Archive for the Uncategorized Category

Miss RSS Pie (with apologies to Don McLean)

Posted in Uncategorized on 4 July 2013 by Ben

A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that newsfeed used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my say
That I could make that reader stay
And maybe we’d be informed for a while

But July 1st made me shiver
With every story it delivered
Bad news from the dev team
Google reader had lost its steam

I can’t remember if I cried
When all subscriptions were denied
But something touched me deep inside
The day the reader died

So bye-bye, Miss RSS Pie
Point my Chrome to the HOME page but the homepage was dry
And them good old boys were linkin’ Facebook and lies
Tweetin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

Did Slate write the book of love
And do you have faith in Drudge above
If Politico tells you so?
Now do you believe in rock and roll
Can Pitchfork save your mortal soul
And can you teach me how to read real slow?

Well, I know that you’re followin’ him
‘Cause I saw you Skypin’ in the gym
You both logged into chat
Man, who has time for that?

I was a lonely thorysomething readin’ buck
With a Wordplus bog and Google Plus
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the reader died

So bye-bye, Miss RSS Pie
Point my Chrome to the HOME page but the homepage was dry
And them good old boys were linkin’ Facebook and lies
Tweetin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

Now for two days we’ve been on our own
And news unread becomes the unknonwn
But that’s not how it used to be
When Sergey thought about baud rate
In a coat he borrowed from Bill Gates
With metadata that came from you and me

Oh, and while Livejournal was looking down
Zuckerberg stole its emo crown
The chatroom was dispelled
Godwin’s law was upheld

And while Lessig wrote a book on code
Or newsfeeds went in the commode
And we blogged about Mad Men episodes
The day the reader died

So bye-bye, Miss RSS Pie
Point my Chrome to the HOME page but the homepage was dry
And them good old boys were linkin’ Facebook and lies
Tweetin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

Helter skelter in a summer swelter
Civil right were on the run to a fallout shelter
Snowden knew and they were falling fast
They landed foul on the grass
“Leftists” tried to give Obama a pass
With Greenwald on the sidelines in a cast

Now the hypocrisy was sweet perfume
While the journalists marchd to the marching tune
We all got up to need
Oh, but Google didn’t see the need

‘Cause the citizens tried to take the field
The journalists still refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the reader died?

So bye-bye, Miss RSS feed
Point my Chrome to the HOME page but the homepage was dry
And them good old boys were linkin’ Facebook and lies
Tweetin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in Face-
Book–no time left to start again
So come on, Page be nimble, Page be quick
Larry Page sat on a candlestick
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend

Oh, and as I watched him on the blog
My keys were stalled, it was a slog
No Feedly born in Hell
Could break that reader’s spell

And as the flamewars climbed into the night
Arguments were seen as impolite and
I saw Brin and Page laughing with delight
The day the reader died

They were singin’ bye-bye, Miss RSS Pie
Point my Chrome to the HOME page but the homepage was dry
And them good old boys were linkin’ Facebook and lies
Tweetin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

I met a girl who said lean in
And I asked her if it would ever come again
But she just sneered and turned away
I went down to Google Play
Where I’d downloaded the reader years before
But the bot there said the reader wouldn’t play

And on the web, the bloggers screamed
The tweeters tweeted and the Beliebers dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The Atom feeds all were broken

And all the aps I admire most
For email, blogs, and all the rest
We were shown that they might not last
The day the reader died

And they were singin’ bye-bye, Miss RSS Pie
Point my Chrome to the HOME page but the homepage was dry
And them good old boys were linkin’ Facebook and lies
Tweetin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

So bye-bye, Miss RSS Pie
Point my Chrome to the HOME page but the homepage was dry
And them good old boys were linkin’ Facebook and lies
Tweetin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

The Singularity (with apologies to Yeats)

Posted in Uncategorized on 21 February 2013 by Ben

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The admins cannot hear the faculty;
Things fall apart; the future will not stop;
Mere job training is loosed upon the (first)world,
The educated tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of employment is drowned;
The best lack all grant funding, while the worst
Are full of passionate Shirkyosity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Singularity is at hand.
The Singularity! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of the Chronicle
Troubles my sight: a waste of pixels;
A shape with Kurzweil body and the head of a borg,
A gaze brute and guileless as the endowment,
Is moving its slow bureaucracy, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant PhDs.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That two centuries of universities
Were vexed to complacency by an ahistorcial professoriate,
And what rough MOOC, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards the Internet to be born?

“There is no dark side of the digital really”: My proposal for The Dark Side of the Digital

Posted in Page a Day, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on 6 January 2013 by Ben

Here is my (late as it were) proposal for the upcoming Dark Side of the Digital Conference. (edit: I’m calling this my page of writing for the day, even if it’ snot quite a page.)

There is no dark side of the digital really”

Benjamin J Robertson

In a recent blog post, Jussi Parrika suggests that we should read the “dark” in “dark side of the digital” in terms of “the dark side of the moon” rather than “dark side of the force.” Instead of the evil or malevolent “side” of digitality we should, with Pink Floyd, address the fact that “There is no dark side of the moon really. As a matter of fact it’s all dark.”

