus across the country to the University of Chicago that autumn. In other ways, it just sucked.

Having repaired a lot since then, including some valuable friendships that blew up in the process, having the song come back is not in any way traumatic. I find I listen to it now not so much as a personal memory but as a collective one – as a member of my generation and social position. That is to say: as a Gen X-er.

This also brings me back to the classroom, as I am preparing my opening class for the “Field Explorations” course in media studies on the BA Humanities Honours Programme. In the class, students explore their discipline, and their own interests in it, via a pre-set theme. My theme, which I’d already decided on before the covid crisis broke, is Normal. Quoting from the syllabus:

While certainly not unique to the discipline, critical questions of how, when and where certain times, places, things, bodies, behaviours, or experiences become ‘normal’ within our constantly shifting and highly mediated societies and environments are perhaps uniquely at the core of media and cultural studies.  They are central in our understandings of (media) power and meaning, and sit at the heart of theories of ideology, discourse, representation, performance, and media domestication, to name just a few.  With the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, these questions have been thrown into relief not least by the suspension of ‘normal’ life, routines and mobility, by the increased use of media for physical distance, and by the ways we understand and/or imagine the current crisis (and indeed grasp it as a ‘crisis’).  The word itself can be seen as a ‘keyword’ in our society: both self-evident in meaning, but complex, varied and changing in connotations and contexts.  In trying to grasp ‘normal’ in its multiple meanings – familiar, ordinary, predictable, standard(ized), privileged, etc. – we will explore different strands of thought in media and cultural studies and see what insights into our present (and past) conditions we can gather. 

(Yes, that’s a pretty tall order for six weeks of class)

Part of the goal of the introductory class is to open up a number of the lines above. In my experience BA students in particular are very concerned with issues of representation and identity – wherein normal and normalization show up as processes of oppression. At the same time, I think we also need to get a sense of normal as a baseline of predictability and stability, and collective meanings around which we orient. To quote an essay by Alon Confino entitled “Dissonance, Normality and and the Historical Method” that was central to thinking through my PhD research, we need to grasp ‘the configuration of what is and what is not considered being normal and happy within a culture at a given moment’. He points out:

The normal is not an appraisal of reality; rather, it is an appraisal of value. It is based on a process of comparison and analogy with previous experiences as well as with future expectations.

As such, I want to give a historical and generational perspective on such . Without turning it into Uncle Alec’s Story Hour (which is how some referred to classes by a somewhat senior professor when I was an undergraduate) I want to offer some perspective on what previous generations may have viewed as normal, and what for them the major events were. When I was growing up, the Cold War, with its daily reminders that Mutual Assured Destruction was A Thing, was normal. Until it wasn’t. And then what? Well, among other things, a Gulf War that did not take place, white police being acquitted for a crime the world had witnessed, the OJ Trial and the Real World.

This brings me back to “Goodbye”. It’s on the album Blind which came out in 1992: definitely the and then what? moment. (Peace love now what? is, in fact, a line from another song on the same album) The hope of the end of the Cold War seemed to be almost instantly tempered with a sense of…unreality. I was surprised to rediscover this sense in the song as well: I had mostly remembered its wonderful shimmering sound and soaring vocals that seemed to be desire sonified – I had forgotten how ambivalent the lyrics are by contrast. It’s this dissonance that isn’t dissonant that now gives me pause:

It starts resolute:

I vow that it’s goodbye.

It’s clearly about stepping back from a relationship

Why did we have to assume we’re exactly the same? Oh no no, talking about yourself.

And in the next verse, it walks away again, still resolute but now with some mixed nostalgia:

Those stories were a good read. They were dumb as well.

I could never be seen

Falling down on my knees crawling

Oh no no, talk about a sell

Only after this, does the song head sonically and lyrically for its climax (perhaps in multiple senses) which is in stark contrast to what’s gone before:

As the heavens shudder baby I belong to you

(Where did that come from? Ah, back together, are we?)

