The Walrus: Politics 101 and Culture 2.0


I picked up my first copy of the Walrus in ages yesterday, keen to read Ron Graham’ cover story on why Michael Ignatieff hasn’t “knocked our socks off.” Huge disappointment. The piece is positioned as a view-from-30 000-feet look at the broad sweep of the Liberal party from Pearson through to the present, trying to use that as a larger frame to show why Michael Ignatieff was probably doomed to fail in his ambition to be the new Pierre Trudeau.

Don’t bother. It’s an annoyingly written piece that repeats the long-familiar story of the three Toronto boys who drove down to Harvard and sold Ignatieff a bill of goods,  and presents nothing in the way of original analysis. It’s the sort of article that, after asserting that  Bay Street powerbrokers tend to identify their own interests with those of the nation, feels obliged to punctuate the point  by saying, “As Madame du Deffand is said to have remarked when told of the political philosopher Helvetius’s theory that every action, including generosity and kindness, is based on self-interest, ‘Helvetius has revealed everybody’s secret.'” It’s like John Ralston Saul was stealing in during the night and rewriting Graham’s copy.

Graham also claims that Ignatieff’s memoir/campaign pamphlet True Patriot Love was cut a lot of slack by “most commentators” because “they were his friends, had the same agent, loved the idea of one of their own in power, hated Stephen Harper, or never bothered to read it.” Maybe it’s because I love Stephen Harper, but my recollection is that the book was panned by “most commentators” as an intellectual embarrassment.

So why pick up the new Walrus? For Adam Sternbergh’s  piece about the return of the Kids in the Hall, which doubles as an elegy for the Toronto scene of the mid-1990s, and triples as  a smart comment on how the wonders of Web 2.0 have rendered old cultural forms obsolete.

I’m a sucker for Adam’s writing. I loved The Kids in the Hall, hung out on the edges of the crowd Adam is writing about for a few years (and even saw his sketch troupe, Joke Boy, a couple of times at the Rivoli), and am increasingly interested in the way the elimination of friction points in the transmission of information changes the incentive structure of cultural production.

On this last point: The most interesting thing I’ve read on this is still Lawrence Lessig’s decade-old book Code, which argues that many of the everyday freedoms we take for granted in a liberal society are not due to legal or constitutional protections, but simply because they’re too difficult to enforce. I’ve argued, here and elsewhere, that cool ceased to be a credible political stance when MTV made it impossible for subcultures to hide and flourish for any length of time.

Sternbergh argues that sketch comedy (which he calls “that most Canadian of comic forms”) was killed off by YouTube. Where once you had groups coming together in rec rooms and hashing out sketches, then gathering in teams at clubs and theatres across the city to try to out-funny one another, that energy is now “dispersed online in a thousand digital shorts.”

It’s a smart argument, one I find highly persuasive. Can you think of similar examples — aside from newspapers — of cultural formats that seemed natural but which have been fundamentally altered or made obsolete by the apps and tools and gizmos and tempos of Culture 2.0?

Filed under:

The Walrus: Politics 101 and Culture 2.0

  1. The article on Iggy was ponderous. Perhaps the magazine is taking its name too literally.

    As for cultural changes, the number of small literary magazines (those that publish fiction and poety) in Canada continues to decrease as gov't grant qualifications have changed and require said mags to have unrealistic numbers of subscribers. Also literary print magazines now have to compete with literary web-based mags.

  2. Chiasmus! I thought the Iggy piece got pretty good toward the back half, and that it has the guy's number in several important respects. There's at least one important point in there that nobody's considered, which is that the Carr Center may not be the easy escape hatch for Ignatieff, after his dire post-Iraq performance, that Canadians assume it is. Found Sternbergh, on the other hand, narcissistic and unimaginative.

      • I'm thinking of making it a regular bonus feature in the comment threads to Colleague Potter's blog posts.

        • Ponder well, and carefully construe
          If you for it, or it be right for you.

  3. Is your book going to be similar to that column that you also linked to because if so I can't wait to buy it next April? I always remember that column as it really struck a chord with me.

  4. "Can you think of similar examples — aside from newspapers — of cultural formats that seemed natural"

    I wonder if people are still writing in journals and diaries or is it all online now. And if it is online how does using a lot of 2NTE, LOL or OMFG affect their english writing skills.

  5. Anybody and everybody can now afford to make and distribute recorded music.

    On the whole, it's helped to free music from the control of corporate gatekeepers (record companies, radio, etc.). And I'm a firm believer that music should be a popular ("folk") form of expression and communication – not a commodity to be sold, consumed, and fetishized.

    That said the 'digital dispersal' has also unrooted music to some extent. We've ditched the corporate gatekeepers, but we've not fully found the natural communities to foster and give meaningful life to music, in all cases.

    I've been immersing myself in Woody Guthrie's music this week. It's fun, but I can't shake the feeling that I'm a trespasser or some sort of archaeologist trying to analyze artifacts' meanings (as much the songs do resonate with me quite powerfully). Those tunes were rooted in a tradition, and given life by the people he shared them with as part of a social and cultural fabric. I'm having trouble, at times, seeing how this very cool universe of infinite global music can do the same thing.

    • SeanS

      Interesting thoughts about music and forming 'natural communities to foster and give meaningful life'. I am not certain everyone thinks/feels about music that you do or maybe it's because you are focused on folk music and not pop. I am big music listener but I do not think about 'natural communities' because I decide if I like a song, not a community. I have always assumed that many people judge a song by if it makes them tap their toes or sing along with the chorus.