These two approaches to this conference theme are not at all at odds with one another. This paper argues that among the darkest (as in the force) aspects of the digital is its darkness (as in the moon) by design if not by nature. That is, the digital is closed to us, an inhuman space much in the manner that Galloway and Thacker suggest that networks stand opposed to humanity. Drawing from Galloway and Thacker—as well as upon Stiegler’s notions of default, disbelief, and discredit—this paper describes the dark side of the digital through nine short discussions:

  • Speak to Me: when we communicate through digital tools, what else do we communicate with?
  • Breathe: the digital gives us so much room, but none in which to pause.
  • On the Run: as in “on the digital”: the pharmacology of speed.
  • Time: history and futurity in the age of hypersynchronization.
  • The Great Gig in the Sky: where is the cloud?
  • Money: not too much credit but too much discredit—no investment where no belief.
  • Us and Them: there is no us and no them—the digital has neither “side” nor “sides”.
  • Any Colour You Like: the perils of choice; hyper-demography—all content directed to the individual.
  • Brain Damage: how damaged? is the digital now the default?
  • Eclipse: the end of the Enlightenment, even the parts we “like”, such as privacy.

Incommensurate Nostalgias: Changin’ Times in Watchmen (Page a Day day 1)

Posted in Page a Day, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , on 1 January 2013 by Ben

The following is part of my Page a Day project and some rough writing from my forthcoming essay on Watchmen, music, and nostalgia.

Watchmen is framed by two Dylan songs. The title of the first chapter, “At midnight, all the agents…”, derives from 1965’s “Desolation Row.” The epigraph which concludes this chapter provides greater context for the title: “At midnight all the agents, and the superhuman crew, go out and round up everyone that knows more than they do.” At the end of the interchapter (an interview with “the world’s smartest man” and former costumed hero Adrien Veidt) that follows the penultimate chapter, “Look my works, ye mighty,” appear, as copy for an cologne advertisement, “The times they are a ‘changing [sic].” The chorus to Dylan’s 1963 (released 1964) song is printed in several “futuristic” fonts which stand in juxtaposition with the advertised cologne, Nostalgia by Vedit.

Although music does not play a major role in Watchmen’s narrative, both historical and fictional artists, songs, and events inform its recurring themes of nostalgia and progress, as well as the conflict within the text between the establishment and the counterculture. References to Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, and Devo serve to illustrate the changing nature of American culture from the 1950s through the 1980s as rock music becomes increasingly popular and older musicians such as Presley—once though to threaten the moral fabric of the nation—become part of a simplified past and are subsequently replaced with newer acts who have doubled-down on strangeness or offensiveness in an apparent effort to penetrate the numbness of nostalgia and assert the present and future.

This essay explores the manner in which Dylan specifically and music generally informs Watchmen. I argue here that the two aforementioned songs (“Desolation Row” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”) make clear the function of nostalgia in the novel: a force of simplification whereby the past becomes increasingly purer and safer and the present cum future increasingly more complex and threatening.

The page a day project

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on 1 January 2013 by Ben

Probably this would be no big deal for most people, but since I tend not to write at all unless I think I can get a huge chunk done all at once I have resolved this year to write a page every day. I hope that will allow me to ignore my inclination to save it all for a marathon session, as such sessions rarely materialize with my teaching load and the rest of my life.

I am not concerned with producing finished writing everyday so much as getting thoughts on paper. Likewise, while I plan to produce writing related to my two current projects, I don’t plan to hold myself to doing so every day. Some days my simply see me write about whatever I happen to be reading or thinking about at the time. If it fits into future work, great. If not, that’s cool too.

Whatever I write about, if I can produce 365 pages of writing this year (or likely more as I do hope to get in a few of those marathon sessions) that will be great for me and hopefully be the start of some better writing habits as well as greater engagement with the online academic community, to which I hope to contribute more than snark.

I will post my daily writing here, warts and all. Some days will likely include revisions of previous work, but I hope that there is something new in there each day as well.

Draft introduction for 33 1/3 proposal on The Kleptones’ A Night at the Hip-Hopera

Posted in Uncategorized on 1 June 2012 by Ben

Here is the draft intro for my unsuccessful 33 1/3 proposal on The Kleptones’ A Night at the Hip-Hopera. See here for the chapter by chapter summary.

3. Draft Introduction

Introduction: Never Trust Originality

I remember Vanilla Ice all too well. And I remember that I know “Under Pressure” not because I was a Queen fan in the 1980s. Similar to how I first knew “Another One Bites the Dust” as the walkout music for pro wrestler The Junkyard Dog and “We Will Rock You” from every American sporting event ever, I first knew “Under Pressure” because Vanilla Ice sampled its bassline for the hook to “Ice Ice Baby.”

And when I hear Vanilla Ice make a cameo on 2004’s A Night at the Hip-Hopera—in a new mashup of his vocals with that bassline—I realize The Kleptones know all of this, and that they think it’s funny. They’re laughing at me because I didn’t always know where that sample came from, because I owned To the Extreme on cassette, because I still know all the words to its signature track. See what happens when it comes on at a party, and see the shame set in with the hangover. But I also realize that The Kleptones are laughing at themselves. After all, by making the joke they acknowledge that their history with “Ice Ice Baby” and “Under Pressure” is similar to mine, that they make the same association I make whenever I hear that bassline.

But that’s all good fun—a groaning recollection of misspent youth and a nod to the convoluted ways we come to know our cultural past in a highly mediated world. The real joke is not some kid who bought into a one-hit wonder created by radio and MTV saturation, but rather the larger cultural paradigm that feeds his contemporary anxieties about that moment. Whatever my present thoughts on the artistic merits of the sample and the mashup, I wish I knew “Under Pressure” because I knew Queen first. I wish I knew in 1990 that Vanilla Ice was “desecrating” the “original” song. I wish I had never thought, even for a second, that Vanilla Ice’s version was the original. Once I understand, however, why I wish all those things, I realize that The Kleptones’ joke comes not at my expense, or even at Ice’s. Rather it comes at the expense of the concept of originality itself, a concept that underpins my shuddering recollections, a concept wielded by the music industry in the name of protecting past music, and the profit that comes with that music, from those who would appropriate it, sample it, and mash it up.