They said you get what you deserve and all they said was true

(So, given the foregoing, is this a good thing or a bad thing?)

So is this what it’s come to?

Am I cold or just a little bit warm?

Oh well, just give me an easy life and a peaceful death.

Oh well, whatever, nevermind. Again: What? Where did that come from?

News flash: it wasn’t just the angry lads with guitars saying this. This ending line was both surprising and it wasn’t. It was kinda normal. (On the day I am writing this, the inimitable Malgosia Fiebig will play Smells Like Teen Spirit on the carillon of Utrecht Cathedral tower to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the song)

Xeni Jardin has, I think rightly, asserted that “the core value of Gen X is hostility: to your favorite bands, your mom, your politics, and definitely those shoes.“

Asserting a similar Gen X privilege, I will also add that a hostility to your own favourite things is part of the bargain. Or rather, I would formulate the thesis of Gen X like this: the things you love are crap. (Those stories were a good read. They were dumb as well.) Don’t get me wrong, you love them. But they’re demonstrably crap. (From “Teen Spirit“ I’m worse at what I do best/And for this gift I feel blessed) Right now, as I write this, there is a part of me yelling that the Sundays were really crap. Rinse, repeat, be sarcastic, but really not. I think that’s also why a lot of songs around then were named after substances: things that just…. were. Bleach, Lithium, Glycerine. Normal, everyday things that were, I guess, as worthy of love as anything else, and certainly reliably real. In retrospect, this is an extremely white rage: communities of colour were long since used to being gaslit. Doesn’t make the rage go away.

So, again, where does this come in to teaching? Emotionally I do, and intellectually I don’t, want to tell my students any or all of this (though I may add a Confino quote). On some level, I’m still angry and I’m clearly still attached. And OK, maybe some of this did come out when I was asked by some of my honours students to talk about US media and politics:

Funny thing is that most of my circle who spent our 20s working at jobs we were overqualified for and making art out of frustration went legit. Those who struggled to do so weren’t us disaffected middle-class kids, but ones from more precarious backgrounds. And/but/so, looking at the current impending doom of global heating, driven by racist capitalist greed, I do wonder (besides what the hell are we doing here and not superglued to a fossil fuel company’s front door?) to what extent those of us socialized in/as Gen-X are equipped to teach a new group of students to face these challenges. I question what prospects my students have of an easy life, or a peaceful death. Oh well, whatever, nevermind is not a sentiment I endorse, as much as it feels like home. Sometimes it does colour the way I try to see things from my students perspective – because it was the way I saw things around their age (why did we have to assume we’re exactly the same?).

I’m glad at the least that I get to teach students in a discipline that takes this friction – the tensions between our cultural texts and our pleasures in them – seriously. Without wanting to turn the classroom into a group moan (I’ve done that wayyyy too often), it’s worth asking, and talking, about the things we’re attached to in normal life. And what and how those things matter, And: what do we need, now, to care for?

We don’t normally talk about that.

Postscript: One more note about The Sundays. They actually went back to being normal people having briefly been a global-ish phenomenon. Harriet Wheeler and David Gavurin clearly thought the touring lifestyle and the music business didn’t suit them (I’m worse at what I do best) and so they stopped. Went home, raised their kids, and lived a normal (one imagines – but of couse Can’t Be Sure – settled, middle-class, cishet nuclear family) life.

the important stuff

September 7, 2021

This week, teaching begins again. My colleagues and I all seem to be running on a mixture of enthusiasm about teaching in person again, and concerns that, against the advice they were given, the Dutch government have chosen to open up higher education completely: no masks mandate, no vaccination, no distancing required. Our universities have more or less taken these guidelines over, and left it up to departments and individual teachers and students to create a safe(-feeling) learning environment. I still don’t know how to represent these decisions to the students.