      You might be having a hard time with the Dustbowl Troubadour because he is rooted in time/place in a way that few other musicians are. It is virtually impossible for anyone in North America today to understand /relate to what Guthrie is singing about.

      And I enjoyed your brief intro on Coyne v Wells, the snippet we hear reminded me of Dylan. Don't have time now but will check out your MySpace page later.

      • Thanks! I'm always grateful when someone spends a bit of time with my music.

        I'm the first to admit my take on music is hopelessly warped by my own journey, and that I risk overstating its importance in the world (and I think the pull of 'toe tapping' and visceral engagement is primary to any and all music – many of my influences would be called 'pop'.).

        Also, as I think about it, it might be silly to see music as a component of relatively bounded communities, in that so little of our lives is structured that way.

        • I was wondering what you meant when you wrote "…not fully found the natural communities to foster and give meaningful life to music".

          Are you talking about replacement for record companies or do you have more idealistic scene in mind where people come together and share music with one another?

          • My father-in-law grew up in rural New Brunswick, and has rich memories of kitchen parties where everyone joined in – singing, strumming, clapping. Some of my own fondest memories are similar – parties,campfires and jams where everybody was involved. The other image I have is of the few times I've visited churches, and witnessed the congregations joining in hymns.

            In those cases, music is as much about social union as about aesthetic pleasure, if that makes any sense.

            I don't want to privilege any particular form of community – and I think the ability to share music globally can and does give rise to communities unbounded by geography and existing social units.

          • You are so philosophical — I'm gonna go look you up. I guess that's a fundamental change that Andrew is writing about — we can look anyone and anything up, right here at home — a world of information at our fingertips, instantly.

            I like what you're saying about music and its natural communities — makes me think of how rap got started, in all its authenticity, created by, for and about the people on the urban streets. I live in SK, and find it fascinating how the aboriginal youth here feel so connected to the urban blacks of America — both good and bad I suppose, but authentic to their experience.

          • That'd be great if you checked my songs out – thank you!

            Give a listen to Thomas Bearfoot, as it (coincidentally) is about Natives and cops in Saskatchewan (though it's darker and more political than my usual offerings).

  6. Looking forward to watching KITH "Death Comes to Town" in 2010!!!
    Is CBC airing it in January?

  7. So why pick up the new Walrus? For Adam Sternbergh's piece about the return of the Kids in the Hall, which doubles as an elegy for the Toronto scene of the mid-1990s, and triples as a smart comment on how the wonders of Web 2.0 have rendered old cultural forms obsolete.

    The links for this and the Iggy profile are available online. Ironic.

  8. I think the way all artists find their audience has changed with technology, and certainly we know journalism has.

    Also — sex and relationships.

    I love your articles Andrew — you're an interesting guy and write provocatively.

  9. The Iggy peice is the normal class warfare claptrap that comes out of the fringes of Canada's disaffected left.

    In their world, everything is a conspiracy to make more money and deceive people in the pursuit of world domination.

  10. I like to think the Walrus piece was worth it if only for the description of Ignatieff's apology for his support of the Iraq war as "more mea than culpa..

  11. Well said. Reminds me of the "analysis" of Stephen Harper in a previous Walrus that was mostly basic bio detail.

  12. Everyone and his sister is in a band now (yours truly included). Just here in Montreal there are several rehearsal factories, one alone with 50 rooms and over 100 bands banging away. It's a growth industry but the only way to make any money these days is to hit the road and tour. It's no coincidence that touring for the summer has practically become the new back-packing in Europe before going to college. By removing the barriers to entry being a rock musician has gone from a Bacchanalian calling available only to the chosen few to a fully legitimate lifestyle. It's embarrassing. With help from the likes of “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band”, rock, hip hop – pop music in general – has become a huge mockery of itself. I can't wait until kids refuse to get tattoos to spite their inked progenitors.

    • Wow, you've managed to inadvertently describe a race to the bottom and a lament for 'authenticity' in a single paragraph. Andrew Potter should gift you with a thumbs up. Since when was pop music anything but a mockery of some previous form? Bones and sticks beating logs and rocks: that's your authentic pop music moment. Everything since: mere mockery.

  13. The impact that I find technology has had on music is that it has dumbed-it down, badly. No need to spend much time learning the craft. Just slap some chords together, or better yet sample your favourite tunes of yore, toss in some inane lyrics and throw it against the web and hope it sticks. It's all flash and no substance: people running with their half-baked ideas and calling it music. It's basically all Blog Rock. The same thing is happening to films. Thank God for Cable TV series! It's about the only thing left with the power to draw anybody in for more than 5 minutes

  14. And books… for those who can still read.

  15. Actually the only authentic music to anyone would be the sound of their heart beating in their own heads.

  16. "… am increasingly interested in the way the elimination of friction points in the transmission of information changes the incentive structure of cultural production." Huh? Goodness, professor, clarity escapes you again. Such "an annoyingly written piece"! If you meant writing that annoys, well, yours wins the prize, Master Potter.

  17. "and am increasingly interested in the way the elimination of friction points in the transmission of information changes the incentive structure of cultural production."

    i like this point. i think it jibes well with the notion of "free" as a model for monetizing attention. but the trick is actually producing a thoroughly engaging service or cultural product, which is always a crapshoot anyhow. over the summer my friends and i published a four issue micro magazine similar to what abe's penny is up to, but a little more accessible. in the fall we put together an 8 part collaborative story that ran as a serial. we did these things not with the profit motive in mind, at least not explicitly, but more out of interest, initiative, and ease. and it was also pretty fun.

Sign in to comment.