The Kleptones guide me through a journey over the course of A Night at the Hip-Hopera. They play the Virgil to my Dante, the Mephistopheles to my Faust, the Ferris Bueller to my Cameron Frye. They reveal to me a complex history of popular music, one that we cannot understand through the blunt instrument that “originality” has become: the romantic notion that that which is truly great is also truly new; the idea that an artist, no matter how influenced by the past, escapes that influence to speak in his or her own unique voice; the claim that idea x can be simply traced and attributed to person y. Simply put, “originality” tells us that we can determine where our inherited culture comes from and therefore who owns it.

The Kleptones reject this notion of originality and all that comes with it. They narrate their history of popular music, among other things, entirely through the mashed up samples of our televised, broadcast, recorded, filmed, and videotaped past—a past that belongs to everyone who experienced it, for good or for ill. The mashup, which mixes a vocal track sampled from one song with an instrumental track sampled from another, terrifies a music industry that would tell a story very different than the one The Kleptones tell, one in which music belongs only to the individual or very small group who created it—one in which originality rules. As the album progresses, The Kleptones’ appropriations (or thefts, as the lawyers would tell us) blend with one another into something strangely and wonderfully new—something somehow original. But this origin is different. It does not claim to be the product of any individual genius, but rather that of a network of influences so complex that I cannot hope to trace it. As I hear this origin reveal the music industry’s notion of originality for the sham that it is, I hear something else. I hear the industry demonstrate its inability to cope with a world transformed by the new technologies that afford this new form of originality or with the new cultural attitudes that value it. I hear the industry die like the dinosaur it is.

And only when I understand the nature of this death—the most significant of Hip-Hopera’s several themes—does the joke, in all of its complexity, begin to make sense.

Let’s start at its beginning to see how it works.

As “Sniff,” Hip-Hopera’s twelfth track, begins I (the listener) am invited, by way of a sample from Lil John and the East Side Boys,1 to see what’s happening at “another part of the studio.” Upon my arrival there, by way of a second sample (this one from a tourist advertisement for the Pacific Northwest), someone tells me to “sniff.” A third sample represents that rather loud sniff as I apparently suck something up my nose. Finally, a voice from yet another sample suggests that, if I am having trouble, I need to get in touch with my dealer.

And then “Under Pressure” begins. Instead of Freddie or Bowie, instead of Vanilla Ice even, Belinda Carlisle, slowed down to match the new beat and coming now in a deeper octave, tells me that “heaven is a place on earth.” Well, I am high after all. And then I hear the refrain from “Ice Ice Baby” and heaven turns to hell, the hell of cultural shame. I knew it was coming and I know what comes next: “All right stop! Collaborate and listen!” And what comes next, and next. Again, I still know all the words.

Although many of us who dug To the Extreme were, at the time, too young and too suburban to have ever seen cocaine, The Kleptones tell us that the “chumps” Ice raps about weren’t the only ones “full of eightballs,” that we, as a culture might have been the chumps, that we must have been high. How else can we explain the fact that we drove To the Extreme to number one as the fastest selling rap album of all time? How else to explain that, in the golden age of sampling (what with It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back and Paul’s Boutique so recently released), we celebrated the vanilla rhymes and vanilla samples of Vanilla Ice. “Heaven on earth”? Nothing but irony.

(Of course, we may have also been high just a few years earlier when we celebrated the mediocrity of a post-Go-Go’s Carlisle, so she’s one to talk.)

But that’s only the first part of the joke, the friendly part.

That part of the joke, in which The Kleptones poke fun at those who know Vanilla Ice, leads to the second, more trenchant part, the part in which I come to understand that I should never trust originality.

The Kleptones know that when I hear that bassline I am as likely to associate it with “Ice ice baby” as I am with “Mm ba ba de.” Because of Ice’s theft, I’ve lost the “original” association between bassline and band—one that I never actually possessed as it were. However, rather than giving me “back” that origin, this mashup creates for me a new association between Queen and Belinda Carlisle. And then, just as Carlisle fades out and Ice begins, yet another association! Prince Paul cuts Ice off with “Yo! Yo! Excuse me!” from “More Than U Know.” These words might shove Ice out of the studio, but they still don’t get me back to Queen. In fact, they take me further from the original than I have ever been. When I next hear that bassline, what association will I make? What will I start to sing? “Mm ba ba de”? “All right stop! Collaborate and listen!”? “Ooh baby do you know what that’s worth?”? Yo! Yo! Excuse me!”? Can I ever get back to Queen? Can I ever simply hear Queen in a culture that—legally or illegally, expertly or amateurishly—increasingly exists as a mashup of its past?

I can’t. I can’t unhear what I have heard, cannot destroy the network of songs in my head.

Originality is over, if it ever existed at all.

According to the music industry’s concept of originality, inherited from certain accounts of nineteenth century romanticism, the original bassline was newly created by Queen, a product of their genius. After all, that’s their name on Hot Space, the 1982 album on which “Under Pressure” appeared (it had been a single the year before). It turns out, however, that this bassline’s origins are rather complicated. “Under Pressure” was a collaboration between Queen and David Bowie, who are listed as its writers and producers. In the decades since its recording, accounts of who developed the bassline have conflicted with one another. Queen bassist John Deacon once attributed it to Bowie, while guitarist John May and drummer Robert Taylor have attributed it to Deacon. Bowie claims that the riff was in place before he became involved with the song.2 We might identify “Under Pressure” as the musical and cultural debut of this bassline, but prior to that debut its origins are murky at best. Even if I want to ignore Bowie and simply call Queen its author, I have to acknowledge that “Queen” signifies not a single coherent subject, but rather the complex interaction of four individuals. Even that acknowledgement does not account for the engineers, executives, session musicians, and others who contribute to the entity known as “Queen”. Finally, even if I account for all of these people, and no doubt others, I have not yet begun to account for Queen’s influences, the innumerable past musicians, songs, albums, sounds, theories, etc. they have consciously and unconsciously adopted to create “their” sound.