In what feels like an almost untold luxury, I got a full 90 minutes to get acquainted with the group of first-year students to whom I am tutor. After last year, it seems both normal and surreal at the same time. Last year, we first-year tutors had 45 minutes to introduce ourselves to our tutor group, and pass on some basic information, which I was pretty sure they were not going to retain. So I tried to distill what I really wanted students to know about their time at the university into something compact and, ideally, memorable, because what I wanted to say are things that are not really written anywhere. Most of the other information I was meant to impart was just that: information that they could find for themselves online. As I was telling them this, I realised that I wanted them to take this as a deal. It is what the university, and their degree course, should be for them. and if it isn’t, then there is a problem we need to solve.

I will say now that starting the year by stating this is as much – if not more – a reminder for myself as it is for the students. This was the mission and set of priorities that kept me going last year. I also happened to be blessed with an amazing group of funny, engaged, curious, forgiving, caring, and resilient first-year students to tutor. I’m pretty sure that when I am 80, I will still talk about the first-year Taal en Cultuurstudies students of 2020-21.

So, in the spirit of trying to learn the lessons of this last gruelling year and take them forward: this is it. This is what I want students to remember:

1. We are interested in you (yes, you)

I mean this both in the sense of invested in you (we have committed time, effort and care to you), but also curious about who you are. Combining these two senses means, quite frankly that your background, experience, interests, quirks, desires, and well-being matter. We are glad you are here.

We believe that your unique (and shared) experiences enrich our degree course and the university as a whole

We want and expect to learn from you, too. I do, every year.

2. We want you to learn

Years ago, I was lucky enough to have Caroline Nevejan agree to come and guest lecture to my class, and she talked to them among other things about motivation, and asked them if they could guess what university teachers said motivates them. Neither they nor I could, but she pointed to a (then) recent study that showed it was students learning. And its true: there is nothing that gives us more joy in our jobs than being part of the learning process with you.

We neither want nor expect you to learn alone. Study after study has shown that students learn better with and from each other. Seek each other out. Collaborate (though please give credit where it is due). Academia is a collaborative effort; learning at a university should be, too.

We don’t just want or expect you to learn the course material. Some days you will have other shit happening. The world happens to be on fire. Your relationships will be buidling up, and sometimes breaking down. On those days, you have something else to learn. Give yourself the time and mental space to learn those lessons, too.

Learning is not the same thing as getting (good) grades or passing classes. To the extent that these will help you on your way, I hope your marks will reflect your abilities and achievements, but otherwise, I don’t care. I can say with some assurance every last one of your teachers here fucking hates marks and marking, or at the very least see them – alongside university bureaucracy – as the least interesting part of the job. We’re in this amazing and wonderful process of sharing knowledge and seeing you grow, and we have to stop and put a goddamn number on it. We hope that our assignments will allow us to assess how you’ve learned, and show you how to learn more or better. It doesn’t always work (that’s another reason why some of us hate marking: it’s being confronted with our own mistakes and shortcomings). With reference to point 1 above: remember that when we put a mark on an assignment, we are marking the assignment not you.

3. We want you to be well

We mean this both mentally and physically. We are in the middle of a situration where we are asked to balance your physical health – in this case exposure to a potentially very harmful infectious disease – with your mental health, and the feelings of exhaustion and isolation that come with online teaching. While this is extreme (and unpleasant) this is the kind of balancing act that you will often be performing as a student. You are at an age where you are developing rapidly and pushing and re-setting your limits. It’s our job and our desire to challenge you intellectually (see point 2), but nobody wants to break you. Pushing your limits is expected, but recognizing them when you hit them is also a necessary art. It is absolutely OK to stop at your limits.

We want you to feel safe and that you belong here at the university, and this means also feeling free to take steps to make you feel safe and welcome. If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you need more distance, take it. This also means caring for each other and being supportive of each other’s needs. It is absolutely OK to set your boundaries and expect to have them respected.

Above all, please keep in contact. If you even hesitate to be in contact, please remind yourself of all of the above, and reach out.