The term “origin,” I come to understand, does not refer to a simple thing, but rather masks a complexity that has no end. And yet, when Queen and Bowie demand and receive payment and writing credits for “Ice Ice Baby,” or when Hollywood Records sends cease and desist records to those who offer A Night at the Hip-Hopera for download, “originality” hides this complexity, this network, in order to maintain “Under Pressure” as an original creation and, therefore, as property.

The Kleptones belong to a generation that no longer trusts originality or values the claims about artistic genius and property that come with it. The “group” has only one member, Eric Kleptone, but maintains a plural name as if to acknowledge that no single person is ever single, that any “one” is in fact “many.” Thus I refer to this “he” as a “they.” The Kleptones, who work exclusively with sampled music “originally” made by others, are nothing but the intersection of countless influences, a network of past sounds remixed in the present. Eric Kleptone is not so much a musician, if by musician I understand “creator of original music,” as he is a DJ: someone through whom music flows, someone who arranges old music into new combinations.

A Night at the Hip-Hopera is the product of a cultural moment in which how we make, share, buy, listen to—in short, how we experience music, has been redefined by the personal computer, the mp3, the Internet, Napster and other peer-to-peer filesharing protocols, the iPod, iTunes, and the music store. It was produced, distributed, and consumed entirely outside of those channels sanctioned by the mainstream music industry, a crime for which it will not be forgiven. But it knows it has already won the battle. It knows that the generation to which it was given lives in and is conditioned by this transformed world. In this world, one in which free music seems more a right than a crime, conventional notions of originality have no place.

This is the world of the network.

Come on, let’s see how it works.

Note: I will expand this introduction for book, starting from this point. The expanded introduction will include:

  • further information on The Kleptones (namely on their previous albums, Never Trust Originality and Yoshimi Battles the Hip-Hop Robots);
  • further discussion of “originality” (specifically insofar as it is a legacy of nineteenth-century romanticism);
  • a brief definition of the term “network” that anticipates my more detailed discussion in chapter one;
  • and a brief summary of chapters one, two, and the conclusion that explains the overall plan of the book.

This writing will expand the introduction from its present ~2100 words to 4 – 5,000 words.

1 See chapter two for complete information on the samples from each track.

2 This information comes from the Wikipedia page for “Under Pressure” ( As several of the page’s references are obscure (e.g. French and Japanese music magazines from the 1980s), I have not yet been able to find the original sources.

My 33 1/3 proposal for The Kleptones’ A Night at the Hip-Hopera

Posted in Uncategorized on 1 June 2012 by Ben

Well, my proposal for the 33 1/3 series on The KleptonesA Night at the Hip-Hopera did not make it past the first round of cuts. I’m rather disappointed by that, but thankful to Eric Kleptone for his support of the proposal. Here is the chapter by chapter summary from the proposal. My draft introduction follows in the next post. I will eventually post the PDF of the whole thing, in case anyone is interested in the wonkier parts.


2. Annotated Chapter Outline

Anticipated date of completion: January – February 2013


The Kleptones, comprised solely of DJ Eric Kleptone, released A Night at the Hip-Hopera in November 2004. The album is a series of twenty-three mashups (songs made up of the music from one song remixed with the vocals from another). It is one of the twenty-first century’s most significant musical statements, not only for the nature of its sampling, but for the deep insight it offers into how new technologies, and the cultural shifts to which those technologies lead, impact the contemporary production, distribution, and consumption of music. Hip-Hopera’s samples were all used without permission and the album was given away freely online, entirely outside of commercial distribution streams. As a result, those who aided in that distribution became subject to cease-and-desist notices from Hollywood Records, who objected to both Hip-Hopera’s prolific sampling from Queen’s catalog and the challenge the album presented to older business models.1Hip-Hopera anticipates precisely this response. Such a response, and the philosophies behind it, is a significant part of Hip-Hopera’s story of cultural and musical revolution. This book recounts that story, that of an album that continues the rebellious spirit of our most important popular music.

This book describes Hip-Hopera as a product of, and response to, certain technological, political, and cultural transformations that have rocked the music industry. The album, in its form and themes, is about a world in flux, an account of the redefinition of music in the era of the mp3, Napster, and the iPod. Finally, it tells the story of those in the music industry who fight against this redefinition. I argue that this album cannot be understood as an original product of individual genius. Rather, it must be understood: first, as a node within several overlapping and larger technological, social, and legal networks (the subject of chapter one); and, second, as itself a network that articulates several different but intersecting cultural narratives (the subject of chapter two). Hip-Hopera thus not only participates in new networks, but thematizes how music itself has generally caused and taken part in the deterioration (or even destruction) of older network configurations through which music had been made, sold, and heard for the previous fifty years or so. For the way it blends the mashup form with a story of a shifting cultural landscape, all while being a great pop/rap/rock album, it is among the most important albums of the past decade.

Eric Kleptone has enthusiastically agreed to contribute to this project both by assisting with the marketing of the book (see part five of this proposal) and by sitting for exclusive interviews with me. I will draw upon these interviews mainly in chapter one (see below).

Introduction: Never Trust Originality (4 – 5,000 words; will be expanded from draft included with this proposal; see part 3 of this proposal: Draft Introduction)

The introduction begins with a detailed discussion of one of A Night at the Hip-Hopera’s best moments, in which The Kleptones poke fun at the listener and themselves for associating the bassline to Queen’s “Under Pressure” with Vanilla Ice’s use of that bassline in “Ice Ice Baby.” This joke operates not through any original statement or observation, but rather through the mashing up of cultural referents recognizable to the listener, made strange in their new context. It thus recalls for us several historical moments and musical styles (and arguments about those styles). As such, the joke demonstrates the complex network of influences in which music specifically, and society generally, participates and, finally, the problematic nature of “originality,” a concept that continues to underpin the music industry and its business practices. My discussion of this joke thus serves as a means for me to introduce two of the book’s key themes: first, how the networked culture of the last fifteen to twenty years makes this album possible; and, second, how this album is itself a network of other cultural objects and meanings, recontextualized by the mashup form.

From this opening, I transition to my argument that A Night at the Hip-Hopera, insofar as it exists within networks and participates in the shaping and reshaping of those networks, cannot be understood in terms of originality or individual genius. If we listen to Hip-Hopera according to such traditional notions (maintained even today by a music industry seeking to protect its business model), its significance will be lost on us. Contra the romantic notion of genius, which exists outside of or beyond society, this album celebrates its cultural origins, its musical influences, and the degree to which it cannot exist without its larger context. Its “originality” lies not in how it achieves a purely new statement, but rather in how it re-arranges old fragments (in what thinkers such as Lawrence Lessig call “new from old production”). A Night at the Hip-Hopera reveals the connectedness of what seem to be discrete, even contradictory elements of contemporary culture and music. Any music that claims originality for itself, by hiding its debt to the past or its connections to other parts of culture, is not to be trusted.

Chapter 1: “One more copyright nightmare for the music industry”: The Kleptones and the Network (14 – 15,000 words)

Chapter one’s title comes from one of A Night at the Hip-Hopera’s many samples. As spoken by former CBS news anchor Dan Rather on the nightly news in early 2004, these words indicated that new technologies and cultural norms were again challenging the aging business model of the major labels. As sampled by The Kleptones, they position A Night at the Hip-Hopera itself as a “nightmare for the music industry.” This chapter situates A Night at the Hip-Hopera as a node within several diverse “networks,” in the sense that Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker define the term: complex systems that connect machines, their users, institutions, ideas, and other heterogeneous elements (each of which is a “node”).2 The Internet is a network, itself composed of smaller networks (social media sites, ethernets, peer-to-peer file sharing protocols, the World Wide Web, etc.). Each of these networks includes the machines that make them up as well as the humans who use those machines. A file sharing network integrates protocols (such as Bittorrent), individual computers, cables, files (such as mp3s), and the humans who manage the network and share the music. On Galloway and Thacker’s argument, music itself is a network, one made up of influences, genres, record formats, institutions, artists, concert venues, production equipment, agents, executives, laws, etc. Changes to the configuration of this network (the shift to digital formats, listeners’ newfound abilities to share music online, etc.), coupled to new cultural attitudes about what constitutes property and theft in an era of “free” music, lead to the music industry’s “copyright nightmare” generally and A Night at the Hip-Hopera specifically.

The chapter is divided into three parts. Part one describes Hip-Hopera as a product of new technologies that threaten the music industry by allowing individual musicians to produce and distribute their work (i.e. become part of the network) without the aid of a record label. Such technologies include: the personal computer and software such as ProTools (in terms of production) and the internet and peer-to-peer filesharing networks/protocols (in terms of distribution). This section also discusses how new technologies of consumption, such as digital music players and the mp3, contribute to this context by allowing, even encouraging, people to share music with one another. Part two discusses Hip-Hopera as an act of civil disobedience and cultural hacking that, through its method of production and distribution, engages with the political and corporate responses to these new technologies (such as that of Hollywood Records, described above). Part three investigates what Hip-Hopera, as an instance of civil disobedience/hacking, suggests about twenty-first-century culture. That it exists, and that it was successful, implies a cultural acceptance of its form—if only a somewhat limited one. However, that mainstream commercial acts such as David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, and Radiohead have associated themselves with mashup culture and/or embraced new models of online distribution, implies a mainstreaming of the ideas that Hip-Hopera manifests. In other words, this civil disobedience has “worked.” I return to the issue the mainstreaming of mashups in the conclusion, where I discuss Hip-Hopera as a manifesto for continued cultural change.

In chapter one, I draw upon historical and critical works on technology, law, and music (such as Galloway and Thacker and others I discuss in part four of this proposal), as well as the aforementioned interviews with Eric Kleptone.

Chapter 2: “What’re we gonna do?”: Our Night at the Hip-Hopera (14 – 15,000 words)

This chapter is divided into twenty-three sections that correspond to A Night at the Hip-Hopera’s twenty-three tracks. At the beginning of each section, I list the samples The Kleptones used to create the respective track. These short sections describe individual tracks’ contributions to the narratives and themes of the overall album.

Chapter two recounts the story that isA Night at the Hip-Hopera: an adventure we take as listeners, exploring the world as imagined by The Kleptones, a world we see through the joy of musical rebellion (even if, along the way, we encounter forces that want to spoil our joy). When we spend a night at the opera, we are told a story through music. Our night at this “hip-hopera” is no different. The Kleptones, disguised as Ferris Bueller, are our guide. We ask (by sampling words spoken originally by Ferris’ girlfriend), “What’re we gonna do?” The Kleptones (sampling Ferris), respond: “The question isn’t, what are we going to do? The question is, what aren’t we going to do?” We see several concerts and we go backstage to rock-star parties. We visit a museum and we take a nap. The Kleptones narrate each of these events through a combination of samples. They guide us from place to place as we explore the pressing issues of our culture first discussed in chapter one. The album, I argue, aspires to epic proportions: an articulation of our culture’s values and a model for our behavior in the networked age.