Post-script: as it turns out, the presentation hardware in the classroom failed, so I ended up giving my whole talk using a white board and markers. Rather than take this as a harbinger of things to come, I take solace from the fact that a few years ago, I might have panicked, but the selective acceptance of crapness that we have learned this year almost made it fun. I will be curious whether this will make it easier or harder to remember for students.

Post-post-script: This entry has grown and changed since I published it. Most of mine do, especially, once I start noticing the typos, but also because, well, thinking about a topic doesn’t stop with publication. Just like learning doesn’t stop when assignments are handed in or grades are given.

DIY culture and problems of participation

December 13, 2020

I am writing my last ‘lecture’ of the calendar year, based in part on m 2013 book chapter with Caroline Nevejan on the relationship between the new civic culture fostered by the squatters movement and the rise of Amsterdam’s digital culture. I was meant to deliver it as a video clip, but instead I’m constructing it as a kind of digital scavenger hunt. This blog post is one of its ‘breadcrumbs’.

Perhaps it’s a bit easier now in the age of TikTok, but it is sometimes difficult to convey the excitement and seeming radical inclusiveness of the DIY art movements that emerged in the 1970s. Punk, which also featured heavily in the squatters’ movement we’ve been discussing in the lecture is an obvious example. The famous image from the London ‘zine Sideburns No 1 (1977)is pretty much self-explanatory:

I also love to show students a clip of the amazing punk band X-Ray Spex , and ask if they can tell for sure where the band stops and the audience starts.

But creating such participatory spaces often also means bounding them off, or having them be bounded off by social conventions or, as in the case of illegal free radio stations, laws as well. This dynamic is brought home in a great article by my Utrecht colleage Philomeen Lelieveldt & Jitse van Leeuwen where they look at the free radio movement in Amsterdam, and they specifically point to the experimental Radio Proeflokaal Marconi (‘Radio Taster’s Café Marconi’) set up by people from Radio 100. They draw in particlar on work in this article by François Laureys, which quotes Ingrid, one of the DJ’s and instigators of the cafe:

Ingrid, in Laureys, p. 4

But, she pointed out that one of the problems was that the café mostly ‘only attracted marginals’:

ibid. p. 6

A similar dynamic seems to have played out with regard to hacking and digital culture. Indeed XS4ALL and De Digitale Stad were more successful attempts to create broad broad civic engagement with a new medium and with the city itself.

Amusingly enough, the links between squatting and digital participation seem to be a very current theme this week. In that spirit, the next ‘bread crumb’ is here.

And if you want, you can leave a link to your favourite music video or radio station in the comment section below.

In real time

May 4, 2020

Listen: Dr Badenoch has become stuck in time.

Brushing the rust off of this site as an actual blog, lord help us.  My ambition is to do a short series of posts here, some of which will reflect on my past research. You know, in lieu of doing actual research and writing, which is on hold now due to lack of time, due to closed institutions, due to a kind of deer-in-headlights wondering what would be the most relevant work to do.   The ambition even of the blog posts will be challenged by the external factors of juggling working from home with caring for a young child who is out of school, but also internal apprehensions, my own discipline and attention span, plus the fact that my contact lenses tend to gum up by the end of the day during allergy season and I can no longer see the screen very well as I type this.

What I love about my academic discipline is that we try to hold all such disparate factors in the same frame.  To quote from one of my favourite essays by one of my favourite scholars, which feels all the more urgent now:

If we wish to better support the critical work performed by the world’s maintainers, we must recognize that maintenance encompasses a world of standards, tools, practices, and wisdom. Sometimes it deploys machine learning; other times, a mop.  (Shannon Mattern, “Maintenance and Care”)

Maintenance and care have moved more obviously to the forefront of teaching work, and we find ourselves grasping and groping for the necessary standards, tools, practices and wisdom to do that work.  Balancing the need to help keep our students healthy while also keeping ourselves going as sustainably as possible; trying to figure out what it is we absolutely need to salvage from our institutions, our work, and our daily lives takes precedence over any actual course content.  Selective acceptance of crapness is all at once a pedagogical gold standard, a core skill, a desired learning outcome, and a tender mercy.