By describing this story, and the manner in which it is constructed out of numerous, disparate samples, chapter two explores the networks that Hip-Hopera creates through its mashing up of Queen music, lyrics from the history of rap, and other cultural texts. With careful attention to how Hip-Hopera produces all of its meanings by creating networks of disparate samples (each of which conjure cultural, historical, and musical references), I discuss, among other things, how it:

  • criticizes hip hop’s homophobia by juxtaposing rap lyrics with Queen music;
  • questions the way in which Queen has become associated with sports and war as a result of the appropriation of the band’s music by masculinist culture;
  • rethinks the intertwined histories of rock and rap by noting how criticisms of rap’s “detrimental” effects on youth were once leveled against rock (which was perceived as less rebellious by the 1980s);
  • and calls attention to how these same arguments have been redeployed in the music industry’s battles against mashup music and remix culture, the new “new thing” that threatens, in the words of one sample, “to crumble the morals of America.”

The Kleptones invoke the spirit of musical rebellion handed down from rock, blues, and jazz and beyond and reconfigures that spirit for a world transformed by network technologies. Even as Hip-Hopera “steals” from the past, revels in its network, it shows that the mashup form continues the traditional task of our most important popular music: that of redefining culture itself.

Conclusion: “Here comes the question” (4 – 5,000 words)

This conclusion, which draws from my essay “Mashing-up the Past, Critiquing the Present, Wrecking the Future: The Kleptones’ A Night at the Hip-Hopera,”3 considers how, as an epic mash-up, A Night at the Hip-Hopera challenges its listeners to examine themselves and their historical moment in the early twenty-first century. Similar to other epics, such as The Odyssey and The Aeneid, Hip-Hopera is more than a story about a culture; it suggests a moral model for the culture out of which it emerges and for which it was “mashed.” However, whereas Homer and Virgil offered authoritative tales of heroic and coherent individuals for their audiences to emulate, Hip-Hopera, by offering its listeners a mashup of cultural bits, offers a practice of networks. Eric Kleptone is not an author, but a DJ. He does not “create” culture: he arranges it, he mixes it, he mashes it. Hip-Hopera thus shows us how to reclaim our culture from those who own it (increasingly, the entertainment industries) and thereby make new things out of a past which ought to belong to everyone. The album’s final track, “Question,” asks whether anything can exist eternally (by sampling from Queen’s “Who Wants to Live Forever,” a song from the soundtrack to The Highlander, a film about a battle between immortals who wish to rule the world). “Question” fully understands that Hip-Hopera, along with other mashups and new cultural forms, threatens the status quo. To acknowledge this self-awareness, “Question” samples the words of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (spoken by media theorist Marshall McLuhan): “Major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.” Thus the “Question” is answered: no, nothing lasts forever. Progress begets the destruction of the old (here the music business as conceived by the major labels). However, this answer raises a further question, as indicated by samples from The Decline of Western Civilization: namely whether this decadent period of contemporary culture is merely decadent, whether this culture is in a true decline or if new musical forms can reconfigure society into something else, something better. The album seems to imply that, yes, mashups and remixes, rock and rap—in short the newness that popular music creates every decade or so—can in fact point to a new society. Looking beyond the album, however, to the appropriation of the mashup and its uses of new technologies by mainstream acts, I conclude by asking whether the mashup can maintain its radical nature or whether some new form must replace it as the force that “crumbles the morals of America.”

1 Despite these legal problems, the album remains widely available online. It can be downloaded directly from The Kleptones’ website at

2 Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2007). Although theorists such as Galloway and Thacker inform my understanding of contemporary culture, I plan to keep direct citation of their ideas to a minimum in deference to non-specialist audiences.

3 Benjamin J. Robertson, “Mashing-up the Past, Critiquing the Present, Wrecking the Future: The Kleptones’ A Night at the Hip-Hopera,Hyperrhiz 7 (Spring 2010),

Paper for Marxism and New Media

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on 21 January 2012 by Ben

Here is my paper for the Marxism and New Media conference at Duke this weekend. It largely overlaps with my recent MLA paper, but it is rather different in many respects as well so I will just put the whole thing up despite the repetition. In any case, I am trying to beat it into shape for a more formal publication venue.

The Political Economy of Digital Media and Education

Benjamin J Robertson

First, let me shill for ebr and ask anyone who is interested in submitting their paper to us for publication to speak to me at lunch or later today. You can also find me online, on Twitter, etc.

Second, let me say that this is perhaps the worst paper title I have ever come up with.

This paper is a continuation of one that I gave at MLA two weeks ago, with a much better, if less informative title: “Digital Anamnesis.” My aim for that paper, and for this, is to think through my hesitation with regard to the new, history, form, and meaning. Briefly put, and not saying anything new as yet I think, I value new forms and processes of discourse, ones that seek to overcome limitations inherited from the past in order to make meaning in new ways. These forms and processes would have to, perhaps, ignore history and the methods of meaning making it affords us. However, I also value history, however problematic, insofar as it allows us to contextualize, understand, and make judgments about the new. In my MLA paper, and with further elaboration here, I consider received forms and processes of scholarship, especially as such scholarship (which is being challenged by digital media) operates within a political economy of academic employment and instruction and intellectual discourse. My concern, specifically, has to do with the manner in which the discourse surrounding what we still call the job market has been inflected by the advent and valorization of the so-called digital humanities. Dh has, it seems to me, implicitly promised young scholars jobs if they are able to write code, create databases, or otherwise interact with networked computers in an expert manner, often by prioritizing alternative academic, or alt-ac, careers. My purpose is not to argue against the value of DH broadly, but to question how DH or new media interacts with and informs the political economy of academic instruction, production, and employment in the humanties.

My MLA paper was part of a panel organized by David Golumbia: “Digital Literary Studies: When Will it End?” which has the distinction of being name-checked by Stanley Fish in a New York Times op-ed. Given where we are, and the appositeness of Fish’s comments on the MLA convention generally in the context of this paper, I will start with him as a way into my argument. Fish tells us that he cannot attend MLA, but that he has read the program and can therefore weigh in on its shortcomings, which, it turns out, are legion. He writes, “I was pleased to see that the program confirmed an observation I made years ago: while disciplines like physics or psychology or statistics discard projects and methodologies no longer regarded as cutting edge, if you like the way literary studies were done in 1950 or even 1930, there will be a department or a journal that allows you to proceed as if nothing had happened in the last 50 or 75 years.” Ignoring that session titles are rarely useful for understanding what sessions are actually about or the directions they might take, we can see here Fish, apparently at any rate, critiquing his (former?) profession for failing to advance. In some respect, he is no doubt correct. I recall Michael Berube writing somewhere that most undergraduate courses are methodologically organized by practices of close reading and simple historicism. These practices, in fact, still dominate if silently, I think, even more advanced humanistic discourse. As I hope to make clear, I am rather perplexed by the question of what to do about this “failure” to move forward with new practices of reading, writing, and thinking.

In any case, Fish then goes on to reminisce about how everyone used to talk about postmodernism (which seems to be a proxy for “theory” broadly), but no one does anymore. So, it seems we do move on, but not in the manner that Fish wants or expects. He writes: “What happened then, and inevitably, was that after an exciting period of turmoil and instability, the alien invader was domesticated and absorbed into the mainstream, forming part of a new orthodoxy that would subsequently be made to tremble by a new insurgency.” It’s not at all clear what Fish’s point is here, whether he wants a continued instability or is happy to see it pass.

And, finally, we get to what is for my purposes the point, Fish’s criticism of digital humanities, or new media studies, or whatever you want to call it—the new insurgency before which the now staid and neutered postmodernism-informed profession trembles. DH is the “rough beast” that has replaced postmodernism as the destabilizing force that threatens “what we do.” As an aside: it seems to me the height of ignorance to equate postmodernism (which has been variously understood as a theoretical position, a style, and a historical period) with digital humanities (which seems to be becoming a methodological position, but has been understood more as a practical, pedagogical, and sometimes theoretical engagement with the hardware and software that increasingly dictate the manner and scope of our practices). Nevertheless, DH is Fish’s target, and he writes:

Once again, as in the early theory days, a new language is confidently and prophetically spoken by those in the know, while those who are not are made to feel ignorant, passed by, left behind, old. If you see a session on “Digital Humanities versus New Media” and you’re not quite sure what either term means you might think you have wandered into the wrong convention. When the notes explaining the purpose of a session on “Digital Material” include the question “Is there gravity in digital worlds?”, you might be excused for wondering whether you have become a character in a science fiction movie. And when a session’s title is “Digital Literary Studies: When Will it End?”, you might find yourself muttering, “Not soon enough.”

And here is the question: does this “not soon enough” reveal a longing to return to the proper practices of humanistic discourse or a longing for the incorporation of DH into those practices in such a way that it becomes part of the new orthodoxy? It seems uncontroversial to state that theory or postmodernism has transformed the profession, whether positively or negatively. Maybe no one “does” theory the way they use to, but we need look no further than the title of the recent collection Theory after “Theory” to recognize that its legacy remains. Is this “theory” a domesticated one, one that has lost its power to subvert as a result of our acceptance of it? I certainly cannot answer that question. Rather, in the remainder of this paper, I will address what I see as Fish’s hesitation in the face of digital media as a transformative force in the humanities in order to open up a discussion of the political economy of our profession.

To that end, I begin with Bernard Stiegler and his work on anamnesis.

Continue reading

Bibliography of Bernard Stiegler’s work in English to date (thanks to Daniel Ross)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on 16 January 2012 by Ben

Courtesy of Daniel Ross’ Twitter stream (and with his permission), here is a complete list of Bernard Stiegler’s work translated into English. Many of these translations are by Ross (notably 1, 2, 3, and 8). Not included here are several unpublished works. Also, I have added links to certain texts (namely, several of the collections).

A giant thanks to Ross for doing the actual heavy lifting here and for letting me post that work. Given my current Stiegler focus, and the fact that I plan to teach a class on his work (along side McLuhan and Flusser) in the fall, this bibliography is most timely and useful to me. I hope it is to you too.

For more on Ross, who directed the wonderful film The Ister and wrote Violent Democracy, see his Wikipedia page.