I am teaching a first-year introduction to media research, and it is now two weeks since the panicked scramble of preparation for the teaching term ended with the digital whimper of zoom meetings.  To keep myself from panicking (I know what it feels like to lose it.  I can tell you with some authority that I nearly lost it) while trying to adapt the syllabus into a digital format, I ended up writing a mission statement of the kind that feels important while you write it, and that most students will probably skip.   Here is the key part (translated from its original Dutch):

One of the biggest challenges in doing media research consists of not seeing our normal familiar media world, media use, and media texts as natural or self-explanatory, but as historically contingent phenomena: how did they come to be?  What are the values behind them?  One of the core questions of our discipline is, indeed: how do the media forms we take as normal become ‘normal’?  Good media research often begins with learning not to see things as normal.  In German it’s called Verfremdung, in English seeing the familiar strange.

The current covid-19 crisis suddenly demands this kind of knowledge about our (media) world from us.  With the disruption of our daily routines sometimes nothing seems normal anymore.  We are suddenly confronted with the specific properties of the media we use, with the meanings and trustworthiness of texts, with our own values and expectations from media, and with the communities we maintain via media [I should have added: or not]

We will explore both the world of now, and the world we knew until very recently, and we will do so with the eyes and ears, the hopes and fears [this does not rhyme in Dutch!], the special attention and increasing distractions of now.  We will do this together, in real-time with the crisis, with the media and the means we have, and do the best we can. We will definitely learn something!  Please be patient with yourself, with each other, and with your teachers.

I sincerely hope I managed to find the right balance between stimulating curiosity and, ummm…. requesting selective acceptance of crapness.

The bit about being “in real time with the crisis” was perhaps one of the most throw-away phrases of the whole thing – a sort of TV news ticker-theme tune to give the ‘make-do-and-mend’ sentiment of the rest of the sentence some sense of urgency and purpose.  Ironically, being in real time has been both one of my most overwhelming sensations of this crisis – and it has little to do with either being purposeful or urgent.

In the last five years, I have become a father, lost a parent, and in between stopped working due to burn-out.   As such, I’d grown used to time contracting and expanding like the accordion in a Piazzolla tango: sometimes vividly reliving parts of my own childhood, sometimes living in a kind of future perfect tense, telling my future self or my future daughter about this time, and sometimes sitting in a deep, aspic-y Now while the rest of the world rushed around getting on with it.   Waiting for a child to be born and for a parent in hospice to die had a lot more in common than I would have expected: it is a life in anticipation of change, the consequences of which are not yet clear.

This crisis has changed that.  For one, the temporal fluctuations I had been experiencing were, in part, based on a disconnection between my time and everyone else’s time.  Major personal events unmoor one from social time; they haunt routine interactions and colour everyday experiences.  Such a global crisis seems to have much the opposite effect. If anything, we seem to have become more strongly tied to collective time by losing our grip on social space.  Time isn’t really marked by place: work, school, leisure are all at home – in my case much of it in front of the computer.  Our plans, as it’s turned out, are cancelled.  In that sense, as an article I saw a few weeks ago and lost again points out, we understand at least one aspect of life as refugees.)  Our horizons of expectation are simply shorter.  On top of that, I, for one find myself constantly doing synchronization work: checking in more often on social media, linking up digitally with other cocoons for work, family, friends.  Every evening 9pm my time/2pm Chicago time, I tune into Shelter Radio, where podcaster and theologian David Dault –  one of my oldest and closest friends –  plays songs on his guitar  He draws heavily on a lot of the music we’ve shared, and form his time playing coffee shops and bars in Atlanta when we both lived there.  But while there is a lot of remembering bound up in this for me, it’s not reliving: it’s really, truly, deeply about being now.  In real time.