And here it is:

  1. Bernard Stiegler, Acting Out (Stanford University Press):
  2. Bernard Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy (Polity Press):
  3. Bernard Stiegler, The Decadence of Industrial Democracies, Disbelief and Discredit, volume 1 (Polity Press):
  4. Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus (Stanford University Press):
  5. Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation (Stanford University Press):
  6. Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise (Stanford University Press):
  7. Jacques Derrida & Bernard Stiegler, Echographies of Television: Filmed Interviews (Polity Press):
  8. Bernard Stiegler, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (Stanford University Press):
  9. Bernard Stiegler, “Desire and Knowledge: The Dead Seize the Living”:
  10. Bernard Stiegler, “The Digital as Bearer of Another Society”:
  11. Bernard Stiegler, “Pharmacology of Desire: Drive-based Capitalism and Libidinal Dis-economy,” New Formations 72 (2011): 150–61.
  12. Bernard Stiegler, “The Pharmacology of the Spirit,” in Jane Elliott & Derek Attridge (eds.), Theory After ‘Theory’ (Routledge):
  13. Bernard Stiegler, “Take Care”:
  14. Bernard Stiegler, “Anamnesis and Hypomnesis: The Memories of Desire,” in Arthur Bradley & Louis Armand, Technicity:
  15. Bernard Stiegler, “The Carnival of the New Screen,” in Pelle Snickars & Patrick Vonderau, The YouTube Reader:
  16. Bernard Stiegler, “Derrida and Technology,” in Tom Cohen (ed.), Jacques Derrida and the Humanities:
  17. Bernard Stiegler, “Knowledge, Care, and Trans-Individuation: An Interview with Bernard Stiegler,” Cultural Politics 6 (2010): 150–70.
  18. Bernard Stiegler, “The Magic Skin; or, The Franco-European Accident of Philosophy after Jacques Derrida,” Qui Parle 18 (2009): 97–110.
  19. Bernard Stiegler, “Bernard Stiegler’s Pharmacy: A Conversation,” Configurations 18 (3) (2010): 459–76.
  20. Bernard Stiegler, “The Industrial Exteriorization of Memory,” in Mitchell & Hansen (eds.), Critical Terms for Media Studies:
  21. Bernard Stiegler, “New Industrial Temporal Objects,” in Earnshaw et al. (eds.), Frontiers of Human-Centred Computing:
  22. Bernard Stiegler, “Persephone, Oedipus, Epimetheus,” Tekhnema 3 (1996): 69-112.
  23. Bernard Stiegler, “Technics, Media, Teleology: Interview with Bernard Stiegler,” Theory, Culture & Society 24 (7–8) (2007): 334–41.
  24. Bernard Stiegler, “Technics of Decision: An Interview,” Angelaki 8 (2003): 151–67.
  25. Bernard Stiegler, “Technoscience and Reproduction,” Parallax 13 (4) (2007): 29–45.
  26. Bernard Stiegler, “Telecracy Against Democracy,” Cultural Politics 6 (2010): 171–80.
  27. Bernard Stiegler, “Teleologics of the Snail: The Errant Self Wired to a WiMax Network,” Theory, Culture & Society 26 (2–3) (2009): 33–45
  28. Bernard Stiegler “The Theater of Individuation: Phase-Shift and Resolution in Simondon and Heidegger,” Parrhesia:
  29. Bernard Stiegler, 36. “This System Does Not Produce Pleasure Anymore: An Interview with Bernard Stiegler,” Krisis:
  30. Bernard Stiegler, “Transcendental Imagination in a Thousand Points,” New Formations 46 (2002): 7–22.
  31. Bernard Stiegler, “Biopower, Psychopower and the Logic of the Scapegoat”:
  32. Bernard Stiegler, “Constitution and Individuation”:
  33. Bernard Stiegler, “Contempt”:
  34. Bernard Stiegler, “Nanomutations, Hypomnemata and Grammatisation”:
  35. Bernard Stiegler interviewed by Irit Rogoff, “Transindividuation”:
  36. Bernard Stiegler, “Within the Limits of Capitalism, Economizing Means Taking Care”:
  37. Bernard Stiegler, “Spirit, Capitalism and Superego”:
  38. Bernard Stiegler, “The Tongue of the Eye: What ‘Art History’ Means,” in Khalip & Mitchell (eds.), Releasing the Image (Stanford):
  39. Bernard Stiegler, The Re-enchantment of the World (forthcoming):
  40. Bernard Stiegler, Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals, Disbelief and Discredit, volume 2 (Polity, forthcoming).
  41. Bernard Stiegler, in Tom Cohen (ed.), Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Vol. 1 (forthcoming):
  42. Bernard Stiegler, “The True Price of Towering Capitalism: Bernard Stiegler Interviewed,” Queen’s Quarterly 114 (2007): 340–350.

Zielinski on Academia, Media, and the Future

Posted in Uncategorized on 3 January 2012 by Ben

This quote probably won’t make the final cut for my MLA 2012 paper. Too long, and more suggestive than providing any real ground for argumentation. But it does suggest the danger I am trying to articulate about placing our faith in media per se. Moreover, Zielinski’s thoughts on “the deep time of media” and the manner in which media is “deeply inhuman” (from which Jussi Parrika commences in Insect Media), suggest that any attempt we make to draw “new media” into the political economy of traditional academia (via peer review, by “counting it like a book” for T&P, by reading it with old methodologies, or by inserting it into an ill-conceived genealogy) will be problematic and ignore any possible future-that-is-not-the-past. In my paper I will tie this issue to Stiegler’s long vs. short circuits (as conceived in Taking Care of Youth and the Generations) and to debates about digital work in the context of T&P.

In any case, here Zielinski writes, with regard to the “inflation” of the definitions of “media” in the 1990s:

Media and future became synonymous. If you didn’t engage with what was then baptized media, you were definitely passé. By adding media to their curriculum, institutes, faculties, academies, and universities all hoped to gain access to more staff and new equipment. In the majority of cases, they actually received it—particularly after, in association with the magic word digital, media systems were established that the decision makers did not understand. This was another reason they called the process a revolution. The digital became analogous to the alchemists’ formula for gold, and it was endowed with infinite powers of transformation. (32)