Similarly, my memory, too, has become much more egalitarian.  I noted on fb a few weeks ago that I’m suddenly homesick for almost every place I’ve lived besides here.  Even the places I didn’t like that much.  A lot of those around me were having similar sensations.  A friend called of mine made the tie more strongly to time generally, talking about having ‘life flashing before you’ moments, where other times and places of apparently little significance suddenly show up.  The flyover country of my life narrative looms up and I’m re-discovering all sorts of private Idahoes.  So it goes, as it were.

This works, of course, only as long as none of your nearest and dearest have the virus.

And so we go back into the teaching week, selectively accepting the crapness, adjusting as we go.  Having watched enough online ‘live’ concerts where folks who are used to performing on stages suddenly get very nervous when lacking a physical audience (NB at least one notorious public orator had similar issues with radio studios in the 1930s.  This is not new), I was at least a bit prepared for my first lecture’s sickening feeling of speaking into the digital void of students I could silence or even disappear with a click.

The students were patient.

The students were kind.

I ended the lecture with a group scream. Unmuted.  In real time.

Report from EMHIS VIII in Gregynog, Wales, 14–16 May | Entangled Media Histories

July 29, 2019

Source: Report from EMHIS VIII in Gregynog, Wales, 14–16 May | Entangled Media Histories

Follow-up on the Summer School on Transnational Radio History | C2DH | Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History

July 3, 2018

The Summer School was organised in order to offer to the participants, early career researchers who came from everywhere in Europe, and all the way from Russia and from Chile, the opportunity to not

Source: Follow-up on the Summer School on Transnational Radio History | C2DH | Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History

Programm und Anmeldung Jahrestagung 2018 „Materialitäten“ 28.-29.6. in Mannheim | Studienkreis Rundfunk und Geschichte

May 9, 2018

Source: Programm und Anmeldung Jahrestagung 2018 „Materialitäten“ 28.-29.6. in Mannheim | Studienkreis Rundfunk und Geschichte

Jahrestagung 2018 „Materialitäten“ – Einreichungsfrist bis zum 9.4.2018 verlängert | Studienkreis Rundfunk und Geschichte

March 24, 2018

Source: Jahrestagung 2018 „Materialitäten“ – Einreichungsfrist bis zum 9.4.2018 verlängert | Studienkreis Rundfunk und Geschichte

Inaugural lecture December 1: Found in Translation

November 27, 2017

Most who know me will already know the news that since 1 January 2017, I have been appointed for one day a week as Bijzonder Hoogleraar (endowed professor) of Transnational Media the Department of Art and Culture, History, Antiquity at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, attached to the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision.

Now I have the pleasure of announcing my inaugural lecture, which will take place this coming Friday, 1 December 15:45 CET in the Aula of the Vrije Universiteit.

 

The title is:

Found in translation: transnational media and the national archive

(perhaps we could call it: How Dutch is Beeld en Geluid?)

Radio and television have long stood in the service of the nation, as institutions, technology, and as purveyors of shared moments great and small.  National audiovisual archives can serve a similar role, especially in the digital age as their content becomes available for sharing, re-use and re-collection as national memory.   But from their earliest days, these media have also involved flows of people, things, and ideas beyond national borders, often translating them for domestic use.  Now, as archive content is ‘translated’ from the archive into the digital sphere, it enters again into transnational circulation. Taking a transnational view of the archive allows us to see how these past and present processes of circulation and translation can speak to each other.  Looking at rich examples from Sound and Vision’s collection and beyond, we see how by looking more closely at the technical and cultural points of translation we can open up our view both of the nation and the world.

  The lecture is public, please see the official invitation for details.

In addition it will be available to view as livestream at 15:45 or as recording here.

Save the date: The Many Lives of Europe’s Audiovisual Heritage Online – EUscreen

July 9, 2017

The Many Lives of Europe’s Audiovisual Heritage Online: a one day symposium at Utrecht University (The Netherlands) on May 16th, 2018. And a Farewell Symposium Prof. Dr. Sonja de Leeuw: Professor o…

Source: Save the date: The Many Lives of Europe’s Audiovisual Heritage Online – EUscreen